AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for May, 2007

In Japan, it’s the economy, baka!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 31, 2007

IT’S LONG BEEN AXIOMATIC among both politicians and pundits that pocketbook issues are the key to electoral success. As campaign advisor James Carville famously reminded Bill Clinton during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

With the Japanese Upper House election to be held in July, we might find out whether the same rules apply to the Japanese electorate, or whether the media’s constant drumbeat of doom to drown out the Abe administration will have its intended effect. Buried at the bottom of this article from AFP about the latest economic news was this nugget:

Japan, which for years was beset by stagnant growth and on-off recessions, is now in the midst of its longest sustained expansion since World War II.

And that’s not to mention the glad tidings for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling LDP in the rest of the article:

Japan got a double dose of good news on the economy Tuesday with the jobless rate hitting a nine-year low and consumer spending up for a fourth straight month, underpinning the overall recovery…The last time Japan’s unemployment rate was so low was in March 1998, officials said.

Some opinions diverged, however. Said AFP:

The unexpected fall in the April jobless rate to 3.8 percent from 4.0 percent in March reflected brisk hiring by Japanese companies at the start of the new fiscal year and a shift from part-time to full-time positions, analysts said.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, agreed with the first assessment…

Increased employment of college graduates at the start of the business year drove the drop in the jobless rate, the statistics bureau said. “Young people who in the past couldn’t find jobs out of college are now getting them,” said bureau spokesman Norio Kondou. Japan’s unemployment rate is the second lowest among Group of Seven nations, behind 2.8 percent in the U.K.

…but disagreed with the second:

Greater use of part-time workers is another reason (higher demand for labor has yet to spur wage growth). Part-timers made up more than a third of the workforce in the first quarter, rising almost one percentage point from the previous three months, the statistics bureau said.

Wherever the truth lies, conventional political wisdom holds that the bright economic picture should serve as a tailwind for the LDP in the upcoming election.

Now for the double dose of bad news: the media is convinced that the suicide earlier this week of Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who was embroiled in a political financing scandal, will dim the LDP’s prospects in the July balloting.

Additionally, the Asahi Shimbun is reporting that confusion over the rightful beneficiaries of 50 million pension accounts (!) is the reason for the Abe Cabinet’s decline in their latest polling results after a sharp rise in May.

I’m not so sure about the former; suicides in Japan have a tendency to close the book on a situation rather than exacerbate it. I also tend to think the voters will have typically short voter memories come election day.

They may not have forgotten about the pension account problem, but that will depend on the ability of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and their leader Ichiro Ozawa–the most overrated politician in Japan™–to remind them. If I were to take a flyer, I’d wager that the DPJ will cement its well-deserved reputation for tripping over its own shoelaces.

Though most in the media would be loathe to admit it, Mr. Abe’s presence cannot be so easily discounted, either. He surprised many observers by demonstrating political coattails in a recent by-election for an Upper House seat in Okinawa. The prime minister twice made the trek to the southern islands to make personal appearances for his candidate, who wound up winning what was previously an opposition seat.

Also, consider what else the Asahi poll found:

Asked who they would vote for if the Upper House election were held now, 26 percent of the respondents picked Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party or its candidates in the proportional representation system, down from 31 percent in the previous survey.

On the other hand, 25 percent said they would choose the main opposition party, Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), or its candidates.

When respondents were asked which party’s candidates they would vote for in the prefectural districts, 29 percent said the LDP while 26 percent chose Minshuto.

When asked which parties they would like to see gain a majority in the July Upper House election, 28 percent answered the ruling coalition and 48 percent said the opposition.

In other words, the Asahi poll finds that nearly a majority of voters want to see the opposition win a majority in the election, but also reveals that more respondents intend to vote for the ruling party in both phases of the election itself.

That only provides further ammunition to those who suspect the media conduct their polls by throwing darts at a paper target.

It’s possible that the Asahi’s poll is accurate. Then again, newspaper poll results in Japan vary significantly from paper to paper. Here’s this from the Yomiuri:

In a poll taken by The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 19-20, the approval rating for the Abe Cabinet stood at 49.6 percent, up 5.8 percentage points from the previous survey conducted in March. The disapproval rating declined 7.1 points to 36.8 percent. Thus, the approval rating exceeded the disapproval rating by 12.8 points.

At this point, if you decide you want to use the newspapers for lining the cat box instead of for getting a line on Japanese electoral trends, I wouldn’t blame you.

All things considered, the poll I’ll take the most seriously is the one announcing the results after the balloting is finished on July 22.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Mass media, Politics | 3 Comments »

Karaoke: Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 30, 2007

DRUMMER Daisuke Inoue was named by Time Magazine in 1999 as one of the 20 most influential Asians of the century—along with Mao Tse-tung and Gandhi—and received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize from Harvard University students in 2004. Yet he failed to patent his invention, and the business he established to sell it went belly up. Today, he lives outside of Kobe and sells rat repellant devices for a living.

What is Inoue’s claim to fame?

He invented the karaoke machine! Here’s the magazine’s story as it appeared at the time, which contains the astonishing information that it took Inoue 28 years to try karaoke himself after inventing it.

One thing the author fails to mention in the article is the importance of singing in popular Japanese culture. Learning songs is a core part of early education, and most adult Japanese remember the words to songs they learned in kindergarten. Many, especially women, start singing along when they hear them. The longest-running TV show in Japan (Kohaku Uta Gassen) is the special New Year’s Eve singing contest starring a selected list of the most popular singers in the country. Another long-running show is Nodo Jiman, literally “Confidence in (Your) Throat”. It’s broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio from a different location around the country every Sunday and features local people with varying degrees of talent who get the opportunity to show off their singing skills—or lack of them—to a national audience. (And thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see a clip here.)

Commercial karaoke in drinking establishments started out with a sound system, a set of tapes, and a book of lyrics. Improvements soon began to appear, however, and these included laser disc (now DVD) karaoke with filmed skits accompanying the music and the lyrics displayed on screen as subtitles. Shops sprouted up devoted exclusively to patrons who wanted to sing. Usually a town will have one or more shops that develop a reputation as the one where the talented amateurs hang out, and it can be fun just to go and listen. (Honest!) There are facilities called karaoke boxes where groups can rent karaoke rooms for their exclusive use. These are quite popular with high school students for after school recreation. There is on-line karaoke and a karaoke channel on cable TV. Many people have karaoke equipment at home they use for instant parties.

Most of the Westerners in Japan I know don’t enjoy karaoke very much (including me), which presents a challenge for accommodating oneself to this aspect of Japanese society. The Japanese often invite new foreigners out for a night on the town, and this inevitably means going to a karaoke establishment and being asked to sing. I soon adopted the solution of those Japanese who don’t care very much for karaoke—I settled on one song I liked and could perform reasonably well, and used this as my contribution for the night. Usually only one song is required; more than that is optional.

When I first came to Japan, I hung out with a Londoner who went back to England after two or three years. A few years later, he came back for a visit and hornswoggled two Japanese friends and me into a night of karaoke. He had been practicing in London clubs that catered to Japanese and wanted to show off.

DuetWe wound up in a bar with laser disc karaoke. It was fascinating that the pub’s clientele was rather blasé about seeing two Westerners and two Japanese out together singing, though there were few foreigners in town then. My London friend sang several Japanese songs that he memorized and had down very well. There was no reaction from the other customers. I hadn’t memorized any songs, but sang my contributions in Japanese from the subtitled lyrics shown on the video as the background music played. It is rare for Japanese anywhere to see a foreigner reading their language spontaneously, but the customers in this joint acted as if it happened all the time. In contrast, our two Japanese friends stuck to popular Western songs, and they sang entirely in English. The other customers continued to pay us no attention.

Just as we had decided to call it a night, one of the Japanese guys asked me to sing an American song before we went home so they could hear “what it really sounded like”. We discussed the possibilities and settled on Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. Then I belted out a version at the top of my lungs. It was more shouting than singing.

It brought down the house. Cheers, applause, and rounds of drinks from total strangers! People who had ignored us for two hours all of a sudden wanted to strike up conversations and visit other shops for another round of singing. I’m still amazed whenever I recall that night.

Posted in Music, Popular culture | 2 Comments »

Jong-il Be Goode

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 29, 2007

THE BLOG DPRK Studies features a weekly roundup of news articles focusing on North Korea, and their haul this week contained this item classified as “offbeat” by USA Today.

Tokyo was the host over the weekend to the semi-annual Design Festa, in which 6,000 artists from throughout Asia presented their creations. A popular motif this year was the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-il of North Korea, whose likeness appeared on greeting cards, t-shirts, and keychains. Don’t you think the designer of the following creation deserves an award?

One stall displayed greeting cards showing the leader, who famously sports a quiff, dressed as Elvis Presley and was titled “Jong Il B. Goode” — taken from the song “Johnny B. Goode” by another rock ‘n’ roller of the 50s, Chuck Berry.

If he put that on a t-shirt, he’d be rolling in money by the end of the year!

Posted in North Korea | Leave a Comment »

Is Matsuzaka a rookie? Or is Japanese baseball minor league?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 29, 2007

7th Inning Stretch in Hiroshima
WAYNE GRACZYK has been writing a column in the Japan Times on Japanese baseball and the players who play the game, both native and foreign, for more than 30 years. In his column on Sunday, Graczyk makes the point that it’s farcical to regard such people as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Daisuke Matsuzaka as rookies, but that’s exactly how they are classified in the American major leagues. In fact, Ichiro, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Hideo Nomo all won the Rookie of the Year award after their first year of baseball in the U.S.

Last week an Associated Press photo appeared in these pages with a caption that began, “Boston Red Sox rookie hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka . . . ” An AP story in the sports briefs mentioned New York Yankees “rookie pitcher Kei Igawa” and his progress in working his way back to top form. Previously, Boston reliever Hideki Okajima was named the American League “rookie” Pitcher of the Month for April. Then a Kyodo News item reported, “Red Sox rookie right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka” was named the American League Player of the Week for the period of May 14-20.

I have said it before, and I will say it again. These guys are not rookies, and it really rubs me the wrong way whenever I see this description.

Graczyk took the issue up with Omar Minaya when the latter was an assistant GM with the Mets. (He is now the general manager.) Minaya agreed with his point, but said there’s nothing much that can be done because the rules state any first-year player in the U.S. is a rookie, regardless of his experience elsewhere.

The clinching argument:

The Red Sox did not pay more than $100 million in posting, salary and bonuses for Matsuzaka the inexperienced novice, but for Matsuzaka the proven veteran star.

Why does it matter? Graczyk notes that it’s unfair to players who are real rookies by making it less likely that they’ll win the ROY award, which could have financial benefits.

Though the columnist doesn’t say it, there might be another reason. He recalls that 10 years ago, there was a proposal to have a four-way postseason tournament between the champions of the (then) three AAA leagues in the U.S. and the winner of the Japan Series. The idea was scotched by the Japanese when they pointed out they couldn’t participate because they were not a minor league like the other three.

Japanese baseball doesn’t consider to be rookies those veterans of the American major leagues who come to play in Japan. Why shouldn’t the American major leagues implement a similar rule–and extend Japanese baseball the respect it deserves as a major league?

Especially now that the Japanese are the reigning champions of international baseball.

Posted in Sports | 22 Comments »

The disappearing Chinese junk

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 28, 2007

DAVID WARREN of the Ottawa Citizen has written a paen to the disappearing junk of China. Once Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor were filled with them; now a friend reports he counted only one on a recent trip.

Warren admires the beauty of their perfection:

…the ancient vessel was a whole creature, a perfect unity of its parts, quiet and at peace with itself like the dhows of the Arabs; and like a Micronesian proa, at one with its crew.

But that’s only the first part of his Sunday column. He extends the theme to encompass what he calls “the tyranny of progress”.

Beauty, truth, the good, do not come into the human view except on condition of simplicity of life. And this is the very condition the “universal and homogenous world state” is in the business of eradicating.

Younger readers might suspect he’s just another old-timer depressed about the world passing him by. But to paraphrase the American non-fiction writer Joseph Mitchell, it takes a lifetime to understand simplicity. And there’s a lot to be said for Warren’s sentiment, “I’m against machines with skills, and people without them.”

Posted in China, Social trends, Traditions | 1 Comment »

In Japan, love will find a way

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 27, 2007

IF YOU’RE out on the town by yourself on a Friday night in the West and encounter the girl/guy of your dreams (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), the question at the end of the night often becomes, “Your place or mine”. If one or both of you are married or otherwise engaged, it then becomes a matter of finding the closest Holiday Inn or motel (or so people tell me).

Those solutions are not an option for most Japanese, however, as many Japanese young people, particularly women, still live at home. Japan also doesn’t have the interstate highway system of the United States, and people are more likely to take a train or airplane for longer trips, so the motel industry is nonexistent.

Love will find a way, however, and in Japan that way is usually in a “love hotel”. Since the urge is eternal, the Japanese have no problem with recognizing and calling a spade a spade, so there are plenty of businesspeople looking out for the main chance. That’s why love hotels are a major industry in Japan and are found everywhere—including sedate suburban neighborhoods. I live in a quiet, older part of town, and three blocks away from my house is an establishment with a small neon sign in front announcing itself as the Hanazono (Flower Garden). Discreet as it is—the entrance and exits are hidden—everyone knows exactly what it is, and no one seems to mind. The initials NIMBY (not in my back yard), often used in the U.S. when people do not want certain facilities or enterprises in their neighborhood, don’t seem to apply here. They’re in everyone’s backyard.

They’ve been there for a long time, too. Love hotels offer rates for stays of two hours or less, or for all night, and short-stay hotels for couples have existed in Japan since the early 1600s. The forerunner of the modern love hotel was called a tsurekomi ryokan. Ryokan are Japanese style inns and tsurekomi means bring your own, and they’re not talking about bottles. These facilities were mandated by the government for the use of Occupation servicemen after WWII, when prostitution was still legal in Japan. After prostitution was outlawed in 1957, the hotels spread out, grew, and transformed into a different kind of lodging entirely.

The original tsurekomi ryokan had little or nothing in the way of amenities, including toilets or air conditioners. They were for servicemen and hookers, after all. But to stay in business after the Occupation forces left, the operators developed the modern love hotel that became a financially lucrative industry. How lucrative? Try four trillion yen a year. Statistically, there are 951 couples in a love hotel somewhere in Japan this very minute. The hotels have an occupancy rate of 260%, compared to 70% for the normal hotel. Rates are so reasonable that a room can be rented for the night at a price lower than that of a standard hotel, and there is no falloff in amenities. In fact, some tourist guides suggest that travelers to Japan looking for inexpensive accommodation consider staying in love hotels.

It goes without saying that they are discreet. The entrances and exits are hidden. Customers park in a lot that is often underground, and there are devices resembling traffic barriers or other means to hide license plate numbers from the nosy or the cameras of private detectives. There is no front desk and no cheerful staff member to greet you (or recognize you in town during the day two weeks later). Modern hotels allow customers to select a room, find it, and pay for it through a completely automated system. In the old-fashioned places, couples inform the staff by in-house telephone when they’re going to leave, and the cash is anonymously collected through a slot in the door.

Due to the number of hotels and the intense competition, hotels are often decorated using specific themes to attract visitors. Some try to capture the romance of Europe, while others try to create the mood of Greece with its view of the Acropolis. Doing the research for this article, I saw a photograph of one hotel that offered rooms with the ambiance of a “European port”. Not the area close to the docks, I hope. Some feature amenities not usually seen in the home, such as a rotating bed or a ceiling mirror. Others duplicate the sets of movies popular in Japan, such as Roman Holiday or Gone With the Wind.

In fact, the services and benefits provided by Japanese love hotels are as diverse as the Japanese imagination. Some have karaoke rooms (why?), Jacuzzis, or swimming pools. If swapping is your adventure, some hotels have adjoining rooms so you can switch back and forth. If you like to watch, some hotels have in-house video channels, but of course you’ll be watched while you’re doing the watching. Some also offer party rooms for groups, and naturally, there are S&M facilities for folks with that preference.

Believe it or not, the primary customers for love hotels are women in their 20s, so the hotels are designed and decorated with female customers in mind. The highest outlay by owners for an individual room is the bath, which of course has a Japanese style tub. They’re stocked with brand name shampoos, hair conditioners, and other beauty products to attract repeat customers. The nearby photo on the left shows a sink that the hotel says upfront was designed to appeal to women, while the one on the right shows the expense hoteliers will go to for the bath.

And they offer more than décor. Hotels often provide free drinks in the refrigerator and dinner or breakfast on the house, while others have chefs on the staff to whip up something for those who have worked up an appetite, at no charge. Then there are the bonuses. One hotel offered a free trip to Tokyo Disneyland to any couple who stayed in all 24 rooms of their rooms within six months and a free trip to Hong Kong for those that did it twice.

The amenities offered by hotels even differ by region. In the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe), the love hotels tend to use free food to attract customers, while those in the Kanto area (Tokyo, Yokohama) emphasize rooms that create a specific mood or atmosphere.

And who could fail to enjoy the names of these establishments? Some of the names I found on the web include: Hotel Rose Lips, Châteaux Belle, Paradise, Casablanca, Hotel J-Mex, Hotel Liberty, Green Green, Hotel Palau, Executive Hotel Grand Garden, Hotel I-N-G, Hotel BaRong, ReStay, Hotel Laporti, Hotel Ash, Hotel Birth (maybe they ought to reconsider this), Grand Chariot, Hotel Vie-Bonheur Kobe, Hotel Wien Bel Magic (Wien is Vienna), Wimbledon (singles or doubles?), Hotel 24°C, Hotel Prelude (isn’t that part over?), and the Hotel Stellate. The latter, astonishingly enough, sells its own line of products, such as robes with the name of the hotel monogrammed on the front. Not something you’d want your wife to find in the suitcase after an overnight business trip.

If you’re thinking that the Japanese are a nation full of rabbits, however, consider these statistics. Japan usually ranks last in sexuality surveys for frequency of sex. They average 36 times a year, compared to 97 times annually worldwide. When asked what activities they prefer to sex, 20% of Japanese said sleeping and 13% said shopping. They do have a higher ranking for number of partners per person, however. Their average is 10.2, placing them seventh and above the world average of 7.7.

If you ever find yourself in Japan and want to find a love hotel on the net, there are plenty of nationwide directories, including one here and another here. If you can’t have a good time in some of these places, check into a monastery instead!

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Posted in Popular culture, Sex | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

The Korean language in Japanese–and vice versa!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 26, 2007


THE MAP SHOWN HERE highlights an important aspect of Japanese-Korean relations that’s often overlooked by outsiders, and even some Japanese and Koreans themselves. Notice just how close the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and the southern part of the Korean Peninsula are to each other. A flight departing from Fukuoka City takes 90 minutes to arrive in Tokyo and two hours to reach Sendai in the northeastern part of the country—but only 45 minutes to land in Busan, or an hour to touch down in Seoul. The hydrofoils that ply the Korean Strait between Fukuoka City and Busan make the trip in three hours, moving along at a speed slightly less than that of an automobile on an expressway.

In today’s era of nation-states, the Kyushu native has of course much more in common with the native of the Tohoku area, now a fellow countryman, than he does with someone from Busan. But in an earlier era, geographical proximity was the predominant factor in human interaction, until that aspect was vitiated by the creation of national borders.

There was so much interaction—both ways—between Kyushu and the southern part of Korea that more than a few scholars in both countries consider the region as a whole to have been one cultural sphere. That state of affairs continued until the 7th century, at least, and until the end of the 8th century, Kyushu (and the Japanese imperial court) interacted more extensively with the Baekche (Kudara in Japanese) and Silla kingdoms than it did with the northeast.

The fruits of this interaction were much the same as those for any two nearby regions throughout the world, and they include more than just intermarriage. There are many examples—burial mounds, tools, ornaments, artwork, architecture—but none more obvious than language.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, History, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Language | Tagged: , | 24 Comments »

Their name is mud–and they’re proud of it!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 25, 2007

THERE’S NO BETTER EXAMPLE anywhere of people making lemonade out of the lemon that life handed them than an annual event held on the tidal mudflats of the Ariake Sea by the small town of Kashima in Saga Prefecture.

The tide level differential at the Ariake Sea is six meters, one of the three highest differentials for any body of water in the world. (The other two are said to be in France and South Korea.) I live near the Ariake Sea and have seen the difference. When you stand at land’s end at high tide, you can watch the water lapping at your feet. When you return at low tide, you won’t see any water at all—just mudflats stretching to the horizon.

There’s a local story about these mudflats and World War II that sounds as if it might be an urban legend—or more properly, a rural legend. The old-timers like to cackle about the American planes that flew over the town during high tide to plan a bombing run. When they returned, the story goes, they dropped their bombs into the tidal flats and killed a lot of maritime wildlife, sparing the town. It’s a plausible story, until you realize there was probably nothing in Kashima worth bombing at the time. (And records indicate Saga Prefecture was not heavily bombed.)

What do you do if you’re a small rural town on the coast that no one ever visits, located next to a huge, constantly shifting expanse of mud? What you do is find a way to turn all that mud to your advantage, so the people of Kashima created the Gatalympics. That’s a bilingual portmanteau word created by combining the Japanese word gata, or tidal mudflats, with Olympics. The first Gatalympics were held on May 3, 1985, and I was there.

They’re not fooling when they say Olympics. The town invites university students studying in Japan to participate in Olympic-style events held in the mud instead of a track or swimming pool. Before the competition starts, they march onto the assembly grounds at the seashore in groups divided by nationality, accompanied by recordings of their respective national anthems.

Meanwhile, the competitions that the organizers have created for the mud in Kashima are a testament to the human imagination. The events include swimming, dancing, and cycling races. Yes, cycling races–a course of plywood is laid out on the surface of the mudflats and the participants compete to see how far they can ride a bicycle before falling over into the slop.

The photo on the left shows what they call The Women’s Battle Royale. We’d have called it King (or Queen) of the Hill where I grew up in the U.S., except there’s an anchored platform instead of a hill. The spectators love this—evidently, watching women wrestle in the mud is a popular attraction anywhere you go in the world.

They’ve also set up a crane over the mudflats and suspended a rope from it. The objective is to swing from the rope and see how far you can fly into the mud. The Tarzan yell is optional. Then there’s the four-team tug of war, with the chairman of the executive committee joining in. (Can you imagine the head of the IOC participating in the Olympics? Especially if he had to get dirty.)

Additional events include a race over an obstacle course and a parent-child triathalon. The Gatalympics conclude with the NTT Cup, which is a freestyle dash over the flats. The first event starts at 11:00 a.m. and it ends at 3:30 p.m. It pretty much has to—that’s when the tide starts coming back in.

The whole idea is to get filthy and laugh yourself silly. There’s nothing like competing in a pseudo athletic event and getting slathered from head to toe in stinking mud to create international camaraderie. The people of Kashima benefit because the national media cover the event every year, they get a piece of tourism revenue that ordinarily would go somewhere else, and everyone really does have a lot of fun. It’s hard to be shy or stand on ceremony talking to someone when both of you are covered in slime.

If you think you’re a good mudder and fancy your odds, it’s probably too late to go for the gold this year, because the Gatalympics are being held on Sunday the 27th. But you could always come and watch. There’s no telling who you’ll meet. In addition to the foreign students, English teachers, and locals, all sorts of people have stopped by. Researchers from the Fisheries and Fishing Community Research Center of the Korea Maritime Institute have visited in the past to observe. The Center was studying ways to promote local economies in South Korea by using tourism in fishing villages.

Before you know it, the South Koreans will be sending over a national team to compete every year. Perhaps Kashima can offer a prize called the Shochu Cup.

Mutsugoro

After next Sunday, however, life returns to normal in Kashima, and that means catching mutsugoro, or mudskippers. If you’ve never seen a mudskipper, take a look at those two darlings in the accompanying photo. They’d both fit in the palm of your hand. They’re called mudskippers because they skip over mudflats when they look for food, and probably when they look for mates, too. In fact, they can leave the water for longer periods of time than the average fish, as this site about the Singaporean variety explains.

All that mud is the mudskippers’ habitat. They dig holes in the mudflats and come out to frolic when the tide is out. Not only are they edible, some people think they’re a delicacy, so that means there’s money to be made by going out and catching them. I’ve watched fishermen, such as the one shown in the photo, do just that, and it’s not an easy way to make a living.

It might be more accurate to say these men are a combination of fisherman and hunter. They slide out with one knee bent on the board, skating all over the flats to catch as many as they can before the tide rolls in. They snatch the mudskippers with a tool that looks like a fishing pole and a line, but with a special hook at the end used to snare the creatures and flick them back toward the box.

That sounds like it should be a special category in the Gatalympics, but these men depend on it for their livelihoods.

Mud Festivals

The folks in Kyushu seem to have a special fondness for playing in the mud. We’ve already talked about the Mudslinging Festival held every March in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture, in which the townspeople throw mud at a young man selected to be a priest for a day, after bucking him up with sake to withstand the onslaught.

If you’re the type that enjoys getting down and getting muddy, then Kyushu might just be the place to spend a week or two. The following Sunday after the Gatalympics, on June 3, the city of Hioki in Kagoshima Prefecture holds another mud extravaganza, called the Seppetobe Festival. Its origins are unclear, but it dates back more than 400 years to 1595.

Here’s what happens—the local men get dressed in white robes and meet at the local Hachiman Shinto shrine. The first order of business is to pass around an 18-liter jug of shochu mixed with hot water. Can you think of a better way to prepare for a religious ceremony in the mud? Witnesses say they can get carried away with themselves and wind up sloshing a lot of the grog on the ground, leaving the shrine grounds with a strong odor of liquor.

The priests then conduct a Shinto ceremony, while the men enter a nearby mud field, form a circle, and start jumping around, perhaps practicing for the main event. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the object of worship at the shrine (in which the divinity is thought to dwell) is carried over in a procession. Everyone then moves into a rice paddy, which has been specially filled with water for the occasion. The men bring with them 10-meter-high flagpoles, which are the symbol of their respective neighborhoods. The rice paddy is filled with water, the men are filled with shochu, and the flagpoles are heavy, which makes walking a tricky business.

A small group starts off the ceremony by forming a small circle and performing a dance and splashing water. Other men gradually enter the circle until their number reaches about 100. By this time, they are covered in mud, splashing, cavorting, ripped out of their minds, and praying for a bountiful harvest.

Seppetobe is local dialect for seiippai tobe, or fly (jump) as hard as you can. They’ve come up with some good justifications for this behavior, other than just having a goofy good time. All that stomping in the paddy kills harmful inspects (so they say), and also makes paddy cultivation easier. They do it as hard as they can to impress the divinity with their seriousness of intent, hoping that will bring them blessings in the form of a good harvest.

And here you thought being a stick in the mud meant you were a grumpy old fellow who didn’t know how to enjoy himself!

Posted in Festivals, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Seoul’s International Lotus Lantern Festival

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 24, 2007

By all means, take a look at this post at The Marmot’s Hole of the recent International Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul. Excellent photographs! Wish I could have seen it–and heard it, as a samulnori group also performed.

Posted in South Korea | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Comfort women again: One door closes, and another opens

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 23, 2007

READER INFIMUM sends along this link that machine translates a Korean news article from Naver into Japanese about the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs’ handling of the resolution censuring Japan over the comfort women issue.

From what I can decipher, the article says it will be impossible to pass the bill this month because the committee has 23 other items of business with which to deal. Instead of the comfort woman resolution, a bill thanking South Korea for its efforts in the war against terrorism will be introduced. (Does that not sound like a consolation prize?) It concludes by saying that committee chair Tom Lantos had no explanation for not introducing the bill, though 130 representatives had supported it. Does this mean the resolution is dead for this session?

Reports now indicate that the legislation has been merely delayed, and a vote may come in June, but they’ve already delayed it once to avoid conflicting with Prime Minister Abe’s visit in May. Speculation without further information is pointless, but I am reminded of the Japanese proverb 大山鳴動してねずみ一匹 (taizan meido shite, nezumi ippiki, or the mountain rumbles and produces a mouse). This certainly has given plenty of people without a stake in the issue a chance to burn off some spare time by indulging their emotions, which is the primary business of the mass media (and, unfortunately, increasing numbers of blogs).

Fortunately, those enthralled by the issue won’t have to go cold turkey—last Friday, the U.N. Committee Against Torture issued a report that “accused Japan of trying to whitewash its past practice of forcing women to become sex slaves for Japanese Imperial army soldiers, and urged Tokyo to help surviving victims.”

Hey, when you’re having so much fun validating your own goodness by castigating the evil of others, how can you stop? Especially when the committee members include such anti-torture stalwarts as China and Russia. It’s difficult not to consider this committee a self-parody; a year ago this month the same U.N. committee rebuked Senegal—a committee member—for violating the Convention on Terror. It’s like a perpetual floating game of political Old Maid.

Hans Greimel wrote the piece for the Associated Press, which contains quite a few elements of unintentional self-parody itself. How’s this for an example of modern, a-go-go cotton candy caring and concern?

“(T)he U.N. committee condemned what it called efforts to cover up history and urged Japan to address the “discriminatory roots of sexual and gender-based violations” and improve rehabilitation for survivors.

It said the victims suffered “incurable wounds” and are experiencing “continuing abuse and re-traumatization as a result of the state party’s official denial of the facts, concealment or failure to disclose other facts, failure to prosecute those criminally responsible for acts of torture, and failure to provide adequate rehabilitation to the victims and survivors.”

In March, a fund set up by Japan to help Asian women forced into military brothels expired amid widespread criticism it had fallen short of healing wounds.”

I’m beginning to think there’s a genetic component in this. Some young men walk around with shapeless shirts that look like the pajama tops worn by old men in a nursing home and consider themselves the fashion plate. Some young women in Japan today think it’s fashionable to wear gold or silver shoes with sharply pointed toes. Other people wouldn’t be caught dead in duds like that. What else can explain it besides the hardwiring of the nervous system?

In the same way, some people will consider the above language an exquisite expression of the imperative for long-overdue moral justice, while others will wonder where all the drips came from. On another level, it’s like the scene in Animal House in which John Belushi smashes the guitar of the boy playing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” on the stairs. Folkies will be aghast at the violence of the philistine; R&B fans will laugh out loud.

We’re past the point of useful debate on this issue. Japan will have to resign itself to the fact that occasional eruptions such as this have become part of the wallpaper, while the People Who Are Seriously Committed will have to resign themselves to being ignored by those outside the membership of their international club of wonderful people who congratulate themselves on being wonderful.

The article has the usual half-truths and misrepresentations. Instead of going into it all again, here, here, and here are links to my past posts on the subject.

Bon appetit, and bon soir!

Posted in History, International relations, World War II | 4 Comments »

Commentary on Japan’s constitution

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 22, 2007

WRITING IN Contentions, the blog of the magazine Commentary, Gordon Chang concluded the following about the moves underway in Japan to amend the Constitution:

The way to end, finally, the long aftermath of World War II in Asia is for the Japanese to amend their constitution—and subsequently to adhere to it.

I agree completely with Mr. Chang, but I arrived at my conclusion coming from the opposite direction. Ordinarily, the direction wouldn’t matter if the destination were the same, but Mr. Chang’s professional specialties are China and North Korea, and in this instance I’m afraid he’s examining the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. Approaching this issue from the proper perspective is critical because doing otherwise might be a distraction from the real issues at stake.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in China, History, International relations, Legal system, Politics, World War II | 5 Comments »

The mirage of Japanese nationalism

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 19, 2007

SOME YEARS AGO, the Associated Press acquired a taste for using the term “right-wing” as an adjective to modify proper nouns that were rather dissimilar. Over the course of a few months, they applied it to the Soviet Politburo, Henry Kissinger, a faction of the Polish labor union Solidarity, and Newt Gingrich.

But words do mean things, and such a profligate use of “right-wing” to describe wholly unrelated people or institutions debases the term and renders it meaningless. Perhaps that’s why journalists seem to be using it less frequently of late.

In the case of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, however, the AP and other members of the media have discovered and installed a new vocabulary widget. Here it is in action in a recent AP story about Constitutional reform in Japan:

Overhauling the Constitution, written by US occupation forces after World War II to stamp out Japanese militarism, has been a key goal for the nationalistic Abe, who wants to expand the military’s role in the world and bolster patriotism at home.

Once one becomes aware of it, the combination of “nationalist” and “Abe” starts popping up everywhere. Here’s a variation in the Times of London:

Shinzo Abe, the hawkish nationalist, breezed through a parliamentary vote today to become Japan’s youngest prime minister since World War II…

Something called Buzzle.com, which advertises itself as “intelligent life on the web”, had this to say:

Japan will move a step closer to electing its most nationalist leader in decades tomorrow if, as expected, Shinzo Abe succeeds Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic party.

Mindlessly parroted assumptions based on conventional wisdom–i.e., groupthink–are always a fruitful subject for inquiry, and this is no exception. What is it they mean by calling Mr. Abe a “nationalist”? And because they so frequently insist on using that term to describe him, they must think he demonstrates more of those characteristics than other political leaders elsewhere. This naturally leads one to wonder: The prime minister is nationalistic…compared to whom?

There are several definitions for the term nationalism. One is the aspiration for independence by people under colonial rule, and that obviously doesn’t apply here. Another is the love of country and the willingness to sacrifice for it. But this is the default position of most politicians at the national level in every country. If there is nothing exceptional about politicians expressing love for their country and their willingness to sacrifice for it — the fodder of political speeches during every election campaign everywhere — then there is no particular need to describe Mr. Abe this way.

A third definition of nationalism is the belief that one’s culture and beliefs are superior to any other. Is that what they are trying to pin on the prime minister?

I hope not. I’ve never seen a public statement anywhere by Mr. Abe that even remotely suggests that he believes this, and I’ve read his book. He does say he thinks Japanese today have nothing to be ashamed of. He does say that he wants to make the country one in which the Japanese can be confident and proud. He does think that Japanese education should be conducted in such a way as to inculcate a love of country.

But this is all rather commonplace for a political leader. That’s no reason to start burning up column inches with the word “nationalist”. It only creates suspicion that the media is trying to paint a picture of the man as an old-line imperialist with a youthful haircut and good dentistry who wants to brainwash a new generation of Japanese school children into marching again into the jungles of Luzon and dying for the Emperor while establishing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere V.2.

If that’s what they actually think, it’s a figment of their fevered imagination. Calling Mr. Abe a “hawkish nationalist” sails even closer to the edge of delusion. The prime minister is working to amend the Japanese Constitution to allow the use of the military for both individual and collective self-defense. That is hardly in the same class as colonizing the Korean Peninsula.

Japan claims the islets of Takeshima, now illegally occupied by South Korea, and four islands near Hokkaido, seized by the Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Were Mr. Abe a “hawkish nationalist”, would it not stand to reason that somewhere in his career he would have suggested using military force to reclaim that territory? Yet not a hint of that is to be found in any of his public utterances.

As for Buzzle, the self-styled “intelligent life on the web”, well, comparing yourself to a pygmy doesn’t make you tall. Prime Minister Abe’s ideas about Japan and its place in the world are not significantly different than most of the Liberal-Democratic Party prime ministers—including his immediate predecessor Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who, after all, paid annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

But why limit the comparison to other Japanese leaders? Wouldn’t it be more instructive to compare Mr. Abe with other national leaders, particularly a national leader in a democratic country that is a member of the G7?

In March, Jacques Chirac announced to the French people that he was stepping down from office at the end of his term. This blogger, a long-time resident of France, translated into English his speech to the nation. I trust that his translation is close to the original meaning. Here are some excerpts:

* “This evening it is with heartfelt love and pride for France that I appear before you.”

* “My dear compatriots, I love France passionately. I have put all my heart, all my energy, all my strength at her service, at your service. Serving France, serving the cause of peace, that has been the commitment of my life.”

* “France is living up to its responsibilities. France is asserting its position in the world.”

* “I will continue the struggles that have been ours, the struggles that have always been my priorities, for justice, progress, peace, and the greatness of France.”

* “France’s true calling, France’s glorious mission, is unity and solidarity. Yes, our values have meaning!”

* “The second thing I want to say is that you must always believe in yourselves and believe in France.”

* “The fourth thing I want to say is that France is not ‘just another country.’ France has special responsibilities that we have inherited from our history and from universal values that we have helped to forge.”

* “Not for one minute have I stopped working at the service of our magnificent France. This France that I love as much as I love you all. This France rich because of its young people, strong because of its past and its diversity, and hungry for justice and a desire to move forward. This French nation that has not yet finished astonishing the world.”

* “Long live the Republic! Long live France!”

Here’s your comparison: Abe Shinzo has never used such overtly nationalistic language in a public speech in his life. “France’s glorious mission…France is asserting its position…the greatness of France…France has special responsibilities.” Had the prime minister made any one of these statements about Japan, the world’s media would be choking on its collective tongue. And all the journalists and politicians in South Korea would have had to replace their underwear.

You don’t think so? Try replacing “France” with “Japan” in the foregoing and see how it reads. Then end it with three rousing shouts of “Banzai!” instead of Chirac’s “Vive La France!”

Note also that President Chirac said that “France is not ‘just another country'”. Then consider that the third definition of nationalism cited above was the espousal of the superiority of one’s cuture and beliefs.

Do you wonder how many media sources in English have ever described M. Chirac as “nationalist”? I’ll save you the trouble of Googling. Here’s the number of major news outlets that have used “nationalist” or “nationalistic” as an adjective immediately preceding the name “Chirac”:

Zero.

To be fair, President Chirac also said, “Nationalism has done such damage to our continent and could resurface at any moment.” But that single statement was made in the context of avoiding economic dislocation, and in any event it is effectively nullified by the blatant nationalism of the rest of his speech. One cannot have it both ways, and it is apparent, from sheer volume if nothing else, which way M. Chirac chooses to have it.

Is Prime Minister Abe a “hawkish nationalist” and “its most nationalist leader in decades”?

Or is that just a mirage created by a media too lazy to hide its biases?

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Posted in Mass media, Politics | Tagged: , , | 23 Comments »

China fouling Asian nest

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 17, 2007

PREFECTURAL GOVERNMENTS in Kyushu were recently forced to issue alerts to their citizens due to the high levels of photochemical smog in the region. There are seven prefectures on the island, and Wednesday last week four of them–Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, and Oita–told their residents they should avoid going outside whenever possible. They also cautioned schools to refrain from allowing their students to participate in outdoor sports.

The National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba has been working to determine the source of this dangerous smog, and according to a report in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun, they’ve concluded that it floated across the East China Sea from China.

While the media often reports on China’s stunning economic growth, they less frequently mention that one of the costs of this growth is extreme air pollution. The air in Beijing, for example, is among the world’s filthiest. It would be bad enough if the Chinese choked on the byproducts of their newfound wealth, but now they’re fouling the rest of the Northeast Asian nest. Indeed, it might even be a case of biting the hand that feeds them: 30% of Japanese ODA to China is for environmental projects. One example is Japan’s 19.3 billion yen ($US 160.2 million) loan to China for the Henan Atmospheric Environmental Improvement Project.

Another often-overlooked aspect of China’s industrial growth is that it is powered by coal. The country has an estimated 30,000 coal mines, and they have embarked on an ambitious project of building hundreds of coal-fired power plants between now and 2012. In fact, the output of the new coal-fired power plants that China will put on line every year between now and 2012 exceeds the total annual power production of England.

Could someone explain to us again why China was exempted from the Kyoto Protocol?

Posted in China, Environmentalism | 6 Comments »

AP screws up Japan coverage again

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 17, 2007

YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD by now that Japan’s first experiment with a drop box for unwanted babies, installed at the Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto City, got an unexpected visitor on its first day of service. The drop box was installed to receive newborn infants, but the first child the hospital received is thought to be three years old. His father brought him there just hours after the service began.

The reason I bring this up is not to discuss the pros and cons of the issue itself–I can see the merits of both the pro and con positions–but rather to show how the supposedly elite AP can’t even report a simple story in Japan without making the mistakes of an ignoramus.

Here’s their report, which I found on the Philadelphia Daily News website. This is some of what they say:

The boy, who was in good health, reportedly said he was left by his father, who was seen holding the youngster’s hand as they approached the hospital. They apparently rode Japan’s bullet train to Kumamoto, but it was unclear where they lived.

  • It is not possible to ride a bullet train to Kumamoto City, which does not yet have bullet train service. The main shinkansen line ends in Fukuoka City. The first leg of the Kyushu shinkansen operates from Yatsushiro in southern Kumamoto Prefecture to Kagoshima City. Full Kyushu service is not slated to begin until the next decade.
  • Kyodo filed a report before this AP report, and it stated that the boy told the hospital staff he was from Fukuoka.

Is it too much to expect the AP to perform even a minimal amount of research before writing an article? Or that they assign a reporter to write about Japan who knows a little about the country?

I’ll say it again: If what you know about Japan comes from what you read in the Western press, then everything you know is wrong.

Postscript: Try this article for a description of the service on the day it opened last week.

Posted in Mass media | 5 Comments »

Governor questions media privilege in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 17, 2007

FORMER AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland once advised, “Never get into an argument with people who buy ink by the barrel”, but it seems as if former funnyman turned politician Higashikokubaru Hideo, now the Governor of Miyazaki Prefecture, might not have heard the advice—and might have ignored it if he had.

It’s the practice for prefectural governors in Japan to hold regularly scheduled news conferences, with the timing in each prefecture ranging from once a week to once a month. The Miyazaki governors give press conferences once every two weeks, and at the one held three weeks ago, Mr. Higashikokubaru wondered aloud whether it was really necessary to keep to a strict schedule. After all, he noted, sometimes there is just isn’t anything to talk about.

Because his mid-life career change from a goofy comic in Beat Takeshi’s circle of acolytes to a serious politician in an agricultural prefecture far from any big city or big media action has been so striking, the governor’s every word and deed is attracting national media attention. And when a politician rocks the media’s boat, it goes without saying that it attracts even more attention.

Last week, Gov. Higashikokubaru held his first news conference since his opening salvo, and of course the media came loaded for bear. The governor quickly fired off a few shots of his own, however. He offered the novel idea that it would be more efficient to hold press conferences only when there was something to talk about. He thought it wasn’t necessary to stick to a regular schedule if nothing important had happened.

The media response was predictable. There is no more self-important and self-righteous professional group than reporters—with the possible exception of attorneys and Muslim clerics—and none more likely to overreact in its own defense, so of course they rose to the bait. Anyone reading this could have scripted what they said next. “Press conferences are necessary for the disclosure of information that fulfills the prefectural citizens’ right to know.”

But the governor had saved his best shot for last. The comment that drew all the headlines in the newspaper the next day was, “Kisha clubs aren’t sacred either.”

Well, that’s guaranteed to get any Japanese reporter to snap to attention. If you’re unfamiliar with kisha clubs (literally, reporters’ clubs), here’s an excellent overview by the Japan Media Review. (For the official view in support of kisha clubs, try this site by the Nihon Shimbun Kyokai.)

The kisha clubs are press clubs affiliated with every important governmental organization in the country. They originally served the worthwhile purpose of enabling reporters to act as a group to force the government to divulge information. The impetus for their formation was the government’s refusal in 1890 to allow reporters to cover the first session of the Diet.

Now, however, the clubs are more likely to stifle information than to facilitate its disclosure and distribution. Critics charge that club members merely regurgitate government press releases. Reporters cannot attend press conferences unless they are press club members, and this requires a considerable expense of time and effort. This hinders not only the access of foreign journalists to the news; it also limits the access of freelance journalists and reporters for trade journals in Japan. The European Commission calls them barriers to the “free trade of information”, and others have claimed that they constitute “information cartels”.

But the governor was not playing the role of brash radical. He is a former show business personality, after all, and a politician basing his appeal on his answerability to the citizens. He knows better than anyone the media’s importance for getting his message out. Neither is he calling—yet—for the abolition of kisha clubs. He stated at the press conference (my translation):

I fully recognize the importance of the media…(but) I am raising the issue of whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to consider if the current system of kisha clubs and regularly scheduled press conferences is the best (approach) nationwide. I was not suggesting that press conferences be eliminated or the clubs abolished.

Mr. Higashikokubaru seems to have two reasons for his challenges to the media. First, he has said on several occasions that he hopes to institute local government reform in Miyazaki Prefecture and then extend it to local governments nationwide. As part of this overall reform, he thinks the entire approach of government-media interaction at the local level should be reexamined, reformed as required, and implemented on a national scale.

It is not surprising that the governor is not particularly impressed with the mass media. Try this post to see how many ways the media covered one short speech he gave at the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo—not one of the reports is even remotely close to complete and all of them are so inadequate as to verge on the incompetent.

The second reason is not so altruistic. Since he was elected governor in January, reporters have come down from Tokyo to try to cover his press conferences, but haven’t been admitted because they aren’t members of the local kisha club. It would be difficult for the governor to promote his reforms elsewhere in the country without national media attention, and the kisha club system hinders his efforts.

There is no question that the kisha clubs do in fact impede the right of the Japanese people to know, rather than ensure that right, as they once did. There’s no better illustration than this local example from Saga Prefecture.

The prefectural governor is Furukawa Yasushi, who was recently reelected to a second term. Mr. Furukawa has a reputation as a young reformer, so he’s popular with the citizens. About one year into his first term, the prefecture bought a new official vehicle for the governor’s use. The Nishinippon Shimbun, a Fukuoka-based regional newspaper, reported that though the new van cost about US$90,000, vans of the same model could be easily purchased for about US$50,000. They also revealed that the governor’s new wheels had a lot of extras, including a DVD player, and asked whether any of them were necessary in a vehicle bought with public funds.

The governor protested that the vehicle couldn’t have been purchased at a cheaper price, and there was nothing luxurious about it at all. The matter ended there, and it didn’t hurt the governor at the polls.

But the Nishinippon Shimbun, though a member of the kisha club, is not the most widely read newspaper in the prefecture. That honor goes to the local Saga Shimbun. Not long after reading the story in the regional newspaper, I asked a reporter for the local paper (which I don’t read) what he thought about the issue of the governor’s new car.

He had no idea what I was talking about. He didn’t even know that the governor had bought a new car, that there was a potential problem with the purchase, and didn’t think it had been reported in his newspaper at all.

Mr. Furukawa, it should be noted, recently increased the frequency of his own regularly scheduled press conferences from one every two weeks to once a week. His stated objective was improving communication with the citizens.

The prefectural citizens’ right to know? I suspect it’s more like the prefectural citizens’ right to know the story only as the media guild presents it, and that clique’s desire to maintain their monopoly on the sources of information by staying on the good side of the local authorities.

And heaven help anyone who tries to buck the system. The ones running the show are the ones buying printer’s ink by the barrel, after all.

Posted in Mass media, Politics | 2 Comments »

 
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