Japan from the inside out

Archive for April, 2007

Eyes wide shut: The media and the Abe-Bush press conference

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 29, 2007

BEFORE HIS VISIT to the United States this weekend, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a CNN interviewer that he thought North Korea’s Kim Jong-il is “a person who is capable of rational thinking”. He added, “I believe that the direction North Korea is headed is wrong.”

In their story, the Associated Press noted, “Abe’s aides could not be immediately reached to confirm his comments.”

Forging boldly ahead with their coverage of the vital issues of the day, the AP referred to the joint Abe-Bush press conference this weekend in the U.S. as a “show of friendship”. They reported that President Bush told Shinzo he “married well”, and invited him down to the ranch. In return, Prime Minister Abe said that he and his wife and George and Laura had a very wondsdfffffffffhtujoi

Oops, sorry about that. I fell asleep and briefly passed out on the keyboard.

After staring at all that irrelevancy, can you blame me? Besides, I nodded off for just a few seconds, but the entire American news media, including CNN and the AP with their millions of dollars in resources and equipment, sat stupefied while one of the biggest stories of the postwar Japan-US relationship sailed over their heads. Yet the AP thinks it’s necessary to confirm that Mr. Abe believes North Korea is headed in the wrong direction?

Why do they have to confirm what every sentient being on the planet knows except some addled South Koreans? And what difference does it make? Why are they even bothering?

Meanwhile, as they’re working the phones, their sources, and shoe leather, they’ve missed the bigger story staring them in the face. In the past two days, Prime Minister Abe and the government of Japan just issued its Declaration of Independence from the legacy of World War II, and in effect told Mike Honda, the U.S. Congress, and the rest of East Asia that if they don’t like it, they can take a hike. But the AP is spending its time trying to confirm that Prime Minister Abe thinks Kim Jong-il is rational.

Perhaps Shinzo should confirm with George whether the President thinks the AP is rational.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in China, History, International relations, Legal system, Mass media, Politics, World War II | 57 Comments »

That’s a Buddhist temple?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 27, 2007


JAPAN HAS A LIFETIME of surprises in store for anyone who lives here–including Japanese, as they will be the first to admit. Just when you begin to think you get a handle on things, you discover yet another passageway that you previously overlooked.

That was my feeling when I ran across this building while doing some research for a translation. It is the Shishikaku guest house at the Hozan-ji Buddhist temple in Ikoma, Nara Prefecture, built as part of the temple complex in the 1880s. This Japanese website blithely explains that priests in those days were in the habit of erecting buildings in the popular architectural styles of the day. Take a look at the site for some more photographs.

And yes, that is stained glass in the front door!

There are several similar Western-style buildings from that period preserved in Japan. Many were built for foreign guests or temporary residents, but one of the most famous is that built by Thomas Glover in Nagasaki, which is now a tourist attraction called Glover Garden. The Net has plenty of photos of the buildings, such as the one here. The house is itself is fine indeed, but what most sites don’t show is the view Glover had of Nagasaki. It’s on top of a hill in the city with a view of the entire town and harbor below. Here’s one view, but it doesn’t quite convey the sense it would provide to the resident of being King of the Hill. I’ve been there, and one of my first thoughts was how often Glover must have stood up there marveling, “It’s good to be king!” Or daimyo, perhaps–the view is comparable to the one the feudal lord had at the Karatsu Castle in Saga Prefecture, though that is a more rural area on the coast of the Sea of Japan.

Don’t overlook those links to Hozan-ji or the Karatsu Castle above–the’ve got some excellent photos.

Posted in Shrines and Temples | 4 Comments »

Shimane Prefecture’s position on Takeshima/Dokdo controversy

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thanks to Occidentalism for bringing to our attention Shimane Prefecture’s publication and placing online a pamphlet presenting their position on Takeshima/Dokdo, which you can find here. I translated it last August, so they took their time to get it out!

It was reviewed by a man who worked for the Japanese equivalent of the National Archives (I think–I’ve forgotten exactly), who really knew his stuff, as well as being fluent in Korean. Therefore, this is probably what the Japanese government wants to say, but hasn’t said yet.

There’s a lot of worthwhile information in there, and when I was working on it I was surprised that the national government hadn’t been publicizing it more. Perhaps now they will.

If you get the chance, please read the introduction by the prefectural governor, if only to compare his attitude to that too often prevalent in South Korea.

During the course of my research on the translation, I often read materials in English written by Koreans on the issue, and came to the unfortunate conclusion that roughly 95% of the material on the Web about Dokdo from South Korea is utterly worthless. It is a congeries of outright deceptions and half-truths written by people who either know better or haven’t done their research, and parroted and recycled by adolescents and post-adolescents with too much time on their hands.

For the purposes of comparison, I think the official Korean position is here. (I can’t find the site I used last August for this document now.)

Finally, a translator’s note: Other professional translators will know what I mean, so it’s not as if I’m blowing my horn, but the English version wound up being more accurate and clearer than the Japanese. At one point, when I was discussing the revision with the Japanese government official who wanted me to change a passage, I protested that what he wanted to say slightly contradicted the original. He said, “Yes, I know, I’m going to have to talk to them (Shimane) about that!”

Posted in History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (21): Divine sake drinking

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 25, 2007

IT’S NOT A Japanese festival unless there’s plenty of sake flowing somewhere, and at some places they dispense with the rice planting stuff and just hold a festival with booze as the centerpiece. One of these is the Doburoku Festival in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, which starts today and will continue for a three-day period. Doburoku is a milky white, very sweet form of sake that has not been fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.

They don’t leave anything to chance in Chino, so they got an early start on March 25—a month ago–when they began to make the doburoku at the brewery on the grounds of the Gozai’ishi Shinto shrine. They ritually purified the tools, cleaned the rice, and then gradually mixed the ingredients. Each year’s batch is looked after by men specially chosen for the task by the shrine during last year’s festival. They will stay at the shrine to brew the sake, checking the temperature and churning it as necessary until it’s ready for consumption on the 27th. But first things first—agents from the Suwa Tax Office will come to inspect the sake on the 25th. Even in Japan, they have to render unto Caesar.

It’s no easy task to look after the sake as it’s being brewed. Temperature control determines the quality of the batch, so they’ve been dipping in the thermometer morning and night. If the tank gets too hot, they have to add ice. It’s a painstaking process that requires work and dedication.

Yet the men supervising the process tell reporters it’s an honor to be chosen, because it’s an experience that comes only once in a lifetime, if at all. They say that the sake becomes almost like a living thing during the brewing process But it’s all for a worthy effort—they hope everyone enjoys their tipple and has a righteously good time.

They’ve brewed 1,600 liters of doburoku for the shrine parishioners to enjoy. Imagine what it might be like in the United States if the elders of the local Baptist church brewed up 1,600 liters of bourbon whiskey every year with the church’s blessing. Holy rolling in the gutter!

The festival has been designated an intangible cultural property of the city. That’s because after everyone finishes downing all that doburoku, they can’t feel a thing!

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

Matsuri da! (20): Mud in your eye at a Japanese festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 24, 2007

THAT’S NOT an Al Jolson imitation the reveler in the accompanying photo is performing—he’s taking part in an event that reportedly began about 400 years before Jolson’s birth. That’s the Doronko Festival in Kochi Prefecture, which was held for a three-day period earlier this month. Doro is the Japanese word for mud.

There are several stories about the festival’s origin, but the most common is that it started during a visit by Yamauchi Tadayoshi, the lord of the Tosa domain in the early 17th century, that coincided with the planting of the rice paddies in the spring. As the feudal lord and his retinue were walking along a ridge next to a paddy, two women working in the fields accidentally splattered muddy water on the lord’s clothes. This angered his attendant, who was ready to whack the bumpkins for their impertinence. The daimyo stayed his hand, however, saying they were at fault for walking so close to farmers while they were working. He added that they should encourage the farmers rather than punish them. When the people working in the paddies heard this, the story goes, they were so overjoyed they started slinging mud at each other.

Regardless of the story’s veracity, that’s just how the people in Kochi enjoy themselves during the first week of April. The festivities start with a rice planting ceremony in front of the local temple. At the sound of the taiko drums, the rice planting maidens in period costumes gather mud into wooden buckets and then randomly slather it on the faces of the men. Legend has it that the men who receive this mudpack will enjoy good health for the coming year.

I don’t know if it’s effective for bringing good health, but it sounds like fun–if not good clean fun!

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

Matsuri da! (19): Ringing the bell at the Gon-Gon Festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 24, 2007

THERE MUST BE SOMETHING in the water in Himi, Toyama Prefecture, because 70-year-old Kiyoharu Hayashi has retained his crown as King of the Gon-Gon Festival. During this festival, held this year on the 18th at the Jonichi-ji Buddhist temple in the city, adult participants use a 50-kilogram pine log in a competition to ring the temple bell. (Traditional Japanese bells are rung from the outside and not the inside.) The person who rings the bell the most in one minute wins. The name of the festival, Gon-Gon, is the onomatopoetic representation of the sound of the bell.

Not only has Hayashi won the event several times, he also holds the record for the number of times he was able to ring the bell in one minute—96. When I’m 70, I’ll be happy just to hoist a 50-kilogram log up to my shoulders, much less whack a bell with it more than three times every two seconds for a minute without stopping. Hayashi received 10,000 yen (about $US 85) for finishing in first place.

There’s a kid’s division, too. Children of junior high school age or younger try to hit the bell five times with a 20-kilogram log.

The Gon-Gon Festival originated during a drought. The local farmers went to the temple and asked the priest to pray for rain. They were so excited when the rains actually came that they rushed to the temple and started banging on the bell. They obviously got a big charge out of it, because they’ve been doing it annually ever since.

If you’ve got the time, click on the link to the temple to view a Japanese page with three nice photos. One is of the temple itself, another is of the bell during the daytime, and the third is of a tree on the temple grounds that is more than 1,000 years old. In fact, the story goes that it was planted when the temple was founded in 681. The trunk has a circumference of 24 meters.

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Wall Street Journal’s error typifies Western media approach to Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 23, 2007

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in Tokyo before his trip to the U.S. next week. The interview by Mary Kissel is available only to subscribers, but I thought I’d check anyway. There is a preview, however.

Here’s what I found:

He (Koizumi) was a refreshing change after a string of faceless prime ministers that trip off the tongue like ticker tape: Hata, Murayama, Hashimoto, Obushi, Mori.


She wouldn’t happen to mean Keizo Obuchi, would she?

How can names “trip off the tongue like ticker tape” when your foot’s jammed squarely in your mouth? (And I’d love to hear the reporter smoothly reel off the names of those prime ministers without stumbling over or mispronouncing them.)

We can only hope that one of these days the Western media decides to apply the same basic standards of competence to Japan that it claims to apply elsewhere.

Please, no excuses. People aren’t “faceless” to other people interested in basic human interaction. In terms of personal dynamism, that group would favorably compare with Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush any day. Ms. Kissel just never bothered paying attention to them.

And the least journalists can do is spell a prime minister’s name properly.

In 1963, Obuchi traveled around the world on his own, from January to September, taking odd jobs along the way. He decided he wanted to meet Robert Kennedy, so he just walked into the attorney-general’s office. Does that sound like a faceless man to you?

And it’s interesting that Murayama Tomiichiwas included in that group of non-faced people. People are upset because they think Japan hasn’t come to terms with its actions in the war, and that Abe is a comfort woman denier?

Mr. Murayama is the prime minister who publicly delivered Japan’s biggest and most comprehensive apology about the war.

Here’s an interesting article about Murayama’s apology that appeared in the International Herald Tribune at the time:

Japan’s apology to its World War II victims Tuesday was generally well received by Asian leaders, but many veterans dismissed it as inadequate and insincere.


President Kim Young Sam of South Korea…said he hoped that Korea and Japan could put the past behind them. The South Korean Foreign Ministry, however, urged Japan to make “more positive efforts” to examine its history.


In China…(t)he Foreign Ministry called Mr. Murayama’s statement “positive” but regretted that there are many in Japan who fail to take a “correct attitude” to the war period.

That was 12 years ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It should be obvious by now that these complaints have nothing to do with Japan, now more so than in 1995. Murayama was speaking on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. The governments in other countries are just looking for a political and diplomatic edge, and the rest either don’t want to let it go, or don’t realize the people they’re talking to didn’t have anything to do with the war and don’t really care about it.

I’m tempted to wish Mr. Abe luck with American journalists on his upcoming trip, but I don’t think he’ll need it. He’s had quite a lot experience in dealing with the media’s kneejerk bias, basic incompetence, and disparagement of Japan.

Besides, he’s not faceless either.


Infimum provides a link in the first comment to the entire article. Here’s another line:

“I’m so sorry I kept you waiting,” he says, in staccato, carefully rehearsed American English…

I’m so sorry to have to put up with journalistic conceits. For starters, the Japanese language tends to be staccato compared to English, so it’s natural that a Japanese speaking English would sound that way. Unless the author’s intention is to play off a Mr. Moto stereotype.

Would she tell us about funky speech rhythms if she interviewed an African head of state?

And I doubt that Mr. Abe had to carefully rehearse that phrase. The man lived in the United States for a year while attending university, boarding with an older American woman. He’s had more experience living abroad than any American president of the past half-century. Bill Clinton attended Oxford, but he didn’t have to learn a foreign language to do it, and the culture differential is not nearly as great.

We should understand and draw conclusions from the fact that the real objective of journalism is not to present the facts as a neutral observer, but to present a fable a particular media outlet has created to portray a situation in the light that it chooses. Whether the facts happen to correspond to the situation is irrelevant. The setting for the fable was already created before Kissel walked into the office. The interview was merely to fill in a few lines of dialogue.

It’s just infotainment without the info.

Posted in International relations, Politics | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Royal on Japanese manga: Hoist by her own petard

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 23, 2007

FOREIGN MINISTER TARO ASO has a suggestion for Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate for president in France, according to this Japan Times article .

Royal criticized Japanese society in a book published in 1989 for its toleration of violence and pornography in manga and animations. She also apparently complained about sexism in manga to Mizuho Fukushima, the head of the Japanese Social Democratic Party (former Socialist Party) when the latter visited Paris in December.

Aso, well-known for his enjoyment of manga, suggested that Royal might broaden her reading of the comics and discover the diversity of the genre.

Actually, I have a different suggestion for Royal: Put a sock in it.

The only reason to get upset about violent or pornographic manga is if reading that material leads to sex crimes against women. Interpol (headquarted in France) keeps international crime statistics. One of these is the incidence of rape per 100,000 population.

This website listed some of those rape statistics by country for 2004.

The numbers for Japan? 1.78. The rate for France? 14.45.

Mr. Aso also suggested to reporters that they not react so much to comments from foreigners about Japanese culture.

“Why are you worried so much if someone in France makes this kind of remark?” Aso asked

Indeed. Particularly when the remarks betray such ignorance.

Posted in International relations, Popular culture, Sex | 23 Comments »

Matsuri da! (18): Floats of unparalleled beauty

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 22, 2007

THOSE IN THE KNOW say it’s one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan, and it was held last weekend on the 14th and 15th in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. That’s the spring version of the Takayama Festival, the name used for both the Sanno Matsuri in April and the Hachiman Matsuri at Sakurayama Hachiman-gu Shrine in October. The main event is a large parade featuring about a thousand people in period costumes and 12 of the most elaborate floats you’ll see anywhere.

This is a joyous celebration of spring’s arrival, so the brilliant colors, sounds, and costumes are no surprise. The parade is a panorama of people wearing hats with bird feathers playing gongs and drums, or others performing the shishimai, or lion dance, wearing headgear that resembles a lion’s head. This is followed by the 12 floats, photographs of which often appear in newspapers around the country over the next few days, and two of which you can see here. These floats are exquisitely decorated, both on the exterior for public display, and on the interior as well, concealed under the roof or behind the doors.

They are indeed elaborate. The story goes that years ago, the local artisans and tradesmen who had accumulated great wealth were prohibited from using that wealth to enhance their rank, so they applied it for more material pursuits, one of which was the festivals. As a result, these events became more extravagant as the years passed.

The decorations include carvings, thick woven curtains, lacquerware, and bamboo blinds. The floats also have various devices, such as moving marionettes. Nightfall does not signal the festival’s end; rather, each float is decorated with some 100 traditional lanterns to create yet another stunning effect.

The origin of the Takayama Festival is not definitely known, but there’s a letter dating from 1692 stating the festival had been held for the last 40 years. Some historians think it may date back more than 100 years before that.

These floats were built through a scheme seen in other festivals throughout Japan. Several households joined together to form a community, with each household making a financial contribution. Human vanity being a universal trait, the communities started to vie with each other to produce the most beautiful or elaborate float. Some floats in festivals in other cities are built specifically for competition to break up the others. You won’t see that here–the Japanese government designated Takayama’s floats as an important cultural treasure in June 1969.

For more Takayama Festival photos, take the time to visit the sites here and here.

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A rare bit from North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 22, 2007

A FEW MONTHS AGO, the North Koreans discovered a German who breeds rabbits the size of beagles. They got the bright idea of importing a few as breeding stock to provide the population with a more plentiful supply of meat.

The idea turned out to be not so bright after all. First, the big bunnies eat about as much as people, which defeats the purpose of importing them. Then, the rabbits arrived in the country at a rather inauspicious time. Now the German refuses to sell any more of his rabbits to the North Koreans.

Read all about it here at Commentary.

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, North Korea | 2 Comments »

Japanese upper lip too stiff, says Brit ambassador

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 22, 2007

THERE’S NO QUICKER WAY to get on a person’s bad side than to criticize his driving or his sense of humor. Diplomacy and tact require silence in some situations.

Yet Hugh Cortazzi–a British career diplomat and former ambassador to Japan–is neither diplomatic nor tactful in this Japan Times article titled “A Japanese Sense of Humor?”

We’ve seen before that the British don’t always choose wisely when posting diplomats to Japan, but after reading Cortazzi’s piece you may be wondering how the man managed to make the foreign service his career. Here’s how he starts.

Japanese and Germans are thought by some “Anglo-Saxons” to have many similar qualities, including a lack of a sense of humor and a tendency to take themselves too seriously. I don’t think the former is fair; the latter is closer to the mark.

Yes, indulging in national stereotypes is a splendid way for an ambassador to establish a rapport with his readers. And how generous of him to allow that the Japanese may actually have a sense of humor buried somewhere under all that seriousness.

A recent letter in a major English daily paper was given the headline “The Japanese would do well to laugh at themselves a little more.” My immediate reaction was to wonder whether Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is capable of laughing at himself.

My immediate reaction would have been to turn the page. There’s no point in reading a letter from someone who knows so little about the Japanese.

I guessed that his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, could. To foreign eyes, Abe looks wooden and dour, whereas Koizumi with his bouffant hairstyle and direct manner, seemed more in tune with the 21st century.

If Koizumi’s hairstyle is in tune with the 21st century, I suspect we’re not going to like much of what passes for style in the next 93 years. Abe, on the other hand, simply combs his hair in the relaxed but masculine way that men around the world have favored for decades.


And why should the Japanese particularly care whether their prime minister looks “wooden and dour” to foreign eyes—they’re much more interested in how he looks to their eyes. As we saw recently, some elements of the Japanese media were critical of the speech Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo, himself a former comedian, delivered to the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo. They thought the governor needs to recognize that there’s a time and a place for everything, and that a speech to foreign correspondents is neither the time nor the place to perform a comedy routine.

Inoue Hisashi, the author of scores of comic novels and plays, once observed that Japanese who are very funny in informal situations with a small number of people turn very serious when giving a speech to a large group of people on more formal occasions—a situation that Inoue thinks is funny in itself.

Live in Japan for more than six months and pay attention to your surroundings, and you’ll notice the same thing, but it apparently went over the ambassador’s head that most Japanese prefer to have politicians save the humor for other occasions.

And while Mr. Koizumi could be devastatingly funny, particularly during question-and-answer sessions in the Diet, it’s really unfair to hold him up as the gold standard for public behavior. His success was due in large measure to his unconventionality, and we won’t see his like again for some time.

The English, not always with justification, pride themselves on their sense of humor….Most Japanese would not, I think, attach so much importance to having a sense of humor. Instead, I think they prefer to call themselves serious people (or to use the Japanese term “majime ningen”).

Or is it that most Japanese simply laugh when they find something funny, instead of resorting to meta-analysis? Has it occurred to the ambassador that humor is not an abstract character trait, but rather a naturally occurring individual taste that differs from person to person, much like a taste in food?

If the concept of a “sense of humor” is supposedly so universal, why do people not use the expression, “sense of tragedy”?

Incidentally, searching for the phrase “sense of humor” on Google gets 8.8 million hits, while a search for majime ningen on Google Japan turns up only 17,500 hits. So much for that observation.

Why do Japanese seem to take themselves so seriously?

Now that the straw man has been built, it’s time to knock it down…

Is it because laughter and humor have traditionally been frowned on in Japanese culture as vulgar and low? This is not entirely fair.

He’s right. It is unfair. It’s also untrue.

The humor of, for instance, the monkeys and frogs in the Choju giga (Toba Sojo) scroll surely amused Buddhist priests and the aristocrats of the 13th century. The Kyogen comic interludes between Noh performances in subsequent centuries, which often poked fun at pretentious and cowardly samurai, must surely have made Japanese rulers and samurai laugh… The humor of the Hizakurige, the famous novel about travel on the Tokaido by the two companions Yaji and Kita, is still funny. The humor is simple and down to earth, as was a great deal of Shakespeare’s humor…Much of the humor of Hokusai and Kyosai, two outstanding print artists of the 18th and 19th centuries…can be understood by people everywhere and outshine English caricaturists of the same period.

Is Mr. Cortazzi trying to undermine his own thesis? First he tells us that the Japanese have traditionally frowned on humor, and then he gives us 600 years of examples to demonstrate that the Japanese love humor. And he still forgot to mention rakugo.

Great Japanese novelists of the last 150 years have not been so rated because of their humorous writing.

Unlike Dostoyevsky, for example.

Many years ago…I was advised by a friend who worked in the Imperial household to read Genji Keita for light relief. I did as he recommended and enjoyed satirical and humorous stories about the Japanese “salaryman” (a word that does not exist in England).

This was no mere “friend”, this was “a friend who worked in the Imperial household”. His Excellency the Ambassador and a courtier found it a pleasing diversion to occasionally partake of the commoners’ entertainment. Perhaps they also enjoyed listening to “What Do The Simple Folk Do?” from the Camelot cast album.

Why is it important to the author’s argument that the word “salaryman” doesn’t exist in England? Is the ambassador amused by those goofy Japanese making up their own English words? I should hope not. Americans have coined many words that the English now seem to think are OK to use regardless of their origin.

I wonder if the English also disdained the use of that Japanese neologism, Walkman?

Thinking that these stories would amuse English readers and enable them to begin to understand aspects of Japanese life not immediately apparent, I spent some time translating a couple of volumes of these stories…

Just what the English-speaking world needs more of—someone who doesn’t understand aspects of Japanese life not immediately apparent explaining them to other people.

In this light, it seems extraordinary that no simple Japanese translation exists for the English expression “sense of humor.”

Why should it be extraordinary that a particular expression doesn’t exist in a language? English speakers have borrowed intact such words as naïve, déjà vu, schadenfreude, and coup de grace. Does that mean they didn’t understand the underlying concepts of those words before borrowing them?

I remember once giving a talk in Japanese in Sapporo where I referred to “umoru no sensu.” Perhaps my enunciation was not good enough, but I was taken aback when one old man asked me to explain what I meant by “umoru no senso” (senso means war!).

Whereas I was taken aback when I read this sentence and realized this man might well have doddered his way through his entire posting in Japan.

When people borrow a word from another language, it becomes a part of that language, usually with a new pronunciation. We vulgar Americans pronounce “guerilla” as if we were referring to a member of the simian species instead of the way a native Spanish speaker would say it. In the same way, once the Japanese have borrowed a word from English, it becomes a naturalized Japanese word with its own pronunciation.

For example, many Japanese play golf, but the game in Japanese is called “goh-ru-fu”, with the “f” being closer to an “h”. There is no “golf” in Japan. Pronunciation mistakes such as these are common among beginning students of the Japanese language.

Likewise, the word in Japanese is “yuumaa”, not “umoru”. The mouth is opened at the end instead of closed. No wonder the old man didn’t know what the ambassador was going on about—he was trying to make sense out of someone butchering the Japanese language. If one adult listener thought Mr. Cortazzi was talking about warfare instead of humor, it’s likely that the rest of the audience was just as mystified.

In other words, we have an entire column based on the conclusions of a man who walked into a wall and thereby assumed that doorways don’t exist.

It is not easy to make good jokes in any language and it is especially difficult for a foreigner speaking in Japanese. I was always rather pleased when I managed to get a few real laughs out of an audience.

I’m biting my tongue.

The Japanese would certainly benefit in international relations if they could relax a bit more, take life less seriously and laugh at themselves as the writer of the letter in the British newspaper quoted above suggested.

Whereas I think the Japanese would benefit in international relations if other countries saw fit to appoint people more attentive to their surroundings and less likely to write newspaper columns that are the journalistic equivalent of unzipped trousers in public.

It bears repeating: If all you know about Japan is what you read in the newspapers, everything you know is wrong.

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Language | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (17): Dancing and prancing at the Ushibuka Haiya Festival

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 20, 2007

IF YOU’RE IN KYUSHU this weekend, try to stop by Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, where every third weekend in April the folks turn into dancin’ fools for the Ushibuka Haiya Festival. The accompanying photos show a group of women from the city dancing down main street during the daytime. This is part of the main event in which 62 different groups with 3,000 women shuffle to the beat on the street, but there also will be a dance competition, which usually attracts about 1,000 people. A local band has rearranged the traditional festival song and given it a rock beat, which even has them dancing in the aisles of the rec hall. As is typical with Japanese festivals, everyone joins in. Even the senior citizens’ club performs their own dance for the competition.

The story goes that the song (the Ushibuka Haiya Bushi) and dance originated during the Edo period when women would perform them as entertainment for the crews of ships who called on the port. Give the girls plenty of credit for guts–sailors don’t need any encouragement as it is! (Then again, maybe they were happy to have visitors.) Their performance became so popular it spread throughout the country, and is said to be the origin of the famous Awa Odori Festival held in Tokushima Prefecture in the summer. The locals knew they had a good thing going, so they turned it into their own festival in 1972. This year’s event will be the 36th.

If dancing isn’t your thing, you can always stay for the marine products fair or fishing boat parade!

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Japan’s Prime Minister Abe: Moving from one success to another

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 20, 2007

While the media and the parrot blogs focus on the superficial instead of the substantial, misleading the public about polls while misinterpreting policy, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe keeps moving from one success to another.

And though the commentariat quickly pounced on the Abe Cabinet’s slide from an unsustainably high 70% approval rating immediately after taking office to Japan’s more usual 40% level, mum’s the word now that the Cabinet’s numbers have rebounded. That’s the media’s usual response when the beast it flogs refuses to die.

Maintaining his sang-froid, the prime minister continued the smooth implementation of his policies since taking office by putting two more feathers in his cap last week.

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Matsuri da! (16): Japanese festivals can be sweetness and light, too!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 18, 2007

LOOKING BACK on our recent festival reports, it occurs to me that you could easily come away with the impression that Japanese festivals are a marvelous melee of sex, sake, or some intense competition serving as a substitute for combat.

While a lot of that certainly does go on, it’s not fair to emphasize those aspects while ignoring other, more refined events. To provide a little balance, let’s take a look at the annual Marumage Matsuri held on Wednesday in Himi, Toyama Prefecture.

Dating from the Edo period, which ran from 1600-1868, the Marumage Matsuri features a procession of younger women clad in colorful kimono who parade sweetly through the town to express their wish of finding marital bliss. The female phalanx winds its way through the city’s commercial district and after an hour finishes at Senju-ji, a Buddhist temple that itself dates from 681. There, each woman offers an individual prayer to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, to receive the blessings of happiness in matrimony.

The event started out strictly for unmarried geisha, who gathered on their only day off during the year to participate. They had their hair done specifically for the occasion in the marumage style, which was the hairstyle for married women in those days. The word is derived from maru, which means round, and mage, which is a topknot.

Over the years the event gradually died out as the geisha population declined, but it was revived to great popularity in 1987 when the geisha requirement was waived and any single woman could apply to join. Interest grew beyond the city, and young women throughout Toyama Prefecture competed for a spot in the procession, which now numbers about 100. Since then, the rules for participation have been relaxed to allow married women, and this year, seven foreign English teachers were part of the group—at least one of whom was married.

The photos here show the hairstyle itself, as well as the participants in last year’s festival. While this year’s rain dampened the enthusiasm, it also served to add another element of color, as the ladies carried traditional crimson Japanese umbrellas.

There is one concession to modernity, however. Not everyone these days has hair long enough for the marumage, and it would take quite a long time to dress the hair in that style—not to mention the time it takes to put on a kimono—so all the women wear wigs. Even still, they require hairdressers to put in place, and are reportedly quite heavy.

I don’t know how long the link will last, but you can find a filmed report of the festival shown on the local news here. Watch it and see for yourself that not all Japanese festivals are booze-fueled testaments to the power of testosterone!

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Matsuri da! (15): Sex as sacrament at a Japanese festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 17, 2007

YESTERDAY, reader Shingen discovered an older post of mine on another site about a Japanese festival in which the participants pantomime the sex act. He liked it so much it gave me the idea to offer it as an encore presentation. And so, here it is.

Herodotus once observed that “All is custom.” As an example of what he meant, it is explained that it is as contrary to custom in Paupua to bury one’s dead as it is in California to eat them.

There is no better illustration than religious ceremonies. We’ve pointed out here before that more than a few local Shinto festivals in Japan celebrate the brewing and consuming of sake, all done with the blessing of the priests at the Shinto shrine. Try to imagine that happening at the standard brand religious institutions elsewhere in the world.

But even the indulgent and broad-minded who would overlook a boozy night at a religious festival might be nonplussed if they saw some of the practices that occur at a few Shinto festivals in Japan.

One example is the Asuka Onda Festival, held the first Sunday in February every year at the Asukaniimasu Shrine in Asuka-mura, Nara Prefecture. The reason you’ll never read about this festival in a newspaper is that the central event is the simulated performance of the sex act on stage in front of an audience.

This is one of the oldest Shinto festivals in Japan. There are written records mentioning the festival during the reign of the Emperor Temmu, which lasted from 673 to 686, and it likely predated that.

Three masked mythological characters appear in the performance. The first is the Tengu (first photo), half-man and half-bird, with a large, phallic nose. The Tengu have represented both harmful and helpful characters over the years, some kidnapping children or tormenting Buddhist priests, while others helped people. Legend has it they taught swordsmanship to the samurai.

The second is the female Otafuku (second photo). In ancient mythology, Otafuku’s dance brought out the sun and brightened dark skies. The character suggests health and good humor. Finally, the Okina (third photo) is an old man who has risen above life’s struggles to attain lasting fulfillment.

In this particular performance, Tengu and Otafuku are husband and wife. This festival was originally performed on the lunar New Year, which in Japan was considered the first day of spring. The connections with fertility and new growth are apparent, and the ancient Japanese believed that sexual energy has the power to disperse evil spirits and bad influences.

The performance begins early in the morning with the appearance of the Tengu and Okina in the road. They begin chasing people, whacking some on the butt at random with bamboo sticks. No one gets upset; the act symbolizes the driving away of evil spirits and arousing the spirit of life after a long winter. It is a harbinger of spring, and legend has it that the greater the commotion they cause, the better that year’s harvest will be.

After the Tengu and Okina withdraw, the sound of taiko drums signals the start of a more solemn part of the ceremony, as the Shinto priests offer food to the deities. When the ceremony is concluded, the Tengu and the Okina return, leading a man dressed in a cow costume walking on all fours. They mime the plowing of a rice paddy on a platform in front of one of the shrine buildings. Their performance at this point combines shrieks of fright and laughter, as they purposely slip and fall from the platform and then begin to dance with the onlookers, hamming it up through their part of the show.

The three characters depart again, and a second taiko drum signal announces the return of the priests, who perform a service representing the planting of the rice paddies. They place pine branches upright into the earth on the platform. When this ceremony is completed, they throw the branches at the audience members below, who scramble to grab them. (And when I say scramble, I mean it–no one who has seen Japanese behavior at events such as these would still think they were the world’s politest people. You either go for the branch or get out of the way fast.) The lucky one who come away with branches place them in their own rice paddies because they are said to drive away harmful insects.

A third taiko drum signal announces the return of Tengu and Okina with the Otafuku character (played by a young man). Otafuku is wearing a red cloth around her hips, which she flicks suggestively as she shakes her body in the throes of passion. The excitement is contagious and is soon conveyed to the crowd, who encourage her to greater heights. The Tengu grabs her by the shoulders and they simulate sex standing up; he still has a bamboo stick in one hand, and he swings it at anyone in the audience impertinent enough to laugh.

The Okina then presides at their mock wedding ceremony. (It seems that preserving virginity for marriage was not an important tradition in Japan.) After offering large bowls of rice to the Shinto priests, the Tengu quietly takes out a bamboo tube and places it in his crotch (fourth photo). After teasing the priest with this phallic symbol by flashing it around his nose, the Tengu opens the tube and pours out sake. (They don’t miss a trick, do they?) He places the tube back in his crotch and waves it at the audience.

Otafuku then lies down on the stage and the Tengu mounts her to perform another extremely realistic simulation of sex. First-time viewers are reportedly stunned into silence at this point, but after a while start laughing and cheering on the performers. Meanwhile, Okina hovers around the couple playing the comedian and generally acting goofy.

When Tengu and Otaku finish, they take out pieces of paper from their costumes, pantomime wiping their crotches, and throw the paper at the crowd. (Bet you thought they couldn’t top themselves, eh?) They repeat this several times, and the people in the audience again scramble for the paper; legend has it that if they use the paper that night themselves, they will conceive a child.

Japanese scholars report that despite the frank behavior of the performers, the performance itself is not lewd, but rather innocent and even healthful in its own way. They note that the ancients thought sex was neither embarrassing nor something to be hidden; on the contrary they respected the tremendous energy of the sex drive and thought it led to peace and prosperity. In fact, they characterize the ceremony as being a kind of prayer.

They may have a point. Imagine what the rest of the world would be like if ceremonies such as this were held annually at churches, temples, and mosques. I’d almost consider converting to Shintoism, if such a thing were possible!

YouTube notes: Here is a clip with a brief section showing the crucial part in the second half, albeit poorly filmed from a blocked perspective. The people who put it together unfortunately botched it. For some silly reason, they call it part of a Gaijin Guide. They’ve also added several unnecessary English captions, and they’ve caught the cameraman’s sniggers on the audio portion throughout. I suspect they didn’t understand a lot of what they were seeing. This has a short clip of the butt whacking, and this is a six-minute plus taiko performance at the same festival.

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