AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

Nengajo 2013

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2013

THE first greeting traditionally offered in Japan on New Year’s Day is Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu.

So, akemashite, y’all! And Happy New Year!

Posted in Holidays | Tagged: , | 22 Comments »

Nippon Noel 2012

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Christmas tree at Huis ten Bosch, a theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki, that recreates The Netherlands with full-scale copies of old Dutch buildings.

Christmas in Japan is a festival of light. For even more creative examples, hit the tag at the bottom of the post.

Merry Christmas to Mr. Lawrence, and to you all!

Posted in Holidays, Social trends | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

All you have to do is look (145)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2012

Nanbu senbei (rice crackers) a famous confection from the southern part of Aomori, each containing a New Year’s message.

(Photo: Sankei Shimbun)

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The Tokyo harvest

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 25, 2012

THAT’S not just any old hayseed harvesting those rice plants — that’s the Emperor of Japan. He put on his boots, grabbed a sickle, and got right to work, cutting down about 100 plants. The man’s no stranger to farm chores. He planted the seeds, too.

Bet they don’t do that at Buckingham Palace.

He grew two kinds of rice, one a variety of mochi. Reports say this Palace harvest was that of a typical year. The crop will be used in ceremonies as well as eaten at the palace.

It’s a simple photo, but the combination of rice and the Emperor lies at the heart of the Japanese identity. Inose Naoki, a prolific non-fiction author who also serves as the Vice-Governor of Tokyo, briefly describes one of the ceremonies at which the rice will be used.

Many of Japan’s holidays have a rather complicated history. Labor Day is originally associated with the Niinamesai (Harvest Festival), which is connected to the Tenno (Emperor).

Even those people for whom the name Niinamesai does not register should recall seeing on television the Tenno cutting the rice in the paddy at the Fukiage-gyoen (gardens) at the Imperial Palace. The Niinamesai is a festival to celebrate the rice harvest and offer a prayer for an abundant harvest in the coming year.

The Tenno’s rice harvest is a symbolic performance. The Tenno, whose spiritual power has been strengthened to the maximum through the Chinkonsai (Shinto service for the repose of the dead) held the previous night, conducts a ceremony at the Imperial Palace for offering the harvested grain to the divinities. The Daijosai is conducted when the new Tenno ascends the throne, and is best understood as a version of the Niinamesai on a larger scale.

The Tenno system has continued even with the changes to the Constitution after the defeat in the war and the transfer of ultimate sovereignty from the Tenno to the people. When decisions were being made on new holidays, the Niinamesai was offered as a candidate, adapted as a day to give thanks for the new harvest. The associations between the name of the holiday and the Tenno gradually grew weaker, and the holiday was established as a day to honor work, celebrate production, and to have the citizens extend their thanks to each other for the work they do.

A poem in the Man’yoshu suggests the Niiname was once a ceremony conducted in the home. The name Niiname is not to be found among the harvest festivals held throughout the country in the early modern period, however. In short, it is best considered a ceremony restored under the Meiji Tenno system.

Here’s a previous post on ceremonial rice harvests by younger and prettier farmhands.

But the Imperial Palace doesn’t have the only paddy in central Tokyo. Here’s a plot in the Ginza district on the street right behind the Tiffany & Co. outlet.

The leader of the group that came up with the idea explained:

“The environment in which we can grow rice is Japan’s treasure. Nothing is possible without that environment. I want people to value this Japanese environment.”

There’s also a paddy on a rooftop in Akihabara, the consumer electronics district. The plot’s been managed since 2009 by an NPO whose slogan is, “You can even do it in the middle of Tokyo.” They plant the rice in June, so it shouldn’t be too much longer before it’s time to harvest their crop, too. Pressed into service as temporary agricultural workers are the maids in the district’s maid cafes, as well as voice actors.

Here are the pretty maids all in a row at last year’s harvest. They don’t swing a sickle, but they do approach the task with typical Japanese aplomb.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Holidays, Imperial family, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

All you have to do is look (11)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bon odori in Tokyo.

Nowadays, bon odori is a sedate summertime dance performed mostly by women of middle age or older. During the Edo period, however, it was sometimes a prelude for young men and women isolated by farm work to head off to the bushes for some real action.

Those who read Japanese can further pursue their ethnographic research here.

(Photo from the Xinhua news agency)

Posted in Festivals, Holidays, Photographs and videos, Sex, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The glossy paper counterfeit

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 14, 2012

The courage to say that Japanese islands are Japanese territory is now required. (Caption on a poster from the Tokyo Metro District)

ONE of the unexpected benefits of extensive study and research into Japan is that it exposes the imposters — immediately and without forgiveness. Also unexpected (at first) was that the worst of the imposters turned out to be the biggest brand names in professional journalism. Now it is no longer unexpected. It’s a handy rule of thumb.

Seated among the inner circle of the hierophantic fabulists is The Economist of Britain. Their ability to offer their consumers worthwhile information on Japan is in indirect proportion to their international reputation. It is as if their objective is to provide a burlesque of news coverage for the entertainment of their readers, rather to provide information and educated analysis.

For Exhibit A, look no further than their short article on the Senkaku islets of Japan. The bologna starts with the title:

Jingoist jangles

The activities they would characterize as jingoist in the piece regarding the Senkakus are exclusively Japanese. Here are the facts: Japan was the only country to have taken an interest in the islets, and both China and Taiwan recognized them as Japanese territory, until it was determined there could well be extensive deposits of natural resources in the seabed nearby. Japanese are the only people to have lived there. The Chinese gave them a name a few centuries ago, but only because they are a maritime landmark on the sea route to the Ryukyus.

But because they insist on territorial integrity, the Japanese are slapped with the “jingoist” label.

The sub-heading:

A row over some goat-infested rocks heats up

Apart from the novel coinage of “goat-infested”, the title and the subheading are an attempt to cop some edgy blogger snark that comes off instead like white suburbanites singing the praises of Jah Rastafari. When you can’t back up an attitude with real ability or knowledge, it’s just a pose.

The point of the goats is revealed in the lede:

IN THE 1970s Japanese ultra-rightists took two goats on a 2,000km (1,250-mile) trip southwest from Tokyo to a group of uninhabited rocks near Taiwan called the Senkaku Islands. In the absence of humans willing to live in such a remote outpost, the hardy creatures would be the vanguard of a new push to solidify Japan’s hold over the islets, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Goats in the vanguard, eh?

The impression they want to create: There go those clazy Japanese ultra-rightists again. The reality they want to ignore: Behavior of this sort is too rare to have any significance other than as media space filler. Some overexcited Chinese buccos have also used the Senkakus as a playground, but The Economist ignored them too.

By the way, the goats — 1978 was the date of introduction — are viewed with alarm by environmentalists worried they are despoiling the pristine natural environment (which is, by treaty, a live ammunition target range for the US navy).

Now the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has signalled a more serious involvement in the dispute, by suggesting on July 6th that he plans to nationalise the privately held chain.

What they mean is that Mr. Noda wants to buy them from the Japanese who own them. They are already part of Japan.

On July 11th three Chinese patrol vessels were briefly spotted by the Japanese coastguard in waters near the Senkakus. That led to a flurry of hot-tempered diplomatic exchanges.

The article implies this “brief spotting” is the reason for all those whacked out jingoist jangles. It contains only a brief reference to the hot-tempered Chinese response in the fall of 2010 when a Chinese “fishing boat” captain rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels warning him of approaching the islands, the captain’s arrest, and the Chinese government’s subsequent scenery-chewing performance in the role of Righteously Indignant Great Power on the world stage.

The single reference consists of two sentences at the end of paragraph eight of a nine-paragraph piece, and mentions only “Chinese protests”. In the real world, the Chinese protests included a cutoff of rare earth metal exports to Japan and the trumped-up arrest on spying charges of two men working on an environmental project in China for Chinese benefit.

Mr Noda’s move is a clear political victory for Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara. In April the famously outspoken nationalist, who has long warned that Japan could become a “colony” of China, announced a plan to buy the Senkakus on behalf of the city.

The article contains no mention of the revelation that Sengoku Yoshito, the first chief cabinet secretary in the Kan Cabinet — the people who botched the 2010 incident — told another legislator that the Japanese were already vassals of the Chinese. In The Economist formulation, ex-Socialist Sengoku meekly accepting the fate of vassalage is not worthy of remark, but an effort by a prominent politician to maintain territorial integrity requires that he be termed a “famously outspoken nationalist”. One wonders what The Economist would say if the French took it into their heads to claim Guernsey. Goats live there, too.

A private fund raised 1.3 billion yen ($16.4m) in donations, with pledges of more.

That amount is a reflection of public interest and is a direct result of both Chinese behavior and the DPJ government’s limp response two years ago, but The Economist will never tell you that.

The tailwind behind Mr Ishihara’s campaign forced Mr Noda off a fence on which most Japanese leaders have sat since 1971.

What “sitting on a fence” means in this context, I have no idea, and I suspect the author doesn’t either. Japanese national leaders never had to do anything about the islets until the Chinese took it into their heads to resume their occupancy of the chair Evil Western Powers forced them to vacate as the Flower in the Center of the Universe.

That was when China began to make diplomatic noises about what it calls the Diaoyus.

Here is what The Economist considers “diplomatic noises”:

The day after Mr Noda’s announcement, a spokesman in Beijing called the islets “sacred territory” and pledged to defend them.

Want to bet if it were Ishihara Shintaro they’d have found some way to combine rightwing Japanese nationalism with the threat of a holy war?

(Coincidently, this week Apple appears to have removed a patriotic Chinese iPad application, called “Defend the Diaoyu” from its Chinese App store, according to the China Daily, a state-run newspaper.)

Not coincidentally, The Economist fails to mention that the app showed samurai, ninja, and other stereotypical characters “invading” islands that are part of Japan. But the publication thought it was “patriotic” for the Chinese, rather than ultra-rightwing nationalist.

China believes the islands were annexed by Japan as spoils of the 1895 Sino-Japanese War.

Trying to justify hegemonistic behavior causes people to believe a lot of things, and this belief is incorrect. Approximate correlation on the time scale does not mean causation, or even connection. Even the Japanese Communist Party doesn’t buy it.

What is correct: The Chinese and Taiwanese recognized the islands as Japanese in official documents, maps, and even a newspaper article in the Maoist-era People’s Daily, starting in 1895. The boulevard-sized paper trail still exists. China complained throughout the 1930s and during the war about Japanese and French possession of islands in the South China Sea, but said nothing about the Senkakus. The San Francisco Treaty after the war that formally determined which Japanese-occupied territory was to be removed from Japanese possession allowed the Senkakus to remain Japanese. The Chinese had no problem with Japanese possession of the islands until (1) resources were discovered nearby, and (2) the Americans returned Okinawa to Japan, which meant that the Chinese now only had to deal with a Japan hamstrung by a pacifist constitution, rather than the U.S. military.

In 1972, at the end of America’s post-war occupation of the Okinawa islands, they reverted to Japan. It refuses to acknowledge the claims of either China or Taiwan.

What is the reason for the appearance of the second sentence? Why should they acknowledge their claims?

In pushing for nationalisation, Mr Noda may be trying to prevent further tensions.

Mr. Noda is trying to prevent the Chinese from annexing Japanese territory. By doing so, he is also trying to prevent China from prying loose Okinawa and making it a 21st century Chinese fiefdom. But the magazine (which they still insist on calling a paper) ignores the nominally non-governmental efforts of Chinese to accomplish the latter. Investigating that would require reading Chinese newspapers and websites. Too much work, what?

But if China takes it the wrong way, the stakes will become higher than fish and a few scraggly goats.

There is only one way for a hegemon to take rejection, and that is the wrong way. Note, by the way, another desperate attempt to combine cleverness with commentary with the fish-and-goat snark after they already wrote that oil and gas deposits were at stake.

For another example of The Economist’s imitation of a color Sunday comic strip, try this blog post from two years ago by someone whose ignorance of contemporary Japan is exceeded only by his ability to communicate with the ephemera of ultra-rightwing Japanese militarism during a séance. They were quickly put in their place by the person who wrote the comment at the top.

Their explanation of the blog’s title on the right sidebar provides more unintentional humor.

It is clear that getting things right is not the objective of the magazine. Indeed, the consistent extremist slant of their pieces on Japan raises suspicions that they’re still bitter over the early wartime Japanese success that signaled the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

It also raises the suspicion that the rest of their magazine is equally worthless. Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus.

One has to feel sorry for the people who consume the publication and thereby think they know something of what is happening in the world. They certainly won’t know anything about East Asia.

UPDATE: Chinese intentions become clearer still, but some people would rather not get it.

*****
This track has the finest in musical infrastructure — the band, the singer, and the arrangement are superb. All of it is wasted on the lyrical content. It is the perfect analogue for the two articles cited in this post.

Posted in China, History, Holidays, International relations, Mass media, Taiwan, World War II | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Kumamoto new year

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

WHAT do Japanese do in public on New Year’s day? This short video from RKK, a local television station in Kumamoto, will give you an idea.

The announcer begins with a New Year’s greeting and then introduces four different scenes. The first starts at 6:00 a.m., when the gates of the Kumamoto Castle are opened for visitors who want to see the first sunrise of the year from there.

He mentions that the temperature was relatively mild, closer to that of a mid-March day at 5.4°C. The sky was cloudy, however, disappointing the people who were hoping to see the sun.

The second scene is of visitors to the Kato Shinto shrine, where about 420,000 people come during the first three days of the new year. The first man interviewed says he is praying for the happiness and health of his family. The woman who follows says she asked for the sound growth of her children.

Scene three is of the Wild Bunch at the Kumamoto Central Post Office roaring off to deliver New Year’s cards after attending a Shinto ceremony. They expect to deliver 25.8 million throughout the prefecture. That’s how the mailmen deliver the mail in my neighborhood too.

After that, actress and model Margarine (which is how it’s spelled in Japanese) and the prefectural PR character Kumamon (the big black bear) visit a nearby maternity hospital to welcome the babies born that morning. They also give newly made commemorative seals as presents to two people.

And of course there are miko!

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Posted in Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analog for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events at home and in public, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January.

That’s how I began the New Year’s post for 2011. Beats me if I can think of a way to improve it, so that’s how I’ll begin the Ampontan nengajo for 2012. The first paragraph may be recycled, but the rest isn’t!

*****
Cleanliness really is next to godliness in Japan. One reason is that the concept of kegare, or impurity, is an important part of the Shinto worldview. A manifestation of that on the mundane level is the conduct of spring cleaning at yearend. Then again, spring was traditionally considered to have begun with the New Year, an idea that survives in the nengajo message that offers congratulations on the “new spring”. Shinto shrines are also given a thorough spring cleaning at yearend. That ritual is called susubarai, which translates as an exorcism or purification of the soot.

Here’s a scene from this year’s susubarai of the main hall at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki. Those bamboo poles are four meters long. Ibaraki is near the three prefectures that were hardest hit by March’s Tohoku earthquake, and the shrine’s torii and beams in the main hall were heavily damaged. Said the chief priest:

The shrine deity is the one who limits earthquake damage, so I think that’s the reason it wasn’t any worse. We want to have the new torii finished by the 2014 spring festival. I pray that next year will be a good one.

He’s not alone in that.

The susubarai at the Oyama shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, is called the sendensai, or the festival for purifying the hall. It is a festival of sorts, as the miko shrine maidens start by performing a traditional dance, which is followed by a rite for purifying the tools used for cleaning. If cleanliness and purity is the point, half measures just won’t do.

Then they got to work and exorcised the soot at the main hall. It was 2º C when the picture was taken. That isn’t the most spring-like of temperatures, which is the main reason I’m not excited by the custom of spring cleaning at home in December. Surely they were wearing something warm underneath. The entire operation was handled by 12 people, and those poles they’re wielding are seven meters long. Take the time to look at this photo of the shrine’s front gate: the architecture is both striking and unusual.

It stands to reason that some shrines will be easier to clean than others. Among the others is the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, which has more than 500 kirin (sorry for the Wikipedia) and dragons on the outside. That’s particularly true when the kirin and the dragons are national cultural treasures. The shrine was established in 1617, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of none other than The Shogun himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It takes 100 people to do all the work here.

Buddhist temples also get the yearend purification treatment, and the insides of the temples get just as dirty as the outsides. The priests and parishioners of Nishi (west) and Higashi (east) Hongwan-ji, a temple complex in Kyoto, have a unique method for driving out the old year’s dirt using bamboo sticks and large fans. It must work: They’ve got 445 tatami mats in the main hall in the west and 927 in the east to clean, and they’ve been cleaning them on 20 December every year since the 15th century.

It starts when the chief priest gives a signal, and the entire line starts whacking and waving. The more nimble climb a ladder to the transoms and blow it out that way. The ritual is also a way to give thanks for a safe year, and it ends when one of the priests draws the character for long life in the air.

While some shrines have to deal with the cleaning of kirin or dragons on the exterior, some Buddhist temples have challenges of their own, such as cleaning statues of the Buddha. That’s quite a challenge at the Kiko-in Obihiro, Hokkaido, whose 6.8-meter-high statue is the largest wooden Buddha north of Tokyo. To be specific, it is a statue of Amida Nyorai. Those bamboo poles are three meters long. It only takes them about 30 minutes, however, as the work surely becomes lighter when it’s sanctified. It’s also a gesture of thanks for the past year.

The cleaning involved with sending off the old year includes the disposition of more than dirt. The shrines also have to do something with all the ema that people entrusted to them during the year. Ema are small wooden plaques on which people write their prayers and wishes. They’re left at the shrine, where they’re received by the divinity. It’s unacceptable to just dump them in the trash, not only for emotional or spiritual reasons, but also because a shrine can have 45,000 of them, as the Hofu Tenman-gu in Hofu, Yamaguchi, did last year. Many of them bore wishes for success in upcoming entrance exams, and most of them were probably granted. It’s an elegant solution: The shrines combine ritual purification and an environmentally friendly fire lit by candles.

Once they’ve taken care of the old year’s business, it’s time to get to work on the new. Speaking of ema, most shrines put up big ones of their own with the symbol from the Oriental zodiac for that particular year. Happy year of the dragon!

Here’s the Big Ema installed at the Kumano shrine in Wakayama. Big in this case means 2.8 meters high and 3.9 meters wide. The eastern-central part of Japan was lashed by a summer typhoon that caused substantial damage, and the Kumano shrine was not spared. Therefore, the painting on this year’s ema has the image of a rising dragon breaking through the black clouds of disaster. The chief priest painted it himself in four days, and it took six priests to carry it to the grounds and replace the old one in the back with the new one.

Just as some Western families hang wreaths on their homes at Christmas, the Japanese adorn the outside of their homes or offices with kadomatsu (corner pine), which is viewed as a temporary abode for the divinities. The folks at Omi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, are known for their jumbo kadomatsu. This year’s version is just as jumbo at four meters high, and it was arranged to resemble a soaring dragon. It was made by a group of parishioners, who also handled the susubarai. For the past seven years, they’ve used a pine tree on the shrine grounds that they temporarily transplant, roots and all. Said one of the kadomatsu designer/gardeners:

There were all sorts of disasters this year, so we made this with the wish that everyone would have a happy life next year.

Another decoration for home or shrine is the shimenawa, a straw rope that denotes a sacred space in general, and the temporary abode of the toshigami, the divinity of the new year, in particular. Of the 30 hung at the Kogane shrine in Gifu City, the one at the front is a jumbo version eight meters long, 40 centimeters in diameter at the thickest part, and 30 kilograms in weight. It’s made from straw from mochi rice stalks, mochi being an even more glutinous variety of rice than japonica.

The Kogane shrine is known for providing good fortune to those interested in money and wealth. In fact, the kanji used for the name of the shrine is the same as that for money, but with a different reading. Shrine officials expect 130,000 hopeful high rollers to visit in the first three days of the new year.

While we’re on the subject of jumbo decorations, here are two jumbo origami of dragons in red and white, the Japanese national colors, at the Tsurusaki Shinto shrine in Hayashima-cho, Okayama. (Japanese language, but nice photos.) They’re 1.8 meters high and four meters long, and if you can’t make it for New Year’s, don’t fret — they’ll be up until the end of the month, and they’re illuminated until 9:00 p.m. every night. Said the chief priest:

With Japan covered by a dark cloud due to the disasters and other reasons, we hope this year everyone can soar again like the dragons that push their way into the sky.

As evidence that old religions can incorporate new elements, this is only the 11th year for the shrine’s origami displays. They started in 2001 with the year of the horse. To symbolize their support for Tohoku recovery, they procured the paper from a wholesaler in Sendai.

An even newer New Year twist on a traditional Japanese art is a public performance of calligraphy by a priest at the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, on a platform in front of the main hall. The folks at the shrine, which is the same one with the big ema above, started the tradition just two years ago. In keeping with the theme of jumbo-ness, this calligraphy is three meters square and was rendered with a brush one meter long. The character can be read as either kirameki or ko, and it means glittering.

Calligraphy is not done with just a flick of the wrist; it also demands internal stillness. The reports from Wakayama say the priest stared at the cloth for a time for spiritual preparation before he started. The reports also say the priest put his entire body into it, which the audience appreciated. One of those watching was a woman from Nagoya, who said:

There was a dignified and awe-inspiring atmosphere, and I found myself straightening my back without realizing it.

Said the calligrapher/priest:

Conditions were very harsh this year with the Tohoku disaster and the typhoon. I hope that next year, each one of us recovers and shines.

Are you noticing that people use the holiday as a way to cleanse themselves of more than just dirt and old objects?

You’ve also probably noticed that the priests aren’t doing all this work by themselves. Their helpers are the Japanese equivalent of Santa’s elves, the miko shrine maidens. Those are the young women dressed in white hakui and red hibakama. (There are those colors again.)

So many people visit during the three-day period that the shrines have to hire extra miko part-time to help. They’re usually high school and college-aged girls, and dealing with the public in a manner befitting a religious institution requires special training in manners and speech. That training also includes instruction in how to wear the clothing, and how to properly hand over the amulets that people buy on their visits. Here’s a scene from the orientation for the 23 arubaito miko conducted by the Toishi Hachiman-gu in Shunan, Yamaguchi, which will celebrate its 1300th anniversary next year. To give you an idea of why the shrines need to supplement the help, the Toshi Hachiman-gu expects 200,000 people to drop by from 1-3 January.

Bigger shrines require more miko, and the Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto needed 70 this year for New Year’s duty. (That one’s in English.) They expect 500,000 visitors in the first three days of the New Year. One reason so many people come is that one of the shrine divinities is the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, renowned for his learning and erudition. That attracts all those who want to pray for success on the entrance exams for schools or places of employment.

The first order of business for miko training at Kitano is to say a prayer at the main hall, after which the priest performs a purification ritual. That’s followed by an explanation of the buildings, fixtures, and amulets, and the proper way to interact with the worshippers.

Most of the shrines are somewhat strict about the appearance of the Jinja Girls — dyed hair is usually prohibited. Well, wait a minute, let’s modify that. The women old enough to dye their hair, i.e., post high school, are old enough to know that they can buy a bottle or tube and go back to basic black for a few days before getting stylish again.

While they’re sticklers for appearance, the shrines are downright ecumenical about identity. The job is usually open to young women of any nationality. I read one account of a Korean university student in Nagasaki who enjoyed her experience so much one year, she signed up for a second. I’ve also read about one shrine hiring an Italian woman for the season. In fact, here’s an article from China talking about New Year’s customs and the Chinese girls who also serve as miko. Aren’t those hairbands nifty?

Meanwhile, the Gokoku shrine in Kagoshima City trained 40 new miko to help greet their expected visitors. One 20-year-old said she had wanted to wear the white clothing for a long time and was happy to finally get the chance. She also promised to do her best to ensure that the worshippers will be able meet the new year with a good feeling. About 150,000 people are likely to drop on by, so let’s hope she doesn’t get tired from being that cheerful for that long to the crowds. Then again, it isn’t as if she he’ll have to cope with the “behavior” of American shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

Here’s the training for 20 miko at Tottori City’s Ube shrine, which is thought to have been founded in 648, so they’ve been at this for more than 1,300 years. The chief priest told the novitiates he wanted them to be sure to give the parishioners a cheerful smile, which might be more difficult than it sounds. How easy is it to be solemn and smiley at the same time?

This shrine also has a connection with money matters, and is said to be just the place for those praying for success in business. In fact, it was the first Shinto shrine to be depicted on paper money — an engraving of the shrine and the founder appeared on the five-yen note in 1900. It also showed up on five-yen and one-yen notes into the Showa era, which began in 1925. They make only five- or one-yen coins instead of notes now, but in those days, a yen was still a yen.

If the global economy doesn’t improve, I might get on the train to Tottori myself.

Hey now! Some guys like photos of women with large silicone implants hanging out of small bikinis. Me, I go for the miko! It’s my website and I’ll steal the photos I want, and I want one more:

Here they are receiving instructions at the Kamegaike Hachiman-gu in Kanagawa City. This is a popular New Year’s destination because it has all the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Fortune of Japanese mythology and folklore. Legend has it that the munificent seven come to town on New Year’s and distribute gifts to good little boys and girls of all ages, just like Santa Claus. Instead of a reindeer-powered sleigh, they show up on the good ship Takarabune, which literally means treasure ship. In another Christmas analog, children are given money in envelopes on New Year’s as a gift, and sometimes these envelopes have a picture of the Takarabune on them.

The Kamegaiki shrine is also a good place to go for those who are desirous of safety in traffic and the luck in the draw in the lottery. Then again, the sacred sake the shrine gives away is another attraction. Clever punsters that they are, some Japanese employ the word for a Shinto shrine to refer to the holy hooch as “jinja ale”, and no, I did not make that up.

The more you think about it, the more appealing Shinto gets.

Speaking of grog, the Takara Shuzo sake brewers of Kyoto conducted a survey to find out everyone’s favorite New Year’s drink, and topping the list was sake. (That’s the same takara as the treasure in the takara above.)

The survey was conducted in the Tokyo and Kinki regions among 400 men and women aged 20 to 60+. When asked to name their New Year’s poison, 57.8% replied sake, 53.6% said beer, and 21.2% said wine. (Multiple (hic) answers were possible.) Sake was the leading choice in all age groups except for the people in their 30s.

It’s not all good news for the brewers — some people said they drink it only on New Year’s Day. The explanation of 56.9% was that it’s a special occasion. Others said they just go along with the choice of their family and friends.

In addition to downing the regular old sake, another special holiday custom is three sips from a cup of o-toso, sake mixed with (originally) medicinal herbs and mirin. The survey found that 88.6% of the respondents knew what it was, and that 50.8% drink it either every year or occasionally on New Year’s. The survey also turned up the fact that 53.5% of the people mistakenly thought it was a specially brewed sake, rather than being a mixture. That group consisted mostly of young people.

It was originally drunk to flush out the illnesses of the old year and promote long life in the future. The characters for toso, by the way, are 屠蘇 (the o is the honorific). The first means “to massacre”, and the second is most commonly used to mean a revival or resurrection. Some Western Christians get carried away by the connection they see, but the standard Japanese explanation is that the second character originally represented “the demon that causes illness”. In other words, o-toso is drunk to slay the demon. It’s more likely the origin of the expression Demon Rum than a derivative of the Easter story. Different season altogether.

Of course there’s a connection between liquor and miko, and not what you’re thinking, either. Here are some shrine maidens out tachibana citrus fruit picking at the Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu in Kyoto. Iwashimizu is so famous for the fruit that it’s used as a symbol on the shrine crest. The trees are planted on the east and west of the main building, and the miko can pick 10 kilograms of the three-centimeter fruit in 30 minutes of farm labor. These fruit are not for eating — they’ll be the main ingredient in tachibana citrus fruit wine instead. Nowadays they subcontract the work to a sake brewery in Joyo, Kyoto, and it will take three years before it’s drinkable. They donate the finished product to the Imperial household. During the Edo period, they also passed some of the stash around to the shoguns.

Speaking of the Imperial household, the members like this place. There’ve been more than 250 household visits to the shrine since 860.

And speaking of all this booze, here’s a report from Asahi TV about making New Year’s sake in Utsunomiya, Tochigi. It was below zero on the morning this segment was filmed:

But back to the miko and New Year’s amulets! They do more than sell them — they make them, too. See what I mean about Santa’s elves?

Here they are at the Atago shrine in Fukuoka City making o-mikuji fortunes for the New Year. They’ll offer 14 kinds, including the red daruma and, for the first time, the medetai mikuji. Medetai is a word for a joyous occasion, but the pun is in the shape of the fish — the tai, or sea bream, which is served at other joyous occasions, such as wedding ceremonies. The Japanese like the fish so much they have an expression that insists they’re great even when they’ve gone bad. The shrine made 800,000 last month for the 700,000 visitors they expect, so they might have a few left over.

They also made lucky arrows at the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura, Kanagawa, the most important shrine in the city. These arrows are called hamaya, which are sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits. Some also say they provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. The sale of hamaya is derived from the days when the exhibition of archery skills was a part of New Year celebrations. They’ve got two varieties here: One 60 centimeters long and the other 94 centimeters long. They’re wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), have bells on the end, and are affixed with kabura, a device that makes a whistling sound when the arrow is fired. It was once a popular item among the archers participating in contests or banditry. The shrine makes 245,000 of them, which takes most of the year.

They’re also readying amulets for sale at the Hakusan shrine in Niigata City. Shrine officials think the facility was built in either the 10th or the 11th century, but they’re not sure because two fires in the 16th century destroyed some of their records. In this case, the amulets are rakes and arrows, and people got a head start on buying them on the 26th. The shrine prepared 40,000 for their 170,000 visitors to come.

The word for the traditional bamboo rake is kumade, literally a bear’s paw, and they were used to rake leaves and grain. They started selling them as New Year’s trinkets during the Edo period so folks could play croupier and rake in the good fortune.

New Year’s amulets are also produced outside the shrines. One example is the dragon dolls, for the year of the dragon, made at a studio at the Toyama Municipal Folk Craft Village in Toyama City.

Another is the earthen bells in the form of dragons made by the Nogomi Ningyo Kobo in Kashima, Saga. A nogomi ningyo is a local toy conceived by the late studio’s founder soon after the war. He passed the business on to his son Suzuta Shigeto, a national living treasure for his fabric dyeing artistry, so we’re talking serious art here.

The studio is offering three types this year, one a design by the founder, another a jade (colored) dragon, and another designed by Shigeto to represent a dragon riding the clouds. He said he wanted to create the image of vigorously climbing and riding beyond the troubles of the past year. All of them are handmade, and the report said that the slight variations in sound and color would beguile potential customers. They’ll make only about 7,000 to sell throughout the country for the holiday, and all things considered, they’re probably more expensive than the items on sale at a shrine.

Shinto isn’t the only source for New Year’s ceremonies. A traditional ritual for presenting water from the fountain of youth to the governing body of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa, is still held today, and this year was held on the 25th in Naha. Forty people dressed as government officials and female priests lined up for some water carrying. The elixir in question is a mixture of two varieties of water that’s been concocted at the Enkaku-ji Buddhist temple. The original idea was to meet the New Year with a wish for the kingdom’s peace and the king’s health and long life.

Which to choose? The Ryukyu waters, sacred sake, or o-toso?

Finally, it isn’t possible to discuss New Year’s in Japan without a mention of the Kohaku Utagassen. That’s a New Year’s Eve musical variety show based on the premise of a singing battle (utagassen) between the female Ko team — Red! — and the male Haku team — White! It debuted on radio in 1951 as a one-hour special, but has now evolved into a four-hour extravaganza broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. At one time it was the highest-rated single show on Japanese television, but changing times and tastes have taken it down a few notches. Nevertheless, it is still the highest-rated musical program every year.

An appearance on the program is a sign that the performer has made it in Japanese show business, and because NHK requires (or used to require) that all singers pass a singing test to appear on the network, it meant that viewers would be getting quality entertainment. It features all styles of music, including enka for the old folks (Sakamoto Fuyumi was on last night for the 23rd time) and straight pop for the kids. Selected members of the AKB 48 girls also appeared for the third time as a group last night, early in the evening, and I was surprised at how good they sounded.

In keeping with Japanese ecumenicalism, foreigners, especially East Asians, are frequently invited to appear; the South Korean pop idol BoA has been on six times. Largely unbeknownst to their fans in the West, Cindy Lauper and Paul Simon once performed in the same year.

Last night, the Red team won the contest for the first time since 2004. The White team has the series edge to date, 33 to 29.

Whose performance to pick from the wealth of options on YouTube? I’ll go with the special one-off appearance of the Drifters in 2001. Those aren’t the American Drifters, but the Japanese group. They started out as a band in the late 50s and evolved into a comedy team whose television program ran from 1969 to 1985 and became the highest-rated regular program. (They also made a couple of movies, at least one of which was quite entertaining.) Older folks might remember their 40-second performance as the opening act for the first Beatles concert in Japan.

The man in the green is Ikariya Chosuke, the nominal leader, who died in 2004. Later in his career he starred as an attorney in a courtroom drama series similar to Perry Mason, but with lighter moments. He also won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film Bayside Shakedown. He was the host/narrator of the Drifters’ TV show, and often wound up as the guy getting dumped on by the others.

The man in the orange is Shimura Ken, who started working with the group in 1968 and became an official member after replacing one of the originals in 1974. Most of The Drifters weren’t really comedians, but rather performers acting in comic sketches. Shimura is an exception, however, as he is a talented comic, and at his best was as funny as any comedian anywhere. (You other foreigners can cool it with the wise lips right now.) He took over The Drifters program with a show of his own that was often hilarious and sometimes bordered on the surreal. He and the staff of that program were masters of running gags, both within a single program, and also from show to show.

Translating the lyrics wouldn’t be productive — did you catch the brief background chorus of papaya, papaya? — but it’s more fun to watch the dance troupe anyway.

Shimura Ken might say, Dafun Da!, but I’ll stick with: Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu. Happy New Year!

UPDATE:

Very late on New Year’s Eve (one report said early New Year’s morning), one of the three most-wanted criminals in Japan gave himself up to police:

Makoto Hirata, a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released deadly sarin gas on Tokyo subways in 1995, surrendered to police last night, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

Hirata, 46, and fellow Aum members Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi are listed as Japan’s three most-wanted fugitives, on a police website. Hirata was wanted in connection with the murder of a notary, while the other two are alleged to have been involved in the poison gas attacks.

Hirata turned himself in at the Marunouchi police station in central Tokyo, NHK said, citing the Metropolitan Police Department. He is being questioned at the Osaki police station, according to the broadcaster.

Another New Year’s cleansing of impurities, is it not?

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Nippon Noel 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 25, 2011

CHRISTMAS customs in East Asia may lack the self-perpetuating momentum of the holiday in Christian countries in the West with a longer tradition, but the season and its symbols can still generate intense emotion in this part of the world. An example is the the steel towers decorated as Christmas trees that an evangelical group erects every year two miles from the North Korean border on the 100-foot-high Aegibong Hill. They were to have been illuminated on Friday, which would have made them visible to soldiers on the northern side of the border and residents of the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The decorations have caused periodic friction between the two countries — Bah, humbug might well be the North Korean national motto — and so were stopped in 2004. The group resumed the practice in 2010, but this year the Scrooges in Pyeongyang said they’d shoot out the lights and it would be the southerners’ fault if they did. Since no one has any idea of the leadership’s current state of mind up north, or even who constitutes the leadership, the South Koreans decided discretion was the better part of holiday virtue and will refrain from flipping the switch on the towers this week.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more peace on the Japanese part of the earth, and they can and do light all the Christmas trees they want anywhere they feel like it. The Japanese view Christmas as an excellent opportunity to stage a festival of light. Indeed, with all the imagination incorporated into the designs, their variations on the theme of tannenbaum might be considered a minor form of public art. Here are some of the best in 2011.

Tokyo

They’ve been partying since 13 November at the Aqua Christmas 2011 festivities in Odaiba. The sponsors have exhibited a seven-meter-high Marina Fantasy Tree that represents a Christmas tree rising out of the sea, which is a satisfying image for an island country. An added touch is that the colors change in coordination with the music.

They’re just as abstract over at the Shinjuku Southern Terrace shopping facility. Inside the tower are two switches that change the lights from red to green to blue to a Christmasy pink to yellow to rainbow, accompanied by stately bell sounds. They’re calling it the Kizuna Tree, with kizuna being the human ties that bond, and they suggest it’s an excellent way for couples to strengthen their own ties. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year in Japan, and if a young couple were to stop by to strengthen their ties at the Kizuna Tree and wound up buying something before they left, then so much the better.

The cutbacks in power consumption necessitated by the Tohoku disaster forced people to use their imaginations and discover new ways to find the juice for the lights. The most frequently adopted solution is LEDs, but many places also use wind power, and some even went with vegetable oil.

Wind power was the choice to light up a 400-meter stretch of zelkova trees in toney Roppongi Hills. It’s the first time they’ve trimmed the trees for Christmas in this neighborhood, so they decided to get creative with pink and beige lights designed to look like a waterfall. Those lights don’t look pink or beige, and they don’t resemble a waterfall either, but that’s what the copy said.

Awareness of the Tohoku disaster is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and that’s why the trees displayed in the central concourse at the JR Ueno Station were decorated with ornaments made in the areas hardest hit in March. They were put together by women in Kuji and Rikuzentakata in Iwate, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi who were suddenly unemployed in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami. The operation was put together by a group in Saitama called Team Tomodachi to help those in the stricken areas. They asked the women to make the ornaments, which they then sold to remunerate them for their work. The material used was the leftovers from the process for manufacturing organic cotton products.

The trees themselves were put up by Atre Ueno, a local shop, with the help of the Tokyo and Sendai branches of the East Japan Railway Co. and Ueno Station.

Seven women from Ishinomaki came to Ueno in November to hang the ornaments with Atre Ueno employees. One of the women explained that she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it when someone approached her with the idea — she had spent her whole life processing wakame seaweed by hand, and crafts were not her hobby. The longer the group worked together, however, the more fun they had. She said that, on reflection, she lost a lot this year, but also wound up gaining something as well.

Kyoto

A look at some of the posts under the Christmas tag for a peek at Christmases past will show that PET bottles are a favorite choice as a tree material substitute. All the trees along this pedestrian walkway near the municipal offices in Nantan, Kyoto, were made with the preformed polyethylene terephthlate. The members of a local club found about 3,500 empties, which surely left them with sticky fingers. They weren’t too sticky, however, to prevent them from putting together 30 1.8-meter trees of six levels with 30 bottles, and two 2.4-meter trees of eight levels with 500 bottles, and then lining them up along the 200-meter pathway. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see for yourself, they’ll be lit until 8:00 p.m. tonight.

Ibaraki

An executive committee consisting mostly of JCs got profligate with the LEDs a little further to the north in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, and used 200,000 to decorate a 200-meter-long row of zelkova trees at the city’s Tsuba Center square near the train station for the seventh year.

This year, they wanted the display to reflect the wishes for national recovery, so the lights spell out Gambaro Nippon, or Let’s Fight, Japan.

There’s another tree-based illuminated decoration at the Chuo Koen (Central Park) in the city. If you can’t make it there for Christmas, don’t worry — they’ll be up until 9 January, and that makes a few more than the standard 12 days of Christmas.

Nagoya

Santa will visit and a tree will be lit at the Noritake Garden, a ten-year-old park in Nagoya. Mr. Claus will again climb the chimney on the ceramics plant to plant a 12-meter-high tree there. The reduced supply of electricity this year caused by fallout from the Fukushima disaster will be offset by a solar power generator installed at the facility in October, capable of producing an average of 120 kW a day.

Osaka

Everybody likes Christmas surprises, so the Shinwa Construction Co. in Osaka has had a suprise for a different neighborhood every year for the past eight years. They use the front lot of whatever condominium that they happen to be in the process of building and put up a 12-meter-high Christmas tree with 30,000 LEDs with no warning on 1 December. Naturally, this keeps the Osakans wondering where the tree will turn up every year, and making a special trip to see when they find out. This year the tree was put up in Yodogawa Ward, but this photo shows one from about five years ago.

The company also staged a “Christmas Event” on the 22nd and 23rd with an artificial snow machine and stalls selling such Yuletide delicacies as oden and yakitori roasted o’er an open fire.

Kanagawa

Not all that gllitters is an LED. The 10-meter-high tree put up by the Ukai Venetian Glass Museum in Hakone consists of 70,000 pieces of crystal glass, which flash in seven different colors in the sunlight. Though it’s illuminated externally at night, as you can see in the video, the tree itself has no internally lit ornaments. The facility also added 60 candles and 180 lanterns to the park exhibit on 1 December.

Hokkaido

The northern island of Hokkaido is cold enough to pass for the North Pole — they start wearing jackets at night at the end of August — so Christmas comes naturally to the natives. The city of Hakodate is also known for the big trees at its Hakodate Christmas Fantasy. It’s so well known, in fact, that the city of Hirosaki in the neighboring prefecture of Aomori put up their own 20-meter tree at the site. Hirosaki Mayor Kasai Noriyuki explained the display was to promote ties between the two cities.

And hey, what’s Christmas without a fireworks display?

Kagoshima

The Kagoshimanians also got into the Christmas spirit by making three trees out of PET bottles, which they displayed at a big shopping mall in the center of the city. It’s the third year Yamagata-ya has put up PET bottle trees to enhance awareness of ecological activities and recycling. The main six-meter-high tree used about 2,800 bottles brought by customers and 6,500 LEDs provided by the store, and if you look behind the adult Santa in the photo, you can see one of the three smaller subsidiary trees. They got the store customers to help put them together and hang the decorations, which is a bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint the fence, though this was more fun and a lot less messy.

Fukushima

A cosmetics manufacturing and sales company way down south in Fukuoka City decided to help make spirits bright up north after a very gloomy year in Fukushima, whose name will now be forever associated with a nuclear disaster. That’s why they put up this big tree next to the JR Fukushima Station in the city. Trimming any tree with more than 40,000 LEDs is bound to brighten the neighborhood and spirits both. Said local resident Matsumoto Ryoko, aged 75:

Just looking at it cheers me up. After this difficult year with the disaster, these are lights of hope.

They’ll be lit in their city until 11:00 p.m. tonight, and hopefully in their hearts for many more nights to come.

*****
The year I came to Japan there was a musical tsunami in the form of Yamashita Tatsuro’s soundtrack to the movie The Big Wave. It hit #2 on the charts, making it one of the most successful soundtrack records in Japan. It was especially popular among people in their 20s and 30s, both because it was so well done, and because Yamashita himself was a favorite among people of that age at the time.

One half of the LP consisted of Yamashita’s tunes, and the other half of Beach Boy remakes that are more listenable than the originals, but then my taste lies in directions other than that of the Wilson brothers. He didn’t need any brothers for the harmonies because he overdubbed all the vocal parts himself.

Yamashita is (or should be) in the top rank of international pop music auteurs. Asked about his musical inspiration, he said he grew up listening to FEN (Far East Network), the radio station for American servicemen in this part of the world, which anyone with a transistor radio in Tokyo can hear. The production values of his music also recall uptown soul music, so if you can imagine a Japanese singer creating original material that mixes Beach Boy and soul music influences, then you’re close to the Yamashita sound.

Even better known than the original Big Wave LP is his Christas song, called Christmas Eve, which was released as a single the year before. It reached only #44 on the 1983 charts (the LP from which it came was #1), but it had miraculous staying power: it’s the only Japanese pop song to reach the Top 100 for 20 straight years. The single eventually sold 1.8 million copies, boosted by its use as the theme song for JR East’s seasonal commercials starting in 1986. The residuals alone must surely mean that all of his Christmases will be bright.

What better cyber-present could there be than an embedded video of the song with scenes from the commercials throughout the years? Here’s hoping that your real presents are as sweet as the girl waiting behind the train station pillar in 1989. メリークリスマス!

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Visions of mochi dancing in their heads

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 24, 2011

ARE there any people more culturally syncretic than the Japanese? Examples of that syncretism present themselves every day in Japan, but this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

A Fukushima City nursery school held its annual Christmas party this week, and about 50 parents and children attended. Though only about 1% of Japanese identify as Christians, secular Christmas parties are commonplace, as they are in some other non-Christian countries. Speaking of syncretism, one survey that broke down the national population by religious affiliation found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions.

This was a party for young children, so the guest of honor was Santa Claus. But it wasn’t the usual department store actor playing Santa. The report said this Santa was certified by the Finnish government. The newspaper was probably referring to the Lapland government, which has a Santa Claus office at the Arctic Circle.

So, how did the Fukushimanians show their appreciation for a visit from an officially certified Kris Kringle? They put him to work pounding mochi!

Mochi is a type of rice cake, for want of a better term, made with a particularly glutinous form of rice. The old-fashioned way to make it was to place the steamed rice in a large container called an usu that serves as a pestle, and to pound it with a wooden mallet known as a kine until it solidifies. Mochi is a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient, and the cakes are also used to decorate the home during the New Year. One traditional seasonal activity is to have a gathering of family or friends to do the pounding out in the yard. I’ve done it — once. It was worth it to be invited to be a part of the tradition and to see what happens, but it’s also real work that requires almost as much energy as chopping wood. Good timing and care is essential because two people work together: One to do the hammering, and the other to turn and wet the mochi in the usu. The rice will stick to the mallet unless it’s moistened, but the assistant has to get his hands out of the way fast.

The local report doesn’t say how long they put Santa to work swinging the kine, but it does say the kids got excited because he pounded so hard the water splashed on their faces. Good for Santa for getting into the New Year spirit!

Eating mochi also requires care, because it takes a long time to chew. Some people get impatient and swallow chunks of it that are too large. Early in the new year every year there are newspaper reports about the number of people nationwide who died from choking on their mochi.

By the way, any junior Scrooges concerned about exposing the kids to radioactive rice and air can relax. The nursery school bussed everyone to Yonezawa, Yamagata, for the event, where they used a borrowed space. The school has been regularly driving the kids to Yonezawa and back this year because it wants them to play outside without worrying about nuclear plant fallout. The head of the school said it allows them to talk to the parents about education rather than radiation.

That also allows Santa to return to the North Pole without having fed his reindeer any radioactive hay!

*****
One of the best mochitsuki videos is this one showing a performance with music in the United States. The handclapping at the end is how parties are often ended in Japan.

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Uukui in Okinawa

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 14, 2011

WHATEVER else can be said about the folks in Okinawa, they sure roll their own. At some point in the summer, usually mid-August, everyone in Japan celebrates O-bon, a holiday originally for welcoming the spirits of the dead back to their homes for a brief annual visit. At the end of the holiday, the living sometimes cast small boats on the river to represent the return of those spirits to the netherworld.

The Okinawans, however, have a more elaborate ritual known as the uukui. It starts with the eisa, a performance of drumming and chanting for the repose of the dead. (Eisa performances have also become more secular over time.) Then, entire families head in a group to the graveyard, with those in the lead carrying lanterns and others bringing incense. In some villages, entire streets are filled with lanterns.

The photo here shows an eisa performance by a youth group on 14 August in Itoman. The group gave seven different performances, one at a national memorial park for those who died during the fighting on Okinawa during the Pacific War. They had suspended those performances for a while, but resumed them three years ago.

In some places, people use the family O-bon gathering to combine traditional celebrations. The folks in Miyakojima, for example, had a tog-of-war contest during uukui for the first time in 12 years. The procedures are the same as those events conducted as part of a Shinto festival. Residents of the Gusukubetomori district were divided into two teams, representing the east side and the west side. The Strong Boys get to claim that the divinities will favor them with a good harvest or fishing catch, and protection against illness and disaster.

The tug-of-war was not originally an o-bon event, but the Miyakojimanians made it a moveable feast because it was easier to rustle up the rope pullers when everyone was visiting the old folks at home. Here, however, they traditionally use a vine known in English as the common derris instead of a rope. Unfortunately, the derris hasn’t been common enough lately, so they retwined half the rope used at the Miyakojima summer festival in July.

Said one of the organizers:

“We want to do it every year. It’s an important event for conveying the spirit of group unity from the older people to the younger people.”

The combination of the difficulties in Japan presented by the recent natural disasters, what seems to be the approaching economic calamities in G7Land — accelerated by Phase II of the collapse of the experiment in socialism (this time socialism lite instead of the SAE50 viscosity variety) — and other trends suggest we could be seeing a return to whatever the local definition happens to be of that Old Time Religion (OTR).

For a look at sacred hoedowns elsewhere in Japan during the season, here’s a look at three wild and wooly O-Bon dancing festivals. Don’t pass up the excellent video of the Awa Odori.

*****
And it doesn’t get any more downhome than this video of the Uukui Eisa in one Okinawan neighborhood.

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Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analogue for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January, but, as with Christmas cards, their late arrival is acceptable.

Here’s the Ampontan nengajo for 2011 with my apologies for its delayed delivery, which pushes the limits for acceptable late arrivals. As we get ready for our Great Leap Forward in the year of the rabbit, let’s take a quick look back at what happened in Japan during yearend 2010.

It started with a thorough housecleaning, as December is the month for spring cleaning in these parts. That includes Shinto shrines, which are de rigeur as a destination on New Year’s Eve or the first three days of the New Year for those who follow the tradition. Instead of climbing on tall ladders in those clothes for susubarai, or cleaning the dust from the eaves, the shrine priests and the miko (the Shinto equivalent of altar boys) make it easy on themselves by attaching bamboo grass leaves to poles so they can swipe from the ground. Here, eight priests and miko at the Gokoku jinja in Oita City, Oita are wielding four-meter-long poles in their devotion to ensure that cleanliness is next to godliness.

They also hung a 10-meter-long shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw denoting a sacred space. This one weighed about 200 kilos, and was made with the help of senior citizens clubs and veterans groups. The straw came from rice grown in a special field called a shinsenden (offering/paddy).

Everything—everything—gets cleaned at yearend, and that includes the 24 loggerhead and green turtles at the sea turtle museum in Tokushima City. Here’s Hamataro getting sponged to remove the moss and crud, after the big guy reached the turtle equivalent of kanreki (age 60) this year. They also changed the water in the pool to give their charges something clean to gurk around in. The museum likes to encourage visitors this time of year because turtles are traditionally thought to bring good luck, and it’s hard to keep a turtle in one’s pocket instead of a rabbit’s foot.

Shinto shrines aren’t the only ones who settle the heavenly accounts at yearend—Buddhist temples get involved too. The priests at the Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a temple in Narita, Chiba, near Tokyo’s international airport, burned all the ofuda amulets from the year in their annual ceremony to give thanks for blessings to Fudo Myo’o, who is one nasty-looking dude to judge from the photo at the link. He’s a divinity reputed to convert anger into salvation and who also brings financial blessings.

It took 15 priests to create a fire from a 1.5 meter high pile of cryptomeria branches to burn all 50,000 of the tapped-out amulets while parishioners prayed. The temple says the ofuda are the body of Fudo Myo’o, (an East Asian echo of the Eucharist?) and returning them to flames gives thanks for health and safety.

The temple expected as many as three million visitors during the three-day New Year period.

Shrines need extra help to deal with all the people who turn up on their doorstep, so in addition to serving as the equivalent of altar boys, the miko play the role of Santa’s helpers. They hire young women specifically for this role to handle the public during the yearend holidays to augment the miko already on their staff. The recruits undergo a day of training, during which they’re taught how to properly conduct themselves on the premises, receive guests, and how to wear the unfamiliar clothing—the white hakui and red hibakama. The new miko above were among the 80 local university and junior college students hired by the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki.

If there’s anything better than a photo of miko trying on clothes, it’s two photos of miko trying on clothes, especially when they’re having so much fun. Here are some ladies learning the ropes—or perhaps the knots—from the full-timers at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Dazaifu is a large shrine, and they also hired 80 part-timers to work until the 7th. They expected two million people to visit during the first three days of the new year, the largest turnout in Kyushu.

Once they’ve finished decorating their bodies, it’s time to decorate the premises. There are almost as many types of New Year’s decorations as there are Christmas decorations, and one of them is this shimekazari being hung by Tokushima City Mayor Hara Hideki on the front gate at the Chuo Park in the city. He had to stand on a four-meter high ladder to put up the one-meter-long shimekazari, which weighed three kilograms.

It’s actually being hung to greet spring—Shinshun—which is a synonym for New Year’s, and was up until just yesterday. The gate naturally had to be cleaned before His Honor ascended the ladder, and that chore was handled by two city officials. As yet another demonstration of how that old time religion is still good enough for many, this is an older custom that had fallen out of practice but was restored in 1989. A matching decoration was hung on the entrance to the gardens of the old Tokushima castle located next door.

Another New Year’s decoration is the kadomatsu, which is placed in front of homes as an abode for the divinities. This 3.5-meter-high number was set up in front of the Ohmi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, on 13 December. It took two hours to make using mahonia berries and flowers as well as the traditional pine, bamboo, and plum. The Otsuans used to cut down the pine trees for their kadomatsu until six years ago, when they decided to get ecological and dig up a pine tree on the shrine grounds instead. They replanted it on the 15th.

Some shrines don’t use a kadomatsu, however. The Ikuta-jinja in Kobe creates a tree-like facsimile using 2,000 cryptomeria branches, a talisman the shrine has long used for good luck in the New Year. It too stood until the 15th.

The folks at the Ikuta shrine chose cryptomeria instead of pine because centuries ago a pine tree fell over during a flood and smashed the main shrine building. These are priests, after all, and they know how to pay attention to omens when they see one.

A group of about 30 priests and miko wrapped a 5-meter-high pole in straw and then arranged the branches.

Now for the souvenirs. Here’s a group of miko at the Asakunitsuko-jinja, in Koriyama, Fukushima, making hamaya, the arrows sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits, and which some also think provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. Dang, I need me one of those!

The four miko attached small trinkets to the hamaya that symbolize wishes for children or a bountiful harvest, and others that represent the rabbit. They made 5,000, and since they’ve been at this for centuries, they probably have a good idea of demand before they start. The proper way to dispose of these arrows, by the way, is to burn them in a ceremony at the end of the year, as with the ofuda amulets above. And no, they don’t shoot any flaming arrows!

The hamaya arrows are made and sold throughout the country, but some shrines think locally and produce unique items. For example, the Urahoro-jinja in Urahoro-cho Hokkaido, makes and sells oppai mori, or literally, breast protectors. The shrine has a reputation nationwide as a Mecca (to mix religious metaphors) for those wishing to have children, give safe birth, or give milk during nursing. That means their oppai mori is a popular product.

The custom derives from the tutelary deity for the shrine, which was a breast-shaped bump on a nearby large nara tree (called the common oak in English). Some women who had difficulty giving milk and went to the shrine to pray for help in early 20th century had their wish granted. The tree eventually collapsed, but the priests took their eyes off the sparrow and switched them to the important part to salvage it. That section of the tree was moved to a new shrine in 1982 at the request of the Urahoroans.

Sold for JPY 1,000 since 2006, the oppai mori are made from the wood of the nara tree and given a decoration based on a painting by a local artist. A nearby studio produces them individually in the shape of the human breast. Some have straps so they can be used for cell phones, and I’ll bet that’s a conversation starter.

Jack Seward, the unofficial patron saint of students of the Japanese language and country, died last year at the age of 86. Any native English speaker with any interest at all in fluency beyond a standard textbook has read his memoir/manual, Japanese in Action. Here’s one passage discussing local drinking habits:

The large family of gods (in Shinto mythology) who founded Japan were heavy sake drinkers. They were often drunk, and the mythology nowhere implies censure for this drunkenness. If it was good enough for the gods, why not for us? the Japanese ask. Think of what our attitude toward drinking might be if the Bible told us that Christ and his disciples met every afternoon at a Jerusalem cocktail lounge and got glassy-eyed.

So now you won’t be surprised that the Sanzo Inari-jinja in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, sells divine sake made by a brewer at nearby Minoshima-cho for New Year’s visitors. They even had a special packaging ceremony during which the head priest filled the first large bottle. He was followed by the three Misses Sanzo Inari, who filled 100-milliliter bottles and attached labels.

In the good old days, the parishioners could have a swig on site when they made their New Year’s visits, but the shrine changed its policy in 2007 and now only gives out bottles of the heavenly brew. They say it’s to prevent DWI, but it might also prevent some guys from getting any ideas about volunteering for oppai mori duty after eyeballing the young miko. Noshima Naomi, one of the misses, said:

We did this with the wish that people would feel good (kimochi yoku) as they greeted the new year.

I’ll bet!

Mochi rice cakes are a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient in Japan, and during the New Year, they’re also used to decorate the home. These are called kagami mochi, and some families still pound them out in the yard for the holidays.

The ingredient is a particularly glutinous form of rice, and Takanezawa-machi in Tochigi is a big rice production center. That’s how the local Yasuzumi-jinja got the big idea to decorate their shrine with jumbo mochi. The priests and miko don’t have to make it themselves, as the locals donate it as thanks for a good year and supplication for a good harvest next year. The mochi cakes they use have gotten jumboer over the years, and now weigh 500 kilograms. As you can see from the video above, they need some equipment to help haul it. The lower level is 110 centimeters in diameter, while the second is 80. The miko tote only the top level.

Though many people pay the traditional first visit to a shrine on the first, any time through the third is fine. The photo above is of the Taga-jinja in Taga-cho, Shiga, the shrine with the largest turnout in the region. About 160,000 people showed up on the first day of the year to pray and buy amulets. That was about 10,000 fewer than last year, but equilibrium was achieved when 150,000 people showed up on the 2nd, 10,000 more than last year.

The holiday shrine pilgrimage is an ecumenical affair, as even Buddhist priests come too. The priests at Kofuku-ji in Nara joined the Shinto priests on the 2nd in a prayer for peace in while paying their respects at the local Kasuga Taisha (a World Heritage site) and its affiliated Wakamiya-jinja. The Buddhist priests used to read sutras at the shrine every day during the Edo period, but that practice ended when the government legally forced the separation of the institutions during the Meiji period. They still hold joint ceremonies once a year, and this year the procession included nine priests of both varieties and two miko. They offered sake and rice during the Nikkuhajime-shiki ceremony and the priests took their chance to read some sutras. They they trooped over to Wakamiya and the Buddhists read the heart sutra just to make sure.

To top it off

Once upon a time before video games, children had special amusements on New Year’s—kite-flying, hanetsuki (a type of badminton) and top spinning. There are 450 years of tradition behind the Hakata koma, or tops, in Fukuoka. Upholding that tradition is the current Shuraku Chikushi, a woman, who describes how she maintains that tradition, performs, and makes the tops she uses during her performances in this fascinating English-language interview. The interview tells you as much about Japan and the Japanese as I could—including her intention to pass the art down to her taiko-playing, jazz-listening son. There are no videos on the Net, alas, but that photo of her balancing a spinning top on the edge of a folding fan is still impressive.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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Nippon noel 2010

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 26, 2010

CHRISTIANS ACCOUNT for just one percent of Japan’s population, but no one can spot the potential for a good festival better than the Japanese. That’s why they’ve adopted Christmas, with all its secular symbols, as a winter festival of light–most fitting for the time of the year in the northern hemisphere with the least amount of daylight.

One of the most attractive aspects of the season is the Japanese use of the Christmas tree as an art form. Here are some of this year’s examples.

Local volunteers in Nanyo, Yamagata, began decorating a 25-meter fir tree at a local primary school in 2003, and they’ve continued every year since. They’ve also been adding to the amount of bulbs they use to trim the tree, and this year they hung 20,000 in four colors. This is actually called an “illumination event” because the tree will be lit every night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. until mid-January, but that didn’t stop the piano, flute, and violin trio from playing Christmas hymns as well as selections from the classics at the lighting ceremony.

What’s better than having a Christmas tree? Two trees! These two fir trees down south in Yamaguchi City, 26 and 20 meters high respectively, are estimated to be 450 years old. They’re festooned with 35,000 lights hung by 50 volunteers. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll be able to see them until 10 January.

This tree in a park in Anan, Tokushima, is only 15 meters high, but it’s decorated with 500,000 light-emitting diodes. A lighted Christmas tree is not just a seasonal decoration here—it’s part of the Anan Luminous Town Project that’s been held two or three times a year since 2003. This December was the 17th time the project was presented. Anan is a luminous town because it’s the headquarters of the Nichia Corp., the nation’s largest LED manufacturer.

The Tokushimanians devised a new way to build their tree this year. Previous trees were raised on site using ropes or a crane, but this year’s model was built with a bamboo frame. Nothing says Christmas in Asia like bamboo. A total of 120 lengths of 4-6 meter-long bamboo were used. They liked the idea so much they also built a 10-meter-high bamboo pyramid and bamboo wreaths.

In addition to being one of the Christmas colors, green is also the color of the ecological movement, and one way the Japanese put the green into Christmas is to make trees out of used PET bottles. Here’s a 7.25-meter PET bottle tree at the L’Espace City shopping complex in To’on, Ehime. How interesting that the “green” tree is blue, but that won’t surprise anyone who understands the language. The tree wasn’t erected solely to raise ecological awareness—it also is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of L’Espace City. That’s why the 16,000 LEDs will be lit from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until end of January. It was assembled by a non-profit and some private companies in the city, which started collecting bottles at schools and shops in the fall. They found more than 10,000 in three months.

This PET bottle eco-tree adorned a Fukui City parking lot. Fukuan adults and kids have been trimming PET bottle trees in public for the past four years, and they used 700 PET bottles and electric lights for this year’s five-meter creation. To add to the holiday atmosphere, two Santa Clauses passed out candy, and they drew a picture of Snow White on the side of an adjacent building. The kids also built a haunted house. Why? Because it’s Christmas!

Fukui City adults and children also worked together to build this cardboard Christmas tree designed to lie on the floor of the gym at the Higashiago Primary School. The Christmas celebration for the grade schoolers included several events, including reading aloud from storybooks and group singing. This tree was created by 150 people working in groups of six or seven. It was 15 meters high and nine meters wide, and decorated with ornaments made from wrapping paper and milk cartons brought from home. They also set up and lit 200 candles in the form of a tree, and then went up to the second floor to enjoy the results of their handiwork from on high.

What else can be used for Christmas tree material besides PET bottles, bamboo, and cardboard? Glass! The employees of Aqua World, the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium, created this glass tree from 108 individual pieces with tropical fish inside. They wanted small colorful fish for the decorations, so they chose the betta Siamese fighting fish. That breed is well known for aggressively defending its territory and fighting until the finish. Territorial disputes aren’t really in the spirit of the season, so the feisty fish have been isolated from each other within the tree. A lonely Christmas for them is the best solution for everyone.

Speaking of fish, the Kagoshima City Aquarium had kindergarten students from 42 schools in the city work since early November to create fish ornaments for their Christmas trees. Yes, trees—they had 34 in all spread throughout the facility. Now how’s that for a scheme. They got the kids to do all the work of making Christmas decorations and called it an art project!

The Japanese are known for their appreciation of ephemeral beauty, and here’s an excellent Yuletide example. The ANA Hotel Clement Takamatsu in Takamatsu, Kagawa, arranges the lights in 46 guest rooms on the northeast side of the building on floors 5-19 in the shape of a tree. They ask the guests in the other rooms on that side of the building to shut the curtains, and the result is a tree pattern that is 48 meters high and 43 meters wide.

The hotel does this only on Christmas Eve, and for only one hour, starting from 6:00 p.m. The more you think about it, the more Zen it gets!

Drivers in Mino, Osaka, can’t miss this tree, nor have they for the past 15 years. This creation of the Mino Chamber of Commerce is almost impossible to miss—it’s 50 meters high and towers over the Green Road Tunnel.

Christmas is not always filled with peace and light, as louts are on the prowl every day of the year. To remind everyone of the need to be alert even on 25 December, the police department of Muroran, Hokkaido, made a tree of 30 PET bottles decorated with handmade Christmas cards from each of the separate bureaus. Instead of the generic “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, the cards contained crime-busting messages, such as “Don’t forget to lock the windows and doors when you go out.” Said the Muroran police chief, “A safe and sound yearend is the best Christmas present after all.” The kids might not agree, but their parents probably will.

Incorporating the Christmas theme with all sorts of national symbols is a seasonal tradition everywhere, and Japan is no exception. That might be one of the reasons the Fuji Q Highland amusement park in Yamanashi built a 60-meter-high, illuminated steel frame representation of Mt. Fuji in their parking lot for the season. It’s decorated with 100,000 LEDs. The park says that other than free-standing electric towers, it is the highest illuminated object in Japan.

Snow is a key part of Christmas music and imagery, even in places where it doesn’t snow. So in keeping with the seasonal theme, here’s a photo of the first snowfall on Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi in November. Luckily it includes some Christmas reds for contrast. Snow has dusted the summit since 25 September, but this was the first time the whole mountain was covered. It was – 1º on the ground when the picture was taken but -12.1º on top of Old Snowy. Makes me glad to be in Kyushu!

Yes, this Ampontan Christmas card is a day late, but accept it in the spirit of Suzuki Saeko—don’t you wish it could be Christmas every day?

If you’re still in the seasonal mood, click on the Christmas tag for some truly inspired trees from previous posts.

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Getting old

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 20, 2010

MONDAY the 20th is Respect for the Aged Day in Japan, which is a national holiday. One manifestation of the custom of Japanese (and other East Asians) to be deferential to the elderly is that all levels of government provide them with generous welfare services, as well as other gratuities that stretch the role of government beyond its legitimate functions and its means.

The Mainichi Shimbun lamented in an op-ed last week the lack of urgency for the restructuring of the health and welfare system for the aged. Everyone is aware of the critical factors: a population in demographic decline with a birth rate well below replacement level is being asked to subsidize services to older citizens, who constitute a larger part of the overall population than in other countries. That’s part of the reason some politicians and bureaucrats favor the low road of sharp increases in the consumption tax. That’s also part of the reason voters are objecting to those increases.

The government estimates that the large number of baby boomers turning 75 in 2025 will require JPY 30 trillion for their health care. As of last year, health insurance premiums brought in roughly JPY 12 trillion in revenue. To deal with this shortfall, the Liberal Democratic Party government created a new category for health care services and payment for those 75 years of age or older (or the bedridden 65 years of age or older), which total roughly 13 million people. That system took effect on 1 April 2008.

Without going into eye-glazing detail, the objective was to have those elderly able to afford it contribute more to their health care costs (though not by an onerous amount) and to equalize premium payments nationwide. Municipal governments pay for part of the system, and the wealthier governments provided greater financial assistance to their residents. The new system also automatically deducted payments from pensions, rather than have individuals be responsible for their own payments. (Japan’s system of convienient bank account transfers meant this was not a burden to begin with.) The revisions also made it easier for younger people to make the financial contributions to their own health care.

Many of the elderly immediately started complaining as soon as the new system was introduced, whining that it was a “hurry up and die” system. Of course the news media made haste to give them a platform. The opposition parties promised to roll back the reforms, but when the Democratic Party took power in a coalition government, they discovered that local governments and medical institutions didn’t want a return to the status quo ante. The new government was also unable to agree on how to modify the new system. That’s not surprising considering the DPJ’s general incompetence and the coalition partner Social Democrats pulling relentlessly to the left. Thus the system introduced two years ago remains in place.

The taxpayer-funded treats for the elderly extend far beyond health care, however, and some governments, particularly at the municipal level, are finding it difficult to face the facts. Here are two examples.

Shirahama-cho, Wakayama

Located next to the Pacific Ocean, the area is famous as one of the three oldest hot springs resorts in Japan. The Kogyoku Tenno (Emperor) bathed there in 658, and it’s still a popular resort today.

The municipality of Shirahama-cho operates four public baths, but the enterprise as a whole has been losing money. Chief municipal officer Mizumoto Yuzo told the Kii Mimpo newspaper:

I’m going to consult with the town council and the committee with jurisdiction (over the business) to see if there are some measures we can take next fiscal year.

Outdoor bath at Sakinoyu

The four baths are Sakinoyu, Muronoyu, Shirarayu, and Shirasuna. (The “yu” at the end of the first three means hot water, and is often used in public bath names in Japan.) Shirasuna is a sand bath that is open only from May to September.

The municipality’s tourism department says Sakinoyu earned roughly JPY 10 million in profit last year, but the other three are in the red. The aggregate losses for the Shirahama-cho taxpayers total JPY 9 million.

Everyone pays JPY 300 for admission to Sakinoyu. The admission fees at Muronoyu and Shirarayu are JPY 300 for people 12 and older, JPY 130 for children from six to 12, and JPY 70 for children aged five and younger. It costs JPY 100 to take a sand bath at Shirasuna. These fees were set in 1998 and haven’t been raised since.

The tourism department also says they’ve lengthened the operating hours of the baths to respond to public requests—they open earlier in the morning and close later at night—and have cut operating costs and reduced operating staff to a minimum, but they’ve reached the limits of their ability to finance the operation. This has been an ongoing problem for four years, and the lack of funds has caused the town to scrimp on upkeep. One result has been the visible aging and wear of some of the facilities.

Why is Sakinoyu making money and the others losing money? As the photo shows, the former will never have problems attracting customers. The real reason is that admission is free to Muronoyu and Shirarayu for people aged 65 and older. The age threshold was lowered from 70 and older in 1999. An estimated 240,000 people used those two facilities in FY 2009, and of those, 110,000 were old folks who got in for free. The paid admissions to Sakinoyu, meanwhile, totaled 83,000.

So now the politicos of Shirahama-cho have decided they’re going to talk about it. They might raise the fees, and they might start charging the seniors, but they haven’t decided when the changes will take effect.

What’s to talk about? Emperors are the only people who get to bathe for free. Changes to this system are overdue, but they’re still dithering in Shirahama-cho.

While they’re at it, they should come up with a plan for the immediate privatization of the facilities instead of wasting their time adjusting the fee schedule. As long as people aren’t living in mud huts without a modern water supply system, operating bathhouses is not the business of municipal governments, nor is using Other People’s Money (OPM) to foot the bill for the free baths of one age cohort. It’s no surprise that the taxpayers are subsidizing the admission of 45% of the customers at some facilities.

Chiba City

Also dithering are Mayor Kumagai Toshihito and the government of Chiba City. Neighborhood associations in the city hold different events for Respect for the Aged Day, and the Chiba City government provides financial assistance to those associations to pay for the parties. Starting this fiscal year, Mr. Kumagai says that Chiba City will raise the age limit for the per capita contributions to the neighborhood associations from 70 to 75 and lower the amount of the subsidy. He said the municipal government took the step because of an “unprecedented financial crunch”. This will amount to a saving of about JPY 50 million from the previous year’s budget. That’s a lot of ice cream and cake.

Here it is again: The municipal government of Chiba City is abandoning their fiduciary responsibility to all of its citizens by chipping in for the party favors of one group of them. Or, to be more broad-minded, they have an inadequate awareness of that responsibility to begin with. It is not the business of municipal governments to use OPM to show old people a good time.

Yet all Chiba City can manage to do is raise the age limit for the party and reduce the subsidies. What will it take for them to realize they shouldn’t be spending this money at all—municipal bankruptcy?

Suginami Ward

Some local government officials get it, however. Yamada Hiroshi, a former national Diet member and chief municipal office of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, and currently the head of the small Spirit of Japan party, is one of the few who realize the party’s over and is trying to do something about it. He is also one of the few politicians in Japan to preach the importance of personal responsibility.

Mr. Yamada often cites as an example the former practice of Suginami Ward to distribute Japanese confections (red and white manju) to meetings of associations for the elderly. The ward was so deeply in debt one of his first steps to put the government’s finances back on a firm footing was to end the free sweets. (He also cut his salary by 10%.) He was roundly criticized for being “cold” to the elderly, but he used that decision in local meetings as a teaching example to promote his efforts to restore fiscal sanity.

In 1999 Suginami Ward’s debt stood at JPY 95 billion with only JPY 1.9 billion in accessible funds. A decade later, after eliminating or privatizing some programs and reducing the municipal workforce, they were JPY 20 billion in debt with JPY 23 billion in accessible funds—in other words, in the black—and were on schedule to repay all the debt by 2011.

Fiscally responsible governments are possible–when they’re led by politicians who understand fiscal responsibility.

Roundtable Discussion

The monthly magazine Voice presents a roundtable discussion of Japanese fiscal issues in its current (October) issue with four university professors: Takenaka Heizo of Keio University (formerly of the Koizumi Cabinet), Ikeda Nobuo of Jobu University, Doi Takero of Keio University, and Suzuki Wataru of Gakushuin University.

They’re all in general agreement that the system of governmental largesse for the aged has to be reexamined. Prof. Suzuki said that people are not aware of just how generous the system is, and their awareness needs to be raised. Prof. Takenaka suggested that economic incentives are required, and proposed as one measure raising the fees people pay for the treatment of non-life threatening illnesses. He added:

I already know that people will say that human lives can’t be replaced with money, but the situation will soon be of out of control.

Prof. Ikeda said that he discussed the creation of a voucher system (also applicable for education expenses) with a group of DPJ Diet members, but one of them told him:

I understand what you’re saying, but the word “voucher” is taboo with labor unions.

Unions, of course, are the backbone of DPJ support.

Prof. Doi added that people will deliberately create the misunderstanding that such proposals amount to “market fundamentalism”. The idea, he says, is to stop the discussion of the idea by stopping thought.

The realization is growing among the people of the developed countries, if not their governments, that the Bismarkian welfare state funded with OPM (originally intended to head off the desires of a growing middle class for greater democracy) is no longer viable. If Japanese politicians at all levels and the bureaucracy don’t start to seriously examine more practical ways to provide services, and to reexamine their approach to distributing goodies that shouldn’t be free to begin with, before long the working population might get ready to pull the plug on a lot more than confections and the Japanesque bath time.

Afterwords:

Here’s a quick video tour of the Shirahama area, with a scene from the Sakinoyu bath that shows why it is so profitable.

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Mr. Shii goes to America

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 11, 2010

HOW DID YOU SPEND Golden Week? Many Japanese took advantage of the concentrated holiday period from 29 April to 5 May to travel abroad. Last year, 1.03 million Japanese went overseas in May, which represented a 19% plunge from the previous year, the largest decline since concerns over the SARS epidemic kept people at home in 2003.

Nothing keeps those adventuresome young Japanese women home, however—the Japan Travel Bureau estimates that 24.4% of women in their 20s visited a foreign country during Golden Week this year, compared to 12.78% of men the same age.

Shii Kazuo

One of the many Japanese who grabbed their passports and hopped a plane or ship was Shii Kazuo, Chairman of Japan’s Communist Party, who spent the better part of the last fortnight in the United States. Mr. Shii thus became the first head of the JCP to visit the main kennel of the running dogs of capitalism since 1922. While there, he attended the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Conference, hung out with the Swedes at a UN disarmament conference, and addressed the legislature of the state of Vermont. That last one’s not as odd as it might seem. The state’s been sending Bernie Sanders to Congress for the past 20 years, making him the only self-identified socialist in the national legislature. (The other ones masquerade as Democrats to get themselves elected.)

All work and no play makes Kazuo a dull boy, so he also found time to take in a Broadway musical and visit a meeting of an NGO, where he hummed along while the others sang, “We Shall Overcome”.

Mr. Shii has wanted to visit the United States for some time, but until the late 1980s they kept stamping nyet on his visa applications because he told the truth about his Communist Party membership. This time, however, he wrote a personal letter to Barack Obama and got a reply in addition to his visa approval. He held the Presidential epistle aloft for reporters and said:

The American government has torn down the wall of anti-communism!

Ah, but that’s because the Berlin Wall got torn down first. After all, the Soviet Union and its “We Will Bury You” mentality were still alive and pretending to be well in the 1980s. Everyone’s gotten a lot more relaxed now that the political philosophy succumbed to its internal contradictions and its repeated failures wherever it was tried. There are other factors as well. Here’s one. Here’s another.

Asked for his impressions, Chairman Shii said the US had a “unique vitality”. That’s a common response for a tourist in an exciting new country—foreigners visiting Tokyo for the first time often say the same thing. Then again, one of the reasons America has a unique vitality is that it isn’t a communist state. Journalist/humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who visited many Eastern bloc countries behind the Iron Curtain, once wrote they were all “crap-in-your-pants ugly” and “dead from the dick up”. He also observed that communism was to life what pantyhose was to sex.

The JCP chairman’s kind words for the United States may not just be the impressions of a tourist or the flattery of a visiting politician, however. The Japanese Reds have been rehabilitating their view of America for some time now. At their January 2004 party conference, they approved the amendment of the Miyamoto Kenji Doctrine, named after a previous chairman, to eliminate the clause that cited American imperialism and Japanese monopoly capital as the “two enemies”.

The Miyamoto Doctrine of the 1960s itself marked a change of direction for the party because it made favorable references to democracy and freedom, two concepts not usually associated with Marxism.

Mr. Shii has changed his own tune, too. He has lately toned down the criticism of American monopolistic capitalism and replaced it with more favorable encomia. During the most recent party conference in January this year, he said:

We have respect for the great history of the U.S. (for its revolution and democracy)

At the conference, he also cited the letter Karl Marx sent as head of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 to Abraham Lincoln to congratulate the latter on his re-election as president. He quoted this passage:

…where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century…

What gives? He’s not running for office, because he’s already a member of the Diet.

The Sankei Shimbun speculates he might be trying to create a softer, more realistic image as part of a process to make the party acceptable as a partner in a future coalition government. The idea is that a more realistic stance will appeal to the growing number of independent voters, which account for about half the electorate.

Every Japanese political party apart from the DPJ and the LDP has been touting itself as a “third pole” (i.e., third force) in politics, especially those that have been formed within the past year. They all can’t be third poles, however, least of all the JCP, whose support in public opinion surveys shifts between the narrow range of 2% to 4%. That’s substantially less than the current support figures of about 10% for Your Party, which was created just last August.

The party enjoyed a surge of membership after the global economic crisis of 2008, but it was not able to translate that into additional Diet seats in the August election. They managed to maintain their previous total of nine seats, while their share of the vote slid to 7.0% from 7.3% in the previous election of 2005. It had been as high as 11.3% in 2000.

That might explain why Mr. Shii and the JCP are trying to present a more realistic front. Even after fears of a global economic collapse, trends are not moving in their direction. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em…right?

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