AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Nagasaki’

All you have to do is look (134)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Nagasaki Kunchi, an important intangible cultural treasure of the nation, conducted by the Suwa Shinto shrine in Nagasaki City. They have a larger stage for more performances once every seven years, and this year was a big stage year. Practice for the fall event starts in June. The Chinese elements are distinctive of Nagasaki.

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All you have to do is look (82)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 20, 2012

Drying fish in Hirado, Nagasaki

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Ichigen koji (194)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 11, 2012

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

Some South Koreans say “Tsushima is South Korean territory”, but there are whackjobs in every country. That alone is not a threat. But when China says, “Okinawa is Chinese”, that’s a real threat. In that sense, South Korea and China are different. Shelving the Takeshima issue and shelving the Senkakus issue have different meanings. That’s the point from which we must start.

- Baba Masahiro

South Korean demonstrators in August. One of the slogans on the sign reads “Daemado (Tsushima) is our land).” Another opposes Japanese “rearmament”. The statue at the rear is of first South Korean president Yi Seung-man, who unsuccessfully lobbied the Allies to include Tsushima as Korean territory after the war.

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Baba Masahiro on bilateral relations

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 8, 2012

Japan’s recent series of aberrant foreign policy actions is reminiscent of their history 100 years ago. After controlling Korea with military force, they turned Manchuria and China into a battlefield and started the Second World War, thus driving the people of Asia into the misery of war. It seems that Japan has learned nothing from its history.

- An editorial in the Chosun Ilbo on 22 August titled, “Japan Hasn’t Changed in the Slightest from 100 Years Ago”

BABA Masahiro is now a business consultant after a career in the IT industry. He also has a blog. Here’s most of a recent post in English that’s worth reading for its perspective on Japanese-Korean bilateral relations.

*****
IN South Korea, it is as self-evident that Takeshima is South Korean territory as that the sun rises in the east. The only people who say the sun rises in the west are mad. When the Japanese claim that Takeshima is their territory, it means to South Korea that we are the sort of people who would make any sort of ridiculous claim.

The tendency to dismiss as malefactors those people who oppose one’s claims to the territory exists in Japan too, but the South Korean response is a type of distorted fundamentalism. In other words, beliefs have become absolute, leading to the level of full-bore attack on anyone in opposition.

South Korea also says that the Japanese claim to Takeshima is a manifestation of a growing shift to the right wing. While the effort to have references to the sovereignty over Takeshima put into textbooks might be partially due to the recent influence of the Right, the South Korean expression of this takes the form of: “It is not possible for serious and sane Japanese to think Takeshima is Japanese territory. The ones who argue so loudly about Takeshima are those crazy right-wingers.”

Perhaps that South Korean view is of some assistance in preventing a total confrontation between the two countries over this issue, but the belief that only some crazy revanchists in Japan claim Takeshima is obviously mistaken. While it might be correct to say that Japan was able to convince the world that Takeshima was its territory through the series of incursions into the Korean Peninsula that led to its military control and merger, this is by no means evidence that Takeshima is South Korean territory.

There is no question that the South Korean territorial claim is rooted in the vexation and grudge they hold towards the Japanese occupation. But with the perspective that any Japanese who won’t recognize Takeshima as South Korean territory is by that basis alone an evil revanchist, the South Korean attitude of making sweeping judgments is not helpful. One could even say that it is extremely dangerous.

In response to Japanese efforts to include an insistence on sovereignty over Takeshima in textbooks, senior members of the ruling Saenuri Party in South Korea declared they should make claims on Tsushima. This is not an idea that suddenly fell out of nowhere; some people in South Korea have made this claim for a while. Some in the Korean news media have suggested it is reasonable by saying, in effect, that’s one way to look at it.

It goes without saying that everyone on Tsushima speaks Japanese and considers themselves Japanese. The only way it could be made South Korean territory is through the use of force in a military occupation. The South Koreans who declare that Tsushima is their territory use several claims as their basis. One is that Korea once occupied it (more than 500 years ago), and another is that the antibodies in the blood of people from Tsushima have much in common with the people on the Korean Peninsula. Using that logic, however, the Mongolians could claim that South Korea is their territory.

I don’t know the level of support in South Korea for the Tsushima claim, but if they really believe it, they have, based on universal common sense, lost their senses. The South Korean explanations for their Takeshima claim sound as if they are coming from radical fundamentalists.

The Danger of a Head-On Confrontation with Fundamentalism

What should Japan do? The idea that “Those people are blindly making territorial claims, so we should make more claims ourselves” is the same as a game of “chicken run”, in which two drivers race toward a cliff to see who will be the last to turn away. In this game, the South Korean steering wheel is locked into place. No one’s going to turn it.

Rather than abandon claims to Takeshima, the best option for both countries would be to share fishing rights and (if any exist) mineral rights in the area around the islets. But that sort of compromise does not seem possible.

If one country is reluctant to turn the wheel in the chicken run (by formally abandoning its claim) because the other country won’t turn the wheel, the only thing to do for now is to stop the race for the cliff.

It often happens in both business and among nations that people come to resemble their enemies. Japan should not respond to South Korean fundamentalism with fundamentalism of its own. I can say with confidence that would not be beneficial either for the national interest or for world peace.

It is fortunate that while the South Korean language is over the top, their behavior is relatively moderate. They are unlikely to land military forces on Tsushima. If Japan does nothing, the fists they’re waving will strike only air.

Afterwords:

* There already is a non-governmental fishing agreement in place over the use of the area around the islets by fishermen from both countries, but South Korean fishermen have not upheld it. The complaints of the Shimane Prefecture fisherman about the Koreans preventing them from fishing led to the Shimane declaration of Takeshima Day and the last controversy a few years ago.

Yesterday, however, Jeong Mung-jun, a national legislator in the Saenuri Party, called for the repudiation of that agreement. He also said:

“After the UN Law of the Sea went into effect in 1994, Japan declared that Dokdo (Takeshima) was the basis for their EEZ. This is a grave act of invasion that is on the level of a military threat.”

And:

“South Korea often says that Japan is a friendly nation with whom we share the values of liberal democracy, but in the end, I wonder if Japan is really such a country.”

Mr. Jeong was the head of the South Korean committee in charge of arrangements in that country for the 2002 Japan-South Korea World Cup.

* I’ve known people from Tsushima. If you were to tell them they were really Korean and not Japanese, they would probably look at you as if you had said the sun rises in the west.

*****
Speaking of imperialism, here’s Yurayura Teikoku. The word teikoku means empire, and yurayura falls into the territory of swinging, swaying, flickering, or waving. It can be used in such expressions as “Shadows dancing on the lawn” or “Smoke curling upwards”. Or maybe the gas floating up with the visual balloons in this video.

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Discretion is the better part of censorship

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 7, 2012

In South Korea today, the people who are anti-Japanese and anti-American are on the left. Anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiment is linked to patriotism, so in South Korea, the left is nationalistic. The (previous) Roh Moo-hyun administration, and its predecessor, the Kim Dae-jung administration, were left-wing nationalists. I want to emphasize this so it is not misunderstood.

-Furuta Hiroshi

THIS might come as a surprise to American readers, but people in East Asia still read the local editions of Newsweek magazine. Ikeda Nobuo, who is sometimes referenced on this site, writes for the Japanese edition. The Yonhap news agency of South Korea explains why the 10 September Asian edition had to be specially edited for that country.

*****
The American magazine Newsweek has created a controversy with the latest issue of its Asian edition, which includes an article about Dokdo (Takeshima) that tilts toward Japan.
Yokota Takashi, the editor of the Japanese edition, said the article, titled “Why are Japan and South Korea Fighting over Rocks?”, “shows the irrationality of the South Korean attitude”. This is a one-sided presentation of the claims of the Japanese right wing. Such extreme phrases as “an out-of-control South Korea” and “a difficult-to-understand thought pattern” are used, and it is critical of South Korea throughout.

Mr. Yokota includes statements critical of South Korea by Thomas Schieffer, the former ambassador to Japan, such as “the irrational behavior of South Korea”. The article starts by saying the current Dokdo controversy was touched off by the sudden visit of Osaka-born Lee Myung-bak to show that he was not pro-Japanese. The article presents the view that the discord deepened with the “Dokdo Performance” by the South Korean footballer at the London Olympics, and President Lee’s demand that the Emperor apologize.

Further, it repeats the Japanese government’s claim that the islets have been Japanese territory since 1905, five years before the merger with Korea, that President Lee Sung-man (Syngman Rhee) unilaterally established the Lee Sung-man line in 1952, and that the South Korean occupation of Dokdo is illegal.

In consideration of the one-sided argument presented in the Asian edition, Newsweek Korea revealed that article was not in the Korean edition.

(end translation)

* Has Newsweek ever been accused of tilting to the right before? There you are. Pigs will fly.

* If this is how the country’s premier news agency deals with the facts, you can imagine what the country’s newspapers are like.

* “Irrational attitude…out of control…difficult-to-understand thought pattern…” When did Newsweek start practicing objective journalism? More pigs will fly.

* While it is regrettable that the people who most need to read the article won’t be able to, the decision to substitute some space filler in the Korean edition is understandable. The bottom line is more important than The Courageous Quest for Truth and Justice in journalism. The company is in enough financial trouble as it is without stimulating the Korean imagination to devise unusual ways of mutilating the magazine in public. That’s a shame, considering the entertainment value of Korean street demonstrations.

* Left-wing nationalists, eh? Let’s just say national socialists and be done with it. Statolatrists all. By the way, some of those Koreans who claim Tsushima is really their land too like to use as evidence shared blood characteristics. Isn’t that another one we’ve heard somewhere before?

* Reader Nigelboy yesterday sent in some links reporting that the Japanese Foreign Ministry was quietly presenting their side of the story to foreign embassies. Perhaps they applied their persuasiveness to Newsweek as well.

Considering the facts at issue, they shouldn’t have many difficulties making the case.

*****
Miki Mie plays Rameau’s L’Egyptienne on the accordion. Borderless!

Posted in International relations, Mass media, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

All you have to do is look (27)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 24, 2012

The Shoronagashi, held throughout Nagasaki City on the 15th. People place the spirits of the dead, who have returned for their first O-bon, on boats for the trip to the “pure land of the West”. This is accompanied by processions, lanterns, and firecrackers.

The photo is from the Mainichi Shimbun, and the video is from the Asahi Shimbun.

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Back to front

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

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

Linguistics

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

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

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

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

Business

Speaking of Daegu:

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

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

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

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

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

Sailing

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

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

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

Flying

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

Said a Jeju Air spokesman:

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

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

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

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

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

Afterwords:

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

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

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Onigiri Olympics

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 7, 2011

THE campy cooking battles staged for the television program Iron Chef, in which visiting chefs faced off against members of the Gourmet Academy of Chairman Kaga Takeshi in his castle’s cooking stadium after the allez cuisine signal to start, are perhaps the best-known Japanese food competition. There are other, less flamboyant events, however.

One of those was recently held at Hisata Gakuen Sasebo Girls’ High School in Sasebo, Nagasaki: The Fifth Onigiri Olympics. It was pleasantly goofy rather than being over the top. Onigiri are triangular or oval-shaped rice balls made by hand, sometimes wrapped in processed seaweed and always filled with one of several tasty ingredients. It would be fair to consider them the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich.

This year’s Onigiri Olympics featured 50 participants facing off in two divisions. One was the Design Division, in which the contestants had to create rice ball designs on the theme of Sasebo. The competition in the other division was to create onigiri of the same weight as a sample.

Nine teams participated in the Design Division contest, and the winner was a mother-daughter team called Gachapin’s. All the teams used white rice mixed with saffron rice in a 5-1 ratio. Salmon was used for the pink colors, umeboshi for red, sesame for flesh tones, and processed seaweed for green. The creations were arranged on a 40-centimeter plate to depict such local items as the Sasebo burger (read more on those by using the search engine on the left sidebar) or the Saikai Bridge.

I’m sure everyone had a grand time, especially as they admired each other’s creations, but they saved the best for last — after all the work and the judging, no one went home hungry!

Here’s a photo of the Saikai Bridge. Imagine using rice balls to depict that.

And here’s Sada Masashi singing a paen to hometowns everywhere in a song called Sasebo. The accompanying photo display is well done, and Oda Kazumasa helping out on the chorus is a bonus.

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Nasake

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 25, 2011

THE WORD nasake in Japanese means sympathy, compassion, or fellow feeling. It appears in the proverb, Nasake ha hito no tame narazu. That literally would be “Compassion is not for the benefit of other people.” It’s actually used, however, to mean that if you help someone in trouble, he’ll be sure to do you a good turn when you need it.

The truth behind the proverb was borne out earlier this week when the Foreign Ministry revealed that 130 countries and territories had offered assistance to Japan in one form or another after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Bringing the total to 130 were the offers from Brunei and Haiti.

While the normal sentiments of charity and compassion surely inspired the offers, the generous Japanese ODA program and disaster assistance over the years were likely factors as well, demonstrated by Haiti’s message. When more than 220,000 people died in the Haitian earthquake last year, the Japanese contributed $US 70 million and sent a medical team and the Self-Defense Forces.

Here are some other examples.

Come On-a My Huis

Huis ten Bosch (House in the Forest) in The Hague is one of the official residences of the Dutch Royal Family. It’s also the name of a theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki, in which The Netherlands is recreated with full-size replicas of Dutch buildings. The 152-hectare resort—roughly the size of Monaco—was built with the approval of the Dutch royal house. In addition to the buildings, there are forests, gardens, amusements, shops, restaurants, five hotels, a marina, and a residential area.

Earlier this week Nagasaki Gov. Nakamura Hodo said that Huis ten Bosch and 37 ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) with hot springs would accommodate 1,700 people from 538 households left homeless by the earthquake. The prefectural government will be responsible for their clothing, food, and the transportation expenses from Tohoku. They’ll also help place people in schools and jobs.

The Tohokuans will be able to stay until the national government’s assistance program takes effect on 11 May. Anyone who wishes to remain after that (and Nagasaki is a lot warmer than the Tohoku region) will be offered public housing. Said Gov. Nakamura:

“People from around the country helped us after the disaster caused by the Mt. Unzen eruption. We’d like to return the favor.”

Cap’n Paul’s indirect contribution

The Maritime Agency reported that the Nisshin-maru, the mother ship of Japan’s whaling fleet, would sail today to transport supplies to the Tohoku region. The fleet had just returned from the South Pacific after ending their expedition early due to concerns over crew safety stemming from Sea Shepherd harassment. The agency said the idea to help came from the crew members themselves, many of whom are natives of Iwate and Miyagi. The Nisshin-maru’s cargo is primarily heating oil and food.

Firemen, dinghies, and farmland

A group of 57 firemen from Tokushima in Shikoku returned from a rescue and assistance operation in Miyagi earlier this week. Group leader Igawa Hiroyuki said one of their tasks was to transport elderly people from hospitals with power outages to other facilities with heat. They also worked with a group of firefighters from Nagano to search for missing people from a large agricultural facility destroyed by the tsunami. The metal frames of the greenhouses remained, but the people didn’t.

The group operated mostly in rural areas. Six days after the quake and tsunami, the farmland was still underwater and oil tank trucks were piled on the roads. The firemen used rubber dinghies to look for people, and they found several bodies on a foundation of a house that had been washed away. Said Mr. Igawa:

“I thought I had a general idea of what to expect from news reports, but I was speechless when I saw the reality for myself.”

He added that a site for identifying the deceased was set up in a public park, and there was always a long line of people waiting to get in. He hopes to use the experience gained from the mission to help Tokushima prepare for an earthquake.

Nasake nai

The word nasake also appears in the expression nasake nai, or cold, unfeeling, and cruel. Some people might think Kamei Shizuka’s comment about the Cabinet at a news conference on the 23rd qualifies as nasake nai, especially considering the People’s New Party he heads is still part of the ruling coalition.

He was asked about the government’s plan to amend the Cabinet Law to add three new members and put one in charge of disaster relief. He answered:

“Increasing the number of people in the Cabinet isn’t such a good idea. Add idiots to idiots and of course you’ll get idiots.”

He quickly added that he wasn’t referring to any of the current cabinet members—no, no, of course not—and said this about Prime Minister Kan Naoto:

“He should just take decisive steps to implement integrated reforms. Having too many ship captains is not a good thing.”

Particularly when the nominal captain behaves as if he’s a clone for Lieutenant Commander Phillip Francis Queeg.

The truth may be nasake nai, but it’s still the truth.

*****

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Posted in Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 15 Comments »

Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll bet!

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

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

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

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

To top it off

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

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Getting ready for a rumble?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 8, 2010

THE PHOTO at this link to an article in the New Scientist shows two of Japan’s most recognizable visual symbols: cherries in bloom and Mt. Fuji.

Kaneko Takayuki at the University of Tokyo’s Volcano Research Center is starting to wonder how long one of those symbols will remain in its present form.

Prof. Kaneko has been conducting research into the dormant volcano’s structure and composition. As a result:

He says the deep rumble of low-frequency earthquakes beneath Fuji in 2000 and 2001 suggests movement inside the basaltic magma chamber, and adds he would not be surprised if Fuji erupts in the very near future.

Meanwhile, Phil Shane of the University of Auckland in New Zealand thinks not enough is known about Fuji to make that suggestion.

It might not erupt, but that’s by no means out of the question. Mt. Unzen had been dormant for 199 years until its 1991 eruption killed 43 people, including three scientists. Fuji-san has been quiet since 1707. There have been 10 volcanic eruptions in Japan during the last decade, one of which occurred last year at Sakurajima just offshore Kagoshima City. Its 1914 eruption was said to have been the most powerful in Japan in the 20th century.

Kagoshima City is an attractive place, and I once asked my wife what she thought about moving there. She nixed it immediately—Sakurajima regularly emits enough ash that hanging clothes out to dry can make them dirtier than before they were washed. We live about a two-hour drive from Unzen, and that eruption covered our car in ash like a light snowfall.

In addition to the lives lost or property destroyed, however, the disaster of a Mt. Fuji eruption would be compounded by the psychological impact of disfiguring a national icon.

Posted in Science and technology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

More bad polling news for the DPJ

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 24, 2010

IF THERE WERE a Japanese version of the Intrade market in the United States for betting on political outcomes, punters would be selling the Hatoyama administration short. Most of the nation’s media has already written them off, and it would verge on the miraculous—not to mention the politically stupid—if the prime minister were to allowed lead his party into the summer upper house election.

The results of a recent poll taken by FNN and the Sankei Shimbun and released on Sunday must have been bitter news for the DPJ. The poll also included several other questions of interest, and it was enlightening to see the answers to some of those questions for a change. Here it is in English.

Q: Do you support the Hatoyama Cabinet?

Yes: 30.5% (down from 42.8% on 6 and 7 February)
No: 53.9% (46.1%)
Don’t know: 15.6% (11.1%)

This collapse in support for this administration has come despite the absence of little in the way of bad news since the last poll, and the imminent passage of the party’s centerpiece legislative proposals at polling time. That support is unlikely to rebound for Mr. Hatoyama’s Cabinet, and the figures will probably continue to slide to the 20% level in the next round of polling. The numbers for the Fukuda and Aso administrations were lower at the six-month point, but both of their approval ratings started out nearly 25 percentage points less than Mr. Hatoyama’s to begin with. Incompetence, broken promises, and political funding scandals is no way to run a government.

Q: Which party do you support?

None: 37.1% (32.3%)
Democratic Party: 25.4% (32.9%)
Liberal Democratic Party: 18.8% (18.2%)
Your Party: 6.9% (3.9%)
New Komeito: 3.6% (4.6%)
Communist Party: 2.7% (2.3%)
Social Democratic Party: 2.0% (1.7%)
People’s New Party (AKA Kamei Family Party): 0.5% (0.9%)

That percentage of independents leaves the field wide open for serious reformers who can state their case. The DPJ isn’t going to get a second chance to make a first impression, and they blew their first chance very badly. They can’t even reach 30% with their two coalition performers combined. They barely make that level with New Komeito added (a possibility people are beginning to talk about), but that still doesn’t bring them close to the none-of-the-above group. Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party seems to have established itself in third place.

Q: What do you view as positives for the Hatoyama administration?

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s personality:

Yes: 46.0% (51.9%)
No: 46.3% (40.5%)
Don’t know: 7.7% (7.6%)

Doesn’t that demonstrate the innate charity of the Japanese? Mr. Hatoyama’s personal ratings are under 50%, but still fairly high for the most unconvincing liar I’ve ever seen in politics, who begged the voters to forgive him for his financial scandals because he was a poor little rich boy reared in a privileged environment, and who comes off as more androgynous than extraterrestrial. It’s not often one sees a man with a quarter of a century in politics who gives speeches that sound like those of a teenaged boy and read like those of a teenaged girl.

The prime minister’s leadership ability:

Yes: 8.9% (12.1%)
No: 84.7% (79.4%)
Don’t know: 6.4% (8.5%)

Well, it’s better than a cat, as the Japanese say.

Results of the government after six months:

Good: 25.5%(-)
Bad: 57.5%(-)
Don’t know: 17.0%(-)

Again, this was with the passage of some of their primary legislation imminent, including the family allowance and free high school tuition.

The response to the issue of the international ban on tuna trade:

Good: 61.3(-)
Bad: 21.9(-)
Don’t know: 16.8(-)

It’s good to see the public supports this stance. That element of the international left which thinks it has the right to tell people what to eat will never give up.

The response to the activities of groups opposed to whaling (i.e., the SS):

Good: 33.6(-)
Bad: 48.1(-)
Don’t know: 18.3(-)

In light of the responses to the previous question, I would like to see a follow-up question for those with a negative view. Was their opinion informed by their opinion of whale eating, or their opinion of Japan taking decisive action that resulted in destroying a boat, in contrast to just maneuvering for votes at an international conference?

The response to the issue involving the American military air base at Futenma:

Good: 10.8% (15.8%)
Bad: 73.2% (69.2%)
Don’t know: 16.0% (15.0%)

Voters hate indecisiveness, particularly when it’s a result of trying to please everyone at once.

Response to the issue of secret treaties with the United States:

Good: 35.3%(-)
Bad: 43.3%(-)
Don’t know: 21.4%(-)

That’s a bit of a surprise to me, though I’m sure it was more of a surprise to the DPJ and points left.

The family allowance bill:

Good: 40.7%
Bad: 52.1%
Don’t know: 7.2%

Some people think the Japanese are social democrats by nature. Guess again.

The bill to eliminate tuition for high schools:

Good: 48.9%(-)
Bad: 42.2%(-)
Don’t know: 8.9%(-)

See what I mean? That’s closer than I would have thought.

Response to the problem of money politics:

Good: 7.5%(-)
Bad: 85.3%(-)
Don’t know: 7.2%(-)

It would be interesting to see who those 7.5% are.

The firing of DPJ Deputy Secretary-General Ubukata Yukio for his criticism of Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro:

Good: 15.0(-)
Bad: 72.3(-)
Don’t know: 12.7(-)

Which of the following conditions do you think improved over the six months of the Hatoyama government?

The Japanese economy:

Yes: 13.1%
No: 48.6
Don’t know: 38.3%

The method of conducting politics:

Yes: 27.7%
No: 48.6%
Don’t know: 38.3%

This is what the DPJ was elected to do. If they have a mandate, this is what it’s for. If they can get only a quarter of the people to answer yes, they’re in trouble.

Japanese-American relations:

Yes: 16.1%
No: 43.8%
Don’t know: 40.1%

The relationship of trust between the people and government:

Yes: 22.1%
No: 56.8%
Don’t know: 21.1%

Q: Which of the following do you think the DPJ Diet members should do next about money politics?

They should call in the prime minister’s mother and other people involved for an explanation and questioning in the Diet:

Yes: 57.6%(-)
No: 36.9%(-)
Don’t know: 5.5%(-)

That’s a lot of people ready to put a woman in her 80s to serious questioning about her political contributions. From what I’ve seen, Mr. Hatoyama’s mother isn’t badly treated by the press. Folks must really be angry about money politics.

Mr. Hatoyama should resign as prime minister:

Yes: 30.1% (26.0%)
No: 60.7% (66.6%)
Don’t know: 9.2% (7.4%)

What difference does it make with the DPJ?

Mr. Ozawa should explain and answer questions in the Diet:

Yes: 89.5% (88.5%)
No: 8.0% (9.8%)
Don’t know: 2.5% (1.7%)

Mr. Ozawa should resign as secretary-general of the DPJ:

Yes: 74.3% (70.3%)
No: 20.1% (23.9%)
Don’t know: 5.6% (5.8%)

Should Diet member Ishikawa Tomohiro, indicted for his role in the political funds scandal involving Ozawa Ichiro, resign from the Diet?

Yes: 64.5% (9.4%)
No: 25.9% (24.1%)
Don’t know: 9.6% (6.5%)

Should Diet member Kobayashi Chiyoko, whose political workers were arrested in a scandal over improper contributions from the Hokkaido Teachers’ Union, resign from the Diet?

Yes: 74.0%(-)
No: 14.4%(-)
Don’t know: 11.6%(-)

This is an odd result in light of the responses to the previous question. Mr. Ishikawa was directly implicated in a magazine article with destroying evidence. In contrast, many people think Ms. Kobayashi didn’t really know what was going on.

That’s not to her credit, but still…Is it because the guilty parties were connected to the teachers’ union?

This series of problems will have an effect on the summer upper house election:

Yes: 92.6%(-)
No: 4.7%(-)
Don’t know: 2.7%(-)

Well, duh!

The North Korean schools should be excluded from the legislation to make high schools tuition free:

Yes: 49.9%
No: 36.3%
Don’t know: 13.8%

Considering the anti-Japanese nature of the education conducted at those schools, those numbers could be much higher.

What best describes your thinking about the move of the Futenma air base?

It should be outside of Japan: 37.5%
It should be off the coast of Camp Schwab in Okinawa in accordance with the original agreement: 21.0%
It’s not necessary to move the base at all: 12.6%
It should be in Japan outside of Okinawa: 12.3%
It should be in Okinawa at a different location: 8.9%
Don’t know: 7.7%

These are interesting numbers all around. The idea of hosting foreign military bases is going to have significant opposition in any country, but the relatively high rating for those who want to keep the original agreement is a bit surprising. Then again, a deal is a deal. Also, almost 56% of the respondents think the base should stay in Japan somewhere. Further, the last I read, Mr. Hatoyama was leaning toward a different location in Okinawa. That’s the least favored option.

If an agreement on the site of the move is not reached by the end of May, in accordance with the prime minister’s promise, should he resign?

Yes: 49.1%
No: 44.8%
Don’t know: 6.1%

That’s a closer margin than I would have thought. Considering that such a large percentage of those surveyed gave the prime minister low ratings for his handling of the situation, this would seem to suggest the issue might not be such a big deal for many people outside Okinawa.

Then again, with the DPJ, what difference does it make?

Who is most suited to be Japan’s prime minister?

No one: 23.1% (23.3%)
Masuzoe Yoichi: 19.0% (14.5%)
Okada Katsuya: 9.9% (6.7%)
Kan Naoto: 8.4% (9.0%)
Hatoyama Yukio: 5.8% (10.1%)
Maehara Seiji: 5.1% (9.8%)
Ishiba Shigeru: 4.9% (5.0%)
Watanabe Yoshimi: 4.3% (3.3%)
Yosano Kaoru: 2.8%(-)
Haraguchi Kazuhiro: 2.3% (4.0%)
Ozawa Ichiro: 1.9% (2.4%)
Ishigaki Sadakazu: 1.5% (1.8%)
Hatoyama Kunio: 0.3% (-)

When the head of the LDP can’t even beat Ozawa Ichiro, and Mr. Masuzoe of the same party tops the list of real people, maybe it’s time to think about a change. But that’s the mudboat party. You’ve heard the song lyrics, Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow? With them, it’s Don’t Stop Thinking about Yesterday.

What would you like to see as the next step by the ruling and opposition parties before the summer upper house election?

A reshuffling of the Hatoyama Cabinet:

Yes: 49.2%
No: 45.2%
Don’t know: 5.6%

What difference does it make?

A new policy review focusing on public corporations:

Yes: 68.5%
No: 24.2%
Don’t know: 7.3%

A continuation of the coalition government with the DPJ, SDPJ, and the PNP:

Yes: 27.5%
No: 62.1%
Don’t know: 10.4%

Message to Ms. Fukushima and Mr. Kamei: They’re just not that into you. And you know what they say about people who aren’t part of the solution.

Strengthening ties between the DPJ and New Komeito:

Yes: 22.2%
No: 68.6%
Don’t know: 9.2%

Why would the voters like a new coalition of expediency when they already dislike the one they have now?

The DPJ winning an absolute majority in the upper house:

Yes: 32.3%
No: 58.5%
Don’t know: 9.2%

The voters don’t like the current coalition, they don’t like the idea of New Komeito in a coalition, and they don’t like the idea of single-party DPJ rule.

I wouldn’t want to have to pay their laundry bill after DPJ headquarters saw these results. Luckily, Hatoyama Yukio can afford it.

The creation of a new party:

Yes: 30.1%
No: 60.6%
Don’t know: 9.3%

This is a curious result. I also would like to see additional questions offering possible reasons for the No answer. Would the highest response be: What difference does it make? Is it that the Japanese have never seen what a well-run, ideologically consistent political party with serious ideas looks like? (New Komeito doesn’t count.)

Replacing the leadership of the LDP:

Yes: 44.5%
No: 45.7%
Don’t know: 9.8%

What difference does it make?

The coming activities of Hatoyama Kunio after leaving the LDP:

Yes: 16.8%
No: 75.7%
Don’t know: 7.5%

The positive response one can get from name recognition alone is fascinating.

Which party do you want to vote for in the proportional representation phase of the summer upper house election?

DPJ: 29.4% (37.0%)
LDP: 24.0% (23.2%)
Don’t know:12.6% (14.2%)
Your Party: 10.0% (4.6%)
Don’t intend to vote: 6.6% (6.7%)
Communist Party: 3.9% (2.8%)
New Komeito: 3.7% (4.9%)
Social Democratic Party: 2.7% (1.8%)
People’s New Party:1.3% (1.0%)

The LDP might as well have an avocado as party president as Mr. Tanigaki, and they didn’t do much of anything in between the time the polls were taken, yet their gap with the DPJ was reduced by nearly two-thirds. They’re just like Paul Newman in the movie: Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand!

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

And the Olympic gold medal for whingeing goes to…

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 5, 2010

GIVE CREDIT to Robert Koehler of The Marmot’s Hole for being one savvy blogger.

As he notes in this post, he’s written about the contentions between Japan and South Korea regarding the island of Tsushima several times before.

But the weather’s warming up and that chauvinist sap has been primed by the Winter Olympics and the ensuing cross-strait cyberwar, so naturally the fancy of the dateless and friendless saps will turn to prowling the Internet on a Friday night looking for more pointless disputes to get involved with.

All the better to drive up the page views, my dear.

Rather than write about it again, he cops a quote from the blogger Kushibo, who wonders about the whacky Japanese getting upset about Korean behavior on the island.

Well, I’ve written about that issue too. And as those who have read this post know, there are more reasons than the day is long for the Japanese to “have a stick up their arse” about the Koreans on Tsushima. One of the best is the first, which appears in the introductory quotes before I got around to writing a word of my own.

Kushibo also thinks it’s weird that the Japanese are concerned about Korean restaurants with ties to the North in this country. We can give him a pass on that one, however. He doesn’t seem to know much about the decades of North Korean intelligence operations in this country, working through places exactly such as those. It probably would seem weird without the background information.

Indeed, the Marmot’s fishing expedition caught one in the very first comment.

What I find more interesting are the Japanese not being able to accept Kim Yuna’s gold medal win. I wish they just get over it. It’s becoming really annoying.

The Japanese? All 127 million of them? He doesn’t seem to know many people in this country.

If he can read the lingo, I can slip him some links to raving right-wing nationalists who sincerely congratulated Ms. Kim on her medal. Then I could slip him plenty more from normal people. More than he’s got enough time to read.

It’s a humorous note, really. He’s annoyed because they can’t get over it? Well, he could always do what the Japanese do when the Koreans can’t get over whatever the whinge du jour happens to be on the menu.

Ignore them.

Then again, the Japanese have had a lot more practice in dealing with annoyed Koreans. Such as those Koreans who got upset with the proposed design for posters for the joint World Cup because it used the outline of a soccer pitch. It too closely resembled the first kanji used to write “Japan” (日). They insisted the Japanese change the posters, and of course they did.

No, I am not making that up.

But not to fret, they’ll get over it soon. That might be hard to believe for someone whose experiences with Olympic controversies are limited to bitching about Apolo Ohno. That one’s lasted for the better part of a decade and three Olympic games, and also spilled over to pollute a World Cup soccer match. With that sort of background, I suppose we should give him a pass too. It must be a novel experience to have the shoe on the other foot for a change.

Be that as it may, I have to admit that if I were dateless, friendless, and reading a South Korean site on a Friday night, I’d probably get irritated myself.

Here are all the Google ads attached to The Marmot’s post: Meet Japanese ladies, Earn your MBA in Japan, Want to Work in Japan, Japan News FT.com, Japan Investments, and HVAC Contractor in Japan.

That last one’s for refrigeration solutions, which is fitting. It’s long past time for some people to chill.

But I won’t hold my breath.

Posted in History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 18 Comments »

Jockeying for position

Posted by ampontan on Monday, February 22, 2010

I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.
– Will Rogers, American humorist

AMERICANS ON BOTH SIDES of the political aisle still laugh about the Will Rogers quip above, but it’s no laughing matter that the same could be said about Japan’s two major parties. All political parties are to a degree coalitions, but the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party are little more than coalitions of convenience. The only cement that held the former together during their days in opposition was that they were Not The LDP. Do the members have a common political philosophy? While they are generally left of center, it sometimes seems as if their ideas are as diverse as those of a group selected at random from the phone book. For its part, the LDP was created specifically as a coalition of non-leftist parties in 1955. Now it’s a coalition of the Old Guard and non-leftist reformers.

Their inherent structural inefficiencies make it inevitable that both will either disband or turn into rump parties, behave like paramecium and exchange nucleic material, and reassemble as different entities. Falling out of power might have hastened that process for the LDP. Gaining power might have hastened that process for the DPJ.

One of the speakers at a symposium I attended in Tokyo last October went off topic briefly to say that the Nagata-cho politicos were convinced DPJ strongman Ozawa Ichiro would cut the left out of the ruling party, form a new political entity, and govern in the manner of a milder Koizumi Jun’ichiro. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given his checkered history, but those rumors circulate still.

That’s why eyebrows lifted at media reports of a lecture Mr. Ozawa delivered on the 13th at the Ichiro Ozawa Seiji-juku. The Seiji-juku is an institute he says he created to train people for a political career, and other people say he created to train aides for Ozawa Ichiro.

Declared the DPJ secretary-general, with my emphasis added:

Since losing the election, the LDP has fallen apart, or perhaps it had a meltdown. For now, there is no other alternative than for a DPJ government to handle politics while we go through a process of trial and error.

The Japanese are highly attuned to the use of deliberate subtleties, so everyone spotted those two words right away. For now? What’s coming next?

One hint might come from a brief exchange in a panel discussion in the 13 December issue of the Sunday Mainichi. Said journalist/commentator Toshikawa Takao:

Mr. Ozawa conceived the process of centralizing local government budget requests with an eye on the nationwide 2011 local elections. Budgets are implemented by chief executive officers and the local legislatures. Mr. Ozawa wants to bring down all the LDP-affiliated mayors, governors, and assemblymen in those elections. I think his idea is to crush them beyond hope of recovery.

Responded panelist Futatsuki Hirotaka:

I also think his real aim is the nationwide local elections. If (the DPJ) can win those and crush the LDP, it’s also possible that a new “Ozawa Party” could be created…Could it be that a two-party system with alternating governments was just a vehicle for seizing political power?

Hatoyama the younger

Mr. Ozawa is not the only one jockeying for position. In the 27 February issue of Shukan Gendai released last week, ex-DPJ and current LDP member Hatoyama Kunio, the prime minister’s brother, hinted he would leave the LDP and form a new party, perhaps as early as April.

He said he wants to create a third force aligned with Hiranuma Takeo, the Japanese version of a social conservative, and government reform firebrand Watanabe Yoshimi.

He added that relying on the DPJ was pointless because his brother had been “assaulted” by Ozawa Ichiro. (The word he used was 犯された, or okasareta, which can also mean raped. Let’s not go there.)

Mr. Hatoyama also said he would offer his new party as a vehicle for popular former Health Minister Masuzoe Yoichi (photo), who tops some polls as the person Japanese would most like to see as the next prime minister.

I’ve already talked to Mr. Masuzoe several times. The hopes of the people are centered on him. But it’s a fact that he can’t do anything by himself. I could support him.

Mr. Hatoyama knew his announcement would get headlines; the Hatoyama name assures media coverage. But no amount of media coverage can offset his lightness of being as a politician, nor can it convince many Japanese to take him seriously.

The idea that he could bring together Mr. Hiranuma and Mr. Watanabe is fanciful to say the least. The former was tossed from the LDP by former Prime Minister Koizumi for objecting to postal privatization. The latter wants to continue the privatization process.

It’s perhaps uncharitable to say so, but his motivation to form a new political party might stem from fraternal jealousy rather than political conviction. His seems to be an ambition springing from envy at the success of his brother Yukio, both in politics and in getting his mother to cough up a substantial amount of the family fortune to pay for it.

Masuzoe doing fine on his own

Meanwhile, Mr. Masuzoe formed and convened the first meeting of a study group with several LDP members. The stated objective was to examine economic strategy, including international competitiveness and employment measures. The implicit objective, however, was to explore the potential of either gaining control of the LDP or forming a new party of his own. Some of the people involved include:

  • Suga Yoshihide: A former interior minister and something of a reformer, he’s been allied with a wide range of people in the past. He started out in the camp of Kato Koichi, an extreme conciliator on North Korean issues, but finally pitched a tent on the grounds of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, whose hard-line stand against the North Koreans put him at the head of government.
  • Shiozaki Yasuhisa: A former chief cabinet secretary under Abe Shinzo, Mr. Shiozaki has taken a consistently strong stand in favor of bureaucratic reform. He was criticized in his previous position for his inability to serve as a coordinator between the party (LDP) and the Abe administration.
  • Seko Hiroshige: A former aide to Mr. Abe, he fulfills the key role of handling mass media relations.
  • Kawaguchi Yoriko: She was a foreign minister in the Koizumi Cabinet, though it was widely assumed that then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda Yasuo did the real work.

The study group also backs the Koizumian structural reform agenda, including postal privatization. It’s worth noting that Mr. Masuzoe explicitly mentions the former prime minister’s name and policies in his speeches.

About 30 mid-level and younger Diet members attended the group’s first meeting last week. Mr. Masuzoe told them:

The LDP lost because their reforms were insufficient…Merely redistributing the wealth without increasing it will destroy the nation. We should correct the government’s mistakes and lead the nation.

The group espouses seven core principles. One holds that “economic growth is the basis for enhancing social welfare and minimizing income differentials.” The others include accelerating the shift of power from the bureaucracy to the people, and opposition to the DPJ’s plans to renationalize Japan Post.

Hatoyama Kunio was at the meeting and didn’t care at all for that last part:

What does true postal privatization mean? In the end, (the postal services) won’t extend everywhere unless the government provides them.

Other Koizumian reformers attending included the influential Nakagawa Hidenao, Kono Taro, and upper house member Yamamoto Ichita.

Mr. Masuzoe is taking the battle both to the DPJ and to the mudboat wing of the LDP, his own party. He wrote an article in this month’s Gendai Business blasting what he calls Prime Minister Hatoyama’s “Daydream Pacificism”.

In a speech in Utsunomiya on the 20th, he said:

I am preparing to boldly recruit members from the DPJ when that dictatorial party reaches a dead end and collapses…I will do everything I can if Prime Minister Hatoyama or Mr. Ozawa resign, or if an opposition group arises within the party.

Commenting on the senior members of the LDP:

If they’ve got the time to complain about people who would rebuild the party, they should complain about the DPJ instead. Some senior members have no sense of the crisis facing us, and that will doom the party.

On former Agriculture and Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru’s suggestion to ban factions in the LDP:

Factions aren’t necessary in an opposition party. The old factions aren’t functioning.

Though he invokes the Koizumi name, some suggest Mr. Masuzoe is not quite as Koizumian as he would have us believe. They think he merely senses a shift in the public mood back in that direction (if it ever really drifted that far away to begin with).

Regardless, he clearly is starting to make a move. His advantages include popularity with the public and a demonstrated vote-getting ability–which other politicians always respect. (He held his upper house seat in the 2006 election that swung control of that body to a DPJ-led coalition.)

He also sees the public moving away from the DPJ. Some polls are now showing Mr. Hatoyama’s popularity below the 40% level. At those numbers, red lights start flashing in the inner sanctums of party headquarters. Also, the LDP-backed candidate in the Nagasaki Prefecture gubernatorial election, Nakamura Norimichi, won that race handily on Sunday against the candidate backed by the three ruling coalition parties and several other contenders.

The defeat was all the more remarkable because three prominent DPJ Cabinet members had campaigned for their candidate in Nagasaki, including the popular Maehara Seiji and Haraguchi Kazuhiro. It still wasn’t enough. Yomiuri Shimbun exit polls showed that more than 40% of the voters were influenced by the DPJ financial scandals.

For the time being, Hatoyama Yukio and Ozawa Ichiro cling to power and refuse to admit they’re part of their party’s problem rather than the solution. The latter may break away to form his own group, but he is now so distrusted by both the people and other politicians it’s difficult to see how an Ozawa Party will have a long-term impact.

Now that the DPJ has failed to smartly grasp the reins of power, the other jockeys are looking to move into the openings along the rail.

Afterwords:

Sometimes Ozawa Ichiro does make sense. For example, in this year’s upper house election, he’s gunning for Aoki Mikio, 75, the head of the LDP bloc in that chamber. Mr. Ozawa has declared Mr. Aoki’s Shimane seat to be the party’s priority.

Said Mr. Ozawa:

Mr. Aoki represents the old system. His role is based in that era, and it is over.

Ain’t that the truth. There are more than a few in the LDP reform wing who would agree with him. Mr. Aoki is most definitely not a reformer, and he has personal veto power over who runs as the LDP candidates in the upper house race this year.

But it’s never all good with Ozawa Ichiro. He recruited a 34-year-old local TV announcer, Iwata Hirotaka, to run in the district. Mr. Iwata was on the job until four days ago, when he abruptly resigned.

If Mr. Iwata wins, he will be little more than an Ozawa puppet who votes as instructed out of gratitude for a national spotlight and the generous perquisites of a Diet member. Undoubtedly the party will try to employ his infotainment business background and put him on stage as a pitchman if he wins.

There’s another aspect to the race as well. When Ozawa Ichiro headed the Liberal Party that he later brought into the DPJ, Hatoyama Yukio observed that Ozawa’s primary political motivation was to destroy the LDP after he lost an internal power struggle.

That battle occurred in the old Takeshita Noboru faction. Both Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Aoki are veterans of that faction who backed different horses. The former was on the losing side.

Really, a lot of problems would be solved by instituting a party primary system. One benefit would be the end of party fiefdoms. An Iwata win would help perpetuate them.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Get the number of that fish!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 10, 2009

WHAT DO YOU GET when you combine the Japanese love of new technology and gadgets with their insistence on food freshness and concerns caused by recent incidents of falsely labeled food products, particularly those from overseas?

QR Code Fish

Maritime mug shot

Several possibilities come to mind, but one is now undergoing trials conducted by the Nagasaki Prefectural Institute of Fisheries and the Yokohama-based National Research Institute of Fisheries Science. The two groups are working with a Nagasaki fishing cooperative to test the viability of a system in which tags with QR codes are placed on individual fish to allow consumers to trace the region where it was caught, the cooperative that caught it, the network used to distribute it, and the date it was shipped. It’s the first system of this type in Japan, and one of the innovations for this particular application is that the tags don’t require a special reader.

Here’s how it works: Consumers use their cell phones to photograph the QR code on the tag attached to the fish head, connect to the Internet, access a site jointly operated by the Japan Fisheries Association (link at right sidebar) and the Fishing Boat and System Engineering Association, and get the fish story firsthand. In fact, consumers don’t need even need a cell phone camera—they can get the same information by using their PCs to input the tag number at the website.

The fish being used for the trials is a type of horse mackerel (aji in Japanese) caught in the strait between the Goto Islands and Nagasaki Prefecture. Reports say this fish was selected because it’s easier to trace from catch to shipment, though the reports didn’t say why. Each of the 150 fish in the initial trial shipment weighs at least 250 grams (8.8 ounces). They will be sold for about JPY 1,000 apiece (about $US 11.11) within four or five days at Tokyo department stores, which are about 966 kilometers (600 miles) away from the point of shipment.

The two groups conducting the trial say the system could benefit consumers because it will enable them to quickly check fish quality and freshness. That’s not always easy to determine with the naked eye, and some Japanese distribution routes are complicated. The consumer will also know just where the fish was caught.

The fishing co-ops hope it promotes this particular kind of fish and boosts slack fish prices. The trials are also being used to determine the amount of work required to tag each fish and the amount of additional distribution costs. The system will go into full-scale operation if it functions smoothly and if the producers and the consumers are comfortable with it.

Here’s the website that will be used for the system, for those who read Japanese.

Now I ask you: Did you ever think you’d see the day when you could use your own telephone while shopping at a retail outlet to check the freshness of a fish on display in a bin?

Posted in Food, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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