AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Mie’

Wabbit season! Duck season! Kan season!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kan DPJ has three principles when someone asks who will take responsibility for the election defeats: We will not apologize, we will not accept responsibility, and we will assume a defiant attitude. No one’s going to accept responsibility.
- A politician described as a “veteran Diet member”, speaking to a reporter off the record

IN ADDITION to determining the chief executives of local governments and the composition of prefectural and municipal assemblies, the first round of sub-national elections held throughout the country a week ago last Sunday ended the moratorium on political warfare that began with the Tohoku earthquake on 11 March. Hunting season on Prime Minister Kan Naoto and his Cabinet has resumed. Unlike the wascally wabbits and the ducks, however, the prey painted the targets on themselves.

The Democratic Party of Japan was desperate to bag some big game of its own in the balloting. The party has always had weak organizations at the local level, and they viewed the election as a means to strengthen their presence. The national party had hoped to win an outright majority in last summer’s upper house election, eliminating the need for coalition partners, but they lost seats instead. They’ve been smacked around in local elections since then, and were humiliated in the Nagoya/Aichi elections of February, an area where they traditionally do well. Had it not been for the political ceasefire called after the earthquake, Mr. Kan would already have been a dead duck rather than a lame one.

Prime Minister Kan in camouflage clothing at Ishinomaki

The prime minister tried to play his part. He demonstrated his familiarity with the concept of Western-style photo ops by paying a third visit to the distressed region on Election Day, and the news media cooperated by treating his trip as if it were an important story. Few of them reported that he spent all of 10 minutes at a shelter in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, and talked to two of the 15 people staying there. His inspiring message? Gambatte kudasai, please do your best. One resident later offered a rhetorical question to a reporter: Is that all he can say? Mr. Kan spent the rest of his time on the ground meeting with local pols, making a quick trip to survey the fishing port, and giving an impromptu radio broadcast. One wonders how many people bothered to tune in.

He might as well have sent a decoy instead. Japan has 47 prefectures, corresponding to states or provinces, and 41 held elections for their local assemblies. The DPJ failed to become the majority party in any of them. The Asahi Shimbun reported that the percentage of victory for party-backed candidates in the prefectural assembly elections was 60% for the DPJ and 90% for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. LDP- and DPJ-backed candidates went head-to-head in three gubernatorial elections, and the DPJ lost all three.

In short, the people have given the DPJ government in general, and the Kan government in particular, a second vote of no confidence. The Mainichi Shimbun noted that the results were not only a reflection of Mr. Kan’s unpopularity. They were also, the newspaper said, a reflection of the party’s general weakness as a political group, their inadequacy at conducting the day-to-day business of retail politics, and their inability to coordinate candidates.

Here’s one example: The party wanted to find 21 candidates for the Nara prefectural assembly to run under the party banner (rather than the other options of “recommendation” or “support”). They canvassed several districts for interest, but got no takers. Said the local party chairman, “The confusion in the Diet has spread and created a sense of disappointment in the party itself.” Some of the people who agreed to run as official DPJ candidates later changed their minds and withdrew. The party wound up backing 15 candidates in all. It was the first try for public office for six of them, and five of them lost.

The Nishinippon Shimbun wrote that the election shows the voters are continuing to desert the established parties, particularly the DPJ, and shift to local parties. They called it another step towards devolution and the kind of tax reform that isn’t a euphemism for a tax increase. While they have a point, the local parties did not perform as well as they had hoped, as we shall see.

Tokyo

None of the gubernatorial candidates in the Tokyo Metro District election ran with the official backing of the DPJ or LDP at the national level, though the local LDP and New Komeito backed 78-year-old incumbent Ishihara Shintaro, and the local DPJ supported businessman Watanabe Miki.

That the ruling party of national government was unable to recruit a candidate for the most visible sub-national office in the country is evidence of their problems. They tried to convince Ren Ho to leave her upper house seat to run, but she demurred. The polls did not look good for her even before Mr. Ishihara changed his mind and decided to seek another term. Besides, having to take real executive responsibility instead of serving as one of more than 700 legislators and Cabinet window dressing would be too much like real work.

Mr. Ishihara was reelected to a fourth term with 43.40% of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Mr. Watanabe finished a poor third with 16.81%. In between was former Miyazaki governor and show business personality Higashikokubaru Hideo, who ran without party support, official or unofficial, and received 28.06% of the vote.

A more detailed look at the results reveals some fascinating information. Mr. Higashikokubaru finished first among voters in their 20s, with 42.2%. He was less popular among voters aged 40 and older, however. He also appealed to the independent bloc—they gave 34.8% of their votes to Mr. Ishihara, but 32.1% to Mr. Higashikokubaru. (That’s more bad news for the DPJ—independents account for roughly half of all voters, and the DPJ-backed candidate received an even lower percentage of the independent votes than he did overall.)

Most people attribute Mr. Ishihara’s victory to the support of local LDP voters and the perception that he would be the most capable person to take charge in the event of a Tohoku-like crisis.

Mie

A more painful result for the DPJ, and the one that might cost Secretary-General Okada Katsuya his job, was the gubernatorial election in Mie. It was the first time in 16 years this election had been directly contested by both the ruling and opposition parties in national government. In addition, the DPJ does well in Mie—the party holds four of the prefecture’s five seats in the lower house of the Diet, and two in the upper house. The officially endorsed or recommended DPJ candidate had won five straight prefecture-wide elections since 2000, including the last election for governor. Finally, it is also Mr. Okada’s home prefecture.

The two primary candidates were Suzuki Eikei, an ex-bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and Matsuda Naohisa, the former mayor of Tsu. Mr. Suzuki was recommended by the LDP and Your Party and supported by New Komeito. Mr. Matsuda was recommended by the DPJ.

The national opposition parties devoted particular attention to this election. Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro, two former LDP prime ministers, stumped for Mr. Suzuki, as did Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi.

Mr. Suzuki won.

Osaka

If anyone in Japanese politics today can be said to roll their own, it would be Osaka Prefecture Gov. Hashimoto Toru. No one, including the governor himself, can anticipate what he’ll say or do next, but that doesn’t bother the people of Osaka. They still give him 70%+ support in polls in the last year of his first term.

Gov. Hashimoto and his party came this close

His eccentric orbit notwithstanding, he has always piloted his spacecraft in the galaxy of regionalism. His consistent position has been that local governments should have more authority and the national government less. Over the course of his first term, he developed what he calls the Osaka-to Concept. By that he means reorganizing the prefectural government into a structure administratively similar to that of Tokyo’s. The Tokyo Metro District government has the primary responsibility for the municipal administration of the core 23 wards of the “city” of Tokyo, but the city of Osaka and its 24 wards are now governed independently of Osaka Prefecture. The governor’s idea is to incorporate the governance of that city and the city of Sakai with that of the prefecture, and to give Osaka’s wards more authority than those of Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Mr. Hashimoto created the Osaka Ishin no Kai, a de facto political party, to achieve that goal. His group backed candidates in the elections for the Osaka Prefecture Assembly and the assemblies of the city of Osaka and Sakai. The latter is a substantial city in its own right, with a population of 840,000.

The results of the election were mixed. Mr. Hashimoto’s party won 57 of 109 seats in Osaka Prefecture—the first outright majority in that chamber by any political party since the end of the war. They also won 33 of 86 seats in the city of Osaka (having backed 44 candidates) and 13 of 52 seats in Sakai, to become the largest party in both chambers.

But because the party failed to win an outright majority in the two cities, Mr. Hashimoto declared the election to have been a failure. He said he would go back to the drawing board for his Osaka-to Concept, even though the day before the election he declared that a majority wouldn’t be necessary if he received cooperation from other delegates.

A few days later, he announced that he and his group will hold discussions with the other parties in the two cities to reach a consensus by September. If an agreement is impossible, he will resign in November, four months before his term is scheduled to end, and run in a double election in December when the city of Osaka selects its mayor. That is an imitation of the successful strategy employed by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi in February. Speaking of Nagoya and Aichi…

Aichi

Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and Aichi Governor Omura Hideaki continued the alliance that won them election in February on a program to cut local taxes by 10%. Their objective was to capture an outright majority for their political groups in the Aichi prefectural assembly.

They did pick up seats, but not as many as they wanted, and not a majority. Their total went from one to 18 members in a 103-seat chamber, and 45 if the candidates they recommended are included. The LDP lost its outright majority, but they are still the largest party with 49 seats.

Most observers think the earthquake/tsunami dimmed the appeal of their tax-cutting program. Mr. Kawamura attributed the defeat to “the mistaken theory that a tax increase was unavoidable”, but he stuck to his guns at a post-election news conference: “In difficult times, you have to stimulate the economy with a tax cut.”

Mr. Omura thought the general mood of self-restraint resulted in a subdued campaign. The turnout was disappointing after the interest generated by the triple elections two months ago. Just 42.01% of the voters went to the polls. 1.09 percentage points down from the previous election, and the lowest percentage ever.

Shizuoka

Located next door to Aichi, Shizuoka was another battleground for the fight between the Tax Reduction Japan of Kawamura Takashi in Nagoya and the established parties. The former mayor of Shizuoka City stepped down after 16 years in office, clearing the field for new candidates. The LDP recommended Tanabe Nobuhiro, while Unno Toru, who lost the same election four years ago by 1,303 votes, ran under the Tax Reduction Japan banner. Mr. Tanabe also received the endorsement of several influential local DPJ politicians.

Thus the two largest national parties created an ad hoc, de facto alliance of forces to take on the insurgents. Both Maehara Seiji, who recently resigned as defense minister in the DPJ government, and LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru campaigned in Shizuoka for Mr. Tanabe. He cannily used the post-earthquake mood and the year-long political turmoil in Nagoya to good effect against an opponent with greater name recognition. His speeches always presented this choice: “The election during this crisis is (the choice of) selecting either a stable city government or a city government in turmoil.” He stressed unity and contrasted that with the combative attitude of his tax-cutting neighbors. He made a point to always appear on stage with politicians from both the LDP and DPJ, and declare in his speeches: “Now is the time for us to become one. Men, women, people in their 20s, people in their 80s, the DPJ, the LDP…I have plenty of colleagues”

In contrast, Mr. Unno’s campaign slogan was “true government reform begins with tax reduction.”

Mr. Tanabe won the election with 45% of the vote. Mr. Unno received 42%, and a third candidate received the rest.

Meanwhile, the DPJ suffered large losses in the prefectural assembly, and the LDP won an outright majority.

The earth quakes in Nagata-cho

The many people who would like to see Mr. Kan gone were dismayed immediately after the earthquake/tsunami because they thought the disaster might prolong his occupancy in the Kantei by up to a year. Wrote former journalist, author, and commentator Shioda Maruo:

“Though (the earthquake) was a bitter event that left many people saddened, one person gained from it—Prime Minister Kan Naoto. The Kan administration had lost all support and become a mudboat that seemed to be on the verge of sinking at any moment. The emergency left the opposition, which was about to corner the government, no choice but to call a cease fire. Prime Minister Kan himself must have thought he had been saved. When I look at him, behaving as if his mudboat has been made seaworthy again, it makes my blood boil.”

Caution: Kan at Work

A less-than-inspirational figure under normal circumstances, Mr. Kan staggered rather than rose to the occasion. He nearly broke down at a news conference and did not hold another for three weeks. He finally showed up on the day after a national newspaper called him the hikikomori prime minister. (Hikikomori is the word used to describe those young people who hole up in a bedroom of their parents’ homes rather than conduct normal lives.) His behavior left the impression that uppermost in his mind was converting the disaster to political capital, thereby extending his term.

In addition, his administration made the conscious decision to shut out the bureaucracy from decision-making to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. While the political class does need to put the Kasumigaseki bureaucrats in their place, they could also utilize the machinery of government and the expertise of its operators in this situation. Mr. Kan chose instead to show everyone that the DPJ government could do it themselves. Less than competent under normal circumstances, they again staggered rather than rose to the occasion and showed everyone that they can’t.

Mr. Kan is often criticized for his tendency to do whatever pops into his head at the moment. That tendency became manifest again when he made an out-of-the-blue telephone call to LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu with the demand that the latter immediately agree to join a coalition government. He hadn’t bothered to discuss the possibility with anyone in his party or government beforehand, and insisted that Mr. Tanigaki decide without talking it over with his own party. When the LDP chief asked him for time to take the proposal to his colleagues, the prime minister said he took that as a refusal and would describe it that way to the news media—which he did. (Are the reasons people dislike Mr. Kan becoming clearer?)

Another frequent criticism of Mr. Kan and his Cabinet is for their seeming preference to form new committees and hold meetings without actually doing anything. A recent Asahi TV program presented a large chart showing they had created 10 new organizations (that I could count) for dealing with the disaster. Who could blame the announcers for speculating on the amount of wasted and duplicated effort? And as if on cue, the prime minister’s semi-regular e-mail message arrived as I was writing this post. The title is, “Launch of the Reconstruction Design Council”. The council held its first meeting yesterday.

Apres-election

Once people realized that the one-two combination of earthquake and tsunami had staggered the country, but not put it on the mat, the DPJ shellacking in the local elections crystallized dissatisfaction with the prime minister, both among his own party and the opposition.

Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro said what a lot of people were thinking:

“The DPJ was thrashed in both gubernatorial and assembly elections. Will the policies of a government that has lost the trust of the people serve the people?”

About the election results, he said:

“What else could you expect? They’re a group of immature people to start with. It’s inconceivable that they never convened a meeting of the administrative vice-ministers. They talk about saving electricity, but why haven’t they issued a cabinet order?

Mr. Kan might find it easy to dismiss this as an opposition attack, but he will not find it so easy to dismiss the attacks from within his own party.

Here’s DPJ member Ishihara Yosaburo, who represents Fukushima District #1 in the lower house:

“Prime Minister Kan Naoto said he understood (Fukushima) would be a long-term issue and he would deal with it in that manner, but this threatens the lives of the people of Fukushima and Japan. If he thinks this is a long-term issue, I hope he resigns immediately and is replaced by a new regime that can resolve the situation more quickly.”

Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a member of the Hatoyama Cabinet, said the following on the government’s response to Fukushima at a news conference sponsored by the Free Press Association of Japan:

“What should be done to prevent the release of highly concentrated radiation into the sea? If they are incapable of making that decision, the entire Cabinet should resign.”

Tarutoko Shinji, who has run for the DPJ presidency, left no doubt about his intentions despite the circumlocutory language:

“I have an extremely strong feeling that (this government) will not benefit the people in these circumstances.”

The revolt is close to the boiling point. Speaking to party members about the elections, DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya admitted that the leadership’s lack of ability was an acceptable subject for criticism and apologized. Someone shouted from the floor:

“How long are you going to sit there?” (i.e. stay in your current position)

Okada: “Who spoke just now? Raise your hand and say that.”

No one did just then, but that didn’t last long.

Mr. Kan refuses to step down from a job he’s coveted his entire adult life, which has finally led to bipartisan cooperation. Executives from the two major parties are discussing ways to yank him down. JNN reported that senior members of the DPJ and LDP met to devise a strategy for dumping him.

One meeting was attended by Mr. Kan’s predecessor Hatoyama Yukio, Mr. Hatoyama’s chief cabinet secretary Hirano Hirofumi, current LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru, and former LDP Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei. The LDP is planning to submit a no-confidence motion in the lower house and a censure motion in the upper house, and it is becoming increasingly likely that some in the DPJ will vote for them. The meeting was to determine the timing of the submissions. Mr. Hatoyama thinks it’s too early, but Mr. Hirano said the limits of cooperation have been reached.

Ozawa Ichiro ally Yamaoka Kenji, one of the DPJ party vice-presidents, met with New Komeito Secretary-General Inoue Yoshihisa to discuss avenues of cooperation for removing Mr. Kan and governing post-Kan. Others attending included Hatoyama associate Nakayama Yoshikatsu and former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko. Mr. Yamaoka said the situation demanded the creation of a new coalition. Ms. Tanaka, still as blunt as her father after all these years, simply said, “This administration is really bad.”

That brings up the destroyer-of-worlds Ozawa Ichiro, who ostensibly controls the largest single bloc in the party. Not only does he agree that something must be done, he now seems ready to do something about it himself.

Last September Mr. Kan defeated Mr. Ozawa in an election for the post of party president and tried to use that as a wedge to drive him from the party. Now the shoe is on the proverbial other foot. Speaking with uncharacteristic urgency on an Internet TV program, Mr. Ozawa criticized the government’s response to Fukushima:

“We have no idea who (within the government) is responsible, nor what it is they’re supposed to do. This makes less sense than when everything was left to the bureaucrats.”

Speaking to 20 younger Diet members at a party at his home, he said:

“I won’t be forming a (new) party. We are the real DPJ. They are the ones who changed, so shouldn’t they be the ones to leave?”

Depending on the report, Mr. Ozawa is either mulling the possibility of calling for a recall vote within the party or supporting a no-confidence motion in the lower house. The media thinks there are roughly 90 people in Ozawa’s group in the lower house, and 80 DPJ votes are needed to pass that motion. Some wonder if the threat of a no-confidence motion is one way to force Mr. Kan to step down. Mr. Ozawa himself noted that the motion’s passage would require a new lower house election, and there are no suitable places to vote in some parts of the Tohoku region after the destruction.

A further complication is that Sengoku Yoshito is reported to be working behind the scenes in the DPJ to unseat the prime minister and replace him with Okada Katsuya, just as party members are calling for Mr. Okada’s head to pay for the election results. Though Mr. Sengoku served as Kan Naoto’s chief cabinet secretary until an upper house censure forced him to resign, he seems to share everyone else’s low opinion of Mr. Kan’s competence. Indeed, some theorized the reason the prime minister kept his phone call to the LDP chief a secret is that he didn’t want Mr. Sengoku to know.

Popular will

After the DPJ became the largest party in the upper house in the 2007 elections, they tried to force the LDP government to dissolve the lower house and call for new elections. They had a logical reason: The results for the upper house were the most recent expression of popular will.

Once in government, however, that logic has slipped the collective DPJ mind. Though they lost seats in the upper house last year and have performed poorly in local elections since then, culminating in the balloting on the 10th, they aren’t interested in the most recent expression of popular will now. Said Okada Katsuya at a post-election news conference:

“They were local elections. If someone calls for resignations because of them, it would be a mistake.”

He tried to put lipstick on the pig at a meeting of party committee chairmen:

“Even though a defeat is a defeat, we should create standards for counting official recognition and recommendations.”

In other words, the results wouldn’t look so bad if the successful campaigns of non-DPJ pols the party recommended were added to their victory total. That excuse quickly evaporated; one commentator noted: “Changing the method of calculating victories doesn’t change the fact that this was a defeat.”

Asked at a news conference about the possibility that the election performance would cause the prime minister to step down, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio answered:

“The prime minister was given his duties based on the rule of democracy. The true path is the have the Cabinet exert every effort to fulfill those duties.”

Doesn’t that first sentence make you wish dunking stools could be brought back as a means to discipline the political class?

The agenda

Since Kan Naoto’s continued presence is detrimental to his party and the DPJ government, and he is the primary obstacle to discussions about legislation and policy between the ruling and opposition parties, people wonder why he’s staying put.

Here’s one possibility: The leftist elements of the DPJ realize this will be their last chance in government for the foreseeable future and want to make hay before the downpour. Last Wednesday, the DPJ’s project team to examine the establishment of a human rights commission held its first meeting with former Education Minister (and labor union activist) Kawabata Tatsuo as chairman. The Canadian experience with commissions of this sort indicates they are vermin magnets more likely to infringe human rights than to uphold them, but the rest of the world gave up on trying to understand the logic of the left long ago.

Mr. Kawabata and the DPJ want to establish a similar commission affiliated with the Cabinet Office. His team intends to reach a consensus within the party by early May and submit legislation to the current session of the Diet. That will be difficult; some proposals circulating in the party have included giving the commission the authority to search premises and seize documents without a court order. Some in the DPJ don’t care for the whole idea to begin with, and they’re well aware of the potential abuses of the right to free speech.

Explained Mr. Kawabata:

“We can’t put this off for a moment. We achieved a change in government, so I want to take this major step.”

Last month, Sengoku Yoshito told a meeting:

“It is an obligation of the DPJ government to establish this.”

By obligation, he means the establishment of a commission was hidden in the small print of the 2009 party manifesto, though even the DPJ knows that or similar planks in the platform weren’t the reason the electorate voted for them. It’s unlikely that most of the electorate were even aware of them.

One would think the Kan Cabinet has more pressing matters at hand to deal with, but that’s not how the thought process works in his wing of the party.

Speaking of Mr. Kawabata, by the way, more than JPY one million in political funds from his office were once found to have been paid to cabaret clubs for undisclosed reasons. He said it was all legal and didn’t want to discuss it. He also didn’t want to discuss irregularities with his office expenses similar to those that caused problems for later-stage LDP Cabinet ministers.

How lucky for Japan to have a clean party in government for a change!

Up next

And speaking of luck, last week’s events suggest the Kan Cabinet will be lucky to make it through the current Diet session, much less the rest of the year. That will call into question the DPJ government’s continued existence absent a lower house election. But then, a lower house election would highlight what might be a terminal illness.

They’ve never been particularly coherent, but their behavior is increasingly erratic. Discussing the DPJ’s electile dysfunction at a news conference last week, Okada Katsuya seemed oddly detached:

“Because we’re the ruling party, I wanted us to be more aggressive.”

This is the man with direct responsibility for the party’s election campaigns speaking.

The DPJ has been having trouble finding people willing to run as party candidates in elections, and they were incapable of fielding an official candidate in the Tokyo Metro District governor’s election. Now they’ve decided not to run an official candidate for the lower house by-election in Aichi’s District #6 to replace Ishida Yoshihiro, who resigned to run for mayor of Nagoya. (He lost.) Candidacy declarations were made on the 12th for the election to be held on the 24th, coinciding with the second round of sub-national elections. Five people declared, including people from the LDP and Tax Reduction Japan. None were from the DPJ.

It is telling that party executives said they decided not to run a candidate because of persistent criticism of the government and their recent dismal electoral performance.

In other words, the ruling party of government is not defending a seat it holds in a prefecture that is traditionally one of their strongholds because they know people don’t like them.

Commented Ishihara Nobuteru:

“That’s extremely unusual. It’s a by-election to replace a DPJ MP who ran for mayor. I thought the DPJ would be the first to decide on a candidate to defend their seat.”

Japan’s Democratic Party was incapable of winning national elections until they allowed Ozawa Ichiro to join and teach them. He’s no longer willing to serve as tutor, however–earlier this year, the DPJ suspended Mr. Ozawa from party activities because of his legal difficulties. Their clumsy bungling once in office put them behind the electoral eight ball even with Mr. Ozawa on side, but now he’s outside the tent pissing in, to use former US President Lyndon Johnson’s phrase. Maybe there’s something to the karma idea after all.

The real question is not how long the Kan Cabinet survives, but how long the Democratic Party of Japan survives in its present form.

******
Which one of these characters reminds you of Kan Naoto?

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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.

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

But how long can she hold her breath?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 8, 2009

JK pearl divers
ANOTHER SMALL STEP for Japanese-Korean amity was taken last week during a forum in Toba, Mie, convened by female divers to discuss their efforts to register their way of life as a UNESCO intangible cultural property. For centuries, women in both countries have dived without mechanical aids to catch abalone and other shellfish for a living. Japan and South Korea are the only countries in the world where it is a tradition for women to engage in this income-generating activity, and the working women of both countries have been forging closer ties in recent years. The Koreans initially approached the Japanese, as described in detail in this previous post. That they should work together is only natural—both groups of divers have a long tradition of working in each other’s country. And Toba was a natural place to meet, as half of the Japanese female divers live there.

While most of the ama attending were from Japan—63 came from nine prefectures—one of the Jeju Island haenyo participated, as well as a Korean researcher. The women shared their experiences in addition to discussing strategies for receiving UNESCO recognition. One participant said she had been born and reared in Tokyo, but was so eager to do the work she moved to Chiba. The Korean woman sang the traditional haenyo song.

Another diver who showed up and spoke at the forum was 19-year-old Omukai Chisaki, who is perhaps the first female abalone diver contracted for work because she catches the masculine eye as well as she catches shellfish. Ms. Omukai, hired specifically to serve as a tourist attraction, dives for abalone and poses for snapshots during the summer months in Kuji, Iwate. Perhaps she offered her fellow divers tips on cosmetics that retain their luster after long hours toiling underwater and the most fetching angle to place the goggles on the head when being photographed.

Omukai Chisaki

Omukai Chisaki

Speaking of photos, the accompanying screenshot shows why she was a hot topic this summer among Japanese weekly magazines and TV programs, despite the caption that says she is shivering. The shared culture meant that she also generated considerable buzz across the Korean Strait. A South Korean news report on Ms. Omukai’s summer job ranked fourth in total hits as a search topic in library computer systems on the day it appeared.

The elites won’t like to hear it, but it’s no surprise that cuteness provides more juice to bilateral relations than a boatload of summit meetings and academic conferences. Perhaps sending UNESCO officials to see Ms. Omukai in action would seal the deal for the organization’s approval. Seeing is believing, after all.

Posted in International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Cover art on the road

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE TOKAIDO, Japan’s busiest transportation corridor, links Tokyo and Yokohama, the country’s two largest cities, to Osaka (#3) via Nagoya (#4) and Kyoto (#7)–every one with more than a million people. Those who want to hit the road have their choice of JR’s Tokaido main railway line, the Tokaido Shinkansen, and the Tomei and Meishin expressways.

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

The Japanese have been hitting this road for a very long time. Records show that government officials used parts of it in the ninth century. But it wasn’t until Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, ordered the construction of 53 post stations along the road in 1601 that it became a key part of the national infrastructure. In those days, the Tokaido (which means East Sea Road) connected Tokyo, then called Edo, where the Shogun held court, with Kyoto, the home of the Imperial Court.

The Shogun also ordered the country’s feudal lords to alternate their residence between their home fiefdoms and Edo once a year, all the better to keep an eye on them. (Those who lived in less accessible places had to show up only once every three years.) In short order, the road became a pageant of Japanese humanity–the pomp and circumstance of daimyo processions with the lords carried in palanquins suspended from poles shouldered by retainers, while everyone else, including monks, samurai, and just plain folks, traveled by horseback and on foot. Small businesses catering to the travelers thrived along the roadside and in the post station towns. And what better scenery for a trip could there be than the views of the sea to the east and Mt. Fuji to the west?

It was inevitable that the Tokaido would grow larger than life in the popular imagination, and it came to be used as the subject of many works of art and literature. Perhaps the most famous of these is Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of The Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido dating from 1832.

The road also inspired the creation of a new folk art form in the town of Otsu in what is now Shiga, when artists began producing inexpensive prints in quantity to be sold as souvenirs to the people passing through. Called otsu-e, or Otsu pictures, the form is still used by contemporary artists. Meanwhile, the centuries-old originals, originally meant to be quick one-offs for a quick buck, are exhibited in art museums in Japan and overseas.

With all those travelers doing all that traveling, a cottage industry of travel guides was sure to follow. In a brilliant stroke, Jippensha Ikku combined one such guide describing the sites and scenes along the route with picaresque tales of the adventures and misadventures of two Edo men on a pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. The collected stories were called Tokaidochu Hizakurige, translated as The Shank’s Mare, and it is still available in English today. Hiroshige contributed some artistic synergy by carving woodblock prints illustrating scenes from the book.

The days of palanquin-borne feudal lords, samurai, and a pair of rascals surreptitiously sliding into the futon of women slumbering in roadside inns are long gone, but fascination with the Tokaido still remains.

manhole covers

Count among the fascinated Tsujino Fumiyo, a 70-year-old resident of a Mie town that was one of the 53 post stations on the Tokaido. Four years ago, Ms. Tsujino started taking art classes in her home town, which seems to have developed her powers of observation in addition to her artistic sensibilities. She noticed that new manhole covers on the neighborhood roads featured a decorative design. She then learned that the 53 municipalities which were once post towns also had manhole cover art depicting scenes of local interest.

That inspired her to take rubbings of all 53 manhole cover varieties. She dragooned her husband into driving her to the sites, after first asking municipal officials where to look for the objets trouvé. It took her about 30 minutes to do each rubbing, including the preliminary washing, and four years to collect them all.

In keeping with the spirit of the famous Miyazawa Kenji poem Ame ni mo Makezu (Undeterred by Rain), she stuck with her mission regardless of the weather. It isn’t hard to picture in the mind’s eye her husband patiently holding an umbrella while she focused on bringing the grimy industrial art of the streets to a wider audience.

Mission accomplished! She colored and mounted all 53 rubbings, and recently displayed them at the Tokaido Manhole Cover Design Exhibit in Kusatsu, Shiga. Admission to the exhibit was free.

The lucky visitors were treated to scenes that included a kimono-clad beauty borne across the Oi river in Shimada, Shizuoka, a mythical dolphin-like creature called the shachihoko from Nagoya, and the Otsu Festival in the aforementioned city of Otsu.

Now I ask you—doesn’t it speak well about a place when it turns the street entrances to its sewers into something that can be hung on a museum wall without a hint of irony?

Afterwords:

Do not fail to unfurl this interactive map of the 53 stations of the Tokaido. Clicking on any of the stations brings up the Hiroshige prints of that particular site. The only advantage a real museum has over this virtual one is that you can accidentally on purpose strike up casual conversations with nearby women that strike your fancy.

And don’t overlook this previous post on otsu-e.

Posted in Arts, History | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

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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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BAREFOOTIN’ IN TEE-SHIRTS and short pants, all the better to deal with the 30-minute turnarounds of pouring rain and blazing sun: yeah, summer has arrived at last in Japan. During the dog days, the archipelago offers all sorts of hot-weather delights, including watermelon, shaved ice, and best of all, the transformation of even the most neo-radical of young women into traditional beauties once they exchange their jeans for yukata (a summer kimono).

What else is going on up and down the islands? Well, take a look and find out!

Firefly festivals

Once upon a time, summer nights on the East Coast of the United States came alive with a light show au naturel created by fireflies. The march of progress and suburbia seems to have ended all that, but the lightning bugs, as we used to call them, are still alive and flickering in the countryside here.

This is Japan, so take it as given that people know just when to expect their appearance every year, just how long it will last, and how to organize the viewing parties and festivals held to coincide with those dates.

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

The photo shows the fireflies near the Ayu River in Tanabe, in the southern part of Wakayama. It’s one of several locations in the area known as superb firefly viewing sites from the end of May to the beginning of June.

But as with the cherry blossoms and the rainy season, the firefly front keeps marching north, and right now the folks in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are enjoying a month-long firefly festival at the Onogawa spa. The festival is sponsored by the spa’s tourism association and the Yonezawa Firefly Protection Society. The opening ceremony was held at the local memorial firefly tower to pray for the safety of the participants during the event. Those Yonezawans must really like fireflies!

It’s not a festival in Japan without liquor, so right after the prayers they perform another centuries-old ritual by knocking open the head of a sake barrel with wooden hammers and passing the hooch around. They say some people see double when they drink too much, so you can imagine the sort of visions that light up the retinas of the festival-goers when a wave of fireflies floats by.

The viewing in Yonezawa begins on the riverbank right after it gets dark at 8:00 p.m. and lasts until 9:00. The area is such a firefly mecca that three different species breed here, and who but the entomologists knew there were different types of lightning bugs? For a spot of relaxation after all this excitement, the open-air baths stay open until nine, and there’s a tea house set up temporarily next to the firefly tower. The festival fun lasts until 31 July, but some people like to time their visit for the amateur entertainment contest on the 4th and 5th.

Hatsukiri

Sliding over from zoology to botany, here’s a photo of the festival held by the Miyajidake Shinto shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, for the first cutting of Edo irises in a local garden. The purpose of the event, called Hatsukiri—first cutting, appropriately enough—is to present the irises as an offering to the divinities. They’ve got plenty of flowers from which to choose, because the garden has 30,000 individual plants. While the priests grunt, bend over, and swing their scythes, two miko hold irises as they perform a dance accompanied by a flute. More than 200 people came to watch. A small turnout, you say? That’s not a bad crowd for watching two girls perform a centuries-old dance in costume in a garden in a town of 56,000 while priests cut flowers. How many people would show up where you live?

hatsukiri 2

The shrine held its Iris festival on the same day. They place 70,000 irises in front of the shrine and light ‘em up until 9:00 p.m. for 10 days. The shrine has its own iris garden too, started from bulbs sent by the Meiji-jingu in Tokyo in 1965. They now have 100,000 plants in 100 varieties. That’s a heck of a lot of irises, but they need that many to go around for all of Shinto’s yaoyorozu divine ones. (Yaoyorozu is the traditional number of divinities in Shinto. It literally means eight million, but figuratively represents an infinite number, signifying that each natural object has a divine spirit.)

Seaweed cutting

Irises weren’t the only flora getting cut for a Shinto ritual. Four priests from the Futamikitama Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, boarded a boat with some miko and sailed offshore for some seaweed cutting. They present the seaweed—fortunately an uncountable noun—to the divinities, allow it to dry out for a month, and then distribute it to their parishioners to drive out bad fortune and eradicate impurities.

sokari

At 10:30 a.m., the priests set sail on their skiff festooned with red, yellow, green, purple, and white streamers, with bamboo grass placed at bow and stern, and headed for the special seaweed site 770 meters northeast of the Futami no Meoto, sometimes called the Wedded Rocks. (The word meoto designates a pair of something, one large and one small.) Since this is a special ritual, they can’t just start cutting—first they have to circle the divine Kitama rock on the seabed three times, then they haul out a three-meter long sickle and get to work.

Sea goya

Since the subject is aquatic plants, now’s as good a time as any to report that the Fukuka Aquaculture Center in Kin-machi, Okinawa, is ramping up production of a new variety of sea grapes they hope to popularize in Japan after sales start next month. The center has dubbed the new type “sea goya”, after the knobby bitter squash for which Okinawa is famous. (Here’s a previous post about sea grapes in Okinawa and goya in general.)

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

The center’s director said they discovered these particular sea grapes among a batch imported in March 2008. The new variety flourished in the southern climate, and that gave people the idea to turn it into a new product, particularly as they were looking for ways to juice the market after the prices of regular sea grapes and mozuku seaweed tanked.

They decided to call the new plant sea goya because it’s more elongated than regular sea grapes and has the bitter flavor of goya. The center has already applied to register the name as a trademark, and they’re confident the application will be approved. After hearing about the new product, more than 10 companies inquired about handling the distribution.

Nara ayu

After insects, irises, seaweed, and sea grapes, here come the freshwater fish: namely the ayu, or sweetfish, which we’ve encountered before in a post about their encounters with traditional traps.

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

These sweetfish, however, were caught by means with an even longer and exalted pedigree—trained cormorants. The birds require keepers that are somewhat analogous to falconers, all of whom ply their skills for the Imperial Household Agency because the technique is a tradition of the Japanese Imperial household. (Dig their costumes in the photo at the link.)

Six keepers were employed to catch the fish at the Imperial fishing grounds on the Nagara River in Gifu City, but the keepers can handle up to a dozen birds on the end of ropes, so they must have taken quite a haul. They go out in boats too, but at night, and they take along lighted torches. The fish are attracted to the flame like maritime moths, and the birds dive in after them. The lower part of the cormorants’ necks are collared to prevent them from swallowing the fish, and after they’ve snatched one, the keepers reel them in and make them cough it up. That’s got to be more cruel than feeding a dog peanut butter.

The fish were packed into paulownia boxes and shipped to the Kashihara-jingu, a Shinto shrine in Kashihara, Nara, as well as the Imperial Palace and the Meiji-jingu, another Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Both shrines have an Imperial connection.

The Japanese have been using cormorants to catch sweetfish since at least the 8th century—don’t you wonder who came up with that idea?–and the Nagara River event is more than a millennium old, but this shrine has been receiving the sweetfish shipments only since 1940 to offer in prayer for the safety of fishing and a good catch. (The 1940 date suggests it might have begun as part of the celebrations that year marking the 2600th anniversary of the establishment of the Japanese Imperial House.)

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

Yet another sign of summer in Japan is the yaoyorozu of rice-planting festivals held throughout the country. It’s easy to figure out why—they grow the rice in wet paddies, which are made even wetter by all the rain that falls this time of year.

high school sake rice project

But the students at Miyoshi High School in Miyoshi, Tokushima, weren’t planting this rice as part of a festival; they were getting classroom credit. The lads aren’t planning to be farmers when they grow up–rather, they’re enrolled in a course covering the brewing and fermentation of food products. They’ll harvest that rice in the fall and use it to make sake.

The rice is grown on a 3,000-square-meter paddy the school rents from area residents. The teachers do most of the planting with a machine, and then some of the second year students wade right in and plant by hand those parts the machine can’t reach. They expect to harvest 1.5 tons of the rice in mid-September, which can probably be converted into enough sake to keep the town of Miyoshi more lit than a riverbank full of fireflies until New Year’s. The school started the project last year, and this year they increased the size of the cultivated area six-fold to use only the rice grown by students.

One of those students, 16-year-old Fukuda Shinya, had planted rice before, but he said the seedlings were more difficult to handle because the size was different than that of regular table rice.

Now why couldn’t I have gone to that school!

Shochu collector

While the high school students were outdoors sweating and getting dirty as they planted the rice for the sake they will later brew, Masuyama Hiroki (73) of Izumi, Kagoshima, was relaxing with an adult beverage as he contemplated the success of his 12-year effort to collect one bottle each from all the prefecture’s shochu distillers. This is Kagoshima, where everyone drinks shochu and almost no one drinks sake, so he had his work cut out for him.

shochu collector

He’s so proud of his accomplishment he’s got them lined up on the wall, and hasn’t twisted the cap on a single bottle. Mr. Masuyama decided to make it is hobby after he retired from a job with the prefectural government in 1996 and started working in sales. His business trips took him throughout Kagoshima, and after he got the idea—probably in a bar during one of those business trips–he made a list and started buying while he was selling. He started with 1.8 liter (1.92 US quarts) bottles, but they were too heavy and took up too much space, so he switched to bottles half that size. He had a few difficulties completing the collection, and no, one of them wasn’t a tendency to polish off a bottle before before he could display it on the rack. For one thing, the smaller bottles were sold mainly to commercial establishments, but he applied his salesmen’s skills to get what he wanted. Another was that he didn’t have much of a chance to go to the prefecture’s many outlying islands on business. After retiring from his second job, it took two more years to finish the project.

Mr. Masuyama says he enjoys looking at his collection while having a late-night drink, but his libation doesn’t come from those shelves on the wall. He hasn’t opened any of the bottles and says it would be a waste to drink them.

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

Shinto shrine maidens, known as miko, get to do all sorts of fun stuff. In this post alone, they’ve sailed out to the Wedded Rocks to help the priests cut seaweed, carried the sacred sweetfish caught by cormorants, and danced while the priests cut Edo irises in Fukutsu. Even better, they get to handle the money at the shrine during New Year’s.

miko class

Doesn’t that sound like a great part-time job? If that’s the kind of work you’re looking for, the Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, is offering a beginner’s level course that provides instruction in how to become a miko. Even better, the class will last only one day, on 17 August—the middle of summer vacation!

Kanda Myojin conducts the class every year with the idea of giving young Japanese women a better idea of their traditions and culture, as well as teaching them more about the shrine. Last year, the student body consisted of 24 women who got to wear the red and white outfit for a day as they studied the shrine’s history, the daily conduct of affairs at the shrine, and its religious ceremonies.

Considering they charge only JPY 5,000 yen ($US 52.40), that sounds like a good deal. They’re looking for 20 unmarried young women this year from 16 to 22, and enrollment is open until the end of the month.

The declaration of the eisa nation

Start with a party, end with a party. This particular hoedown is the eisa dance native to Okinawa. Centuries ago, it was performed as a rite for the repose of the dead, but now it’s done for entertainment and is more likely to wake the dead than ease their way into the next world.

eisa summer party

Okinawa City issued a proclamation declaring itself Eisa Town earlier this month, and held a Declaration Day Eisa Night event outside the city offices to lay claim to the title. Six groups made their eisadelic statement as they performed in original/trad clothing they created themselves. Eisa Night means that eisa season has officially started in the city, and summer in this city means that local youth groups will give public performances every weekend until the really big show, the Okinawa Eisa Festival in September.

During her greeting at the ceremony, Mayor Tomon Mitsuko said, “We hope you come to Okinawa City on the weekends and enjoy yourselves.” Then the dancing started and everyone proceeded to do just that.

It’s not just for the Ryukyuans, either. One of the six groups performing was the Machida-ryu of Machida, Tokyo, who started their own group in 1999 after a trip to Okinawa. They were so captivated by the dance they had to do it themselves at home. Now the troupe has more than 100 members.

There’s an idea: create your own Okinawan dance and drum ensemble and visit Eisa Town next year. If you want to learn, watching the video is a great way to start!

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 8, 2009

TECHNOPOLIS TOKYO is the image of Japan for many—-an ultra-sheen world of hyper-intense, manga-reading otaku and hyper-style-conscious gyaru wearing fake hair color, fake designer clothes, and fake undergarments, all jazzed on robots and consumer electronics and with a cell phone welded to the palms of their hands.

For most of the country, however, that’s just an alternate reality flickering in and out of existence over a template of tradition more than a millennium old. Here people can flirt with fashion while staying within eyesight of customs maintained for hundreds of years. The following stories are recent examples of how the timeless in this country is still the quotidian. All of them occurred in the space of less than a fortnight, and Tokyo was the location for only one.

Kakimoto Festival
Kakimoto Festival
Waka and tanka poet Kakimoto no Hitomaro (662-710) was the most prominent of the poets represented in the Man’yoshu, the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, which itself dates from the 8th century. The Toda Kakimoto shrine in Masuda, Shimane, held its annual festival to honor Kakimoto on the date he is said to have died, as it has for more than 1,200 years.

Kakimoto is the tutelary deity of the shrine, which was built in his honor when someone from the area returned with a lock of hair from his corpse.

After the primary ceremony, a mikoshi (portable shrine) holding his spirit was carried 300 meters from the main shrine to the site of his birth. Local children dressed as miko, or shrine maidens, performed a dance there in his honor while ringing bells, and the 70 people watching quietly bowed their heads.

Naoe Kanetsugu Lantern
Naoe lantern
Naoe Kanetsugu (1560-1619) was known for his service as retainer to the Uesugi daimyo, his seamanship, and his love affair with Uesugi Kenshin in the beautiful samurai style. The Uesugi clan fought on the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara, which cleared the way for the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. A recent NHK television program renewed interest in Naoe and his life.

In December 1600, a few months after the battle, Naoe presented a lantern to the Kasuga Taisha, a Nara City Shinto shrine whose close ties with the Uesugi family dated from 1588. (The shrine itself was founded in 768.) It was offered in supplication for the peace and tranquility of Kenshin’s adopted son Uesugi Kagekatsu, who assumed control of the clan and had also fought with Hideyoshi in Korea before his defeat by Tokunaga Ieyasu.

The 56-centimeter-high bronze lantern usually hangs in a corridor of the shrine’s main hall, but shrine officials recently displayed it outside so everyone could see it.

Nara Yabusame
nara arrows
Those who went to see the Naoe lantern at the Nara City Kasuga Taisha could have shot two birds with one arrow by watching a group of 40 archers from the Ogasawara school of yabusame (equestrian archery) offer a display of their technique to the shrine.

One ceremony was the Hikime-no-Gi, in which arrows called kabura-ya were fired over the roofs of buildings as a way to drive out evil spirits. If you were standing next to a building and the sky was suddenly hailing arrows, wouldn’t you leave too? They also performed the Momote-shiki, which is part of their daily practice. Ten archers lined up in front of the shrine dressed in white robes and fired 10 arrows apiece in pairs at a target. The depth of the tradition involved is such that the paired arrows have names; the first is called haya and the second is called otoya. Ten times ten equals one hundred, which is the origin of the ceremony’s name: momote in Japanese means a hundred hands.

Tokko no Yu
Tokko no yu
Enough of this new stuff whose age in centuries you can count with your fingers—here’s another millennium-plus story.

Legend has it that the famous monk/scholar/poet Kobo Daishi, who introduced the Shingon teachings in Japan, washed his ill father in the chilly waters near Izu, Shizuoka. For some reason he decided to break a rock with a tokko, an implement used in Buddhist services, and lo and behold, water sprang forth. That’s the origin of the Shuzen-ji hot springs. The annual Tokko no Yu (the hot water of the tokko) ceremony is held to commemorate the founding of the spa about 1,200 years ago, to thank the monk for picking that spot, and to placate his spirit. The original location of the incident is said to now be submerged in the Shuzenji River, and the spa itself was moved downstream this year to escape flood damage caused by heavy rains.

A group of 34 women wearing pink kimono and yukata and carrying wooden buckets departed from the grounds of the Shuzen-ji Buddhist temple and headed for the spa in a procession accompanied by children. Each of the women received spa waters from monks waiting at the site, paraded through the town, and returned to the temple to offer the water. After a reading of sutras, the water was presented to several local ryokan (Japanese-style inns).

Ise Spring Festival
Ise spring festival
The Ise shrine in Mie, closely associated with the Imperial household, held its spring kagura festival of Shinto song and dance on a stage specially built on the grounds. The festival is held in both the spring and fall to pray for peace and give thanks for the blessings of the divinities.

Two male dancers entered the stage bearing halberds (a spear/battle-ax combo) and purified the area to the accompaniment of flute and taiko drums. This was followed by another Shinto dance called the Ranryo’o, after which four female dancers wearing brightly colored butterfly wings performed the Kocho. The performances were presented twice a day for a three-day period.

Picking Tea in Shizuoka
shizuoka tea picking
No story of Japan past or present is complete without a green tea pick-me-up, so here’s a photo of the Misono tea picking ceremony held at a special plantation at the Sengen shrine in Shizuoka. The four tea-picking miko wore period costumes and worked in pairs as 60 watched. They wound up bagging 3 kilograms, which a local society used to brew for offering as sencha (medium-grade tea) to the divinities at a separate tea festival.

Here’s the best part: This is a new event that this year was held for only the fifth time. Considering the content, however, it could just as easily have been 500 years old as five. In Japan, the new being the old and the old becoming the new is just a matter of nichijo sahanji—literally, daily rice and tea, meaning an everyday occurrence.

Akihabara Gagaku
akihabara gagaku

Another example of nichijo sahanji is the combination of the very old with the very new, as demonstrated by the live gagaku performance held at Akihabara, the Tokyo district famous as the Mecca of consumer electronics. It was presented by the nearby Kanda shrine to publicize an upcoming festival. The site was a stage at a vacant building in the district most often used by budding pop singers and dancers. But shrine officials wanted to attract to their festival younger people who had never been before, so this was their first-ever gagaku performance outside shrine grounds.

The miko performed a dance usually reserved for wedding ceremonies to the accompaniment of flutes and drums.

And I’ll bet the first thing they did when the dance was over was to check their cell phones for messages!

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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! (95): All hail the spiny lobster!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 19, 2008

AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT of most Japanese festivals is the mikoshi, or portable shrine, which is said to contain the spirit of the divinity from a specific Shinto facility. These mikoshi are carried with enthusiasm and energy through the streets during a festival, and sometimes are even used in competitions.

The organizers of the Ise Ebi Festival held in Hamajima, Mie, on the first Saturday in June also claim that a mikoshi is used in their event. They might be exaggerating for the sake of effect, however. Most mikoshi are of traditional construction, generally look the same, and are associated with a Shinto shrine.

But that’s not the case with the Ise Ebi Festival. What the folks in Hamajima carry instead is a 6.5 meter, 450 kilogram, carved Ise ebi. That would be the Panulirus japonicus, or spiny lobster, a tasty crustacean popular in Japanese cuisine.

As the name indicates, the Ise ebi is widely harvested in the Ise Shima area. In fact, it’s such an important maritime product in that region that it’s been called “the fish of Mie”.

Hamajima held its first Ise Ebi Festival in June 1961 to give thanks for the benefits it receives from the spiny lobster as a source of both food and income, and to pray for a bountiful catch that year. The imagination and enthusiasm of the local residents fueled its growth and turned it into the well-known event and tourist attraction that is has become today.

Catching the spiny lobster is prohibited from the beginning of June to the beginning of October to allow them to multiply, which is one of the reasons for the festival’s scheduling. The first catch after the season resumes is offered to the Ise Jingu, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan.

Established in the third century, that shrine is closely associated with the imperial family. Its tutelary deity is Amaterasu Omikami, the family’s mythical ancestor. During the 15th century, Ise Jingu officials traveled throughout the country proselytizing, collecting money, and promoting visits, claiming that seven trips to the shrine ensured salvation. (That last part sounds a bit like Islam, doesn’t it?)

But back to the spiny lobster!

One of the event’s principal attractions is the jakoppe parade, the jakoppe being a dance that the Hamajimanians created specifically for the festival. As Mac notes in the previous post about a similar dance created for a different festival, the personality and inclinations of the performers determine how sedate or how sexy it becomes.

And don’t pass up the rich harvest of photos from this year’s festival on this page. There are plenty of good ones here, but this one’s my favorite!

None of the available accounts or newspaper articles on the Web talk about a Shinto shrine connection with the festival. As photos of the event make clear, however, the event gets underway with a ritual conducted by Shinto priests and assisted by miko, or shrine maidens.

Oh right, I almost forgot: What does the spiny lobster taste like? I can’t compare it to an American lobster, because I’ve eaten so few of the latter. (I grew up in an area known for crabs. Most of the folks in my hometown couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat an expensive lobster when they could spend the same amount of money to buy more of the cheaper crabs instead.)

But if you’ve never had an Ise ebi, here’s a hint—the word for shrimp in Japanese is ebi. It does taste like a shrimp. Only it’s a lot bigger and a lot better!

Here’s a glimpse of the dance performed at main festival site, with the spiny lobster in the background looking like some pagan deity on an altar. The music is one of those fascinating combinations often heard in Japanese street music: The melody and rhythm are unmistakably Nippon, but it’s being played by a very Western horn section.

Meanwhile, ere’s a short video of the parade, with some of the fine, healthy Ise ebi-eating girls in Mie:

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Posted in Festivals, Food | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

More on the Busan – Takeshima paradigm

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 28, 2008

HERE ARE THE Joongang Daily’s headlines for today’s lead story on its Internet edition:

U.S. agency joins fray over Dokdo
Changing its designation of islets indicates sovereignty is in dispute

The first paragraph:

An official United States agency has crashed into the middle of the feud between Seoul and Tokyo over the Dokdo Islets by appearing to lean towards Japan.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what really happened:

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names recently revised its description of the islets from a South Korean territory to a territory with “undesignated sovereignty.”

Here’s the response of the South Korean government:

The Korean Foreign Ministry held an emergency meeting yesterday and decided to form a task force under a vice minister to deal with the change, said a senior ministry official.

An order had already been sent to the South Korean Embassy in Washington on Saturday night to express Seoul’s concerns and investigate the change.

Rufus T. Firefly: Of course you realize this means war!

The South Korean League for Maintaining Supremacy in English Alphabetical Order must have found this an ominous step:

The Web site of the U.S. board used to show other names with which Liancourt Rocks are called, listing “Tok-to” first and then Takeshima; but the order was changed so that the Japanese name appeared first and then the Korean name.

By coincidence, the lead story in the print edition of this morning’s Nishinippon Shimbun also had to do with Takeshima (Dokto). Here are the headline and subheads translated into English:

Takeshima Mention (in teacher instruction manuals) Casts Shadow on Japanese-Korean Exchange Programs
104 Events in 33 Prefectures Affected
20 Events in Kyushu – Yamaguchi Canceled

The body of the article focuses on the statistics, and there is an accompanying chart. A total of 63 events have been canceled outright, 20 of which were in Kyushu and nearby Yamaguchi Prefecture. Those are the areas in Japan closest to South Korea. One of the most recent cancellations was a trip by South Korean sixth-graders to Karatsu, Saga, for a homestay.

Kyodo’s English version has finally been released, and you can read it here. Notice the evenhanded tone.

As last week’s post on this issue emphasizes, there are two aspects to the Japanese-Korean relationship. One I described as the Takeshima paradigm. That is typified by the preceding articles, particularly the one from the Joongang.

The other I described as the Busan paradigm, named after South Korea’s second-largest city. People in business, financial, and political circles there are working to create a supra-national economic zone with their counterparts in Kyushu, Japan, just across the Korean Strait. It is the modern manifestation of an interaction between those two regions that has been ongoing since ancient times.

Astonishingly enough, it is still ongoing despite the Korean hysteria and efforts to create a battlefield out of bureaucratic institutions in other countries.

For proof, one only has to look at two other articles on page four of the same edition of today’s Nishinippon Shimbun.

The first, which occupies more than a third of the non-advertising space on the page, is about the women divers of Jeju, a Korean island in the strait. Known as haenyeo in Korean, the women have worked for centuries diving for abalone, other shellfish, and seaweed (first photo). These free divers have developed remarkable physical strength, including the ability to stay underwater for as long as two minutes. They were often the primary income earners for their families.

Japanese will find this story familiar because they have an identical tradition. Here the women are called ama (second photo). (The Chinese characters are the same in both languages and mean women of the sea.) In fact, Japan and Korea are the only countries with women making a livelihood from diving for shellfish and seaweed. Some of the Japanese women, however, are now pearl divers.

The women from both countries have traveled to each other’s country as migrant maritime workers. There are records of ama from Yamaguchi going diving in Ulleong in 1879, and women from Nagasaki and Fukuoka traveled to work in the seas near the Korean mainland until 1929.

Meanwhile, the haenyeo from Jeju went to the island of Miyake in the Pacific, south of Tokyo, to work in 1903. They later worked throughout the country using Osaka as a base.

The article focuses on an academic symposium held in Jeju last month whose theme was the women divers of both countries. Fewer women are willing to do this sort of work, and the Koreans want to preserve the culture. They are enlisting Japanese assistance to have the divers named a world intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Professor Ko Jan-hun of Cheju National University says, “If we apply together with Japan, with whom we have a history of exchanging techniques, then winning recognition from UNESCO will be easy.” The Koreans are cooperating most closely with Japan in Mie, where most of the ama work today. Several people involved in the effort in Mie traveled to Jeju.

The second article describes the seventh meeting of an association formed to commemorate the overseas exchange activities of Amenomori Hoshu, a Confucian scholar who lived from 1668 to 1755. Amenomori served the Tsushima domain as an emissary to the Korean Peninsula for nearly a quarter of a century. He lived in Busan for two years, and while there helped compile a Japanese language dictionary. On his return, he wrote a Korean language textbook for beginners. (He also learned Chinese.)

The scholar is known as an advocate of close, friendly relations between the two countries, which he expressed in the phrase seishin korin (sincere relations between neighbors). The association rotates the site of its meetings among Tsushima, Fukuoka City, and Seoul, and this year it was Seoul’s turn to play host. The meeting was held as scheduled with a delegation of 60 from Japan, even though it was just a few days after the latest controversy erupted.

Said the association chairman, “At times such as these, I think (the key is) seishin korin.”

For some Koreans, this choice of paradigms seems to be an easy one to make. It’s too bad that too few find it too easy to make the wrong choice.

Afterwords:

Some links of interest:

1. The Jeju Haenyeo Museum in Jeju devoted to the women divers. There’s no English or Japanese, but you won’t need them to see the more than 100 photos.

2. Here’s a previous post on a Mie ama festival. It’s festival number three.

3. This YouTube video of the Jeju women unloading their catch is worth watching. It’s a shame that people filming YouTube videos insist on talking at the same time, despite having nothing to contribute. At one point, the woman here says, “They’re looking for octopus. Maybe.” She would have done us a favor by letting the Korean woman accompanying her do all the talking.

Posted in History, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Matsuri da! (91): Drenching friends and neighbors since 1228!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 7, 2008

SUMMER, FALL, WINTER, OR SPRING, it’s a certainty that in some Japanese festival somewhere people are going to be splashing water on each other.

boat-splashing

That’s no surprise in the summer when the temperatures are as sweltering as they are now. Running around town with a heavy mikoshi on your shoulders is hard work, so the bucketfuls of water flung by people on the side of the road are a refreshing relief.

It’s a different story in the dead of winter, when there are many festivals in which the participants, often dressed only in loincloths, are splashed with water to provide a different sort of encouragement.

In most cases, the water is tossed at close range from people standing nearby. But that’s not the case in what might be the ultimate of water-splashing festivals in Shima, Mie. That’s the Shiokake Matsuri, which was held last week on the 3rd. In this event, fishermen maneuver their craft and heave alongside the other boats in the Port of Wagu to shower seawater on each other. Some of them even use hoses.

The festival has been held for 780 years to celebrate the return of the female divinity for sea safety from the Yakumo shrine in Shima to a smaller shrine in Oshima, an island three kilometers offshore in the Kumano Sea. Legend has it that being soaked in seawater will bring safety to the home and prevent illness and disaster.

First, a fleet of 20 fishing boats leaves the port for Oshima. They are accompanied by another boat loaded with abalone and turbo shells to offer at the Oshima shrine. All the water sports happen during the trip back to port and in the port itself.

Want to bet that when the festival is over, everyone on the boats is drenched to the skin and rolling on the decks in helpless laughter?

If given the choice between full-immersion baptism and the Shiokake Matsuri, I’ll take the festival every time!

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Working the salt beds at a Shinto shrine

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 8, 2008

IF YOU’VE SEEN A SUMO MATCH, you know that the rikishi, or wrestlers, usually spend more time on the preliminary rituals than it takes to decide the winner of the match itself. Those rituals last around four minutes, while many matches are over in a matter of seconds seconds.

Those symbolic rituals are deeply connected to Shinto, the Japanese folk religion, as are many aspects of sumo. Even the referee is dressed as a Shinto priest, and the canopy over the ring, called a yakata, resembles the design of shrine roof.

salt.jpg

Apart from the belt-slapping and the staredowns, the most recognizable of those preliminary rituals is the tossing of salt into the ring for purification. Indeed, as an agent for purification, salt is an indispensable part of Shinto.

Where does all that salt come from? Certainly not the supermarket. In fact, at the Mishiodono Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, they make it themselves in a traditional method using salt taken from a nearby salt bed. The connection between salt and the shrine is so close that the shrine’s name, mishio, is derived from the word shio, or salt, preceded by an honorific. (Note that the shrine calls itself Mishiodono, but the people in the neighborhood call it Mishioden.)

As you can see from the photo, the people at the shrine consider this serious business, and that attitude extends even to their work clothing. The shrine produces all the salt used for its activities during two periods, one in March, which is just now ending, and one in October. Both last for about five days.

The rough salt taken from the bed (in a process that extracts it from seawater) is packed in a three-sided earthen container using a wooden ladle. It is then baked in an earthen oven until it hardens into a block. Each of the sides is about 10 centimeters long, and one block weighs about 800 grams. They make about 20 blocks a day.

The man in photo, named Kitai Noritada (I think), commented, “I put my heart into the work to make good salt”.

Don’t pass up the chance to see these excellent photographs. The first is of the shrine’s salt bed. Notice the torii, or Shinto arch, at the far side. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen one permanently installed anywhere other than at the front entrance to the grounds of a shrine. The second is of the building where they bake the blocks.

Japan is not the only place where salt is used in religious ceremonies, by the way. In the Catholic Church’s traditional Latin mass, the priest mixes salt with holy water, blesses the mixture, and sprinkles it on the altar.

Cleanliness–or purity–is next to godliness, after all!

Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Greeting the new year the Japanese way

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 30, 2008

YEAREND IS THE ENGLISH WORD used to describe both the end of the business year and the period during which New Year’s holiday events take place. The same word is used in Japan, but more frequently to denote the end of the business year. When referring to the period during which the holiday events take place, the Japanese tend to use the term nenmatsu nenshi, or year-end, year-beginning.

sento-new-year-ceremony

That’s because there are as many New Year’s events after the year begins as there are before it ends. Often, these events are held to mark the first occasion in the New Year people will perform a specific activity.

Everyone knows about the custom of the daily bath in Japan, for example, so it will be no surprise that one of the New Year events would be the first bath of the year at the Arima hot springs in Kobe (first photo). Naturally, they make a point of using the first bath water of the year.

This year, about 400 people were present to watch the tribute to the hot spring founders and the offering of a prayer for future prosperity. There was also a parade with mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines, and combined Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies.

Legend has it that the Arima hot springs were discovered by two gods, O’onamuchi-no-mikoto and Sukunahikona-no-mikoto. No one seems to have pinpointed the date of the discovery, but there are records of Imperial visits to the bath in the 7th century.

The facilities later fell into disrepair, but were restored by the monk Gyoki in the 8th century. It also was destroyed after an earthquake and rebuilt by the monk Ninsai in the 11th century. The spa waters of Arima must be superb for people to keep bringing the place back to life!

karuta-2

During the event, which is roughly 300 years old, employees of a local ryokan, or Japanese inn, and monks in ancient dress carry the mikoshi from a temple to a local elementary school. There they hold a ceremony to cool the water until it’s the right temperature for bathing. And by way of honoring tradition and thanking the people who made the spa what it is today, they also splash water on statues of Gyoki and Ninsai!

Karuta

Since the start of a new year is a holiday, there’s no better way to spend one’s free time than by playing games—or in this case, cards, or karuta as they are traditionally called in Japanese (second photo).

The Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, held the first karuta competition of the year early in January with the help of the members of a local association called the Nihon Karuta-In. The women playing the game— dubbed the karuta princesses—dressed in the clothing of court nobles during the Heian period (794-1185).

This is not the Japanese version of gin rummy. Instead, the game is a fascinating blend of the artistic and the competitive. It is sometimes called hyakunin isshu, or Single Poems by a Hundred Poets. That name is an apt description because the poems used are a collection of 100 waka, or verses consisting of 31 syllables. These specific poems are thought to have been written by 100 different people during the period from the mid-7th century to no later than 1242. Here’s how the game is played.

There are two sets of 100 cards on which the poems are written. One set is used by a reader, and the other set is used by the competitors, who face each other with the cards lying on the floor between them. The reader recites the first three lines of the waka, and the two contestants compete to be the first to take the card on which the full poem is written.

Don’t let the costumes fool you—those ladies have lightning fast reflexes, and by the rules, they don’t have to grab the cards. All that’s required is to be the first to flick them to the side. Simply watching a match can be engrossing, as it combines elegant historical clothing and knowledge of poetry with the steely gaze, calm demeanor, and cobra-quick attack of seasoned competitors.

first-ikebana

Flower Arranging

Those women who prefer artistic pursuits without the head-to-head competition might have chosen to participate instead in the first flower arranging ceremony of the New Year on the 5th at the headmaster’s dojo of the Ikenobo school of flower arranging in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward (third photo). A total of 1,400 people ranging in age from 11 to 97 came from around the country to create their own floral works of art.

The event dates back to the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when people met to exchange New Year’s greetings and pledge to promote the art of flower arranging. The practice soon became an annual custom.

The 11-year-old girl who participated, Yamane Ayaka, told an interviewer she visualized a flower garden during the creation of her work, and that she hoped to continue flower arranging as a junior high school student.

It’s likely that Ayaka got her early start in flower arranging because her parents are involved in the art. The two characters used to write her first name mean “brightly-colored flower”.

Archery

Read a Japanese newspaper early in January, and you’re almost certain to see photographs such as this one in which the practitioners of traditional Japanese archery take aim for their first shots of the New Year in their own ceremony (fourth photo). The archers shown here gathered on the 3rd at a site in Otsu, Shiga, to demonstrate their resolve to improve their skills in the coming year.

new-year-archers

It was sponsored by the Shiga Archery League, and about 80 members ranging in age from 16 to 83 participated. The head of the organization conducted a formal ceremony called the yawatashi, or “handing over the arrow”, to open the event, and then 10 people formed lines to shoot two arrows at a target 28 meters away.

Firefighting

Most of these events are derived from centuries-old Japanese traditions, and the participants are usually serious hobbyists. One exception, however, was the first firefighting drills of the New Year conducted by the Tokyo Fire Department with 2,800 firefighters on the morning of the 6th at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. The participants also included personnel from regional fire departments and corporate firefighting teams.

fire-department-firsts

This was a full-scale drill, complete with entertainment. A total of nine squads were mobilized, and they used 130 trucks and four helicopters. Tokyo Fire Chief Teruyuki Kobayashi started the morning off by remarking that Tokyo area firefighters were given a reminder of the difficulty of their work last year by their struggles to contain a fire resulting from an explosion at a Shibuya bathing facility. He urged the men to use their training and experience to protect the lives and safety of the citizens.

Then they showed off their firefighting and rescue skills in exercises based on conditions they might expect to deal with when confronted by fires in buildings and ships, or collapsed buildings in earthquakes.
 
The event closed with the acrobatic display shown in the fifth photo of the traditional ladder-climbing techniques firefighters used during the Edo period (1606-1868). Some of those moves seem as if they might have been performed more to impress the audience than to demonstrate actual techniques that were used to fight fires!

Dondoyaki

Many different decorations are used during the New Year’s holidays, as we saw in this previous post, and most of them originate with Shinto. Because some of these decorations are thought to be associated with the divinity—or even considered to be a divinity’s temporary dwelling–they are not casually tossed in the trash when the holidays are over.

new-years-burning

Instead, Shinto shrines conduct a special ceremony known as the dondoyaki to ritually burn these items. This particular New Year’s burning took place on the 7th at the Takayama shrine in Tsu, Mie, with a prayer for peace, health, and safety in the coming year (last photo).

The priests held a special fire-lighting ceremony at 8 a.m., after which they started the fire at the site for sacred incineration with 15 parishioners helping.

After all the decorations were burned, the shrine thoughtfully distributed nanakusakayu, or rice gruel with the traditional seven spring herbs, to visitors.

It’s worth remembering that these events are held by and for members of the general public with an interest in traditional activities (except for the firefighters, of course). In Japan, at least, there are still pleasant and rewarding ways to spend one’s time during a time of year that for some is just dead space to be filled by watching television.

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

Nippon Noel: PET bottle Christmas trees!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 25, 2007

POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE—or PET for short—is a type of polyester used to make fibers, bottles and jars, and injection molding parts. Synthetic fibers account for more than 60% of the world’s PET production, and in that application the material is called polyester.

Because it is clear, safe, light, and recyclable, as well as excellent for maintaining product integrity and creating containers of various designs, 30% of the PET produced worldwide is used for bottles or other containers.

And the Japanese have employed their ever-fertile imaginations to find a new application for used PET bottles: Decorations for Christmas trees and the Christmas trees themselves, particularly for public display. The results, as you are about to see, can be visually stunning.

The first place we’ll visit is the last place you’d expect to see a tree made of recycled trash—Fukuoka City’s Tenjin district, Kyushu’s largest shopping and commercial area. Every year, the Daimaru department store erects a large Christmas tree for exterior display, and last year they came up with the idea of using PET bottles to make the tree. They did it again this year, too, incorporating 6,000 bottles in the 14-meter high tree shown in the first photo.

Store workers cut open the bottles to create an estimated 1,000 flower ornaments in 290 different designs. To make the tree more attractive at night, they also trimmed the tree with 30,000 LEDs in three different colors. The tree will be up through Christmas day.

The Tenjin tree is a part of a commercial enterprise, but just as often, the creation of PET bottle trees is the work of a civic group. One example is the trees shown in the second photo, which were put together by the Hamasaka JCs of Shin’onsen-cho, Hyogo Prefecture, and placed in front of the JR Hamasaka Station. The trees are illuminated from the interior, which creates a floating effect that viewers are said to find attractive.
 
The JCs hoped their project would attract people to the shopping district near the station and raise local awareness of recycling. They put together a total of 14 trees ranging in height from one to three meters by using 340 two-liter bottles and 830 500-milliliter bottles

Not content to do things by halves, the JCs also held a lighting ceremony to present their handiwork. During the ceremony, parents of students attending the Hamasaka Kindergarten sang Christmas songs and performed music with hand bells. The tree will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day until the 26th.

The creation of five-meter PET bottle trees made with 600 bottles each in Toyosato-cho, Shiga Prefecture, is another JC effort. They were erected in the parking lot front of the town’s municipal offices and are lit every evening at 5:00 p.m.

For the past four years, the JCs have been holding classes for kids to provide instruction in building PET bottle rockets. (I’d like to take that class myself!) This year, however, they decided to do something different and created the trees instead. Each of the trees has conical bases and eight large light bulbs inside.

The groups started collecting used bottles during summer vacation, and the whole project took about six months to finish. The trees will be lit until 11:00 p.m. on the 25th.

The last PET bottle tree is the result of a much larger project in which the whole town participated. The bottles were collected in special boxes placed in front of the local primary school, post offices, and other locations throughout Geino-cho, Tsu, Mie Prefecture.

The tree is 25 meters high and required an estimated 10,000 PET bottles to make. It too was first presented with a lighting ceremony, dubbed Geino Christmas 2007. Performing Christmas songs during the ceremony was Geino Brass, the brass band from the local junior high school. The event also featured a parade with seven cars, which carried smaller trees, reindeer and a sleigh, and model houses with chimneys.

The tree will be lit every day from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until the 25th.

Lest anyone misunderstand the intent of this post, be assured that every aspect of this activity has my admiration. Though a mere handful of Japanese are Christians, their own traditions have given them a complete understanding of and appreciation for festivals derived from religious ceremonies, not to mention how to conduct those festivals to promote public enjoyment and civic unity. A quick scroll through the Festivals category on the left sidebar will attest to that.

The Japanese have taken the Christmas tree, one of the symbols of what is now a secular global winter festival, and turned it into a public art form. The examples described in this post are made from a recyclable industrial product that has been disposed of after its initial use. It has been employed as the art material to create objects of beauty in public places.

All but one of these exhibitions were created by volunteers with the intention of adding brightness and cheer to their communities during the dark winter months, and they were presented in those communities during ceremonies that offered volunteer entertainment provided by the members of those same communities.

You can call it what you like, but I call that the Christmas spirit!

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (43): Grab those fans while it’s hot!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2007

THERE’S NO LIMIT to the Japanese imagination when it comes to creating motifs on which to base a festival. For verification, one need look no further than the Uchiwatori, which is part of the Gion Festival held on the first of this month by the Hirai Shinto shrine in Iga, Mie Prefecture.

Uchiwatori literally means grabbing uchiwa, or the non-folding variety of hand fans. Four five-meter-high bamboo poles are erected on the shrine grounds. About 100 uchiwa and paper flowers are attached to the top of the poles. At 6:00 p.m., 10 parishioners remove the stays keeping the poles erect, and they tumble earthward. The participants then engage in a mad scramble to grab the fans and the flowers.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not a good idea to get involved in one of these scrambles unless you’re serious about getting a piece of the action. Grandmothers will literally elbow you or shove you out of the way to grab their reward and not stop to apologize about it later.

The festival also features traditional dancing by miko, or shrine maidens, which is not without its charms, but the scrum to come away with one the fans is the big deal.

This is actually part of the festival of the Tsushima shrine, another Shinto shrine, which is located on the grounds of the Hirai shrine. Dating back to the Edo period, which ended in 1868, the Uchiwatori is held in supplication for relief from the summer heat and for avoiding illness.

As with any other aspect of life in Japan, when you pick up one thread, several others become apparent, and that’s true for this festival, too. The enshrined deity of the Tsushima shrine is none other than Susano’o-no-Mikoto, the younger brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the principal female deity in Shinto mythology and the supposed ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family. (The siblings didn’t get along well.)

Legend has it that he was walking along one day and encountered an elderly couple weeping. The couple had eight daughters, seven of whom had been eaten by the monster Yamata-no-Orochi. This creature is described as having eight heads and tails, bright red eyes, a bloody belly, and a back covered with moss and trees. It was so big that its body covered eight valleys and mountains.

That sounds like it might have been a hallucination from an ancient Japanese bout with the DTs.

Well, the couple were crying because Y-n-O was about to come for their eighth and last daughter. Susano’o obtained permission from the parents for her hand in marriage if he managed to save her, and that was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Susano’o brewed some sake, refined it eight times, and built an enclosure with eight gates, each of which had a platform and a sake vat. They filled the vats and waited. Susano’o was no dope. Very few living creatures in Japan can resist eight free vats of sake.

Sure enough, Y-n-O showed up and saw his opportunity. The eighth daughter could wait—he wanted the grog. The monster sank each of his heads into a separate vat and got monstrously sloshed, falling asleep. In turn, Susano’o saw his opportunity and proceeded to chop him up. In so doing, he found the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi in one of the tails.

This sword became one of the three objects that are the Imperial Regalia, symbols of the Japanese Emperor’s authority and legitimacy. A replica of the sword is kept in the Imperial Palace; the original is said to be kept at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Now how’s that for pedigree? This legend, by the way, is told in the Kojiki, a sacred text of Shinto.

Nothing happens during the Uchiwatori as thrilling as slaying an eight-headed drunken monster to win the hand of a fair maid, but reports suggest it can get rough, in keeping with the spirit of the legend.

There is one thing I don’t understand, though–if the object is to keep cool, why get all hot and sweaty scrambling for a fan?

Posted in Festivals, History, Imperial family | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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