Japan from the inside out

Archive for August, 2007

Still the Sea of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 30, 2007

THE JOINT LOBBYING EFFORT OF BOTH KOREAS to change the name of the Sea of Japan to the East Sea ran aground–again–when the ninth conference on the standardization of geographical names announced that the status quo will be maintained.

Conference Chair F.J. Ormeling encouraged the three countries to find a compromise (Ha!) or to agree to differ and to report by the next conference, which will be held in five years.

The two Koreas claimed that the Sea of Japan name came into wide use during the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese counter that the name was used long before that.

The Koreans also note that a quarter of commercial maps worldwide use both names. That this argument was rejected suggests international bodies might now be aware that the table-pounding tactics Joseon uber-nationalists use to promote their fantasies can be intimidating (or generate a desire to avoid any hassle).

The Koreans also complained that their efforts to reach a “mutually agreeable solution” have been stymied because the Japanese have agreed to only one bilateral meeting since 2002. This also suggests that international bodies have wised up about what Korean activists really mean by the expression “mutually agreeable solutions”.

Perhaps if the Koreans were interested in bilateral meetings for mutually agreeable solutions, they could promote the spirit of bilateralism by pulling up a chair and discussing the status of Takeshima.

Jiro Kodera, the Japanese representative, said:

“My delegation believes it is high time for this issue to be put to rest and for us to turn our attention to the true aims of this conference.”


Posted in History, International relations, North Korea, South Korea | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The new Abe Cabinet: Round two

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 29, 2007

FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT AND MASTER POLITICAL MANIPULATOR Lyndon Baines Johnson once remarked about then-F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

That maxim came to mind when scanning the appointments of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his second Cabinet. Mr. Abe’s previous Cabinet was battered by financial scandals and repercussions from its misstatements, and his government was rocked by revelations of the Social Insurance Agency’s improper handling of pension records. He was walloped by critics on the left at home and abroad for implementing policies to move beyond the “postwar regime” and assert Japan’s presence internationally, to proceed with Constitutional reform, and to rework the educational system. Finally, he was jabbed by many in his own party for failing to take responsibility for the defeat of the Liberal Democrats in the July upper house elections by stepping down.

Rather than change course to assuage his critics, the embattled Mr. Abe seems to have chosen a different tack. He has forged a united front by bringing all the LDP pissers inside the tent and take on the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

These are some of his appointees:

Foreign Minister: Nobutaka Machimura

This is Mr. Machimura’s second term as foreign minister, and just as important, he is the head of the largest LDP faction (i.e., party-within-a-party)–and the faction that Mr. Abe was once a member of. He shares the prime minister’s goal of a more assertive Japan. He will lead the fight in the Diet to continue Japan’s mission of assisting the American effort in Afghanistan by refueling ships. The legislation expires this year, and the DPJ strongly opposes an extension.

Finance Minister: Fukushiro Nukaga

Mr. Nukaga considered running against Mr. Abe last year for the party presidency (and therefore prime minister), but decided against it. He is a member of the Tsushima faction, once headed by former prime ministers Hashimoto and Takeshita.

Defense Minister: Masahiko Komura

The new defense minister formerly held the post of foreign minister. His hardline approach to North Korea is compatible with that of the prime minister’s. He also heads his own party faction.

Education Minister: Bunmei Ibuki

Mr. Ibuki was retained from the first Abe cabinet. And yes, he is also a faction leader.

And, the most interesting of all:

Health Minister: Yoichi Masuzoe

Mr. Masuzoe (first photo) is a member of the upper house and is unaffiliated with any faction. The University of Tokyo political science professor won a reputation for outspokenness and candid criticism as a guest on television programs. He parlayed this into a Diet seat by a route often chosen by celebrities—winning election to the upper house instead of the politically more important lower house.


The media focus is on Mr. Masuzoe’s sharp criticism of both Mr. Abe and his Cabinet over the past year. He called for Fumio Kyuma (ill-advised statements) and Norihiko Akagi (political funds scandal) to resign from the previous Cabinet, which they eventually did. He took the prime minister to task for extending the previous Diet session past the June deadline, and for failing to resign after the upper house election defeat. Mr. Masuzoe also said Prime Minister Abe was beginning to resemble the main character in the fable of the emperor’s new clothes.

He will now be the man responsible for overseeing and explaining to the public the party’s efforts to clean up the pension system mess. This is a critical job because this issue has now become the third rail of Japanese politics.

What the media is overlooking is his former position as the deputy director of the Drafting Committee on the new Constitution. In that role, he was the point man in explaining to the pubic the LDP’s draft Constitution, including their proposed revision of Article 9, the so-called peace clause.

Therefore, rather than soft-pedaling his agenda in the wake of the election defeat, Prime Minister Abe has instead looked for ways to continue its implementation.

  • He traveled to India to discuss with the Indians an alliance with Australia and the U.S., an idea he floated in his book two years ago. During the visit, he stopped off in Calcutta to meet Prasanta Pal, the son of Radhabinod Pal (second photo), the only member of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to vote for acquittal of the defendants. He was also the only member of the panel with a background in international law. (We might well count this as a surrogate Yasukuni visit.)
  • He brought in for a second term as foreign minister the man who controls the largest bloc of LDP Diet members to prepare for a fight to keep Japan involved in military operations abroad.
  • He chose as his new defense minister a man in synch with him on North Korean policy.
  • He retained his education minister, almost certainly with the intention of continuing his educational reforms.
  • And he brought one of his harshest critics in the party into the tent to deal with, and hopefully resolve, the explosive pension issue—a man who shares with the prime minister the goal of rewriting the Constitution.

In other words, it could get very wet and smelly indeed for the people standing outside the LDP tent.

The upcoming parliamentary maneuvering promises to be fascinating. Though the opposition controls the upper house, the LDP can still pass all of its legislation with a two-thirds vote in the lower house—and it has the numbers to do it. Thus, the flow of legislation could easily wind up looking like this: Passage by the lower house – Rejection by the upper house – Passage by a two-thirds majority in the lower house.

The trick for the LDP will be to make it appear as if they are sensitive to the wishes of the opposition and are not steamrolling them–while they are in the process of steamrolling them. Meanwhile, it will be up to the DPJ to advance a positive agenda in the upper house without seeming to be the usual gang of obstructionists–while trying to obstruct everything they do.

How this match will turn out is still anyone’s guess, but from here it looks as if the LDP has gotten up off the canvas and is back in its fighting stance.

UPDATE:The lead story in this morning’s Japan Times concerns the new Cabinet. The headline reads, “Abe taps faction veterans for Cabinet”. So far, so good. Above the headline, however, is the caption, “No Surprises”.

This is ridiculous even for the integrity-challenged Japan Times. Considering Mr. Masuzoe’s criticism of the prime minister and his relative lack of experience, his inclusion is most definitely a surprise. Also qualifying as a surprise is the selection of Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda as the internal affairs minister. Mr. Masuda’s reputation is that of a reformer.

It is a curious phenomenon. For decades, the media insisted it was unbiased. Now that no one believes them anymore–indeed, with employees of the BBC and American television networks even admitting it–one might have thought they’d clean up their act. Instead, being outed seems to have liberated them. They’ve gotten even worse, and among them, the Japan Times has become downright amateurish.

UPDATE #2: Last year, Prime Minister Abe used the phrase “A beautiful country” as the slogan for his administration. It was also the title of his 2005 bestseller. He stopped using it before the upper house election to prevent the opposition from using it as a weapon in the campaign. When speaking to the media yesterday, however, Mr. Abe intentionally used the phrase three times.

As I argued a couple of days ago, and the new Cabinet line-up seems to suggest, Mr. Abe might think that his core philosophy and policies are not to blame for the problems of his administration.

This is an additional hint that he will continue to pursue his agenda while trying to clean up the pension mess, this time without any blundering from the Cabinet.

A snap poll from Kyodo shows a Cabinet support rate of 40%, with a 45% disapproval rating. Still not ideal from the LDP perspective, but much better than it was last month.

Posted in Politics | 16 Comments »

Are Japanese leftists playing with matches?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A FIRE STARTED among some shelving material placed in front of a discount store on the first floor of a five-story commercial building in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward at about 9:00 p.m. on Sunday. The blaze completely destroyed about 100 square meters on the first floor. The shop proprietor and an employee of an Internet café on the second floor suffered light injuries before it was extinguished.

Police are investigating whether this incident is related to another fire of suspicious origin that occurred at the same location on the 15th. At that time, boxes made of cardboard and wood were discovered on fire in front of the building.

The third floor of the same building is the location of the office of former Agriculture Minister Yoshinobu Shimamura of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He represents Tokyo’s 16th district in the lower house, and is also the chairman of a non-partisan group of legislators who encourage people to visit Yasukuni Shrine. Mr. Shimamura last visited the shrine on the 15th, the date of Japan’s surrender in the war and the date of the first suspicious fire.

In August last year, one ultranationalist burnt down the family home of LDP lower house member Koichi Kato, who had criticized then-Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine. This isolated incident was given wide exposure in the mass media overseas, which claimed to see it as emblematic of a troubling resurgence of right-wing nationalism in the country.

In their coverage of the two Tokyo fires at Mr. Shimamura’s office, the Japanese media are speculating that it was not a direct attack on the politician’s office, based on the specific location of the second fire. Mr. Shimamura seems to be of the same opinion, but then no one has an explanation for two fires of suspicious origin at this site less than two weeks apart.

The first fire merited a brief report from Kyodo, who will probably file a report about this one too. One wonders if this will prompt any breathless speculation overseas about the rise of left-wing threats on free speech.

I think we already know the answer to that.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments »

Why didn’t Abe resign?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 27, 2007

Though group consciousness is a much stronger force in Japan than in the West, it does not absolve anyone from personal responsibility, particularly the leader of the group. When the group suffers a defeat or a serious setback, the leader with direct responsibility is expected to atone for that failure. This has taken many different forms over the centuries, ranging from ritual suicide and finger amputation to resignation from executive positions.

The political world is no exception, and politicians are expected to take responsibility for particularly serious defeats. For example, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned after the 1998 upper house election when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party managed to win only 44 seats.

When it became apparent early this summer that the party would again be thrashed in the latest upper house election at the end of July, speculation began to mount as to what number of LDP losses would force Prime Minister Shinzo Abe out of office. It was widely assumed that Mr. Abe would step down—or the party would force him out—if they won fewer than 45 seats. Yet, less than a week before the election, those close to the prime minister revealed that he had no intention of resigning regardless of the results.

Those results were even worse than the party had feared. They managed to win only 37 of the 121 seats at stake. Three party elders gathered early on the night of the election and agreed among themselves that Mr. Abe would have to go if the party failed to win 40 seats. These three men were former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (first photo), then-LDP upper house caucus chairman Mikio Aoki (second photo), and LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa (third photo).


When the extent of the debacle became clear, Mr. Nakagawa visited the prime minister at his official residence and gave him the word. But Mr. Abe was having none of it. He replied that he was staying in office regardless of the election’s outcome. When informed of this, Mr. Mori is reported to have said, “There’s nothing to do about it.”

As it turned out, both Mr. Aoki and Mr. Nakagawa were the ones who accepted responsibility and resigned their posts within the party, though Mr. Aoki is staying on until a replacement can be found.

Prime Minster Abe is of course fully aware of the practice of Japanese political leaders to assume responsibility and step down. Why did he refuse? After all, Prime Minister Hashimoto resigned the day after that humiliating defeat.

Could it be that Mr. Abe thinks he isn’t responsible?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments »

Matsuri da! (47): Fighting over flowers

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 26, 2007

FLOWER POWER was one of the slogans the hippies used a few centuries ago now, and some of them were serious about it. There was a song about wearing flowers in the hair when visiting San Francisco, and during one anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon, the protestors actually walked up to the security personnel and stuck flowers into their rifle barrels.

It’s nice symbolism, but few were aware in those days that the symbolism had already been turned on its head years before in Japan at an annual festival in which people whack each other with bamboo sticks to grab artificial flowers that are said to bring the bearer good luck and drive away evil. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

But that’s what happens at the Gion festival of the Otori Shinto Shrine in Koka, Shiga Prefecture. Known in Japan as a fighting festival, it’s a popular event locally, and the participants once again enjoyed smacking each other in a Japanese version of the War of the Roses when it was held on the 23rd and 24th last month.

The festival consists of two separate events. The first is a lantern festival held on the 23rd (first photo), in which the participants wear lanterns decorated with pictures of paper flowers on their heads. They enter the shrine grounds chanting, “Inyo Isora”, and then collide roughly with each other until they smash their floral headgear.

Of course it attracts a lot of spectators. That’s even better than professional wrestling!

That was followed the next day with the flower-snatching event (second photo). (Flower snatching is not a phrase I made up–that’s what it’s actually called.) The people in each local district collect staffs (called umbrellas) decorated with flowers. These are about 2.5 meters high, and the people participating carry them into the shrine dancing and singing the same “Inyo Isora” chant. It almost sounds like something the hippies would have done.

The similarity ends there, however. Some of the other people attending try to knock over the staffs with bamboo sticks. (Remember, this is occurring on the grounds of a religious institution with the blessing of the Shinto priests.) At least some of these people are wearing bamboo hats festooned with flowers. Once the decorated staffs are brought down to earth, they scramble to snatch those flowers as a charm to ward off bad luck.

I’ve mentioned before that in events such as these in Japan, it is best not to get involved in a scrum unless you’ve got the mindset of a linebacker. Old ladies will think nothing of giving you an elbow in the ribs. That goes double at this floral show, because one might get whacked with one of those bamboos sticks I mentioned earlier while reaching for an artificial flower.

The folks in Koka train the kids early. When the main events are finished, there is a traditional dance performance by girls of primary school age. Somehow they have collisions with the taiko drums during the performance—the reports are not more specific on this point—and a few of them wind up on the ground.

There isn’t a lot of information on this particular festival available in Japanese. I couldn’t discover when it started or the reasons people fight over flowers. But I did find out that the festival is held in supplication of a bountiful harvest and has been designated an intangible cultural asset of the prefecture.

If I were one of those coming home with a few bruises after getting clobbered with a bamboo stick while trying to pick up a flower off the ground, I don’t think I’d use the word intangible to describe the experience!

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

Abe: The most interesting leader in the free world

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2007

GORDON CHANG of Commentary’s Contentions blog has been criticized in this space before, but his latest post about Japan shows that he deserves credit for the ability to think outside the envelope and recognize a good idea when he sees one.

This post refers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “the most interesting leader in the free world” for his latest initiative to form a partnership of democracies in Asia. These would include India, Australia, and the United States. He suggests that the idea is so good, Washington should have proposed it. (In fact, the idea is so good Washington doesn’t even have to be a part of it.)

Mr. Chang also praises the Japanese prime minister for his firm stance against North Korea and stiffening Washington’s backbone last year.

The alliance is not really a new idea for Mr. Abe; he floated it in his book two years ago. It demonstrates one possibility for including innovative Japanese ideas in an alliance of proactive democracies.

Some might object that this alliance could make China nervous, but that misses the point. China has nothing to be nervous about if it behaves as a responsible member of the international community.

I’m excited about Mr. Chang’s post because it shows that someone at last is finally paying attention to some of the fascinating developments in Japan and going beyond the tired cliches that predominate in journalism about this country.

I’ve had a post on the back burner about some of the creativity bubbling up in Japan regarding domestic issues, but I’ve been delayed by one thing and another. This should give me the impetus to finish it!

Posted in International relations, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Japan News Review

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2007

LOOKS LIKE I TOOK an unscheduled semi-vacation this week, but that should end this weekend because I have several items in the pipeline.

Until they are finished, you might want to check out a new site called Japan News Review, which is a portal site for news about Japan in English. The site was just launched last month, and it looks quite promising.

Posted in Websites | Leave a Comment »

Pile driving mochi

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 24, 2007

ONE OF THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS of traditional Japanese religious observances is mochi, a highly glutinous variety of rice that is steamed, pounded into a gummy mass that resembles dough, and then either cut into squares or shaped into round cakes.

It would be difficult to find someone in Japan who hasn’t eaten mochi, which is invariably made at New Year’s. The rounded cakes are used as holiday decorations in the home and eaten as a New Year’s treat. One of the events associated with that holiday is the mochitsuki, or mochi pounding, held a few days before.


The freshly steamed rice is placed into a mortar and whacked with a large mallet. I took part in a mochitsuki once, and that was enough–it’s hard work, which is not my idea of a something fun to do during the holidays. Also, mochi is one of those foods that I’ll eat if someone puts out for me, but won’t go out of my way to find. It tastes fine, but it’s gummy and sticky; generally speaking, the Japanese seem to enjoy foods with this consistency more than Westerners do. It also has to be carefully chewed and swallowed. Every New Year’s, there are always newspaper reports of someone choking on mochi.

Mochi pounding is not exclusively a New Year’s event, however. Just last week, on the 15th, parishioners at the Iwatowake Shinto Shrine in Shioya-machi, Tochigi Prefecture, took a lot of the sweat out of the process by using the largest mortar in Japan for a mochitsuki. The mortar is three meters in diameter and weighs 12 tons. The upper section has an eight-meter high wooden frame and a 400-kilogram pestle lifted with a rope. The folks in Shioya-machi admit they conduct the mochitsuki for the PR, but they also timed it to correspond with the date of the war’s end to incorporate their wishes for peace.

The shrine itself is just three years shy of its 1,200th anniversary and has a rebuilding project in the works. This is the last time the mochitsuki, which you can see in the photo, will be held at the present site.

The rice pounding attracted a crowd of 1,000, who made it easy on themselves by pulling the rope instead of actually pounding the rice with a mallet. This year, they wound up pounding 180 kilograms worth of mochi.

Fortunately, there were no reports of any gustatory mishaps among the citizens of Shioya-machi, so apparently they were able to swallow it all safely!

Posted in Food, Traditions | 1 Comment »

Under the radar in Japan-Korean relations

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 20, 2007

IT’S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that regardless of the impression one may get from the media, the relationship between Japan and South Korea is quite mature in most areas except for the political sector. Here’s another example: the recent announcement that Kyushu University in Fukuoka City and Busan National University in Busan, South Korea, will conduct a joint lecture course in the fall semester to be taught by the same group of professors using the same textbooks. The Japanese education ministry says this will probably be the first time one of the country’s national universities (as opposed to a private school) conducts a joint course with an overseas university.

The course will be called “Future-Oriented Perspectives on the Japan-South Korean Relationship”. (In Japan, anyway; I’m sure they’ll turn that last bit around in Busan.) Both schools will contribute seven professors, who will deliver their lectures at both campuses. (The plane trip between the cities takes just under an hour, and a high-speed jetfoil makes the trip by sea in three hours.)

The students will examine bilateral ties from several angles, including politics, economics, and law. Specific topics to be covered include “Japanese-South Korean Popular Culture and the Mass Media”, “East Asian Regionalism and Japan from the Korean Perspective”, and “Marriage and the Family in Japan and South Korea”. The content of the lectures will be the same at both universities, and they will be delivered in English.

Kyushu University plans to offer the course to third- and fourth-year students and graduate students, while Busan University will place no restrictions on enrollment. The two universities signed an academic exchange agreement in 1986, but have done little together until now. The impetus for the joint lectures came when prominent private-sector citizens from the two cities inaugurated the Fukuoka-Busan Forum last September, to which both universities sent representatives. They agreed during the forum to expand academic ties, and preparations for the course began then.

An official with Busan National University was quoted as saying he hoped students would be able to compare their reactions and their thinking in regard to all the subjects discussed, as well as exchange opinions, at least indirectly. Meanwhile, a Kyushu University official said he hoped the course would help foster a new generation in both countries that could create a bilateral relationship based on interdependence.

Ordinarily, most studies of popular culture at a university are good for little more than killing time, but that particular lecture has the potential to be educational if conducted honestly, with a frank examination of how the South Koreans borrowed from the Japanese during the years when Japanese pop culture was banned in the country. The ban was lifted in 1998 on magazines, comic books, non-age-restricted movies, award-winning animated films, TV documentaries, computer games, and non-Japanese language music recordings. The country later lifted the prohibition on live musical performances and music sales, though pirated versions and Internet MP3 files had been available.

From the opposite direction, of course, was the recent wave of Korean TV dramas and such singers as BoA. In fact, NHK radio subjected its audience to a BoA song just this morning.

As this BBC article noted in 2004:

Some say the ban on Japanese culture had degenerated over the decades into little more than trade protectionism.
“Unfortunately in the past Korean artists would rip off Japanese music because they thought no-one would notice,” says Bernie Cho of MTV.

That quibble aside, doesn’t this all go to show yet again that politicians are always the last to get it?

N.B.: This is taken from a Japanese-language report in the Nishinippon Shimbun written by their Korean correspondent. Links in Japanese newspapers disappear as quickly as ice cubes in August, so I haven’t provided one. This is a quick summary.

N.B. #2: The South Koreans have expended considerable energy over the years in banning Japanese culture, and recently there was a national debate over their FTA with the U.S. that required the liberalization of restrictions on screening Hollywood films. But that view is not only narrow-minded, it is also self-defeating. Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has argued for some time now that the globalization of culture is a very old phenomenon, it has resulted in the creation of art forms that we mistakenly think are pure and indigenous, and it in fact encourages rather than hinders local creativity.

He has also noted that French cuisine hasn’t died out in France, despite the highest per capita rate of McDonald’s outlets in Europe, nor has Hong Kong’s many outlets kept it from being the world’s capital for Chinese cuisine. Here is one of his articles, in .pdf, that summarizes his position. Of interest to those who would protect Korean cinema is this article, in which he uses a similar French quota on overseas films to argue that “Protection actually decreases an industry’s chance of competing successfully in world markets.”

Posted in Education, Films, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Matsuri da! (47): Almost as good as hurling thunderbolts!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 19, 2007

THERE’S NOTHING THE JAPANESE LIKE BETTER than a blazing fire festival. It makes no difference whether the event is a small one, such as the ceremony in which a 200-kilogram homemade torch is physically hauled up a small mountain and ignited at the summit, or a large one, such as the Daimonji in Kyoto in which five larger-than-life images are burned on the hillsides surrounding the city.


But there’s no limit to the Japanese imagination when it comes to creating festival activities, and if you don’t believe me, look no further than the Hifuri Festival held in Hino-cho, Shiga Prefecture, on the 14th and 15th last week.

Hifuri literally means “fire-flinging”, and no, that’s not the rock-n-roll fantasy of teenage boys, that’s exactly what happens. At 7:30 in the evening, about 200 local residents gather at one Shinto shrine in the town, bringing with them an equal number of bamboo torches measuring roughly 2.5 meters in length. They set out together and slowly parade through the town to the Kuchinomiya Shrine, which has several old pine trees about 10 meters high. The townsfolk surround the trees, light the torches, and at a signal from the taiko drums, hurl them all at once at the trees. The reports say everyone is riveted by the sight of the arcs of fire sailing through the night sky.

As we noted with the Daimonji in Kyoto earlier this week, the spirits of a family’s ancestors are said to return to the family home during the O-bon period (which just ended). Traditionally, they were sometimes greeted with mukaebi, literally “welcoming fire”, and sent back to the spirit word with okuribi, or “seeing off fire”. The Hifuri Festival is part of that tradition.

Legend has it that the more burning torches stick in the pine boughs, the better that year’s harvest will be.

Not mentioned in any of the reports I investigated was what happens to the flaming torches once they’re lodged in the trees. Do they burn out without igniting the pines?

It must not be a serious problem. The pine trees are still there, and the townspeople come back every year to do it again!

Note: The shrine’s name is 口之宮, and I had to make a guess at the reading because I couldn’t confirm it.

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Yasukuni: The sound of one hand clapping

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 18, 2007

THE EYES OF EAST ASIA and many journalists around the world were focused on the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on August 15th, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945, to see whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would pay a visit. The scrutiny was inevitable now that so many have invested so much emotional energy in the boogeyman of resurgent right wing Japanese nationalism.

One wonders why they bothered. It had been almost a foregone conclusion that the prime minister wouldn’t appear. One of his first acts after taking office was to meet with the leaders of both China and South Korea and smooth the waters that former Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi roiled with his annual Yasukuni pilgrimages. Mr. Abe wasn’t about to squander the goodwill he created, particularly now that his political position is in severe jeopardy after the recent upper house elections. He also wasn’t about to court additional controversy, even though any controversy that would occur would largely occur outside of Japan.

What did happen at Yasukuni on the 15th? Nothing much–and that’s a lot more significant than a parade of some politicians arriving at the shrine in official vehicles wearing rented formal attire to show their faces.

Only one member of the Cabinet made an official visit. That was Sanae Takaichi (photo), minister in charge of gender equality and Okinawa-related issues. The shrine started receiving visitors at 6:00 a.m., but Ms. Takaichi waited until the afternoon to go (though she held a press conference to talk about it in the morning).

The disappointment of the professional rubberneckers was almost palpable. It must have been like hanging around the clubhouse doors at Boston’s Fenway Park to get an autograph from Daisuke Matsuzaka and having to settle for a glimpse of the third-string catcher instead.

Who else worthy of the media attention came? Former Prime Minister Koizumi put in his annual appearance, and he was cheered by a few hundred ultranationalists who came for the opportunity to perform their postmodern samurai sketch for the cameras, wearing costumes with wooden swords. That meshed with the story the media wanted to tell, so that’s the story the media told.

Most didn’t manage to find the space to talk about something just as important in today’s Japan–the 260 counter demonstrators who showed up to demand that Japan retain its pacifist principles and Constitution. That doesn’t mesh with the story the media wants to tell. As a result, the stories seen around the world strangely resemble paper dolls—a large sheet of paper with holes cut out in certain places to create the desired image.

It was even more difficult for the commentariat to make something out of nothing, but of course they tried. One example is Gordon Chang’s post in the blog Contentions presented by Commentary magazine. A China specialist who occasionally writes about Japan and other countries in East Asia, Mr. Chang inadvertently demonstrates that the wiser course for people who aren’t fully conversant with the issue would be to avoid it altogether.

His post is given the clumsy and insulting title, “Japan’s Bad Memories”. Such an inept double entendre: it suggests both that Japanese memories of the war are bad ones, and that the memory banks of the entire country shut down when the subject of their behavior in that war is raised. It’s the second clause that doesn’t belong—it is so incorrect that anyone who tries to make the claim has no business writing about Japan. But perhaps Mr. Chang did not choose the title himself.

The author’s floundering is evident throughout the post; it is difficult to conceal that one is writing about a non-event. He spends a paragraph on the ultranationalists and their greeting for former Prime Minister Koizumi. He does not mention the counter demonstration at all; likely he was unaware of it. He links to a Reuters article that uses even more space to shock/entertain us with the ultranationalists, and their article too fails to mention the counter demonstration. Unlike Mr. Chang, they were probably aware of it and chose not to mention it. It’s been a while since the name Reuters was synonymous with integrity in journalism.

Mr. Chang then starts one paragraph with this sentence:

Analysts will undoubtedly pore over yesterday’s events in Tokyo.

Undoubtedly they will. And their perusal will undoubtedly result in one or more of the following:

  1. They will fail to see key events that occurred right before their eyes.
  2. They will see that which does not exist.
  3. They will misinterpret what they see that does exist.
  4. And very few–if any–will manage to write something about “yesterday’s events in Tokyo” that is worth reading. How could they? They fail to grasp the importance of nothing important happening.

He continues with this sentence:

Many worry about rising nationalism in Japan.

Many also worry about alien abductions, but that doesn’t mean we have to spend any time taking them seriously.

Mr. Chang then proceeds with a litany of the by now predictable complaints. Mr. Abe is trying to instill patriotic education. Perhaps a contrived uno mundo education is more desirable? Mr. Abe is trying to strengthen the military. With China and North Korea in the same neighborhood, wouldn’t he be derelict in his duties not to?

It’s almost as if the author is playing a hand of bridge. He starts with the lower cards in this particular suit and then continues up the ladder to the face cards—the comfort women and then the Nanjing Massacre. Unfortunately, he overplays his hand by speculating (Mr. Koizumi might return to replace Mr. Abe as prime minister) and then using that speculation as a basis to ratchet up the crisis-mongering even further. (This would cause a further deterioration in East Asian relations.)

Apparently Mr. Chang thinks some readers still take seriously sentences constructed in the following manner: If X happens, then Y will undoubtedly happen. So it might. But since X has to happen first–and in cases such as these, the possibility is usually far-fetched—it’s pointless to bring the subject up.

Oddly, Mr. Chang seems to have selected the wrong link for the passage about Mr. Koizumi’s possible return. The link takes us instead to an article in the People’s Daily—such an impeccable source—about the attitude of Japanese young people toward Yasukuni and the war, not about Mr. Koizumi. It contains this passage:

Actually, young Japanese know that the invasion war was an indecent history (sic)…Most of them think they are unrelated with the evil history, so it is not their responsibility to apologize.

Now isn’t that an irony? Mr. Chang attempts to play his final card and fashion serious punditry out of this sow’s ear. Instead, he slips up with the link and is hoist by his own petard, demonstrating that this is in fact a non-story. Of course young Japanese (if everyone under the age of 70 can be considered young) know that the war was “indecent”, they had nothing to do with it, and it is not their responsibility to apologize. After repeated apologies by political leaders and peace treaties with both China and South Korea that should have ended the matter, why should they think otherwise?

Mr. Chang then concludes:

Tokyo and Moscow have never formally signed a peace treaty with each other to end World War II. Even if they do so—not likely, due to ongoing disputes over islands that Soviet troops grabbed at the end of the conflict—it does not appear that the war in Asia will be over anytime soon.

Mr. Chang should have used a different preposition. The Soviets seized the islands after the end of the conflict, not at the end of the conflict. They refuse to give them back, so it’s no wonder a peace treaty hasn’t been signed.

And of course, the last clause “…it does not appear the war in Asia will be over anytime soon…” is prima facie evidence of the author’s superficial grasp of this particular issue, despite the attempt to appear profound.

Political visits to Yasukuni are not a burning issue in Japan. As the People’s Daily article linked to in error indicates, most people just don’t care. Those people who visit the shrine are more interested in it as a memorial for all the thousands of spirits enshrined there, rather than those of 14 Class A war criminals. The ultranationalists could only rustle up a group vaguely estimated to be in the “hundreds” from an immediate metropolitan area of more than 10 million people, and they were countered by a pacifist group also numbering in the “hundreds”.

By now it should be obvious even to those who seldom pay attention that the objective of those politicians who do visit the shrine every August is not to revive the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. They’ve said on many occasions that their intent is to reaffirm the desire for peace and to honor the service rendered to the country by their ancestors. (This is a Shinto institution, after all.) The implication that they’re lying and that Japan is anxious to reassert an aggressive military posture in East Asia is fatuous and reveals the vacuity of the observer.

What the politicians seldom say outside of Japan is that the visits are part of their wish to reestablish Japanese statehood (in the nation-state sense of the term). They think Japan lost this self-awareness with their defeat in the war. Of course other Japanese disagree, but no one in the country thinks this means the Yasukuni visitors want to colonize Mongolia, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula again.

It also should be equally obvious that elements in China and South Korea aren’t refighting the war either. They are aware that peace treaties were signed more than a generation ago. Their focus is on the future, not the past. Those countries have chosen to define themselves as modern states by incorporating anti-Japanese sentiment, and to use history as a blunt instrument both to mold public opinion at home and to wield in their bilateral relations with Japan.

Perhaps one of these days those countries will realize the Japanese know what’s coming, keep dodging the blows, and that swinging harder won’t make it easier to hit them.

Perhaps one of these days, other observers overseas will take the time to actually examine what is happening in this part of the world instead of viewing it through a superficial anti-Japanese lens of conventional ignorance wisdom.

Their preconceived notions—or rather, unexamined prejudices precast in conceptual concrete—led them to write and broadcast about nothing happening in a way that suggests something actually happened at Yasukuni on August 15.

They should have just told the truth instead of sticking to the ragged, dog-eared script: Nothing important happened. That in itself is important enough.

Posted in History, International relations, Mass media, Politics, World War II | 88 Comments »

Kyoto is burning!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 17, 2007

FOR SOME PEOPLE, the defining traits of Japanese culture are elegance, understatement, and a simple, austere beauty. While those are characteristic of many Japanese traditions, they are by no means the sole cultural delimiters. One is just as likely to find the grand gesture, exaggeration, and showmanship on a Barnumesque scale, though still informed with a distinctive esthetic refinement. Sometimes an entire city is used as the setting, or the canvas, if you will.

There’s no better example of these qualities than the Daimonji Okuribi, in which huge bonfires are set ablaze on five mountains surrounding Kyoto every August 16th at the end of the O-bon period. During O-bon, the spirits of a family’s ancestors are said to return to the family home. Traditionally, they were sometimes greeted with mukaebi, literally “welcoming fire”, and sent back to the spirit word with okuribi, or “seeing off fire”. “Daimonji” refers to “the kanji character dai“, which itself means great or large.

And that’s exactly what happens—the Kyotoans burn words and pictures into the mountainsides. The media and the tourist guides always show the dai character (as in this photo), but more that one hillside is set on fire that night. There are also bonfires on four other mountains—two parts of the same mountain have the two kanji for myoho, or Buddha’s Law, another mountain has a smaller dai kanji, a bonfire in the shape of a ship burns on a fourth mountain, and the last bonfire is in the shape of a torii, the gateway to Shinto shrines.

These fires are large enough to be seen throughout the city. Each flaming kanji stroke ranges from 80 to 160 meters in length. Pine branches are used to set the fires, and there are 75 separate fire sources for the larger dai kanji alone. That figure is ignited at 8:00 p.m., with the others following immediately after. One can imagine the length of preparation time required, but the flames themselves die out in about 30 minutes. This is another example of the Japanese appreciation for fleeting beauty—the peak time for cherry blossom viewing in the spring is also very short, for example. This combination of beauty and brevity is viewed as a metaphor for human life itself.

Smaller bonfires have been lit at homes to see off ancestors for many centuries, but the mountainside bonfires in Kyoto are said to have originated with the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, who suggested the practice as a prayer to ward off illness. That would date the start of the event in the early 9th century. Last year, an estimated 120,000 people turned out to watch.

Kobo Daishi, by the way, is a formidable figure in Japanese history. Also known as Kukai, he traveled to China to study esoteric Buddhism and returned to establish monasteries and meditation centers in the Kyoto area. He founded the Shingon sect, is credited with inventing the kana syllabary (the Japanese use two alphabetical systems in addition to kanji), originated the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, created poetry, calligraphy, and sculpture, built lakes, founded a school, and compiled the oldest extant dictionary in Japan.

That’s a lot of activity to pack into one life, but Kobo Daishi also was known for his extreme ascetic practices–which likely freed up a lot of spare time!

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Matsuri da! (46): Japan’s dancing fools!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 16, 2007

IN OUR PREVIOUS MATSURI REPORTS, we’ve covered festivals with mikoshi races, mikoshi spinning, team competitions to smash mikoshi, groups charging down steep hillsides with a mikoshi at night, boat races, tug-of-war competitions with huge ropes, tug-of-war competitions with huge logs, drinking contests, fights to gain possession of balls, water splashing, and simulated sex. What else could possibly go on at a Japanese festival?


These three events are all O-Bon festivals held during the period from August 13 to 16, and all feature dancing. In fact, the whole point of the first and most famous festival, the Awa Odori festival of Tokushima Prefecture, is to get ripped, get goofy, and dance. (If you’ve seen Jack Nicholson’s dance scene in Goin’ South, you get the idea.)

That’s exactly how it all began. The local feudal lord held a banquet to celebrate the completion of his new castle in 1587. Japanese parties can get just as crazy as parties anywhere else once the participants get a snootful, and on this occasion, everyone seems to have gotten their snoots very full indeed. They got drunk and started dancing, and the dancing was so wacky and so much fun they decided to do it every year. Now, instead of dancing in the castle, they form groups called ren and do it down main street.

They still get drunk, too, but nowadays most people wait until after the dances are over.

Each ren has from 50 to 500 people, and anywhere from 200 to 500 ren perform a day. The dances are done to a bright, fast-paced melody accompanied by shamisen, gongs, and flutes. The lyrics of the song go:

Odoru aho ni miru aho, onaji aho nara odoranya son son.

Or (very) roughly:
Fools watch the dancing fools,
Since we’re all fools, we might as well dance.

And don’t let the tradition of more than 400 years fool you—one of the most important elements of the dance is spontaneity. The men are noted for letting it all hang out, while the women are more elegant. Once the official presentation is over, the spectators can join in the dance themselves, and the streets of Tokushima fill up with drunken, dancing Japanese.

Try this page for some more photos, all excellent. This Japanese site has some short but groovy videos. And clicking on this link lets you hear the music and lyrics. For more, here’s a YouTube clip, and another, and somebody stop me before I put up one more! (One wonders if the Tokushima maternity clinics get crowded every May.)

The Awa Odori dancers wear traditional summer yukata, but the 20 or so men who do the Chankoko Dance on the island of Fukue off Nagasaki Prefecture wear grass skirts, headgear decorated with flowers, and taiko drums around their waists. They dance in a circle and sing Omo omo onde, oniyamyode, omo onde. It’s anybody’s guess what that means, but some suspect it was originally a Buddhist sutra.

Most Japanese festivals are derived from Shinto, but this was originally a Buddhist dance to invoke the deities, and has been performed locally for more than 800 years. The men proceed from house to house and are invited to dance at the homes of people whose relatives died in the past year. They also dance at Buddhist temples.

The name Chankoko is onamatopoetic and comes from the sound of the drums and gongs accompanying the dance. The unfamiliar lyrics and the atypical costumes suggest its origins lie outside of Japan, perhaps in islands further south.

Finally, there is the Kujira Odori, or Whale Dance, of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. The first recorded whale hunters in Japan are from this municipality, and every year during the O-Bon season they perform a dance that mimes whale hunting. It has been performed for more than 300 years as a prayer for a good catch.

The dancers, singers, and drummers are known for their colorful clothing. They wear happi coats with red, white, and blue horizontal stripes, red headbands, yellow sashes, and white trousers. The dancers carry hollowed bamboo tubes that are about 50 centimeters long and filled with pebbles. The tubes are wrapped with tape of three different colors and have red tassels on the ends. The dancers shake these tubes as they dance their way onto the bow of a ship. Each of the colors is symbolic: black represents the whales, red stands for the red snapper (a fish), green is for the land, and white is for the waves.

Three dance festivals (out of dozens) held during the same week every year: one in celebration of getting drunk and dancing, another from the South Pacific with men in grass skirts, and a third celebrating whaling. Where else in the world will you find such simultaneous variety in folk traditions? And this in a country reputed for its homogeneity!

Here’s an excellent video of Awa Odori taken (I think) from local television.

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The 15th of August in Tokyo

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 15, 2007

AT NOON ON 15 AUGUST 1945 IN TOKYO, NHK Radio broadcast a recording made by Emperor Hirohito at about 11:30 p.m. the night before accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendering unconditionally to the Allied nations.

As this account in the Japan Times makes clear, however, that broadcast nearly didn’t make it to the air. The son-in-law of former Prime Minister Tojo Hideki issued a bogus order at 2:00 a.m. for about 1,000 soldiers to seize the Imperial Palace and cut off communications with the outside. The aim of the cabal of about a dozen officers was to find and destroy the two audio discs made by the Emperor before they could be broadcast to the nation later that day, overthrow the government, and install a new administration led by the War Minister to continue fighting.

The soldiers did occupy the Palace grounds, and about 40 or 50 entered the premises of the Imperial Household Agency. They hunted for the records for about 90 minutes without finding them. The discs had been placed there instead of NHK headquarters, which also was occupied, because it was thought to be a safer hiding place. One wonders how they knew to look on the Palace grounds instead of at NHK.

The coup leaders killed the head of the Imperial Guards after he refused their request to order the 4,000 troops under his command to join the revolt. Eventually, an officer of the Guards Division escaped and alerted General Tanaka Shizuichi, the head of the Eastern Defense Command (responsible for defending the capital) of the situation at the Palace. Tanaka convinced the Imperial Guard commander that the orders were not legitimate, and the commander confronted the coup leaders. They killed themselves shortly afterward, and the troops left the Palace grounds about 8:00 a.m., six hours after the plot got underway.

No Basis for Urban Legend

NHK’s official account of the events of the 14th and 15th, contained in their corporate history published on the network’s 50th anniversary in 1977, clears up another matter. There has been a persistent urban legend in Japan that the combination of poor radio reception and unfamiliarity with the language reserved for the Emperor led some people to believe that Hirohito had actually asked the people to fight to the last man. This cannot have been the case.

After the plotters were removed from NHK headquarters, the day’s broadcasts began at around 7:20 a.m., more than two hours behind schedule. There was an immediate and urgent announcement that the Emperor would address the nation at noon that day, and every citizen was urged to listen to the gyokuon broadcast. (Gyokuon is the Emperor’s voice, or literally, jeweled sound.) There were no daytime radio broadcasts in the regional areas of the country at that point in the war, so arrangements were made for a special hookup. This was to be the first time that most Japanese had ever heard their Emperor speak.

At noon, everyone in the country stopped what they were doing to listen. The recording was broadcast not only throughout Japan, but also over the NHK radio network in each of the colonized countries and territories in the Pacific. My mother-in-law’s family of well-to-do farmers were the only people in their neighborhood with a radio. She remembers everyone in the area coming to her house to listen.

Before the recording was played, the NHK announcer asked everyone to stand (to listen to the radio!) While it is true that the broadcast of the record was difficult to understand due to interference in some areas and the language used, there is no question that everyone understood what had just happened when the full broadcast ended some 37 minutes later. After the recording was played, the NHK announcer explained in simpler language that Japan had just surrendered, read the text of the Emperor’s broadcast again, and followed that with another explanation. After all that, it would have been unlikely that anyone would have thought the Emperor had asked the country to fight to the last man. In any event, newspapers began publishing extra editions at 1:00 p.m.

They understood in Tokyo. A stream of people passed by the bridge leading to the Imperial Palace to bow in its direction. This continued for the rest of the day.

They understood in Seoul. This was Liberation Day for Korea, and the sound of fireworks and gongs were heard almost immediately. The colonial government broadcast a plea asking for cooperation from the citizenry until the occupation army arrived, and they apparently got it.

They also understood on the other side of the world. It was midnight on the East Coast of the United States. Those people listening to a late-night live broadcast of Cab Calloway on the Mutual Broadcasting Network were among the first to find out.

Linguistic Note

One tricky aspect for students of the Japanese language is the bushel basket full of personal pronouns available in the language, combined with the common practice of omitting personal pronouns entirely. When pronouns are omitted, people usually can tell who is talking about whom from the context, but even the Japanese have to stop and ask each other every now and again.

For centuries, there was a specific personal pronoun meaning “I” reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor, with its own kanji character. Hirohito used the word that day in his broadcast. The word is chin.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Chinpo or chin-chin are two of the less refined expressions for penis (the latter used mostly by grade-school boys), though it is written differently. Anyone who has taught English to 10-year-old boys in Japan, pointed to the end of his jaw, and called it his chin knows to wait a couple of minutes for the hysterical laughter to subside.

I’m not an anthropological linguist, so I have no proof or knowledge that there was a connection between these near-homonyms centuries ago. Still, it does offer fertile ground for speculation.

As Sherlock Holmes put it, I have sometimes thought of writing a monograph on the subject.

Posted in History, Imperial family, Language, World War II | 19 Comments »

Matsuri da! (45): Burn, baby, burn!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 15, 2007

THE ELEMENTAL POWER OF FIRE casts a spell over our primeval natures, fascinating and frightening us to the extent that it has sometimes been the object of worship. It should be no surprise, therefore, that fire is the central theme for an entire sub-genre of Japanese festivals.

The lengths to which the parishioners of the Atago Shinto shrine in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, will go to pay reverence to the instinctive urges within us is particularly impressive.

The shrine’s fire festival has been held continuously since the Edo period. It started sometime after 1615, but no one is sure exactly when. The event itself is not complicated, but it is remarkable nonetheless. About 5:00 in the afternoon one day last month, about 50 men dressed in happi coats assembled to haul a huge torch up the steep hillside of Mt. Nochise to the shrine near the summit.

When they say huge torch, they aren’t kidding. The torch, if that is what one can call it, is 70 centimeters in diameter, three meters long, and weighs about 200 kilograms. It takes the men an hour of sweating and grunting in the summer heat to get that bruiser to the top of the mountain, 168 meters above the ground. Eight men do the actual carrying, and another 20 help by pulling it with ropes.

Once they reach the top, the real fun begins–they get to light it! The shrine’s guardian deity is the fire divinity, so the torch is set ablaze as an offering in supplication for safety against fire, illnesses, and disasters.

People sure can come up with a lot of reasons for enjoying themselves!

Japan is fortunate in that it has a smaller population of armchair meta-critics than some Western countries, who would find or create some postmodern excuse to disparage the event. Instead, the local residents gather to applaud the men and encourage them in their efforts to carry that load to the top of the mountain. I wonder how many of us would be willing to engage in backbreaking physical labor for an hour in the service of tradition.

Still, the modern guys have reportedly lightened their load. Today’s torch weighs about 200 kilograms, but in the past it used to be half again as heavy.

This year, the passage of a nearby typhoon brought strong winds and some rain, so the group lit only part of the torch, which was a minor disappointment. But the men weren’t about to let all their efforts go for naught. They promised to return when the weather was better and light the torch properly.

Those fellas lugged that lumber all the way to the top of the mountain, so you can be sure they kept their promise and returned a few days later, set it on fire, and watched it burn.

I’ll bet they had a great time doing it, too.

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