Japan from the inside out

Archive for January, 2009

Matsuri da! (103): The big chill

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

EVERYBODY KNOWS that cleanliness is next to godliness, and religions the world over incorporate ablutions for the sake of purification into their activities. Shinto in Japan is no exception; the term they use for this ritual purification is misogi.


A little bit of baptism never hurt anyone, especially if it’s done in a nice warm body of water in the middle of summer. But some folks take the idea of ritual purification very seriously indeed.

Take the Kanchu Misogi Festival now underway at the Samegawa Shinto shrine in Kikonai-cho, Hokkaido. The word kanchu means mid-winter, and mid-winter in Hokkaido, where they start wearing jackets at night in the second half of August, is a very cold place to be. The festival, which dates from 1831, is held in supplication for an abundant harvest and catch of fish. It starts at 7:20 p.m. sharp on the night of the 13th. At that time, four young men clad only in the briefest of white loincloths step onto a specially prepared stage on the shrine grounds. This year, the temperature in Kikonai-cho at 7:20 p.m. on the 13th was 1° C, or 33.8 ° F.

Wait for it—this is just the warm-up. Or should I say, “cold-up”.

One of them starts chanting Ei! Ei, picks up a bucket of ice water, and dumps its contents down the backs of his companions. And then he does it several more times, to make them purer still.

Dedication that extreme deserves an audience, and yes, they attract a crowd. This year, about 50 spectators showed up to watch, though there were no reports on how long they could bear to look at the spectacle before heading home to a hot bath. The group now involved in the ceremony consists of four men ranging in age from 18 to 21. I say “now involved”, because they’re going to stay holed up in the shrine until the 15th. They come out on stage and repeat the ceremony at intervals of a few hours each for the better part of two days.

Only males that age could be convinced it was a good idea to do something that…that…Heck, I’ll let you pick the adjective of your choice.

By the way, the reason the Kanchu Misogi ends on the 15th is because the festival then turns into the Kaichu Misogi. The word kaichu means “in the sea”. That’s right–these four young bravos are going to quit messing around with the girly-man buckets of water and go for the ultimate midwinter purification by jumping into the sea.

Now I ask you—isn’t that a lot of purification for four men to be going through on their own? They would have had to have done some really low-down and nasty stuff over the past year to require that much of a ritual cleansing, post-adolescent male craziness notwithstanding. Perhaps what they’re doing is a symbolic purification for everyone in Kikonai-cho, much like The Nazarene is said to have died for our sins on the cross.

I’m glad somebody wants to do it badly enough to step up and volunteer. If I were asked to do my part for the salvation of the neighborhood, I might choose to put up with a little defilement instead!


The four guys finally took the plunge before noon on the 15th, as you can see from this:
The air temperature at the time was -5.4° C, or about 22 ° F. The reports say they splashed each other for about five minutes, but they didn’t say how deep they went in.

If they went in up to their waists, all I can say is: You’re a better man than I.

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

Prime Minister Aso doesn’t want to get it

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

“I don’t understand what he wants to do.”
– Prime Minister Aso Taro, on Watanabe Yoshimi’s announcement that he would leave the Liberal Democratic Party

“The fact that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying shows that Prime Minister Aso lacks receptivity toward the people.”
– Watanabe Yoshimi, commenting on the prime minister’s comment

MR. WATANABE might have it backwards. Prime Minister Aso understands very well what the former wants to do, it’s just that he doesn’t want any part of it. What demonstrates his lack of receptivity toward the people is either the fact that he doesn’t get why Mr. Watanabe thought a revolt was necessary, or the fact that he gets it but doesn’t care. It also demonstrates why the Liberal Democratic Party as presently constituted is a dead man walking.


This is illustrated by two recent examples of the prime minister’s unwillingness to reform the practice of amakudari, which is one—but only one—of the ways Japan’s bureaucracy in Kasumigaseki maintains its stranglehold on government. To briefly describe amakudari, senior bureaucrats “descend from heaven” at retirement age into executive positions at private- or public-sector corporations. Their subsequent collusion with the ministries where they spent their first career can lead to a myriad of abuses in the governmental process so obvious it’s not necessary to catalog them all.

The political equivalent of trench warfare to end this practice has been waged for years, and the bureaucrats have become exceptionally clever at stalemating or heading off the efforts to flush them out of their trenches. During his tenure in the previous Fukuda Cabinet, Mr. Watanabe led a highly publicized effort to pass civil service reform, so Prime Minister Aso knows exactly what he’s up to.

The prime minister is also at the forefront of moves to “debone” any move limiting amakudari, as the saying goes in Japan. The first example is a decision taken under his authority to issue an order enabling the approval of amakudari recommendations when the bureaucracy goes job hunting for their old boys starting a second career. The Prime Minister’s office issued this order without having it vetted in advance by the party, which raised some hackles among LDP reformers. Ishihara Nobuteru, the chair of the Civil Service Reform Committee and the Minister of State for Administrative and Regulatory Reform in Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s first Cabinet, was particularly incensed. He called a meeting of the committee earlier this month to plan a protest. Said Mr. Ishihara: “I have no idea whatsoever of the intent behind this order.”

But he too understands very well what Mr. Aso intends—to bypass the people who would complain, such as Mr. Ishihara himself and Mr. Watanabe, and maintain the status quo in Kasumigaseki. One drawback, however, is that it could prevent the maintenance of the status quo between the party and the electorate. Commented one LDP member: “It might be necessary for administrative purposes, but it will stop the hearts of the LDP diet members who have to run in the lower house election.”

Example #2

There’s an even better example of the devious ways in which politicians try to claim credit for reform as they are deboning those reforms to make sure nothing ever changes. Mr. Aso last week said he would ban the custom of watari (migratory movement), in which a Cabinet ministry can arrange more than one new job for their colleagues descending from heaven.

The government has established a “personnel exchange promotion center” that is supposed to consolidate the bureaucracy’s job placement efforts and restrict job placements to one per employee. Jumping from job to job has turned out to be quite a lucrative proposition for ex-civil servants.

But the bag had three holes allowing the bones to slide out: The ministries can still find multiple jobs for the migrators for the time being, Mr. Aso is the only member named to the committee monitoring compliance because the opposition parties refused to cooperate with appointments, and—here’s the best part—there is still a government ordinance allowing multiple job offerings if a company finds the ex-bureaucrat “irreplaceable”.

That last one is the very definition of a loophole, and of course Mr. Aso knows it. When challenged by the opposition, he responded, “I don’t intend to delete it now…but I will be sure to deal with it properly.”

Why yes, we’re sure you will.

It’s the aggregation of decades of boneless loopholes such as this one that caused Mr. Watanabe to finally quit, which of course the prime minister finds perfectly clear.

But here’s what others might not understand: Why are ministries allowed to arrange jobs for their former members at all? Ministry operations are funded by the taxpayers. There’s no reason for the public to foot the bill for a “personnel exchange promotion center”, which is a de facto employment agency for bureaucrats. With their skills and experience, they should be able to whip up a resume and look for work on their own time. That’s assuming they understand the distinction between their own time and the public’s to begin with.

Afterwords: It’s ironic that despite Mr. Aso’s efforts to protect the bureaucracy, the most powerful ministry of all, the Ministry of Finance, is giving him the cold shoulder.

It started when Mr. Aso appointed long-time friend Okamoto Masakatsu to the position of chief clerical secretary (i.e., aide) to the prime minister. Mr. Okamoto was formerly in the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, despite the tradition of reserving that position for people from the Finance Ministry.

To show their displeasure at the slight, the Finance Ministry refused to help Mr. Aso devise plans for a taxpayer stimulus payment and arrange an increase in the tobacco tax that some in his party sought. Finance Minister Nakagawa Shoichi begged for an increase of “even one yen per cigarette”, but the people who are supposed to be his subordinates refused to cooperate, snuffing out any chance it would be levied.

This small illustration of the extent of Kasumgaseki’s power and the petty ways it is exercised also shows why the opposition parties’ focus on the practice of amakudari is ultimately an exercise in smoke blowing. While severely limiting or outlawing amakudari is a necessary step, it does not begin to start the real work, which is analogous to digging up individual clumps of crabgrass by hand on a field the size of a soccer pitch.

Here’s another irony: Mr. Okamoto has written extensively on the subject of devolution for specialist publications. That subject consists of an entirely different soccer-sized pitch of problems that need to be addressed to achieve reform, and it will also tend to limit the influence of the national bureaucracy.

Why would Prime Minister Aso go out of his way to protect the bureaucrats with one hand, yet cause problems for himself by going out of his way to make an appointment ultimately inimical to bureaucratic interests on the other hand? Mr. Aso is certainly not a political naif. It’s a mystery.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Back to the ABC’s in Korean education?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 12, 2009

THE TERM Anglosphere is sometimes used to refer to the English-speaking countries whose culture ultimately derives from Great Britain and their shared interests. James C. Bennett founded The Anglosphere Institute and published in 2004 The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century.

How many strokes do you count?

How many strokes do you count?

There is also the term Sinosphere, which is defined narrowly as those countries with primarily Chinese-speaking residents. Some, however, define it broadly to include other countries in East Asia that were significantly influenced by Chinese culture and language—particularly written Chinese characters, or kanji in Japanese and hanja in Korean.

The broadly defined Sinosphere is unlikely to function in the role Mr. Bennett envisions for the Anglosphere because the countries don’t share the same language and the contemporary cultural dissimilarities are too great. Yet everyone in Japan and Korea is aware of the impact of Chinese characters on their languages and cultures, even though both countries have developed their own phonetic alphabets. Written communication in Korean is conducted almost exclusively in their phonetic alphabet, called Hangeul.

But an estimated 70% of the underlying words themselves in both Japanese and Korean were derived from Chinese, to which local pronunciations were applied. Thus the word for teacher, or a title of respect, 先生, is pronounced xiansheng in Chinese, sensei in Japanese, and seonseng in Korean.

Most of the South Korean public does not consider hanja literacy to be that important, though the Chinese characters are taught there starting in junior high school. But just as there is a back-to-basics movement in Japanese education, some in South Korea are promoting earlier and more extensive instruction in hanja. A brief article on that effort written by the Seoul correspondent of the Nishinippon Shimbun appeared this morning. I couldn’t find an English-language article in any of the Korean papers, so here’s a quick translation:

“The National Federation for Promoting Hanja Education in South Korea has petitioned the government to formally adopt instruction in hanja, the use of which was once widespread, as a course of study in primary schools. The federation maintains that instruction only in Hangeul, the alphabetical characters that express only sound, hinder understanding of academic and other abstract terminology.

“The application states, ‘The result of the mistaken policy of using only Hangeul has been to confront the cultural life of South Koreans with a crisis greater than the Asian currency crisis of 1997.’ It urges education in both hanja and Hangeul as the national written language. It was signed by 20 former prime ministers, including Kim Jong-pil, and submitted to the President’s office.

“A federation official states that the policy to remove hanja from South Korean society and use only Hangeul was promoted primarily by President Pak Jeon-hi (1963-1979). Among the reasons were (1) A reaction against Japanese-language education during the colonial period, and (2) The low recognition rate of hanja among people after independence.

“About 70% of the South Korean language is derived from Chinese characters, in which the characters are given a Korean reading. One example is 新鮮 (fresh), which is read shinseon in Korean (shinsen in Japanese and xinxian in Chinese). The federation points out that if people know the meaning of 乱 (meaning revolt, uprising, or disturbance, and read nan in modern South Korean, ran in Japanese, and luan in Chinese), they can intuit the meanings of words that incorporate the character, such as 混乱 (confusion, disorder) or 騒乱 (riot). (Note: That’s just how it works in Japanese, too.)

“More people are taking the hanja certification examination every year because large companies include questions about their meanings on the tests they administer to prospective employees. The application might spur a reevaluation of the ‘Hangeul-only’ Korean society.”

Afterwords: If anyone can find an English-language account of this, send me a link and I’ll incorporate it as an update. Here is an editorial by the Dong-a Ilbo supporting the effort.

They say:

Most of Korea`s cultural heritage is preserved in Chinese characters. As the number of people illiterate in Chinese character swells, precious cultural legacies of Korea such as classical literature are growing useless.

For those who read Korean, here is the federation’s website. It has a photo of their monthly magazine.

Reading this makes me wish yet again there were 36 hours in a day so I could find the time to maintain my Korean language studies. Studying from Japanese to Korean is a big help, by the way. It doesn’t take long to figure out the Korean readings for the Chinese characters working backwards from kanji, and that facilitates memorization.

Posted in Education, Language, South Korea | Tagged: | 11 Comments »

What price piety?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 12, 2009

TO BE HONEST ABOUT IT, communing with the divinities by attending a service at a religious institution is a lot like attending an event at any other private sector facility. You have to pay to be there.


Of course attending a concert or a play requires money up front, and churches won’t turn people away for sitting on their wallets, but the priests still devote a lot of time and energy to making financial pitches to their patrons. The ushers never forget to pass out the collection plates and buckets at every service. The Catholic Church, which has been at it longer than the other Christians, is more efficient and businesslike. The squad of ushers at the church I attended as a boy wouldn’t put the receptacles directly into the hands of the parishioners. They had long poles with baize-lined wicker plates on the end that they thrust down the row at every pew. People dropped their money in as the plate went past.

The Presbyterians, meanwhile, shoot for higher targets. During my high school days, I went to a Presbyterian church for a couple of years because most of my school friends went there. Once a year, every year, the pastor gave a sermon about tithing—in other words, giving the church 10% of your income off the top. He and the elders were quite imaginative in coming up with ways to justify the expense, which they leavened with just the right amount of pious sincerity.

But there’s no beating around the bush or searching for justifications at a Shinto shrine in Japan. When people visit a shrine and stand in the presence of the divinities, the first thing they do is toss some coins into a large receptacle. They follow that up with two bows, two claps to make sure the divinities are looking their way, and conclude with another bow. Then they get down to asking silently for what it was they wanted to begin with.

Collecting the cash doesn’t usually present a problem since the daily traffic at a Shinto shrine is so light. But that changes during holidays, and that’s especially true during New Year’s. For example, about 680,000 people showed up at the Inaba shrine in Gifu City, Gifu, during the three-day holiday period this year, and nearly every one of them came bearing a cash gift.

They offer more cash than usual since it’s a special occasion, so the parishioners discreetly place it into a straw bag called a kamasu to deliver it.

The accompanying photo shows the shrine’s annual Kamasubiraki, or the kamasu opening, the ceremony in which they count their haul for the year. They get so much, in fact, that they can’t handle it all themselves. The Juroku Bank thoughtfully sent 14 employees over to help them separate the bills from the coins, and they probably carried it back to the vaults when they were done.

It was estimated that 80,000 more people visited the shrine during the holiday period this year than last year. But one of the shrine’s priests also said he thought they were not as generous with their folding money when compared to other years. “During tough economic times”, he observed, “more people come to ask the divinities for their blessing, but they put less money into the bags.”

Well that makes sense, but it somehow doesn’t sound quite right for a priest to say it out loud–especially when he needs 14 people from a bank to help tally up the swag!

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

Filling the vacuum in Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 10, 2009

You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.

There are still people in my party who believe in consensus politics. I regard them as Quislings, as traitors… I mean it.

– Margaret Thatcher

NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM, they say, and politicians, despite their most unnatural behavior, are an excellent example. Whether creating two plans where none are needed, expelling vast quantities of hot air out of both sides of their mouth simultaneously, or building bridges and highways to nowhere, no professional class is quicker to promote a vacuity as the best way to fill a vacuum.

That’s why it is curious that a virtual vacuum has existed in Japan since the icebreaker of Japanese politics, Koizumi Jun’ichiro, relinquished the post of prime minister in 2006. And it’s downright mystifying that no one in Nagata-cho has seen fit to follow the map he drew of the royal road to popular acclaim and political success. Do you want to win friends and influence the Japanese electorate? Champion privatization, devolution, and sound economic policies while spurning the hacks in your own party and the meddling bureaucrats. The key element in the package was his credibility while presenting a positive vision of the future and railing against the failures of the past. That paid off in stratospheric public approval ratings and the second-highest majority in the Diet’s lower house during the postwar period.

Mr. Congeniality

Mr. Congeniality

Political success usually spawns a swarm of eager imitators, but the politicos in both the ruling coalition and the opposition seem intent on ignoring the obvious lessons and becoming unpopular and unsuccessful instead.

The post-Koizumi parade

It’s apparent now in retrospect that his immediate successor, Abe Shinzo, gave it the old college try, but failed in his effort to combine reform with party unity by pleasing the LDP insects that Mr. Koizumi squashed to the delight of the public. Mr. Abe started his first day on the job with an approval rating of 70%. That predictably plummeted to 40% as soon as he readmitted to the party the hacks Mr. Koizumi threw out for their opposition to reform and privatization.

A year later, the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy nailed shut the coffin lid on his administration by staging a de facto coup. When Mr. Abe proceeded with plans to privatize the Social Insurance Agency, the bureaucrats unleashed a preemptive strike by revealing years of back office mismanagement and blundering that left millions of pension accounts unidentifiable. In Japan, the bureaucracy often acts as a government-within-a-government with a more finely tuned sense of defending its own turf than defending the national interest.

Mr. Abe was succeeded by Fukuda Yasuo, who tended the government farm by watering down reform and letting the bureaucratic foxes back in the henhouse, particularly those from the Ministry of Finance—the ministry housing the most vicious cutthroats with the sharpest knives. Fresh off an election in which they seized control of the upper house of the Diet, the opposition chose to attack by engaging in a series of political back-alley brawls rather than demonstrate the soundness of their policies or their administrative competence. Though they failed to convince the electorate they were a reliable alternative, they did expose Mr. Fukuda as a ditherer incapable of managing a government or rallying the party to deal with the political threats. (One suspects Mr. Koizumi would have relished those battles and emerged the victor.)

After Prime Minister Fukuda was encouraged to throw in the spoon (which the Japanese throw instead of a towel), the party turned its back on Koizumian reform for good by turning to former Foreign Minister and bon vivant Aso Taro, who had long sought the job. Mr. Aso was never a bureaucratic reformer to begin with, opposing the privatization of the Postal Ministry behind the scenes. He ceded fiscal policy to Finance Ministry stalwart Yosano Kaoru, which has produced a hyper-Keynesian budget proposal based on concepts that failed miserably in the lost decade of the 1990s. LDP coalition partners New Komeito prevailed upon the government to include an unpopular stimulus rebate–modeled after the two failed American stimulus rebates offered by the most recent President Bush.

Today, the LDP old guard finds itself sailing in a mudboat on a falling tide. Higashi Junji, second in command of New Komeito, was blunt about the prospects of the Aso administration during a television interview:

“To view opinion polls and the way the public views the ruling party in baseball terms, it is as if we are in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the score 3-0. Coming from behind is of critical importance.”

Being in opposition means we’re opposed

Mr. Vitality

Mr. Vitality

In any other parliamentary democracy, this would be a golden opportunity for the opposition to slide over into the driver’s seat. But the hallmark of the Democrat Party of Japan is to never miss a chance to miss a chance. They long ago squandered the opening presented by their historic 2007 victory in the upper house. The Japanese public soon realized it was a waste of time to view the DPJ as a reliable alternative, much less look for them to deliver the reforms they want. Fewer than four months after the party seized control of the upper house, DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro turned drama queen by quitting and then resuming party leadership within the space of three days over the issue of forming a grand coalition with the LDP. In fact, he hinted that he would bolt the party altogether, take his ball, and go play somewhere else.

While it’s true the party has finally taken a lead over the LDP in opinion polls, it isn’t because of well-crafted policies or deft political maneuvering. Despite all their splashing around, they’ve just been treading water while the LDP sank and passed them on the way down. A private DPJ poll taken last September reportedly showed that unaffiliated opposition candidates were running 10 percentage points better in some districts than the candidates the DPJ officially backed.

Reform DPJ-style

The DPJ claims they will do a better job of controlling the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy. Rather than demonstrate their readiness to take the civil servants head on, however, they’ve formed an alliance with ex-LDP diehards who oppose postal privatization. They implicitly promise to reconstitute an obsolete ministry whose funds from parallel savings accounts and insurance policies financed the construction industry pork on which the Iron Triangle of the LDP, big business, and the bureaucracy fattened themselves for decades.

Abe Shinzo deserves credit for the courage to pursue the privatization of the Social Insurance Agency and paying for it with his job. In contrast, Ozawa Ichiro promised to keep it alive by merging it with another agency. Not only does he fail to match his words with deeds, he fails to match his words with other words. Cleaning up the Augean stables of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy seems to mean sweeping out the offices after a government agency moves to a different corner of Tokyo and changes its name.

In fact, Mr. Ozawa is doing an excellent imitation of a 1970s LDP machine pol, but then again, that’s how he got his start in politics. When the LDP tried to reform the agricultural sector by eliminating subsidies to small farmers—a traditional pillar of party support—Mr. Ozawa promised to restore them.

How’ s this for a retro approach? During a recent interview on the Nikoniko Video website in Akihabara, Tokyo, he said:

“Japan’s lifetime employment system is one (type of) safety net. I hope to communicate to the world this Japanese approach to capitalism using that system as the underlying premise.”

This is the political equivalent of declaring bell-bottoms, love beads, and Nehru jackets back in style. People pointed out for decades that the lifetime employment system and salaries based on seniority rather than accomplishment hindered the modernization of the private sector. Now that Japan’s corporations have finally wised up, Mr. Ozawa wants to reform them by making a U-turn.

Sick and tired

Typifying the problem with the DPJ and its boss was the latter’s response to Aso Taro’s New Year message on the 4th. Mr. Aso told the nation that his administration would stress anshin (peace of mind) and katsuryoku (vitality).

Mr. Ozawa appeared before the cameras to rebut the prime minister, but was unable to muster even a hint of a positive vibration. His all-too-typical sour response could be summarized as, “They’re bad and we’re not.”

More shocking, however, was his appearance. Everyone knows that he isn’t a healthy man, but his complexion was particularly sallow and the bags under his eyes were deep enough for a week-long business trip. He was tired and irritable, and his mouth was frozen in the shape of an inverted U. If that was how he looked after the yearend holidays, how will he fare in the year ahead?

To be blunt: Mr. Ozawa and his party’s leadership are sailing on a mudboat of their own. The closer he has come to power, the more he has come to resemble the anti-reformers of the post-Koizumi LDP–profoundly reactionary in the truest sense of the term.

The prime minister and the leader of the opposition are two tired old men surrounded by more tired old men with tired ideas a half-century out of date. The most likely successor today to Aso Taro in the LDP would be Yosano Kaoru—a cancer survivor. And no one in Japan would be surprised if Ozawa Ichiro were to drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow. It is as if the Japanese are being presented with a choice between Yuri Andropov or Konstantin Chernenko.

But taking the first steps into this vacuum are two members of the reform wing of the LDP with credentials, accomplishments, and a coherent, positive message. One is Nakagawa Hidenao, who could be called Mr. Inside for his intention to work within the party, for the time being at least. The other is Watanabe Yoshimi, who is on the verge of becoming Mr. Outside for starting off the New Year with a political bang by threatening to bolt the party unless Prime Minister Aso does what everyone knows he’s never going to do.

Nakagawa Hidenao and the Rising Tide

Mr. Inside

Mr. Inside

Nakagawa Hidenao is very clear about his policy positions. In 2006, he published a book called Ageshio no Jidai (The Rising Tide Era), in which he argues that his policies would boost Japan’s GDP to 1,000 trillion yen while reducing taxes. Last year, he published Kanryo Kokka no Hokai (The Collapse of the Bureaucratic State), in which he calls for the breakup of the Japanese bureaucracy, which he terms a “stealth complex”.

He is a proponent of small government whose “rising tide” platform has five major planks: Ending deflation, reducing government assets, cutting government expenditures, implementing systemic reform, and then–and only then–increasing taxes

The LDP zombies tried to slam the door on the Koizumi reforms by shutting Mr. Nakagawa and his allies out of the Fukuda Cabinet reshuffle on 1 August last year. But rather than stymie the reformers in the party, it seems to have given them a greater sense of urgency.

Some estimate that the LDP reform wing in both houses of the Diet numbers about 100, including the Koizumi Children. This group finds the current leadership and its policies appalling, and they’ve drawn the obvious conclusion that ignoring electoral districts in the urban areas that reflect recent demographic changes will result in the loss of their majority. Said one of these MPs off the record:

“If you look at the last election on postal privatization, even a fool would understand that…Placing all your trust in the people and then calling for a consumption tax increase before an election is not the sane thing to do.”

He added that his group considered the reshuffle a coup d’etat by the reactionaries.

“Some MPs will look at Noda Seiko and Mori Kosuke (opponents of postal privatization thrown out of the party by Mr. Fukuda and allowed to return by Mr. Abe) in the Cabinet and decide they would rather break away to form a new urban party than fight an election under the LDP banner.”

They might have some company in the wilderness. Another postal privatization opponent and political fossil Kamei Shizuka, who formed the Peoples’ New Party rather than return to the LDP, claimed last summer that some DPJ members have a yen for reform even stronger than Mr. Koizumi and his impractical ideas. (The phrase he used in Japanese was “empty desktop theories”.)

Mr. Nakagawa began to significantly raise his profile in the second half of December. Since then, he has shifted from simple criticism of the Aso administration to promoting his own ideas. He’s even developed a slogan: A 21st century New Deal. (Ironic, as his philosophy is 180 degrees away from that of FDR.) He’s become more forthright about the possibility of a pre-election political realignment. He spoke to reporters on 17 December about the Aso program for tax reform, including a boost in the consumption tax:

“I get the feeling they’re just talking about a tax increase without showing us (how to achieve) sustained economic growth. I am extremely disappointed, and I think this is extremely unreliable.”

His condition for raising taxes:

“There is no longer a clear risk of deflation and stable prices can be anticipated.”

On a TV Asahi program on the 21st, he referred to the possibility that the party would remove its support for him:

“Withholding official recognition for discussing the (presentation of a policy position) in the future is not something a political party would do. It would be best for a political party like that to die.”

Nevertheless, during a speech in Oita on the same day he said he would work within the party:

“A new party formed from a grand coalition that puts together numbers for the sake of survival would not gain the understanding of the people. I will present my vision for Japan 30 years in the future within the LDP, and after that act in accordance with my mission.”

He described his vision:

“The Koizumi reforms for revitalizing the market were unavoidable. The policy of Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ is to return to an excessively large government, and some in the ruling party (have) the same (ideas). We will conduct a policy of revitalizing regional areas to act as a third power center beyond the government and the market.”

On the morning of 4 January, Nakagawa spoke at a meeting in Hiroshima and expressed his desire to create a concentrated center for political realignment:

“We should stand together firmly on this great wave that we will create together, raise our new standard, and link that to political restructuring….The rearrangement of a new alliance will break the current political stalemate, and we must proceed to the next stage of structural reform under a new standard.”

He cited four specific areas on which he will concentrate: the environment, information and communications, long-term health care, and education.

He returned to Prime Minister Aso’s measures for the economy and quality of life, including a consumption tax increase, as the point for the next election:

“Tax increases should come after an economic recovery and after bold governmental reform. Now is not the time to talk about a tax increase. With negative economic growth forecast, talk of a tax increase could sink the economy to the rock bottom of a double-dip recession.”

When asked whether a lower house election campaign should focus on recovery or reform:

“I’ve always maintained that we should completely eliminate waste through governmental reforms. I think our priority should be to campaign on economic recovery.”

He went even further on 5 January, the first day of the regular session of the Diet, stating:

“Change must transcend the ruling and the opposition parties.”

Encountering opposition

A previous post described Mr. Nakagawa’s formation of a policy group to discuss social policies, and reports that people from the Machimura faction, particularly Abe Shinzo, joined specifically to prevent it from becoming a Nakagawa vehicle.

Mr. Outside

Mr. Outside

More than 100 people signed up for membership in this policy group, but only 32 attended the first meeting at the end of the year. That created a buzz in some quarters that his support within the party was less than imagined.

On the other hand, the meeting was held at roughly the same time that Watanabe Yoshimi was holding a press conference explaining his electrifying vote against the ruling party in the Diet, and that was the hotter ticket in town. Even close ally Koike Yuriko didn’t show up. But as we just noted, not everyone who signed up was on board to begin with. It’s also common for Japanese political groups to send scouts to meetings of this sort specifically to observe what goes on and report back to the tribal chief.

There is no question that Mr. Nakagawa is causing concern among the party leadership and the Machimura faction, the LDP’s largest. The latter group held a leadership conference on 24 December and neglected to invite him, even though he is a member. Participants at the meeting said that former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro was adamant about preventing younger party members from being led astray. This was particularly telling coming from Mr. Mori, as the two men were close at one time.

The real sign that the LDP wants to head him off at the pass, however, is the recent report surfacing in the press of a former Nakagawa aide asking the Nagoya Stock Exchange to list a company that the exchange thought didn’t qualify. Those in charge of the exchange assumed the request originated with Nakagawa, though he later fired the aide for making the request without his authorization. The president of the company in question was also arrested for breaking the corporate tax law. The Asahi Shimbun in particular is interested to see if it turns out the company financially contributed to Mr. Nakagawa. This week’s edition of the Shukan Shincho also has a story on an alleged connection between Nakagawa and the company president.

Golly, what a coincidence the story is coming out now!

But here’s the most important aspect of all: The LDP is able to effectively function in the Diet only because it has a lower house supermajority delivered by Prime Minister Koizumi in 2005. If 17 ruling party members were to revolt, the government would be unable to pass its legislation against the wishes of the opposition in the upper house, and would have little choice but to hold an election that it can’t win.

Thirty-two people were serious enough to show up for the first meeting of Mr. Nakagawa’s group. That’s almost double the number required right there. And that doesn’t begin to take into consideration the trouble that Mr. Outside, Watanabe Yoshimi, seems very anxious to stir up.

But we’ll get to him next time!

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The world’s first whale soy sauce

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 9, 2009

THE JAPANESE TAKE PRIDE in using as much of a whale as possible to eliminate waste when converting it to food products. One example is their creation of a canned paste of sorts made with whale cartilage and placed as a topping on rice in the same way natto beans are eaten.


Now Yamaka Shoyu, a soy sauce brewer in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi (the home port of the whaling fleet), the National Fisheries University in the same city, and a local council for promoting the development of new food products announced they have developed the world’s first soy sauce made using whale meat. The whale varieties used are the minke, caught during the government whaling expeditions in the South Pacific, and the sei whale. They’re not putting prime cuts into the sauce—the company uses scraps that were previously discarded by a local food company when processing the meat for market.

The product contains only the soybean and wheat base used to make soy sauce, salt, and whale meat. Those who have tried it say it isn’t as fishy tasting as other fish-based soy sauces and has strong umami characteristics. The ingredients are mixed, stirred daily for a month at a constant temperature, and then allowed to ferment for a month.

Yamaka plans to launch sales of the product in June in Yamaguchi in department stores and at retail outlets at tourist sites (in other words, they want to turn it into a “special local product”). There are also plans to sell it in Tokyo. One bottle will set you back 600 to 700 yen (US$ 6.50 to 7.60).

Does the whale soy sauce have potential or is it being made and sold for its novelty value? Koizumi Takeo, a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture noted for his adventuresome approach to food, has given it his imprimatur. “Not only is it delicious,” he said, “but it’s also good for you.”

Well, what more can you ask for? Just make sure to transfer it to a plain bottle or server when sensitive foreigners come to dinner!

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Shogatsu 2009: Lighting up traditional Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 4, 2009

AT LEAST ONCE IN THEIR LIVES, usually in early adolescence, Americans make a point to stay up to midnight on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball of light slide down the tower above Times Square in New York City to herald the start of the new year. My niece even went there to see it in person a couple of years ago and still lived to tell the tale.

Never ones to be shy about borrowing an idea that strikes their fancy, the Japanese turn the night sky’s darkness into daylight throughout the country on 31 December. Many venues offer a special countdown coupled with entertainment and charge an admission fee. One of them is Mitsui Greenland, an amusement park a couple of hours down the road here in Kyushu.

More interesting than the ersatz events at amusement parks, however, is the way in which the Japanese have adapted the concept and retrofitted it to more traditional settings, such as Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.


For example, the Shinto priests in charge of the Himeji Gokoku shrine in Kobe, Hyogo, don’t light up a single ball—they light up 2,000 chochin, or traditional lanterns, on the shrine grounds. The first photo shows the chochin lit up earlier this week during a trial to see if any of the bulbs had burned out. Inspecting the fixtures seems to be another part of the miko‘s job description. If you were lucky enough to be there at midnight on 31 December, you would have gotten to see the real thing.

The event is called the Mantosai, which literally means The Festival of 10,000 Lights. Before you start wondering about truth in advertising, keep in mind that it’s not supposed to be taken literally. In China and Korea as well as Japan, the number 10,000 has long been used to mean “a very large amount” rather than 10,000 in round numbers.

The shrine says they offer the ceremony in the hope of a “bright” new year. Explained the chief priest, “This year has been filled with “dark” events, including the financial crisis, but we want to raise a light at the New Year in the hope that people will be reminded of the beautiful Japanese virtue of treasuring a richness of spirit.”


Another Shinto shrine took the opportunity to use the lighting to promote one of its most recognizable assets. The Kumano Hongu shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, light up their immense torii on the former shrine grounds at Oyu-no-hara from 31 December to 7 January. The second photo shows the dress rehearsal on 27 December, in which 13 spotlights placed around the torii were turned on at 5:00 p.m., just when it starts to get dark in these midwinter days.

The torii is 34 meters (111.55 feet) high and 42 meters wide at the maximum point, so it must surely be an impressive sight bathed in floodlights in the middle of a pitch black field. They purposely used a red light for the yatagarasu crest in the middle of the torii to set it off from the overall blue hue. That’s a mythical sacred magpie with three legs that was reputed to lead people to the proper path in life. Lit up like that, it’s almost as if there’s a neon arrow pointing to the Promised Land and flashing the message, Step Right This Way!

On New Year’s Eve, or o-misoka as they say in Japan, it was lit from 6:00 p.m. to 5 a.m., but for the rest of the week visitors will have to make do with just three hours from 6-9 p.m. (By the way, try this link for a previous post about the Yata Fire Festival at the same location. They use a nice lighting scheme for that event, too.)


Even more spiritually distant from the Times Square fleshpots is the ecumenical spirit of a group in Setochi, Okayama, which provides illlumination to more than one religious institution on Mt. Kamitera. The group was organized to preserve the joint Buddhist and Shinto culture that survives on the mountain, so they made sure to shine a light on both the main building of the Yokei-ji Buddhist temple and pagoda as well as the Toyohara Kitashima shrine. They used 150 lights for the temple, which is a nationally designated important cultural treasure, as well as the shrine and torii. The group gave visitors a taste of the brightness to come when they switched on the lights from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the 30th, but then they went the whole Hogmanay on the 31st by letting them burn from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. the next morning. For an extra decorative touch, they also placed candles and lanterns along the pathways.

And while you’re still recovering from having stuffed yourself with o-sechi ryori, pickled herring, black-eyed peas, or whatever other special foods custom dictates be scarfed down during the season, you can get clicky with some blasts from the past presenting other aspects of the Japanese New Year.

Here’s a look at the Big Shimenawa in Hiroshima.

What else is there to eat? Well, there’s mochi. And soba. And even whale and shark, for the more discriminating palates.

The Japanese also deck the halls with boughs of pine trees, and all sorts of other things.

And to conclude, the New Year’s firsts shall come last!

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Miko make the season bright during New Year’s in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 2, 2009

MOST OF THE TIME, a Shinto shrine is all but deserted. Shinto isn’t a religion in the way people usually understand it—there are no written doctrines and no set times for worship. People visit a shrine when it suits their mood, their circumstances in life, or to participate in a few festivals or other events.

During the New Year’s holiday from 1-3 January, however, the shrines will be packed with people on a hatsumode, the customary first visit of the year. In most cases, people will visit three shrines in one day.

It would be impossible for the regular crew to handle the immense influx of visitors descending on the shrine in such a concentrated period of time. The chores required to receive those visitors, as well making and selling good luck talismans for the year ahead, require that the staff be reinforced with part-time employees. These are young women hired to serve as miko, or shrine maidens, who roughly correspond to altar boys at a Catholic church. While the larger shrines already have a few miko on call, particularly to assist at wedding ceremonies, most shrines have to hire them for the season.

Left over right? Right over left?

Left over right? Or right over left?

Because they’re working in the service of a religious institution and not a convenience store, the miko must conform to certain standards (i.e., no dyed hair). The priests provide additional training for the proper speech and deportment to be employed when greeting the shrine-goers, which demands a level of courtesy beyond that usually required in Japanese society.

This training includes instruction for dressing oneself in the traditional red and white garments, one of which is a hakama, or divided skirt. That’s normally part of a man’s formal wardrobe, particularly for traditional wedding ceremonies. While they aren’t as difficult to deal with as a kimono, wearing one is not intuitive and requires that someone show the wearer the ropes, or the drawstrings in this case.

The first photograph shows some miko-in-training learning how to dress at the Fukuyama Hachiman-gu in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. The training session, which also included lessons in the manner of address and the correct way in which to hand over lucky talismans to purchasers, was held about a week ago for the 40 women who will help out this year. The shrine needs the help: They expect 200,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Said the shrine’s priest, “The role of the miko is to connect the worshippers with the spirit of the divinity. I want them to approach that role with a pure heart.”

Santa’s elves

The shrines have plenty to do to prepare for New Year’s, which is still the most important holiday on the calendar. Some of the shrines that sell the talismans make them on the premises. That means the miko have been beavering away in the workshop as if they were a Japanese version of Santa’s elves.


The second photo shows a group of the 17 miko at the Onoyama-cho Gokoku shrine in Naha, Okinawa, making traditional fukusasa talismans by tying them into bundles after the materials were purified in a ceremony. Fukusasa is a combination of the words “lucky” and “bamboo grass”. A lot of lucky items will be sold to Japanese over the next few days in addition to bamboo grass, including fukubukuro, or lucky bags from department stores filled with merchandise and certificates for bigger-ticket items. One woman interviewed on television today was so intent on getting her fukubukuro that she rented a hotel room near the department store to ensure a spot in the queue enabling her to elbow her way inside when the doors opened in the morning.

The bamboo grass was specially cut by the priests in some nearby mountains. Said the chief priest Kaji Yorihito, “The bamboo grass grows pointing straight to heaven and is symbolic of the life force. We hope that as many people as possible will visit the shrine and add a sense of stability to their lives.”

The fukusasa are affixed with bells and small gourds, and then purchased and displayed by the parishioners who hope the luck will rub off in the form of domestic safety and business prosperity. It doesn’t take long for the miko to create a lot of potential luck. They can make 1,000 fukusasa in two days, as well as 10,000 hamaya, or exorcising arrows. When you expect 240,000 visitors, it’s good to have sufficient stock on hand. Besides, if you absolutely had to have an exorcising arrow, would you want to stand in line at the shrine and then be told they were sold out?

Cocoon balls

Meanwhile, work lasted for more than a week at the Kinomiya shrine in Atami, Shizuoka, to make the mayudama talisman for sale to those looking to get lucky in their business dealings. A mayu is a silkworm cocoon, and once upon a time the shrine attached real cocoons to willow branches and offered them over the counter.

That’s too expensive these days—silkworm cocoons were sold until recently on Japanese commodity exchanges, and the adventuresome investor can still buy raw silk from the cocoons on the Tokyo Grain Exchange. (For an idea of how people in East Asia view silkworms, the single kanji for the word is written by combining the characters for heaven and insect: 蚕.)

The more economical option today is the use of brightly colored balls (the tama of mayudama) made of rice meal. These and other decorations are attached to the branches of the hagi, or Japanese bush clover. The girls at the Kinomiya shrine made 3,000 this year, and you can see an example of their handiwork in the third photo.

Cleaning house

The miko are also responsible for performing the more housewifely tasks at the shrine, such as the yearly cleaning and dusting. Here’s a 40-second video of the miko banishing the cobwebs from the high ceilings using three-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass on the business end instead of a mop or feather duster. Note how the priests are the model of liberated males, grabbing poles and working alongside the miko. But considering those spotless white outfits they’re wearing, one has to wonder how much dirt they expect to remove. Then again, how dirty can the inside of a shrine get in a year?

That’s the Hokkaido Jingo shrine in central Sapporo, by the way. They’re expecting 730,000 people to drop in this year. The end of the video has a shot of the shrine exterior that’s worth seeing for its stark Japanese beauty. Besides, it’s a lot better to view the shrine from the outside by video instead of in person at this time of year. Judging from the amount of snow on the ground and surrounding trees, I’d be hibernating until spring if I lived there.

Supersized kagami mochi

If you think cleaning the corners of the ceiling with bamboo poles and leaves is an unusual assignment, watch what the miko do at the Yasuzumi shrine in Takanezawa-machi, Tochigi. The shrine is noted for offering a jumbo three-level kagami mochi (decorative New Year’s rice cake) every year at this time in the hopes the divinities will see fit to bless them with a good harvest and that Japan’s print and broadcast media will see fit to give them a minute of free publicity. It works like a charm—this video is one of at least three from Japanese TV floating around on the web.

It shows some parishioners pounding the very glutinous mochi rice with wooden mallets to form the uncooked cakes, a forklift bringing in the first two layers, and the miko bringing in the third mochi cake in a procession as if they were transporting a daimyo in a palanquin. It concludes with the priests topping off the creation with one of the most delicious citrus fruits known to humankind: the bampeiyu. They resemble grapefruit about half the size of a basketball but without the sour tartness. And they’re coming into season soon!

Take a few seconds to imagine a ceremony that involves a forklift, a traditional pallet carried by young women in ceremonial clothing, and a giant citrus fruit used in place of a cherry to top off an enormous food offering. Ain’t Japan grand?

Takanezawa is one of Tochigi’s prime rice growing districts, and the shrine began making the jumbo kagami mochi in 1982. It took the parishioners two days to make this bruiser. The first level is 110 centimeters in diameter (3.6 feet), the second is 80 centimeters, and the third is 60. It’s about 90 centimeters high and weighs about 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) when fully assembled. If you’re passing through Tochigi, you can stop by and see it until the 20th. After that, the monster mochi will be removed and chopped up into smaller pieces for distribution to parishioners during the Setsubun festival on 3 February, unless Godzilla comes ashore and swallows it whole first.

Restoring a two-year tradition

There’s more to a miko’s lot than wearing traditional costumes to fashion handicrafts in the shrine sweatshop, serve as cleaning ladies, or do the heavy lifting of decorative rice. The two miko shown in the next photo are practicing the Urayasu-no-Mai (a dance), which was performed for the first time in 67 years at the Teruhi Shinto shrine yesterday in Osaki-cho, Kagoshima.


The dance for women is performed to music resembling gagaku with an elegant and deliberate choreography. It appears traditional, but it was actually created and first offered at the Ise shrine in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial line. (That anniversary was a very big deal in 1940, but that’s another story.)

The 79-year-old Fujioka Tomio of the local kagura preservation society says he was in the audience during the inaugural performance as a lad of 10 and has never forgotten it. The dance was performed for only two years—the Japanese had other fish to fry by 1942—and he’s been at the forefront of efforts since then to bring it back. He worked with a local teacher of traditional Japanese dance to teach it to two girls, one a first-year junior high school student and the other third-year high school student. They began practicing in November, and shown here is a photo of the miko in a dress rehearsal last week at the shrine. Mr. Fujioka and the shrine parishioners hope this will start a new tradition that will last longer than two years this time.

It might seem as if there is a sense of Japanese exclusivity and exoticism hovering about all these activities—young women dressing in traditional Japanese clothing to make traditional Japanese crafts for the celebration of New Year’s at Shinto institutions that they cleaned with ritual implements and adorned with ritual food offerings, and then performing a special dance created at a shrine closely associated with the Imperial house to celebrate more than two millennia of Imperial rule. Some might like to think the Japanese are so exclusionary and this behavior so defining that participation by anyone else would be unthinkable.

Think again. There’s another video floating around the web of a recent TV report on a miko training session at a shrine in Nagasaki City. The video wasn’t particularly distinctive, so I didn’t include it here, but a brief interview of one of the trainees casually tacked on to the end might cause cognitive dissonance among those who enjoy being narrow-minded about Japan.

This particular trainee was a 21-year-old Korean university student attending a local university. The woman was not learning about miko practices—she was taking a refresher course. She had already worked as one during the 2008 New Year’s holidays and enjoyed it so much she wanted to do it again.

You didn’t really buy that line about the Japanese being xenophobic Korean-haters, now did you?

Lest old acquaintance be forgot, let’s not forget this post from last year all about miko and some of the other delightful things they do.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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