Japan from the inside out

Archive for January, 2007

The Ainu Research Center: Boon or bane?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 31, 2007

There is a theory that the Ainu people, who are the aboriginal people of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, the Kuriles, and Sakhalin, were the first people to cross over into North America, thereby becoming Native Americans, too.


That may not be true, as Native Americans tend to be less hirsute, but if it is, it would mean this ethnic group got the short end of the stick on two continents. The Japanese developed Hokkaido in the 19th century in a manner somewhat similar to the way Americans opened up the West, and meted out similar treatment to the natives. To be sure, there was no open warfare or butchery in Hokkaido as there was in North America—just the universal routine of one ethnic group putting another under its thumb, with less violence.

No one is quite sure where the Ainu came from. They have a legend claiming they “lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came.” They have their own language that seems to share no common ancestor with any other language. In other words, it may be unique, like Basque. Genetic testing shows that the closest ethnic group geographically with the most similar attributes is in Tibet.

After years of discriminatory treatment as well as intermarriage with Japanese, their numbers have dwindled and some of their dialects have disappeared. The Japanese liked to think of themselves as tanitsu minzoku, or a homogenous race, but despite the claims of some foreigners who enjoy indulging in self-righteous indignation, that phrase is not heard so much anymore. Most of the doors in Japan are open now, and people know about the Ainu, native Okinawans, and other groups. Besides, local anthropologists have always known about them—as well as the different geographical origins of eastern and western Japanese.

In yet another sign that doors continue to open, Hokkaido University announced it would be the site of the country’s first Ainu-Aborigine Research Center, which will begin operation in April to study the Ainu from multiple perspectives, including language, culture, and history. A report by the Hokkaido Shimbun (the link is only in Japanese and gone in a week) says that particular emphasis will be placed on a full recovery of rights for the indigenous people. Their objective is to become a center for Ainu research and information dissemination in Japan.

This is unquestionably a capital idea that is long overdue. Some of the center’s activities described by the article, however, make one wonder if another of their objectives is to develop a permanent guild of civil rights opportunists and parasites of the type that have sprung up elsewhere around the world. The center plans to create a network with other aboriginal organizations and research institutions to pool their efforts in the legal and political fields. They also plan to hire specialists in constitutional, civil, and international law to study how certain rights have been guaranteed for the Canadian Inuits and the Australian Aborigines. The development of programs for high school and university education is in the works, as are plans for eco-tourism.


People who have seen this process before know that for every undoubtedly positive benefit this might achieve, there is also the potential for harmful measures that cause society to regress in the name of progressivism. It should be obvious by now that multiculturalism often devolves into just another form of racism whose ultimate effect will be to continue to deny those formerly oppressed the benefits of mainstream society.

Japan is a nation ruled by law, and all Japanese enjoy the same rights under the law, even if they’re Ainu. Working for the restoration of rights has an ominious ring to me. It sounds as if what they might try to do is create special privileges exclusively for a single group, rather than guarantee rights.

The measure of success should be that a person’s ethnicity has become no more significant than the color of their eyes. The measures of failure will be the purposeful creation of de facto segregation, the designation of specific lands for the use of a specified ethnic group, and demands for (or the payment of) reparations, not to mention such trivialities as the creation of faux college majors in ethnic studies.

And if they institute an affirmative action program, you’ll know it’s hopeless. They’ve missed the point altogether.

Posted in History, Social trends | Leave a Comment »

Kamikazes: How many were really volunteers?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 30, 2007

MORE THAN 60 YEARS after the sudden appearance and even more abrupt departure of the so-called kamikaze pilots of World War II, misconceptions about the pilots themselves still prevail overseas. Some still assume the pilots were fanatical volunteers eager to sacrifice their lives for the Emperor and save the nation by flying their aircraft into American ships–hence the use in English of the word kamikaze to mean someone conducting an enterprise so recklessly they are unconcerned about death.

The Japanese, of course, know how little of this corresponds to the truth. They’re well aware of how much fiction exists in the idea of soldiers willing to die for the emperor and selfless pilots so dedicated to their country that they enthusiastically stepped forward to join the tokkotai.

A recently published book, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, might help rectify these misconceptions.

Then again, perhaps not…

The confusion starts with this review of the book by Donald Richie in the Japan Times (registration required), titled “Involuntary Students of Death”. Richie covers the main points adequately enough. But he also seems to believe that a book review is a chance to flog his own ideas in a public forum. Unfortunately, his ideas are detrimental to an adequate presentation of the book. Here’s the first sentence:

“War flourishes through caricature and some of these wartime creations live on long after their political usefulness is over.”

We understand the point he’s trying to make—that the reality of the kamikaze pilots was very different from their image among the Allied forces and the public—but in regard to the Second World War, this sentence is just meaningless.

Does he really think caricatures of the enemy were “politically useful” because the soldiers and general public from which they were drawn in the United States and Europe would have been ambivalent about or hostile to the war had they not existed? Does he really think that the people creating those caricatures didn’t believe them to be factual at the time? Does he really think that Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Bugs and Daffy kicking the heinies of Hitler, Himmler, and a buck-toothed, bespectacled Hirohito kept the fighting going long after it should have ended?

In the middle of the review, he says:

“The grinning caricature that for a time symbolized (the pilots) was perhaps as welcome to the Japanese military as it was to the Allied propagandists.”

The more I read this sentence, the more insulting Richie’s presumption masquerading as erudition becomes. When Richie asserts that this caricature was welcome to “Allied propagandists”, he is clearly trying to state that the Allies required propaganda in the form of caricature to continue an unnecessary war. I share Richie’s detestation for the ugly caricatures of the Japanese that did exist during the war, but caricatures were not the motivating force, neither for the American military seeking to avenge Pearl Harbor, nor for the Japanese soldiers seeking to drive European colonialists out of Asia.

Richie probably thinks he saved his best for last:

“Now, as nations plainly prepare for the commercial advantages of World War III, it is salutary to listen to this moved and outraged voice as she…”

I’m sorry, but I refuse to finish typing in a sentence this sophomoric in every sense of the word.

Fortunately, however, a website exists that presents Ohnuki-Tierney in her own words, and the information she wishes to convey about the student pilots of the tokkotai. Even more fortunately, another website put together by Bill Gordon reveals Ohnuki-Tierney’s historical errors, general sloppiness, and falsehoods. Gordon’s site about the kamikaze is so good, in fact, that people interested in the subject should take the time to view all of it. I’ve added it to the list of Japan-related sites at the left.

Here’s an overview of both.


  • The modernization of the Japanese military that began in the second half of the 19th century included rules that made surrender or escape punishable by death.
  • Disobedience was punishable by immediate execution. The objective was to encourage servicemen to die for the emperor.
  • Disciplinary beatings of Japanese soldiers were commonplace; sometimes this was in fact the maltreatment of lower-ranking personnel whom higher-ranking personnel disliked.
  • The tokkotai pilots were forced to volunteer, and none “wholeheartedly espoused the emperor-centered military ideology”.
  • “Not a single officer who had been trained at the military academies volunteered to sortie as a pilot.”
  • “Of the approximately four thousand tokkotai pilots, about three thousand were so-called boy pilots, (and) roughly one thousand were “student soldiers,” university students whom the government graduated early in order to include them in the draft.”
  • “None of these manned weapon systems (submarines as well as aircraft) was equipped with any means of returning to base”
  • Most of the pilots volunteered due to such factors as peer pressure or feelings of solidarity for other pilots who had already died. Some pilots who did not volunteer found that their superior officers had volunteered them to ensure a 100% rate. Other pilots were “volunteered” by superior officers who disliked them.

Gordon’s website, Kamikaze Images

  • The book is largely a remake of Ohnuki-Tierney’s previous book, Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, published in 2002. Her new book includes several paragraphs from the first book that have been edited and rearranged. The publisher of both books, the University of Chicago Press, does not tell readers in advance of the duplicated material.
  • “The title of Kamikaze Diaries does not accurately describe the contents.” The book covers the writings of seven student soldiers, but only three were kamikaze pilots. Most of the writings of two of these pilots date from either before they became kamikaze pilots, or before they joined the military. Half of the writings of the third are not diary entries, but letters to family and friends.
  • “The third endorsement quotation (on the book cover) states that ‘during World War II, not a single graduate of their military academies volunteered for one-way bombing missions’ (also implied on pp. 1-2), but in actuality about 160 Naval Academy and about 180 Army Air Corps Academy graduates died in special attack missions.”
  • “The inside front cover starts with a quotation from Irokawa Daikichi, who is introduced as one of the many kamikaze pilots, or tokkotai. However, the book’s text does not include this quotation, and Irokawa did not serve as a kamikaze pilot.”
  • “Chapter 4 introduces two brothers, Matsunaga Shigeo and Matsunaga Tatsuki, who fought with the Japanese Army in China and who died in November 1938 and 1944 (no month given), respectively. Both may have died even before Vice Admiral Ohnishi organized the first kamikaze squadron in October 1944.”
  • “Chapter 1’s 31 pages on Sasaki Hachiro include only about seven pages of his actual writings.”
  • “Several of the author’s claims related to Japan’s tokkotai are incorrect. She states, ‘None of these manned weapon systems was equipped with any means of returning to base’ (p. 1)…. (but) planes and explosive motorboats not only could but frequently did return to base for various reasons such as bad weather, mechanical problems, or not being able to locate the enemy.” (Ampontan note: The author herself mentions in the introduction the Waseda graduate who was shot after returning nine times when he couldn’t find the enemy.)
  • “The author incorrectly uses “Demizu” as the name for “Izumi” Naval Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture.”
  • “She introduces a long quotation as a description of “the night before their final flights” of tokkotai pilots from Tsuchiura Naval Air Base (p. 9), but no tokkotai pilots made a final sortie from this air base.”
  • “She states, ‘A single cherry blossom was painted in pink on a white background on both sides of the tokkotai airplane…’ (p. 29). In reality, tokkotai airplanes did not have a cherry blossom painted on each side…”
  • While Ohnuki-Tierney suggests that none of the kamikaze pilots were very willing to go on their missions, one pilot, Hayashi Ichizo, a devout Christian (!) wrote to his mother: “… I am happy to go as a tokkotai pilot….I will do a splendid job sinking an enemy aircraft carrier…I read the Bible every day…I will sing a hymn as I dive on an enemy vessel…”
  • “Most chapters do not provide any idea about how young Japanese men felt after they joined the tokkotai dedicated to suicide attacks, since more than half of the pilots introduced in the book were not tokkotai members. Even in the three chapters that discuss tokkotai pilots, the focus is their intellectual development prior to joining the military rather than a depiction of life in the military and in a tokkotai squadron.”

Ampontan sez:

  • The author claims that no one willingly volunteered, which doesn’t seem plausible. All the pilots were raised in an era of heavy propaganda—and someone always buys into propaganda. Richie would have us believe that the era was saturated by propaganda on both sides, but the student pilots of Japan weren’t having any of it. See Gordon’s website for a good discussion of both the Japanese motivations for volunteering and Allied misconceptions of the kamikaze pilots.
  • The author says: “In Japan, the military government left no room for political or guerrilla resistance movements like those in Germany, France, and other countries ruled or occupied by fascists.” I’m not sure which is more astonishing: that she would lump Germany and France into the same category, or her implication that the Third Reich “left room” for political resistance movements.
  • “The determination to combat the egotism brought forth by capitalism and modernity was a major element of the students’ idealism.” In a book whose premise is the coercion used to get pilots to volunteer for kamikaze missions, it’s odd that the author would claim one reason the student pilots volunteered was an antipathy toward capitalism. Considering the intellectual leanings of American university professors in general, however, perhaps it’s not so odd after all.
  • “Any soldier who refused would become persona non grata or be sent to the southern battlefield, where death was guaranteed.” That’s no explanation for volunteering for kamikaze duty. If I had to calculate the odds of my survival based on a choice between (a) climbing into an airplane and flying it into an American warship, and (b) being issued a rifle and sent into combat, I’d pick (b) without hesitation every time. Is that really so hard to figure out—even for a woman with no military experience?
  • I understand that Ohnuki-Tierney’s objective is to examine how educated college students came to put into practice an ideology most did not share by being coerced to volunteer for suicide. Yet one cannot help but wonder how interested the author would have been in the virulence of Japanese militarism and its ramifications had the kamikaze pilots consisted solely of people who were garbage men, barbers, and udon/soba shop proprietors in civilian life.
  • The author fails to consider that because Japanese university students majoring in the liberal arts received draft deferments until late 1943, many of those in school who were subsequently drafted and became kamikaze pilots likely enrolled in school to save their own necks rather than to ponder the intricacies of Kant and Nietzsche. Indeed, as is shown in the movie Wings of a Man, some professional baseball players took advantage of draft deferments for college enrollment by playing baseball during the day and studying at night. A severe case of resentment might well explain the military veterans’ brutal treatment of those who had college deferments. It certainly wouldn’t be unique to Japan.
  • No discussion of kamikaze pilots is complete without reference to the traditional Japanese attitude toward suicide in general and their attitude toward the self-sacrifice of soldiers taking action in wartime against a superior enemy. Gordon notes that these actions are not really considered suicidal by the Japanese.
  • Death for disobeying orders was nothing new in Japan. Failure to disobey the order of a samurai had been punishable by immediate execution for centuries among the civilian population. This background, both in an earlier era and during the war, might bring some perspective to the Japanese attitude toward and treatment of enemy soldiers who were captured or surrendered.
  • Some people think that bullying in Japanese schools is caused by the examination system. What this book may show indirectly is that bullying has long been a part of the vertically-structured Japanese society. Women have been guilty of this, too: the expression yome-ibiri refers to the mistreatment meted out by women toward their daughters-in-law, particularly when the young married couple lives with the husband’s parents. Indeed, from a long-range perspective, Ohnuki-Tierney’s book may also indirectly demonstrate that this aspect of Japanese society is actually improving.
  • A comparison of Donald Richie’s review with the excerpt of the book reveals that a large chunk of his article—for which I’m sure he was paid—was lifted in toto from Ohnuki-Tierney’s introduction without attribution. Elsewhere in the article, however, he specifically cites the author and properly quotes passages. Is this not plagiarism?
  • Do not misunderstand: The book does have an important theme. Emperor worship was not as extensive as some people believe, and not all kamikaze pilots were willing volunteers. It also sheds some perhaps unintended light on non-military issues that Japan still faces today. But in view of Ohnuki-Tierney’s surprising disregard for accuracy, the material would have been better served had it been handled by a competent historian with a deeper understanding of Japanese culture. And considering that Richie seems to have gone over the falls of reality in a barrel, the Japan Times review could have been better presented by someone with a more relevant academic background and whose reputation has not gone to his head.

    I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to convince both Westerners and Japanese that they aren’t all that different from each other. Also, translating is my profession. Therefore, I can honestly say I was moved by Ohnuki-Tierney’s translation of an account by a man who saw the parties of the kamikaze pilots on the night before their missions. It is instantly understandable on a human level. Speaking personally, it is one of the most valuable translated documents I have ever seen. If for nothing else, Ohnuki-Tierney is to be commended for presenting it in English:

    “At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the sake in one swallow; others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud.

    “It was their last night of life. They thought of their parents, their faces and images, lovers’ faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their fiancées—all went through their minds like a running-horse lantern [a rapidly revolving lantern with many pictures on it]. Although they were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next morning for imperial Japan and for the emperor, they were torn beyond what words can express—some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in a frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off wearing the rising sun headband the next morning.

    “But this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported. I observed it with my own eyes, as I took care of their daily life, which consisted of incredibly strenuous training, coupled with cruel and torturous corporal punishment as a daily routine.”

    Posted in Books, History, World War II | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

    The Sea of Japan: Maybe it really is a Sea of Peace

    Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 29, 2007

    The ebbing of the Korean Wave in Japanese popular culture has been well documented since early last year (scroll down). Not so long ago, it was difficult to turn on a television in Japan without stumbling across a Korean drama, but that’s no longer the case.

    That the Korean Broadcast Institute offered excuses in their report rather than reasons makes one suspect they weren’t facing reality:

    The report attributes the ebb in popularity with broadcasters to the fact that no Korean stars have emerged to fill the shoes of Bae Yong-joon or Choi Ji-woo, combined with the fact that Korean dramas are steadily losing their competitive edge to Chinese and Hong Kong dramas in terms of price….(Kim Yung-duk) stressed that Korea needs to come up with measures to secure channels to air Korean dramas by, for instance, starting a new channel in Japan or investing capital in the Japanese channels.

    Bae is still around in Japan, but he often appears as a pitchman in commercials, which is much more lucrative than starring in a single drama series. In fact, he replaced Nakashima Shigeo, perhaps Japan’s most popular baseball player ever, as the commercial spokesman for one company when the latter suffered a stroke. Also, I’ve yet to see any Chinese or Hong Kong dramas on TV in Japan, though I live in Kyushu and that might be a Tokyo or Osaka phenomenon.

    But the mention that South Korea might have to buy its way back on Japanese TV suggests they have a realistic grasp of the situation.

    Be that as it may, a wave still flows between South Korea and Japan–but this time, it’s the Japan Wave in South Korea. Koreans are visiting Japan in record numbers, and many of them are coming to Kyushu. The flight from anywhere in South Korea to Kyushu is shorter than the one to Tokyo, and high speed jetfoils can comfortably depart from Busan after breakfast and reach the Port of Hakata by lunchtime.

    The extent of Korean tourism in Kyushu was highlighted by a report in the Nishinippon Shimbun that sales of the SUNQ (Thank you) pass for unlimited bus travel on long-distance and route buses throughout Kyushu, offered by 46 regional bus companies, soared beyond 20,000 for the period from April to December 2006. The primary factor behind the surge was South Korean interest. A regional breakdown of sales shows that 73% of the passes were sold in Kyushu, 22% in South Korea, and 4.9% in Tokyo. South Korea accounted for 36% of all sales in December alone.

    This has prompted Nishitetsu, the largest bus company in Kyushu, to sign agreements with Korean travel agents to sell the pass. The most popular bus routes start in Fukuoka City and extend to Huis ten Bosch in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture; the hot springs area of Beppu, Oita Prefecture; and the Aso area of Kumamoto Prefecture. (Mt. Aso is an active volcano with the largest crater in the world.)

    The Koreans aren’t just taking the bus, either. The regional railway, JR Kyushu, reports that sales of their Rail Pass for unlimited express train travel, available only to foreigners, climbed 35% year-on-year during the same nine-month period. More than 70% of these passes are purchased by South Koreans.

    Two things would seem to be obvious from this report:

    1. If the South Koreans couldn’t stand Japan or the Japanese, they wouldn’t be coming in such large numbers.
    2. If the South Koreans weren’t welcomed cordially by the Japanese, they wouldn’t want to come in such large numbers.

    It might be well to keep that in mind the next time you read or hear a superficial comment in the media taking it as given that the citizens of both countries get along like cats and dogs (or dogs and monkeys, as they say in Japan). That’s just the mess media promotion of their facile narrative to maintain interest in their own product, or sloppy work by third-country media sources too lazy to look for the real story. The media have lost their credibility in every other area, so why would anyone think they have any here?

    In fact, what we may be seeing is the emergence of a new Silent Majority—the people of South Korea and Japan who actually get on well with each other!

    Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »

    Website: The road to Yoshinogari leads through Seoul

    Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 28, 2007

    If you’re looking for some absorbing websites—and you know dang well the Britney Spears crotch shots really aren’t worth looking at—you might wander on over to the extensive list at the right sidebar. That list alone could occupy your spare time for weeks on end.

    One of them is the link near the bottom for the Yoshinogari Historical Park in Saga Prefecture. That’s the site of the largest moat-enclosed Japanese settlement from the Yayoi period, which dates roughly from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.

    The site’s discovery generated a lot of excitment in Japan because it closely resembles the place visited by Chinese envoys described in the Gishi Wajinden, the earliest written account of any kind about the Japanese people. The text has frustrated scholars, however, because the location of the site is improperly explained. (If you followed the author’s instructions, you’d wind up somewhere in the middle of the sea.)

    To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Yoshinogari’s discovery, the Japanese and South Koreans will hold a joint exhibit from October to December at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. This will be the first time a full display of Yoshinogari artifacts will be shown overseas, and one of the few occasions for an overseas museum to hold an exhibit focusing on a single Japanese archaeological site.

    The items found at Yoshinogari include earthenware vessels from the preliterate age that resemble those of Korean design, as well as the oldest molds for bronze discovered in Japan. They are clear evidence of the close interaction between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula in those days. There will be about 250 Japanese items exhibited, including the bronze ware, swords, and cobalt blue, glass tubular beads. At the same time, the Koreans will exhibit about 150 items found during the same period on the Korean Peninsula to provide a comparison.

    The exhibit will last for two months, and will then shift to the Saga Prefectural Museum (Japanese only) in January 2008.

    In the words of a member of the local Board of Education (the bodies responsible for archaeological matters in Japan):

    “Yoshinogari symbolizes the period of the greatest interaction between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.”

    Perhaps this will help disabuse some people of the notion that relations between Japan and South Korea are dismal. A couple of years ago, during NHK Radio’s annual weeklong broadcasts from Seoul, a Korean guest asserted that Japanese-South Korean relations were very “mature” (his word), other than for a few politicians.


    And to conclude, here’s one more that might shake up a few other preconceived notions–the leader of the Yoshinogari settlement was a queen named Himiko.

    Posted in History, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Websites | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

    Chindogu: Unuseless inventions

    Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 27, 2007

    WE’VE ALL GOT PROBLEMS, but Kawakami Kenji has solutions for problems we never knew we had.

    For example, suppose you’re getting ready to prepare a fish for sashimi—particularly one that’s still alive—and you get unnerved by that fish eye staring back at you.

    Kawakami’s solution? A fish face cover that slides over the fish head so you can slice in serenity.

    Suppose you’re a Japanese housewife whose husband has to get up at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning to tee off with some customers at a golf course that’s two hours away by car. Kawakami lets you fulfill your wifely duty to see him off in the morning, yet remain comfortably asleep, by providing an automated waving hand that can be attached to the alarm clock.

    You need an explanation?

    These and dozens of other problem solvers are inventions that Kawakami calls chindogu, which means “unusual tools”. A self-described “designer, anarchist, and pathological mail-order enthusiast”, Kawakami is the founder of the International Chindogu Society, which claims 10,000 members.

    Another Kawakami term for chindogu is “unuseless inventions”, and I think several circuits in my brain have shut down permanently just by reading it.

    Take the plunge and start with this review of Kawakami’s “Bumper Book of Unuseless Japanese Inventions” that appeared in The Scotsman. (Ignore their claim that chindogu literally means “distorted tools”.)

    If you have the nerve to keep going, try the website of the International Chindogu Society in English. It has photos of some of these marvels, a few of which were actually shown on TV. If you read Japanese, you can visit the official Chindogu site in Japan here. Kawakami claims on the site that chindogu are the pastime of the nobility–though he doesn’t tell us which country those nobility were thrown out of!

    The Hay Fever Hat!

    If you’re ready for more, you can try this site featuring the Chindogu Manifesto. Number 2 is, “A chindogu must exist”, and declares, “You are not allowed to use a chindogu, but it must be made.”

    If you’ve seen the light and want to commune directly with the source, Kawakami’s books in English are sold by the usual Internet merchants.

    Don’t be surprised if people cross over to the other side of the street when they see you coming, however.

    Basically, chindogu is the same as the Industrial Revolution in Britain.” – Kawakami Kenji

    UPDATE: The New York Times beclowns itself by falling for a chindogu prankster and writing a serious story about how they are used as crime-prevention devices. No, I am not making this up. You can read more here.

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    Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, New products, Popular culture | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

    The Namba Yasaka Shrine: Demons beware!

    Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 26, 2007

    Here’s a brain teaser: What has occupied the same site for almost a millenium, has 220 separate areas where you can buy protective amulets or fortunes from vending machines, has an outdoor structure that is designed to resemble a mythological lion with fangs and an open mouth—inside of which is a performance stage—and has an open space where neighborhood kids come to hang out and play volleyball?

    If you guessed a religious institution, you got lucky, but you guessed right. It’s the Namba Yasaka Shinto Shrine in Osaka, not far from the old Osaka Stadium where the Nankai Hawks baseball team used to play until they moved to Fukuoka.

    Osaka is known as Japan’s mercantile city, so it’s not surprising that the shrine would be influenced by regional traits, but the sheer number of opportunities for spending money is unusual even for that town, much less a Shinto shrine. For 300 to 500 yen (US$2.50 – $4.12), visitors can buy fortunes providing the lowdown on their family, health, success in school, success in business, and naturally, success in love. There are even amulets for sale that correspond to different blood types. Some of these fortunes come with a free maneki neko (also here) or a daruma. Some of them are sold on the honor system—you put your money into a slot—and some are sold in actual vending machines. The top of this Japanese-language site features a series of rotating photographs that include shots of the vending machines.

    The shrine’s origin is not clear, but there was a Shinto shrine on this site during the period from 1069 to 1072. At some point, it was part of a religious two-for-the-price-of-one package, sharing the grounds with a Buddhist temple. These combinations were not uncommon in Japan, but they were separated after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Shortly afterward, Namba Yasaka became an exclusively Shinto facility in 1872.

    The outdoor structure is called the Ojishi-den, or Palace of the Great Lion. Visitors say it’s about the size of a three-story building, and officially it is 12 meters high, 11 meters wide, and 10 meters deep. The ferocious face is designed to drive away any demons, and if I were a demon, I’d sure find some other place to go. There’s a stage inside that mouth, and according to reports, it’s used for concerts several times a year. The reports did not mention the sort of music played at those concerts.

    As is the case with most Shinto shrines, it conducts a matsuri every year. Held on the third Sunday of January—just last week!–the festival features a tug-of-war contest (a common element in Japanese events of this type). A scene from the tug-of-war in front of the Ojishi-den is shown in the photo.

    Having read this post, I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions about the differences in religious customs between Japan and…well, the rest of the known universe. I don’t think I could put it into words anyway!

    Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples | 1 Comment »

    The governor’s not for roasting

    Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 25, 2007

    It’s beginning to look a lot like Sonomanma Higashi Week around here, but after our previous stories about the new political career for the former comedian, ruffian, and playmate of underage girls at sex clubs, a look at how the Miyazaki Prefecture governor spent his first day on the job shows his capabilities for dealing with a full-fledged crisis.

    Fewer than 24 hours after showing up for his first day at work—and fewer than 72 hours after being elected—Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo was forced to face a potential calamity that gave Miyazaki residents their first chance to see if the new governor was in over his head, still the same guy who whacked journalists with an umbrella, or the man who seemed to have learned from his mistakes and went back to university in his mid-40s to start from scratch.

    He passed his first test in the public sector with flying colors. Miyazaki Prefecture is a largely agricultural area with a population of just 1.1 million people. The primary cash crops are vegetables, tropical fruit such as oranges and bananas, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes, which are often turned into an alcoholic beverage called shochu. Other enterprises include dairy farming and forestry.

    Most important of all, it is the leading chicken production region in Japan.

    That’s why it was an extremely serious matter when the virulent H5N1 strain of avian flu was confirmed in the prefecture two weeks ago, and 15,000 chickens were culled to prevent the spread of the disease. It grew more serious when the infection was found to be almost identical to the strain that caused an epidemic in China. And it became a calamity when, despite the best efforts of local officials to isolate and protect the local chicken stock, another outbreak of avian flu occurred before Higashikokubaru had finished sharpening the pencils in his new office.

    Fortunately, he got off on the right foot–not only because of what he did, but also because of what he didn’t do. What he did was what any governor would have done. He visited the farm where the new outbreak occurred, consoled the local farmers, and exhorted everyone to make every effort to keep the infection from spreading.

    What he didn’t do was appear to be a man in over his head, a show-biz personality playing at politician who panics at the first sign of trouble, or a man without a plan about how to handle the problem. Under the unforgiving eye of the television camera, the governor showed that he fully understood the gravity of the situation, knew what he was doing, and that the people could have faith that whatever he did, it would be the best course of action.

    He had already outlined some of his initiatives at a press conference on Monday before being sworn in:

    Higashi said at a press conference that he would scrap the system of calling for tenders from designated companies for public works projects and would introduce an online or mail bidding system as part of an open competitive bidding plan. He also said he planned to question all prefectural employees over whether they are keeping slush funds.
    “As the prefecture is facing severe fiscal difficulties, I will cut the governor’s salary by 20 percent.”

    His comments about the slush fund resonate very strongly in Kyushu, where Nagasaki Prefecture and Nagasaki City have been rocked by slush fund scandals so severe they’re more swamp than slush. The public employees of those jurisdictions connived with local businesses and had them bill for items that were never bought and pool the money. Said Nagasaki Governor Kaneko Genjiroat a news conference:

    “At this point, I believe that there was no misuse of the money for personal purposes.”

    While his optimism and faith in the government workers is admirable, it was misplaced. Little more than a week later, Kaneko found out that prefectural employees indeed used the money for personal purposes, such as buying golf clubs. In fact, the personnel department alone scarfed up 600,000 yen (about US$ 5,000) worth of instant ramen between 2001 and 2003. And the accountants are still trying to figure out why a local fisheries cooperative was given 2 million yen.

    If you’re betting on form, put your money on the probability that Miyazaki has its own homegrown slush fund. Indeed, the election that Higashikokubaru won was necessitated by the arrest of his predecessor, Ando Tadahiro, in a bid-rigging scandal.

    Most politicians in Japan are so dessicated they might as well have been raised in a human version of a poultry farm. Some of them behave as if they haven’t picked up a shovel in their lives, not to mention ever having had to wipe chicken dung off their shoes.

    As he dealt with his first crisis, former funnyman Higashikokubaru came across as grounded, serious, in control—and best of all—able to strike just the right tone and speech level in his public statements. He’ll have to show his performance was no fluke. But if he can follow through on his fast start, it may prove to be a positive development outside Miyazaki as well.

    Japan’s local governments don’t need any more boneless bureaucrats or dilettante celebrities in their executive offices. What they do need are men and women who are competent, clear-headed adults who put their hands to work on the task at hand instead of into the public till.

    Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »

    Japan’s celebrity politicians

    Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 24, 2007

    Japanese television this morning was filled with wall-to-wall features on Sonomanma Higashi’s election as governor of Miyazaki Prefecture. (See yesterday’s post for more details.) He may not be the last person the media expected to see elected to an important government position, but his colorful background makes it safe to assume that he wasn’t within hailing distance of the top ten on their list, either.

    But Higashikokubaru Hideo (his real name) is by no means the first celebrity to successfully cross over to politics in Japan. He’s just the next in a long line of performers, athletes, or otherwise well-known people to add “politician” to their list of accomplishments on their resume.

    Antonio Inoki

    Many celebrities turned politician make a beeline for the House of Councilors, the Upper House of the Japanese Diet. The Upper House was created to act as a check on the House of Representatives, or Lower House, where the real power lies. The inaptly named Lower House has the sole authority to select the prime minister, set the budget, ratify treaties, and initiate legislation. The framers of Japan’s constitution seemed to want more mature people to serve as Upper House MPs—they serve fixed terms that are longer than those of their Lower House counterparts, and they have to be older to run for a seat.

    That’s the way it is in theory, but that’s not how it turned out in practice. Perhaps because it so seldom exercises real power, the Upper House continues to attract people from outside politics and gives them a pulpit to espouse their pet causes, get free publicity, or both.

    One was professional wrestler Antonio Inoki (more here), a very popular figure nationwide at the time of his election. Inoki, shown in the first photo, formed the Sports Peace Party (comprised primarily of Antonio Inoki), which later merged with the Democratic Socialists. He was known for his various holds, including the Reverse Indian Death Lock, marrying and divorcing Baisho Mitsuko, one of the most shapely Japanese women of her generation, and getting charged with tax evasion and election law violations. He still shows up on TV occasionally, often putting announcers in some painful wrestling hold or just whacking them outright.

    The Upper House also seems to attract former Olympic athletes. It didn’t take long for former Olympic speed skater and bicycle racer Hashimoto Seiko to jump into politics, and Ogiwara Kenji, who won two gold medals as part of Japan’s Nordic combined skiing team, was elected a few years ago. Both are members of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party.

    The body now has another former professional wrestler serving in its ranks—Onita Atsushi, whose claim to fame was being the first wrestler to participate in a “no-rope barbed-wire electric-explosive death match” (which he won). That sounds like just the background one needs for political trench warfare. He also was known for screaming “Fire!” at the top of his lungs. And when you come right down to it, isn’t that the chief occupation of politicians? (Try this for his professional wrestling curriculum vitae.)

    Elected to his first term in 2004 was Okinawan roots musician Kina Shokichi. Kina has some goofy ideas (and he also once ran a nightclub called the Chakra), but he seems to be a sharp observer of the political scene:

    Some DPJ members, however, look askance at their new colleague, given that some of his views and ideas run counter to DPJ policies, particularly his advocacy of independence for Okinawa.
    But Kina shrugged off such criticism, saying, “The DPJ is by nature a party of contradictions.”

    Presiding over this group of zanies is Ogi Chikage, a former member of the Takarazuka troupe, movie actress, and the Transport Minister in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first Cabinet (the above photo is from her younger days).

    But the most well-known celebrity politician in Japan is a man who is no longer a member of the Upper House and is not known overseas for being a celebrity—Ishihara Shintaro, the governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan District.

    But before Ishihara became known overseas as the man who co-authored The Japan that Can Say No with the late Sony President Morita Akio to call on his countrymen to be more assertive, or the man who, with dismaying regularity, delivers breathtakingly blunt statements that denigrate women, Koreans, the French, or Mickey Mouse, he was already famous in Japan as an award-winning author and Richard Branson-type adventurer.

    Shintaro Ishihara poster

    Two months before being graduated from college in 1956, Ishihara skyrocketed to the upper reaches of Japan’s celestial celebrity stratosphere when he won the Akutagawa Prize—the foremost literary award in the country—for his novel Taiyo no Kisetsu, or Seasons in the Sun. The book created a sensation because it heralded the emergence of a new generation in a Japan just starting to recover from the war years.

    The novel was made into a movie, and Ishihara’s younger brother Yujiro made his debut in the film. The movie did for Yujiro what the novel did for Shintaro—it was his springboard for becoming the most popular Japanese male actor of the postwar era. It’s a mantle that no one else has assumed in the 20 years since his death. (Yujiro may be most familiar to overseas audiences as the Japanese pilot in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.) Thus, Shintaro is not only a celebrity in his own right, but also basks in the considerable light that still emanates from his brother’s seemingly immortal glory.

    Ishihara later continued his career as a novelist, and dabbled in directing, running a theater company, exploring the North Pole, sailing yachts, and traveling through South America on a motorcycle. He also served as war correspondent for the Yomiuri Shimbun in Vietnam in 1967-68.

    On his return, Ishihara took the celebrity path into Japanese politics and won a seat in the Upper House, but later was elected to the more important Lower House. He retired from politics in 1995 after 25 years in the Diet, but resumed his career in 1999 when he ran in the election for governor of Tokyo and won. He still holds the position today, and plans to run again in the next election.

    Outside observers hear of Ishihara’s outrageous statements and his huge margins of electoral victory in the sophisticated city of Tokyo and sometimes see this as evidence that a particularly virulent strain of ultra-rightwing nationalism continues to lurk in the Japanese soul. (Either that, or they find it sexier to bash rightwing fanatics than leftwing fanatics.)

    The explanation is much simpler. There are two reasons for Ishihara’s political success. The first is his outspokenness, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Japanese love in a politician. The second and more important factor is his celebrity.

    If you don’t believe me, ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. If it weren’t for celebrity, how else could a Republican win two gubernatorial elections in the Democratic Party stronghold of California?

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    Posted in Politics | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

    Miyazaki’s New Governor: Has the reformer reformed himself?

    Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 23, 2007

    WHILE IT WAS AN AMERICAN who said he would rather be governed by 500 people selected at random from the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Japanese electorate has given every indication over the years that they completely understand the concept.

    The voters of Miyazaki Prefecture down in Kyushu demonstrated that once again on Sunday when they chose comedian Higashikokubaru Hideo, more popularly known by his stage name of Sonomanma Higashi, to serve as their new governor. The special election was held to fill the vacancy created after the previous governor, Ando Tadahiro, was arrested for his role in a bid-rigging scandal.

    The new governor is no stranger to controversy himself. He was a protégé of comedian and television personality Beat Takeshi, who is also an award-winning film director known internationally by his original name of Kitano Takeshi. Higashi and several other budding comedians were once part of a group called the Takeshi Gundan, or roughly, Takeshi’s Legion.

    The Gundan was more than just a school for comedy. The show business ties of several members were slender at best, and people noticed that all the members behaved as if they were Takeshi’s yojinbo, or enforcers. It may not be a coincidence that Takeshi often directs and appears in movies in which yakuza are either the main or primary characters.

    If the boys were acting out, they carried it a little too far in 1986 when they had a rumble at the offices of a weekly newsmagazine that specialized in scoops of show business scandals. Takeshi was angry at the way the magazine badgered a younger woman he was involved with, and he went to their offices to discuss the situation accompanied by most of the Gundan. Enraged by the attitude of the journalists, the group attacked them with whatever was at hand, including umbrellas and fire extinguishers. Naturally, they were arrested—Higashi included–and Takeshi wound up being sentenced to a six-month jail term.

    There have been other brushes with the law. In 1999, Higashi was questioned by prosecutors for allegedly kicking a comedian named Hokkai Janjan in the head during a year-end party at a restaurant. One year before that, he also was interrogated for receiving sexual services from a 16-year-old girl at a club called Nenchu Muchu (Lost in Dreams All Year Long). Higashi claimed in his defense that he thought she was 18 at the time.

    After this incident, he voluntarily suspended public performances, started practicing Zen, and won admission to Waseda University in 2000. By all accounts, his academic record was superb, and he graduated in 2004 at the age of 46. The subject of his graduation thesis was election campaigns. When the Miyazaki election was announced, he canceled his contract with Takeshi’s production company and retired from show business.

    Despite his checkered background, Higashi easily won election. He didn’t garner an outright majority, but he did pick up almost 45% of the votes in a five-man field. While his celebrity was an important factor in his victory, it wasn’t the only one. The voters were clearly put off by the bid-rigging scandal, and the bland political orthodoxy of the other candidates worked in his favor as well. One rival—endorsed by Prime Minister Abe—campaigned on the platform that he was the best man to lead local reform efforts because of his extensive political connections. He wound up in third place, ahead of the Communist Party candidate.

    Exit polls also show that he received extensive support from that demographic cohort all the politicians lust for: younger people in their 20s and 30s who support no political party. Many from this group went to the polls in this election for the first time.

    Finally, and perhaps most important, observation of the candidates’ behavior in television coverage left no doubt that Higashi was the dominant alpha male in the race. While this subject is seldom broached by the mass media or political analysts, who like to pretend that voters carefully mull over the pros and cons of all the issues, everyone else realizes intuitively that this is the determining factor in most elections worldwide.

    It of course remains to be seen how Higashi—or should I say Governor Higashikokubaru–will perform in his new job. Other comedians have held public office in Japan before, with mixed results. One was Nishikawa Kiyoshi, who served several terms in Japan’s Upper House after an extremely successful show business career working in a duo with the late Yokoyama Yasushi. Nishikawa has since retired from politics and still occasionally appears on television.

    Another was Yokoyama Nokku, an Osaka comedian who was part of a comedy team with Yokoyama Out. Nokku was elected to the Upper House for four terms and went on to become governor of the Osaka Metropolitan District. Nokku was knocked out of his job in disgrace, however, after being hauled into court by a 21-year-old campaign worker for sexual harassment.

    In light of the new governor’s rough and tumble background, scrapes with the law, and a predecessor destined to do some jail time, the people of Miyazaki must surely hope that Sonomanma has by now learned how to straighten up and fly right.

    Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »

    Matsuri da! (6): Strange ways to make religion fun

    Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 22, 2007

    The Japanese are the first to admit that some of their festivals are unusual. They even have a word for them: kisai, or strange festivals. Books in Japan about festivals always include a section on kisai, and some are devoted entirely to a nationwide sampling of these oddities.

    How common are the kisai? Well, just last Sunday in northern Kyushu, three smaller ones were held within driving distance of each other. Indeed, the streak of strangeness that runs through all three is enough to make one wonder not only what sort of people conceived them, but also about the people who’ve enjoyed them so much they’ve kept them alive for centuries.

    Take for example the Tatami Yaburi festival held at the Nanko Shrine in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, a bedroom community of Nagasaki City. During the event that dates back more than 250 years, 25-30 local men split into two groups to reenact an incident in which the feudal warlord Masashige Kusunoki employed guerilla tactics using dummies in his 1333 campaign in support of the Emperor Go-Daigo against the armies of the Kamakura Shogunate. Tatami Yaburi literally means to rip up tatami mats.

    As part of the reenactment, one group plays the role of Kusunoki’s forces, while the other plays the role of the Shogunate soldiers. Against a backdrop of taiko drumming, the men strip to the waist and don straw hats. The men in the Shogun’s army barricade themselves in the main building of the shrine with the tatami mats, which they call “castle walls”. The men representing Kusunoki’s warriors charge up the main shrine path to attack them.

    Their skirmish surges into the shrine itself. In the melee that ensues, the men from both sides tear apart the tatami mats and rub the straw vigorously on the bodies of the troops in the opposing army while exhorting each other to put up with the cold and the pain.

    The story goes that this is part of a supplication for health and safety during the coming year, but I won’t blame you if one of your eyebrows rises after you read the first part of this sentence.

    No one is sure how the event got started, but both Kusunoki and Hachiman, the protector of warriors and the tutelary deity of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, are enshrined at Nanko. The theory is that blending both enshrined spirits in the festival will preserve peace in the region.

    And I say that’s as good an explanation as any!

    On the same night the Nagasaki guys are getting it on in rub-a-dub style, a group of people are wandering around in Fukuoka Prefecture’s Keisen-machi for the purpose of getting drenched with water as they stand outside in close-to-zero temperatures. The name of this event is the Tohetohe, which is written with the characters for door and blessing repeated twice. This traditional affair is held to pray for the provision of abundant water during rice planting season.

    So, how do the people in the area go about making sure they get enough water? A group of 12 ranging in age from 13 to their mid-40s wear traditional conical bamboo hats (kasa) and straw raincoats (mino) to visit 110 different homes. The residents of each one welcome the group by dousing them with water. Traditional attire may be more practical for some purposes than modern clothing, but I’d be surprised if even the sturdiest mino and kasa can hold up under that sustained deluge.

    Sounds like a perfectly natural way to guarantee an abundance of water later on during the summer, don’t you think? Of course, everyone likes a good water fight, but this one is held in January.


    As if this were not enough frathouse shenanigans for one Kyushu winter’s night, the Muko-Oshi Festival was underway at the same time at the Kasuga shrine in Kasuga, Fukuoka Prefecture. The objective of this event is to bring the blessing of happiness to the year’s newlyweds. And how do they accomplish that? Here’s a hint: Muko-Oshi literally means bridegroom pushing.

    During one of the festival events called the taruseri, men fight for shards from a barrel of sacred sake. And they aren’t just tussling for form’s sake—during the scuffle most wind up being thrown into a pond next to the torii in front of the shrine grounds.

    There’s more to it than that, of course. Before the action starts, the brides, dressed in furisode, the traditional long-sleeved kimono of unmarried women, serve sake to the shrine elders, bridegrooms and the go-betweens. After this sweet little ceremony, a group of young boys dressed in loincloths barge in and try to snatch the cask of sacred sake. The cask will later be offered to the divinities.

    After the cask is blessed, the shrine priest tosses it out onto the grounds, and that’s when the pushing and shoving begins in earnest. The men stomp on the cask to break it into pieces, and each one takes home a chunk to place on the kamidana, or Shinto family altar.

    This is just a sampling of festivals that the Japanese consider to be strange, held on one day in one corner of the country. But the truth of the matter is that there’s nothing so unusual about any of them. In Japan, matsuri in which young men strip down to loincloths in mid-winter to grapple with each other, compete for sacred objects, or get water thrown on them aren’t strange at all.

    They’re a part of everyday life.

    Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

    Hello Kitty: The Japanese Kris Kringle?

    Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 21, 2007

    I’ll bet you thought Hello Kitty was nothing more than a cute cartoon character used to sell merchandise to little girls of all ages. Well, think again!

    Catherine Yronwode has a fascinating theory about the origins of the Kitty phenomenon and the cat’s Western counterpart.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, Popular culture | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

    Chin-don: The most seriously silly music since Spike Jones

    Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 20, 2007

    ANYONE WHO THINKS the Japanese can’t be as goofy in the pursuit of a good time as anyone else should see and hear a chin-don band. You might even come away thinking the Japanese are the goofiest people anywhere.

    The basic chin-don lineup consists of three to five musicians, but it often contains more. Street performers who dress in outlandish theatrical costumes to attract a crowd, they’re more fun than a barrel of musical monkeys. Their instruments of choice are an inspired blend of Japan, such as drums, bells, and shamisen, and the West, including accordions, trumpets, and clarinets.

    Traditionally, their performances were not for the sake of the performance itself, but rather to advertise the opening of a shop, such as a pachinko parlor, or a special sale. In other words, they were paid to play as a musical sandwich board. The name chin-don is onomatopoetic, coming from the sound of the bell (chin!) and the drum (don!). These percussion instruments constitute a walking drum kit for the band, and are usually played by women.

    Their musical repertoire is just as inspired, affable, and gloriously goofy as their appearance, and can and does include anything from the body of popular music East and West. This ranges from the Japanese hit parade of a century ago to the theme music from the movie Titanic. It’s a hybrid stew that resembles the zanier aspects of Indian movie music.

    Since the bands are hired to advertise or provide publicity, they have to attract and keep an audience quickly, so the music is usually upbeat, jaunty, and familiar. The band members often accompany the performance with amusing comedy routines or odd behavior to attract onlookers. For example, the accordion player in Adachi Sendensha, the one working chin-don band in Fukuoka City, performs while riding a unicycle.


    There was a centuries-old tradition in Japan of percussionists walking and rapping their way through the streets to shill for a shop, but the other musical instruments weren’t added to these groups until the first years of the 20th century. One reason for the strange combination of instruments is that the presence of Western instruments themselves were still somewhat unusual in those days, and merely seeing them on the street would be enough to attract a crowd. The bands had a ready supply of musicians when talkies hit the movie theaters and threw the musicians in the orchestra pit out of work.

    In turn, television and its mass advertising threw most chin-don bands out of work. Today, that Fukuoka band is the only one working full-time in a city with a population of more than one million. Most Japanese of a certain age recall seeing chin-don street performances when they were younger, but not recently.

    The visual entertainment aside, chin-don can be taken seriously as urban street music, and the West’s interest in “world music” suggests it might find an audience outside of Japan. When I mention this to Japanese people, however—even ones with adventuresome musical tastes—they often look at me as if I were goofy. I remind them that people in Japan didn’t care for Kurosawa movies until they found an audience in the West, either.

    There’s not that much available on CD, which is a shame. The best bets are the three discs by Soul Flower Mononoke Summit (a mononoke is a demon). This group was formed by members of two Japanese loud rock bands (one called Mescaline Drive). SFMS’s discs are available at this English-language site, with sound clips. Theirs is a modern take on the sound, and it’s quite good, but I wouldn’t blame you for balking at those import prices, especially as the first one, Asyl, is only 30 minutes long, and the other two, Levelers and Deracine, are about 45. The discs by Cicala Mvta (pronounced Muta) are also worth a listen. The group is led by Okuma Wataru, the clarinet player for the Mononokes, but it’s not straight chin-don and tends to be a little “out” in places. They’ve generated some interest overseas, particularly in Germany.


    Though there’s been a sharp decline in the number of working bands, the style still has its fans in Japan, and younger musicians enjoy playing with the form. This is an Osaka take on the phenomenon, in which they’re unfortunately referred to as “ding-dong bands”. Here’s a website in Japanese that presents an overview of chin-don today, with a lot of photos. This is the Japanese language site of Adachi Sendensha, the Fukuoka band, with plenty of pictures. And this website promotes the chin-don contest held every April in Toyama City. It’s in Japanese, but shimmy down to the bottom of the page until you see the English word “play”. Just to the right are three audio links that will give you a taste of the treats that await you.

    When I discovered the contest site, I suggested to my wife that we take a couple of days off and take a trip to Toyama to get happy. She looked at me as if I were goofy!

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

    That was then–this is now

    Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 19, 2007

    People often forget the head-snapping speed with which Japan has rocketed into the modern age. Still flickering within the memories of living people is a way of life that would be inconceivable for younger people today.

    Nowhere is this shown more conclusively than in this brief interview (registration required) of the married couple Heizaburo and Reiko Kawaguchi, 84 and 81, from Kobe. They were subjects for the Japan Times column, Words to Live By, which presents in bite-sized pieces the life lessons people have learned through their experiences.


    The facts of everyday life during the Kawaguchis’ youth seem just as fantastic today as tales of knights-errant and ladies in waiting. The Kawaguchis both think that o-miai, or arranged marriage meetings, were a good system—it worked for them, after all—and Reiko suggests that parents pick the best mates for their children.

    When describing how the war accelerated the trend toward modernization in Japan, they explain how they were able to meet three times before their marriage and signal their own willingness to marry by exchanging fans. Before the war, young couples whose marriages were arranged could only meet once, and the expression of their willingness to marry was the prerogative of their parents.

    Even more astonishing is their description of Japanese attitudes during the war. Here’s Reiko’s recollection:

    During the war, crazy things seemed normal. Our school was converted into a factory to produce airplane wings out of cloth, like the material that tents are made of. To make the cloth more durable, we painted it with boiled konnyaku, a devil’s tongue starch. Now it seems clear that such toy planes were doomed, but back then we believed they could fly high.

    Heizaburo adds:

    People can be made to believe anything. Japanese made fu-sen bakudan, or balloon bombs, out of washi paper, glued together with potato starch, and used the jet stream to float them across the Pacific Ocean. An even more incredible and tragic invention was fukuryu, an ocean kamikaze diver unit that tried to attack U.S. ships with mines attached to bamboo sticks.

    Note that Reiko said, “During the war, crazy things seemed normal.” People their age often express these sentiments in mass media interviews. As one woman put it in another article I read (in Japanese), “I know it seems impossible now, but that’s how people thought in those days.”

    It might be a good idea to keep these reminiscences in mind whenever you see today’s yellow journalists trying to generate cheap emotionalism by trotting out the hobgoblin of a resurgence in Japanese nationalistic sentiments. The Japanese do have more pride in themselves these days—a natural consequence of the overwhelmingly successful reconstruction of their country from scratch over the past half-century—but the militarism of Imperial Japan and the conditions that created it have disappeared forever.

    This would be especially important to remember for the man and woman in the street in China and South Korea, where some demagogues cynically manipulate anti-Japanese sentiment and indulge in fear-mongering for domestic objectives, despite being fully aware that modern Japan bears no resemblance to the bogeyman they project on the screen of popular imagination.

    The subjects of the Words to Live By interviews, incidentally, cover a wide range of people. One recent subject was Fumihito Tanaka, the first Japanese to make a profession out of teaching people how to project themselves for photos or interviews. Says Tanaka:

    Even a sick person like me — an abused, manic-depressed gay man on pills — can be useful to healthy, gorgeous, famous people. Imagine what you can do if you put your mind to it.

    As hard as it is for younger Japanese today to imagine the Japan of the Kawaguchis’ youth, it surely would have been even harder for the people of that era to conceive of a future Japan in which a man like Tanaka would be successful.

    Posted in History | Leave a Comment »

    Sakamoto Ryuichi: Stepping out of America?

    Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 18, 2007

    ERIC CLAPTON once remarked that one doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a musician. Even a casual acceptance of this assertion, however, is not enough to prepare one for the sheer stupidity of Sakamoto Ryuichi, an otherwise highly respected musician and composer who put Japanese popular music on the map.

    ongaku zukan

    It’s all the more puzzling when you consider that Sakamoto could rightly be considered a genius. He not only graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, perhaps the country’s finest school for the arts (and dashed difficult to enter) with a B.A. in music composition and an M.A. in electronic and ethnic music, he’s taught courses there too.

    He was a founding member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, a band light years ahead of its time, and was the first Japanese to receive an Academy Award when he, David Byrne, and Cong Su received Oscars for their score for The Last Emperor.

    Sakamoto has composed several more film scores, including that for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in which he also acted. He wrote the music for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, and was hired by Finnish mobile phone company Nokia to compose ring and alert tones for the Nokia 8800.

    He also reportedly is influenced by graph theory and mathematical logic in his composition method.

    So when he talks about anything other than music, why does it seem as if he would have serious trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time?

    Sakamoto was recently interviewed by David McNeill for the Japan Times.

    Here are some excerpts:

    After 9/11, I and my partner talked about moving somewhere else (from New York). We were worried about a second terrorist attack, perhaps a nuclear bomb in a briefcase. More than that, though, we were really shocked that our friends in New York turned patriotic overnight. You know, they started putting out the flags and so on.

    You know how they say a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged? Well, maybe a hawk is a dove who saw a few thousand fellow citizens obliterated by religious maniacs on the instruction of a fabulously wealthy megalomaniac playing at guerilla leader who thought the United States was responsible for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

    Heck, if he was shocked at the patriotism in New York then, he should have been there in December 1941.

    Q: So presumably you don’t like a lot of what is going on in the world right now?
    A: …I’m very concerned about the danger of a nuclear leak and the proliferation of plutonium, which terrorists could steal.

    The Sakamoto School of Political Philosophy: Concern about behavior is optional depending on the actor. A terrorist attack in New York City that killed a few thousand is not a primary concern, particularly if the planes missed your apartment, but terrorists stealing plutonium—presumably for a terrorist attack—is a concern, even more so if they steal it from your own country, which is using the plutonium for peaceful ends.

    Now we have North Korea’s nuclear test, so the taboo in Japan is going away and people are talking about (developing) nuclear weapons.

    Check (B) in the list of optional concerns. North Korean’s real nuclear weapons for their really reckless leadership, who might actually use them? Silence. Conjecture that Japan might develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent for North Korean attack? Unacceptable!

    The basic reason for this (nuclear) plant is the same as Japan’s unnecessary dams. It is hugely profitable for the general contractors. They know nuclear power is unnecessary and dangerous…why not choose something safer?

    Sakamoto examines the options…He doesn’t like nuclear power, though it is clean and safe. He thinks hydroelectric power (as well as flood control) is unnecessary…A prominent member of Greenpeace Japan, he is likely opposed to fossil fuels…Wind power is not yet economically feasible on an industrial scale…That means:

    Split wood, not atoms!

    For a man whose entire career has been built on playing electronic instruments, recording them in ways that can’t be duplicated either acoustically or in real time on stage, and selling the music on media that reproduce the music electronically in the homes of people with discriminating taste worldwide, you’d think he might be more concerned about how to generate all that megawattage.

    I’m also concerned about the way that music has been used, especially by the Nazis. I was involved in political movements in the 1960s here…We were radicals. I used to think then a lot about propaganda and music. But at the beginning of the 1970s, when the movements failed, I shut my mouth for 20 years because I was against using music for propaganda. I didn’t like the political folk singers of the time.

    Translation: I’m concerned about propaganda in music unless it’s mine.

    Sakamoto claims his domestic career has suffered (for his politics). “Obviously, Japan has some major corporations, and they are major clients of the mass media, so of course they hate me.

    Sakamoto ryuichi

    Those major corporations still manage to hire people to compose jingles for their TV commercials—likely for lower fees than he charges–and the products still sell. Does this mean that corporations have no option to choose the musicians they employ? Only he has the option to withhold financial support from people whose politics he dislikes?

    Q: Do you worry about the state of things between Japan and China?
    A: A little, but still the problems are much lighter than those in other countries…China and Japan is almost nothing. Neighbors fight each other all the time: Look at the British and the French. (laughs)

    The British and the French haven’t fought each other since 1815, almost 200 years. They were allies during the last two big European wars. The Chinese and the Japanese, however…

    My biggest worry is the environment. That’s much more serious than political conflict. China is building 18 new nuclear plants, and Japanese companies are helping them.

    “China alone last year embarked on a programme of building 562 large coal-fired power stations by 2012 – that is, a new coal-fired power station every five days for seven years. Since coal-fired power stations emit roughly twice as much carbon dioxide per gigawatt of electricity as gas-fired ones, it is not surprising that it is generally accepted that within the next 20 years China will overtake the United States as the largest source of emissions.” (Here’s the link; scroll down, or better still, read it all.)

    The generating capacity of these new coal-fired power plants China will put on line each year until 2012—without any help–is the equivalent of England’s annual power output. And China is exempt from the Kyoto Protocol.

    The option Sakamoto selected for concern: The nuclear power plants that Japan is helping China build.

    I’m worried about corporate earth. Water is not free any more. Our resources were free at one time, but now they are not.

    The reason water is not free is that it has to be purified for eating and drinking. You just can’t dip your cup into the Hudson River for a drink while you’re splitting all that free wood in a New York City apartment to power the generators for recording ambient music.

    But hey, the air’s still free.

    I’ve been thinking for a long time how to implement my feelings and political thought into my music, and I haven’t succeeded.

    ♪ Musical propaganda is fine,
    As long as the party line,
    Is mine, all mine… ♪

    Posted in Music | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

    Matsuri da! (5): Mountain burning

    Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 17, 2007

    Most Japanese festivals incorporate one of the basic elements of nature or life, such as water, fire, contests of strength or agility, or sex. We’ve already had a report on one of the three major fire festivals this year (see here), and here’s a post I wrote a while ago for another site about Daimonji, the well-known Kyoto festival in which the kanji meaning big is burned into a mountainside.


    The folks in Nara, one of the most historical areas in Japan, don’t waste any time on subtlety when they conduct their own fire festival—they just set the entire 342-meter-high Wakakusa Hill ablaze every January in an event appropriately called the Yamayake (mountain burning). This year, the hills were alive with the sound of burning on the 13th, last Saturday.

    Just around the time it gets dark, about 5:30 this time of year, the priests start by conducting purification rituals and offering prayers for safety. These are followed by a fireworks display, as if burning all the foliage on a hill isn’t enough incandescence already. It’s enough to make you wonder if the ancient city fathers of Nara suffered from pyrolagnia.

    At 6:00 p.m., the priest signal for the hill to be put to the torch by blowing on conch shells. Other priests, helped out by local firefighters, light the winter grass at the bottom of the hill using fire from the sacred flame of the Kasuga Shrine.

    The resulting scene is quite spectacular, as you can imagine, and huge crowds turn out to marvel at the sight every year. An estimated 110,000 came for the show this year. People who have witnessed the hill burning in person say the best views are of Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji, famous Buddhist temples, backlit by the flames.

    No one’s quite sure how the festival, which dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), got started. The commonly accepted explanation is that it was once part of the field burning that Japanese farmers still do every year, usually in the fall, to promote growth for the following planting season. Some people think that the Nara city fathers of a bygone age wanted to keep these fires under control, so concentrated them in a single day.

    Japanese media reports of this year’s Yamayake provided a glimpse into the difficulties involved in conducting elaborate and potentially dangerous festivals in modern times. The national government cut back on the tax money it distributes to local governments, so it’s getting difficult to pay for these events. The bill this year was about 10 million yen (roughly US$ 83,000), counting the outlays for operations, security, and the fireworks display. Nara Prefecture foots 80% of the bill, but they’re having trouble coming up with the money.

    Their typically Japanese solution is to form an Executive Committee next year comprised of the local government and corporate sponsors who want to throw their money into the pot for the PR benefits. The prefectural tourism department expects this will make it a lot easier to pay for the extravaganza.

    If you click on either the 56 or the 300 in the center of the screen here, you can see a Japanese news report on the event.

    Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »