Japan from the inside out

Archive for February, 2008

Cultural commissars

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 29, 2008

THE JAPANESE SHOULD THANK their lucky stars they’ve kept their festival traditions alive over the centuries—and that no megalomaniac dictators decided to eliminate them in the name of progress. Otherwise, like the Chinese, they might be regretting what they’ve lost, as this article in the Asia Times points out.

Here’s what happened:

China’s late leader Mao Zedong had tried to erase many traditional Chinese celebrations by ordering the destruction of religious sites and outlawing folk customs. Everything “old” – from marriages to funerals, from folk medicine to folk music – was targeted.
But as communist ideology gradually lost its influence in contemporary society, Chinese leaders after Mao have tried to fill the void with nationalistic appeals for people to take pride in the country’s 5,000-year-old history and culture.

It’s not so easy to recreate the connection once the ties to the past have been severed, however. Many Chinese find the efforts to reclaim those festivals contrived and hollow:

“Any resemblance to the elaborate imperial sacrifices to heaven and Earth of the past was lost in these caricature performances of poorly trained traveling troupes from the provinces,” columnist Zhang Min wrote of his experiences at the capital’s Temple of Earth in the Beijing News. The exquisite works of artisans that once adorned Beijing temple fair stalls – Peking Opera masks, figurines made of painted dough and modeled on legendary figures, intricate kites and embroidered clothes – have now been replaced with “ubiquitous and cheap mass-produced trinkets”, Zhang complained.

The Chinese also faced an unexpected development. Other countries are claiming Chinese festivals and customs as their own for UNESCO registration:

The country saw one of its most treasured events, the Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in June, nominated and later successfully listed as an intangible part of the cultural heritage of neighboring South Korea. The listing angered Chinese scholars and officials who accused South Korea of brazenly encroaching on China’s cultural heritage.
Since the 2005 UNESCO listing of the Dragon Boat festival, South Korea has applied to have its ritualized Confucius memorial ceremony listed as another unique cultural heritage and is reported ready with an application for the listing of “Chinese traditional medicine” as “Korean traditional medicine”.

This touched off a different kind of culture war. Countries can get just as huffy about their rituals and ceremonies as they can about their territory:

“It is not enough to talk just about territorial integrity – China needs to safeguard its cultural sovereignty too,” argues literary scholar Bai Gengsheng. “Unlike material culture which is traceable, intangible cultural heritage can be very contentious and we must design strategies to preserve China’s heritage from being lost to other countries.”

This debate is fascinating because it highlights both the historical movement of culture in the region at large and some of the tensions that currently exist within it. Regardless of UNESCO bureaucratic fiats, no one can deny that the Chinese are the progenitors of much of East Asian culture that later became localized in other areas. The Japanese, to cite one of many examples, freely acknowledge the Chinese (and Korean) origins for gagaku, or Imperial Court music.

Chinese Overreaction?

But even some Chinese realize that when cultural traditions are replanted elsewhere, they adapt to the new soil and become transformed in the process. As this China Daily article points out:

Some Koreans working in China believe that the Chinese who are upset may be overreacting. A teacher surnamed Kim pointed out that the festival has been celebrated in Korea for more than 1,000 years, since it was introduced from China. It has been integrated with Korean culture over the centuries, so that celebrations now bear little resemblance to China’s.

The same article suggests that the Chinese who object may misunderstand the UNESCO process:

For all the pride the Chinese take in such traditions, however, they do not necessarily hold any proprietary rights over them.
“Unlike natural heritage sites, which are fixed and unique, the ‘masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’ can be shared,” said Wu. “If UNESCO approves something as an intangible cultural property of one country, other countries may still apply. For example, mukamu is a typical music of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China, but still UNESCO has approved Iraq mukamu and Azerbaijan mukamu as those nations’ intangible cultural properties.”

Choseon Chicanery

Be that as it may, the Koreans are not entirely blameless in this affair, as this brief article points out:

The Chinese domain name for the (festival) website (, however, was first registered by a South Korean company in October last year when the two countries had already competed against each other fiercely in a struggle that aimed to include the Dragon Boat Festival as a world cultural heritage of their own country.

It cost the Chinese $30,000 to buy back the domain name.

The Koreans have been known to do this before. They were the first to register the rights for the Japanese name of the alcoholic beverage shochu in the United States, for example, and used it to sell their own version of the drink, which they call soju. The Japanese had to buy those rights back, too.

Everyone recognizes that some cultural practices which originated elsewhere have long been a part of Korean life and have taken on a Korean identity. It’s another matter, however, to register the Chinese and Japanese names with the intent of scamming some cash. And everyone also recognizes that it’s pointless to expect people on the Korean Peninsula to chastise the grifters who scavenge off of the Chinese or Japanese while poking a finger into their eyes. They’re likely to be applauded instead.

The Source of the Problem

But some questions inevitably arise after reading these accounts: Why is anyone bothering to register their cultural properties, tangible or intangible, with UNESCO? Why should anyone think any organization has the standing to render judgments on a country’s cultural heritage?

And who is this all for, anyway? Neither the Chinese nor the Koreans need UNESCO’s “approval” for cultural validation, particularly for a festival that dates back a millennium in Korea and 2,500 years in China. The Koreans haven’t needed it to keep their festival alive, and the Chinese still have their cultural memory despite the social devastation Mao wrought.

A look at the UNESCO website for the project provides some hints.

Other than country-specific lists with brief explanations, the site is short on reports of what it has achieved with actual, on-the-ground projects. Yet it is packed with organizational trivia, rules of procedure, and vapid platitudes. Just the sort of thing to keep people busy without doing any real work. Here are some statements from their convention, which presents the reasons and objectives for their activities:

Considering the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development…

When did intangible cultural heritage become a guarantee of sustainable development? It’s a toss-up which is worse: cutting and pasting political banalities to create a pleasant-sounding but meaningless mush of linguistic oatmeal, or inserting that phrase as self-justification into their convention as if it were an absolute scriptural truth.

An intangible cultural heritage guarantees nothing, least of all sustainable development.

And it’s no surprise that UNESCO should be so concerned about protecting—or enforcing—yet another mushy platitude: cultural diversity. It’s as if UNESCO were encouraging people to have sex. Cultural diversity is what happens when people are left to their own devices to interact naturally. Especially when the NGOs aren’t looking.

Recognizing that the processes of globalization and social transformation, alongside the conditions they create for renewed dialogue among communities, also give rise, as does the phenomenon of intolerance, to grave threats of deterioration, disappearance and destruction of the intangible cultural heritage, in particular owing to a lack of resources for safeguarding such heritage…

We have a winner in the contest for non-native English speakers to see who can write the longest sentence with as many clichés as possible.

The proposition that globalization threatens diversity is untenable. Globalization enhances cultural diversity, and examples abound. To cite one: trends in popular music over the last century on every continent except Antarctica.

“Deterioration, disappearance, and destruction” result from isolation and the rejection of outside influences. Nature loves a wide gene pool. So does culture.

Considering the invaluable role of the intangible cultural heritage as a factor in bringing human beings closer together and ensuring exchange and understanding among them…

If this is referring to specific local areas, they’ve got it backwards. A cultural heritage results from the pre-existing exchange and common understanding between people. And while multinational cultural exchange sometimes does result in bringing people together, it doesn’t ensure it. Exhibit A: the Dragon Festival registration story.

UNESCO also attempts to define what they’re talking about. Here’s one definition:

(d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;

Perhaps the Chinese should register feng shui before the Koreans beat them to it!

Give UNESCO credit for trying to cover every conceivable base, however:

Close to half of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world are doomed or likely to disappear in the foreseeable future. The disappearance of any language is an irreparable loss for the heritage of all humankind.

bamyan 1

The disappearance of any language is no more an irreparable loss for our heritage than was that of the pterodactyl. It just means that the language no longer has a practical use. If there were any benefits to be gained from its use, a language wouldn’t have to be protected.

After looking over this website, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the enterprise seems less about recognizing and preserving culture than it is about providing the transnational NGO jet set with a marvelous opportunity for self-congratulation and a chance to dress up and meet people from around the world on someone else’s tab.

If the plug were pulled on UNESCO tomorrow, Koreans would still celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, Nigerians would still play juju music, the Balinese would still dance, and the Japanese living cultural treasures would still make ceramics and perform kabuki—not to mention holding more traditional festivals than the public sector can count.

bamyan destruction

Bam Goes Bamian

Yet when a cultural heritage really was threatened, UNESCO turned out to have been all bumper sticker and no horsepower. When the Taliban used the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamian for bazooka practice, as the third photo shows, the largest Buddhist statues in the world–a UNESCO World Heritage site–were turned into rubble.

Here’s what former Afghanistan leader Mullah Mohammad Omar allegedly said to a Pakistani reporter:

“I did not want to destroy the Bamian Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamian Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings — the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas’ destruction.”

The Mullah is obviously a lunatic, but there’s a point lurking in that nonsense. If multinational organizations think it’s important to save threatened cultural heritages, a good place to start would be to help the culture save itself. Their money would be a lot better spent ensuring that people had safe drinking water than by creating an artificial cocoon for a language or dance form that long ago lost its meaning for living people.

But laying water pipe has very little cachet. At a catered multinational cocktail party, it’s a lot more impressive to be able to boast that one helped save indigenous weaving and dying techniques, and doesn’t that blanket look lovely on the wall of the apartment?

The problem here is not the end, but the means. The ostensible aims of this scheme may be admirable, and I’d elbow my way to the front of the line to see some of the registered activities, but UNESCO is just as likely to get in the way of people devising their own cultural preferences instead of helping them. Like the pterodactyl, cultural practices become extinct for a reason.

The best solution lies where it always has—at the local level. Even the Marxist government of Cuba has kept its local musical culture alive while allowing it to evolve by incorporating outside influences. Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has a robust program for preserving and utilizing cultural properties, as you can see here. Even Japanese villagers need little encouragement to continue holding festivals that are hundreds of years old and that only a handful of people see.

And they don’t touch off arguments about who has dibs on what is supposed to be the shared heritage of humanity.

Postscript: Here is the UNESCO page for registered Japanese cultural properties. The Japanese seem to be paying a lot of the bills for other countries, while noh, kabuki, and joruri don’t need UNESCO registration to survive. The Japanese government is also playing a leading role in restoring the Buddhas of Bamian.

Posted in Arts, China, History, International relations, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , | 10 Comments »

Chiburger to go

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 27, 2008

SOME CRITICS LAMENT that people are reading less fiction than they once did, but I think those concerns are unfounded. People read just as much fiction as they always have—it’s just that the sources of their literary entertainment have changed. Nowadays, readers get their fiction from news articles instead of from novelists.


For the skeptical, here’s a story as absurd as any comic novel and which includes characters and passages that could have been invented by Jonathan Swift or William Burroughs. The Associated Press reports that the McDonald’s hamburger chain has opened a shop in Hacienda Heights, California, that incorporates the principles of feng shui in its design.

Feng shui (風水, fusui in Japanese) is the ancient Chinese practice of utilizing geography and astrology to determine the optimum location and positioning of residences, commercial establishments, and farms to receive and retain chi (気, ki in Japanese), or natural energy, to achieve harmony with one’s surroundings.

Some people consider it junk science, but it is being viewed with increasing respect by Western architects and designers.

Here’s how Brenda Clifford redesigned the hamburger joint:

With the help of a feng shui master, the designers added details that…include positioning the doors in a way that would block out bad spirits while keeping good ones inside…
The eight rows of red tiles near the food counter are another symbol of fortune, because the number eight is considered auspicious…
Clifford said she made the nearly fatal mistake of putting 44 seats in the dining area, until she learned that feng shui followers consider the number four a symbol of bad luck. So she added an extra seat to make it 45.

The outlet’s owners say they decided to incorporate feng shui principles because there is a well-known Buddhist temple nearby, which brings good luck.

Another factor in their decision is what the author calls the large Asian (read: East Asian) population in the neighborhood. McDonald’s has recently been implementing a policy of modifying shop designs and products to appeal to local communities.

And of course there is an unspoken third factor: combining two items unlikely to be mentioned in the same sentence—namely, the Palace of American Junk Food and Chinese cosmology–creates a media magnet that will reap publicity for the store owners, leading to increased customer traffic and higher profits.

The scenario has grown more common in recent years: Westerners encounter Asian culture and use the shells while throwing away the nuts. Other examples include the exercise regimen known as “power yoga”, a classic contradiction in terms that is laughable from the traditional perspective, and the perversion of Tantric yoga into a form of sexual gymnastics.

The objective of feng shui is to generate positive benefits that result in health, harmony, and abundance. While the Chinese certainly use the principles to foster success in their business enterprises, it would be difficult to imagine anything less conducive to health and harmony than the merchandise produced and sold by McDonald’s.

But let’s take a look at the article, starting with the headline on the MSNBC website:

Do you want fries with that Zen?

American author William Burroughs was known for the technique of cutting up and rearranging words, phrases, and sentences to create a non-linear narrative. It was one thing for the drug-addled Burroughs to razor through unrelated bits of prose and recombine them for the pleasure of avant-garde cultists. It’s another matter altogether when journalists employ the same technique because they’re too lazy to look in an encyclopedia.

Feng Shui originated several thousand years ago in China and was a local attempt to formulate principles for coexisting with the environment that are both philosophical and practical. Zen is a Japanese word for a specific practice within Buddhism. It also exists in China, where it is called chán, and where it is thought to have been developed in the 7th century AD. The original concepts probably came from India.

Zen has about as much to do with feng shui as Stonehenge has to do with Jesuits. A published article by working journalists that assumes the existence of one means the presence of the other? Straight out of Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh.

The satirists also could have created the character of the designer, Brenda Clifford.

Meanwhile, the metal sculptures of a crane and Koi fish adorning one wall represent fertility and prosperity, she said.

The crane is a traditional symbol of longevity in both China and Japan. Koi—the Japanese word for carp—represent strength and endurance in both countries. The bird and the fish represent fertility and prosperity in much the same way a Big Mac represents nourishment.

But back to the journalists of the Associated Press. They’re still using the Burroughs technique of cutting and pasting unrelated words and phrases to create meaningless sentences:

The designs were…also done in a way that would help all customers tap their inner Zen.

And the way they take a noun from a foreign language and turn it into a new verb is almost Shakespearean:

Brownstein said he and his partners chose to feng shui the restaurant…

Who needs fiction after reading this two-screen marvel? Feng shui, food that isn’t food, a dizzy designer, a “professor emerita” offering junk education, and reporters and editors at the Associated Press better qualified to flip burgers than to write about them.

That has all the ingredients of an epic satire.

Posted in China, Food, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Traditions | 24 Comments »

China’s income divide: More canyon than gap

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 26, 2008

IT’S ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA to take with a grain of salt the sort of journalism in which a reporter encourages the reader to extrapolate ideas about large groups of people based on interviews with a handful of individuals. Are the examples selected illustrative of a larger truth, or were they cherry-picked to promote an agenda or a particular point of view?

These questions are compounded when the subject matter is China, a country of 1.3 billion people. Yet, whether Max Hastings, columnist for Britain’s Daily Mail, is playing it straight or playing a riff on reality, his recent articles about contemporary conditions in the country are worth reading.

Of particular interest are two pieces that present the contrast between China’s dirt poor and glorious rich. Here’s a sample from the first:

…if you think you know what poverty means, you have not met Han Yuming. He is a citizen of a China which lives a century behind the new society of skyscrapers, teeming factories and highways.

He is 62 years old, earns less than £20 a month, and lives in a hut – no, let us be honest and call it a hovel – in the mountains north-west of Beijing, less than two hours’ drive from the glittering Olympic stadiums soon to be unveiled before the world.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor is the aspect of “new China” which most frightens its government and elite. Beyond the swathe of prosperity in the east of the country live 900 million peasants who possess no share in China’s wealth, and have scant hope of gaining one.

Some 135 million people eke out an existence on less than 50p a day; Yuming is one 500 million who have less than £1 a day.

And one from the second:

A Beijing businesswoman, whom to spare her blushes we shall call Hui, gave me a guided tour of her eighth floor palace.

The apartment is a riot of gilding; purple and green carpets; a library packed with new, unread and probably unreadable books; electronic gadgetry; pools of giant goldfish; vast gold mirrors; imperial-sized beds and sofas deep enough to drown in.

The dining-room table is permanently laid for eight. The massive sunken bath and Jacuzzi look in danger of falling through into the floor below.

A whole room is devoted to shoes, racked from floor to ceiling in a fashion that would earn the envy of former Philippines First Lady and shoe queen Imelda Marcos.

My hostess, a chunky 47-year-old, has made a fortune out of trading in pharmaceuticals…

She has lately discovered religion, and her apartment boasts its own Buddhist shrine.

“Before I became religious, I was always stressed, always pressured,” she says. “Now, my Buddha master tells me I should take it easier – and I do. Buddhism has taught me about my destiny.

“I’m successful because it’s my destiny. If you’re born into a poor family, then that’s another kind of destiny.

“Any time I have a problem, my Buddha master tells me what I should do…”

It was he, she says, who urged her to get into property development.

She is now doing that, too, with notable success. She employs a workforce which will soon be 100-strong and is thinking of buying a country house with a garden.

And while you’re at it, you might be interested in his article on the Chinese middle class, which is here.

Posted in China | 10 Comments »

Matsuri da! (73): Climbing up the greasy pole!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 24, 2008

IF ANYONE STILL HARBORED ANY DOUBTS about the richness of the Japanese imagination when it comes to festival rites, the Kinekosa Festival held jointly by seven Shinto shrines in Nagoya should dispel them. More than 1,000 years old, the festival is held to drive away evil spirits and pray for the prosperity of one’s descendants, peace, and a good harvest. The festival date is January 17 according to the lunar calendar, which fell on February 23rd this year.

The main event does involve loincloth-clad men getting dunked in cold water in the middle of winter, which is a common occurrence in Japanese festivals, but the Kinekosa Festival has a fascinating twist—or perhaps bend is the more accurate word. Ten men, all 42 years old, and two boys stick a 10-meter long bamboo pole into the river. Then, one of group skinnies up the pole. The direction in which the pole falls predicts the fortune for that part of Nagoya in the year ahead.

This year, the climb was complicated by strong winds, but that wasn’t enough to put a damper on the proceedings. Luck was with them, as the pole fell to the southeast, the best possible direction for good fortune.

This site is all in Japanese, but that won’t stop you from looking at the photographs and a three-minute video of the event. Click on the arrow just as if it were YouTube. If you have the sound turned on, you can hear the wind blowing into the mike. Watching the pole climber take his good old time getting set, I could imagine the other participants thinking to themselves, “Let’s get a move on!”

But they probably didn’t. Part of their preparations for the event included three consecutive early-morning cold water baths for purification!

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

Matsuri da! (72): Ridding the world of evil with fire

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 23, 2008

SPRING CLEANING FOR MOST PEOPLE involves washing the windows and cleaning the house to get ready for warm weather. For some people, however, spring cleaning is a time to drive away the demons for spiritual renewal—and they’ve been reenacting the ritual for more than 900 years.

That’s what happens at the Takisan-ji Oni Matsuri, or the Demon Festival of the Takisan Buddhist temple, which was held in Okazaki, Aichi, on the 16th. The festival is held close to 7 February, which was the old lunar New Year. Apart from the spectacle, the festival is also noteworthy for two reasons. First, it is held at a Buddhist temple–unlike most Japanese festivals, which are associated with Shinto shrines. And second, it was started by one of the first shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo.

That was early in the Kamakura period (1185—1333), when he had established what is now known as the Kamakura Shogunate. He offered prayers in supplication for peace and a bountiful harvest. That later evolved into ceremonies in which large torches are used to expel demons.

This is not a game played with matchsticks. The ceremonies date from a time when people believed in evil and demons, and knew that strong measures were required to keep them away. In this case, it means noise, movement, and a lot of fire. Contemporary humankind may have evolved into an affable domesticated herd, but the intensity of a more primitive—and more compelling–version of ourselves survives here.

Several ceremonies are conducted as part of the overall event, but the one that attracts the most interest is the Fire Festival. The temple lights are extinguished and three demons wearing masks representing a grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild enter the corridor of the main hall. The role of the grandfather is played by a 42-year-old man, the grandmother by a 25-year-old man, and the grandchild by a 12-year-old boy.

Then, about 50 men clad in white appear. They are all born in one of the years that corresponds to the current year of the Chinese zodiac, which this year is the Year of the Rat. Clutching 2.5 meter-long torches, they swing them about wildly while performing a frenzied dance in the darkness to drive out the evil spirits. They have inherited the spirit of their ancestors, for whom failure in this enterprise was not an option.

The sheer length of traditions that have been maintained in Japan is a constant source of wonder. Minamoto no Yoritomo ruled during the final years of the 12th century. He was a contemporary of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Takisan-ji was already a venerable institution when he started the festival–the building’s foundations date to the latter half of the 7th century. The story goes that a priest who had been living as a hermit in the mountains nearby built the temple on the orders of the Emperor Tenmu, who reigned from 673 to 686 AD.

Though Minamoto-no-Yoritomo might be unfamiliar as a name to people outside of Japan, the image of the man himself is not. Here’s a link to his picture; reproductions of this scroll are sold as wall decorations in the West.

And here’s what he wrought: someone captured this year’s festival on YouTube, which you can see here. Both the images and the sound are slightly blurred, but that only serves to emphasize just how powerful the effect of either witnessing or taking part in this festival must be.

Thanks to Ponta for the link!

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Ekiben: An epicure’s delight for Japanese rail travelers

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 22, 2008

EVERYONE WHO’S EVER FLOWN COACH has had the experience of eating an in-flight meal so bland it’s hard to tell the potatoes from the plastic tray. They say the food in first class is a lot better, and I promise to let you know for sure if I ever fly anywhere first class. Maybe in my next life.

Those who’ve never traveled by train in Japan might be forgiven for expecting train station food to be as unappealing as airplane food, but they’d be in for a pleasant surprise. There’s a tradition in this country of serving fine carry-on meals made with local ingredients of exceptional quality. These meals are called ekiben. That’s a portmanteau word coined by combining the word eki, which is a train station, and the first syllable of bento, which is a pre-prepared meal served in a flat box.

Bento themselves are takeout meals sold for a variety of purposes and occasions. The quality can vary depending on the intended use, ranging from meals that are inexpensive and less appetizing than airplane food, to those made with the finest ingredients and costing rather more.

Ekiben are a topic of such interest that JR Kyushu has been holding contests every year since 2005 to improve their quality and to promote travel by train. In fact, the final judging and tasting in the Fourth Kyushu Ekiben Ranking for the ekiben sold at JR Kyushu stations was held on the 14th at JR Kyushu headquarters in Fukuoka City, and the results were announced yesterday. A total of 4,900 votes were cast by JR Kyushu passengers in a preliminary ballot from October to January to select the top 15 bento from among 50 candidates. Those 15 were further evaluated by a panel of judges, who were allowed to vote only for the one they liked the best.

The judges included essayist (and former magazine editor and newspaperman) Tsutsui Gankodo (on the right in the first photo), travel journalist Kobayashi Shinobu, local television personality Muranaka Minami, and JR Kyushu President Ishihara Susumu. The standards included flavor, the incorporation of local characteristics, the size of the servings, and price.

The judges said the decision was difficult because they were all delicious, but of course judges always say that. Ms. Kobayashi added, “The Kyushu ekiben servings are generous, and they are very flavorful. The opening of the Kagoshima leg of the Kyushu Shinkansen has resulted in the creation of more modern ekiben.”

The winner this year was a bento called Hyakunen Monogatari Kareikawa (The Hundred-Year Tale Kareikawa) from the Kareikawa Station in Kirishima, Kagoshima. It was the first time this 1,050 yen ($US 9.75) bento took top honors. It is made with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms cooked with rice, and also includes a tempura dish made with satsumaimo (sweet potatoes) and other local vegetables called gane. Another feature that appealed to the judges was the bento box made with bamboo bark. This ekiben finished in second place last year and in third place in 2006, so perhaps this perennial favorite has gotten even better. Here’s what it looks like.

Meanwhile, second prize went to the Ayu-ya Sandai bento from the Shin-Yatsushiro station, which costs 1,050 yen. The ayu is known as the sweetfish in English, and the Shin-Yatsushiro station in Kumamoto is the northernmost station in the partially open Kyushu Shinkansen line. The Ayu-ya Sandai bento had been the winner each of the previous three years of the competition, so it must be delectable.

Third prize went to the Saga Mitsusedori Toro Bento from Saga Station, which costs 730 yen.

Other favorites that regularly win the acclaim of riders and judges alike since the competition began include the chirashizushi bento sold in bento boxes that are actually Arita ceramics at Saga Station in Saga, and the ebimeshi bento made with local shrimp sold at Izumi Station in Kagoshima.

For those people who don’t or can’t travel to these stations to buy the ekiben (and there are people in Japan who would), JR Kyushu is clever enough to promote their sale by opening a special shop in Hakata Station in Fukuoka City (the largest train station in Kyushu) called Ekiben Stadium. Travelers passing through the station can buy these ekiben from among a rotating selection until March 31. About 11 or 12 different ekiben are sold every day, and the selections change every week.

Unfortunately, I seldom take train rides long enough to warrant the purchase of an ekiben, but Saga Station is only a 10-minute drive away. If that prize-winning Saga ekiben includes both local chicken and toro (high-quality tuna) as I suspect, I’m going to have to buy a couple and try them out for lunch at home!

And get ready for it—there is a website devoted to ekiben nationwide! (Alas, in Japanese only.) It includes a list of the boxed meals available at train stations throughout the country, recipes, and links to ekiben sold by mail (the Ayu-ya Sendai ekiben is one of those available).

Here’s the Ekiben Room, an English site for the ekiben sold in East Japan. This is the link to the convenient website for the Ekiben Stadium shop in Hakata Station (also Japanese only), with a map showing the shop’s location in the station and the schedule with the dates of sale for all the ekiben.

And here’s a photo of one more I’d love to try—an ekiben from Oita consisting entirely of mackerel sushi, for 1,300 yen.

Postscript: Mr. Tsutsui also writes a feature on a Kyushu restaurant in the free monthly magazine available on the JR Kyushu trains.

Posted in Food, Travel | 7 Comments »

Iijima Isao on the Japanese political situation

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 21, 2008

Political realignment has now started. That’s a 100% certainty.
Iijima Isao, former principal aide to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro

STRUCTURAL CHANGES UNPRECEDENTED in a mature liberal democracy are now underway in Japan. These changes are transforming the nation’s legal system, local government at the sub-national level, and the educational system. The privatization of state-run enterprises, which began in the 80s under former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro with the conversion to private sector enterprises of the national railroad and telephone systems, and which continued with the privatization of an entire government ministry (the old Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications), is now concentrated on government financial institutions.

Iijima Isao

Iijima Isao

The nation’s political structure is also undergoing a profound realignment. The old paradigm of the so-called Iron Triangle—political control by the Liberal Democratic Party, the bureaucracy, and business and financial circles—is slowly dying, and the new paradigm is now taking shape. Political reorganization has now become the common reference point for political debate and the media’s coverage of that discussion.

What form that new paradigm will take is still undetermined; even the people involved do not know. Will the country’s two major parties—the Liberal Democratic Party, which has maintained almost continuous power for more than 50 years, and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan—undergo a massive mutual exchange of members to create parties that more clearly reflect specific ideological positions? Will the reorganization instead be limited to an increase in ad hoc coalitions to deal with specific situations, or will something as yet unforeseen occur? No one has the answer.

This reorganization has accelerated because the nominal leaders of both parties—Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo of the LDP and DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro—are clearly men of the past who represent ideas whose time has come and gone. It is also important to note that neither man is completely trusted by many members within his own party, which means that the political knives have been unsheathed and begun to be sharpened.

Regardless of what happens, this reorganization will color every political act in Japan for the foreseeable future, and it will be the key to understanding the direction the country will take in the years ahead.

To provide a quick overview of recent events, the situation as it stands now, and what might happen, I have summarized an interview with Iijima Isao that appears in the March issue of Will magazine. Mr. Iijima recently resigned as the secretary (primary aide) to former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro—a position Mr. Iizuma had occupied since Mr. Koizumi’s first election victory in 1972.

Mr. Iijima was thus the political confidante and right hand man of one of the most successful and influential prime ministers in Japanese history. Renowned for his political acumen—he has been compared to Karl Rove and called the “shadow prime minister”—he is uniquely qualified to assess the state of Japanese politics today. Yes, he has a specific point of view, and perhaps an agenda, but when he speaks, Japan stops to listen.

Please note that I did not translate the entire interview, but only summarized what I thought were the most important parts for a wider audience. Hereafter, the voice is that of Mr. Iijima.

The Fukuda Administration

The mass media is writing that the Fukuda Administration is a “furnished Cabinet” (in the sense of furnished apartment), and that’s to be expected. It is perhaps the only government in the world that took office without having made campaign pledges or having a vision of its own.

After the Fukuda Administration was sworn in, both the Japanese people and the politicians in Nagata-cho realized they had no idea what the Fukuda Administration was going to do, or even what it wanted to do.

The Hosokawa Administration (a multi-party coalition government in 93/94) lasted such a short time because they merely enacted the budget and legislation that had already been drawn up during the Miyazawa Administration. They were unable to offer their own vision.

In the same way, the budget that the Fukuda Administration is now trying to get passed was drawn up last August by the Abe Administration. In the absence of policy, promises, or vision, they must resort to the use of hand-me-downs. Since they have to enact the budget by the first week of April, the bureaucracy has to put together what the Abe Administration left them.

The Cabinet won’t be reshuffled until after the budget is passed. The Abe and Fukuda administrations have the same body—only the face is different.

The Real DPJ is Invisible

If you were to ask individual voters about DPJ politicians, they would know the party members who frequently appear on television, but more than 90% of the public would recognize only those “liberal” Diet members selling themselves on TV, such as Okada Katsuya, Maehara Seiji, (both former party presidents) Haraguchi Kazuhiro, Nagatsuma Akira, Edano Yukio, and Noda Yoshihiko. (Note: Mr. Iijiima borrowed the English word “liberal”. I suspect he means it in the sense of classicial liberal, which is not the contemporary American meaning.) They probably don’t know any other Diet members.

Though these men aren’t the real voice of the party, they are the ones who have attracted most of the party’s public support. That’s not a criticism, that’s a fact. Has the mass media peeled away this wall to dispassionately examine the party?

Looking from the outside, Ozawa Ichiro is not part of this “liberal” group of DPJ lawmakers. His only objectives are to get the current Diet dissolved and to create political crises. He’s not interested in the “liberal” members, who are like floating grass without an organization. To him, they’re only pieces on a chessboard.

The people next to him are Akamatsu Hirotaka and Hachiro Yoshiro, from the (former) Socialist Party/left wing. That’s because they can provide the organizational strength from the labor unions and Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation.

Many early ballots were cast in the last upper house election. Some observers thought those were the votes of Soka Gakkai (a lay Buddhist organization closely affiliated with the New Komeito Party, the LDP coalition partners), but that wasn’t the case. Mr. Ozawa lit a fire under all the Rengo and labor union chapters around the country and controlled the single-member districts. That led to their landslide victory.

The DPJ criticized Mr. Ozawa when he brought back the proposal for a grand coalition with the LDP last fall. They rejected the proposal, causing him to quit the party presidency. But he was stopped by the party’s “liberal” wing, whose ideas are not congruent with his. That’s an odd state of affairs.

The true state of the DPJ is shrouded in darkness, and neither the people nor the voters can see it. It is a misfortune that the mass media does not report it.

Meanwhile, LDP President Fukuda has neither political pledges nor a vision. That means it won’t be possible for the two parties to form a coalition.

The Achilles Heel of the “Twisted Diet”

I don’t think my diagnosis is incorrect when I say that Mr. Ozawa is trying to win control of the government by using the (former) Socialist Party/left wing. What I don’t understand, however, is what would happen if he were to be successful. After taking power by relying on those elements, the issue would be whether he is able to do what he wants. I think that would be next to impossible. I wonder just how he intends to resolve that situation. It’s even stranger than the one involving Mr. Fukuda.

The LDP has a diverse membership. The members have different ideas, but there is an internal coherency—there are no gaps between them. But the DPJ is different. First, they started with former Socialists/left wingers. Then, standing apart from them, are former LDP members of the type who say, “(Whatever you want to do is) fine with me, I just want to be in the Diet.” Next to them are the “liberal” members. The gap between the individual elements of the party is too wide.

Some people suggest that the “liberals” could join the LDP, but the LDP already has a glut of Diet members. There’s no place for them to enter. So what can be done to resolve this situation?

At present, the LDP has a two-thirds supermajority in the lower house, and the DPJ has a majority in the upper house. This situation is called the “twisted Diet” (because it’s the first time in postwar history the two legislative houses have been controlled by different parties.)

But there is an Achilles heel. If the LDP loses 20 lower house members, that ends the current situation. There doesn’t even have to be a grand coalition. If Mr. Fukuda leaves and takes just 20 members with him and then cuts a deal with Mr. Ozawa, a new DPJ government will be born. If that happens, he will be the last of the LDP-New Komeito prime ministers, and the first of the DPJ prime ministers.

The biggest problem is who moves first. That first step is a difficult one to take. But everyone has to be careful, because once things start to move, the entire political world will move.

The Ozawa File Was Nearly a Meter High

The Abe Administration fell because of a succession of scandals. They were criticized for not doing background checks. When I was with Mr. Koizumi, we did thorough background checks. We investigated all the LDP Diet members with three years of experience, and everyone in the DPJ from Ozawa Ichiro on down. The files on Mr. Ozawa were nearly one meter high.

We didn’t use the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office or the Police Agency because our inquiries would have leaked, but you can still do the checking without them. You have to have those channels. It’s a solitary job—you have to shut yourself up in your room and go through all the documents.

Another reason the Abe Administration fell was that he clashed with the bureaucracy. Prime Minister Koizumi treasured the bureaucracy, and thought they had to be used properly.

The Koizumi Comeback Scenario

As I’ve said before, an administration that has not made any pledges or lacks vision has nothing to do. Therefore, it is not possible to line up one’s personnel. Even if the Diet were to be dissolved, it wouldn’t be possible to settle on officially recognized candidates because the party wouldn’t know if the people agreed or disagreed with those pledges.

In that sense, Mr. Fukuda is just shooting arrows into the sky. If there were a target, people would be able to tell whether he hit it or missed it, but even that can’t be known.

It is possible to make the assumption that the opposition parties will be unable to attack the Fukuda Administration, and he will stay in office for a long time. If that is the case, then political reorganization will come before the election.

When an election is held, the LDP will lose at least 20 seats no matter how well the election is timed. They will not be able to maintain their two-thirds supermajority. If that happens, an LDP-New Komeito coalition will have lost its meaning. Their coalition government would, in reality, be over at that point. If Mr. Fukuda could maintain the two-thirds majority, he’d dissolve the Diet today and hold an election, but he won’t because he can’t.

If there were public-spirited samurai, a political reorganization would likely occur. That is the truth of politics. That reorganization would then determine the new leader. A new form for a new era…a new form that would not involve a new party, or something like it…what would that be?

The DPJ has risen into view as the leading party in the upper house, but they also have an Achilles heel. Their majority in the upper house depends on only 17 members.

Before the start of the Koizumi Administration, the LDP had 90 members in the upper house and the New Komeito had 30, for a total of about 120, who were able to support the government (and its initiatives).

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that just 30 DPJ members from the lower house and 20 from the upper house formed a new political grouping with 50 people. It wouldn’t have to be a new party. Then assume 50 from the LDP formed their own grouping. That would total 100 people, which is about enough to form a government.

Who would be the leader of this new movement? A person with experience as prime minister, a person who would not act out of self-interest, and a person who is not a failure. The only person who fits those qualifications is Koizumi Jun’ichiro. He would be there for the launch of the ship. He wouldn’t have to sail it around the world–all he would have to do is tow it out to sea.

But that would mean people within the DPJ would have to call for Mr. Koizumi, in addition to those from the LDP. Here’s what I want to say to the DPJ “liberals”: Think long and hard about the person who is best suited to be at the top.

If the former prime minister is past his “sell by” date, then the ship would just drift, but I do not think he has reached that point.

How would Mr. Ozawa respond in that situation? Wouldn’t he be bothered by a third person becoming involved in the political reorganization? But if the Mr. Ozawa of today were to be cut adrift by the (former) Socialist Party/Left wing, he would be left standing alone. The only card that Mr. Ozawa holds is the one that I mentioned before: joining forces with 20 people from the LDP. If he can achieve that, victory would be his.

ENDNOTE: Whether the possible reentry of Mr. Koizumi into the political fray is an exercise in scenario spinning by Mr. Iijima, a trial balloon floated by a friendly publication, or something else altogether is anybody’s guess. One thing should be certain, however: with his background and experience, when he suggests that 100 members of the LDP and the DPJ could create a working alliance under the former prime minister, he could probably name the 100 MPs most likely to participate in such a scheme off the top of his head.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Wired magazine short circuits on Japan article

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A FASCINATING ASPECT of learning a foreign language is the encounter with proverbs and colorful expressions that open a window into a culture and offer insights into the character of the people. That these phrases are either untranslatable into one’s own language, or have an enigmatic strangeness, adds to the appeal.

This is particularly true of the Japanese language. The Japanese love proverbs, and estimates of the number of proverbs in the language run as high as 20,000 to 30,000. The ability to employ one appropriately in everyday speech and writing is a sign of the culture and erudition of the user. I have a proverb dictionary published in Japan that is more than 500 pages long, and each page contains an average of 10 proverbs with explanations of their origin and meaning.

One example of a proverb that wouldn’t make much sense in English was brought up in the Comments section here the other day. A few posts down is a story about a Hiroshima festival conducted in a Shinto shrine in which sardine heads are roasted to create an unpleasant odor and drive away evil spirits. Frequent posters Overthinker and Camphortree discussed a proverb related to this practice, which is “Even the head of a sardine can become holy”. Understanding that proverb would be impossible without being aware of the custom.

Here’s another interesting expression: Jibun no koto wo tana ni ageru. Literally translated, that means, “To put one’s ‘thing’ (oneself, one’s attributes, behavior, etc.) on a shelf.” But that doesn’t make much sense without context, does it? Here’s an illustration that might make it clearer.

Today’s issue of Wired magazine has an article in the Culture and Lifestyle section called Inside the Bizarre World of Japanese Pickup Schools.

It is a brief feature on Fujita Satoshi, who operates a school for teaching backward men how to be successful with women. Mr. Fujita has also written three self-help books. Attending one of his classes costs 30,000 yen, which the author, one Lisa Katayama, says is worth about $280.

Here’s how Ms. Katayama describes him:

Satoshi Fujita is not a good-looking man. He has oily skin, beady eyes, short legs and a boy-band wig to cover his balding head.

But since a picture is worth a thousand words, it would be easier to show a photo of him. Here’s what he looks like:


Mr. Fujita admits that he used to be an introverted geek until he bought a wig and learned some magic tricks. He also made a study of the science of seduction. Here’s what happened next:

Women like laughter, compliments and magic tricks. Using these concepts, he devised a proprietary “science” for picking up women that takes into consideration things like reading signals and timing. After 10 years and 10 new wigs, he’d become so successful with women, he says, that he decided to quit his job and make dating his profession. Among other tricks, Fujita’s method involves a deck of “psychoanalytic” cards that help him determine what kind of girl he has picked up. He’s also got a bag of tricks — literally — that includes flaming wallets, talking ferrets and animated algae balls. “This may seem ridiculous, but if you follow a specific equation, it really works,” he says.

The article also suggests that bizarre pickup schools are becoming a trend in Japan, because there are six schools for seduction in the Tokyo area alone.

How, you may be wondering, is this an illustration of the proverb of “putting your ‘thing’ on a shelf”? And if it is, how does it apply to the Wired article?

Stick with me a little longer. I’m coming to that.

Ms. Katayama and Wired magazine put Mr. Fujita on parade for their readers to symbolize this “bizarre world”. They describe this world by focusing on a geek with a wig and “beady eyes” who teaches men how to be successful with women—for a fee–by carrying flaming wallets and animated algae balls on the street.

We all understand the intent of this article. It is yet another installment in the never-ending stream of stories from the Western media that portray Japan as the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia. The 24/7 media machine needs a constant supply of infotainment for the breakfast table.

Now if Wired thinks this is bizarre, we should assume they believe guys like Mr. Fujita just don’t exist in the United States, where the magazine is published. Bizarre people live in smelly rabbit hutches in Tokyo, not New York or Los Angeles, where all the men are straight-up studly guys who know how to handle the ladies and make them love it.

Presumably, here’s what Ms. Katayama and Wired think is perfectly normal: in the U.S., there is now something called the “seduction community”. It has become a profitable business, with Internet forums, mailing lists, more than 100 clubs nationwide, and its own Wikipedia page. It has been the subject of a best-selling book called The Game by Neil Strauss, who calls himself a pickup artist (PUA) and cruises under the nickname “Style”.

When the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed his book, it said:

“…if women in the book are sometimes treated as a commodity, they come out looking better than the men, who can be downright loathsome — and show themselves eventually to be pretty sad, dysfunctional characters.”

There are quite a few so-called “seduction gurus” in the United States these days, many of whom choose to be known by colorful names. In addition to Style, there is Mystery, Juggler, Zan Perrion, Steve P/Piccus, Carlos Xuma, Hypnotica, Gunwitch, Tenmagnet, Savoy, and Gambler, among others.

Others use their real names. One of them is Ross Jeffries. He is a former insurance claims adjuster and failed comedian who discovered a practice initiated by Richard Bandler called Neuro Linguistic Programming ©.

Many books have been written about NLP, and there is no space here for a full description, but briefly, it is based on the theory that people are moved by the emotions expressed in the language patterns used by other people, and that the speaker can therefore covertly influence the behavior of the listener. Mr. Jeffries applies this theory to seduction by claiming it is possible to sexually arouse women with preconceived word patterns, sometimes with phonetic ambiguity.

For example, one might say to a woman, “I’d like to explore your mine.” The woman will hear this as “mind”, but it will subconsciously register as “mine”, as in “mine shaft”. Wink wink nudge nudge. One of his more well-known verbal techniques is the use of “below me” as a substitute for “blow me”. His term for hunting for women is “sarging”, which he named after his pet cat Sarge.

He also uses the technique of “anchoring”, in which the man begins by creating a pleasant emotional state in the woman through the use of language and suggestion. When he has successfully created that state, he touches her in an innocuous location, such as her wrist. The theory holds that when he touches her wrist in that same location again, he will recreate that state in her mind, which he can then utilize to influence her behavior; i.e., seduce her.

Mr. Jeffries holds seminars and has a home study course with 13 CDs and a 107 page book. He charges $1,500 for an hour of his personal time. He calls this Speed Seduction ® and claims that a man can use these techniques to get a woman in bed in about 20 minutes from the time he meets her.

What does he look like? Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, they say:


Another seduction guru with a colorful name, one R. Don Steele, claims that once upon a time Mr. Jeffries was a sweaty-palmed nervous virgin that came to him begging for help. He doesn’t seem to need help now. Here’s the Ross Jeffries home page, where you can sign up to master the art “as seen by millions on TV worldwide”.

If Mr. Jeffries’s techniques do not suit your fancy, perhaps you might prefer those of the man called Mystery. He is the main character of Mr. Strauss’s book. He teaches the Mystery Method of seduction, which he now refers to as the Venusian Arts. Mystery also charges thousands of dollars for seminars, and has introduced new techniques into “the game”. One of these is called “negging”, in which the man indirectly insults the woman and makes her want to please the PUA.

Here’s an example of negging: The man says to the woman, “You have beautiful nails. Are they real?”

Like both Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Fujita, Mystery was a backwards boy who was a flop with chicks. And like Mr. Fujita, he also became skillful at magic, though he probably doesn’t use flaming wallets. He also has lost some of his mystery, now that he has allowed his photograph to be used. It too is worth a thousand words:


He has beautiful nails. I wonder if they’re real.

One thing that is definitely real is the money he makes. He had a falling out with his business partner—nicknamed Savoy—and this led to a costly legal battle. This page is worth reading to discover the various financial and personal spats that can arise between pickup artists. It concludes this way:

After hanging out with Mystery, Lovedrop, and Matador this past weekend, it seemed none of them are too concerned with the legal stuff. Apparently they’re making good money from their workshops and the VH1 show, and there’s talk of a season 2 and possibly a spin off show, so money is the least of their worries. Lovedrop even told me that he doesn’t mind dropping loads of cash on lawyers and legal fees to fight this – possibly $15,000 – $20,000 a month, so who knows how long this feud will go on.

Speaking of Savoy, he’s still in “the game” himself, using the Mystery Method that Mystery developed. That method requires an investment of a few hours, which is longer than Ross Jeffries’s 20 minutes.

Savoy sells a book called Magic Bullets. He says he’s developed a new aspect to the Mystery Method called Transitioning, which he describes in his book:

MAGIC BULLETS contains the most complete explanation of Transitioning available ANYWHERE. In MAGIC BULLETS I explain – in detail – how to use a Transition to bridge the gap between Opening and Attraction. I also explain different types of transitions like Content Transitions, Observational Transitions and making a Transition without using a transition at all.

If he can make a transition without using a transition, he must be using magic bullets!

Here’s what else Savoy promises:

• An in-depth discussion of the opener “risk-reward continuum” that allows you to use the best opener for ANY situation you find yourself in. And the best way to transition from each type of opener to the next phase of the model.

• How to create your own material and bypass “lines” and generic routines. NEVER AGAIN get caught running something she’s heard before!

• How you can effectively approach a woman with NO OPENER at all.

• The situations where you should never “neg” a woman.

• A completely new phase that you NEED to install in your game RIGHT NOW. Adding this phase will make your sets go 100% smoother. THE VERY FIRST TIME YOU USE IT!

• An in-depth chapter on Seduction that will allow you to evolve your game beyond Last Minute Resistance and freeze-outs. Through an understanding of state-breaks, how they work – and how to avoid or minimize them – you’ll virtually eliminate Last Minute Resistance. AND WATCH YOUR CLOSE RATE GO THROUGH THE ROOF!

• A chapter on Day Game written by Sinn – THE UNDISPUTED MASTER OF DAY GAME.

• Sinn’s ten rules for MEETING AND DATING STRIPPERS.

I’m sure it would be instructive to see a picture of Savoy, but I couldn’t find one.

Instead of Savoy’s picture, however, here’s a page on the Love System’s 2008 Super Conference, which promises to be the commercial event of the year in the seduction biz. Aspiring Casanovas will have the chance to meet and study at the feet of Savoy, Sinn, Tenmagnet, and Carlos Xuma all at the same place. Fortunately, the price of attending one of the big presentations has been discounted from $1,700.

Read that page, and then ask yourself this question:

Where is the Bizarre World of Pickup Schools really located–Japan or the United States?

I’m sorry for going the long way around, but I thought that was the best way to describe the meaning of the Japanese expression, “to put one’s ‘thing’ on a shelf”.

Unfortunately, Wired didn’t put their thing on a shelf high enough out of sight.

Posted in Mass media, Sex | Tagged: , | 20 Comments »

Chin-don music Okinawan style

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 17, 2008

WHAT A LUCKY FIND! Long-time friends will know that I’m nuts about chin-don music, the urban Japanese street music that is more fun that the proverbial barrel of monkeys. (Try here, here, and here.) And I’ll stop anything I’m doing at any time to listen to the modern take on Okinawa minyo, a different style of music altogether. (Try here.)

Well, you can see where this is heading!


Yesterday I spotted an item on the web about a short segment broadcast on a Kansai television station featuring a chin-don band. I scouted around to see if a video clip was available, but unfortunately it was not.

But sometimes seeking allows you to find something better than what you were looking for to begin with, and boy, did I stumble on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The Ryukyu Chimdon Gakudan! They combine Okinawan music with chin-don orchestration, which is about as rare a pairing as the double-necked sanshin one of the band members plays. (Chimdon, the band explains, means to be excited, and was chosen because it sounds similar to the onomatopoetic chin-don.)

If you have anything approaching the blues, do not fail to click on this video! And you won’t even need that excuse. An eight-minute promo the band put together from tunes on their first CD, it is funkier than a five-legged horse and guaranteed to melt the snow on your roof. If viewing this clip does not bring a smile to your face and make the hills come alive to the sound of music, then your middle name is Grump!

And better yet, they have a website with English here!

Here’s another promotional video of the band’s more recent music. They’ve taken a step away from pure chin-don, but it’s easy to like the taste of Indonesian gamelan music in the first song.

Besides, come clean and admit that you’re dying to hear songs played by people with names like Bobzy, Yoda, and Yanba Run! (Yoda has a Mohawk and Yanba Run has a pigtail that stretches up vertically for what looks like 18 inches.)

They’ve even appeared on Okinawan TV providing the music for this short awamori (shochu) commercial.

For more bouncy takes from different bands of straight chin-don–if that adjective applies–try here, here, here, here, and here.

But brother, beware: you might bounce around so much you’ll have to pad your walls!

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Posted in Music, Popular culture | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Japan Navigator

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 16, 2008

WHILE SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING ELSE on Google, I stumbled across the Japan Navigator website, written by a foreigner who seems to be based in Kyoto. He focuses on art, business, travel, culture, and food, and makes excellent choices in subject matter. Two of his posts in particular that I would like to have written myself are this one, called “Graves in Kyoto’s Shopping Arcades”, and this one, called “The Shogun’s Mausoleum in Shiba”. That building, reputed to be one of the finest examples of traditional Japanese architecture, no longer exists, but the post reproduces photographs from the 19th century!

Pay the site a visit if you have the time.

P.S.: A (herring)bone to pick–are one-third of all Japanese television shows really “devoted to food”? I don’t know about that…

Posted in Websites | 3 Comments »

More on the voting age in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 16, 2008

THE PREVIOUS POST reports on the debate within Japan about lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 for national referendums on Constitutional amendments. The Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party, pushed for that change in the bill eventually passed by the Diet, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan compromised on the condition that a study be conducted about the effect it would have on other laws.

According to one report, the DPJ’s position was that 18- and 19-year-olds should be enfranchised for a national referendum because a Constitutional amendment would have a greater effect on their lives than an ordinary election.

Now comes word just yesterday from the Sankei Shimbun that the officers of a DPJ committee for promoting political reform will set up a subcommittee to mull the idea of setting 18 as the age for the right to vote in all elections in Japan, as well as using the Internet in elections and ending the current ban on door-to-door election canvassing. (The latter is prohibited to prevent vote buying.)

Why the party changed its mind on the voting age (if that’s what this represents), is not known, but there are two possible reasons. The first would be to bring Japanese practices in alignment with those in other countries. That’s an argument many Japanese find intrinsically appealing. The other is that the party, with its center-left tendencies, might hope it would gain an electoral advantage from teenaged voters. (It didn’t work out that way for the Democrats in American national elections when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, however.)

Whatever the reason, the move by the DPJ demonstrates once again that whenever any political party anywhere says, “Just this once, and just for this purpose,” it’s safe to assume it won’t be long before they’re touting it as a universal principle.

Endnote: The party subcommittee will be chaired by Noda Yoshihiko, who has an interesting background. He was graduated from the elite Waseda University, and one of his first jobs was as an inspector for a municipal gas company. He is known as one of the most persuasive (and long-winded) speechmakers in the party.

Mr. Noda also takes an interest in science and technology, and is a member of the party’s “working team” to examine the military uses of outer space. He favors a change in the government’s Constitutional interpretation that outer space cannot be used for defensive purposes, placing him in his party’s hawkish wing.

Posted in Government, Legal system, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The law of unintended consequences

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 14, 2008

THE HEADLINE ON THIS KYODO REPORT is incorrect. It reads, “Hatoyama starts debate on lowering legal age”.

Here’s the first sentence:

Justice Minister Hatoyama Kunio told an advisory board Wednesday to study the possibility of legally lowering the age of adulthood from 20 to 18.

It’s incorrect in this sense: the debate actually started last May, when the Abe administration passed a law defining the conditions for a national referendum to amend the Constitution, should one be necessary.

A voting age of 18 was incorporated into that bill at the insistence of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s primary opposition party.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party didn’t like the idea–and still doesn’t–but they compromised to get the legislation passed. The DPJ had a laundry list of more proposed additions, but the LDP thought they weren’t essential to the intent of the legislation and used its majority to enact the bill. Naturally, the English-language media pitched the story this way: “LDP Rams Bill Through Diet”.

As the story notes, the provisions of the bill have ramifications that extend beyond national referendums, including the drinking age and the smoking age. It fails to note, however, that they also affect other matters, such as the age for assuming legal responsibility for contracts. In fact, several hundred laws and regulations will now have to be reexamined.

Is lowering the age of adulthood a good idea? The Kyodo article quoted a doctor as suggesting the drinking age should be raised to 22. Indeed, there has been a growing awareness in America lately that for many, childhood is being extended and adulthood deferred or avoided altogether. (See here, for example, or the contrasting reviews of the book, The Death of the Grown-Up, one by the NYT, and the other by Michelle Malkin. Enterprising Googlers will find many more opinions and articles.)

Some would entertain the idea of raising the age of adulthood even higher than 22, but the necessity for most people to have full-time employment by that age makes the suggestion both impractical and unfair.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it is regrettable that a measure with such far-reaching consequences was adopted as part of a back-room political deal to pass legislation, without public debate or a preliminary examination of its potential effects.

But then, isn’t one sign of adulthood the awareness of the consequences of one’s actions and the willingness to take responsibility for them?

UPDATE: Here’s a more detailed look at the story by the Yomiuri.

Still, the issue has turned out to be needlessly confusing. Try this:

If the Civil Code is not revised and the referendum law’s stipulation setting the age at 18 goes into effect, people at 18 and 19 will be allowed to vote on constitutional amendments, but will not have the right to make binding contracts and take other legal steps.

And compare it to this:

In March last year, the ruling parties reached a compromise with the DPJ and agreed to change the age limit in the referendum law to 18. But the law has a clause that the age limit in a national referendum can be maintained at 20 until the legal adulthood age in other laws is lowered to 18. Thus if the adulthood age in the Civil Code is not lowered, there will be no problem in implementing the national referendum law.

This has become much too complicated for an issue of such importance.

Posted in Government, Legal system | 2 Comments »

Japan-related websites added

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 14, 2008

IN ADDITION to the website for the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, I’ve also added links on the right sidebar to the sites for the National Institute of Japanese Literature, the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, University Libraries in Japan, the National Institute of Informatics, the National Astronomical Institute of Japan, and the Oriental Library.

Knock yourself out!

Posted in Websites | Leave a Comment »

17th century Japanese village found in Cambodia

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 14, 2008

IT’S A SHAME this report is so short, because it would be fascinating to hear more details.

Here’s how the two-paragraph story on the Indian news site Kerala begins:

A site of a Japanese village dating back to the 17th century has been found in the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, a Japanese archaeologist said Wednesday.

They add:

Based on on-site research, excavations and historical documents, Japanese people came to Cambodia aboard ships between 1601 and 1635, he said. “There were about 100 Japanese living in the village during that period of time, and most of them were engaged in religious affairs and trading…”

And that’s about it. But that raises the inevitable questions: Who were they? Why did they leave Japan? How did they wind up in Cambodia? What religious affairs did they conduct? Who did they trade with? What happened to them?

Alas, that’s all I could find.

The report is based on an address in Cambodia by Sugiyama Hiroshi, the chief research fellow at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. I couldn’t find a report on their website, either in English or Japanese.

Let’s hope someone releases more information soon.

Posted in Archaeology, History | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Pitching a new kind of tent in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 14, 2008

BUILD A BETTER MOUSETRAP, they say, and people will beat a path to your door. That might be easier said than done—the basic mousetrap model is still cheap and works very well.

But what if you’re in the business of making tents and canvas sheets? The textile industry once flourished in Nagoya and its environs, and many companies in that sector are still based there, but these days most of their revenue comes from producing awnings for shop exteriors and dividers for factory interiors. Their assessment of overall growth? Business is not booming.

That’s why a local college professor joined forces with representatives from the industry and officials in the Nagoya municipal government to form the Tent Research Association and come up with designs for new products. Their version of the better mousetrap was a tent designed with Japanese motifs for use at outdoor events and ceremonies.

The photo shows their first prototype model, which was tried out earlier this week at the Yagoto Kosho-ji in Nagoya. (That’s a Buddhist temple whose Japanese-only website is here.) The Association is pleased with the results of their brainstorming sessions. They said, “It’s a perfect match for the mood at Shinto or Buddhist events. This is Nagoya’s first new product, and we want to sell it throughout the country.”

The tent is made using navy blue material and wooden poles, and features an upper ridge that resembles the roof of a Shinto shrine. It has an aluminum frame, making it light and easy to assemble and take down. The association developed two models: a large one that is 4.6 meters wide and 2.4 meters deep, and a smaller one that is 3.6 meters wide and 1.8 meters deep. Both are two meters tall.

Most of the conventional tents used for functions at schools and other locations are white, but the Association chose to create tents that are navy blue, green, and brown, and decorated with a Japanese crest. They hope it will become the tent of choice for Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, funeral homes, and tea parties, as well as the usual sites. 

The chairman of the association said he thinks the tent’s wide range of potential uses and unique Japanese design will make it a popular item. He didn’t say how much it would cost, but did say the price would drop if demand grew. If you want one, give him a call at 0563-56-0881.

I like the looks of it myself, but I’m not sure if it qualifies as a better mousetrap. I wonder how comfortable those dark colors will be in Japan’s sauna-like summers.

Posted in Shrines and Temples | Leave a Comment »