AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Tottori’

All you have to do is look (123)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 30, 2012

Champagne crabs, known in Japanese as Matsuba crabs, in a market in Tottori City.

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National persimmon seed spitting contest

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 25, 2012

WHAT sort of image do people overseas have in their mind’s eye about Japan? Other than the noodniks fixated on Edo-period tentacle porn, I mean. Perhaps they have the traditional picture of a clean, simple, fastidious elegance.

If so, it might be because they haven’t swung by Nanbu-cho in Tottori in late November every year. That’s when the Tottorians hold their annual National Persimmon Seed Spitting Contest using the seeds from the famed local fuyu persimmons. This year’s event was the 24th, and about 400 people came to see how far they could hawk an oblong spherical seed that’s about five to 10 times larger than a watermelon seed.

And when I say 400 people, that includes men, women, boys, and girls who compete in four separate divisions. That’s what makes Japan such a fascinating place — any other day of the week, some of those persimmon seed-spitting housewives might be in kimono practicing the tea ceremony. In this event, they get to behave in public like bored fratboys on a Wednesday night in midwinter and be cheered by an audience.

Of course there are rules and techniques. The seeds have to land within a four-meter lane, and there’s said to be a special body snap for ejecting the projectile the maximum distance.

This year’s winner in the men’s division was a 41-year-old company employee from Imabari, Ehime, with an expectoration of 17.46 meters. The women’s champ was a 40-year-old local who shot her seed 10.67 meters. Before you start snickering, keep in mind that both of them won free trips to Hawaii. Now isn’t that enough to make you buy a crate of persimmons and start practicing?

It might be fun to watch, or even test my seed-spitting abilities against the other competitors. But here’s where I’d draw the line: I wouldn’t want to be one of the event workers assigned to pick up the spent seeds from the mat.

Yeah there’s a Youtube. In fact, this one is a report by the Nihonkai Shimbun on last year’s event. That featured 350 people from five Chugoku region prefectures and the Kansai area. The men’s winner managed a spit of only 14.87 meters. He still won a trip to Hawaii, though.

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All you have to do is look (80)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 18, 2012

The folks in Sakaiminato, Tottori, paint a jizo with miso in the Misoname Jizosai during the Koyu-ji Buddhist temple last month. Several hundred people come each year to observe the custom that coating a particular part of the jizo with miso will cure any problems in the corresponding body part of the coater. The festival began during the Edo period, died out after the war, and was resumed in 1980.

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All you have to do is look (67)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 3, 2012

To follow up yesterday’s photo of three archer/samurai, here is Kawanaka Kaori of Tottori giving an archery demonstration at the prefectural governor’s residence last month. She was a member of the Japanese women’s team that won a bronze medal in archery at the London Olympics this summer.

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Child abuse

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 7, 2012

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

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

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

The father of one rikishi said:

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

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

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

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

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

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All you have to do is look (39)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The 48th Tottori Shan-Shan Festival last month in Tottori City. An estimated 3,800 people in 95 groups danced in the streets with umbrellas decorated with bells and silver and gold strips of paper.

Video from the Asahi Shimbun

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Kagura Koshien

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 20, 2012

THE climactic stage of the 94th annual national high school baseball championships has arrived — the semifinal games will be played today, and the finals are tomorrow. One of the most well-known sporting events in Japan, the championship is commonly referred to as Koshien after the name of the Hyogo stadium where the games are played. (It’s also the home park of the Hanshin Tigers major league team, who are forced to take a long road trip every summer at this time.)

This event is so well known that the term Koshien is now used colloquially to refer to any national high school championship competition. This post presented the Koshien for a new competition featuring the combination of calligraphy with dance and music. One of my college students this spring said performing with her club in a similar competition was her favorite memory from her high school days. (There’s also a brief description of the Manga Koshien.)

Another new and different Koshien began last year with content that might surprise even Japanese — the performance of kagura. That’s an ancient Shinto ritual of dance and music for the divinities whose origins are at least 1,300 years old. It is also performed in some areas of the country as a folk-drama during shrine festivals. The appeal of kagura in the latter context is easy to understand when you realize the art contains elements similar to that of a Broadway musical comedy, albeit from a different millennium.

This year’s Kagura Koshien was the second, and it was held at the end of last month in Akitakata, Hiroshima, at the Kagura Monzen Tojimura. In addition to a kagura dome, that facility also has a hot springs resort with lodgings.

Ten schools from five prefectures took part, with representatives from Hiroshima, Shimane, Tottori, Kochi, and Miyazaki. Last year’s inaugural event featured five schools, and while the first three of those prefectures are in the same region, Miyazaki is in Kyushu, which is some distance away. That suggests the idea is catching on in other parts of the country. The event organizers reported there were about 1,600 spectators. Said one of the students, 17-year-old Fujii Riiya:

“I learned a lot by watching the kagura of the other schools. I hope the younger students take part next year.”

Here’s an explanation of the origins and more formal varieties of kagura, and here’s a description of the pop variety, with a blow-by-blow account of one of the plots.

And in an excellent example of synchronicity, this YouTube video digest of the Kagura Koshien was uploaded just this weekend. Watch it to discover how an ancient ritual could capture the imagination of high school students.

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not alone in that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the calligrapher/priest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another way to make lemonade from lemons

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 8, 2010

THE FOLLOWING ARE some excerpts from an article that appeared in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun.
——
Production of paper diapers for adults is skyrocketing as the population ages, and local governments must consider how to dispose of them as garbage after use. In 2009, paper diaper production was 1.7 times that of 2003. Efforts are spreading nationwide to reuse them as a fuel source to reduce garbage volume, and some local governments in Kyushu have begun recycling them. Potential hurdles to their reuse, however, are the difficulty of separating them from other refuse and the recovery costs.

The municipal government of Hoki-cho, Tottori, teamed with local businesses to begin trial production of solid fuel using a system that processes used paper diapers. If the system is shown to be effective, they envision using it at such facilities as hot spring resorts to heat boilers. Trial calculations suggest the system could result in savings of up to JPY three million annually.

One of the first local governments in Kyushu to become involved is Oki-machi, Fukuoka. They formed ties with the Total Care System company of Fukuoka City, which has a recycling plant for paper diapers in Omuta. The municipality has conducted trials in which the residents collect the diapers separately in special bags and a municipal vehicle stops by to pick them up.

Oki-machi is currently paying a substantial amount of money to neighboring Okawa for the incineration of burnable refuse. Said a municipal official, “Paper diapers account for about 10% of the town’s burnable refuse. Recycling them would lessen the burden on the environment and reduce public expenditures.”

Total Care System also collects used paper diapers from hospitals and long-term care facilities. They treat and process the diapers and recycle them as fireproofing material.

The Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association reports that 5.019 billion paper diapers for adults were produced in 2009, an increase from the 2.996 billion paper diapers in 2003…The association points out, however, that few municipalities dispose of the diapers separately and treat them as burnable garbage…Those local governments with their own incineration facilities find that to be a more efficient and economical method of disposal.

(end translation)

Here’s a Kyodo article on the same subject from April, and another from CNET. Speaking of incontinence, the author of the latter managed to hold in the “Weird Japan” snark for most of his entry, but still wound up wetting himself in the last sentence.

*****
Noborikawa Seijin is 78 years old, but I don’t think he needs special underwear yet. He just released another CD this year.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Environmentalism, Government, New products | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Bait and switch

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 19, 2009

NOW THAT the Japanese electorate has unwittingly jumped from the frying pan into the fire by selecting the country’s Democratic Party to lead a government, people are starting to get scorched. Everyone knew before the election that the DPJ’s principal talents were obstructionism and harangues more suited for postgraduate seminars and smoky union halls than a legislature, but people held their noses and voted for them anyway. Entropy had finally had its way with the Liberal Democratic Party, and that party’s mudboat wing stepped up to the challenge by committing the de facto equivalent of hara-kiri.

By trying to implement a platform whose individual provisions never polled all that well and won’t work well at all, the new government is making manifest its shallowness, petit authoritarianism, and disregard of anything outside its self-interest.

From the Mainichi Shimbun

The vernacular edition of the newspaper carried a story that described a chilly conversation last week between Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, and Nagatsuma Akira, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Mr. Sengoku initiated the conversation about the JPY 12.4 billion-program for one-time payments of JPY 36,000 to parents of children aged 3-5. That program was started by the Aso Administration at the behest of its New Komeito coalition partners. The payments were supposed to have been made by the end of the year.

The Mainichi quoted Mr. Sengoku as telling Mr. Nagatsuma:

“The special child support allowance was begun by New Komeito, so it has to be cut”.

He also said this was a “Cabinet decision”, though why Mr. Nagatsuma—a Cabinet member—was not present when the decision was made was not explained.

The program was a likely candidate for the axe anyway, because it was adopted to please the former government’s junior coalition partner and to deflect attention from the DPJ’s more extensive child subsidy proposal before the election. That alone doesn’t explain the antagonism, however.

What does? Despite sharing a similar political outlook, the DPJ has shown no interest in bringing New Komeito into their ruling coalition. Indeed, they’ve gone out of their way to harass them in the Diet. They’d rather try to reconcile the irreconcilable paleo-old guard of the PNP and the viperous left of the Social Democrats and govern as if they were in a four-legged race.

That’s because the DPJ’s Shadow Shogun, Ozawa Ichiro, has detested New Komeito for years. If the Mainichi report that this was a Cabinet decision is true, now we know who’s making decisions for the Cabinet.

For an insight into the inscrutability of Japanese politics, by the way, Mr. Sengoku is considered to be an Ozawa opponent within the party.

In the end, the Government canceled the program and held a press conference to “apologize to the people and local governments.”

No one was mollified.

From the Asahi Shimbun

The Aichi Prefecture Mayors’ Conference was held last week in Nagoya, their first meeting since the new government took office. All but one of the prefecture’s 35 mayors attended. The mayors passed a resolution asking the Government to assume full financial liability for the DPJ’s own child allowance proposal, as per their political platform, instead of sticking local governments and the private sector with part of the bill. Some participants complained that the DPJ’s ineptitude is causing turmoil in local government.

Said Inuyama Mayor Tanaka Yukinori (affiliated with the opposition LDP):

“The ministers just jump the gun with these statements, without specifying what is wasteful and what was wrong about the previous expenditures.”

Here’s Toyota Mayor Suzuki Kohei on the work his his city already performed for the Aso Administration policy:

“Our efforts wound up being a waste of time and money. (Some municipalities had to hire temporary employees.) When (the Government) says, ‘We’re a new administration,’ some local governments think that’s an insufficient reason or explanation.”

The sentiments were echoed by Aichi Gov. Kanda Masaaki, a guest at the meeting:

“There is uneasiness and turmoil in the communities. I’m going to do everything I can to hold local conferences to convey our concerns to the government.”

From the Nihonkai Shimbun

Tottori Gov. Hirai Shinji was even more scathing. At a press conference on the 15th, he said:

“The people ordered kabayaki (grilled eel), but they were served up something already eaten alive by a viper.”

In reference to the new Government’s inability to deal with the Finance Ministry bureaucrats, Mr. Hirai noted:

“Whenever the Finance Ministry says anything, they just swallow it whole and keep putting it on the tab of local government. Nothing at all has changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”

It might be that local governments could be a more effective check than the nominal opposition party, the LDP, which seems to be missing in action at the national level.

Then again, the Hatoyama Administration isn’t in the mood to listen, regardless of the number of conferences Aichi Gov. Kanda holds.

On television

On the 18th, Deputy Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko reiterated that the Government is still considering having local governments and businesses cough up some of the money for their child allowance scheme.

Bait-and-switch, inflexibility, and policies that smack of Mussolini-style corporative fascism are no way to run a government, son.

Let’s reduce reliance on the bureaucracy by expanding it!

Back to Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister for Administrative Reform, who also appeared on TV on the 18th touting his latest reform idea. He wants to reorganize Mr. Nagatsuma’s MHLW:

“Its jurisdiction is so broad in scope that the problems arising there every day come up nowhere else.”

The Aso Administration was also interested in reorganizing the ministry last May, but, as with the Aso Administration itself, nothing came of it.

His proposal would seem to be hypocritical for a party that co-opted local reformers by promising to disassociate from the bureaucracy, and then changed its tune to disassociating from a reliance on the bureaucracy once they took office.

Instead, he suggests creating three new Cabinet ministries, each with a name that only the left could dream up:

  • The Ministry of Children and Families
  • The Ministry of Education and Employment
  • The Ministry of Social Insurance

The LDP had the capital idea of privatizing the Social Insurance Agency, but the agency itself torpedoed that plan by leaking the news of the colossal, decade-long foul-up of pension records. (All the more reason to privatize, is it not?) Then-DPJ-head Ozawa Ichiro said it should be merged with the National Tax Agency.

But now the DPJ is the party in power. Now they want to make it into a ministry of its own.

The idea behind coupling education with employment was that the Education Ministry, which also includes culture, sports, science, technology, and God knows what-all, was another candidate for reorganization. Mr. Sengoku did not explain why there was a need to end one Rube Goldberg bureaucracy just to create another. Nor was any justification provided for the existence of full-fledged Cabinet ministries focusing on labor, children, or families; it was as if no justification were needed.

In other words, Mr. Sengoku’s idea of governmental reform is to create three useless ministries where one existed and none are needed. Yes, let’s not rely on bureaucrats any more. As if that weren’t enough, he also said he was going to think of other ways to efficiently reorganize the central government.

Well, what sort of administrative reform can one expect from a former labor lawyer who was first elected to the Diet as a member of the Socialist Party? Did anyone really think he was going to consider central government downsizing?

Here’s another one on the inscrutability of Japanese politics: Mr. Sengoku is affiliated with the DPJ’s Maehara-Edano group/faction, which is considered to be on the Right within the party.

Meanwhile…

People outside of Japan are starting to draw conclusions about the new government, particularly those in financial circles.

Phill Tomlinson thinks stagflation will continue:

Many Keynesian economists are still baffled by Japan. Over the years, policy after policy has been proposed by their school of thought, all of which involve some form of government action, but time and time again they all seem to fail. The classic Keynesian rebuttal whenever these policies fail is “Well, the authorities didn’t do enough”. Just like they apparently didn’t do enough during the Great Depression.

And:

The reason why they never recovered to their previous highs was exactly what the Government did, they took over and tried the command economy approach. Roads to nowhere, propping up banks that were insolvent, not allowing private enterprise to take over the means of production. Rather than money going into the private sector, Japanese savings that were accrued during their economic miracle were funneled into Government bonds, wasteful Government consumption. It was quite simply a classic stagflation that is still ongoing.

That was published on the same day it was reported the Government would try to prop up debt-ridden Japan Airlines by putting its ownership in the hands of a quasi-public corporation without having it go through bankruptcy.

Meet the new boss.

Even worse than the old boss.

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

 
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