AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Ehime’

Wet cement

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I wonder about these people who would take advantage of Hashimoto Toru’s popularity to win a Diet seat (by joining his party, the Japan Restoration Party).
– Maehara Seiji, head of the Democratic Party’s Policy Research Committee

We’ll act in such a way that we don’t become what the Democratic Party is now.
– Matsui Ichiro, Osaka governor and secretary-generation of Japan Restoration, in reply
————-
The key is when and to what extent Mr. Abe approaches the third forces (reform parties). I would really prefer that the electorate votes with that knowledge. But considering his position, it is probably to his advantage to keep that quiet for now.
– Yamazaki Hajime, journalist on economic matters and a fellow at the Rakuten Securities Economic Research Institute

THERE are eight million stories in the naked city, intones the narrator at the conclusion of both the film and television version of The Naked City, and this has been one of them. Shifting the dramatist’s eye to Japan’s lower house election scheduled for 16 December, there are what seems like several thousand stories, and the reform/regional parties that are fomenting revolution from the bottom up account for quite a few of them.

Telling some of those stories requires a list of the dramatis personae, however, and that’s where we’ll start.

* Hashimoto Toru, the mayor of Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, who became the nation’s most prominent regional politician to call for the devolution of government authority with stronger power given to local government. That has been an issue for more than two decades here, but he’s the man who achieved ignition and liftoff. He started a local party/movement called One Osaka that is now a national party known as the Japan Restoration Party.

* Watanabe Yoshimi, a former Liberal Democratic Party member and minister in the Abe and Fukuda cabinets with responsibility for governmental reform. A supporter of devolution and radical civil service reform to tame the Japanese bureaucracy and its political influence, he left the LDP when prime ministers Fukuda and Aso abandoned that course. He then created Your Party with independent Diet member and former MITI bureaucrat Eda Kenji.

* Kawamura Takashi, a former Democratic Party of Japan member and lower house MP. He ran in several elections for party president, which means he sees a prime minister when he looks in the mirror in the morning. He resigned from the DPJ to run for mayor of Nagoya on a platform of cutting municipal taxes and the remuneration of city council members by half. This is part of an ongoing movement for sub-national governments in Japan. He struggled to get his policy package passed by municipal legislators (natch), and stunned the political world and the country both when he resigned, ran again to make the election a referendum on his policies, and won in a walk. There’s more at this previous post.

He’s formed a local party called Tax Reduction Japan that is now a national party with six five members in the Diet. They want to reduce the number of lower house Diet members by 80 (to 400) and cut their salaries in half.

* Omura Hideaki, a former Liberal Democratic Party of Japan member and lower house MP. He forged an alliance with Kawamura Takashi during the latter’s second run for mayor of Nagoya. He was elected governor of Aichi, in which Nagoya is located, on the same day. He shares the same general political principles.

* Ishihara Shintaro, former upper house and lower house MP, and governor of the Tokyo Metro District. Everyone knows who he is.

The stupefying ineptitude of the Democratic Party government, the inability of the Liberal Democratic Party to reinvent itself as a coherent alternative during three years in opposition, the futility of seeking real reform from either of them, years of public dissatisfaction combined with a willingness to support anyone willing to take an axe to the waste and abuse in the public sector, and younger generations reaching middle age, have resulted in the national prominence of Hashimoto Toru. It soon became a question of when, not if, he would establish a national political organization. The answer was soon rather than late — less than a year after winning election as Osaka mayor, after spending three years as governor of Osaka Prefecture.

Here’s what he said at the time:

True reform for Osaka requires further amendments to (national) law. But even when we try to do something locally, we run into the wall of Nagata-cho (a metonym for the Diet) and Kasumigaseki (a metonym for the bureaucracy), who control the mechanism of Japan. We have to change Japan from the roots.

In addition to regional devolution, Mr. Hashimoto’s group also calls for the cutting the membership of the Diet’s lower house in half to 240, and cutting their salaries and publicly funded party subsidies by one-third.

At that point the narrative became one of wondering who would and would not become his political allies. Not only did they need to team with simpatico regional parties, Japan Restoration needed someone or some group with a national reputation. Eliminated right away were the establishment LDP and the labor union-backed DPJ, but everyone had discounted that because both were part of the problem and not part of this solution.

In an intriguing move, the Osaka mayor approached former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in August to ask whether he would be interested in switching from the LDP to Japan Restoration. Mr. Abe expressed a strong desire to form some sort of alliance, particularly because they share an interest in amending the Constitution. But Mr. Abe eventually chose to remain in the LDP and run for party president, a campaign that he won.

While both men would surely like to work together, the LDP is unlikely to support the long-standing Hashimoto proposal to convert the consumption tax into a funding source for local government, and end the current system in which the national government allocates public funds. The shape and nature of any alliance will probably be determined after the election. The results will determine who needs whom, and the extent of that need.

* Hashimoto and Your Party

Speculation on ties with Japan Restoration had always started with Your Party, the first real national reform party. Several of their most important positions meshed, including the creation of a new system of sub-national governments with greater authority and civil service reform. They both also came out for eliminating nuclear power (probably for populist reasons), though Mr. Hashimoto has since backed away from that one. Further, Your Party supported Mr. Hashimoto in the election for Osaka mayor, and they share some of the same advisors.

At one point not long ago, people assumed that there would be a formal alliance. Rumors circulated that they had cut a deal in which Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi would become the first prime minister if they won enough seats in the aggregate to form a government.

But that’s not how it worked out. The reason seems to have been a dispute over who was going to be the boss. Your Party held talks with the people from Osaka before Japan Restoration was formed, and they wanted them to join the existing party before they created their own. Knowing that his poll numbers are better Your Party’s (they can’t seem to hump it into double digits), Mr. Hashimoto refused and suggested that they disband and rearrange themselves.

Relations took a turn for the worse when three Your Party members, said to be unhappy with Watanabe Yoshimi’s leadership, quit and joined Japan Restoration. That caused more than a few unpleasantries to be hurled in the direction of Osaka.

But discussions resumed because an alliance remains in both their interests. They talked about cooperation to implement eight common policies, which at that time included opposition to the consumption tax increase, opposition to nuclear power, support for regional devolution and the state/province system, support for civil service reform, support for constitutional amendments, support for election system reform, economic growth policies, and foreign policy (they both favor participation in TPP).

The calls for a solid alliance seem to have come from Your Party, and Japan Restoration has turned down the offer for now. There was a meeting with Hashimoto Toru, Matsui Ichiro, and Watanabe Yoshimi at which blunt words were spoken.

Mr. Watanabe suggested they jointly offer an “east-west” slate of candidates for the lower house election, with Your Party covering the east (Tokyo and the Kanto region) and Japan Restoration covering the west (Osaka and the Kansai region). Mr. Matsui rejected it, and here was his explanation:

Their policies have not gained ground in the Diet, and they have become a group who can’t achieve them. Politics means taking responsibility for results. That requires a team that can create a decision-making approach.

Gov. Matsui also told Mr. Watanabe in so many words to come down off his high horse: “It was our idea to create a new type of political organization.” The Your Party boss responded that they’ve been calling for political reorganization from the day they formed the party (which is true). He asked again for an equal merger, and again he was rejected.

Mr. Matsui later said they will continue to talk to avoid running candidates in the same election districts, but it will be unavoidable, and they will try to minimize it.

Perhaps Japan Restoration has some foresight about Your Party’s fortunes. Mr. Watanabe campaigned several times for a Your Party candidate in a local election last weekend in his home district in Tochigi, but the candidate lost to one backed by the LDP and New Komeito.

Affairs are still in flux, however. Just yesterday Hashimoto Toru said Japan Restoration would probably be able to field only 100 candidates in time for the election. (One reason the major parties want an earlier election is to prevent the smaller parties from building a full candidate list.) He made a reference to working with Your Party if they also ran 100 candidates — in other words, supporting the east-west alliance he rejected a few weeks ago. Watanabe Yoshimi also gave a campaign speech today calling for the support of Japan Restoration.

Whatever is going on here, you won’t be able to read a reliable account of it in either the Yomiuri Shimbun or the Asahi Shimbun, the nation’s two largest newspapers. The Asahi is opposed to Mr. Hashimoto because they’re of the left, and the Yomiuri is opposed to him because he’s anti-establishment.

* Omura and Kawamura

As the story at the link above shows, Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and Aichi Gov. Omura Hideaki formed a regional alliance for the Triple Election in February last year. Both also organized political seminars this year to train people who supported their ideas for elective office.

Mr. Kawamura was the first to create a political party: Tax Reduction Japan. Mr. Omura followed by creating the Aichi is Top of Japan Party. The trouble started when he converted that party into the Chukyo Ishin no Kai, or the Chukyo Restoration Group, in August. The name is intentionally modeled on that of the Japan Restoration Party. His group was formed specifically to align with the Hashimoto group and fulfill the conditions for becoming a national party.

That cheesed off Mr. Kawamura, who was on an overseas trip at the time. He was miffed because the Aichi governor told Mr. Hashimoto about his plans, but didn’t tell him. The Nagoya mayor flew off the handle, saying their relationship of trust was broken and they couldn’t work together any more.

Some people saw it as a deliberate snub by Mr. Omura to break off ties with Mr. Kawamura. The former (at the left in the photo) is the straight-arrow policy type, while the latter (at the right) is the unkempt populist with a desire to be a major player. For example, he wondered if the Chukyo region would be relegated to being the subcontractor for Osaka.

Hashimoto Toru encouraged both of them to patch up their differences, because working together is would benefit everyone, and the policies were more similar than different.

And that’s just what the two men seem to have done while the media spotlight was pointed in a different direction. They announced an agreement to work together for the coming election after discussions that lasted late into the night of the 19th.

* Hashimoto and Omura and Kawamura

During the Triple Election campaign in Nagoya and Aichi, volunteers from the Osaka group went to the region to help both candidates because of their general agreement on devolution. Since then, however, it’s been a long strange trip that keeps getting stranger.

When Omura Hideaki created the Chukyo Restoration Group, Hashimoto Toru said that despite the name, they were unrelated to the Osaka group. They were independent and they hadn’t thought about an alliance for the national election. He added that Aichi support for their positions would be the condition for any alliance.

But then in October, a group from Osaka went to Aichi for a conference with letter from Hashimoto Toru asking Mr. Omura to form an Aichi Restoration Party. The alliance seemed like a natural: Not only are their policies similar, but they share policy advisors in journalist Tahara Soichiro, former Finance Ministry bureaucrat Takahashi Yoichi, and Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s jack of all trades, Takenaka Heizo.

The Aichi governor said that an alliance would take time, however, because he was still working with Kawamura Takashi. A blurb of two or three sentences appeared in one newspaper earlier this week announcing that Aichi and Osaka had worked out an agreement. In fact, Mr. Omura would be given the leeway to choose the candidate for one of the Aichi Diet districts in the election.

But just this morning, Mr. Omura announced that he would resign his position as advisor to the Osaka party to focus on his ties with Kawamura Takashi.

Your guess is as good as mine about this one. The best I can come up with is that working with Mr. Kawahara is a better way to solidify his position in Aichi.

—–
Meanwhile, Kawahara Takashi’s attitude toward an agreement with Hashimoto Toru was 180° in the opposite direction. He was so anxious to create an alliance that a hand was coming out of his throat, as an old Japanese expression has it.

He’s long been friendly with Ozawa Ichiro, but when he spoke at a political seminar for the People First Party, the new Ozawa Ichiro vehicle, he said his priority was working with Hashimoto Toru and former Tokyo Metro Governor Ishihara Shintaro. (That might also have been a function of his assessment of the extent of Ozawa Ichiro’s political influence in the future; i.e., not very much.)

The problem, however, is that both Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Matsui have been giving the Nagoya mayor their cold shoulders. Mr. Kawamura thought a merger with Japan Restoration was going to happen when he reached an agreement to do just that with Ishihara Shintaro and his Sun Party, but no one else thought so. Mr. Ishimura thought it might be a problem with the tax reduction name in his party, and Mr. Kawamura obligingly offered to change it.

But Hashimoto Toru said the name had nothing to do with it: it was all content. He also said, however, that “In today’s circumstances, tax reduction is the wrong message.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the Osaka mayor is a tax hiker; rather, his position has always been that there should be a public debate and a consensus formed about what public services people want to receive. After reaching that consensus, it will then be time to figure out how to pay for them.

Mr. Kawamura, on the other hand, seems to favor the Starve the Beast approach: Don’t give the public sector the money to begin with. It isn’t widely known, but he also favors establishing neighborhood citizens’ councils to determine how public funds will be spent. In other words, his approach is the reverse of Mr. Hashimoto’s.

The Nagoya mayor is also opposed to TPP participation, while the Osaka mayor favors it. They were both anti-nuclear power, but Mr. Hashimoto has since modified that stance. Also, two of the five Diet members in Mr. Kawamura’s national party, which was formed at end of October, were LDP postal privatization rebels that former Prime Minister Koizumi threw out of the party. Hashimoto Toru supports the privatization of Japan Post.

Another reason Mr. Hashimoto cited for being unwilling to work with Tax Cut Japan is that another one of their Diet members, Kumada Atsushi, a lower house MP from Osaka, switched his party affiliation from the DPJ, but not before he accepted JPY 3 million to offset his campaign expenses. That’s not the sort of person he wants to work with.

Matsui Ichiro offered a blander rationale:

It’s not possible as of now. We haven’t had any policy discussions. There’s not enough time.

But wait!

After weeks of letting his tongue hang out in the national media, insisting that it would be easy to overcome the differences with Japan Reform, Mr. Kawamura announced today that he — he! — was rejecting an alliance with them. He’ll work with Aichi Gov. Omura instead.

But wait again!

Lower House MP Kobayashi Koki, Tax Reduction Japan’s acting president, said the whole point of the party going national was to work with people like Japan Restoration. After Mr. Kawamura’s announcement, he said he wanted to leave the party and join Japan Restoration. He got approval for both of his requests.

* Hashimoto and Ishihara

That brings us to strangest story of them all — the merger of Japan Restoration with Ishihara Shintaro’s four-day-old Sun Party and the appointment of Mr. Ishihara as the head of the party.

It was strange because Hashimoto Toru insisted that it wouldn’t happen, for several reasons. The first was policy differences — Mr. Ishihara and the Sun Party support nuclear power and oppose participation in TPP. Those positions are the opposite of those of Japan Restoration. The second was outlook. Mr. Hashimoto said an alliance was out of the question if the members of the Sunrise Japan party, the group that the Tokyo governor formed two years ago, joined the Sun Party. He explained that there would be no union with “pure conservatives”. (By that he means paleo-cultural conservatives.)

Another factor is that Your Party wants no part of Ishihara Shintaro at all. An alliance would threaten any cooperation with them.

The Osaka mayor said talks would get nowhere unless they changed their policies. What happened is that he changed his, even after Sunrise Japan joined the Sun Party. Here’s the list of common policies they agreed on:

1. Convert the consumption tax to a regional tax and cap the rate at 11%.

Making the consumption tax a regional tax will make a close relationship with the LDP difficult.

2. Begin discussions to achieve a state/province system

3. Implement measures to support SMBEs and microenterprises.

4. Social welfare funding sources: Eliminate the portion of central government tax revenues allocated to local governments, optimize social insurance premiums, reexamine benefit levels, and supplement the funding with revenues from the income tax and asset tax.

5. Take a positive attitude toward TPP negotiations but will oppose them if they’re not in national interest.

This is a compromise for both men.

6. Create rules and other safety standards for nuclear power.

Not only has is that a reversal of the Hashimoto position, it just might end opposition to nuclear power as a political issue. An NHK poll taken this week found that only 9% of the electorate considers it to be their most important issue.

7. Urge China to take Senkakus dispute to ICJ.

8. Prohibit corporate and group donations to politics.

[[UPDATE: Yankdownunder sent in this link showing #8 is now inoperable.]]

Mr. Ishihara suggested that he and Mr. Hashimoto share the party presidency, but the younger man declined and took the de facto number two position. His thinking was that he still has a job to do in Osaka, and Osakans would be displeased if he gave up his position a year into his term for a Diet seat.

Said Mr. Ishihara after the deal was cut:

The popular will is filled with fluffy ideas, such as ‘nuclear power is frightening’. Populism is flattering those ideas….The largest, most definite segment of the popular will, however, is ‘This country is in trouble. Do something!’ We must change the structure of governance by the central bureaucracy…

…People talk about a ‘third force’, but we have to become the second force. We have to discard our minor disagreements in favor of our greater agreements and fight together. I’ll be the one to die first, so I’ll pass on the baton later to Mr. Hashimoto. There’s no other politician who acts as if his life depends on it.

Putting aside the question of whether this merger pays off in votes and Diet seats, there are advantages for both parties. Don’t forget that Ishihara Shintaro was the co-author of the Japan That Can Say No. He now is allied with a popular and adroit younger politician who can create the environment in which public figures will stand up for Japan, rather than truckle to other countries. He’s also popular enough to drive the issue of Constitutional reform — and several other previously taboo issues besides.

For example, this week Ishihara Shintaro said this week that Japan should conduct a simulation of the use of a nuclear weapon as a deterrent. He added that he was not calling for a public discussion of whether Japan should now make nuclear weapons, but that it was only his personal opinion.

It might be only his personal opinion, but it has now been broached for public discussion. He added:

Saying that you won’t have nuclear weapons means that your voice in world affairs carries absolutely no weight. Even the US gets all wobbly when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program.

There will also be no sucking air through the teeth and saying so sorry to China:

It would be desirable if Japan-China relations were friendly, but it would not be desirable at all if Japan became a second Tibet due to Chinese hegemonism.

For his part, Mr. Hashimoto is now allied with someone who has a power base in Tokyo/Kanto, giving the party a real east-west presence. That ally also has a national presence, which Mr. Hashimoto is still developing. It should not be overlooked that the most popular politicians in the country’s two largest cities are now allies working to reduce the power of the central government. (And Nagoya is the third-largest city; even without a formal alliance, Kawamura Takashi is likely to work with them more often than not.)

The drawback is that this merger creates a political party with as much internal incompatibility as the Democratic Party of Japan. One of Hashimoto Toru’s most prominent advisors and supporters is Takenaka Heizo, the Koizumi privatization guru. Also in the party by way of Sunrise Japan is that most paleo of paleo-conservatives, Hiranuma Takeo. Here’s what Mr. Hiranuma thinks of the Koizumi/Takenaka policies.

Perhaps it is the hope of the folks in Osaka that they’ll have outlived the paleos when the time comes they are no longer of use to each other.

*****
I’m no psephologist, and I have no desire to become one, so there will be no predictions from me about this election. You can hear all sorts of wildly varying predictions now anyway. The weekly Sunday Mainichi thinks the LDP and New Komeito combined will win 280 seats, giving them a lower house majority. They project the DPJ will win only 90 seats. The weekly Shukan Gendai, however, wonders if the LDP and New Komeito can reach 200 seats, and they think 75 is a real possibility for Japan Restoration.

The polls are all over the place, and as of this week, close to half the electorate is still undecided. A recent NHK poll found public interest in the election to be very high, and turnout could soar. That means anything in this election is possible, and all sorts of possibilities are flying around. There are now 14 political parties qualified to take part in the election, many of which will not exist at this time next year. One of them is a two-man party formed by a DPJ renegade and ex-People’s New Party head (and before that, ex-LDP honcho) Kamei Shizuka. Mr. Kamei formed his old party as a receptacle for the vested interests of Japan Post after he was dumped from the LDP for opposing privatization. He was a junior coalition partner of the DPJ for the specific purpose of allowing the DPJ to pass legislation in the upper house, and his reward was a Cabinet ministry. The party name for this dynamic duo is The Anti-TPP, Anti-Nuclear Power, Achieve a Freeze of the Consumption Tax Party. (Oh, yes it is!)

The cement in Japanese politics is now wet. The political realignment that people have been waiting for has arrived, or at least the first phase of it. The Big Bang election that just as many people have been waiting for has also arrived, or at least the first in a series of large bangs. If nothing else, the political class will finally learn what they can expect from the voters for betraying their trust and expectations after three years with the DPJ in charge. If they don’t now, they never will.

Afterwords:

* Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko said this week:

I will not participate in a competition to lean rightward.

This is the self-described conservative speaking.

On the other hand, he has no choice, whatever it is he really believes.

Roughly 40% of the current DPJ MPs have close labor union ties, and the party’s largest source of organizational support is labor unions.

* During a 15 November TV broadcast, DPJ lower house MP and member of the Noda faction/group, said: “Noda’s attitude changed after he made the deal with Abe. He dissolved the Diet because Abe could put him in the Cabinet — particularly because the Finance Ministry wants him to see the consumption tax through.”

Sitting next to him was former agriculture minister, former DPJ member, and for another month anyway, lower house MP Yamada Masahiko. He heard this and marveled, “Oh, of course that’s what must have happened!” The announcer changed the subject.

Some people expect an LDP-DPJ-New Komeito coalition based on the consumption tax increase passage. Perhaps this has all been a chaban geki designed to stifle the local parties while the stifling’s still possible.

* Said LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru:

The LDP’s biggest foe is the LDP from three years ago, not the DPJ.

He’s right.

* Prime Minister Noda is demanding that all candidates sign a loyalty oath to the party’s policies. That was the excuse Hatoyama Yukio was looking for to retire from politics. It will save him the embarrassment of losing his Hokkaido seat outright, which was a real possibility.

* Former TV comedian and popular Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, who palled around a lot with Hashimoto Toru in 2008, is mulling a run as a PR representative for Japan Restoration in either the Tokyo or Kyushu bloc.

He considered running again for Tokyo Metro District governor — he lost to Ishihara Shintaro last year — but decided against it.

But that was earlier this week. Today he said he was still thinking about which he would do.

* Only the old-line journalists are talking much about Ozawa Ichiro in this election. I suspect he is a man whose time has come and gone, and people see him as holding a losing hand. Both Hashimoto Toru and Matsui Ichiro have said they weren’t interested in any arrangement with him. One reason is that his unpopularity would wound Mr. Hashimoto in the same way that Abe Shinzo’s decision to readmit the Japan Post rebels to the LDP wounded him.

* There are other local Restoration parties in addition to the ones discussed here. Three of them are in Ehime: One for the prefecture itself, with four prefecture council members, one for the city of Matsuyama, with 13 city council members (29% of the council), and one for the city of Seiyo, with seven council members (one-third of the total). They’re all working together.

*****
Everybody needs to go to the same karaoke box and belt this out:

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New Japanese paper

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 13, 2012

PERHAPS the most intriguing aspect of Japanese traditional arts and crafts is the willingness of the artists and artisans to use the tools, materials, and techniques to create something entirely new, rather than churn out copies of museum pieces.

One of those artists is former fashion model Sato Yukari of Yosei, Aichi. A former fashion model, Ms. Sato is now working as a designer and a washi (Japanese paper) artisan.

Her story is one that Japanese often tell: She first came to realize the merits of Japan while working overseas. She returned to Ehime in 2010 to begin her work with washi.

Ms. Sato told an interviewer from the Asahi Shimbun that her objective was to have everyone realize once again the excellence of their culture and traditional crafts, and to help add some vitality to the region at the same time.

What she says in the following video isn’t so different from what I’ve already written. Focus instead on how she goes about her work and what she produces.

Posted in Arts, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

All you have to do is look (18)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A scene from the 47th Matsuyama Matsuri on the 10th showing the Baseball Dance during the parade. A total of roughly 2,500 people from 25 corporate groups participated. They shouted, “Out! Safe! Yoyoi no yoi!” as they danced.

Posted in Festivals, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Thousand islands

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 15, 2011

THEY’RE not foolin’ when they call it the Japanese archipelago — the textbook boilerplate is that the country consists of four main islands, though it’s becoming more politically correct these days to include the main island of Okinawa as the fifth. But few people, even among the Japanese, are aware the other roughly 1.000 islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, give the country an Exclusive Economic Zone of about 4.46 million square kilometers. That’s the sixth-largest EEZ in the world.

Of the inhabited islands, the westernmost is Yonaguni and the southernmost is Hateruma, way down south near Taiwan, both part of the Yaeyama Islands (English-language website on right sidebar). Of those on which only seagulls reside, Okinotorishima represents the extreme southern edge of Japan, and Minamitorishima the farthest point east.

Some of the better known among the rest are Tsushima in the Korean Strait, which some excitable Koreans like to pretend is theirs; Tanegashima in Kagoshima, the site of the first recorded contact between Europeans and Japanese in 1547 and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center; and Sado in Niigata, the sixth-largest island in the country and the authorities’ choice from roughly 700 to 1700 as just the place to send the dissidents and disgraced into exile. In fact, Charles Jenkins, the U.S. Army deserter and husband of North Korean abductee Soga Hitomi, could be considered a voluntary exile there now, though it is his wife’s home town.

That’s not to mention the Senkakus, on which the Chinese and Taiwanese have designs; Takeshima, which the South Koreans occupy; and the four islands off Hokkaido referred to as the Northern Territories, which the Soviets seized after Japan surrendered in 1945.

Awareness of these outlying islands is growing in Japan, particularly the semi-tropical warm ones, as pleasant places to visit. The inhabitants also are developing an awareness of their own. For example, the fourth annual national tournament for junior high school baseball teams from the outlying islands was held this year, and a team from Kamijima, part of Ehime, took home the trophy. (Most of the inhabited islands have junior high schools, but not as many are large enough to have high schools.)

Japan Hands will not be surprised to learn there is a National Institute for Japanese Islands devoted to promoting interest in and the interests of the one thousand. Earlier this month, they published a map that squeezes every last one of them on one side of an 80 x 110-centimeter sheet. That required a scale of 5 million to one to accomplish. The other side features larger maps of regional island groups on a scale of 750,000 to one. The map also includes a list of their names and all the air routes to make it handy for visits. At JPY 525 plus about JPY 180 for domestic postage, that’s cheap even at twice the price for a fanatic such as me.

Said the institute:

We hope that people look at the map and get a real sense of Japan as a country made up of many islands.

If you live in Japan and are interested getting a real sense of the island nation Japan, here’s the institute’s Japanese-language website where you can order one for yourself. Scout around on the site and you’ll also find a page that sells food and liquor from the islands, too.

And if you don’t have the time or the money for a trip, here’s the next best thing — a YouTube tour of Yonaguni with a local folk song as accompaniment.

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‘Tis the season for Koshiens

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 8, 2011

THE summer edition of the national high school baseball championship got underway at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo this weekend. That is a very big deal in Japan: NHK broadcasts every game of the tournament live, nationwide, without commercials. One of the classic scenes of daily life is the family get-together during the mid-August O-bon holidays with the eating, the drinking, and the attention of the males alternating between the people in the room and the games on television. The format of an elimination tournament adds an element of spice to the drama — the losers go home, while the championship team will have been undefeated, starting with the first game of the local prefectural round.

All the games are played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo. The park was built in 1924 specifically to serve as the venue for the summer tournament, which dates from 1915, and the smaller spring invitational tournament, which debuted the year the stadium opened. So closely is the park associated with the championship that the event is referred to simply as Koshien. Ask someone whether their high school has ever been to Koshien, and they’ll know immediately what you mean.

In fact, the term Koshien is now applied to other summertime high school competitions, including events that have nothing to do with sports. One of these is the Calligraphy Performance Koshien, staged on 31 July in Shikokuchuo, Ehime. Though it is based on calligraphy, it was conceived in the 21st century — this year’s competition was only the fourth. Teams of 10 calligraphers use brushes and ink on sheets of paper four meters high by six meters wide to render artistic and/or philosophical messages as they dance to music that accompanies their performance.

Representatives from 15 high schools around the country participated in the finals, and the squad from Oita High School in Oita City, Oita, won for the second straight year. This year, most of the participating schools created works based on the theme of earthquake/tsunami recovery. In addition to the normal criteria used to evaluate calligraphy, the teams were judged on the degree of completion of their work, the movements of the team members as they brushed on the characters, and their dance routines.

The creation of the Oita High champs was based on the theme of compassion (思いやり) and they used the form of a mid-summer greeting card (shochu o-mimai) as their motif. Said the team captain:

We can thank the people around us for our consecutive victories. We wondered what we could do to help the people in the area, and decided to encourage them with our calligraphy.

The students of the calligraphy club at Mishima High School in Shikokuchuo came up with the idea as an event to attract people to the local shopping district. Their inspirational spark fired everyone’s imagination, they were invited to appear on television, and then the rest of the country got into the act.

See you in the funny papers!

You don’t even have to ask — of course there’s a Manga Koshien for high school students. That’s the term commonly used to refer to the annual High School Manga Competition, which was held this past weekend in Kochi. This year’s event was the 20th, and the winning team came from Tochigi Girls High School, which inked it out with 24 other schools in the final round.

In this competition, the teams are given the same topic and have to create a comic on that topic immediately. They do this twice — the topics for the Saturday preliminaries and the Sunday finals are different.

The topic for the final round this year was “The 100th Manga Koshien”. The Tochigi girls came up with a comic depicting the 100th anniversary event, which in their imagination offered a prize of JPY one million (100 man en in Japanese), had 100 judges, but very few schools participating because of the population decline due to the low birth rate.

The head of the judge’s panel, Makino Keiichi, said:

Some (judges) thought that was a negative concept, but it is (in the spirit of) manga to depict things honestly.

Said Oki Ayano, one member of the winning team:

It was a good idea to deal straightforwardly with a social issue. I’m really happy.

The cartooning champs said they’ll donate their JPY 300,000 award to the Tohoku relief effort.

Consider what these two events have to say about the health and cultural dynamism of the Japanese. Who else would have thought to combine the elegance of the centuries-old art and discipline of calligraphy with pop music dance routines and turn it into an extra-curricular activity for high school students? Consider also that the winning Manga Koshien high school team was aware of a contemporary social issue, had the wit to come up with an idea based on that issue on the spur of the moment, incorporated it into the general outline presented to them, and had the guts to put it on paper as their entry in the championship round.

Now consider how seriously to take those people who enjoy talking and writing about the malaise in Japan.

*****
Here’s the Oita High School team strutting their stuff in the paint at the first Calligraphy Performance Koshien four years ago. Notice the touch of placing the seal on the lower left-hand corner of their work at the end. Baby love!

Dang, I got to find a way to get me to Ehime next summer!

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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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Aspirations

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 8, 2010

As Fukuzawa Yukichi said regarding an attitude of self-sufficiency and self-respect, a good nation, a good community, and superb people of ability cannot exist unless local governments and individuals support themselves by their own strength.
– Yamada Hiroshi

A CHART in Ito Atsuo’s Political Party Collapse: The 10 lost years of Nagata-Cho outlines the birth and death of political parties in Japan from 1992 to 1998. That chart covers two pages because 22 of those parties no longer exist, and even then I might have miscounted.

After a relatively quiescent decade, the politicos are starting to party hearty once again now that it’s apparent neither of the two major parties which emerged intact from the previous ferment—the Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party—will be viable over the long-term as presently constituted.

Left to right: Yamada Hiroshi, Nakamura Tokihiro, Nakada Hiroshi

The news media has focused this week on the new old party soon to be launched by Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo, but they’ve been giving short shrift to the imminent birth of another party with the potential to have a more lasting–and more beneficial–impact. Unlike the granddads of the former group, the three amigos driving the latter venture have a shared, positive vision about the direction of the country and a sense of urgency about achieving their aims. Rather than spending their time in Tokyo television studios, they’re touring the country to take their case to the people.

The three are Nakada Hiroshi, Yamada Hiroshi, and Nakamura Tokihiro, all of whom are veterans of the new party movement of the 90s. They were involved with the Japan New Party headed by Hosokawa Morihiro, the country’s first non-LDP prime minister in nearly 40 years. The New Party was an intriguing mix of people that also included Koike Yuriko, now in the Koizumian wing of the LDP, and Maehara Seiji, the former DPJ head who is currently the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. All three served at least one term in the lower house of the Diet. Mr. Nakada and Mr. Yamada, the two Hiroshis, attended The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management.

What sets this trio apart is that all three turned their backs on national politics and continued their careers as chief executives in local government. Mr. Nakada served nearly two terms as the mayor of Yokohama, Mr. Nakamura is still the mayor of Matsuyama, a city of about 515,000 in Ehime, and Mr. Yamada is the chief municipal officer of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, which itself has a population of roughly 540,000.

They’re pitched a tent on a patch of land similar to that of Watanabe Yoshimi and Your Party, but they arrived from a different direction. They all stand for governmental reform and regional devolution, but as a lower house MP since 1996, Mr. Watanabe is working in the context of national politics. In contrast, these three men are trying to build a national base outside the capital to accomplish similar objectives from the bottom up. Says Mr. Nakada:

What is required is a reorganization to change the approach of the country and the regions. The (people in the) regions understand conditions on the ground, and the reorganization won’t happen unless they apply pressure to the central government.

They call their group 日本志民会議, or the Nihon Shimin Kaigi. The second word is their own creation and literally means people with aspirations. A good English translation is impossible because the word is also a homonym for citizen.

Another difference from Your Party is that the trio comes from a non-LDP background, whereas Mr. Watanabe and his father were prominent members of that party. They say their objective is not to confront the DPJ or the LDP, but to form an all-Japan party and create a core group to rescue Japan from its crisis. An interview conducted with Mr. Nakada last year illustrates their sense of mission and urgency. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m very concerned about the country, and I don’t think there’s much time left. The national budgets contain more debt than tax revenue. The principle behind my approach as mayor is that the regions won’t survive if the country crumbles. I’ll conduct a (national) citizens’ movement from the citizens’ perspective. What I want to do is not the question. The country will crumble unless we do everything we can in the time remaining. I want to do anything and everything.

- Won’t you be active in a political party?

There’s no time to rebuild Japan. I’ll do anything. Doing anything includes starting a new party. As a citizen of this country, I’ll keep building on what I’m already involved with. Part of that might include starting a party.

Japan is in a serious phase. Unless we apply fundamental remedies within five years, the country will be eaten up from within and without. I want to devote all my energy to this full-time, and that includes convening citizens’ conferences and the Alliance of Local Government Executives.

As their past association with both Ms. Koike and Mr. Maehara suggests, they also support a strong defense and a pride in country that would be unremarkable outside of Japan or contemporary left wing groupings incapable of distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism. Yamada Hiroshi wrote an article in the March issue of Voice arguing against the DPJ proposal to allow non-Japanese to participate in local elections. As this previous post based on a blog entry by Nakada Hiroshi demonstrates, they also support individualism and self sufficiency.

The record

They’ve yet to generate top-of-the-fold headlines, but some journalists are aware of them. Sakurai Yoshiko profiled them in a feature article for the July 2009 edition of Voice that presented some of their accomplishments in local government.

Yamada Hiroshi seems to have achieved a stunning success in resuscitating Suginami Ward’s finances. When he took office in 1999, the ward was JPY 95 billion in debt (about $US 1.012 billion) and had just JPY 1.9 billion in the bank. Mr. Yamada’s first step was to cut his own salary by 10%, his bonus by 50%, and the ward budget by 15%. As a symbol of his budget-cutting efforts, he eliminated the free manju distributed to senior citizens’ associations. That may seem like a trivial step, but it illustrates a greater problem whose solution seems beyond the capability or willpower of politicians in free market democracies nowadays. Distributing free confections is not why governments are devised, but people have gotten so used to these handouts that the old folks in Suginami initially complained about the loss of their taxpayer-funded sweets.

Under his leadership, the ward has cut its debt in 10 years to JPY 20 billion and has JPY 23 billion in the bank; in other words, they’re solvent again. He’s also managed to reduce the ward’s workforce from 4,700 to 3,700.

In the 2007 Nikkei Shimbun evaluation of local governments nationwide, Suginami Ward had risen to 3rd from 33rd in the category of government reform, and to 12th from 105th in the category of government services.

Mr. Yamada plans to retire the ward’s debt in two years, and they recently passed a measure to create a fund for reducing taxes starting in ten years, with cuts coming every year.

In Matsuyama

Meanwhile, Matsuyama Mayor Nakamura managed to pull off a merger of three cities that won the approval of most residents in the new metropolis. That was no mean feat; the period from April 1999 to April 2006 was dubbed the Heisei no Dai-gappei (平成の大合併) (Great Heisei Era Mergers), during which the number of municipalities in Japan was reduced from 3,232 (670 cities, 1,994 towns, and 568 villages) to 1,820 (779 cities, 844 towns, and 197 villages). The objectives of the consolidation were to promote the decentralization and the downsizing of government, and to deal with the problems of declining tax revenues and reduced central government subsidies caused by the low birthrate.

Not all of these municipal marriages were love matches, and many had to navigate some rough patches. To cite one example, the new city of Matsuyama would have wound up with 80 city council members had all the delegates from the three municipalities kept their jobs. Some cities involved in the mergers did expand the chambers to include all the delegates, which sparked recall efforts by angry citizens. Mr. Nakamura, however, successfully reduced the number of councilmen from 80 to 45—reportedly by persuasion alone.

All politics is local

The triumvirate has conducted most of the spadework for their new party outside of the national spotlight. They first came to the notice of the public around this time last year, when devolution became a major issue in the lower house election campaign. Attention then focused on Miyazaki Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo and Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru, both outspoken supporters of devolution, but whose reputations and popularity were based on their prior careers in television and a proclivity to say whatever popped into their heads.

These five formed a loose alliance, but the three municipal executives sidestepped a proposal by Mr. Hashimoto to turn the Local Chief Executive Alliance into a national party. It’s likely they were already planning to create their own party and wanted to keep the drama queens at arm’s length. They also declined the Osaka governor’s suggestion to endorse one of the national parties in the lower house election. Said Mr. Nakada, “It might mislead the people.” Added Mr. Nakamura, “We won’t attract supporters if we increase the risk.” There are no hard feelings, however–Mr. Hashimoto sent them a congratulatory message when they held a conference announcing their intention to start a new party:

The time has come to take action in earnest for all the people filled with the aspiration to change the country.

The Yokohama mayor

Nakada Hiroshi has perhaps the highest national profile of the three. He announced on 28 July last year that he would resign his position as Yokohama mayor with seven months remaining in his second term. Some thought he was getting ready to take a second run at the Diet, but he had other plans. His explained that he had finished the important business of his second term, the city would save money by holding a mayoralty election on the same day as the lower house voting, and the new mayor could get a head start on the new budget and personnel decisions:

The mayor’s election costs JPY 1.1 billion in city funds. By holding it at the same time as the national election, we can save JPY one billion. Considering our harsh financial circumstances, that’s extremely important.

In retrospect, he was surely starting to build the foundation for the new party. They formed a working group at the end of October, when Mr. Nakada would still have been in office in Yokohama had he not resigned. Their vision calls for a low-tax, high-vitality country whose foreign relations are based on the keynote of freedom, responsibility, and mutual respect. At that first conference, they said:

The Diet is just terrible. It’s just pulled along by parties that either want to take power or want to maintain power.

And:

Promoting regional devolution is necessary for a country with a narrowing fiscal base.

Mr. Nakada went into more detail:

There are different views on the population totals that should be required for the classification of local government jurisdictions. The problem, however, is not one of population alone. What is improper is that the national government sets the principles for local government rules, including such details as the number of people in local assemblies and the amount of space required for nursery schools. Each community has different cultures and customs.

On proposals for a province/state system, which would create nine to 14 subnational jurisdictions to eventually replace the prefectures:

If each local government were to decide on the construction of its own roads, harbors, and airports, this would be a very inefficient country, and it would lead to the deterioration of international competitiveness. I support the state/province system because decisions on these matters would be more efficient at that level.

The trio announced their plans to form a party at a meeting in Hiroshima on 20 March this year and in Osaka the next day. Without utilizing an organization to mobilize turnout, they drew 250 to the first meeting and, to the second, 750 at hall that seats 500. They hope to create a support group of 10,000 people, and they already claim 4,000. They also plan to run at least 10 candidates in the upper house election this summer. Mr. Yamada, the group’s primary spokesman, said the upper house election was a prime opportunity to demonstrate their ideas. He explained this opportunity couldn’t be overlooked because the next national election isn’t required for another three years.

Last weekend they visited Takamatsu, Kagawa, to drum up support and attracted an audience of 300. Accompanying them was the leader of their support group, Joko Akira, the former head of the Matsushita Institute. Mr. Joko, who has written books discussing the importance of aspirations, said at the Takamatsu meeting:

It’s impossible to have any expectations for today’s politicians. We want to gather 10,000 supporters and create a new party with the help of citizens with aspiration.

From Mr. Yamada:

Both the LDP and the DPJ have reached a dead end. If citizens rise up individually, Japan will change.

Now for the bad news

There are skeletons in every politician’s closet that will cause some to recoil, and these men are no exception. At one time, Messrs. Yamada and Nakada were part of a group that wanted to boost the idea of Hatoyama Kunio for prime minister. It’s not clear what possessed them to back that goofy plan, unless it was access to the Hatoyama family fortune for political funds.

Also, some people suspect Mr. Nakada stepped down as Yokohama mayor to avoid the blowback from the failure of an expo commemorating the 150th anniversary of that city’s opening as a port. The expo attracted less than one-fourth the expected turnout and wound up JPY 2.4 billion in the red. There were problems with leftover tickets, talk of a possible lawsuit, and suggestions that Yokohama public funds were used to paper over the problems.

Mr. Nakada claims the failures were the responsibility of the organizing committee and not the city, which just provided financial support. He is also involved in an unresolved lawsuit by a former lover, a bar hostess, for the payment of consolation money after he ended their relationship. Perhaps that’s the reason Mr. Yamada seems to be acting as the chief spokesman for the group.

Those issues notwithstanding, Japanese politics would be the better for the contribution from these men who combine experience as national legislators with real accomplishments as local government executives, and who understand the importance of working from the bottom up rather than the top down. As Mr. Yamada wrote on his website, theirs would be a party:

…created from the aspirations and wishes of the citizens, not a party like those in the past formed to suit the convenience of the politicians.

In other words, they’re not going anywhere near the political group that Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo are now gluing together.

This week the People’s New Party, one of the junior members of the ruling coalition led by Kamei Shizuka, announced they would sponsor professional wrestler Nishimura Osamu for an upper house seat in this summer’s election. Using celebrity candidates as puppets in the upper house is not uncommon in Japan, and it’s a good bet that’s happening in this case too.

If you were a voter interested in responsible government and fed up with the two major national parties, and were presented with the option of voting for Mr. Nishimura or a candidate backed by the new party of aspirations, whose name would you write on the ballot?

Is it even necessary to ask?

Afterwords:

If I may make so bold as to spin a political fantasy, Japan could do a lot worse than a loose coalition between this group working with Your Party, the remaining LDP reformers, and potentially simpatico members of the DPJ, such as the Maehara Seiji group. They already are doing a lot worse now.

Speaking of Your Party, Mr. Nakada held the Kanagawa seat in the Diet that’s now represented by Eda Kenji. Mr. Eda challenged him in his first run for a Diet seat, but lost. He gained the seat after Mr. Nakada left to run for Yokohama mayor.

Mr. Yamada was defeated in his bid for a second term in the Diet by the LDP’s Ishihara Nobuteru. Mr. Ishihara later became the minister for governmental reform in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first Cabinet, and still is viewed as a reformer despite sticking it out with the LDP. Nevertheless, Mr. Yamada is said to be on good terms with Mr. Ishihara and his father Shintaro, the Tokyo governor and the co-author of The Japan That Can Say No.

Mr. Nakada thinks Masuzoe Yoichi, the former Health Minister who tops most opinion polls as the person people would like to see as prime minister, will not form a new party but is rather angling for a leadership position in the LDP.

I’ll get around to the Tachiagare Nihon Party of Messrs. Yosano and Hiranuma as soon as they formally agree on which lies they’ll tell each other to create a vehicle for Mr. Yosano to act as a front man for go-playing buddy Ozawa Ichiro if the latter decides to realign Japanese politics by breaking up the DPJ after a poor showing in the upper house election.

UPDATE:

Prime Minister Hatoyama was asked what he thought about the new party. Here’s what he said:

I think they are people who have worked hard for regional devolution, but we’re running ahead of them. Perhaps there are some similiarities in our thinking, but each politician acts based on his own convictions.

Mr. Hatoyama did not explain why he thought his party, which is incapable of coming up with an internal consensus on devolution, is “running ahead of them”, nor did he specify the similarities in their thinking. I sure don’t see any.

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Matsuri da! (29) Hot fun with summer festivals in Japan!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 3, 2007

SUMMER’S HERE–yeah!–and that’s when the real Japanese festival action starts. Some of them are true extravaganzas, and one of the biggest is the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival in Fukuoka City. The Gion Yamakasa one comprises a series of events from July 1-15. One of the preliminaries coming up soon is the Zennagare Oshioitori. The term nagare refers to the seven teams of about 500 men each who will pull immense wheeled floats through the city on the 15th.

During this ceremony, the men in the nagare head to Hakozaki Beach in the city’s Higashi Ward to get o-shioi, which is sand for purification. Whenever the men go outdoors during the festival’s two-week period, they sprinkle the sand on their body to purify themselves and to prevent illness or disaster. What better way to spend the summer than to take the beach with you?

When they actually get to the beach, they wade into the water up to their knees and place the sand in boxes that are carried on poles. They later visit the Hakozaki shrine in the same ward to pray for safety during the festival period (the scene in the photo). The maneuvers with the wheeled floats start the next day. The main event on the 15th is a stunning spectacle, and wait until you see what that looks like.

Meanwhile, the Doronko Festival is slated for this week in Ehime Prefecture. Continuing a 120-year tradition, the festival is conducted at a rice paddy in a Shinto shrine after the farmers plant their own paddies to thank the divinities and pray for a good harvest.

This festival is a virtual variety show of performances. These include young men who pantomime planting soybeans and wind up throwing each other into the mud and wrestling with each other. (Doro means mud in Japanese, and as we’ve seen, is often an important element in events nationwide.) There’s a lineup of 10 trained bulls in a row plowing the muddy rice field. There are shrine maidens who pantomime planting the rice paddies (and who are preceded into the muck by men playing drums). One character in a demon’s mask pulls three people into the mud to the accompaniment of gongs and drums. The shrine maidens, dressed in colorful costumes, perform a dance on platforms above the paddy before the planting ceremony. There are several photos of these events to choose from, and I’ll choose the photos of women in colorful costumes dancing every time over pictures of hair-legged guys wrestling in the mud.

Finally, Tanabata Festivals will be held throughout the country on the 7th. This custom originated as a combination of Chinese and Japanese traditions. An ancient Chinese legend had it that the Weaver Star (Vega) and the Cowherd Star (Altair) were celestial lovers who could meet but once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. (Was the cowherd the seventh son of a seventh son?) This merged with a Japanese legend about the celestial weaving maiden Tanabatatsume, who made clothing for the gods. The festival was observed by the imperial court in the past.

Most of the modern Tanabata Festivals include a display of bamboo branches hung with strips of colored paper and other ornaments. People write their wishes or romantic requests on the paper before hanging them on the bamboo. It’s also common to see these branches in public places.

The photo here is of one of these branches with the paper written by the people wishing on two stars, decorating Shibuya Station in Tokyo. (The link is to a clever YouTube video.) This might be the closest the folks living in that concrete jungle ever come to bamboo.

The wish I stuck on a bamboo pole near my home is to meet one of those dancing shrine maidens in Ehime!

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