AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Kagoshima’

All you have to do is look (146)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 23, 2012

Scenes of big fun from the 61st Ohara Festival in the Tenmonkan shopping district in Kagoshima City. A total of 25,658 people in 325 groups participated in the two day event, which attracted roughly 230,000 spectators.

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Interview with Watanabe Yoshimi

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Watanabe Yoshimi

WATANABE Yoshimi, the president of Your Party, the first of the Third Force reform parties, gave an interview published in the press last week. Here it is in English.

What is your strategy for victory in the lower house election?

WY: The key to victory is whether we can segregate the candidates of the so-called Third Forces and avoid going head-to-head against each other in election districts. An inability to do that will create the worst result, which would be crushing each other.

You’re competing with the Japan Restoration Party in some districts.

WY: We took our time to select good people and meet our target of 70 candidates. In those places where we couldn’t reach a compromise, we have no choice but to go head to head.

You weren’t able to merge with the Japan Restoration Party.

WY: We reached a broad agreement with the party in policy discussions, but the gulf between us is too wide to allow a merger. As soon as they merged with (Ishihara Shintaro’s) Sun Party, the opposition to nuclear power disappeared. Civil service reform is the A of the ABCs for both Your Party and the Japan Restoration Party, but this has also disappeared. Won’t the people wonder what happened and view this suspiciously?

What are the points at issue in the lower house election?

WY: We intend to fight on the policies of growth without a consumption tax increase, small government, and regional devolution as opposed to centralization. Governance by the bureaucracy in Japan has resulted in a deflationary economy. The political class is no longer the control tower of governance. National strategy has been left entirely to the vertically divided central government bureaucracies. We will restore the Japanese economy by creating a real control tower and implementing a competitive growth strategy.

You’re calling for a suspension of the consumption tax increase and converting the tax to a revenue source for local government.

WY: Allowing an increase in the national government tax will facilitate bureaucratic governance. The dependency on central government will become chronic. That’s why we want to make that tax a local government revenue source. The starting point for this debate is a new state/province system with regional autonomy.

How will you achieve “zero nuclear energy”?

WY: Nuclear energy is the extension of the electric power supply system based on regional monopolies. If each of the utilities can achieve mutual adaptability, we can secure enough energy at peak periods without nuclear energy. We will promote the deregulation of power generation and the separation of the generation and supply systems through the entry of new companies into the industry. More consumers will choose their power sources. That way, nuclear power will gradually fall away.

What will the framework of government be after the election?

WY: That all depends on the outcome. If the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito become the largest bloc, they will probably have to create a coalition with the Democratic Party to supplement their own forces and create a stable government. That’s because gridlock would still exist in the upper house. It is very likely that the system of three-party collusion will be maintained.

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All you have to do is look (119)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 26, 2012

The Makurazaki Station, the terminal station on the Ibusuki-Makurazaki Line of JR Kyushu, the southernmost railroad line operated by the JR Group in Japan (Photo by Muyo). Six trains arrive and depart every day.

The woman in the video is a volunteer who greets tourists on weekends.

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All you have to do is look (115)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 22, 2012

A performance of the arasetsu tradtional dance on the island of Amami, originally for the rice “spirit”. The island of Amami is part of Kagoshima, but that whistling is Okinawan.

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All you have to do is look (109)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 16, 2012

The Kawachi tug-of-war at Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, earlier this fall. It is almost as if tug-of-war were elevated to an extreme sport, and they’ve been doing it for 400 years. Try this previous report to find out how and why.

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All you have to do is look (97)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Shochogama ritual conducted on Amami Island in Kagoshima every September in supplication for a good harvest the following year. Designated as an intangible national cultural treasure, the event dates from the 16th century, when Amami was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

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All you have to do is look (34)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 31, 2012

The morning hula dances held on the second and fourth Sundays of the month on the beach at Ibusuki, Kagoshima, since April. Anyone can join.

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The votes are in

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 9, 2012

THE first major election has been held in Japan since the resumption of operations at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui and the fallout in the form of anti-nuclear power demonstrations.

The news media just loves demonstrations (unless they’re run by the Tea Party), but they won’t like the results of this election.

Mukohara Yoshitaka, the operator of small publishing company, challenged two-term incumbent Ito Yuichiro for the office of Kagoshima governor. Mr. Mukohara tried to make it a single-issue referendum:

Mukohara, who serves as director-general of a local antinuclear body, opposed the restart of the Sendai plant and portrayed the election as a prefectural referendum on nuclear power.

The incumbent Mr. Ito tried to downplay the issue, but said he favored restarting the Sendai plant. He added, in a classic kick of the can down the road, that nuclear power should be abandoned at some time in the future.

The election coverage by the national newspapers, both in Japanese and English, is most enlightening. They merely stated that Mr. Ito had won, and:

Voter turnout was 43.85 percent, compared with 38.99 percent in the previous election.

So, with voter interest higher than usual in an election the challenger wanted to make a referendum on an emotional issue, what was the margin of victory?

I had to visit a local Kagoshima newspaper site to find the numbers. They were:

Ito: 394,170
Mukohara: 200,518

That’s more slightly more than 66% for the man who favored restarting the nuclear power plant.

The “commentary” is also most enlightening. The Asahi, which is anti-nuclear power, said:

But as Mukohara announced his candidacy just one month before the official start of campaigning, he struggled to gain voter recognition in many areas other than the prefectural capital of Kagoshima.

Guess they don’t have newspapers, TV, or the wireless out in the Kagoshima sticks yet, huh?

While looking for an English-language article to cite, I ran across someone else who explained it away by writing that the less-populated areas of the prefecture were “majorly dependent” (sic) on the employment provided by the nuclear power plant.

So, one source has the people outside the big city unfamiliar with the candidate, and another has the people outside the big city very familiar with the issue as something that affects their livelihood.

Putting aside the excuses and the flood of pixels sure to come in subsequent elections and demonstrations, what happened with the issue of nuclear power in Fukui and now Kagoshima provides an indication of what will likely continue to happen in the rest of the country.

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Matsuri da! (124): Kareki ni hana

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The expression kareki ni hana (枯れ木に花) literally means a flower on a dead tree, but the Japanese use it to refer to something that had waned but is now flourishing again. Whenever they want to come up with something fresh for the traditional Shinto festivals — the best free entertainment in the world — all they have to do is look into their past to see what they’ve already done. Here are three recent examples.

Kagibiki

For years, the Kagoshimanians in Kimotsuki-cho performed the kagibiki as part of the Ohaku Shinto shrine spring festival in supplication for a good harvest, good health, and safety. There are two parts to the event — the first is a stick dance, which is shown here. That’s followed by the kagibiki itself, which is a tug-of-war with a 1.4-meter-long pole instead of a rope. In events of this sort, the teams are usually separated by geographical region, and one team’s victory is an indication that the divinities will bless them with a good crop. In this town, the east and west face off against each other.

Performances of the event stopped five years ago because there were too few children in the small agricultural community to conduct the dance properly. This year, however, some nearby small towns sent over some kids to help out, and 18 people in the local preservation society cut out sticks from the trees behind the shrine to provide all the equipment they needed.

The dancers are also the pullers during the kagibiki, but the other townspeople join in as the spirit moves them, once the blood starts rising with the beat of the taiko drums. One 90-year-old woman brought her children and grandchildren to watch. “I hadn’t seen it in a long time,” she explained. “I was so thankful I felt like crying. I want them to continue next year.”

Here’s what the big fun looked like in another town where they used what looks like a real tree.

Kagura

It’s been a lot longer since the Takayamanians in Gifu have performed the children’s kagura (i.e. Shinto dance) during the Hie Shinto shrine spring festival. In fact, it’s been 60 years. In its infinite wisdom, the GHQ during the postwar occupation forbid the performance of the sword dance, one part of the kagura, because swords are not healthy for children or other living things. The other part of this kagura is the halberd dance, and that ended when the guy who taught it died in 1955.

Now that the Americans have bigger fish to fry than to prevent costumed kids in occupied countries from playing with swords under adult supervision, the folks in Takayama thought it was high time to bring it back. The city fathers pitched in two-thirds of the cost to conduct the research and recreate the equipment, and for the rest of the cash they hit up a program sponsored by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport for the creation of “historical environments”. (Why it’s not a program in the Agency for Cultural Affairs, I’m not sure.)

The preservation committee dug into the records, interviewed the people who saw the last performances, and took notes at four other similar shrine dances in the city. The dance involves walking around an octagonal shape created by tatami, and the object is to purify the area in every direction. They made the costumes, the swords, and the halberds, and trained four fifth-grade boys to perform the dance (two for each one).

Said the chairman of preservation committee: “Now it’s up to the courage of the children.”

Isn’t it always?

Mawari Odori

Finally, they’ll be bringing back the mawari odori, or the turning dance, in Yoshinogawa, Tokushima, in August. You’d think they wouldn’t have willingly let the city’s intangible cultural treasure die out, especially because it’s at least 500 years old, but depopulation was the problem. This is the second comeback for the dance, different forms of which are considered one of the three major types of popular festival dances in Japan. It ended the first time in 2003, was restored in 2007 and 2008, and then ended again after a municipal merger and the organizations for maintaining it had not been created.

A city NPO formed an executive committee to keep it going this time, and the committee will transform itself into a preservation committee after August. Their intention is to promote its spread to other small settlements in the area. The mawari odori is actually a combination of song and dance that is an offering to ancestors, but it’s also a form of summer entertainment. The song is in the form of a male-female dialogue during the mid-August bon festival, and believe it or not, the now-sedate bon odori was once an excuse for the young men and women of isolated farming communities to have a little adult fun. An invitation to dance was a de facto invitation to head to the nearest clump of dark bushes as soon as possible to continue with the eternal dance. Bon odori was so bawdy it was actually banned on a couple of occasions during the Edo period.

A chorus leader begins the song, which is the signal to form a circle and start dancing, somewhat like an American square dance. There’s a greater sense of urgency this time; there are only two or three chorus leaders who remember all the words, and they’re getting old. Besides, young adults have plenty of other opportunities to get friendly nowadays. Said the director of the committee: “If we don’t pass it on now, we’ll never be able to revive it again. I hope that many people participate and we can spread the circle of activity.”

Here’s a different version of the dance in Kuroishi, Aomori.

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

—————–
A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei


They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

*****
And don’t forget Okinawa!

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Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Back to front

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

ALL of the following stories appeared yesterday in the back pages of newspapers or the less well-traveled sections of websites. All of them present aspects of a reality quite different from the narrative of major news media outlets outside the region.

Linguistics

The National Institute of the Korean Language conducted a survey of the Korean language ability of foreigners in South Korea married to Koreans, based on the results of a language competence test conducted from 10 September to 20 October. The highest score possible for the test was 100.

The institute broke the results down by nationality and found that the Japanese had the best results, as 62.8% of that group scored 90 or better.

They were followed by Chinese of Korean ancestry at 55.7% and Mongolians at 45.6%. In last place were natives of The Philippines at 21.3%.

They also broke down the results by region of residence. (They do things like that in East Asia.) Foreign spouses in Daegu did the best with 45.5% scoring over 90 points. By province, Gangwon was at the top of the table with 40.8%, closely trailed by Gyeonggi at 40.0%.

Business

Speaking of Daegu:

Daegu City and Yeungjin College jointly launched an investment seminar on Dec. 8 for 11 invited Japanese-member companies of the Technology Advanced Metropolitan Area (TAMA)….

The investment seminar catered to 14 to 19 attendees representing a total of 11 Japanese companies. In addition, officials from Japan’s Kanto Economy and Commerce Department attended the event, with the number of participants estimated at 20. Another 30 local companies from Daegu participated in the seminar, providing one-on-one consultations with Japanese companies on technology and business partnerships.

The participating Japanese companies are located near Tokyo and specialize in electronics and mechanical metal parts. The participants were able to look forward to possible exchanges and cooperation with established auto- and machinery-parts manufacturers in Daegu and the North Gyeongsang Provincial region. According to Daegu City, the occasion paved the way for some Japanese companies to consider entering the Korean market.

The governments of Japan, South Korea, and China are talking about having talks about a free trade agreement, but local governments and the business sectors in both countries aren’t futzing around. Similar articles appear nearly every day in the middle or back pages of the Nishinippon Shimbun, with reports of South Korean and Chinese businesspeople coming to Kyushu for discussions and signing business agreements. Governments and business associations in Kyushu, the southern Korean Peninsula, and Northeast China have been working together for several years to create a de facto free trade zone.

Oh, and if you hit that link, you’ll see a photo of cherry blossoms in Daegu.

Sailing

Seoul-based Harmony Cruises has begun sales of cruise packages to Kyushu that will call at Fukuoka City, Beppu, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima (as well as Jeju) from home ports in Busan and Incheon. The initial sales are for 19 cruises between February and April. The company plans to offer almost 100 cruises per year. The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport says they will become the first South Korean company to operate cruises to Japan.

There’s also been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese cruises to Kyushu over the past five years. They already call on six Kyushu ports 118 times a year, and more are planned. The Kyushu Economic Research Center says the economic effect for each city of each port call for each cruise is JPY 44 million.

There are plenty of things to do and see in Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima, ranging from theme parks to historical and cultural attractions. Beppu is famous for its hot springs, and many Koreans like to come to Kyushu to play golf.

Flying

Low-cost carrier Jeju Air of South Korea announced plans to inaugurate regularly scheduled daily flights between Fukuoka City and Seoul this year, beginning sometime after March. The number of flights and their times are undecided, pending authorization by South Korean authorities. (If the project has gotten this far, however, they’ll get the authorization.) Jeju Air has been operating three flights a week between Kitakyushu (Fukuoka City’s neighbor) and Seoul since March 2009.

Said a Jeju Air spokesman:

The Fukuoka Airport has many users from both Japan and South Korea, and it has excellent access because it is close to the city center. (It’s 10 minutes by subway.)

Jeju will be the second Korean LCC to operate flights to Fukuoka; the first was T’way, which also flies to Osaka and Nagoya.

And that’s in addition to the Japanese LCCs and the major Japanese and Korean airlines flying the same route.

Read the primary articles in the English-language media about Japan-South Korea relations, and you can’t get past the second sentence without them dipping into all the bad blood. Oh, it’s there all right, kept at a boil and stirred by the politicos and their Greek chorus in the commentariat and academia.

But read the newspaper back to front and you see that it’s a different story altogether on the ground.

Afterwords:

The Daegu story is a couple of weeks old, but I found out about it yesterday in an e-mail alert from the Korean Herald.

*****
Happy New Year is a Matsutoya Yumi (“Yuming”) song, but here she performs it in a duet with Suga Shikao

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not alone in that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the calligrapher/priest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thousand islands

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the institute:

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

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

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

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Matsuri da! (123): Keep on trucking

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A PROMINENT feature of many Japanese festivals is a procession with elaborate floats or mikoshi. They are often larger than a single-family dwelling, centuries old, and crafted with exquisite workmanship and materials. These relics are literally priceless.

But that’s not true of all festivals.

One example is the Uodon Matsuri held by the Hakosaki Hachiman shrine last month in Yusui-cho, Kagoshima. The festival, which is at least 500 years old, is an annual event to purge the local district once known as Yoshimatsu-cho of sin and impurities. This is accomplished by tying carved wooden masks of a male and female divinity to the end of stakes and then parading them around the district while the shrine priest chants, “Uo, uo” to announce their presence. After the divinities have passed through every neighborhood, the masks are attached to bamboo stakes six meters high. These are placed on either side of National Highway #268 at the border with Miyazaki Prefecture and connected with a shimenawa, or sacred rope. There’s no better way to ensure that all the outsiders coming into the district will be purified too.

No sticklers for needless tradition, the priests at the shrine have availed themselves of technological advances over the centuries to make their job easier. Originally, the masks of the divinities were carried on horseback. The priests later switched from horses to bicycles. But why get sweaty and out of breath with all that pedaling when you can make it even easier on yourself? Nowadays, they lash the stakes to the bed of a small pickup truck and chauffer the deities around, as you can see from the photo.

Let’s not forget another advantage to the trucks: I don’t think the highway patrol will pull that driver over, do you?

Incidentally “Uo” seems to be Kagoshimanian for the names of the divinities, and is written 大王. That’s usually pronounced daio and means great king. I couldn’t find an explanation for the name, or indeed any information beyond the content of the post. I suspect the “don” is also from the regional dialect. If I’m not mistaken, it’s derived from 共 (tomo), and is used to create plurals, such as in kodomo for children. Here’s an explanation in Japanese, but feel free to correct me if I’ve misinterpreted it.

And here’s a curiosity: Despite the funkiness with the truck, the shrine also has a short promotional video that presents a rather different image:

*****
After six days on the road, anyone would need purifying, not just the truckers.

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Exquisite music

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 14, 2011

MORE than 800 years ago, in 1196, the Buddhist priest Hozan Kengyo was sent from the Myo-on-ji Jorakuin temple in what is now Shiga to attend the opening of a new temple in today’s Hioki, Kagoshima. Hozan was proficient in the biwa, and he taught 12 pieces of religious music to the local priests. It was performed with eight instruments, including the biwa, flute, taiko drum, and shell horns.

The name of the new temple was the Nakashima Jorakuin, and the music Hozan brought with him was known as Myo-on Junigaku (myo-on means exquisite music). The Japanese biwa is derived from the lute by way of the Chinese pipa, but several different types have been developed in Japan since then. This temple is said to be the origin of the Satsuma biwa, which was used not only for performing music, but also for the mental and moral training of the local samurai. In the past, only blind priests could serve at this temple, and many of the chief priests were renowned for their musical talent.

Nakashima Jorakuin is affiliated with the Tendai sect, at one time the mainstream Buddhist sect in Japan and at its zenith when the temple was founded. Tendai was once associated with the Imperial court, and the Jodo and Nichiren sects are derived from it. A class of warrior-monks emerged from the sect after the 12th century, which applied pressure to the Imperial court and took sides in military and political disputes to defend what it considered to be temple interests. That ended when the warlord Oda Nobunaga almost completely destroyed their headquarters in 1571.

The main temple of Nakashima Jorakuin was moved to a location near the Kagoshima Castle in 1619. With the early Meiji-period anti-Buddhist movement to disestablish Buddhism and replace it with Shinto, and the damage suffered during American bombing missions in World War II, the temple was again moved, this time to Miyazaki. What remains on the original site in Hioki was the subsidiary temple, which has been reduced to one building and the graves of the chief priests. Kagoshima has designated it a prefectural historical site.

Kagoshima also designated the 12 pieces of myo-on junigaku music as an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture in 1971. The repertoire was once performed by blind priests throughout southern Kyushu, but it is now heard only once a year and only at Nakashima Jorakuin, accompanied by readings of sutras unique to the temple.

That performance always falls on 12 October. Ten musician-priests came from Kagoshima and Miyazaki this year to play. Said a sixth-grade boy who attended:

“I think it’s amazing when I wonder how the people of the past, who couldn’t record music, were able to memorize a performance of nearly an hour.”

Here’s a two-minute YouTube clip from last year’s performance of music that has changed little, if at all, from a millennium ago.

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Posted in History, Imperial family, Music, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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