AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for January, 2010

Banned in Busan

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 13, 2010

COUNT ON the political class to be the last to take a stand on principled common sense, if ever. Their livelihoods depend on creating and hounding hobgoblins to keep the public aroused, as H.L. Mencken put it. In other words, they don’t want to get it because they believe it’s in their interest not to get it.

One who does get it is South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism Yu In-ch’on. In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, he discussed his government’s continuing ban on terrestrial TV broadcasts of Japanese programs. Here’s what Mr. Yu had to say, as reported by Japan’s Kyodo news agency. (Keep in mind this is going from Korean to Japanese to English)

“Japan and China broadcast South Korean programs (on terrestrial TV), so why can’t Japanese programs be shown on South Korean terrestrial TV?…Instead of this compulsion, we must allow equal access (for this programming).”

After the period of Japanese colonization/annexation ended in 1945, the South Koreans prohibited the dissemination of Japanese popular culture in the country, including TV programs, movies, and music. Some watched and listened anyway, first through smuggled materials, and later by intercepting satellite broadcasts. Reader Aceface, who is employed in the Japanese broadcast media, pointed out that Koreans in the television industry used to take periodic trips to Busan in the southern part of the peninsula, where those broadcasts might be more easily picked up. In fact, as this previous post reports, there has long been an “underground Japan wave” of Japanese culture aficionados in South Korea. To cite one example, Japanese fiction outsold Korean fiction in the South Korean market in 2007 by a significant margin.

Yu In-ch'on

After the late Kim Dae-jung was elected president in 1998, he implemented a policy of lifting the ban in stages with the objective of improving bilateral relations. The prohibitions were rescinded in three steps and were supposed to have been removed entirely by the joint World Cup in 2002. In a too-typical burst of childish presumption, however, the government stopped the process in July 2001 to protest the content of Japanese history textbooks (used at that time by about 0.6% of the school population).

As conditions stand today, South Koreans can legally watch Japanese TV programming on cable and satellite TV, but not on terrestrial broadcasts. There is a sizable audience for this programming; last year’s screening of the Japanese program Hana yori Danshi (Men Rather than Flowers) was quite popular and garnered an audience share of more than 30%. The only dramas permitted on land-based TV, however, are Korean remakes of popular Japanese programs and joint productions.

Some still choose to downplay the popularity of Japanese entertainment. Kyodo quoted an unidentified South Korean TV executive:

“(Yu’s) statement was probably made with an awareness of relations with Japan, but I don’t think that programs in which all the actors are Japanese will be accepted by the viewers.”

That example of a non sequitur is good enough for a textbook. He seems to be saying that a unilateral law banning television programs from a single country—in other words, censorship—should stand because people won’t watch the programs even if the law were to be repealed. Except a lot of them already do, on cable.

Though it’s a good example of a non sequitur, it’s a poor example of how a country goes about inculcating respect for its laws. Kyodo also quotes a 32-year-old male public employee:

“I download Japanese programs from the Internet and watch them every day to study Japanese. The ban on terrestrial broadcasts is divorced from reality, and I hope they rescind it quickly.”

Of course it’s divorced from reality. People throughout the world can now download most of the programs, movies, or music they want from the Internet and either enjoy them from their computer or burn their own DVDs or CDs. If the authorities had their wits about them, they would realize that removing the ban would make money for Korean broadcasters through advertising revenue. As it stands now, they get nothing and the people watch the programs anyway.

The Japanese media is always restrained in its treatment of South Korea, and the Kyodo article attributes the Korean ban only to the continued reaction to the Japanese period of colonization/annexation. Were they inclined to discuss the subject more openly, they might also have cited the isolationist tendencies that seem endemic to the peninsula, both in the north and south. One reason for North Korea’s problems is their stubborn insistence that they alone are the torchbearers of Joseon cultural purity. Flashpoint South Korean mob hysteria over such issues as American beef imports is another illustrative example.

The isolationist tinge means this really isn’t just a Japanese-Korean issue—it extends to American movies as well. The South Korean show business industry led widely publicized demonstrations against the free trade agreement with the United States because the Americans demanded a reduction in the legal requirement for movie theaters to screen local product a specified number of days per year. That requirement was as high as 40%, or 146 days, from 1985 to 2006. A compromise was reached to reduce the total to 73 days a year, or about 20%, where it stands now.

As this English-language article from Yonhap shows, actors, directors, and movie execs were livid, calling the compromise a “crime against history”. Rather than recognizing that the agreement was a step toward cultural openness that would benefit everyone without a vested interest, they chose to describe the situation as a “cultural turf war”. If anyone used their common sense and protested that the quota limits the opportunities of Koreans to visit theaters to watch the movies they prefer and are willing to pay for, and the theater owners from making a reasonable profit by giving the customers what they want, Yonhap didn’t write about it.

Speaking of cultural turf wars, the part of the Yonhap article I liked best is the second photograph showing the banner under which the demonstrators spoke. The larger print on the left says “screen quota” transliterated directly from English into written Korean without translating it into the Korean language. The demonstrators had no problem with polluting the purity of the Korean language, but no one better dare mess with the guaranteed jobs of the filmmaking proletariat. (The following word, sasu, means to defend to the death; it’s shishu, or 死守, in Japanese.)

Those who support the quota throw up the usual protectionist arguments that would be dismissed in any university economics classroom in a matter of minutes, i.e., Hollywood would swallow the South Korean film industry whole. The same students in that economics classroom would have been able to predict that only 13 out of 112 Korean films made money in 2007–fewer than 12%–according to a K-pop site with a busted link. Local studios know they have a captive market, so they wind up filming lunchmeat to meet the screen quota.

In that sort of climate, Mr. Yu should be commended for speaking out. The Koreans have no compunction about savaging apostates; either the minister must believe his position is secure, or he’s become affluent enough that losing it wouldn’t bother him.

Much has been made of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s vague dream of an East Asian entity, as well as the “friendlier” attitude of his government toward South Korea. If he’s serious about improving governmental ties (the grassroots ties are already there), removing South Korea’s ban on terrestrial TV broadcasts of Japanese programs should be near the top of the list on his bilateral agenda.

The website of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism boasts this slogan: A culture of sharing for a beautiful world.

The period of Japanese colonization/annexation lasted 35 years and ended 65 years ago. It’s time for the ministry to demonstrate that it really believes what it says.

Afterwords:

* It’s only speculation, and the Korean-American Wiki-warriors won’t talk about it, but perhaps one reason Kim Dae-jung started removing the restrictions on importing Japanese culture is that he may have felt some gratitude toward the Japanese for helping save his life. Kim was a long-time political dissident, and the South Korean government once kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel with the intent of killing him. Both the Americans and the Japanese interceded on his behalf. The pretend reference sources on the Web, written by anyone who can operate a computer keyboard, give credit only to the Americans. Why do they bother? Even the Korea Times had no problem admitting the truth.

* The use of textbook content to suspend the process of lifting the ban in 2001 might have been just a convenient pretext. Before then, Japanese governments had generally adopted a peace-at-any-price policy in bilateral negotiations on a wide range of issues with Seoul. They gave in when the Koreans inevitably brought up historical circumstances and claimed, “You owe us.” The Koizumi administration, which took office just a few months before the South Koreans took the step, ended all that.

Posted in Arts, Films, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The sick man of Northeast Asia

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 11, 2010

It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.
– G.K. Chesterton

THE SICK MAN OF EUROPE was a phrase applied to the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century after it had lost most of its territory and fallen under the financial control of the European powers. The description was so apt that it permanently entered the political lexicon. It was later employed to describe Great Britain in the late 1970s, a time of long, unexplained power blackouts, uncollected garbage in the streets, and governments that seemed to have less real power than labor unions.

Journalists and political commentators have recently put the expression to use for Germany, Greece, and Italy. The Economist of Great Britain thought it was a fitting way to characterize business and governmental conditions in Italy in 2005, even while emphasizing that the country still appeared to be quite a pleasant place to live.

Japan hasn’t succumbed to illness yet, but the venality, incompetence, and disregard of the public interest by the government (including the new “reformers”), the bureaucracy, and big business have so weakened the national constitution that it seems the only medicine effective to prevent the country from becoming the Sick Man of Northeast Asia would be large and repeated doses of electoral antibiotics by the public.

The story of last week’s resignation of Fujii Hirohisa from his post as Finance Minister contains the elements of all these bacilli as if they had been cultured in a single Petri dish.

The sick man of the Cabinet

Mr. Fujii said that he resigned his position barely four months after being sworn in because of his health. He is 77 years old and had already retired from politics once in 2005 after losing his lower house seat in the September election that year, though he said at the time his retirement was due to age. Mr. Fujii returned to the Diet as a replacement in 2007 for a proportional representation seat.

Fujii Hirohisa

No one in the country believes for a minute the story about his health. The conventional wisdom is that he was forced out by Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro, who it is now clear has the ultimate authority in government. The breaking point, say the pundits, came when Mr. Fujii supported Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s plan to cut the “temporary” surtax on gasoline, which the DPJ had tried to use as a wedge issue against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party when the former were still in the opposition. A veteran of the Finance Ministry, Mr. Fujii might have been inclined to keep the tax to help pay for the promises in the DPJ platform, but he chose to back the prime minister instead.

Mr. Ozawa, as party head, insisted that the tax be maintained despite the platform pledge to eliminate it, and his word is about to become law. Mr. Hatoyama looked every inch the humiliated schoolboy at a press conference last month when he told the public he was reneging on his promise, though he tried to save face by saying the tax would be converted to a different form. At that point, Mr. Fujii threw in the spoon, which is what the Japanese toss instead of towels when they give up.

The background

The real story may be even more disturbing. Before we get to that, however, here’s the background information critical for a clearer view of the picture.

* Mr. Fujii started his career in the Ministry of Finance. He retired after reaching the post of Budget Examiner in the MOF’s Budget Bureau in 1976. The MOF is the most powerful of the Japanese bureaucracies in the country’s government-within-a-government. The Budget Bureau was the entity that oversaw the dog-and-pony show that was billed as the new DPJ government’s review of unnecessary government programs conducted to great media hoopla last fall in a Tokyo gym. (The Budget Bureau chose the programs to be reviewed and issued recommendations to all the participants on the steps to be taken.)

* After leaving the MOF, he joined the LDP and was elected to the upper house. He later switched to the lower house.

* Leaving the LDP in 1993, he helped Ozawa Ichiro form the Japan Renewal Party that same year. Most of his subsequent political activity has been in partnership with Mr. Ozawa. He has been described as one of the latter’s closest advisors and confidantes.

* He served as Finance Minister in the short-lived Hosokawa and Hata governments in 1994, which were also puppetized behind the scenes by an ill-concealed Mr. Ozawa.

* He has since moved through several other parties with Mr. Ozawa, including the Liberal Party, which was part of the ruling coalition in the late 1990s. Mr. Fujii served as the secretary-general of the Liberal Party, as well as that of the DPJ when current Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya was party head.

* When Mr. Ozawa’s chief aide was arrested for a fund-raising scandal last year, eventually forcing his boss’s resignation as party leader, Mr. Fujii was initially one of his comrade’s most ardent defenders. It soon became clear, however, that keeping Mr. Ozawa as party leader would jeopardize the DPJ’s success in the election that had to be held by October. But Mr. Ozawa’s positions on personal loyalty and party discipline closely resemble those of Genghis Khan, and that meant the younger party members who wanted him gone were fearful of speaking out. Finally, Mr. Fujii decided to take the heat on himself and spoke in their place by calling for the party leader to resign. As far as Mr. Ozawa was concerned, that ended their close political alliance of the past two decades.

What really happened?

Political journalist and commentator Itagaki Eiken tells an entirely different story about the Fujii resignation. It is important to know that Mr. Itagaki does not hide his support for the DPJ.

First, claims Mr. Itagaki, the finance minister did have some health problems, but the primary one was not the official story of fatigue and high blood pressure. Rather, it was that Mr. Fujii drinks too much. He is known to have a taste for liquor, and Mr. Itagaki passed along the information that the minister carried a personal stash on his official government car for an occasional snort of Sneakin’ Pete to help him make it through the day. Apparently his consumption rose as the pressure mounted to come up with a workable budget for a heavily indebted country ruled by a new, redistributionist left-wing government under the thumb of Ozawa Ichiro, whose only policy principle is the lavish distribution of pork to achieve and keep political power.

Mr. Itagaki is unsympathetic and thinks that if Mr. Fujii has any health problems, he got what was coming to him.

The point of contention

In an effort to smash the ties between MPs who have long acted as de facto lobbyists for the bureaucracy, Ozawa Ichiro last year created a new organization under the office of the DPJ Secretary-General—in other words, under his control. The organization has become the sole body for receiving and evaluating budgetary requests of the national government from industry groups and sub-national governments. Requests made through the bureaucracy or through national legislators will no longer be honored, at least in theory. In other words, the people who want government money will have to ask the party and not the government.

Mr. Ozawa also made it known that support of the groups or local governments for the DPJ will be an important factor in the determination of whether those requests will be granted.

Here’s an example of what that means. Miyazaki Prefecture Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo (and his predecessors) have long complained that economic development in his prefecture has been hobbled by the government’s failure to build a local expressway system. Transportation access to the largely rural Miyazaki is difficult. The governor even held a public debate with DPJ heavyweight Kan Naoto (who replaced Mr. Fujii as finance minister) about government public works projects when the DPJ was in the opposition, and the condition of the debate was that Mr. Kan visit Miyazaki to see for himself. He did, and he agreed that Miyazaki needed an expressway. He said it was the LDP’s fault. The debate was later held in Tokyo. Of all the media outlets, only the Sankei Shimbun saw fit to publish a verbatim record of the debate in its entirety on its website.

But Mr. Higashikokubaru nearly ran for the Diet himself last year as part of the LDP’s reform wing before choosing to finish his first term as governor.

As a result, the construction of an expressway to promote economic development in Miyazaki will have to wait a while longer.

Reversion to type?

On 9 December last year, Mr. Fujii met at a Tokyo hotel with Mitarai Fujio, the chairman of Keidanren, or the Japanese Business Federation. Its membership consists largely of companies listed on the First Section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Mr. Mitarai himself is a past president of Canon. The federation is known as one the three most important groups in the country that represent the interests of Big Business with Big Government.

During the meeting, Mr. Mitarai asked Mr. Fujii that certain preferential tax breaks for business be maintained, and the finance minister agreed. When Mr. Ozawa heard about the agreement, he hit the roof.

Mr. Itagaki refers to the agreement as “careless stupidity” that “benefitted the enemy”. He asserts that Mr. Fujii should have known better because of his long and close association with Mr. Ozawa. Was Mr. Fujii reverting to the bad old days to maintain the ties between the Finance Ministry and Big Business, he asked. Did age and fatigue impair his judgment? Did he have one too many in the back seat on the ride over to the Tokyo hotel?

Mr. Itagaki is just as livid as Mr. Ozawa. He believes that Mr. Fujii has irreparably stained his entire career in government by this one act. He is also contemptuous of Keidanren for not building closer ties with the DPJ, not donating more money to them, and for not falling into line and taking their marching orders from the New Shogun.

Given the journalist’s close ties to the DPJ, it is entirely possible that sources close to Mr. Ozawa fed him this dirt. Mr. Ozawa seems more than capable of splattering mud on the reputation of a long and reliable ally who in the end put principle above personal loyalty. Indeed, he’s even capable of spreading false rumors to gain his measure of childish revenge. But while Mr. Itagaki left in his text the smallest of escape clauses for the alcohol insinuation, he described the meeting between the finance minister and the Keidanren boss with no qualifiers whatsoever.

The replacement

Mr. Hatoyama spent a day trying to convince Mr. Fujii to stay on before giving up. Perhaps the latter decided that discretion was the better part of valor and a better opportunity to stay at home and have a quiet drink in peace. The new finance minister is Kan Naoto, one of the founding members of the DPJ and the man touted as most likely to replace the prime minister sometime this year. (Some people have said as early as this month, but the more sober types think it will be in May.) Mr. Kan is not known as a closet drinker, though it does sometimes seem as if he is nursing a hangover when he speaks in public.

The Economics Whiz

It is a long tradition in Japanese politics for prospective prime ministers to serve as finance ministers for at least a few months to give them a perfunctory idea of how an economy is supposed to function. This is doubly important for Mr. Kan, who as a de facto socialist/left-leaning social democrat is hazy on these matters.

He first became involved in electoral politics with the Socialist Democratic Federation, a group that existed from 1978 to 1994, when its membership split up to join other parties that eventually became part of the DPJ. The SDF was founded under the leadership of Eda Saburo as a splinter group from the old Socialist Party. His son, Eda Satsuki, was the head of a socialist organization in his youth, later joined the DPJ, and is now the president of the upper house, a position that required him to nominally resign his party affiliation.

College professor, author, and blogger Ikeda Nobuo points out that Mr. Kan’s political thinking is colored by a reddish hue and that his ideas have changed little since his university days. He characterized this philosophy as class warfare based on the concept that “Capitalists exploit the workers.” Prof. Ikeda also wrote of Mr. Kan: “His incomprehensible slogan of ‘From the supply side to the demand side’ is easily understood if read as ‘From the capitalists to the workers’.” He notes that Mr. Kan has never offered anything resembling a growth policy in his life; his interest is in income redistribution.

Mr. Kan, however, thinks he has an excellent grasp of economics, and has been holding public debates with Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s former Finance Minister and privatization guru Takenaka Heizo. On his website, Mr. Kan boasts that most economists agree that he comes out on top in those contests.

First day on the job

Unfortunately, Mr. Kan’s knowledge did not include the reticence of finance ministers the world over from making specific statements about exchange rates. People with his worldview still haven’t grasped the principle that the value of any object, including money, is determined by what people are willing to pay for it and not what the government thinks it should be worth. During a press conference on his first day on the job, Mr. Kan said he thought the yen needed to depreciate further against the dollar and helpfully suggested a range in the mid-90s. He added:

“I will consider the impact of exchange rates on the economy, cooperate with the Bank of Japan, and strive to (bring the yen) to an appropriate level.”

This comes from the same party that insisted on a strict segregation of monetary and fiscal policy when they were in the opposition, and absolutely refused to allow ex-MOF officials to be appointed to positions of authority in the BOJ.

His comments so roiled international currency markets that Prime Minister Hatoyama had to reassure them the next morning that exchange rate levels should be left to the markets:

“Basically, as the government, I, at the least, should not refer to exchange rates (sic). The idea is that basically, those statements should be made by business and financial circles…it is desirable for exchange rates to be stable. Extreme volatility is not desirable.”

He magically got Mr. Kan to change his mind on this question within 24 hours, though Mr. Kan also grumbled the government should be specific about the exchange rates it prefers during periods of emergency.

Few people share Mr. Kan’s view of himself as having a solid grasp of money matters. Commenting on his policies to combat deflation, the weekly Shukan Bunshun in its 10 December 2009 issue said he was “tone deaf in economics”. The Economist magazine called him “shallow”, while some Japanese economists described his statements as “rash”. Commenting by Twitter, former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko of the LDP wrote:

“I hope the new finance minister doesn’t misread the word macroeconomics as microeconomics.”

Said the head of one bank, who chose to remain anonymous:

“Mr. Kan understands nothing about the economy.”

The gathering darkness

It has become obvious by now that the new regime and its leaders will be every bit as bad—if not worse—than the one it replaced. The only real step to reform they’ve taken is to funnel all budgetary requests through the party instead of through legislators with ties to the civil service. It may be a bad idea to leave policy in the hands of a bureaucratic elite unaccountable to the electorate, but current conditions in the United States, to cite just one example, show that it’s just as bad an idea to put it in the hands of third-rate hacks inebriate of power and money who pretend to be progressives automatic for the people.

The basic convictions informing the worldview of the most influential members of the present government and its allies have been shown repeatedly everywhere they’ve been tried to have a tenuous connection to everyday reality. Those ideas have become such a part of their identity over the years, however, that even the most dismal of failures will not force them to face the facts and reconsider their positions.

The only common thread among the overall membership of the ruling party itself is that they are a common receptacle for anyone Not of the LDP. In practice, that makes them a congeries that includes leftists, middle-class seekers of the main chance, and people who think Tojo Hideki was misunderstood. This most motley of crews would never have gained control of the government without blind obedience to Ozawa Ichiro, whose political instincts more closely resemble those of a dictator in a single-party state than a political leader in one of the world’s leading democracies.

As one Japanese journalist wrote on his blog:

“The prime minister is just a decoration. In truth, the government is controlled by the party’s General Secretary (shokicho, the term the Japanese Socialist Party used for its leader). This was the political style of the Soviet Communist Party in the past. Is not Japan in the same circumstance today?”

Watanabe Kozo, another former Ozawa ally and friend, former senior advisor to the DPJ, and former deputy speaker of the lower house, had a different way of putting it. He said in Fukushima on the 8th that he thought Mr. Fujii had been “bullied by a ‘mother-in-law’. Speaking of the political weakness of Prime Minister Hatoyama, he said:

“There’s a frightening ‘mother-in-law’ behind him. He’s become something of a pitiful daughter-in-law who doesn’t quite know what’s going on.”

Mr. Hatoyama’s inability to demonstrate even a minimum of leadership skills either domestically or internationally, combined with the puerile and laughable excuses for his own funding scandals, make it a real possibility that his term in office will be shorter than that of Abe Shinzo, Fukuda Yasuo, or Aso Taro. The financial scandals are becoming even more serious for Ozawa Ichiro, but he has vowed to fight the prosecutors while maintaining an iron grip on the party. As a television commentator put it yesterday, any party that permits someone like Ozawa to retain power is “unhealthy”.

A sick party in charge of governance cannot manage the affairs of a healthy nation that is sound in mind and body. The Japanese voted in desperation for change, and wound up the prisoners of incompetents who will demand more of their money in taxes, tokens who’ll vote however Ozawa Ichiro tells them to vote, and preening political egos thrilled with finally having received the opportunity to prove that socialism works. The sickness extends to treating Big Business as “the enemy” and expecting them to pay financial and political fealty even after their favored candidates lost the election, rather than dealing with them as a powerful group lobbying for its own interests. There is little, if any, awareness that “the enemy” is the group most responsible for generating the national wealth they’re so anxious to redistribute.

Absent a breakup of the DPJ or a conviction of Mr. Ozawa, the party is unlikely to have the nerve—or the integrity—to call another lower house election before they’re legally required to do so in 2013. That could be changed by losses in the upper house election this summer, but the opposition LDP is still down for the count after their losses in last summer’s lower house election.

That means the new bosses will follow the old LDP practice of “passing around the washtub” of the premiership to those waiting in line for it, including Mr. Kan, Okada Katsuya, and perhaps even coalition partner Kamei Shizuka.

The danger is that a largely rudderless ship of state will become so encumbered with left-wing bilge that it will drift into a Sargasso Sea of irrelevance, hallucinatory introspection, and hypocritical paternalism, abandoned by the United States and vampired by the Chinese. Unless they find a way to administer electoral shock therapy, the Japanese might be shocked to find they have become the sick man of Northeast Asia.

It is sobering to contemplate what might happen over the course of this decade.

Afterwords: Japanese political parties receive financial assistance from the public treasury based on their number of elected representatives. Parties that dissolve are required to return those funds to the treasury.

As I explained above, the Liberal Party merged with the Democratic Party, and they disbanded to effect that merger. Mr. Fujii was the secretary-general of the party when it disbanded. The party was supposed to return more than $US one million in public funds, but that never happened. Mr. Fujii is widely thought to have been the man responsible for disbursing those funds to the soon-to-be-ex-Liberal Party members, though the money was never accounted for.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The bogus and the bona fide

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 8, 2010

I have a sense of mission; that is to serve as a medium in the transient space between life and death conveying the ideas of our ancestors to the people of the future.
– Kitahara Kanako

DURING HER FIRST WEEK at Waseda University, Kitahara Kanako wandered around campus in search of an extracurricular club that she might like to join. A natural performer, she gravitated toward groups devoted to the arts, particularly music, dance, and drama. On one of her scouting expeditions, she was intrigued by the sounds coming from the assembly room for the traditional Japanese music group. After she spent a few minutes listening and watching, the club members encouraged her to try the Satsuma biwa, a stringed instrument related to the Middle Eastern barbat (the ancestor of the oud) by way of the Chinese pipa.

The biwa arrived in Japan during the eighth century. One of several varieties, the Satsuma biwa has four or five strings and frets raised four centimeters from the neck to allow the bending of notes. It was popularized in the late 16th century by the family of the feudal lords of the Satsuma domain, which is now Kagoshima. The musicians perform while seated and hold the instrument vertically, resting on the lap. They sound the strings with a large, triangular plectrum that has a curved end for grasping. Traditional Satsuma biwa performers were minstrels who used the instruments to accompany their singing.

As Kanako later told me, the first time she touched plectrum to strings, she felt a jolt go through her body (zotto shita). She sometimes wonders if she was a biwa performer in a previous life. The Waseda University biwa group she joined receives instruction from graduates still in the Tokyo area, rather than from formal teachers. They are as open to different types of expression as university students everywhere; in addition to the classical repertoire, Kanako also performed with rock bands in clubs. (She also was involved with modern dance and once performed in white body paint.)

During her last year at Waseda, Kanako arranged for employment with a publishing house after graduation. But she changed her mind when she gave a benefit performance at a home for the elderly and was stunned to see tears streaming down the faces of the audience. That inspired her to give up a career in publishing and devote her life to the performance of music.

In 2004, she began studying with biwa master Tanaka Yukio of the Tsuruta school, whom she visits once a month in Tokyo for lessons. Just two years later, in 2006, she won the grand prize at the Kumamoto National Contest for Traditional Japanese Music, as well as the Incentive Award of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. That same year, she passed the audition for performing traditional music on NHK, Japan’s quasi-public television and radio network. (NHK is famously strict about the musicians it permits to perform on their network, though their pop music standards have been relaxed in recent years to allow rock groups to appear on their year-end musical TV special.) Since passing the audition, she has performed on NHK-TV and NHK-FM.

The following year, she accompanied her teacher to Italy for three concerts to perform both traditional and modern works. Among the latter was Nuove Musiche per Biwa by Carlo Forlivesi, a composer/performer interested in both early European music and traditional Japanese music. This piece includes sections written for two biwas. According to the publicity blurb from ALM Records:

“(It) presents a radical departure from the compositional languages usually employed for such an instrument. Also thanks to the possibility of relying on a level of virtuosity never before attempted in this specific repertory, the composer has sought the renewal of the acoustic and æsthetic profile of the biwa, bringing out the huge potential in the sound material: attacks and resonance, tempo (conceived not only in the chronometrical but also deliberately empathetical sense), chords, balance and dialogue…dynamics and colour.”

*****
On 3 October last year I was passing through the atrium of a shopping mall here in Saga City on my way home when a woman approached me from behind and began tugging on my sleeve. It was Kanako’s aunt; Kanako was about to perform, she told me, so wouldn’t I stay a bit longer and watch? Of course I would.

Making a living as a freelance translator is a solitary profession. Most of my working time is spent in a second floor office at home in front of a computer. I communicate with clients in other parts of the country by e-mail or telephone. Both to keep in direct contact with the human race and for a change of pace, I teach two classes in the spring at the local university, and help out one or two hours a week at the English school that brought me to Japan in 1984. That’s how I met Kanako; I was one of her teachers during her high school years. She was an excellent student: cheerful, intelligent, ready to try anything, and already capable of a dead-on impersonation of comedian Shimura Ken.

As it turned out, the show in the shopping mall wasn’t a solo performance of traditional music, which I had seen her do before. This was a 30-minute group performance that might best be described as either avant-garde or experimental. The main performer was improvisational dancer Iwashita Toru, but it was a collaborative effort that also included Kanako and two other local people: artist Ogushi Ryohei, and percussionist Sekine Shinichiro. In addition to conventional percussion instruments, Mr. Sekine’s kit that day included kitchen utensils and plastic buckets. I learned later that his usual gig is playing the vibes and marimba in jazz bands.

Mr. Iwashita is well known in artistic circles in Japan as an improvisational dancer and an instructor at the renowned Sankai Juku, a dance troupe that has performed in more than 40 countries. A native of Tokyo, he has been working as a solo artist since 1983. He’s also been involved since 1988 in working with the psychiatric staff at a Shiga hospital to offer the patients dance therapy, and he serves as an advisor to the Japan Dance Therapy Association.

Their performance was filmed, and the organizers have edited the film for a 10-minute YouTube presentation, which you can see here. The event itself was titled Haizai to Dansu, or Debris and the Dance. On the right side of that page are links to two more videos showing a similar, but not identical, performance in the lobby of the JR Saga Station. Click on the link to see what can happen in a shopping mall in a small Japanese town on any given Saturday. You might be surprised when you see the costumes and set decorations.

Some people will find the performance stimulating, some will find it mildly interesting, and others won’t care for it very much. The point for me, however, is not the content of the performance itself, but that the performance occurred at all. An improvisational dancer with a national reputation, an artist, and two musicians—one of whom is a national award winner—created an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of their respective disciplines and gave a series of free performances in a public space. In this instance, the public space was a suburban shopping mall in a semi-rural municipality of 180,000 that is 35 minutes from the nearest urban megacenter by limited express train. To use the phrase of reader and frequent commenter Mac, it is a “No-Shinkansen Sticksville”.

The point is that this is yet another aspect of the face of everyday Japan, and not some outré self-indulgence conducted in a dingy loft in a down-at-the-heels district of a big city where only the hipsters and great pretenders congregate.

The point is that this is yet another aspect of the country that the overseas mess media choose to ignore while peddling a narrative of Japan as the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated with xenophobic losers obsessed with vicarious sex, otaku, and those so inept at social interaction they have to rent friends.

*****
Someone writing under the name of New Year’s Resolution sent in a comment this week about the recent contributions from the flunkeys who’ve put their integrity in a blind trust, all the better to make a buck by feeding the media machine. One was that seat-warmer at the FCCJ bar, The Guardian’s Justin McCurry, who once described his frothy story about an overhyped and already forgotten “rent-a-friend” trend as “lighthearted”. He might have a point; it was the sort of piece that could be considered lighthearted if your default attitude is that of Spitball Artist and you have what the Japanese would call a twisted navel.

The other was Richard Lloyd Parry, to whom the Times of London has given the assignment of filing stories about this part of the world. One of his blog posts on the Times site a few years ago seems typical of his approach. That day–the last day I visited the site–Parry thought the most important information he could convey to his readers about Japan was the observation that former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo resembled the cartoon character Homer Simpson. (One wonders if the perceived likeness was the high rounded forehead, the eyes, or Homer Simpson’s skin color.) Perhaps lightness of heart is as contagious as lightness of intellect.

Something else might be contagious too, or somebody switched on the media echo chamber again. Late last year, within a month of each other, both of these journalistic stalwarts chose to inform the people of Britain about the phenomenon of what they described as herbivorous girly men in these parts, long after their brethren in the Japanese mess media had moved on to their next contrived sensation. Opinions on whether there’s any meat to that story or whether it’s a PR ploy dreamed up by one of the marketing consultants pushing it will likely depend on how much time one spends interacting with real people.

(In passing, it’s interesting to note that the type of journalists who once loved to mock the Japanese for all their home-grown theories about Japanese uniqueness, known as Nihonjin-ron, now love to scarf up the other cultural flotsam and jetsam as long as they can peddle it to the hometown papers for their News of the Weird section.)

One wonders how often McCurry reads the newspaper he writes for:

Sakurai’s generation reached adulthood as the economic edifice started to crumble, and unemployment and contract work replaced jobs for life and twice-yearly bonuses.

Japan’s official unemployment rate is at about 5%. If that crumbling economic edifice is causing the lads to wear bras and twirl their pinkies as they sip their afternoon tea, I’m glad to be living in this country; at their official unemployment rates, Britain and the United States are about to see their streets overrun by battalions of Boy Georges.

Then again, one wonders what country Parry is living in:

The last few years have seen a range of products to cater to a broadening of tastes among Japanese men. Japanese brewers have introduced weaker beers as sales of conventional alcoholic beverages have declined.

There’s an ordinary supermarket a 10-minute walk from my house. In addition to the ersatz brews, its shelves contain at least a half-dozen brands of beer (and now stout!) that would pass German purity standards and have an alcoholic content of 5% or more. Only one of those brands existed 25 years ago, and most of the rest were created within the past five years. It’s also not unusual to see stronger local microbrews on supermarket shelves. And even Times readers know that sales of “conventional alcoholic beverages”—stronger spirits, I assume—have fallen worldwide over that time.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall seeing any men in this town wearing bras. One would think the straps in the back would be as visible as those worn by women. Perhaps that’s the disadvantage of living in a No-Shinkansen Sticksville.

But boys will be ambitious, and these two might be angling for their own feature column, perhaps like the one the New York Times gave Roger Cohen. Cohen paid a brief visit to Japan and decided it was the perfect opening either for social commentary on a grand scale or something to fill column space on a deadline about a month ago. He saw some digitized images while working out on a treadmill in a spa—probably in his downtown Tokyo hotel—and extrapolated that into a description of a country of 127 million people as bored, gloomy, straight-jacketed otaku plunged into post-modern despair. He concluded by saying that all you need is love, as John Lennon put it, and then added that we all need some of Hatoyama Yukio’s yuai, too.

Some people drop names to have us believe that they’re well connected; others drop phrases from languages they don’t understand to have us believe they’re sophisticated multi-culti internationalists. By this time next year, when Mr. Hatoyama is no longer prime minister, the yuai concept will be as forgotten as the concept of grass-eating girly men, but by this time next year, the biens pensants will have moved on to another equally irrelevant faux insight.

Cohen, by the way, went so far as to describe the digital image of sushi on his treadmill as “unctuous”.

Yes, the New York Times is a publication written by pretentious asses to be read by pretentious asses, but one would think their gloomy circulation figures should have plunged them into such post-modern despair they might have considered incorporating diversity into their hiring practices. But they haven’t, and they won’t.

*****
Some people can distinguish the bogus from the bona fide at a glance. The real recognizes the real immediately; after all, they are fellow travelers, to borrow a phrase from another context. It also isn’t a coincidence that the children in the shopping mall audience were the ones to have most enjoyed the collaborative improvisational performance. They’re too young to have learned how to cop a pose.

Some people wouldn’t recognize the bona fide if it walked up and bit them on the ass.

Some people enjoy deliberately rejecting the bona fide to glorify the bogus as a lifestyle choice. They’re the same sort of people who think the best way to take advantage of a university education is to attend courses in “popular culture”, if they don’t oversleep. Well, you pay your money, or the money the government fronts you, and you take your choice.

Some people are bottom feeders. They might be capable of making distinctions, but their choice is to take a fistful of dollars instead to feed a morally bankrupt media machine and pander to the acolytes of chewing gum culture by holding up the people of a country as an object of ridicule around the world.

And you can bet that every one of those bottom feeders believes to their soul that they’re ever so clever and classless and free, as John Lennon again put it.

But as Lennon also put it, “they’re still f*cking peasants, as far as I can see”.

Except with them, one doesn’t have to look very far or very hard to see it.

*****
Are you surprised to find people like Kitahara Kanako and Iwashita Toru in this malaise-ridden nation of otaku? I’m not. I run into people like them all the time. All it takes to meet them is a bit of normal circulation in society instead of cracking wise about the natives with the ex-pats at the other end of the bar.

But you’re unlikely to meet them, or the millions of other creative, brilliant, and engaging people in Japan, in the pages of the overseas English-language media.

That’s another reason why, if your knowledge of Japan is based on what you read in that media, everything you know is wrong.

Posted in Arts, Foreigners in Japan, Mass media, Music, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

When a retreat demonstrates an advance

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 6, 2010

SOMETIMES a retreat really represents an advance.

At his first news conference of the year on the 4th, Fukuoka Prefecture Gov. Aso Wataru announced the prefecture would close its office in Seoul, South Korea, at the end of March. The reason?

“There’s no longer any need for the office’s original function of gathering information to provide advice about the country to Japanese. Private sector ties have strengthened, and the office has fulfilled its role.”

The single prefectural employee assigned to the Seoul office will return to Japan, but the prefecture plans to maintain its contract with local staffers to provide tourism information.

In other words, the people of northern Kyushu are now so knowledgeable about South Korea in general and Seoul in particular that it’s no longer necessary for a local government to intermediate for them. With the people now out in front of the public sector, the latter has, to its credit, decided to withdraw rather than perpetuate itself needlessly.

The news has another significant aspect. Japan’s new national government has been trying to sell itself as a group of reformers who would eliminate waste and abuse, yet they will submit Japan’s highest budget proposal ever–with its highest level of debt ever–when the Diet convenes later this month. They claim the expenditures are to prevent a double-dip recession, but that’s no more likely to provide a lasting fillip to the economy than the ocean of debt swallowed by the American government over the past year.

To find that part of the public sector in Japan that is actually cutting taxes and eliminating unneeded services, one has to start by looking at the sub-national governments.

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

On New Year calligraphy and squid sex

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 5, 2010

WHEN NEW YEAR’S DAY is the most important holiday of the year, as it is in Japan, the first performance of an activity or occurrence of a phenomenon is considered to be of particular significance. Examples include the first visit to a Shinto shrine and the first nocturnal dream of the year. In a country where penmanship (or should it be brushmanship?) is considered an art form, one’s first calligraphy also becomes a notable event.

And when the calligraphers use squid ink, the event becomes more noteworthy still.

That’s what happened in Tokushima City on the 2nd at the Mullusco Mugi, an aquarium where 2,000 shellfish from around the world are on display. The facility sponsored a class for the year’s first calligraphy session using squid ink instead of the normal variety.

Nine sets of parents and children participated, using the ink taken from bigfin reef squid. They thinned out the ink on a palette and applied their brushes to Japanese paper to write/draw New Year’s greetings. They also amused themselves by painting pictures of squid.

There seems to have been a failure of the usually fertile Japanese imagination, however—after the calligraphy session, it would have the perfect end to the day to eat squid tempura for lunch!

The bigfin reef squid are creatures of considerable interest in Japan, by the way. The squid mating sessions off the Izu peninsula every spring attract schools of diver/photographers. Tony Wu describes his dive and offers his photos in this blog post. Watching the behavior of the squid in the act isn’t voyeurism; it’s so fascinating and educational it’s a more sophisticated form of infotainment than the mass media. Mr. Wu describes the competition among male squid to mate with the females that strike their fancy. One of his readers commented:

The mating behavior you noted is the male attempting to ensure that it is his sperm packet that the female uses to fertilize the eggs. The males usually place a packet of sperm into the body cavity of the females with a specially adapted ‘arm’. She will then fertilize the eggs by rubbing it along the sperm packet prior to placing them in a safe spot for incubation. It has been noted that ’sneaker males’ will remove another male squid’s sperm packet from the female and replace it with one of his own if the female squid is not closely guarded. The actions of competing males can be quite intense and very, very colorful.

If anyone wants to make up jokes about females fertilizing their eggs by rubbing them against the sperm packet, be my guest.

He describes the actions as colorful because the male squid turn vivid hues to warn off those other sneaky SOBs. In fact, the lads have the enviable ability to concentrate those color changes in the side of their body facing the other males, while maintaining their normal soothing white translucence in the part facing the female. Hot and cool at the same time!

But some things never change:

On a few occasions, it seemed as if a female I was watching departed the site with a different male than she’d arrived with.

Time to take some tips from evolutionary biology and connect the dots, guys!

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

Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »