Japan from the inside out

Archive for October, 2007

Japan: The gold standard for behavior in NE Asia

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 31, 2007

EXTEND YOUR SYMPATHIES to those people who innocently believe that, having read articles or seen television reports about Japan, they thereby have any real knowledge of the country or its people.

It’s not unusual for journalists to get it wrong—we’ve come to expect it–but it’s unfathomable how they can be so wrong about Japan so often. Even when they manage to get the facts right, there are exaggerations that would make a vaudeville comic wince and an eagerness to accentuate the negative that makes informed media consumers wonder about their real agenda.

But enough of words: pictures are worth thousands of them, and here is one worth several thousand. It is the perfect expression of what Japan and its people are really like:

The women are holding a banner with a message that reads “Thank you China” in three languages: Romanized Japanese (arigato), Chinese (xie xie), and English. These are members of the Japanese women’s soccer team, and the photo shows their behavior just after they were eliminated from the Women’s World Cup held in China last month.

A gracious act to be sure, you might be thinking, but nothing extraordinary in the world of sports.

Well, gracious acts in this age are not so commonplace that we should overlook them, but this was a rare form of grace under pressure. The women are standing on a soccer pitch in front of a crowd of 40,000 Chinese in a Hangzhou stadium who had just spent the entire match booing every move the Japanese team made, cheering wildly for their opponents, and waving a large national flag when the other team scored a goal.

No, the opposing team wasn’t China—it was Germany, who won the match 2-0.

The Chinese behavior should come as no surprise. During soccer’s Asian Cup in China in 2004, a 60,000-strong crowd attending the final between China and Japan started booing with the Japanese national anthem. The players and Japanese fans were pelted with trash, and the fans were seated in a special section with extra security. After Japan won, angry Chinese crowds demonstrated outside the stadium. Keeping order required a police and military presence of 5,000.

This year, FIFA moved up the Japan-Germany match to 17 September from the originally scheduled 18th because the latter was the 76th anniversary of the Mukden Incident (also known as the Manchuria Incident), which led to war between the countries six years later. The Chinese government asked FIFA for the change because they were concerned about their ability to provide security for the Japanese team.

The incident during the Women’s World Cup ignited a fiery debate in China, as well it might with the 2008 Beijing Olympics less than a year away. Some Chinese were impressed by the Japanese women’s courage and thought their countrymen would do well to follow their example, as described in this Japanese-language report from Supootsu Hochi, published by Yomiuri. Others disagreed, claiming that it would be disgraceful for Chinese to be swayed by what they claimed was PR from Japan, a country that won’t recognize its wartime misdeeds.

The report says the controversy intensified on the 18th when the online edition of the Chengdu Business Newspaper based in Szechwan Province published an account of the incident and included a photograph. In an editorial, the paper asserted that the match’s biggest losers were not the Japanese team, but the spectators. Others countered that it was perfectly natural to boo the Japanese, who deserved no consideration whatsoever. This touched off the usual e-mail and Internet free-for-all.

The debate continued when a Chinese weekly hit the newsstands on the 20th, which declared that even while recognizing the importance of the Sino-Japanese historical problems, “China needs a forward-looking attitude and the sound awareness (of itself) as a great power.”

Little of this information has appeared in English. A quick sweep of the Internet turned up only one mention in a sports blog, which got the information from the EastSouthWestNorth website. The latter were in the camp of those unhappy with the crowd’s behavior.

One might find this lack of coverage curious, but perhaps we should consider the context. The IOC has to be legitimately concerned about the potential for violence against Japanese athletes and fans during next year’s Games, and might have wished to downplay the incident in the media. They’re stuck with their choice of the Chinese as hosts.

As it is, China is having enough trouble trying to keep the anti-pollution promises it made when it bid for the Games. They probably will not succeed, and this recent report indicates the extent of the problem. (Note the photo.) The article does not mention Chinese excuses that the pollution is caused mostly by sand and dust storms.

It does, however, quote a UN official saying that people should remember it is the first time a developing nation has hosted the Olympics. Perhaps that’s what the Chinese need to keep in mind rather than an awareness of itself as a great power. Indeed, the Women’s World Cup was originally scheduled to be held in China in 2003, but had to be moved to the U.S. because of the SARS epidemic, caused and spread by Third World levels of sanitation and public health standards. Also, the International Ice Hockey Federation cancelled the 2003 IIHF Women’s World Championship that was to be held in Beijing that year.

And of course the Chinese have to be alarmed about the behavior of the soccer spectators last month because they realize how damaging a similar or more serious incident would be to the nation’s image worldwide. If people were injured—or worse—during the Olympics, it would be no consolation for anyone if the Chinese were to realize they had brought it on themselves.

The country’s rulers have chosen to deflect domestic dissatisfaction by creating a sense of national unity that incorporates outrageous anti-Japanese propaganda. This policy has created a citizenry so boorish the army is required to guarantee security at an international athletic event. How else to control crowds that boo a national anthem, dump trash on innocent athletes, think courtesy and politeness is PR (damned if they do and damned if they don’t), and suffer from the delusion that Japanese deny invading China 76 years ago, before anyone in that stadium was born?

Of course their reputation would be harmed. People still remember the incident that occurred during a boxing match in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When a South Korean boxer was declared the loser in one fight, two Korean coaches jumped into the ring and pummeled one of the judges. A volunteer security staffer removed his identifying jacket and started punching the judge as well. Ringside officials threw trash and two folding chairs into the ring. Other Korean officials then turned out lights in the hall.

Here’s the New York Times account of the incident. Note the excuses they make for Korean behavior in the first paragraph and last sentence. Given that paper’s attitude toward Japan, try to imagine how they would have covered the story had the venue been Tokyo instead of Seoul.

Meanwhile, Japan has hosted the Olympics in exemplary fashion three times. It is beyond the realm of imagination that the incidents in Seoul and Hangzou could have happened anywhere in Japan. It is inconceivable that a Japanese crowd would boo another country’s national anthem, boo a national team throughout a sporting event, throw garbage on players and fans, and behave so badly the army is required to keep them in line. International sporting events in Japan have never been cancelled due to public health concerns. And no Japanese officials have ever thrashed a judge from another country because they were unhappy with the decision.

How do the Japanese behave?

We already have the example of the Olympics.

Another example is the Japanese soccer diplomacy as described in this article. Twenty-three members of the Japanese Diet traveled to Dalian, China, earlier this month to play a friendly soccer match with members of the National People’s Congress. The match was organized by the Japanese, and according to the People’s Daily, the Chinese participants loved it. The Japanese hope to do it again and include South Korea the next time.

And then there’s the photo above.

It’s time to recognize that Japanese behavior is still the gold standard in Northeast Asia—and not only for the Olympics. Of all the countries in this part of the world, they are without question the least nationalistic and the one most actively promoting harmonious regional relations.

It’s also time for the media to say it.

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Posted in China, International relations, South Korea, Sports | Tagged: , | 18 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 29, 2007

GOT A MAIL from Oniazuma telling me about his new blog, which is mostly videos. Most of the videos in Japanese seem to have English subtitles added. You can check it out here.

Posted in Websites | 1 Comment »

Ignorance on parade

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 29, 2007

GORDON CHANG, writing in the Commentary blog Conventions, has a short post about Japan’s forthcoming suspension of refueling activities in the Indian Ocean. He seems to be aware of the current political situation in this country and the difficulties that presents, but still concludes:

The one thing we can say with assurance is that Japan in the Fukuda era is about to take a large step backward as a member of the international community.

Well, almost. It doesn’t have anything to do with the “Fukuda era”, however. It’s an understandable mistake considering how little Western journalists know about Japan, and their mistaken belief that individuals drive policy. What we can actually say with assurance is that it is a backward step taken because Japan is trying to come to terms with a divided legislature for the first time in its postwar history.

But that’s not the real problem. Just scroll down to see what the posters are saying. Another thing we can say with assurance is that one will seldom see such a concentration of ill-informed intellectual piglets wallowing in their ignorance and thoroughly enjoying it.

Try on some of these:

“It amazes me that a country, so close to danger with China and North Korea, would pull back its commitment to security.”

“Dai Nippon” is truly a “great” nation…It’s long past time for the Japanese to trash the nonsense about non-violence within their constitution. It’s all garbage. It’s all nonsense. And it’s s*#t stupid….It’s all a joke. A pathetic, pusillaminousness (sic) joke.”

And the best (?) for last:

“…in 62 years under the pacifist Constitution and the nuclear umbrella provided by Uncle Sam, the Japanese have produced the likes of Toyotas, PlayStations and manga for adults. Because these products have nothing to do with values worth defending at the risk of their lives, this archipelago is now filled with 127 million purposeless people caught in the endless chain of means. A Tokyo-based Canadian journalist once likened them to zombies.”

This poster pulled off the hat trick: (1) No knowledge of Japan, (2) No knowledge of the inadequacies (or agenda) of the average Tokyo-based journalist, and (3) No knowledge of his own incoherence.

Even the people who disagree with my point of view should find this appalling. You’re of course free to write your comments here, but it seems to me those folks are desperately in need of some facts. In their face, where they can actually read it.

Want to bet they can’t handle the truth?

Posted in International relations, Military affairs, Politics, Websites | 17 Comments »

Matsuri da! (57): Chochin — lamps unto their feet in NE Asia

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 28, 2007

THE FIRST RECORDED MENTION in Japan of what the Japanese call chochin, or collapsible Chinese lanterns, appeared in 1085 in the Choya Gunsai, a collection of state documents and poetic works compiled by Miyoshi Tameyasu. The lanterns did not come into common use by the public, however, until the Edo period, which began in 1600.

The public has more than made up for it since then, and chochin are still a common sight throughout Japan today. They are hung outside of Shinto shrines and used as offerings at Buddhist temples. Red lanterns adorn shop fronts on streets in every city, as they are the symbol of izakaya, a certain kind of eating and drinking establishment. (Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say drinking and eating establishment, though they serve more food than the usual Japanese pub.)

And of course they are used in Japanese festivals in a myriad of ways that are a tribute to the Japanese imagination. There’s already been an Ampontan post on the Lantern Festival in Nagasaki in February, which (like the city) has a strong Chinese influence.

Another lantern festival, shown in the first photograph, is the Natsugoshi Toro Matsuri held every summer at the Kengun Shinto shrine in Kumamoto City. About 3,000 bamboo lanterns and chochin are placed along the main path of the shrine at night. The festival is organized by local municipal organizations in the city’s east side to promote amicable relations among the districts within the city.

In addition to the static walkway display, events include a children’s procession with chochin, an adult procession with bamboo lanterns, a taiko drum performance, and dancing. One participant said that while she enjoyed lively festivals too, she found the simple and direct nature of this event appealing.

If it’s a lively festival you’re looking for, the one held a week ago in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, is as lively as a chochin festival can be. That’s the chochin fighting festival at the Usuki Hachiman shrine, an event that’s been designated an intangible cultural property of the prefecture.

This is one of the largest festivals of the Harima region in the southwestern part of Hyogo, as the shrine’s parishioners come from more than 10,000 households in 24 municipal districts. Every year on the night of October 21st, 1,000 men dressed in loincloths show up at the front of the shrine carrying three-meter long bamboo poles with a chochin attached to the end of the pole.

The guys aren’t there because they want to parade—they’ve come to whack each others’ poles and knock off the chochin. Once they’ve succeeded, they keep whacking each others’ poles for the sake of whacking. Of course the chochin wind up being destroyed. If any intact lanterns happen to escape the notice of the young stick handlers, nearby onlookers thoughtfully help out by tossing the fallen lanterns back into the melee.

That scene is shown in the second photograph, but if you want a better idea of what happens, make sure to watch this video. There are three stick fighting skirmishes in all, and they let it all hang out the third time around. With the whistles, chanting, and crowd noise, it resembles a sporting event more than it does a religious ceremony. That is, if it is in fact a Shinto-derived ceremony at all.

It’s curious, but I wasn’t able to find any information on the origin of this event. Usually, there are plenty of sources describing how a festival began and the reasons for a particular activity, but I couldn’t dig up any on this one. There’s no shortage of sites explaining what happens, but none of the ones I found could explain why it happens. (Here’s a full page of photos, and this blogger has some excellent snapshots.)

Three famous lantern festivals are held in Japan every year, and one of them occurred earlier this month in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. (The other two are in Akita and Aichi prefectures. Here’s the Ampontan report on the former.)

The Nihonmatsu festival (third photo) features seven floats holding several hundred lanterns each, which parade through the town for three days and nights until the procession reaches the Nihonmatsu Shrine. Each of the floats represents a sheave of rice (this is the harvest season), and each carries a group of taiko drummers and flute players performing typical festival music.

The origin of this festival is well known. In 1643, Niwa Matsushige, the grandson of Niwa Nagashige, chief retainer to Oda Nobunaga, visited his new fief as the feudal lord of Nihonmatsu for the first time. He thought the conduct of good government required that the spirit of religious devotion be first aroused in the people, so he organized a festival at the Nihonmatsu shrine and invited everyone. Today’s festival might have turned out to be more elaborate and entertaining than what Niwa had in mind.

There must be something in the troposphere over Northeast Asia this time of year, because a large lantern festival is also held in October in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea. Called the Flowing Lantern Festival, there’s no question about its origins, either: the Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula in the late 16th century.

Local records indicate that General Kim Shi-min, at the head of 3,800 troops in Jinju Fortress, defeated a Japanese army of 20,000 that tried to cross the Nam River in October 1592. The general floated lanterns and torches down the river as a tactic to delay the Japanese army and to communicate with his troops and other support forces outside the castle. It is also said that soldiers inside the castle used lanterns to inform their families outside of their safety.

The people of Jinju continued the tradition by floating lanterns down the river as a memorial to the Koreans who died in the battle. In 1949, they started holding a lantern play, and in 2002 this became a regional festival that now attracts two million visitors a year (fourth photo). The festival is not of the traditional Japanese sort, however; it is an extravaganza that more closely resembles a Disneyland of Lanterns in southern Korea.

This year’s event was held from 1-12 October. Try this article in the Korea Times for a summary and some excellent photographs. And here’s a video taken of a stroll through the lantern archway by a Western tourist. (For more on Jinju and its relationship with Japan today, try this recent Ampontan post.)

When people say you can find illumination in the East, they aren’t fooling!

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

An F to the prof for his understanding of East Asia

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 27, 2007

JOURNALISTS AREN’T THE ONLY ONES that have difficulty comprehending Japan and the rest of Northeast Asia. Academics can be even worse.

Quebec native Daniel A. Bell is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy of Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has been studying China and Confucianism in East Asia for at least 10 years. In this article in Dissent magazine, he discusses the Chinese craze for soccer and the reasons for their passionate support of powerhouse international teams.

Not only does he present more goofy ideas per column inch than I’ve seen in years, but despite crawling over, under, and all around the topic, he fails to spot the reason for this phenomenon. Yet the reason is so obvious it might as well be painted in day-glo colors, and should be immediately apparent to any scholar of East Asia.

He also doesn’t seem to know very much about sports.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in China, Sports, Traditions | 18 Comments »

Matsuri da! (56): Walk through the magic ring…

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 25, 2007

THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION is still good enough for many in Japan, as some have observed, and the chinowa festivals shown in the photos are as old as any religious ceremonies in the country. They’re still being held throughout the archipelago today.

Chinowa, or more properly chi-no-wa, literally means “ring of the chi plant”. This is a eulalia grass found throughout East Asia and goes by several names in Japan, including kaya (which might be the most common).

The Bingo Fuduoki contains the first mention of chinowa. The fudoki were records kept over a 20-year period starting in 713 for each of Japan’s provinces at the time. They include agricultural, geographical, historical, and mythological information. The Bingo region corresponds to what is now the eastern half of Hiroshima Prefecture.

According to the Bingo Fudoki, the divinity Susano’o-no-Mikoto gave a chinowa to a local hero named Somin Shōrai, who escaped the effects of an epidemic by wearing it around his waist. (We’ve discussed this particular divinity before, here.) As a result, chinowa festivals are held throughout Japan in midsummer, when people were most concerned about the spread of contagion.

The first photo shows priests passing through a two-meter wide chinowa at the Inaba Shinto Shrine in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture. After the priests go back and forth a few times, the shrine parishioners will follow suit. This is said to protect against illness and disaster.

Not all chinowa festivals are conducted to receive the blessings of good health, however. The Susukimizu shrine in Chikuma, Nagano Prefecture, uses a three-meter- high wreath in its festival to promote growth and intelligence in children. Their festival, which is not shown here, dates from the Edo period.

An elaborate variation, shown in the second photograph, is found at the Aoiaso shrine in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture. They don’t use eulalia grass in the construction of this chinowa. While keeping the general shape, they employ a bamboo frame instead. Strips of paper called gohei are hung from the frame. These are used to mark sacred areas or to attract the attention of divinities.

When I said old-time religion, I was serious; this shrine was established in 806, but they didn’t get around to holding a chinowa festival until 1386, almost 600 years later. (And that itself was more than 600 years ago.) The shrine stopped holding the festival for a time–no one exactly knows why–but they resumed in 1533.

The objective of this ceremony is to remove the sins and impurities of the parishioners. That chest the priests are carrying contains hundreds of human representations, called hitogata, which are drawn on more gohei. Those local parishioners who are unable to pass through the ring themselves, for whatever reason, write their name, address, age, and sex on the paper (and pay a fee). The priests hold a ceremony in which the sins are transferred from the person to the gohei before they are put in the chest. Then they walk through the ring three times. in this ceremony too, they are followed by area residents.

As often happens at traditional Japanese events when something good is free for the taking, this festival ends in a mad melee when the parishoners try to grab one of the gohei for themselves. Heaven help you if you get in the way. Those people who succeed in getting one place it on their kamidana, a sacred Shinto shelf in Japanese homes. Meanwhile, the priests dispose of the hitogata by setting them afloat on the river in another ceremony.

Now here’s a thought: this ceremony ends where Christian baptism begins.

But I’ll leave any speculation on the shape of the chinowa in the first photo to you…

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

The media’s view: Japanese politics as soap opera

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How odd the coverage of politics has become in much of the media. It is treated as a soap opera, in which certain characters suddenly become popular or unpopular, undergo improbable personality transplants or reversals of fortune. And this is linked with the polls, just as the soaps are linked with the ratings.
– Peter Hitchens

THE SCRIPTWRITERS of the English-language news media keep floundering as they try to devise a plot line to fit Japan’s new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda.

The putative playwrights reached new heights of creativity during Shinzo Abe’s term of office by developing a fanciful storyline of resurgent Japanese nationalism threatening to run amok in Northeast Asia like a rewound Godzilla rising from the half century-old ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Had Mr. Abe’s actual rhetoric and deeds been grafted onto a political figure in a different context–for example, most of the members of the G-7 club, not to mention Russia, China, and the other thug oligarchies masquerading as modern nations–he would have been derided as a marshmallow man.

But they had to start from scratch when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party elected Yasuo Fukuda as party president, automatically making him prime minister. Their first idea was to cast Mr. Fukuda as a dove. They could even justify it, because that expression is used by a few of the more unimaginative Japanese commentators.

Then some of the newsroom drones started rummaging through their files on the former chief cabinet secretary for both Prime Ministers Mori and Koizumi and ran flush into the facts:

  • During an off-the-record meeting with reporters in 2002, Mr. Fukuda said that Japan might have to take another look at the idea of adding nuclear weapons to its arsenal. He backed down when the reporters turned around and asked him about it in public.
  • Mr. Fukuda strongly endorsed a bill expanding the role of the Self-Defense Forces, giving them enhanced powers during a national emergency. He also gave unqualified support to the original measure allowing the Maritime Self-Defense forces to provide support in the Indian Ocean, through refueling and other means, to the coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.

Even the Japan Times, the wannabe Guardianistas of English-language journalism in Japan, uncovered this nugget:

“Fukuda is more of a hardliner. He takes a harder approach than Abe, who takes the soft approach (in politics and diplomacy),” said Raizo Matsuno, a retired Diet member and longtime watcher of politics who died last year. As Matsuno predicted, Abe took a soft approach toward China when he became Prime Minister.

So the media’s scriptwriters had to ditch the d-word and adjectivally downgrade Mr. Fukuda to “moderate”.

But even if he was a semi-hardliner, they argued, surely the new prime minister would distance himself and the country from his predecessor’s obstinacy toward the North Koreans. Mr. Abe made his political reputation on the strength of a resolute attitude toward the North and its abduction of Japanese citizens. He was seen by many in the media as having parlayed that into the premiership.

Didn’t Mr. Fukuda himself say that he was willing to talk to the North Koreans, and that Japan would prosper if it could build placid and peaceful relations with other countries? Wouldn’t he get with the modern diplomatic plan of the other five parties and talk with Kim Jong-il and his designated mouthpieces?

Someone apparently forgot to mail the script to Mr. Fukuda and the rest of Japan’s ruling Liberal-Democratic Party, however. Here’s what happened barely 10 days after the new Cabinet was sworn in:

Japan extended sanctions Tuesday against North Korea by another six months to mid-April to keep up the pressure on Pyongyang over its abductions of Japanese nationals, government officials said.
The decision was made at a cabinet meeting, an official said, on the first anniversary of the North’s first ever atomic weapons test.

A week after the sanctions were extended, the new Japanese Foreign Minister said they would hold secret talks with the Kim Family Regime.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said on Sunday it was necessary to hold bilateral talks with North Korea secretly when needed, but declined to comment on media reports the two countries were holding informal talks.
“It is necessary to hold talks below surface when needed,” Komura told reporters in an exchange shown on NHK television.
Komura added it was North Korea’s responsibility to clarify the fate of the Japanese nationals abducted by the North years ago, as Japan believes that they are still alive.

After all these discarded story lines, what twist will the media come up with next? Declare that Mr. Fukuda is the Teddy Roosevelt of Japan for speaking softly and carrying a big stick?

For an excellent example of how the media pitches their plots, here’s an Associated Press article by Joseph Coleman just before Mr. Fukuda assumed office.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Government, Mass media, Politics | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (55) Japanese festivals on the road to Seoul

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 22, 2007

JAPANESE FESTIVALS SOMETIMES GO ON THE ROAD to perform overseas, and one of the biggest matsuri road trips took place this weekend as 18 groups from Japan went to Seoul, South Korea, to participate in the two-day Japan-South Korea Exchange Festival 2007. The festival began in 2005, the official year of friendship between the two countries that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the restoration of relations, and it has become an annual event since then.

The exchange festival is billed as a grass-roots event in which citizens can enjoy the local cultural traditions of both countries. Roughly 1,800 people in 62 different groups from both countries performed. There was also a recreation of the procession of envoys sent from the Joseon Kingdom to Japan about 400 years ago.

Japanese media reports note that this year’s event is about 50% larger in scale than the previous two, and one of the reasons is the addition of the city of Seoul as one of the formal backers. South Korea’s capital is investing a lot of time and energy to tourism and self-promotion, and the city suspended vehicular traffic in the center of town over the weekend for parades and performances on stage.

Readers who have been following this site’s festival reports will be familiar with several of the Japanese groups who performed in Seoul. The Saturday parade featured Yosakoi Soran dancers. This was an excellent choice; the dance style is energetic, popular throughout Japan, and combines both traditional and modern elements. Dancers are free to create their own arrangements as long as they use the traditional wooden clappers and incorporate part of the basic song into their musical arrangements.

Also making the trip to Seoul were the Yamaga Toro dancers, who were covered here just last week, and the lantern carriers from the Kanto Festival in Akita Prefecture. The women from Yamaga perform the dance every August wearing yukata, which are summer kimono. I hope they wore something extra underneath to keep them warm on Seoul’s chilly autumn streets! Also, there was a performance of Hanagasa Odori from Yamagata Prefecture, shown in the first photo.

Not all of the performances were strictly traditional; the baton team from the PL Gakuen High School in Osaka also went. (This school is famous in Japan as a baseball powerhouse, incidentally.) The Kyoto-based group Bati-holic appeared; they present a modern take on tradition in which younger performers use the ingredients of taiko drum, flute, and dance to create something original.

Korean cultural traditions also were on display; shown in the second photo here in the yellow costumes is a daechuida group. (Feel free to correct my Romanization.) This musical performance is an important intangible cultural property of South Korea dating from the Joseon period. Consisting of wind and percussion instruments, these groups led processions in which the king took part.

There were several other performances of Korean intangible cultural properties, while many groups presented more contemporary offerings. One highlight was a performance of ganggangsullae, a traditional Korean circle dance, which was designed to get the spectators involved in the action with the performers.

When I wrote this, there weren’t many reports on the web in English. Here’s one from the Korea Times, and this seems to have been the text of a KBS broadcast. The Chosun Ilbo had a few reports in Japanese earlier in the week, but I couldn’t find anything on their English site. There were plenty of reports in the Japanese press; both Kyodo and the national Mainichi Shimbun had stories. (Japanese-language links are as evanescent as the dew, which is why I don’t provide them.) Many local and regional newspapers ran articles on the event, particularly the newspapers from those areas that are the home of the festivals represented.

Here is the Japanese website for the event. Unfortunately for English-only readers, it is just in Japanese and Korean. Click the circular photos at the lower right to see more details on the Korean and Japanese groups that appeared. I couldn’t find a comparable Korean site; if anyone knows of one, let me know and I’ll link to it.

This event sounds like a capital idea and the perfect vehicle for combining several contemporary currents: the growing grassroots interaction between Japan and Korea, Seoul’s efforts at municipal self-promotion, the showcasing of cultural traditions, and the updating and modernization of traditions while paying homage to the past.

With all these good vibes, I’m loath to be kechi about any of this, but I was a bit disappointed in this line in the KBS report:

It will be a great opportunity for foreigners in Seoul to learn more about Korea.

Yes it was, and it was also a great opportunity for foreigners and Koreans in Seoul to learn more about Japan!

Need I mention that if the organizers need any English language help for next year’s event, I’m the guy to ask? If anything is right down my alley, this is it!

(Thanks to Aceface for tipping me off about this event a couple of months ago.)

Posted in Festivals, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

What Japanese exclusionism?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 19, 2007

YESTERDAY’S POST described how a foreign university professor tried to use a conversation between himself and a local cab driver as a way to expose Japanese insularity and their lack of knowledge of the outside world, but instead unwittingly revealed the academic’s own lack of understanding of Japanese culture.

It reminded me of another story I read some years ago about foreigners in Japan being denied admission to commercial establishments or refused service by taxicab or bus drivers. The story appeared in the early 1990s in the JAT Bulletin, the monthly publication of the Japan Association of Translators, of which I was once a member. I spent a lot of time today digging in my stack of back issues of the Bulletin for the story, but couldn’t find it. (I know it’s in there somewhere!)

The article was written by William Lise, a technical translator who often does patent translations and also has worked as a court interpreter. Mr. Lise has spent all but a handful of the past 40 years living and working in Japan. At the time of the article’s publication, Mr. Lise was an officer of JAT and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

I got in contact with him by e-mail, and he gave me permission to use the story. Since I can’t find the text version, however, I’ll have to retell it and hope I do justice to the original.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Language | 61 Comments »

Linguistically learned but culturally clueless

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 18, 2007

I DROVE A TAXICAB to support myself when I studied Japanese at university. One day, one of my passengers, a woman in her 20s, asked me why I was hacking a cab. When she found out I was a student of Japanese, she asked another question: “Oh, are you studying the culture, too?”

CabbiesI didn’t know what to say at first. This was a college town, so dealing with the affected attitudes of my fares was an occupational hazard, but she didn’t seem to be that kind of person. It was more likely that she had never spent a lot of time studying a foreign language. People who do study a foreign language with the objective of fluency quickly discover it’s impossible to learn another tongue without learning a lot about that country’s culture. But instead of giving her that kind of answer, I just let it go and said, yes, I was studying the culture too.

After reading this article in the Japan Times, however, I realized it was possible for apparently intelligent people to become fluent in a foreign language without understanding much about that country’s culture. Roger Pulvers writes about the belief among some Japanese that their language is the most difficult in the world. He relates a conversation with a Tokyo cab driver in the mid-80s about this subject.

“Oh. Japanese is the most difficult language to speak in the world, you know. Isn’t it?”

Well, for the 15-minute ride home I strove to persuade my driver that this, in fact, did not seem to be the case. I pointed out the fiendish difficulties of the languages that I had studied in my life, Russian and, particularly, Polish being much more complicated in grammar and pronunciation, at least for a native speaker of English, than Japanese. I finished my discourse as we rounded the corner by my house.

“I mean, Polish, for instance, has elaborate case endings for adjectives, and even has a special one for the nominative plural of male animate nouns!”

Having listened attentively to my passionate, if pedantic, foray into the esoterica of comparative linguistics, the driver stopped the cab by my front gate, turned his head around to me and smiled broadly.

“Well, anyway,” he said, “Japanese is still the most difficult language in the world!”

. . .Why did my taxi driver at Seijo Gakuenmae persist in perpetrating the myth of difficulty?

Here was my first thought after reading this passage: This guy is writing fiction. As a translator, I know more than a few foreigners fluent in Japanese, but I’m not sure any of them can spout such phrases as the Japanese equivalent of “the nominative plural of male animate nouns” off the top of their head. No doubt there are a few somewhere who can, and perhaps Pulvers is deeply immersed in linguistics studies from a Japanese perspective, but I have my reservations. People who study foreign languages also wind up learning a fair amount of grammatical terms, but most don’t bother with the specialized vocabulary for grammatical forms that don’t exist in the language they’re studying.

Here was my second thought: What is this man trying to prove? It’s not unusual in the United States to run into cab drivers with a master’s degree and an ambivalent attitude toward the workaday world, but I’ve yet to run into any in Japan. (Guys like that in Japan tend to open up coffee shops or bars, play jazz on the shop’s sound system, and refer to famous musicians by their first name only.) Does he really think he’s going to have a meaningful conversation about comparative linguistics with a cab driver? Does he think he’s going to change the driver’s mind? Is he one of those academics who just isn’t aware of what people usually talk about when they’re passing time and exchanging pleasantries?

Here was my third thought: Pulvers may have a superb command of the Japanese language, but he still doesn’t understand the basics of Japanese culture. That’s because the driver wasn’t interested in talking about the Japanese language. He was just trying to strike up a casual conversation with a foreigner. In the mid-80s, even in Tokyo, his foreign customer was probably the highlight of his day.

Foreigners new to Japan often complain about how Japanese like to start conversations by bringing up what they consider to be trivial subjects, such as the foreigner’s Japanese ability, dexterity with chopsticks, or the weather. The tragedy is that they’re being given a basic lesson in one of the primary differences of Japanese culture and they fail to recognize it.

Really? You speak Polish too? How fascinating!

Yes, starting off with a comment about the weather is a cliché in the West for a trivial conversation. In Japan, however, that’s considered an excellent way for two strangers to break the ice. Listen to the start of a radio or TV broadcast, and one of the first things an announcer will talk about is that day’s weather, even if he knows most of his listeners are several hundred kilometers away. I have even translated training manuals for sales personnel that recommend the salesperson create a friendly relationship with the prospective customer by talking about the weather.

It’s puzzling: one reason for visiting a foreign country is to find out how those people live. Once there, the best way to find out is to pay attention to what happens every day between people at the most basic levels of society.

But some folks seem not to have noticed that one of the key points in Japanese social interaction, whether it’s in a classroom or a bar, is the effort put into getting everyone on the same page by seeking the least common denominator. Talking about the weather or chopsticks may be trivial, but that’s the easiest way to create and maintain a pleasant relationship for the next ten minutes (or the next ten years) without ruffling any feathers. Getting involved in a discussion about politics or any other subject that generates strong opinions could easily become unpleasant for both parties and destroy the potential for a harmonious encounter.

When people in the West say that one of the basic differences of Japanese society is the emphasis on cultural harmony, they mean it! So why not believe it?

This is such a basic component of Japanese behavior that the failure to recognize it suggests to me that some people are just too self-absorbed to learn about their surroundings. I’d be willing to bet the cab driver couldn’t have given a flying fig about the difficulty of the Japanese language. He was more likely impressed with his passenger’s speaking ability and figured the best way to have a pleasant 15-minute chat was by complimenting the guy indirectly on his language ability. But no—Pulvers couldn’t just casually agree and direct the conversation elsewhere. He had to give the cab driver a lecture about Polish grammar.

Maybe some people do need to take a course in culture when they’re studying a language.

Of course, there’s one other possibility. After listening to some pretentious foreigner butcher his language with an incomprehensible explanation of the nominative plural of male animate nouns in a language he’ll never speak in a country he’ll never visit, the driver decided he was justified in believing that Japanese was the most difficult language in the world after all.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Language | 45 Comments »

Matsuri da! (54): Outdoing Busby Berkeley in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 16, 2007

HIDDEN AMONG THE MOUNTAINS of Kumamoto Prefecture, the city of Yamaga has a presence that makes one think there might be something to feng shui after all. While standing on the main street downtown–which slopes downward, makes a sharp 90-degree turn, and slants further downhill–I could sense the energy pouring down from the mountainsides above.

Several hours later that night, energy in a different form came flowing down that same street and made that same turn—hundreds of women dressed in summer yukata and the traditional geta footwear, each wearing a lighted lantern on her head, dancing to a very slow and stately song many centuries old.

And that’s just the first night of the Yamaga Toro Matsuri of the Omiya Shinto Shrine. On the second night, the ranks of the ad hoc dance troupe swell to a full 1,000 and they offer a performance that would have made Busby Berkeley envious. A performance, I might add, that’s not staged on a Hollywood back lot, filmed, and viewed only by film aficionados and those with a taste for camp. This live performance is offered free of charge every year, and has been for centuries.

Held on the 15th and 16th of August, the festival is said to originate from a visit paid to the area by the Emperor Keiko. The Emperor arrived on a foggy night, so the local men lined the side of the road holding lighted pine torches to illuminate the mountain road. The retinue of his imperial highness was met in the town by women who had formed a circle around a tower holding lanterns on their heads.

That’s how the story goes, but Keiko is listed as the 12th emperor, with a reign extending from 71 (perhaps) to 130. The emperors from that period might well be only emperors of legend, which would make the story of the festival’s origin a legend, too. Yet seldom do legends give birth to such stunning events in tangible form.

Activities begin shortly after noon, when lanterns made in the shape of the temple and the local castle are placed as decorations at 25 locations throughout the city. These lanterns, or toro, are made out of wooden frames and Japanese paper. They will be presented to the shrine as offerings at midnight on the last day of the festival.

At 6:00 p.m., with dusk approaching, women dressed in pale pink yukata with lighted lanterns on their head dance to a traditional song, Yoheho-bushi, at the shrine as an offering. At the same time, a different group perform the same dance in the downtown area.

At 8:00 p.m. there is a large fireworks display on the banks of the Kikuchi River, with 4,000 separate devices. Perhaps the people of Yamaga think it takes more than tradition to entertain today’s audiences! (The city’s name, incidentally, is written with the kanji for mountain and deer.)

The next night, the number of dancers swells to 1,000, including women from outside the city, to recreate the welcoming ceremony for the Emperor Keiko. The men also recreate the torchlight procession.

The lanterns worn by the women are handmade by local artisans with paper and glue that comes from Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture (a town which is also known for its tea). The artisans require ten years of training to master the craft, which is said to be unchanged since the Muromachi Era about 500 years ago.

The festival is so spectacular, yet so sublime, it attracts 300,000 visitors every year to a municipality with 58,000 residents.

I’ve seen this festival myself, or at least the first day of it. The 16th fell on a Monday the year I went, so I had to be satisfied with going to the first half on Sunday the 15th.

But even just that one day was memorable–I watched entranced as the women slowly danced down the hill as they have for centuries on the town’s main street, followed by the fireworks. Yamaga is in a hot springs area, and the city fathers had the foresight to pipe spa water into pools on the street corners downtown for use as footbaths. After spending most of the day walking around town, the footbaths and their natural spring water were quite welcome. It was very pleasant sitting with my feet in the warm water and taking in the town’s visitors as they enjoyed the more commonplace parts of the festival–eating, drinking, and milling about.

I dried off my feet, got back in my shoes and socks, and returned to the corner for an unexpected sight. The women were filing down the street once more, not dancing this time—hundreds of them, still with the lighted lanterns on their heads, still in pink yukata and geta, flowing in harmony with the energy spilling down from the mountains, turning at the corner and disappearing down the hill.

What a lucky man you are, I thought. I thanked divine providence, or whatever is responsible for me being here, to allow me to see such beauty and participate in such a transcendent experience.

To see for yourself, click either of the two photos at this site to view a movie. Even Busby Berekely would be impressed.

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

Don’t undervalue Japanese historical awareness

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 14, 2007

WHILE SOME PREFER TO INSIST against evidence to the contrary that the Japanese and Koreans get along like dogs and cats (or dogs and monkeys, as the Japanese say), they are unheeded by many in both countries who are quietly working to forge closer ties on many different levels.

Yesterday an exhibit got underway at the Nagoya Castle Museum in Chinzei-cho in Saga Prefecture called Hideyoshi and the Invasions of Korea. The Nagoya Castle was built during those invasions and used by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi as a staging point for his Korean campaigns. The second-largest castle in Japan at the time, it was finished in 1592 during the first invasion after just eight months of construction. (The photo shows the original site of the castle, which no longer exists.)


The exhibit is being jointly conducted with the Jinju National Museum of South Korea. Located in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, Jinju was the site of heavy fighting between Japanese and Korean forces.

The Japanese museum is exhibiting 166 items related to Toyotomi’s military campaigns. The Japanese contributions include a letter from the Emperor asking Toyotomi to call off his invasion, and a letter from Ming Dynasty China regarding a Sino-Japanese alliance. (Toyotomi was seeking closer ties with China, which was providing some support to the Koreans. He was angered by the condescending tone of the letter, and that ended that.) The Jinju museum’s contribution to the exhibit includes such items as swords and an early artillery piece used by the Japanese forces.

The exhibit is a result of a cooperative agreement signed by the two museums in 2003. Chinzei-cho, which incorporates an offshore island thought to be the birthplace of King Muryong of Baekche, has long been involved in fostering ties with South Korea. (Indeed, town residents have gone to South Korea to learn how to make kimchee, and the variety they make and sell commercially in Japan is every bit as good as the kimchee I’ve eaten at restaurants in Busan.)

The event will run until November 25, and costs just 300 yen (US$2.55). (It’s free for people of high school age and younger.) For those who think Japanese neglect to examine their history, the story was right there in the middle the first page of the local news section of my newspaper, with a photograph. For those who think exhibits such as these are held only in major cities, the population of Chinzei-cho is about 9,000. The nearest big city is at least an hour away.

There is a great deal of interaction between Japanese and Koreans—even about touchy historical issues—that passes under the radar of the Western and Korean media. It might be because they are unaware of it, or it might be because they choose to ignore it. But it exists nonetheless, despite those who, for reasons of their own, prefer a different narrative when depicting bilateral ties.

Posted in History, Japanese-Korean amity, Military affairs, South Korea | Tagged: , | 28 Comments »

Did FDR bankrupt Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 11, 2007

NOW HERE’S A SERENDIPITOUS FIND—while searching for something else on the site of an Internet merchant, I discovered a recently-published book that looks intriguing. It’s called Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor.

According to the publisher’s blurb, the main points are as follows.

  1. American government experts thought the war in China would bankrupt Japan, but didn’t realize that Japan had a supply of dollars hidden in New York.
  2. When the Americans found out about the money, Japan tried to repatriate it. President Roosevelt moved to block them by using the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act to freeze the assets and forbid the sale of Japanese gold to the U.S. Treasury (the only open gold market at the time).
  3. Some Washington bureaucrats “thwarted” the plan, however. (The blurb does not say how.) Dean Acheson, the man Roosevelt selected to implement this plan, managed to prevent Japan from getting the money.
  4. The author examines an OSS-State Department study of conditions in pre-war Japan that found the measure created economic hardships for Japan. Those hardships contributed to the country’s resolve to maintain the aggressive course that led to Pearl Harbor. Apparently, no one in the U.S. government had bothered to analyze the policy’s impact on the Japanese economy.

The publisher’s promotional copy is not well written and might lead a reader to think the OSS study was conducted before the war. As a poster on this History Channel discussion board notes, however, the OSS did not exist at the time. The book’s author, Edward S. Miller, responded to the note by stating that the OSS study was conducted in 1943 and was a retrospective look at Japanese economic conditions in the 1930s. He used this to extrapolate financial conditions in Japan had it not launched its attacks in 1941.

Mr. Miller is now retired, but has served as the chief financial officer at two companies, so he seems well qualified to understand financial operations of this sort. He is also the author of a book called War Plan Orange, which analyzes American war plans devised over the early part of the 20th century to deal with a potential Japan-U.S conflict. That book won five awards.

There is a long-held belief in some quarters that President Franklin Roosevelt baited Japan into attacking America to give him an excuse to enter the wider war. One quoted passage in the review, however, suggests it was his intention to “bring Japan to its senses, not its knees.”

That in turn suggests Roosevelt’s idea might have backfired by exacerbating rather than defusing Japan’s aggression. In other words, the attack on Pearl Harbor might not have been the result of a deliberate Roosevelt strategy, but a Roosevelt miscalculation.

But as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” and I just discovered the book’s existence this week.

Here’s the page on the publisher’s website.

Posted in Books, Business, finance and the economy, History, World War II | Tagged: | 21 Comments »

The Washington Post: Worse than irrelevant

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 10, 2007

FOR A LOOK AT HYPOCRISY IN ACTION, try the current editorial in The Washington Post on a House resolution censuring Turkey for the genocide of up to one million Armenians during the First World War.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Adam Schiff, represents a district full of people with Armenian heritage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has important Armenian financial backers, and she intends to bring the resolution to a floor vote.

The Post editorializes:

House Democrats pushing for a declaration on the subject have petty and parochial interests….How many House members can be expected to carefully weigh Mr. Schiff’s one-sided “findings” about long-ago events in Anatolia?

Why is the Post upset?

The problem is that any congressional action will be taken in deadly earnest by Turkey’s powerful nationalist politicians and therefore by its government, which is already struggling to resist a tidal wave of anti-Americanism in the country. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called President Bush on Friday to warn against the resolution. Turkish politicians are predicting that responses to passage by the House could include denial of U.S. access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, a key staging point for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Post admits the Turks may not have been angels.

It’s true that Turkey’s military and political class has been inexcusably slow to come to terms with that history, and virulent nationalism — not Islamism — may be the country’s most dangerous political force.

But that’s OK, because:

Turkish writers and intellectuals are pushing for a change in attitude, and formal and informal talks between Turks and Armenians are making slow progress. A resolution by Congress would probably torpedo rather than help such efforts.

Therefore, the Post concludes:

The Armenian genocide resolution cannot be called frivolous. In fact, its passage would be dangerous and grossly irresponsible.

For people with an interest in Japan and whose political memory stretches beyond the current news cycle, this brings several questions to mind.

Why is the Washington Post concerned about the “petty and parochial interests” of the people pushing this bill when it was unconcerned about the interests of Mike Honda and others backing the comfort woman resolution?

Why does it refer to Mr. Schiff’s “one-sided ‘findings’” (note the dismissive quotation marks) when it swallowed whole the disputed findings of historians in the comfort woman dispute?

Why are they concerned about the 200,000 comfort women (a figure likely inflated) who lived, but unconcerned about an estimated one million Armenians who died?

Why are they willing to give credit to Turkish writers and intellectuals pushing for a change in attitude, but unwilling to give credit to Japanese writers and intellectuals with a similar position?

Why are they glossing over Turkish nationalism after savagely condemning a much milder form of the same in Japan?

The reason is obvious. Many Turks are more than ready to register their anger at the House resolution by taking concrete action that damages U.S. interests in the region.

The conclusions that should be drawn in Tokyo are also obvious. Turkey is not prepared to lie down passively when the Congressional cupcake crusaders cast foreigners as villains in a self-penned morality play presenting themselves as the avatars of righteousness. They fight back. When that happens, the American political establishment wakes up.

Instead of wasting everyone’s time and money with full-page ads that no one reads, Japan should take specific steps to stand up to the United States and let the House poseurs know that copping an attitude has consequences.

As chance would have it, the opportunity has presented itself in negotiations to extend the special agreement for American military bases in the country, which is due to expire in March. The Americans are demanding that the Japanese significantly increase their contribution to pay for utilities, while patting themselves on the back for keeping China and North Korea at bay.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry is already saying this could “cause a crack” in relations between the two countries. Perhaps the Japanese government should take a hint from the Turks and refuse the American demand outright. How would the Americans respond? (Besides sputter about ingratitude)

The only way for a country to gain respect for its sovereignty is to assert it. By its recent dealings with North Korea, the United States has shown that it doesn’t consider Japan to be even a junior partner in the alliance. Moreover, the American attitude will likely grow worse if a Democratic administration takes power 15 months from now.

The Americans want the Japanese to pay more of the water bill? The Japanese should think about the wisdom in the old song, You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till the Well Runs Dry), and apply it to their relationship with the U.S. This might be enough to garner Japan the attention of eight former secretaries of state and The Washington Post (the political establishment’s unofficial house organ).

If it doesn’t, and the Americans choose to snarl back, it will be an eloquent expression of how much importance Americans attach to Japan and the bilateral relationship.

As for the media, well, we already know that much of the media in general, and The Washington Post (and others) in particular are perfectly described by the title of the Post’s editorial:

Worse than Irrelevant.

Posted in History, International relations, Mass media | 38 Comments »

Time for the US to become Japanized?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A CULTURAL WAR HAS RAGED in the United States for decades, with no sign of either a negotiated settlement or an unconditional surrender by any of the combatants. Rather than human life, the real victim of this battle has been social cohesiveness.

Similar conflicts occur in Japan, but despite the growing trend toward individual expression in this country—which has paralleled the American cultural war—a long tradition of cooperation and group harmony seems to be a factor in resolving these conflicts before they cause serious harm to the society, become ridiculous, or both.

A case in point are the concerns over the promotional materials used for the recently released film, Sukiyaki Western: Django, directed by Takashi Miike. The Japanese work is based on the movie Django, a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci. Miike used that film as a device for retelling the story of the late 12th-century Taira-Minamoto war as recounted in the Tale of the Heike. In other words, it’s a samurai drama remade as a Western, with an all-Japanese cast speaking in English. (Here’s a previous Ampontan post about the film.)

Problems arose because one scene of the movie shows a man lynched Western-style hanging from the crossbars of a torii, the distinctive gateway to Shinto shrines. This image was used in the film’s publicity posters, television commercials, and trailers. (You can see both the poster and the trailer at the other post.)

Not everyone in Japan thought this was cutting edge and cool. The priests at four Shinto shrines e-mailed objections to the picture’s distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment. (The company is also a member of the film’s production committee, the vehicle for financing most Japanese films.) The complaints said the use of the image was an “inappropriate (form of) expression” and “a desecration of the holy torii”.

The Association of Shinto Shrines, which has a nationwide membership of about 80,000 institutions, also made their objections known to Sony. But it is worth examining the way they expressed their objection in the original Japanese:


It isn’t possible to express all the nuances of this in comfortable English, but to get literal about it, one might translate the sentence as, “Wouldn’t it be better to have a movie that anyone could watch in an enjoyable way, with peace of mind?” Even in that short sentence, there are several instances of honorific and polite language that cannot be adequately conveyed in English. Indeed, the association chose the form of the sentence itself as a way to soften the impact, yet still communicate its message.

An association spokesman told a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun:


“Freedom of expression is important, but won’t the people involved have to consider how (the scene) might be taken?”

What was the result of their objections? The production committee apologized:


“We have no excuse for causing a sense of discomfort.”

Sony also modified the posters, commercials, and flyers by deleting the scene. Yet they did not remove the scene from the movie itself. They said:


“People interested in the film will watch it, and if they see the whole film, they will (do us the honor of) understand(ing) that it is not a desecration of Shinto shrines.”

And with that the situation seems to have been resolved. In any event, the issue did not turn into a pitched battle, nor did the media go out of its way to be emotionally inflammatory.

One can well imagine what might have happened in a similar situation in the United States. One side in the dispute would have warned that the moral fabric of Western Civilization was fraying at the seams. Columnists and talk radio would have begun baying at the moon, which could have lasted as long as a whole week. There might well have been demonstrations outside of movie theaters.

The other side in the dispute would behave no less obnoxiously. They would assume a holier-than-thou posture and don the mantle of free speech and free expression to cloak the studio’s desire to turn a buck and the director’s desire to throw cinematic spitballs. They would make the hilariously inapt observation that great art has always seemed offensive to some at first. (Ignoring that most of the material people find offensive seldom rises to the level of mediocre art, much less greatness.) They would dismiss the people making the objections as philistines and fascists, and in general act as if the film were the artistic equivalent of Martin Luther whaling away on the door of the Wittenburg church.

In Japan, the problem was resolved painlessly and politely. Both sides showed some respect for the other, and both came away with what they wanted.

In the United States, however, a similar issue would have provided the would-be saints and sages on both sides of the aisle an opportunity to pound the pulpit and to receive a thrill from indulging their emotions–further widening the gulf separating the two sides.

Some Japanese complain that their country has become too Americanized. I’ll leave it to the Japanese to determine whether that’s true—while regretting that most Americans will never know the benefits to be obtained by becoming Japanized.

Posted in Arts, Films, Popular culture, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »