Japan from the inside out

Archive for November, 2007

Straight talk on whaling

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 30, 2007

IF YOU THINK everyone in the West is bashing Japan for whaling, think again: Brendon O’Neill in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian newspaper in Great Britain does not beat around the bush in his attacks on what he calls Ecoimperialism. And that’s not all he calls it:

Under the cover of concern for marine life, Australia and New Zealand are throwing their white weight around in the Pacific, to demonstrate their cultural superiority over the “yellow” nations. They may not be able to touch Japan in economic terms, but they can use the issue of whaling to show the world that they’re morally better than the Japs. It took a contributor to an online discussion forum to spell out openly what everyone else has only said in code. The person posting said “They don’t kill whales for scientific purposes, that is utter bullshit, they kill them because they are fucking evil bloodthirsty amoral wankers”.

His statement of policy?

Demands that the Japanese stop whaling call into question Japan’s status as an independent, sovereign nation. It should be for Japan’s democratically elected leaders alone to decide what to do with the resources in their own seas, as well as in seas to which they have legal access.

He also notes that some African countries are quite sympathetic with the Japanese position:

It is telling that Japan is being supported by developing countries that know a thing or two about western meddling dressed up as animal rights activism. The Los Angeles Times says some developing countries now look to Japan as a “rebel” voice against “interference by Western activists eager to protect [various] creatures”.

He concludes:

“What could be more barbaric than whaling?”, activists and officials ask. I can think of one thing: the depiction of foreign peoples as uncivilised, and the curtailment of their sovereign rights by white nations and green campaigners who think they know better than the Japs and blacks.

The column has more jolt than a mug of espresso. Another fascinating aspect is its appearance in the Guardian, whose political stance is similar to that of the Asahi.

The article to which Mr. O’Neill links in the Los Angeles Times presents yet another side to the story. The author of that article, Bruce Wallace, claims the Japanese government has a problem with double standards:

Yet despite contending that tradition justifies the whale hunt, the Japanese government balks at accepting similar arguments from the Ainu people on the northern island of Hokkaido who want to fish for wild salmon. The Japanese government has long prevented the indigenous Ainu people from exercising their traditional hunting and fishing rights, including the right to catch salmon as they return to Hokkaido’s rivers to spawn.

Salmon have always been a food staple for the Ainu, such a fundamental element of their culture that they annually perform ceremonies to give thanks for the fish. Only in recent years has the government bent to Ainu lobbying and agreed to permit a small salmon haul that allows a few fish to be caught for ceremonial purposes.

This year’s allowance is 1,700 salmon, up from the 20 approved in previous years.

He seems to be stretching the point somewhat: The Japanese allow salmon catching within limits, and they maintain limits on their own whale hunting.

Mr. Wallace also contradicts his own reporting:

Japan has not yet found a way to extend that principle (support for the traditional way of life in small communities) to its own Ainu community.

Sorry, didn’t he just say that the Ainu are allowed to catch salmon?

Since the number of people in Japan whose ancestry is half Ainu or greater is estimated to range from only 150,000 to 300,000, it’s not as if the amount of salmon caught is insufficient for Ainu ceremonies. And since few, if any, of them live off the land in the way their ancestors did, the Ainu aren’t being deprived of their food supply. There are plenty of salmon in the supermarket, which is where the Ainu find their food these days.

Hasn’t the Japanese government listened to the Ainu appeals and increased the amount of salmon they are permitted to catch? That cannot be said of other governments in their dealings with the Japanese. Nor do the Ainu have to deal with the dangerous mouth-foamers of Sea Shepherd.

Posted in Environmentalism, Food, International relations, Mass media | Tagged: , | 38 Comments »

Frog(s) Bridge

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 30, 2007

IF YOU WANT A PEEK into the Japanese soul, one small window might be the Frog Bridge in Inami-cho, Wakayama Prefecture.

Perhaps it would be more proper to call it the Frogs Bridge, because it actually has two frogs, as you can see from the photograph. It’s worth describing the background of the bridge’s construction, because people unfamiliar with the country might not be aware of just how characteristically Japanese this project is.


This Japanese-language profile of the municipality explains that Inami-cho is a small municipality in a beautiful natural environment surrounded by the sea and mountains. Many people in the area are commercial farmers of vegetables, flowers, and ornamental plants. It has a long history, and there are many legends and stories associated with the district.

Unfortunately, not many people know about the place, few visitors come from the big cities, population growth is sluggish, and young people tend to leave on reaching adulthood. The town received a grant from the government to promote regional growth and development, and one of the ideas they came up with for spending the money was the Frog Bridge.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The word for frog in Japanese is kaeru, which has several homonyms. Kaeru became the concept for the bridge’s construction. The inspiration came from the father of Japanese calligraphy, Ono no Tofu (no, not that tofu), who is also known as Ono no Michikaze. The story is told that he found the determination to become a calligrapher by watching a frog try to leap onto a willow branch. From this, he learned the value of effort, patience, and taking bold steps.

The municipality also explains there are five kaeru that are used as hooks in the naming of the bridge. These are:

  1. kangaeru (Thinking)
  2. Hito wo kaeru (Changing people)
  3. Machi wo kaeru (Changing the town)
  4. Furusato e kaeru (Returning home)
  5. Sakaeru (Flourishing)

I can’t begin to explain how quintessentially Japanese this story is. They’ve managed to use a historical Japanese figure for inspiration and connected him to a unique, instantly recognizable public works project to gain some recognition for themselves in a positive way, and incorporate the Japanese love of wordplay in the process. When I was new to the country, unaware of how affected (infected?) I was by the sense of cynical irony so fashionable in the West, I would have rolled my eyes until they slid out of their sockets at the dorky, hellokittyishness of this bridge and the people who built it.

After so many years in Japan, however, I have come to realize that nothing grows out of cynical irony but weeds, and I’ve begun to appreciate the sincerity and the earnestness of the emotion behind the effort of the people of Inami-cho. I wish them the best, and if I’m ever in their neighborhood, I’ll be sure to stop by to look at the bridge and buy some vegetables or flowers. I’m sure they’re excellent.

Here’s a link to a close-up of the bridge plans, and here’s a link to several more photos; the Japanese writing on the bridge in the fourth photo from the top is the list of five kaerus explained above.

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


Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 30, 2007

ANDREW BOLT, columnist and blogger for the Herald Sun newspaper of Australia, reports in his blog on a Chilean politician who says that Japan’s claim that it hunts whales for scientific reasons is comparable to the medical research the Nazis conducted on humans.

Former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel asserted in 1992, “The era of absolutist reason is drawing to a close. It is high time to draw conclusions from that fact.”

Mr. Havel thought this was a positive development. I rather think it would mean the return of the Dark Ages. Putting that discussion aside, however, it is still worth remembering his admonition because we must draw conclusions from the disturbing rise of emotionalism in today’s world, particularly as it affects political and social issues.

Logic and rationality will never be effective with people such as the Chilean politician, those for whom Environmentalism is a religion, or the growing multitudes of people who prefer indulging their emotions rather than doing the hard work of thinking.

That brings up the question: What will be effective?

Posted in Environmentalism, International relations | 3 Comments »

Matsuri da! (62): Asking for rain–and getting it!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 28, 2007

RAIN DANCES aren’t just performed in TV reruns of old Westerns—they’re still part of the annual festival at the Takinomiya Shinto shrine in Ayagawa-cho, Kagawa Prefecture, held every year in late August. The Japanese aren’t dancing to make rain, however. They’re offering their thanks to celebrate the rains that came after a politician interceded with the divinities on behalf of local farmers more than a millennium ago.

The story begins in 888 in Kagawa, then known as Sanuki Province. The area was stricken by drought, so local governor Sugawara no Michizane asked the people to fast and the local Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to conduct amagoi, or special prayers for rain.

After the skies remained uncloudy all day for several days, the governor took matters into his own hands by clasping them together and beginning a seven-day prayer vigil. Exactly a week later, there was a doshaburi that lasted for three days and nights. (Doshaburi means to rain earth and sand, which is what the Japanese say when it rains cats and dogs.)

The elated farmers rushed to the Takinomiya shrine to thank the divinities for the weather, praised the name of Michizane, and erupted into spontaneous dancing. It was so much fun they kept performing the dance every year, and now it has been designated an intangible cultural treasure of the nation.

Honen’s Addition

But it had already been an established custom for 300 years when the Buddhist monk Honen wandered through the area, watched the dances, and suggested the addition of some choreography. The new version took the form of a nembutsu odori, a Buddhist folk dance that also goes back more than a millennium. These dances are to express the joy of those who receive salvation by chanting the Buddha’s name.

Here’s yet another example of the Japanese taste for mixing and matching. Note that these are Buddhist dances performed at a Shinto shrine. This approach is a lot less contentious than the thou-shalt-have-no-other-God/Allah-before-me attitude of religions in the rest of the world.

The Event

This year’s performance included the Sakamoto nembutsu odori, a similar dance from nearby Marugame, for the first time in three years. In fact, the more stately Sakamoto dance was the first one performed at 5:50 p.m.

The dancers were preceded up the shrine’s main pathway by a group blowing on seashell trumpets. They were followed by the livelier main attraction, as jimbaori– and hakama-clad performers arrived, some carrying umbrellas, and others carrying the flat fans called uchiwa, larger than the usual variety at 60 centimeters (almost two feet). The musical accompaniment was provided by taiko drums, bells, and flutes.

It was unfortunate that this year’s festival happened to coincide with a dry spell, so it was not appropriate to perform a dance of thanksgiving for rain when none had actually fallen. Discretion and restraint being highly esteemed in Japan, the performers decided to tone down the intensity level this time around.

Historical Connections

It sometimes seems as if everything in Japan is connected with everything else in a sort of Nihon-wide web of culture and history, and this festival is an excellent example. Sanuki Province Governor Sugawara no Michizane belonged to a family instrumental in bringing Chinese culture to Japan, and was the most important poet writing in the Chinese language in the country at the time. His anthologies of Chinese poetry have survived to the present.

Michizane later became an influential member of the Imperial court. Known as the patron of learning, he died in Dazaifu, in Fukuoka Prefecture, and he is the tutelary deity in the Dazaifu Tenmangu (another Shinto shrine) built to honor him. It is packed with students studying for entrance examinations every year. Michizane prayed for rain, and the divinities granted his request, so naturally it makes sense to ask his spirit for a little extra help on the tests. Besides, amphetamine-fueled all-nighters aren’t good for the health, and they aren’t effective for boosting test scores, either.

Meanwhile, Honen was a leading figure of Japanese Buddhism in his time. He was the founder of the Jodo, or Pure Land sect, which still exists today.


Ironically, both were exiles. Court intrigue landed Michizane into hot water, and he wound up being banished to Kyushu, where he spent the rest of his days in poverty bemoaning the unfairness of it all. In fact, the Tenmangu shrine was built to placate his ghost, which some thought had returned to cause trouble for those who plotted against him.

Honen’s movement got him in hot water of his own with the Buddhist authorities, and he too was told to get lost. He was finally allowed to return to Kyoto a few months before his death.

Chinese Rainmaking

Michizane’s response to a drought was to cloister himself in prayer for a week. One wonders what the man so familiar with Chinese culture would have thought of contemporary Chinese rainmaking efforts. The leaders of China seem to have a predilection for controlling things the rest of us leave to nature, such the number of children in a family. It’s only short skip from there to controlling when and where it rains, as this brief article describes. The author seems a little too impressed with the authoritarian hubris of the Chinese for his own good.

Far be it from me to suggest that superstition is superior to science, but the worship of the latter often creates a different set of unforeseen problems. It’s an interesting contrast. Michizane lifted his face to the sky in supplication for rain, but the new mandarins hire the peasantry to lift anti-aircraft weapons and rocket launchers instead.

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

Nippon noel: Christmas trees in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 27, 2007

THE START OF CHRISTMAS SEASON means that children everywhere begin dreaming about the present they will receive under the small artificial tree on the 25th and the treat of Christmas cake that awaits them. Young singles look forward with excited anticipation to (or obsess about their prospects for) the traditional heavy date with their significant other on Eve.

Meanwhile, adults get in the spirit by making the rounds of the “forget-the-year” parties held throughout the month. Others with a more sober disposition, particularly women and the elderly, enthusiastically support the combined amateur/professional productions of Beethoven’s Ninth throughout the country with their attendance or active participation.

And everyone looks forward to a finger-lickin’ good fried chicken dinner with their friends or family.


Yes, that’s what Christmas means in Japan. Not everyone stuffs themselves with turkey, hangs stockings by the chimney, or sings about Mommy kissing Santa Claus.

After all, they’ll be eating rice porridge and dried fruit soup in Finland, cabbage, sausage, and brown peas in Latvia, dried salted codfish in Portugal, and fried carp, potato salad, and fish soup in the Czech Republic.

Hungarian children will receive presents in shoes they’ve placed outside the door or window. In some places the Baby Jesus brings the presents, while in Russia the goodies are delivered by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), who employs his granddaughter the Snow Maiden as his helper rather than elves and reindeer. Mexican children have to wait until 6 January for their presents, while those in Russia hold out until the 7th. And in Australia and Brazil people are more likely to go to the beach than go dashing through the woods in a one-horse open sleigh.

Some might wonder why Japan, with a Christian population estimated at 1%, would celebrate Christmas. The answer is that the Japanese love a festival better than anyone, and more than a millennium of experience with secular celebrations based on religious ceremonies gives them a head start.

Let’s be honest—while there are many Christians who focus on the religious aspects of the holiday, millions of people throughout the world celebrate the day and the season as a grand Winter Festival. What could be more natural than for the Japanese to do the same?

Christmas Trees in Japan

The most visible aspect of Christmas in Japan is the public display of Christmas trees. In addition to knowing all about festivals, the Japanese are past masters at borrowing elements from another culture and adding some flair of their own to create something distinctive. The design of public Christmas trees is just another example.

Most of these trees, of course, are erected at department stores, shopping malls, or in commercial districts. One of the first to go up was the Fantasy Tree, shown in the first photo, which was lighted for display on the 23rd at Tokyo’s Yurakucho Seibu Department Store.

Seven meters tall, the Fantasy Tree has 8,000 blue bulbs and is trimmed with a motif of white angel wings. It will be lighted every night through Christmas night.

Visitors who came to see the lighting ceremony were treated to a live concert with several performers, including Korean singer Len (Lee Gi-chan), who performed duets with the Japanese singer Lio from their recent CD LxL.

It might be ungenerous to suggest that blue is an unsuitable color for the season, by the way. In the American city where I grew up, one family in an upscale mid-town residential district on a busy road decorated their house and the hedge surrounding their large yard entirely in blue bulbs. Everyone loved it, and folks still recall it fondly three decades later.


Representing a more religious approach to the holidays is the tree unveiled on the night of the 24th at the Megumi Chalet Karuizawa , a Christian conference center in Karuizawa-cho, Nagano Prefecture. This is also a seven-meter high tree, but it’s trimmed with human beings instead of electric lights. About 80 members of the local Ueda Church clad in red robes arranged themselves in the wooden structure to represent Christmas decorations. They sang Kiyoshi Kono Yoru (Silent Night), Morobito Kozori (Joy to the World), and five other hymns. (Second photo)

The wooden tree—well, that’s what they call it–has seven platforms ringed by green walls decorated with lights. Since this is a Christian facility, the tree is topped with a cross. The human tree was just part of the Christmas decorations and lighting that were unveiled on the same night, which was a chilly 1.1 C—perfect Christmas weather for northern Europeans and North Americans.

The decorations will stay up until the 25th of December, with performances every weekend until then.

The facility says it’s the first outdoor installation of its kind in Japan, but the idea originated in the United States. In fact, they paid two million yen (about US$ 18,500) to have the tree platform shipped from the United States.

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to get the Americans to send a diagram and hire local carpenters to build one themselves? Ah, but in the spirit of the season let’s let that slide? Besides, it’s their money!

For a more artistic expression in holiday trees, the Verde Mall shopping district at the JR Kakogawa Station in Kakokawa, Hyogo Prefecture, held a ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on the 22nd to present the Kakogawa River Fantasy, which includes not only an illuminated tree but an entire illuminated shopping district. A crowd of about 1,000 turned out on the first night to see the display, which uses 45,000 light bulbs, 5,000 more than last year. (Third photo)


Yes, there was music underneath the tree in Kakogawa, too, as six groups selected through a preliminary competition performed songs with a winter, rather than a Christmas, theme. The popular female duo Kiroro appeared and sang Fuyu no Uta (Winter Song) among other numbers.

The lights will be lit every night from 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. until January 14. That’s even later than Russian Christmas!

Some people in this country—the usual suspects—find Christmas in Japan incongruous. But why should anyone begrudge the Japanese a good time, especially at this time of year, or snicker behind their backs because of the local Christmas customs? There’s a word for folks like that.


Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Junior high journalism in Japan’s English language press

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 26, 2007

THE JAPAN TIMES is running an article on its website by Michael Dunn about the Tokyo National Museum’s exhibit of items related to the Tokugawa shogunate. It is probably an excellent presentation, and if I were in Tokyo I would make a point of paying a visit.

The exhibition, called Legacy of the Tokugawa, is divided into two sections. One contains the shogunate hardware, if you will–weapons, armor, helmets, and other military equipment. The other focuses on the software: items related to culture and the arts.

While the exhibit seems outstanding, the article describing it is less than satisfactory. Mr. Dunn apparently tried to do some history homework, but there are doubts about the accuracy of his claim that Tokugawa Ieyasu died from the aftereffects of wounds suffered during the siege of Osaka Castle.

This information apparently comes from a book published in 2006 called Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns. This is a revised edition of the original translations and memoirs of Isaac Titsingh, edited by Timon Screech. Titsingh was in charge of the Dutch trading mission at Dejima from 1779 to 1784, more than 150 years after Ieyasu’s death. He claimed to have mastered Japanese in two years.

In the linked review of the book, C.B. Liddell says that Titsingh’s historical accounts have been superceded by more recent research. (Another complication is that Liddell has his own eccentric ideas about Japan, and usually writes about the arts. Is there any country anywhere more ill-served by foreign observers than Japan?)

It is suspicious that this theory on Ieyasu’s death is the only one mentioned in Wikipedia, a source I would not rely on if I were writing something for publication. In addition, modern Japanese sources, who have studied the matter in much greater detail, are not certain how Ieyasu died. (A previous theory of food poisoning from tempura seems to be out of favor, and other theories include stomach cancer and venereal disease.)

Further, Mr. Dunn does the exhibit no justice by conveying the information in the sort of prose one sees in reviews of classic rock music on (Writers should bury the word “haunting” until they can come up with a better single-word synomym for “lingers in the memory”.)

The real problem, however, lies in the last sentence:

Looking at politics today — and what passes for democracy — there are surely some who would see merit in reinstating them.

By them, he means the shoguns, who were military dictators.

Some questions come to mind after reading this sentence.

Why does Mr. Dunn presume that people reading an article about an exhibit on the Tokugawas care what he thinks about contemporary Japanese politics?

Does he really believe that Japan has a bogus democracy? There are millions of people in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, not to mention more than a billion in China, who would be thrilled to have “what passes for democracy” in Japan.

If he suspects some Japanese would see merit in reinstating a military dictatorship, why does he not present evidence that such people exist? If such people do exist, where is the evidence that suggests their numbers are significant enough to merit mention in an article about a museum exhibition?

Must people be subjected to the irrelevant figments of an immature imagination every time they pick up the newspaper?

Weren’t there any adults at the editors’ desk at the Japan Times to redline this journalistic juvenalia?

Meanwhile, newspaper readership in the United States continues to plummet like a rock. A recent report states that the circulation of the New York Times fell nearly 5% in the past six months alone.

And that brings us to the final question:

Can’t these people put two and two together?

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Mass media | 21 Comments »

Ave atque vale: Kazuhisa “Iron Arm” Inao (1937-2007)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 24, 2007

THE NICKNAME “IRON MAN” in American baseball was bestowed on Cal Ripken for the qualities of physical durability and mental toughness that enabled him to appear in a record 2632 consecutive games—the equivalent of every game for more than 16 seasons–and on Lou Gehrig, the man who held the record before him. Their counterpart in Japanese baseball was infielder Sachio Kinugasa, who played in 2215 consecutive games.


But these three men were what is known as “position players”. It was physically possible for them to play every game in a season, barring injury, because they were defenders in the field reacting to batted balls and were not involved in every pitch or every play.

That’s not the case at all for pitchers, however. The demands of throwing a baseball 100 or more times a game at speeds of 85 to 100 mph and twisting the arm to cause the ball to spin in different directions mean that starting pitchers now play only once every five days. Lasting as many as seven innings of a nine-inning game is considered an excellent performance. Winning 20 games in the 162-game American baseball season places them among the elite of their profession. Today’s benchmark for a strong, durable starting pitcher is to work 200 innings in a season.

Relief pitchers, who are brought into the game when the starting pitcher tires or is ineffective, play more frequently. An excellent relief pitcher with stamina will appear in a third or more of his team’s games during the season, but he will only pitch an inning or two at most.

What standards of performance would earn a pitcher the Iron Man moniker? In Japan, every baseball fan knows that the man who epitomized the physical durability and mental toughness deserving of that term is Kazuhisa Inao, the player they called Tetsuwan (Iron Arm). Inao died on 13 November, and his memorial service was held on Thursday.

Here’s the story behind that nickname, but be prepared. Those of you outside Japan who follow baseball will be astounded by what you are about to read.

Unheralded Rookie Steps Up

Inao made his debut as a professional baseball player in 1956 for the Nishitetsu Lions of Fukuoka City and played for that team his entire career. His skills did not attract the attention of manager Osamu Mihara or the coaching staff at first, but he was signed to pitch batting practice in accordance with the universal baseball axiom that a team cannot have too many pitchers. Inao established himself over the course of the exhibition season, however, and won a spot on the roster as a relief pitcher. His initial appearances were in mop-up roles out of the bullpen at the end of games already decided.

The rookie was so effective that he was shifted to the starting rotation in mid-May. The right-hander went on to compile a 21-6 won-lost record for the year, with an eye-popping earned run average of 1.06, still the single-season record for the Pacific League. To no one’s surprise, he was named Rookie of the Year.

Most pitchers would sell their souls to the devil for a season such as that, but Inao was just getting warmed up. The next year, 1957, he won 35 games, a number inconceivable in the sport today, and 20 of those were in a row—another Japanese record. (You’ll be seeing that phrase a lot.) He went on to win at least 30 games in three consecutive years, which no other Japanese pitcher has ever done.

Career Highlights

If that victory total is inconceivable, no words exist to describe his 1961 season, when he won 42 games to tie the Japanese single-season record. (He shares the mark with Russian-born Victor Starfin, who racked up that total when the standards for awarding wins to pitchers were more ill-defined than they are now.)

We should note that when Inao played, the staff’s ace pitcher was also expected to pitch in relief. Still, Inao threw 25 complete games in 1961–seven of which were shutouts–started another five that he didn’t finish, and appeared in 78 games in all. He finished a total of 43 games, suggesting he was used in the role of closer for as many as 18. He pitched 404 innings that year, one of five in which he pitched more than 370 innings.

Could anyone top that performance? Inao already had.

Inao’s Lions squared off against the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, the perennial powers of Japanese baseball, in the 1958 Japan Series, a seven-game tournament to determine the championship. The Lions lost the first three games, meaning they were one more loss away from elimination.


Explaining his thought processes some years later, Lions manager Mihara said he was resigned to losing the series at that point. He based his strategy for the remaining games on what he thought the other players and fans would want him to do, so he decided to go again with his ace, Inao.

Inao had already started games one and three, pitching a complete game in the latter, which he lost 1-0. But Mihara brought him back to start game four…and to pitch seven innings of one-hit relief in game five…and to start game six—all of which he won. To be sure, the games were not played on consecutive days. There was a rainout between games three and four, and a two-day layoff between games five and six.

The man with the arm of iron still wasn’t finished. He pitched in relief in game seven, and was the winning pitcher in that game, too, as the Lions stunned Japanese baseball with an unprecedented come-from-behind surge to win the championship four games to three. Inao was credited with the win in all four of the Lions’ victories in that series (and suffered two of their three losses), pitching 47 innings—a record–and striking out 32 batters—another record. His ERA over the six games in which he appeared was 1.57, with a WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) of 0.72.

But this was a series of the kind dreams and movies are made of, so before you pick your jaw up off the floor, here’s something else—as a batter, he hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning of game five to win that contest. (In Japan those are called sayonara home runs, by far the better term.) It was the first sayonara home run in Japan Series history. (The second photo shows him approaching home plate after the home run.)

Celebrating the victory, the local paper covering his team ran a headline that was to become famous: “Kami-sama, Hotoke-sama, Inao-sama”. The first is the Shinto deity, the second is the Buddhist deity, and the third, Inao, was now the God of Baseball.

Years later, when Inao visited his manager Mihara in the hospital, the latter apologized for overusing him to suit his own circumstances. Inao shrugged it off: “In those days, I was happy just to be able to pitch.”

Overuse Takes its Toll

Inao notched his 200th victory in 1962, not surprising when you consider that he won at least 20 games in his first eight seasons. But even iron is subject to metal fatigue, and Inao suffered a shoulder injury in 1964 that caused him to sit out most of the season.

His rehabilitation program was just as incredible as his performance on the field. The concept of sports medicine didn’t exist in those days, and someone came up with an idea that would render the modern baseball observer speechless. Inao had an iron baseball made and practiced pitching with that. The idea was that he would became used to the weight of the iron ball, so throwing a regular baseball would no longer seem painful.

At this point, do I need to tell you that it worked? His shoulder pain disappeared after a few months.

He returned as a relief specialist, though he was not as effective as before. He still had enough gas in the tank to win the ERA title once again in 1966, but he finally retired in 1969 at the age of 32. His early exit as an active player spurred Japanese baseball to rethink the role of the starting pitcher and increase the size of the starting rotation.

Post-Retirement Career

The following season, the Lions hired him as manager, the youngest man to hold that position in the Japan League. But the franchise was beset with other problems, and he was not as successful in the role of skipper as he was a pitcher. The team finished in last place three years in a row, and he stepped down in 1974.


Inao returned to baseball in 1978 as the pitching coach for the Chunichi Dragons (the team Tom Selleck played for in the movie Mr. Baseball), a role he performed for three seasons. He later came back to manage the Lotte Orions from 1984 to 1986.

After hanging up his spikes, Inao worked as a baseball analyst in both the print and broadcast media. For his career, he compiled a won-lost record of 276-137 (10th most wins in Japan), 2,574 strikeouts (8th all-time), with a lifetime ERA of 1.98 (3rd all-time). His career WHIP was 0.99. He also holds the Japanese record for most wins in a month, with 11. Yet another record he holds is the number of complete games pitched in a career in the Japan Series, with nine. He was named Most Valuable Player in 1957 and 1958. It goes without saying that he was inducted into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993 (third photo).

Upbringing a Factor

Inao was born in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, to parents who were fishermen. He was known for being unflappable in the tightest of circumstances, which he attributed to a childhood spent working on a flimsy fishing boat:

“There was just a thin board and underneath that was the sea. Every day I got on that boat without knowing whether I would live or die. That’s the reason I never got flustered on the mound.”

In addition to coolness under fire, he was also known for his courtesy as a player. At the end of each inning, he made sure to leave the resin bag in exactly the same spot and to fill in and smooth over the holes he had dug at the front of the pitching mound by striding with his front foot.


Inao’s pitching technique also set him apart from his peers–he pitched without his back heel on the ground, spinning on his toes. Inao said he developed this technique from rowing the family fishing boat. His two best pitches were a slider and screwball, and he is said to have been able to change the grip on the ball from one to the other in the middle of his pitching motion. He also mastered the forkball, but—in yet another astonishing aspect of an astonishing career—only did so because of the difficulty he had facing Kihachi Enomoto, the batter who had the most success against him. Inao said he never threw a forkball in a game to anyone else.

Extraordinary pitching control was one more reason for his success. Recalled longtime batterymate, catcher Hiromi Wada, “He was like a machine with his control. He could place his pitches within a third of a baseball where he wanted to at any time.” (Wada is on the right in the fourth photo, with Inao on the left.)

Admitted to the hospital in October complaining of a loss of feeling in his shoulder and leg, Kazuhisa Inao died of a malignant tumor less than a month later. He was 70 years old.

Posted in Sports | 3 Comments »

The jigsaw puzzle of Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 22, 2007

THOSE WHO ENJOY thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles would love the challenge of trying to create a single picture out of the jumble of Japanese politics. Imagine puzzle pieces capable of spontaneously changing shape. One minute they are a frustrating unmatched mess, the next minute they morph into a perfect fit, and a minute after that you find yourself working on a different puzzle altogether.

To give you an idea of what’s involved, here’s some surprisingly straight talk for a Japanese politician from Shizuka Kamei (first photo), one of the leaders of the People’s New Party.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Government, Politics, Religion | 1 Comment »

The apprentice geisha

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 22, 2007

IF YOU’VE NEVER SEEN an apprentice geisha perform, this is your chance.

KNB-TV in Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture (which has a 70% chance of snow tomorrow) broadcast a 59-second report on a maiko, an apprentice geisha in Kyoto, returning to her former nursery school in the city of Kurobe to perform for the children.

If you have RealPlayer, you can access the clip here.

Following is a quick translation of the newscaster’s report:

“A Kyoto maiko originally from Kurobe visited her former nursery school on the 21st and performed a graceful dance for the children.

“The visitor to the Ishida Nursery School in Kurobe was the Kyoto maiko Miharu (17), whose original name was Yurina Jodo.

“Miharu attended the Ishida Nursery School, and on the 21st she performed the dances Kyo no Shiki (The Four Seasons of the Capital [Kyoto]) and Gion Ko’uta (Gion Song) for the students and local residents.

“Miharu wanted to become a maiko in her primary school days. After being graduated from junior high school, she trained in Kyoto and debuted as a maiko in October 2005.

“The children were thrilled to see an authentic maiko, and they were captivated by her charming and graceful dances.”

Partway through the broadcast, there is a shot of three girls saying “kawaii” simultaneously. That’s the word for cute.

This should play if you have RealPlayer. If there are a lot of problems, let me know and I’ll see if I can figure something out.

Posted in Arts, Traditions | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

A moral absurdity?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 20, 2007

DAVID WARREN THINKS the global warming campaign of environmentalists is a crock comparable previous scares concerning nuclear winter, the population bomb, and global famine.

He also thinks that to:

…”force the relatively efficient and cleanly Japanese to surrender huge quantities of cash in “carbon credits” to China’s dictatorial regime, while also surrendering advanced technology…”

is a moral absurdity.

He notes that:

…”Japan…for ideological purposes…now counts — along with South Korea, Taiwan, and any other technologically-advanced, free Asian countries — as part of the West. Largely bereft of natural resources, these countries built what they have by their own inventive efforts, paying all the way. Mainland China, by comparison, has enjoyed the latecomer’s advantage of massive foreign investment and technology transfer, under the direction of a heavily militarized system of central command.”

The entire piece is here.

While I agree that it is morally absurd, China is indeed fouling the East Asian nest with its pollution, and someone has to deal with all that muck. The Japanese government has apparently concluded that the Chinese (and Indians) are not going to clean up after themselves, as Prime Minister Fukuda is about to unveil a major environmental initiative for Asia this week.

Major Japanese daily Mainichi reported Monday…that Fukuda will unveil an environmental aid package worth US$2 billion over the next five years.
The seed money and resources for Asian nations will go toward the transfer of technologies for clean industries. Japan already gives roughly US$450 million worth loans and grants to China for environmental programs.
Japan’s western coast suffers greatly from air pollution drifting from China, whose industries are 10 times less energy-efficient than Japanese industries, according to the Japanese officials.

Here’s a previous Ampontan post discussing the consequences for Japan of Chinese pollution, and another on a different columnist’s morally (and intellectually) absurd solution.

Those readers who feel the urge to upload a rant about global warming are encouraged to read this, this (and the wealth of links), and this first.

If going through all that material seems as if it might be too tedious, then here’s the best single-shot package. It also has the advantage of providing comic relief.

To conclude, a question: Which do you think will receive more media coverage in the week ahead? The generous Japanese environmental aid package, or the new whaling expedition in the South Pacific?

Posted in China, Environmentalism | 16 Comments »

Doing it right at a Shinto shrine

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 20, 2007

ETIQUETTE BOOKS went out of fashion in the West a long time ago—probably in tandem with the concept of etiquette itself. But books on proper behavior and conduct, particularly for specific times and places, continue to be published and widely read in Japan.


One of those guides is a trade paperback I have for my own edification called Keigo (Honorific Language), which takes 280 pages to explain the proper use of honorifics in speech and writing for the general reader. While the Japanese may be blasé about such things in informal settings, most are still more than willing to follow traditional customs appropriate to the situation.

Another such book that recently appeared is Jinja no Shikitari (Traditional Practices at Shinto Shrines) by Akitoshi Urayama. Shinto is the indigenous proto-religion of Japan, and visits to shrines are a part of everyone’s life. When people go to a shrine, they usually have an ulterior motive—they’re going there to ask for something. So it’s common sense for the visitor to behave properly in front of the divinity who just might make your wish come true. Urayama wrote the book to remind everyone what constitutes proper behavior, and why.

Last Thursday, on 15 November, parents throughout the country took their five-year-old boys and three- and seven-year-old girls to shrines on Shichigosan, which literally means seven-five-three. The visit was to pray for their health and sound growth in the future. Children of those ages are taken because of an old belief that they are susceptible to misfortune at those times and require divine protection. In some places, a child is accepted as part of the shrine parish at age seven. (That’s an interesting parallel with Catholicism; in that religion seven years old is the age at which children are assumed to have the capability to independently distinguish right from wrong.)

Some of the information Urayama provides might surprise Japanese readers. Most people believe, for example, that smaller bells (suzu) are rung to attract the attention of divinities, but that’s not the case. As the author explains, “Enveloping one’s body in the soothing sound of a bell will drive away malevolent influences. People then can present themselves to the divinity with a clean body and spirit.” (And that is an interesting contrast with mantras in Yoga.)

The shrinegoer, before making his request, bows twice, claps twice, and then bows once again. Helpful diagrams are provided to make sure everyone is familiar with each step of the procedure and such details as the proper angle of bowing, as you can see from the illustration on the dust jacket.

Why go to all this trouble? The author explains that the essence of Shinto is to respect nature, respect others, and then respect oneself. Observing the customs is the outward expression of these forms of respect, particularly when one considers the Shinto belief that natural phenomena, such as the wind, sun, moon, water, mountains, and trees, are divinities themselves.

Of course people can overdo it, and the Japanese are aware of it themselves. Recently we talked about noted director Juzo Itami’s film Tampopo. That was his second full-length feature. His first was Soshiki, or Funeral, which, among other things, lampooned this tendency by following a Japanese family over three days as they learned the proper way to conduct a funeral ceremony.

In the movie, however, the head of the house didn’t use a book. He watched a video while preparing food in his kitchen.

UPDATE: In a serendipitous bit of synchronicity, Mark Schreiber of the Japan Times explains why proper etiquette on the telephone is also important. It’s also a nice Japanese lesson for beginning level students.

Posted in Religion, Traditions | 7 Comments »

China: A model for the developing world?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 18, 2007

IS CHINA THE NEW MODEL for the developing world? That’s what Australian journalist Rowan Callick suggests in this long and thought-provoking article in The American.

The model has two components: economic freedom and political oppression.

Observers have wondered for years how long China can survive under its present system. Callick cites Gordon Chang’s book, The Coming Collapse of China, as an example. He notes that Chang’s assumptions, which seemed plausible in 2001 when the book was published, are not as likely to withstand scrutiny today.

Callick points out the primary reason for Chinese success:

The system’s advantage over the standard authoritarian or totalitarian approach is obvious: it produces economic growth, which keeps people happy…the party ensures steadily improving living standards for all, and, in return, the Chinese people let the CPC rule as an authoritarian regime.

It has been widely assumed that exposure to democratic systems abroad would encourage the Chinese to implement those systems at home. But that has not been the case:

A striking example is that of Li Qun, who studied in the U.S. and then served as assistant to the mayor of New Haven…After his return to China, he became a mayor himself, of Linyi in Shandong Province in the Northeast. There, he swiftly became the nemesis of one of China’s most famous human rights lawyers, the blind Chen Guangcheng. First, Chen was placed under house arrest and his lawyers and friends were beaten because of his campaign against forced sterilizations of village women. Then, Chen was charged, bizarrely, with conspiring to disrupt traffic when a trail of further arrests led to public protests. He was jailed for four years.

It is unsettling that many in the go-along-to-get-along business and financial circles find the situation in China appealing:

(T)he big attractions of China to capital from overseas has been that the political setting is stable, that there will be no populist campaign to nationalize foreign assets, that the labor force is both flexible and disciplined, and that policy changes are rational and are signaled well ahead.

It is sometimes surprising who the admirers of China are:

The World Bank is just one of the international institutions that champion China (its greatest client and in some ways its boss) as a paradigm for the developing world.

A troubling aspect of the model for the development of domestic political awareness, not to mention future Sino-Japanese relations, is the Chinese government’s approach to history:

Historian Xia Chun-tao, 43, vice director of the Deng Xiaoping Thought Research Center…says, “It’s very natural for historians to have different views on events. But there is only one correct and accurate interpretation, and only one explanation that is closest to the truth.” The key issues, he says, are “quite clearly defined” and not susceptible to debate. “There is a pool of clear water and there’s no need to stir up this water. Doing so can only cause disturbance in people’s minds.

Others have become aware of the advantages of the Chinese Model:

In the May/June edition of The American, Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, explained that evidence is emerging that developing “countries that are economically and politically free are underperforming the countries that are economically but not politically free.”…Hassett wrote, “…. Being unfree may be an economic advantage. Dictatorships are not hamstrung by the preference of voters for, say, a pervasive welfare state. So the future may look something like the 20th century in reverse.”

The Chinese success is attracting the attention of other governments:

When 21 leaders controlling three-fifths of the world’s economy met at the latest Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney in September, The Nation newspaper in Thailand editorialized: “One could easily spot who the real mover and shaker among them was. It used to be that what the leader of the U.S. said was what would count the most. That is no longer.” The new mover and shaker is China.

There are certain aspects of the model that developing nations find appealing:

Developing nations believe that, as an ideal, the China Model has replaced the American Model, especially as embodied in the “Washington Consensus,” a set of 10 liberal democratic reforms the U.S. prescribed in 1989 for developing nations….The Western requirement that good-governance medicine must be consumed in return for modest aid is now not only unwelcome but also, as far as many African leaders are concerned, outdated. They are no longer cornered without options. Now they’ve got China, which is offering trade and investment, big time, as well as aid.

Liberal democracies insist on the rule of law, but that does not apply in China. (Memo to Japan bashers: note the parenthetical remark in the penultimate sentence):

Chinese people do not expect to obtain justice from the courts, which are run by the party, the judges answerable to the local top cadres. Ordinary people, the laobaixing, have to negotiate their way out of any troubles if they can. They have grown accustomed to, but not accepting of, widespread corruption….Freedom House, in its annual survey, gives China a ranking of “7” for political rights—the organization’s lowest rating and the same as that of North Korea, Burma, and Cuba (Japan ranks “1”). China ranks only slightly higher, at “6,” for civil liberties, the same as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe.

Callick does not neglect to discuss the negative aspects of the Chinese Model. He does fail to take into account, however, two important factors that prevent a reading of China’s future. Both of these factors arise out of China’s implementation of a one-child policy for urban dwellers.

The first is that the graying of the population will engender an unprecedented demographic collapse starting in 2015. The second is that, according to statistics released just last week, China now has a ratio of roughly 120 males to 100 females. How will the losers among the men in the sexual marketplace find ways to occupy their time and energy in the future?

The entire article, however, is worth your time.

Meanwhile, this article in The Washington Post gives a real-world example of how the two elements of the Chinese Model combine. It explains that journalist Pang Jiaoming ran afoul of the authorities when he reported that substandard coal ash was being used in a major railroad construction project.

The ash is a key ingredient in concrete used for tunnels, bridges and roadbed, Pang wrote, and a substandard mix raised the specter of collapsing structures and tragic accidents.

The motive was money, of course:

There was a difference of about $12 a ton between the substandard ash, which contained rock and other waste, and the mandated fine ash, which comes mostly from the smoke of coal burned in power plants, Pang said. That meant a lot of money was being made from fraud, he suggested, probably at the railroad construction company as well as at the coal ash providers.

As a result, Pang was fired, prohibited from working as a reporter at any other publications, and “The Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department and the official All-China Journalists Association issued a directive ordering Pang’s employer, the China Economic Times…to ‘reinforce the Marxist ideological education of its journalists.’”

Posted in China | 27 Comments »

Matsuri da! (61) Big torches in Kurama!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 18, 2007

THE JAPANESE TENDENCY to arrange and classify by group is much more pronounced than that in the West. By that I mean they are drawn to viewing and discussing objects or ideas as being among the top 10, the best three, or the biggest five in any given category. Other examples include the semi-official classifications for the country’s best 100 scenic views and the most attractive 100 terraced rice paddies. Corporations in their annual reports often refer to such things as their “three guiding principles”. (The Koreans and the Chinese also have the same preference; remember the Gang of Four?)

Kyoto, the old capital, has three kisai, or “unusual festivals”, every year. (In fact, the conduct of one has been suspended, but they still say there are three.) One of those three is the Kurama Fire Festival, which is held by the Yuki Shinto shrine on October 22.

Here’s what happens: The shrine’s parishioners in the Kurama district, a rural part of the prefecture, gather at the local Buddhist temple to carry 500 flaming torches in a procession, sparks flying, urged on by onlookers chanting, sairei, sairyo! By torches, we are not talking about sticks of wood held aloft in the hand. These are four meters long and weigh from 80 to 100 kilograms.

It all starts on the evening of the 22nd, when at 6:00 p.m. the town is illuminated by watch fires lit simultaneously at the entrances to the local houses, and by a procession of children carrying smaller torches. They’re followed by adults carrying the big bruisers, who parade through the town and meet up at the Kurama Buddhist temple for the trip to the shrine. Japan is nothing if not syncretic. The climax comes later when the young guys haul two mikoshi, or portable shrines, through the streets. But of course the après-festival party continues until dawn, or close to it.

The villagers carry these torches not to recreate the search for the Mary Shelley character, but to reenact a much older event. The Emperor Suzaku ordered the enshrined deity of the Kurama Shrine to be moved from its original site in Kyoto’s Imperial Palace to Kurama in 940. The people in the area welcomed the Imperial procession by torchlight. They found it so moving, they’ve kept on doing it for more than a millenium.

The spectacle is so compelling that it attracts as many as 12,000 visitors to the village every year—don’t forget, it is one of the three most unusual festivals of Kyoto. An additional attraction is the landscape surrounding the village. Further, the buildings of the Yuki Shinto shrine are built in the style of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1598), and there is also a Japanese cedar tree about 800 years old on the shrine grounds.

Because the festival is so visually appealing, there are a lot of YouTube videos available, but unfortunately I couldn’t find one worth linking to. Kurama is a mountain village, so it is no easy matter to travel there. Its relative inaccessibility is complicated by more than 12,000 people arriving at the same time. Naturally, most of the home videos start with the train ride to the site.

After looking at the Five Most Boring Kurama Fire Festival videos, I gave up! You’ll have to make do with the photo on this site, or the photos at the site of the Yuki Shinto shrine.

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

Ecoutez on Kamm on Tibbets

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 17, 2007

TEN DAYS AGO, I wrote a short post linking to three Oliver Kamm pieces on the death of Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets.

Mr. Kamm took author Gar Alperovitz to task for assertions the latter made about the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. In a private e-mail to me, reader Ecoutez took Mr. Kamm to task for what he says are misrepresentations of Prof. Alperovitz. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read Prof. Alperovitz’s book.)

Ecoutez has kindly agreed to allow his e-mail to be posted here. I’ve removed the personal remarks and included the information relevant to the issue. Here’s what he had to say:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in World War II | 6 Comments »

Men, women, Japan, and the West

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 16, 2007

MOST WESTERN MEN MARRIED TO JAPANESE WOMEN have at some point been subjected to the petulant accusation by a Western woman that they chose their wives because “Japanese women will do anything you say”.

Philosophy can provide a comforting perspective for the man trapped in such a situation and who chooses to remain civil. For example, it is reassuring to recall the words of British essayist William Hazlitt in On Common-Place Critics:

A common-place critic has something to say upon every occasion, and he always tells you either what is not true, or what you knew before, or what is not worth knowing. He is a person who thinks by proxy, and talks by rote.

Those of a funkier turn of mind, however, might reflect on the observations of The Rolling Stones in the song, Stupid Girl:

Like a lady in waiting to a virgin queen
Look at that stupid girl!
She bitches ‘bout things that’s she’s never seen
Look at that stupid girl!

Whatever option he chooses, modern man must show more forbearance than his ancestors, who would have either laughed in the woman’s face or punched her in it.

Speaking for myself, “thinking by proxy and talking by rote” about covers it. Adult Japanese women don’t take marching orders from anybody, much less their husbands, as any one of us married to them will attest. The complaint is just a poorly disguised combination of ignorance and—let’s make no bones about this—jealousy, so there’s nothing much to do but shrug it off.


Yes, it’s unfair to paint with such a broad brush, and yes, there are always exceptions on both sides, but there are still some significant differences between Japanese women and Western women that make most of us in “international marriages” glad we wound up married to one of the former instead of one of the latter.

Explaining the reasons would not be easy, would require too many generalizations to be meaningful, and she wouldn’t believe any of it anyway, so discretion is, as always, the better part of valor.

But this newspaper article on a subject entirely unrelated to Japan contains a comment that so clearly highlights the difference, it’s worth mentioning here.

The article appeared a while ago in the Washington Post about a career minor league baseball player named Rick Short who was having the season of his life. Short had spent about 10 years in the minor leagues without ever playing in a major league game until he was called up briefly twice to play for the Washington Nationals. He was one of those players good enough to get hired every year by a minor league team (and twice by Japanese teams), but not quite good enough to play in the major leagues. He didn’t hit many home runs, and hitters like that need to play very good defense.

Short was the subject of this article because he was having a tremendous season—he nearly hit .400 for the year, though he wound up with a .383 average. Hitting .400 for a full season hasn’t been done in the major leagues since Ted Williams pulled it off in 1941, and in the minor leagues since 1961 by Aaron Pointer, who had some famous singing sisters.

The reporter interviewed Short’s wife about their life together. Mrs. Short was not much of a baseball fan before they got married, but this is what she said:

“You have no idea how many people have told me, ‘I wouldn’t let my husband play that long without getting to the big leagues,’ ” she says. “I would say, ‘You never say never.’ I can’t make him quit; this is what he loves.”

There you have it in one sentence. Many women tell Mrs. Short, “I wouldn’t let my husband…” Oh, you wouldn’t? And when did women become the final arbiters of their husband’s career? As I said, generalizations are dangerous and there are always exceptions, but I can’t imagine many Japanese women presuming to take this attitude about their husbands’ career choice.

That isn’t to say they meekly roll over for everything their husbands do or want to do. For example, my wife would never let me hang out with seedy characters, spend the monthly house payment on pachinko, or have an affair with the lady next door. To be more precise, if I did, I would soon be wifeless. By the same token, if my wife had refused to allow me to become a freelance translator and insisted that I become a salaried drone at some company, she would have soon been husbandless.

Mrs. Short’s comment, You have no idea how many people have told me… suggests how commonplace that attitude is among women in the West. In my experience, however, Japanese women are often quite different.

Closer to Home

For example, another translator I know in Tokyo studied for his university degree at night in the States on the GI Bill while working full time during the day. He became friendly with several other men at school doing the same thing, but he was the only one of the group who stuck it out and graduated. All the other men were forced to quit school by their wives because they weren’t spending enough time at home. His Japanese wife was the only one of the women with enough foresight to realize that being patient until he earned his degree would pay off handsomely for the whole family down the road.

In my smaller city, there’s an American who married a local woman more than a half-century ago when he was in the Navy. They lived many years in America before moving to Japan after he retired (the second time). He once told me that he had an arrangement with his buddies in those days to go bowling and have a few beers one night a week. He said that along about 10 o’clock, he would suggest having another beer, but all his friends would look at their watches and reply, “Naw, it’s getting late, I’d better be getting home.”

Here’s what they really meant: If I don’t go home now, my wife will kill me.

That isn’t to say his wife thought it was just ducky for him to be hanging out at the bowling alley drinking beer, but she wasn’t presumptuous enough to say anything about it, especially considering that it was only one night a week and he wasn’t leaving his family starving and barefoot. And of course, if he woke up the next morning with a hangover, he knew better than to look to his wife for sympathy. “Don’t complain about it to me. You’re the one who decided to drink that much.”

That might as well be my wife speaking, and I suspect that’s just what the other translator’s wife would say, too. Perhaps the difference between Japanese women and Western women is one of a certain amount of respect for one’s partner as an individual. It would be ironic if that were the case, as Western women usually are the ones to complain about the lack of respect shown by their husbands to them as individuals. And Westerners often assert (among themselves, of course) that respect for the individual is a characteristic of Western nations, not Japan.

Japan? Are you out of your mind?

Speaking of presumptuous behavior, I’ll bring up another brief article that once caught my eye in The Japan Times. It was just a short bit of filler they ran on Saturdays called The Japanese Experience, so it wasn’t on line. The idea behind the column was that foreign residents would write a brief note about their life in Japan. This particular column was only five paragraphs long, and it was called Going Home Satisfied. The author spent 2 1/2 pleasant years in this country with his wife and children and was about to return to the United States. Here’s how he starts the second paragraph:

We came here because of a job opportunity of my wife’s. Many people back home thought we were crazy or running away from something when we told them we were moving to Japan.

As an American, reading that sentence makes me cringe. I wonder how many Japanese people would say the same thing to a friend or acquaintance in a similar situation?

People who live outside their native country for a long time eventually wind up shaking their heads and wondering whether their country has changed that much since they’ve been away, or whether they were the ones who’ve changed. Of course it’s a combination of both, but in most cases, the change within themselves has been greater than the change within the country of their birth.

Speaking for myself, I’m thankful it happened. And I’m keeping the change.

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Social trends, Sports | Tagged: | 70 Comments »