Japan from the inside out

Archive for May, 2009

Bolton and Hewitt and Stromberg and Steyn on North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 31, 2009

EARLIER THIS WEEK we linked to John Bolton’s prescient article in the Wall Street Journal about the then-impending North Korean nuclear test. Mr. Bolton is a magnet for intense criticism of the type that erupts when clearly stated, straightforward views threaten to expose wishful thinking for what it is.

He appeared on the Hugh Hewitt radio program for a half hour on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Northeast Asia in more detail. Mr. Hewitt is a law professor (Constitutional law), website editor, and columnist in addition to hosting his own radio show.

Among the points Mr. Bolton made:

“…the administration is saying that they want, and Secretary Clinton said it again today, they want North Korea back at the six party talks. Now these talks have been underway for six years. They have utterly failed to restrain North Korea. And if you’re sitting in Pyongyang and hearing the administration both before the nuclear test and after the nuclear test say that that’s what they want the next step to be, the only conclusion you can draw on North Korea is that you’re getting a free pass on this test, and on subsequent tests down the road. The six party talks have failed. We need to get over that. Unfortunately, there’s no sign the administration understands it.

In the earlier post, frequent commenter Bender wondered what exactly could be done with North Korea short of a military attack. Mr. Bolton must have been reading the comment section.


I personally think we’d need to stay away from the military option. I think that it’s risky no matter what the level of casualties.


…we need to take much stronger action against North Korea. I’d put them back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Bush administration never should have taken them off that list. I would once again cut off their access to international financial markets. Here again, the Bush administration had them over a barrel with the Banco Delta Asia matter and let them escape. We need to put those constraints back in. We’ve had a big boost just in the past 24 hours from the government of South Korea announcing it was going to join…the U.S.-led proliferation security initiative, which is a major effort to stop international trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. And we need to put more pressure on China to use its leverage on North Korea either to get rid of Kim Jung Il or at a minimum, to constrain their ability to deal on these nuclear weapons internationally.

More specifically about the Chinese, he said:

The Chinese are concerned that if they put too much pressure on Kim Jung Il, the regime will collapse, and Korea will reunify. Well, here’s the news. Korea will reunify one day just like Germany did. This division of the peninsula is unnatural, and China can either be on the right side of history, or they can continue resisting it. We need to have stronger, more effective advocacy with China to get them to recognize the inevitable, and help us with Kim Jung Il.

But he is not sanguine about the latter:

I think that’s unlikely in this administration. Their priority seems to be climate change negotiations with China. My own view is that nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime like Kim Jung Il are a lot more serious threat to the U.S. and everybody else in the world today than climate change. But if you’re not willing to elevate North Korea’s nuclear program on the list with China, not much is going to happen.

He also discusses the Japanese potential for a nuclear weapons capability:

Many people think (it would take) only a matter of months. They have a very advanced civil nuclear program. They have substantial amounts of spent fuel with plutonium in the spent fuel that could be reprocessed. They have a very sophisticated scientific community. They have advanced missile capabilities now. They can launch their own satellites. So it wouldn’t take Japan long.

At this point, it’s worth taking another look at this report by the Congressional Research Service examining the possibility that the Japanese will acquire nuclear weapons. Here’s some of the advice the American Congress is receiving:

If Japan withdrew from the NPT, it would likely be subject to UN Security Council-imposed sanctions and economic and diplomatic isolation.

Reading this, one wonders how some people manage to stay employed.

The entire transcript of the Bolton interview is here.

Mr. Hewitt, by the way, is very much a fan of the Internet’s non-traditional role in the dissemination of the news. Here’s how he ended an article on the Columbia School of Journalism:

There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer. In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs.

As all of us here know, some of the most easily exposed and fraudulent of the trad journalism poseurs are writing about Japan.

Pre-publication update:

But there are blogs, and then there are the blogs written by the poseurs themselves.

Before this post was scheduled to run, I ran across this blog post by Stephen Stromberg in the Washington Post. I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times, and I still can’t tell for sure if he’s serious.

He suggests that Kim Jong-il made a mistake by conducting the test on the American Memorial Day holiday. Once upon a time, Americans would have realized the implicit danger to its credibility–and therefore its safety–by ignoring the obvious symbolism. Not any more.

Mr. Stromberg seems to think it’s a joke. (Please try to convince me otherwise.) He says that Kim’s test didn’t receive so much attention in the U.S. because it was a three-day holiday weekend, and the American media is more concerned with a Supreme Court justice nominee and the California court’s ruling on gay marriage. Now read this:

This isn’t a frivolous observation. Nuclear weapons are near useless if your adversaries don’t know about and actively fear the ones you’ve got.

Really? The people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki neither knew about nor actively feared the very useful bombs that fell on them.

What was that Hugh Hewitt said about poseurs again?

Mr. Stromberg and the Washington Post think the Obama administration shouldn’t treat this as a crisis. By that, they mean it shouldn’t hasten to offer the Kim Family Regime concessions, as the U.S. has done too often in the past. While the Post’s editorials call for some of the same measures Mr. Bolton did, they also think the nonexistent six-party talks are worthwhile, despite having been an utter waste of time.

I don’t think we have to worry about the too naturally cool Mr. Obama getting too excited. Copping a move from a rap star by pretending to dust off his shoulders, or scratching his nose with his middle finger is more his style. Hey, it worked with Hillary and The Washington Post, didn’t it?

But the poseurs (all of them) miss the point. For some reason, the WaPo seems to think that getting excited = giving North Korea more concessions. The proven equation doesn’t seem to have occurred to them; namely, getting excited = realizing the gravity of the threat and taking immediate steps to eliminate it.

As Mark Steyn points out:

The rest of the world doesn’t observe Memorial Day. But it understands the crude symbolism of a rogue nuclear test staged on the day to honor American war dead and greeted with only half-hearted pro forma diplomatese from Washington.

Still don’t get it?

Out there in the chancelleries and presidential palaces, they’re beginning to get the message. The regime in Pyongyang is not merely trying to “provoke” America but is demonstrating to potential clients that you can do so with impunity. A black-market economy reliant on exports of heroin, sex slaves and knock-off Viagra is attempting to supersize its business model and turn itself into a nuclear Wal-Mart. Among the distinguished guests present for North Korea’s October 2006 test were representatives of the Iranian government. President George W. Bush was much mocked for yoking the two nations together in his now all but forgotten “axis of evil” speech, but the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung reported a few weeks ago that the North Korean-built (and Israeli-bombed) plutonium production facility in Syria was paid for by Tehran. How many other Iranian clients are getting nuclear subsidies?

So where’s all this leading?

While America laughed at North Korea, Iran used it as a stalking horse, a useful guide as to the parameters of belligerence and quiescence a nuclearizing rogue state could operate within. In…”the post-American world,” other nations will follow that model. We are building a world in which the wealthiest nations on the planet…are all but defenseless, while bankrupt dysfunctional squats go nuclear. Even with inevitable and generous submissions to nuclear blackmail, how long do you think that arrangement will last?

And how long do you think it will be before Japan wises up and gets serious about nuclear weapons now that we know the poseurs in Washington would rather lick their fingers at a backyard barbecue than pay serious attention to some blackhearted men in–yes–an axis of evil preparing to fire up a barbecue of their own.

Kim Jong-il picked a bad news cycle? Poseur doesn’t describe it.

Posted in International relations, Mass media, Military affairs, North Korea | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Yacurling we will go

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 30, 2009

THERE MAY BE nothing new under the sun, but big fun often results when imaginative people modify and adapt whatever’s at hand to create something semi-new. One such group of people, led by 66-year-old physical education instructor Kita Ryoko in Mima, Tokushima, decided they wanted to invent a new sport that could be played by people of any age.


What they came up with was yacurling. It’s similar to curling, but played on a gymnasium floor with a kettle instead of on specially treated ice with a granite stone. Curling has shown up on everyone’s radar in Japan since the better-than-expected performance of the women’s team at the 2006 Winter Olympics. The women’s team also finished fourth at the 2008 World Championships, though they didn’t fare so well this year. (The women from China won instead.)

Ms. Kita and her crew started with a five-liter yakan, which is a Japanese-style kettle. (There are different sizes, but they all look the same.) They cut three holes in the bottom of the kettle and inserted casters to allow it to roll. To make sure it moves along smartly, they put 2.5 kilograms of ballast inside.

The players stand nine meters away from the target (which in curling is called the house). The house in yacurling has a diameter of 0.65 meters. The winner is the player who can roll the stone (yakan) closest to the center. Unlike curling, the stone is recovered after each toss, so strategic placement and knocking the the other team’s stones out of the way aren’t factors in this game.

The inventors worked out the kinks at a local sports club on Saturdays and were delighted to discover that it was harder than they thought it would be. Now they hope to get other people interested.

For the sake of comparison, a curling stone is from 17 to 20 kilograms in weight (and costs several hundred dollars). The house is 3.7 meters wide, and the players stand from 45 to 46 meters away.

Yacurling looks like an inexpensive way to have fun to me. Of course it’s just a game rather than a new sport, but who wouldn’t want to try it at least once?

About that name—Japanese vowels have only one pronunciation each. The Japanese A is always pronounced like the A in “father”. Curling in Japanese is rendered ka-ri-n-gu, so the first two syllables in yakan (N at the end of words is a separate unit) are pronounced the same as the first two in yaka-ringu (yacurling).

The reports didn’t say whether it was an individual sport or a team sport, so I don’t know if the team members use a mop on the floor to help the kettle roll home!

The more I think about this, the more it reminds me of something the members of my college fraternity would have cooked up. One night well past the witching hour, two of the members stole a wheelchair from a nearby hospital (I know, I know), and within 24 hours, we were having contests in the living room to see who could do a wheelie the longest (i.e., ride around balanced on the two back wheels with the front wheels in the air).

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

The moribund diet of Japanese politicians

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 30, 2009

A FEW WEEKS AGO, an observant reader passed along a link to one of those blind-leading-the-blind articles about Japan that appeared in an overseas newspaper. The author, a non-Japanese who lives in this country, declared in the text that Japanese politics were “moribund”.

Mr. Japan Hand apparently doesn’t follow Japanese politics too closely. If he did, he would have already seen the following statements—direct quotes all—by politicians that have appeared in the past fortnight. They’ve been discussing the possibility of reapportioning the Diet by reducing the number of seats. Keep in mind this issue isn’t even on the political front burner—it’s just one of the many ideas being batted around with reform in the air.

The recent debate seems to have been jump-started by firebrand reformer Watanabe Yoshimi and ex-bureaucrat Eda Kenji, who recently published a book presenting their ten-point program to remake Japanese government. One of those points calls for slashing the number of lower house members to 300 (by eliminating the 180 proportional representation delegates) and the number of upper house members to 100 (by eliminating the 142 proportional representation delegates).

Suga Yoshihide

Suga Yoshihide, (Koga faction) the deputy chief of election campaigns for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, offered a more modest proposal during a speech to a local party meeting in Saga:

“(Our party platform) should include the reduction of at least 50 Diet seats from the 480 in the lower house, about 10%.”

Mr. Suga’s reasoning was that municipal mergers and other governmental reforms have lowered the number of seats in legislatures at the sub-national level throughout the country. He wants to use this plank as a weapon in the coming electoral battle with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which in part will be fought over which party is the more credible reformer. As Mr. Suga is known to be close to Prime Minister Aso, the proposal is not to be taken lightly. He added:

“The winds are not blowing in a favorable direction for the LDP. We should first show our resolve to make sacrifices, and then make a point of insisting during the campaign that we cannot entrust the government to the DPJ.”

Hatoyama Yukio

New DPJ Party President Hatoyama Yukio then saw Mr. Suga’s bet of 50 and raised him 30 during a Tokyo press conference:

“I have proposed that the number (of lower house seats) be reduced by about 80. It might be included in our next party platform. Fifty is not enough.”

To be fair, he’s just restating a previous DPJ proposal. Their platform for the 2007 upper house elections included a plank that called for eliminating the same number of the 180 proportional representation seats in the lower house.

Koshi’ishi Azuma

Koshi’ishi Azuma (Yokomichi group), one of three DPJ acting presidents (with Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto) and chair of the party’s upper house caucus, then made the following suggestion at a press conference:

“It isn’t possible to lower the number of lower house seats by 80 while increasing the number of upper house seats. We must embark on a course of reduction.”

Remember that he’s on the same team as Mr. Hatoyama. But no sooner did he offer this tasty morsel than he snatched it back:

“A decision won’t be reached (about including the idea in the next platform) until we hear the opinions of the other opposition parties.”

In other words, he’s all hat and no cattle. The “other opposition parties” include such DPJ allies and fellow travelers as the People’s New Party, the Social Democrats, and the vanity parties of Suzuki Muneo The Scandalous and Tanaka Yasuo The Lecherous. Most of those parties would evaporate without proportional representation seats, so it’s a safe bet that Mr. Koshi’ishi won’t even seek their opinion. (The party could afford to take a strong stand in 2007 when it was numerically much weaker. They’re certainly not going to kick their bedfellows out from under the covers now that they’re close enough to power to smell it. At least not right away, anyway.)

If the two major parties keep raising the stakes, they might wind up at Watanabe Yoshimi’s position of eliminating the proportional representation seats altogether. But that won’t happen until after an election and a political reorganization. Both of the primary parties still need the smaller parties for the upcoming election, and most of the politicos are waiting to see how that shakes out before taking any drastic new steps.

Mori Yoshiro

Former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, one of the Big Cheeses of the zombie wing of the LDP, confirmed the old saying about blind squirrels and acorns by pointing out the obvious:

“It would be great if the Communist Party did us the favor of disappearing, but the people who want to reduce the lower house to 300 should go to New Komeito, get their approval, and bring it back to us….We might not need 180 proportional representatives, but the Communist Party and New Komeito will fight it tooth and nail. I wonder if the folks who are saying those things are capable of girding their loins to do battle with New Komeito.”

Mr. Mori is probably alluding to the capacity for harassment of both New Komeito and their backers in Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. They can be very unpleasant when aroused. Eliminating those seats would decimate New Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition.

He also brought up Ozawa Ichiro’s effort to convince the late Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo to do away with some proportional representation seats in 1999 when the LDP was governing in a coalition with the Liberal Party, Mr. Ozawa’s vehicle at the time.

“Mr. Ozawa tried to forcibly eliminate proportional representation districts. Basically, he hates New Komeito. Calling for the seats to be reduced without knowing about those circumstances, and then saying we won’t lose to the DPJ, is a truly stupid idea.”

And yes, Mr. Ozawa does hate New Komeito. It’s no coincidence that the DPJ made loud noises last year about grilling former party leader Yano Junya in the Diet after he filed a suit against Soka Gakkai, claiming that they tried to force him to stop working as a political commentator.

Some are suggesting that the DPJ might try to seduce New Komeito into changing partners. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that idea, even considering the anything-goes default position of Japanese politics.

Shii Kazuo

That leaves the Communist Party of Japan. Here’s what JCP Chair Shii Kazuo said at a press conference when he got wind of the downsizing plans:

“The idea is that if there are two parties in the Diet, then other parties won’t be necessary. That is undermining democracy from its foundation.”

When it comes to undermining the foundation of democracy, the Communist Party is the go-to source to learn all about it. Remember all those Democratic People’s Republics they used to have? And they’ve still got one in Pyeongyang!

The last one is from LDP party executive Ishihara Nobuteru, who has also served as party policy chief and twice as Cabinet minister, once in charge of governmental reform:

“My thinking is roughly the same as that of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. It would be best to amend the Constitution in 10 years, create a unicameral legislature by combining the upper and lower house, and use (districts with multiple representatives).

So, a serious competition is underway about how many seats to slash from the Diet—not if—and the debate over the past week to 10 days has included the possibility of neutering several smaller parties and eliminating one of the houses altogether.

And some people are getting paid to write that Japanese politics is moribund?

Bonus Communist Party quote!

Mr. Shii also chimed in on the topic of whether the government has the authority to order pre-emptive military strikes against foreign countries:

“Using the activities of North Korea to tread onto dangerous territory is to create a vicious circle of military response. It would destroy the Constitution and destroy world peace. We absolutely will not approve of it.”

One of the Japanese equivalents of the proverb “Birds of a feather flock together” roughly translates as “Mix with crimson and you’ll turn red.”

How appropriate, considering the circumstances.

Now try this one: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Bonus political joke!

The DPJ and one of their splinter group allies, the People’s New Party, have been holding negotiations over how to deal with one of the electoral districts in Kanagawa. Both parties have promising candidates they want to run in the district, but they don’t want to go head-to-head, and neither wants to back down.

New DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio, known in some quarters as “the man from outer space”, announced that the parties had reached an agreement and the DPJ candidate would be the one to run.

This angered their PNP friends, who said that no decisions had been made and that the two parties were still negotiating.

Right after the disagreement became public, leaders from the two parties met for a conference. The DPJ side included such heavyweights as Kan Naoto and Okada Katsuya, but Mr. Hatoyama did not attend.

When the discussions began, PNP representative Kamei Shizuka observed:

“Looks like only the earthlings showed up today.”

A DPJ-led government promises to be hugely entertaining!

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

Hatoyama Yukio, Yuai, and the fraternal revolution

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 29, 2009

The chaos of modern politics will only…find its end when a spiritual aristocracy seizes the means of power of society: (gun)powder, gold, ink, and uses them for the blessing of the general public.
– Practical Idealism, Count Richard Nikolaus Eijiro von Coudenhove-Kalergi

ON A COLD DAY in Tokyo in 1891, 17-year-old Aoyama Mitsuko rushed to help Count Heinrich von Coudenhove-Kalergi, an Austrian diplomat whose horse had slipped and fallen on the ice. Her father was an antique dealer and oil merchant descended from a samurai family, and the Count was a frequent visitor to the antique shop because the Austrian legation was nearby.

Count Richard Nikolaus Eijiro von Coudenhove-Kalergi

Count Richard Nikolaus Eijiro von Coudenhove-Kalergi

As so often happens, one thing led to another, and the diplomat married Mitsuko over her parents’ objections after he had first succeeded in getting her a job as a parlor maid in the Austrian embassy. They had two sons, the second of whom was Count Richard Nikolaus Eijiro von Coudenhove-Kalergi, born in Tokyo in 1894. Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi became a prominent political thinker and activist who founded the Pan-Europa movement in 1923, which is widely recognized as the forerunner of the EU.

The primary objectives of the oldest European federalist organization were to create a free and united Europe with a joint foreign policy and currency and a focus on the family and strong property rights. The Count wanted to create an ethnically diverse European nation with a common culture. A polyglot, he expected that the language of common use throughout the European nation would be English, while everyone would use their native language in their home regions. He said that such a nation would be “the only way of guarding against an eventual world hegemony by Russia”.

In the book Theories of European Integration, Ben Rosamond wrote that Coudenhove-Kalergi wanted to create a conservative society that superceded democracy with “the social aristocracy of the spirit”. Others have described him as a social democrat with aristocratic tendencies, and the Count himself said that he favored government by “the best and the brightest”. He sought to reconcile the conflict between capitalism and communism through cross-fertilization rather than the victory of one over the other. He also thought the world should be divided into five blocs, with Japan and China controlling the Far East.

Meanwhile, back in Japan…

Sometime during the period from 1946 to 1951 in the upscale mountain resort of Karuizawa, Nagano, Hatoyama Ichiro happened to read one of Coudenhove-Kalergi’s many books, The Totalitarian State against Man. Hatoyama was a politician who entered the Diet in 1915 and later served as chief cabinet secretary and education minister before the war.

He was elected again to the Imperial Diet in 1942 despite being an “unofficial candidate”, but he was expelled to Karuizawa for his opposition to the Imperial Rule Assistance Association and the policies of Tojo Hideki. He returned to Tokyo after the war and formed the Liberal Party, which became the largest party in the postwar Diet. Just as he was to be named prime minister, the GHQ barred him from holding public office on the charge of cooperating with militarism, and he returned to Karuizawa for a second period of exile.

When reading The Totalitarian State against Man, Hatoyama was so moved by Coudenhove-Kalergi’s idea of a “fraternal revolution” that he translated the book into Japanese. He chose the Japanese term yuai kakumei for fraternal revolution. Yuai is also used in the translation of the slogan of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Coudenhove-Kalergi himself believed in this ideal, but thought the French achieved only the first of the three.

Hatoyama was captivated by the European’s insistence that following a fraternal revolution, the world would transcend the limits of race, religion, ethnicity, state, and language to usher in a true age of coexistence among people, and between people and nature.

Despite suffering a stroke in 1951 just before his banishment order was lifted, Hatoyama stayed active in politics. He became prime minister at last when he succeeded Yoshida Shigeru in December 1954, and he served to December 1956. Personal and philosophical differences with Yoshida had caused him to leave the Liberal Party and form the Democratic Party. These and other conservative groups formed the Liberal Democratic Party in November 1955, and it has been the governing party of Japan continuously since then with the exception of an 11-month period in the mid-1990s.

L-R: Grandpa Yoshida and Grandpa Hatoyama

L-R: Grandpa Yoshida and Grandpa Hatoyama

In addition to his political work, Hatoyama formed the Yuai Youth Association in 1953 and served as its first president. The group’s objective was to inculcate in young people the yuai spirit and thus contribute to the rebuilding of Japan during the postwar period. The association still exists and remains active today.

The word yuai is not commonly used in everyday life, and its presence in Japanese politics faded after Hatoyama Ichiro’s death. The term was briefly revived with the formation of the small New Fraternity Party in 1998, which consisted primarily of Diet members with social democrat tendencies. The party was a temporary receptacle that lasted only from January to April that year, when it merged with the newly created Democratic Party of Japan. One NFP member, Naoshima Masayuki, is still a senior executive with the DPJ.

The keeper of the flame

Ichiro’s grandson Hatoyama Yukio was chosen as the DPJ president earlier this month. Mr. Hatoyama is also a champion of the concept of yuai. He is on record as stating that he wants to change the name of the party he helped found to the Yuai Minshuto—perhaps the Fraternal Democratic Party of Japan—and create a yuai shakai, or fraternal society.

His intense focus on that goal and the nature of the goal itself has subjected Mr. Hatoyama to heavy criticism, and his devotion to the cause exasperates even his allies. One of his political associates recently told the weekly Shukan Bunshun that he interviewed Mr. Hatoyama 10 years ago with the idea of writing a book to further the latter’s political career. The associate said that over the course of 30 hours of interviews, Mr. Hatoyama did not express a single idea about policy, but kept returning to the idea of yuai instead.

Last year, he and his brother, LDP member and Cabinet minister Hatoyama Kunio, established the Yuai Juku, an institute to “develop prominent men and women to create a society, nation, and world whose keynote is the concept of yuai”. Their older sister, Inoue Kazuko, serves as the institute’s director. The first class of 20 students began the year-long course in April 2008 and paid an affordable 130,000 yen (about $US 1,350) to attend classes at the former Hatoyama mansion from 6:10 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

The criticism

Not everyone thinks yuai has a place in Japanese politics today. Television commentators, particularly the brash types who consider themselves entertainers first, and who come from a different social milieu than either the Count or Mr. Hatoyama, have derided the new DPJ president’s philosophy as being beyond the average person’s understanding. One—who didn’t do his homework—even claimed that it was entirely unrelated to politics. Journalist and political commentator Ito Atsuo, who is sympathetic to the DPJ and promoted in print Mr. Hatoyama’s opponent Okada Katsuya in the party’s recent presidential election, said it cannot be practically applied to policy.

L-R: Grandsons Taro and Yukio

L-R: Grandsons Taro and Yukio

Of course the political opposition knows an opening when they spot one. Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has recently raised his public profile after spending almost two years in a self-imposed exile of his own, recovering from medical problems and the strain of office after resigning his position in August 2007. Before becoming prime minister, Mr. Abe published a book in 2005 called Toward a Beautiful Country that presented his policy positions to the general public. He used the “Beautiful Country” phrase as his political slogan during his term of office.

Mr. Abe’s slogan was also mercilessly ridiculed by the opposition, particularly the DPJ and the Social Democrats (formerly the Socialists). SDP President Fukushima Mizuho said she didn’t know what the phrase “beautiful country” was supposed to mean.

The former prime minister has hurled some slings and arrows of his own at Mr. Hatoyama and his pet cause. Perhaps he did it for a taste of revenge, or perhaps he would have used it in any event as a weapon against the leader across the aisle. But at the Hatoyama press conference following his election as DPJ chief, a reporter brought up Mr. Abe’s criticism:

“The other day, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said, ‘Yuai diplomacy will absolutely not pass muster with North Korea.’ Will you apply Yuai diplomacy to North Korea?”

Said Mr. Hatoyama:

“Well then, former Prime Minister Abe may have rejected Yuai diplomacy, but it might be that he doesn’t understand Yuai diplomacy. Yuai diplomacy is by no means an insubstantial thing. It is how countries with different value systems can achieve the position of recognizing the existence of each other in this world. I think that is a very important, significant concept.

“Of course, for countries of the type that no one knows what they’re going to do, such as North Korea…he might simply be envisioning something like a sunshine strategy, as in the story of the north wind and the sun, but it might not be possible to have North Korea remove its cape with the sunshine idea alone. It might be necessary to combine a strategy of both, with the north wind, but I…that’s why we must leave behind the type of diplomacy in which countries with different value systems don’t recognize each other…I suspect we’ve reached an extremely important phase. That’s what I think, and I think it is necessary for the government to delve more into Yuai diplomacy in the future.

Mr. Hatoyama and Prime Minister Aso Taro squared off in a debate of the party leaders in the Diet on 27th. Some were astonished when the former brought up the subject on his own:

Hatoyama Yukio’s question:

“I…just the other day, during the DPJ presidential election…(to hecklers) please be quiet…what I said…I said that I wanted to build a Yuai society. I’ve heard many people criticize this. But, this is an extremely…this in one sense is an old idea, but also a new idea, that’s what I think. What I think this country lacks today, is that the ties in society have been shredded, and all of us as individuals don’t have a place of our own. I think this is a very grave situation. I used the word love, but I want to build a society in which every person can discover their place with ties (to society), in which everyone feels that they are useful, and in which everyone feels happy. In a word, I want to create a world in which people can think that another person’s happiness is their happiness. That’s what I think, but at any rate, politics in Japan today is not like that at all. When people are envious of another person’s happiness, when they are happy to see someone unhappy, this sort of a world, in the end, ruins politics, and doesn’t it also ruin society? Why has such a state arisen? I want to ask the prime minister what he thinks.”

Aso Taro’s answer:

“Well…the spirit of Yuai, that was a word used when Hatoyama Ichiro was prime minister in 1955. I was about in the third year of junior high school, and that’s a word I remember, so, that word is used with great esteem…and I have absolutely no objection to feelings of affection (joai) for other people.”

Are Hatoyama and Yuai the answer?

Abe Shinzo’s grandfather was Kishi Nobusuke, Aso Taro’s grandfather was Yoshida Shigeru, and Hatoyama Yukio’s grandfather was Hatoyama Ichiro. Five of those six men have served as prime ministers of Japan, and the sixth might reach that position before the year is out. If he does, both the older trio and the younger trio will have held that office within fewer than three years of one another. The more things change…

The Yuai concept includes an admirable set of personal ideals that, like all such philosophies, are unachievable in this world. (It also includes a dangerous elitism.) But reality, as the former Marxist Thomas Sowell is fond of noting, is not optional. If these ideals were achievable, we wouldn’t need the political process to begin with. Such a world cannot be created from the top down or the outside in. If it is capable of achievement, it requires a conscious effort by each individual on a personal level from the inside out, and most people have neither the time nor the inclination to bother.

Doubtless Hatoyama Yukio is motivated by sincerity and good intentions, and one cannot help but respect what seems to be his lifelong commitment. But none of us can say for certain why he really got into politics in the first place: a sense of ambition as ruthless as that of the next hack, a sense of idealistic public service, or to enter the family business. It’s also regrettable that he has chosen to ally himself and his party with some unpleasant people. And it’s not out of the question that those same people are using him as a vehicle while viewing him as a sap behind his back for what they consider to be his loopy ideas.

But Mr. Hatoyama is an adult responsible for his own actions, and we all understand that people do not pursue and maintain a career in politics unless they are willing to barter their soul, either piecemeal or in a single lot.

In fact, maybe it’s time for the new DPJ president to do some rereading. He could start with this sentence from the Yuai Youth Association website:

Unless the ideal will widely spread over the years to come, politicians will not stop doing such foolish acts as breaking commitments or making election pledges to do what they really are not going to do at all.

Breaking commitments? This is the man who was going to resign from his senior party position together with Ozawa Ichiro, but then chose to run for party president instead.

As for election pledges, Mr. Hatoyama should take another look at his party’s election platform and eliminate the ones that “he’s not going to do at all.” He could then consider the blatant contradition of promises to cut the bureaucracy and promote regionalism, while at the same time proposing massive spending increases that will only enlarge and enhance both the bureaucracy and the central government. Then he could explain how the DPJ’s alliance with the People’s New Party and promise to halt postal privatization will downsize the bureaucracy.


Enough of this strawberry alarm clock incense and peppermints crap. Let’s get funky!

Now you know why Nakasone Yasuhiro referred to Hatoyama Yukio as being like melted ice cream, and why other people call him the man from outer space.

Ozawa Ichiro has finally arranged/blundered into the situation that suits him best, and now he has another semi-aristocratic squish to act as his front man while he wields a tire iron in the alley. Isn’t that a tasty dish to set before the people?

The Shukan Bunshun reports that Mr. Hatoyama was feeling a bit giddy during an impromptu press conference outside his office after winning the DPJ presidency. He started talking about himself without any prompting, and said, “The Hatoyama color (i.e., his defining traits and beliefs) is the power of love!” Then he began speculating about his real hue on the spectrum. He thought that gold was probably an exaggeration and over the top at this point, so he settled on deep crimson.

Prime Minister Aso said that this week’s debate would determine which of the two men would be more suitable as prime minister.

Reading the words of both men, one seems like a teenaged girl, while the other seems like her indulgent uncle.

It’s not hard to figure out which one is which.

P.S: Some people think the Guerlain perfume Mitsuko (originally Mitsouko) is named after Aoyama Mitsuko. It was created in 1919 and has been continuously available since then.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, History, Politics, World War II | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Krauthammer: Convince Japan to go nuclear

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 28, 2009

THE WELL-KNOWN POLITICAL COLUMNIST Charles Krauthammer thinks the United States should encourage Japan to add nuclear weapons to its military arsenal.

He offers two reasons:

First, North Korea is a nuclear power. What we’ve done to deal with the country hasn’t worked in the past, and won’t work in the future.

Second, a nuclear-armed Japan is not only something for North Korea to think about, but also something for China to think about. North Korea would be unable to do what it’s doing if it weren’t for the enabling behavior of the Chinese. (Indeed, North Korean behavior suits Chinese purposes.) Mr. Krauthammer thinks this would make the Chinese get serious about reigning in their client state.

Yes, Mr. Krauthammer knows about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. My opinion? Nuclear weapons aren’t a problem if they’re in the hands of responsible states. Japan is, and the three existing nuclear powers in Northeast Asia aren’t.

Here’s another thought: It’s been apparent for some time that a major political realignment is coming in Japan, and that the politicians are waiting until after the next lower house election to begin changing partners.

Until now, most people have focused on the domestic issues that will determine alliances in the future, such as the relationship between the political class and the bureaucracy, and the devolution of authority.

The events of the past week might make international issues in general, and military issues in particular, a factor more visible to the public in determining that realignment than has previously been the case. For example, there are about 50 Diet members more loyal to Ozawa Ichiro than they are to their party, the Democratic Party of Japan. The only policy to which Mr. Ozawa has consistently adhered since the early 1990s is what some even in his own party call U.N. supremacy; i.e., Japan can take no military action unless it is in concert with the United Nations. There are people in the ruling LDP who would find that acceptable, and those in the DPJ who do not.

Posted in China, International relations, Military affairs, North Korea | Tagged: | 20 Comments »

Matsuri da! (107): Burning the old biddy

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 28, 2009

MANY JAPANESE FESTIVALS are held to pray for a bountiful harvest, but the parishioners of the Junisho Shinto shrine of Toyo’oka in Hyogo have an unusual way of going about it—they burn a straw effigy of an old woman. Scoff if you must, but there must be something to be said for its effectiveness. They’ve been doing it for almost 800 years now.


But let’s start at the beginning, even though Japanese history is such a continuum that it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint either the beginning or the end. For the purposes of the story, however, let’s point the pin at the Gotoba Tenno (emperor), number 82 in line if you’re counting. His name is also written Go-Toba.

He ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne at the age of three and reigned until the age of 18, when he was forced to abdicate by the first of the Kamakura shoguns. But he was a persistent man, and he placed his two sons on the throne to succeed him, first Tsuchimikado and then Juntoku. But the Kamakura shogun was just as persistent, and he kicked both of them out too.

Tsuchimikado and Juntoku had different mothers, incidentally, neither of whom was the official empress. In fact, Gotoba supposedly had 18 children by 11 different women, mostly court ladies, though some were the daughters of priests, some were dancing girls, some were probably both, and several were of the Fujiwara family, who frequently became the wives or consorts of tenno in those days. Both the official empress Gishumon-in and Juntoku’s mother were Fujiwaras, but Gishumon-in gave birth to only one daughter, who never married. The daughter eventually became Juntoku’s adoptive mother, which sounds as if there’s plenty more story where that came from, but it’s time to get back on the main line here.

So while Gotoba lived a life of wealth and leisure in a palace, dallying with the court ladies and writing waka, he understandably nursed a grudge. Meanwhile, the murder of the third Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Sanetomo, created turmoil in the realm. The last straw, so to speak, came when the new Kamakura powers put Juntoku’s son (Gotoba’s grandson) on the throne, the Chukyo Tenno, who was just two years old at the time. (His reign lasted only a few months, and he wasn’t recognized as being part of the official lineage until 1870, but it’s time to get back on the main line again.)

Gotoba decided that was more than enough for any man to put up with, even a poet with a harem, so he mounted a military campaign to restore authority to the Kyoto court. The campaign became known as the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221. The widow of the murdered shogun convinced most of the Kansai samurai that they would lose their special status if there was a regime change, however, so they fought on the shogunate’s side and won.

Instead of lopping off Gotoba’s head, they exiled him to Tajima in the Oki Islands, which are part of Shimane (as are the islets of Takeshima, but there I go again). In his post-Imperial career on the islands, Gotoba became devoted to waka poetry. He ordered the compilation of the Shin Kokinshu (The New Anthology of Ancient and Modern Waka), one of three major waka anthologies with the Manyoshu and the Kokin Wakashu, and served as an editor. He also became a well-known waka critic.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the Shogunate exiled his fourth son, Masanari (who had the same mother as Juntoku), to this elegant life of exile, most likely to prevent any more so-called disturbances. Masanari’s wife was pregnant at the time and didn’t follow him until after their child was born. It was a difficult childbirth, however, and she made the trip in poor physical condition. Along the way, she asked an old woman for directions–who sent her down the wrong road on purpose.

It took the poor woman so far out of her way—to Toyo’oka, in fact—that she lost hope of ever reaching her destination and threw herself into the Maruyama River and drowned.

And that’s how the festival started: twelve nearby Shinto shrines gave comfort to her spirit by burning the old woman in effigy on the banks of the Maruyama, a custom that continues to the present. They make a tower of straw and bamboo, erect a pine tree on top, tie a straw doll to the tree to represent the woman, and torch it.

The festival is officially known as the Oto Matsuri, but it’s popularly called the Babayaki Matsuri, and if you can think of a better translation than the Festival for Burning the Old Biddy, I’m all ears.

Ah, one last part. The matsuri is not just to pray for a good harvest—it’s also to drive away harmful insects! If you want to bring some matches to help and to have fantasies about your mother-in-law, the festival is held in mid-April.

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

Are you surprised?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ARE YOU SURPRISED that North Korea conducted another nuclear test? And fired more short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan?

Former American Assistant Attorney General, Undersecretary of State, and UN Ambassador John Bolton wasn’t. Here’s what he said a week ago:

The curtain is about to rise again on the long-running nuclear tragicomedy, “North Korea Outwits the United States.”

Are you surprised at how the current American administration views the issue?:

U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth said last week that the Obama administration is “relatively relaxed” and that “there is not a sense of crisis.”

Are you surprised that the Japanese and the South Koreans would not be “relatively relaxed” and do have a sense of crisis? They’re taking their complaint to the United Nations, however, which is analogous to phoning the local university’s debating society to tell them about gunshots in the neighborhood.

Are you surprised that the rogue state’s behavior became more roguish after the previous American administration chose dialogue and conciliation in its second term, and that it intensified after the inauguration of the new, blame-ourselves-first administration?

In April, Pyongyang launched a Taepodong-2 missile, and National Security Council official Gary Samore recently confirmed that a second nuclear test is likely on the way. The North is set to try two U.S. reporters for “hostile acts.” The state-controlled newspaper calls America “a rogue and a gangster.” Kim recently expelled international monitors from the Yongbyon nuclear complex. And Pyongyang threatens to “start” enriching uranium — a capacity it procured long ago.

Are you surprised that those two reporters were seized on the Chinese side of the border? And, as the DPRK Studies site notes, the American Secretary of State thinks the young women at Barnard College in downtown Manhattan should get on the Internet and give the North Koreans a piece of their mind?

Are you surprised that the new administration still hasn’t put two and two together yet?

Despite Pyongyang’s aggression, Mr. Bosworth has reiterated that the U.S. is “committed to dialogue” and is “obviously interested in returning to a negotiating table as soon as we can.”

Are you surprised that the North Koreans have spotted what they view as an excellent opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do, regardless of what they say? For example, in 2003:

The official Korean Central News Agency said that, although Pyongyang was pulling out of the NPT, it had no intention of producing nuclear weapons.
“Our nuclear activities at this stage will be confined only to peaceful purposes such as the production of electricity,” Friday’s statement said.

Are you surprised that people are still “committed to dialogue”, despite enough dialogues and broken promises to fill a small library? Again from 2003:

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said: “It is a serious decision, heavy with consequences”. He is in China for two days of talks on the crisis.

If you start to wonder how heavy those consequences were, remember that M. de Villepin was a poet in his spare time.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that U.S. President Obama telephoned South Korean President Lee and the two leaders agreed to punish North Korea.

Are you surprised that this is what Mr. Obama’s plans call for?:

They agreed to work closely together to seek and support a strong United Nations Security Council resolution with concrete measures to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities.

Will you be surprised if this month’s visit to the Security Council turns out to be as effective as last month’s visit?

The U.S. and its allies failed to push the 15-member security council to adopt a legally-binding resolution condemning North Korea’s April 5 rocket launch amid strong opposition from Russia and the North’s staunchest ally China.

A presidential statement was issued by the council instead, which called for sanctioning three North Korean firms involved in the trading of weapons of mass destruction and component parts.

Will you be surprised if the DPRK tests an ICBM before the Security Council meets? The Marmot links to a Korean-language report:

South Korea’s NIS, meanwhile, is warning that North Korea may attempt to test fire an ICBM as early as today.

Here’s one that’s no longer surprising: Some people never realize that some approaches never work, while the ones they dislike usually do.

Mr. Bolton repeats a warning he’s been making for some time now:

It’s time for the Obama administration to finally put down Kim Jong Il’s script. If not, we better get ready for Iran — and others –to go nuclear.

If the Obama administration doesn’t put down the Kim Family Regime’s script, don’t be surprised if those others include Japan one day.

The Asahi Shimbun has just reported that, in addressing the view of some within the ruling LDP that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces need the capability to attack “enemy bases”, Prime Minister Aso Taro said:

“Under the law, we can (attack enemy bases) under a specific, pre-determined framework. It is my understanding that attacks have been allowed since (the period from the mid-50s to the mid-60s).”

The Asahi also notes that the government has not recognized the possession of the weapons themselves to be used to attack another country.

Don’t be surprised if he receives the strong backing of the Japanese people for this stand, regardless of what it says in the Japanese Constitution.

Posted in International relations, Military affairs, North Korea | Tagged: | 7 Comments »

National maturity in Northeast Asia

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 26, 2009

JOBU UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR Ikeda Nobuo has a blog in Japanese that I regularly read. The recent suicide of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun prompted him to write a post titled The Country Incapable of Maturity and the Country That Is Too Mature.

One of my objectives for this website is to present information and viewpoints to a wider audience that are originally in Japanese and otherwise unavailable in English. For that reason, I’ve taken it upon myself to quickly translate and offer that post here in English. Prof. Ikeda is capable of doing this in English himself, but as far as I know, he hasn’t. The original Japanese language post is here, so if anyone wants to offer alternatives to this English, feel free to do so.

* It is not unusual for South Korean presidents to be prosecuted after they leave office, but this is the first time one has committed suicide. I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but this incident strengthens my feeling that South Korea is incapable of maturity.

* Japan and South Korea are like twin states in a controlled experiment. Despite having nearly identical genetic characteristics, they are opposites in their national traits. Japanese don’t show their emotions on the surface, nor are they self-assertive. South Koreans have abrupt emotional swings, however, and they unremittingly attack their enemies. Beginning with the Meiji period (in 1868), Japan was one of the few countries outside the West that modernized on its own. But the Yi Dynasty in Joseon was invaded by neighboring countries and eventually became a Japanese colony.

* That is ascribed to the fact that its governing mechanism, which should be termed Confucian Fundamentalism, lasted for more than 500 years. Confucianism envisions a class order that places the emperor and the bureaucracy at the top. China is too large to be capable of such a strictly defined class mechanism. In contrast, the Yi Dynasty was based on the extreme centralization of authority. The privileged class known as the yangban controlled politics and the economy. The factional feuds among the yangban meant that state revenue at the end of the Yi Dynasty totaled about seven million yen (1/40th that of Japan). There were few schools or roads. The population declined 7% in 100 years. It resembled the North Korea of today.

* That can be explained from the perspective of “ecological history” (the study of history based on geographical and climatic factors). Japan and Western Europe are on opposite sides of an arid Asian land mass, and neither was threatened by conquest from nomadic peoples. Therefore, the transitional changes of their civilizations were uninterrupted and unconstrained. This led to the development of farming villages, cities, and other communities. That development allowed decentralized governance by intermediate groups, which in turn enabled democracy and the market economy to become established. In contrast, Joseon was under direct Chinese domination, so it was always exposed to that threat and unable to mature as a state. The tragic North-South divide occurred after the war, and rule by military leaders ended after 1992.

* Roh Moo-hyun symbolized this immaturity. He was a creation of e-politics, but his political methods were old-school left wing populism. When his policy of settling the issues of the past (military rule) reached a dead end, he turned to demagoguery, made Japan an imaginary enemy, and rehashed such issues as the comfort women. He, like the military rulers, politically exploited anti-foreign chauvinism. He, like the military rulers, ran a crooked political operation behind the scenes. In the end, the Internet is just a tool. Bringing immature politics into the information age and putting it online does not change the content.

* Meanwhile, the postwar regime in Japan matured in the 1980s, and there has been nothing left to do for more than 20 years. The intermediate groups here have too much autonomy, so politicians can only harmonize competing interests. The Japanese political system continues on life support despite having long outlived its usefulness. That is in contrast to South Korea, where both political and economic conditions are in a constant state of flux. The Japanese system easily allows the false negative of suppressing required reforms to arise, but the South Korean system easily allows the false positive of excessive inconstancy and undependability to arise. I wonder—is there not a golden mean?

In the comments to his post, Prof. Ikeda also cites approvingly this blog post (somewhat long) at the Bronte Capital site called A Tale of Two Banking Crises: Japan and Korea, by John Hempton. Here’s how Mr. Hempton describes the content:

What I want to do here is give a stylised version of Japanese and Korean economic history and how it pertains to the banking crisis both countries had.

I think it is also worth taking the time to read.

Posted in History, South Korea | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

The world beneath our feet

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 25, 2009

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON is a classicist, military historian, scholar of ancient Greece, part-time farmer, and political commentator. He is now on his 30th trip to Europe in the past 36 years. While he doesn’t write about Japan at all (as far as I know), I was struck by this entry in his blog:

What excites one about Europe are the layers of civilization. Walk out in the Cretan countryside or in the hills above Rome, and one, either through myth, literature, or archeology, quickly grasps the land beneath one’s feet is part of a long prior story of civilization. In contrast, when I walk over my farm, I know that I experience what my mother, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother knew, and have found at times a horseshoe, or square nail, but prior to them (ca. 1870) the land was mostly just parched grass landscape in a depopulated landscape for eons, without a monumental building, road, or artifact to be found. Again, in Europe you bump into the visible past-2000 BC, AD 320, 1074, 1579, 1942-almost each second.

The same thing that excites Dr. Hanson about Europe excites me about Japan. With the exception of the BC dates, that same passage could just as easily have been written about this country with only a few minor substitutions.

He also writes:

…cite a battle, a cathedral, or a famous Roman, and the odds are that Europeans more readily begin a conversation than their American counterparts.

Of course the subjects in a Japanese discussion of history and culture would be different, but this statement is equally applicable. Mass market paperbacks about historical events centuries old are displayed just as prominently in Japanese bookstores as works of popular fiction. I stopped being surprised by the cultural knowledge of the man or woman in the Japanese street, shop, or tavern years ago.

Posted in Archaeology, History | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

A Japanese wedding bell, Shinto (and Buddhist) style

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 25, 2009

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW what that yellow thing hanging from the post is when you first see it—I didn’t either—but the inspiration for its creation was a combination of love (or lust), religion, and commerce. That should be a dead giveaway the location of the photo is Japan. To be specific, it’s hanging near a 200-year-old Japanese linden tree (shinanoki; tilia japonica) designated as divine on the shores of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Tochigi.

A Nikko <i>miko</i> and a yellow bell

A Nikko miko and a yellow bell

It turns out that the yellow thing is a bell. It’s 55 centimeters long, 20 centimeters in diameter, and weighs six kilograms. Made of steel and painted yellow to attract good fortune, it’s modeled after a 10-centimeter hand bell excavated at nearby Mt. Nantai that was used by devout Buddhists to summon the spirits of the divinities.

So what’s the bell doing on a post out in the open? It’s next to a sacred tree at the Futarasan Shinto shrine, one of the Nikko shrines and Buddhist temples that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin—a Buddhist monk—it has two swords that are national cultural treasures. He had already established the famous Rinno-ji temple complex 16 years before. For centuries the temple and the isolated location made the site a destination for ascetics, and it became a resort area in the modern era when people began to think that asceticism was kind of a drag compared to the delights of the material world.

But more to the point in this case is that one of the tutelary deities of the Shinto facility is Daikoku-sama, the god of marriage. The Japanese linden has also been traditionally associated with connubial bliss. And nearby is a small hall in which is enshrined Aizen, the guardian (or god) of love of the esoteric Mikkyo sect.

As this excellent site explains, Aizen is the:

King of Sexual Passion, (who) converts earthly desires (love/lust) into spiritual awakening; saves people from the pain that comes with love; three faces, three eyes; six arms (typically holding weapons; often wears crown containing a shishi (magical lion); red body, symbolizing the power to purify sexual desire; often carries a bow and arrow (like Cupid).

Aizen is a Japanese Buddhist deity that is not known in India, though he was also given a Sanskrit name. This is the first I’d heard of him, but then a divinity that purifies sexual desire is even less appealing than asceticism these days.

The bell was also created to symbolize a happy marriage, and it was purposely cast to make a sound resembling “kon”. Kon is the reading for the second kanji in the word kekkon, which means marriage, and the kanji itself also has that connotation.

The whole bell idea is the brainchild of the priests at Futarasan Shrine. Tourism in the area is slumping, and they hoped the bell would become a symbol of the town, giving it the image of a romantic getaway. They thought it might entice engaged or newly married couples to visit in the hope that the good mojo would rub off on them. Purifying their sexual desires is probably the least of their cares.

So to sum up, the officials at a famous Shinto shrine created a bright yellow bell designed to look like a religious artifact found during an archaeological dig. They hung the bell next to a tree associated with marriage near a Shinto shrine whose deity is associated with marriage, and a small hall with a Buddhist deity that is the King of Sexual Passion and carries bows and arrows like Cupid. Their intention was to attract more tourists to come and ring the bell, which would result in local merchants more frequently ringing up the cash registers.

Evidently, being a part of a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history dating back more than 1,200 years in a district with the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum and plenty of hot spring resorts isn’t enough to appeal to potential tourists.

Considering the integral role rice plays in Japanese culture, it’s a wonder they didn’t find a way to work in the Western custom of throwing rice at newlyweds as they leave the church after their wedding ceremony. With all those other ingredients in that gumbo, no one would think the rice was unusual at all, and some would think it made the dish even tastier.

Who knows, it might attract even more people who want to live happily ever after their unique wedding ceremony!

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

The shame of the shameless DPJ

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 24, 2009

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
– Mark 8:36

CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST Ruth Benedict famously described Japan as having a culture of shame and the United States as having a culture of guilt. She elaborated on the latter description by asserting that guilt inculcates standards of absolute morality, which America had but Japan didn’t.

Her viewpoint on the differences between the two countries quickly became both influential and controversial. Some discredit it for being “deeply flawed”, “politely arrogant”, and “anthropology at a distance”. Psychoanalyst Doi Takeo, the author of the equally influential Anatomy of Dependence (Amae no Kozo), criticized the concept for deliberately implying the superiority of the American value system to that of the Japanese.

Regardless of the validity of Benedict’s thesis, events in the 1990s demonstrated that notions of guilt and morality were obsolete in American political culture. The American President during most of that decade was publicly and credibly accused of rape; reports suggested that he might well have been a serial rapist. As a state governor, he committed the most puerile and tawdry acts of sexual harassment on state employees and used the state police as his personal procurers. While President, he toyed with an intern and a cigar in his office while keeping an overseas visitor on government business waiting in the Rose Garden.

Yet 66% of the American public thought the mass media should not follow up the rape accusation. The public was insufficiently aroused to demand his conviction when impeached. (No sniggering until you finish the sentence!) Needless to say, the Democrats, the President’s own party, thought none of this disqualified him to continue serving in the nation’s highest office.

Now, 10 years later, their namesake, the Democratic Party of Japan, seems to have placed a bet that the sense of shame in Japanese culture has become equally extinct.

L - R: Pinocchio, Geppetto

L - R: Pinocchio, Geppetto

On 10 May Ozawa Ichiro finally took it upon himself to resign his position of party president after his chief aide had been arrested six weeks earlier for accepting a total of $US 3 million since 1995 in illegal campaign contributions from a dummy organization established by a construction company. Had Mr. Ozawa a sense of guilt, morality, shame, or even held himself to the standards to which his party holds other politicians, he would have resigned immediately after his aide’s arrest.

Some in the political class now cling to the legal presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. But like Caesar’s wife, politicians should be above suspicion; their position and their dependence on the public trust demands that they conform to a standard higher than that for a high school dropout caught using a crowbar to jimmy open a vending machine for spare change. That would be the case even if the DPJ had not tried to sell itself as cleaner than thou.

Some insist that Mr. Ozawa should have relinquished his Diet seat in addition to his position in the party, and a few people speculated that he might eventually do just that. But he did not. In fact, his official statement on the DPJ website does not refer to the fund raising scandal at all:

In order to strengthen party unity with a view to ensuring victory in the forthcoming general election and realising a change of government, I have decided to sacrifice myself and tender my resignation as President of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Translation: The only reason I quit was to keep the party from breaking up and to make sure it takes power in the next election.

Well, if that’s the story he wants to stick to, he’s the one who’s going to need a prescription to get to sleep every night. But a political party with integrity and character would insist—at a minimum—that he have the decency to keep his public profile subterranean for the rest of his political career. What did the DPJ do?

They bestowed on him the honor of appointment to an executive position called “acting president”. That’s the same title held by Kan Naoto, one of the party’s founders and a past party president himself.

They also put him in charge of the upcoming election campaign. All five senior party officials appeared on stage together after their appointment looking for all the world as if happy days were here again. In other words, they thought their tainted political meat was still fit to serve to the voters as long as they covered it in enough sauce to mask the stench.

By doing so, they validated the apprehensions of party detractors and supporters alike by behaving precisely as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party might have done 30 years ago during the reign of Mr. Ozawa’s mentor, Tanaka Kakuei. The party has now forfeited any claim to political probity, relative or otherwise.

Some are concerned that the disgraced party president has become a Svengali in his own right who will continue to wield the real power in the DPJ while new president Hatoyama Yukio performs his role in front of the cameras as their public face. Just who, one wonders, is the “acting” president, and who is the real president?

Mr. Ozawa still has not fulfilled his basic obligation of explaining how he used all that money. Who could blame anyone for drawing the conclusion that public disclosure would result in more unpleasant encounters with The Law? Because the party changed only the label without changing the contents of the container, nothing at all has changed.

The LDP response

That made it even easier for the members of the ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, to take their own turn on stage as moralists. Said Prime Minister Aso Taro:

If we’re talking about the citizens’ mindset, their feelings would be that since Ozawa has become the acting president, the questions they most want to ask (Party President Hatoyama Yukio) are about the money connection with Mr. Ozawa. There might be a sense of a disconnect between the popular will and what the DPJ is saying. (Public opinion polls show that) most people think their explanation has been inadequate….

Mr. Aso swung at a fat pitch and nearly whiffed–not surprising for a man with a batting average below the Mendoza Line. But former party Secretary-General Kato Koichi connected more solidly. Mr. Kato was rumored to be examining the possibility of forming a new, small party last autumn with himself at the head. The idea would be to form a coalition with a stronger DPJ after the next lower house election and become a credible candidate for prime minister in a broad coalition government.

That option doesn’t seem to be in play any more. During a television broadcast last week, Mr. Kato said:

“When the people saw the photograph of Mr. Ozawa shaking hands with the new party president, Hatoyama Yukio, I suspect they thought, ‘They’re the same as the LDP’. (It means) the DPJ is no longer able to win an outright majority in the next lower house election…A movement transcending parties might now arise.”

In other words, he foresees the possibility of a post-election political realignment and the creation of a real reform bloc that does not include either Mr. Hatoyama or Mr. Ozawa.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was delivered by Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hatoyama Kunio, Yukio’s younger brother. The atmosphere might be chilly at the next get-together of the Hatoyama clan:

“It’s apparent to everyone that (Yukio is) Ozawa Ichiro’s puppet. I’ve always thought of forming a fraternal alliance with him, but an alliance is impossible unless he dumps Ozawa.”

Hatoyama the Younger helped form the DPJ in 1996 with Yukio, but later left to rejoin the LDP. Here’s what he had to say about his handiwork:

“I’m the one who gave the Democratic Party its name. Yet, it’s regrettable that what they’ve done is the most undemocratic thing. I didn’t want my brother to get involved with those procedures (that allowed only the party’s diet members to vote for party president)”.

Politicians never pass up the chance to bash the opposition, but seldom does a man call his brother a willing dupe in public, member of the political opposition or not.

The late American humorist Fred Allen once observed, “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly, and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart.”

The same could equally apply to all the sincerity in politics, and the reason the DPJ chose to praise Caesar’s wife rather than bury her is as we’ve noted before: They’re afraid he’ll take his 50 supporters in the Diet, flounce out of the party, and find someone else to go to the ball with. That has been the chief activity of Mr. Ozawa’s career, after all. The DPJ is also well aware of its electoral impotence with anyone else at the helm, so why muck around with principle and honor when the chance to take power is still up for grabs?

What comes next?

The ultimate verdict will be rendered by the electorate, and if recent polls are any indication, the DPJ might get away with it. The party itself got an eight-point jump in polling after placing Mr. Hatoyama in the shop window. Before Mr. Ozawa resigned, voters favored Aso Taro by more than 10 percentage points in a head-to-head comparison. Now a similar advantage is enjoyed by Mr. Hatoyama.

Yet the same polls show that more than 70% of the respondents found Ozawa Ichiro’s explanation for resigning unacceptable. As always, we’ll have to stay tuned to see whether the polls hold firm, this is just a temporary bounce or a transient phenomenon, or if the DPJ discovers yet another way to fumble its opportunities.

Despite the naked opportunism and alley cat scruples, some good might come of an eventual DPJ victory and formation of a government. It could lead to the eventual creation of a legitimate two-party system in Japan. If the party behaves in power anything like they did in opposition, the voters would soon realize that incompetence and venality transcend party affiliation and start drawing conclusions. The inevitable early crumbling of a DPJ-led government might accelerate the political realignment the country desperately needs. And finally, it would provide people like me with what the American military calls a “target rich environment”.

But even with the accrual of all these benefits, the bad would still outweigh the good. When people such as these win, everyone loses in the end. It would show just what the Japanese are prepared to put up with from their politicians. And finally, it would reveal their contemporary attitude toward shame.

The word for shame in Japanese is haji, and the word for shameless is hajishirazu; literally, not knowing shame. A victory in the lower house election with Ozawa Ichiro pulling the DPJ strings without bothering to stand behind the curtain hiding him from the audience’s view would lay to rest for good Ruth Benedict’s notion of Japan as having a culture of shame.

That’s because it would be hajishirazu its own self.

C. Douglas Lummis had this to say about Ruth Benedict:

Militarist Japan was for her simply “Japan” – Japan as it had always been, and as it would continue to be unless changed from the outside.

Ruth Benedict, who died more than 60 years ago, worked from second- and third-hand sources. But isn’t it odd that Mr. Lummis’s observation could just as well be applied to contemporary Western mass media and some maladjusted foreigners, despite the accessibility of international air travel and the libraries of information available with just a few keystrokes?

The U.K. is now undergoing the mother of all political/financial scandals in which, very briefly put, MPs of all parties are being exposed for diverting public funds and the benefits derived from their position to their personal gain.

The Archbishop of Canterbury makes an excellent point here about the limitations inherent in regulating the behavior of politicians:

The question “What can I get away with without technically breaching the regulations?” is not a good basis for any professional behaviour that has real integrity…

…if the culture is such that regulation takes the place of virtue, we shouldn’t be too surprised if public figures show signs of the virus and take refuge in the “no rules were broken” tactic.

Daniel Hannan of England, a member of the European Parliament, approves. He says the concept:

…is the basis of Protestantism, of liberalism, of the British conception of freedom. It is the foundation of modern Conservatism too. As Keith Joseph used to say, when you give people responsibility, you make them responsible. And, although Dr Williams quite properly refrains from saying so, it is the strongest possible argument against Gordon Brown’s plan to subject MPs to an external quango.

I’m neither British nor a Protestant (though I will cop to being a broadly non-denominational, classic liberal), but I wholeheartedly agree.

That’s why I think some well-intentioned laws, such the Japanese law funding political parties (defined as having five Diet members) from the Treasury to prevent a corrupting reliance on corporate donations, are ultimately self-defeating. (Not to mention an infringement of the rights of those people who choose not to contribute to political parties at all.)

That’s also why I think such innovations as the lay judge system, which began functioning last week amidst controversy and some public opposition, are excellent ideas. As the man said, when you give people responsibility, you make them responsible. True reform of the Japanese political system will not be achieved until the people are given as much responsibility as they can handle–and that means downsizing government to the lowest levels possible while enforcing the basic laws governing human behavior.

Regardless of the reasons people give, I suspect the opposition to the lay judge system is based mostly on the absence of a sense of civic responsibility. For some people, it just takes too much time and trouble to assume that responsibility, and it cuts into their social life and TV-watching time to boot.

The attitude I would hold up as a model was that of a former housemate of mine in the United States who was summoned to jury duty. He would be the first to admit that it took a lot of time and trouble. But he has a strong sense of both curiosity and integrity, which meant that he was fascinated by the glimpse his service provided into the legal system and human nature, and that he performed that service in the most conscientious way he could.

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

Wasabi–the mouth-watering, nose-running condiment

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 23, 2009

ANYONE WHO’S EVER EATEN nigirizushi knows about wasabi—the green, horseradish-like paste spread between the fish on top and the rice on the bottom. Yet few who’ve eaten it realize all the trouble people went through to get that condiment on the sushi to begin with, and to keep it fresh once it got there.


For one thing, the wasabi is purposely placed between the fish and the rice to preserve its pungency. The paste quickly loses its distinctive flavor and aroma when exposed to the air. In fact, just about everything involved with the cultivation and preparation of wasabi takes time and trouble. Take a look at the accompanying photo, for example. It shows Murakami Takeo and his wife Torae, both in their 80s, harvesting their wasabi crop last week.

The Murakamis grow their wasabi in the shallows of the Tani River that flows behind their home in Tanabe, Wakayama. There are two types of wasabi, and the kind the Murakamis cultivate is called sawa wasabi. That variety must be grown in pure, constantly flowing water—the colder the better. The couple planted this crop two years ago in the sandy river soil, around which they’ve built a stone wall.

They have to harvest the plant by hand, pulling out the main root from the earth and removing the leaves and smaller hairy roots. They’ll put two kilograms of the roots in a specially built wooden box to ship to market, because the roots also go bad quickly. Some of their wasabi will be sold at shops in the city that purchase produce directly from the farmers.

Wasabi grows wild in Japanese stream beds and mountain river valleys. The Japanese themselves think they’ve been eating it since the Nara period, which occurred during the 8th century, but the plant is so difficult to cultivate they didn’t successfully farm it until 800 years later in what is now Shizuoka City. The story goes that some was given in feudal tribute to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Japan’s last shogunate in 1603, and the great man loved it so much he forbade its use outside his castle. It began to be used for soba and sushi during the Edo period, which ran from the early 17th century to 1868. Today, Nagano is the top wasabi producing prefecture when the crops of both the sawa variety and the soil-grown variety are combined.

The distinctive spiciness is due to allyl isothiocyanate, and inhaling the vapor from the plant has been shown to have an effect similar to smelling salts. In fact, some Japanese researchers are trying to use the wasabi odor to create a smoke alarm for the deaf, as you can see from this site, which includes a BBC report. Researchers conducted experiments by spraying canned wasabi extract into a room in which people with hearing impairments were sleeping. It woke 13 of the 14 test subjects up within two minutes—one of them in just 10 seconds.

Indeed, some think that wasabi has numerous health benefits as well. This website makes the case for its ingredients being effective in both preventing and treating cancer. They claim it is also an antioxidant, an antibiotic, an anticoagulant, and an anti-inflammatory agent. Even more, it is said to promote bone calcification.

There’s only one problem: They don’t tell us how much of it we have to eat to reap those benefits, and how much havoc it will wreak on our mucous membranes until that amount is consumed!

Posted in Food | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Clarkson on the Honda Insight hybrid

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 20, 2009

HAVE YOU EVER seen or heard anyone slam a Japanese-made automobile? Apart from labor unions in North America or Europe, of course.

Honda Insight hybrid

Honda Insight hybrid

My uncle’s opinion is typical of most of those I’ve heard about Japanese cars. Now in his late 80s, he was a young naval officer in World War II, and his adulthood coincided with the zenith of American economic and military power. If anyone might be expected to buy American, it would be him. But he doesn’t—at least not cars, anyway.

Uncle Bob has bought nothing but Toyotas for the past 30 years, and he’s very particular about the kind he buys. “I don’t want any of those Toyotas they build in the United States,” he insists. “I want the ones they make in Japan.”

But today, I read for the first time a review savaging a Japanese automobile–though I admit I spend little time following auto trends. (There are probably plenty of other negative reviews that I haven’t seen.) Jeremy Clarkson, hailed by some as Britain’s premier auto critic, had this to say about the Honda Insight 1.3 IMA SE Hybrid in the Times of London:

It’s terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It’s the first car I’ve ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn’t have to drive it any more.

It’s not that Mr. Clarkson dislikes either Hondas in particular…

Normally, Hondas feel as though they have been screwed together by eye surgeons.

…or Japanese cars in general. (Here he is talking about the Mazda 6 MPS):

“This really is a magnificent driver’s car.”

In fact, he seems to like Mazdas a lot. It’s just that he really detests this Honda:

The only hope I have is that there are enough fools and madmen out there who will buy an Insight to look sanctimonious outside the school gates. And that the cash this generates can be used to develop something a bit more constructive.

One of the factors informing his opinion of this Honda is that he doesn’t care for hybrids:

“…let me be clear that hybrid cars are designed solely to milk the guilt genes of the smug and the foolish.”

Though he does like another Honda hybrid, the Clarity:

“The car feels like a car. And, best of all, the power it produces is so enormous, it can be used by day to get you to 120mph and by night to run all the electrical appliances in your house. This is not science fiction. There is a fleet of Claritys running around California right now.”

In addition to writing articles for the Times of London, Mr. Clarkson appears on BBC TV in a show called Top Gear. At one time, it was the highest rated show on BBC Two in Great Britain. My cable package includes the BBC World Service, and I’ve seen Top Gear in Japan. It’s quite entertaining, even if you think cars are nothing more than machines to transport people and things from Point A to Point B quickly and conveniently. A friend in England named Paul (who studied kendo in Japan for two years) had this to say in an e-mail about Clarkson’s reputation at home:

Clarkson is a God to some and an arrogant, self-important wanker to others.

There’s enough ammunition for either side in his review of the Honda Insight hybrid!

Now get ready for the best part: The car, which was officially released in February in Japan, became Japan’s first best-selling hybrid ever in April. Last month, Honda sold 10,481 Insights in this country, more than any other model by any other manufacturer. The car was a hit from the minute it debuted on the Japanese market, doubling Honda’s initial target during its first month in showrooms. It went on sale in March in Europe and last month in the United States, where prices start at slightly less than $20,000.

As with the proverbial Frenchmen, can 10,000 Japanese be wrong?

Note: The model names for these vehicles are the ones used overseas. I don’t know what the corresponding models are called in Japan. (They’re not always the same.)

Posted in Environmentalism, New products | Tagged: | 11 Comments »

Everything you know about Japan is wrong

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 18, 2009

If all your knowledge about Japan comes from the overseas mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.
– The motto of this website

FREQUENT POSTER MAC has just sent in a note to the Comments section that is too very extremely good to be overlooked. Here it is, brightened up a bit for the wider public.
We had a festival up at our local castle which I attended. Bear in mind, I don’t live on the mainland, and where I am there is only a single railtrack on the way in and out.

I only managed to befriend a few folks, but the first I did had studied Swahili and toured Africa with her judo master teaching out there. Now she is going to Korea to live. The second spoke of her affinity with the gypsies of India where she had traveled widely and studied yoga. We shared memories of Spain and Morocco. She is not alone in the Indian connection–the guy that does the curries at our local farmer’s market spent over 10 years as a saddhu (naked India holyman) before returning to Japan. The guys next to us are currently living in a native American teepee whilst they build their eco-house in the hills somewhere.

Yup…just your average, quiet, rainy weekend in a racist, inward and conservative country like Japan.
Mac’s experience is yet another example of what I see every day in the part of the sticks where I live, and have seen every day for the past 25 years. I first came to Japan to teach at an English school that is affiliated with an NGO and a sort of day care center for pre-schoolers called Yume Gakko (Dream School).

The man who started and ran the English school was fluent in French and English (with interpretation certification in both languages) and lived in both France and Canada. He was also conversationally passable in both Korean and Chinese. I never counted, but he must have visited at least 20 countries as part of his activities.

The man running the English school now spent a year in Alaska as a high school student and liked it so much he chose to attend and graduate from the University of Alaska. He got a master’s degree in theater arts from Towson University near Baltimore and taught for several years at a college in Massachusetts. Before leaving the U.S. to take up his current position, he decided to take a two-week vacation in Costa Rica before coming back home.

Another teacher at the school did postgraduate work in England and then received a master’s degree at UC Santa Barbara in pre-school education. She’s now an interpreter (who’s appeared at the side of Yo Yo Ma on national television) and translator, and is also involved with the Yume School and volunteer activities for UNESCO.

The school’s primary native-speaking English teacher was born and grew up in the Bahamas, and they have also employed teachers from Sri Lanka (several), The Philippines, Pakistan, India, Jamaica, Zaire, and Egypt.

The man now in charge of the NGO lived–with his wife and pre-school aged daughter–in Myanmar for two years. One of the women working there has spent some time in Europe, and her English is good enough to handle a telephone conversation (foreign languages are hard to do over the phone). Another woman working there lived for several years in South Korea. They all regularly visit Myanmar, where they helped build a school, and Thailand, where they run a scholarship program at an orphanage out in the boondocks.

The man running Yume Gakko graduated from the University of Montana.

Do you think these people are exceptions? Also in this city of 180,000, 45 minutes by train from the nearest metropolitan area, is a bar that plays nothing but American country and western music. It is operated by one man and his female assistant, a graduate student at the local university from Uganda. One night I walked in there in the midst of a loud argument about soccer with people banging on in both English and Japanese, involving two Japanese, two New Zealanders, an Australian, an Irishman, a Welshman, and a Moroccan. It was an interesting experience to listen to them go at it, sip a beer, and chat with the Ugandan waitress while Johnny Cash played on the sound system.

Then there’s my barber, a woman of about 45 who has lived in Indonesia and Hawaii, competed in international surfing championships, and went to Jamaica for her honeymoon because she was nuts about reggae. The entire staff of the shop takes a three-or-four day tour together every year overseas. Her father used to be an OISCA volunteer and traveled every summer to several countries in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific as part of his activities. During one haircut, her father stood next to the chair and told me about the two weeks he had just spent in Fiji. (I encouraged him to talk; I always wanted to go there myself.) Her sister lived for a decade in Los Angeles. Her daughter in junior high school has already visited more countries than I have, and am ever likely to.

I grew up in the United States (and had grandparents whose first language wasn’t English), a country that was built by immigrants and used to claim that it was a melting pot.

While I’ll be the first to admit that it was indeed a melting pot, I never met even a handful of Americans with those sort of international experiences–and I grew up in a city of a million people (at that time) and graduated from a world-class university. And don’t even try to tell me about international mixing and mingling. When I go to the U.S. with my wife and we stand in line at a shop or the bank talking Japanese, people look at us (particularly me) as if we came from another planet.

At one shop we visited in New York, the Latino clerk complimented me on my ability to speak another language and expressed the wish that more Americans were as willing to do the same.

Some people would like to have you believe that Japan is “racist, inward, and conservative”, as Mac put it. Other people seem to enjoy believing it. But most people prefer reading fiction to non-fiction, too.

Japan is racist, inward, and conservative?

Compared to whom?

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Social trends | Tagged: | 115 Comments »

Finish that bowl of rice and you’ll get into a good school!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 18, 2009

IT’S PADDY PLANTING TIME again in Japan, and thousands of colorful rice-planting ceremonies are being held throughout the country to mark the start of the season. Last year we had a post that focused on several of them. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just offer the link to that post and describe another ceremony that’s a bit different from the others.

juken rice planting

This one was held specifically to plant rice that will be sold as a good luck charm to those taking school entrance examinations. It was held at a wet paddy in the Kameoka district of Takahata-machi, Yamagata, on the 15th. The Yamagatans have been planting and selling the rice as brain food since 1991, when the ceremony was cooked up by the local branch of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations. The crop is grown on a 1.5-hectare paddy that yields about eight tons of rice, which should be more than enough to get the local hopefuls into the school of their choice. After being harvested in the fall, it will be sold in five-kilogram bags.

What makes the Kameoka rice more of a cinch than a crib sheet? Daisho-ji, a Buddhist temple in Takahata-machi, is the home of one of Japan’s three great statues of the Monju Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. Students throughout Japan have paid homage to that divinity for centuries because Monju, as the personification of the Buddha’s teachings, is a symbol for wisdom and enlightenment. One of the priests from Daisho-ji blesses the seedlings before they’re planted, and he’ll put the double whammy in for the examinations by blessing the rice itself after it’s harvested.

Once the priest takes care of business, a group of 15 people plant the rice by hand, as you can see in the photo. And that’s the intriguing part.

Those ladies ankle deep in the muck are wearing the traditional outfits of miko, or the maidens at Shinto shrines who serve in roughly the same role as altar boys at a Catholic church. Bending over to their right is a Shinto priest. In fact, in this photo Daisho-ji more closely resembles a Shinto shrine than a Buddhist temple. It’s also the case that most of the rice-planting ceremonies are Shinto affairs.

Confused? The Japanese aren’t. This has got to be one of the most naturally ecumenical places on the planet. And the Buddhist priests don’t mind bringing a divine spark to a profit-making enterprise as long as it’s in the cause of higher education.

But then again, who wouldn’t want to do their part to promote the cultivation of knowledge as well as grain? In fact, it’s a shame that ceremony is held way up north instead of down here in Kyushu. I’d be glad to tutor those girls for the English part of their exams!

Posted in Agriculture, Education, Religion, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »