AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Fukui’

Child abuse

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 7, 2012

IT’S long been thought in Japan that a crying baby is a sign of a healthy baby. Now combine that with the tradition of Shinto shrine festivals, the connection between sumo and Shinto, and the multitudinous and variegated ways people find to enjoy themselves in this country, and the idea of holding baby-crying sumo matches at the shrines isn’t a stretch at all.

These events are held in many parts of the country throughout the year. The photograph here shows the battle of the bawlers held at the Hiyoshi Shinto shrine in Yonago, Tottori, an institution founded in 1637.

The rules are simple: The one who cries first wins. The infants’ wails are met with delighted smiles from their families and spectators in the audience. In fact, the best way to incur parental disapproval is to start crying before entering the ring, or to stay calm and complacent throughout it all. In the recent Tottori competition, 28 crybabies from the age of six months to one year competed. The word yama, or mountain, was attached to the end of the boys’ names, and the word kawa, or river, was stuck on the end of girls’ names to create a resemblance to the names adopted by sumo wrestlers.

The father of one rikishi said:

“I was a little disappointed that it ended in a tie with him not crying, but I hope to raise him as a healthy boy.”

The photo below was taken at another event last Sunday at Mihama, Fukui. They’ve been doing it for more than a century as part of a larger festival that also includes real sumo matches with older children and taiko drum performances.

The video below was taken at yet another baby-crying sumo match on the same day in Kanuma, Tochigi, at the Ikiko Shinto shrine. The shrine’s name is written with the characters for living and child, and I don’t think it was a coincidence they selected it as the site.

Would something like this be possible in the West, or would some adult crybabies looking for a cause find a way to turn it into an issue of child abuse?

To decide whether it’s cruelty or an innocent good time, all you have to do is click on the video and see for yourself.

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

People who should know better

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 5, 2012

ONCE Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru admitted both defeat in his effort to prevent the restart of the Oi nuclear power plant and his acquiesence in the restart, it was essential he break his Twitter ceasefire to spin the outcome, rally the troops, and regain the initiative.

The fusillade began bright and early Monday morning, and the initial volley was a mild complaint about the Hitler comparisons. Mr. Hashimoto chose to aim at Watanabe Tsuneo, the chairman of Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, which operates the country’s largest newspaper, a television network, a baseball team, and a publishing house. Mr. Watanabe’s position and political influence made his use of the H-word in reference to Mr. Hashimoto a news story in Japan. The story itself faded quickly, and few outside the media are interested in what he has to say, but one appearance is enough for them to assume they have carte blanche to trot it out whenever they feel like it. A peculiar aspect of this story is that the Yomiuri Shimbun does not sail in the NYT/WaPo/Guardian orbit. In the words of The Economist, their editorial position is “conservative”.

Mr. Hashimoto exposed the absurdity of the analogy by noting that Hitler was a mass murderer, and said that he thought it was in violation of “international etiquette”.

Now there’s a man who doesn’t follow political discourse in the English-speaking world.

Once he was warmed up, he moved on to the issue of nuclear power. He tried to justify the decision to give in on Oi by explaining the difficulty of his (and the city of Osaka’s) position:

We have no authority. We cannot collect data, issue regulation orders, plan rolling blackouts, or do anything else.

It took only a few minutes for one blogger to respond:

Mr. Hashimoto originally claimed, “There will be sufficient power even without nuclear energy. All we have to do is turn off our air conditioners for a few days.” In other words, he just admitted that no data collection backed up his claim.

She added:

It should be possible for the city of Osaka to formulate energy-saving plans and conduct trials, but no trace of any concrete efforts on their part can be seen.

The Osaka mayor insisted that the primary issue was local safety and a crisis management system:

The people promoting atomic energy bring up the national economy, but Osaka’s problem is different. The national economy should be discussed in the context of creating a new energy policy and a power supply system.

Notice that the mayor used the adjective “national” instead of “local” for the issue of the economy. The latter would have negated his argument. Meanwhile, Monday’s Japanese edition of the Asian Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government has decided to resume nuclear power plant construction, which they suspended after the Fukushima accident. Chinese authorities said they made their decision after weighing safety concerns and the benefit the plants would have on the national economy. One of the safety concerns might have been that coal is the fuel used to generate 77% of China’s energy, and they just spent the last half-decade opening coal-fired plants at an annual rate that exceeds the entire power generating capacity of England.

Finally, Mr. Hashimoto said the anti-nuclear power forces should move on to the “second stage”. Stage Two is preventing the other idled 48 reactors in Japan from resuming production until a new regulatory agency is created and new safety standards are devised.

So to sum up, he expects other regions to share their power with his Kansai region to offset their shortfall, while (a) the Oi nuclear plants that supply his region are the only ones in the country operating, (b) he rallies his forces to prevent the restart of plants in other regions, which (c) are dealing with power shortages of their own with the plants shut down.

Yeah, that’ll work.

Some sort of malware seems to have infected the political programming of the devolutionary reformers. Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi caught the virus too:

“I support the denuclearization of power, so I want them to stop the restart. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry said they would release a hazard map by the end of the summer. (Restarting before that release) is disrespectful. Whatever else can be said, they’re screwing around with us.”

Hori Yoshito, an entrepreneur who founded a venture capital funding company, read that and blogged that a politician’s views on nuclear energy should constitute a litmus test: Opposition = failure. Mr. Hori also remembered that one serious energy shortage in Japan resulted in the country going to war.

Love! Love! Hairo

War wasn’t on the minds of the 450 or so people who showed up for a demonstration against the restart of the plants in Fukui City on Sunday that featured the latest in protest music. What is it about the combination of music and activism? The Jamaicans thought they could Chant Down Babylon, and the Love Generation believed they could chant the rain away at Woodstock.

Unlike those two groups, narcotization wasn’t a factor for the Fukuians. It might have been a sugar high instead, because they grooved to Fujinami Kokoro performing her anti-nuclear power hit, Love! Love! Hairo. (Hairo means “eliminating reactors”.) Kokoro is a 15-year-old singer/actress/celebrity who broke into the biz as a clothing model when she was in the first grade. Now she’s becoming known as a “datsugenpatsu idol”, datsugenpatsu meaning the denuclearization of power generation. She told the crowd at Fukui City:

“Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko said he would make a decision on restarting the Oi plant on his responsibility. What sort of responsibility will he take? The accident at Fukushima #1 isn’t over yet.”

Of course there’s a YouTube! The official release of Love! Love! Hairo features her in a duet with Kanaru, who is even younger.

The lyrics are unremarkable, with one curious exception. That’s the inclusion of the word giman, which means fraud or trickery. It is unlikely to be part of the vocabulary stock of the average junior high school student.

At least the Hollywood establishment uses adults at the age of consent when they peddle their papers. It would seem Kokoro is the tool that emerged at the end of someone else’s process to indoctrinate the youth, not the youth whose bright idea started the process.

Kokoro also has a Twitter account that she uses for Tweeting anti-nuke lines that some people think she writes herself. Those messages have been retweeted and praised by the likes of Sakamoto Ryuichi and Son Masayoshi. Fancy that — two very famous and very busy people with enough time to read teen-tweets!

The former is the well-known world-class musician-composer and third-rate thinker. The latter is a billionaire who founded SoftBank, the leading Internet company in Asia. Mr. Son also keeps his eyes peeled for lucrative crony capitalist business opportunities when they aren’t glued to the Twitter site. After he conferred with then-Prime Minister Kan Naoto last year, everybody got solar all of a sudden. Mr. Kan’s last act as prime minister was to shepherd a bill through the Diet that will require utilities to buy electricity generated by renewable sources at rates well above market prices. Nuclear energy costs about JPY 10 per kWh, but the rate for alternative energy that goes into effect on 1 July will be about double that. It will be higher still for solar energy — the juice generated by businesses, schools and homes is already sold at four times the nuclear power rate.

Now guess which Japanese billionaire plans to build 10 solar power plants.

Indeed, the use of Kokoro as a propaganda vehicle is an international phenomenon. Here’s Ralph T. Niemeyer, the director of the film Hibakusha, keeping his eyes peeled for a different kind of business opportunity. The complete English title of the movie is Hibakusha – from Hiroshima to Fukushima, Nuclear Capitalism Tries to Rebound. To ensure a better audience in Japan, the word “capitalism” was replaced with “business” in the local title. Watch his eyes light up at the end when he hears that she has a high show business profile, and is a really intelligent girl with her own ideas.

The Good Book quotes The Nazz as asking his old man to go easy on the unhip because they haven’t got a clue. All the people in this story know not what they do either, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing any more forgivable. Only Fujinami Kokoro gets a pass, and that expires on 22 November this year.

That’s her 16th birthday.

Postscript:

Wrote Japanese blogger Ikushima Kantoku:

Many people have expectations for Mr. Hashimoto, and I am one of them. It’s a feeling of half-love, half-hate, and I don’t understand it myself.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Music, Politics, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Political kabuki in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 31, 2012

FOR reasons beyond understanding, Americans have glommed onto the word kabuki and applied it to political situations to describe debate/discussion/behavior/bloviation that is little more than a theatrical performance, in which the actors play to exaggerated stereotypes to disguise either a predetermined outcome or their real motives. The Brits use it much less frequently in that context, and when they do, they tend to add a word at the end by calling it political kabuki theater.

That sort of behavior has as much in common with kabuki as real kabuki has with vaudeville. The plays themselves have every bit the drama and meaning as most of Shakespeare, and the earliest ones are about the same age. To expect the average journo or commentator to understand that, however, would be to credit them with more erudition than the flybaits whose careers they follow.

The Japanese also have their own equivalent of what is referred to as political kabuki, of course. In fact, no one does it better. They just don’t call it kabuki. An excellent example is the stylized drama that’s been playing on the political stage for the past month over the issue of restarting the Oi nuclear power reactors in Fukui. It’s nearing resolution, and it now seems this kabuki will be more productive than those staged overseas. It centers on putting the arrangements in place for the eventual resumption of nuclear power production nationwide.

Recall that for other reasons beyond understanding, Japan’s political tachiyaku, Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, chose to elbow his way to the front of the anti-nuclear power parade in Japan. It is beyond understanding because it is almost certainly an exercise in populism, even though his popularity is such that a populist appeal wasn’t necessary.

Hosono Goshi holds forth (Asahi Shimbun)

His position has infected even those of his senior advisors and political allies who have long track records of adult behavior. Your Party, the only serious reformers among the national political parties, became Hashimoto allies because they share the policies of regional devolution and bureaucratic reform. But they too have started running the anti-nuke voodoo down, and their new approach is even more confounding because their secretary-general, Eda Kenji, is a sensible man who was once a star bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, the ministry responsible for the oversight of the nuclear power industry.

Another former METI hanagata is the bureaucratic reformer Koga Shigeaki, who is now a Hashimoto senior advisor. He recently appeared on television to charge that Kansai Electric might engage in deliberate “nuclear terrorism” by sabotaging their own thermal power plants as a weapon to get the nuclear plants back on line.

Mr. Koga must have developed a taste for plywood — he’s still chewing the scenery, though he has toned it down a bit. Asked by reporters to explain that statement, he said:

“I wanted to say that they were threatening to create a situation in which there would be a power shortfall, based on the premise of restarting the plants. When Kansai Electric and METI cry “blackouts, blackouts”, that is terrorism.”

And:

“I used the word terrorism because neither Kansai Electric nor METI formulated measures even though they knew last summer there would be a power shortage this summer.”

This approach by One Osaka and its allies might have found support at the national level were Kan Naoto — who “loves” wind power — still prime minister. Fortunately, the DPJ finally found an adult member of their party to serve in that position, and Noda Yoshihiko wants to get the nuclear plants back on line as soon as possible. Current METI chief Edano Yukio, Mr. Kan’s chief cabinet secretary during the nuclear accident, has the sugarplum dream of being prime minister himself, so he’s found himself some new chums in the METI bureaucracy.

The immediate problem is the anticipated 15% power shortfall this summer in the Kansai region — home to Panasonic, Sharp, and other major manufacturers — if the Oi plants are not restarted. It will take six weeks to get them back up to speed, and time is running out.

The government doesn’t need permission from anyone to permit nuclear power generation to resume, but that would leave them open to the charge of ignoring the concerns of the public and the local governments involved. Thus they have begun executing a program of eggshell-walking and convincing local government leaders and citizens’ groups that it is safe to press the nuclear button.

On 19 May, the prime minister dispatched Hosono Goshi, the Cabinet minister responsible for nuclear energy, to explain the new safety standards to the Union of Kansai Governments. That’s a group consisting of the governors of seven Kansai prefectures. (The governor of Nara chose not to join.) The union was formed in October 2010 to coordinate region-wide emergency medical services and disaster response, among other work. But more important, it is a vehicle to promote regional devolution, one of Mr. Hashimoto’s primary objectives. The seven prefectures have a combined population of almost 21 million people.

Hashimoto Toru helped create the union when he was the Osaka Prefecture governor.  He’s now the mayor of Osaka City, which is not an official member, but what are rules to a big enchilada?

In fact, he was responsible for the union’s rejection of the new nuclear safety standards presented by Mr. Hosono at the 19 May meeting. He dismissed them by saying they weren’t standards, but merely “anti-tsunami measures”.

The Second Meeting

It took but a fortnight for the government to come up with some revisions — golly, that was fast — and present them to another meeting of the Union of Kansai Governments yesterday. Mr. Hashimoto wasn’t present because he had to attend an Osaka city council session, but Union Chairman Ido Toshizo, the governor of Hyogo, stayed in contact with him by telephone to keep him informed of the discussions and to write down his instructions.

Here’s what happened: Mr. Hosono told the meeting that the government will soon present new safety measures to the Fukui governor (Oi is in Fukui). If they suit the governor’s fancy, Prime Minister Noda will “take the responsibility” for making the decision on restarting the reactors himself, early in June. One of the two METI vice-ministers and a ministerial aide will be stationed at Oi to make sure everything is tip-top. There will be stronger “provisional safety standards” for the “limited” restart of the reactors, and those standards will be reviewed for further improvement after the establishment of a new atomic energy regulatory agency, which the DPJ government finally got around to bringing up in the Diet. The chief municipal officer of Oi-cho, where the reactors are located, has already signaled that he will give his blessing to get those turbines moving again. In essence, the plan leaves everything up to the national government.

Now break out the popcorn and watch the political kabuki.

Mr. Hashimoto earlier hinted that he would be amenable to “limited operation”. When Gov. Ido conferred with him by phone during the meeting, the mayor said he would agree this time on the condition that the words “provisional” and “limited” were inserted in the statement.

Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro, the mayor’s primary political ally in the region, asked:

“Will the restart be approved using existing guidelines even though the government’s safety standards are not thorough and complete?”

Mr. Hashimoto asked:

“If the safety standards are provisional, then plant safety itself is provisional, isn’t it? Why will the reactors be restarted without waiting for the establishment of the nuclear regulatory agency?”

Some of the other governors were just critical, but here is their official statement released as soon as the meeting ended:

“We strongly seek an appropriate and limited decision (from the national government) on the premise that this decision will be provisional.”

In other words: Thanks for letting us save face while we go along with letting you restart the plants.

When asked what “limited” referred to, Mr. Ido said it included both the safety standards and the resumption of nuclear power generation.

The Facts of Life

What happened between 19 May and 30 May to change everyone’s mind? Nobody’s saying, but it likely involved what regional business leaders were telling the politicians in private, and which was just revealed in public earlier this week by the Nikkei Shimbun, the country’s primary business and financial daily.

The Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry took a quick survey from the 21st to the 25th of 73 large regional companies to determine the effects of a 15% power cutback this summer. 70% said it would cause serious problems, and 56% said their profits would suffer. Only 29% said that it would be possible to achieve a 15% reduction in power use. Most (32% of the respondents) said the best they could achieve was a 5%-10% cutback. That was roughly the level of savings Kansai Electric’s large consumers managed last summer. More than a few said they would have to reduce working hours altogether, increase the number of days they would close, or move shifts to later at night.

What everyone already knew was that many companies in Tokyo started relocating offices and plants in other parts of Japan (and the world) to ensure stable energy supplies for their business. They also knew that the oil imports required to offset the loss of nuclear power was deuced expensive.

So, as one wag on the Internet put it, the “Union of Kansai Yakuza Gangs” has now shifted its position from “there will be enough power even without the nuclear plants” to “there will be enough power if we save energy” to “there will be enough energy if we have rolling blackouts and receive power from other parts of the country” to “OK, but it’s only provisional”.

It’s also curious that Hashimoto Toru, the Twitter Machine Gun who fires off 20-30 tweets a day to spray his opinions on the public at large and kick his opponents in the groin, has been observing radio silence of late. Some have concluded that he has been quietly reassessing his position.

Does anyone doubt that once the Oi nuclear reactors go back on line, they will stay on line unless there’s a historically immense shift of tectonic plates in the immediate area? Does anyone doubt that when the Oi reactors go back on line, the other idled plants nationwide will eventually follow?

Thus, mere days after the overseas Split Wood Not Atoms sect rejoiced because Japan was now “nuclear free”, those smiles have been flipped into frowns.  Reuters quoted Greg McNevin, a spokesman for Greenpeace International as saying:

“We have consistently said that none of the safety or emergency measures that have been called for by experts in the community has been completed.  Our consistent position is that this is being rushed.”

Silly boy. One of the defining elements of kabuki theater is mie, in which the actor assumes an extravagant, stylized pose. Greenpeace seems to think their own mie have the mojo to work on the Japanese stage. But none the several Japanese-language articles I read quoted his (or any other foreigner’s) comments, and an audience that doesn’t exist can’t applaud. Text message to the Greenies: Becoming a real kabuki actor requires years of apprenticeship and study.

*****

All of this brings up several interesting questions. Does this represent the first defeat for Hashimoto Toru in his confrontation with the national establishment? Does this face-saving agreement mean that the establishment and Mr. Hashimoto are accommodating themselves to each other? Is the Osaka mayor cooperating with the DPJ government that he pledged to bring down? Will his objections actually result in more stringent standards for nuclear power operation?

Is Mr. Hashimoto in fact not anti-nuclear power at all, but using that provisionality as one string on his anti-establishment guitar, with the added benefit of greater safety?

We’ll find out eventually what went on backstage. We always do.

*****

With serendipitous synchronicity, a Japanese blog post floated up yesterday in which the author described a visit to observe the work underway at the Hamamatsu nuclear power plant. That was the first one to be shut down after the Fukushima accident. There were legitimate concerns about its safety, and work to improve plant resistance to natural disasters had already begun.

It never stopped, even though the reactors did. The blogger wrote:

Construction is proceeding on a wall that rises 18 meters above sea level and surrounds the entire facility. An emergency generator and a nuclear reactor cooling pump are being installed in a structure 20 meters above sea level in which seawater cannot penetrate. Technical developments in 30 categories are being incorporated in the work, which will result in the strongest anti-tsunami measures of any plant in the world. This is more comprehensive than I had imagined.

The wall is two meters thick, 1.6 kilometers long, and its foundation extends from 10 to 30 meters underground. The construction work will be completed in December.

It seems not to have occurred to some people in Japan that nuclear power plant operation might be forever suspended.

*****

It also never occurred to Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi to stop being so tiresome. Here’s the statement he released after the agreement:

The safety standards are ridiculous, there is still no regulatory agency, there are no stress tests under the new safety standards, there is no crisis management system based on the premise of an accident, there are no plans for the disposition of the spent fuel, there is no private sector insurance for compensating accident victims, and it is not possible to cite a reason for approving the unsafe time-limited operation! Is this right?

Now that’s political kabuki. At least he didn’t insert multiple exclamation points at the end of every clause.

Absent from the discussion is that any destruction which might occur at Oi is premised on tsunami damage (not earthquake damage) and that estimates of fatalities in a tsunami large enough to damage the plant run as high as 10,000. Some have suggested that Mr. Hashimoto might have recognized the contradiction of demanding absolute safety for the plant without demanding measures to prevent tsunami damage.

*****

Paddy Regan, the director of the MSc course in radiation and environmental protection at the University of Surrey, Guildford, wrote an article that appeared in the Telegraph of Britain. It starts this way:

Three places: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. And three more: Banqiao, Machhu II, Hiakud. Most people react with horror to the first trio, while the second three locations usually draw a blank look. In fact, the latter were the sites of three major hydroelectric dam failures: in China and India in 1975, 1979 and 1980, which were directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. In contrast, the death toll directly associated with radiation exposure from the three best-known civil nuclear accidents is estimated by the World Health Organisation to be conservatively about 50, all associated with Chernobyl.

He continued:

The Italian foreign ministry, for example, recommended that its citizens flew out of Tokyo to avoid potential radiation exposure in the first couple of weeks following the Fukushima leak. While the radiation levels in the Japanese capital rose significantly above normal, they remained lower than the typical average background radiation levels in Rome, leading to the bizarre situation of individuals being relocated to places with higher radiation levels than those they were leaving.

It also contains information that seems beyond the ability of the Hysterians to comprehend:

And a pervasive myth has taken hold that even tiny amounts of radiation are unsafe. In reality, this cannot be so, as humans have evolved in an invisible sea of naturally occurring radioactivity. Much of this arises from radioactive forms of potassium, uranium and thorium; remnants of the Earth’s formation more than 4 billion years ago. Human bodies are bubbling with radioactivity, with around 7,000 atoms decaying each second due to radioactivity from potassium-40 and carbon-14.

Afterwords:

* Some Americans do understand the stupidity in the use of the term political kabuki, as this article demonstrates.  It’s a good explanation of why the coinage is inapt and includes the pertinent observation:

“If a former theater critic such as Frank Rich can’t be trusted to use it properly, who can?”

Alas, the five reasons he asserts — not suggests — for the American creation of the phrase were pulled straight from his backside.

* Though kabuki is now high art and a living tradition, its origin is attributed to female drama troupes who became popular because their performances included erotic scenes and provocative dances. They were also often prostitutes, and fights frequently broke out among the spectators for reasons that require no explanation.

As Brother Dave Gardner used to say, Ain’t that weird?

The Tokugawa Shogunate, still in its early days, banned women from performing in the dramas, but their parts were taken by men who also sold their favors.

Maybe a case can be made for the legitimacy of the term “political kabuki” after all.

* Enough of the Ersatz brand, here’s some of the hard stuff. It’s a short, edited version of a performance of Kanjincho (List of Contributors). The story is based on an older Noh play, was originally performed as a kabuki drama in 1702, and assumed its current form in 1840. Reading the plot summary at that link will give you an idea how shocking it must have been in the context of Japan’s vertical society at the time.

No erotic scenes or provocative dances though. Sorry.

Posted in Arts, Business, finance and the economy, Politics, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Food roots

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 4, 2011

It’s a mongrelized world we live in, and among those most aware of the degree of mongrelization are the people who study national dietary habits. The Korean dish kimchee is just one of many examples of the phenomenon. It’s such an integral part of Korean life that it’s served free in restaurants with meals in the way water is provided in other countries. The image of the food that immediately arises in the mind’s eye is tinted a bright red from the chili flakes used for seasoning. But though Koreans have been eating different forms of kimchee for at least 2,000 years, chili wasn’t cultivated there until 1600, after it was introduced from Japan. (That’s also roughly when Chinese cabbage and daikon radish became the main ingredients).

Also, the image of the basic/classic Japanese meal, both inside and outside the country, is of a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and some fish or meat on the side. But Katarzyna J. Cwiertka argues that what many consider to be the classic Japanese diet was a 20th century invention created with considerable Western influence:

(A)ll Japanese canteens (by which she means cafeterias at worksites or universities) share a common heritage, which can be traced to the 1930s military food. A standard menu in a Japanese canteen consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, and pickles (tsukemono) supplemented by two or three side dishes, one of them being a kind of “main side dish” usually featuring fish or meat. Other canteens’ mainstays include Japanese-style and Chinese-style noodles, spaghetti, sandwiches, and the Japanese-Western rice-based hybrids served on a plate (not in a bowl), such as curry on rice (kare raisu), pilaf, and rice pan-fried with chicken and tomato ketchup given the name ‘chicken rice’ (chikin raisu). As will become obvious in the course of this paper, the majority of these dishes appeared in wartime military menus.

Also:

The fact that the Japanese military fed its troops on novelties, and that these dishes were among the favorites, is extraordinary, considering that this was against the general rule of military caterers elsewhere, who precisely avoided serving unknown food…As practically no “all-Japanese” cooking existed in Japan at that time, and proper nourishment could be achieved economically only by adopting non-Japanese dishes instead of providing traditional food, Japanese military caterers chose to serve hybrid culinary experiments. We may surmise that the fact that these hybrids were served with a mixture of rice and barley eased the resistance towards the unknown food. Rice was the staple of choice for the Japanese (Ohnuki-Tierney 1993), but the conscription experience meant for many farmers’ sons and other drafted members of the underclass the luxury of having rice three times a day.

She’s even written a favorably reviewed book on the subject, called Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity. (The Amazon page contains the claim that “key shifts in the Japanese diet were, in many cases, a consequence of modern imperialism”. That would be true if one equates having a standing national military with imperialism, but some people have a taste for connecting all sorts of things Japanese with militaristic imperialism. Then again, it’s difficult for more than a few people to recognize that correlation doesn’t always equal causation.)

The question naturally arises of what sort of meals Japanese ate before the 20th century, especially during the Edo period (1603-1868), when there was little contact with the outside world. Fortunately, the Japanese keep excellent records, and some of those dishes can be easily recreated. In fact, the folks in Fukui conducted a series of events this year in which some seriously old-fashioned home cooking was served to curious gastronomes. One of the events presented four varieties of Edo period mazegohan, or “mixed rice”. The four were: sakurameshi (literally, cherry rice), with thin-sliced octopus legs arranged to resemble cherry trees; taimeshi, using the sea bream, a symbol of good luck, as the mixed ingredient; and kibimeshi and awameshi, made with different types of millet.

The dainty dishes set before the Japanese diners surprised them for several reasons. First, the sakurameshi was eaten in the same bowl with strained miso soup, (though they were less surprised when they saw the octopus parts still twitching.) The two varieties with millet were also eaten with broth, and the ratio of millet to rice was 6 to 4 in favor of the millet. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call those dishes mixed millet rather than mazegohan.

The event’s organizers didn’t have far to go to find period seasonings. The Muroji company in Fukui City earlier this year brought back one of their old favorites — soy sauce brewed from a recipe dating from the Bakumatsu period, which was the very end of the Edo period in the mid-19th century. They didn’t have to do much digging to find the recipe, either. The company was founded in 1689, and the current president is the 13th in an unbroken line of descendants running the firm.

One of the selling points for this classic soy sauce is that it will satisfy even the most ideological of food purists. It’s made from Fukui soybeans, wheat, koji-kin (a mold for fermentation), yeast, lactic acid bacteria — and that’s all. No preservatives or additives are used. It’s also allowed to ferment for a year, in contrast to the three-month period for most of today’s commercial varieties. The company’s Japanese-language website notes that it has 300 constituent ingredients, including amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, and they also provide a list of its many health benefits. If that sounds like something you’d like to try, the company will sell it and ship it to you, if you live in Japan.

Muroji chose to market the product in a peculiar way, however: They gave it the name Bakumatsu Soy Sauce, with soy sauce written in the katakana alphabet based on the English pronunciation, rather than shoyu, the Japanese word. Few Japanese who used the product when it was first sold are likely to have known the term “soy sauce”.

It’s a mongrelized world we live in!

*****
The name of the group is Mazegohan and they’re performing a Japanese pop song (with a few English words for lyrics) that was recorded by Ray Charles. How’s that for mongrelization?

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Posted in Books, Food, History, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Arty or crafty?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 16, 2011

THE traditional Japanese paper known as washi is used to make all sorts of things in addition to ordinary sheets of paper. They include clothes, household goods, toys, ritual objects used in Shinto, furniture, the paper used in shoji sliding doors, loudspeaker cones, umbrellas, Japanese banknotes…

…6.8-meter-high statues of the tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur…

Gao!

The accompanying photo is proof that the paper dinosaur exists, placed outdoors in Katsuyama, Fukui, near — where else? — the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. It was built with a frame of bamboo struts covered with chicken wire. That was overlaid with Echizen washi, one of the region’s traditional handicrafts. It was deliberately left colorless to preserve the washi appearance, and it was waterproofed to keep it from falling apart in the rain. The folks in Fukui put it up now for paper dinosaur fans because it contrasts with the surrounding greenery. They’ll keep it up until December, when it begins to snow. The idea, of course, is to attract tourists.

Hey, I’d go see it if I were within easy distance of Fukui — and admit it, so would you!

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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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Japanese food: More than just raw fish

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 20, 2010

WHEN THE JAPANESE apply their fertile imaginations to cook up new food creations, there’s no telling what delights they’ll discover.

Scratch that—there is telling! Here’s a look at what’s cooking (and brewing) in kitchens lately across the country.

Goya dumplings

Michifude Hiroshi was a successful challenger in one of the televised Iron Chef programs several years ago (in the Chinese food category). Fame begets fortune, so it was natural for the agricultural co-op JA Okinawa to sign a consulting agreement with the chef to provide advice for the development of processed foods using local produce and livestock. In return, his photo and name will be displayed on the packages of any products that result from their association.

The former Iron Chef’s first suggestion was to use vegetables that otherwise would be thrown out because their irregular shapes disallow them from being sold commercially, their esculence notwithstanding. His idea was to use the ugly vegetables as filling for gyoza, the Japanese name for the vegetable- or meat-stuffed dumplings often known as pot stickers in Chinese restaurants in the United States. JA Okinawa now plans to sell 12 different varieties on a seasonal basis, including those filled with rakkyo (an Asian scallion) or karashima (mustard greens).

First out of the box were the goya dumplings, with a package of 12 selling for 500 yen. The goya is a bitter green vegetable that’s quite popular among health conscious Japanese, particularly Okinawans. It’s slightly smaller than an American cucumber with a soft, knobby skin. Like a green pepper, it’s hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds. The goya is so nutritious the Western vegetarian might be tempted to turn it into an object of religious veneration.

One of the JA officials thinks they have a winner:

These non-standard products that can’t be sold commercially are reborn in popular food products. That has two advantages. It’s environmentally friendly because it reduces waste, and it boosts the income of farm families.

Katsuobushi cookies

Every 10 years, the city of Makurazaki in Kagoshima holds a fish cuisine competition to celebrate their incorporation as a municipality, a blessed event that occurred 60 years ago. The Makurazakians held their once-a-decade fest earlier this year, and the Grand Prize winner was a 16-year-old high school girl who created three varieties of katsuobushi cookies. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna that’s been shaved into flakes. It’s usually used to make soup broth.

Katsuobushi cookie winner with Mom

If you think fish cookies sound unappetizing, consider this: The reports say the girl’s creations were the overwhelming favorite of the judges. They had 133 entries to choose from, including hamburgers made with aji (horse mackerel) and vegetables instead of beef. She pocketed JPY 50,000 (almost $US 550) in prize money.

The cookies are made by mixing okara (high fiber soy pulp, also as healthful as the dickens) with the katsuobushi, and flavoring with ginger and soy sauce. She deliberately kept the use of butter and eggs to a minimum, which means they’re unlikely to appear on the shelves of your neighborhood convenience store anytime soon.

She also had incentive—she kept working to refine the recipe because her mother entered the same contest and she wanted to prove her chops. Mother and daughter still get along fine, however, as the photo shows. Perfecting the cookies did require some effort, as she later admitted it was difficult to get them to turn out soft and plump. She’s glad everyone likes them and thinks they might go over well as a snack in drinking establishments.

Soy yoghurt beverage

When Prof. Yanagida Fujidoshi, the head of the Institute of Enology and Viticulture in Yamanashi, downed a soy milk beverage made by Hakushuya Mamekichi of Hokuto at a food fair last July, the proverbial light bulb went on over his head. He contacted the beverage company, and together they developed a yoghurt beverage made from soy instead of milk, using wine yeast. All the ingredients—the soy, the natural spring water, and the wine yeast—are local products.

The professor and his creation

The beverage tastes so much like the real thing it’ll fool yoghurt fans despite the absence of milk. The company says the fermentation of lactic acid causes an unpleasant aroma, and conventional yoghurt products mask that aroma with milk products and fruit flavors in the later processing stages. That’s no problem with their product, however, because it’s soy and nothing but. Brewing one bottle requires about 30 soybeans, or 150 grams.

The company also claims the use of wine yeast doubles the production of lactic acid and increases by 1.7 times the amount of succinic acid, which provides the umami . They suggest selling a bottle for JPY 150 (about $US 1.63), though they won’t make an issue over it. The beverage is currently available in local supermarkets and michi no eki (literally, road or trail stations), which are rest stops along Japanese highways. Most have shops that sell local goods. There are 871 nationwide as of the moment.

The company is planning a full lineup of soy yoghurt beverages with local fruit added. It’s going to be called the Yanagida series and feature the professor’s picture on the label.

Who knows? The professor might become as well-known a celebrity as the Iron Chef.

Blueberry udon

The Japanese have been slurping down udon noodles since the Asuka period, which ended exactly 1,300 years ago this year, but the blueberry udon recently created in Asago, Hyogo demonstrates there are still some new things under the sun after all.

Udon is soup with noodles that tend to be as thick as a chopstick, but chewier and fluffier than spaghetti. The broth is usually either miso- or fish-flavored, and all sorts of varieties can be created by adding different ingredients and spices.

An Asago park well-known for its wisterias has been staging a festival for the past month and a half, and they came up with the idea of publicizing the event by creating a new dish in which blueberries are added to the flour-and-water udon noodle mix. The resulting purple noodles, color coordinated with the wysteria, were served with tempura-fried vegetables, including a type of green onion local to the area and mushrooms. This in turn was placed on wisterial petals and placed in a bowl. Reports say the tartness of the blueberries enhanced the flavor of the other ingredients.

There were plenty of blueberries available because the local chamber of commerce and industry has been growing them and looking for something to do with the surplus crop. The festival ended just last week, and during that time they planned to sell 100 bowls of blueberry udon every day for JPY 500 (about $US 5.45) each, which is not a bad price, as well as take-out meals for two or three people at JPY 450 yen each, an even better price. The producers are going to look at overall sales and make a decision on whether to commercialize the product.

Lotus ice cream

The lotus is mentioned in the Kojiki of 712 (Record of Ancient Matters), which means the Japanese have been growing the plant for as long as they’ve been eating udon. There’s more to it than the beauty, however—the lotus is a big deal in Buddhism, whose theorists have used it to symbolize the human condition. The plant is rooted in the mud of a pond, but it rises above the water to bloom and attain enlightenment.

My sweet tooth says I want to, but my wisdom tooth says no

And if you’re in Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui, anytime soon, they’ll enlighten you with some lotus ice cream, which they’ve given the name Hasukoro Inpact. That’s one prime example of the many visual treats in the written Japanese language, by the way. It’s rendered はすコロINパクト, which combines the two Japanese alphabets of hiragana and katakana and the Roman alphabet.

Speaking of treats with multiple ingredients, the Somoyama hot springs resort in Minamiechizen-cho created the lotus ice cream (actually soft ice cream) to sell on the premises. Instead of the usual crunchy cone, they use one made with cornet bread that has ground lotus leaf mixed in the dough. Don’t miss a trick, do they? The outside is crisp, but the inside is chewy. To make the confection, they start with regular vanilla ice cream and add some raspberry sherbet mixed with another sherbet made from lotus wine. The local epicures say it’s a delectable combination of the sweet and the tart. The spa is selling it until the end of June at their restaurant on the premises for JPY 380 (about $US 4.14). The reports say it will be sold after that for JPY 450, but didn’t specify how or where it will be sold.

If you’re in Japan, though, you can always call the spa at (0778) 47-3368 and ask.

Socho curry

The pictures of Chef Michifude and Prof. Yanagida adorn the labels of the products they helped develop, but Prof. Oike Kazuo of Kyoto University got his photo on the package of Socho Curry mix just because he happened to be the president (socho) of the school when the product was created.

The curry was jointly developed in 2005 by the Kyoto Broadcasting System and the Kyoto U. Co-op with the idea of making then-President Oike, the 24th, more familiar to the students. It was intended to be sold only at the campus cafeteria and in nearby shops. But it became an instant hit with the students, so they decided to produce it as a retorted curry rice product and flog it on the market for JPY 630 apiece. They’ve sold so many they’ve earned an aggregate of JPY 100 million (about $US 1.09 million) in revenue to date.

There’s no word why it’s been so successful in Japan’s crowded curry market, albeit in just one part of it, but then again college students aren’t known to be finicky eaters as long as the price is right. Nevertheless, the Socho Curry success story has got the Co-op so excited, they’re planning to develop more products.

Now for the hard stuff—here comes the hooch!

Mango lager

Hideji, a microbrewery in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, wanted to create a special beer using something distinctively Miyazakian. That was the inspiration for brewing mango lager, mangoes being a special product of the prefecture. Don’t get the wrong idea—some, but not all, of the yeast used to ferment the beer is been made from mango rinds, and some of the fruit is used in the mix. That’s why it’s classified as a happoshu (“sparkling spirits”) for Japanese tax purposes rather than beer, because it has less than 67% malt by content.

Mango lager

Theirs wasn’t an overnight success—it took three years worth of product development to come up with something they were willing to sell. The pluses include the fresh spring water the brewery uses near its location at the foot of a mountain, a slightly sweet flavor, lightness, and fewer calories. It has just 25% of the sugar content of regular beers. It also has plenty of malic acid, which is said to have energy-enhancing and anti-aging properties. In other words, it builds you up and tears you down at the same time.

Still others will appreciate the 5.2% alcohol by volume.

The Hideji brewery is so pleased they’re going to work with Miyazaki University to examine the possibility of creating other microbrews with 80 different types of yeast, including those made from such local citrus fruits such as the hyuganatsu and the kumquat. Now that’s a lab I wouldn’t mind working in.

They’re selling the beer in 330 ml bottles for JPY 600 apiece, which is a bit steep, but it is a microbrew after all. It’s available at the gift shop in the Miyazaki Airport and at the local michi no eki shops. What the heck, if you’re in Japan and the beer and mango combination has whetted either your thirst or your appetite, give the brewery a call at (0982) 39-0090 and ask if they’ll ship you some.

Firewater

Beer in all its forms has far and away the highest sales of any alcoholic beverage in Japan, but some people unfamiliar with national alcohol consumption habits might not be aware that sales of the distilled beverage shochu, which resembles vodka or gin, top sake sales in some years. Way down south in such prefectures as Kagoshima and Okinawa, shochu far outsells sake, and Kagoshima doesn’t even have a sake brewery.

The word shochu is written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor”, which literally makes it firewater. I can testify that if you drink too much, it just might start some spontaneous internal combustion.

Fighting fire with firewater

The head of the volunteer fire department in Kajiya-cho, Kagoshima City, is naturally concerned about fire prevention, so he hit upon the idea to create his own shochu and call it Hikeshidamashii, which means “fire extinguishing spirit”. No, not spirits–spirit, as in demon, and no, not demon rum, either! The distinguishing feature of his brand is that the label has a fire prevention message—it reminds people of the law requiring smoke detectors to be installed by the end of May 2011. He developed the drink with another volunteer fireman who works at a liquor wholesaler. Another reason for the choice of the name is that volunteer firefighters like to wear t-shirts with hikeshidamashii written on them.

So, to put it all together, a fireman in a city renowned for its firewater has a burning desire to prevent fires, so he creates a new kind of firewater called Fire Extingushing Spirit to remind the people drinking spirits to install smoke detectors.

Try saying that without stuttering after a few shots of shochu.

If that inflames your curiosity, and you live in Japan, give the shop a call at 099-224-4531 to see if he’ll sell you some. A 1.8 liter bottle sells for JPY 1,800, which is a reasonable price for shochu.

Microbeers making a comeback

Microbeers took off in a macro way in Japan with the amendment to the tax law in 1994 that made it financially more feasible to brew and sell them. But Japanese will be the first to tell you that boomlets there quickly skyrocket and just as quickly fizzle out. That’s what happened after the middle-aged drinkers switched to the recently developed, and much cheaper so-called “third beers” made with such ingredients as pea protein, soy protein, or soy peptide instead of malt. (Yes, I agree. Ugh.) In addition to the bargain prices, the taste is much lighter than that of the real thing.

But the Japan Craft Beer Association (see link on right sidebar) reports that microbrews began making a comeback three years ago, primarily among younger people. That year, 28,800 kiloliters were brewed, double the total from 2005. A spokesman for the association said:

Most new customers are people younger than 40 who don’t have any preconceived notions about beer.

He added that they tend to view the high-quality brews as they would wine, an outlook they share among microbrew aficionados in the West. Another reason this is a welcome trend for brewers is that national consumption of all types of beer has been trending downward recently. Year-on-year sales were down 3.2% in April, the fourth consecutive monthly decline. That was the second-lowest April total since tracking of the statistic began in 1992.

Spotting an opportunity, the Kansai region’s microbrewers held the first microbrew festival in Kyoto on the 23rd last month at a shopping mall favored by young people called Shin-Puh-Kan (That’s a groovy way to spell shinpu, which means new wind.) A total of 20 breweries participated and presented 40 brands, selling their wares for JPY 300 a glass. Said an organizer:

With overall beer sales declining every year, the resurgence of microbrews is a trend both old and new. I hope we can reestablish ourselves in the Kansai area.

Judging from the following YouTube video, the mall seems to be enclosed with an open courtyard, making it an excellent site for people to mill about and drink without disturbing the neighborhood. (Don’t worry about the narration if you don’t understand Japanese–it’s just standard PR.) The mall also vaguely resembles the view of the neighborhood from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in the Hitchcock film, Rear Window, a perennial favorite in Japan. Coincidence?

Here’s an idea: The high school girl from Kagoshima could provide the Craft Beer Association with her katsuobushi cookies to sell as snacks at the microbrew festivals, and after polishing off a few rounds of mango lager, everyone could stop off for a bowl of blueberry udon on the way home!

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Dined and sated

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 10, 2010

MOST MEN prefer women with hourglass figures, and many prefer the skinny to the fully cushioned, but the guys in Katsuyama, Fukui, have made it a point for centuries to fatten up the local females. For more than 400 years, as a matter of fact.

That’s the idea behind a traditional event formally known as “The Serving of Kannon” (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), but which some women probably think of as the Rice Attack. The event combines a supplication for good health and a good harvest with an acknowledgement of the hard work women do every day of the year. It’s an intangible culture treasure of the city, and the custom is currently continued by 12 families. This year it was held at 8:00 p.m. on 20 February.

The children of the neighborhood collect about 11 liters of rice from the families in the district, which is then steamed and make into gruel (o-kayu). The women and girls sit in a circle and get ready for the food onslaught by covering their laps with a towel.

The men circulate around the room and chant, “This is the serving of Kannon,” and put heaping helpings of rice in their bowls. Judging from their singing and staggering in the video clip below, the men likely passed the time waiting for the rice to cook by filling their own bellies with rice wine.

The women try to cover the rice with their hands, or turn to the wall, but the men keep looking for an opening to fill their bowls until they overflow.

That works as a metaphor for me!

The woman at the end of the 1:16 video, by the way, laughs and says, “Ah, I’m full, I’m full.” Maybe the protestations from the women are mostly for show–they’re clapping and singing during the rice pounding at the start of the video, and they all know what’s coming next.

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (3)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 12, 2010

JAPAN MAY OR MAY NOT become the world’s next cultural hegemon, but the daily parade of cultural phenomena in this country is too immense and diverse to keep track of it all. It’s better just to let it wash all over you and enjoy whatever you can whenever it flows by.

Here’s a baker’s dozen of rivulets from the recent flood.

Bigfoot

The Nio guardian statues stand guard as sentries at the entrance gate of temples. As the Buddhists have it, they are emanations of Vajrapani Bodhisattva that represent the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, birth and death. It takes two to guard the gate, one with mouth open, and the other with mouth closed.

But just like the rest of us, the alphas and the omegas need something to cover their bare feet. The solution in some places is supersized waraji, or straw sandals. That’s no exaggeration–Kataoka Tsuneo in Echizen, Fukui, recently made a pair more than two meters long. Or to be precise, they were 2.1 meters long, 85 centimeters wide, and 14 centimeters thick. At 6 feet 10 inches, they’re longer than most people are tall. They also weighed between 40 to 50 kilograms each.

To be even more precise, Mr. Kataoka didn’t make them by himself. “It’s an impossible job for one person when they’re this size,” he admitted, so he called on two apprentice cobblers to help. It took the trio a week to put the sandals together.

This isn’t the sort of thing that people regularly do, even in Japan. Said Mr. Kataoka, “It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve made any sandals that big.” He made a one-meter pair for some smaller Nio last year, but said, “Orders for something like this don’t come around all that often. Even if I wanted to make some, it’s hard to find the time.”

He gave them to a temple in Yamagata this month after he applied the finishing touches.

Hotfoot

Every alpha has its omega, and even the strongest of straw sandals wear out eventually after standing sentry duty at the temple gates for so long. But when those waraji are no longer usable, they can’t just be tossed out in the trash. Many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, and that goes double for objects that require specialized skills to make and were used at a religious institution. They’ve been invested with a lot of ki, after all. Disposing of them requires a special ceremony.

The most famous giant straw sandals in the country are the pair used at Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. That’s the oldest temple in Japan, and you can read about its origins here.

The practice of hanging waraji at Senso-ji started in 1941 when lower house MP Matsuoka Toshizo donated the first pair as a symbol of national defense. They’ve been replaced once every decade since then. The sixth pair was 4.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide, and weighed one ton each. They were donated in 1998 and hung on the Hozomon (gate). This particular pair was made by a resident of Murayama, Yamagata—Matsuoka Toshizo’s hometown—and they’ve been on display in that city since being returned in 2008.

But all good things must come to an end, so they were dispatched in a rite called the Otakiage. After an initial Shinto ceremony, about 50 Murayamanians took them apart by removing the wires holding the straw in place. A fire was then lighted to burn the straw, during which a Buddhist mass was conducted. And since it would have been a shame to waste that nice bonfire, the 200 or so people who showed up to watch were given mochi rice cakes, which they stuck on the end of bamboo sticks and roasted.

If that ain’t the alpha and the omega, I don’t know what is.

Since many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, no one was surprised when the chairman of the event said:

形も崩れず、今まで頑張ってくれた大わらじにお疲れさまと言いたい

I’ll be darned if I can come up with a satisfying English translation that does justice to the original and is still comfortably readable. Let’s try this:

“The sandals didn’t lose their shape and did us the favor of making every effort to hang together until now, so we want to thank them for their service.”

Regardless of how it sounds in English, that sounds perfectly natural in Japanese.

The world’s largest lawnmower?

Streetcars still run in some Japanese cities, including Nagasaki City and Kagoshima City. Several years ago, Kagoshima City planted turf in between the tracks to ameliorate the heat island effect and add some greenery to the city at the same time.

But as anyone who has a lawn knows, that grass grows and it has to be cut. Hiring students part-time and sending them out with a fleet of lawnmowers wouldn’t cut it on the streetcar line.

So the Kagoshima City Transportation Department and the Osaka Sharyo Co. recently began trials of what they think is the world’s first grass cutting train, with the objective of putting it into regular service at the end of the month. The train also is able to water the grass, if only to make sure they have something to cut. Either that or it’s a make-work project for the railroad workers union.

The first trial was run on a stretch of track on which the grass wasn’t high enough to cut—it doesn’t grow so fast in winter down south in Kagoshima. They just wanted to test the all the equipment to see if it functioned.

Function it did, so the next day they switched to a track where the grass had grown. Everything worked quite well, though there was one drawback. The train moved at a speed slower than a human walks, and that caused a lot of strain on the driver. Maybe they’re not unionized after all.

One thing the reports didn’t mention—what are they going to do with all those grass clippings? I can’t imagine the Japanese just leaving them there on the street.

The crop’s not for eating

They were also cutting some plants down to size out in the country last month.

Backyard drama!

Last month some more plants were cut down to size. Instead of cropping grass, the farmers in Ogimi-son, Okinawa, were harvesting their crop of futoi, or what the dictionaries say is called zebra rush in English.

Whether in Japan or the Anglosphere, however, the use of the plant is the same—it’s for decoration. Urges one English-language website, “Add authenticity to your backyard wetland habitat by planting zebra rush.”

Backyard gardeners are now recreating authentic swamps? I’ve been away for longer than I thought. But wait, it gets better:

“The distinct alternating green and white stripes of the Zebra Rush instantly add pattern, density, and vertical drama to your backyard paradise.”

I’ll stick with the humdrum azalea bushes and dogwood trees.

The plant grows three feet tall, or as the website would have it, “narrow spiked stems tower 3 feet tall”, but that’s too big for its Japanese use. Here it’s employed as a prop in flower arrangements, where it presumably lends drama to the art of ikebana. Do the farmers in the Kijoka district of Ogimi-son, the national leader in futoi production, consider it so dramatic? They probably don’t care as long as they can make a buck at it.

By all accounts, the winter crop in Kijoka was a bumper harvest because of the warmer weather in that part of the country this year. The farmers rushed their zebra rush to the closest JA cooperative, which by now must be blase to all that drama. They collected it, bunched it, and sent it to auction markets throughout the country.

White lightning

After all that work, it’s about time to knock back a drink, don’t you think? As they say in the U.S., it’s bound to be 5 o’clock somewhere in the world, and whaddaya know, a quick look at my watch shows it’s just now chiming five in Zanzibar.

It’s not out of the question that the mochi roasters in Yamagata, the grass-cutting train operators in Kagoshima, or the futoi farmers in Okinawa chose to relax with some doburoku, the Japanese version of homebrew for the mass market. Doburoku is a milky white, sweet type of sake that hasn’t been fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.

Not just anyone can make the hooch, however—the 131 breweries producing it need a special license and they have to be located in one of 91 designated districts around the country. But unless one has a special taste for it, most people think of it as that funky stuff over there on the next shelf that they might buy once every few years for a change of pace or out of nostalgia.

The members of the Sakebunka Institute in Tokyo had a big idea, however. They decided to hold the Tokyo Doburoku Festival 2010 in January, which they claim was the first event of its kind. One of the institute’s stated objectives for the festival was to spread the sake culture. Since Sakebunka means “sake culture”, they’re just doing what they were organized to do. And since this is a cultural kaleidoscope, we’ll pitch in and do our part.

The institude asked all the producers in the country to submit entries, and they received 75. The liquor went through two rounds of judging. For the first round, the institute formed five groups of 30 people each, who swilled 15 different types. They voted, some sober assistants tallied up the totals, and those in first and second place moved on to the finals.

The judges in the second round consisted of five specialists—including sommeliers—and five regular folks. Seven of the beverages were awarded grand prizes, with one chosen as the primo stuff and two others chosen as pretty dang good. The brewers in Iide-machi, Yamagata, were excited that their Iide Nakatsugawa doburoku, shown here, was chosen as one of the seven grand prize winners. It didn’t finish in the top three, but its aroma and flavor lifted it up into the upper 10% of all the entrants. Others favored its slight sweetness, fruitiness, and good balance.

The Iidenians had good reason to be thrilled–the district was designated as a doburoku producer in March 2004, which means they’re still relatively wet behind the ears. This particular brand is known for using 100% sake rice and a lot of rice malt.

Cultural mavens and liquor lovers who read Japanese can see the results on the Sakebunka Institute page here. Those interested in reading about a more righteous doburoku festival at a Shinto shrine can do so here.

Drinking like a fish

You’ve heard of lushes who drink so much they get pickled? Well, in the same Iide-machi doburoku district, they use the booze to pickle the fish—specifically, the seem fish, or yamame in Japanese. The pickling project was conceived and launched last year by employees at the local Shirakawa-so ryokan. The idea was to create a new product using local fish, the local doburoku, and the local cold weather.

The fish are soaked for 15 hours in a special sauce made from the doburoku and tamarijoyu, a soy sauce made from refined soy. Then they’re dried for three days in the cold air. They process about 3,000 fish specifically for the guests at their ryokan. Those who’ve eaten the sake-soused fish say it has a unique and rich flavor. The pickling work ended in mid-February, so all that’s left is the eating.

It’s not every product that would receive attention from sommeliers and gastronomes at the same time, but the Iide Nakatsugawa seems to qualify.

The antidote is in the poison

There’s more you can do with sake than to get high or to get pickled. The Shurei sake merchants of Naha, Okinawa, have developed and are selling an awamori-based medicinal herb drink called Genkoku. They’ve acquired a patent for their manufacturing process after a wait of seven years.

Like doburoku, awamori has a different legal classification. That’s because it’s made only in Okinawa with a different kind of yeast, and some varieties still use rice from Thailand. Awamori is a form of shochu rather than Japanese sake, but of the many distillers in the Okinawan islands, only one produces what is legally called shochu. The rest make awamori.

Genkoku has nine ingredients, including local turmeric, eucalyptus, gardenia, and safflower. You can make up your own mind whether that’s a waste of good shochu or a waste of good medical herbs. The president of the distillery created the product by idly mixing herbs brought by a friend into his awamori. The result is an amber liquid with a mild taste that is said to be very drinkable. It’s now sold in specialty stores and some supermarkets with little or no advertising. They charge JPY 4,200 yen (about $US 46.50) for a 720 ml bottle, which is about 40 proof according to the U.S. definition. They sell about 7,000 bottles a year, 70% of it to people outside Okinawa. Fans of the beverage say it makes them feel better or sleep better.

The herbs must cover the first part. Most any hooch will take care of the second.

A southern fish burger

Now that we’ve had the aperitifs, it’s time for dinner, and the first selection on the menu is the Minami burger. That’s a culinary creation by the Minami-cho Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tokushima using local finfish and shellfish. They’ve already conducted a trial by selling 100 Minami burger meals with the main course made from fried ribbonfish, or tachiuo in Japanese. A Minami burger consists of fried fish, lettuce, cucumbers, and tartar sauce. That sounds pretty tasty, and you can’t beat the JPY 200 price ($US 2.21). The Tokushimanians came up with the idea because novel burger-type sandwiches are all the rage, and local fishermen catch a heap of ribbonfish.

They chose the tachiuo to start because it is caught nearly year-round, and ribbonfish fry is popular in local restaurants. It’s been so successful they’ve been mulling the creation of more new burgers upscale epicures using Ise ebi and turbin shells (sazae). If sales go well at the local Ise ebi festival, they’ll try to get shops in town to make them.

Burgers on the sly

If stealth food is more to your taste than ribbonfish, you might be tempted to try the Ninja Burger cooked up by students at Konan High School in Koka. Shiga. As part of their studies of dietary habits and health, the students were asked to create 11 new products for a food stall in a parking area of the Shin-Meishin Expressway, and that’s how the Ninja Burger snuck into the menu. The sales outlet chose that dish to sell because it can be served five minutes after ordering, it was more efficient to make, and it uses an old strain of local rice with ninja connotations.

The students replaced the bun with a fried combination of black rice, mochi rice, and white rice. That’s filled with chicken, cabbage, and lettuce, and this burger sounds tasty too, doesn’t it? The shop sells it as part of a set with a small salad and soup for JPY 500, but offer only 10 servings a day. Whether it was because of the ingredients, the scarcity, or the ninja cachet, the product took off. One diner interviewed said the aroma and the sweetness of the chicken were a good match.

Koka is the home area of ninjutsu, and the ninja were said to fancy the black mochi rice. Perhaps that’s because it contains anthocyanin, which improves the vision. Some of the other ideas the students came up with were a black rice parfait, in which the rice is powdered and mixed with ice, and takoyaki (octopus balls fried in batter) using local beef instead of octopus.

Make mine the ninja burger!

Zaasai’s the limit

Zaasai is what the Japanese call zha cai (搾菜, or pressed vegetable), a Chinese dish that is the pickled stem of a species of mustard plant, first made in Sichuan. The plant itself is related to mustard greens, which are eaten as funky food in the southern U.S.

The Chinese salt, press, and dry the stem, rub in red chili paste, and allow it to ferment in a process similar to that for kimchi. The result is spicy, sour, and salty, and is said to have an aroma similar to sauerkraut with chili paste.

The Japanese variety is not spicy and only slightly sour. It is most often cut into small pieces and eaten as a topping on rice. My wife and I often ate it until my wife decided not to buy any more food coming from China, and apparently she was not alone. Most of the zaasai consumed in Japan is grown in China, but sales have taken a hit in recent years. The demand is still strong, however.

That inspired a research group consisting of 34 farming volunteers in Takahata-machi, Yamagata, to start a three-year project to grow the plant themselves. Before the planting, they held discussions with farmers in Tsukuba, Ibaragi and Miura, Kanagawa, who also grow the crop. It turns out that cultivation is not much different from that for other green vegetables. It also can be grown in greenhouses. As you can see from the photo, they’ve already harvested some. In addition to the parts used to make zaasai, they’ve sold the unused parts of the plant to companies and Tokyo Chinese restaurants.

Good luck to them. I liked it myself, and if they can come up with a viable Japanese version, maybe my wife will start buying it again.

Pucker power

After feasting on doburoku, minami burgers, and ninja burgers, the next thing we’ll need is some mouthwash to freshen up the breath. Fortunately, there’s something new in those lines, too.

We’ve already had a post about the terrifically tart shiikwasa fruit, or hirami lemon, native to Okinawa, that is used to put capital letters on otherwise simple flavors and as a health drink. Now Tennen Kobo of Okinawa City, which develops and sells aromatherapy products, has found another use for the citrus fruit. It recently began sales of Clear Gift, a mouthwash made using shiikwasa extract. The juice works to harden the proteins and oils in the mouth, making them easier to remove and improving the breath. The product contains no surface activating agents, artificial fragrances or colors, or preservatives. The extract is combined with xylitol and four tea extracts.

Tennen Kobo is promoting its use for older people and children who don’t like mint and have trouble brushing their teeth. The company sells it through dental clinics and hopes to move 10,000 bottles the first year. If the idea appeals to you, it’s also sold on the net for JPY 3,700 yen for a 500 ml bottle. It took a year of work with the sales agency Ryubi Sangyo of Naha to come up with the product.

I can see how it would be effective. Shiikwasa are so tart any bacteria that wanted to survive would flee its presence.

New wine in old bottles

Eat, drink, and be merry, goes the saying, and right about now it’s high time for the merry part. With gagaku, though, you’ll have to find your merriment through quiet contemplation rather than cutting the rug.

One form of gagaku is an ancient music that originated on the continent which gradually took on a Japanese cast and became associated with the Imperial court. It’s still performed by musicians working with the Imperial Palace, which makes it the longest continuous stage art in the world. But there are also gagaku groups that play music written by contemporary composers in the classical style. The foremost of those groups is Reigakusha, which is shown here performing in Fukushima in January. The concert was held to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Music from Japan, an organization that performs contemporary versions of traditional Japanese music around the world. Shortly thereafter, they traveled to New York City and Washington D.C. to present the first performances of two new pieces. The group frequently appears in New York, and they are actually funded in part by the New York state government. Last month they performed at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, and no, I don’t want to know how a concert hall admitting the general public (or should I say pubic?) wound up with that name.

Here’s a minute-and-a-half taste:

Venus de Jomon

For the devotees of wine, women, and song, we’ve had everything in this post but the women. But the last shall come first, says the Christian holy book, and nothing comes more first than a hot babe!

Now I ask you—is she hot, or is she hot!

There are two types of figurines among the ancient cultural treasures in Japan, the doguu and the haniwa. The former come from the Jomon period, while the latter, which are much better known, come from the kofun or burial mound period.

All the doguu are females. While scholars say it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the sex of the doguu, there is no mistaking the gender of some male haniwa. There was an exhibit of the former at the Tokyo National Museum last month (right sidebar), which presented 67 in all, including some designated as national treasures.

The old saw about some artists having to go abroad to find fame and recognition before being recognized in their homelands might work for cultural artifacts, too. The Cultural Affairs Agency sponsored this exhibit in the British Museum in London from September to November last year, and it went over so well they decided they might as well show it to the Japanese themselves.

There’s no mistaking the sex of the doguu shown here. She’s familiarly known as the Jomon Venus, probably because of those heavy hips. Now that’s a lot of Ponderosa! She’s only 27 centimeters high, and hails from an archaeological site in Chino, Nagano. She’s also known as the Detchiri Doguu, and no one will be surprised to find out the first word is a Japanese creation that means protruding butt. She also seems to be pregnant. Were women built like that in Japan in those days, or is that just Jomon cheesecake?

Most of the doguu date from 2,000 – 1,000 BC, and they are thought to have been fertility symbols. Well, flash a protruding butt in front of any male at any time in human history and what do you think’s going to happen?

That brings to mind a comment of one of the world’s most famous living lechers, former President Bill Clinton of the U.S. During a visit to view “Juanita”, a recently discovered Incan mummy displayed at the National Geographic museum, he commented, “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”

They’re going to have to erect Nio guardian statues to keep that man out of the National Museum on his next visit to Tokyo!

Afterwords:

Speaking of inanimate objects having a spirit, here’s a story: I recently bought a used nine-volume set of the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, the premier English-language reference work on the country. I already had the single-volume version, which itself is probably second on the list, but there’s nothing finer than the full set.

I spent an hour or so in the used bookstores of the Kanda district in Tokyo last October looking for it, and finally discovered a set on sale for JPY 100,000 (about $US 1,100). That’s expensive, but I was still willing to pay the price–the reference is that good.

Just before spending the money, however, I spoke to a woman whose husband died a couple of years ago. He had a set of his own. I asked her about the possibility of buying it, and she was more than happy to let me have it. She knew I really wanted it, and said that her husband would have wanted me to have the books. She added, “Besides, the books will be happy too.”

I don’t think it’s weird at all.

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Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Nippon Noel 2009 (3): Straight from Santa’s arbor

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 26, 2009

IT DOESN’T FEEL like Christmas without the decorations, and Christmas decorations aren’t complete without the most important symbol of the secular festival—trimmed Christmas trees. As a click on the Christmas tag below will reveal, the Japanese apply their prodigious imagination for adding Big Fun to festivals and create unique tannenbaum designs. Here are a few more in this year’s Christmas card of a post.

Saga ceramics

The towns of Arita and Imari in Saga are known throughout the world as production centers for ceramics and porcelain. Close by in the same prefecture is the Hiryu Kiln in Takeo, which has the world’s largest noborigama, or climbing kiln. Those kilns have multiple chambers, making possible the creation of fine porcelain. This year was the second year the kiln produced ceramic Christmas trees, both for exhibit and sale. The photo shows a few of the 100 from this year’s batch. The base of the trees is 15 centimeters in diameter, and they are 20 centimeters tall. Light-emitting diodes in three colors provide the illumination. If you’re interested in placing one on your end table or mantel as a seasonal adornment, prices start at JPY 3,500 (about $US 38.26).

Tokushima bread

It’s a simple matter for ceramists to apply their skills to Christmas decorations, but that’s a bit more difficult for bakers to do. The bread chefs at the Tokushima Grand Vrio Hotel in Tokushima City were not to be deterred, however, and they came up with the idea of making the hotel’s first floor Christmas tree out of French bread. This year’s version was the fourth for the hotel’s doughboys. The 2.5-meter-high tree, which looks a bit like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, was built with 132 loaves of bread in six tiers. The long tubular shape of most bread doesn’t lend itself to seasonal decorations, so the chefs created their own Christmas bread art by making edible ornaments in the shape of stars, wreaths, airplanes, and tigers—2010 being the year of the tiger in the Oriental zodiac.

Making a good design better

The train station in Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, is the only one in Japan to have received a Good Design award from the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Association. Buildings recognized for their good design deserve a Christmas display worthy of the honor, so the Iwamizawans decorated the 25-meter-high dawn redwood, or metasequoia, in front of the station with 30,000 blue, red, and green LEDs for Project Xmas 2009. The station building received the award this year, so those 30,000 lights are 20% more than are hung in a normal year. A crowd of about 300 people showed up to watch the lighting ceremony, in which a group of parents and their children dressed up as Santas to hold a countdown. The lights go on from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Obama’s PET bottles

Who else but the Japanese would find a way to turn garbage into seasonal beauty and develop the citizens’ eco-consciousness at the same time? As this post from 2007 shows, making Christmas trees from discarded PET bottles has become something of a national pastime, and the folks in Obama, Fukui, got into the act for the first time this year. About 150 of the Obamanians teamed up to build a six-meter-high tree with 4,286 PET bottles in front of a culinary school. This was no casual activity—it took three months to assemble the PET tree using 500-milliliter and two-liter bottles. The base of the tree is 3.5 meters in diameter, and steel was used to make both the trunk and the base. The base was secured to the treetop with 16 wires. The bottles were hung by the cooking school with care by passing other wires through each one from a hole in bottom to the mouth. To create the effect of interior illumination, lights were attached to the steel frame. Who would have thought that sticky plastic gunk could be made to create something so attractive? The tree will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. until January.

Trees on a Tokyo beach

Having spent my high school years in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I can vouch for the fact that it does snow on the beach. It’s incongruous to see snow drifts on sand that was the scene of summertime fun just a few months before, but it does happen. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to brighten up the beach with decorations on a seasonal theme, even in Tokyo. That’s the objective behind Candle Night in Odaiba 2009, in which the beach is lit up by 3,000 candles covered with paper lamps. The candles are arranged to look like Christmas trees, shooting stars, and snow crystals. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see the combination of several traditions with some local innovations, the candles are lit from sundown to 9:00 p.m., as long as the surf’s not up.

Bottoms up

What’s a hotel to do during Christmas if it wants to attract casual visitors but doesn’t have a boulangerie on the premises? The proprietors of the Grand Park Otaru in Otaru, Hokkaido, must have stood on their heads to come up with an answer, but they found one that works. They decorated their first floor lobby with an upside-down Yuletide tree. The tree—or should it be cone?—is three meters tall from the base down to the top. It is festooned with the usual decorations, including balls, lights, and boxes crafted to look like presents. Speaking of what things looks like, the people who stopped by to see for themselves thought the tree looked like a bouquet.

Christmas Day-o

Bananas wouldn’t seem to fit with the wintertime images that have become associated with the holiday festivities, but that didn’t stop a public-private sector partnership for municipal development in Iga, Mie, to trim a tree in a local shopping arcade with bananas. The three-meter-high tree was made with materials that would ordinarily have been discarded as unusable by local businesspeople and merchants. Seven bamboo poles were used for support, and that’s another material which seldom comes to mind as a Christmas decoration. The primary ornaments were 400 bananas that couldn’t be sold for consumption because of size standards, and would have otherwise been thrown away. In addition to the bananas, other decorations included cotton—to represent all the snow in banana-growing countries, of course—and two Santa dolls climbing up the side. Ten people put it together earlier this month, and if they wanted a snack while they were working, they probably didn’t send out for pizza. This tree is illuminated from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., though the reports didn’t say how they managed to get the LEDs inside the fruit without peeling them first.

In most Western countries, 25 December has traditionally been the start of Christmas celebrations, so people leave the trimmings and decorations up until at least the first week of the new year. But in Japan, the big yearend holiday is still a week away, and that means most of these trees, lights, bread, bananas, and PET bottles will disappear for another year starting from the 26th.

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Japan’s political kaleidoscope (4): Too many cooks, too many crooks, and too many kooks

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 21, 2009

The devil’s greatest achievement was to have persuaded so many people that he doesn’t exist.
- Baudelaire

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity–but don’t rule out malice.
- attributed to Albert Einstein

The essence of the Democratic Party of Japan now is a three-tiered structure of the Finance Ministry, Party Secretary-General Ozawa’s troops, and public sector labor unions. It will be impossible to maintain this structure without tax increases.
- Nakagawa Hidenao

THE NEW JAPANESE COALITION GOVERNMENT led by the Democratic Party of Japan—with the People’s New Party and the Socialists Democratic Party of Japan invited to hop in the jalopy to buy their upper house votes and relieve the DPJ of the chore of conducting serious negotiations with more responsible legislators—faces a minefield of potential problems as they embark on their magnificent adventure.

Their most serious obstacle is a lack of internal unity. Many in Japan are calling this a “mosaic government” in reference to the incongruent philosophies of the DPJ’s constituent groups, and that doesn’t begin to account for the polar opposite philosophies of their coalition partners. The glue that held the DPJ together this long was the dream of taking control of the government. Now that they’ve reached their version of the promised land, they’re behaving like the crew that tore down the house but still has to figure out how the plumbing and electricity works. And rather than hit the ground running, they’ve hit the ground after running into each other.

The government was in power for just two days before squabbles broke out among Cabinet ministers, and the junior coalition partners began complaining that the DPJ is blowing them off.

Referring to their disagreements with the DPJ, SDPJ Secretary-General Shigeno Yasumasa told a group of reporters gathered in the Diet building, “We’re not on the same page.” PNP head and Cabinet member Kamei Shizuka complained directly to DPJ bigwig Kan Naoto on an NHK TV broadcast yesterday that the minor parties were being shut out of policy decisions.

Meanwhile, the Government must also overcome the skepticism of both the public and the news media that they are competent enough to be trusted with the nation’s car keys, and that they are committed enough to do what they’ve promised to do. That promise is to take the first steps on what the public thinks as their most important mission—wresting control of policy from the nation’s bureaucracy and strengthening local government.

That the public is skeptical is not in doubt. Skepticism might seem odd considering the party’s lopsided lower house majority and their receipt of about 56% of the popular vote nationwide. But an Asahi Shimbun survey published on 2 September shows otherwise. When asked whether they thought the DPJ victory was the result of voter support for their policies, here’s how the respondents answered:

No: 52%
Yes: 38%

Moving on to specific policies….

Wait! Enough! Screw that for a lark. I refuse to go along with the conspiracy of silence from those who primly cop a responsible commentator pose while ignoring that the launch of the new government has combined the slapstick of third-rate provincial vaudeville, leftover LDP hackery refried to hide the odor and slapped with a different label, and enough hypocrisy to choke a televangelist.

Yes, the Liberal Democratic Party had it coming, but it’s not what the Japanese people had coming. I wrote recently that based on past performance, a DPJ-led government had the potential to have more rings than the Ringling Bros., but no one could have predicted that Nagata-cho would turn into the world’s biggest Big Top.

Here’s the short version: Japan’s new government has too many cooks, too many crooks, and too many kooks—and some of them are the same people!

The Cooks…

The Chef de Cuisine

Sometimes called the executive chef, the chef de cuisine is the man whose name is on the menu. But he’s just as likely to spend his time visiting other restaurants or writing cookbooks.

Japan’s new executive chef is Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, who says he intends to reorient the government to make it Cabinet-directed, and who doesn’t say he is continuing a process begun by Koizumi Jun’ichiro and interrupted by his successors.

His position alone makes him a center of power both in the government and his party. One of the DPJ’s founding members and the head of his own faction/group, he used his substantial family fortune to keep the party afloat for several years. What could be more natural than assuming that he is the primary actor in the Government?

Well, there’s this: During the party’s six-day election campaign in the spring to select a new leader when Ozawa Ichiro resigned after his chief aide was arrested for accepting illegal contributions, one Japanese weekly reported that a secret document was circulated to the party’s MPs, who had the exclusive right to vote in the election. The document was said to have been a full frontal attack on Mr. Hatoyama’s opponent, Okada Katsuya, for his weakness during his previous tenure and his responsibility for the party’s rout in the 2005 lower house elections. The debacle, it asserted, was partly due to Mr. Okada’s lack of a spine. It claimed that the party would be much stronger with the “soft” Mr. Hatoyama as the front man and the “hard” Mr. Ozawa wielding a billy club behind the scenes.

So who’s the boss?

The Sous Chef

Nominally the second in command to the Chef de Cuisine, the sous chef often runs the kitchen and creates and cooks the food to be served, and you already know who I’m talking about before I type his name. So does the rest of Japan. Typical of recent reporting was this headline in the Shukan Post:

Ozawa Ichiro Controls the New Government—and Japan!

The new DPJ secretary-general (i.e., party head) will be the Shadow Shogun himself, Ozawa Ichiro, the man for whom an apt comparison would be the kuroko of joruri puppet theater. The kuroko manipulate the puppets in full view of the audience, but are dressed in black and masked to create the collective fiction of invisibility.

Mr. Ozawa is the kuroko who taught the DPJ how to win elections—mostly using all the Tammany techniques and political jiu-jitsu picked up from his mentor Tanaka Kakuei during his days in the LDP. He was also the kuroko of the short-lived Hosokawa and Hata administrations, the only other non-LDP governments since 1955 and another unwieldy amalgamation of incompatible elements.

After leaving center stage, Mr. Ozawa embarked a task more suited to his abilities–non-stop nationwide campaigning and canvassing in local election districts. As a result, an estimated 130-150 of the 308 DPJ members in the lower house and nearly one-third of the full membership now owe their seats to him. In practical terms, that means he has more command over their loyalty than does the party.

Everyone knows he is capable of picking up his ball and taking his team to start a new game elsewhere, as he threatened to do so nearly two years ago when the rest of the DPJ top brass blew their collective top over his proposed coalition with the LDP under Fukuda Yasuo. The Faustian bargain between Mr. Ozawa and the veterans who predate him in the party has allowed him to create a second center of power on which the nominal head, Hatoyama Yukio, must depend. During the DPJ election campaign, it was stressed that a vote for Hatoyama was a vote for party unity. Many saw in that slogan an implied threat that a vote for Okada as party leader meant that Mr. Ozawa would walk.

Money talks, and we all know what walks

The Shukan Bunshun reported that Prime Minister Hatoyama wanted to keep Mr. Ozawa in his position as acting president and Okada Katsuya as party secretary-general.

When word reached the puppet master, he exploded: “Hatoyama and the people around him are clueless.” Another acting party president, Koshi’ishi Azuma, said to have developed close ties with Mr. Ozawa, had to intervene on his behalf with Mr. Hatoyama.

Why the insistence on the position of party secretary-general? Because money talks. In that position, he has control of JPY 17.3 billion (about $U.S. 190 million) in 2010 in government subsidies for the party, a substantial rise from this year’s total of JPY 11.8 billion. He’s just following the literally golden rule of Tanaka Kakuei: Politics is numbers, numbers are power, and power is money.

The new prime minister has no illusions about whom he’s dealing with. Here’s Mr. Hatoyama quoted in the 25 February 1999 Yukan Fuji:

“Mr. Ozawa fled the LDP five years ago only because he lost in a power struggle in his faction and in the party. He’s raised the banner of governmental reform to prevent the people from realizing that.”

And we all know what they say about politics making for strange bedfellows.

Chief Kan Opener

Long-time DPJ stalwart and former party president Kan Naoto is in the Cabinet as both Deputy Prime Minister and the head of a new group called the National Strategy Bureau. What the national strategy will be, and what the bureau will do exactly, we don’t know—and neither does he—but he’s going to be in charge of it. It’s Standard Operating Procedure for the DPJ to come up with a policy or an idea and then figure out what to do with it only when it’s time to do the work.

Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party made a phone call to Mr. Kan to find out more about the bureau. Here’s how one newspaper reported it:

Kamei: What will you do at this National Strategy Bureau?
Kan: I don’t really know. There are several things I’d like to do, but for now, I can only grope my way forward.

The DPJ party platform says: “The National Strategy Bureau will create a national vision for the new era, and formulate the budget framework under political direction.” It’s supposed to consist of about 20 people. As is par for the DPJ course, there’s no mention of what its specific authority will be, whether “the national vision” will have anything to do with foreign policy, and how it will be involved with budget formulation. For all we know, it might turn out to be a political salon allowing the rookies and the rank and file to do some coffeehousing while the heavyweights take care of business somewhere else.

It is nearly axiomatic that everything the DPJ says is subject to change at any time, and sure enough, Mr. Hatoyama explained this week that the NSB will handle the framework of the budget while the Ministry of Finance will handle the details.

The foundation document for the party’s platform is their Index of Policies 2009, last modified in July. It’s on the party website, but only in Japanese. Here’s what it says about the budget:

民主党政権では、国民を代表する政治家が自ら予算を編成します…官邸に各省の大臣などを集め、予算編成の基本方針を決定し、省庁ごとに政治家が主導で予算を編成します。
Under a DPJ administration, politicians representing the people will formulate budgets. The Cabinet ministers will meet in the Prime Minister’s office, determine the basic policies for the budget, and then politicians will direct the budget formulation for each ministry.

But, you protest, key to civil service reform is to keep the MOF at arm’s length from that process. The MOF is notorious for being the bureaucracy’s worst offender at policy meddling. Takenaka Heizo, the man who directed fiscal policy and reform in the Koizumi Administration, fought a five-year running battle with the ministry and warned in December 2007 that the zombies had returned under Yasuda Fukuo. The DPJ promised to put an end to that for good by putting the civil servants in their place.

And just like Brutus, the DPJ are honorable men and women all.

Some think that Mr. Kan has ambitions of his own. If he decides that he would make a jolly good successor to Prime Minister Hatoyama, the National Strategy Bureau would make a jolly good launching pad. Meanwhile, moves are already underway in Okayama, Fukui, and Mie to establish local strategy bureaus in the party at the prefectural and municipal level. No one knows what their strategies will be either, but roughing out the framework for the central government’s budget won’t be one of them. Their efforts, which are partly designed to create stronger local party organizations, will likely be coordinated on some level with the Cabinet-level body.

And mark Mr. Kan down as being a bit miffed at Hatoyama Yukio. It’s reported that when he found out decisions for Cabinet posts had been made without his input, he quickly called the prime minister, incredulous that he wasn’t asked for advice.

Short-Order Cooks

Need flapjacks, a Philly cheese steak, or legislation made to order? Last weekend, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that the DPJ had decided to create yet another new organization, tentatively called the Party Leaders’ Council, referring to DPJ senior executives. The council will consist of five members, including Messrs. Hatoyama and Ozawa, and will determine party strategy for the Diet. While decisions about Diet business have to be made somewhere in the Government, there was no explanation why that requires another new organization, and whether it will limit its purview to the Diet. One has to wonder at this point if the party leadership is dominated by the type of people who would rather draw up attractive menus than do any actual cooking behind a stove.

Chefs de Partie

These cooks, also called line chefs, are responsible for organizing and managing a small team of workers to ensure the restaurant’s work area is under control. Who better to keep the workers in line than the many DPJ members who started out in life by organizing workers, particularly those in the Japanese Teachers’ Union and the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union? They provide the foot soldiers and the muscle for the party’s election campaigns.

That’s no surprise for a party with more than a few ex-Socialists, both in the Diet and in executive positions at party HQ. In fact, says Tsujimoto Kiyomi of the Socialists Democratic Party of Japan, the DPJ is now more dependent on labor unions than was the Socialist Party itself. (The SDPJ added the second word in their name after the Berlin Wall fell for protective coloration.) Before the recent election, the number of DPJ Diet members with ties to the old Socialists was estimated to be just under 30, and they also brought many aides and staffers with them when they left the party in 1996.

The DPJ claims it’s committed to the devolution of governmental authority to local governments and reducing the number of civil servants. We’ll see how long that commitment lasts now that the public sector employees’ union helped put them in power.

How close is the party leadership to the unions? The first order of business for both Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Ozawa the day after the general election was to visit union rallies in Tokyo to thank them for their help.

The Journeyman C(r)ook and the Apprentice Chef

The inherently unstable DPJ—more of a coalition itself than a party—organized a ruling coalition with two mini-parties from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, the PNP and the SPJ, supposedly because they need their votes to get bills passed in the upper house.

A Study in Body Language, or, Why a picture is worth a thousand words

A Study in Body Language, or, Why a picture is worth a thousand words

The three parties finally agreed on the terms for a coalition government last week. Here, the word “agree” means that the DPJ generally acceded to the demands of the two smaller parties after negotiations, though it’s a mystery why they wouldn’t have known what those demands would have been months ago and worked them out in advance.

What did the two microparties demand? The creation of yet another power center. The DPJ caved in to their insistence for forming—you guessed it—a new council consisting of the three party heads to function as a separate group within the Cabinet, even though both PNP head Kamei Shizuka and SDP head Fukushima Mizuho were awarded Cabinet posts.

Mr. Kamei’s accusation on NHK that the DPJ was cutting them out of the policy loop is a reference to the ruling party making policy decisions outside this council.

The Journeyman C(r)ook

The PNP is a splinter group of ex-LDP oldtimers who want to halt postal privatization, the most important governmental reform of the past 20 years. One of the reform’s objectives was to prevent the bureaucrats from diverting the funds in the postal savings and life insurance accounts to build all those bridges and roads to nowhere.

You know—putting the bureaucracy in its place.

The DPJ has always known exactly what the PNP wants to do, yet their platform clearly states that Japan Post will not return to being a state-operated enterprise. Their initial proposal in the coalition talks was to “consider” freezing the sale of government-held stock and reorganizing the enterprise. The PNP, however, demanded—and got—a firmer commitment to freeze the process without specifying what they intend the future form of it to be.

Party boss Kamei Shizuka has already served time in the Cabinet during his LDP career, most notably as Construction Minister in the days when there was enough pork on the hoof to start a new Commodities Exchange.

Mr. Kamei wanted to head the Defense Ministry, but settled for the Financial Services portfolio and Minister in Charge of Bloviating about Japan Post. The DPJ may already be regretting that decision, however. It turns out his party’s knowledge of economics seems stuck in the era when there was actually a need for postmen to hand deliver all the mail. Like most everyone else in the country, the DPJ probably didn’t read their website.

Here are some of their proposed solutions:

Solution 1: Shut down the Osaka Nikkei 225 Futures Market
Problem with Solution 1:
This Osaka market accounts for 59% of the country’s stock price index futures trading and nearly 100% of the options trading. Stock futures trading often performs its function of price discovery more rapidly than the stock market itself. Though the October 1987 stock market crash in U.S. was blamed on the fall of stock index futures, it was actually an early warning of the crash rather than the cause.

Solution 2: Eliminating mark-to-market accounting
Problem with Solution 2:
Bankers and their advocates hate this accounting method, while accountants, investor advocates, and banking analysts love it. It forces financial institutions to value their assets at true market prices, which could make them swallow huge losses during a market downturn. In other words, eliminating the practice enables them to hide those losses. The banking industry would rather value the assets based on future cash flow, and no, they have no idea what that will be either. Beth Brooke, global vice chair at Ernst & Young LLP, has said, “Suspending mark-to-market accounting, in essence, suspends reality.”

The idea was floated by some in the LDP in 2003, but Takenaka Heizo and the Koizumi Administration successfully resisted the suggestion. The man who proposed it was Aso Taro.

Solution 3: Eliminating capital adequacy requirements for banks
Problem with Solution 3:
These requirements determine how much money a bank can lend, but some think they can cause a credit crunch because banks will cut down on their loans to meet the requirements. The danger of elimination is obvious—a lending institution has to have something to back up its loans. But even Mr. Takenaka thought it was important for the requirements to be flexible.

This solution is being proposed as the discussion in the rest of the world is moving in the direction of raising capital adequacy requirements.

Solution 4: Issuing JPY 200 trillion in non-interest bearing government bonds (About $US 2.2 billion)
Problem with Solution 4:
Bonds of this type are sold at a discount to par value rather than with coupons, and the intention here is to fund the deficit. The problems involve the greater provision of central bank money, the potential for raising the fiscal premium, and damaging the credibility of the currency.

Solution 5: From Mr. Kamei himself—a three-year moratorium on debt repayments by small businesses, and the injection of public funds into banks that become financially strapped by the lack of income due to the moratorium.

Isn’t it fascinating that a man whose party’s website inveigles against the “strong eating the weak” is ready to have taxpayers bail out banks as one leg of his Rube Goldberg economics? Mr. Kamei says the SDPJ is for it too, and he wants to get it done by the end of the year.

I thought I told all you whippersnappers to sit down and shut up!

I thought I told all you whippersnappers to sit down and shut up!

The Mainichi Shimbun editorializes that these loans, combined with home mortgages, total JPY 300 trillion nationwide and account for 70% all bank loan portfolios. They worry the moratorium could cause bank failures among regional banks in particular. Mr. Kamei’s suggestion has already started a sell-off of bank stocks.

Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa says nothing has been decided, and told reporters, “If the economy was really that bad, it would be one possibility to consider, but the Bank of Japan has not said that’s the situation we’re in.”

But Mr. Kamei insists it’s settled. He also said that he’d listen to Mr. Fujii’s opinions, but, “It won’t be discussed. It isn’t a matter that we’ll decide after discussion.”

The Finance Minister backed down.

Are Cabinet ministers in this administration to act as feudal lords, with the ministries as their personal fiefdoms? Where’s Prime Minister Hatoyama when you really need him? Where are all those newly created government policy bodies when you really need them? When it comes to that, where are all those Finance Ministry bureaucrats when you really need them?

Then again, Bloomberg quoted Prime Minister Hatoyama as saying that “he’ll avoid more bond sales, so new spending will depend on his success in shrinking the bureaucracy and public works programs”.

Richard Daughty, the COO of a financial advisory services company in the U.S., writes financial commentary under the name of The Mogambo Guru. He referred to Mr. Hatoyama’s claim as “Standard Political Crapola (SPC)”.

Though Mr. Kamei’s been in office less than a week, it was enough time for him to also cross swords with Haraguchi Kazuhiro, the new Internal Affairs and Communications minister. Mr. Haraguchi floated a plan for the reorganization of Japan Post into three independent companies rather than four companies under the aegis of a holding company. Said Mr. Kamei:

“I’m responsible for Japan Post, and I’ll take the responsibility and decide.”

The chastened Mr. Haraguchi explained, “It was just an illustrative example”.

The Apprentice Chef

Meanwhile, the other coalition partner, the SDPJ, has an agenda of its own. One of their goals is to eliminate the American military presence in Japan. Rather than support a greater Japanese defensive capability in its place, however, they also believe that people shouldn’t use weapons to defend themselves. (We’ll get to more of that later.) This is just what Mr. Hatoyama doesn’t need with the Americans wondering about his intentions after the translation of his goofy article from Voice magazine appeared in the New York Times, but hey, these are the people his party wants in government.

During the negotiations to create the coalition, the SDPJ declared:

“The proposal of amendments to the Japan-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement should be made from the perspective of minimizing the burden on the people of Okinawa, and the approach to the reorganization of American forces (in Japan) and their bases should be reconsidered.”

The DPJ balked, and the negotiations grew unpleasant. At one point DPJ representative and now Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya got so fed up with SDPJ head Fukushima Mizuho that he stormed out of the room. He charged that the DPJ wasn’t offering concrete proposals but delivering political lectures instead. Once a Socialist, always a Socialist.

Ms. Fukushima merely responded by going over his head and calling Hatoyama Yukio. And then going over his head by calling Ozawa Ichiro.

The DPJ finally compromised by changing the language to, “move in the direction of” reevaluating the agreements. They suggested the language be softened to create good relations with the Obama Administration in the U.S. Ms. Fukushima was delighted, and was shown crowing about it on TV to the other 11 members of her party with Diet seats.

Ms. Fukushima was angling for the Environmental Ministry portfolio, because, as she noted, they have a larger staff. Instead she settled for the new Consumer Affairs Ministry, which makes one suspect someone in the DPJ has a sense of humor. That’s just the sort of pretend-important Cabinet post the LDP once awarded to their female politicians as apprentice chefs to give them some experience in the political kitchen while using them as tokens to convince female voters they take them seriously. It’s surprising that Ms. Fukushima, who began her professional career as a radical feminist attorney, fell for it. But then a seat at the table of power is enough to trump principle for most leftists.

Who’s in charge here?

Before the recent election, the DPJ had 114 members in the lower house. They now have 308, for a net gain of 194 seats. The PNP had five; they now have three. The SDPJ stayed even at seven, but now have three directly elected MPs instead of only one. The reason for that increase was not due to greater popular support, but the DPJ’s choice to abstain from fielding a candidate in those districts.

The DPJ has far more than the 241 votes it needs for a lower house majority. Yet, in the upcoming administration, the handful of MPs from the formal coalition partners, and particularly their two party heads, will have a greater influence and say on the direction of the government than the 194 new DPJ members, who represent the popular will today.

That the DPJ created a coalition which includes the PNP and the SDP makes it difficult to avoid the accusation that their Government is a distortion of the democratic process and inimical to the expression of the popular will.

…The Crooks…

The reason I referred to Kamei Shizuka as a journeyman c(r)ook was recently explained in this Japanese-language blog post by Ikeda Nobuo. Mr. Kamei seems to have a knack for making money from shady deals with shady companies with a yakuza presence lurking in the background. One incident mentioned is described in a 1989 Yomiuri Shimbun article, which reports he made profits of JPY 400 million (about $US 4.18 million) in excess of market valuation in a 1987 stock sale that an official termed “an unnatural transaction.”

Perhaps that explains why he doesn’t like mark-to-market accounting.

It’s bad enough that a single-issue splinter party has an influence on policy far out of proportion with its numerical strength. It’s even worse that a man who might be mobbed-up is now in the Cabinet and punching far above his weight. But the DPJ put him there.

Suzuki Muneo

Meet former LDP lower house rep from Hokkaido Suzuki Muneo, the postwar record holder for jail time for a national legislator: 437 days, for bribery. Two of his top aides were also nailed. Mr. Suzuki had carved out a minor suzerainty in the Foreign Ministry. Though he had no official position, he had enormous influence over senior bureaucrats on policy and overseas aid projects.

After his release from prison, he became an advocate for decentralizing government, albeit under centralized control and direction, and an economic demagogue in the style of Kamei Shizuka. He was reelected to the Diet as head of a vanity party.

He was also sentenced to another two-year term for bribery in 2004 and has lost every subsequent appeal. The case is now before the Japanese Supreme Court. The next loss means another jail term and a five-year ban on public office.

But Mr. Suzuki is a pal of Ozawa Ichiro, and has influence among the voters in Hokkaido, where the carnage for the LDP was particularly gruesome this past election.

So the DPJ appointed the ex-con whose name is synonymous with lying and being on the take to chair the lower house Foreign Affairs Committee.

…And The Kooks

More troubling than the number of cooks and crooks in the governmental kitchen is that many of the people involved are not part of the reality-based community. The problem is best described by British novelist, journalist, and commentator James Delingpole, who recently published a book titled, Welcome To Obamaland: I’ve Seen Your Future And It Doesn’t Work. He says:

“In it, I warned the U.S. of the ‘smorgasbord of scuzzballs, incompetents, time servers, Communists, class warriors, eco-loons, single-issue rabble-rousers, malcontents and losers who always rise to the surface during a left-liberal administration….it becomes a problem – as you’re about to discover, if you haven’t already – when your ruling administration consists of nothing but these people. No longer do they qualify as light relief. They become your daily nightmare…. Making these predictions was a no-brainer because it’s exactly the same process as we’ve witnessed in Britain these last twelve years under New Labour.’”

He might just as well have been talking about Japan. We’ve already seen that the PNP is the Government’s version of a “single-issue rabble-rouser”, but there are even worse. Much worse.

Japan Teachers’ Union

No group is more committed to putting ideological blather and self-interest before the public good.
- Jonah Goldberg, on teachers’ unions

The goals of the Japan Teachers’ Union include improving the Japanese educational system so that it more closely resembles the systems in the United States and Great Britain. The California public school teachers appreciate those improvements so much that 25% of them now send their children to private schools.

They share the same disdain for individual achievement as their overseas cousins, as they want to do away with competitive examinations. Political indoctrination of the students starts early and focuses on the supposed sins of Japan rather than its achievements and opportunities. Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka once said that the LDP would have been open to more detailed discussions of Japanese wartime responsibility in schools had there not been so many Marxists among the faculty.

The JTU recently cleaned up its website, most likely in anticipation of a successful election result. Once upon a time, it featured amateurishly drawn cartoons that revealed both their politics and the arrested development of their sense of humor. But tools are available to retrieve erased pages. Here’s an example of one of their eliminated cartoons featuring a likeness of what apparently is supposed to represent former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

JTU cartoon 1

For another taste of their junior hi humor combined with their “resistance”, try this article in Great Britain’s Guardian from three years ago describing the antics of school teachers who dislike Kimi ga Yo, Japan’s national anthem, and the imperial system:

Japanese who object to being forced to sing their country’s national anthem have a secret weapon: the English language. Kiss Me, an English parody of the Kimigayo, has spread through the internet and was sung by teachers and pupils at recent school entrance and graduation ceremonies, local media reported yesterday.

“Teachers and pupils”? See what I mean about indoctrination beginning early? The 11-year-old wise guys are indoctrinating the teachers in pre-adolescent spitballery.

Leftwing teachers unions regard Kimigayo, which is based on an ancient poem wishing the emperor a “thousand years of happy reign”, as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.

When they say ancient, they mean more than a millennium. Though Kimi ga Yo was not officially adopted until about 10 years ago, it has been the de facto anthem for much longer.

Here are the complete lyrics:

May your reign
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss

Grab yer firin’ iron! Them’s fightin’ words!

Did some Japanese manipulate national symbols for their own ends during an ugly period of the nation’s history? Yes, as has every other nation in the world. But one reason children are sent to school is to learn the national narrative. The agenda of “leftwing teachers”, other than those in Soviet bloc-type countries, is to denigrate the national narrative by poisoning the minds of the students. The full Japanese national narrative is not defined by one gruesome chapter, nor is it an unending tale of imperialism! capitalism! racism! sexism! war-mongering! These people so dislike their country one is forced to wonder if the real object of their dislike is themselves.

Then again, perhaps they’re not used to tradition in matters such as these. Sergei Mikhalkov wound up writing three sets of lyrics to the Soviet/Russian anthem from 1943 to 2000. The first version was in praise of Stalin, the second version was Stalin Who?, and the third version is in praise of the Fatherland. Keeping the same tradition for more than 1,000 years? How conservative and L7 can you get!

The Japanese in this camp loudly proclaim that they are defenders of the Constitution, i.e., Article 9, the peace clause. Very few fall for it, however, because if they were true defenders of the Constitution, they wouldn’t hold in such contempt the first sentence of Article 1:

The Emperor shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people…

Those who watched the Japanese election returns on TV saw JTU alumnus and Acting DPJ President Koshi’ishi Azuma preening on stage with the other party leaders after their big victory. He’s already said more than once this year that education without a political element is not possible (despite being against Japanese law). Everyone knows what political element he has in mind. Mr. Koshi’ishi’s pre-election position in the party was equivalent to that of Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto, and he retains that influence. But even the DPJ wasn’t dumb enough to put him in the Cabinet and make him a sitting duck. He’ll just roll up his sleeves and go to work out of the public view.

DPJ

Here are some excerpts from the DPJ website in English:

We do not seek a panacea either in the free market or in the welfare state. Rather, we shall build a new road of the democratic center toward a society in which self-reliant individuals can mutually coexist and the government’s role is limited to building the necessary systems.

Does that not fairly scream of Third Way nonsense without writing the actual words? Saying that one is a believer in the Third Way is similar to some of those who call themselves bisexuals. The former is just a leftist who knows better than to parade on May Day carrying a red flag, while the latter have sesquicentennial encounters with the opposite sex to avoid coming all the way out of the closet and admit being gay.

And note the false equivalence between the free market and the welfare state. Pavarotti and Johnny Rotten were both singers, but that didn’t make them equals.

We shall restructure the centralized government from the perspective of devolution toward citizens, markets, and local governments.

They plan to do that by making direct government payments to parents for child rearing in lieu of tax deductions, by making direct government payments to families for high school tuition, and by making direct government payments to individual farmers.

The real DPJ political platform is the Index of Policies, on which the so-called Manifesto is based and then cleaned up for public consumption.

Unlike the Manifesto, the Index—which was last revised in July—is not in English. It’s also recently been tucked away on the party website under the Manifesto section, whereas before it was in full view. Some Japanese have said they find the language in the Index “peculiar”, and they have a point. I haven’t been through all of it—it’s long and packed with boilerplate and platitudes—but it does have some peculiar ideas for a party that claims to be devoted to citizens, markets, and local government.

Such as:

“We will proceed with consideration of an International Solidarity Tax that taxes specified economic activities across national borders, and which will be used as the funding source for international organizations to conquer poverty and support developing countries.”

What we have here is a policy with a retro-Bolshie name to levy an unjustifiable and ill-defined tax to fund an enterprise that anyone who goes through life awake knows will fail. Looks like all the highway signs on the DPJ Third Way read Merge Left.

According to the Index, they also want to maintain the inheritance tax to “Return part of (a person’s) wealth to society”. And here I thought that a person’s wealth was already a part of social wealth. Japan’s inheritance tax was 70% in 2005, which means that a lot of people spent a lot of time and trouble finding ways to get around it.

The party wants to establish a Permanent Peace Study Bureau in the Diet Library. One has to admit that does have potential as a job creation scheme. They’ll need a full janitorial staff to deal with all those cobwebs.

They also want to prevent suicide by spending a lot of money on analysis and studies for suicide prevention. They intend to make it an obligation of publishers to produce textbooks that children with weak eyesight can read. They want to levy stiffer taxes on stiffer drinks to promote health, which is sure to please those taxpayers who have one or two stiff drinks a month and are in excellent health, but will pay the same rate as the lushes.

Perhaps the most peculiar of word choices is found in the section that discusses the party’s stance against North Korea. Their approach comes across as somewhat hardline. But the section is titled, “The core development of diplomatic relations with North Korea”, or in Japanese, 北朝鮮外交の主体的展開.

This part – 主体的 – which corresponds to “core”, is seldom used in Japanese, and it has no bearing on the explanation that follows. But the word is used quite frequently in North Korea. There it’s pronounced juche, and it’s the ruling philosophy of the North Korean government.

The arrested development of their sense of humor is a more widespread malady than I thought.

The Socialists Democratic Party of Japan

In most Western countries, the socialists and the social democrats are the girly men of the left, unable to bring themselves to the truly whacked position of the remaining Communist poseurs. Perhaps that’s because they realize they would lose their opportunities for making money in the stock market and real estate investments under a true Red regime.

In Japan, those relative positions are reversed. The SDPJ are the vicious, vaporous, anti-life, and anti-reality bunch, while the JCP is better behaved and actually has some integrity.

Consider: The North Koreans attempted to assassinate then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a 1983 visit to Rangoon by detonating three bombs by remote control. The president was not killed, but 21 people were, including three South Korean Cabinet ministers and four Burmese.

The Chinese government criticized the North Korean government in the state media and broke off official contact with Pyeongyang for several months. Japan’s Communist Party also condemned it, saying that terrorism had no part in their movement. Japan’s Socialists?

North Korea was unconnected with the incident in any way because it was not beneficial to them.

For years they claimed that it was impossible for the North Korean government to have abducted Japanese citizens. When Kim Jong-il finally fessed up, their successors in the SDPJ excused the abductions by saying it didn’t compare in any way to Japanese behavior on the Korean Peninsula during the war.

The party’s website is not in English, but it does proudly proclaim that boss Fukushima Mizuho attended the Socialist International conference this year. It’s adorned with a few of the global-standard Socialist illustrations of a rose held aloft in a fist. Their environmental policies—cap’n’trade, anti-nuclear power, anti global “warming”—are the usual blast of hot air one expects from watermelons, so-called because they are green on the outside and red on the inside. Then again, the SPDJ has never bothered to hide its crimson exterior.

The DPJ voluntarily chose the SDPJ as their coalition partners and gave the party head a seat in the Cabinet. They helped boost the party’s chances in the recent election by refraining from running a candidate in districts with prominent SDPJ members. That’s how they picked up two directly elected seats in the lower house.

Fukushima Mizuho

The SDPJ boss hasn’t always been so chummy with the DPJ. She once said, “The LDP and the DPJ are only as different as curry rice and rice curry.” Now that she’s part of the government headed by the latter, it would seem that she has developed a more discriminating palate.

She and husband Kaido Yuichi are both attorneys. Ms. Fukushima has focused on radical feminist causes, and she’s written three books on sexual harassment and domestic violence. She’s also written another called Konna Otoko to ha Zettai Kekkon Suru na! (Under No Circumstances Marry a Man of This Type!). She and her husband have frequently associated with people linked to the Chukaku-ha, or Japan Revolutionary Communist League, and defended them in court trials.

They must have had plenty of work. From the late 60s to the early 90s, Chukaku-ha led or was involved in numerous open battles with police, sabotaged the railroad in 33 Tokyo and Osaka locations when it being privatized, attacked LDP headquarters with a flamethrower mounted on a truck, conducted fatal arson and bombing attacks, and fought bloody battles with two other groups on the ultra-left, resulting in an estimated 100 fatalities. Their slogan is “Workers of the world unite under the banner of anti-imperialism and anti-Stalinism!” That presumably means they were down with K. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao.

In May 1991, Chukaku-ha changed course and decided to focus its efforts within trade unions and mainstream left-wing movements. One of those efforts was a petition drive to prevent Japan’s use of military force in the event of a foreign invasion. Ms. Fukushima signed it.

Registered as an attorney in 1987, Ms. Fukushima first won election to the Diet in 1998, though it is only a proportional representation seat in the upper house. She is one of the few party leaders in Japanese postwar history who have been unable to win a Diet seat in a direct election, or unwilling to try.

Let’s have Madame Chairman speak for herself. Here’s a brief transcript from her 2005 appearance on the TV show Asa Made (Until Morning), being interviewed by Tahara Soichiro.

Fukushima: I am absolutely opposed to the use of sidearms by police officers. For one thing, even perpetrators of crimes have their rights. The police must not be allowed to injure criminals at all. Even if it is a brutal criminal with a lethal weapon, the police should approach the arrest unarmed.
Tahara: And what happens if a police officer does that and is killed?
Fukushima: Well, that’s the job of police officers…(Shocked sound from the people in the studio. Showing irritation at the response, she continues)…Besides, if a criminal puts up that much resistance, there’s no need to go to all that trouble to arrest him. There’s no problem with letting him escape.
Tahara: But what if the criminal who runs away kills someone else at a different location?
Fukushima: That’s a separate problem…

Here’s an excerpt from a recent Diet debate about the possible interception of an incoming North Korean missile.

Fukushima: If the intercepting missile hits the target, debris will fall. If it misses, it will fly outside the country. Can you say there won’t be any harm caused to the citizens either in Japan or in other countries?
(Then) Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi: If it presents a danger of damage to the lives and property of our people, that missile should be intercepted as a matter of course.
(Then) Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu: But there would be more damage if the missile would be allowed to fall. If it’s intercepted in space, most of the debris would burn up and not fall to earth. It’s important to destroy the missile first and minimize (its potential for harm).
Fukushima: If we miss, it will harm the national interest, and if we hit it, what happens if it turns out to have been just a satellite?

There was laughter at this remark from opposition benches for some reason, but then we’ve already found out about the sense of humor of the Japanese left.

The DPJ thought she would make a dandy Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety, Social Affairs, and Gender Equality in the new coalition government, and so appointed her to that position.

Tsujimoto Kiyomi

Currently the SDPJ’s head of Diet strategy, Tsujimoto Kiyomi came up with the idea for taking cruises on a Peace Boat to the countries that Japan invaded during the war when she was a Waseda undergraduate in 1983. It’s not easy for a spunky coed to organize a project on that scale, regardless of her commitment or idealism, so she needed some help.

She received that help from Kitakawa Akira, who later became what is described as her common-law husband, and Oda Makoto.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and intelligence service archives became available, it was discovered that Mr. Oda had been a KGB agent. Mr. Kitakawa was a member of the Japanese Red Army, a revolutionary terrorist group formed in 1971 that was responsible for bombings, airplane hijackings, and armed attacks throughout the world. One member was caught with explosives on the New Jersey Turnpike in the 1980s and spent time in an American jail. Several members were granted asylum in North Korea, and the Japanese government is trying to extradite them. It remains an obstacle to the normalization of relations.

Though vicious, the group’s membership was always small, and they immediately had problems finding the money to survive. It was provided by Palestinians starting in 1972.

Join me in solidarity to smash the country and make the world safe for large purple vibrators

Join me in solidarity to smash the country and make the world safe for large purple vibrators

The Peace Boat, meanwhile, expanded the range of its voyages and visited the Middle East. Cruise members met several times with Yasser Arafat, perhaps to thank him for his money and ask for more. It was eventually awarded Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. That is an honor they share with Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (he speaks in tongues on television), the Brazilian Federation of LGBT Groups (Associação Brasileira de Gays, Lésbicas e Transgêneros, ABGLT), the Advisory Commission of the Evangelical Church in Germany, The American Civil Liberties Union, The Association for the Advancement of Psychological Understanding of Human Nature, The Centre for Women the Earth the Divine, The Italian Confederation of Labour, Conscience and Peace Tax International, Fraternite Notre Dame, Inc., and the International Academy of Architecture. That would suggest the designation is as easy to obtain as a package of free tissues outside any large train station in Japan.

Mr. Kitakawa was responsible for JRA activities in Europe, and he was eventually deported from Sweden. Back in Japan, he founded the Daisansha publishing company, which has released six of Ms. Tsujimoto’s books.

She was recruited by former Socialist Party leader Doi Takako to run for the Diet, and she won her first election in 1996. A few years later, Shigenobu Fusako, the founder of the Japanese Red Army was arrested in Takatsuki, Osaka, Ms. Tsujimoto’s home district. She was in the company of Yoshida Mamoru, a member of Tsujimoto’s staff in Takatsuki.

As an MP, she started receiving national exposure in the early years of the Koizumi Administration with her semi-hysterical challenges of the prime minister during question time. She does have spunk, however, and it was great television, so a star was quickly born.

It just as quickly faded after her success went to her head and she accused the aforementioned Suzuki Muneo during his questioning in the Diet of being a “trading house for suspicion”. Mr. Suzuki, semi-hysterical himself, blew up in a memorable rant.

Those of you who enjoy interesting coincidences will be delighted to know that not long afterwards, investigators just happened to discover that she had been raking off funds from the money that was supposed to be paid to her political aides. It was suspected that she gave some of the money to Mr. Kitakawa. She was sentenced to two years in jail with a five-year stay of execution.

Ms. Tsujimoto resigned her Diet seat, but Japanese voters can be a forgiving lot, and she’s back, though keeping a much lower profile.

Again, let’s let the lady speak for herself. Here’s one:

“It’s not possible that the peace-loving North Koreans would abduct anyone.”

Golly, where have we heard that before?

She has a strange conception of loyalty for a Diet member:

“I don’t want to be a Japanese. I want to be an international person.”

Perhaps I should have spelled that “internationale”.

Indeed, she has been so internationale in general, and pro-North Korean in particular, that some Japanese have wondered if she is a naturalized Korean with family roots in the northern part of the peninsula.

Here’s how she views her duties as a national legislator. She was speaking informally to a person she didn’t realize was a reporter:

“They say a Diet member should protect the lives and property of the citizens, but that is not my intention. My role is as a ‘national destroyer’ MP who will try somehow to destroy the framework of the state.”

There’s a bit lost in the translation, as Ms. Tsujimoto is making a pun. The word for Diet member is 国会議員 (kokkai gi-in). She replaced the first two characters with the homonym 国壊 (kokkai), which means “national destruction”.

She also has a unique sense of fun. During a feminist conference sponsored by the owner of a shop for sex toys, the amusingly named Love Piece Club, she autographed a large purple vibrator for an auction.

Now nobody objects to the ways people choose to get their kicks, but one would expect a Diet member to show some discretion at a public event.

Sidebar

The Love Piece Club has a website. One of the pages is here, which displays the nude snapshots a photographer took of the “Buy Vibe Girls” at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine bright and early one morning. Ordinarily, it’s standard Internet practice to warn of photos that aren’t work safe, but any work supervisor who caught you looking at these is more likely to feel sorry for you than angry at you.

The title of the page, by the way, is Nobody Knows I’m Lesbian. Come on, Mina, who are you trying to kid? All anyone has to do is look at your picture.

Now, former combatants and ex-cons Tsujimoto Kiyomi and Suzuki Muneo are part of the ruling coalition, proving beyond doubt that politics makes for the strangest of bedfellows.

One wonders which one brought the large purple vibrator.

Ms. Tsujimoto, a politician convicted of skimming public funds, who pals around with terrorists, who would rather be known as the national destroyer than a Japanese, and who has vowed to wreck the framework of the state, was appointed by the ruling DPJ to serve as Vice-Minister for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. That ministry is responsible for the national infrastructure and dealing with disasters.

Here’s the best part: No one in her party likes the idea at all. Ms. Tsujimoto’s own initial reaction was:

やだ、やだ、やだ、やだ!

That’s what a four-year old throwing a tantrum might say when told to take some unpleasant medicine—No, no, no, no!

She gave in after being told that party head Fukushima Mizuho signed off on it. But then Ms. Fukushima claimed she didn’t sign off on it. But then she admitted that she did.

With Ms. Fukushima occupied by her make-work duties in the Cabinet, Ms. Tsujimoto was being counted on by the party to be the face of their campaign in next year’s upper house election. Those with a Machiavellian turn of mind might wonder if the DPJ purposely wanted to give her some make-work duties of her own in the bureaucracy. That would prevent her from being the poster girl of the SDPJ campaign, making it easier for the DPJ to take them out in the election and form a government without their help.

It’s a wrap!

I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for those Japanese who were so fed up with LDP rule that they felt compelled to vote for the DPJ and its coalition of too many cooks, too many crooks, and too many kooks in the hope they would receive clean government, real reform, and responsible political behavior.

If we’re lucky, perhaps they’ll manage to achieve some of their promised reforms during their administration, particularly shutting off the entry of bureaucrats into public sector jobs. They might yet reinsert the jackhammer into the foundation of the structure of interests that holds the country back. Maybe their conduct will spur the rejuvenation of a sharp opposition party, regardless of label, whose members will be decisive enough to ditch the mudboaters before refloating their political ship.

Credit where credit is due

Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya

Mr. Okada has opened attendance at his press conferences to all members of the Japanese news media, ending the kisha club monopoly in which only certain outlets get direct access to the politicians. Now the weekly magazines, Internet publications, and sports newspapers (some of their political reporting is better than you think) can attend. This development was not reported by the Asahi Shimbun, the Yomiuri Shimbun, or the Nikkei Shimbun, which constitute Japan’s press monopoly. Perhaps they’ve taken lessons from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and most of the American TV networks.

I’ve said before that the DPJ always carries banana peels in its back pocket for pratfall practice, and this time Prime Minister Hatoyama showed off his best Buster Keaton form. Before the election, he promised that he would open up his press conferences too. The reporters asked if he would put that in the party platform. He said no, it wasn’t necessary to go that far.

The only reporters allowed at Mr. Hatoyama’s first press conference were those in the kisha club.

Maehara Seiji

The new Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, Mr. Maehara is often criticized by the party’s left wing and DPJ hacks because he (a) is not left-wing, (b) believes in a strong national defense, (c) intensely dislikes Ozawa Ichiro and his presence in the party, and (d) is capable of apostasy by working with the Koizumian reformers of the LDP, including rebel Watanabe Yoshimi. If there’s anything the left hates more than common sense, it’s a traitor.

One of his first announcements as MLIT chief was the suspension of the Yamba Dam project in Gunma. This was immediately hailed by all those anxious to end the ties between construction industry pork and the government once and for all.

But they couldn’t even get this one right. The governments of the six prefectures that will be affected by the decision were not at all pleased. Tokyo in particular is concerned about the water supply for the exploding population in some areas of its jurisdiction. Mr. Maehara is going to visit Gunma later this week and talk to local officials. Some are so upset they say they won’t attend if the decision is not changed.

Also opposed to the decision is the Gunma governor–who is affiliated with the DPJ. The governor was miffed that the prefectural government wasn’t consulted before the MLIT announced the decision.

In other words, the party that promised to decentralize government and devolve authority to local governments made an arbitrary central government decision without any input from local government and a governor on their own team.

Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa said no final decision had been made, but the MLIT is behaving as if they’re going to shut it down. Mr. Fujii deferred to Mr. Maehara.

Except Mr. Maehara spun around again and deferred to the locals. He’s now said the legal procedures to halt the project won’t begin until the “understanding” of the six prefectures is obtained.

Now you know why some charge the DPJ wasn’t ready to assume control of the government. All of this, including discussions with the local governments, should have been worked out long ago. Mr. Maehara says he is merely executing one of the planks in the DPJ platform. That was the same platform the party kept revising after its initial release just last month.

Kawabata Tatsuo

Mr. Kawabata was named Education Minister, much to the relief of those who were apprehensive about Koshi’ishi Azuma winding up with that job. The JTU wants to roll back the education reforms of the Abe administration, particularly the new teacher certification requirements. But at his initial press conference, Mr. Kawabata said that would be only one of several options examined over the next four years. Those experienced at reading bureaucratic tea leaves think that means the JTU might not be getting carte blanche in the new Government after all, though they warn that Mr. Koshi’ishi has yet to be heard from.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kawabata talked up a proposal for extending teacher training to six years—the same amount of classroom time as a Japanese medical doctor. But then classroom instruction is hardly brain surgery. Every extra minute seated in a classroom staring out the window while some teacher drones on about classroom teaching is a minute wasted. If the objective is to improve classroom instruction, that time would be better spent being actively involved with life as it’s actually lived.

Afterwords:

Sorry for not keeping my promise. The last post said the next one would be “tomorrow”, but that turned into two weeks. I had some work to do, and wading through the sheer deluge of information related to today’s topic took some time.

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Matsuri da! (99): Bringing it all back home

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 2, 2008

THIS POST last June briefly examined the importance of rice in Japan and included capsule summaries of the many rice-planting festivals held in late spring throughout the country. Now you know darn well that if people are going to take the trouble to have a special ceremony for planting the rice, they’re going to have another when it comes time to harvest it. And here they are!

The ritual for cutting the rice itself is variously called the nuihosai, the nuibosai, or even the nuiboshiki, but they all mean the same thing. Some of the rice (and other crops) harvested during these ceremonies is offered to the divinities a month later in a ceremony called the niinamesai. Here’s a quick look at what’s been going on out in the fields. Don’t be shocked—some of it involves putting schoolgirls to work doing manual labor on the farms!

Shingu, Wakayama

Five junior high school girls clad as otome, or rice paddy maidens, hacked away during the nuihosai at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, a Shinto shrine. The Shingu otome worked in a 10-are (quarter acre) wet paddy planted in April. The paddy yielded 480 kilograms of rice, which made everyone pleased as punch. The rice itself will be used for shrine ceremonies, while the ears were offered at the Ise shrine. (That’s closely associated with the Imperial family, making it one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The enshrined deity at the Inner Shrine is Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is the mythological ancestor of the emperors.) Teenaged Japanese girls don’t have a lot of practice at wielding the scythes, so the onlookers had to give them the benefit of their experience—whack from below and at an angle. That’s one thing about old folks—they like to stand around kibitzing. Here’s another—they’re usually right!

Naruto, Tokushima

Held at the O’asahiko Shinto shrine, this nuihosai started with a Shinto ceremony. Then five karime, or cutting girls, from the local primary school, went to work. Meanwhile, about 40 people watched from the sideline and gave the girls the benefit of their extensive experience. (Whack from below and at an angle!) The rice was planted at the end of May, and the harvest totaled about 450 kilograms. It will be offered at the November niinamesai and to the shrine every day throughout the year.

Sabae, Fukui

Instead of rice, the karime at this nuihosai harvested foxtail millet, a plant frequently cultivated in East Asia and infrequently seen in Japanese supermarkets. Millet can grow to a height of five feet, which might require different whacking techniques than those used for the smaller rice plants. A local farmer planted this small field in June. The crowd estimated at 170 who came to watch and make speeches included area residents and officials from the prefecture, city, and JA (the national agricultural cooperatives association). The millet will be dried and offered both to the Imperial household in Tokyo and at the local niinamesai.

Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui

Fukui also harvests the traditional rice instead of millet, and that’s what the sixth-grade karime are doing here. You can’t see him, but helping out the girls is Ishikawa Tetsuji, who planted the field in May. Mr. Ishikawa said that growing the rice in such a natural setting enabled him to derive a sense of spiritual culture. He said he also felt a particular responsibility because Fukui is the home of koshihikari rice. That’s a super-premium strain of rice created in the 1950s, and it has become one of the most popular in the country. It’s also popular at the Imperial Palace, where the crop was recently offered. It will be used later this month at the niinamesai with Fukui millet and other rice from around the country.

Mine, Yamaguchi

The Imperial household is going to have enough rice to feed the entire diplomatic corps when these ceremonies are all over. Two liters of the rice harvested in Mine, Yamaguchi, which was cut by 15 karime, are also being shipped to Tokyo. This year the job of planting the ceremonial crop fell to Kitahara Masahiko, which he did in May on his three-are (300 square meter) field. Mr. Kitahara allowed as how the great weather this year resulted in an excellent crop. Now when was the last time you heard any farmer anywhere talking up his harvest? The average farmer would rather choke on his cut plug than talk about how good he’s got it. It might make the government think twice about agricultural subsidies, for one thing. (The Japanese usually soft-pedal their good harvests by saying they are mazumazu, or not so bad.) He also said he was thrilled to do the work because it was the greatest honor that could be received in a lifetime of farming.

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka

They call it a nuiboshiki in Hamamatsu, and theirs was held at a rice paddy near the Iinoya-gu Shinto shrine, which every year grows isehikari rice received from the aforementioned Ise shrine. Eight grade-school girls dressed up as otome to harvest the rice they planted themselves in the spring, and they look like they’re enjoying themselves. A group of about 10 people stuck around to kibitz, telling them to whack from the bottom at an angle. The crop this year was about 100 kilos–sounds about right for grade school girls–which was dried for offering at the shrine. More was offered in mid-October at the Ise shrine itself at a ceremony called the kannamesai.

Omaezaki, Shizuoka

Hey, where did that hair-legged guy come from! That’s Masuda Noboru, stomping around his own rice paddy in Omaezaki, where he planted koshihikari rice on 2,818 square meters in April. That yielded a harvest of about 500 kilograms—better than the usual crop, according to Mr. Masuda. He cut the rice plants himself for presentation to the tenno (Emperor) at the niinamesai. It’s a wonder the Imperial family doesn’t have a weight problem with all the food people send them from around the country. The Palace’s cut was 1.8 kilograms. According to the city government, this was the first time the ceremony was conducted in the municipality. Sometimes in Japan a centuries-old tradition can start just this year, and sometimes it can be a one-man operation.

Iwanuma, Miyagi

Iwanumanians use the term nuihoshiki to describe the ceremonial rice harvest at the Takekoma shrine, which dates from 842. The harvest was also a study session–about 50 Shinto priests went out to work in the fields, some of whom were shrine officials and priests from six prefectures throughout the Tohoku region taking part in religous training. A guy just can’t go out there and start hacking–you have to learn how to do this the right way first. (Whack from the bottom at an angle.) After the main priest ritually purified the paddy and offered a prayer, shrine officials and miko (shrine maidens) dressed as otome formed a row to cut the rice stalks. It’s a shame the miko weren’t closer to the camera. The priests bundled the rice and presented it to the divinities in thanks for the harvest. This year’s crop was said to be average, despite the heavy rains of late August. After the rice is dried in the sun, it will be offered at the niinamesai in late November.

Sanuki, Kagawa

Nuihoshiki? Check. Rice paddy? 200 square meters. Niinamesai? Check. The local shrine’s cut? 1.8 liters. Growth time? Four and a half months. Yield? Pretty good, despite the lack of rain and the heat. Participants? About 100, including city and prefectural government officials and 18 members of the farmer’s family. This one seems to have been a ceremony for the regular folks. I hope they’re not looking for a needle in the rice stacks.

Ise, Mie

And here’s the Ise shrine’s own nuihoshiki, which this year was held in the rain. The rice was harvested by the priests from a shrine rice paddy in Kusube-cho. Those are some elegant threads and umbrellas for agricultural work. What’s the guy in yellow saying? “Whack from the bottom at an angle”? The event is a statement for self-sufficiency, as the rice grown and harvested here will be used for events at the shrine. Participating in the event were about 80 people, including shrine officials and area residents. After the initial prayer, they entered the paddy to cut the rice with sacred scythes. Don’t you wish you had a sacred scythe, too? The rice was separated into two groups, one for use in the Inner Shrine and one for use in the Outer Shrine. It was then stored after inspection by lower ranking priests, called negi. Both ordinary rice and the more glutinous mochi rice were grown in the paddy. (The latter variety is used to make the rice cakes for New Year’s decorations.) About 240 bags were harvested, and the first offering will be at an event called the kannamesai on 15 October.

Tsuruoka, Yamagata

This ceremony was held by JA, the national association of agricultural cooperatives, to harvest rice for the Dewasanzan Shinto shrine at their own ceremonial rice paddy. The torii in the photo shows just how close the shrine is. That photo also shows just how much work religion can be sometimes. The 17-are (0.42 acre) rice paddy is known as a kensenden (a paddy that is an offering to the divinities). It was created just last year in the hope for a divine reboot of area agriculture, which has been suffering lately due to bad weather. The work was done by 40 JA employees as well as the miko, and they certainly don’t need any kibitzers telling them how to to go about chopping rice. The event started off with a miko dance, a lottery offering, and a religious ceremony. That’s something for everybody! (I pick the first.)

Kashima, Saga

Those ladies look like they’re having fun. Maybe they’re playing Tom Sawyer and trying to con us into painting the fence. That’s the nuiboshiki in a consecrated paddy at the Yutoku Inari Shinto shrine in Kashima to give thanks for the fall harvest. The miko, clad as otome, formed a horizontal row to cut the rice plants. This traditional ceremony gathers the rice used for the niinamesai on 8 December and is more than 300 years old. To start, 11 miko perform a solemn dance at the shrine in supplication for a big harvest. Then three miko use flutes and percussion to perform a song for an abundant year while the other eight go to work with a scythe. The harvest was better than average, and the priest was glad there was no typhoon damage. The shrine’s rice planting ceremony was covered in the June post, and the miko wore the same clothes then. And then washed them for this ceremony, of course.

Buzen, Fukuoka

Good morning, little schoolgirl…I’m a little schoolboy too! The Otomi shrine leaves nothing to chance during its nuihosai—they have three taosa, or paddy bosses, overseeing the work of the six karime from primary and junior high school on a special 1.5 are consecrated rice paddy. One boss for two girls? Now that’s labor intensive agriculture! This was just the shrine’s 14th rice harvesting event to offer thanks to the divinity for a bountiful harvest. They cut in time with music provided by flutes and taiko drums. The rice was a local prefectural variety planted in June. Fukui Aya, one of the karime, was out cutting for the second time. She said, “When you put on the clothing, it definitely gives you a sacred feeling.”

And with that, the granaries are filled for the winter!

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Matsuri da! (63): Sembei roasting o’er an open fire…

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 12, 2007

EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE can be used as the basis for a Shinto festival in Japan, so it should be no surprise that one shrine holds an annual ceremony for baking snack food.

Sembei, or rice crackers, are a traditional Japanese snack still eaten and sold commercially. If you like such crunchy snacks as crackers, pretzels, or potato chips, you’ll like sembei, and they’re probably more healthful to boot. (The larger crackers are called sembei; a smaller variety is called arare, and they’re just as good.)

The Ebisu Shinto shrine of Sakaeshin-machi in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, held its annual Sembei Festival on the 20th last month as parishioners circled a fire on the shrine grounds to toast the rice crackers. The ceremony is conducted in supplication to the divinities for protection from illness and disaster. In other words, it’s like a marshmallow roast with a religious dimension.

The premise is simple. The sembei are attached to the end of a bamboo stick about 3.5 meters long and held over the fire. While anyone can toast a marshmallow, there seems to be a knack to cooking up rice crackers. Reportedly, some people have to take their semi-cooked sembei home to finish the job there.

As with many Shinto festivals, stalls were set up on the shrine grounds to sell merchandise and other snacks, and there was also a taiko drum performance.

Oddly, there was no mention in the reports of when or why the festival started. But I suspect people don’t need much of an excuse to get together and munch on snacks!

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Matsuri da! (45): Burn, baby, burn!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 15, 2007

THE ELEMENTAL POWER OF FIRE casts a spell over our primeval natures, fascinating and frightening us to the extent that it has sometimes been the object of worship. It should be no surprise, therefore, that fire is the central theme for an entire sub-genre of Japanese festivals.

The lengths to which the parishioners of the Atago Shinto shrine in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, will go to pay reverence to the instinctive urges within us is particularly impressive.

The shrine’s fire festival has been held continuously since the Edo period. It started sometime after 1615, but no one is sure exactly when. The event itself is not complicated, but it is remarkable nonetheless. About 5:00 in the afternoon one day last month, about 50 men dressed in happi coats assembled to haul a huge torch up the steep hillside of Mt. Nochise to the shrine near the summit.

When they say huge torch, they aren’t kidding. The torch, if that is what one can call it, is 70 centimeters in diameter, three meters long, and weighs about 200 kilograms. It takes the men an hour of sweating and grunting in the summer heat to get that bruiser to the top of the mountain, 168 meters above the ground. Eight men do the actual carrying, and another 20 help by pulling it with ropes.

Once they reach the top, the real fun begins–they get to light it! The shrine’s guardian deity is the fire divinity, so the torch is set ablaze as an offering in supplication for safety against fire, illnesses, and disasters.

People sure can come up with a lot of reasons for enjoying themselves!

Japan is fortunate in that it has a smaller population of armchair meta-critics than some Western countries, who would find or create some postmodern excuse to disparage the event. Instead, the local residents gather to applaud the men and encourage them in their efforts to carry that load to the top of the mountain. I wonder how many of us would be willing to engage in backbreaking physical labor for an hour in the service of tradition.

Still, the modern guys have reportedly lightened their load. Today’s torch weighs about 200 kilograms, but in the past it used to be half again as heavy.

This year, the passage of a nearby typhoon brought strong winds and some rain, so the group lit only part of the torch, which was a minor disappointment. But the men weren’t about to let all their efforts go for naught. They promised to return when the weather was better and light the torch properly.

Those fellas lugged that lumber all the way to the top of the mountain, so you can be sure they kept their promise and returned a few days later, set it on fire, and watched it burn.

I’ll bet they had a great time doing it, too.

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