Japan from the inside out

Archive for May, 2008

From golddigger to gold miss in South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 30, 2008

THE PHRASE wasei eigo refers to a word or words that look and sound as if they might be English, but were in fact created by the Japanese. Baseball is a natural inspiration for many of these words. One example is naitaa (nighter), which is what the Japanese call a night game.

Hello, the Gold Miss speaking

Another is “old miss”, a phrase coined some years ago to describe what native English speakers referred to as an old maid when people still used that term to describe something other than a card game.

In yet another link in the fascinating chain of one culture borrowing from another culture that which was borrowed from yet another culture, the South Koreans seem to have appropriated the Japanese wasei eigo expression “old miss” to create a new expression that describes an entirely different phenomenon: “gold miss”.

As a recent Japanese-language article by the Seoul correspondent of the Nishinippon Shimbun explains, the Korean Employment Information Service (KEIS) defines the term as that group of single women aged 30-45 who are college graduates with annual incomes of at least 40 million won (US$ 38,700). Unlike the old maid/miss, a fate that most women dreaded, the Korean gold miss has become an object of envy for her freedom to lead a carefree life unencumbered by financial or family concerns.

In fact, the article uses the gold miss phenomenon as the point of entry for a brief exposition of the changes that have taken place in Korean society over the last generation, primarily for women and family life.

The correspondent interviewed a 31-year-old woman who said that as recently as the 80s, the traditional roles of breadwinner for men and housewife for women were still the standard in South Korea. Now, she claims, it is difficult for a woman to get married unless she has a job.

By the time of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the country’s GNP had risen to 10th worldwide, but the purchase of an apartment in a condo in that city was so expensive that both the husband and the wife had to work to afford it. Spurring the entry of women into the workplace was a law passed in 1987 that required equality in employment opportunities.

Who are the Gold Misses?

KEIS reports that in 2001, about 2,100 South Korean women were in the gold miss category and employed in seven occupational sectors, such as chef, doctor, and designer. By 2006, KEIS had expanded the range to include 36 sectors, among them teachers and writers. The number of gold miss women then totaled more than 27,000—a nearly 12-fold increase in only five years.

The author also describes two other types among contemporary Korean women—the alpha girls and the Ω girls (omega girls). The former take their name from the book by Dan Kindlon, who describes them as “the girl who is destined to be a leader. She is talented, highly-motivated, and self-confident”.

With characteristic cultural myopia, the book is subtitled, “Understanding the New American Girl and How She is Changing the World”. There were plenty of Japanese alpha girls before Kindlon claimed the type as an American pioneer. But with a previous bestseller about boys called Raising Cain, perhaps the author felt compelled for a quick follow up, causing him to skimp on the research that would have revealed the rest of the world was there already.

Now the Koreans have come up with a new twist on the alpha girl. At the end of April, the Chosun Ilbo published an article defining the omega girls as those alpha girls too incompetent to manage the affairs of daily life and unable to find mates. The Chosun article included interviews with mothers, one of whom described a doctor daughter who didn’t know how to pay the electric bill or her taxes. Another mother was anxious about her college professor daughter who “couldn’t even find a divorced man to marry.”

The Chosun piece also suggested that omega girls were a flop with men because they were perfectionists. It advanced the theory that men feel threatened by the omegas — isn’t this starting to sound like a college sorority version of an all-night bull session? — because they believe logic is required to appeal to the new breed of woman. For the omega girls, maturity rather than financial security has become the standard for choosing a mate, making it likely they would be susceptible to having affairs with older men.

Students of evolutionary biology, however, will know they’ve ventured onto shaky ground here in more ways than one. For starters, all women are susceptible to having affairs with older men, and both maturity and financial security are among the reasons. For another, logic is never required to appeal to women. No wonder they’re not getting married.

The Chosun also presented the idea that some of the alpha/omega types do not like the idea of having a relationship with men who would arouse their sense of competition, so they wind up marrying unemployed men. A more detailed explanation of the dynamics of those relationships would undoubtedly make juicy reading.

More Precious Metals

There’s more, but it gets increasingly difficult to separate the froth from the substance. Some people see a category they call “platinum miss”, which is similar to the gold miss but has a stable job at a mid-tier or large company and assets of at least 80 million won. Then there is the “silver miss”, the unmarried woman of the same age with an annual salary of at least 30 million won.

Here’s an earlier English-language article from the Chosun with additional information.

Try this passage:

Women like these are entitled to VIP “gold” credit cards, so they’re called “gold misses” — a term, created from the broken English “old miss,” that made it onto a list of fad words of 2006.

It’s a shame they can’t bring themselves to explain that the origin of “old miss” is Japanese. With the popularity of the Korean TV show “Old Miss Diary” in 2005 and a movie spinoff in 2006, perhaps their emotional stake in the phrase is too high to say it out loud in front of a Korean audience.

Believe it or not, there’s even more. As this article from the JoongAng Daily explains, Koreans have also created the terms King Kong Girl and doenjang nyeo (soybean paste girl). This is getting to be more complicated than all the words Koreans need to describe family relationships.

Doenjang is a dish in traditional Korean cuisine, but to call someone a bean paste girl means she is the familiar type of airhead known around the world for her interest in clothes, brand names, and coaxing money out of her parents and the men in her life. There must be a tasty explanation of the connection between bean paste and brainless golddiggers, but I couldn’t find it.

The King Kong girl is named after the King Kong theory of French novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes. Here one describes her moment of epiphany:

“I suddenly felt tired of playing the roles required of me when meeting men, of being innocent yet not a prude, the femme fatale, naturally thin with no obsessions about dieting, independent but vulnerable, seductive but not slutty.”

In other words, the King Kongettes have voluntarily withdrawn from competing in the sexual marketplace, perhaps to lead the life of a gold miss.

And doesn’t that put it all together? Leave it to the journalists to explain social trends with cute artificial phrases that will have evaporated in a few years’ time. What we’re seeing with all these gold/silver/platinum/bronze/tin misses and the King Kong/Bean Paste girls is the Korean manifestation of one of the forces responsible for the low birth rates in the advanced industrial countries.

As one of the Chosun articles explains, even the alpha girls that get married and have children will dragoon the grandparents into performing the parental chores while they pursue a career. Now isn’t that ironic? Some women wanted the opportunity to have a career, and where did they wind up? In an extended family that essentially functions in the same way their grandparents’ family did. The only difference is that the woman wears a fashionable outfit to go to work downtown in an IT-festooned office, rather than work clothes to go outdoors and toil in the fields.

To put it in brief: A lot of women just can’t be bothered anymore to go to all the trouble to have children and raise families.

Some governments think that providing financial incentives will bring the birthrates back up. They’re mistaken, of course, but that won’t stop them from wasting everyone’s money in the process.

People can’t be bribed to do what they don’t want to do to begin with—particularly when it doing it in good conscience requires one’s undivided attention for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of 20 years. If they yearn for companionship, it’s easier to buy a dog.


Here’s a two-minute video with a salsa soundtrack showing a young blonde woman describing in English her lunch with two doenjang dishes. (Northeast Asia is just full of surprises!) Was she cast to type? It seems as if she too has a bit of the soybean paste girl in her.

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Posted in Demography, Language, Popular culture, Social trends, South Korea | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Free the Yasukuni 14!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 28, 2008

THE ENSHRINED SPIRITS of the 14 men designated by the victorious Allied forces in World War II as Class A war criminals might just as well be collectively referred to as the Yasukuni 14, denoting their de facto status as political prisoners. It’s only fitting—as with the motley crew of miscreants who have been retrofitted as icons in the left’s long parade of causes du jour, the memories of these men have become little more than prisoners of contemporary politics.

Umi no Miya

Neither the Yasukuni 14 nor their stories raise widespread passion any longer among the Japanese people, few of whom could identify more than two or three by name. To be sure, the entire range of opinions on the issue exists in the body politic, from those who think their enshrinement with the 2.5 million other people who died fighting for Japan is a sacrilege, to those who consider it an expression of patriotism that would be unremarkable in any other country. (After all, who objects to the Confederate soldiers buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in the U.S.?)

Still, no one views it as a hot-button issue. The last time debate over the enshrinement arose, during the 2005 lower house election, an Asahi Shimbun poll found that it ranked only fifth as an issue of importance. Fewer than 10% of those surveyed thought it was even worth mentioning.

The Japanese also know that they are no more likely to restage their bloody imperial adventure in East Asia than turtles are to sing grand opera. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is not going to rise again.

But they also realize that neighboring countries will continue to wield the Yasukuni enshrinement as a weapon in bilateral relations, and as an easily played card in their domestic political casino to excite the public and divert its attention from the leadership’s political shortcomings.

Nevertheless, even faux issues that have become political footballs generate real emotions, as the demonstrations in China and South Korea in 2005 attest. For that reason, they cannot be ignored. The antagonists view this issue as a zero-sum game, making it more difficult to resolve the problem in a way that makes everyone, if not happy, then at least satisfied their views were heard and accounted for.

It is in this context that an old proposal is being resuscitated. The Japanese edition of the Mainichi Shimbun is reporting that a book to be published next month includes the suggestion that the spirits of the Yasukuni 14 be transferred to the Togo Shinto shrine in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. The Togo refers to the tutelary diety of the shrine, Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who defeated the Russian fleet during the 1905 war. The author of the book is Matsuhashi Teruo, the former chief priest at the Togo shrine. The Mainichi thought the idea was worth an article because it is unusual for a person prominent in the Shinto hierarchy to offer such a suggestion for public debate.

It’s also not the first time he’s floated this idea. He initially brought it up during the anti-Japanese demonstrations and rioting in China and South Korea in 2005, but he held his tongue when the Association of Shinto Shrines (link also on right sidebar), asked him to stop. He began to speak out in public again after leaving his position at the Togo shrine in April 2007.

The view of the association, which oversees about 80,000 shrines nationwide, is that Shinto doctrine prevents the separation of the enshrined spirits. The Mainichi Shimbun, however, observes that if an influential shrine affiliated with the association offered to accept the spirits of the Yasukuni 14, it would encourage public debate over separation as a solution.

Mr. Matsuhashi makes the point in his book that the Yasukuni enshrinement invites the opposition of China and other countries, and the problem will linger even if future prime ministers refrain from their occasional August visits. Now that the dispute has settled down, he says, it is time to seriously consider the idea.

His proposal calls for the Yasukuni 14 to be placed in the care of the smaller Umi no Miya shrine (photo) on the Togo shrine grounds, which also exhibits a display of panels depicting scenes from the Admiral’s life. Offering some Shinto doctrinal interpretation of his own, Mr. Matsuhashi says that even if the spirits remain in the Yasukuni shrine as the agency insists they must, the families could regard them has having been moved to the Togo shrine and freely venerate them in their new location. The Chinese would view this as a sincere response, he believes, which would defuse the situation and prevent them from playing the Yasukuni card.

Mr. Matsuhashi agrees with the association’s opposition to a new national facility to replace Yasukuni. Diet member and former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary―General Koga Makoto (a faction leader), who is the chairman of the Nippon Izokukai, an association for bereaved families of the nation’s war dead, also has suggested that the 14 be enshrined separately. His association set up a study group in May 2007 to discuss the issue.

The Togo Shrine

The idea to dedicate a shrine to Admiral Togo arose after other shrines were built to honor another Russo-Japanese War hero, Count Nogi Maresuke, who commanded the Imperial Army forces that laid siege to Port Arthur. Admiral Togo himself didn’t care for the suggestion, mostly because he was still alive when the talk began, and enshrinement is an honor accorded only to the dead.

The Tokyo shrine was dedicated on 27 May 1940, which at that time was Navy Day. The main building was destroyed in the war, but it was rebuilt and rededicated in May 1964.

One reason the Togo Shrine might be considered an appropriate destination for the Yasukuni 14 is that it was granted the same special governmental status as the Yasukuni Shrine before the war. That status was revoked in 1945 because there was nothing left of the shrine by then.

The admiral is the primary tutelary deity at another Togo shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka. Evidently, the Association of Shinto Shrines accepts the idea that one person/spirit can be enshrined in more than one facility, but rejects the idea that 14 spirits can’t be sundered from 2.5 million and placed into a separate facility for the same purpose. Perhaps some Shintoists are just as capable of counting pinhead dancers as any Christian, Jew, or Moslem.

Many naval personnel pay homage to the spirit of the admiral at both shrines, but the Tokyo shrine also is visited by people in the iron and steel industry, students sitting for entrance exams, and gamblers. They offer prayers to the admiral’s spirit in the hope that some of his strength and good luck will rub off on them.

And that might tell you all you need to know. When the gamblers outnumber Imperial diehards, the Chinese or the Koreans really don’t have much to worry about.

Posted in China, History, International relations, Shrines and Temples, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , , | 40 Comments »

The struggles of the Japanese ceramics industry

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 25, 2008

THE JAPANESE HAVE BEEN making things out of clay for 12,000 years, so the use of ceramics for use in daily life and as art objects is an inseparable part of the national culture. Indeed, their ceramic tableware is an inspired example of how utility can be combined with esthetics.

ceramics glasses 1

One aspect of their approach toward ceramics is that while enthusiastically adopting the latest innovations and technology over the millenia, usually from China, the Japanese still produced earthenware with characteristics that can be traced directly back to antecedents from the Neolithic era.

A major ceramics production region is Arita in Saga, where the Korean ceramist Li Sam-pyung discovered in Izumiyama large deposits of the kaolin required to make porcelain of the highest quality. Enormous volumes of Arita ware have been shipped throughout the world, and the customer base once included the royal houses of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

How big is the industry in Arita? The combined sales of the two largest companies and three cooperatives with a sales system shared by 370 other companies amounted to 7.2 billion yen in 2007, or almost US$70 million.

And that’s what has them worried. Those are the lowest aggregate annual sales since the local industry began keeping official records in 1985. Not only was this a 6.2% drop from the previous year, it was the 11th straight downturn in sales and 30% off the record high set in 1991.

According to the local officials who conducted the survey, orders from the commercial sector keep falling as more ryokan (Japanese inns) and hotels switch to inexpensive imported ceramics. Sales also have been poor to individual consumers, for whom changing lifestyles means fewer traditional Japanese meals. That’s a problem because in the traditional style of dining, individual foods are served on separate plates or dishes, each with a distinctive shape, rather than on a single plate on which everything other than the salad has been dumped, as in the West. For example, the simple lunch my wife and I had in a Japanese restaurant yesterday required four different plates or bowls, in addition to which were the teapot, tea cups, and ceramic chopstick rests.

In contrast, the survey found that demand continues to grow from Japanese power companies for ceramic insulators and other devices used in the power industry for high voltage power lines. Exports to African nations of parts and products used in power facilities also continue to be brisk, buoyed by Japanese government ODA.

Left unmentioned, but sitting in the middle of the room like the proverbial 800-pound elephant, are other social changes. More women work, which means they have less time or inclination to do all the dishwashing that Japanese cuisine requires. And because people marry later or not at all–and have fewer children when they do marry–the purchase of a full set of ceramic tableware is no longer the priority it once was.

ceramics glasses 2

The officials suggest the industry has been slow to respond to these changes. In its report on the story, the Nishinippon Shimbun cited one example as a successful response to consumer preferences: the “supreme shochu glass” for individual consumers. (To get up to speed on shochu, a distilled beverage that resembles gin or vodka and outsells sake, try this previous post.)

The glass (actually a ceramic cup) was developed by local kilns and put on the market in November 2005. The two photographs accompanying this post show examples of the supreme shochu glass—the first incorporating different patterns, and the second sporting the logo of the Kansai area-based Hanshin Tigers baseball team, which has one of the most rabid fan bases of any sports franchise in the world.

Before the supreme glass was created to add elegance to their drinking experience, most shochu drinkers used glassware for the beverage, served either warm or cold. But the designers at Arita came up with a new product that makes everybody happy—the kilns sell more merchandise, the drinkers can savor the taste and bouquet better than before, and the members of the prototype testing team enjoyed the heck out of themselves putting the product through trials.

A single supremo sells for about 2,300 yen ($US 22.25), is 97 millimeters in diameter at the rim (about 3.8 inches), and 95 millimeters high.

Here are the improvements that the manufacturers tout for the product:

  • The glass mouth has been widened to improve both the bite of the shochu as well as its taste.
  • The sides slope upward at a 75º angle. Making the glass progressively wider allows the shochu to evaporate faster, creating a more full-bodied flavor.
  • There’s a small protuberance at the bottom of the glass to improve the internal crosscurrents. The manufacturers say this leads to a more balanced flavor, and I see no reason to doubt their word.
  • A knurl has been added outside the glass near the base to make it easier to grip, which I’m sure becomes more important as the night wears on.
  • Finally, the base of the glass under the knurl is hollowed out underneath, creating a platform effect. This helps the beverage remain hot or cold regardless of the air temperature.

What conclusion can we draw? Between the insulators for power lines and the supreme glasses for shochu drinkers, the Japanese ceramics industry may yet find a way to overcome demographic trends and the disappearance of trade barriers and traditional dietary habits.

N.B.: Those who still think the Japanese have a bad attitude about their neighbors on the other side of the Sea of Japan might be surprised to know that the Korean Li Sam-pyung is the tutelary deity at a Shinto shrine in Arita, and a festival is held in his honor there every May.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Food, New products, Social trends, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Matsuri da! (86): Here’s fish in your quiver!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 23, 2008

WHAT BETTER WAY to guarantee a big haul of fish than to have an archery contest?

That’s how the folks in the Minoshima district of Yukuhashi, Fukuoka, have looked at it for several centuries now, and every year they put their arrows where their mouths are at the Minoshima Momote Festival. This year’s event was held on Thursday the 21st.

Here’s the idea: amateur archers shoot arrows into a target set up on the grounds of the Minoshima Shinto shrine. The more arrows they can pump into the bulls-eye, the bigger the catch will be for local fishermen that year.

The event features another combination in addition to the mixture of archery and fish. Most traditional Japanese festivals are Shinto affairs, but for this one, the Shinto priest at the Minoshima shrine is joined by priests from Hosen-ji, Saiho-ji, and Jonen-ji, local Buddhist temples of the Jodo sect.

It all started in the 16th century during the latter part of the Muromachi period, when the pirates who infested the waters of the Seto Inland Sea to the east would periodically stop by to attack and plunder the coastal village. If they were anything like pirates in the rest of the world, they probably took the opportunity to ravage a few women while they were at it.

The pirates made Minoshima a frequent port of call because for centuries it was an important transit point for maritime traffic—it’s located an arrow’s flight away from the northeast corner of Kyushu and the big city of Kitakyushu. Lying just across the strait from Kitakyushu is Shimonoseki with its still-bustling Port of Moji.

The villagers resolved to defend themselves by taking up the manly art of archery, and a tradition was born. It must have worked—there are no more pirates on the Inland Sea, and the locals still have the archery festival every May.

The event begins with a joint Shinto-Buddhist service at the shrine. When the priests are finished, it’s time for the archers to enter. Since their success, or lack of it, will foretell the success of the fishermen, it would be cheating to use a few semi-pros to shoot the arrows every year. They solve that problem by selecting two teenagers by lot to play the role of the bowmen.

But choosing two young guys who didn’t know which end of the bow was which could create the opposite problem by jinxing the fishermen, so they’re allowed to practice a little before taking their official shots. The recent switch from bamboo to metal arrows has also reportedly improved their aim. Some might think the use of modern technology gives them an unfair advantage, but then again, the fishermen are unlikely to be plying their trade with 16th century techniques and equipment. Let’s just say it’s another example of how traditions can be updated to reflect changing times while maintaining the original spirit of the festival!

The newly deputized archers assume their positions at the southwest part of the shrine grounds, where two targets are set up in front of a smaller shrine, called a shoshi. Both of the targets are about two meters in diameter, and both have black circles, representing pirates eyes, painted on instead of bulls-eyes. The archers fire two arrows each at both of the targets.

This year, four of their eight arrows hit the mark. One of the boys accounted for three of the hits, but the other archer’s only success stuck smack dab in the middle of the pirate’s eye. According to the shrine’s priest, that means fish galore in every Minoshima household in 2008!

Some families in the region will be blessed with more than fish. The reports say that the targets themselves will be removed from their stands and taken to local homes—they didn’t say whose—to be used as objects of veneration in supplication for health and safety in the coming year.

They might find it a bit unnerving to be stared at by a big old black pirate’s eye every time they go into the kitchen for a snack, but if it gets them through the year hale, hearty, and full of fish, then why the heck not?

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

How to deal with Kasumgaseki?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 21, 2008

KASUMIGASEKI IS A DISTRICT in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward that is the location of many government ministries. The name is used figuratively to refer to the Japanese bureaucracy in the same way that Wall Street is used to refer to financial markets or the financial industry in the United States.

For most people interested in Japanese politics, it is not a term of endearment.


One of the nation’s epic political struggles is the effort to smash what is referred to as the Iron Triangle of vested interests formed by the old guard of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy, and business and financial interests.

For the first part of this decade, it seemed as if a corner had finally been turned in the struggle during the administration of Koizumi Jun’ichiro, the icebreaker of Japanese politics. The trend continued to an extent under his successor, Abe Shinzo. In other words, the greatest successes in the taming of the Kasumigaseki shrew have so far been achieved by the reform wing of the LDP.

But it should come as no surprise that the vested interests would try to regain their footing, and they have found their opportunity during the brief administration of Fukuda Yasuo.

Freelance journalist Yokota Yumiko contributed an article to the June issue of Shokun! that discusses the possibility of setting up think tanks to counteract the Kasumigaseki influence. She quotes one unidentified member of the bureaucracy about its recent resurgence:

“Today, Kasumigaseki is a growth industry.”

Some people have concluded that the best hope to break the Iron Triangle lies in having the opposition Democratic Party of Japan form a government. It’s an understandable position—Prime Minister Koizumi tried, but failed, to shift the gasoline taxes to the general account to pare the road construction pork. Before forming his own administration, Prime Minister Abe was involved in the effort to standardize government pensions, but was only partially successful. Despite their successes in other areas, neither was able to completely overcome the allies of the entrenched interests within their own party.

But Ms. Yokota quotes another member of the bureaucracy on how they view the prospects of a DPJ-led administration. (My translation; the emphasis is in the original.)

“No matter how you look at it, no policy proposals can be implemented without Kasumigaseki. Even if the Democratic Party of Japan were to form a government, it would be unlikely to have an adverse impact on our work. Indeed, it would make our work a lot easier if the DPJ did us the favor of winning the next lower house election and breaking the logjam in the Diet. It would be easier to pass bills, and we would be able to free ourselves from the chains that tie us to the engorged politicians of the LDP.

“If the DPJ were to form a government, they would wind up having to restrain their current irresponsibility. Having them take power once should be enough for the voters to realize they have no ability to handle the reins of government.”

It might also be useful to remember the example of Mr. Abe. The Social Insurance Agency hammered the final nails in the coffin of the Abe administration when he pursued plans to privatize the agency. They blew the lid off the mishandling of millions of pension accounts, a problem that wasn’t even Mr. Abe’s responsibility.

Rather than stand up to the agency, DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro’s stated intention is to merge the body with another government institution. That’s just sweeping the problem under the rug–out of sight, out of mind.

Wishful thinking is an indulgence people with an interest in politics cannot afford. Politicians and bureaucrats themselves are too pragmatic, too engrossed in looking out for the main chance, and have too much invested in their own survival to waste any of their time and energy on it.

The rest of us would do well to follow their example.

Postscript: Some readers will also remember how the bureaucrats at the Foreign Ministry dealt with former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko. She was a formidable figure in her own right, and her bloodlines gave her a thorough understanding of the problem. The woman who was compared to a bulldozer wound up reduced to tears and out of the executive branch in a matter of months. Since then, she’s been remarkably docile.

If they weren’t afraid of taking her on, who in the DPJ would make them flinch?

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

O’Rourke on China

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 20, 2008

THE BLURB AT THE BOTTOM of the article says that P.J. O’Rourke is “a political satirist, author, and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.” That doesn’t begin to describe just how good he is; any O’Rourke article is a treat, and the current issue of World Affairs Journal serves up an especially generous helping in a piece titled, “The Cleveland of Asia: A Journey Through China’s Rust Belt”. In addition to the humor, it has more insight into today’s China than you’ll read in a dozen articles by scholars or journalists determined to keep a straight face while searching for the significance of it all.

For example:

I talked to people who worked in private enterprise and people who worked in government and people who worked on furthering cooperation between the two. That is, I talked to the kind of people who are necessary to the advocating of freedom and democracy but who, so far, aren’t advocating it. We need to listen to what they don’t say. Here is a record of what Chinese think of politics when politics isn’t what they’re thinking of.


Mr. Chen sent us on in his car to Nanjing, where Tom took me to a steel mill he used to run…The mill’s 150-pound ex-PLA guard dog, Shasha (“Killer”), was extremely glad to see Tom. So were the employees. Although there were some steel mill employees who presumably wouldn’t have been so glad, such as the two or three hundred “ghost workers” who didn’t exist at all and were on the mill’s payroll when Tom took over. Plus the thousands of workers he’d fired because they didn’t do anything. Tom also needed to get rid of the local family that had the “theft rights” to the factory. They once stole an entire railroad train from the mill and would have gotten away with it if the train didn’t have a track that led directly to them.


The privately hired guide on our riverboat, David, was franker. “You’ll notice there are no tall trees along the Yangtze,” he said. “They were all cut down during the Great Leap Forward in Mao’s attempt to match U.S. steel production with wood-fueled backyard steel mills.”
We stopped at a 3,000-year-old town that was being slowly inundated. Another government guide took us ashore. We encountered a parade of townspeople beating drums and waving banners and red flags.
“It’s a promotional event for a furniture store sale,” said the government guide.
“It’s the local Communist Party gathering support for Labor Day demonstrations,” said Mai.

The article’s a bit long, so I recommend saving it for when you have the time to relax and read it all the way through. You’ll find it here.

Posted in China | 1 Comment »

More Koizumi coup speculation

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 19, 2008

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

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS, rumors have been sprouting like weeds in the junkyard of contemporary Japanese politics about former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s return to active involvement by spearheading a broad realignment among the parties. It started with a trial balloon from his former aide Iijima Isao that suggested Mr. Koizumi would be interested in briefly leading a government himself before giving way to someone else.

Mr. Koizumi then formed a policy study group with the participation of former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko (LDP Machimura faction) and Maehara Seiji (DPJ Maehara/Edano group), current vice-president and the former head of the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party. He said at the time that both were potential prime ministers.

Consider that Mr. Koizumi produced the political spectacle of a lifetime by orchestrating a landslide for his party in the 2005 lower house election, in part by recruiting intelligent and attractive women to run for seats in the Diet. Consider also that Mr. Maehara’s outlook is congruent in some ways with that of the Koizumi/reform wing of the LDP (he would amend the Constitution to permit self-defense). That sketches the outline for a possible realignment script directed by Mr. Koizumi with two understudies waiting in the wings. It would not be the first time in Japan two prime ministers had been lined up and ready to go before either took office.

Speculation grew last month with the publication of an article in Shukan Gendai about a “Koizumi coup”, orchestrated with the help of Koga Makoto (Faction leader), chairman of the LDP Election Strategy Council. It suggested that the former prime minister might throw his weight behind Watanabe Yoshimi (LDP; no faction), the Minister of State for Financial Services and Regulatory Reform, rather than Ms. Koike.

Now that the hotbed of coals has been created, Sentaku magazine in its May issue ran this article translated by the Japan Times examining the possibility of–get ready for it–Mr. Koizumi elbowing Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo out of office and replacing him with Koike Yuriko.

According to the scenario envisaged by Koizumi, Fukuda will step down in late May or early June (after the international conference in Yokohama on assistance to Africa) to take responsibility for the political impasse.
The LDP presidency then will be fought between Aso (Taro)[faction leader], regarded as a political “thoroughbred,” and Koike, often referred to as a “wild horse.” The latter will win and become Japan’s first female head of government.
After hosting the G8 summit meeting in July, she will dissolve the Lower House and call a general election. The LDP will campaign under the slogan of working in harmony with the opposition camp (minus Ozawa).
Although the present coalition of the LDP and Komeito is set to lose its two-thirds majority in the Lower House, it nevertheless will win more seats than the DPJ, forcing Ozawa to resign.
The subsequent formation of a new coalition among the LDP, DPJ and Komeito will set the stage for the Diet to enact a series of important legislative measures such as tax reform, social security overhaul and a permanent law to dispatch the Self-Defense Force troops overseas — all of which have been held captive to a legislative standstill.

It’s now beginning to seem as if the start of subscription sales for a new season of the Koizumi Theater (a reference to the former prime minister’s taste for dramatic action) is no longer a question of if but when.

Ran(乱)-dumb Commentary:

Koike Yuriko

The Sentaku article notes that many in business in political and business circles view Ms. Koike as a lightweight, to put it generously. Putting aside her qualifications for the job, more than a few people in Japan would view her as a realistic option. Mr. Koizumi’s successful use of female candidates in the 2005 election was a coup of another sort, so the precedent exists. It is not as cynical a strategy as it might seem; his older sister is one of his closest confidantes, and he is known for being comfortable with women in politics. That’s not always the case with men of his generation in Japan.

Backing Ms. Koike would immediately create positive broadcast-media buzz that would go a long way toward facilitating the success of his endeavor. That’s what happened in 2005, and it could happen again. A local DPJ official told me last month that polls showed there was a direct correlation between support for Mr. Koizumi and the amount of television watched, regardless of the educational level of the viewer. In other words, the more a person sits in front of the TV, the more likely that person is to be a Koizumi supporter.

And this strategy would certainly attract a higher percentage of the female vote than the LDP usually receives.

Also to be considered is that Ms. Koike does not have a long career in the LDP. In fact, she was a member of Ozawa Ichiro’s Liberal Party when it was part of a governing coaltion with the LDP. Mr. Ozawa and some of the members later joined the opposition DPJ, but she stuck with the LDP instead. That will work to her favor with part of the electorate, but to her disadvantage with some members of the old LDP establishment. Which in turn would work to her favor with still more of the electorate.

Ozawa Ichiro

Sentaku had this to say about Ozawa Ichiro’s part in the scenario:

…the LDP is in dire need of a working relationship with the DPJ in one form or another through a non-Ozawa route within the DPJ. The biggest stumbling block is that nobody within the LDP leadership appears able to oust him from the DPJ, with the possible exception of Koizumi himself.
The next question is how Koizumi would identify and attack Ozawa’s weaknesses. Although Ozawa keeps saying he would force Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election, he is not at all certain that his party would win. His rhetoric for an early election is just a tactic to unite the party under his leadership.
The ultimate goal of Ozawa is to win support from all intraparty factions, get re-elected as the party leader uncontested in September and then work in earnest toward a general election in or after October.
One LDP scenario to counter this strategy would be to call a general election before September. The governing coalition may lose the two-thirds majority in the Lower House, but as long as the LDP wins more seats than the DPJ, Ozawa’s position within his own party would be weakened so much that he would not be able to seek re-election as DPJ leader.

The LDP might not have to be the ones to get Mr. Ozawa out of the way, and it would be no great chore for anyone to identify and attack his weaknesses. Since the DPJ’s landslide upper house election victory last summer, Mr. Ozawa has squandered the party’s chances to form a government with his erractic behavior and obstructionist tactics in the Diet instead of proactively offering a credible alternative. There is already talk of efforts underway in the DPJ to oust him from the party presidency in the upcoming September election.

Fukuda Yasuo

Speculation about forcing Prime Minister Fukuda to walk the red-carpeted plank later this year may still be premature. Just this morning, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran an analysis that suggested some in the LDP want to keep Mr. Fukuda in office for as long as possible if he can maintain his balance. One source remarked that even if Mr. Fukuda flew at a low altitude, at least he would be aloft.

Aso Taro

Sez Sentaku:

Former Foreign Minister Aso appears to be the front-runner in the race to succeed Fukuda, although he is not considered strong enough to compete head-on against Ozawa.

I wouldn’t be too sure of that. Political views aside, Mr. Aso seems to be a Happy Warrior type who genuinely enjoys retail-level campaigning. In contrast, any political activity that involves interacting with the public is a serious handicap for Mr. Ozawa. He has difficulty dealing with any situation that does not involve the boys in the backroom. Yet it is astonishing that some people would have you believe that Mr. Ozawa has charisma. If you ever see anyone seriously try to make that claim, it’s time to turn the page, change the channel, or move on to the next website.

Sentaku magazine

Sentaku is a monthly magazine available only by annual subscription. It is not sold at newstands. Reading a copy requires forking over the money for 12 issues, like it or not. I sent them an e-mail to inquire about buying a back issue to see what the magazine was like, but they wouldn’t even do that.

Since this article mostly recapitulates information and speculation found in other articles in the daily, weekly, and monthly press without offering much in the way of original insight, it is puzzling that Sentaku would base its approach to potential readers on exclusivity.

Posted in Government, Politics | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (85): And they’re off!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 18, 2008

MAY IS THE MONTH for the sport of kings in the United States, as the Kentucky Derby was run two weeks ago and the Preakness Stakes was held on Saturday. The third leg of America’s Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing will be at Belmont in two more weeks.

In Japan, May is the month for another famous horserace, held two days after the Derby this year. This one doesn’t involve pari-mutuel betting, racetrack touts, mint juleps, or a wreath of roses around the neck of the winning nag. It was the annual Kurabe-uma Festival at the Kamowake Ikazuchi Shinto shrine in Kyoto run in conjunction with Boys’ Day on the fifth. The shrine itself dates from 678, making it the oldest in the city, and it was already more than 400 years old when the first Ritual of the Racehorses, as it is sometimes called, was held in the late 11th century during the reign of the Horikawa Tenno (emperor).

The race was originally a court festival that started during the Heian period in supplication for a good harvest and peace, but later came to be conducted by military officers as a demonstration of equestrian skill. An archery competition is held the day before. (This is Boys’ Day, after all.)

Instead of a group of up to 20 horses running counterclockwise around a circular track for two or more kilometers (or clockwise in Japan and Great Britain), the horses and riders are divided into two groups of 12 each, called literally “the left side” and “the right side”, and each team sends out a horse and jockey to gallop 150 meters down a straight-line turf track on the shrine grounds. That eliminates the possibility of such wagering options as the perfecta or wheeling a quinella, but then again the Racing Form isn’t sold in stalls outside the torii.

Kurabe-uma, incidentally, means “comparing horses”, which is not the usual word for horse racing in Japan. In addition, jockeys are normally called kishu, but the riders at the Kurabe-uma are referred to as norijiri, or a combination of the words for “ride” and “buttocks”. Western jockeys wear what are called silks, and while costumes of the norijiri might be made from silk, that would be the only resemblance. Their duds also date from the Heian period and are identical to those worn by gagaku musicians.

Once the race is underway, however, the jockeys behave just as jockeys do the world over–the norijiri urge on their mounts by shouting “hyah” and applying the whip judiciously. As with many festivals involving a competition between two groups, a bumper crop is assured if one of the groups wins. In the Kurabe-uma, that is the left side, and this year’s results ensure that few people will be going hungry in the Kyoto area anytime soon.

For more information on the shrine, also known as the Kamigamo shrine, try the link above. For more information on Kurabe-uma, try this link from the Encyclopedia of Shinto (which also has a link on the right sidebar.) Clicking on the photo at the bottom right of the page runs a brief video of the event.

The Kurabe-uma is just one of the festivals held by the shrine this month. It also conducted the elegant Aoi Festival last week, and you can try this link for an Ampontan report on last year’s event. The second photo above is from this year’s festival, however.

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

Ravens draft Nakamura

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 17, 2008

MORE THAN 30 JAPANESE played on teams in the now-defunct N.F.L. Europe, a league with the dual objective of player development and generating interest in American football in that part of the world. Also, Kinoshita Noriaki got a summer-long trial with the Atlanta Falcons during exhibition season last year, but was cut from the squad before the regular season started. That’s the closest any Japanese or ethnic Japanese has ever come to playing in a football game that counts in the National Football League in the United States.

That might change this year. In the recent N.F.L. draft, the Baltimore Ravens selected Haruki Nakamura, a safety (defender) from the University of Cincinnati in the sixth round. Nakamura is not a native Japanese, but he’s close–his father was from Japan. Ryozo Nakamura, who died when Haruki was five, had an eighth-degree black belt in judo (a very high level) and traveled around the world as an instructor. One of his stops included Egypt to train the Egyptian military. He finally went to the U.S. to work with the American national judo team, and stayed to marry a Japanese-American woman with a fourth-degree black belt in judo herself.

Judo runs in the Nakamura family. Everyone in the family except Haruki has been a national champion. In fact, his two brothers combined for 10 national judo championships between them, and brother Yoshi also was twice selected an All-American in wrestling.

Ironically, his father didn’t want anyone playing football because he thought it was too dangerous, and Nakamura had to sneak around when he finally started playing in the sixth grade.

Nakamura turned out to be a natural for the sport, however. He was a three-year starter at Cincinnati, and as the senior captain and defensive signal caller last season, led the Bearcats in tackles with 95. He also had four interceptions and recovered four fumbles while his team won 10 games, the last being the Bowl. He is known for what one website called “eye-popping hits” and intense pre-game preparation.

Aggressive defense is the calling card of the N.F.L.’s Ravens, and they were thrilled to select Nakamura. The team’s secondary coach Mark Carrier said, “When I watched him play, he was always moving, always in motion…He plays with a sense of urgency. He is good, physical, plays smart and is aggressive. You like watching him play because he looks like he is having fun.”

Nakamura’s hometown newspaper in Ohio, The Chronicle-Telegram, ran a profile on him last year:

A lot of people assume that because I’m not that big of a guy, I wouldn’t be a physical player,” said Nakamura. “It’s true. I’m not 6-2 and 225 pounds. But in my eyes, that’s part of the fun. I like surprising people.”

Here’s a report from

Classic over-achieving blue collar free safety who simply makes too many plays to not get a shot at the next level. While Nakamura lacks the elite straight-line speed of some of the other higher profile athletes at the position, he plays with instincts, physicality and an ability to step up his level against top competition. Nakamura’s versatility as a return specialist just adds to his value.

And one from

POSITIVES: Productive, hard-working college defender with limited upside. Intelligent, displays good instincts, and quick diagnosing the action. Physical, works to get involved, and a willing volunteer in run defense. Displays a burst of straight-line speed, takes good angles to the action, and wraps up when tackling.
NEGATIVES: Undersized, has tackles broken, and struggles getting off blocks. Lacks top sideline-to-sideline range as well as speed to the flanks.

To understand how good he is (and how much the Cincinnati fans loved his play), take a look at this YouTube tribute video they put together. Nakamura is number 13. To see what the Ravens saw, watch how he throws his body to stop a running back from scoring a touchdown at about 1:25, and the hits that start at about 3:00.

A lot could happen between now and September—particularly injuries—but I suspect Nakamura is going to become an N.F.L. pioneer and make the Ravens this year as a special teams player, i.e., playing on kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, and punt returns. He’s just the kind of guy the Baltimore fans appreciate.

Posted in Sports | 10 Comments »

Translating Noonan into Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 16, 2008

WRITING IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL about the Republicans in the U.S., Peggy Noonan observed:

Most party leaders in Washington are stupid – detached, played out, stuck in the wisdom they learned when they were coming up, in ’78 or ’82 or ’94. Whatever they learned then, they think pertains now. In politics especially, the first lesson sticks. For Richard Nixon, everything came back to Alger Hiss.

It struck me that the same passage could be used to describe politics right now in Japan, for both parties:

Most party leaders in Tokyo are stupid – detached, played out, stuck in the wisdom they learned when they were coming up, in ’78 or ’82 or ’94. Whatever they learned then, they think pertains now. In politics especially, the first lesson sticks. For Ozawa Ichiro, everything comes back to Tanaka Kakuei.

You could insert just about any politician of any party in Japan in that last sentence, of course, but you get the point.

It doesn’t have anything to do with Japan, but if you want to read Noonan’s column, it’s here.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

A dongba workshop in Osaka

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 13, 2008

PEOPLE WHO ARE BORED and can’t come up with a way to fill their spare hours in Japan have only themselves to blame. In every town there is at least one, and usually more, of what are known as karuchaa sentaa. There, for a modest fee, a person can choose to learn or learn about something interesting from among a cornucopia of subjects in classes offered from morning to night, all under the same roof.

It's all Greek to me!

If you want to study art, you can dabble in watercolors, oil colors, sketching with pencil (regular lead or colored), charcoal, woodblock prints, ceramics, pottery, origami, wood sculpture, and stained glass–and that doesn’t begin to exhaust the list at only one center in a small town.

There are classes in natural makeup, mah-jongg for women, chess, go, shogi, tarot, feng shui, cooking (just about anything), yoga, chi gung, exercises for the lymphatic system, and martial arts. Budding musicians can learn how to play any kind of instrument, Japanese or Western (including harmonica and ukulele), sing any kind of song, or dance any kind of dance. There are even special classes for karaoke singing.

Those interested in foreign languages can apply themselves to English (at several levels of difficulty), Korean, Chinese, French, and Italian. It goes without saying that there are classes in calligraphy, as well as classes in what’s called pen-ji, or writing kanji using a ballpoint pen.

And if you live in the Osaka area, earlier this month you could have taken part in a dongba workshop for free at the National Museum of Ethnology (link also on right sidebar).

What is dongba? The word is used to refer to the priests, culture, and pictographic script of the Naxi, an ethnic group of about 290,000 people that live in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. The dongba that drew the Osakans to the workshop was the writing system, which consists of the only pictographs in use in the world today.

The system is used exclusively by priests as a prompt for interpreting ritual texts during weddings, funerals, and other religious ceremonies. By some accounts, there are as many as 2,000 symbols. It cannot be used to represent the Naxi language, but since the Naxi now write in Chinese they don’t need to use it for that purpose.

Students at the museum’s workshop listened to a lecture on Naxi culture and the use of the characters, watched a practical writing demonstration, and tried to write a letter on their own with the script.

There is what the Japanese call a quiet boom in dongba at present. Its popularity is not hard to understand. As you can see from the accompanying examples, the glyphs are simple, unpretentious, and easy to comprehend, particularly for people who use ideographic characters to begin with.

It’s exactly the sort of thing the Japanese find attractive, and the characters are even used in this country on the labels of PET bottles and as motifs on merchandise.

Love call!

Some dongba manuscripts have been registered in Memory of the World, a UNESCO program to protect cultural heritage that the body thinks is in danger of dying out. How like UNESCO and the UN! To begin with, there are more than 5,000 dongba texts in libraries in the United States and Europe. In addition, the first photo here shows dongba used in a Kirin advertisement, and the second photo shows a dongba decal (translation: I love you) stuck on a cell phone. Since the danger that the world will forget about dongba is negligible–at least the part of the world that already knows about it–one has to wonder if UNESCO just finds it a convenient way to justify its own existence.

For those with an academic temperament, here’s a paper (.pdf file) comparing the development of written Chinese with dongba that you might enjoy. It explains that the dongba pictographs are a relatively recent invention (18th century), and their use became widespread when the Naxi prospered from the opium trade and had more disposable income to produce the texts.

Posted in China, Education, Language, Popular culture | 1 Comment »

Rolling them bones in Heian Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 11, 2008

YESTERDAY I wrote that there’s no telling what might turn up when people start rummaging around in a storeroom in Japan. There’s also no telling what they’ll dig up from an archaeological site.


Here’s an example: While shoveling around in the Okuzono ruins in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, recently, researchers uncovered a die made of rock dating from the late Heian period (11th to the 12th centuries) and about 50 small stones that had been processed for use in sugoroku, go, and hajiki.

Sugoroku is a board game that was brought over from China and has two variations to the rules. One is almost identical to backgammon, and the other is similar to Snakes and Ladders. Hajiki is a Japanese form of marbles, and everyone knows what go is.

The ruins are about 500 meters southwest of the Daizaifu Tenman-gu, a well-known Shinto shrine that had already been around for a couple of centuries before they started shooting the local version of craps nearby. The city’s Committee on Education (which is responsible for archaeological matters) said it was possible the location was a former worksite for people who made games and game equipment. They think the items might have been presented in dedication to the shrine or sold to important people who visited there.

Each side of the die is about 1.1 centimeters across. The opposing sides of modern dice add up to seven, but the arrangement of the numbers on this die is different: on the opposite side of the 6 is a 4, for example.

The stones are of different materials and colors and range in size from 0.8 to 2.0 centimeters.

The part of this story that interests me is not that the Japanese used dice. They, along with the rest of the world, have played dice games for millennia. The part that intrigues me is that the archaeologists think they might have been sold at a religious institution—and no one is particularly surprised.

What the heck–many Shinto shrines in Japan have long held festivals in which home-brewed sake is offered to the divinities. Now it turns out they also countenanced dice games too, some of which surely involved friendly wagers on the side!

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Posted in Archaeology, History | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The positive impact of McDonald’s on East Asia

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 11, 2008

DON BOUDREAUX at the site Cafe Hayek presents this post quoting a paper by Adrian E. Tschoegl describing the positive impact of McDonald’s restaurants in Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and The Philippines.

They didn’t cite the negative impact–terrible food–but it’s worth readng the points Mr. Tschoegel makes. (I had to laugh at the improvement cited for South Korea.)

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Food, Popular culture | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (84): The iron chefs live!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 10, 2008

LONG-TIME FRIENDS know that the Japanese can transform almost any behavior into an act of reverence at a Shinto festival, and here’s yet another example: Slicing and serving sushi.

The Sushikiri Festival (literally sushi-cutting) is held every 5 May at the Shimoniikawa Shinto shrine in Moriyama, Shiga, in supplication for a good harvest, health, and protection from disaster. It is now a national intangible cultural folk treasure.

Rather than professional sushi chefs, the slicing is done by two young men clad in traditional haori (half-coat) and hakama (divided skirt), as you can see in the photo. They use 20-centimeter-long metal chopsticks to hold the fish with their left hands while they carefully cut the fish with exaggerated motions using a 40-centimeter-long knife held in their right hands. (It is unusual to see metal chopsticks in Japan; most are wooden. The metal variety are more frequently seen in Korea.)

The fish on the menu every year is the funa, of which there are several varieties, none of which has a familiar English name (though many of them end in “carp”). The sushi is first cut for and served to the head priest of the shrine and the chairman of the local citizens’ association. In fact, they’re sitting in formal Japanese style directly across from the two men, though they’re not shown in the photo. (Try the second photo here to see them.) The fish is later distributed to the parishioners who’ve come to participate.

And this funa is not just the run-of-the-mill sushi; this treat has been fermented for three or four years before it’s served. The process originally came from China and has been used in Japan for about 1,000 years. The fermentation creates an odor that many people find unappetizing, but the dish has become a noted product of Shiga. (You can read more about it here and here. Those with a scientific turn of mind might find this to be of interest.)
The official story is that the festival, formally known as the Omi-no-Kenketo Festival (the sushi cutting is just one part of it) originated when funazushi was given to a divinity who drifted ashore to the banks of Lake Biwa on a raft 1,300 years ago.

But there are other stories too. Shimoniikawa is one of the six shrines in the country with Toyokiirihiko-no-Mikoto, the eldest son of the Sujin Tenno (emperor), as the enshrined deity. Some versions have it that the food was originally served to Toyokiirihiko, which would make the event closer to 2,000 years old.

Suijin is supposed to have been the 10th Tenno, but no one is sure that he actually existed. His reign years are given as 97 BC to 30 BC, which Japanese historians think is implausibly early. (His recorded life span of 119 years is just as implausible.) Accounts in the Nihon Shoki ascribe some of the same exploits to both the legendary first emperor Jimmu and to Suijin, which lead some to believe that the deeds of a Sujin who might have existed were attributed to Jimmu.

Incidentally, the Shimoniikawa shrine was in the news in March this year when it was confirmed that a Buddhist temple bell found in the storage area for the shrine’s mikoshi in May 2007 is the oldest example of a bell with both Japanese and Korean designs discovered in the country.

Cast in 1419, it is the sixth bell of this type to have ever turned up in Japan. Shown in the second photo, it is 40.6 centimeters tall, 23.9 centimeters wide, and weighs 11.2 kilograms. Reports say that it was used in the “Buddhist temple hall”, which suggests the shrine was once a joint Shinto-Buddhist facility of the kind that no longer exist, though that wasn’t explicitly stated. The Japanese decorations are the dragon heads at the top of the bell, while the Korean motifs are the plant and flower designs on the rest of the bell.

And that just goes to show: There’s no telling what you’re liable to stumble over when you start poking around in a storeroom in Japan!

Posted in Archaeology, Festivals, Food, History, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

A Seoul performance of the palilmu

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 9, 2008

HERE’S A SERENDIPITOUS FIND: While looking for something else, I ran across a snippet in the Korea Times about the palilmu performance in Seoul last Sunday. The palilmu is a dance performed on the first Sunday in May by 64 women divided equally into eight rows. (It’s a yin and yang thang!)

The dance was brought from China and first performed in Korea in 1116 during the Goryeo dynasty. During the Joseon dynasty, it was incorporated into the Jongmyo Daejae, or Royal Shrine Ritual, a rite to honor the ancestors of the royal family. (The Jongmyo is the royal shrine.)

It used to be a common sight once upon a time, as it was performed five times a year (the first month of each season and in December), but that ended when the Japanese arrived. The performances resumed in 1965.

The word palilmu is derived from pal, or the number eight, and ilmu, which is a line dance. The entire ritual includes other ceremonies, music, and dance, and is conducted according to Confucian practice. That’s not surprising, because Confucianism has been a strong influence in Korea, much more so than in Japan.

After watching the video here, which supposedly has explanations in four languages, I was struck by the similarity of the music with that of gagaku, or the ancient ceremonial music of the Japanese court. (Not the instrumentation, but the underlying music itself.) Like palilmu, gagaku music and dance originated in China (with some performances also coming from Korea), and neither are performed in China today.

There are two varieties of palilmu: munmu and mumu. The women perform munmu in the first part of the video, with three-holed bamboo flutes in their left hand and a wooden bar adorned with pheasant feathers in their right. The latter part of the video shows the mumu, which is a military dance. The dancers in the first four rows wield wooden swords, and those in the last four rows hold spears.

The ceremony has been designated a Korean intangible cultural asset, and (not that it makes any difference) part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of the world. (Here’s the explanation on the UNESCO site.)

I would have loved to have been there to see it, but the video’s the next best thing!

Postscript: Here’s a YouTube clip of a gagaku dance for comparison. Keep in mind the form also includes other dances and music unaccompanied by dance.

Posted in South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: | 2 Comments »