Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 30, 2007
IF YOU WANT A PEEK into the Japanese soul, one small window might be the Frog Bridge in Inami-cho, Wakayama Prefecture.
Perhaps it would be more proper to call it the Frogs Bridge, because it actually has two frogs, as you can see from the photograph. It’s worth describing the background of the bridge’s construction, because people unfamiliar with the country might not be aware of just how characteristically Japanese this project is.
This Japanese-language profile of the municipality explains that Inami-cho is a small municipality in a beautiful natural environment surrounded by the sea and mountains. Many people in the area are commercial farmers of vegetables, flowers, and ornamental plants. It has a long history, and there are many legends and stories associated with the district.
Unfortunately, not many people know about the place, few visitors come from the big cities, population growth is sluggish, and young people tend to leave on reaching adulthood. The town received a grant from the government to promote regional growth and development, and one of the ideas they came up with for spending the money was the Frog Bridge.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The word for frog in Japanese is kaeru, which has several homonyms. Kaeru became the concept for the bridge’s construction. The inspiration came from the father of Japanese calligraphy, Ono no Tofu (no, not that tofu), who is also known as Ono no Michikaze. The story is told that he found the determination to become a calligrapher by watching a frog try to leap onto a willow branch. From this, he learned the value of effort, patience, and taking bold steps.
The municipality also explains there are five kaeru that are used as hooks in the naming of the bridge. These are:
- kangaeru (Thinking)
- Hito wo kaeru (Changing people)
- Machi wo kaeru (Changing the town)
- Furusato e kaeru (Returning home)
- Sakaeru (Flourishing)
I can’t begin to explain how quintessentially Japanese this story is. They’ve managed to use a historical Japanese figure for inspiration and connected him to a unique, instantly recognizable public works project to gain some recognition for themselves in a positive way, and incorporate the Japanese love of wordplay in the process. When I was new to the country, unaware of how affected (infected?) I was by the sense of cynical irony so fashionable in the West, I would have rolled my eyes until they slid out of their sockets at the dorky, hellokittyishness of this bridge and the people who built it.
After so many years in Japan, however, I have come to realize that nothing grows out of cynical irony but weeds, and I’ve begun to appreciate the sincerity and the earnestness of the emotion behind the effort of the people of Inami-cho. I wish them the best, and if I’m ever in their neighborhood, I’ll be sure to stop by to look at the bridge and buy some vegetables or flowers. I’m sure they’re excellent.
Here’s a link to a close-up of the bridge plans, and here’s a link to several more photos; the Japanese writing on the bridge in the fourth photo from the top is the list of five kaerus explained above.