Japan from the inside out

Archive for August, 2007

The perversions of Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 13, 2007

EARLIER THIS WEEK, THE UPPER HOUSE of the Japanese Diet convened in an extraordinary session with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in charge as a result of its breathtaking election victory at the end of July. One Japanese newspaper referred to this Diet session as the “nejire kokkai”, kokkai being the word for the Diet and nejire meaning twisted, distorted, or perverse.

The distortion from their perspective is that the two branches of the national legislature are now controlled by different parties: the upper house is in the hands of the DPJ, while the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with its New Komeito coalition partner, has an overwhelming majority in the more important lower house. This is a novel experience for the Japanese because the opposition party has never controlled the upper house under the current Constitution.

They can therefore be forgiven for thinking this is not the way things are supposed to be. But rather than being a distortion of the democratic process, this unique situation also presents a unique opportunity for the legislators of both parties to create real two-party democracy–if they choose to straighten up and fly right.

Until now, few have made that choice. The LDP, which has seldom been out of power during the past half-century, exemplifies the old adage about absolute power. Meanwhile, Japan’s opposition parties have given little indication that they have the aptitude or competence (or even the desire) to be entrusted with forming a government. Wisely, the Japanese electorate has never permitted it. Now that electorate seems to be taking the opposition seriously, it behooves them to start behaving in a manner befitting a responsible political party.


One would hope the past is not a prelude. Over the years, Japanese have tended to dismiss the political opposition out of hand. One of the common complaints about them is, “All they say is Hantai! Hantai! (We’re against it).” One favorite opposition stunt has been the so-called cow walk. If they don’t care for a bill submitted by the LDP, but realize it’s going to pass anyway, they perform an exaggerated show of walking in extreme slow motion from their seats to physically cast their votes at the rostrum. Once, it took the ruling party’s 230 members 15 minutes to vote, while the opposition’s 120 members required an hour and a half. This is invariably broadcast on national television, and yes, it looks just as childish as it sounds. It’s no fluke that the people haven’t taken them seriously.

Since the election, some observers have been concerned that the DPJ, led by Ichiro Ozawa (photos), would continue their obstructionist ways without offering a constructive alternative to LDP leadership. DPJ Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama seemed to offer a ray of light in an interview with Bloomberg this week. Mr. Hatoyama said the DPJ would pick and choose its fights and offer legislation of its own. He also showed that he had a realistic grasp of the current political situation:

“I don’t think the people voted for us because they think a DPJ government would be better. People’s attention is now focused on the DPJ. They’re watching how the DPJ will behave.”

The problem, however, is that talking the talk isn’t enough; one has to walk the walk and not look like a cow in the process. And far from walking the walk, the DPJ clearly showed by its actions this past week that it still can’t tread the straight and narrow by offering a constructive alternative in Japanese politics.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (44): Bon odori and butt pinching

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 12, 2007

THIS WEEK IS O-BON SEASON IN JAPAN, and bon odori, or bon dancing, is a part of every midsummer festival. Women, often middle-aged and elderly, dance on platforms erected in the middle of the street or on open lots. People of all ages perform the dance during parades down Main Street, usually as part of a group from their place of employment—bank employees, school teachers, department store clerks…

It’s pleasant to watch, albeit rather tame. This style of dancing involves waving your arms in the air, swaying to and fro, and following a pattern of steps. No shaking of hips or smacking of lips—it’s all perfectly respectable.

But according to this article from the Daily Mainichi’s WaiWai, passing on information from the monthly magazine Cyzo, that wasn’t how it used to be in the old days. In a reversal of the usual trend, the now domesticated bon odori was once a much wilder affair. So wild, in fact, that it was banned as indecent.

Now doesn’t that pique your interest? It certainly piqued mine, so I had to find out more—in the spirit of strict scientific detachment for my matsuri studies, of course. I looked for some Japanese language sources on the Web and was surprised to discover there wasn’t a lot of information available on line about dirty O-Bon dancing. I did find out there was a common perception a century or so ago that bon odori was synonymous with an orgy. Apparently, the authorities banned it several times, starting in the Edo Period.

The lewd bon odori was not a problem in the cities, but rather in the rural areas. Living on the land is always a difficult proposition, and it’s even more difficult for young people looking for some excitement out of life. They had to work hard for little return and had few opportunities for socializing. In fact, early Japan had the custom of tsumadoi, in which women continued to live with their family after marriage. Their husbands paid them occasional conjugal visits. The women didn’t leave the household because they were needed for farm labor.

New Year’s and summer festivals were some of the few occasions young men and women living out in the country could meet each other, and the weather at New Year’s is not conducive to outdoor fun. Young people didn’t let their chance for summertime socializing go to waste, so bon odori in those days was just a quick prelude to finding a dark spot in the bushes.

That didn’t happen in the cities because it was much easier for people to mingle with the opposite sex. In fact, the custom of bon odori had died out entirely in the urban areas.

The WaiWai article notes that some customs from those days are still alive today in slightly altered form. One of these festivals is the Shineri Benten Tataki Jizo in Niigata Prefecture’s Uonuma. During this festival, held annually on June 30, a special area is set up in which any woman who enters is liable to be pinched, and any man who pinches a woman is likely to be whacked on the shoulders.

Golly, matsuri research sure does turn up a lot of fun facts!

Ah, so. I should have known. It turns out that the word shineri is derived from a combination of the words shiri, which are the buttocks, and tsuneru, which means to pinch. Tradition has it that the women who get pinched and the men who get whacked will have good fortune for the coming year. Sounds like a good excuse as any to me! By all accounts, things get a bit rambunctious during the night of the festival.

I’ll bet!

Of course I scouted around for some photos, and I found some, too. I’ve posted one here—still in keeping with a strict scientific detachment for matsuri research, of course. The children are sitting astride a shinten, which is the object at a Shinto shrine or festival in which the spirit of the divinity dwells. They dance around it during the festival.

I have to admit, if one is on a spiritual quest and looking for God, that’s as good a place to find him as any. And a lot better than most places!

Now doesn’t this religious ceremony seem to be a more pleasant way to spend a summer evening with your children than going to a church supper?

For a slide show of this year’s Shineri Benten, try this site in Japanese. If you can’t read it, click on the area with the gold lettering above where it says “new”.

Posted in Festivals, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Sex | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The ninth of August in Nagasaki

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 9, 2007

NAGASAKI IS A CHARMING AND ATTRACTIVE CITY. I’ve been there several times over the past 20 years—one of my brothers-in-law lives in the bedroom community of Isahaya. With a population of 447,000, it has all the appeal of an urban area without the disadvantages of a crowded metropolis. If San Francisco could be described as convex because of its sharply rising hills in the districts downtown, then Nagasaki could be described as concave, because it lies at the bottom of a basin-like area. Regardless of the direction of the curves, both cities have steep hillsides that can make it difficult to maintain one’s balance when walking.


Tourists love Nagasaki. There are several sites providing excellent views overlooking the city, particularly from Glover Garden and another that is accessible by ropeway up the side of a mountain. As in some San Francisco neighborhoods, parts of the city have an ambience that makes one think the date is 1927 instead of 2007. Both have a Chinatown district, though Nagasaki’s is much smaller. (And the food isn’t quite as good.) Decades-old streetcars are still used for public transportation on cobblestone streets downtown. The authorities are in the process of restoring Dejima, a former artificial island built during the Edo period that was once the only place in Japan where foreigners could legally reside and was Japan’s sole connection to the West for trade and cultural exchange. (It’s no longer an island—Nagasaki Harbor was later rebuilt and Dejima was then connected to the city by landfill.) If my wife suggested we move to Nagasaki—and she just might—I’d immediately agree.

As pleasant and appealing as it is today, however, you wouldn’t have wanted to be there 62 years ago on August 9, particularly at 11:02 a.m., when the second atomic bomb fell.

What was it like to be in Nagasaki that day? The Nagasaki Broadcasting Co., or NBC, (a small regional TV and radio network), has placed translated excerpts of interviews with survivors on their website. Here’s just a sample.

“…we made our way through the ruins to the site of our house, only to find a man from the neighborhood, Mr. Matsumoto, lying dead at a gateway. His eyeballs were hanging out, and his tongue was stretching from his mouth. His presence here indicated that we had found the approximate location of our house. In front of the entrance we found a corpse under the broken remains of a cart. When we turned the corpse over, we recognized the face of our sister, which alone had escaped the flash of heat. Her body was so thoroughly burned that her black flesh crumbled at the slightest touch…”


“As my own wounds were on my head, from the face to the neck, and upper body, I had many layers of bandages that had to be changed over and over. The pain I had when they would peel off two or three layers was so great that I couldn’t think straight. By the time they came to wrapping on the new bandages, I had lost all my strength and felt like an empty shell. For about two hours I would be screaming because it was so painful, and then it would be time for another treatment. This was repeated over and over again. The gauze had been soaked in Lybanol and when it dried it would shrink up, forcing the burnt flesh up through the holes in the mesh.
“The treatment from the nurses at the naval hospital was rough. They would grab the edge of the gauze with tweezers and rip it right off, causing so much pain that I cried out, ‘Just kill me!’ over and over. Just hearing the call ‘Treatment!’ was enough to start some of the patients crying. If there were some way that experience could be replayed, exactly as it was and without hiding anything, I would really like everyone to see what it was like.”


“As time passed my burned flesh began to rot and fall away. I was lying on my front, so the flesh fell down at my sides and piled up there. Every day they had to come time and time again to clean that up. I think I suffered a lot more of this loss of flesh than the others. When you get a serious wound like the one I had, you would usually expect insects to gather. But at the worst stage, not even flies would come near me. My body smelled of burns and rot. Even now I can still recall that smell; it is always in the back of my mind. Every day I called out in pain and agony for someone to kill me…”

Whether you want to ban the bomb or think the type of weapon used isn’t the problem…whether you think the decision to drop the bomb was entirely justified or driven by racism…if you’re one of those people who thinks Japan didn’t learn anything from the war…and especially if you’re from China and South Korea…

You owe it to yourself to read these stories.

Posted in History, World War II | 5 Comments »

Matsuri da! (43): Grab those fans while it’s hot!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2007

THERE’S NO LIMIT to the Japanese imagination when it comes to creating motifs on which to base a festival. For verification, one need look no further than the Uchiwatori, which is part of the Gion Festival held on the first of this month by the Hirai Shinto shrine in Iga, Mie Prefecture.

Uchiwatori literally means grabbing uchiwa, or the non-folding variety of hand fans. Four five-meter-high bamboo poles are erected on the shrine grounds. About 100 uchiwa and paper flowers are attached to the top of the poles. At 6:00 p.m., 10 parishioners remove the stays keeping the poles erect, and they tumble earthward. The participants then engage in a mad scramble to grab the fans and the flowers.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not a good idea to get involved in one of these scrambles unless you’re serious about getting a piece of the action. Grandmothers will literally elbow you or shove you out of the way to grab their reward and not stop to apologize about it later.

The festival also features traditional dancing by miko, or shrine maidens, which is not without its charms, but the scrum to come away with one the fans is the big deal.

This is actually part of the festival of the Tsushima shrine, another Shinto shrine, which is located on the grounds of the Hirai shrine. Dating back to the Edo period, which ended in 1868, the Uchiwatori is held in supplication for relief from the summer heat and for avoiding illness.

As with any other aspect of life in Japan, when you pick up one thread, several others become apparent, and that’s true for this festival, too. The enshrined deity of the Tsushima shrine is none other than Susano’o-no-Mikoto, the younger brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the principal female deity in Shinto mythology and the supposed ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family. (The siblings didn’t get along well.)

Legend has it that he was walking along one day and encountered an elderly couple weeping. The couple had eight daughters, seven of whom had been eaten by the monster Yamata-no-Orochi. This creature is described as having eight heads and tails, bright red eyes, a bloody belly, and a back covered with moss and trees. It was so big that its body covered eight valleys and mountains.

That sounds like it might have been a hallucination from an ancient Japanese bout with the DTs.

Well, the couple were crying because Y-n-O was about to come for their eighth and last daughter. Susano’o obtained permission from the parents for her hand in marriage if he managed to save her, and that was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Susano’o brewed some sake, refined it eight times, and built an enclosure with eight gates, each of which had a platform and a sake vat. They filled the vats and waited. Susano’o was no dope. Very few living creatures in Japan can resist eight free vats of sake.

Sure enough, Y-n-O showed up and saw his opportunity. The eighth daughter could wait—he wanted the grog. The monster sank each of his heads into a separate vat and got monstrously sloshed, falling asleep. In turn, Susano’o saw his opportunity and proceeded to chop him up. In so doing, he found the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi in one of the tails.

This sword became one of the three objects that are the Imperial Regalia, symbols of the Japanese Emperor’s authority and legitimacy. A replica of the sword is kept in the Imperial Palace; the original is said to be kept at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

Now how’s that for pedigree? This legend, by the way, is told in the Kojiki, a sacred text of Shinto.

Nothing happens during the Uchiwatori as thrilling as slaying an eight-headed drunken monster to win the hand of a fair maid, but reports suggest it can get rough, in keeping with the spirit of the legend.

There is one thing I don’t understand, though–if the object is to keep cool, why get all hot and sweaty scrambling for a fan?

Posted in Festivals, History, Imperial family | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

A more muscular Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2007

THE BOSTON GLOBE HAS PUBLISHED AN OP-ED called A More Muscular Japan that combines a discussion of Japan’s growing military strength and the country’s relations with North Korea.

Some newspapers, such as the New York Times, print articles about Japan that seem deliberately malicious. That is not the case with the Globe article. It is largely a collection of superficial, mundane observations obvious to any layman, combined with a dollop of incoherence.

For example:

After decades of North Korean military provocations, Kim Jong Il now has a big problem on his hands, as the Japan of old is transforming into an increasingly more muscular nation, one less hesitant to use force.

Japan is less hesitant to use force? How do we know this? The author doesn’t say, nor does he provide any argument to support this assertion.

Japan did send a contingent of troops to Iraq, but they weren’t involved in combat operations. The Japanese did exchange fire with and damage a North Korean vessel designed for covert operations of some sort five years ago, which ended when the Koreans scuttled their own craft. (For some reason, the Telegraph article linked here did not see fit to mention the missile the North Koreans fired at the Japanese. BBC TV at the time broadcast film of the battle, and ended it abruptly without showing the missile being fired. But I digress.)

And why does Kim Jong-il suddenly have a problem? All he has to do is stop his “decades of military provocations” and his problems disappear. (Which the Japanese sinking of the North Korean ship seems to have achieved.)

Relations between the two countries have long been contentious and mutually distrustful. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Japan’s military alliance with the United States and its history of harsh colonial rule have remained impediments to normal relations. From Tokyo’s perspective, North Korea’s brazen abduction of Japanese nationals during the late 1970s and early 1980s, its repressive authoritarianism, and its flagrant militarism make North Korea a repellent neighbor.

Why should anyone particularly care about Pyeongyang’s perspective? Japan isn’t causing any problems with the North Koreans. The “history of harsh colonial rule” isn’t an impediment to relations with South Korea.

The author has one thing right—it is a repellent country because of its repressive authoritarianism and flagrant militarism. So why should the perspective of a peaceful, free-market democracy be compared to that of the repellent country in a way that suggests they have equal standing or interests?

Unlike China, where the business community acts as a brake on a Japanese hard line, businesses are largely indifferent to relations with North Korea.

Nowhere in the article is support provided for the implicit suggestion that Japan would take a “hard line” against China if the business community weren’t against it. And what form would this hard line take? The article is about a Japan whose military might is growing. Does that mean the author thinks Japan would be rattling sabers in the direction of Beijing? I hope not, as that would be a very tenuous assertion indeed.

The Japanese do chase away the occasional Chinese submarine that tests its territorial waters, but there is no sign of any serious military dispute on the horizon. Japan holds some islands in the East China Sea that China claims, but China would have to initiate military action for the Japanese to even consider taking up arms. The Chinese have indulged in bellicose rhetoric similar to that of Kim Jong-il, but they haven’t fired any missiles in Tokyo’s direction.

Perhaps that’s because the Chinese business community–which is also its political community and military community–acts as a brake on its more irresponsible elements.

…it appears that diplomacy has, at least temporarily, stemmed the tide of nuclear ambitions in North Korea. Yet, the question remains: When and where will this tide rise again? All bets are off, but you can count on one thing: The next time Japan will be walking taller, and it may be carrying a bigger stick.

Help me out here, somebody. The North Korean tide of nuclear ambitions might be stemmed, but the question remains where it will rise again? Just what is this supposed to mean? There is a specific place that nuclear ambitions rise? The North Koreans would threaten to use nuclear weapons somewhere they haven’t already threatened to do so?

Then we get the dire warning, “all bets are off, but you can count on one thing”. If all bets are off, you can’t count on anything, can you? And those are two things the author is counting on, not one.

“The next time Japan will be walking taller”. What is this “next time” supposed to mean? The next time North Korea has nuclear ambitions? But that would mean Pyeongyang hadn’t really given them up, wouldn’t it? And how will these ambitions be manifest? Will they be accompanied by new threats against Japan? If so, why?

And how will Japan be “walking taller”? Will it have amended its Constitution? (That process will take a few years yet, at the minimum–assuming attempts to amend it are successful.)

“You can count on one thing: The next time Japan…may be carrying a bigger stick.” May be? How can we count on something that may happen…or may not happen?

I am astonished that an American newspaper would publish this slapdash recitation of poorly written banalities. Who could have been responsible for it?

Richard J. Samuels is director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book, Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, will be published next week.

This man was able to convince a publisher to bring out a whole book’s worth of this sort of prose? And the title! How is the part before the colon related to the part after the colon? Tokyo’s grand strategy is to secure Japan?

I wonder who would read this to the end—other than the MIT grad students who have it forced on them when they take his courses.

No wonder American policymakers responsible for Japan are wandering around in the dark and bumping into walls.

Posted in Books, International relations, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Matsuri da! (42): Okinawan whistling and Nagano drumming

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2007

THE SUMMER FESTIVAL SEASON IN JAPAN is nearing its peak. By the end of next week, the entire country will have been out on the street at some point dancing, drinking, and grinning from ear-to-ear. There will be so many distinctive events held from Hokkaido to Okinawa over the next fortnight there won’t be enough space to cover even a fraction of them, but I’ll try to get a handle on the ones worth special mention. Consider this a head start!

Most Japanese festivals originate from Shinto observances, but of course there are exceptions. Any old excuse is fine for the folks in this country to get together for a summertime party, and there are no finer examples of non-Shinto observances than two events coming up in the next week.

One is the Ginowan Hagoromo Festival, which will be held in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on the 11th and 12th. The area residents dress up in costumes and hold a parade recreating the period of a local folk tale. Legend has it that an angel descended from heaven to a pond in Ginowan to take a bath. A local farmer happened along while she was bathing, and, in a bit of quick thinking, hid her wings (hagoromo), preventing her return. One thing usually leads to another in a boy-meets-girl story, and that’s what happened in Ginowan, too. The farmer and the angel were married and had a son (and in some versions, a daughter as well). The couple didn’t live happily ever after, alas—she discovered her wings by accident one day and flew back to heaven.

Perhaps the lesson is that heavenly angels can be just as fickle as the earthbound species!

Some Japanese say the tale is a variation on Tsuru no Ongaeshi, known by every schoolchild. Here’s a quick summary of that legend.

The festival’s main attraction is its kachaashi contest, however. The kachaashi is a local folk dance anyone can perform. All you have to do is hold your arms up in the air and rotate your palms in time with the music. The rest of the choreography is left up to the dancer. The appeal of this particular dance is that even those people with two left feet can join in and enjoy themselves. It’s a different matter for talented dancers, of course, who turn the simple form into something both elegant and dynamic, spurred on by the hand clapping and interjections of traditional Okinawan whistling. (The sound pattern of their whistling is so distinctive it is immediately recognizable, but their technique is the same as the good old American method of making a circle with one finger and the thumb and sticking it in the mouth.)

The individual kachaasi competition usually features more than 100 participants, while about 30 teams vie for honors in the group competition.

Meanwhile, there’s going to be a big noise in Okaya, Nagano Prefecture, on the 13th and 14th during the 38th Okaya Taiko Festival. The program starts with groups of taiko drummers and dancers parading through the city on floats. When it gets dark, they gather at a specially built 60-meter-wide stage for performances of drumming and singing. The climax occurs when 300 drummers appear for a simultaneous performance. I’ve seen—and heard–taiko performances with as many as 10 drummers, and those were thunderous. I can’t imagine what it sounds like when 300 drummers pound away at once. Reports say the drums can be heard throughout the city, and I’m sure that’s no exaggeration. The homes and buildings in the town might well need special structural reinforcement.

The people in Okaya must really like whacking things with sticks to make music—they’ve also sponsored the World’s Marimba Competition for the past few years, where the musicians perform pieces ranging from traditional Japanese folk melodies to Debussy!

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Japan’s ongoing national conversation

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2007

WHENEVER YOU SEE OVERSEAS CRITICS maintain that the Japanese are in denial or avoid talking about their Imperial past, it is a dead giveaway that the critics are out of their depth. I’ve often made the point that the discussion of Japanese wartime behavior, including the comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre, is conducted from a broader perspective and in more detail here than anywhere else in the world.

Now, Philip Seaton of Hokkaido University has published a book presenting the same thesis. Titled Japan’s Contested War Memories, it was favorably reviewed by Jeff Kingston in The Japan Times on Monday.

Writes Kingston:

Stereotypical images of Japanese collectively in denial about the atrocities committed by the Imperial armed forces are grossly misleading and overlook the more prevalent view accepting wartime guilt and favoring atonement. In this excellent study featuring media and cultural analysis, Hokkaido University’s Philip Seaton persuasively argues that, “Japanese war memories are not nearly as nationalistic as they are frequently made out to be.”

Seaton points out that war memory is fiercely contested among Japanese, and collective amnesia is impossible given this ubiquitous and robust discourse. History remains at the center of contemporary political battles and it is thus a “current affairs” issue….The war has not been forgotten. Quite the opposite, the Japanese seem unable to let it go.”

While not mentioning the comfort women specifically, this point is made about compensation:

In terms of Japan’s steadfast legal position that all compensation claims have been resolved, he argues that “most governments tacitly accept or openly support the Japanese compensation position.”

In conclusion, Kingston writes:

Translating this book into Chinese and Korean might help.

I’d like to share his optimism, but too often it seems that some Chinese and Koreans are not really interested in facts that would derail their other objectives. In that regard, they perhaps share an affinity with some members of the U.S. House of Representatives and journalists and editors on the staff of the New York Times.

Posted in Books, History, World War II | Tagged: | 10 Comments »

Japan’s Ozawa not the man of the hour

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 6, 2007

SOME ENGLISH-LANGUAGE BLOGS ON JAPAN would have you believe that one reason for the opposition Democratic Party’s stunning success in the recent upper house election was due to the efforts of party leader Ichiro Ozawa.

In fact, I ran across one blog before the election that referred to him as “the wily Ozawa” and said the upcoming victory, which had been widely anticipated, would be a great success for him.

Once upon a time, it might have been possible to shower this sort of praise on the DPJ kingfish–he was, after all, the fair-haired boy of the late Kakuei Tanaka, the Boss Tweed of Japanese politics a generation and a half ago. But he’s been on a losing streak that lasted for more than a decade, which included several failed splinter parties and the trouncing former Prime Minister Koizumi and the ruling LDP administered to the DPJ in the 2005 lower house election, when Ozawa was in charge of the opposition’s campaign.

Now there’s a report in the Japan Times’ Media Mix column today with the following passage:

An Asahi Shimbun survey found that only 4 percent of the people who voted for the DPJ said they support party chief Ichiro Ozawa.

There’s no question that Mr. Ozawa has skills as a vote-gathering technician, but it’s worth saying again: He’s the most overrated politician in Japan.

Posted in Politics | 7 Comments »

Matsuri da! (41): Serving girls to the gods

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 6, 2007

THE PHOTO YOU SEE here was taken a week ago at the Onda Matsuri held by the Aso Shinto shrine in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture. The scene it depicts is as close to timeless as there is in the modern world—the festival was first performed at least one thousand years ago, and the procession shown in the photo hasn’t changed in that time.

The matsuri is a combination of this procession with a rice planting festival held earlier in the day. The rice planting festival is similar to many others of its type, but this unique procession is the event that attracts nationwide attention. In fact, it has been designated an intangible cultural property of the nation.

The entire ceremony is held in supplication for a bountiful harvest. After the rice planting festival, the shrine divinities are carried in four mikoshi, or portable shrines, to two temporary shrines about a kilometer away. The procession is held to give the divinities a tour of the rice paddies, allowing them to observe the growth of this year’s crop. As the line of more than 100 people advance at a stately pace, accompanied by music from taiko drums and flutes, onlookers at the side of the road toss stalks of the rice plant onto the roofs of the mikoshi. According to tradition, the more stalks that stay on the roof, the better the harvest will be. Reports say a bumper crop is expected this year.

The 14 young women dressed in white are called unari. They are carrying food on their heads to be offered to the divinities. In other words, they are the serving girls to the gods.

Another ritual rice planting ceremony is held after they arrive at the first temporary shrine. They move on to the second temporary shrine, and later in the evening they return to the Aso shrine. There, yet another rice planting ritual is conducted, and the participants ceremonially visit all the shrines again (without actually going there a second time).

The city of Aso, incidentally, is located near Mt. Aso, an active volcano with the world’s largest caldera. Celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa used it as the location for his movie, Ran.

This page in Japanese contains many fine photographs of the event. Here is a link to a French blog with a slide show of 78 superb photos. Shots of the procession start at about photo #30. It also includes some scenes showing the activities before the procession, some of which have a man in demon costume grabbing a child and lifting up a woman. Unfortunately, I could not find an explanation in either English or Japanese.

Finally, here is a 50-second report of the event shown on local news in RealPlayer. I’m not sure how long that link is going to last, so grab it quickly.

Agricultural issues are not the point of this post, but perhaps the story, the photos, and the clip will provide some context the next time you hear a report that not all Japanese are anxious to fully open their market to rice imports.

And here’s a final thought: consider how naturally everyone behaves wearing costumes whose design hasn’t been altered in a millennium. After the festival, of course, they change back into their regular at-home attire of t-shirts, shorts, and sneakers. But it’s always impressive how the Japanese—young or old, male or female—are completely at ease in this sort of clothing when participating in this sort of ritual. Indeed, they become transformed by it. Observers have no sense that they are watching people wearing costumes in a play at all.

That’s because they’re watching just another aspect of daily life in the Japanese archipelago.

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

Matsuri da! (40): The balancing act in Akita

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 2, 2007

STARTING ON FRIDAY and continuing until Monday is an event that exemplifies what I mean when I say that Japanese festivals are the world’s best free entertainment. That would be the Kanto Festival in Akita City, Akita Prefecture. It is one of the three major festivals of the Tohoku (northeastern) region, and it has been designated an important intangible cultural asset by the national government. More than one million people turn out to witness the spectacle every year.

The festival took on its current form during the middle part of the Edo period (which would be sometime in the 18th century) as a midsummer event to drive away the evil spirits and pray for a bountiful harvest. The first record citing the festival dates back to 1789. It is one of many lantern festivals in Japan, but none of the others are quite like this one. Men clad in traditional happi coats carry 235 poles filled with a total of about 10,000 lanterns down the city’s main street. Each pole holds up to 46 lanterns on crossbars. The poles are 12 meters high and weigh 50 kilograms each.

The men do not carry them on special belts, such as those worn by the people who carry flags in parades. No—they balance them on their hips and foreheads, encouraged by shouts of “Dokkoisho!” from the crowds lining the street.

And this is what it looks like:

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Matsuri da! (39): Rolling out the barrel since the 15th century

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 2, 2007

WHEN THE WEATHER GETS HOT AND SULTRY, the Japanese cool off like people everywhere else by quenching their thirst with a glass or two of beer. While sake is considered the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, it is most frequently drunk warm during colder weather. It’s not really consumed for refreshment. But it might surprise even some Japanese to discover that the custom of drinking beer on these islands is a lot older than they suspect.

How old? At least as far back as 1441, when the Bakushu Matsuri was first held at the Soja Shinto Shrine in Koka, Shiga Prefecture. The two kanji used to write the word bakushu are the ones for barley and for liquor. Though the drink may not resemble the beer of today, the ingredients of both beverages give them a similar pedigree.

The story goes that the Soja Shrine parishioners finished the work of rebuilding the main hall in 1441. To celebrate, they created an alcoholic drink out of new barley to offer to the divinities in supplication for an abundant harvest and to prevent serious illness caused by the hot weather.

The festival is still held annually, and this year’s event took place on the 18th last month. Male parishioners serve as the brewers. Their religious duties are to mix the water taken from a clear stream near the shrine with barley and malted rice, pour the ingredients into three large barrels, and let it ferment. The brewing method is known only to the shrine’s brewmeisters and passed on from one generation to the next.

On the festival day, the bakushu is taken in the barrels to be offered to the shrine’s divinities. After a prayer, 30 fortunate parishioners are the first to sample it, after which it is then ladled out to the rest of the crowd. Those who’ve tasted the beverage say it is sweet, and the people attending the festival this year report that the latest batch was much tastier than last year’s brew.

If you’re surprised that the Japanese would conduct a religious ceremony in which the central act is the production and consumption of an alcoholic beverage, you’re either a new reader or you just haven’t been paying attention!

Incidentally, in the earlier part of the last century, the Japanese used the word mugishu for beer, rather than bakushu (though the kanji are identical). They also introduced Western-style beer to Korea and built the first breweries there during the colonial period. The Korean beer OB (which stood for Oriental Brewery) was produced by a company that branched off from Asahi, and the former Korean beer Crown was Kirin beer renamed.

The Japanese later discarded the term mugishu in favor of biiru, but the Koreans kept the former word and still use it today. They pronounce it with the Korean readings of the same Chinese characters, however–mekju.

Postscript: The link to the city of Koka above connects to a four-minute YouTube video that’s worth a look.

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U.S. Congress: Lacking the courage of its insolence

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 1, 2007

THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES finally roused itself from its slumber and passed a non-binding resolution crassly making demands on the Japanese government regarding the wartime comfort women. They managed to wake up just one day after Japan’s upper house elections on Sunday.

The people shepherding the resolution through the House said their intention was to put off the vote until after the election to avoid embarrassing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. They needn’t have worried—it wouldn’t have been possible to embarrass Mr. Abe any further after the drubbing his party received at the polls.

Not that anyone really took that pro forma excuse seriously. It’s more likely that the Democrat-controlled House wanted to avoid creating a sympathy vote for the conservative Mr. Abe in the election. After all this time and discussion, however, it does seem anticlimactic.

What has it accomplished? The ethnic Korean and Chinese backers of the bill on the West Coast get to bask in their success of briefly blackening Japan’s eye. Primary sponsor Mike Honda will get their support and financial contributions for his reelection campaign. Those comfort women who were really interested in a financial settlement got their money a long time ago.

Typical of the farce were these comments by Mike Honda and one of the women who testified, Lee Yong-soo:

Representative Mike Honda, Democrat of California and the resolution’s chief sponsor, said Lee Yong Soo, a surviving comfort woman who testified before Congress in February of her rape and torture at the hands of Japanese soldiers, watched the proceedings Monday. “All she could do was weep and say thank you,” Honda said. “It vindicated her past.”

Unfortunately, it also vindicated the six different stories Lee has told different audiences about her wartime experience. She told Congress that she snuck out of her house in the middle of the night voluntarily to meet a recruiter. Meanwhile, two weeks later, she told a Japanese audience that some evil Japanese men in uniforms abducted her from her house at gunpoint.

Only a Congressman could take such pride in having no pride.

But more than anything, this has needlessly created ill will between the United States and those in political circles of one of its closest allies. It was all so pointless, which is also an apt description of any further discussion about the issue. No one’s mind is going to get changed at this point, and nothing more is going to happen anyway.

I wasn’t even going to bring it up until I noticed something about the bill’s passage. I’ve stated in the past here that putting the demands to Japan in the form of a non-binding resolution was a singular act of cowardice on the part of Congress. If they were going to unnecessarily disparage an ally, the least they could have done was to give it some official teeth.

They probably were probably afraid to do just that, however—the point of the exercise was to satisfy a few constituents while indulging in cheap, quasi-legal vaudeville, so they didn’t want to push their luck.

But it was still surprising just how craven their behavior turned out to be in the end.

The resolution demands that Japan “formally acknowledge, apologize and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner.”

Except this demand was the ultimate in hypocrisy. Is it important to clearly accept responsibility without equivocation? Only for other people. Not for the House of Representatives.

They passed the resolution with a voice vote. In other words, they just sat on their duffs and said yea or nay and went on to the next non-issue. Other than the sponsors, none of them took the trouble to bother taking clear responsibility for their own demands.

These people think they have the authority to insolently meddle in an issue that has never involved the United States without even condescending to put their name on the record?

Only a Congressman could be so self-centered. Or take so seriously the pointless application of ex post facto morality.

UPDATE: The AP is reporting that an unidentified staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity (because he was unauthorized to divulge the information) told a reporter the Japanese Embassy requested the delay of the vote until after the Japanese election, so as not to influence the result. Perhaps true, perhaps spin, but even the staffer’s approach is typical of the attitude of Congress throughout–wanting to preen in self-aggrandizement, but not wanting to have their fingerprints on the evidence.

UPDATE #2: The Yomiuri Shimbun ran a three-part series to provide background on the issue (in English).

The first article presents the origins of the comfort woman system.

The second article asserts there is no hard evidence of coercion, while there is evidence of punishment being meted out to those military personnel who took it upon themselves to force women into the brothels.

The third article discusses the Kono Statement.

These were found at Nobuo Ikeda’s English-language blog related to the issue. His latest post reports that Nobuyoshi Ozaki, a writer living in Louisiana, will sue Mr. Honda and Mr. Lantos for defamation on behalf of the Japanese people, and has gotten in contact with Alan Dershowitz about the matter.

It’s hard to believe that grab-bag of proper nouns can fit in that last sentence without crashing the computer!

Posted in History, World War II | 71 Comments »