Japan from the inside out

Archive for December, 2008

Gordon Chang on China today…and tomorrow

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 31, 2008

PEOPLE OFTEN quoted Winston Churchill’s description of Russia in an October 1939 radio broadcast as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma–until the curtain collapsed to reveal that the phony wizards of Oz had kept alive their sham with more defective machinery and considerably less wisdom and insight than the title character in the L. Frank Baum novel.

Nowadays Churchill’s description might be even more applicable to China, a country of such opacity that it is inevitable people will speculate how long an increasingly restive populace will put up with the intrinsic contradictions of the country’s political and economic systems. Meanwhile, on a parallel track, the nation’s leaders repress incompatible ethnic groups as they fabricate a military machine that is simultaneously capable of standing astride the globe and is beyond the country’s realistic needs.

Writing in Forbes, Gordon Chang offers an excellent overview of post-Mao China that includes observations on how it got where it is today, where it stands now, and the contradictions it needs to resolve as it heads into the future.

The article is unfortunately broken up into four sections. In the first part, Mr. Chang observes that China progressed despite Deng Xiaoping, not because of him, and that the progression owes a great deal to the disobedience of the Chinese:

The now-accepted narrative is that Deng argued for a startling transformation of Chinese society. We buy the story that he first debated with his fellow revolutionaries, then experimented and finally decreed change.

Yet, in reality, reform progressed more by disobedience than design….Deng’s reforms succeeded because the Chinese people disobeyed Deng’s rules. Such defiance would have been unthinkable in the Maoist years. Deng’s great contribution, therefore, is not so much that he planned China’s “economic miracle” but that he let it happen.

Although analysts think China’s leaders can mix two inherently different economic systems, their arguments, however persuasive, are implicitly premised on Chinese leaders continuing their decades-long program of reform…China’s current political system, however, cannot sustain the pace of necessary economic restructuring.

In the second part, Mr. Chang raises several alarms about the Chinese economy. He describes the dangers China faces in a global economic downturn with an export-based economic model, a tendency to play games with the valuation of its currency, and domestic banks holding onto a loan portfolio packed with the non-performing debt of local governments.

Part three examines how the growing dynamism of the people is leading to greater instability, which in turn might lead to the Party’s loss of control.

After the abandonment of its ideology, the Communist Party made the continual delivery of prosperity its primary source of legitimacy. We are about to discover whether the regime can survive a downturn when decades of economic reform have weakened its mechanisms of control and made the Chinese self-aware and assertive, people who, for the first time in their history, are carrying on national conversations about their collective future.

In the fourth part, Mr. Chang concludes with an examination of Chinese military projections. He finds them inevitable because of the country’s growing strength, but also points out that Hu Jintao owes his support to hawkish elements. He also looks at the American response to Chinese behavior.

In one sense, the U.S. and the West have no alternative but to engage Beijing, yet Washington’s policies are often tolerant of behavior that it would not accept from any nation other than China. For example, American administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have failed to speak out about Beijing’s proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies to Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and undoubtedly other states, and Washington has adopted an amazingly indulgent approach to China’s commercial and diplomatic support of the world’s nuclear rogues. By continuing to assist China while ignoring deeply irresponsible behavior, the U.S. has unwittingly created perverse incentives for conduct that impedes, not advances, American goals and global stability.

Gordon Chang’s article doesn’t unwrap the enigma, but it does make the opaque slightly more translucent.

Update: Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker is offering an extremely pessimistic forecast for the global economy in 2009. Here’s what he had to say about China, which is interesting in light of Mr. Chang’s article.

China will have its first large-scale rumbling of civil unrest as a consequence of collapsing export demand and thus employment. They’ll manage to tamp it down – this year. Don’t take a bet on that holding together longer-term. Those who think China will be “ok” are deluded; they have a horrifying overcapacity problem (debt-financed, of course) and there is no way for them to get out of it. They are truly going to “take it in both holes” down the road, but the worst of it won’t be in 2009 – that is still a year or two in the future.

He also thinks the economies of both China and Japan are going “in the toilet”.

Posted in China | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (102): The Imari Tontenton festival is a life and death affair

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 31, 2008

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
– Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

PEOPLE IN WESTERN COUNTRIES are losing the right to enjoy themselves by freely engaging in activities with an element of risk through the coincidental action of three groups: Those who resort to frivolous lawsuits to compensate for their avoidance of personal responsibility, the corporations and governmental bodies justifiably afraid of being held liable in those lawsuits by vacuum-brained jurors, and the nanny-state meddlers who hold us all hostage to their yearning for a make-believe, safe-as-milk world.

We’ve all read and been entertained by tales of wacky legal action. One website uses as example the man who won $50,000 from a company that makes basketball nets because he claimed the company was responsible for his teeth being caught in the net while dunking a ball. Mirable dictu, a jury believed him. One plaintiff not as lucky was the nudist who burned his feet after participating in a firewalk. He sued the man conducting the event, despite being warned in advance of the danger, but his suit was dismissed.

The legal feeding frenzy forces companies and local governments to protect themselves. This month in England, municipal authorities in Halesowen, West Midlands, ordered the local Rotary Club either to install a belt on Santa’s sleigh (which they sponsor) as he rides through town, or fork over an extra £200 in insurance premiums. The sleigh is towed by a Land Rover at a speed of 5 mph.

Some intrusive bureaucrats are even worse. Britain’s Department for Children, Schools and Families printed a leaflet for public distribution this year warning of the dangers of Christmas. The leaflet advises readers that 1,000 people are hurt by Christmas decorations annually–that killer tinsel again–and another thousand have to visit the hospital after accidents with Christmas trees. Perhaps there is some benefit in cautioning people about the proper use of sharp instruments when assembling toys or opening presents. But try to imagine what sort of government drone thought it would be an excellent idea to include in the leaflet the possibility that holiday dinner guests who have had too much to drink could “crash to the floor when they miss their seat at the dinner table”.

The following story makes clear, however, that Japan still seems to be immune from these bacilli. Do I have to tell you this story is about a festival? Hah! In fact, it’s about one of the three most famous fighting festivals in Japan.

That would be the Imari Tontenton festival held in late October every year. There’s a good reason it became a fighting festival—the participants disagreed over how to conduct the event and chose to settle their argument with a rumble on the city streets. They enjoyed themselves so much they turned it into an annual scrum.

In other words, the municipal authorities and the religious institutions of Imari have sanctioned—indeed, encouraged—symbolic citizen violence in public.



Imari once had two Shinto shrines in the same neighborhood that held their festivals on different days. One was the Kokitsu shrine, whose event was offered to ask the divinities for a bang-up harvest. The other was the Totoshima shrine, whose festival was conducted in supplication for an abundant catch of fish.

The story goes that the authorities ordered the two shrines in 1829 to hold their festivals on the same day. The organizers couldn’t agree on the order of the procession or the rules of conduct, but they did agree to settle it like men and fight with their festival floats under specific rules of engagement. The battle continued even after the two shrines merged with a third shrine in 1962.

Actually, that should be “battles” in the preceding sentence. The three-day festival starts with a parade of the two floats on the first day. As they march through town, the lifters chant “Chosanya”, which once upon a time meant, “We’re going to the Imperial court!” The street fighting lasts all three days, however. The first day’s fight card features one or two bouts, while as many as five can be held over the next two days. For the climax on the final day, they duke it out next to a river where the original festival is said to have been held.

Forcing the opponent into the river is not an issue because that’s where both teams are going to wind up. The point of this particular contest is to see who can climb out of the river first. If it’s the team with the float from the old Kokitsu shrine, that signifies a rich harvest. If it’s the team from the old Totoshima shrine, local dinner tables will be groaning from the weight of the fish caught over the course of the year.


Perhaps as a way to justify the jousting, the folks in Imari added another layer of symbolism to their festival fighting. The two sides square off to represent the competing lines of the Imperial household in the 14th century, referred to as the Northern and Southern dynasties. The Kokitsu shrine float is actually a mikoshi, or portable shrine containing the spirit of the divinity. It is supposed to represent the forces of Kusunoki Masashige. Meanwhile, the other float, known as a danjiri (the one with colorful decorations) represents the forces of Ashikaga Takauji. (You can read more about this complicated period of Japanese history here.)

This is no American Civil War battle reenactment in which fat old guys wear ill-fitting period costumes and goof around while pretending they know how to use a musket. The Japanese participants may not hit below the belt, but they are healthy, vigorous men who intend to win, and in this case winning means using enough strength to overturn another float weighing about 600 kilograms (1,322 lbs). In fact, when the two teams square off, one side challenges the other by chanting, “Kiwa-enka“, which is older local dialect for “Come on!”

The spectators get as caught up in the action as any soccer hooligan, and they’re probably just as liquored up too. As the two sides stare each other down, the crowd starts yelling “Aore, aore!” (Literally, that’s a command to quit screwing around and get on with it.) The leaders of the two teams are known as shogun, or military commander. The field generals wait for the right moment to launch their attack, which they signal by raising a flag. The danjiri team employs a taiko drum to whip up the martial spirit, beating it three times. The onomatopoetic representation of that drumbeat—ton-ten-ton—has become the name of the festival itself.

Dangerous fun

All Japanese grow up knowing that getting in the middle of some of the more masculine festivals can be dangerous business, so they assume that everyone is aware of the risk involved before signing up. They’ve been thrashing and bashing and pushing and shoving each other in the name of winning divine favor for more than a millennium, so the accidents that can and do happen are not a surprise.

The organizers of the Imari Tontenton Festival are no exception. The members of the fighting teams have to register in advance, at which time they are presumably warned once again. All the city’s ambulances are brought to the scene of the battle to deal promptly with injuries. After the winner of one bout has been determined, the two floats disengage to allow the wounded—including any spectators who jumped into the fray—to be treated and sent to the hospital if necessary. It is a tradition for the crowd to see off the departing ambulances with a round of applause. Those with minor wounds return to fight again.

In October 2006, those ambulances were needed. One 17-year-old onlooker got carried away by his emotions and joined in the pushing and shoving for the team that wound up losing. When their float was overturned, he was crushed underneath and killed. Another 22-year-old spectator who also dashed into the heat of battle to support the losing side received an injury to his spine, and newspaper reports say he still has difficulty walking. (They do not say whether he has been paralyzed from the waist down; either he hasn’t been, or the local newspapers prefer to use euphemisms.)

That was enough to give even the most intemperate of hotheads and diehard traditionalists pause, so the festival was suspended entirely in 2007. The organizers resumed the parade this year, but the suspension remained in force for the battles between the mikoshi and the danjiri.

Those of you who think it’s a good idea for Santa to buckle up his seat belt while being pulled at 5 mph in his sleigh might be surprised at what happened next.

Neither the high school boy nor the young man had registered in advance as participants—their involvement was on the spur of the moment. Therefore, when the surviving man sued the organizers and five officers for damages of 100 million yen ($US 1.1 million) and asked that they admit their negligence, the defendants balked at the latter demand. They countered that they weren’t negligent because the plaintiff hadn’t formally registered as a participant.

They were willing to provide financial compensation, but not for as much as the man demanded. The committee had 6.7 million yen in operating funds as of the end of October, so they also asked for financial contributions from the 3,600 households in the district where the battle takes place. The man will receive something, but it appears that the matter will be settled out of court for whatever amount the organizers can come up with.

And if you think that means the end of the festival, you might be surprised again.

Reports this week say that local citizens who want to resume the fights have formed the Association for Protecting the Traditional Culture of the Imari Tontenton Festival. They hope to create sentiment for reopening hostilities and plan to start a street corner petition campaign from January to April. They’ll submit the signatures they collect to the festival organizers, the Imari shrine, and the city.

The members of the association aren’t rubberneckers with a taste for bloodshed; they’re the men who actually do battle in the streets and the river.

One member said:

“We are deeply cognizant of the accident and understand the opinions that counsel prudence about resumption. But we want to do something to preserve the fight, which is an Imari tradition.”

Some people in this world are oh so anxious to rearrange everyone’s life—under their supervision, of course—to make sure it is as harmless as a closed safety pin under lock and key.

Meanwhile, some men in Imari know exactly what they want to do. They enjoy it and so do many of their friends and neighbors. They understand that they could wind up dead or maimed, but they’re willing to take that risk. The other folks who aren’t interested can mind their own business and not show up.

I’d sign their petition any time they ask.

Afterwords: There aren’t any good videos of the Tontenton Festival, but this YouTube offering, while called a video, is actually a slideshow put to music. It’s worth watching, however, and the second song might get you to thinking about having a nice glass of shochu mixed with hot water. Dig the ton-ten-ton drumbeat at the start.

Notice also the picture of the young father holding his young son in his arms toward the end of the video to watch. As I said, Japanese grow up knowing the dangers involved.

Posted in Festivals, Social trends | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Did the Chinese back down from Nanjing Massacre claims?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In war, truth is the first casualty.
– Aeschylus

IT BECOMES LESS LIKELY with each passing year that the absolute truth of the events that occurred in late 1937 with the Imperial Japanese army in Nanjing, China, will ever be known.

Dr. David Askew has observed that discussion of the Nanjing Massacre has attracted far more activists than historians. Therefore, it might be advisable to begin any search for the truth of 1937 with the recognition of what came later:

  • Imperial Japan is dead, buried, and not coming back.
  • Japan and China signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978, and the Chinese announced they would renounce war reparations to promote amicable relations in the future.
  • The Japanese nevertheless lavished enormous amounts of ODA on the Chinese, partly as de facto war reparations (and partly to reap the benefits of stronger commercial ties).
  • The Chinese leadership still demonizes the Japanese when it feels the need to strengthen its political hand both domestically and in bilateral relations.
  • It is still possible for Japanese to admit that their behavior was a national disgrace, yet wonder why the Chinese choose to exaggerate when no exaggeration is necessary and use materials of questionable historical accuracy.

Another minor skirmish in the conflict après guerre occurred this month when it was reported in Japan that the Chinese for the first time removed photographs from one of its more than 100 museums devoted to the war due to questions of accuracy. The Chinese denied the report, but in doing so publicly admitted for the first time in their domestic press that there are divergent views between the two countries about the reliability of some of the evidence they presented.

First, here is a quick translation of a Sankei Shimbun article that appeared on 20 December.

The Sankei article

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum in Nanjing, China, which has exhibited a photo of a Shanghai railroad depot with the claim that it was in Nanjing, has withdrawn the exhibit of three photographs said likely to be inauthentic, according to a government official. The photos were those of alleged “comfort women”, children massacred by Japanese troops, and an abandoned crying child (first photo). Japanese researchers have shown that they are unrelated to the Nanjing massacre. This is the first time that China has rectified an exhibit at this museum. Nevertheless, many exhibits with a questionable relationship to the facts still remain, including their citation of 300,000 victims and the beheading of 100 Chinese in a contest between two officers.


One of the three photographs was taken before the Nanjing attack and published in the 10 November 1937 Asahi Graph. It shows women and children escorted by soldiers on their way home after performing agricultural work (second photo). The Chinese presented this scene as an instance of the old Imperial army leading women away, explaining that “the women of agricultural villages were taken away and violated, raped, and killed.” This photograph is also known for having been repeatedly used in error both in Japan and overseas. Examples include the post-war book China and the Japanese Army by Asahi newspaper reporter Honda Katsuichi, and The Rape of Nanking (Nanjing) by Chinese-American author Iris Chang.

In addition, the photograph of the children, which was used in a scholarly work about modern Korean history, shows the corpses of Korean children killed by an outlaw gang. The photo of the crying child appeared in the American magazine Life as a news photo and was taken in Shanghai. None of the three photos has anything to do with Shanghai, but the museum—designated as a “model base” for patriotic education—presented them as “tragic historical fact”

Different people have sought the removal of the photos used in error or those claimed to be composites, in addition to the exhibited articles related to the 100 beheadings, shown to have been groundless, but until now the museum has not responded.

A total of 18.97 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 1985, including Japanese students visiting on school trips.


The Chinese director of the museum rebutted the Sankei claim, as reported in a Japanese-language article on the Searchina website. Here it is in English.

The Chinese rebuttal

According to Chinese press sources, Director Zhu Cheng-shan of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum denied a report by the Sankei Shimbun that three photographs had recently been removed from exhibits, saying “they weren’t exhibited to begin with”. He did recognize that there was a difference in opinion between Japan and China about the photographs in question.


According to Zhu, the three photographs were used to present the backdrop of the war, but were not exhibited as items depicting the Nanjing massacre. The photograph of the abandoned crying child is a photo of the Shanghai South station, and it was used with the caption, “The Japanese Army, (having committed) a slaughter in Shanghai, heads for Nanjing”.

The photograph of the children killed by the Japanese army that the Sankei Shimbun explained was actually of Korean children killed by an outlaw band was removed from the exhibit more than 10 years ago, the Chinese said.

The Chinese also had an explanation for the photograph of the women and children returning home escorted by soldiers after agricultural work, which the Sankei Shimbun said had actually been taken before the attack on Nanjing. They insisted that the frightened farmers wouldn’t have been working in the fields to begin with at that time in the initial stages of the war, but “the photograph was of a scene in winter, basically during which no agricultural work is performed.” They based the legitimacy of their claim on The Record of Violence of the Japanese Enemy, released in 1938 by the Kuomintang government as a way to present the outrages committed against women and children by the Japanese army in the Suzhou and Jiangnan areas.

While Zhu disagreed with the Sankei Shimbun’s explanation of the photographs, he did add, “This signifies the large discrepancy between both countries in regard to the authenticity of the photographs.” It is unusual for the Chinese to present Japanese claims about photographs that they have described as “proof of the massacres of the Japanese army”.

Zhu also explained that the three photographs were discussed in Verifying the ‘Photographs of Proof’ in the Nanjing Incident, written by a right-wing Japanese scholar and published in 2005 by Soshisha. “However,” he explained, “(this issue arose) some time ago, and the news source for the Japanese media report that (the photos) ‘had been recently removed’ is not clear.”


Honda Katsuichi has written extensively on the Japanese military in China, but has often been criticized for accepting without question the claims of the Chinese government and those people to whom the Chinese government permitted access.

Iris Chang has been shown to have used items of questionable authenticity other than the one mentioned above. One of the photographs she used was debunked even before she published it.

This previous post has a link to a paper written by Prof. Askew about how the Chinese and Japanese view the Nanjing Massacre and how their views affect bilateral relations. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Dr. Askew also says the story of the decapitation contest, as reported in a contemporary Japanese newspaper account, is “clearly false”. It is, however, the sort of story believed by those who prefer indulging in emotionalism rather than searching for the truth.

Thanks to reader GoJapan for sending links to both of the stories.

Posted in China, History, International relations, World War II | Tagged: | 64 Comments »

Nippon Noel 2008!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 26, 2008

JAPAN MAY NOT BE a Christian country, but that doesn’t stop folks from getting festive during Christmas. On the contrary, no one understands festivals better than the Japanese, and they’ve turned their Christmas season into a winter festival of light. They’ve also added some unique touches of their own to the global celebration.

Winter Vista Illumination

Winter Vista Illumination

There is no example more apt than that of the Winter Vista Illumination held at this time every year at the Showa Kinen Park in Tokyo. The entree is several decorative lighting displays throughout the park grounds based on the theme of outer space, including those representing constellations and the Milky Way galaxy.

The park’s symbol is a large fountain, shown in the photo, and this is linked by watercourse to four other fountains. Not only are the fountains illuminated, but the watercourses themselves are festooned with lights. The gingko trees lining the waterways are also hung with lights to create a tunnel effect.

But a Christmas lighting display requires a touch of Christmas, does it not? The park provides considerably more than a touch with a 4.5-meter-high Christmas tree made from 6,545 champagne glasses layered more than 30 rows high, and two nearby 2.8-meter trees created with a combined 6,600 champagne glasses.

And of course it can’t be a Winter Vista Illumination unless the trees are lighted, so all three of the Christmas trees are presented in bright colors. But since the light and glass would be a bit static on their own, and they’ve already got that flowing water and those spraying fountains on the premises to begin with, and those champagne glasses are just begging to be filled with bubbly, they came up with a more dynamic display by assembling the illuminated champagne glass trees so as to have water directed to the top. There it spills over to fill the initial level of glasses, which overflow, sending the water cascading down to the next row, and the next, until it reaches the bottom.

For those who find this a bit overwhelming, there is a smaller, three-level mini-tree made with about 100 champagne glasses nestled among the gingko trees. It sounds positively relaxing in comparison.

For those who find this to be insufficient and prefer a more explosive Noel, there was a Christmas-themed fireworks display with 500 fireworks every night from the 20th to the 24th. The outer space lighting and champagne glass Christmas trees were displayed through Christmas night.

Who wouldn’t love to see in greater detail what those illuminated Christmas trees made of champagne glasses and overflowing water looked like? While there are several videos of this attraction on the web, I thought most were either poorly done or were technically recalcitrant. Here’s the one I consider the best. You have to scroll down the page a bit. The notation says it lasts two minutes, but it ends after about one minute every time I play it.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget:

The Ghost of Christmas Past!

Last year I offered several posts featuring some extremely imaginative and attractive public Christmas trees in Japan. The posts are still around, and the photographs look even better with the improved WordPress software. So let’s break open the Christmas photo album!

Here you can see an attractive department store tree, a tree trimmed with people instead of ornaments, and an abstract art tree.

Here is a Christmas tree lit by an electric eel.

This post uses polls and surveys to explain how the Japanese view Christmas and how they prefer to enjoy the season. It is adorned with photos of a tree made of fishing boat flags and an abstract tree that is both bold and elegant.

How about a tree trimmed with live chrysalises, or another one with seashells? Try here.

This story about two kinds of Christmas cakes—only one edible—also has a photo of a Christmas tree decorated with uchiwa, or hand fans.

Don’t pass up this post showing how the Japanese turn old PET bottles into Christmas trees. They all look great, including the huge one outside of a Fukuoka City department store.

Here’s a poinsettia tree accompanying a story about a Christmas tree for a Japanese family living in Seoul, showing that the Christmas spirit is present in Northeast Asia.

And you won’t want to miss this post with a stunning Christmas objet, a tree of pearls, Christmas roots, and the Christmas decorations on a bridge built in 1839.

What are you waiting for? Get down and get clicky!

Here’s hoping that Santa sent down your chimney just what you asked for, whether you sat on his knee or not! Merry Christmas!

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

From chin-don in Nagoya to the Passage Choiseul in Paris

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 24, 2008

REGULAR VISITORS know that we sure love us some chin-don music at Ampontan. In fact, there’s a post about halfway down the page about Tchindon, a new French film in which the key element is this musical style/instrumentation/manner of presentation.

The musicians in the movie are played by the Adachi Sendensha group, but there are plenty of other working bands in the country that could have just as easily stepped into their shoes. Another important outfit is the Osaka-based Chin-Don Tsushinsha. Rather than being a single band, they seem to consist of a larger contingent of musicians that splits up and travels to different sites. How else is a band supposed to play 700 gigs a year?

As you can see from their English page (pdf), their calling card is their PR potential rather than their musical skills. That’s not to say they can’t play; it’s just that publicizing commercial establishments is how they make a living.

But in addition to their ability to attract customers, they also have the musical chops. They’ve taken first place 10 times in the annual national chin-don championships in Toyama, and performed overseas 22 times.

Their Japanese-language website has a link to a YouTube video of one of their performances in Osu, Nagoya, at a commercial fair this fall. Here it is, and it’s a classic!

And that reminds me!

The street scene in this video is of a typical Japanese shotengai, or pre-shopping mall-era urban shopping and service cores. These permanent commercial districts are packed with streets of shops; they could be just as easily be described with the words marketplace, bazaar, or souk.

As in the district shown in the video, some of the streets in the shotengai are open, but most of the area is occupied by a shopping arcade or gallery covered by iron beams with hard translucent plastic sheets that admit light and keep out the rain. That’s also the case with this neighborhood in Osu, as I confirmed after a bit of scouting around on the web.

I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a post about the shotengai for a while now. For one thing, they’re unlike anything I saw in the U.S., where retail commerce has become increasingly mall-dominated. I grew up not far from a small American-style shopping arcade, but unlike its Japanese counterparts, it wasn’t as open to the outside, nor did the shop proprietors live on the premises.

The shotengai in Saga was the social/commercial center of the city when I arrived in 1984. The place was always filled with people, even during weekday afternoons, but it was ram jam city on weekend nights in August when they held their commercial fairs. It opened in 1964 and was in its golden age by the time I first saw it. Only a half-hour at most was required to walk around its circumference, but it had everything most people needed: a movie house with five screens; the city’s best grocery store, bookstore, record store, and Chinese restaurant; a French pastry shop operated by a man who learned his trade in Paris; the best drinking establishment I’ve ever patronized, and a coffee shop with more jazz LPs than a record company warehouse.

But the increased ownership and use of automobiles and the amendment of the Large Retail Store Law at American insistence put an end to all that. The American mall culture gained a foothold in my part of Japan about a decade ago and has been growing ever since. Meanwhile, the local shotengai is nearly dead. More than half of the shops have been torn down, and operations have been drastically scaled back at the ones that still exist.

A few of these centers are still thriving. I visited one in Nagasaki a few years ago that was quite crowded late one Sunday afternoon, and the big ones in Fukuoka City are still hale and hearty, particularly the one in Tenjin. (At one end of the shotengai near the Nakasu-Kawabata subway station is a relaxing Shinto shrine with plenty of trees, one of the unexpected pleasures of Japan.)

It’s encouraging to see that this shotengai in Nagoya seems to be doing well, but regardless of the few viable districts that remain, they have permanently lost their predominant position in the commercial life of Japanese cities. It’s a shame, because they were built and operated on a human scale that shopping malls will never have, and they were free of the latter facilities’ contrived, impersonal, and hard plastic edge.

I hadn’t given much thought to how the Japanese developed their concept of shotengai, except to vaguely assume that it had evolved organically. But here’s some serendipity: On the same day I saw the Chin-Don Tsushinsha video and wondered again about the possibility of a post, I stumbled across a reference to French shopping arcades called passages couverts. They were created in Paris in the 1860s and later spread throughout France. Then I searched a bit and found this recent photo by Clicsouris of the Passage Choiseul in that city:


That’s a shotengai, right down to the roof covering and the three-story buildings! (Except that the roof is glass and not plastic.) Double the width of the passageway and change the language on the signs, and that could be any one of hundreds of sites in Japan. The basic idea is obviously the inspiration for the Japanese version that took root and thrived a century later on the other side of the planet.

Now I ask you: Wouldn’t you rather spend your time at place like this–either in France or Japan—than at a shopping mall?

And why did we make that collective choice anyway?

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Music, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Matsuri da! (101): Let’s get naked and mosh!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 22, 2008

ONE FASCINATING ASPECT of some traditional Japanese festivals is their evolution over time. In many cases, what we see today wasn’t the original menu of events the organizers and participants have handed down unchanged over the centuries. They started out on a smaller scale and incorporated additions over the years whenever they came up with a new idea.


An example of that type is the Hadakabo Matsuri, which is one of western Japan’s most famous roughneck/naked festivals. It’s held every year on the fourth Saturday in November—which was the 22nd this year—at the Hofu Tenman-gu of Hofu, Yamaguchi. That’s the same Shinto shrine that launders and gives away all those used hachimaki, a story you can find a few posts below this one.

“Hadakabo” is the combination of the words hadaka, or naked, and bo, or boy. The latter word is often appended as an endearment to boys’ names by their mothers. (I knew one mother who called her son Takeo “Take-bo” until the day she died.) It’s also the bo of Botchan (“Sonny”, “Junior”), the 1906 Soseki Natsume novel (which you can read in English here).

Of course these naked guys are not really naked—they’re only unclothed from the waist up. Otherwise, they wear traditional white trousers. Fireworks are set off at 6:00 p.m., and that’s the signal for roughly 5,000 of these hadakabo to swarm into the shrine’s main hall.

Once upon a time, that signal used to come from a cannon shot, but the more festive and less martial fireworks appeal to modern sensibilities. Still, the festival was first held in 1004—notice all those zeroes—so they couldn’t have used a cannon in the early days either.

The hadakabo slide a 500-kilogram (1,102 pound) mikoshi, in this case called an o-ajirokoshi (御網代輿), containing the spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, the enshrined deity at Hofu Tenman-gu, down a stone stairway with 58 steps. Then they lift and carry the mikoshi, lustily shouting, “Wasshoi, wasshoi, kyodai wasshoi”. (Kyodai means “brothers”, and wasshoi is what everyone in Japan shouts when they lug around a portable shrine.)

Touching the mikoshi is said variously to bring good fortune or to make wishes come true, so the guys let nothing stand in their way to get a piece of the action. And I do mean that literally—there’s a great mêlée of semi-naked masculine humanity pushing and shoving and hitting below the belt just to get close enough to the mikoshi to lay their hands on it. Imagine a rugby scrum multiplied by about 250.

Oddly enough, this part of the festival is a relatively modern addition. The story goes that the naked skirmishing started in the middle of the Edo period, which would place it sometime in the 18th century. The idea behind getting naked is that it enhances spiritual purification and makes it easier to atone for one’s sins. And the Japanese have never been genteel when it comes to competing for divine favors.

There are two explanations for the festival’s origins. The first is that it was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the shrine’s founding, which made this year’s edition #1,005 in a consecutive series. The second is that it started as a welcoming ceremony for Sugawara-no-Michizane, who stopped off here on the way to Daizaifu in Fukuoka to take up a government position. Actually, it’s possible that both explanations are correct. Sugawara was named to the post in Kyushu in 901 and died in 904. Assuming that the facility was built on his death for his enshrinement, the first running of the festival could have combined the celebration of the centenary with a reenactment of the procession that welcomed him to Yamaguchi.

After the procession bumps its way down the stairs, the mikoshi is put on a carriage for transport to a special resting place about 2.5 kilometers (1.55 miles) away, where Michizane is said to have landed on his trip. Two other mikoshi are taken along during the parade.

There’s no better way to see what goes on than by watching this local television report. It’s only about a minute long, and you don’t need a translation because you already know everything they say.

Sliding down the stairs sure looks like fun!

One more delightful touch was added to the festival in later years. Before the hadakabo start duking it out, about 200 women carry the Tenjin Women’s Mikoshi along one of the streets in Hofu to the shrine starting at 1:30 p.m. Chanting a more ladylike, “Soiya, soiya” as they march, they’re accompanied by a group of 20 primary school girls, called umekko, who present them with flowers.

Now isn’t it a drag that the folks at Hofu couldn’t have been more consistent with this business about getting naked for the festivals? The women who carry their own mikoshi are fully clothed from neck to foot. Then again, if several hundred half-naked women were pushing and shoving each other for the chance to touch a mikoshi, you’d have probably heard about it long before now…if not gone to see it yourself!

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School cell phone bans gaining momentum in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 21, 2008

“I didn’t realize there were so many things in the world I don’t need.
– Socrates, describing his impressions on visiting the marketplace

GROWING NUMBERS of Japanese officials are concluding that one of the things children don’t need is cell phones in their book bags. The trend among local governments is to either slap an outright ban on students bringing cell phones to primary and junior high schools, or to allow only those with severely limited functions.


Osaka Metropolitan District Governor Hashimoto Toru, an attorney and television personality known for his outspoken views on government waste and the malignancy of Kasumigaseki, the catch-all term for the national governmental bureaucracy, is also supporter of back-to-basics education. He’s had some well-publicized run-ins with teachers’ unions in Osaka, starting with his call for a performance-based wage system for teachers. (Speaking of these unions in the U.S. Jonah Goldberg remarked, “No group is more committed to putting ideological blather and self-interest before the public good.” He might as well have been speaking of Japan.)

Gov. Hashimoto’s willingness to take a public stand, no matter how outrageous, means his every word and deed are now automatically national news. Thus, his announcement earlier this month of a general ban on cell phones for the metropolitan district’s primary and junior high schools focused national attention on an issue that had been percolating at the local level. Even in the governor’s jurisdiction, 88% of primary schools and 94% of junior high schools had already banned them. These are not casual decisions–Osaka surveys show that 32% of grade 6 pupils, 68% of grade 9 pupils, and 91% of grade 12 have the devices.

The governor said the high-tech toys are a distraction for students and the prohibition will be conducive to concentrating on studies. He also moved to reassure parents the prefecture will be examining ways to provide a guarantee that their children are actually attending school or to confirm their location. One way to do this would be to allow phones capable only of telephonic communication or with a GPS function.

This drew the attention of Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Hatoyama Kunio. His ministry is responsible for regulating cell phone use in the country. Said Mr. Hatoyama:

“Banishing cell phones from educational institutions is truly correct…While cell phones are convenient, it is an undoubted fact that cell phones have aspects that are dehumanizing. (For one thing), people lose conversational ability.

Other reasons cited for the ban were the increase in bullying and crimes caused by the use of some cell phone sites, and the decline of scholastic achievement resulting from an inability to concentrate exacerbated by too much time spent using cell phones.

Now this week, a national government council on rebuilding education launched during the Abe Administration and reorganized during the Fukuda Administration created a subcommittee to study cell phone use in schools. The council is also recommending a de facto ban that limits devices to talk-only phones with GPS functions

The council emphasizes the role that families and the community must play in regulating cell phone use among the young. They urge that parents use filtering services for their children’s devices. They also suggest that more public phones be installed in train stations and schools to allay parental concerns about communicating with their children. They plan to submit a full policy recommendation in three years.

Finding ways to enable working parents to keep tabs on their kids is the key, of course. If it weren’t for that, cell phones would have no more business being in a classroom than comic books.

A quarter of a century ago, the Japanese public swallowed the line from Japanese educators that the school system needed to become more like that in America. Many Japanese now regret that their schools succeeded in following that model all too well, considering the subsequent deterioration in academic accomplishments and personal discipline in public schools since then. Over the past few years, the movement to reclaim quality education in Japan has been picking up steam. A cell phone ban is another step forward in that movement.

Afterwords: Note that high schools are exempt from Governor Hashimoto’s ban. There’s a reason for that: the Japanese have a clearer awareness than Americans (for example) that compulsory education ends at age 15. The decision to continue their classroom education is optional and in their own hands. Teenagers who want to attend a good college and enter one of the professions must take entrance exams for admission to a good academic high school. As a consequence, the average Japanese high school student has a more proactive approach to his education than his counterpart in the United States. That in turn seems to lead to an earlier formation of a sense of purpose in life. Very broadly speaking, Japanese high school students tend to behave with more self-assurance than those in America.

Of course Americans that age get to operate motor vehicles, work regularly at part-time jobs, and have the chance to enjoy a full schedule of social activities both at school (sponsored dance parties on the premises, for example) and on their own outside of school. I’m not convinced that the head start of a few years in these activities constitutes an advantage in life, however.

Posted in Education, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , | 13 Comments »

A good hachimaki is a terrible thing to waste

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 21, 2008

YOU’VE ALL SEEN those bandanas or towels the Japanese sometimes tie around their foreheads. They’re called hachimaki, and the Japanese have been wearing them for almost as long as there have been people living in the archipelago.

Blue Monday at a Shinto shrine

Blue Monday at a Shinto shrine

They were originally used in religious ceremonies, and they’re still worn by men performing strenuous manual labor or carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) in festivals. Once upon a time, women wore them during childbirth.

Soldiers also wore them in battle because they were thought to strengthen the spirit, and that custom still lives today in another context. School children, particularly boys, sometimes wear them while hitting the books to give themselves a spiritual edge in passing the entrance exams to high school or college.

There is a very old belief in parts of Asia that the spirit can penetrate and create a “charge” in inanimate objects over time. If true, that would mean the old hachimaki of students who safely passed through the valley of examination death are just bursting with positive electrons and good vibrations. It would be a shame to stick them in the corner of a dresser drawer and waste the residual power of those brain waves.

That’s why the Hofu Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine in Hofu, Yamaguchi, accepts donations of the hachimaki used by successful students and recycles them.

The tutelary deity of the Hofu shrine is Sugawara-no-Michizane, a scholar/politician/poet/ambassador who served the Imperial court more than a millennium ago. He was so well known for his erudition that he became a divinity of learning and is enshrined at many Shinto facilities around the country.

Until quite recently, the Japanese were loath to use recycled clothing of any kind (except hand-me-downs in the home), but those inhibitions were ignored when it came to entering the school of one’s choice. Students preparing for exams will try anything they think might work. It can’t hurt, and besides, it might possibly help.

The shrine has about 5,000 hachimaki on hand donated by those who passed their exams, but it just wouldn’t do to hand out bandanas that were soaked with someone else’s sweat. And cleanliness is next to godliness, after all. So the Hofu Tenman-gu miko (shrine maidens), handle the domestic chore of laundering the hachimaki and hanging them out to dry on the grounds of the shrine. That’s the scene you see here in the photo.

The shrine will give them away at no charge to anyone who asks. But if you’re the kind of person who just can’t bear the thought of wearing something that someone else wore, the shrine will be glad to sell you a special student package with a good luck votary tablet, some pencils, and a brand new hachimaki, all for just 2,500 yen (about US$ 28.00). They sell about 40,000 sets a year, and considering what the markup on those items must be, they can afford to be generous and give the old ones away. They also don’t have any problem getting donations; they say about 10% of all the bandanas they sell are returned.

Now here’s a thought: do they have heirloom hachimaki passed down from year to year from students who gained admission to schools with particularly rigorous standards? Or is two years the limit for exam mojo?

Afterwards: Try this for some more about Sugawara-no-Michizane.

Posted in Education, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The platypus and Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 20, 2008

THE DONKEY is the symbol of the Democratic Party in the United States, while their GOP rivals are caricatured as an elephant. What animal would best illustrate Japanese politics, the membership of the country’s two major political parties, and their respective factions? Some might suggest the Australian platypus.

Political character goods

Political character goods

The platypus is so odd that some European naturalists in the 19th century thought reports of the creature were a deliberate fraud when they first heard them. One of the few mammals that lays eggs, it has thick fur, a bill like a duck, webbed feet like an otter with nails for digging, and a tail like a beaver. Males have hollow spurs on their ankles that carry enough venom to kill a dog. Females have two ovaries, but only the left one is functional. It finds food by sticking its bill in the dirt and using spots on the bill that detect minute electrical discharges from its prey.

That agglomeration of anomalies is the perfect description of politics in Japan. Members of the same party or faction often have ideologies as different as a turtle and the moon. They can be at such variance it’s difficult to see how they can function as a coherent group.

Nevertheless, the system created by the Liberal Democratic Party not only functioned, it served as the structure for rebuilding Japan from postwar ruins to the world’s second largest economy. More than a half-century later, however, the evolution of the national polity has exposed the rusted girders, frayed wiring, and sagging foundation of the old system. The Democratic Party of Japan has finally given the country a credible opposition, though they are every bit the platypus as the LDP. Nevertheless, the combination of their growing electoral strength and tactics designed solely to generate political crises has created a stalemate that forcing everyone to confront the reality of a major political restructuring. For Japan to continue functioning at a level that everyone now takes for granted, nothing less will do.

When this restructuring is complete, the new entities will resemble animals that are more commonly found in political zoos. Until then, however, we can expect the cloning process to create many morbid failures.

Iijima Isao, once the top advisor to former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, declared earlier this year that political realignment had already started. But money is the ultimate guarantor of political viability, and Japan’s three foremost political parties are efficient fund raising mechanisms. (The subsidies of public funds given for votes received also help.) Turning one’s back on that cornucopia of cash, going out on a limb, and forming a new party requires more courage that most politicians would like to muster.

By now it is obvious that the Aso Taro administration is going nowhere, mainly because his Cabinet is a front for preventing further governmental reform of the type sought by an estimated 70% of the LDP Diet members, some in the DPJ, and most of the Japanese public. There is also the suspicion that the Aso administration wants to roll back the hard-earned achievements that have been gained so far. Making matters worse for the LDP is that unless the mudboat wing wants to bite the bullet and return to the Koizumi days, there’s not much left in the leadership locker room after Mr. Aso.

Now that the stars have finally aligned, fate is kicking the political class in the pants to reject their inner platypus and launch a political realignment that will be painful, bloody, and last the better part of a decade. Here’s a summary of recent events and the people driving them.

Nakagawa Hidenao

“I want to examine the popular support for the LDP and DPJ reformers to emerge and form a coalition.”

The 68-year-old Mr. Nakagawa is both the most prominent champion of Koizumi-style political and governmental reform and the strongest pro-growth, anti-tax voice left in the LDP. A former chief cabinet secretary and party bigwig, he has written books describing the pernicious influence of Kasumigaseki, the government-within-a-government run by Japan’s bureaucracy. He is also a member of the Machimura faction, the party’s largest and a particularly ungainly platypus.

In a television interview on the 7th, Mr. Nakagawa addressed the coming political realignment and suggested an alliance with some opposition politicians:

“This is not on the minor level of asking who’s going to leave the party, or whether I will be leaving the party. Public opinion wants a reform element to emerge from both the ruling coalition and the opposition to overturn the entire political world.”

He added that he wasn’t yet at the stage of bolting the LDP, and said he would decide his course of action on realignment “in the instant after the lower house election.”

Abe, Nakagawa H., Koizumi, Ishihara; platypus not pictured

L-R: Abe, Nakagawa H., Koizumi, Ishihara; platypus not pictured

Mr. Nakagawa is perhaps the most important member of a new group launched by Mr. Koizumi to keep his privatization of the postal system alive. As he nears retirement, the former prime minister is concerned that anti-privatization members have received high-profile roles in the Aso Cabinet. He also knows that Mr. Aso was anti-privatization (and anti-bureaucratic reform) to begin with. For all the campaign shouting it does in favor of reform, the opposition DPJ has become a center of anti-privatization activity among the opposition groups. It is not out of the question that postal privatization—supported by 70% of the electorate in 2005—may be derailed.

Who handles the dwindling amount of physical mail that people send these days is not important. Rather, privatization keeps the government’s hands off the money in the postal savings accounts. That prevents it from being used to finance pork barrel public works projects to buy off the construction industry and rural voters at the same time. It is the cornerstone of governmental reform itself, and a highly visible symbol.

The former prime minister, whom some polls still show as the man Japanese view as the person they’d most want to run the government, was applauded by 60 MPs when he said:

“I want to remind people of what sort of election was held three years ago. It seems that many of the people who are doing these incomprehensible things (i.e., anti-reform) were originally opposed to privatization. But they were allowed back into the party after writing a pledge and admitting their mistakes.”

Mr. Nakagawa added a warning against gutting the Koizumi reforms:

“There is meaning in sending a message to the people that we will not reverse course.”

Yet sitting at the head table with Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Nakagawa was this platypus tribe:

  • The 56-year-old former Environment and Defense Minister Koike Yuriko (Machimura faction), who was once an ally of opposition DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro in a party that governed in a coalition with the LDP. A hawkish supporter of Yasukuni visits, Ms. Koike recently ran against Aso Taro for the party presidency as a reform wing candidate and received fewer than 50 votes. (Some question her party loyalty.) Mr. Koizumi was something a realpolitik feminist, and one of his favorite tactics was to put women in prominent positions, either in the Cabinet or in Diet seats. Some think Ms. Koike is being groomed as a potential prime minister of the type that minds the store while Mr. Nakagawa and others handle back-office operations.
  • Ishihara Nobuteru, the son of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro, Abe Shinzo ally, and Mr. Koizumi’s former reform minister.
  • Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who was responsible for allowing the anti-privatization rebels back into the LDP in the first place. Indeed, one of them, Yamaguchi Shun’ichi (Aso faction), was just tapped by Prime Minister Aso to serve as an aide. Mr. Yamaguchi is involved in another group launched in October to stop the privatization process.

Though he too pursued governmental reform during his administration, Mr. Abe did so because he is first of all a party man. He said at the meeting that he supported privatization because it was a policy that had already been approved by the party and the Diet.

In the audience were many of the so-called Koizumi Children, younger MPs who won their seats on the former Prime Minister’s coattails in the 2005 election. This group has been talking openly since the spring about breaking away and forming a new, urban-based party headed by Mr. Nakagawa or someone like him. There is some irony in their self-description as urban based. In the old days, big city folks tended to vote for the opposition, while the LDP derived much of its strength from rural strongholds.

Also present at the meeting was upper house member Yamamoto Ichita (Machimura faction), generally a Nakagawa ally on domestic issues. Said Mr. Yamamoto of the need to continue privatization:

“The debate in the party now seems to be that since we face a crisis, it’s acceptable to return to the old pork barrel ways.”

The latter complaint is often heard now within the LDP about Prime Minister Aso. Here’s still more irony: It is also the complaint most frequently heard about the DPJ’s electoral platform.

The Nakagawa group

Mr. Nakagawa launched his own 87-member study group on the 11th to examine social welfare issues. The members plan to look for ways to resolve the problem of the botched national pension records that became the final nail in the Abe administration’s coffin. They also want to refine the concept of what is called the Social Welfare Card, an Abe Cabinet proposal that involves combining the social welfare and tax systems into personal accounts. Since the DPJ has suggested a similar idea, they want to explore areas of agreement across party lines.

In addition to Mr. Nakagawa, the members include:

  • Koike Yuriko
  • Abe Shinzo
  • Watanabe Yoshimi (no faction), a crusader and firebrand profiled here a few days ago. Of all the LDP reformers, he has taken the most outspoken anti-Aso, anti-mudboat wing stance in public.
  • Suga Yoshihide (Koga faction), who is close to Prime Minister Aso and a former member of the Abe Cabinet. Mr. Suga is another party-first man, and is known for having refused to join the revolt against Prime Minister Mori in 2000.

This group was widely seen as an anti-Aso vehicle for the mid-tier and younger LDP members starting to distance themselves from the prime minister. Mr. Nakagawa insisted otherwise, and asked people not to get excited because it was “an extremely pure study group”.

He added:

“The Aso Cabinet should boldly present its own policies without worrying about the polls. Now is not the time to bring down the Cabinet. No one is farther apart from Prime Minister Aso than I am, so if I say it, it has to be the truth.

Mr. Watanabe chimed in:

“There is such a feeling of obstruction that people even think this serious study group was formed to create a sense of political crisis.”

Not everyone buys that line, however. Some think the group was actually organized to explore post-realignment politics in addition to social welfare questions, but was co-opted by the mudboat wing of the Machimura faction to create yet another platypus.

Here’s why: Mr. Nakagawa called former Prime Minister Abe personally to ask him to join, and Mr. Abe, who resigned from the faction when he became prime minister, agreed. Mr. Machimura later objected to the formation of the group, but Mr. Abe and former Prime Minister Mori, the former faction head, convinced him to let Mr. Abe participate to prevent a factional split.

Their strategy was to use Mr. Abe to neutralize Mr. Nakagawa and dilute the impact of the group’s formation. Indeed, Mr. Mori is said to have angrily telephoned some of the younger faction members thinking about signing up to say:

“Don’t do anything stupid when Mr. Aso is in such serious trouble. Do you seriously intend to install Nakagawa as party president?”

The subtle subversion disappointed many people who wanted to see a Nakagawa challenge. The disappointment grew when former Prime Minister Abe publicly said the group wanted to get together and support Mr. Aso.

Privately, nobody believes that for a second. Nor does anyone believe it is an anti-Aso step so much as the start of several post-Aso steps. Everyone has factored Mr. Aso’s eventual departure into their thinking.

Watanabe Yoshimi

Mr. Watanabe is raising the voltage as Prime Minister Aso’s popularity is falling. He has openly criticized the prime minister, made references to creating a new party, and shifted from merely being anti-Aso to encouraging political realignment.

Here’s a taste of Mr. Watanabe going off on Prime Minister Aso in public:

“He won’t hold an election. He puts off economic measures. Just what the heck’s going on here?”

The critical question is how long it takes for people to move in his direction, or whether they decide to stay put for the time being.

At a party on the 8th attended by 800 supporters, Mr. Watanabe started talking about “mental calisthenics”, which he used as an excuse to segue into speculation about a new party.

He ended his intellectual workout by saying:

“Starting from scratch will have an impact and has the potential for great transformation. (Creating a new party) is possible to do with resolve alone.”

He started ramping up the voltage on 21 November when he and 24 younger Diet members called on Prime Minister Abe to quickly introduce a second supplementary budget and hold elections. Even that group bore a slight resemblance to a platypus—one of its members was Shiozaki Yasuhisa (Koga faction), the chief cabinet secretary during the Abe administration. It was the Shiozaki appointment, his first to an important position, that led critics to use the term “Friends Cabinet”. Somewhat less of a foreign policy hardliner than his former boss, his spat with Koike Yuriko over the appointment of a deputy in the Defense Ministry led to her resignation from the Cabinet after fewer than two months.

Watanabe Yoshimi and his mental calisthenics

Watanabe Yoshimi and his mental calisthenics

Mr. Shiozaki cautioned reporters that the group, which is expected to grow to 40, was not formed as an anti-Aso faction or the predecessor of a new party. But nobody believed that, either. One of the doubters was Koga Makoto, his faction boss and current head of the party’s Election Strategy Council. He made a point of warning his charges, including Mr. Shiozaki, to hold their tongues where Aso Taro was concerned.

Other party elders are getting as snippy as a flock of old maids chaperoning a college mixer. Earlier this month, Mr. Machimura noted:

“Attacking another person’s weakness and preventing them from advancing is not the action of a responsible adult. I hope he (Watanabe) keeps running further away.”

But Mr. Watanabe did not back down. He repeated his call for a new election, and retorted:

“If that voice becomes a chorus, it’s possible (I’ll leave). I’ll prepare myself for any activity to bring down the Cabinet.”

There’s another curious aspect to this situation. When Ozawa Ichiro was fishing for someone to replace Hosokawa Morihiro in 1994 as the head the only non-LDP government of the past half-century, he nearly coaxed Watanabe’s father Michio, a former foreign minister and LDP faction leader, to leave the party and serve as prime minister. (He settled on Hata Tsutomu instead.)

It’s also worth noting that while Mr. Watanabe’s name has not been linked to the DPJ, the party has declined to officially sponsor a candidate for his lower house seat–one of only five seats nationwide that it’s conceding.


Another most unusual platypus is not to be found among the reformers, bogus or otherwise, but in a bunk full of strange bedfellows whom the press immediately dubbed YKKK.

Mr. Y

Mr. Y

During the 1990s, Yamasaki Hiraku, Kato Koichi, and Koizumi Jun’ichiro worked together as a band of LDP reformers the press called YKK for the initials of their family names. Mr. Kato, assisted by Mr. Yamasaki, led a failed insurrection against Mori Yoshiro in 2000 that ultimately cleared the way for the third musketeer Mr. Koizumi to become prime minister about six months later.

This time, the YKKK platypus is:

  • Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku), a faction leader
  • Kato Koichi, no faction
  • Kan Naoto, acting president of the opposition DPJ
  • Kamei Shizuka, representative of the People’s New Party, a splinter group formed of politicians thrown out of the LDP by Prime Minister Koizumi for opposing postal privatization and who chose not to return when invited to do so by Prime Minister Abe.

YKKK appeared together on a recent TV program in the political equivalent of a jam session to discuss political realignment. Mr. Yamasaki riffed:

“Let’s face it–political realignment will happen in the future. An axis is necessary to promote political realignment. At that time, the four (of us) could form one such axis….The gridlock phenomenon must be eliminated. It is clear that a political realignment will occur regardless of what conditions prevailed before or after the election.”

Kato Koichi:

“The LDP has borne an historical mission, and now confusion is deepening among both the LDP and the DPJ, which have neither a mission nor an ideology.”

The other two members of the team are trying to coax Y and K1 to bolt and form a supergroup.

Kamei Shizuka:

“After the next lower house election when an Ozawa Ichiro government (DPJ) is formed, it will be meaningless to say, ‘Me too’.”

Mr. Kato downplayed his suggestion that he leave the party by saying that’s not in the cards for now.

Kan Naoto:

“(What happens) next will not be a mere breakup and reassembly. It will be a major transformation of the system…I would like those people who have courage to leave the LDP, just as Mr. Ozawa fled from right in the middle of the party.”

It’s difficult to see just what’s going on here. Mr. Kato and DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro have not been on good terms for some time. Mr. Kato values party loyalty, and he was highly critical of Mr. Ozawa when he left the LDP. In fact, he fought against his readmission to the party when that was discussed in the late 90s.

It’s also difficult to imagine that he and his longtime ally would join the DPJ. One possible area of agreement might be a shift in foreign policy away from an American orientation toward closer relations with East Asian countries. Mr. Kato in particular is strongly opposed to the hard line against North Korea. But foreign policy questions have little or nothing to do with the crisis in Japanese politics.

Still, Mori Yoshiro didn’t care for this development at all. In Yamagata City earlier this week, he said:

“(YK) joining forces with Mr. Kan and, depending on the circumstances, forming a new party…Mr. Nakagawa joining forces with the DPJ and, depending on the circumstances, opening up a third axis…They say it’s for the benefit of the LDP. But if they start taking off in different directions, it will cause instability among the younger party members. That’s shameful…Japanese politics seems to have nothing but these lightweight, shallow-minded politicians. I apologize to all of you who have worked so hard to create politics (in this country)”.

Perhaps Mr. Mori needn’t have worried abut YK forming a new party, though that seems to have been Mr. Kato’s intention. This week’s edition of the Shukan Bunshun quotes an unidentified member of the Yamasaki faction saying that Mr. Kato had dreams of leading a second rebellion:

“Mr. Kato has been trying to form a new party with an eye on the political realignment after the next lower house election. He thinks it’s possible the head of a small party could serve as prime minister, depending on the election results, just as Hosokawa Morihiro became prime minister in the non-LDP coalition in 1993.”

According to this source, Mr. Kato, now unaffiliated with a faction, called on his former faction members for help, and asked Mr. Yamasaki to “lend” him a few members temporarily. He also suggested that Mr. Yamasaki could join later.

Mr. Y put the kibosh on Mr. K pretty quickly:

“Even if I were to say that I was forming a new party, no one would join. It’s entirely out of the question for me to lend my faction members to anyone.”

But a “new axis” in an informal alliance with opposition party members? That seems possible.

A ruling coalition breakup?

No talk of platypuses is complete without mentioning the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito, an alliance that never has made much sense from an ideological perspective. The latter party is more interested in domestic social welfare policies, and they do not care for the LDP’s more assertive military stance in international affairs. For example, they’ve had to be cajoled into supporting the Indian Ocean refueling mission for NATO forces that the LDP used its supermajority to pass.

Rumors are circulating that both the LDP and the DPJ want to end New Komeito’s influence for good. One story had the two parties continuing discussions about another grand coalition, despite the failure of the first effort, and eliminating the proportional representation districts in the lower house. That would effectively neuter New Komeito as a political force, because the allocation of seats based on the percentage of votes is the reason most of their lower house members are in the Diet at all.

Earlier this week, Koga Makoto (photo below) casually dropped a bomb when discussing the dates of a possible lower house election at a party gathering in Tokyo:

“I’ve said it will be when the cherries bloom. But they bloom in Okinawa in February, and Aomori in May. In fact, there is such a tree as the “October Cherry”. Taking all that into consideration, the current Diet term could end when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.”

This was an astonishing statement on several levels. First, it potentially pushes back an election until the end of the full Diet term next September—nearly a year after Aso Taro was elevated to party president on the assumption that he would have already led the LDP election campaign by now.


Of course the LDP wants to delay the election to prevent a catastrophe at the polls, but that’s not the surprise. Rather, their coalition partner New Komeito has been demanding an election as early as possible to enable them to play what many think is their favorite voting game. Japanese election laws require three months to establish official residency, so the party needs that interval between the national election and local Tokyo elections in July to switch the registered residences of their supporters.

Could this mean the LDP is thinking of writing off their partners?

It might. At the same party, Mr. Koga also hinted that the LDP might reevaluate—a Japanese euphemism for stop—automatically allocating some proportional representation candidacies to New Komeito and keep them for themselves. The Aso ally Mr. Suga is also said to have suggested this to the Prime Minister, who surely must be tempted.

Yet that would alarm those LDP members who won their seats by narrow margins. The voter mobilization efforts of New Komeito and their assumed allies, the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, provides an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 vote advantage in some districts. Those LDP members who squeaked by in the last election could be bounced from office without the New Komeito foot soldiers, as the party ruefully discovered in a recent Yamaguchi by-election.

Still another sign of a possible ruling coalition rupture is that Prime Minister Aso insisted that the party include an increase in the consumption tax in three years in its plan to reform the tax code. He claims this is the only responsible and realistic choice Japan faces to pay for the care of its aging population.

New Komeito is opposed for obvious reasons. It’s not easy to win elections when a tax increase for voters is a key campaign promise. And tax increases are the last thing the small(er) government Nakagawa Hidenao/Koizumi reform wing wants to hear about. Put that all together and it starts to look as if the LDP platypus is an endangered species.

Economist J.A. Schumpeter referred to progress in the free market system as “creative destruction”. By that, he meant that the replacement of obsolete businesses by those with technological and organizational creativity was a natural and beneficial process.

That’s an excellent analogy for the next step that must occur in Japanese politics. But in this case, however, creative destruction must be combined with another natural process—Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

For that next step to occur, the political platypuses must turn pterodactyl.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

From hot naked men to a cold snowy temple

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 18, 2008

IF THERE ARE PEOPLE ANYWHERE who are more blasé about the human body and less squeamish about the facts of life than the Japanese, I’ve yet to meet them.


That’s why it was so puzzling earlier this year when JR East—the train company serving Tokyo and the Kanto region—refused to display a poster in its stations publicizing a centuries-old Iwate festival with a photo of a shirtless, hairy-chested man shouting at the top of his lungs. JR East was afraid some people would become offended if they thought the images constituted “sexual harassment”.

More than a few Japanese, who grow up from the age of zero going to public baths with their parents and are aware that all sorts of rowdiness and revelry can go on at a traditional festival, were boggled by the news. Yet JR East held its ground. (Here’s my post from earlier this year, which includes a brief explanation of the festival and some links.)

The story resurfaced in the national media again today when the sponsors released the poster that will be used to publicize next year’s festival, which will be held in February. Fortunately, we also have a brief TV report from TBS that includes shots of last year’s offending poster, next year’s poster, and some of the wild and wooly behavior of the nearly naked men getting primitive while surrounded by flaming torches. A translation follows below.

The Somin Festival of the Kokuseki Buddhist temple of Oshu, Iwate, garnered nationwide attention this year due to controversy over a poster it used to advertise the event. Festival organizers have now released the poster for next year’s festival. Based on the theme of tranquility, it features a photograph of the temple during a snowstorm.

The festival is known for combining (nearly) naked men and fire rituals. JR East refused to hang last year’s poster because they thought the photograph of the naked upper body of a man giving a loud roar would cause discomfort to some. This touched off a national controversy.

Oshu alternates the themes of the poster every year from tranquility to dynamism. Officials say the change this year is nothing special.

Afterwords: JR East’s decision still mystifies me, as well as the Oshuites I saw interviewed on TV this evening. Anyone who would think this year’s poster was an example of sexual harassment needs to schedule an appointment with a competent psychologist. And stop subjecting the rest of the world to their personality quirks.

Posted in Festivals, I couldn't make this up if I tried | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Gone fishin’ for sweetfish

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 17, 2008

MANY FISH BITES, the old song goes, when you got good bait. That’s always been true, but sometimes the clever fisherman doesn’t need bait. The Japanese figured out a more relaxed way to catch sweetfish several centuries ago without worming any hooks at all. They just put something in their way!

Ayu a sweetfish?

Ayu a sweet fish?

The use of the name sweetfish is no hyperbole, incidentally. That’s what all the dictionaries say is the English term for the ayu. No, I’d never heard of sweetfish before I came to Japan either, but somebody somewhere must call them that. They’re certainly very tasty, but “sweet” is not the best way to describe their flavor.

The Japanese have always liked the ayu; in ancient times, they appeared as a good omen in stories. Maybe that’s why they sometimes name girls after them.

Has anyone ever used “my little sweetfish” as a term of endearment, I wonder?

Back to the story, the photo shows a traditional fish trap for catching the ayu that come barreling downriver every year to mate. It was placed on the Hidaka River in Ryujin-mura, Wakayama. (Ryujin means “dragon god”, by the way, but that’s a different kettle of fish.)

The trap is supposed to be quite simple. The fisherfolk stretch ropes across the river and tie straw to the ropes at regular intervals. This blocks the passage of the ayu, who dislike obstacles. Now that makes sense–if you were swimming downstream to mate with someone particularly sweet, you wouldn’t want anything to get in your way, either. It’s assembled in such a way as to guide the frustrated little guys into a sack-like area, where they’re scooped up. Some of the more energetic fishermen use nets instead.

A little research turned up still another way to catch ayu. The fish aggressively protect their turf—or should I say surf—and will pugnaciously try to drive out any other creatures foolish enough to fin their way into their territory. The fishermen take advantage of this trait in a technique called tomozuri, or decoy fishing. The ayu fall for the bait every time. Except there isn’t any bait to fall for.

These traps look effective, but alas, the Hidaka River Fishing Cooperative reports the ayu aren’t all that interested in coming downstream this year. Not enough rain.

Now who would have guessed that it took rain to get a sweetfish into the mood?

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Posted in Food, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

December means spring cleaning in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 15, 2008

IT’S DECEMBER, and that means the Japanese are getting started on their spring cleaning chores. Families throughout the country will soon be freezing their fannies off as they clean their houses inside and out. It’ll make a lot more sense when you realize that one expression in Japanese for New Year’s is shinshun, which is literally “new spring”. New Year’s in Japan is considered a time of renewal, so it’s a spring cleaning in more ways than one.


And in Japan, where cleanliness is closer to godliness than anywhere else, the cleaning has become an annual religious ritual at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The first photo shows the Spring/New Year’s cleaning of the shinkyo, or sacred bridge (literally divine bridge) at the Nikko Futarasan Shinto shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, on the 12th. The activity is called a susuharai, which is a combination of the words susu, or soot, and harai, or cleaning, with the added nuance of purification.

About 20 people were involved, including priests, shrine maidens, and members of the local committee for preserving cultural treasures. They used three-meter-long sticks with sasa, or bamboo grass, on the end, to wipe off the posts. More conventional methods work best for the steps however, so they used old-fashioned mops and cloths to clean those. It took only 30 minutes to do the whole bridge, but susuharai goes a lot faster when a crew of 20 works together to apply the elbow grease.

Nikko Futarasan is a cultural landmark, incidentally—UNESCO combined it with the nearby Nikko Tosho-gu shrine and the Rinno-ji Buddhist temple to make it a World Heritage Site, but it was famous long before UNESCO came along. The shrine also has two swords that are national treasures of Japan and more buildings and cultural artifacts registered as important cultural assets than you can shake either a stick or a susu broom at.

The bridge itself, which crosses the Daiya River, is also famous, and you’ve undoubtedly seen other pictures from different perspectives. In fact, the shrine has a website with photos taken throughout the year that it offers to the news media. And for those who want to see what the bridge looks like this very minute, the shrine also provides a live camera view, which you can see here. A truck was driving by the last time I looked.

Getting clean at yearend in Japan is not just a Shinto custom—the Buddhists do it too. The second photo shows priests at Kashozan Miroku-ji, a temple in Numata, Gunma, cleaning their famous tengu masks on the 12th.


No, it is not out of the question for a Buddhist temple in Japan to have as a prime attraction three large masks of a mythological creature whose Pinocchio-like nose is surely a phallic symbol. Those noses, by the way, are from 5.5 to 6.5 meters long.

It is not possible to briefly explain what tengu are, so here’s a link that will provide more information on the checkered but fascinating background of these characters. One intriguing legend is that they were said to punish Buddhist monks who used for their own ends the supernormal powers gained through religious practices. Having three big reminders staring at the priests every day as they go about their business makes it a lot less likely they’ll misuse their magic with female parishioners, despite the ideas those noses must put into their heads.

Look at that photo of the brooms wiping off the tengu noses long enough and you’ll be convinced there are jokes just waiting to be found about sneezing and all sorts of other activities. There’s probably a particularly rich vein to be discovered by exploring the phallic symbolism, and wouldn’t you know, the phrase “coming clean at New Year’s” floated into the ether all of a sudden. Perhaps there’s a Buddhist sutra I can chant for keeping my mind from drifiting too far off course.

There’s been a temple on the site since 848, incidentally, so the local wise guys have probably had that territory well covered for more than a millennium.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the temple bells in Japan toll the joya no kane, which are 108 strokes to cleanse away the 108 delusions of mankind. It’s an old Buddhist ritual, so don’t start thinking about 108 strokes, tengu noses, and coming clean at New Year’s.

The chief priest played it straight, however. He said, “This has been a year of uncertainty both in politics and in the economy. We hope to wash away that uncertainty along with the dirt, and move on to the next year with the firm tread of the ox.” (Next year is the year of the ox.)

When you’re a priest taking care of tengu with noses that long, playing it straight and hiding your supernormal powers is the safest option. I wouldn’t turn my back on them either!

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Posted in Holidays, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Chin-don: The movie!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 13, 2008

WORLD MUSIC MAVENS and street culture vultures will be thrilled to learn that the inspired good time goofiness and novel musicality of chin-don bands has at last made it to the silver screen.

Oooh la la!

Oooh la la!

Premiering at the Espace Culturel Bertin Poirée in Paris this week was the movie Tchindon, starring the Fukuoka City-based Adachi Sendensha, a chin-don troupe headed by Adachi Hideya; Frenchman Jean Christian Bouvier; a group of child actors; and a woman named Tomato.

Chin-don music combines Japanese percussion, bells, and shamisen with such Western instruments as accordions, trumpets, and clarinets. The performers are hired to dress in a comical exaggeration of Edo-period Japanese costumes and play just about any kind of music anyone could possibly want to hear to attract customers to commercial establishments. Long time friends know that we’re nuts about the stuff; inserting the onomatopoetic term “chin-don” into the site’s search engine on the left sidebar will turn up several posts with a cornucopia of links.

In keeping with this yeasty mélange, the movie Tchindon was shot in Fukuoka, directed by Shibata Yoichi, and has a largely Japanese cast, but is in French. Don’t ask me how that happened—I haven’t seen the movie yet, and nobody’s explained it.

The inspiration likely came from M. Bouvier. He has taught at Fukuoka universities for several years and is the organizer of the World CM (television commercial) Festival. The Japanese-language website for the film says it was produced to commemorate the 150th year of relations between Japan and France. M. Bouvier also says it is a tribute to the new age of Japonisme, which is probably a French phenomenon.

Several members of the production committee and two members of Adachi Sendensha, including Mr. Adachi himself, went to Paris on the 9th to attend the premiere. To promote the film, he and Higuchi Kazumi performed in costume on the streets of Paris on the 10th, which you can see from the accompanying photo. Mr. Adachi played accordion and Ms. Higuchi played the distinctive chin-don percussion instrument. (The percussionists in chin-don music are often women.)

One can only imagine what the Parisians thought when this apparition from Japan suddenly appeared on their streets, but then again, they did invent the word sang-froid for situations such as these. Some of the French offered tips of money to the musicians; others said they were intrigued by the combination of a street music performance with advertising. The best description came from the man who commented, “I have no idea what it all means, but it sure is a lot of fun.” That’s chin-don in a nutshell!

He might well have said that about the movie itself. An article in the Nishinippon Shimbun reported that the film was conceived in the French style to focus on the visual impact and the music. The reasons for that become apparent when one reads the plot summary on the movie website. Here it is in English:

One day, a young girl encounters a chin-don band. She is enchanted by the beauty of the sound, and follows the performers around. As she listens to their performance, the town becomes so beautiful it is as if she is seeing it in a daydream. That night, she has a dream in which a group of children meet, and then part from, a chindon band who use the street as their stage.
When she wakes up, she looks for the band throughout the town, but can’t find them…

It looks like what we have is a French vehicle to celebrate chin-don music and the often unseen corners of Japan. The movie itself was filmed in small towns in Fukuoka from February to September this year. One scene was shot in the Kaho Gekijo in Iizuka, a theater built in 1931 to resemble a kabuki playhouse from the Edo period. (The theater was partially destroyed during the Fukuoka earthquake three years ago and later restored.)


There are other surprises in addition to the combination of chin-don with the French language. One is the performance of a song by Saga Haruhiko, a throat singer in the Mongolian style who also plays the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. Throat singing involves the creation of two different sounds in the throat. In other words, it is a performance of polyphonic music by one person without a musical instrument.

Why is he in the movie? Well, it’s chin-don–why the heck not!

And long-time readers won’t be in the least surprised to find out that the Japanese society for throat singing has a website with an English page. Voila!

The Japan premiere of Tchindon will consist of three showings at the Ajibi Hall in Fukuoka City (at the Fukuoka Asian Museum of Art, also on the right sidebar) on Sunday the 21st. Curse the luck, but I’m going to be busy doing something else that day.

I searched around for a video clip on YouTube (or anywhere else), but couldn’t find one. Isn’t that odd for a movie promoted and produced by a man who has conducted a world TV commercial festival for the past 10 years?

I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait for the DVD!

Regardless of how it turns out, my congratulations go to Jean Christian Bouvier. He had a great idea, and he got it down on film forever.

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Okinawans not talking the talk

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 11, 2008

FURTHER EVIDENCE of the growing integration of Okinawa with the rest of Japan appeared in an article earlier this week in the Ryukyu Shimbun that highlights the declining use of the Okinawan dialect/language.

The newspaper reports that three graduate school students working for a master’s degree at the University of the Ryukyus conducted a questionnaire survey on the use of the Ryukyu language throughout the prefecture. They also sent questionnaires to the outlying islands, which have greater dialect variety.

The survey results prove once again the validity of the old dictum that actions speak louder than words. Here’s a look at the important numbers:

92.5%: The percentage of respondents who agreed that the support and development of Okinawa culture required the survival of the Okinawa dialect/language.
80.2%: The percentage of respondents who said they hoped the dialect would survive.
61.7%: The percentage of respondents who said they never used the dialect at home with their children or grandchildren.
66.3%: The percentage of respondents who said that they never used the dialect at home with their children and grandchildren, combined with those who said they seldom used it.

One mitigating factor might have been the low recovery rate for the questionnaires. The students selected 1,548 households at random and mailed two questionnaires to each. Only 442 households responded, and the recovery rate for the questionnaires was just 15%.

Then again, 78.1% of those responding were 50 or older. Could it be that younger people no longer care all that much? They didn’t bother to fill out and return the questionnaire, after all.

In response to the question of how often they used Ryukyan in a day, 44.2% of those who answered said from 10% to 30% of the time. Slightly less than half of the respondents said they never used it. The vast majority of those who said they used the dialect did so exclusively at home.

Not mentioned in the article, but also worth considering, is that people who say they are using the original language might really be speaking Japanese sprinkled with local terms and expressions.

The survey also uncovered further evidence of an increased willingness to abdicate personal responsibility for a task by leaving it to the government. That was indicated by the 82.3% of the respondents who said that the Okinawan language should be taught in school.

The educators’ response

The prefecture’s schools didn’t agree, however. The graduate students also sent questionnaires to all of the 460 primary, junior high, and high schools in Okinawa. They received replies from 258 schools, or 56%. Of these, 69.9% agreed that the dialect should be used in school. The newspaper report said they had a “negative response” to the idea that it should be taught as a separate course, but it didn’t reveal the percentages.

What the school response means is that teachers think it’s fine to use the language in classroom discussions or conversations with the students, but they’re not on board with the idea of separate instruction in the language itself.

The researchers were alarmed by the results. They believe the Okinanwan language will not survive unless it is taught in schools.

If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to discount the views of those people with Okinawan nationalist sentiments. It’s no problem at all keeping a language, a dialect—or anything—alive when there are benefits to its use. As we’ve seen before, younger Okinawans increasingly see themselves as Japanese, rather than strictly Okinawan. That would underlie a realization that standard Japanese is a requirement for functioning successfully in everyday society.

I know from personal experience with my wife’s family how easy it is to maintain a distinctive dialect if the older family members use it frequently, or in the case of my father- and mother-in-law, exclusively with their children and grandchildren. My brother-in-law and his wife live in the family home with his parents. They have two daughters in their early 20s and a son in high school. All three of their children can use the local dialect more comfortably than their peers, simply because they’ve used it every day with their parents and grandparents since they were born.

Now consider the results of the Okinawa survey. Most of the respondents were older than 50, and most of them seldom, if ever, used the dialect with their children or grandchildren. The conclusion must therefore be that the Ryukyu language is slowly but surely becoming a luxury in Okinawa.

If people won’t use it at home, where it’s easily learned and applied, there’s no point in teaching it at school. Sentimentality for a culture by itself isn’t enough—you have to walk the walk by talking the talk.


In this previous post about Okinawans creating special alphabetical characters for the Ryukyu language, one poster noted that I shouldn’t have called it a dialect because it is really a separate language. I’m sure he’s right, but I used both terms in this post because that’s what the Ryukyu Shimbun did. They called it both a dialect (hogen) and the Ryukyu language (Ryukyu-go).

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

Surprising political poll results in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 9, 2008

POLL-DRIVEN POLITICS are odious, and the excessive focus on poll results in newspapers and the broadcast media creates an unhealthy environment detrimental to good government by treating politics as a sporting event. Poll results for specific issues can also be highly sensitive to the personality and the approach of the politicians framing those issues, rather than the content of the issues themselves.

That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time following the polling scores. Instead, I prefer to concentrate on the results of the ultimate survey: elections.

Sometimes, however, the underlying figures in a poll can be fascinating and highlight a profitable direction for more detailed analysis. One example is the results of a poll conducted by the Sankei Shimbun and the Fuji News Network (FNN) on 29-30 November.

As with the other recent and more-widely reported polls, the Sankei-FNN survey shows a swing in favorability ratings from the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party and Prime Minister Aso Taro to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and their leader, Ozawa Ichiro. Most of the numbers seem to be so close as to be within the margin of error, but the results here are important because they show a sharp anti-Aso sentiment for age groups that might otherwise be expected to be strong LDP supporters.

Many of the questions in the survey asked the respondents to compare Mr. Aso and Mr. Ozawa. For example, the poll asked which of the two is more persuasive, which of the two was better in their recent debate, and which of the two has better policies.

While Mr. Ozawa bested Mr. Aso in all these categories, there was no significant generational difference.

That wasn’t the case for all the questions, however.

Question: Of Prime Minister Aso and DPJ President Ozawa, which one can you trust?

Overall: Aso (31.4%) / Ozawa (29.7%)

Male responses broken down by age:

All males: Aso (32%) / Ozawa (33%)
20s: Aso (37%) / Ozawa (38%)
30s: Aso (29%) / Ozawa (29%)
*40s: Aso (25%) / Ozawa (42%)
*50s: Aso (19%) / Ozawa (35%)
60s+: Aso (42%) / Ozawa (27%)

Question: Which of the two would have more appeal as the leader of his party in an election?

All males: Aso (43%) / Ozawa (32%)

Male responses broken down by age:

20s: Aso (60%) / Ozawa (24%)
30s: Aso (46%) / Ozawa (33%)
*40s: Aso (39%) / Ozawa (41%)
*50s: Aso (31%) / Ozawa (42%)
60s+: Aso (42%) / Ozawa (32%)

Question: Which would be the better framework for a government after a lower house election?

All males: LDP-led (20%) DPJ-led (37%) Grand coalition (38%)

Male responses broken down by age:

20s: LDP-led (23%) DPJ-led (31%) Grand coalition (39%)
30s: LDP-led (17%) DPJ-led (25%) Grand coalition (50%)
*40s: LDP-led (12%) DPJ-led (44%) Grand coalition (38%)
*50s: LDP-led (11%) DPJ-led (44%) Grand coalition (39%)
60s+: LDP-led (28%) DPJ-led (39%) Grand coalition (30%)

Most people who would try to guess the answers before seeing the results in this poll would probably assume that younger men would tend to support the opposition instead of the LDP. The latter party, after all, is the party of their fathers and grandfathers, and has been in power almost without interruption for half a century.

But look at the figures in support of Mr. Aso from those in their 20s for the second question. That’s not the case at all.

In fact, the responses show that the ones who do not trust Prime Minister Aso or find him appealing are men in their 40s and 50s. Rather, men in these age groups generally prefer Mr. Ozawa. They are becoming increasingly likely to favor a DPJ-led government.

What could possibly account for these attitudes? Both Mr. Aso and Mr. Ozawa are from the same generation, and the former is the more dynamic of the two, so for younger men, perhaps those factors offset the fact that the DPJ is the slightly-less conservative opposition.

Is it that men in their 40s and 50s, who have seen LDP-led governments most of their lives, have finally thrown up their hands and said enough is enough? Men of that age place a premium on competence, particularly in the workplace. Have the succession of scandals, impolitic statements, and mishandling of pension funds finally taken their toll?

I have no answers, but numbers that stark—among age groups more likely to vote than younger people—are surely causing sleepless nights at LDP headquarters.

Note also the undisclosed numbers for “neither” in the first two questions, and the percentages of those favoring a grand coalition rather than a government led by one party. That suggests 2009 could be one of the most eventful years in Japanese politics ever.

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