Japan from the inside out

Archive for August, 2008

Hatoyama speaks!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 15, 2008

HATOYAMA YUKIO, the Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party, recently sat for an interview with the Sankei Shimbun. Here’s the English version of that interview, which is worth reading. Note that the Sankei didn’t include the questions, so I can’t either!

On Aso Taro:

The Liberal Democratic Party selected Aso Taro as secretary-general, but a person’s policy is the important thing in an election, not his image.

On the Cabinet reshuffle:

The Cabinet reshuffle produced quite a lineup. (Laughs) Now we know all about Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo. Every trace of (former Prime Minister) Koizumi is gone. It’s clear this Cabinet intends to raise taxes, chiefly the consumption tax.

Everyone will view the personnel changes as a case of Mr. Fukuda getting down to business by expressing his intent to dissolve the Diet and call an election at a time of his own choosing.

On the other hand, replacing the prime minister just before the election would be nothing but a scam. We would make the case with the public that it was a perverted act. Mr. Fukuda should receive the verdict of the people himself.

On the next election:

If the Liberal Democratic Party accedes to the wishes of New Komeito (its coalition partner), the lower house election will most likely come after the Diet is dissolved in January. But we will press for an earlier dissolution and election.

On New Komeito:

I can’t predict what would happen after an election, but we must fight and defeat the LDP and New Komeito. When we have won, you can take it for granted that we will not allow one of the defeated parties in the government. Before that happens, we should send a message to the LDP members whose thinking is similar to ours asking for their cooperation.

Someone in New Komeito referred to the LDP as a “mud boat” (Note: A boat made of mud. In other words, it would sink during any but the shortest and safest trips and take everyone on board down with it). Now they’ve started to cast longing gazes at the DPJ. The question-and-answer session we had in the Diet with Yano Junya is having some effect.

I get the feeling that New Komeito is afraid we’ll hold several such sessions in the Diet, and we’ll call him to testify. They’re kidding themselves (if they think they can cozy up to us). New Komeito is part of the Cabinet, so we will harshly confront them in the extraordinary Diet session just the same as in an ordinary session. There will be more to the Yano story.

On Maehara Seiji and the DPJ leadership election:

In regard to the election for the DPJ party presidency, (Maehara) has given (party president) Ozawa Ichiro a passing grade, but that’s impertinent. Even in companies they don’t give marks to the president.

The important aspect to the party election is for the party president to send a bold message: Place your trust in me as the next prime minister. Accomplishing that without a party election would be the most stable approach for the DPJ. The question is whether or not we can do that.

On the government’s economic policies:

They say Prime Minister Fukuda will offer economic measures, but if the government and ruling party admits its failures and the policies are the same as those of the DPJ, we won’t oppose them.

What will be the source of the funds (for their measures), however? First of all, we are calling for the complete elimination of waste, including amakudari (post-retirement jobs for bureaucrats in government agencies). They think it’s OK to distribute pork and then rebuild the government finances with a tax increase. It’s clear they intend to raise taxes, isn’t it? We will make our case with the people that we have other ways to find the money.

The government and ruling party is putting up a show of working, but the nature and framework of their claims are different than ours. It is just not possible for them to truly eliminate government waste.

On working with the government during the next Cabinet session:

Prime Minister Fukuda is still the censured prime minister. The only thing that has changed is the Cabinet reshuffle. The principle is “one Cabinet, one censure”, but when there’s a new Cabinet, we don’t have to take that as a hard and fast rule. Many people are calling on us to put the heat on the government in debate during the extraordinary session.


On bipartisanship:

Mr. Hatoyama calls on LDP members of like mind to cooperate with a DPJ government, but he seems to view bipartisanship as a one-way street. Earlier this year, Kimata Yoshitake, an upper house member of Mr. Hatoyama’s party, voted to approve the LDP’s choice of Muto Toshiro as Bank of Japan governor. The party suspended him for one month. At that time, Mr. Hatoyama said:

“We punished him severely because in these important times, party members must act in unison.”

Mr. Hatoyama understands this very well–he had his own legs cut out from under him for trying to promote bipartisanship behind the scenes. He opened up an informal channel of communication with Ibuki Bunmei, then the LDP secretary-general, during the previous Diet session to discuss possible nominations to BOJ positions. The DPJ secretary-general told his counterpart that the party’s committee to vet nominees would not object if a specific person were nominated.

But DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro informed the party that they “must act in unison” to reject that LDP nominee, regardless of his qualifications or their opinions.

After being humiliated in front of his peers, it would seem that Mr. Hatoyama has learned his lesson.

On Maehara Seiji and the party leadership election:

Mr. Hatoyama chastises Mr. Maehara for daring to evaluate Ozawa Ichiro, saying that even company presidents are not graded.

Perhaps we should excuse his ignorance of corporate governance, as his experience in the private sector is negligible. He was a college professor before entering politics.

But former party leader Mr. Maehara is a vice-president in the party’s Standing Officers Council. That would equate almost precisely with the Board of Directors of a major corporation, and directors most certainly do evaluate company presidents.

Mr. Hatoyama is trying to present a facade of unity by squelching the former DPJ leader and others who are calling for an intraparty election next month, including Okada Katsuya, another former party leader. He has good reason: Everyone is concerned that the party’s incompatible elements might break apart before they have a chance to form a government, instead of after.

On New Komeito:

The Sankei considered Mr. Hatoyama’s comments on New Komeito to be the most important part of the interview. Most people think the DPJ’s Ozawa Ichiro is trying to pry NK loose from its governing coalition with the LDP and get them to cross the aisle. The whispering has grown louder in recent weeks as New Komeito is becoming more concerned about its own survival in league with Mr. Fukuda and the LDP.

This might be part of a carrot-and-stick gambit the DPJ is playing with NK. One carrot is support for a bill to allow non-citizens with permanent resident status to vote in local elections. (Mr. Hatoyama supports such a bill, but has said the party probably won’t introduce a measure in the upcoming Diet session.)

This is an important issue for NK because they are widely seen as the political wing of the lay Buddhist group, Soka Gakkai. (They deny it, but no one believes it.) The latter group, which mobilizes its membership for the ruling LDP at election time, includes a relatively high percentage of Japanese-born Korean nationals, the so-called zainichi kankokujin. The ploy here is obvious.

On the other hand, Mr. Hatoyama is clearly threatening to further expose the dirty laundry of NK and Soka Gakkai in public by suggesting there will be additional questioning of Yano Junya.

Mr. Yano was the head of New Komeito from 1986 to 1989. He is embroiled in several ugly lawsuits with Soka Gakkai and other former NK members. Further publicity of their feud in the Diet could be very hazardous to New Komeito’s political health, and by extension, that of the LDP.

Try this article for a summary of the lawsuits. New Komeito has issued rebuttals of Mr. Yano’s charges at its website, which is linked on the right sidebar.

As for not allowing New Komeito into the government, don’t put it past Ozawa Ichiro. At any rate, it will not be for the emasculated Mr. Hatoyama to decide.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Riffing on tatami

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 14, 2008

HERE’S GOOD NEWS for fans of traditional Japanese home furnishings: science has proven that tatami mats have medicinal benefits.

A research team at the University of Kitakyushu discovered that the rushes used for the surface of tatami mats have an antibacterial effect inhibiting the reproduction of both Trichophyton rubrum, the little buggers that cause athlete’s foot, and the microorganisms that make your feet stink.

The rushes permit the absorption of excess moisture in the air spaces in the mats. That inhibits the reproduction of the bacteria, which thrive in high-temperature, high-moisture environments. The researchers said that a barefoot lifestyle in rooms with tatami mats prevented the occurrence of athlete’s foot.

The researchers also reminded us that daily foot washing was required to achieve this result, lest anyone misunderstand the implications of their findings.

The experiments clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of the rush. The researchers used two cultures for their trials in the lab: One contained no rushes, and one in which the rush content was 5%. They put two strains of the athlete’s foot bacteria in each one, raised the temperature to a balmy 30°C (86°F), and let them make whoopee and reproduce for five days.

At the end of the five-day period, there was no bacteria reproduction in the culture with the rushes, while the control culture was swarming with baby microorganisms.

That should be good news for the Kyoto-based Japan Tatami Industry Promotion Association, which is trying to reverse the trend of declining tatami production and use, according to this Kyodo article.

Entire homes were furnished with tatami mats in Japan by the Muromachi Period (1333-1568), but the article reports the number of tatami stores nationwide has fallen by nearly half over the past decade to 12,000. Farm households growing rush for tatami in Kumamoto, which once accounted for 90 percent of domestic production, has slid from 10,000 in 1975 to 800 last year. This is partly due to the growing import of cheaper rush from China.

To offset this downturn, the association formed a team to devise new uses for tatami. So far, they’ve come up with a tatami necktie, a tatami toilet seat cover, a tatami guitar, and tatami car seats, as you can see from the second photo. Yes, that’s a tatami apron the young lady is wearing.

Other companies in the industry have come up with new ideas of their own. These include a new tatami rental conference room in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and square tatami mats for condo residents, which are selling quite well. (The traditional tatami mat is rectangular.)

Meanwhile, the TTN Corp. in Hyogo has boosted sales by accepting orders for the mats round the clock. These orders are placed by hotels and traditional drinking establishments that just have to have new tatami mats in the middle of the night. Who knew?

Discovering new uses for tatami is also an international phenomenon. Famed German sandal company Birkenstock, which was established in 1774, is now offering a new line of tatami sandals and shoes worldwide:

Tatami shoes and sandals are the ultimate evolution of footwear comfort. Perfect for demure style and awesome for surf and sport action, Tatami has revolutionised the sandal market.

For those of you still harboring doubts of tatami’s wonderfulness, here is the clincher. This is the website of the Japan Tatami Industry Promotion Association, which, alas, is only in Japanese.

But Japanese isn’t required to enjoy the Tatami Bizu song! At the top of the page is a photo of two young ladies dressed as maids standing in a large tatami room with several children. At the bottom of the photo is a yellowish-green bar. Click on the bar to see and hear the video of them singing and dancing to the song, backed up by the Tatami Bizu band.

The lyrics are thoughtfully provided for anyone who wants to sing along!

If that doesn’t put you in a tatami state of mind, then you’ll probably spend the rest of your life getting athlete’s foot and rug burns from synthetic carpeting!

Disclaimer: The first time I stretched out to relax on a tatami floor, it took me about 10 minutes to realize that I wanted to live in a dwelling with tatami rooms forever. It’s better than lying on a sofa or on a carpet that people walk on wearing shoes. And lying on a futon on top of a tatami is the best of all.

And if you missed it the first time, try this recent post on the farmers in Okinawa who grow the rushes.

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, New products, Science and technology, Traditions | 3 Comments »

North Korea and the Internet

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Chosun Ilbo of South Korea is reporting that North Korea plans to launch Internet service in 2009:

Kim Sang-myung, the chief of the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group of former North Korean professionals, at a symposium in the National Assembly on Wednesday said, “According to the Internet Access Roadmap it launched in 2002, North Korea will begin providing Internet service for special agencies and authorized individuals as early as next year.”

The Chosun placed this article in their “Something Completely Different” category.

That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

Posted in North Korea | 4 Comments »

An infuriated South Korea: Is this how to conduct diplomacy with neighbors?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 13, 2008

WE’VE ALL KNOWN people who just can’t get along with anybody. They always seem to be embroiled in an overblown feud over some petty issue with a neighbor or coworker. They tend to have frequent misunderstandings or arguments with their spouses, family members, or friends that cause them to break off contact or resort to an icy silence. Even if the relationship is patched up, it’s just a matter of time before it turns sour again after another inevitable tiff. It’s an endless pattern that will just keep repeating itself.

And we all know that human relations can be an apt analogy for relations between nations.

Which brings us to an editorial in the Asahi Shimbun that finally comes out and says what everyone else has been thinking for some time now: When South Korea can’t get along with any other country, it’s not the fault of those other countries.

It’s a South Korean problem.

The editorial is called Turmoil in South Korea, and the English version is here. But the title of the Japanese-language version is more to the point, so I used it for the title of this post–An infuriated South Korea: Is this how to conduct diplomacy with neighbors?

The Asahi’s first example is the United States. While the U.S. is not a geographical neighbor, it does have a large presence in the country and is the guarantor of their security.

Arriving in South Korea last week, U.S. President George W. Bush was greeted by anti-American demonstrators who stayed up all night to protest Lee’s unpopular decision to resume imports of U.S. beef.

The English version omits the mention in the Japanese editorial that riot police had to hose down the demonstrators.

The second example is Japan:

The territorial dispute over the Takeshima islets, known as Tokto in South Korea, was rekindled by Tokyo’s decision to mention the controversy in Japanese guidebooks for junior high school teachers. Eggs were hurled at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, while South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung Soo traveled to the tiny islets to back up Seoul’s claims.

The Asahi could have brought up the petulance displayed by South Korea when it cancelled or postponed numerous events designed to further business and academic ties or grass roots exchanges, but chose not to.

Then it brings up the North Koreans.

In its dealings with North Korea as well, Lee’s government appears clueless on how to initiate dialogue. A proposal for food aid was turned down by Pyongyang.

They’re even getting into it with the Chinese:

A debate rages over whether Koguryo, a kingdom that died out more than 1,300 years ago, was a Korean state or a regional regime of China. When the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics passed through Seoul, meanwhile, violent clashes also broke out between Chinese and Koreans along the route.

The Asahi draws the conclusion that we all reached weeks ago:

A common thread running through them all is aggravation on the part of the South Korean people.

Being a newspaper of the Left, the Asahi attributes this aggravation to widening “economic disparities” and the intensified stress (emphasis) on the market economy. They say:

Resentment continues to grow among those who fail to seize the opportunities.

Well, if you fail to seize your opportunities, don’t take it out on everyone else!

As is the case with those people who never seem to be able to get along with anyone, the real problem is that the person who is always aggravated isn’t at peace with himself:

On the streets of Seoul, rallies protesting the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak are unending. Fierce verbal battles are also being waged in cyberspace.


While most media radically fanned the anti-Japan sentiment over the Takeshima issue, demonstrators attacked a major newspaper when it urged calmer public attitude toward the United States.

The Asahi is sympathetic to the difficulties faced by President Lee. To help defuse regional tensions, they also implore the Koreans not to delay the upcoming Japan-China-South Korea summit in a fit of pique, and to work together to solve common issues.

They end the editorial with a reasonable request:

We urge the people and the government of South Korea to address these issues with practicality, grounded in the hard realities of today’s world.

But here again, the original Japanese is slightly different, and slightly stronger. This is what it said:


That’s not easy to translate into smooth English, and the Asahi translator did a nice job. But if you boil the sentiment down to its essence, here’s what the Asahi is really saying:

Get real.

If South Koreans find this to be too blunt, they should remember that the Asahi Shimbun is the Japanese newspaper that has consistently taken the most conciliatory and apologetic approach toward their country.

When the Asahi thinks you’re behaving strangely, it’s time to close your mouth, open your mind, and take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Thanks to Bender for sending along the Japanese language version of the editorial.

Posted in International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Playing editor

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 12, 2008

HERE’S a brief article from about three weeks ago that I found while looking for something else. It’s an AFP report that Justice Minister Hatoyama Kunio would step down in the Cabinet reshuffle that occurred a week after it was published.

Except you wouldn’t know it was about Mr. Hatoyama from the headline. The AFP identified him as The Grim Reaper.

How’s that for framing a story before you tell it?

Now here’s an exercise in how a simple reversal of paragraph order can change the entire slant of a piece. This is how AFP chose to tell it:

The death penalty enjoys wide public support in Japan, which has one of the world’s lowest crime rates.

But Japan, the only major industrialised nation other than the United States to apply the death penalty, has come under fire from the European Union and human rights groups for stepping up the pace of executions.

Watch what happens when the paragraphs are reversed and the “but” is transposed:

Japan, the only major industrialised nation other than the United States to apply the death penalty, has come under fire from the European Union and human rights groups for stepping up the pace of executions.

But the death penalty enjoys wide public support in Japan, which has one of the world’s lowest crime rates.

I prefer the second version.

It’s curious that the AFP couldn’t find the room for the hard poll numbers in Japan supporting the death penalty–more than 70%, sometimes reaching 80%.

In fact, the Japanese public probably doesn’t care much about the opinion of European “human rights groups” when it comes to the execution of someone like Miyazaki Tsutomu.

The AFP specifically refers to his case: “notorious serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomu, who killed and cannibalised four young girls.”

It’s also curious the AFP couldn’t find the space to report that the young girls who were Miyazaki’s victims were aged 4-7 and that he sexually molested their corpses. Or that he terrorized the families of the victims by sending them letters describing in detail what he did to them. Or that he took videos of his victims and kept them at home.

That means the real story here isn’t Hatoyama “The Grim Reaper” Kunio. It’s how an international news agency chose to present a story about someone largely unknown outside Japan just to further an agenda.

Posted in Legal system, Mass media, Politics | 5 Comments »

Beijing 2008 = Berlin 1936?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 12, 2008

NOVELIST AND AUTHOR Mark Mordue has some discouraging words about the Beijing Olympics in an op-ed piece appearing in The Age (of Australia) titled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:

(T)hese Games are about symbolically launching the Chinese Century to come, as well as affirming “the Mandate of Heaven” on the current rulers, an almost mystical form of nationalism updated to present day needs: propaganda reshaped as marketing to launch China Inc. upon us all.

As you can see, he does not mince words:

I have no doubt these Games are the most significant and politically dangerous since the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Hitler and the Nazi Party sought to use those Games as a propaganda tool for resurgent German nationalism and racist notions of Aryan superiority, and with it Germany’s right to rule the world.

Historical equations, of course, always lack nuance. But the parallels between Berlin 1936 and Beijing 2008 remain odiously apparent. Chinese nationalism is rampant, the poison by which the so-called Communist regime sustains its right to govern today. Underlining it is the racist Han Chinese sensibility that Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities are lower-grade humans and “barbarians” — as are we Western “long noses”. Talk to any semi-educated Han and you will hear all about China’s phenomenal 5000 years of culture; dig into that talk and you will understand how the past 100 years of Chinese turbulence and misery are the fault of the West.

Mr. Mordue takes aim at Chinese and Westerners alike. He contrasts the conspicuous consumption in the Special Economic Zones with the “Dickensian conditions” in the rest of the country. He sounds perhaps the loudest alarm yet about the folly of trusting in Chinese youth:

The one child policy has bred a generation of “little emperors”, selfish and spoilt by the adoring focus of their parents and grandparents…These are the same youth who were bussed in to support the path of the Olympic flame across the world…(T)he more extreme among them are known as the fen qing, or “angry youth”. You can see them gathered in McDonald’s and Starbucks, in sneakers and baseball caps, bitching about how much they hate America.

As for the Westerners:

(W)e in the West have been willing to cling to such lies, out of misguided idealism or a greed for business opportunities in the jaws of the Chinese tiger, not to mention a little fear about how strong that tiger is becoming….Time and again the West has prostituted its ideals to Chinese wishes.

He cites several examples of those who sell out to the Chinese for the sake of business opportunities. It’s reprehensible, of course, but not difficult to understand. The commercial potential of a market with 1.3 billion people is almost unlimited, after all.

But if Mr. Mordue misses an opportunity, it is his failure to include specifics about those blinded by misguided idealism. Perhaps it’s because they are not as easy to understand.

I’ll supply an example for him: Writing in the Washington Post, Thomas Boswell begins his article on the Beijing games with some pro-democracy, anti-totalitarian protective cover by noting that “only a People’s Republic could squander so lavishly”, and that there is no such thing as semi-democracy. But that isn’t the point he really wants to make. Here’s how he finishes:

This isn’t the 1936 Olympics. Quite the opposite. China is a nation that, for 30 years, first slowly then more rapidly, has been moving toward the light, not a country tumbling into darkness.

The efforts of the Chinese people to stage these Games, and the enormity of their squelched pride in recent centuries, is due considerable deference. Besides, China’s whole history predisposes it to believing that foreign nations wish it ill and want to belittle it….As this night’s spectacle reminds us, there’s 5,000 years of culture here to learn and 1.3 billion people whose vast progress deserves respect.

Mr. Mordue refers to this attitude as “being lost inside a dream.” We’ve encountered this attitude frequently over the past few decades: “They (insert name of unjustly maligned nation/group) are not as bad as the political philistines would have you believe, and besides, it’s mostly our fault anyway.”

We can choose to take the word of a man who has been to China, seen the situation first hand, and taken the time to study the 5,000-year-old culture, or we can choose to indulge in the misguided idealism of a man who would praise 5,000 years of culture without taking the time to actually study it–inclusive of the present. Had he done so, Mr. Boswell might have had second thoughts about writing that China “is moving toward the light”.

But he hasn’t studied it, and he never will, either. For some people, copping an attitude is far preferable to dealing with the implications of an unpleasant reality–especially when it’s easier to stay lost in a dream on the other side of the world.

Thanks to Get a Job, Son for the link to The Age article.


This article in The Australian explains that the Chinese government made the IOC and the long noses happy by setting aside three parks for people who wanted to protest during the games.

Except they have to submit an application first, stating the exact slogans that will be used on their banners. And that none of the applications have been approved. And that some of the people who submitted applications have been arrested. And that the public security department requires all taxi drivers who take people to the parks to report the number of passengers, their description, their nationality, the exact location where they left the taxi, and conversations they might have overheard.

In another article, the Australian describes what demonstrations are permitted:

An 800,000-strong army of students provide the atmosphere at the Games venues. They chant Jiayou Zhongguo (Let’s go China), and Jiayou Aoyunhui (Let’s go Olympics) in unison.

Up to a million Games tickets have been distributed to students for 10 yuan, or just under $2. In return, the students have had to learn the official four-step Olympic cheer.

It starts with a double clap and a chant of “Olympics”, moves on to a thumbs-up with arms pointing skywards and a chant of “Let’s go”, then another double clap and a cheer of “China”, and finally fists are punched in the air to a shout of “Let’s go”.

The chant was devised by the Spiritual Civilisation Development Office of the Chinese Communist Party, the Ministry of Education and the Beijing Olympic Organising Committee.

Speech not approved by the state subject to arrest. Forcing citizens to act as informers. Mass youth rallies with people shouting organized chants created by the party and the state, and thrusting their arms skyward. Does that sound like a nation “moving toward the light”?

Or does it sound like Berlin in 1936?

Posted in China, International relations, Sports | 21 Comments »

One step forward, two steps back

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 11, 2008

JUST WHEN IT SEEMED as if cooler heads were starting to emerge in South Korea regarding that country’s conflicting territorial claim with Japan over the islets of Takeshima comes word that a few hotheads have gotten overexcited again.

The 4th World Congress of Korean Studies, an annual forum for the discussion of Korean issues by scholars of Korea from around the world, was to be held from 22-24 September at the Research Center for Korean Studies in Fukuoka City. The center is affiliated with Kyushu University.

But then some people thought pulling out the carpet would be just the thing to promote international exchange among scholars.

According to a report in the Mainichi Shimbun (in Japanese), the university received an e-mail from the Academy of Korean Studies based in Seognam, South Korea, informing them that the 4th World Congress would now be held in Seoul in December. The reason for the change was the “unforeseeable turbulence that had developed between the two countries as a result of the ‘Dokto issue’”. The turbulence arose because the Japanese decided to include the territorial dispute in instructional manuals for school teachers for the curriculum three years from now.

But as anyone who has been following the dispute knows, the turbulence is exclusively on the Korean side. The Japanese have consistently maintained their sang-froid throughout the affair.

The abrupt transfer of the World Congress site without prior notice did rankle some of the Japanese participants, however.

One of the keynote speakers was to have been Keio University Professor Okonogi Masao. Dr. Okonogi said:

“Scholars should serve as a buffer zone for political conflict. Overseas scholars are aware of the ‘Takeshima issue’, and they probably think it odd that it has come to this.”

Perhaps not, Dr. Okonogi. People who have spent their professional lives studying Korean affairs might not have expected this development, but they are unlikely to be shocked by it.

Prof. Asaba Yuki of Yamaguchi Prefectural University, who was to give a presentation, said: “There seems to have been a fierce debate in South Korea (about changing the location), and not everyone thought it was a good idea.” But he still plans to attend because “We can’t very well cut off all ties.”

The World Congress of Korean Studies was formed in 2002 by seven groups, including some European academic societies in addition to AKS. The first and third meetings were held in South Korea and the second one in China. This year’s meeting was the first to be held in Japan, and about 200 people from more than 20 countries were expected to participate.

Kyushu University is the location of the Research Center for Korean Studies, which was founded by the Japanese Ministry of Education. The university has been actively promoting academic exchange with South Korea, and started holding joint classes with Busan University in the fall of 2007. (See a previous post on that subject here.)

It should be no surprise that the businesspeople in the Fukuoka-Busan Forum treat the affair as a bump in the road, while the academics let it get the better of them. To intentionally conflate two different expressions: Money walks, and academic disputes are so vicious because there is so little at stake.

Thanks to Aceface for passing along the link.

Posted in Education, History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 17 Comments »

Matsuri da! (94): Whistlestompin’ in Ginowan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 10, 2008

MOST FESTIVALS in Japan originate from Shinto observances, but there are some exceptions. Any old excuse is fine for the folks in this country to get together for a summertime party, and if the local shrine has nothing scheduled on the matsuri calendar, well, they’ll just come up with another reason.

One of the exceptions is the Ginowan Hagoromo Festival, held in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, for the 31st time yesterday and today. The festival, which attracts more than 100,000 spectators every year, consists of two main events. In the first, the Ginowanians dress up in costumes and hold a parade to recreate the era of a local folk tale known as the Hagoromo. Legend has it that an angel descended from heaven to a pond in Ginowan to take a bath. During her ablutions, a local farmer hid her wings, which prevented her return. One thing usually leads to another in a boy-meets-girl story, and this one is no exception. The farmer and the angel got married and had a son. The couple didn’t live happily ever after, however—she discovered her wings by accident one day, and was transported back to heaven.

This tale is known throughout Japan, but the Ginowan version has its own twist: The couple’s son grew up to be King Satto of Chuzen, one of the three Ryukyu kingdoms in the mid-14th century. Satto is known for having united the kingdoms and initiating the tributary relationship with China. The costumes in the photo recreate the clothing worn during King Satto’s reign.

The big attraction of the festival, however, is the second part–the kachaashi contest. The kachaashi is a local folk dance that anyone can perform without having to learn any special steps or movements. Just stick your arms up in the air and rotate your palms in time with the music—see, you’ve learned how to do it already! The footwork is left up to the dancer.

The appeal of this dance is that anyone can join in and enjoy themselves, but talented dancers can take the simple form to another level. The dancers are encouraged by hand clapping and interjections of traditional Okinawan whistling. (The sound pattern is unique to the Ryukyus, but their whistling technique is the same as the good old American method of making a circle with one finger and the thumb and sticking it in the mouth.)

The Hagoromo kachaashi

The Hagoromo kachaashi

There is both an individual and a group competition, and one of the winners of the individual competition declared, “Kachaashi is a free dance for sharing happiness. I hope more and more people do the dance.” He ain’t just talking, either. During performances of the dance by local groups at the festival, onlookers always join in too because “they can’t help themselves”.

The fun is so contagious, in fact, that U.S. Marines from the local air station at Futenma have been participating in the group competition for four years. Last year, they were one of five groups to win a prize–the great dancers award!

A summer festival on a tropical island with a dance so simple that anyone can do it? I probably wouldn’t have been able to help myself either!

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

Better late than never

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 9, 2008

THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF a postponement is usually disappointing news, but here’s one of those exceptions in which it is an encouraging sign.

The Fukuoka-Busan Forum, an organization of business and academic leaders in the Kyushu and South Korean cities, postponed its third conference from 30 August to 1 November, according to a report in the Nishinippon Shimbun. The postponement was requested by the Busan members, and their counterparts in Fukuoka City agreed.

The inclusion of a mention in Japanese teaching manuals three years from now that a territorial dispute exists between the two countries over the islets of Takeshima, Dokto, the Liancourt Rocks, or whatever you want to call them, created a wave of near-hysterical outrage in South Korea. That resulted in the cancellation or indefinite postponement of many exchange programs between the two countries.

Leaders in both regions, particularly in Busan, are to be commended for realizing that a temper tantrum over this issue would inevitably result in tangible losses in the future. The negative impact—economically, culturally, and psychologically—would far outweigh the ephemeral thrill of nationalist anger. People have invested too much time, money, and effort with too much already to show for it to let anything permanently stand in the way of closer regional ties.

The August meeting was to include the issuance of a joint declaration calling for the formation of a supra-regional economic zone. That is also expected to be postponed, but unlikely to be written off. Excellent ideas whose time have come will not be discarded so easily. Forum members have been holding regular conferences on both the economic zone declaration and tourism campaigns since March.

The forum was launched in September 2006. At last year’s meeting, members agreed to declare 2009 as Fukuoka-Busan Friendship Year in commemoration of the 20th year of governmental ties between the cities.

The potential benefits to both countries of maintaining and enhancing this millennia-old interaction are enormous. Thankfully, members on both sides of the Korean Strait have chosen to take a short time out rather than to let Internet froth and banal candlelight demonstrations obstruct further progress toward the greater well-being of everyone in Kyushu and southeast Korea.

Posted in International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 18 Comments »

Window on Japan: Graduate school students

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 9, 2008

HERE’S A SNAPSHOT of graduate school education in Japan: The Nishinippon Shimbun carried an item based on an education ministry report revealing that full-time employees now account for 20% of all graduate school students in the country.

The article says this reflects the new strategy universities have developed to maintain enrollment as the population of children continues to decline, as well as the growing interest by professionals to improve their qualifications and abilities after they begin their careers.

By the numbers: of the 262,687 graduate-level students in the country this school year, 53,667, or 20.4%, have full-time jobs. This represents a 0.9 percentage-point increase from last year and is the first time the ratio has exceeded 20%.

Of particular interest is a comparison with the figures from 2000. In that year, 24,897 of the 205,311 graduate students, or 12.1%, had full-time jobs. The absolute number of these students has more than doubled in eight years.

QBS Lecture Hall

QBS Lecture Hall

Of the 575 universities with graduate schools in Japan, 409, or about 70%, have established programs to admit students in this category. Most of the students with full-time jobs are studying economics or law.

The universities are also making it easier for these students to enroll. The article notes that many universities have established satellite campuses in business and commercial districts. They cite Kyushu University’s Graduate School of Economics as an example. They placed QBS, as their business school is known, in the Tenjin district of Fukuoka City. That is the largest business and commercial district in Kyushu’s largest city. QBS has 70 students working to obtain an MBA.

Posted in Education | Leave a Comment »

Cleanliness is next to Buddhahood

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 8, 2008

THE ANNUAL HOUSECLEANING in Japan is customarily done in January rather than the spring–unless the premises that have to be cleaned are those of Todai-ji, a famous Buddhist temple in Nara. Then they break out the buckets and the brooms right before the O-Bon festival in mid-August.

Inside the temple is a 15-meter-high statue of the Buddha, which is one of the largest in the country. Every summer, priests and parishioners alike don white workmen’s garb to clean and polish the Great Buddha until it glistens black.

The regular summer cleaning was held on the 7th this year. As this is a Buddhist temple in Japan, they didn’t just unroll the hose and start squirting. There’s a Buddhist memorial service before the work starts. Then they set about wiping off every centimeter of the statue, including its distinctive hair. Called rahotsu in Japanese, it oddly resembles an out-of-date hair style for men called the punch perm. (Even odder is that the guys who liked that fashion were unlikely to be the type interested in Buddhist temples or statues.)

For safety reasons, the temple limits participation to people aged from 18 to 65. This year, 160 people scrubbed the Buddha down, 50 fewer than last year’s cleaning crew.

For the areas on the chest, head, and back that can’t be reached by hand, they used three manually-operated gondolas. It took them only an hour from start to finish.

I wonder: How often do they clean the crucifix above the altar at a Catholic church? I don’t know, but one thing’s probably safe to assume. The priests and altar boys likely entrust the work to professionals rather than hang any scaffolding themselves!

Posted in Shrines and Temples, Traditions | 3 Comments »

An interview with Yosano Kaoru (2)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 8, 2008

SINCE RETURNING to active politics after receiving treatment for cancer of the larynx, Yosano Kaoru has assumed a major role in the post-Koizumi/Abe Liberal Democratic Party. He was tapped to serve in the critical role of chief cabinet secretary in Abe Shinzo’s last Cabinet, and is said to have handled affairs at the prime minister’s office when Mr. Abe entered the hospital. He returned to the Cabinet last week when he was assigned the Economic and Fiscal Policy portfolio.

Mr. Yosano has also been appearing regularly on television and giving interviews in newspapers and the monthly current events magazines. He sat for a round of interviews with reporters earlier this week, one of which ran in the Sankei Shimbun. But this interview comes from the Nishinippon Shimbun, a regional daily, and I translated it here because the content was more revealing.

Are any economic factors causing you concern?

Wages have not risen for about 10 years, so consumer purchasing power did not improve through higher wages. Corporate profits have been quite good, but the companies have been allocating them to internal reserves and dividends. Labor’s relative share has not always risen. I think the time has come for those in the financial sector and for politicians to think about this.

What sort of economic measures will you put together in the near future?

We will not use fiscal means to increase effective demand. We’ll have to think about what we can do without priming the pump and maintain fiscal discipline at the same time. Tax cuts are used as an economic policy measure in the United States, but no one in Japan is making that argument yet.

Are new fiscal measures necessary?

Budgets must be formulated by taking funding sources into consideration. Even if we have left the previous path of reform, there is a limit. We will have to make adjustments during difficult circumstances.

How will you conduct the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, which has been a source of friction between you and the DPJ?

The members of the Diet represent the people. The CEFP is a body consisting of individuals with experience, knowledge, and wisdom. I think their decisions in general are correct, but the participation of MPs is important for developing a national consensus. I think the proper sequence is to make decisions after taking the ruling party’s opinion into account.

It is important that the CEFP conduct heated debate. That will attract public attention, which will have a certain impact on policy formation. I don’t think a quiet CEFP is necessarily a good one. They should be bolder.

You are known to favor fiscal reconstruction. Tell us your views about raising the consumption tax.

We cannot talk about the Japan’s fiscal future without the consumption tax. But we must consider all the elements, such as economic conditions, the national mood, and the funding of social welfare programs. I think the first step is to hold repeated discussions and further the understanding of the people. We also must be aware that decisions will not be quickly made with the current Diet gridlock.


Of interest in this interview is Mr. Yosano’s admission that reform is no longer a priority for the Fukuda Cabinet. The ruling party might pay for that at the polls.

He also says that no one in Japan is seriously suggesting a tax cut. But it wouldn’t be surprising if some people, particularly Takenaka Heizo, thought it was a great idea in private. One factor mitigating against tax relief is the intrusion into policy and budget formulation of the Japanese bureaucracy, a government-within-a-government on a scale unimaginable in, for example, the United States. The bureaucracy will have to be caged before anyone can seriously consider tax reform.

The idea that the politicians have to educate the public on the need for higher taxes is not the ideal philosophy for the operation of government. The starting point should be citizens educating the politicians that tax revenues are not their money to begin with, and then having the politicians act accordingly. Mr. Yosano’s statement is reminiscent of those EU elitists who refuse to accept the popular will and continue to hold referendums on the EU Constitution until the public “gets it right” and votes to approve.

Iijima Isao, the former principal aide to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, has been been causing a few eyebrows to rise by complimenting Mr. Yosano in public recently. Earlier this week I saw him insist on television that Mr. Yosano would do good things for the country, to the mild astonishment of another panel member.

Here is the first interview with Yosano Kaoru

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Things we said today

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 7, 2008

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aso Taro

Aso Taro

WHENEVER A NEW Japanese Cabinet is sworn in, it’s almost automatic that one of the members will slip up during the introductory press conference or other public occasion and reveal what he really thinks. This often results in a brief but intense media maelstrom.

Former Foreign Minister Aso Taro, who already has a reputation as a man liable to say anything, was appointed secretary-general of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party last week. Sure enough, just a few days later he found himself frying on the media griddle caused by something he supposedly said. Or something his political enemies want people to think he said.

Eda Satsuki

Eda Satsuki

On Monday, Mr. Aso paid a visit to upper house President Eda Satsuki, a former member of the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party. (The leaders of legislative bodies resign from their parties when taking office, but Mr. Eda is still listed as a member on the party’s English-language website.) The Diet has been in a state of semi-gridlock since the DPJ gained control of the upper house in July 2007.

Mr. Aso wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk about the political situation. The opposition charges that the LDP has failed to take their opinions into account, while for its part the LDP claims that the DPJ is behaving irresponsibly.

The Tuesday morning edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun carried a brief article about a comment Mr. Aso made during his meeting with Mr. Eda. According to “informed sources” (i.e., people who were there and squealed to the press), Mr. Aso said (translating from the Japanese):

Even the Germans chose to allow the Nazis (to form a government), and look what happened.

He continued:

If you (the DPJ) intend to form a government, you should work seriously to formulate policies. The people are watching.

To which Mr. Eda replied:

I wonder which of us the people are watching.

“Cleverness is serviceable for everything, and sufficient for nothing.”
– Henri Amiel

The people are watching them both, which is the reason the LDP lost its upper house majority and the reason the DPJ has yet to obtain the lower house majority necessary to form a government.

Meanwhile, DPJ Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio, Mr. Aso’s counterpart, became upset at the mention of Nazis:

That dishonors the party and the people. I demand that he withdraw the statement.

Mr. Aso had some explaining to do, so he did just that at a press conference:

I didn’t lump the DPJ and the Nazis together. I just talked about the importance of (serious) deliberation.

The AP picked up the story, and they quoted Mr. Hatoyama as saying:

“In linking us to the Nazis, this remark could give the impression that if the DPJ assumes power it will embark upon oppressive politics.”

But there wasn’t the need for any kind of impression to be formed in the first place.

The remarks Mr. Aso are supposed to have made came in a private discussion between Mr. Aso and Mr. Eda, with a few aides probably present. The only reason anyone knows about it is that the DPJ chose to break a confidence and tell the public.

Since only a few people know what he really said or the intent with which it was delivered, and the people who brought it up have a vested interest in making Mr. Aso look bad, it might not be a good idea to take at face value DPJ claims about its enemies to gain political capital.

“The DPJ is behaving like a grade school boy with a loaded gun.”
– Ibuki Bunmei, the recently appointed Finance Minister, during last year’s Diet session

That should give you an idea why Mr. Aso was asking them to behave more responsibly.

That brings us to Mr. Hatoyama’s behavior. The word I translated as “dishonor” above was 冒涜 in Japanese, which a Japanese-language dictionary defines as “defaming someone (or something) in authority”. It is most frequently used in a religious sense, such as to blaspheme.

Hatoyama Yukio

Hatoyama Yukio

Has Mr. Hatoyama become infected with an Obama-esque conceit about the standing of his party? He demands that Mr. Aso publicly retract what seems to have been an analogy made in private, and that the rest of us take the DPJ’s word that Mr. Aso meant what they said he did, or that he said anything of the sort at all.

If he’s so concerned about the potential for creating a bad impression of the party among the people, why didn’t he keep his mouth shut to begin with and berate Mr. Aso in private?

Incidentally, Hatoyama Yukio’s political career started in the LDP as a member of former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro’s faction, but he later left both the faction and the party.

“He’s like melted ice cream.”
– Nakasone Yasuhiro describing his impression of Hatoyama Yukio

He’s still dripping. Along with his fellow party members who came up with the bright idea to make a big deal out of this.


Everyone likes to read quotes, Emerson excepted. They’re the intellectual equivalent of chocolates in a Whitman’s sampler.

In one of its June issues, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun ran a retrospective of the darndest things some well-known Japanese have said over the past 50 years. A few of these bonbons deserve a wider audience, and here they are for your delectation.

“Politics is numbers, numbers are power, and power is money.”
– Former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei

The Boss Tweed of postwar Japanese politics, Mr. Tanaka was the equivalent of a political cash register and the instigator of much that remains wrong with the system today. Some reports say he was sitting in a jail cell in 1947 on the day he was first elected to the Diet, charged with financial irregularities, though he was later found not guilty in that case.

Tanaka Kakuei

Tanaka Kakuei

He wasn’t so lucky after being arrested again as a Diet member in 1948 for bribery; a court found him guilty in 1950. But Mr. Tanaka had a knack for winning friends in high places and putting together a powerful, well-oiled political machine, so the verdict only slowed his rise to the top without stopping it. He became the country’s youngest postwar prime minister in 1972, but resigned in 1974 during a court trial related to his questionable land dealings. (He put the title to the properties in the name of a geisha.)

That still didn’t stop the Shadow Shogun, as he was known, from pulling the strings behind the scenes. He was arrested again in 1976 when a Lockheed vice-president testified that Mr. Tanaka took an $1.8 million bribe so a Japanese airline would purchase the company’s aircraft.

“The demonstrations are noisy, but there are capacity crowds at Jingu Stadium.”
– Former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke

The grandfather of recent Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Mr. Kishi was trying to downplay the large and violent demonstrations in 1960 against the extension of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that he supported. Jingu is the home park of the Yakult Swallows baseball team.

Despite the option of other entertainment, 500 people were injured during the unrest, and one Tokyo University student died the month after Mr. Kishi made this comment. The turmoil eventually drove him from office.

“They say the voice of the people is the voice of heaven, but sometimes heaven speaks in a strange voice.”
– Former Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo

The father of current Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, Mr. Fukuda served from 1976 to 1978. Although popular with the public, he and the aforementioned Mr. Tanaka were bitter rivals despite belonging to the same party. The Shadow Shogun ignored the popular will and used Ohira Masayoshi to unseat him in an internal LDP election. That’s what prompted Mr. Fukuda’s musings about the voice of heaven.

“With this life I lead (as prime minister), I even have wet dreams.”
– Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro

It’s well known that sex is never far from Mr. Koizumi’s thoughts, but that never bothered the Japanese public. They yawned when reports surfaced that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. This was one of several such off-the-record comments during his term of office, and he also shocked (and probably delighted) several heads of state during official visits with his locker room stories.

If I weren’t a member of the Diet, I would definitely be an adult video star.
– Yamasaki Hiraku, AKA Taku

Politics killed the video star

Politics killed the video star

What better choice than Diet member and former construction minister Mr. Yamasaki to follow his randy former ally, Prime Minister Koizumi, on this list? He has been involved in several sex scandals and accused of adultery, sadomasochism, and rape, though he really doesn’t look the part.

Mr. Yamasaki speculated about his potential for an alternate career during sex with a lover while watching an adult video. At least, that’s what his partner told the magazine in an interview in 2002.

“I’m talking to the television. All the newspaper reporters should leave.”
– Former Prime Minister Sato Eisaku

So said Mr. Sato on 17 June 1972, when he stepped down from office. He made the television reporters leave too, and spoke to a camera in an empty studio for 16 minutes.

He probably enjoyed every minute of it.

“Illness comes from the ki (spirit). All you have to do is stay on an even keel, and illness will flee.”
– Former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro

Mr. Nakasone is also known to be something of a loose verbal cannon, and he made this remark on 6 August 1983 to an audience at a nursing home for atomic bombing victims in Hiroshima. Hibakusha groups thought it indicated a lack of understanding of their problems.

The thing of it is, Mr. Nakasone was giving them good advice and probably was trying to help them out. But politicians often fail to realize that discretion is the better part of valor in these situations. In this case, the course of discretion might have been to hold off on the advice and mouth platitudes.

After all, as P.J. O’Rourke notes, nowadays people think that taking offense is so important they go out of their way to snatch it.

“Stop the Shinkansen! Go talk to the railroad!”
– Film director Kurosawa Akira

The demanding Mr. Kurosawa was noted for being an autocratic director, and he became enraged during the 1979 filming of his historical drama Kagemusha on location at Himeji Castle because he had to stop shooting every time the high-speed Bullet Train roared by. But the Shinkansen’s schedules are reworked for no man, so he had to work around it.

“Movies aren’t the life work for a man.”
– Movie star Ishihara Yujiro

The matinee idol of his generation, Mr. Ishihara made 102 feature films during a career that started in 1956 and later continued with a popular cop drama on television. (Imagine Kojak with Telly Savalas playing it straight and you have it.)

Mr. Ishihara, the younger brother of current Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro, was often heard to say this, but he never did offer his opinion on what the real life work for a man should be.

“I’m going to stop wearing underpants.”
– Katsu Shintaro

Mr. Katsu was a leading force in the Japanese entertainment industry as an actor, producer, and director. The son of a kabuki actor, he starred in 26 films as Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, as well as a spin-off television series.

He also had too much of a taste for drink and drugs, and the above comment came during a press conference with Japanese reporters after his arrest at the Honolulu Airport on 16 January 1990 for carrying pot and cocaine in his underwear.

At the same press conference, he joked that he intended to start a new business as a haberdasher and sell Katsu pants in which anything could be hidden.

Now, now, no wise guy comments from the back row!

The actor was supposed to have played the lead in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha mentioned above, but he left without finishing the first day of filming after a serious disagreement with the director.

“You can buy a person’s spirit with money.”
– Horie Takafumi

A youthful Internet entrepreneur, Mr. Horie briefly became a media darling and extremely rich after creating a popular Internet portal site.

But hubris catches up with us all in the end. He was sentenced to 30 months in jail for securities fraud in 2006, and lost his appeal about two weeks ago. Though his company has been reorganized, he is still rather well-to-do, as reports indicate his wealth has been whittled down from the billions of dollars to the mere millions.

Shukan Bunshun also quoted the man known as Horiemon as saying, “Women follow the money.” Well, you’re right, but stop and think a minute. People can get away with saying that in public only if they have a background in evolutionary biology.

The daintiest last, to make the end most sweet.
– William Shakespeare

“What difference does it make which woman you sleep with?”
– DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro

No, opposition party bigwig Ozawa Ichiro was not mulling a career as an adult video star nor was he marveling over women tagging along after the money. In fact, this wasn’t about women or sex at all—he was talking about political parties and factions.

There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m not going to go looking for it.

Mr. Ozawa made this comment off the record to reporters regarding the then-Socialist Party on 25 April 1994 when they bolted the eight-party coalition that had ousted the LDP from power the year before. As the Shadow Shogun of the early 90s, he was doing then what he still does best today—creating unwieldy political coalitions from incompatible elements.

Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro resigned three days later, and his multi-party coalition fell apart for good two months after that.

The migratory Mr. Ozawa has evolved from being a youthful protégé of Tanaka Kakuei, to the behind-the-scenes boss of the short-lived anti-LDP coalition, to the head of a small party that rejoined the governing coalition with the LDP, and then to the presidency of the DPJ after it merged with his mini-party. He is now trying to coax history into repeating itself by taking a few pages from Mr. Tanaka’s textbook of political dealing and wheeling to pry the LDP loose from power again. He is also not above dark threats to the DPJ leadership that he would bolt the party and take his friends with him if they don’t follow his lead without question.

The quote does tend to put Mr. Ozawa’s political philosophy in perspective, doesn’t it?

He was livid when the statement was reported in the press, calling it “black journalism”. It touched off a running battle with reporters that continues to this day.

This photo of the young Mr. Ozawa, by the way, comes from an article in the Shukan Bunshun in 1976. It was a four-page spread on the politicians affiliated with Mr. Tanaka. Mr. Ozawa was listed at the bottom of the fourth page.

This post began with a story on the public revelation of a political comment made in private. How better to end it than with another off-the-record comment that the speaker’s foes made public?

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Mass media, Politics, Popular culture | 1 Comment »

Sononmanma update

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 6, 2008

WE’VE BEEN FOLLOWING the political career of Higashikokubaru Hideo, the former comedian known as Sonomanma Higashi who changed his way of living and became the populist (and popular) governor of rural Miyazaki in southwestern Japan. (This article sums up all the posts here so far.)

Despite being in office for little more than 18 months, speculation is mounting that the governor is aiming for a career in national politics. The governor’s comments about his career plans have been guarded, but have not been sufficient to quell the suspicions. His regularly scheduled press conference on Tuesday kept the story alive.

Japanese reporters are nothing if not tenacious, and they asked him about his intentions yet again. He answered, “At the present time, I do not plan to be active in the next lower house election, including supporting anyone else.”

He also said that if the operation of the prefectural administration for a four-year term could be likened to a marathon, the four years corresponded to the 42 kilometer-distance, and the last year represents the finish. He added that he has never dropped out of a marathon partway through, and that history won’t change.

Perhaps the most intriguing glimpse of how the governor sees his future came this May during a meeting of Miyazaki LDP support groups. He said:

If there is no reform in the next five years in which the national government devolves authority to the regions, I will turn this country upside down.

Since the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has been rather cool toward the entire subject of devolution, Mr. Higashikokubaru may well get a chance to make good on his threat if the DPJ forms a government in the meantime.

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

Hot to trot: The Eisa, the Gongo, and more!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancing in the streets
– Ivy Hunter, William Stevenson, and Marvin Gaye, “Dancing in the Streets”

MOTOWN’S MARTHA REEVES extended “an invitation across the nation” more than 40 years ago to hit the streets and dance in such cities as Chicago, New Orleans, New York–and that’s not forgetting the Motor City.

No one needs an invitation in Japan, however. People in every city hit the streets to dance in the summer, though it’s more likely to be a type of bon odori than boogaloo. Here are two examples from events during the past weekend.

The Eisa in Naha

Kokusai-dori (International Street) in Naha, Okinawa, was the site of the annual Eisa Odoritai on the 3rd. The meaning of Eisa Odoritai as written is Eisa Dancing Squad, but it’s also a homonym for “I want to dance the Eisa”. Befitting the first meaning, 64 groups of about 1,200 people did just that along what is called the Miracle Mile.

Folk dancing in any part of the world can be very dynamic. The Eisa is in the thick of that tradition, though its origins might suggest otherwise. It was derived from an older group dance called the esa omoro, which was offered to give repose to the dead. It was thus a type of memorial service for the village ancestors. That’s why it’s most frequently performed at this time of year; during mid-August (or mid-July, according to the lunar calendar) the Japanese observe the O-Bon festival to honor the returning spirits of the dead.

Now, however, the Eisa is primarily performed as entertainment, and an estimated 94,000 people lined Kokusai-dori to watch clubs and groups formed of co-workers or children strut their stuff after two months of special practice. The accompaniment includes several types of drums and Okinawan whistling, so maybe the idea in the old days was to bring them back from the dead!

Indeed, living tradition is a particularly apt term here. These performances are not the equivalent of blowing the dust off the cover of a seldom-used book in the reference section of the library. I had some business to take care of in Fukuoka on Monday, and whenever I go to that city I make it a point to visit the Okinawa shop offering products from that prefecture. There’s a special display area in the shop for CDs of Okinawan music, and one shelf is devoted to the music for Eisa performances alone!

Here’s a 1:30 YouTube clip that gives you an idea, but it ends just when things start to heat up!

The Gongo Matsuri in Tsuyama

Also last weekend in Tsuyama, Okayama, the 30th annual Gongo Matsuri was held downtown with an estimated 1,900 people dancing along the main street near the Yoshii River.

Watch your backs!

Watch your backs!

The Gongo Matsuri is not one of the Shinto events that we usually talk about, nor is it an observance associated with O-Bon, as is the Eisa. This festival is just to give the Tsuyamanaians a chance to dress funny and act goofy in public.

A gongo in the local dialect is a kappa, a supernatural amphibious creature of legend that inhabits the waters of Japan. Some think it was supposed to represent the transformation of the water deity. The kappa is not a friendly fellow; one if its favorite things to do is to prey on humans by grabbing them and tearing their livers out through the anus.

During the Gongo Festival, the folks of Tsuyama dress up as kappa and dance down the street. Onlookers chant “Soyare, soyare, throw some water on the gongo!” The kappaconstantly need water because it’s the source of their supernatural powers.

I’m not sure I’d want to encourage creatures with such a perverse sense of fun, but then I’m not close to the tradition.

Of course, if anyone had gotten their liver ripped out through the anus by a gongo in Tsuyama this year, you’d have heard about it by now!

The bon odori has now turned into a staid summer dance performed in public by older women in particular. The history is a different matter altogether, however. Read this previous post describing how performances were banned several times in the past because it had degenerated into a prelude to outdoor sex. “Enough with the dancing, let’s find a bush!”

And for another look at the wackiest mid-summer dance of them all, the Awa Odori in Tokushima, try this post. The point of the festival is to act like a fool, and there’s never a shortage of volunteers!

Posted in History, Traditions | Leave a Comment »