Japan from the inside out

Archive for March, 2007

Matsuri da (12): Fighting at festivals can be fun!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 31, 2007

It might be a citywide extravaganza held over two or three days, or just a small neighborhood affair lasting a few hours, but every day in Japan, there’s a festival happening somewhere. Most are Shinto ceremonies that originated in a religious observance, but they often incorporate behavior that seems downright unreligious: drinking, sex, and fighting.

One of the most common themes of the so-called fighting festivals is a physical confrontation between two groups carrying mikoshi, or portable shrines, which are said to house the spirit of the divinity. The idea of the fight is for one group to wield its mikoshi as a weapon and destroy that of the other group. The winner is considered to have been blessed with the stronger spirit and will enjoy good fortune in the year ahead.


There are gospel singers in the United States who give such an impassioned performance they’re known figuratively as church wreckers. In Japan they take that literally. Years ago, the battles at festials were so intense that they sometimes resulted in fatalities. If fact, a high school student in Saga Prefecture died just last year (by accident) in a fighting festival whose objective was not only to destroy the other mikoshi, but to drive the other group into the river.

Every year, for more than 300 years, the Gosha shrine in Toyo-cho, Kochi Prefecture, has held a day-long festival in late April in which the participants fight it out with both mikoshi and with festival floats decorated with lanterns (first photo). They get an early start, parade around town, and then get down and dirty in front of the shrine itself. It would be as if two men tried to bash each other with four-foot long crucifixes in front of a church after the bishop gave them his blessing.

The city fathers have canceled this year’s festival, however, because they’re worried that once the participants start fighting, they may not want to stop. Toyo-cho’s chief municipal officer formally applied to have the town become the site of a nuclear waste disposal facility. This so enraged one segment of the town’s population that they launched a recall drive.

The authorities’ logic for sitting it out this year is that because people will be drinking (and since this is a Japanese festival, they will be drinking a lot), they’re afraid some serious headbanging will be ignited by the Shinto-sanctioned mikoshi busting.

That’s created a further division in the town, with opinion split between those who think that their enjoyment of a traditional festival by drinking and fighting doesn’t have anything to do with nuclear wastes, and those who’d rather be safe than sorry.

Frankly, I’m surprised the folks in Toyo-cho couldn’t come up with a better solution. For example, they might have gotten inspiration from the festival held every March 28 in Dongguang in Guangdong Province, China. (And no, I don’t mean they should play palindromes with place names and rechristen themselves Yoto-cho).

The festival in Dongguang dates back more than 400 years and originates in the practice of local farmers soliciting strong young men every year to work in the fields. The Japanese translation of the original Chinese name of the event is the Miuri Matsuri, which I wonder about, because miuri means selling oneself into bondage.


That doesn’t sound very festive to me, but you’ve got to hand it to the Dongguangers for taking the idea and running with it. The event has evolved over the years, and now, for some unexplained reason, the entire city takes the day off, school children included, to engage in combat with water guns (second photo). Who knows how they got from there to here? They’re probably having too much fun to care anyway!

Reports say that weapons of various sizes are used, and there is always a very impressive running battle up and down one street that stretches for several kilometers.

Now if the pro-nuclear processing facility faction and the opposing faction in Toyo-cho had decided to settle their differences at thirty paces with a squirt gun, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to go to the trouble of circulating a recall position. Then again, the mayor might have called out the fire truck to outgun the opposition.

But they didn’t even have to look so far to China for inspiration—they could have taken a hint from the Mudslinging Festival held every March 28 in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture (third photo).


Every year, a “substitute priest” is selected by lot from among the families patronizing the Aso Shrine in the city. The townspeople dress the substitute in white robes and get him as drunk as a lord (or a Buddhist monk) by making him down five large cups of sake. After the “priest” is suitably sloshed, he is blindfolded and made to walk a 500-meter course from the shrine to the statue of a local guardian deity.

Getting him drunk and blindfolded is a good idea, because that way he can’t see what’s about to happen, and probably wouldn’t care if he could. Boys aged 10-12 line the path and pelt him with mud from small piles conveniently placed alongside the road. The adult onlookers egg the boys on, shouting, “Can you hit him? Can you hit him?” No one cares very much whether the boys have good aim–everyone’s covered in mud when the festival is over. And if they’ve been helping themselves to the sake they forced the priest to drink, the whole lot of them are equally plastered, inside and out.

Legend has it that the more mud that sticks to the priest’s white clothing, the better that year’s harvest will be. The festival has been conducted continuously since the Edo period, and has been designated an intangible cultural asset of the prefecture.

Now is that any way to run a religion? Getting people drunk and having boys of an impressionable age throw mud at a priest–substitute or not–and giving it the official government seal of approval as a cultural event? It is in Japan.

You’ve got to admit, nuclear controversy or no nuclear controversy, they sure are a bunch of wet blankets in Toyo-cho! They could rig the lottery (instead of an election) and select the mayor as the substitute priest. The town could take its frustration out on hizzoner and bombard him with flying mud. It also would be educational for the mayor, as he’d discover you don’t have to be a politician to be a mudslinger. And after five big cups of sake—probably the size of soup bowls, knowing Japan—he wouldn’t care what was happening to him anyway.

Or they could have formed a sister-city relationship with Dongguang and sent international exchange delegations packing water pistols to each other’s municipality. That would probably contribute more to amity between nations than any of the tame international friendship tea parties I’ve been to. They’d be laughing themselves silly at the end of the day.

Instead, the people of Toyo-cho are going to have to wait until fall for their festival fun when they have their annual sword dancing festival, which uses long bamboo poles instead of swords. I hope they’ve worked out their political problems by then, or they’re going to have to cancel that one, too!

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

Comfort Women from the Japanese conservative perspective

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 29, 2007

Now that a month has passed after the initial controvery erupted, it should be apparent that the deluge of blather about comfort women has been simply a superficial exercise in the indulgence of emotions. The participants in this exercise have treated the facts as so many cheap fashion accessories that can be used or discarded to suit the occasion–when they’ve bothered to research them at all.

We all know that people see what they want to see and overlook the rest, sometimes deliberately. That’s true of both left and right, bloggers and the mainstream media, and even the hired experts, who are delighted at the opportunity for a turn on stage in the role of omniscipundit. It’s yet another example of how a debate about any issue these days quickly becomes a waste of time.

Well, let me add a caveat–for some it is hugely enjoyable as entertainment.

Be that as it may, we have seen the anti-Japan position in spades, starting with what was probably a deliberately mistranslated statement in the New York Times and continuing with a House Subcommittee hearing featuring two women from South Korea who openly acknowledged that they weren’t coerced into the business by the Japanese military. (One actually snuck out of the house to volunteer; the other was tricked by a Korean procurer.)

What we haven’t seen in English is a concise, yet comprehensive, summary by Japanese defenders. I’ve been looking around and finally found something that seems to fit the bill. Here is a statement by a group called the Japanese Policy Institute on their website. It is also worth reading their website preface. (They also have a Japanese site here.) This is their conclusion in the matter of the comfort women.

Though it is true that there were “comfort women” in war zones, it is definitely false that these women had been abducted by the Japanese military. In this sense, “comfort women” controversy has already been settled.

When I was a high school student in the Tidewater area of Virginia, one of my best friends was a boy whose father was a Presbyterian minister. I was at his house one day when I heard his father complaining about the Northern Presbyterians. At that time (and perhaps still today), the Presbyterians in the US were divided between a Northern branch and a Southern branch who were often at loggerheads despite the absence of significant theological differences.

I asked my friend’s father why the two groups had such trouble getting along. “Oh, some people are still interested in fighting the Civil War,” he answered. This was fully a century after Lee had handed over his sword at Appomattox.

It’s obvious that the same applies here–some people are still interested in fighting World War II. Isn’t it curious that while the arena itself is deserted, save for a few groundskeepers, the stands are packed with brawlers from the box seats to the bleachers? And it’s fascinating that most of the people who want to duke it out weren’t even alive during the war. Indeed, the parents of many of those people weren’t alive during the war either.

The oddest phenomenon of all? The people most interested in fighting World War II are those from the winning side. It seems as if the annihilation of the defeated nation–Imperial Japan–wasn’t enough for them.

The enormous sums paid in reparations weren’t enough for them, either. They’re still banging their tin cups on the pavement. Some of them won’t accept any money unless it comes in a specially wrapped package with an apology written in a particular kind of ink by the Entire Japanese Nation and delivered in person by the Emperor with his forehead pressed to the pavement. And even then, some would probably still turn up their nose if, with their superior discernment, they decided that the apology wasn’t “sincere”.

One would hope that they don’t expect any sympathy from today’s Japan. But then again, that’s probably what they’re hoping for–no sympathy from today’s Japan.

It gives them the chance to continue entertaining themselves by fighting a war that’s been finished and done with for more than 60 years.

Then there are the folks whose entertainment is to be found in bashing Japan for whatever reason seems to be handy at the moment. But we don’t have to spend time talking about them.

After all, they do know who they are.

Posted in International relations, Politics, World War II | 38 Comments »

Japanese videos from the 30s

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The JapanSugoi site has two YouTube videos taken in Japan during the 1930s. The first shows a Kyoto festival in 1937 and a Tokyo flower show, while the second shows Tokyo street scenes from 1935 and 1937.

I’m the big festival freak, but I found the second to be much more interesting. They’re both definitely worth watching, though.

Posted in History | 1 Comment »

Ave atque vale: Ueki Hitoshi, Japan’s premier comic actor (1927-2007)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 28, 2007

SAD NEWS: The foremost Japanese comic actor of his–and perhaps any–generation, and my hands-down, all-time favorite Japanese show business personality, Ueki Hitoshi, died this morning in a Tokyo hospital of respiratory problems. He was 80.


Ueki was a multitalented performer who started out singing in a band (called the Crazy Cats), turned to comedy with the other band members, and won respect as a serious actor later in life. If he is known abroad at all, it is for his appearance in Kurosawa Akira’s Ran in 1985. In 1993, he was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon for his contributions to culture, and in 1999 he received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.

But it was as the lead in the comedy Nippon Musekinin Jidai (Japan’s Irresponsible Age) in 1962 that he made his name. The movie was a huge success and morphed into a series of films throughout the 60s that used in their title the phrase Nippon no Ichiban — Otoko (Japan’s Most – Man). Both Ueki and the films had a brash, energetic, and positive quality that paralleled the developments in Japanese society at the time, as the country’s economy and confidence skyrocketed during the period of rapid growth. He became enormously popular, particularly among salarymen, both for his films and his comic songs. The title of one of those songs, Wakattchairu Kedo Yamerarenee (I know, but I still can’t stop) became a national catchphrase in its own right.

There was no one quite like him in Japan, and no one quite like his character in the West, either. He was brassy, exuberant, zany, slightly roguish, yet perpetually bright and cheerful, and audiences loved him. To describe him in Western terms, think of Bob Hope in the early Road movies with Bing Crosby, remove the cowardice, add an irrepressible cheerfulness, and that puts you in the ballpark.

There’s also never been anything quite like those movies he made during his peak years, either. They were comedies that appealed to a mass audience, but they also had a touch of the freewheeling and slightly surreal that was also a part of popular culture throughout the West in the first half of the 60s.

My favorite of his films was one of the last of the Nippon no Ichiban — Otoko movies: Nippon no Ichiban Uragiri no Otoko (Japan’s Biggest Backstabber). In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that it got made at all, and it’s proof that the Japanese can make black comedy as well as anyone. In fact, the first scene is one of the most astonishing I’ve ever seen in any movie.

Here’s some quick background—there are two subjects in modern Japanese film and television that are always used to create the ultimate tragic mood. Those are the tokko butai pilots (kamikazes) and the Emperor Showa’s radio broadcast to the nation on August 15, 1945, announcing Japan’s surrender. No one would dream of parodying these two subjects.

Except Ueki, and he took on both in the movie’s first five minutes. He plays a kamikaze pilot about to leave on his last mission—this is a comedy, remember—and he and the other pilots are mustered to listen to the Emperor’s broadcast before they depart. But the reception of the radio broadcast is poor and filled with static, and they ask their commanding officer what the Emperor said. The officer answers that the Emperor asked them all to die for their country, so they climb into their planes and take off.


Ueki crashes his plane into an American battleship, but it doesn’t explode and he survives. The American sailors are curious about this Japanese pilot sitting on the deck of their ship, and they wonder if he’s going to commit harakiri. Ueki at first defiantly announces that he’ll go through with it, but keeps coming up with new conditions for the ceremony that prevent him from actually cutting open his belly. The helpful American sailors then find ways for him to satisfy those conditions. The pilot warns them it’ll be a bloody mess, so one of the sailors thoughtfully rolls some toilet paper in his direction. Finally, Ueki says tradition demands that ritual suicide requires the presence of a registered nurse.

And then the opening credits start.

He was probably the only actor in Japan who could get away with a scene like that, and he knew it, too. In a newspaper interview published 18 years ago, he remarked about the series in general, “I just made up my mind that I would be the only person in Japan capable (of performing that role), and I ran with it. In the end, no one’s been able to make anything like them.”

No one anywhere has been able to make anything like them because Ueki was a true Japanese original. Here’s how the newspaper interview concludes:

“I (the interviewer) suggested to him that he had an upright and steadfast character, but he became embarrassed and let out a loud, boisterous laugh—‘Iya, uhhihhii’. It was the same laugh that delighted so many people over the years.”

Anyone who has seen any of Ueki’s movies will recognize that laugh immediately and hear it in their mind’s ear.

We’ll all miss it.

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Posted in Arts, Films, Music, Popular culture | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (11) The rites of spring in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 27, 2007

WITH THE OFFICIAL ARRIVAL OF SPRING, if not spring weather, the focus of Japanese festivals turns from nearly naked men testing their endurance against the elements to events with warmer themes. One such festival was the Ondaue rice-planting festival in Aki-machi, Oita Prefecture on the 21st. Participants in this event mime the complete series of tasks required to plant a rice paddy. This includes sowing seeds, using an ox to plow the paddies, and having young boys play the role of saotome, or girls who sing as they plant rice. The indispensable element of all festivals is the enjoyment of the participants and viewers, so their performance is purposely comic.

The highlight for the onlookers came with the appearance of a papier-mâché black bull with two men inside. They pranced around wildly, neglecting their farm work while ignoring the farmer ordering them to plow.

The Ondaue Festival is an intangible culture property of the prefecture and has been performed for more than 180 years. It was formerly held on January 15, which was the old date for celebrating the start of the New Year, but lately it has been timed to coincide with the spring equinox.


Handa in Aichi Prefecture held their Otsukawa Festival on the 24th. Known locally as a harbinger of spring, the first part of the festival is performed for two days this month, and will continue on two more days each in April and May. The highlight is the shoving and tussling between groups of young men as they pull four floats weighing four tons apiece up a hill to the local shrine. The festival floats are the most elaborate of the 31 floats that have been used over the years in the city. Each float is pulled by a groups that number upwards of 100 men. They begin scuffling among themselves as they vie to take control of the floats’ steering mechanisms when they approach the foot of the hill.

They say that a young man’s fancy turns to love in the spring, but there are still some guys in Japan who’d rather dress up as a prancing bull or drag dead weight up a hill!

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

The contrasting national flowers of Japan and Korea

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 26, 2007

The Japanese Meteorological Agency can usually be counted on to nail their annual cherry blossom forecasts, and they were spot on again this year, too. The local TV station led off their dinner-hour news program earlier this week with an agency update reporting that the buds on the area’s cherries would start opening on the 25th. A walk in the park around the prefectural offices this morning confirmed that the trees had indeed begun to flower.

Over the next month, the media will continue to provide daily updates on the sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, as the location of those areas with newly blooming trees moves gradually up the archipelago until the last of the flowers emerge for the spring in Hokkaido at the end of April.

It’s no surprise that the Japanese should get it right when the subject is cherries. Hanami, or parties for viewing cherry blossoms, first became popular among the aristocracy during the Heian period (8th to 12th centuries), and reached an extreme with Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century. The custom spread among the common people during the Edo period, and it’s still a part of the annual cycle of events today. Everyone’s been to a hanami at least once.

Spend some time in Japan, and you’ll soon understand the reason; a park with cherry blossoms in full bloom is stunning in its loveliness. Is there any other country in which such a commonplace act as a picnic in the park is infused with such natural poetry? Yes, some at a hanami may drink too much and sing too loudly, but isn’t the purpose of a party to eat, drink, and be merry? Besides, the revelry seldom gets out of hand, and the Japanese have a knack for tuning out the neighbors when the occasion demands.

One reason the cherries have such a hold on the popular imagination is that their peak period of beauty is so brief. The entire season for the flowers lasts little longer than three weeks from beginning to end. For the Japanese, the cherries are a symbol of the impermanence of life, and they frequently use the word hakanai (short-lived, fleeting, transitory) to describe both the flowers and the evanescence of existence. In addition, the verb chiru, meaning to be scattered or fall, is used to describe the scattering of the cherry petals. In some instances, the same word also is used to mean death. Accounts of the Second World War often speak of the many young lives that “chiru” on the battlefield.

These ephemeral qualities are one facet of a fascinating contrast between the informal national flowers of Japan and Korea. While it may not occupy the same place in the Korean imagination as cherries do in Japan, the Rose of Sharon (mugunghwa in Korean, mukuge in Japanese) serves as a similar symbol. The cherry, as we’ve seen, is a fragile blossom that quickly reaches its peak and just as quickly disappears. The Rose of Sharon is the opposite. A hardy plant, it continues to bloom from June to October through the hottest months of summer, and each plant produces several thousand blossoms a year.

The Koreans are said to find this hardiness appealing. One adjective that often crops up in Japanese descriptions of Koreans is shibutoi—tenacious and enduring. Tenacity is an essential survival trait when you’re the runt in a neighborhood that includes the Chinese, Russians, Japanese, and Mongolians.

Korean references to the national flower date as far back as the Silla Kingdom, (57 BC-935 AD), which metaphorically referred to itself as Mugunghwa Country. The South Korean national anthem, Aegukga, has the line, “Mugunghwa filled three thousand li of splendid rivers and mountains…” (A li is roughly 2.44 miles, making this lyric an echo of the phrase about cherries in the old Japanese song Sakura, Sakura: “miwatasu kagiri”, or as far as the eyes can see.) One of the trains in the national railway is called the Mugunghwa. And in a good-humored touch, the Koreans use pictures of the mugunghwa flower rather than stars to rate hotels.

There is a theory in Japan that the cherry is so popular because the Japanese prefer flowers that are falling rather than flowers that are blooming. That would explain their love for the cherry—even a relatively mild breeze is enough to send a spray of petals floating like so much pink snow. When the cherry motif is used on television, such as a backdrop for the performance of a song, the blossoms are often shown fluttering to the ground, rather than in a static scene. The attraction for the Japanese is the brevity of the beauty, which contains an intrinsic poignancy and tension.

The meaning of the underlying Chinese characters for mugunghwa, however, is quite the opposite. The characters are 無窮, which is pronounced mukyu in Japanese. It means endless or eternal.

Posted in Popular culture, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , | 12 Comments »

Takeshima/Dokdo: The comedy continues

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 24, 2007

A reader sent in some links to a Sapporo blog called Suika Dorobo (Watermelon Thief), and while wandering around the site I found this post called “Look, polar bears, Dokdo belongs to Korea”. SD displays a photo of the members of a Korean Arctic expedition team holding up a sign that reads, “Dokdo is our land”, during their trip to the North Pole.

Hey, I told you this was all part of a Korean comedy routine!

SD also links to a Japanese-language site about affairs on the Korean peninsula, where the blogger uses that snapshot for a Photoshop workout. You can see some of the truly inspired results here. The caption on the sign in the next to last photo reads, “We love Japan” (the background was taken at the Mt. Fuji summit) and the caption in the last photo reads, “2005 South Korean commemorative photo corner”.

The watermelon thief makes the trenchant observation that the Koreans are capable of doing this everywhere on the planet except The Hague.

Posted in International relations, South Korea, Websites | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Easier than a koto: The Do-re-mi Popcorn!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 24, 2007

Have you ever wanted to play a traditional Japanese koto, but been put off because:

  • You’d have to learn to read Japanese and to decipher the instrument’s unique notational system?
  • It’s not possible to play a koto in the diatonic (do-re-mi) system?
  • You’d be stuck learning to play such tunes as Kojo no Tsuki and Sakura, Sakura, when you’d rather open up your repertoire to include pop hits, jazz, and samba?
  • The instrument is too big to lug to somebody’s party and jam in the living room with the guitarists?
  • You’d have to wear formal kimono and sit on the floor when you play?

Well, now your problems have been solved, because here’s the Do-Re-Mi Popcorn!

The Do-Re-Mi Popcorn!

Yes! You can learn how to play the new Do-Re-Mi Popcorn using traditional staff notation! It’s two-thirds the size of a traditional koto, and you can put it on a stand and play, making it easy to take to friends’ homes or really shred with a band on stage! The Do and So strings are colored green and yellow, allowing beginners to jump right in! And, it comes in a wide array of pastel colors!

There’s even a website!

You can see photos of a command performance for Prince Albert of Monaco! You can order a CD to hear a band led by Do-Re-Mi Popcorn inventor Masako Naito perform such songs as The Beatles’ Yesterday and And I Love Her, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Agua De Bebel, and the well-known surf guitar instrumentals, Diamond Head and Pipe Line!

You also can see videos and hear sound clips of the Do-Re-Mi Popcorn in performance!

As the website states,

“Doremi Pop-corn is the poptaste koto flapping to the world. It’s the newest koto with a poptaste breaking the image of frodition. Now, let’s create a sensation Doremi Pop-corn in Japanese music world!”

If you become proficient enough, you can go to Japan and become a licensed Do-Re-Mi Popcorn instructor!

You can even order one from Lark in the Morning in the U.S. for only $1,125!

Get one today and astonish your family and friends with:

The Do-Re-Mi Popcorn!

Posted in Music, New products | 1 Comment »

The South Korean government: One custard pie after another

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 23, 2007

Just when you thought the zaniest comedy troupe in Northeast Asia—the South Korean government—couldn’t milk any more gags from their Takeshima/Dokdo routine, the longest running joke in Seoul show bus politics, they come up with even wackier material that tops everything they’ve done before.

Take this story from the April edition of the South Korean monthly Joongang, as reported in the Joongang Ilbo newspaper in Japanese, and this Kyodo coverage in the Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan. (Both versions of this exploding cigar are in Japanese, and I couldn’t find an English version when I looked earlier.) The report is featured in the Korean magazine’s 39th anniversary issue and is confirmed by the comedy writers directly involved in the events.

Recall how upset the Koreans have been over the past few years with Japanese claims on Takeshima?

It’s all been part of their act!

Five months before the Japanese and the South Koreans signed the 1965 Treaty of Basic Relations that restored ties between the two countries, both governments reached a secret agreement about Takeshima, the disputed islets in the Sea of Japan. In fact, one of the Japanese negotiators was the late Uno Sosuke, then a member of the Diet, but later to become foreign minister and, briefly, prime minister. (Uno later took a pratfall of his own when he tried to perform the old comfort woman routine with a pseudo-geisha.)

Here was the deal:

  1. Both countries would recognize that the other claimed the islets as their own territory, and neither side would object when the other made a counterargument. They agreed to regard it as a problem that would have to be resolved in the future.
  2. If any fishing territories were demarcated in the future, both countries could use Takeshima/Dokdo as their own territory to mark the boundaries. Those places where the two lines overlapped would be considered joint territory.
  3. The status quo in which South Korea occupied the islets would be maintained, but the Koreans would not increase their police presence or build new facilities.
  4. Both countries would uphold this agreement.

But you know what those madcap jokesters in Seoul did? They broke all four conditions in the deal!

Here’s how they aimed the seltzer bottle at Condition 3:

Since July 1954 to the present, the Republic of Korea has stationed a number of security guards on Takeshima, the scale of which has continued to increase year by year, including lodgings, a lighthouse, a monitoring facility and antenna. In November 1997, despite repeated protests by Japan, a docking facility to enable use by a 500t supply ship was completed. In December 1998, a manned lighthouse was completed.

The Korean treatment of condition #4 is one of the greatest comedy stunts of all time. Their objections that Japanese claims to Takeshima were just a sign of resurgent Nippon militarism and dreams to recover the empire? It’s just canned laughter! The joke’s on you, Japan!

And we haven’t gotten gotten to the best part yet! The only copy of the agreement was in the possession of South Korean President Park Chung Hee. After he was assassinated, one of his successors, Chun Doo-hwan, saw the agreement and knew this might ruin the act for good. So what did he do?

In a stroke of comic genius, he burnt it!

Who knew that Chun was the classic straight man? He set the scene so South Korea could play Lucy for the next two decades and pull the football away from Japan’s Charlie Brown every year. And to go one up on Lucy, they get to blame the Japanese every time!

The audiences laughed so hard, they were boiling tea in their belly buttons!

But every good comedy troupe has more than one good routine, and the South Korean government is no exception. In addition to their famous Takeshima/Dokdo shtick, they’ve also got another old standby: Japanese school textbooks!

And in the tradition of all the comedic greats of the past, the South Koreans have updated their material by adding a new twist:

They’re going to hire new gag writers and rewrite their own school textbooks!

Get a load of this side-splitter from the Chosun Ilbo in English!

The conflicts between South Korea, China and Japan over differing claims of territorial control and historical fact will be addressed in a new course and textbook for 11th and 12th graders to start in 2012.
The “East Asian History” textbooks will handle in separate chapters Japan’s claim over the Dokdo Islets and its glorification of its war of aggression and China’s “Northeast Project” assertions on early Korean history.
The current Korean history and geography textbooks discuss only briefly Japan’s role in war-time sex slavery and the Dokdo issue.

Comedy lovers have to worry if the Korean clowns are painting their noses a little too red with this one. They say the textbooks discuss Dokdo only briefly, so the 11th and 12 graders need to learn more? The premise is a little weak.

Heck, the audience already realizes that everyone over the age of six in South Korea knows all there is to know about Dokdo!

But the sure-footed Joseon chuckleheads will probably recover from any missteps, because most Korean claims about Takeshima are a classic study in slapstick to begin with. They start with the granddaddy of Korean comics, Ahn Yong-bok. Ahn wrote the book for Takeshima vaudeville. Here are just some of his greatest skits:

  • He used three different stories to explain why he went to the islets in the first place—when it was against Korean law for him to go!
  • He claimed he saw people living on the islets—when they don’t have any fresh water!
  • He insisted that he met the Tottori feudal lord and told him that the Tsushima feudal lord snatched from him a note written by the Shogun stating that Takeshima was Korean territory—when both lords were staying in Edo for a year at the time!
  • In fact, he even had this parody of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” in which he kept getting the names of the different islands in the region mixed up. With Ahn, it was “Where’s Dokdo?”

(At the hospital) “Hey Ahn, who was that lady I saw you with last night?” “That was no lady—that was my Dokdo!”

Recognizing sheer talent when they see it, the other masters of Korean comedy gave this ground-breaking funnyman one of their greatest accolades.

They named Ahn the Father of the Korean Navy!

Another sign of the comedic brilliance of the Korean government is how they borrow other well-known material and rework it into their own act to leave a whole new generation laughing in the aisles. Here’s an example of how they spoofed the famous Warner Bros. cartoon character, Foghorn Leghorn. Get set for the punch line as the Korean Education Ministry justifies their new textbook:

The Education Ministry said, “We have decided to establish East Asian History as a new course not to deal with the historical distortions by China and Japan, but to help future generations seek reconciliation and cooperation.”

Comedy lovers will spot right away the echo of Foghorn’s trademark justification in every cartoon:

“It’s a joke, son. I said, it’s a joke!”

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Posted in Education, History, International relations, Politics, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 14 Comments »

Comfort women Q&A

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ain’t it always the way? Just two days after I slam The Japan Times for its journalistic practices, they run an excellent, unbiased Q&A type column on the comfort women controversy. Staff writer Akemi Nakamura presents the contrasting views of Japanese historians Ikuhiko Hata and Yoshiaki Yoshimi, and for once the paper manages to keep its finger off the scales (except briefly at the very end).

The article contained two items that I thought were particularly noteworthy. The first looks at the number of women involved:

How many women served soldiers at the brothels?

No official figures have been provided, as there are few documents discovered. Historians have calculated the numbers by tallying how many soldiers were in the field and consulting documents on the ratio of women to soldiers. They also made assumptions about the “replacement rates” of women at the brothels.
Hata has estimated there were up to 20,000 “comfort women,” while Yoshimi says the figure was between 50,000 and over 200,000.

Just about every Western media report I’ve read contains the statement “historians estimate the Japanese had 200,000 sex slaves during the war.” This is a classic case of the media focusing on one part of one statement by one person to emphasize an extreme, artificially boosting the number of sources, and running that through an echo chamber until it drowns out other views.

It wasn’t “historians estimate”, it was “one historian, Yoshiaki Yoshimi estimates”. And it wasn’t “200,000”–it was “50,000 to 200,000” by his estimate, numbers that cover one heck of a lot of territory. And all these estimates are based on assumptions; an accurate accounting is probably impossible unless new documents turn up.

Here’s the second item:

A 1944 U.S. document on 20 Korean “comfort women” and two Japanese civilians in Burma shows the women were given sufficient food and goods while they took part in sports events and picnics with officers and could refuse “customers.” Although the women received pay, “the ‘house master’ received 50 percent to 60 percent of the girls’ gross earnings, depending on how much of a debt each girl had incurred when she signed her contract.” The master charged high prices for food and other articles, which made life very difficult for the girls, it said.

I certainly would like to know more about that document! For starters, where and how did the US get that information.

The entire article is online here. Registration may be required.

UPDATE: Jion999 and Matt provide a link to the 1944 US document, which is here. Thanks, guys!

Here’s a fascinating excerpt!:

“The average Japanese soldier is embarrassed about being seen in a “comfort house” according to one of the girls who said, “when the place is packed he is apt to be ashamed if he has to wait in line for his turn”. However there were numerous instances of proposals of marriage and in certain cases marriages actually took place.”

Posted in History, International relations, World War II | 17 Comments »

Crusading for rights without understanding them

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Naturalized citizen/gaijin activist Debito Arudou writes a self-congratulatory article in Japan Focus about how he led a movement to remove the magazine Gaijin Hanzai (Foreigner Crime) from store shelves.

The magazine, which I’ve never seen on a store shelf, seems more stupid than repellent. A detailed summary of its content is at the Japan Focus link.

DA states this magazine constitutes “hate speech” and violates the “rights” of foreigners. He also cites some UN treaties about hate speech to which Japan is a signatory. But he also notes:

Japan still has no laws or official guidelines regarding “hate speech”, particularly towards Japan’s ethnic minorities and international residents.

And I hope they never do. The very idea of any laws prohibiting “hate speech” is based on a grave misunderstanding of rights–in this case, the right to free speech.

Rights by definition are absolute, so it isn’t possible to for them to be in conflict. Therefore, the right to be free from people saying nasty things about someone and bruising their tender feelings is not a right at all, but a figment of the imagination.

Why the statutes of the UN, a nearly useless organization, should be cited as an authority on rights and hate speech is beyond comprehension. After all, they elected Libya as the chair of their human rights commission by secret ballot.

The activitists dealt with the magazine the right way, by threatening boycotts. There’s nothing wrong with that, assuming they think it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with, and it worked.

But if they really have deluded themselves into thinking a magazine violates some phantom rights, why don’t they just buy a bunch, stack them up in a vacant lot, and burn them in a public ceremony? That’s in keeping with the tradition they inherit.

Are we supposed to ban books just because someone somewhere might be offended? And what would be the standards for determining “hate speech”? They would inevitably be subjective and necessitate the use of Orwellian thought police.

It’s a tragedy that by descending to the use of the hate speech concept, antithetical to classical liberalism, these activitists have turned themselves into petit authoritarians. For that matter, in other similar causes, the idea of fighting for rights is really just boilerplate covering a secondary objective. The primary goal is to play Little Jack Horner: “He stuck in his thumb, pulled out a plum, and said ‘What a good boy am I’.” The idea is to feed their vanity and congratulate themselves on their moral superiority.

When it comes to the concept of rights, this group needs some serious self-reflection rather than the self-congratulation of the Japan Focus article. Forget about that muyo no chobutsu, the UN. They should go to a better source and read the American Bill of Rights.

Several times.

Posted in Books, Foreigners in Japan, Mass media | Tagged: | 96 Comments »

Japan’s media: More fiction than fact?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RASHOMON, the famous literary montage by Akutagawa Ryunosuke that Kurosawa Akira turned into an even more famous film starring Mifune Toshiro, tells the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife from the perspectives of four people. Their accounts differ so greatly the reader or viewer wonders if they are describing the same incident. The Akutagawa story is a classic in world literature, and some rate the Kurosawa film as one the five best non-American movies ever made.

The Japanese media like this concept so much they’ve updated the technique to use for their news reports about Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo’s visit to Tokyo on the 14th. Reading the accounts from several media outlets leaves one wondering if they are describing the same event with the same participants.

Higashikokubaru has spent all of two months as governor after winning a special election to replace his predecessor, who was arrested for bid rigging. You can get up to speed on his first career as a comedian in the group associated with Beat Takeshi using the stage name of Sonomanma Higashi, his political science studies at university, and his diligence in dealing with an avian flu epidemic and reforming bidding procedures for government jobs in his early days in the job in our previous post here.

Nothing will prepare you, however, for the sheer incompetence, sloppiness, and lack of integrity in the media’s Rashomon-like approach to the governor’s visit one day last week as he dropped in on two government ministries and several companies with plants in Miyazaki, and gave a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Here’s look at how several media outlets covered the speech. All but one of the reports were in Japanese.

Kyodo News, Japan’s leading news agency, chose to emphasize the comedic aspects of Higashikokubaru’s speech to the foreign correspondents. When he began his talk, he asked them not to ask difficult or trashy questions like those from a weekly magazine or a “wide show”. The governor spoke briefly in English, joking that some have compared him to Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, but that he would prefer to be compared to Ronald Reagan (who also started out as governor of that state).

Kyodo added that he reminisced about his school days, and he recalled that he told his primary school teacher his ambition in life was to become French.

The report I saw did not mention the serious aspects of his speech, nor did they mention his visits to the ministries or companies.

The Yomiuri Shimbun began by describing Higashikokubaru’s appearance as PR for Miyazaki. They were the only outlet to mention that the governor referred to the legends claiming that his home prefecture was the birthplace of the Japanese people. They also mentioned his English jokes and the crack about Reagan, and noted that his audience laughed loud and long.

Yomiuri reported that he talked about local government in Japan, but thought he got sidetracked with stories about becoming French and the dustup with a publishing company when he stormed their offices with Takeshi and other members of his troupe. They noted his speech went beyond the allotted 20 minutes, but didn’t say how long it went on.

Unlike Kyodo, they brought up the governor’s answers to questions asked by the correspondents. One asked him if he had any advice for Prime Minister Abe, whose poll numbers are down, and Higashikokubaru suggested that Abe’s ratings might rise if his hair thinned out.

He also mentioned his pet theory (no one else called it this) that political parties weren’t needed in local government. “A prefectural citizens’ party” was sufficient. Yomiuri did not elaborate on this statement.

The Miyazaki Shimbun, the governor’s hometown paper, mentioned that he gave a humorous speech that also included the reasons for his wanting to become a politician. Unlike Yomiuri or Kyodo, they quoted Higashikokubaru’s comments on the prime minister’s low poll numbers: “I suspect the cause is that he does not sense the temperature of the people.”

They also mentioned his self-introduction in English, and were the only outlet to report that he talked for about 30 minutes. They were also the only ones to report that the governor spoke about his initial meeting with Beat Takeshi and his reasons for switching from show business to politics.

The Miyazaki Shimbun also scooped the rest by reporting that when asked to compare the two professions, Higashikokubaru answered they both shared the aspect of making people happy. He said that Takeshi taught him to read the audience while doing a comedy routine.

According to the Miyazaki paper, the governor said his most important tasks were to decide what sort of local government to create in Miyazaki and how to turn it into a vibrant region. The previous two media outlets did not think this was worth mentioning. Oddly, however, the hometown paper did not talk about his visits to the ministries or the companies (in this article, at least).

Sankei Sports is one of Japan’s many sports dailies, which cover popular topics in the news as well as sports. Had the governor not been a comedian with a reputation for rough-and-ready behavior, they likely wouldn’t have bothered attending at all.

Sansupo, as they are called, focused exclusively on the audience response. They said the foreign correspondents were in two camps regarding the governor’s appearance. They quoted an unidentified official from the French embassy familiar with Higashikokubaru’s career as a comedian as saying that he had become a good politician because he was not so bureaucratic. Sansupo also noted that others thought his jokes in English were funny, but they didn’t repeat them.

Some correspondents, however, said they thought his speech was too much of a comedy routine and they wanted to hear more about politics. Dennis Normile, the chairman of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, said he would rather have heard more about Miyazaki than about the scandals.

I have to wonder about Normile’s motives, however. The speech was scheduled to last just 20 minutes, and Higashikokubaru has been in office only two months. There’s not a lot of information he can provide about local politics to a foreign audience in that amount of time. The governor probably thought he was giving them what they really wanted.

Janjan describes itself as an alternative media outlet. They provided the largest amount of direct quotes from the speech and focused on its political content. Here is how they quoted Higashikokubaru describing his reasons for becoming governor:

“I gave up my life in Tokyo and returned to Miyazaki to pursue a great dream—to change Miyazaki, where I had grown up, and then change Japan from Miyazaki. It remains a business-as-usual, conservative prefecture, but that approach was the foundation for postwar Japan. Our forebears must be praised for the Miyazaki they created, but now we face the problem of how to change it.

“Don’t you think there was a sense of dissatisfaction and impotence among the citizens after the collapse of the bubble economy? I began to think this (attitude) must be changed about 10 years ago, and this feeling gradually grew stronger. Then I began to believe that I should take action.”

It was at that point that Higashikokubaru mentioned his most important tasks, previously described in the Miyazaki Shimbun section. No other media outlet quoted the governor’s remarks leading up to that statement, however.

Janjan also noted that the reporters asked him questions about his everyday work as a governor, Prime Minister Abe’s statements about the comfort women, and his awareness of the traditional culture of Miyazaki. They didn’t give any of his answers. They also did not mention his ministry and company visits.

The Asahi Shimbun used the governor’s original name, but added his stage name in parentheses. They also mentioned that he had said the people felt a sense of impotence, but chose to omit that he referred to their dissatisfaction.

The Asahi reported that he gave a self-introduction in English, but did not repeat his jokes. They did say these jokes drew a lot of laughs and applause.

They quoted Higashikokubaru about the growing interest in independent politics. He said:

“Now, 60 years after the end of the war, people no longer trust party politics. Local government provides services directly to the residents. They don’t need parties. ‘One’ prefectural citizens’ party is enough. I want to conduct my activities so that this idea takes root.”

Yomiuri was the only other outlet that thought the comment about a single prefectural citizens’ party was worthy of quoting, but they did not provide the full context.

Asahi were the only ones to mention that the Japanese reporters at the event asked him what he thought of the Tokyo governor’s race. He said, “Several people have entered the race and there are a lot of choices. That’s good for maintaining democracy.”

They were one of the few media outlets to report that he also visited companies with plants in his prefecture. They were the only one to provide the details that the sites he visited included Oji Paper and Asahi Kasei, and the Education and Land, Infrastructure, and Transport ministries. They mentioned that the governor brought gifts of locally produced free range chicken to each place he visited (including the Foreign Correspondents’ Club), but Education Minister Ibuki Bunmei turned down the present. The minister said he makes it a rule not to receive anything from local governments. Asahi noted that everyone else accepted the gifts.

Higashikokubaru’s appearance in front of the foreign correspondents was covered on The Wide, an afternoon TV program, the next day. They ran clips of the governor during the funniest parts of his speech, which were notable for his goofy poses. The program did not mention his other visits, nor did they mention his political commentary.

These omissions allowed them to tut-tut and take the governor to task for a lack of gravitas. The commentators on the program were disturbed by what they considered his frivolousness, and remarked that Beat Takeshi thought the governor’s biggest problem as a comedian was matching his behavior to the situation and the place. Their position was that governors should not be telling jokes to entertain an audience.

The Nishinippon Shimbun, a regional Kyushu daily, did not mention at all that Higashikokubaru spoke to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (much less the content of his speech), nor that he visited several companies in Tokyo. They focused solely on his five-minute visit to the Education Ministry. They disposed of Ibuki’s refusal to accept the present of chicken in three paragraphs. They were the only media outlet to mention that the Deputy Minister took the chicken instead, and quoted her as saying, “I love chicken.”

Finally, the Japan Times also filed a report in English.

Their report is eight paragraphs long. It does not mention any part of the governor’s speech whatsoever. The newspaper’s readers would not know that the governor has serious views about local government, or that he perhaps overdid the comedy. They would not know about his reasons for going into government. They would not even know about his gifts of chicken at the ministries or the companies. They would not know about the several questions the correspondents asked him. They would know only one thing:

Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, a comedian-turned-rookie-politician, waded into a political minefield Wednesday, claiming it was hard to confirm as historical fact that the wartime Japanese military coerced women across Asia into frontline brothels…Asked by reporters for his opinion on Abe’s comments, Higashikokubaru said, “It is very difficult to confirm as a historical fact that the ‘comfort women’ actually existed. My position is that it is hard to make a comment (on the issue) unless the history is verified,” he said. “Both cases of existence and nonexistence (of coercion) should be verified objectively.”

Aside from the question of whether there was coercion to get the sex slaves into the brothels, Higashikokubaru said he believes there was nothing wrong with Japanese engaging in the sex trade in pre-1945 Korea, because under a “bilateral accord” in 1910, the Korean Peninsula became part of Japan, where the sex business had been allowed under certain regulations.

What do they hope to prove with their distorted approach? Why do they consider this issue important, when the rest of Japan manifestly does not, and never will? The other news outlets didn’t think this comment was worth talking about. Why are they asking this particular question of a man who has been in office just two months—a man who is the governor of a rural prefecture ranked 37th of Japan’s 47 prefectures in population, with fewer than two million people, and who has no national responsibilities? Why did they fail to mention anything else that Higashikokubaru did or said that day?

And why did they refer to him in their headline by his stage name of “Gov. Sonomanma” instead of his real name? None of the Japanese papers did that. Granted, his name is 14 letters long and hard to fit in a headline. But Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name is also 14 letters long, and they manage to squeeze that into headlines.

Perhaps the Japan Times thinks they are burnishing their reputation overseas as crusaders for truth and justice. Perhaps they are trying to please their primary audience of cynically ironic Westerners who savor a snide sense of superiority as they eke out a living on the fringes of Japanese society. Perhaps they are trying to please South Korea, where the paper’s publisher has business interests. (They already canned a sports reporter without notice for talking about prostitutes in Seoul during the World Cup. The Koreans claimed that he insulted the womanhood of the nation.)

What they’ve actually done, however, is reinforced their reputation as a publication utterly lacking in journalistic integrity.

Still, the other eight media outlets weren’t much better. A reader would have to put together all eight stories about Governor Higashikokubaru’s Tokyo trip to get one decent account of the day’s events.

And as with Rashomon, we still wouldn’t be sure of what actually happened.

Posted in Mass media, Politics | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Japanese urban street music: The chin-don interview!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 19, 2007

It’s a shame that more people—especially world music mavens—aren’t aware of the musical style of chin-don, a deliciously goofy hybrid of Japanese and Western music and instruments. There’s been an Ampontan post on chin-don in the past (try here), but the Nishinippon Shimbun recently ran a short interview with Atsuya Kitamura (35), one of the few full-time professional chin-don performers in Japan.

Since the interview is in the print edition in Japanese only, I’ve taken the liberty of unofficially translating it here.

What kind of work does a chin-don performer do?

Originally, we performed to advertise and publicize new shops and companies for the people that hired us. Now, however, advertising and publicity work account for only about 10% to 20% of our work. Most of our performances are at festivals sponsored by local governments or companies, or at parties or other events.

Why did you get involved in this kind of work?

Well, I started out in a band. When I was 27, I heard that Adachi Sendensha was hiring musicians. I thought it would be great if I could have a career playing music, so I applied for the job. I had a hard time of it at first. It’s really difficult to perform with a smile on your face, sing, and talk all at the same time.

Do you like being the center of attention?

No. In fact, I’m more the reserved type. Contrary to what you might think, the people who enjoy being the center of attention don’t last long in this business. The job of a chin-don performer is to make everyone happy—the employers, the event organizers, and the people watching you. Sometimes it’s necessary to be a show-off, but the most important thing is that the role demands the group create a pleasant atmosphere at the performance site.

The role required of us changes depending on different factors, including the season and the employers. That’s why the people most suited to this work are those who are adaptable to different circumstances. I think.

Kitamura works as a musician in Hideya Adachi’s chin-don band, but the band leader calls his company Adachi Sendensha, which literally translates as the Adachi Publicity Co. That might give you an idea of which business Adachi thinks he’s in.

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

Matsuri da! (10): One ton of festival fun

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 18, 2007

Faith can move mountains, say the Christians, and the participants in the Hote Festival held every March 10 in Shiogama, Miyazaki Prefecture, understand just what they mean. The festival is associated with the city’s oldest Shinto shrine, the Shiogama-jinja, which dates back more than 1000 years. It’s located at the top of the 57 meter-high Mt. Ichimori nearly in the middle of the city. Just getting there is a sign of devotion—it requires a tiring climb of a stairway with 202 steps. Could climbing a stairway to heaven be any more difficult?


While the folks in Shiogama don’t move the mountain during the festival, they do haul one very large mikoshi, or portable shrine, down those steps to signal the start of the event. The mikoshi isn’t 16 tons, but at one ton it’s still a brute to maneuver, and it takes 16 young men (dressed in the garments of Shinto priests) to coax it down the side of the mountain step by step. But this is a Japanese festival, which means there’s always an extra wrinkle, and the Hote Festival is no exception. Lovely shrine maidens ride atop the mikoshi the whole time, surely praying to the Shinto divinities that the boys don’t let it drop on the way down.

The Christians also say that the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and the 16 hearties carrying the mikoshi might agree with that, too. Legend has it that the mikoshi moves through the will of the divinity enshrined inside. They take their time coming down the mountain. Maybe that’s to conserve their energy, because then they have to parade around the city. Legend also has it that the mikoshi frequently used to butt into homes and other buildings along the narrow roads of the parade route, but the residents likely considered that a sign of blessings in the year to come.

The festival itself began in 1682 in supplication to the divinities for protection against fire and for success in business. The characters used to write Hote are the ones for sail (as in canvas) and hand, and that’s only fitting, as Shiogama is a port city and was once a whaling center. Its main industry is still fishing, and it’s known as one of Japan’s primary ports for tuna fishermen. And it also has the most sushi restaurants per square kilometer of any city in the country

Once the mikoshi makes its rounds, the folks of the city get down to the serious business of having fun until early the next morning. What a deal! In Shinto you get to praise the Lord by drinking and carousing until all hours. By the time it’s all over, they’re probably talking in tongues too.

I’m not sure how much merrymaking is on tap for the 16 guys who carried the shrine down the side of Mt. Ichimori, however—when the parade ends more than seven hours later they have to carry it back to the shrine up those same 202 steps!

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

Britain’s “Operation Nipoff”

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 17, 2007

JAPAN IS repeatedly reminded by the Western media of its sins and brutal behavior during the Second World War. The comfort women story is just the latest of these; the stories of the Nanking Massacre in China and the Bataan Death March in the Philippines have been told for decades.

These were the stories told by the victors. We know some of the stories that have gotten glossed over in the West, such as the one about the Japanese prisoners held in equally brutal conditions in the Soviet Union for 11 years after the war. But what stories have the victors neglected to tell?

Some of the tales are starting to come out now. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper have just published a book in Britain called Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire. The book is 674 pages long; they must have forgotten a lot of them. For example:

Two years after Japan surrendered in 1945, there were still some 80,000 Japanese prisoners of war in the hands of British South East Asia. General Douglas MacArthur wanted to repatriate them and dissolve Japan’s broken army, but Britain refused. It preferred cheap conscript labour and seemed to enjoy humiliating these legions of the lost. They existed on only half a normal PoW diet; men were routinely forced to kneel and beg their captors for food. Nearly 9,000 of them died of malnutrition or disease. The last remnants of ‘Operation Nipoff’, as it was malignly known, didn’t get home until as late as 1948.

One might try to excuse British behavior by arguing that they were just getting back at the Japanese for the earlier cruelties they suffered. But that is, after all, just an excuse; Japan had been literally flattened and burnt out in defeat and unconditionally surrendered. Revenge and the pound of flesh had already been taken.

Even more remarkable is the book’s tacit admission that despite its utter defeat, Japan managed to attain one of its war objectives:

The core of the Empire that seemed to make Britain great began at the end of the Suez Canal and ran as a gigantic arc through Asia. Japan’s aggression fractured that arc. But in 1945, London wanted to put the old world back together again….It thought we could go back to colonial business as usual. Even Attlee’s sainted government took time to realise that there could be no going back, that years in the shadow or grip of Tokyo control had changed hearts, minds and ambitions forever.

The Japanese started out with the intention of ending the European colonization of Asia (albeit replacing it with their own). Bayly and Harper seem to think they ultimately succeeded in ending European rule. The tragedy for everyone is the means by which that success was achieved.

NOTE: I read this review in the print edition of the Japan Times. It is not online at that site, because it originally appeared in The Observer. The review is available on the website of The Guardian, Britain’s premier newspaper of the Left. Unfortunately, however, the complete text is not on line. The link to The Guardian’s review is here. Please note that the book is about Britain’s involvement with Asia as a whole; there is not much more in the review about Japan specifically.

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Posted in Books, History, World War II | Tagged: | 81 Comments »