Japan from the inside out

Archive for August, 2008

Matsuri da! (96): When girls do it

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 31, 2008

OVER THE CENTURIES, men have handled most of the heavy lifting, fighting, and other grunt work that is often a part of Japanese festivals. This has been changing in recent years, however, as more women are getting into the act by forming groups to carry their own mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines. So many women want to help carry one of the mikoshi in the summertime Tenjin festival in Osaka, for example, that they have to formally apply and pass a screening process first.

Another festival with women-only mikoshi is the Dotchan Matsuri, held earlier this month for the 19th time in Imari, Saga. Imari was the port from which the famed Arita ware ceramics were shipped overseas in the 17th and 18th centuries. (There are a few kilns there now, but in the old days all Imari ware was Arita ware.)

According to the organizers, the name Dotchan is derived from the phrase Dotchan magiro ka na, which they explain in modern, non-dialect Japanese as Dotchi e iko ka na, or Where shall we go? The story has it that the people who kept asking the question were the tradesmen from around the country visiting Imari and wondering which of the local merchants to patronize. They supposedly had trouble deciding because all the merchants were very hospitable and offered superb merchandise.

In fact, the festival features not one, but two women-only mikoshi, as you can see from the photo. The two groups do not stage a battle on the city streets, however, which is often a part of these events. The idea behind the competitions is that the divinity will be on the side of the winning team, whose neighborhood will be blessed with a good harvest or catch of fish. Everyone likes a winner–even the gods!

People are sometimes injured in the heat of the competition, and the organizers have ambulances standing by. In fact, the objective of the mikoshi clash in the Ton-Ten-Ton Festival held in October in the same town is to drive the other team into the river. A local high school boy was killed during that festival three years ago.

The Dotchan Matsuri seems to be more tame. In addition to the mikoshi parade, there is bon odori, or summertime street dancing, taiko drums, a junior high school brass band, and a race with people carrying rice bales, which by traditional standards weighed 60 kilograms. (That’s more than 132 pounds, so it’s unlikely women get involved in that.)

But who wants to see a rice bale race when you can watch the stuff that’s going on in the photo instead!

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Puberty at last for the DPJ?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 28, 2008

IT’S ABOUT BLOODY TIME—13 months to be precise. That’s how long it took the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to come up with a legislative proposal that seems to have been carefully thought out, rather than something that floated out of a dorm room hookah at 3:00 in the morning.

Details of the proposal are sketchy–and likely to remain so, because a thorough examination of legislative detail is above the pay grade of the print media in any country. But here’s what can be gleaned from an article that appeared in the Sankei Shimbun earlier this week.

Beefing up consumer protection

The government/ruling coalition plans to offer in the upcoming Diet session a bill to create a Consumer Affairs Agency. In addition to restructuring government finances, the Liberal Democratic Party is putting on a consumer-friendly face as part of their overall strategy to prevent any more post-Koizumi-era Cabinets from falling over backwards at the slightest political breeze.

The DPJ’s core philosophy is “We’re the opposition and we’re opposed,” so it doesn’t take a Third Eye to see what they’re going to do next. But the party’s study group for human rights and consumers also expended the time and effort to hammer together the framework of an alternative bill to create a Board of Consumer Rights. The Shadow Cabinet is expected to formally approve it and submit it to the lower house for consideration.

The DPJ plan

The DPJ claims that the government/ruling party’s proposed Consumer Affairs Agency will merely be an appendage of the Cabinet Office in the central government. They say this would render the agency ineffective because it would be unable to work with the existing consumer agencies at the local governmental level. Therefore, to monitor government ministries and other agencies from a position outside the Cabinet, they propose the creation of a Board of Consumer Rights with strong authority, independent of the Cabinet and the Diet. They’re basing their model on the Board of Audit of Japan.

The new board would integrate all the Consumer Affairs Centers operated by local governments. It would also offer advice and recommendations to consumers for dealing with their complaints. Its authority would include the power to demand that the national and local governments provide specified documents within a fixed time period. They would also have the authority to encourage the prosecution of shady businesses to prevent the spread of abuses, as well as the authority to petition courts to halt the business operations of those companies. Finally, they would provide assistance to consumers for filing suits to recover illegal profits.

On the other hand…

Some of their ideas seem less appealing. The DPJ would have the board stay open for consultation year-round. What consumer complaints are so urgent that they require handling on a public holiday instead of the next business day? Anything that serious is probably a police matter to begin with.

They also suggest an annual budget of about 100 billion yen (about $US 918 million) and a maximum of 10,000 employees. That seems a bit much–expanding the national government and its bureaucracy is not the brightest of ideas when the public sector is already having trouble paying its bills. (Okayama Prefecture just announced a 9.5% salary cut for its employees for the next four years.) The Japanese government needs to be steered away from further centralization, not toward it.

And since the default position of most center-left parties is that the public is incapable of reading a contract or picking up a phone and calling an attorney on its own, it’s possible that still more unattractive provisions lurk beneath the surface.

A turning point for the DPJ?

But perhaps we should be more generous and appreciate that the DPJ seems at last to be learning how to shave. After all:

  • This is the party that claims to be anti-bureaucracy, but promises to restore the anachronism and the bureaucracy of the postal ministry.
  • This is the party that tried to pull the rug out from Japanese participation in UN-sanctioned operations by claiming the UN Security Council didn’t authorize the Indian Ocean refueling activities to support NATO in Afghanistan—despite UN Security Council authorization and specific praise for the Japanese contribution.
  • This is the party that curried popular support by opposing the continuation of a gasoline surtax when oil prices soared earlier this year—without finding a way to offset the reliance of many cash-strapped local governments on that tax revenue for their fiscal solvency. (The funds account for 5% of Iwate Prefecture’s annual budget, to cite one example.)

Is this a case of the blind DPJ squirrel stumbling over a chestnut, or is it a sign that the party is finally trading in its short pants for adult trousers? Let’s hope it’s the latter.

Posted in Politics | 8 Comments »

The “Dead Kim” story

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 27, 2008

WASEDA UNIVERSITY Professor Shigemura Toshimitsu has written a book claiming that North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-il died in 2003, and that his role has been assumed by a double since then. The professor’s book was the subject of an article in the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai last week.

I glanced at the magazine when the issue was published and thought briefly about summarizing the article here, but decided it was too tabloid for my taste and passed. Japan Today has a summary, which you can read here.

But one part of that article did make me sit up and take notice–the ending. Here it is:

Shukan Gendai asks a government official who helped plan Koizumi’s Pyongyang visits what he thinks of all this. His reply:
“Rumors of a dummy Kim began circulating after the summit. Some of us said we should have Kim’s voice prints analyzed. But if we did that and proved the prime minister had been conferring with a double, it could have destroyed the Koizumi administration. So we didn’t proceed.”

Baloney. If the Japanese government thought it was possible they had dealt with a Kim double, of course they analyzed the voice prints–and conducted every other test they could think of to boot. It’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t have tried to ferret out the facts.

The story about destroying the Koizumi administration doesn’t hold water, either. Remember that when the five abductees refused to return to North Korea, their seven children (and Charles Jenkins, Soga Hitomi’s husband) were still in Pyeongyang with no guarantee that they would be allowed to leave. Assume for the sake of discussion that the man Mr. Koizumi met wasn’t Kim Jong-il, and the Japanese revealed that information. The ensuing international turmoil (and North Korean anger) would have likely prevented the families from ever reuniting.

To continue the discussion, let’s put aside the fate of the abductees’ families for a second. The revelation that Kim Jong-il was dead might indeed have placed a government in jeopardy, but it wouldn’t have been the Koizumi administration–it would have been whatever clique is running North Korea. The mythomania surrounding the Kim family cult would have evaporated, along with the government’s legitimacy. No regime can prevent the circulation of that sort of information.

And while we’re speculating, here’s one more to chew on: Was the Japanese government eventually able to pry loose the abductees’ children and Mr. Jenkins by threatening to disclose the North Korean secret?

That comment from a Japanese government official is an awfully strange way to deflect a reporter’s question. Assuming the quote is true, it makes me wonder what’s really going on in Pyeongyang more than the original magazine article did.

Posted in North Korea | 4 Comments »

Noodle news

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 25, 2008

IN THE MOOD for some noodles, but can’t decide between ramen and udon? If you’re in Kurashiki, Okayama, you’re in luck, because now you can have the best of both worlds.

Furuichi Ryoichi, the proprietor of the local Furuichi restaurant, has created a noodle dish he calls ra’udon that is winning acclaim in Kurashiki culinary circles. The combination is said to look like ramen, but taste like udon.

Mr. Furuichi developed yellow noodles of medium thickness with the body of udon, and which are somewhat elastic and chewy. He combines these in a ramen bowl with a Japanese-style broth made from chicken, dried konbu (a type of kelp), and a generous portion of shaved bonito. As condiments, he adds barbecued pork slices (as with ramen), seasoned bamboo shoots, and narutomaki, a type of fish paste. He also incorporates two types of water. The local supply, which is rich in calcium, goes into the noodles, and a slightly briny water is used for the broth. Those who have sampled his new noodle soup say it has a complex taste, and from this description I’d be inclined to agree.

Ra’udon was not created from a sudden inspiration—Mr. Furuichi intentionally set out to invent a new noodle dish. Considering the long history of noodles in this part of the world, achieving that goal required considerable imagination and self-confidence, as well as a long period of trial and error. He visited China several times to conduct research, which gives you an idea of his determination. It’s not every noodle shop owner who would invest the time or money to do field work overseas.

If you’d love to try some, but aren’t going to be in Kurashiki any time soon, here’s some good news. Mr. Furuichi does not seem to be the type to keep his light under a bushel. In February, he registered the name “Ra’udonmen” (拉饂飩麺) as a trademark.

So perhaps ra’udon will be served at a shop near you (in Japan) sometime soon. If that happens, I’ll be one of the first customers!

Posted in Food | 1 Comment »

Pyeongyang soju off the shelf in the U.S., and other ramblings

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 25, 2008

IN MAY 2007, I wrote this post about the export of Pyeongyang soju (shochu) to the United States, wondering how well the product would go over due to considerations of both taste and politics.

Well, the fine DPRK Studies website found a blog post by American journalist Jason Perlow, who likes to eat and write about what he ate. Mr. Perlow visited a Korean restaurant in Palisades Park, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. He has photos of the restaurant, the meal he was served, and the bottle of Pyeongyang soju that he bought at a nearby liquor store to go with the meal. (The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license.)

Mr. Perlow was surprised to find it was quite smooth. (I had some doubts about that in my original post, too.) He was aware that purchasing the beverage contributed financially to the Kim Family Regime in North Korea, but his epicurean tendencies bested his political scruples after a brief skirmish. He might not have been aware at dinner time of some of the controversies surrounding the import of the drink, though he did link to a previous DPRK Studies post about them.

Additionally, neither Mr. Perlow nor Richardson at DPRK Studies mentioned that poisonous snakes were used as an ingredient in the soju, and that political prisoners were used to catch the snakes. (Richardson, however, did mention that political prisoners might have a role in its production.)

Other items of interest: Mr. Perlow complains about chopsticks in general and metal chopsticks in particular (come on guy, it’s not that hard), and mentions that shabu-shabu is on the menu. The dish is popular throughout Northeast Asia, but that’s the Japanese name for it!

Fancy that–a Korean restaurant still using the Japanese name. Some think shabu-shabu was invented by the Mongols in the 13th century, but the Suehiro restaurant in Osaka claims they developed it in 1952 (those who read Japanese can see their explanation here). They also trademarked the name in 1955, so maybe that’s the explanation.

Then again, the New Jersey restaurant also serves kalbi, a name the Japanese prefer to borrow as karubi rather than just come straight out and call them ribs (肋骨), which is what the Korean word means.

Of course, using euphemistic terms for food is an international phenomenon: When you’re eating sweetbreads in a Western restaurant, you’re not eating sweet bread–it’s the thymus gland and the pancreas!

And before I forget: DPRK Studies has a post about a new North Korean noodle made from soybeans that delays feelings of hunger. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.

Isn’t longer digestion time one of the reasons the Japanese like to eat udon as a late-night snack when studying, thereby staving off the hunger pangs?

Posted in Food, North Korea | Tagged: | 16 Comments »

Saber-rattling in Seoul

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 24, 2008

“Of course you realize, this means war!”
– Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup

SOUTH KOREA LIVES in a rough neighborhood, surrounded by the Chinese dragon, the Russian bear, and its evil twin in Pyeongyang.

North Korea invaded the South in 1950 to ignite a bloody war, and their military provocations have continued over the ensuing half century. They tried to assassinate then-President Chun Doo-hwan in Burma in 1983. The plot failed to eliminate the primary target, but killed 21 other people instead, including four South Korean Cabinet members, presidential advisors, journalists, and four Burmese. They have kidnapped, tortured and killed countless private citizens from the South. Several South Korean sailors died in a naval battle with the North on the eve of the 2002 World Cup held jointly in South Korea and Japan. And just recently, the Northerners shot dead a South Korean tourist on one of their beaches, apparently just to watch her die.

The Chinese also invaded South Korea during the Korean War, and the two countries are involved in arcane territorial disputes that required extensive discussion in a 2006 summit meeting. While the Russians are not an immediate threat, they are in the habit of invading nearby countries every decade or so, as the world was reminded yet again in Georgia. Both have nuclear weapons, and who knows what the real story is with North Korea’s nuclear program. All three countries rank in the top ten worldwide in the number of army and navy personnel and military aircraft.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that the South Koreans have expanded and enhanced their military capabilities and plan further growth in the future. Of particular note has been the South Korean effort to develop a blue water navy.

International military analysts have cited the need to maintain the regional balance of power—especially with China—and participation in humanitarian relief efforts as the reasons for this buildup. But that is not what the South Koreans tell themselves, either for consumption among the general public or for a more specialized audience.

Instead, their justification is a scenario so unlikely it should be at the bottom of the list of potential military threats for South Korean strategic planners, assuming it should be on any list at all.

Here’s what the former chief of naval operations and the father of the South Korean blue navy concept, Ahn Byeong-tae, told a seminar conducted at a research institute in March 2005:

“If South Korean and Japanese military forces should clash over Dokdo, the islets would be taken from us in a day. It might not even take a day. I can’t say for certain, but it might not even take half a day.”

Admiral Ahn might be technically correct, but any assumption that Japan would take military action over Takeshima/Dokdo/the Liancourt Rocks requires either a suspension of belief greater than that required to watch an Indiana Jones movie, or a willingness to believe a hypothesis for which no evidence exists. In 24 years in Japan, I have never seen or heard anything in the mass media even remotely suggesting military action as a solution for territorial disputes or military threats from another country, much less as a figment of a hyperactive imagination.

Yet the quote from Admiral Ahn comes from a three-part article (in Japanese) from the Chosun Ilbo published last month, which you can see here, here, and here. It’s a description of the relative strength of the South Korean and Japanese navies based on the extraordinary assumption that the Japanese would try to seize the islets by force. The following is a sample of the discussion. The sub-headings are translations of those used in the articles themselves.

South Korean naval strength 30% of Japan’s

The combat capabilities of the South Korean Navy have rapidly improved in the three years since (Admiral Ahn’s comments). The first South Korean-built Aegis destroyer, Sejong the Great, was launched, as well as the largest amphibious assault ship in Asia, the Dokdo. (It is also the largest ship in the South Korean navy.)

But Japan’s capabilities are greater. They have two new improved Aegis vessels and six Aegis destroyers in all. The Japanese have also recently launched their first helicopter carrier and a 3,000-ton submarine. The Japanese fleet is an aggregate 428,000 tons, while the South Korean fleet is just 137,000 tons.

Japan’s six-to-one Aegis advantage

The Aegis destroyer can spot incoming missiles and aircraft from 1,054 kilometers, and simultaneously discover 900 targets, including aircraft, ships, and missiles, from 500 kilometers. The new Japanese Aegis of the Atago class controls the East Sea (the Sea of Japan), and their Escort Flotilla 3 could sail in a convoy and reach Dokdo first in the event of a crisis.

A heavyweight versus a flyweight in warships and anti-ship missiles

The South Korean navy has 40 warships in the 1,000-ton class or above, but Japan has more than that in the 3,000-ton class or above. Both countries have anti-ship missiles for use against enemy vessels, most of which are the American-made Harpoon, but Japan has many more.

More than 65% of Japan’s fleet has been launched since 1984, so it has a higher ratio of newer vessels.

The difference in anti-submarine capabilities is as that between a man and a boy

The South Korean navy has nine submarines in the 1,200-ton class and one in the 1,800-ton class, but Japan has 16 larger subs ranging from 2,200 to 3,000 tons. It also has more than 90 P3C maritime patrol aircraft for anti-submarine activities, while South Korea has just eight. South Korea has 40 helicopters, while Japan has more than 90.

The KF16 naval aircraft can fight for only five minutes at Dokdo.

While South Korea has 500 naval fighter aircraft and Japan has 360, the Japanese planes have greater combat capabilities. They are also based closer to Dokdo, and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces have superior refueling capabilities.

Dokdo’s distance from South Korean bases means that only the KF15 can fight in the skies above the islets for more than an hour. South Korea has 170 KF16s, which are capable of only five minutes of combat in the area…


There’s more, but you get the picture.

Meanwhile, it was also reported that Vice Admiral Seong Yeong-mu of the Strategy Planning Department called for the continued expansion of naval capabilities to a level 70% to 80% of those of Japan. Admiral Seong’s justification was that doing so would prevent Japan from creating a problem over Dokdo.

To be sure, some of this lurid speculation by the navy brass could be a ploy to get a bigger slice of the national military budget. The military establishment in other countries employs the same strategy, as do some politicians to win elections; John F. Kennedy famously warned of a non-existent missile gap with the Soviet Union during his presidential campaign.

Even assuming that part of the motivation is bureaucratic gamesmanship, however, the question of why Japan must be used as the shuttlecock remains unanswered. North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated its malevolence and its willingness to use military options. The Chinese might not take overt military action (in the southern part of the peninsula, at any rate), but it must be assumed that their military buildup is designed, in part, to establish regional hegemony. Are South Koreans prepared to live on Chinese terms?

It would be far wiser for the South Koreans to find ways to encourage more amicable feelings toward Japan among its people than to exacerbate the tendency to indulge in unproductive emotionalism. They are the only two countries in the region sharing a commitment to democratic governments, free markets, and the rule of law. If they dropped the game, Japan could be the best friend South Korea has in the neighborhood. The potential benefits of partnership are enormous if the country ever chooses an option besides cutting off its nose to spite its face.

But it’s a lot safer to pick pretend fights with a country you know will never fight back. That allows the flyweight to keep talking tough without getting on the wrong side of the real thugs.

Finally, there is one more puzzling aspect to the Chosun Ilbo articles. They were translated into Japanese from the original Korean. Yet there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of those articles on their website. (That’s not to say English translations don’t exist, only that I couldn’t find any there.)

Does this mean that the South Korean intention was to rattle their new sabers just loud enough for the Japanese to hear, but quiet enough so that the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world wouldn’t notice? After all, why cause the guarantor of your security to think you’re goofy when it comes to the application of military force?

There might be a more innocent explanation, but South Korean behavior of late makes it difficult to extend the benefit of the doubt.

Afterwords: Here is an excellent summary of the strange territorial disputes between South Korea and China written by Andrei Lankov. Here’s a report of another Sino-Korean dispute over the submerged rock Ieodo. And here is a summary of the 2002 naval battle between North and South, presented by GI Korea. His post was particularly educational because it mentions a body of water called the West Sea.

A quick check of an atlas showed that what South Korea calls the West Sea is what everyone else in the world calls the Yellow Sea. That’s in addition to their claim that the Sea of Japan is really called the East Sea.

Don’t they realize how ridiculous it makes them look?

Posted in Military affairs, South Korea | Tagged: , | 23 Comments »

Alarm clocks are for fascists

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 21, 2008

A professor must have a theory, as a dog must have fleas.
– H.L. Mencken

HERE IS THE PERFECT ARTICLE for the “I Couldn’t Make This Up If I Tried” Category:

A British study suggests a Japanese government-supported trend for arising early each day might be symptomatic of a revival of nationalism.

Brigitte Steger, a Cambridge University lecturer in Japanese studies, said the preoccupation with awakening early, last seen in Japan during the first half of the 20th century, might be a “conscious and coordinated attempt” to foster national identity.

If we were to draw the logical inference, that would mean: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and a banzai-shouting chauvinist.

Or that all the rainbow warrior uno mundo internationalists sleep till noon. (Come to think of it…)

Most astonishing of all is that this woman has a gig as a Japanese specialist at Cambridge.

You have to wonder if this is just a ploy to convince the university to schedule her lectures after lunch.

Some Japanese are puzzled why people in the West still understand so little about their country.

Well, this is a good start on an answer.

UPDATE: Reader Tomojiro found a more detailed account of Prof. Steger’s theories, which can be read here. Some of the ideas she expresses will cause your navel to boil tea (i.e., laugh helplessly, as the old Japanese expression has it.) Here’s one example: Early morning yoga classes in Tokyo are a manifestation of the same thinking behind the effort to amend the peace clause of the Constitution.

This passage in particular demonstrates the problem nicely:

People who do not get up early, Dr Steger was told, are even regarded as darashi ga nai – meaning that they do not lead a “proper life” and cannot be entrusted with difficult assignments at work. The pressure on people to get up early, even when they have to stay up in the evenings, has also led to a surge in sales of energy and vitamin drinks to help them make it through the day. About 150 different kinds of drink are available to Japanese customers, with roughly 1,260 million bottles sold annually.

For starters, energy and vitamin drinks in Japan are not a new phenomenon. They were already ubiquitous when I first came here in 1984. So much for the Abe Shinzo effect.

But more important, note this phrase: “Dr. Steger was told”.

Putting aside for the moment that the plural of anecdote is not data, the professor is spinning odd theories based on what someone told her.

Her theories are derived from hand-me-down observations rather than her personal experience (or common sense, but we can dream, can’t we?) She has lived roughly three years in Japan–not nearly long enough–and all of them were spent on a college campus talking to people suffering from the same malady that afflicts her. In other words, she saw very little of day-to-day life in Japan at first hand. Had she done so, she wouldn’t be (well, probably wouldn’t be) producing such blather.

Here’s an idea whose time will never come: Require college professors lecturing about another country to have lived in that country–with no involvement in tertiary education–for as many years as it took them to obtain all their university degrees. That would probably work out to a minimum of ten years.

Since that will never happen we might as well resign ourselves to this: As with the poor, flannel-headed university professors will always be with us.

Posted in Education, I couldn't make this up if I tried | 10 Comments »

Interview: Justice Minister Yasuoka Okiharu

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 21, 2008

THREE WEEKS AGO, Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo reshuffled his Cabinet and chose Yasuoka Okiharu to replace Hatoyama Kunio as the Minister of Justice.

Significant change is underway in Japan’s justice system, and an even more radical restructuring will occur in the near future. A new system in which citizen jurors join a panel of trial judges to hear and render verdicts in criminal cases will begin operation in just eight months. There is a robust, ongoing debate about how well the new system will work, and some are calling for it to be delayed or scrapped altogether. Other matters in the spotlight include capital punishment (which has widespread support) and proposals for the recording of police interrogations and the institution of life imprisonment.

Last week, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran an interview with the new justice minister. Here it is in English.

A Supreme Court survey shows that upwards of 80% of the public has a negative attitude about participating in the lay juror system. The Social Democratic Party (former Socialist Party) is calling for a reexamination of the system and a postponement of its implementation.

We’re not thinking of postponing it. The lay juror system is an important concept for achieving law for the people, by the people. There is no reason to postpone it just because there are concerns. If we did that, we wouldn’t be able to get down to business and create the reforms that build a new era.

Will you be able to obtain the understanding of the people before the system is implemented?

Doubts seem to remain about why citizens should become lay jurors. But the more people understand the system, the more they’ll want to participate. Citizen participation in criminal cases will make the cases easier to understand and result in their prompt disposition.

A multiparty group of legislators said the gulf between indefinite prison terms and execution is too large. They argue for the establishment of life imprisonment.

I cannot support life imprisonment. It’s cruel to send someone to jail for their entire life. That is difficult for governments to deal with, and a minority of countries worldwide have instituted life imprisonment. However, we should examine how we can make the system for indefinite prison terms transparent by defining the standards for provisional release and objectively presenting the elements for rendering a verdict.

What is your basic philosophy about the death penalty?

I think there should be a death penalty. Japan has a “culture of shame”. There is a recognition that death is the only way to atone for some crimes. The people support the death penalty.

Some people think that police questioning of suspects should be recorded in toto, both in audio and video.

Recording the questioning might have the great effect of preventing forced confessions. But if the suspects understood that questioning would be recorded, they would assume a defensive posture and be on their guard. That would make it very difficult to investigate cases involving gangsters in particular. Considering the actual circumstances of police investigations, it would be unrealistic to record of all of them on video.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has issued an urgent declaration seeking a slowdown in the increase of the judiciary.

We still have to increase both the quantity and quality of judges. Japan’s judiciary is too small. We have to work to create a demand for judges in all areas. I want to make the government goal (to increase the number of judges) a priority.

Afterwords: Here is a previous post explaining the new lay juror system in more detail, with a discussion of the potential for seismic change in society, and several links to newspaper articles.

Posted in Legal system | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (95): All hail the spiny lobster!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 19, 2008

AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT of most Japanese festivals is the mikoshi, or portable shrine, which is said to contain the spirit of the divinity from a specific Shinto facility. These mikoshi are carried with enthusiasm and energy through the streets during a festival, and sometimes are even used in competitions.

The organizers of the Ise Ebi Festival held in Hamajima, Mie, on the first Saturday in June also claim that a mikoshi is used in their event. They might be exaggerating for the sake of effect, however. Most mikoshi are of traditional construction, generally look the same, and are associated with a Shinto shrine.

But that’s not the case with the Ise Ebi Festival. What the folks in Hamajima carry instead is a 6.5 meter, 450 kilogram, carved Ise ebi. That would be the Panulirus japonicus, or spiny lobster, a tasty crustacean popular in Japanese cuisine.

As the name indicates, the Ise ebi is widely harvested in the Ise Shima area. In fact, it’s such an important maritime product in that region that it’s been called “the fish of Mie”.

Hamajima held its first Ise Ebi Festival in June 1961 to give thanks for the benefits it receives from the spiny lobster as a source of both food and income, and to pray for a bountiful catch that year. The imagination and enthusiasm of the local residents fueled its growth and turned it into the well-known event and tourist attraction that is has become today.

Catching the spiny lobster is prohibited from the beginning of June to the beginning of October to allow them to multiply, which is one of the reasons for the festival’s scheduling. The first catch after the season resumes is offered to the Ise Jingu, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan.

Established in the third century, that shrine is closely associated with the imperial family. Its tutelary deity is Amaterasu Omikami, the family’s mythical ancestor. During the 15th century, Ise Jingu officials traveled throughout the country proselytizing, collecting money, and promoting visits, claiming that seven trips to the shrine ensured salvation. (That last part sounds a bit like Islam, doesn’t it?)

But back to the spiny lobster!

One of the event’s principal attractions is the jakoppe parade, the jakoppe being a dance that the Hamajimanians created specifically for the festival. As Mac notes in the previous post about a similar dance created for a different festival, the personality and inclinations of the performers determine how sedate or how sexy it becomes.

And don’t pass up the rich harvest of photos from this year’s festival on this page. There are plenty of good ones here, but this one’s my favorite!

None of the available accounts or newspaper articles on the Web talk about a Shinto shrine connection with the festival. As photos of the event make clear, however, the event gets underway with a ritual conducted by Shinto priests and assisted by miko, or shrine maidens.

Oh right, I almost forgot: What does the spiny lobster taste like? I can’t compare it to an American lobster, because I’ve eaten so few of the latter. (I grew up in an area known for crabs. Most of the folks in my hometown couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat an expensive lobster when they could spend the same amount of money to buy more of the cheaper crabs instead.)

But if you’ve never had an Ise ebi, here’s a hint—the word for shrimp in Japanese is ebi. It does taste like a shrimp. Only it’s a lot bigger and a lot better!

Here’s a glimpse of the dance performed at main festival site, with the spiny lobster in the background looking like some pagan deity on an altar. The music is one of those fascinating combinations often heard in Japanese street music: The melody and rhythm are unmistakably Nippon, but it’s being played by a very Western horn section.

Meanwhile, ere’s a short video of the parade, with some of the fine, healthy Ise ebi-eating girls in Mie:

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Posted in Festivals, Food | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Yakyuken Odori

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 19, 2008

TAKE THE TIME to read Mac’s post on Yakyuken Odori in the Comment section of the Chakkirako post, which you can find on the left sidebar. (I’d link to it if I could figure out how.) Yakyu means baseball and odori means dance. The folks in Matsuyama have created a simple dance out of baseball gestures, which they use for a summer street festival/party in that city. He’s provided plenty of YouTube links.

Some of the points Mac makes are the reasons I write about festivals so much in the hope of bringing them to wider attention. To wit:

“Yakyuken (has) been developed into a mass street dance very much along the lines of the Awa Odori fools’ dance, which can be anything from sweet, charming and serene (think infants to geriatric old kimonoed ladies) to sexy, raucous and insane (think young hot chicks to taiko-driven taekwondo groups) depending on who is dancing it.”

I think the next point is very important:

“It’s great to see, in this day and age, a community get out together breaking all barriers of age and position, and very obviously have fun together.”


One of the nights took it even further and made it into Yakyuken Samba, which might have lacked an absolute Latin sensuality, (but) was not far behind it and blew any impression of Japan as a stuffy, conservative and uptight society away.


“As usual, the crowd was wonderful. All the folks at the front took their shoes off to sit on prepared blue plastic sheets so those behind could see. Infants were left to run free on street with most groups having “sweepers” to catch the lost ones at the end. And it was all cleared away in minutes in military precision. No drunks, no fights, no attitudes.”

Where else but Japan can you find such a combination of fun, sensuality, and responsibility?

And in a nice touch of synchronicity, I’m about to upload a post on another festival with a locally created dance in a different town!

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Aso is next, says Mori Yoshiro

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 18, 2008

IF ANY PROFESSOR of political science were to write a textbook explaining how not to conduct the affairs of a political party, he might profitably spend his time reviewing the career of former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, now an elder statesmen of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, backroom string-puller, and de facto skipper of what is looking more every day like the Mudboat-maru.

Aso Taro (L) and Mori Yoshiro (R)

Aso Taro (L) and Mori Yoshiro (R)

Mr. Mori assumed the role of prime minister in unusual circumstances after a stroke incapacitated (and eventually killed) former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo. He was so unsuited for the job that his public approval rating plummeted to the single-digit level less than a year later. His ineptitude so alarmed the LDP rank and file that they replaced him with the Japanese equivalent of a political outsider, Koizumi Jun’ichiro. (Mr. Koizumi’s subsequent success is an important lesson that the clods in the LDP mudboat wing have, astonishingly enough, yet to grasp.)

In 2005, when then-Prime Minister Koizumi planned to dissolve the lower house of the Diet and call for an election as a referendum on his postal privatization plan, Mr. Mori reportedly begged him in tears to reconsider. Mr. Koizumi ignored his advice and won the second-highest majority in postwar history.

Now, on Sunday, Mr. Mori held forth on the political situation on a TV Asahi current affairs program:

“(Party Secretary General) Aso (Taro) has interesting things to say, and there’s no question that will be more widely accepted by the public than the lifeless talk of Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo…Our party must make the greatest use of Aso’s popularity. I think many people (in the party) feel that ‘Mr. Aso should be next’ (as prime minister). Of course, I think so too.”

Of course.

In regard to the timing of the next election, he said,

“That is the prime minister’s decision. While we don’t have anything to say about it, the current Diet will be seated until September 2009. We can’t put that to waste.”

Well, isn’t that just ducky!

Mr. Mori was the man who helped put all the ducks in a row for Mr. Fukuda last year in the intraparty election to choose Abe Shinzo’s successor. Now, less than a year later, he has turned Prime Minister Fukuda into the lamest of ducks just two weeks after a Cabinet reshuffle. Was it intentional or accidental? Was Mr. Fukuda privately displaying a reluctance to step down? In any event, it was incompetent.

Just how does he expect Prime Minister Fukuda to fulfill his duties and achieve the goals of his new Cabinet when everyone in Japan knows he is about to be replaced? This is not necessarily surprising news—the media has been buzzing with rumors for the past two weeks that the prime minister would “abdicate” in favor of Mr. Aso in the not-too-distant future. Last week, the Sunday Mainichi magazine reported that Mr. Mori let it slip at a party gathering in Tokyo just one day before the Cabinet reshuffle that “Aso would be next”.

It would be one thing if this were the operating assumption for those in the political class, but now the press and the public know it. How does he expect Mr. Fukuda to deal with the mass media and the political opposition for the rest of his term? How does he expect the Fukuda government to accomplish anything?

Political maneuvering notwithstanding, it was also a graceless act on Mr. Mori’s part. Regardless of what one thinks of Mr. Fukuda as a politician, he seems to be a decent man. But Mr. Mori has now belittled him for no reason at all and dismissed him as a mere placeholder.

Just how has a man that has so often demonstrated such a lack of political acumen and personal charm managed to retain a position of such influence within the party? (Does he really have the ability to funnel that much money to other party members?)

With people such as Mr. Mori calling the shots, the LDP surely will turn into a mudboat unless a white knight leads the cavalry (or the lifeboats) to the rescue at the last moment. That white knight will probably not be Aso Taro, regardless of his popularity; some Japanese psephologists are already predicting a defeat for the LDP in the next election even with Mr. Aso as prime minister.

It would seem the only question remaining for Prime Minister Fukuda is when he will be asked to go. The Sunday Mainichi also reported that Mr. Fukuda doesn’t want to be relieved of his duties until after he has spent more time in office than Abe Shinzo. That calculates to 26 September.

In addition, LDP coalition partner New Komeito is said to want to avoid a national election next summer because it will hamper their efforts in local Tokyo elections next year. That has fueled speculation of a Diet dissolution and election in December or January.

But hold on: There are also rumors that the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition grouping, are still holding secret, top-level talks about forming a grand coalition, despite the problems such talk created for both parties last fall.

This time, however, the parties are said to be discussing the elimination of the seats allocated by proportional representation in the lower house of the Diet. Every district would be represented by the first (or second) candidate past the post. That would effectively eliminate the political influence of both New Komeito (and Japan’s Communist Party) at the national level; most of their members in the Diet owe their seats to proportional representation. It would also come very close to turning the more powerful lower house into a two-party chamber.

Unfortunately, the possibility is growing for some rather morbid symptoms to emerge in Japanese politics over the intermediate term. A political realignment might prevent that from happening, but no one seems to want to take the first step.

But the fear of drowning may yet cause some desperate people to clutch at that straw after all.

Posted in Politics | 7 Comments »

Former Japanese PM hanging out in alleys

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 17, 2008

WHILE THE EYES of the sporting world were riveted on the Summer Olympics in Beijing, one competition of interest that escaped public attention was held in a Tokyo hotel on the 14th.

That was a match between an 11-person team from the Dietmen’s League for the Promotion of Bowling, consisting of members of the Liberal Democratic Party and chaired by former party Secretary-General Takebe Tsutomu, and a 10-person team consisting of members of the print media.

The main attraction for those bowling fans and political groupies who did show up was the LDP team captain: former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. Wouldn’t you know it? Mr. Koizumi rolled a strike on his first ball.

Unfortunately for his team, Mr. Koizumi’s bowling skills are not up to the level of his political acumen. In a match the day before against a team consisting of television broadcasters, he rolled a score of 149. And even though he started off the game against the ink-stained wretches with a strike, he managed a score of only 116.

But give the guy credit. He doesn’t seem to have embarrassed himself, he doesn’t look bad in the photo, and try as I might, I can’t picture any other recent Japanese prime minister–or opposition leader Ozawa Ichrio, for that matter–going out for a friendly game of tenpins.

And is it just my imagination, or is there no other legislative body in the world whose members create such a large number of informal associations, committees, clubs, and other groupings as the Japanese Diet?

Posted in Politics, Sports | Leave a Comment »

Chakkirako: Its time has come

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 17, 2008

BIG NEWS on the festival front: The Agency for Cultural Affairs announced it will nominate the chakkirako and 13 other items for registration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO next year.

A UNESCO committee will formally decide on the registration of 17 items from Japan in September 2009. They’ve already informally agreed to include Noh, Kabuki, and the Joruri puppet theater on the list. These three were cited in UNESCO’s Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

As UNESCO’s website puts it, “The 90 proclaimed cultural expressions and spaces are located in 70 countries from all regions of the world.”

I hope they don’t get any big ideas about hip-hop!

But that overlooks the big question: What is chakkirako?

It’s a folk art in which a group of 10 girls aged 5 to 15 dress in brightly colored kimono to perform six dances accompanied by adult women singing songs. As they dance, the girls strike together implements known as chakkirako, which are bamboo sticks decorated with colorful paper strips and bells. That suggests the name has an onomatopoetic origin. The girls also perform fan dances.

Chakkirako is performed once a year on 15 January (Little New Year’s) as an offering at the Kainan Shinto shrine in Miura, Kanagawa, for a good fishing harvest and maritime safety. A shrine was first built on that site in 982.

A curious aspect of chakkirako is that no one knows exactly how it began. There is a legend that 12th-century shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo visited the area and saw a group of people fishing from the rocks along the shore. To provide a little impromptu entertainment for the distinguished man, a girl started fooling around with some bamboo she picked up off the beach and her mother sang along.

But the actual recorded history of the dance goes back about 300 years. It was handed down mostly among the local fishermen’s wives. At one point there were concerns it would die out because of a shortage of girls capable of performing it, but a group of volunteers formed a preservation committee and got to work. Now their efforts are about to bear fruit.

Here we go again: I really don’t see the point of this UNESCO project. As the work of the Miura preservation committee demonstrates, people are quite willing to donate their time and effort to maintain cultural traditions they think have value. The world doesn’t need a group of international cultural bureaucrats making qualitative judgments for us, and we certainly don’t need to put them on the public payroll.

But the local people would welcome registration for two reasons. First, it would earn them international recognition, and second, this recognition could increase tourism to the area.

They might have a point. I couldn’t find any YouTube videos of the performance, and there isn’t a lot of other information about it on the Web, either.

Who knows? In a few more years, chakkirako might become a household word!

Posted in Festivals, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The psychological state of the little emperors today

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 16, 2008

THE WORLD IS PAYING closer attention to the young Chinese in the new generation of only children known as xiao huangdi, or little emperors. Another perspective on contemporary Chinese conditions is presented in an article called The Plight of the Little Emperors in the current edition of Psychology Today.

The article makes a point that is seldom discussed: The Chinese one-child policy was devised to create an elite class as well as to limit population.

When China began limiting couples to one child 30 years ago, the policy’s most obvious goal was to contain a mushrooming population. For the Chinese people, however, the policy’s greater purpose was to turn out a group of young elites who would each enjoy the undivided resources of their whole family—the so-called xiao huangdi, or “little emperors.” The plan was to “produce a generation of high-quality children to facilitate China’s introduction as a global power,” explains Susan Greenhalgh, an expert on the policy.

But even the robust growth of the Chinese economy can’t keep up with their sheer numbers:

(W)hile these well-educated, driven achievers are fueling the nation’s economic boom, their generation has become too modern too quickly, glutted as it is with televisions, access to computers, cash to buy name brands, and the same expectations of middle-class success as Western kids.

The shift in temperament has happened too fast for society to handle. China is still a developing nation with limited opportunity, leaving millions of ambitious little emperors out in the cold; the country now churns out more than 4 million university graduates yearly, but only 1.6 million new college-level jobs. Even the strivers end up as security guards. China may be the world’s next great superpower, but it’s facing a looming crisis as millions of overpressurized, hypereducated only children come of age in a nation that can’t fulfill their expectations.

The result?

This culture of pressure and frustration has sparked a mental-health crisis for young Chinese. Many simmer in depression or unemployment, unwilling to take jobs they consider beneath them. Millions, afraid to face the real world, escape into video games, which the government considers a national epidemic. And a disturbing number decide to end it all; suicide is now China’s leading cause of death for those aged 20 to 35.

A national epidemic? Video games are a global epidemic.

Many young only children opt for escape from reality through online gaming worlds. Every day, the nation’s 113,000 Internet cafés teem with twitchy, solitary players—high school and university students, dropouts, and unemployed graduates—an alarming number of whom remain in place for days without food or sleep. Official estimates put the number of Chinese Internet addicts at over 2 million, and the government considers it such a serious threat that it deploys volunteer groups to prowl the streets and prevent teens from entering Internet cafés.

Yet despite the suicides and the other obvious problems, the author claims the policy has worked:

Chinese parents bemoan their only child’s desire for instant gratification, excessive consumption, and a life free of hardship, but such complaints are just proof that the policy worked: The children are like little Americans.

What an interesting definition of success.

A slew of anecdotes notwithstanding, the author also says the only children aren’t spoiled brats:

Since the policy’s inception, the Chinese have worried that the extreme combination of discipline and indulgence would result in maladjusted kids, self-centered brats who can’t take criticism and don’t understand sharing…Yet despite the stereotype, the research has revealed no evidence that only kids have more negative traits than their peers with siblings—in China or anywhere else. “The only way only children are reliably different from others is they score slightly higher in academic achievement,” explains Toni Falbo, a University of Texas psychology professor who has gathered data on more than 4,000 Chinese only kids. Sure, some little emperors are bratty, but no more than children with siblings.

Then why do the Chinese themselves call them “little emperors”?

You can believe that one if you want, but I’ll take it with a grain of salt for the time being. The social sciences really aren’t as “scientific” as its practitioners claim, studies of this kind are bound to be flawed and subjective, and this is only one professor talking about 4,000 children out of hundreds of millions without describing how she reached her conclusions.

While the article does provide detail on the educational pressures and the problems of those who can’t find prestigious, high-salaried jobs, it is surprisingly mute on the psychological problems of the little male emperors who can’t get a date due to the gender imbalance, as we previously saw here.

It also surprisingly ignores the context for the pressures to succeed in school and seems to suggest that the current situation is an anomaly. These pressures are not unique to China today; parents have traditionally pushed their children to study long and hard in Japan and South Korea as well as China. This is true even for those Chinese who have emigrated to the West.

And have they forgotten the glut of stories about Japanese mothers, juku (the so-called cram schools), and suicides that sprouted in the Western press about 15 years ago? (These pressures have eased somewhat in Japan recently, though they still exist.)

The entire article can be found here.

Posted in China, Education | Leave a Comment »

Conveying the lessons of war

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 16, 2008

THE LARGE HEADLINE across the top of this morning’s Nishinippon Shimbun reads:

“Conveying the Lessons of War”

Directly underneath is a large photograph of the Tenno and Kogo (Emperor and Empress) standing for a moment of silence at the 63rd ceremony marking the end of the war in the Pacific. Standing behind them are 4,600 family members of the war dead and government officials.

The photo is one-third again as large as the photo on the left of judo-ka Ishii Satoshi smiling and showing off the gold medal he won yesterday at the Olympics.

The accompanying article covers two-thirds of the primary space above the fold. It quotes remarks made by Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo. He said:

“Properly conveying the historical truth of days past to (those in) the future, without letting the lessons of a tragic war fade, is the path for honoring the memories of the many people who died in that war.”

He added:

“We should face the world as we proceed in the future, without being held in thrall to introversion.”

The author of the article noted that he is referring to the damage Japan inflicted on Asia, for the sake of those few Japanese who didn’t understand that already.

Matsunaga Kiwako (89), whose husband was killed in Indonesia during the war, also spoke:

“We, the bereaved families who experienced the suffering of war, pledge absolutely to never repeat this sad history.”

The address of the tenno was broadcast on the national news programs last night. He intentionally speaks slowly enough so that anyone listening could comfortably write down everything he says as he says it. In any event, the text was shown in subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

The only thing remarkable about any of this is that it is unremarkable.

This is what happens every year in Japan on 15 August. In addition to this observance in Tokyo, many more were held at the same time in cities and towns throughout the country.

But some people, particularly in East Asia, would have you believe that the Japanese intentionally ignore their actions and responsibility for the chapter of regional history that ended 63 years ago yesterday.

Those people think it is in their best interest to conceal the truth. They would rather convey an illusion fostered to provide them with a weapon for use in bilateral diplomacy in the present and future, rather than to put the past behind everyone once and for all.

Indeed, some of them have admitted it when they thought no one else was listening.

This convenient fiction also has the added benefit in some countries of deflecting popular frustration and discontent with the national government onto a foreign cartoon monster.

The propagandists are willfully abetted in their deception by some in the international print and broadcast media, which prefers for financial–and perhaps political–reasons to exacerbate disputes rather than ameliorate them. For the media to say that they are merely reporting the news is a craven excuse. The consumers of their product are well aware of their long-demonstrated skill at conveying reports of statements and events while simultaneously dismissing those of importance or exaggerating those of insignificance to present their narrative.

Because they, more than most, know the real state of today’s Japan, they have become willing co-conspirators in the charade. By eagerly playing that role, they have abdicated their responsibilities.

They are not conveying the lessons of today.


Example 1: The Associated Press ran this gross distortion for the entertainment of its readers. Note the (largely incorrect) use of the words “nationalist”, “conservative”, and “rightist” as weapons.

Example 2: UPI did a little better, though the exaggerated headline and first phrase are at odds with the information conveyed in the first eight paragraphs. They allocate the final 10 paragraphs to the aspect the AP thought was the most important, but in language that is much less lurid and suggestive.

Posted in History, Military affairs, World War II | Leave a Comment »