AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Shizuoka’

All you have to do is look (132)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 9, 2012

An outdoor performance of Hagoromo, one of the most well-known Noh plays, in Shizuoka near the beach at Miho. That is also the setting of the drama. The stage was erected in front of the Hagoromo pine, which is estimated to be 650 years old. The earliest written records of the play date to 1524.

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Matsuri da! (134) The demon dance

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 21, 2012

Photo from tamarany no o-sanpo website

NOW I ask you — where can 1,500 men strip to the waist, slip into grass skirts, parade through town carrying lanterns, perform a howling dance in the middle of the night at a religious institution, and the national government will designate it as an important intangible cultural treasure?

Somewhere other than Japan, that is.

That’s just what they’ve been doing every year for centuries in Iwata, Shizuoka, during the Mitsuke Tenjin Hadaka Matsuri conducted by the Yanahime Shinto shrine, and they did it again at the end of last month.

The festival intrigues even Japanese scholars, and for more reasons than the ones explained in the first paragraph. There are records of a dance of some kind being performed this time of year since 933, when the local shrine received part of the divided spirit of Sugawara no Michizane. (This is an old Shinto practice.)

Sometime in the early 14th century, however, the dance took on the character of a celebration representing the joy of the townsfolk after a priest and a big ol’ dog named Shippei Taro slew a tribe of monkey/demons who had demanded and received the annual sacrifice of a virgin. The district also was once a regional capital in a governmental administrative system instituted almost 1,400 years ago. Some explanations say the festival has elements that incorporate that history, though they didn’t specify what they were. The entire event lasts eight days.

But the Big Show is featured on only one of those nights. It starts when the men run out into the street in four groups with lanterns and floats at 9:00 p.m. They congregate one group at a time at the shrine at 11:00 and dive into the dance. The energy intensifies with the arrival of each group. Then, at one in the morning, they sprint with a mikoshi, or portable shrine, back through the town where the lights have been turned off to a different shrine, the Omikunitama-jinja, and leave it overnight. A troupe of boys will return it to the Yanahime shrine the following night.

The hadaka in the festival name, by the way, means naked, though in this and other naked festivals, the men always wear a loincloth. No naked festivals with women, alas.

If you watch this Youtube excerpt of the Demon Dance, you’ll get an idea just how thrilled everyone must have been when the monkeys were slain 700 years ago. No, that isn’t a movie. It actually happened.

The story of Shippei Taro at the link reminded me of this story, though the ending is different.

Clicking on the photo at the top enlarges it.

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Matsuri da! (126): It’s ganko!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 22, 2012

THE festival tradition in Japan stretches back for centuries, and some festivals are more than a thousand years old. But in Japan any old excuse is fine if it’s in the cause of a good time, so new festivals are always being created. Unlike the traditional events, they have no Shinto underpinning.

Representative of the new wave in free public entertainment is the Hamamatsu Yosakoi Ganko Matsuri, held last month in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. This year’s festival was just the twelfth. Hamamatsu is known as the home of motorcycles and musical instruments—Yamaha and Kawai are headquartered here—and it was also the site of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s worst military defeat before he became the first Tokugawa shogun in 1603.

Ganko is a word from the local dialect that translates into standard Japanese as hijo ni (extremely) or sugoi (a word used to excess in everyday speech in the same way that “awesome” is used to excess in the United States, with much the same meaning). So, you could say that the name Ganko Matsuri means Super Festival, and that’s exactly what the organizers suggest in Japanese.

There’s only one rule, and it’s simple—anyone may participate as long as they have a musical instrument, no matter how rudimentary, and they dance. Until a few years ago, the rule was that participants had to use naruko, or wooden clappers. That was later amended to include any musical instruments, traditional or modern, including the clappers. Other than that, people are free to do what they like, including design their own costumes and create their own dance, whether it be old-fashioned bon odori or hip-hop. And they do.

Participation is by team, and last month about 4,300 people from throughout the country showed up to perform in 119 groups ranging from 15 to 100 people. Some in the group may specialize in singing or chanting, waving banners, or playing the musical instruments or clappers. In addition to parading down the city’s streets — which the gives the residents the opportunity to get in on the action — the teams get individual time on stage to be judged for awards. They have all of five minutes and 30 seconds to get on, line up, perform, and leave.

The Organizing Committee has a high-minded list of festival objectives, which include boosting the city and its industries, promoting interaction with people from other parts of the country, and encouraging citizen participation in local activities, but it’s really just a cover for “Have a good time.” Many of the performers are college students enjoying themselves in extracurricular activities. Here’s a taste of what it looked like this year. If what you’re seeing or hearing at any given moment doesn’t appeal to you, wait about 30 seconds. You’ll be seeing and hearing something different.

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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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Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

From Kroc’s to crocs

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 13, 2010

FRUSTRATED by the McDonald brothers’ lack of interest in expanding their operations, Ray Kroc bought out his partners in the hamburger restaurant business in 1961. He went on to build the largest fast food chain in the world and make $US 500 million in the process.

Try a scrumptious waniburger!

McDonald’s Japan opened its first restaurant in 1971 in Ginza’s Mitsukoshi Department Store, and the chain quickly spread throughout the country. For example, the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, now has 23 shops where residents can eat a Kroc burger. Last weekend, however, the Hamamatsuans got their first chance to eat croc burgers—hamburgers with meat made from crocodile tails inserted into a bun with lettuce and other condiments.

The crocodile burgers are the brainchild of Uejima Tsuneo (that’s an educated guess on the reading), the owner of a Hamamatsu nightclub called Madowaku (Window Frame). Mr. Uejima isn’t out to become as fabulously wealthy as Ray Kroc; instead, he views the business as an opportunity to give young people who dropped out of school or stay holed up in their rooms a chance to get work experience through cooking or sales. One of his burger flippers is a 20-year-old male who hasn’t attended school since fifth grade.

In addition to his nightclub, Mr. Uejima operates what he calls a Free School for dropouts on the third floor of his nightclub building. He also opened another class called the Madowaku Gakuin to help people prepare for employment. He has nine students in the second class, ranging in age from 15 to 26.

Said Mr. Uejima:

Many of the junior high and high school students who come to see the live shows are troubled about problems in their life. I thought it would be a good idea to create a place they can come to.

He opened the crocodile burger shop on the same site as the Gakuin on the 10th and called it Aozora (Blue Sky). The shop sells both crocodile burgers and crocodile cutlets for about JPY 1,000 each (about $US 12.19). He also plans to sell croc burgers on the road, and next weekend he’ll load up a van with cooking equipment and a take a few of the employees on a sales expedition.

The meat comes from an establishment called Koike Wani Sohonpo, crocodile breeders in Kosai, Shizuoka. A local restaurateur helps out by preparing the meat to make it more appetizing. (Perhaps that’s a hint why crocodile is not a common dish on dinner tables around the world.) Mr. Uejima also hopes to create some buzz and bring new business to Hamamatsu. There’s been a mini-boom in Japan over the past few years of people creating their own burger specialties with unique ingredients and using that to build a regional brand identity.

Last weekend he and two of his charges cooked up some crocodile burgers for Shizuoka Governor Kawakatsu Heita to get some PR. Yes, politicians in Japan have to eat all sorts of stuff to please the voters, too. The governor swallowed and said:

This new fusion of crocodile meat and a bun is really delicious. I hope they work hard and make a go of it.

Was he serious, or did he think discretion was the better part of valor? If I’m ever in Hamamatsu, I’d try one, but at 1,000 yen a pop, they’d better be awfully good to go back for a second helping.

Of course Koike Wani Sohonpo has a website–doesn’t everyone? Here it is, but be advised it’s Japanese-language only. For more examples of other Burgers À la Japonaise , here’s a post about the Minami Burger and the Ninja Burger, another one about the Boar Burger, yet another about the Sasebo Burger, and finally, one about the Whale Burger. But let’s not forget this one about shark (hot) dogs in Hiroshima. To complicate matters, they’re called wani doggu locally, because wani is the word in the Hiroshima dialect for shark. But in the rest of Japan, a wani is a crocodile.

No matter what they’re called, Ray Kroc probably could have gotten rich selling any of them.

Man, all this burger talk is giving me an appetite. Let’s eat!

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Posted in Education, Food, New products | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Anti-Nipponism

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 6, 2009

“…This is but one example of the encounters that I have on a regular basis with friends, family, and colleagues who have no idea what is going on in the world. They read the New York Times and believe they are informed. There is no intellectual curiosity, no questioning of reporting, and no analysis of what the mainstream media is pouring out to the masses. While we all like to blame the…media…at some point we all have to take responsibility for our own thoughts and decisions.”
- Lauri B. Regan

A FEW WEEKS AGO, a man associated with a well-known American mass media outlet called from Tokyo for a pleasant chat that at one point touched on the media’s coverage of Japan overseas. He asked me how I thought the broadcast and print media could improve their reporting on this country.

I replied that the media’s reporting on Japan is never going to improve, and gave as my reason their preference for offering a preexisting narrative rather than providing factual descriptions of events in news articles and leaving their interpretation or agenda to the op-ed pages.

What I didn’t tell him is equally germane: There are two reasons the media relies on preexisting narrative templates for countries, issues, or people. (In addition to the one for Japan, there are templates for Israel, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, the UKIP in Britain, and dozens more.) First, the narrative is meant to simplify issues and personalities for readers in bite-size form, converting them to a form of entertainment that helps sell their product and the accompanying advertising. It also spares the readers from the time required to peruse an in-depth characterization and the trouble of having to think too much about something they might not be interested in to begin with. Serious consumers of news realize at an early age that what the media really offers is infotainment, and that it’s a feature of the product, not a bug.

Second, it should now be obvious to even the casual observer that the Western media and its public intellectuals will never accord even-handed treatment to Japan, despite an exemplary record of conduct unmatched by any of its G7 counterparts for more than 60 years. Alone among the nations of the world it combines the absence of military aggression with an altruistic financial generosity that is ignored, taken for granted, or unrecognized. It contributed $US 13 billion to the reconstruction of oil-rich Kuwait after the Gulf War, for example, but when the government of Kuwait took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post to thank the nations that came to its assistance, Japan was left off the list.

Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the wetlands where roughly 500,000 Shiite Arabs lived in southern Iraq, destroying the local ecology and forcing them to become refugees. How many people realize that Japan paid $US 11 million for the restoration of those marshes, much less give them credit for it?

No, it’s much easier and more entertaining to fill the space with annual stories about whalers and the whacked-out eco-pirates who ram them broadside. Bad Oriental guys, rakish Hollywood-funded good guys, and photos of bloody whales sells product. Then recall how many stories you’ve seen about the imminent resurgence of Japanese militarism that somehow never seems to resurge.

After seeing the pattern repeat itself time and again in the stories published by every important Western print media outlet in English and the op-eds and magazine articles of public intellectuals on both the left and right over several decades, one can only conclude that the media’s narrative template about Japan is informed by an ill-concealed deformity of thought that deserves a term of its own: anti-Nipponism.

The following is yet the latest demonstration that the default view of Japan for Western elites is the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated by otaku xenophobes and female children aged 18 to 80. It has all the disfiguring characteristics on display: media presentations that are a superficial gloss of the facts–whenever they crop up amidst the editorializing and inaccuracies–and rendered so as to present Japan in the worst possible light.

These presentations were swallowed whole by soi-disant public intellectuals who make elementary mistakes in reading comprehension that seem to derive from seeing what they want to see regardless of what the words say. They toss off a combination of sophomoric snark and anti-Nipponistic criticism before losing interest in toying with the lightweights of the world, furrowing their brows, and turning their attention to serious issues.

You think I’m exaggerating? First we’ll look at the facts. Then we’ll look at the people who can’t handle the facts.

Let’s start with this Japanese-language link to a 31 March announcement from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare about a voluntary government plan to provide assistance allowing financially strapped ethnically Japanese foreign workers with no job prospects to return home. My English translation follows. (Keep in mind that a bureaucrat wrote the original.)

*****
Re: Providing financial assistance to displaced workers of Japanese descent for returning to their home country

With the prevailing social and economic conditions, it is extremely difficult for laborers of Japanese descent in unstable types of employment, such as seconded workers or subcontractors, to be reemployed once they have lost their jobs. Some have insufficient Japanese language ability, are unfamiliar with Japanese employment practices, and lack work experience in this country. Therefore, reemployment after returning to their home country is increasingly becoming a realistic alternative.

In view of these circumstances, the ruling party’s project team for new employment measures has proposed that financial assistance be provided to these persons of Japanese descent who wish to return to their home country for that purpose. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare will implement a program starting in business year 2009 (i.e., 1 April) offering financial assistance to those displaced workers who have decided to return to their home country, under the following specified conditions, to respond to their acute need. (Refer to separate document.)

In addition, we are working to utilize all the existing programs and financial assistance for obtaining housing in support of their efforts to find new employment, and to maintain that employment for those people who continue to stay in this country and seek reemployment, just as we would for Japanese people. In the future, we will provide appropriate support, including that for reemployment, through the expeditious enhancement of systems for support and consultation with such measures as increasing the number of people providing interpretation and consultation services in accordance with local circumstances, and efficiently implementing employment preparation training that increases skills, including Japanese language ability.

*****
The first Ministry page links to the separate document (pdf) with charts that contain more detail.

* There we find out that guest workers who are still receiving unemployment compensation and choose to return will be granted an additional JPY 100,000 if they have 30 days remaining in unemployment benefits and JPY 200,000 (about $US 2,100) if they have more than 60 days remaining in unemployment benefits.

* It also mentions that in those regions where the nikkei (ethnically Japanese) workers are concentrated, 9,296 foreign job-seekers visited Haro Waaku, the government employment agency, for the first time ever from November 2008 to January 2009. That is a roughly 11-fold increase from the year-before period.

* The page emphasizes that the offer is being made to those people who are “extremely unlikely” to find employment due to a lack of Japanese language ability or job skills.

* The workers are being given special help for finding jobs at nine separate branches of Haro Waaku, and the help included interpretation. By mid-March, one-stop service centers to deal solely with this issue were established in municipal offices in 33 locations.

* An additional three new centers for consultation and advice have been established in areas with many foreigners and the benefits have been increased

* The site says these measures implement activities to enhance support for reemployment and maintain present employment. These include subsidies for trial employment and compensating employers for hiring them. There are also measures to enable people to retain their housing.

* Starting this year, the government will offer more interpretation and consultation services. They will also conduct job training programs to improve their job skills, including Japanese language instruction, during the period they are receiving unemployment compensation. They have budgeted JPY 1.08 billion (about $US 11.355 million) for the current fiscal year to help roughly 5,000 people.

* The training programs will be the responsibility of the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), a non-profit foundation that conducts human resource development programs for developing countries.

* The training will be conducted over a three-month period with the objective of improving Japanese language communication ability, and inculcate an understanding of working conditions, employment practices, and government benefits for employment and other social insurance schemes. It also provides unemployment benefits for a minimum of 90 days to assist the unemployment find new work and to take part in this training.

* When basic training is finished, they will be eligible to move to more advanced training, with subsidies provided during the extended training period. Special “navigators” for the guest workers will be assigned to help them until they find steady work.

Asahi Shimbun

Brazilian <em>nikkei</em>

Brazilian nikkei

Here’s a link to a Japanese-language newspaper article that appeared in the Shizuoka edition of the Asahi Shimbun. It contains a range of opinions from native Japanese and nikkei alike on the program, including those from Japanese who think the government should have done more to encourage the nikkei to stay. This is not unusual; the Japanese media is just as capable of examining their behavior from different perspectives as the Western media, if not more so.

One of those who thinks the departure of the nikkei is a “great loss” also had this to say:

“This is a test case. There are still many adults who chose to live only among foreigners without learning Japanese. If they lose work at the seconding company, their inability to speak Japanese prevents them from getting another job…the national government’s support for those people who came to Japan as migrant workers and don’t have the funds to return home is perhaps a humane policy.”

Insisted one ministry official involved with the program:

“The assistance for returning home is provided at government expense to those people who are suffering from unemployment and do not have the funds to return if they want to. The intention is not to remove the nikkei from the country.”

The new policy is good news for local governments, which are financially responsible for welfare payments and are having trouble finding the money due to the sharp increase in households consisting of foreigners receiving government assistance. Said one local government official:

“It would be cheaper for Japan if they returned home.”

The city of Hamamatsu is where the most Brazilians live. At the end of February, it had 116 Brazilian households receiving welfare benefits, compared to 70 at the same time the previous year. The benefits total more than 100,000 yen per month per family. They receive the welfare benefits after their unemployment compensation runs out.

Michiko Ramos, a third generation nikkei, commented:

“Brazilians are too lax. If they don’t like the government program, they don’t have to use it. Each person should decide for themselves how they’re going to live, and it’s their responsibility to do so.”

The article also notes that the Japanese government will pay travel agencies for the tickets and deposit the remainder of the money in dollar-denominated accounts in the recipient’s name in Brazil.

Private correspondence

One reader of this site is employed by a national Japanese media outlet. He spent two months covering this issue on the ground, and here is some of the information he provided to me.

* The program targets almost exclusively Brazilians (with either Japanese ancestry or a Japanese spouse) in Japan on working visas who can not speak Japanese and have no savings. Most have at least $US 30,000 dollars in annual income, with their housing expenses paid by the company.

* The same program was not offered to Okinawans who came to the same part of Japan to work and were laid off at the same time for the same reasons. (Okinawa is roughly 800 miles from Nagoya, the hub of the Japanese auto industry, and is only accessible by air or sea from there.)

* The correspondent notes that the workers can be divided into two broad groups: Those who “have a plan” and those who don’t. The people in the former group put their children in Japanese public schools, learned to speak and read Japanese, and received permanent residence visas.

* The workers’ hourly wages start at JPY 1,200 yen for unskilled labor, but the auto industry in that part of Japan often pays JPY 1,400 (about $US 14.70) an hour. Most households have two workers because the wives also work. The income of many Brazilian families is about 4 to 5 million yen annually, not counting inexpensive or non-existent housing costs, because the company covers them.

* Some Brazilian workers rejected the option of becoming full-time employees because doing so meant that pension and insurance funds would be withheld from their salaries. They see themselves as migrant workers and wanted the cash immediately.

* Why do some people need financial assistance to return home? As my correspondent reports, in what he admits is an extreme example:

“Many simply spend too much. I’ve been to a house in Shizuoka where all four family members work in a factory. This family has four cars (although you do need cars for everyday life in that part of Shizuoka), a house, and a racing car and trailer. (Drifting has become a popular sport among Brazilian youth). They can’t speak Japanese despite being here for 17 years…Many Brazilians who don’t have money to buy tickets back home are not literally broke. Many of them have houses in Brazil built with their money they earned working in Japan. They just don’t want to sell them for the tickets, which is (a) rational (decision). However, if they are in Japan asking for welfare to sustain (their lifestyle) in Japan, that’s another story…”

* They are not ordinary guest-workers, because they have become “spoiled in a way” now that their community has become established in all “dimensions of life” (i.e., media, schools, supermarkets, and entertainment). (N.B.: the Brazilian primary school in Hamamatsu recently closed.) Therefore they no longer need to associate with Japanese and live in a Portuguese-only environment. He also notes that municipal transportation facilities in Nagoya have Portuguese-language announcements.

* He reports this direct quote (his English translation) from the Brazilian vice-consulate and said he’s got it word for word in his notes:

“They are in their mess, because they are in their mess. We didn’t put them in their mess. It’s called self responsibility.”

The reporter wryly notes that Nissan (and Renault) CEO Carlos “Cost Killer” Ghosn, a Brazilian (and French and Lebanese) national was lionized by the Western media as the savior of Japanese business when he turned around Nissan some years ago by laying off thousands of Japanese workers. The BBC described his moves at Nissan as “savage”. CNN and the Detroit News dubbed him a “superstar”.

This February, the Brazilian Cost Killer brought out the knife again and announced he will cut 8.5% of the company’s staff worldwide by laying off 20,000 workers. Not all of the cuts were specified, but of those 20,000, 10% were in Japan.

My correspondent points out that when the CEO of Toyota lays off Brazilian workers for the same reason, and the Japanese government provides the funds to those unskilled workers with no Japanese ability and no savings who choose to return home voluntarily, it becomes a “humanitarian crisis”.

Sidebar 1: Mr. Ghosn was in Tokyo this week to unveil the new Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car. He says he spends 40% of his time in Japan, and he has been head of Nissan for more than a decade, yet he chose to speak to the Japanese broadcast media in English.

There’s a reason I provided this information. The following is a description of a newspaper article and a magazine article, with an attendant blog post for each one. They all presume to criticize Japan for its policy, yet 95% of the above information is not included.

Freakonomics

University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York journalist Stephen J. Dubner published Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything in 2005. It has since sold 3 million copies, and they operate a blog on the New York Times website called Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything to “continue the conversation”.

Somebody named “Freakonomics” wrote the following post this April.

When Japanese unemployment edged up to a three-year high of 4.4 percent in February, the government started looking for creative ways to lower it. One solution: get the unemployed out of the country by offering citizenship buyouts. The program applies only to unemployed people of Japanese descent who were born abroad but now live in Japan (they’re known as nikkei). The plan pays out-of-work nikkei $3,000 to return to their country of origin, not to return until economic conditions improve in Japan. Like other strange Japanese ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.

Somehow, Mr. Freakonomics—the journalist or the university professor, whoever—got the idea that the Japanese program is a “citizenship buyout”, despite having nothing to do with (a) citizens, (b) buying anything, or (c) buying out citizens.

In fact, the author was so enamored of this idea that he created a hot link for the phrase to a Time magazine article, which you can see here.

Time magazine conveniently saves their readers of taking the trouble to weigh the factual evidence and make up their own minds by giving the article the deliberately misleading headline of, “Thanks, but you can go home now”.

Immediately under the headline is a photo captioned, “Brazilian workers of Japanese descent stage a protest against layoffs in central Tokyo on Jan. 18, 2009.”

One wonders what the point of the protest was. Japanese automakers are also laying off Japanese workers, so the protest isn’t going to get them rehired. None of them live or work anywhere near central Tokyo, so perhaps they were demonstrating in front of corporate headquarters, though Time can’t be bothered to tell us that. Another possibility is that they were angling for media coverage. For that matter, one wonders why Time printed the photograph, which is of only tertiary importance to the issue, and gave it this page positioning, unless it was for propaganda purposes.

The photo is followed by two paragraphs more suitable for a daytime soap opera than a news story, which includes the claims that the Japanese government has made the unemployed feel “unwanted”. The first person quoted—indeed, the first person mentioned—is the leader of the nikkei labor union crying “discrimination”.

After all, we know that labor union leaders are the go-to source of information about government programs.

The seven-paragraph article contains only one sentence about the Japanese government offer. The third paragraph is a straightforward description of current domestic economic conditions. The rest is nothing more than an anti-Nipponistic editorial, and Time manages to mangle the facts while it’s at it:

The money isn’t the problem, the Brazilians say; it’s the fact that they will not be allowed to return until economic and employment conditions improve — whenever that may be.

No, they will not be allowed to return at all on a special nikkei work visa, and the reason for the incorporation of that restriction should be obvious: to prevent repeated use of the program and scamming extra money off the deal.

Then Time benevolently dispenses to its readership the wisdom of the Western biens pensants regarding how Japan should conduct itself as a nation:

“The U.N. has projected that the nation will need 17 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain a productive economy.”

Yes, we all know how accurate UN projections are for 40 years in the future, particularly for global warming climate change.

Does Japan need to add a total number of immigrants equal to 13% of its present population to “maintain a productive economy”, or does it need that many people to maintain its social welfare system for an aging population—which is not the same thing—and in so doing, eliminate the concept of “Japan” as we know it as a functioning entity? But what’s that to public intellectuals and their acolytes in the West?

As we saw here recently, the Canadians have concluded that large-scale immigration is not the answer. And we’ve also seen how the huge influx of Muslim immigrants, specifically admitted to fill unskilled labor jobs and prop up the social welfare system for an aging population, has worked out in Western Europe. (By the way, they’ve been rioting in France again, and this time it’s so bad the French government has forbidden the police from disclosing the statistics.)

There’s some input from Carlos Zaha, a “community leader”:

“I don’t think [the government] thought this through well.”

The government is offering a generous financial assistance program that is entirely voluntary. The ones who have to think it through are the Brazilians—take it or leave it. Leaving it means that to survive in this economic climate, they’ll actually have to do stuff like learn Japanese and job-related skills for something other than sweeping up the shop room floor. Fortunately, the Japanese government is making it easier for anyone with the motivation to do just that.

The article also quotes the union leader’s son:

“They have to help people to continue working in Japan,” he says. “If Brazilians go home, what will they do there?”

If we know “they” are helping people to continue working in Japan, why doesn’t he? Perhaps he’s one of those who didn’t bother to study Japanese, but then again the Japanese government provides free interpreters to explain the program. He also doesn’t explain why the government “has” to do things for a group specifically targeted because they chose the easy money route rather than the assimilation route. Nor does he explain why it is the business of the Japanese government what Brazilian citizens do in Brazil.

But back to Mr. Freakonomics. He/they conclude(s): “Like other strange Japanese ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.” The gratuitous “other strange Japanese ideas” phrase (there are so many, after all) is hot linked to another post by that Freakonomics guy presenting some photos of “Only in Japan” strange “products”. They discovered this hidden side because a reader of their blog sent them a chain e-mail letter.

If you have a Windows machine and right click the photos as if to save them to your computer, which is what Freakonomics did, you’ll see that they’ve already been given a title at their site. I’ll show two of those photos here; their site’s title for the first photo is “Japs 1”, and the title for the second is “Japs 3”.

Hmm, the hidden side of everything…

Here’s the photo of the first product at “Japs 1″.

freaks 1

Yes, that is a strange product. It looks like something a junior high school student might buy if she were in a spending mood and had some money to burn. But since I’ve never seen this product in anyone’s home, any store, or in any broadcast or print advertising, that’s only speculation on my part. Perhaps they’re hidden in this country somewhere.

Maybe the money earned from the book transformed the lives of Messrs. Freakonomics so much they no longer have to shop where the simple folk do. Or perhaps they had a refined upbringing. That would explain their unfamiliarity with the idea of novelty products.

Still, they should be old enough to remember Pet Rocks. In 1975, American advertising executive Gary Dahl bought ordinary rocks for a few cents apiece, wrote a tongue-in-cheek manual to accompany them, and packaged the combination as Pet Rocks. Each product unit cost less than 30 cents to produce, and Mr. Dahl sold them for $3.95. In fact, he sold an estimated 5 million pet rocks in six months, earning him about $US 15 million. I’ll bet those cushion makers wish they could cash in like that.

pet rock

Another example of a highly profitable American novelty item is mood rings. These rings are most often made with a sham gemstone covering a thermo-chromic liquid crystal that responds to body temperature. The people who take these rings seriously claim that body temperatures change in tandem with emotion, and that the rings turn specific colors to match the specific emotion of the wearer. Though they were a faddish novelty item of the 1970s, they’re still being sold today, sometimes for less than $US 4.00. Indeed, the concept has spread, as you can see from one note on this page:

“Ahh, but the newest version of the mood ring? Mood Piercing! That’s right, body jewelry with the mood ring twist. It’s a curved bar bell with the mood piece on the lower ball. It’s intended for a navel ring, but I have mine to determine my sexual mood, if you catch what I’m saying. It was a joke between a friend and I who both have our clitoris hoods pierced how cool it would be, so I got us each one. I’m not sure it’s ever really been accurate…”

Moving on to “Jap 3”, here’s a photo of what the post’s author thinks is a Japanese “product” because that’s what someone told him in a chain e-mail.

Freaks 2

Long-time friends of this site will immediately realize that isn’t a product at all. It’s a one-of-a-kind item known as chindogu, or “unusual tool”, and could best be described as comical pop art with an avant-garde twist. Those who want to delve into the hidden side of chindogu can read this previous post. Who knows, a gallery exhibition in Western countries might be quite successful.

Actually, this is not the first time someone’s been made the sucker by chindogu. This post describes how the New York Times interviewed another chindogu artist who stitched together some fabric to make herself look like a soft drink vending machine. Somehow, this was enough to convince the Times it was a sign the Japanese were concerned about crime in the streets.

The horse laughs over that journalistic pratfall still reverberate through cyberspace. My post on the topic received quite a few links from around the world, and ranks #2 on the site Hit Parade. I suspect Messrs. Freakonomics are right about this strange idea being unlikely to spread to their shores, though. That would require having a sense of humor.

Besides, they don’t need any more strange avant-garde artwork over there. They’ve got plenty of their own. For example:

Piss_Christ_by_Serrano_Andres_(1987)

That’s the notorious 1987 photograph Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, which shows a plastic crucifix in a glass of the photographer’s urine. It won an award in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, partially sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that funds artistic projects. Mr. Serrano received $US 15,000, some of that from the taxpayer-funded NEA.

In addition to strange Japanese novelty products or pop art, Messrs. Freakonomics are convinced the U.S. won’t go for this strange Japanese immigration relief measure either. That’s probably because they think America has a perfectly wonderful immigration system.

Well, the perfect part has it right. The American immigration system is perfectly dysfunctional and has been for years. The United States lost control of its borders decades ago and shows no sign that it will ever regain that control.

Consider:

* Immigrants account for 13% of the current U.S. population, and 30% of those are illegal aliens. Except now they have their own lobbying organizations that wet their pants in indignation for a living, so the phrase “undocumented migrants” is often used instead. In raw numbers, estimates of the latter range from 12-20 million in a country of 300 million.

* Between 1-2 million immigrants, both documented and illegal, arrive every year. On the whole, they have fewer job skills and less education than Americans, and they receive more from taxes than they contribute by a 3-1 ratio.

* Many of these immigrants never intend to assimilate. For several generations, it’s been possible to live from birth to death throughout the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, and most of Texas, without speaking a word of English, much less become a legal resident. An estimated 85% of the Mexicans living in the U.S. are thought to be there illegally.

This has been a problem for some time. Here’s a direct quote from the New York Times, circa 1951, in the days before the political correctness of language:

“The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican ‘wetbacks’ to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government.”

One of the several concerns was that the illegal immigrants worked in the agriculture sector for half the salary paid to Americans, which put the Americans out of work. That concern is ongoing, and opponents of guest worker programs in the United States often point out that the lower salaries distort the economic structure.

In contrast, the nikkei in Japan were paid salaries identical to those of Japanese in the same positions.

In 1986, the U.S. government threw up its hands entirely by passing an amnesty bill that allowed an estimated 2.7 million illegal aliens to receive citizenship. Many naturally complain that this was a reward for breaking the law. Six additional amnesties (not all blanket amnesties) were passed from 1994 to 2000.

The American political class is incapable of formulating a coherent immigration policy. Business interests want to keep the cheap labor source, and they are abetted by politicians in both parties. (Not just the big business GOP, either; as a senator, the later-to-be President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, favored lax immigration enforcement.) Labor unions dislike guest worker programs, but their favored party, the Democrats, realize that the beneficiaries of so many government programs tend to vote for that party, and that guest workers usually wind up as permanent residents. President George W. Bush failed to gain passage of an immigration reform act that included amnesty, but President Barack Obama is going to try again, even though Mr. Bush’s legislation was defeated due to public opposition. As the New York Times put it:

But, (Obama) said, immigrants who are long-time residents but lack legal status “have to have some mechanism over time to get out of the shadows.”

Nothing describes current immigration policy and enforcement in the U.S. better than this lead sentence from a CNN article.

“Six months to the day after Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Venice, Florida, flight school that the two men had been approved for student visas.”

So it’s entirely understandable that the Messrs. Freakonomics, Americans both, would find the Japanese success at controlling their borders and the influx of guest workers to be a strange idea that wouldn’t work on their shores.

If I were Japanese, I’d be proud of the country for their handling of the situation.

Sidebar 2: Some people were impressed the two Freakonomics authors discovered that sumo wrestlers in certain situations tend to lose matches they statistically should be expected to win, which suggests that they’re throwing the matches for the benefit of their fellow rikishi.

Except the Japanese have known this for centuries, and have never been shy or hesitant to write or talk about it. You just have to be able to read mass-market Japanese paperbacks and talk to Japanese people in Japanese for all these hidden sides to come to light.

Imagine if you will the reaction in the West, particularly by these media outlets and public intellectuals, if a Japanese were to observe pet rocks, mood rings (including those on pierced clitoris hoods), Piss Christ, and an endemic problem with illegal immigration, and wrote:

Like other strange Western ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.

Not an attractive image, is it?

Daniel Drezner

Mr. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. He is given space to write a blog for the Foreign Policy website, which is part of the Slate group, which in turn is part of the Washington Post/Newsweek group.

Prof. Drezner decided to weigh in on the Japanese government policy. The title for the link to his post, which shows up at the top of the Internet browser page, is “A Demographic Disaster of a Country Kicks Out Immigrants”. His post is headlined, “Reason #347 Japan is less influential than it should be.”

His post is not quite as bad as the Freakonomics post, though I realize that is damning it with faint praise. But he still lets fly with this corker:

“Apparently, Japan is trying to kick out some of the paltry number of immigrants it currently has in its territory.”

Readers, it’s time to congratulate yourselves. By now, you are already more knowledgeable about Japanese policy toward Brazilian immigrants than a grad school professor of international politics at an elite American university writing a blog on a mainstream media website. The difference, however, is that you don’t get paid to spout off.

Prof. Drezner was so taken with his “kick out” line that he turned it into a hot link to this New York Times article.

Incidentally, he doesn’t attempt to make any connection between the specific policy and Japan’s “punching below its weight” in international politics. Perhaps he’s used to students nodding at everything he says so they don’t jeopardize their chances for a post-graduate degree.

In regard to what he terms this “puzzling maneuver”, he concludes: “In terms of demographics, about the best thing one can say about Japan is that at least it’s not as bad as Russia.”

The snark may be on a more sophisticated level than in the Freakonomics post, but it’s still snark. According to UN statistics, the Japanese fertility rate is slightly below that of Russia, equivalent to that of Italy, and higher than Bulgaria or South Korea. It isn’t significantly different from that in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, or the Ukraine. While it’s still less than that for the countries of Western Europe, all those countries are still under the population replacement level even when counting the offspring of their fertile Middle Eastern immigrants. What specific contribution the latter makes is difficult to say because many of those European countries forbid the breakdown of demographic statistics by ethnic group.

Here’s an idea: Is the reason Japan is “punching below its weight” due in part to the fraudulent coverage given at every turn by an anti-Nipponistic Western media and the dismissive indifference to the facts shown by anti-Nipponistic public intellectuals?

A comment on this post at the site is also worth looking at.

“The xenophobic mindset of Japan, is something akin to the Wahabi equivalent in Islam – if it goes so far as to exclude ethnic Japanese, from Brazil!”

Lord knows the man can’t stop ignoramuses from posting in his comment section, but that’s clearly anti-Nipponism, and all the more revealing because one would expect the site itself would attract a highly educated and aware readership.

But Prof. Drezner still has no justification for his claim that the Japanese are “kicking out” the nikkei, based on the New York Times article.

The New York Times

This article is written for a section called Global Business, but only 212 of the 1,261 words describe the actual policy itself without editorializing. It includes only the barest of facts. Another 120 words blandly describe the economic circumstances that led to the formulation of the policy. There are 10 direct quotes. Three of those are sob stories, three are direct criticisms of the Japanese position by Japanese calling it a “disgrace”, “baffling”, “cold-hearted”, and “an insult”, and two are accounted for by a simple question and answer. There is an unattributed quote calling it “short-sighted” and “inhumane”. The single quoted Japanese who defends the policy is also given a chance to say, “I don’t think Japan should ever become a multi-ethnic society”.

And I don’t think the New York Times should stack the deck, but let’s proceed.

The government will pay thousands of dollars to fly Mrs. Yamaoka; her husband, who is a Brazilian citizen of Japanese descent; and their family back to Brazil. But in exchange, Mrs. Yamaoka and her husband must agree never to seek to work in Japan again.

Not only is this incorrect, but the author knows it. She later says that they can return on different visas:

But those who travel home on Japan’s dime will not be allowed to reapply for a work visa. Stripped of that status, most would find it all but impossible to return. They could come back on three-month tourist visas. Or, if they became doctors or bankers or held certain other positions, and had a company sponsor, they could apply for professional visas.

My, but isn’t that “certain other positions” a convenient formulation? The author doesn’t mention it also includes recent graduates of universities with bachelor’s degrees in the contemporary equivalent of basket weaving hired to teach English at chain schools.

Notice also the doctor/banker part. That’s inserted to offer a frisson of righteous indignation over the injustice of it all to the newspaper’s upper-middle class/upper class readership, some of whom are doctors or bankers, who will then finish reading the paper and head off to their six- or seven-figure jobs elsewhere on the island of Manhattan, or in a private cubicle in some ivory tower.

Here’s the first direct quote:

“I feel immense stress. I’ve been crying very often,” Mrs. Yamaoka, 38, said after a meeting where local officials detailed the offer in this industrial town in central Japan.

Yes, that’s the Grey Lady and not the National Enquirer.

Here’s the first quote from a Japanese:

“It’s a disgrace. It’s cold-hearted,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, an independent research organization. “And Japan is kicking itself in the foot,” he added. “We might be in a recession now, but it’s clear it doesn’t have a future without workers from overseas.”

Prof. Drezner also repeats that last sentence approvingly, as if everyone with functioning cognitive facilities can see the blinding clarity of its correctness. Perhaps he needs to read the Canadian report issued above showing that immigration isn’t going to solve anyone’s population problem. It’s also not so clear that the aging of society would be a problem if citizens assumed a greater liability for their own social welfare benefits and responsibility for long-term care, combined with growth-friendly taxation policies and reductions in the sheer mass of government.

And it’s also clear that most of Western Europe—as we know it—does not have a future with workers from overseas.

The guest workers quickly became the largest group of foreign blue-collar workers in an otherwise immigration-averse country, filling the so-called three-K jobs (kitsui, kitanai, kiken — hard, dirty and dangerous).

Japan isn’t so averse to immigration from people with job skills, a willingness to assimilate, and a desire to learn the language. I’m one of those in “some other position” who easily received a permanent residence visa. I know many more who did, and I have no doubt they and I could just as easily become naturalized citizens.

Sidebar 3: Recruitment of Chinese and Korean workers in Fukuoka
From a Nishinippon Shimbun article, buried in the local news section:

Fukuoka Prefecture and other groups sponsored a joint job interview conference on 30 May for foreign students looking for work in Japan. A total of 194 students at regional universities and graduate schools attended. Many companies are not hiring at present due to economic conditions, so only seven companies sent representatives. That was less than half of the companies represented last year, which caused some uneasiness among the students. This year’s conference was the eighth, and the prefecture said that about 30 students are hired as a result of the interviews every year.

“Naturally, we don’t want those same people back in Japan after a couple of months,” Mr. Kawasaki (Jiro, an LDP official formerly with the Health Ministry) said. “Japanese taxpayers would ask, ‘What kind of ridiculous policy is this?’ ”

That’s the first sensible thing I’ve read in any of those articles or blog posts yet.

At the packed town hall meeting in Hamamatsu, immigrants voiced disbelief that they would be barred from returning. Angry members of the audience converged on officials. Others walked out of the meeting room.

And I’m sure others went to the rest room, wandered aimlessly in the hall looking at the artwork, or went outside to smoke a cigarette. Why should they be angry about an optional program? Are the comments of Michiko Ramos and the Brazilian vice-consul above beginning to make sense now?

Claudio Nishimori, 30, said he was considering returning to Brazil because his shifts at a electronics parts factory were recently reduced. But he felt anxious about going back to a country he had left so long ago. “I’ve lived in Japan for 13 years. I’m not sure what job I can find when I return to Brazil,” he said. But his wife has been unemployed since being laid off last year and he can no longer afford to support his family.

Note that Mr. Nishimori and his wife both worked and that Mr. Nishimori has been here 13 years, presumably employed the whole time, yet he has neither the financial wherewithal to survive a layoff of a few months nor the job skills to find employment elsewhere. Nor, obviously, the desire to participate in the Japanese government’s job-training and language instruction program.

“They put up with us as long as they needed the labor,” said Wellington Shibuya, who came six years ago and lost his job at a stove factory in October. “But now that the economy is bad, they throw us a bit of cash and say goodbye….We worked hard; we tried to fit in. Yet they’re so quick to kick us out,” he said. “I’m happy to leave a country like this.”

With that attitude, Mr. Shibuya, I suspect that “a country like this” is even happier with your decision than you are.

Summary

There is nothing inherently wrong with privately owned media outlets using a preexisting narrative template to offer their information. That’s how they choose to present themselves to their customers, and their customers are free to accept or reject the template as they choose, according to their time, level of interest, and intellectual inclinations.

The problems arise when the templates are manifestly inaccurate and biased. There is no question that the employees of these media outlets are accomplished and intelligent people, and that the outlets themselves have the financial resources and access to information to enable those people to get it right.

Yet, as I have noted here often in the past, those media outlets seldom, if ever, get it right when the subject is Japan. That accomplished, intelligent people with the resources to get it right never do cannot be laid to incompetence. It must necessarily be the result of intentional design, either on their part or the part of ownership.

The articles by Time magazine and the New York Times plainly do not get it right. Just as plainly, it was because they chose not to get it right. I submit that the cause of this disfigurement and abuse of their resources and customers is anti-Nipponism.

There is also no reason to object to privately owned media outlets having a point of view. That point of view belongs in sections clearly labeled as opinion, however. As with both articles under review here, editorial opinion should not masquerade as news. If these were opinion journals, such The Nation or Commentary, for example, it would be a different matter entirely.

But these two media outlets insist on calling themselves news organizations. The two articles here are putatively news articles that present the facts, yet both are unfair and ugly distortions of the facts. I submit the cause of these distortions is anti-Nipponism.

Let’s not pretend any longer, shall we? These are not honest mistakes. This is not sloppy research. Someone, somewhere, has made a conscious decision to depict the Japanese as negatively as possible, however possible, whenever possible. These depictions of Japan are the rule rather than the exception.

University of Chicago Prof. Levitt and Mr. Dubner of Freakonomics are also without question intelligent and accomplished people. Yet the Messrs. Freakonomics read a Time magazine article and draw the breathtakingly incorrect conclusion that it is about a “citizenship buyout”. They find a harmless novelty item to be yet another one of those strange ideas from the Goofball Kingdom, while overlooking even stranger—and financially successful—novelty items from their own back yard. At least the Japanese product is functional.

They take the word of a chain e-mailer that an innocent, amusing, and obscure work of pop art is a commercial product, and snicker with their oh-so-hip audience at the Japanese weirdness for even conceiving of it. Yet they seem oblivious to situations in their own country (how often this happens!), in which a downright peculiar work of art was given a cash award partially funded by taxpayers, and which was the subject of a loud public controversy for that very reason.

They are citizens of a nation with perhaps the most dysfunctional immigration system in the modern world, yet they conclude that the Japanese government’s generous and considerate offer of a voluntary program to people in need, who seem to more closely resemble Aesop’s grasshopper rather than his ant, is stranger still.

Certainly Tufts University Prof. Drezner is equally accomplished and intelligent. Yet he reads a New York Times article and draws the breathtakingly incorrect assumption that it is about “kicking out” people from Japan. He then suffers an intellectual short-circuit and concludes this is one of the reasons Japan lacks diplomatic clout. He (or someone at that site) thinks Japan is a “demographic disaster”. Well, perhaps it is, but if it sinks, it’s going to go down on the same ship as Western Europe, South Korea, and Singapore. Yet he will only allow that it’s not as bad as Russia.

If either of those university professors were submitted a paper that reached those conclusions based on evidence that slim in any other subject, they’d flunk the student faster than you can say Cliff’s Notes.

Perhaps that is due to what might be called a big-league complex, common among people of certain professions (particularly lawyers). They think it’s their job to behave as if they know something about everything, and so act accordingly to uphold their professional reputation. Freakonomics is about “the hidden side of everything” after all, and “international politics” covers quite a lot of territory. But I don’t think that’s the reason.

I’m sure they would vehemently deny they are guilty of what amounts to knee-jerk prejudice—some of their best friends are Japanese, no doubt. But I submit the cause of their misguided thinking and behavior is anti-Nipponism.

As Ms. Regan (a financial attorney) says in the quote at the start of the article, it is time for people to ignore the fishwrap farce that the New York Times, Time magazine, and their ilk have become, and take responsibility for their thoughts and decisions. Unfortunately, the people described here seem to have used those publications as giftwrap to beautify their preconceived notions.

As for the Japanese, it is time to start drawing conclusions from the fact that the anti-Nipponism of the Western media and its public intellectuals will always prevent them from getting it right.

Shelby Steele, part African-American, a former university professor, and current research fellow at the Hoover Institution, long ago wrote that one of the most important things he ever learned he heard during a conversation with an elderly Jewish woman. “No matter how hard you try,” she told him, “they’re never going to love you.”

It doesn’t make any difference how pacific your behavior or generous your contributions have been for the past few generations. Most media outlets and many influential people in the West have become so infected with anti-Nipponism that they are never going to love you.

If those conclusions you draw require that Japan choose a more independent course of action in the world, so be it. As the Arabs say, the dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.

Afterwords:

* Anti-Nipponistic attitudes are apparent in more than just political or pop culture reporting. Note how the AP handled their obituary for a prominent Japanese psychiatrist at the end of this recent post.

* I didn’t include Chinese or Korean examples in this post, though anti-Nipponism is of course present in those countries, too. But Japan’s relationships with the Han Chinese on the mainland and the people of the Korean Peninsula are deep and stretch back for millennia, so the current strand of anti-Nipponism in northeast Asia has a different meaning. It is most often fomented or exacerbated by the political class for domestic advantage. Westerners have no such excuse.

* This post doesn’t begin to address the problem of Brazilian workers who either chose not to participate in the national pension system to begin with, or have not worked long enough in Japan (25 years) to quality. The Brazilian workers have been coming to Japan for more than 15 years, and those who came in their mid-40s are now hitting the age of 60. That’s when many Japanese retire, and the unskilled Brazilian laborers working through employee seconding agencies that age are not going to be called as frequently for work. As a result, they receive welfare payments and other benefits from the Japanese government. In those areas with a concentration of these workers, the older ones who can no longer find employment are now starting to hang out during the day on street corners and park benches. One can imagine the reaction of younger Japanese taxpayers who work for a living and are footing the bill. Why should the Japanese government support the elderly citizens of another country with whom it has no pension reciprocity? That’s Brazil’s responsibility, is it not? (Japan does have agreements with the U.S. and Germany, among others.)

* As the New York Times article in particular hastened to assure us, some Japanese are also critical of their government’s policy. Higuchi Naoto, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tokushima, expressed his criticisms in this English-language article in the Asahi Shimbun.

While I disagree with Prof. Higuchi’s solution, he gets to the crux of the matter here:

I have interviewed more than 300 Japanese-South Americans, and according to my observation, those who graduated from unstable non-regular employment to regular work had one thing in common–strong Japanese-language skills….To survive in the labor market, Japanese language skills are more important than academic qualifications or work experience.

Yes. However:

The majority of these have never been given the financial support or time to acquire Japanese language skills, without which they have virtually no chance of finding new work at a time when they need it most.

Disclaimer: I have a biased outlook in this matter. Not one of my great-grandparents was a native speaker of English, yet all of those who reached the United States acquired English language skills. (That includes two grandparents.) All the men were originally unskilled laborers, and one grandfather had only one year of schooling in Russia.

Needless to say, none of them were given financial support or the time to acquire English-language skills. They just went ahead and did it on their own. One great-grandfather died at the age of 40. His five children quit school and went to work, and his German-born wife did the nurses’ laundry for the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. She studied English by reading the newspaper aloud every evening to her twin daughters and having them correct her pronunciation and explain unfamiliar words.

The article also has internal contradictions:

Some 400,000 Japanese-South Americans are said to live in the country. One-third have already obtained permanent residence visas. Many families have also taken out loans to buy homes…In order to earn 300,000 yen a month from a job that pays 1,200 yen an hour, a worker needs to put in 250 hours a month. With such long hours, it is almost impossible to spare time for studies.

It’s also almost impossible to take out a home loan with that sort of income, either. But as for language studies, you know what they say about there being a way if there’s the will. Turn on the TV or radio and voila! Instant language instruction 24 hours a day.

Because there was no need for them to learn Japanese, there was also no motivation.

Living here is not motivation enough? Surely the reason they came was because they thought they would have more opportunities in Japan than in Brazil. The opportunity to stay and make the most of those opportunities should be sufficient motivation for anyone.

The government should devise a learning program under which participants are paid aid equivalent to one year’s unemployment benefits, allowing them to focus solely on the language…. A system is needed to allow them to enroll in Japanese-language schools on a full-time basis for a year so that they may acquire communication skills, including reading and writing, needed to work in Japan.

In other words, the sociology professor thinks that people whose motivation was such that they were unable to use whatever education they received at home to acquire rudimentary job skills are going to be able to read and write Japanese after a one-year course, rather than a three-month course.

As someone who has spent the last 18 years working full-time as a Japanese-English translator after spending a considerable chunk of my life gaining Japanese-language fluency, and who also has taught English, I can only conclude that Prof. Higuchi is a cockeyed optimist.

That’s the basis of most Japanese complaints—the government didn’t do enough to help the nikkei assimilate. But there are two serious problems with that suggestion. First, it completely ignores the responsibility of the people themselves to take charge of their own lives. Ten ha mizukara tasukuru mono wo tasuku—Heaven helps those who help themselves.

Second, it also completely ignores the lesson that everyone left of the political center has failed to learn, and alas, probably never will learn.

If it were so easy for governments to accomplish these things, socialism would have been a success.

A big thanks to the people who helped with this post. You know who you are!

UPDATE: I just found out the program has been amended to allow for re-entry after three years. In other words, it is almost identical in terms to a Spanish offer to unemployed immigrants for repatriation. According to that article, more than 5,000 people accepted the offer. Most of them are from other Spanish-speaking countries, so linguistic assimilation should not have been at issue.

The fertility rate in Spain, incidentally, is nearly the same as that of Japan.

Does this mean there will be a sudden outbreak of Spain-bashing or a let-up in anti-Nipponism from the Western elites?

I think not.

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Posted in Demography, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Mass media | Tagged: , , | 66 Comments »

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!

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

Miko make the season bright during New Year’s in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 2, 2009

MOST OF THE TIME, a Shinto shrine is all but deserted. Shinto isn’t a religion in the way people usually understand it—there are no written doctrines and no set times for worship. People visit a shrine when it suits their mood, their circumstances in life, or to participate in a few festivals or other events.

During the New Year’s holiday from 1-3 January, however, the shrines will be packed with people on a hatsumode, the customary first visit of the year. In most cases, people will visit three shrines in one day.

It would be impossible for the regular crew to handle the immense influx of visitors descending on the shrine in such a concentrated period of time. The chores required to receive those visitors, as well making and selling good luck talismans for the year ahead, require that the staff be reinforced with part-time employees. These are young women hired to serve as miko, or shrine maidens, who roughly correspond to altar boys at a Catholic church. While the larger shrines already have a few miko on call, particularly to assist at wedding ceremonies, most shrines have to hire them for the season.

Left over right? Right over left?

Left over right? Or right over left?

Because they’re working in the service of a religious institution and not a convenience store, the miko must conform to certain standards (i.e., no dyed hair). The priests provide additional training for the proper speech and deportment to be employed when greeting the shrine-goers, which demands a level of courtesy beyond that usually required in Japanese society.

This training includes instruction for dressing oneself in the traditional red and white garments, one of which is a hakama, or divided skirt. That’s normally part of a man’s formal wardrobe, particularly for traditional wedding ceremonies. While they aren’t as difficult to deal with as a kimono, wearing one is not intuitive and requires that someone show the wearer the ropes, or the drawstrings in this case.

The first photograph shows some miko-in-training learning how to dress at the Fukuyama Hachiman-gu in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. The training session, which also included lessons in the manner of address and the correct way in which to hand over lucky talismans to purchasers, was held about a week ago for the 40 women who will help out this year. The shrine needs the help: They expect 200,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Said the shrine’s priest, “The role of the miko is to connect the worshippers with the spirit of the divinity. I want them to approach that role with a pure heart.”

Santa’s elves

The shrines have plenty to do to prepare for New Year’s, which is still the most important holiday on the calendar. Some of the shrines that sell the talismans make them on the premises. That means the miko have been beavering away in the workshop as if they were a Japanese version of Santa’s elves.

miko-08-3

The second photo shows a group of the 17 miko at the Onoyama-cho Gokoku shrine in Naha, Okinawa, making traditional fukusasa talismans by tying them into bundles after the materials were purified in a ceremony. Fukusasa is a combination of the words “lucky” and “bamboo grass”. A lot of lucky items will be sold to Japanese over the next few days in addition to bamboo grass, including fukubukuro, or lucky bags from department stores filled with merchandise and certificates for bigger-ticket items. One woman interviewed on television today was so intent on getting her fukubukuro that she rented a hotel room near the department store to ensure a spot in the queue enabling her to elbow her way inside when the doors opened in the morning.

The bamboo grass was specially cut by the priests in some nearby mountains. Said the chief priest Kaji Yorihito, “The bamboo grass grows pointing straight to heaven and is symbolic of the life force. We hope that as many people as possible will visit the shrine and add a sense of stability to their lives.”

The fukusasa are affixed with bells and small gourds, and then purchased and displayed by the parishioners who hope the luck will rub off in the form of domestic safety and business prosperity. It doesn’t take long for the miko to create a lot of potential luck. They can make 1,000 fukusasa in two days, as well as 10,000 hamaya, or exorcising arrows. When you expect 240,000 visitors, it’s good to have sufficient stock on hand. Besides, if you absolutely had to have an exorcising arrow, would you want to stand in line at the shrine and then be told they were sold out?

Cocoon balls

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Meanwhile, work lasted for more than a week at the Kinomiya shrine in Atami, Shizuoka, to make the mayudama talisman for sale to those looking to get lucky in their business dealings. A mayu is a silkworm cocoon, and once upon a time the shrine attached real cocoons to willow branches and offered them over the counter.

That’s too expensive these days—silkworm cocoons were sold until recently on Japanese commodity exchanges, and the adventuresome investor can still buy raw silk from the cocoons on the Tokyo Grain Exchange. (For an idea of how people in East Asia view silkworms, the single kanji for the word is written by combining the characters for heaven and insect: 蚕.)

The more economical option today is the use of brightly colored balls (the tama of mayudama) made of rice meal. These and other decorations are attached to the branches of the hagi, or Japanese bush clover. The girls at the Kinomiya shrine made 3,000 this year, and you can see an example of their handiwork in the third photo.

Cleaning house

The miko are also responsible for performing the more housewifely tasks at the shrine, such as the yearly cleaning and dusting. Here’s a 40-second video of the miko banishing the cobwebs from the high ceilings using three-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass on the business end instead of a mop or feather duster. Note how the priests are the model of liberated males, grabbing poles and working alongside the miko. But considering those spotless white outfits they’re wearing, one has to wonder how much dirt they expect to remove. Then again, how dirty can the inside of a shrine get in a year?

That’s the Hokkaido Jingo shrine in central Sapporo, by the way. They’re expecting 730,000 people to drop in this year. The end of the video has a shot of the shrine exterior that’s worth seeing for its stark Japanese beauty. Besides, it’s a lot better to view the shrine from the outside by video instead of in person at this time of year. Judging from the amount of snow on the ground and surrounding trees, I’d be hibernating until spring if I lived there.

Supersized kagami mochi

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If you think cleaning the corners of the ceiling with bamboo poles and leaves is an unusual assignment, watch what the miko do at the Yasuzumi shrine in Takanezawa-machi, Tochigi. The shrine is noted for offering a jumbo three-level kagami mochi (decorative New Year’s rice cake) every year at this time in the hopes the divinities will see fit to bless them with a good harvest and that Japan’s print and broadcast media will see fit to give them a minute of free publicity. It works like a charm—this video is one of at least three from Japanese TV floating around on the web.

It shows some parishioners pounding the very glutinous mochi rice with wooden mallets to form the uncooked cakes, a forklift bringing in the first two layers, and the miko bringing in the third mochi cake in a procession as if they were transporting a daimyo in a palanquin. It concludes with the priests topping off the creation with one of the most delicious citrus fruits known to humankind: the bampeiyu. They resemble grapefruit about half the size of a basketball but without the sour tartness. And they’re coming into season soon!

Take a few seconds to imagine a ceremony that involves a forklift, a traditional pallet carried by young women in ceremonial clothing, and a giant citrus fruit used in place of a cherry to top off an enormous food offering. Ain’t Japan grand?

Takanezawa is one of Tochigi’s prime rice growing districts, and the shrine began making the jumbo kagami mochi in 1982. It took the parishioners two days to make this bruiser. The first level is 110 centimeters in diameter (3.6 feet), the second is 80 centimeters, and the third is 60. It’s about 90 centimeters high and weighs about 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) when fully assembled. If you’re passing through Tochigi, you can stop by and see it until the 20th. After that, the monster mochi will be removed and chopped up into smaller pieces for distribution to parishioners during the Setsubun festival on 3 February, unless Godzilla comes ashore and swallows it whole first.

Restoring a two-year tradition

There’s more to a miko’s lot than wearing traditional costumes to fashion handicrafts in the shrine sweatshop, serve as cleaning ladies, or do the heavy lifting of decorative rice. The two miko shown in the next photo are practicing the Urayasu-no-Mai (a dance), which was performed for the first time in 67 years at the Teruhi Shinto shrine yesterday in Osaki-cho, Kagoshima.

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The dance for women is performed to music resembling gagaku with an elegant and deliberate choreography. It appears traditional, but it was actually created and first offered at the Ise shrine in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial line. (That anniversary was a very big deal in 1940, but that’s another story.)

The 79-year-old Fujioka Tomio of the local kagura preservation society says he was in the audience during the inaugural performance as a lad of 10 and has never forgotten it. The dance was performed for only two years—the Japanese had other fish to fry by 1942—and he’s been at the forefront of efforts since then to bring it back. He worked with a local teacher of traditional Japanese dance to teach it to two girls, one a first-year junior high school student and the other third-year high school student. They began practicing in November, and shown here is a photo of the miko in a dress rehearsal last week at the shrine. Mr. Fujioka and the shrine parishioners hope this will start a new tradition that will last longer than two years this time.

It might seem as if there is a sense of Japanese exclusivity and exoticism hovering about all these activities—young women dressing in traditional Japanese clothing to make traditional Japanese crafts for the celebration of New Year’s at Shinto institutions that they cleaned with ritual implements and adorned with ritual food offerings, and then performing a special dance created at a shrine closely associated with the Imperial house to celebrate more than two millennia of Imperial rule. Some might like to think the Japanese are so exclusionary and this behavior so defining that participation by anyone else would be unthinkable.

Think again. There’s another video floating around the web of a recent TV report on a miko training session at a shrine in Nagasaki City. The video wasn’t particularly distinctive, so I didn’t include it here, but a brief interview of one of the trainees casually tacked on to the end might cause cognitive dissonance among those who enjoy being narrow-minded about Japan.

This particular trainee was a 21-year-old Korean university student attending a local university. The woman was not learning about miko practices—she was taking a refresher course. She had already worked as one during the 2008 New Year’s holidays and enjoyed it so much she wanted to do it again.

You didn’t really buy that line about the Japanese being xenophobic Korean-haters, now did you?

Lest old acquaintance be forgot, let’s not forget this post from last year all about miko and some of the other delightful things they do.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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

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!

Posted in Festivals, Food, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Nippon Noel: How the Japanese spend Christmas

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2007

HOW DO THE JAPANESE SPEND CHRISTMAS? The best way to answer that is to let the Japanese answer themselves, and the good news is they already have—through surveys.

A group called Work-Life conducted one such survey from 19-22 November. The survey subjects were 891 men and women from the ages of 20-59. Here are the questions and their answers.

Q: Do you feel Christmas is a special day?
The group with the highest percentage of affirmative answers were those in their twenties at 66.5%. Interest in the holiday declined with age, and fell to 36% for people in their 50s.

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Q: How do you plan to spend the day?
The highest response was to relax at home, given by 56.8% of the respondents. This was followed by people who planned to have a party at home (22.8%), and people who planned to go out for dinner (18.4%)

Q: For those who plan to relax at home and those who plan to have a party at home, what sort of meals will you eat?
The people who said they expected to have pre-prepared meals, either partially or entirely, accounted for nearly 70% of the responses, showing that home meal replacements will be an important part of Christmas dinner for many. (Finding out things like this is why they conduct the surveys in the first place.)

Broken down by age group, 80% of people in their 20s say they will use home meal replacements. The incidence of this answer trends downward as the respondent’s age increases. Conversely, the older people get, the more likely they are to make their own dinner at home.

Q: For those who plan to have home replacement dinners or to buy pre-prepared ingredients, how much do you plan to spend? (Don’t include Christmas cake and drinks.)
A total of 75.4% of the respondents said less than 5,000 yen. (Roughly US$44.00)

Q: How does this compare to last year’s expenditures?
74.6% replied there would be no change. Fewer than 10% of the people in their 40s or 50s said they would spend more or slightly more, but slightly fewer than 30% of those in their 20s and 30s planned to spend more. Thus, younger people plan on having a more elaborate Christmas celebration.

Q: For those going out to dinner, what type of establishment will you visit?
68.9% said a restaurant, followed by 15.9% who answered an izakaya (a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place).

Q: How much will you spend at these establishments?
Only 5% of the respondents said more than 30,000 yen (US$265.00), and 65.9% said less than 10,000 yen ($88.00). The survey group concluded that people aren’t splurging as they did during the bubble economy days, despite Japan’s brightening economic picture.

All About Presents

What would Christmas be without presents? A survey conducted by Japan.Internet.Com and goo research uncovered some information on Japanese attitudes towards Christmas gifts.

Those surveyed were 1,089 Internet users from their teens to 60 and older. 53.35% were men and 46.65% were women.

Q: Do you plan to give a Christmas present?
44.9% of the respondents said yes and 20.11% said they were thinking about it. 34.99% said no.

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Q: To whom will you give a present?
75.05% answered a family member, and 23.11% said a lover. 16.36% of those participating said a friend or acquaintance. Meanwhile, 4.29% said themselves (Multiple answers were possible.)

Q: Where will you buy the presents?
82.41% said brick-and-mortar stores, and 28.83% said an Internet shop. Those are interesting results for an Internet survey.
Just 7.36% said they would give something homemade, and 2.86% said they would give something they already had on hand.

Q: How much money will you spend?
38.24% said between 1,000 (US$8.83) and 5,000 yen, and 31.90% said from 5,000 to 10,000 yen.

Q: What will you buy as presents?
The reply from 30.47% was clothing, 17.38% said confections, 17.18% said game software, and 15.75% said jewelry. In fifth place was “others”, with 14.72%. When those giving “others” as an answer were asked to specify what they would buy, most said toys.

Q: What would you like to receive as a present?
14.97% hoped for jewelry, while 13.59% wanted clothing, and 11.75% said gift certificates.

Yet another survey found that about 90% of all children would receive Christmas presents. (That corresponds with the answers I got in an informal discussion of this question with the students of two college classes I taught in the spring.

Finally, for the sake of comparison, let’s look at some answers from an Internet survey last January conducted by My Voice Communications. They had 10,000 respondents.

45% said they bought Christmas cakes
40% bought presents.
29% had some kind of Christmas decorations in their homes
25.8% said they had a party at home.
More than 20% prepared Christmas dinner at home.
26% said they did nothing special.

The Trees

We’ve seen before that the Japanese have an imaginative approach toward Christmas trees. Here’s a word about the two trees in the photos accompanying this post. The first one is probably unlike any in a Western country. Located in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, it is made of 30 tairyobata, or banners hung by fishing boats to signal a large catch of fish.

A crew of 15 hung a fishing net arranged to look like a tree on the side of a wall 17 meters high on a square near the harbor and decorated it with lights. They also stretched rope down from the roof and attached the banners so that they hung in a triangular tree shape.

The tree, which was first erected last year, will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until the 31st.

The second tree is on a traffic circle in front of the Entetsu Railroad’s Hamakita Station in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. It will be lit every day from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. until 15 January.

The tree has roughly 9,000 LEDs that are used for illumination. There are also lights resembling snow crystals and stars decorating a nearby mural, as well as 40 other illuminated trees in the area.

Posted in Food, Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

 
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