Japan from the inside out

Archive for November, 2008

Dazaifu elvettes getting ready for New Year’s Day

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 30, 2008

AS YEAREND APPROACHES, many people begin to look forward to the Christmas season. For most Japanese, however, Christmas is still just the entrée for the main holiday course: the three-day New Year’s holiday.

The story of Santa’s elves beavering away at the North Pole making toys for good little boys and girls is a pleasant fiction, but in Japan, the miko, or shrine maidens, (similar to altar boys) actually do take their places at the workbench in red and white costumes to make New Year’s gifts. They’re also a lot more pleasant to watch than any imaginary elf.

The miko at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, got down to work this week. A Fukuoka City television station filed a report that I can’t upload, but you can watch it while it lasts here. A quick translation of the voice-over appears below.


With just one month left until New Year’s, the preparations have begun at Dazaifu Tenman-gu to make good luck talismans for the parishioners who will make their first visit to the shrine on New Year’s Day.

The miko clad in hibakama gathered at the large hall in the shrine at 9:30 a.m. and began putting the finishing touches to the new year talismans. Working by hand, the miko attached small ema with pictures of an ox (2009 is the year of the ox). They also painted dolls made to look like oxen that were created by Hakata Ningyo (doll) maker Nakamura Shinkyo.

There are 12 types of talismans in all, starting with the good fortune arrows that come in three varieties, from “Extra Large” to “Small”.

The centerpiece this year is the new fukumusubi, patterned after the round chi-no-wa (a ring made using a plant in the eulalia family). It was created with the wish that those who possess one will meet someone especially nice from the opposite sex this year and form a strong bond.

Roughly 2.02 million people visited the Dazaifu Tenman-gu during the three-day New Year’s period this year, more than visited any other shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture. They also expect two million visitors during the same period next year.

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Shining a light on New Komeito

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 30, 2008

THE MOST POPULAR parlor game for Japanese politicos over the past few months has been trying to guess when the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito will dissolve the lower house of the Diet and call for new elections.

They’d really rather not have to do it at all, because they’re assured of losing the supermajority they gained during the Great Koizumi Triumph of 2005. That overwhelming numerical advantage has enabled them to pass legislation they deem essential after the opposition Democratic Party of Japan captured the upper house in 2007. The DPJ can now block the immediate passage of bills it does not care for, though the lower house can approve them with a two-thirds majority.

But the Constitution says an election must come no later than September 2009, and that’s when all hell could break loose. A weakened coalition could stay in power; there could be a stalemate with no single dominant party, resulting in a scramble to form a new coalition; or the opposition could finally take control of the government.

That’s why the LDP has been trying to postpone the day of reckoning as long as possible. Some thought that the recent election of Aso Taro as prime minister signaled a fall ballot, which Mr. Aso himself admitted in the Diet this week. But the combination of the global economic downturn and the prime minister’s mudboat-sinking loose lips forced the shelving of election plans for the time being. Now it is assumed that an election will come sometime next spring.

The delay is causing the lesser coalition partner New Komeito to sweat, because they want balloting to be held as soon as possible. Newspaper accounts–and there are many–will blandly say it’s because the party wants the time to prepare for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections that will be held next July. But the newspapers never explicitly say why New Komeito is so desperate for a quick general election.

This week, however, the Sankei Shimbun came as close as it is possible to come to revealing the reason without actually saying it. Why all the secrecy? It’s because the political system would be rocked by the warfare that would erupt between Sankei and New Komeito if what is commonly assumed to be the facts of the matter were printed.

Sankei (which does not publish an English edition) led up to it with a few comments from New Komeito officials to establish their concern about the timing of elections.

Many now think the election will be pushed back to April. One New Komeito official lamented:

“This wasn’t supposed to happen. It would have been better to dissolve the Diet quickly.”

Ota Akihiro, New Komeito’s chief representative, spoke on the 25th to party supporters in Matsue:

“By standing, then sitting, and then half-sitting/half-standing over the question of when to hold a lower house election, we’ve caused a lot of trouble for all of you. We focused on an October Diet dissolution and a November election, but now I don’t know when it’s going to happen. For that I must apologize to you.”

One problem with the delay is that it creates extra expenses. Said Mr. Ota:

“What will we do about the campaign offices? We’re going to have to extend the leases soon. I want to close them, but we can’t.”

Meanwhile, Kitagawa Kazuo, the former Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, and current party secretary-general, publicly defended Mr. Aso by saying that he disagreed with the suggestion that the prime minister has had to backtrack from his recent statements.

Referring to the criticism of the prime minister within the coaltion, Mr. Kitagawa added:

“Just what do people think they’re doing by not supporting a prime minister and a party president they elected?”

He also insisted the party has not changed its position of contesting the next election under Mr. Aso’s leadership.

Party members are also concerned that pressing the prime minister to openly set a date for dissolution will turn him into a lame duck until the election is held. That’s one reason they continue to defend him in public while keeping their dissatisfaction private.

Some mid-tier and younger members of the LDP aren’t as patient. They’re urging the prime minister to submit a second supplementary budget before the end of this Diet session in late December (instead of waiting until the New Year, which Mr. Aso has said he will do). Observes another unidentified New Komeito executive:

“What can you do when the people inside are throwing gasoline on a burning house?”

For public consumption, the party’s executives still say that the Diet may be dissolved just after it is formally convened in mid-January. But they are worried that a delay in the election until the spring would overlap the period for the Tokyo Metropolitan District council elections in July.

Now we’re starting to cut close to the bone. Remember that it is generally assumed that New Komeito is the political arm of the lay Buddhist group, Soka Gakkai. The Sankei then quoted an unnamed Soka Gakkai official as saying:

“If there is an overlap with the lower house election, we will be unable to concentrate our resources on the council elections.”

Does he mean they would have trouble keeping campaign workers on the payroll to move from one election to the other? Would it be that difficult to keep the Tokyo campaign offices open for both elections?

No, he’s talking about something else.

The period of residency required for voting in an election in Japan is three months. It is also generally assumed by many in Japan—in fact, some consider it an open secret—that a standard election tactic for New Komeito and their Soka Gakkai supporters is to transfer their registered legal residency from other parts of the country and concentrate them in an area holding local elections, in this case the Tokyo Metropolitan District. The idea, of course, is to inflate their candidates’ vote totals. After the election, their residency registration will be transferred back to their former addresses.

The Tokyo election is scheduled for July, and the lower house election must be held by September. That’s not enough time to satisfy the legal requirements when switching back and forth. Therefore, the latest that a nationwide lower house election can be held and still give New Komeito supporters time to change their addresses is April.

Lest anyone think that only the bad old LDP is complicit in the New Komeito stratagem, it was also widely assumed that the former Socialists, now the Social Democrats, pulled the same stunt.

In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that none of the political parties comes within hailing distance of an honest election. Everybody is aware of all the tricks, but no one says anything about it. It’s a sort of Japanese electoral version of MAD, which stands for mutually assured destruction. MAD was the old military strategy of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The two countries maintained the peace by ensuring that a nuclear attack by one country would result in a full nuclear retaliation from the other. Since that would mean the destruction of both countries, neither initiated a potentially horrific conflict.

Apply that to Japanese political parties, and you might have a fair description of the situation in regard to extra-legal activities at both the party and the individual level.

On the one hand, it successfully maintains the status quo and keeps the body count to a minimum. On the other hand, it creates a negative stasis that is detrimental to political progress in the long run.

The Sankei might not want to (or might not be able to) come out and say it, but they certainly are poking at the edges of the envelope.

Posted in Politics | Leave a Comment »

Japan missing the bus on expanding ties with India

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 28, 2008

SOME SCOFFED at the time, but former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s plan to develop and strengthen ties between India and Japan was a capital idea on several levels. It wasn’t that the scoffers frowned on a closer relationship–they just didn’t care for the source of the proposal. Mr. Abe’s opponents would have hailed it as a major diplomatic initiative had someone from their side presented it instead.

But as a recent agreement between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization to use satellites for disaster management shows, the two countries understand the logic and potential benefits of greater cooperation.

Unfortunately, some in Japan are showing a lack of foresight by throwing a wet blanket over an excellent opportunity not only to further expand the political relationship, but to expand the economic relationship as well.

As this Zeenews of India report explains, Japan is one of 45 member nations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The NSG oversees the trade in dual-use nuclear fuel, materials, and technology to prevent their conversion from civilian nuclear energy programs to nuclear weapons systems.

It is NSG policy to sanction transactions only with countries that are signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that permit full inspections by the IAEA. That leaves out India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

The Indians became persona non grata among nuclear regulatory authorities because they diverted civilian nuclear assistance from Canada some years ago to develop their own atomic weapons. After Herculean efforts by the United States, however, the NSG agreed in September to grant a waiver to India exempting them from the rules and enabling other countries to provide assistance for nuclear power development. As one might imagine, the Chinese (also NSG members) fought to prevent the waiver, but they finally relented and abstained from a final vote after U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned Chinese President Hu Jintao for some one-on-one persuasion.

India’s nuclear power industry is underdeveloped compared to G-8 nations, so the waiver means those countries with superior technology and expertise in the field are making a beeline to New Delhi. Nuclear power companies in the U.S. already have visited India to present their proposals. The Russians plan to build four reactors there and want to build still more.

Japan is a world leader in the use of nuclear energy for power generation, so India is naturally interested in exploring the potential for greater cooperation with domestic companies too. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew to Tokyo in late October for discussions, but the Japanese government held back due to what was described as “strong lobbying by the (domestic) non-proliferation lobby”.

Hitachi, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Toshiba sent representatives to Mumbai this week for talks with the Indian government and the state-owned Nuclear Power Corp. But the prospects for Japanese participation remain cloudy.

That’s because India also had another Japanese visitor this week: Hattori Takuya, president of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum. According to the group’s website:

The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc. (JAIF) was incorporated as the comprehensive non-governmental organization on nuclear energy in Japan on March 1, 1956. JAIF is a non-profit organization incorporated under the auspices of the industry to promote peaceful utilization of nuclear energy for the benefit of Japanese nationals in consideration of the importance of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, radioisotopes and radiation in a wide variety of fields.

As unbelievable as it may seem, Mr. Hattori and his group are proving to be more recalcitrant than the Chinese, who saw this as a national security issue. Despite the NSG waiver, JAIF wants India to sign the test ban treaty anyway and commit to nuclear disarmament before they’ll consider cooperation. Here’s Mr. Hattori talking to the Indian press:

“Japan is the only country which suffered due to two atom bombs in the history of mankind and Japanese people are very sensitive.”

It’s about time to bury this line in a vault in the back of a museum warehouse. Victimization is a craven excuse on which to base policy in any context, and it’s outmoded in this one. Fifty years ago, everyone fully understood Japanese sensitivities, and the stance also served the national interest because it helped convince the rest of the convincible world that the old Japan was dead and buried.

But when more than a few politicians in Japan talk sotto voce about the country acquiring a nuclear deterrent of its own, it is both obsolete and in bad faith. During his term as Chief Cabinet Secretary, even former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, whom some overseas observers considered “dovish”, said that Japan should consider going nuclear in a private conversation with some members of the media. He backed down when asked about it in a public press conference the next day.

Continued Mr. Hattori:

“If Japan goes for civil nuclear cooperation with India, it amounts to following (a) double standard. We cannot then talk about North Korea and Iran at the international platform if we have civil nuclear cooperation with India now when your country has nuclear bombs.”

Those who cannot or will not differentiate between India’s program and those of Iran and North Korea lack the qualifications either to speak on or set policy for nuclear issues.

It is true that India has not signed the treaty. The Indian government says it has voluntarily suspended nuclear testing and adopted a no-first strike policy. In contrast, Iran has signed the treaty, for what that’s worth. Yet the latter country is governed by religious fanatics who speak openly of destroying Israel. They also clearly state it wouldn’t bother them very much if they were to be destroyed in the process—killing the infidel Jews punches their ticket to paradise and an eternity with all those virgins.

North Korea, which signed the treaty, violated it, withdrew, and likely still violates it, doesn’t even belong in this conversation. They are governed by a Stalinist family regime for whom nuclear weapons technology is a shield against German-style reunification and a hard currency earner when exported to rogue states or malevolent non-state actors.

Mentioning either of those countries in the same breath with India is fatuous. Indeed, who could blame the Indians if they were to find it insulting?

There’s more:

“We strongly ask India to keep up (the) commitment with Nuclear Suppliers Group to pursue nuclear disarmament and also follow other international treaties like CTBT in order to continue the peaceful uses of (the) atom in the form of nuclear energy.”

Preventing nuclear power cooperation with India by tying it to nuclear disarmament is arrant nonsense. By that logic, Nation A should reject a civil aviation pact with any other nation that has an air force in its military.

Not that the issue of nuclear disarmament isn’t absurd to begin with. It is no joke to say that if nuclear weapons are outlawed, then only outlaws will have nuclear weapons—and that would make the world an unacceptably dangerous place. Those who would claim that nuclear disarmament is an achievable goal should begin any justification of their position by explaining the failure of the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

Mr. Hattori also said:

“We have little information about India’s nuclear program…”

But added:

“India has a need for tremendous manpower resources well-trained to keep up high standards of non-proliferation safeguards, safety and security. India has to expand its training program to increase its huge manpower needs urgently.”

If the JAIF has little information about India’s program, why is it qualified to speak about its manpower resources and training program?


“There is a win-win situation and it is meant for a long-term relationship.”

The win-win situation for the long-term relationship is to begin cooperation for nuclear power generation immediately.

Where to point the finger?

At this point, one has to wonder who in Japan apart from JAIF is trying to stymie the cooperation. Japan’s nuclear power industry is in India and ready to talk turkey. As noted above, some politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are interested in a nuclear deterrent of their own, and even those who wouldn’t be willing to go that far are nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to business. So who could have enough sway in the current government to prevent Japan and India from coming to terms?

Here’s one possibility:

Abolish nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction as part of our longstanding commitment to diplomatic initiatives to advance peace. Introduce proposals facilitating the earliest possible ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, including implementing the treaty on a provisional basis should a minimum necessary number of signatories be secured.

That’s from the party platform of New Komeito, the lesser partner in Japan’s governing coalition. It sometimes is difficult to see how the party, widely seen as the political arm of the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, benefits from their participation in that coalition. The LDP gets to stay in the driver’s seat in Nagata-cho through New Komeito’s considerable get-out-the-vote efforts and their representation in the Diet. And that means they have to hold up their end of the quid pro quo.

Therefore, it’s not out of the question that the obstacle to greater cooperation with India for the peaceful use of nuclear power is New Komeito.

If the party is indeed holding up an agreement in this instance, it’s yet another reason why Japan desperately needs a major political realignment. Those who insist on incorporating into national policy an ideal that would be counterproductive if it weren’t impossible to achieve are doing the country a disservice.

Afterwords: In addition to reconsidering their hesitancy to assist India with civilian nuclear power development, Japan should also consider backing U.S. Senator John McCain’s suggestion to drop Russia from the G-8 and replace it with India. Unfortunately, that will never happen as long as Russia holds the four islands to the north of Hokkaido it seized just after Japan’s surrender in World War II.

Posted in India, International relations, Science and technology | Leave a Comment »

Still a smash in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 27, 2008

Within minutes, the city was aware that Godzilla was inside Tokyo Harbor. Among the people, there was a state of panic.
– From the international version of Godzilla

One rainy Saturday afternoon when I was about 11 years old, I went to the movies with the young savages who lived across the street. We weren’t interested in seeing that particular movie; we went because it was too wet to play baseball, the theater was within bike-riding distance, and the star of the show was a monster.

The feature was a re-release of the international version of Godzilla, an edited version of the original that included an American reporter who witnessed the monster destroy Tokyo. We thought it was one of the worst movies we had ever seen. Everything about it was cheap and hokey. Even a monster movie requires some suspension of belief to succeed, but Godzilla couldn’t even clear our grade-school threshold.


In another 10 years, those of us who became undergraduates might have appreciated the flick as camp and laughed at it, but at the time we thought it was just plain bad. So bad, in fact, that we sat in the front row of the nearly deserted theater and hooted our way through it. None of the ushers came around to tell us to be quiet. They probably thought the same thing and were off smoking cigarettes in the employee lounge to avoid having to watch it again.

Yet despite the movie’s cheesiness–or perhaps because of it—Godzilla has attracted academic interest over the past half-century as if it were flypaper for postmodern intellectuals. The reason is that the film’s inspiration was an event that occurred in the real world, not the reel world. The tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu-maru from Yaitsu, Shizuoka, was exposed to radiation in 1954 when it sailed into an area where the U.S. was conducting an underwater nuclear test. One member later died from the exposure, and some contaminated tuna wound up on the Japanese market. In the movie, which was made the same year, the sleeping Godzilla is awakened by a hydrogen bomb test and is so enraged that it proceeds to wreck the Japanese capital–less than a decade after the real Tokyo was wrecked by American bombers.

Godzilla today

It’s understandable that the movie would have generated some interest at the time, even if people weren’t starved for entertainment. In 1954, cheap entertainment for the masses with an underlying message was not yet the cliché it was later to become. But why are people still treating it as if it were worthy of continuing study more than a half-century later?

Earlier this month, the Shizuoka University of Welfare in Yaitsu, Shizuoka (the same Yaitsu of the original incident), held the Godzilla Fan Convention – Godzilla Summit in conjunction with the annual university festival. It was a symposium for discussing the issues of peace and the environment based on Godzilla.

University President Kato Kazuo told the participants:

“Godzilla (was) the symbol of the dread of destruction caused by nuclear weapons, but has since become a guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment. We affirm the link between Godzilla and Yaizu, and will create peace rather than destruction.”

A member of the citizens’ group Bikini Citizens Net Yaizu said:

“We do not consider the Daigo Fukuryu-maru incident as just a negative inheritance. We will take it as a positive event that emphasizes peace.”

Somehow, without anyone else noticing, the academic alchemists have transmuted a movie monster that smashed a plywood set of a miniature Tokyo more than a half-century ago into a “guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment”.

Maybe we can find some way to lure it ashore on Wall Street instead of Tokyo.

Here’s an account from the UCLA Asia Institute of a lecture given by William A. Tsutsui of the University of Kansas. Professor Tsutsui is the author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, which was published in 2004. He also degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton, and is an expert on Japanese banking policy, so perhaps my neighborhood buddies and I weren’t barbarians so much as Philistines.

The professor asserts that Godzilla is an extremely successful cultural export and a Japanese cultural icon. After all, the monster has been featured in a Rose Bowl parade and won an MTV lifetime achievement award. Mia Farrow declared it to be her favorite movie during an Oscar award ceremony.

Of course, that might also mean Mia Farrow and the sort of people who watch the Rose Bowl parade and the MTV lifetime achievement awards are airheads, are being facetious, or both. But who can contradict a man with degrees from three of the most famous universities in the world when he focuses that formidable intellect on a monster movie?

The article notes:

Only a handful of scholarly essays on Godzilla have appeared, and few “have attempted to contextualize the film historically.” In his talk, Tsutsui set out to correct that: “I would argue,” he declared, “. . . that the Godzilla films can provide us valuable insights into Japanese culture since World War II.”.

Tsutsui insists that the Godzilla movies have featured some consistent themes in the more than 50 years they’ve been made. These include anti-Americanism, Godzilla as a defender of Japan, the vulnerability of Japan, and an ambivalence towards science and technology. He also thinks the original was made just as much for adults as it was for pre-teen boys, and that later films in the series have tried to return to adult themes. No, that doesn’t include the one where the monster has a battle with King Kong.

But considering that chronological adults in the United States have conventions to hold discussions about which of the Star Trek TV series and movies they prefer, he might have a point.

Then again, Prof. Tsutusi also says that “Godzilla is never entirely friendly and protective — he always remains surprisingly hostile toward Japan — and he never, of course, can become truly Japanese.”

So, all in the same lecture, it turns out that the guardian deity flame-breathing monster who smashed Tokyo is an unfriendly defender of Japan who is never entirely protective and is really hostile toward the country. And who never can become truly Japanese.

There’s more:

“The first Godzilla film clearly had a strong anti-nuclear message. . . . Yet it becomes increasingly hard to conclude that the films have had a consistent message over time…The only constant about the Godzilla films is a deep ambivalence, a kind of moral and intellectual ambiguity, that precludes drawing any firm, unitary conclusions. The message of Godzilla. . . is complex and reflects . . . a fundamental ambivalence on the part of the Japanese when they look at issues like modernity, technology, science, nature, politics, and the world outside Japan.”

Well, the professor might have overlooked another possibility. Could it be that after the director and script writers shot their creative wad in the first film, they’ve mostly been just monster movies since then? It might be more educational (up to a point) to hear Prof. Tsutsui try to explain what he means by the fundamental Japanese ambivalence toward nature. Or how a nation that is a pioneer in the field of robotics and whose citizens snapped up cell phones from the day they appeared on the market would be ambivalent about science and technology. Or how Godzilla reflects the attitudes of 127 million Japanese towards modernity. Or how anybody anywhere other than religious zealots or cranky old guys who drink too much has any attitude about modernity at all.

Godzilla has the right idea

Godzilla has the right idea

There are some nuggets among all that gravel, however. The article contains information on the so-called Godzilla franchise over the years and some curious trivia. It turns out that the monster’s name (Gojira in Japanese), may have been the nickname of an overweight studio publicist created by combining the words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira). The original Godzilla suit weighed 200 pounds. North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was so captivated by the film that he commissioned his own giant monster movie, Pulgasari, in 1985. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. I’ve always suspected that the Dear Leader admires Japan more than he’s willing to let on.

There are also some annoyances. The author of the article needs to look up the word “voyeuristic” in the dictionary, and a phrase like “military porn” could only be used by someone who knows very little about either.

Here’s the professor’s conclusion:

Godzilla sends a mixed message: as both an enemy and a defender, both a force of nature and the product of high technology, as both an outsider and yet somehow truly Japanese…Godzilla, like the modern world, was both a curse and a blessing, both something alien and something Japanese.”

In other words, he could sit around for days on end talking about it without saying anything at all.

Godzilla the play

The article focuses on Godzilla the movie, so there is no mention of the stage play Godzilla, which was written by Ohashi Yasuhiko and created a minor stir when it was published in 1988. (I’m surprised he didn’t get busted for copyright infringement.) That play may well provide us with as many “valuable insights into Japanese culture since World War II” as the movie.

In the stage version, the character of Godzilla is played by an actor without costume who appears as a normal human being. The premise of the play is that a young woman brings Godzilla home to meet her parents because they intend to get married. The parents are concerned about their daughter’s choice in mates—they worry what the children will look like and whether Godzilla’s huge body will crush their flimsy Japanese dwelling. Godzilla is eager to please, however, lighting his future father-in-law’s cigarette with one breath.

That sounds like some of the gaijin who appear on Japanese television, doesn’t it? Perhaps Dr. Tsutsui is right after all when he says that Godzilla can never become truly Japanese.

It’s hard to miss the metaphor for international marriages in Japan. Mr. Ohashi had a great idea for a dramatization, but the play’s promising start dissipates by the second half, when Muthra and all the other Japanese movie monsters make appearances. It turned the play into a parody of itself, a fate shared by the movie series and Prof. Tsutsui’s exegesis.

Yet the continuing academic interest in Godzilla is still puzzling even after all the high-octane interpretation. It’s natural for the Japanese to make such a big deal over a local creation with so much international appeal that it deeply impresses Mia Farrow, Kim Jong-il, and the Rose Parade organizers. After all, they’re still thrilled (and justifiably so) about Sakamoto Kyu’s international hit, Ue o Mite Aruko, which became known as Sukiyaki in English. (It is still the only song sung entirely in Japanese to reach #1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S.)

But grade-school boys who watch the movie aren’t going to be thinking about the deeper meanings, and the adults of any nationality who could sit through it from start to finish are likely sold on the idea of Americans and their technology as Godzilla-like monsters to begin with. If anyone wants to understand what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are plenty of photographs and first-person accounts. What’s the point of an earnestly pretentious monster movie?

And does anyone really believe that business about a “guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment”?

The people who have their priorities in order were the local fishermen invited to open a concession stand that offered snacks at the university festival in Shizuoka. They sold fried pieces of kitefish shark cut up to look like the monster. They called them Godzillas.

Afterwords: The reporter in the “international version” of the movie was played by Raymond Burr, who later went on to television fame in the United States as Perry Mason and Ironside. Japanese audiences are familiar with Burr as the villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

I saw Rear Window for the first time on American television not very long after I saw Godzilla in the theater. The climactic scene at the end, when Burr confronts James Stewart in the latter’s apartment, scared the living daylights out of me. Unlike Godzilla.

And here’s a site for the serious Godzilla fan: Barry’s Temple of Godzilla.

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Posted in Films, Foreigners in Japan, Popular culture | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Nothing is ever sonomama with Sonomanma

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 25, 2008

FIRST HE MIGHT. Then he won’t. Now, he just might after all.

The plans of the former comedian, current reform-minded governor of Miyazaki, and eternal publicity hound Higashikokubaru Hideo are once again the subject of speculation in regional newspapers. The governor asserts that his motivation is to reform government in his home prefecture and spread those reforms nationwide, but most people assume that national politics has always been his goal.

His political career began after his predecessor in Miyazaki resigned and was arrested for bid-rigging. The failure of another politician, lower house member Nakayama Nariaki of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, seemed set to launch Mr. Higashikokubaru’s Diet career. Mr. Nakayama lasted only five days as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport in the Aso Taro cabinet after he offended the teachers’ union. He then announced he would not run for reelection to the Diet in Miyazaki #1 in early October, when an election was expected imminently.

The Miyazaki governor openly flirted with the possibility of running for Mr. Nakayama’s seat, only to give up the idea when his supporters in the prefecture said they would rather have him complete his first term instead of leaving before it reached the halfway point.

This weekend, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran an article claiming that the governor was much closer to declaring for the Diet seat than previously thought, and that he is again weighing the pros and cons of running in an election expected to come early next year.

The newspaper cites sources familiar with the conversation that the governor and Mr. Nakayama met in secret in Miyazaki City on 2 October and discussed the former’s candidacy. Mr. Nakayama, who had just resigned from the Cabinet, told Mr. Higashikokubaru that he wouldn’t stand for reelection in his district in the next lower house election. He urged the governor to run in his place. The governor replied that he was very interested in a Diet seat and wanted to run as an independent (in keeping with his stated political philosophy), albeit with LDP support. He also expressed concerns about being viewed as Mr. Nakayama’s designated successor.

Then, during a meeting in Tokyo on 8 October that both attended, Mr. Nakayama said in his introductory remarks that “(They would) have a hard time of it unless you (Gov. Higashikokubaru) somehow decide to run.” (The Japanese language allows sentences without subjects, and sometimes it is not clear what is being referred to. This is a case in point. It wasn’t specified whether the speaker, the people of the district, the people of the prefecture, the LDP, or various combinations of those would have a hard time of it.)

Despite the encouragement, the governor finally said that he would submit to the popular will and stay in Miyazaki. But he might be reconsidering that decision, as suggested by some of his statements during a speech in front of a fund-raising party of 600 in the prefecture on the 20th. Then again, he was all over the map, so divining his intentions is not easy. Here’s a sampler of what he said:

(The) differentials (in regional prosperity) won’t be overcome until the country’s system is changed. All I’m saying is that I want to change the system.


“There are 480 people in the lower house and 242 in the upper house. I don’t really want to become one of 722. If that’s the case, I won’t go, even with all this talk about running in my first term.”

But then:

“First election, first Cabinet appointment…I won’t go without a Cabinet-level appointment.”

Note that the governor will have completed only his second year in elective office in January 2009, but he’s already talking about a Cabinet post.

Then he closed with:

“Some of what I said here was a bit dicey.” (危うい、and what exactly he meant by that is a bit uncertain, too.)

The newspaper asked the Governor about his discussion with Mr. Nakayama, and he denied that it occurred. When they asked Mr. Nakayama, however, he replied:

“I can’t say now.”

Not very skillful at dissembling, is he?

A source in the LDP said that Prime Minister Aso Taro was enthusiastic about the idea of a Higashikokubaru candidacy. He added that some upper-level LDP officials chewed over the idea of appointing him the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, or giving him a portfolio as a special tourism minister. The latter idea might be a good one; the governor is a tireless promoter of the prefecture and its products, and he does have a show business background.

The local branch of the LDP decided to back former upper house MP and member of the Hashimoto Cabinet Uesugi Mitsuhiro for the Miyazaki #1 seat, but the Nishinippon Shimbun passes on word from an unidentified local official who said the party wants Mr. Uesugi to talk to Mr. Nakayama and work something out. He suggests they are laying the groundwork for a Higashikokubaru candidacy using Mr. Nakayama as cover.

Here’s an opinion from one official in the Miyazaki prefectural government:

“The governor seems to be bored by his current job. He wants to perform his next role.”

Others, however, say that with the Cabinet approval rate dropping, he doesn’t want to get on board the LDP “mud boat”. (If you’re not familiar with that Japanese expression, think of how long a boat made of mud might float crossing a river with passengers.)

But the article concluded with this from another observer:

“Once you get the idea you want to run, that feeling never goes away.”

Exactly. And for a man who is now in the national limelight a second time, it is likely to grow only stronger.

Let’s hope that the entertainer/politician who still appears as a panel member on nationally broadcast quiz/entertainment programs is learning something as he passes through the governor’s mansion.

Afterwords: Hit the search engine on the left sidebar for more posts on Gov. Higashikokubaru.

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

The oracle now speaks in Korean, too

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 24, 2008

LAST YEAR, more than half a million South Koreans passed through customs at Fukuoka City in Kyushu, either at the airport or the docks at the Port of Hakata. Their numbers have risen by 100,000 every year since 2005. As we’ve seen before, the city has gone out of its way to make itself more amenable to Korean tourists—even the recorded announcements on city route buses and the information on the signs at all the bus stops are now in Korean.

Your fortune in Korean

Your fortune in Korean

(Japanese bus stop signs contain quite a bit of information, by the way. This includes complete—and accurate—schedules. The Fukuoka City bus stops also have an electronic bulletin board providing passengers with up-to-the-minute notifications on the location of the next approaching bus and the time it will take to arrive. That’s a sharp contrast to the signs in my home town in the U.S. They simply read “Bus Stop”.)

With so many tourists of any nationality running around looking for something novel and exotic to do, the locals naturally start thinking of ways to encourage the visitors to spend as much of their money as they can while they’re in town. In that spirit, the city’s tourism promotion department huddled with the Kushida Shinto shrine in Hakata Ward and came up with the idea of offering Korean-language omikuji starting this month.

Omikuji are fortunes written on slips of paper and sold at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. As with so much of Japanese culture, the practice originally began in ancient China. The traditional method for discovering one’s fate was literally the luck of the draw: A person drew at random a stick from a container, which was then exchanged for the fortune. The divinations themselves were often written with expressions lifted from the Book of Changes (I Ching). The custom has now become commercialized; omikuji are usually dispensed at an outdoor vending machine on the shrine or temple grounds.

Long ago, the Japanese used the omikuji to make up their minds about marriage or business transactions. Nowadays, it seems to be the sort of thing one does as a child once just for the sake of doing it, and perhaps again as a teenager or young adult with a serious case of the Love Jones. There are 12 different categories for differentiating what the future holds in store, ranging from Dai-Kichi, or Great Blessing, to Dai-Kyo, or Dig a Hole, Climb In, and Hope It Blows Over Soon.

Leaving nothing to chance, the Japanese also created a custom to hedge the receipt of bad news. They tie the slip of paper bearing bad tidings to a nearby tree. There’s a good reason for that. Most religious institutions have pine trees out in the yard, and the word for pine in Japanese is matsu. The word also means “to wait”, so the idea is that the dark cloud will wait next to the tree before it starts to follow you around, and perhaps finally give up and go away. (I can’t even begin to describe to people unfamiliar with the country how quintessentially Japanese the concepts behind that custom are.)

The good news you get to put in your pocket and take home with you.

The city’s tourism officials and the shrine told the Nishinippon Shimbun they thought Korean-language omikuji would be a new tourism resource and an easy way for South Koreans to learn about Japan’s shrine and temple culture. The custom of omikuji may have begun in China, but it never managed to gain a toehold on the Korean Peninsula. The officials didn’t mention that it also might turn into a low-overhead revenue source, but everyone knew that anyway.

The Kushida shrine started selling English-language fortunes in early October and are also mulling Chinese language ones, which would square the circle. Said the shrine’s chief priest, Abe Kennosuke, “In ancient times, Hakata (the old name for Fukuoka) was the gateway to Asia. We hope to expand today’s interaction with Asia through these fortunes.” Isn’t that a splendid coat of idealistic lacquer to spread over a commercial practice? The omikuji will cost 30 yen (about 31 cents U.S.) apiece, regardless of the language, and that’s cheap enough for any traveler’s budget.

The globalization of divination

The globalization of divination

Several shrines in Kyushu offer English fortunes, such as the Suwa shrine in Nagasaki City, but Kushida might be the first to sell them in the Korean language. A quick search on the web reveals that Kyoto’s famous Buddhist temple, Kinkaku-ji, has been selling Korean-, Chinese-, and English-language fortunes for 100 yen since at least June. But the monks should be embarrassed by that sign on the vending machine in Kyoto. A “hard money pay down” sounds like a shady deal in the ‘hood, not an activity associated with a religious institution. It would have been easy to ask a native-speaking teaching assistant at a local high school for some help.

Fortunately, the folks in Fukuoka used some foresight. They had native Korean speakers at Fukuoka City’s international relations department check all the translations in advance for accuracy. For example, Dai-Kichi gets translated as Risshun Dai-Kichi, or “The first day of spring great blessing.”

Sounds good to me. The only thing better than a stroke of good luck would be a stroke of good luck on a warm and sunny day!

Afterwords: The Kushida Shinto shrine is the most famous in Fukuoka City. It conducts the Hakata Gion Yamagasa Festival every August. If you’ve never seen a photo of how the festival starts, by all means take the opportunity now.

That “Hangul” on the Korean-language fortune dispenser in Kyoto is also a mistake, because the word refers to the alphabet rather than the language itself. Why the monks felt the need to put it on the sign in the Roman alphabet when the correct word is there in Korean is one of those inscrutable mysteries. The Koreans won’t be reading the sign in English.

Hangul is the word the Japanese use for the Korean language, however, but they have a reason. They call South Korea “Kankoku” (韓国) and North Korea “Kita Chosen (Joseon)” (北朝鮮). Picking a word for the language that seems to favor one of those, such as “kankoku-go” or “chosen-go“, will irritate those people in Japan of Korean ancestry allied with the other country. It’s a compromise.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Japanese-Korean amity, Shrines and Temples, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

On with the show!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 22, 2008

THOSE WITH A TASTE for outré entertainment will be delighted to learn that this year’s revival of the reality version of South Pacific is shortly due to begin now that the Nisshin Maru has left port for its annual whaling expedition.

But those who enjoy fine entertainment might find the upcoming episodes to be less satisfying than programs in the past, despite a surprise addition to the cast.

Here’s the big downer:

Australia will not send a fisheries patrol ship this year to shadow Japanese whalers and protests near Antarctica, the government said on Friday, appealing for activists to keep high seas protests peaceful.

As Japan’s whaling fleet heads to the Southern Ocean to hunt close to 1,000 minke and fin whales, Canberra said it was pursing a diplomatic solution to Tokyo’s yearly research hunt after Japanese complaints last season about the Australian patrol ship.

Australia's Mr. Environment

Australia's Mr. Environment

Former hard rock singer and current Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett said in a radio interview that Australia won’t be using the Oceanic Viking, a patrol icebreaker, to shadow the whalers. Instead, the government will focus on a legal challenge to whaling. They’ll also conduct their own research to prove that studies of the population can be done without culling the herd.

Perhaps unintentionally demonstrating the Not In My Back Yard philosophy in action, Mr. Garrett also said that most of the hunting would be done in the New Zealand “patrol area” anyway. (New Zealand may “patrol” the area, but those are still international waters).

The Austrialian government aren’t the only ones who’ll be scaling back the production:

Greenpeace will not go to Antarctica this year to concentrate on an anti-whaling campaign in Japan and a court case against some of its activists over the alleged theft of whale meat.

Isn’t it fascinating how the possibility of a jail term can so quickly change an organization’s priorities?

But why did the Australian government change its mind? Might the June meeting between prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Fukuda Yasuo have had something to do with it?

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Japanese counterpart Yasuo Fukuda have failed to resolve an emotionally charged row over whaling, but agree that the rift should not hurt the countries’ alliance.

“Prime Minister Fukuda and I agreed that you can have disagreement between friends,” Mr Rudd told a joint news conference. “We’ve also agreed that this disagreement would not undermine in any ways the strong and positive nature of our bilateral relationship. And we will be working in the period ahead diplomatically in search of a solution on this question.”

How jolly diplomatic it all sounds!

Perhaps the diplomatic solution was Mr. Fukuda reminding Mr. Rudd–if he needed reminding–that Japan is Australia’s biggest export market, and many of the products it purchases, such as beef and grain, can just as easily be purchased elsewhere. Japan is also one of the country’s largest foreign investors. That’s not an unimportant consideration, because Australia encourages foreign investment as a way to ameliorate its current account deficit. Another consideration is that they would prefer the investment to come from Japan rather than from China.

Though it won’t be the same old show without Austrialian and Greenpeace ships in the Sea Hunt, one of the other players has added a cast member for this season’s tour. The Eastern Hemisphere’s version of the insane clown posse, Cap’n Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd, announced that actress Daryl Hannah would be joining his crew. Ms. Hannah is a noted maritime affairs expert whose father was the owner of a tugboat and barge company. She also played a mermaid in the film Splash and starred in the TV film Shark Swarm. The latter film seems to have been an effort to maintain the viability of Grade C science fiction in the entertainment industry:

A fisherman and his family fight to take down a greedy real estate developer who has released toxins into the ocean, turning the area’s sharks into bloodthirsty hunters.

Then again, maybe they were presenting a parody. It’s hard to tell with Hollywood these days.

It’s also reassuring that the lovable skipper hasn’t changed a bit since he last showed up on our radar:

Watson himself was shot during one of the forays (last year). “I was wearing a bullet-proof vest, ” he told an Australian newspaper, “but the bullet hit my badge (an anti-poaching badge) so I had this bullet and I jokingly gave it to the guy who played Grissom in CSI (actor William Petersen) – he’s one of our supporters – and said ‘Hey, take a look at this because no one else will.’

Could it be that the reason no one else wanted to look at his bullet is that no one believed his story? Had someone from the Japanese whaling fleet actually fired a lethal weapon at him (and when was the last time you heard of someone employed by the Japanese government using a firearm overseas?) the shameless publicity hound would have hauled the Japanese crew members in front of some court faster than you can say Captain Queeg.

Not that they have to worry about lacking firepower in the unlikely event it comes down to a gun battle. Sea Shepherd reportedly carries AK-47s on board their ships.

Here’s the old salt describing his objectives to a sympathetic reporter:

“We intend to sink the Japanese fleet economically,” said Watson.

Now that’s a great idea for a musical: A seagoing version of Man of La Mancha!

Here’s how the reporter describes Sea Shepherd’s approach:

Sea Shepherd uses innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas.

The “innovative direct-action tactics” that Sea Shepherd takes “when necessary” has involved the sinking of 10 ships around the world by ramming, and a failed attempt at ramming the Nisshin Maru two years ago (which did more damage to their ship than to the Japanese vessel). It’s also worthy of note that Paul Watson’s confrontation of “illegal activities on the high seas” landed him jail time in two different countries on two different continents.

The Steve Irwin, the lead vessel in Sea Shepherd’s two-boat fleet, flies the Skull and Crossbones during its voyages. When will someone take them at their word and start to deal with them as real pirates instead of playacting pretenders?

That would be unlikely to bother the wealthy Hollywood stars who back the group. Their agents undoubtedly purchased some insurance before the actors forked over the cash for the mini-fleet to serve as their proxies in the environmental war while they serve on the home front on back lot and sound stage.

The Steve Irwin is due to weigh anchor and set sail on 1 December after Watson lines up some more financing, so expect the curtain to rise on the latest installment in this farce sometime in January.

Posted in Environmentalism, Food, International relations, Traditions | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Taiwan’s pig bile shampoo

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 20, 2008

‘Twas a brave man that first ate an oyster.
– Jonathan Swift

WHILE LOOKING FOR something else, I stumbled across this article explaining that Taiwanese merchants have created a shampoo out of pig bile.

“Using pig bile as a shampoo is not a new invention. It had just been forgotten about for a while. In fact, it is an ingredient that the older generation is quite aware of,” said Chen Chih-hao, the manager of the meat market in Nantou.

Mr. Chen says that his grandmother would visit the home of people in the neighborhood who slaughtered a pig and ask specifically for the gall bladder.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of women when it comes to discovering and using without hesitation new beauty aids or cosmetics, regardless of the source.

It’s not surprising that people would use something once it was shown to be safe and effective, but think about this: Who was the brave woman who had the idea to put that stuff on her head to begin with? And why did she do it?

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, New products, Taiwan | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (100): A festival at Tsushima’s oldest shrine

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NO ONE KNOWS for sure when the Kaijin Shinto shrine in Mine-cho, Tsushima, was built, but everyone agrees that it was the first one to be established in the island group. The earliest large-scale construction of Shinto shrines on the Tsushima islands began in the 7th century, so whenever it was founded, it’s pretty dang old.

Coming down the steps

Coming down the steps

Of course the shrine (which goes by two other names) conducts a festival, and the Kaijin shrine holds theirs early every September. It starts with a performance of the Myobu-no-Mai inside the shrine itself. The Myobu-no-Mai is a kagura dance that is a national intangible folk treasure dating from the 14th century. (Myobu is written as 命婦, the characters for life and woman/wife, respectively.)

Then about 60 parishioners and shrine officials dressed in white robes and the black eboshi headwear haul three mikoshi, or portable shrines, down a steep flight of 280 steps, following an advance party bearing lances and shields. That people in an isolated, thinly populated area are willing to go to this trouble every year speaks to an impressive level of commitment on several levels.

The group carries the mikoshi to a goryosho, a designated “resting place” near the beach. After some prayers, the priests head to the seashore and ceremonially cast some zuki, small local shellfish, into the sea to pray for a bountiful catch. The festival is also held in supplication for household safety and a big harvest.

As an indication of just how long the Kaijin shrine has been around and Tsushima’s position as a waystation in the Korea Strait, they have on display in a separate hall a statue of a standing Buddha (Nyorai). Designated an important national treasure, this statue is thought to be a work from the 8th century’s Unified Silla period. Buddhist art during this period was an art of the nobility, and the style is considered to be the essence of Korean ethnic culture.

And no, there’s nothing at all unusual about a Japanese Shinto shrine having a statue of the Buddha made on the Korean Peninsula on the premises.

The shrine also has a wooden mask that’s been designated as a tangible cultural treasure of Nagasaki Prefecture. Try the shrine’s Japanese-language page here for more photos of the exterior.

Thanks to WordPress (and Google in this case), I now have the capability to post videos here without spending any money on bandwidth. To take advantage of that feature, here is a video of the Tsushima festival. It lasts about 2:52. There are Japanese subtitles, but other than noting that the dancers purposely face the four directions, they don’t say anything you don’t already know. There’s one puzzler: Why would the priest turn his back to the sea before ceremonially casting the shells?

Afterwords: Readers have mentioned in the past that the photos here were fuzzy, but that problem seems to have been solved after a WordPress upgrade. I’ve gone back and re-uploaded the photos for all the posts in the Festival section, so they should be very clear now. The next step is to do the same thing for the posts in all the other categories.

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

Korea’s three 21st century invasions of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 18, 2008

“Maybe I should rewrite the lyric of ‘Dokdo is Japan’s land’ in the song to ‘Tsushima is also our land’.”
Bak In-ho, composer of the popular Korean song Dokdo is Our Land, in a recent interview

“독도(獨島) 대마도(對馬島) 구주(九州) 시마네현(島根縣)도 우리 땅이다”
– 표만웅(소설가)
“Dokdo (Takeshima), Daemado (Tsushima), Kyushu, and Shimane Prefecture are our land”
– Korean novelist Pyo Man-un

AS IF ONE territorial dispute over a small island group weren’t enough to poison the well of improving Japanese-South Korean relations, another squabble is emerging over a different group of Japanese islands. This one is driven primarily by ill-advised Korean behavior and those elements of Korean society with a taste for opéra bouffe political gestures.

It would not be accurate to call this a territorial dispute—no one with an adult outlook or a triple-digit IQ considers the territory to be at dispute—but the recent mini-tempest is forcing people on both sides of the Sea of Japan to divert their attention from more productive and profitable matters. The focus of the commotion is Tsushima, an island group consisting of two primary islands with a combined area of 276 square miles, 90% of which is forest and 3% of which is arable land. Tsushima has a population of roughly 38,000 people (and an estimated 40,000 deer and 20,000 wild boar). The islands lie 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Korean coastline, which is visible from a mountaintop observation deck on clear days. They are administered as a city within Nagasaki Prefecture.

An important factor that must not be overlooked is the thriving interaction that has existed for millenia between the people of Kyushu and the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, pre-dating such concepts as a Japanese or Korean nation-state. Because it lies in the middle of the Korea Strait, Tsushima has naturally been at the center of this activity, serving as a commercial and political go-between for the Japanese central government and the Korean Peninsula for centuries.

One reason the reawakened South Korean interest in Tsushima is troubling the Japanese is that the islands have long been considered an important link in the chain of national defense. Japan built its first defensive fortifications there in the seventh century (against the Chinese). They have maintained that approach to the present day, as shown by their modernization of the defenses in the 19th century (against the Russians and British), and the Air Self-Defense Force radar station located there now.

Nonetheless, Tsushima had largely been ignored by outsiders until three recent Korean invasions of the island and the controversy over the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan upset the balance. Here’s what’s been happening.

The first Korean invasion: Garbage

Trash from the Korean Peninsula started to become a serious problem in 2004. According to the Tsushima municipal government, about 250 tons of cans, bottles, containers, plastic bags and other kinds of waste—including disposable hypodermic syringes with intact needles—washed up on the shoreline that year, most of it coming from South Korea. (Some also came from China and Russia.) The trash tonnage rose to 650 in 2005 and climbed to 4,000 last year.

According to the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, 85% of the refuse that washes ashore on the Japanese coasts comes from South Korea. (It’s easy to identify the origin of containers or packaging for commercial products.) The Japanese government disposes of 100,000 tons of seaside trash annually.

The sheer mass of garbage has overwhelmed Tsushima’s ability to deal with it all. Some of it has to be shipped to Fukuoka for disposal, saddling the municipal government with a 5-million-yen bill (about $US 51,600) every year. Islanders have formed an NPO consisting of about 80 volunteer sanitary engineers, but they have trouble storing all the debris until it can be disposed. (The trash they collect is bagged and fills up a parking lot at a business site owned by one of the members.)

Tsushima officials asked Seoul to help clean up some of their mess. The Korean response has been largely a volunteer effort. About 300 university students come from Seoul for a weekend every year to pick up after their countrymen. One report says they managed to gather an estimated 200-300 tons in a weekend, but that would mean each student stooped over and picked up a ton of trash by themselves in a two-day period. Some Korean women’s groups have also volunteered to help.

While the islanders are resigned to the inevitability of becoming the dumpster for a certain amount of flotsam and jetsam because of their geographical location, having to spend so much time and money to rid their own back yard of rubbish that should have been handled in South Korea is unlikely to inculcate feelings of international friendship.

The second Korean invasion: Tourists

There has been a 400% increase in tourism to Tsushima in the past five years, and South Koreans account for 99% of all foreign tourists to the islands. Most of the tourists are families and fishermen (or both), and they usually arrive on the Sea Flower 2, a ship operated by Daea Express Shipping out of Busan. The Sea Flower 2 makes the 2 hour and 10 minute trip 10 times a month.

Here are the annual statistics for the number of Korean tourists coming to Tsushima through its two seaports starting in 2003. The figures in parentheses represent the percentage of tourists accounted for by South Koreans among all foreign tourists to the islands.

2003: 15,725 (97.9%)
2004: 21,055 (99.3%)
2005: 36,768 (99.5%)
2006: 42,467 (99.4%) That year the number of South Korean tourists surpassed the island’s population.
2007: 65,750 (99.5%)

Tsushima Mayor Takarabe Yoshinari recently commented in the Japanese press on the trends for 2008:

“Tourism at this point is up 44% from last year’s total. There have been 50% year-on-year increases for the past several years, so the number of tourists is likely to reach 80 or 90,000.”

That means the number of South Korean tourists will have doubled in just two years, and the number of tourists this year will be twice that of the Tsushima population.

One can easily imagine the difficulties that arise when the number of people visiting an isolated, rural area with a population unprepared for tourism increases so sharply in such a short period of time—particularly when all of them are Koreans, who are not known as the most courteous of overseas guests.


The sheer number of Korean tourists, the unfortunate tendency among some Koreans to behave as if they are the lords of all they survey, and a local population reduced to acting as servants in their own home makes it inevitable that some friction would occur. While there are no statistics, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. The Japanese recoil at the habit of some Korean men of spitting in the street. A local Chamber of Commerce official says they are having difficulties trying to find ways to deal with the new problem of the human excrement now being deposited on the islands’ mountains. (Tourists are the ones doing the recreational mountain climbing).

Tales of Korean shoplifting are so numerous that, fairly or not, Koreans have now become tagged with that reputation locally. Here is the standard Korean motus operandi according to those stories: Large groups of people arrive at a convenience store together to occupy staff attention while the members on the fringes help themselves to the goods on the shelves. There are also stories of cab drivers getting stiffed for their fares.

The primary occupation of the islanders over the years has been fishing, and Korean fishermen are not winning their country any international goodwill in Tsushima. The locals claim the Koreans catch and keep fingerlings that the Japanese would toss back (to maintain the fish population), store them in coolers, and take them home for resale in local markets.

Bilateral amity was also not served by the group of 21 Korean military veterans who showed up in Tsushima this July to hold a demonstration outside city hall with a banner reading, “Dokdo and Tsushima are both South Korean land.” In keeping with the now-standard mise-en-scène for the vaudeville of modern Joseon nationalism, several members cut their fingers to write messages in blood on the large banner.

It’s not difficult to find on the web photos of Koreans on the beaches of Tsushima planting in the sand a Korean flag that bears the foregoing slogan, next to a Japanese flag in which the red rising sun in the middle has been cut out. They were published by the Yeonhap news agency of South Korea.

Nevertheless, the Tsushimanians are, for the most part, accommodating to the new tourists. Many of the road signs on Tsushima are now written in Korean as well as Japanese. The influx does provide new employment opportunities, albeit primarily at menial tasks in hotels and other facilities. The tourists are also spending cash on the island, though no reliable estimates of the economic benefits have yet to be released.

One factor mitigating the economic benefit, however, is that the cash is increasingly being spent at facilities owned by Korean interests, rather than at Japanese-owned establishments.

The third Korean invasion: Capital

Following the wave of South Korean tourism, Korean capital is increasingly being invested in Tsushima real estate to build or refurbish resort hotels, fishing camps, and villas or other lodgings. Unlike South Korea, Japan has few restrictions on the repatriation of foreign currency. (South Korea is known for having the OECD’s highest transaction costs, which include a requirement to buy government bonds when purchasing residential property. Also, the South Korean government recommends that locally earned income be repatriated through local companies.)

In addition, the land on Tsushima is cheaper than that on South Korea’s Jeju Island, also located in the Korea Strait.

Therefore, the Korean visitors to Tsushima are increasingly staying in Korean-owned facilities, which means a significant portion of the income generated stays in Korean hands.

According to sources on Tsushima, large Korean real estate purchases began about 20 years ago by people affiliated with religious institutions. They snapped up properties in cash and bargained over prices in 10 million yen units, an amount roughly worth $US 130,000 today. (What the religious groups have been doing with this property since then is unclear.)

Lately, however, individuals have been doing the shopping. About 15 lodges on the island are now Korean-owned, and there are ongoing negotiations to buy more. The Korean practice for buying property is to create a local subsidiary, which then buys the property in the name of a Japanese. Tsushima city officials say it’s difficult to determine how much property the Koreans have purchased. The lodges, for example, are dotted all over the islands, and it’s not possible to nail down the ownership from the documents alone.

Foreigners filling their shopping baskets in property-buying sprees are enough to cause concern in any country. Even the United States, which is relatively open about such matters, started fretting about Middle Eastern oil money and Japanese bubble economy profits being funneled into real estate in the 70s and 80s.

Tsushima radar installation seen from observation deck

Tsushima radar installation seen from observation deck

Tsushima’s remote and rural location might not be generating such concern if not for one factor: The Japanese have always considered the islands a key part of national defense. The observation platform in the first photo in this post is used mostly to scan the horizon for the city of Busan across the strait—but it also looks directly down on the radar installation at the Unishima base of Japan’s air self-defense forces.

Next door to the military facilities is a new, Korean-built hotel. It was formerly the location of a cultured pearl plant (once an island industry), but the plant shut its doors in 2002. The plant’s owner negotiated with the Japanese government to have the naval self-defense forces buy it. When talks lagged, it was bought in the name of a local islander with Korean capital, reportedly provided by the president of a company on the peninsula.

What difference does it make to have a hotel next to a radar installation? The people who stay in Korean-owned tourist hotels in Tsushima are Korean tourists, and the South Korean government has a less-than-stellar record for preventing IDs from falling into the hands of agents from North Korea. And then there is the significant ethnic Korean population living in China next to North Korea.

Korean claims

Each of these problems, either individually or in the aggregate, might be resolved with little difficulty were it not for the reemergence of South Korean fables that Tsushima is their territory to begin with.

After Shimane asserted its claim to the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan, the South Korean city of Masan on 18 March 2005 declared 19 June to be Daemado Day, which is the old Korean name for Tsushima and the one favored by Korean nationalists. (It derives from the Chinese characters 對馬島. The official South Korean name for the site, however, is Tsushima Island, which they write as 쓰시마섬.)

Masan also claimed Tsushima as part of the country’s South Gyeongsang province. When asked to retract its claim, the Masan City Council refused on the grounds that Tsushima was never formally ceded to Japan.

The Tsushima City Council sent a protest to Masan on 6 October 2006, asking them to reconsider. Masan’s official reply:

“It is not worth a response.”

The Masan declaration has plenty of precedents. During discussions of the disposition of Japanese territory after its defeat in World War II when the peace treaty was being written, the South Korean government came up with a list of islands it wanted to snatch while the snatching was good. One of these was Takeshima, which the Americans rejected. Another was a sunken island that no longer existed. A third was Tsushima. The excuse?

“In the heart of every Korean is a longing for the return of these islands.” South Korean President Ii Sung-man, (Syngman Rhee) 17 August 1948

Those maudlin sentiments will be quite familiar to those who have followed the debate over Takeshima—only the names of the islands were changed to suit the circumstances. But the Americans were having none of that, either. From a U.S. State Department report on 30 March 1950:

“While many Koreans may be convinced of the validity of the claim (on Tsushima), it is obvious that the government’s demands and the popular support for them have not been based on a rational, legal basis of the issue.”

One notes with interest the use of the word “rational”.

By 19 July the next year, South Korean government agreed to withdraw their demand for Tsushima.

But popular support in South Korea for these claims still remains. A public opinion survey conducted this summer asked Koreans the question, “Should we demand that Japan return Tsushima?” Those responding in the affirmative constituted a majority at 50.6%, while 33.5% were opposed. Indeed, some Japanese in Tsushima suspect that Korean tour guides on the their islands contribute to the chorus of “Daemado is our land too” as they shepherd visitors around to different sites.

The South Korean military remains interested as well. In July 2007, Kim Seong-man, now a retired vice-admiral (the second-highest rank in the South Korean navy) and a former high official in that navy, submitted a request to the Korean government that a plan be formulated for the invasion of Tsushima.

This summer, 50 South Korean parliamentarians from both the ruling Grand National Party and opposition parties submitted a resolution to the National Assembly demanding that Seoul claim Tsushima. GNP member Ho Tae-yol explained their reasoning on 16 August:

“Rather than insisting that Dokdo (Takeshima) is Korean land, a method that would have a more effective response would be to insist that Tsushima is also our land. There is more historical and documentary evidence that Tsushima is Korean land than Dokdo is Japanese land. In addition, President Ii Sung-man said that Tsushima was Korean land. Geographically, it is closer to South Korea than to Japan…

“A genealogical study on Tsushima found there are four types of proteins, including AYW, in the hepatitis B genetic material. The ADR protein appears in South Korea. On the four main Japanese islands, this protein is in a 7-3 ratio with the other proteins. On Tsushima, it is nearly 100%…

“Historically speaking, Tsushima became Japanese from the Meiji period. The Tsushima feudal lord was appointed during the Silla period and ruled until the Joseon dynasty. Conditions in Japan changed, so the Tsushima feudal lord turned neutral and paid tribute to both. (Therefore) it would be a better method to counteract (the Japanese) by insisting that Tsushima is also Korean territory.”

A discussion of the relevance of hepatitis B genetic material in this context and the reasoning that demanding the return of Tsushima is “a more effective response” to Japanese claims on Takeshima is better left to psychologists. An examination of the historical record would be more to the point.

The history

Those South Koreans who insist that “Daemado is our land too” cite the supposed Korean occupancy of Tsushima during the Silla period and Korean “control” of the islands during part of the Joseon dynasty.

Silla was one of the three kingdoms of ancient Korea, and it is traditionally dated from 57 BC to 935 AD. The problem with the claim that Tsushima was under Korean control during the Silla period is that it is based entirely on word of mouth. As the Korean scholar Dr. Paik Sung-jong notes here, there is no documentary evidence for Korean control during that period at all. (Scroll down further to read the questions he was answering.)

The modern Korean historian Lee Hyun-bok cites a history of Korea written by American missionary Homer Hulbert in 1905 that mentions Silla’s occupation of Tsushima. Again, there is no documentation for this claim, and as this biographical sketch makes clear, Mr. Hulbert—who was expelled from Korea by the Japanese–was more of a Korean nationalist than even some Koreans.

In contrast, there is extensive documentary evidence from the period that Tsushima was Japanese (or what could be considered Japanese in the pre-nation-state era.)

The Sanguo Zhi, or Records of the Three Kingdoms, is a Chinese historical text written in the third century. One section, known as the Gishi Wajinden in Japanese, contains the first written account of the Japanese polity at that time, which it called Yamatai (and which eventually became Yamato). One of the 30 settlements in the Yamatai was the Tsuikai kingdom—the present day Tsushima, where 1,000 families then lived.

Tsushima is also mentioned as part of Japan in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). Dating from 680, it is the oldest surviving book in the country, and is based on oral histories and another written volume that has been lost. The islands also appear in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), a history of Japan completed in 720. This work states that the islands were a staging point for a Japanese attack on the Silla kingdom. The 18th Silla king also wrote about these attacks in 408. (The Nihon Shoki is also a source of information on the struggles between the ancient Korean kingdoms of Silla, Goguryeo, and Baekje.)

Japan set up defensive establishments against China on Tsushima in 664. A Silla attack against the island with about 100 ships and 2,500 men was repelled in 894. So Kuremune, the founder of the local line of feudal lords, was sent to Tsushima from Fukuoka in the 12th century; his name first appeared in records in 1196.

In both 1274 and 1281 there were large attacks by the Mongols assisted by forces from the Goryeo dynasty (the predecessor of the Joseon dynasty). Records state that many men were killed or captured in the first attack. (During the first invasion, the Tsushima women were gathered in one place, a hole cut in their hands to allow a cord to pass through, and tied together as a group to a ship.)

In 1419, a large force from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) attacked, but suffered large losses and withdrew.

In 1443, the local feudal lord So Sadamori negotiated with the Joseon dynasty a trade agreement known in Japan as the Kakitsu Treaty. This defined the limits on the amount of trade, both in the amount of ships and the value of trade conducted between the two. Tsushima was permitted to send 50 ships a year. This allowed So a near-monopoly on trade with the Korean Peninsula. In return, the Koreans sent 200 koku of rice to Tsushima every year (1 koku is approximately 278.3 liters).

One of the Korean negotiators for this treaty was Sin Suk-chu. The Joseon government officially printed, and later reprinted, his book Haedong Cheguk-ki, in which Tsushima is considered a part of Japan. The maps in the book confirm the government’s position. (The Joseon dynasty was inconsistent, however. Some of their maps show Tsushima as Korean, the latest of which dates from 1860.)

Yet it is this treaty, in which a tributary relationship was created between Tsushima and the Joseon dynasty, which forms the basis for the Korean claims on the island. Here is a passage explaining why a tributary relationship in East Asia had no relationship to sovereignty.

Tributary relations normally involved no element of administrative control or interference by the hegemon. At most, the hegemonic power might intervene in succession issues and might ratify the accession of a monarch. For this reason, the extrapolation from pre-modern inter-state relations to the modern international system is problematic. The modern-day heirs of tribute hegemons tend to claim that the tributary relationship should be understood as an acknowledgement of the hegemon’s sovereignty in the modern world, whereas former tributary states deny that there was any transfer of sovereignty.

For instance, modern Chinese authorities have sometimes produced a list of tributaries of Imperial China which implies Chinese sovereign claim over territories not now regarded as Chinese. An unusually elaborate and formalized tribute system developed in East Asia. Historically, the Emperor of China saw himself as the emperor of the entire civilized world. It was not possible for such an emperor to have equal diplomatic relations with any other power, and so all diplomatic relations in the region were constructed by the Chinese as tributary. The disdain of the state ideology of Confucianism for trade, and the conceit that Chinese civilization had no need of products or technology from outside meant that trade, when it was permitted, was also constructed as tributary. Diplomatic missions and trading parties from non-Chinese regions were interpreted in Chinese records as being tributary, regardless of the intention of those regions.

Even a casual scholar would recognize that the tributary relationship was that era’s mechanism for conducting official trade between two states of unequal strength. (The value of the tribute paid by Tsushima to Joseon, incidentally, was trifling in comparison to the rice received in return.)

One also wonders why Mr. Ho would use these historical circumstances as a justification for Korean sovereignty. Applying that same logic would mean the entire Korean Peninsula belongs to China.

This tributary relationship lasted for 200 years, but that did not prevent the So family from contributing 5,000 men to the 1591 invasion of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and to allow the island to be used as a staging point. The Tsushima forces were among the first to attack Busan, Seoul, and Pyeongyang in that unsuccessful invasion. Incidentally, the Joseon government did not record this invasion in their official records at the time because Koreans did not consider Japan a civilized country. (For their part, the Japanese who dealt with the Joseon court considered them effeminate, but those men were battle-hardened veterans of the Japanese civil wars.)

Tsushima continued to be ruled by So family during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), while it maintained trade with Joseon and its role as mediator. During this period, Tsushima samurai escorted Korean missions into Japan. They (and the Dutch in Nagasaki) were the only foreigners allowed in the country during this period of self-imposed isolation.

The Japanese government’s response

Japan’s print and broadcast media has recently brought the Tsushima controversy to the public’s attention, particularly the land purchases, and that means politicians are required to address the issue.

The public position of Prime Minister Aso Taro is that he doesn’t view it as much of a problem. His comment about Tsushima land purchases made quite a lot of sense:

“The land has been purchased legally. It’s the same as when Japan bought American property. We can’t say that it’s all well and good when we buy something, but not so good when other people buy it.”

Regarding the bill submitted in the Korean National Assembly, Mr. Aso observed:

“Not once has the South Korean government said that Tsushima was South Korean territory.”

The Foreign Ministry is also taking a hands-off approach:

“It’s not for us to comment as a government about legal transactions. (We’re) not sure whether (the purchases) can be restricted.”

But to allay any concerns, another foreign ministry official added:

“We’ve just become aware that real estate is being purchased with South Korean capital. We should respond appropriately if there is a political motivation. We should collect information.”

Added Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura Takeo:

“Just because they introduced the bill doesn’t mean they passed it. It’s clear from a historical perspective that Tsushima has always been Japanese territory.”

Mr. Kawamura also addressed national security concerns:

“The defense facilities on the island are properly functioning. There’s nothing to worry about, but from the perspective of Japanese security, it’s something that we of course have to think about as a country.”

Said a Defense Ministry official:

“It’s very difficult to determine the details, such as what sort of people bought the resort hotels, and the reason for their purchase.”

Issues such as these will inevitably arouse primal emotions, so of course some politicians, from motivations both altruistic and personal, will be sure to let the public know that They Are Very Concerned.

One group that has come to the forefront is the Diet Members League for Acting to Defend Japanese Territory. It has 47 members from both houses in the Diet and several political parties. The league is chaired by upper house member Yamatani Eriko of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (Machimura faction). She is also a member of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians Union.

At an emergency meeting this month, the Diet Members League agreed to formulate legislative proposals to restrict real estate purchases by foreign capital on Tsushima–particularly next to military installations–and enhance the self-defense forces there.

Upper house MP Yamauchi Toshio (LDP Yamasaki faction) asked a Ministry of Defense official how they would respond to an emergency (i.e., invasion). The official answered that the SDF is fully prepared for any eventuality, and even have a squad stationed there capable of conducting guerilla warfare in the mountainous and wooded terrain. He boasted that they even know the local animal trails. Replied Yamauchi:

“I have a different sense of the danger involved. The islanders would suffer the most damage in a guerilla campaign. We should station land, naval, and air forces there.”

Hawkish lower house member Nishimura Shingo of the Reform Club group (and former member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan) says defensive capabilities for Tsushima need to be strengthened because the islands have 900 kilometers (about 560 miles) of coastline, and stretch for 80 kilometers from north to south.

The Diet Members League plans to visit Tsushima and talk to Mayor Takarabe about the land sales and possible defensive measures. Meanwhile, the True Conservative Policy Research Group, chaired by Finance Minister Nakagawa Shoichi, has already made plans to send a delegation of its own to nose around later this month. The group was formed in December with 80 members from both houses of the Diet. Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi acts as the chairman’s representative.

Lower house member Furuya Keiji (LDP Ibuki faction), commented:

“This is a problem of sovereignty. Our territory is steadily being hijacked by legal means…When overseas corporations buy (American) companies, the Exon-Florio Provision enables the purchase to be halted if there are national security concerns. Shouldn’t we be thinking of…efforts to write a Japanese version of that legislation?”

Here’s lower house member Inada Tomomi (LDP Machimura faction):

“Using the names of islanders to purchase (real estate) is a criminal offense under the law. Shouldn’t we be able to conduct a police investigation using the provisions of the current laws to identify the motivations (for the real estate purchases)?

Suzuki Muneo is also showing some interest. Mr. Suzuki was once a second-tier LDP baron with connections to the Foreign Ministry, but served jail time for financial irregularities. After his release, he launched a vanity party, returned to the Diet as a proportional representative, and formed a loose alliance with the opposition DPJ. He demanded a response from the government to his questions about the purchase of Tsushima real estate by South Korean-affiliated capital. He asked whether the government had any details on these purchases.

The government’s written response:

“We do not have a detailed grasp of the circumstances. In general, real estate purchases conducted properly in accordance with the related laws are not a special problem.”

He also asked whether the government had filed a formal objection with the South Korean government over the introduction of a resolution in the assembly that Tsushima was South Korean territory. The government blandly answered:

“We have responded to it appropriately”.

The conversation between the two foreign ministries must have been a fascinating one.

That brings us to the purported observation of hawk/traditionalist lower house member Hiranuma Takeo. Mr. Hiranuma was a former LDP member thrown out of the party for opposition to former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s program to private the postal ministry, and who spurned an offer to return to the party after Mr. Koizumi left office. He is now an independent allied with the opposition DPJ.

Mr. Hiranuma attended a recent meeting of the Nakagawa Shoichi-led group (he is a member and the two are friends), and newspaper photos show him seated next to Mr. Nakagawa at that meeting.

In its article on the meeting, the Japan Times included this sentence:

Hiranuma referred to the dispatch of British forces to the Falkland Islands by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, saying any sovereign state should act with similar poise to defend its territory.

Two normally sober-minded English-language bloggers in South Korea saw that sentence and wrote the words “wacky” and “amazing” to describe it. Now that’s an understandable—albeit superficial—response, particularly for those not paying close attention to the issue. But let’s unpack that quote a little further. As we do so, keep in mind that, as I’ve mentioned before, I hold no brief for Hiranuma Takeo (so don’t even think about going there.)

  • A Japanese-language Google News search using the terms Hiranuma and Tsushima turns up no Japanese language reports of this quote. It doesn’t mean that none exist or that he didn’t say it; it just means that I couldn’t find any. But it is worth noting that while there have been many articles in the vernacular press about this issue lately, very few specifically mention Mr. Hiranuma.
  • All the other quotes above are translated from recent articles in the Japanese press. As they make clear, the Japanese mass media is quite willing and able to provide direct quotes from other politicians about the need to beef up the defense on Tsushima, including several from his ally Mr. Nakagawa. Why then would, for example, the Asahi (politically on the left) or the Sankei Shimbun (on the right), overlook this one? Surely both would glom that statement to further their own editorial views.
  • There are no other sources for this quote in the English-language press.
  • Read that passage again and you’ll see that it’s not a direct quote; the Japan Times is paraphrasing what he said. Yet the newspaper had no problem at all with inserting a direct quote from Mr. Hiranuma earlier in the article.
  • Apart from Akahata, the house organ of Japan’s Communist Party, the Japan Times is farther to the left than any of the Japanese dailies. They have a well-deserved reputation in Japan for a combination of left-wing advocacy and shoddy journalistic practices. In addition, the newspaper’s chairman and publisher, Ogasawara Toshiaki, has South Korean business interests.
  • Is Mr. Hiranuma capable of saying something outrageous? He certainly is. Is the Japan Times capable of bushwhacking him by putting words in his mouth? They most certainly are. (Mr. Hiranuma, would you say the situation on Tsushima is similar to that of…)

It would be most informative to know the situation in which Mr. Hiranuma delivered that statement—and just as informative to know why only The Japan Times has it, and why they chose not to put it in direct quotes.

But, let’s take The Japan Times at its word (I know, I know) and assume that he actually said that or something like it without being prompted. Here’s a question for our blogger friends:

When a rear admiral in the South Korean Navy asks his government to draw up invasion plans for Tsushima, what is a Japanese politician supposed to say?

For as long as the region has been inhabited by humankind, the people of the Korean Peninsula, Kyushu, the Ryukyus, China, and Mongolia have been mixing, mingling, visiting, living among, buying from, selling to, mating with, running scams on, killing, torturing, arguing with, blustering at, and partying with each other since before the days of written history. In short, they’ve behaved like people everywhere. This interaction will continue long after all of us are gone.

Now, however, the South Koreans are swarming in record numbers to Tsushima—considered by the Japanese to be a strategic defense outpost for as long as there has been a Japan—and using it as their garbage dump and toilet, upsetting the local equilibrium and infrastructure, spending money at facilities recently purchased by Korean interests and repatriating the funds, supporting a popular domestic movement that claims the islands as their own, and holding raucous, in-your-face, Seoul-style demonstrations to assert their claim in front of Tsushima City Hall–in other words, showing up out of the clear blue and acting as if they own the place.

All things considered, the Japanese response so far has been remarkably muted. No other East Asian country would behave with such restraint in the face of such actions.

If, after observing Korean behavior, Japan concludes that it has to reassess the levels of its military forces on Tsushima and pass a law limiting foreign ownership, and Japanese-Korean relations grow chillier as a result, the South Koreans will have no one to blame but themselves.

But they won’t. They never do. They’ll blame the Japanese instead.


  1. A Japanese-language translation of some of Mr. Pyo’s comments can be found here. The page contains a link to the original Korean-language article.
  2. Vice-Admiral Kim was referred to in Japanese as a “commander” in the South Korean navy, but I cannot find a logical equivalent for that in English, nor is it clear what his duties were while on active duty. I don’t think he was the CNO. The navy is divided into four “headquarters”, and he might have commanded one of those. That is all speculation, however.
  3. Memo to the Japan Times: Brush up on your English, guys. Phrases like “numerous numbers of” don’t enhance the tone of your newspaper. Try something like “many” instead.

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, History, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 30 Comments »

Downright neighborly

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 14, 2008

WHILE POLITICIANS on both sides of the Sea of Japan continue to troll for votes by creating hobgoblins that arouse the sort of people who like to argue in the on-line comment sections of newspaper websites, everyone else in the neighborhood seems to be getting along just hunky-dory. That’s particularly true in the nether regions of both countries, which–not coincidentally–is the area where Japan and South Korea are geographically the closest.

One example is the region’s female commercial fishermen. Twelve women who fish for a living from Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, and Yamaguchi prefectures went to Busan, South Korea, on the 12th to hold their second annual meeting with six women from the host city’s federation of maritime industry cooperatives. Those four prefectures lie just across the Korean Strait from Busan. Among the mutual problems they discussed were soaring fuel costs and the difficulty in finding successors to their business.

The Korean delegate tasked with giving the welcoming address said, “We hope to achieve mutual development with our neighbors across the sea.” In reply, the Japanese speaker during the opening ceremonies remarked, “We will look for new ideas through our exchange.”

Here’s another example: The Fukuoka Asia Art Museum (link also on right sidebar) and the Busan Museum of Modern Art announced the signing of a cooperative agreement on the same day. Starting next year, the two museums will loan each other works from their collection for exhibits, exchange staff members, and conduct joint surveys. They decided to get started next year because that will mark the 20th anniversary of the sister city arrangement between Fukuoka City and Busan. To commemorate that relationship, next year has been declared the friendship year for the two cities.

The first exhibit resulting from the new agreement will be a showing of the Fukuoka museum’s works at the Busan museum in the autumn of 2009. The Japanese museum is the only one in the world devoted to Asian art, while the Korean museum focuses on modern art and art from the southeastern part of the peninsula.

Finally, a symposium will be held tomorrow at Kyushu University’s International Hall on the topic, “Regional Ties that Transcend International Borders: A new venture for Fukuoka and Busan” . It is being jointly sponsored by a South Korean academic society and the Kyushu University’s South Korean Research Center. Their stated objective is to continue working toward the formulation of mechanisms for creating a transnational economic sphere.

Stepping back and looking at the region from a broader perspective makes it clear that there is a growing contemporary awareness among people in Kyushu and the southeastern Korean Peninsula that they constitute a de facto economic zone with shared cultural traits. Intraregional ties have waxed and waned for centuries, but now people are realizing the time to make it a formal, permanent reality is drawing near.

It might not be too much longer before these disparate groups in both countries will be able to stand together and tell their political representatives that if they aren’t willing to be part of the solution, they’re part of the problem…so either get with the plan or get out of the way.

Posted in Arts, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Too long in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 13, 2008

IN THE EARLY 1990s, there was a Tokyo-based English-language message board for PC users called TWICS. That was before the advent of Windows 95, when few people knew about the World Wide Web, much less used it.

As is the norm for Internet message boards, there were separate areas where people could discuss different topics. Many of the members were translators who had joined specifically to discuss Japanese-English translation subjects with other translators in a topic called “Honyaku”. (Honyaku still lives as an independent mailing list through Google.) There were also areas for discussing such topics as music, movies, books, Tokyo restaurants, and politics.

Early in the summer of 1993, a German member named Rene Rentzell created a topic called “Too Long in Japan”. The premise was simple: Finish the sentence that began, “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…”

The topic was an instant hit, and more than 1,400 messages were submitted in slightly more than a year. (TWICS no longer exists, I think, going out of business not long after that when the Web exploded in the mid-90s and it did not offer competitive prices as an IP.)

Many of those original messages were quite funny, and almost immediately they began to be passed around Japan and the world on the Net in shorter lists. Just about all of the lists I’ve seen cherry-picked the best from the original TWICS topic, however. For example, long-time poster Ken (the Japanese Ken) sent in a link to a website earlier this week that has some of the messages, and every one of them originated on TWICS.

I was a member of TWICS in those days and participated in that topic. As luck would have it, I stumbled across a nearly complete copy of the list, including the message headers, on a German site last year while looking for something else. (It was probably put there by Rene, who might have been understandably proud of what he started.)

I hesitated to put it up on this site because I wasn’t sure how some Japanese might react, but Ken assures me there will be no problem. Therefore, I’ve added the TWICS Ur-list as a separate page, which you can access either here or on the masthead at the top.

All the Internet lists I’ve seen have stripped away the headers identifying the posters. The list I found still had the headers, and I’ve retained them because some of these ideas are so clever that the original authors deserve the credit. Rene in those days wrote under the name RRR. One of the best and most prolific posters was Bill Lise (writing as Billlise), who inspired another Ampontan post here. (Bill came to Japan around 1965, so he had plenty of ammunition.) I also contributed to that topic under my real name, and one pleasant Sunday afternoon in July 1993 Bill and I engaged in a friendly battle royal over the Internet, which is included in toto here. (It starts at around post #312.)

Some of the jokes are obvious, but some are deliciously subtle, such as #90, #210, #396, and #917. If I had to choose a favorite it would be #543.

There were more than 1,400 notes for this topic, but I’ve removed off-topic chatter and the inevitable duplicates where I spotted them. Nevertheless, there are still about 1,000. For some reason, the list I found on the German site started at #13, so the ones before that are probably lost to history. This is a long list, so it might be difficult to read through it all at once. Think of it as a giant box of chocolates: It’s not possible to eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Also, one of my own originals wasn’t on the list I found:
You know you’ve been in Japan too long when–
— You’re talking on the phone to your father overseas and he suddenly asks, “What the hell are you grunting for?”

This particular joke was one of those often included in the early lists that circulated on the Internet, and that’s when I realized that the idea for this topic had struck a chord among long-term foreign residents. It resonated in particular because it was a true story, and readers remembered something similar happening to them, or could imagine it happening to them. In a way, the Japanese should feel pleased. It is an implicit recognition by the foreigners living in Japan just how much the country has meant and still means to their lives.

Once you get started, it’s hard to stop. Just while preparing this post, I came up with:
You know you’ve been in Japan too long when–
–You can listen to sumo on the radio and follow the action (which I’m doing right now!)
–You walk down the street and someone you don’t know all that well asks you, “Where are you going”, and instead of thinking, “What a nosy question”, you smile and say, “Oh, just over there.”
– You are talking to another person, who, while making jokes about a third person who is also present, says, “Oh, this is that,” and you immediately understand.
–You walk into a traditional sushi shop and aren’t surprised to see Christmas decorations.

The list dates from 1993-1994, so some of the messages (particularly about TV programs and personalities) might be difficult to understand for people who hadn’t come to Japan yet. A case in point is #504; getting that joke requires the knowledge of two different people in show business, a TV program that was popular in the early 90s, and another TV program that was popular more than a decade before that. There are occasional references to obatarian, a word I don’t hear so much any more, so I suppose that could be the basis for another joke: You know you’ve been in Japan too long if you know what an obatarian is!

If anyone is inspired to add to the list, feel free to add your own in the Comment section!

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, I couldn't make this up if I tried | 8 Comments »

Japan-India space alliance raises eyebrows

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 12, 2008

ONE PLANK of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s foreign policy was to forge closer ties with regional free market democracies, including Australia and India. While there is nothing inherently unusual about such alliances–indeed, they are natural–the idea raised some eyebrows in Chinese circles, for geographical reasons alone.

Mr. Abe didn’t stay in office long enough to make any headway in formalizing such an alliance, but Japan and India continued to discuss their mutual interests. These discussions bore fruit last month when the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) agreed to expand cooperation for disaster management.

As this article in the Asian Times by Peter J. Brown notes:

Japan has been using its weather satellites to provide free weather data to countries throughout Asia for many years without any hint of controversy, but this is quite different from deploying a new generation of surveillance satellites to monitor disasters.
Virtually all existing satellite-based multinational disaster management initiatives such as the “International Charter, Space and Major Disasters” depend upon the ability of the signatories to engage in the rapid tasking of their respective surveillance satellites. In other words, quickly altering the flight patterns of the surveillance satellites in question so they zoom right over a disaster zone is essential to the success of the mission at hand.

And the capability to alter the flight patterns of surveillance satellites means that the satellites have an obvious potential for dual use.

The article states that the Chinese are wondering if the United States is behind this cooperative venture and are using it as a means of containing them. Perhaps that is the case, but it is also true that the Japanese and Indians are more than capable of coming up with the idea on their own, and have the incentive to do so.

Mr. Brown fills a limited space with a lot of information, and the resultant lack of focus makes the article difficult to read. He quotes several people who are following regional events, but not all of them are convincing. For example:

Dr Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Department of National Security Studies at the US Naval War College, does not believe the Japan-India space relationship is picking up steam. “The consensus-driven decision making process used in Japan means that pretty much everything moves at a glacial pace,” said Johnson-Freese.

Dr. Johnson-Freese should be in a position to know, but she doesn’t account for the possibility that the Japan-India space ties could already have been under discussion for quite some time. She also overlooks the potential of the Japanese to move much more quickly than glacier speed when they’re concerned about their security. Satellites in the region can also monitor North Korean moves, for example.

Mr. Brown also quotes Dr. Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager at the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, about Chinese development of space:

While they would welcome the opportunity to be a competitive commercial space player, especially in the international launch services market where they have a strong advantage…

Perhaps I’m missing something, but if they have a strong advantage in the international launch services market, woundn’t they already have the opportunity to be competitive?

Says Dr. Johnson-Freese:

“China very much wants to be seen as both the leader of space efforts in Asia, and for developing nations. They are using their manned program to reap all the prestige awards it renders – which are considerable, if only in perceptions created – including that it is beating the US”.

Do people really think the Chinese are beating the Americans in a manned space program? The same Americans who flew to the moon and back 40 years ago and have been flying space shuttles for more than a quarter of a century?

But the article is still worth reading to gain an understanding of the growing Japanese interest in the possible military exploitation of space. Japan recently enacted the Space Basic Law, which incorporates considerations of the use of space for national security. And the Yomiuri Shimbun further revealed that the country is thinking of putting an early warning satellite into orbit that can detect the launch of enemy ballistic missiles.

It might be the case that the American input into Japanese strategic thinking is more limited than some suspect.

Posted in China, India, International relations, Military affairs, Science and technology | 1 Comment »

Clearing the air at sumo matches

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 10, 2008

SPORTS FANS around the world express their dissatisfaction with the turn of events on the playing field in different ways. Americans, for example, prefer to boo, while the Europeans whistle shrilly.

The Japanese don’t whistle, and it wasn’t until American baseball games were widely broadcast after pitcher Nomo Hideo went east in 1995 to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers that they picked up the booing habit. (There are still a lot fewer boo-birds in Japan than in the United States, however.)


But they definitely have their own way of making their feelings known when it comes to the national sport of sumo. Spectators attending sumo matches have been known to throw things at the ring, both in delight and anger, since the Edo period (1603-1868). In those days, the spectators would throw their haori, a short overgarment, into the ring to celebrate a win by their favorite rikishi. But the days of regular haori wearing are long gone. Instead of clothing, today’s Japanese are most likely to throw zabuton, the traditional cushions used for sitting on the floor at home.

The box seats, the prime seating areas at a sumo match, are usually sectioned off into groups of four, and the venue provides each of the seats in the box with a zabuton. Being handy and flingable, the cushions became a logical substitute for the haori, and they are hurled toward the ring by fans upset over a referee’s decision, the loss of a yokozuna (the top-ranked rikishi) to a lower-ranked opponent, or anything else that rubs them the wrong way.

That doesn’t mean the zabuton-throwing is condoned. The Japan Sumo Association, responsible for running the matches, broadcasts a request inside the hall every day of the six 15-day tournaments held during the year asking customers to refrain from abusing the furnishings. A similar written request is also printed on the daily list of scheduled matches distributed inside the hall. These have not been effective in eliminating the custom, however. It’s not easy even for the Japanese to end a centuries-old tradition just by asking nicely.

The reason for the request is that the square seat cushions don’t always fly in the direction they are flung, and someone could get hurt if they get hit by one. Says Dewano’umi, formerly known as the sekiwake Washuyama, now in charge of running the November Kyushu tournament:

“Throwing zabuton is dangerous. It’s astonishing that there haven’t been any accidents before. But it would be too late to take action after something (bad) happened. We thought of various ways to put a stop to it, and decided to make the zabuton in a shape that wouldn’t fly well.”

The new, difficult-to-throw zabuton made their debut at the Kyushu tournament at Fukuoka City’s Fukuoka Kokusai Center on Sunday the 9th. The space in the box seat areas have been expanded, and instead of having four individual square zabuton for each of the patrons in the box, they will be provided with double zabuton sets. These consist of two rectangular cushions measuring 125 centimeters (49 inches) by 50 centimeters and attached by a cord. A fan would have to be seriously upset to get one of those things airborne.


The reactions to the new cushions have been mixed. One member of a local Kyushu group with ringside seats (called suna kaburi in Japanese, or “covered with sand”) said, “I’ve been hit by flying zabuton before, and it didn’t hurt. But some people who have been hit said that it hurt a lot, so I’m glad they’re doing something about it.”

In contrast, one woman in her 20s from Fukuoka City who plans to attend the tournament said she was disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to see any flying zabuton because she thought it represented the real sumo atmosphere. A housewife in her 50s said she thought it was a bit frightening because people might decide to throw something else instead of the zabuton. (Are not those views representative of the classic difference between youth and age?)

The workers at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center, whose job it is to place them in the boxes and remove them after the matches, say that carrying the zabuton to the seats is more difficult than before, because two sets for four people weigh 4.8 kilograms (10.6 lbs). They did appreciate one benefit, however—the new cushions take less work to arrange in the box.

Others are worried that guys being guys the world over, some will try to throw them anyway, and the new types will be even more dangerous if they achieve some trajectory. But if the new zabuton work out, the association plans to use them in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, the other three cities where tournaments are held.

The whole issue was perhaps best summed up by another sumo association official, who said, “It’s not that people can’t throw them any more, it’s that they weren’t supposed to throw them to begin with.”

Posted in Sports, Traditions | 7 Comments »

This is nationalism?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 8, 2008

OF THE several simmering territorial disputes between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, the most well known involves the miniscule islets in the Sea of Japan collectively known as Takeshima. One reason for its high name recognition is the perpetual Korean effort to demagogue the issue for political advantage both in domestic politics and bilateral relations. The other is an international press corps that delights in diplomatic spats because it gives them another excuse to pursue their primary occupation of gossip-mongering. It also offers the press another opportunity to pull out their cardboard cutout of an unregenerate and potentially recidivist Japan from their collection of cartoon villains.


But the territorial dispute most likely to engage the Japanese involves what are known as the Northern Territories: the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets. These islands were seized by the Soviet Union in 1945. There were no hostilities between the two countries for most of the Second World War because of the Soviet-Japan Neutrality Pact, but the Soviets abrogated the treaty on 9 August 1945 and declared war on Japan—three days after the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 15th, and the Soviets struck while the striking was good to occupy the southern Kuriles (to the north of Hokkaido) in the latter part of August. They didn’t finish until September 5.

No nation likes to be kicked when they are down, particularly when they have conceded the fight and the referee has called a halt to the fisticuffs. So it’s no wonder the Japanese still haven’t forgotten or forgiven.

Some of those who suffer from the handicap of depending on the press for their knowledge of international affairs might suspect there is an overheated element in Japan anxious to reclaim the Northern Territories by any means necessary, including military action. But Japan is rather laid back about matters such as these, particularly in comparison to its four closest neighbors. Therefore, the efforts to reclaim the illegally seized territories focus on sporadic diplomatic discussions with Russia and a low-key public awareness campaign.

For an example of the latter, take a look at the poster accompanying this post. It won the grand prize in a recent Hokkaido contest to select a poster for publicizing 7 February, which is Northern Territories Day. (Don’t get excited—it’s not a national holiday). While events are held throughout the country on the 7th, the focus of the efforts is in Hokkaido, that part of Japan closest to the territories. The poster will be hung throughout the prefecture to keep the issue alive in the minds of the public.

The designer of the winning poster was Mori Shota, a student at a vocational school in Sapporo. The vertical script at the right reads, “There is a problem that must not be forgotten.” The script at the bottom says that 7 February is Northern Territories Day. The blue circles are supposed to represent water.

And that—literally–is it. No strident or inflammatory appeals to patriotic pride. No demands that the government take immediate action. No marching in the streets or burning foreign leaders in effigy. No chopping off one’s fingers and mailing them to the Russian ambassador.

While I usually agree with Shakespeare that comparisons are odious, this is one exception. A comparison in this case is instructive.

Imagine how any other country in the world might behave if it found itself in a similar situation. (Or, in the case of the Falkland Islands, how one actually did behave.)

This comparison might be useful to remember the next time you encounter a story somewhere in one of the mass merchandisers of infotainment about the diehard Japanese “rightwing”. Those who are looking for countries where nationalism is a serious problem would more profitably spend their time looking elsewhere.

Posted in History, International relations, Russia, World War II | 2 Comments »