Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Hammers and sickles

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 8, 2011

THERE’S AN acid test guaranteed to separate the bogus from the bona fide for those who pass themselves off as Japan hands. It’s easy to apply, too: Anyone who uses the alleged proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” to proclaim that the Japanese repress originality is a fraud. That’s a reliable signal to turn the page, change the channel, or click on the next website.

The most important of the several reasons why that test is infallible is that they’ve botched the proverb. The handful of people who cite it and actually know some Japanese assume it is Deru kugi ha (wa) utareru, but that’s a mistake. Instead of kugi, or nail, the word is kui (杭), a post or a stake. And—because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—they’ve also botched the meaning.

The Japanese employ the concentrated insights of proverbs in speech and writing more often than people in the Anglosphere, and their long political, cultural, and literary history means they have a large supply from which to draw. That also means there are plenty of inexpensive proverb dictionaries available in bookstores, with more examples than anyone will ever be able to use in a lifetime. I have one published by Goto Shoin in 1979 that runs more than 500 pages and has definitions for roughly 10 proverbs a page. The author sources the oldest Japanese proverb as coming from the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), which was completed in the eighth century.

Here’s how the author defines this proverb:

“A post that protrudes too far will be driven in further. In the same way, people who assert their pre-eminence over the general public will be envied and meet with difficulties as a result. There’s nothing wrong with excelling or becoming a prominent figure, but human emotion resists that logic. Indeed, people who push themselves forward despite a lack of talent generally receive no forbearance from others.”

He cites one variation on the proverb as, “The post that sticks out is pounded by the waves.” He finally mentions the variation with the nail at the end of the entry, but dismisses it as a mistake. (In fact, he uses the word “bad” to describe its use.)

Therefore, the adage has nothing to do with enforcing conformity to a rigid social order. Rather, it combines a warning that one shouldn’t get too big for one’s britches with the observation that jealousy can have unpleasant consequences. And we all know that the latter is a universal human phenomenon rather than a Japan-only attribute. After all, the belief of some that the redistribution of wealth by a government through confiscatory taxation is a “progressive” concept didn’t originate here.

It doesn’t take much thought to see what happened. Either a foreigner misheard kui as kugi and jumped to the wrong conclusion, or he was steered in the wrong direction by a Japanese fuzzy on the details himself. That the proverb with the nail mistake circulates in some English-speaking circles shows it is being parroted by foreigners with a parrot’s understanding of what they’re saying. The same thing occurred when people used to believe the myth that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow.


The subject comes up because reader Get a Job Son sent in a link to an article by John Feffer in the Huffington Post titled Gambling in Japan. Feffer is described as having lived in Japan in the 90s, though the extent of his stay isn’t mentioned. Considering what little he knows, it couldn’t have been that long. Try this:

“On the outside, Japan appears to be a clean, well-ordered place. The Japanese are, stereotypically, risk-averse. According to the Japanese adage, deru kugi wa utareru: the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. This apparent preference for order and conformity helps explain the patience with which the Japanese have responded to the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and the partial meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facility – that has afflicted the country.”

Feffer doesn’t explain why a preference for conformity explains the Japanese response to the disaster, or why conformity would be a factor at all. The preference for order is certainly not unique to the Japanese, as few people anywhere are interested in the alternative. And to use one small example, neither order nor conformity explains why Hitachi’s Ibaragi plant, which manufactures generators and gas and steam turbines, resumed post-earthquake operations on 30 March and reached 90% of their productive capacity by 4 April.

Feffer’s point does not rest on a simple, shallow argument, however. It’s not possible to be a convincing public intellectual unless one uses a more complicated shallow argument. That’s why he digs up an irrelevant old anecdote of a 19th century kabuki performer who died because he couldn’t discipline his taste for the potentially poisonous blowfish, and uses it as a metaphor for the country’s mindset:

“Beneath this façade of conformity, however, lies a more interesting reality. Like Mitsugoro Bando VIII, the Japanese have become almost inured to calamity. They’ve accepted – and in some cases courted – extraordinarily risky behavior.

“Consider Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy.”

His discussion of nuclear power plants in Japan, which overlooks the placement of large hydroelectric dams on fault lines in India and China, suggests his agenda is something other than explicating the nature of Japanese behavior. Sure enough:

“Embracing nuclear power isn’t Japan’s only risky behavior. For years, the Japanese government has boasted of a “peace constitution” that restricts the country to a defense-only posture. But this constitution hasn’t prevented Japan from amassing one of the world’s most powerful militaries, confronting China and Korea over disputed islands, cooperating with the United States on a missile defense system that destabilizes the region, and playing host to dozens of U.S. military bases that endanger human lives and the surrounding environment.

“Is there somehow a contradiction between the stereotypical conformity of the average Japanese and this tendency to court disaster in the economic, military, energy, and humanitarian sectors?”

What do you know! A walking, talking strawman!

Hey, why stop at one caricature when you can use several?

“When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon late at night to come upon office workers passed out on the street, vomiting in alleyways, or being carried home by their equally inebriated colleagues. Excessive drinking after work was part of the salaryman culture. Indeed, it could be awkward for a businessman to demur from such rituals. When such behavior becomes the norm, then engaging in risky activities becomes just another way of conforming. Of course, it’s only a sector of Japanese society that drinks to excess.”

Feffer doesn’t know anything about salaryman culture, of course, because he wasn’t part of it. (He would have been sure to tell us otherwise). Nor would he know about who does or doesn’t demur from such “rituals”, what is or what isn’t the norm with drinking habits, what is or what isn’t a ritual, who does or who doesn’t conform, and who does or who doesn’t drink to excess.

Many Japanese men drink prodigious amounts of alcohol, regardless of whether they are salarymen, carpenters, or even politicians, including Prime Minister Kan Naoto and the late Nakagawa Shoichi. It has nothing to do with “salaryman culture”, which in any event had already begun to wane in the late 90s when Feffer blew through town. Had he kept his wits about him when writing this piece, it might have occurred to him to blame all the boozing on the stress of conformist behavior to avoid getting pounded in like the nail that sticks out, rather than conforming to “salaryman culture”.

In fact, had he taken the time to do some reading, he would have discovered the many stories of sake-loving divinities in Shinto mythology, created millenia before salarymen existed. The Japanese have always had a taste for the rice. People were singing out of tune and carrying each other home long before the first joint-stock corporation was formed.

But none of that is his real point anyway. He edges up to it here:

“An oligarchy of gamblers holds sway over the majority of cautious Japanese.”

An “oligarchy” controlling a race of conformist, red-nosed lushes too wimpy to express themselves, eh?

The choice of the inappropriate word “oligarchy”, the statement about a mighty Japanese military confronting China and some entity called “Korea”, the claim that a missile defense system is destabilizing, the use of the ruse of environmental concerns (about an endangered species of dugong) to object to American military installations, and the unexplained assertion that Japan is courting disaster in the “humanitarian sector” all point in the direction of a certain worldview.

Once again, Google is our friend. The Huffpo identifies Feffer only as the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. The FPIF website announces that they are a “project” of the Institute for Policy Studies. That institute openly identifies itself as a “left-wing think tank”, as even Sidney Blumenthal, the American political version of Sid Vicious, notes with approval. Noam Chomsky is an associate.

A group that so quickly cops to being leftist is sure to have some rather large rocks on their turf to provide cover for some rather slimy worms and ugly slugs. This particular left-wing think tank cooperated with the KGB in planting disinformation in Europe about NATO. A brief scan is enough to discover the usual cast of Bolshies, Reds, Pinks, Crimsons, communitarians, Gramsciites, and the other undifferentiated hairballs who use eco-lunacy, pacifism, and similar counterfeit issues to conceal their real motivations and the sweat-stained Che Guevara t-shirts under their more socially acceptable haberdashery.

Japan is not Feffer’s chosen field of study; North Korean apologistics is. Still floating around unflushed on the web is his justification of Pyeongyang’s 2009 missile launch:

“North Korea is clearly interested in still reaching out, working with, engaging with the international community.”

The Foreign Policy in Focus website informs us that a detailed statement of their positions is contained in the paper, Just Security. Feffer edited the paper, which is found on the IPS website. Here’s one of the planks of their program:

“Start a managed resource transfer from rich to poor countries through climate-friendly global justice, trade, and aid policies. This would involve a border fee on “dirty trade” that would help developing countries shift to clean energy.”

Feffer is not the first to pretend that a brief stay in Japan qualifies him to discuss the nation as if he knew something about it, nor is he the first to unload hearsay misinformation as a way to present himself as a big league thinker. This might be the first time, however, that someone has used the overseas manga edition of the country to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with Japan.


It’s curious that some would swallow the idea that the Japanese advocate pounding in posts, nails, or people as a part of everyday life. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Koizumi Jun’ichiro, no one’s idea of a conformist, spent five successful years as prime minister. The cautious Japanese electorate would love to have that reckless gambling oligarch back tomorrow if they could. They’d be so overjoyed, in fact, they might force each other to get falling down drunk and pass out in the streets. Then again, people of a certain political orientation are loath to portray a man of Mr. Koizumi’s beliefs in a positive light. Calling attention to the Koizumi record of accomplishment would only accentuate the failures of their own heroes.

The people who come to Japan and pay attention to their surroundings soon realize it is almost impossible to get through a day without discovering unpounded posts sticking out all over the place. Just yesterday, for example, I read a newspaper article about private sector efforts to hire people from the Tohoku area who have been put out of work by the disaster. At the end of the piece, the author briefly mentioned that Cococala-mura of Awaji Island would make it a policy to give preference to hiring young people from that region. Accompanying the article was the photo shown here of people working in the Cococala fields.

It was easy to turn up their Japanese language website, which reveals it to be an enterprise that would be in imminent danger of a raid by mallet-bearing thought police were the myth a reality. The project is operated by Pasona, a company specializing in temporary staffing, recruiting, and human resource consulting. Pasona hires as employees young musicians, actors, dancers, and others in the arts to work at local farms or regional businesses while they take courses in business, arts management, and agriculture. The idea seems to be to have them to do something tangibly productive with their time as they learn to become self-supporting professionals.

A company in Japan has come up with a capital idea for nurturing self-reliance and providing the means for success to people in a field in which it is difficult to make a decent living. It’s better in every imaginable way than using public funds for national arts subsidies. Is it a coincidence that Takenaka Heizo, Mr. Koizumi’s privatization guru, is the company’s chairman?

Meanwhile, a political extremist without the slightest interest in Japan is so unwilling to let a crisis go to waste that he parades the Trojan horse of his ignorance as knowledge to disguise the parasitic bacteria inside.

Something would benefit from being pounded in, but Japanese fence posts ain’t it.

My use of the word “pound”, incidentally, is as figurative as that of the Beatles.

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Posted in Agriculture, Foreigners in Japan, Language, Politics, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

Good news, bad news, and no news at all

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 2, 2011

HERE’S SOME good news: More South Koreans are ignoring their jingoist news media and taking the initiative to forge positive ties with Japan. The latest example is the Daejeon Development Research Institute, which signed a research exchange agreement with the Fukuoka Asia Urban Research Center in January. That’s not news for the Fukuoka center, however—it’s their third agreement with an institution from another country. Both cities are located on high-speed rail lines, and the institute in Daegeon wants to conduct joint studies of the use of high-speed rail to promote industry and urban development.

Speaking of high-speed rail, the Kyushu leg of the Shinkansen will be fully operational in a fortnight, and the Kyushuans are getting ready for an influx of tourists from both South Korea and China. Folks everywhere like the hot springs and the potential for year-round golf. The Nishinippon Shimbun of Fukuoka and the Tokyo Chizu Publishing Co. recently published a guidebook of Kyushu tourist destinations in Korean and Chinese for distribution at local airports and hotels throughout the region and at travel agencies overseas. The first print run was 100,000 copies each.

To make sure that those guidebooks get read, the mayors of Fukuoka City, Kagoshima City, and Kumamoto City visited Seoul last month to talk up their cities as tourist destinations. The three mayors spoke at a conference at which about 100 people in the Seoul travel industry attended.

Here’s more good news, if the premise is correct: Eamonn Fingleton uses his own site and borrows James Fallows’s blog space to claim that the conventional wisdom of Japan’s lost decades is a myth and to challenge 10 public intellectuals pushing the stagnant Japan line to debate that subject. While Mr. Fingleton’s posts offer a couple of dubious assertions to go with some excellent points, it’s always good news to see someone challenge conventional wisdom, especially since wisdom is seldom present when the Western bien pensants hold forth on Japan.

What he says that people need to know:

* “(M)uch of what is reported (about Japan) in America’s major newspapers — and even more so on American television — is appalling.”

Repeat play city! If what you know about Japan you learned from the English-language media, then everything you know is wrong.

* “Japan’s surplus is up more than five-fold since 1990, and the Japanese yen has actually boasted the strongest rise of any major currency in the last two decades.”

* “Since the 1980s…the Japanese people have enjoyed one of the biggest improvements in living standards of any major First World nation in the interim.”

* “A story of extraordinary progress by Japanese manufacturing”:

“The reason you don’t hear much about Japanese manufacturers these days is that the best of them have moved from making consumer goods to concentrate on so-called producers’ goods — items that though invisible to the consumer happen to be critical to the world economy. Such goods include the highly miniaturized components, advanced materials, and super-precise machines that less sophisticated nations such as China need to make final consumer goods. The label on everything from cell phones to laptop computers may say “Made in China” but actually, via producers’ goods, highly capital-intensive and knowhow-intensive manufacturers in Japan have quietly done much of the most technologically demanding work.

“America’s current account deficit multiplied five-fold in the 20 years to 2010 and the reason in large measure is because American corporations have exited the producers’ goods business.”

He doesn’t mention that Americans have also abandoned the robotics sector, while the Japanese are one of the world’s leaders, if not the world’s leader in that industry. The only thing most Americans know about Japan and robots is that the Japanese love ‘em and Japanese robot stories provide snicker filler for their newspapers and blogs.

Mr. Fingleton shouldn’t be holding his breath waiting for the Japan hands to accept the challenge of a debate. For one thing, they’re Somebodies and he’s not. For another, having to defend themselves in a debate would expose their ignorance on the subject.

Still, give the man credit for treating them with deference. For example, on his own site he writes:

“I appeal to you — in the interests…of your own reputation for intellectual honesty…”

One of the men he’s calling out is Paul Krugman. The suggestion that Krugman retains any intellectual honesty should result in thick mucous dripping from computer monitors worldwide after the explosion of derisive snorts.

Mr. Fingleton’s post has begotten more good news. Economics professor Mark Perry has two posts with charts on his blog. In one, he notes:

“(W)ith economic growth in Germany and Italy and many other European countries that is comparable to Japan’s growth, we never hear about the “lost decades” in Germany or Italy or the U.K.”

In the other, he writes:

“Compared to 1980, Japan’s real GDP per capita in 2010 was nearly 70% higher, vs. a 66% increase for US real GDP per capita over the last 30 years. Japan had higher economic growth than the U.S. during the 1980s, slightly lower growth during the 1990s, about the same growth during the 2000s, and slightly higher overall growth during the entire 30-year period from 1980 to 2010.”

And here’s some late-breaking good news from the United States:

Consumer Reports has named Honda Motor Co., Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. (Subaru) and Toyota Motors Corp. as the best all-around automakers for the third year in a row in its annual auto issue…Chrysler Group LLC had the worst ranking. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and General Motors were also near the bottom…Toyota, which has dealt with massive safety recalls, fared well in the magazine’s top picks for 2011 across 10 different vehicle segments. Toyota had the most with three picks (the RAV4 small sport utility vehicle, Sienna minivan and Prius hybrid).

Chrysler and GM at the bottom, and Toyota near the top? If you can’t lick ’em, slime ’em in the media and sit on government reports absolving them of any blame.

Be that as it may, Mr. Fingleton should be careful about treading on thin ice himself. First, he tends to talk about “Japan” as if it were a monolithic entity. While that’s unavoidable to a certain extent, it only works if one is discussing international diplomacy. In every other context, however, this thing people call “Japan” doesn’t exist. That’s too facile a formulation for the breadth of diversity on these islands, and someone who’s been here as long as he has should know that.

More serious, however is his suggestion that the Japanese government is deliberately underestimating national economic growth to avoid foreign retribution for their trade surpluses. Worse, he offers no concrete evidence—it’s just a feeling he has.

If his assertion is true, it means that everyone in the Japanese government and media are party to history’s largest conspiratorial deception. Not only have they fooled overseas governments—whose experts can analyze economic and production statistics as well as Prof. Perry—they’ve also fooled the rest of the Japanese nation. The entire range of public debate among government officials, the political class, and the commentariat inside media and out is based on the premise of lost decades of low growth. His idea contains echoes of the Western conspiracists of the 80s and 90s who warned that the samurai Japanese businessmen were going to wreak economic revenge on the world for having been defeated in the war.

Speaking of what passes for reporting on Japan and East Asia, Michael Turton at The View from Taiwan takes the AFP news agency to task for its “ethnocentric crap”.

Superstition Still Widespread Across High-tech Asia, AFP reported today in article appearing in the Taipei Times. This tiresome feature reporting has been around ever since westerners first reported on Asia”:

(Quoting the article)
The services of witch doctors remain popular in multicultural Malaysia, while in hi-tech Japan, Shinto priests hold purification rites for new bullet trains and many entrepreneurs are said to seek the advice of palm readers and star gazers.

“Why is this a load of ethnocentric crap? Because you will never ever see a piece from AFP that writes about the west in a vein similar to the paragraph above:

The services of Christian faith healers remain popular in multicultural America, while in hi-tech Britain, Anglican priests bless new stadiums and many movie stars and politicians in both countries are said to seek the advice of astrologers.”

Mr. Turton’s observation is on the mark, but I’ll take it one step further. The F in AFP stands for France, where the news agency is headquartered. We’ll never see the AFP, or any other Western news outlet for that matter, write with such casual disparagement about the beliefs of the Muslims in that country, including the Shari’a punishments for theft, homosexuality, and (for the victim and not the offenders) for rape. Those media outlets won’t even say that Muslims are responsible for what has become an annual automotive auto-da-fe in France. They’ll only go so far as to call the perpetrators “youths”.

Now for the bad news—Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji held forth in Tokyo for some institutional investors, and everything that came out of his mouth should have stayed inside it.

According to the Kyodo report:

“Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara vowed Monday that Japan will carry out fundamental agricultural reforms modeled after the European system of direct payments to farmers to help strengthen the local farm sector’s competitiveness and promote trade liberalization.”

What is this use of the word “reform” to describe pork (or a wealth redistribution scheme) for farmers? Were he serious about improving competitiveness and promoting trade liberalization, he would instead encourage agribusiness to replace the country’s dwindling number of people who farm exclusively for a living.

But then he couldn’t do that—when the LDP took a step in that direction with the Koizumi/Abe reforms, Mr. Maehara’s DPJ used as an election weapon the excessive representation given to rural areas in the Diet by promising to repeal those measures and provide subsidies to individual farming households instead.

What will he propose next—subsidies for every exporting manufacturer in the country to facilitate the import of competing overseas products?

“He pointed out that the direct payment system in the 27-nation regional bloc has “succeeded in achieving two goals at once: bringing benefits to the consumer by reducing high tariffs and making producers more competitive.””

Ben Franklin should have added a third certainty in life to go with death and taxes—a perpetual stream of drivel from politicos. Farm subsidies make farmers less competitive, not more. That system allows farmers to stay in business, but at the cost of reducing the purchasing power of every non-farming taxpayer, which is most of us. Imported agricultural products may be cheaper, but lavishing public funds on farmers means the city consumers will be able to buy fewer of them. As we’ve seen before, the companies in Japan who would operate agribusinesses believe they can be competitive internationally.

“Maehara said Japan needs to study accepting more foreign nurses and caregivers under free trade agreements.

More than a thousand Indonesian and Filipino nurses and caregivers have come to Japan since 2008 under bilateral FTAs, but only a few of them have passed the Japanese national qualification examinations to continue working beyond the initially set length of stay.”

Mr. Maehara seems to think Japan needs healthcare personnel incapable of effective communication with either physicians or the patients in their care, in places where the patients’ lives or quality of life are at stake.

As for a nursing shortage, that isn’t a problem in “Japan”, but rather in a few big cities in Japan. That’s the claim of my family physician, who should know. He’s the chairman of the prefectural medical association this year.

If Mr. Maehara is so concerned about a nursing shortage in the cities and so anxious to use public funds to fix it, he might take a hint from the ROTC program in the United States. The American government foots the bill for the university education of qualified high school students if they spend four years as a military officer after graduation.

Other than a lack of common sense, what’s to prevent the Japanese government from offering free rides to Japanese high school graduates for nursing school on the condition that they work for a certain number of years in medical institutions after finishing school? Everybody wins, and no one has to worry about the language barrier causing a medical accident.

The worst part of the news story is the implication that Mr. Maehara is presenting himself as a future prime minister. That won’t be news to the Japanese: He’s a failed former president of the DPJ, and the failed former Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito is thought to be grooming him for the job to succeed the failed Prime Minister Kan Naoto. If the party continues to mimic the worst aspects of the old LDP without its redeeming qualities and has Mr. Maehara replace Mr. Kan without an election, it would represent another failure of the DPJ to bring about the change in the conduct of politics they promised.

It also isn’t news that a political party which is doing its damndest to turn itself into a fictional entity would install another lightweight in the Kantei doomed to failure as prime minister.

More bad news: Japan’s lower house passed the FY 2011 budget this morning, albeit with a few defections from the ruling party. That makes two years in power, two record-high budgets for the DPJ.

What happened to all those journos who kept telling us that Mr. Kan was a “fiscal hawk”?

Speaking of Mr. Kan, it will be no news to people who pay attention that he loosed on the public yet another absurdity that calls into question his daytime sobriety. This time he said he’d always doubted the feasibility of what passes for his party’s signature accomplishment—the removal of tax deductions for families with children from 0-15 and their replacement with direct cash subsidies from the government.

After all, a month or so ago he claimed that the adoption of the same policy was “epochal”. A year or so ago, Mr. Fiscal Hawk argued in the Diet as Finance Minister for the inclusion of that budget buster—JPY 5.5 trillion this year alone–in what was then Japan’s highest-ever budget. It was obvious to everyone they couldn’t find the money to pay for it when they stole the idea from New Komeito, and that finally seems to have dawned on even them. DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya on the 28th said the allowance, which expires at the end of the current fiscal year, wasn’t permanent, and that the party might give it up altogether.

Now that’s good news.

Finally, here’s the best news of all: I’ve gotten a handle on a post that I’ve been working on for two weeks. Look for it soon!

This might be good news for beginning and intermediate students of Japanese. I received a note asking that I bring to your attention a website presenting Japanese-language study aids, as well as other observations. Here it is.

There’s no better way to celebrate the circulation of all this good news than by putting the party in the hands of Chico Trujillo, Mr. Popular Music of Chile. Who knew that horn band cumbia and surf guitar would go together as well as green tea and ice cream? Chico knew!

And just wait until you see the man dance!

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Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, Foreigners in Japan, Government, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Mass media, Politics, Religion | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 31, 2011

“There is no time to wait for the wobbly and unsteady Democratic Party to acquire the ability to be responsible for government through on-the-job training and for a two-party system to mature…At this rate, there will never be any reason whatsoever for entrusting the government to the Democratic Party.”
– Yosano Kaoru
, Minshuto ga Nihon Keizai wo Hakai Suru (The Democratic Party Will Destroy the Japanese Economy), published in 2010

The treasury says the national debt
Is climbing to the sky
And government expenditures
Have never been so high
It makes a fellow get a
Gleam of pride within his eye
To see how our economy expands
The country’s in the very best of hands
– Johnny Mercer, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands”

THE WORD politicians themselves are using to describe the government of Prime Minister Kan Naoto is “absurd”. Nishioka Takeo, the president of the Diet’s upper house, called on Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito to resign earlier this month. After taking one look at the lineup of the new Cabinet in which Mr. Sengoku was replaced, Mr. Nishioka called it “absurd”.

The presidents of both houses of the Diet traditionally resign their party memberships before assuming office. Mr. Nishioka was a member of the Democratic Party of Japan—Mr. Kan’s ruling party.

Another reshuffled Cabinet card was Kaieda Banri, who moved from the Ministry of Economic and Fiscal Policy to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. His former slot in the deck is now occupied by Yosano Kaoru, who resigned from the opposition Sunrise Party to take the position. Quitting parties is getting to be a habit for Mr. Yosano. Before last year’s upper house election, he resigned from the Liberal-Democratic Party to form the Sunrise Party. Mr. Yosano owes his Diet seat to the LDP because they placed him on their proportional representation list. He lost his bid for reelection to the seat in Tokyo’s District #1 in 2009. The winner was Kaieda Banri.

That’s the same Yosano Kaoru quoted at the top of this post.

When reporters asked Mr. Kaieda about this thoughts on the new Cabinet lineup, he answered, “Life is absurd.”

There was little enthusiasm for the changes even in the ruling party. Said a DPJ member of the Saitama prefectural assembly after the new ministers were announced: “Even today I was asked at the train station, ‘Just what is the DPJ doing?’”

Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party—yes, they’re still in the ruling coalition—addressed a DPJ party conference on the day before the Cabinet changes were announced, and put it in their faces:

“The DPJ is now a disgrace. I am sincerely anxious for you to rouse yourselves.”

One of Mr. Kan’s three themes for his administration is “ending the absurdities”, which tells you all you need to know about his political tin ear. He’s given no sign of either stepping down or calling an election any time soon, however.

Mr. Kan’s Cabinet reshuffle may be absurd, but it was that or vacate the premises. One of the several reasons the upper house censured Mr. Sengoku was his attitude and intemperate language during Question Time in the Diet. (That’s why Mr. Nishioka wanted to see him gone.) Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party described it as “impertinence, intimidation, and evasion,” to which he later added “bluster and prevarication”.

How can the nation be in the very best of hands when they've got them on their hips? (Sankei Shimbun photo)

The upper house also censured the generally well-liked Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Minister Mabuchi Sumio because his ministry is responsible for the Coast Guard, and he had to take the fall for the YouTube release of the Coast Guard video of the Chinese banditry in the Senkaku islets. While the censures are not legally binding, the opposition refused to discuss legislation with the ruling party with those two men still in the Cabinet, and the opposition has more seats in the upper house.

Another reason for the realignment was that the prime minister is desperate to juice his flagging popularity among the electorate. (He is said to be particularly unpopular among women.) An indication of his standing with the public was the ratings for his live appearance on the television program Hodo Station (News Station) on 5 January. The program usually pulls in an audience of 13% to 14%, and averaged 14.7% for the four weeks prior to his appearance. Those ratings often rise slightly when a sitting prime minister shows up. Then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo picked up a 16.7% share.

Mr. Kan could manage only 6.9%.

But it’s not his fault! Said the PM at the DPJ party conference earlier this month:

“What we have done so far was not wrong. We have carrried out our job with resolution, but the problem is that we’ve failed to fully convey what we’ve done.”

If you think that sounds as if he’s channeling Barack Obama, here’s more: To remedy the situation, he’s considering a televised address to the nation, after the style of American presidents.

It had better be a good speech. The latest Shinhodo 2001 poll has his rate of support at 28.8%, with 67.0%–a cool two-thirds—opposed. Just a skoche under half of the respondents want a lower house election now, at 49.6%, while 41.8% were content to let it ride.

Here’s why the DPJ falls into the second camp. The 16 January edition of the weekly Sunday Mainichi features a simulation by two university professors of a lower house election. The magazine admits it’s a speculative endeavor because candidates for several constituencies have yet to be decided by some parties. That caveat notwithstanding, they project the DPJ to lose 124 seats from their current total of 306 to fall to 182. They think some of the DPJ party stalwarts could be at risk, including Hatoyama Yukio and Sengoku Yoshito, and that most of the Ozawa-backed candidates who won for the first time in 2009 should think about other employment. The LDP would regain its position as the party with the most seats at 212, a pickup of 96, but that’s still short of the 241 needed for a majority. The magazine suggests they would have to create a coalition with both New Komeito and Your Party (+25) to form a government.

Former Yokohama Mayor Nakada Hiroshi observed that Cabinet reshuffles to boost electile dysfunction are a perverse part of Japanese political culture. He’s also concerned that the use of the censure weapon in an upper house controlled by an opposition party could get out of hand and turn the Diet into a political battleground. Mr. Nakata has a point, but in this case the DPJ were hoist by their own petard. They were the ones who created the weapon after their 2007 upper house election victory.

Now the DPJ wants to introduce Diet rules that would prevent upper house censure motions from causing Cabinet members to lose their position. Fancy that.

The new lineup

A common observation is that the DPJ, which proclaimed itself the standard bearer for new politics, has become a throwback to the bad old days of the LDP with a leftward tilt. Five of the 17 Cabinet ministers are affiliated with Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation.

One criticism of the old LDP was its faction politics. During its heyday, five major factions functioned as parties within the party. The DPJ criticized that approach, but in 2008, Keio Professor Kusano Atsushi argued in Seiken Kotai no Hosoku (The Law of the Change of Government) that the formation of factions was inevitable in the DPJ.

The new Cabinet suggests he was prescient. Six “groups” in the DPJ have two members each. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama’s group has only one. No one affiliated with former party President and Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro was appointed. All the members have won at least five terms in the lower house, similar to an older informal rule of thumb used by the LDP.

The absence of Ozawa allies suggests there might be something to the rumors that Mr. Kan and Mr. Sengoku are ready to purge him. The Asahi Shimbun gossips that they’ll dump him if a citizen review panel forces his indictment. UPDATE: Mr. Ozawa was indicted. (The appointment of only one Hatoyama affiliate—the man who launched and bankrolled the party, and its first prime minister—might also be a sign they’re ready to have Mr. Hatoyama leave along with him.)

The game

They say you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, but in this case, a scorecard won’t make much sense without knowing the game they’re playing.

People often cite the system of 1955, when two conservative parties merged to create the LDP and dominated politics for the rest of the century, as Japan’s primary political problem. Others, however, such as Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party and Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP, point to the statist system implemented in 1940 as explicated by Prof. Noguchi Yukio. That system instituted a total mobilization for the war effort and concentrated power in the central government under bureaucratic control. In that system, it makes no difference who the prime minister is. (Prof. Noguchi also thinks that the consumption tax would have to be raised to at least 20%–European VAT levels—to pay for social welfare programs.)

The Kan worldview

On 25 December last year, Kan Naoto met at the Kantei for three hours with a group of long-time friends who included Shinohara Hajime, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and Kataoka Masaru of the old Shakai Shimin Rengo (Socialist Citizens Federation). It is thought they gave the prime minister a pep talk, urging him to stay the course to achieve a citizen revolution. They might have suggested Mr. Kan remember his lifelong political motto of “Deal with one problem and then move forward on all fronts.”

We already know the prime minister is a devotee of the ideas of Matsushita Keiichi, who looks forward to the dissolution of the nation-state and its replacement by supranational institutions above and local institutions below. Another aspect of the Kan philosophy is found in Prof. Shinohara’s book Shimin no Seijigaku (The Citizens’ Political Science), which holds that modern legislative democracy is unresponsive. Instead, Prof. Shinohara thinks policy should be determined by a random and compulsory (yes, compulsory) sampling of public opinion, followed by a time-limited debate in so-called “planning cells”. This would include even central government policies for science and technology.

That vision was shared to a certain extent by Hatoyama Yukio, who in his first Diet speech in October 2009 called for the creation of new values in a society that would enable greater participation by regional NPOs and citizens in issues involving public services. The DPJ favors greater support of NPOs with public funds.

Americans are familiar with the potential abuses of taxpayer-funded support of NPOs, as exemplified by the activities of the nefarious ACORN in the United States, which was forced to disband. Other Japanese point out that the Shinohara model resembles the Russian system of soviets (soviet being the word for “council”), originally worker and soldier councils thought to be a grassroots effort to promote direct democracy.

During the DPJ Party Conference held earlier this month, the delegates expressed the opinion that they had to return to their roots and differentiate themselves from “neo-liberals”.

Player transactions

Sengoku Yoshito traded for Edano Yukio

The widespread assumption that Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito was the real power in the government prompted Kan Naoto to grumble to associates that he, and not Mr. Sengoku, was the prime minister. It was also widely assumed Mr. Sengoku took on so much responsibility for the operation of government because Mr. Kan was a constant threat to walk smack into the proverbial lamppost on the street.

As we’ve seen, however, the problem with this arrangement was that Mr. Sengoku’s behavior in office was so repellent people were fed up with him in just a few weeks.

He was traded straight up for Edano Yukio, the party’s acting secretary general, another former labor lawyer with ties to radicals. Mr. Sengoku will take Mr. Edano’s old job, and will also serve as the head of a party committee dealing with pension reform and whatever euphemism they’re using for raising taxes.

People thought Sengoku Yoshito was Kan Naoto’s puppeteer, and they think he operates the strings for Mr. Edano too. As far as it is possible to speculate about such matters, the most common view is that Mr. Sengoku is trying to take control of the party. He seems to be waiting for his chance to cut Ozawa Ichiro adrift, and the latest rumors have him trying to elbow aside the real party secretary-general, Okada Katsuya.

Here’s one DPJ MP on the selection of Mr. Edano as chief cabinet secretary:

“He was the secretary-general when we lost the upper house election last year. Should we forget his responsibility for that in just six months? I don’t understand it…none of the people have any expectations for this Cabinet.”

That was former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, speaking of his own party while on a visit to India.

Okazaki Tomiko released outright

Okazaki Tomiko is another rodent who fled the sinking ship of the Socialist Party and scampered up the gangway to the Democratic Party vessel. She is opposed to Japan’s national flag and anthem. In July 2001, her political group illegally received funds from foreigners, including the director of the North Korean-affiliated schools in the country—a North Korean citizen–and a South Korean citizen who operates a pachinko parlor. The most controversial aspect of her career, however, was this:

That’s Ms. Okazaki participating in one of the weekly Wednesday comfort women demos at the Japanese embassy in Seoul in March 2005. She called for a Japanese embassy car to take her there.

They didn’t find some token make-work position for her in the Cabinet, either. She was named the chair of the National Public Safety Commission, which administers the National Police Agency. In other words, she was the head of the government agency in charge of maintaining public safety.

Politicians have the same right to free speech as anyone else, but they’re expected to exercise it with common sense and an awareness of their position. When a member of the Japanese Diet participates in a demonstration with Xs over the Japanese flag, it suggests an absence of common sense and self-awareness. Consider also what it suggests about Kan Naoto, who appointed her knowing about her background.

Ms. Okazaki’s immediate problem was that despite the ease with which she showed up for an anti-Japanese demonstration in Seoul, she couldn’t manage to drag herself to her office in Tokyo after North Korea shelled the South in November. Also, documents related to international terror investigations put together by the NPA somehow wound up on the Internet, and she made no effort to find a way to prevent the problem from recurring in the future.

She lasted just four and a half months in office.

Signed Yosano Kaoru to a free agent contract

Yosano Kaoru is the bad penny of Japanese Cabinet members. He’s now been a part of every Cabinet since Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s last one, with the exception of Hatoyama Yukio’s brief spell. He so often shows up when a Cabinet is on its deathbed that he became known as “the gravedigger” in the LDP.

He holds three portfolios in the Kan Cabinet: Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Social Affairs and Gender Equality (which includes responsibility for the population decline), and Comprehensive Reform of Social Security and Taxes.

“Comprehensive reform of taxes” means promoting the Ministry of Finance position of raising taxes instead of cutting spending to fix the country’s budgetary problems. He’s long been known as the MOF bat boy. Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji was an aide to former Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro when Mr. Yosano was the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. Mr. Eda says he pushed the Finance Ministry line within the government more than even some ministry employees. Hashimoto wanted to reform the ministry by dividing up their responsibility for fiscal and financial service oversight, but the ministry was opposed. Mr. Yosano argued their case most strenuously. (A new agency for overseeing the banking, securities exchange, and insurance industries was created in 2000 after Hashimoto left office.)

Says Mr. Eda: “His entry into the Cabinet is the decisive factor in making this a Finance Ministry government.” That means, he explains, a tax increase government directed behind the scenes by the Finance Ministry.

He wasn’t alone in that opinion. Fukushima Mizuho, head of the Social Democrats, said much the same thing using many of the same words.

Takahashi Yoichi, a former official in both the Koizumi and Abe administrations, provides additional evidence in Gendai Business Online. When Takenaka Heizo shifted positions from Mr. Koizumi’s Financial Services Minister to Internal Affairs Minister to push the privatization of Japan Post, Mr. Yosano took his place. He argued within the Cabinet for rolling back government policy investment reforms, another Finance Ministry position.

Mr. Takahashi says he often debated with Mr. Yosano when the latter backed ministry efforts to debone reforms:

“Yosano is said to be an expert on policy, but he offered no policy-based arguments against my explanations. He only mentioned the names of people responsible for specific policies in the Finance Ministry and said we should do as they say. His statements were rather unlike that of a minister in charge of financial services.”

Mr. Yosano has also claimed there is no hidden surplus of funds in the Finance Ministry, but that nothing has manifested into something every year at yearend since 2006, and that something now totals JPY 40 trillion in the aggregate.

Here’s the delicious part: This politician who advocates a sharp rise in taxes to pay for social welfare spending, has no plans to cut spending or modify social welfare programs to make them more inexpensive, and fights governmental reform is referred to as a “fiscal hawk” in the Western media.

Absurdity squared

Mr. Kan’s selection of Mr. Yosano in the Cabinet is just the sort of move a dullwit would think is clever. The prime minister may even have thought the selection of a former enemy would been seen as a coup. The Asahi said Mr. Kan believed it would be the key to breaking the political deadlock. Three strikes and you’re out.

The prime minister had remarkably kind words for his former foe:

“I recognize that he is a politician with whom we have a great deal in common when it comes to the issues of the soundness of national finances and social welfare.”

But when Yosano Kaoru left the Liberal Democratic Party to form the Sunrise Party with Hiranuma Takeo, a high school classmate more than half a century ago, he told Reuters:

“We are fighting against the DPJ outside of the LDP. We intend to act as a brake. None of us is thinking about becoming the ruling party.”

In an April 2010 interview with the Asahi Shimbun, he said:

“This slovenly DPJ government must not be allowed to continue.”


“I have doubts about the DPJ policies overall, their political methods, and their use of the bureaucracy. It is unusual among the world’s democracies for a party to lack such clarity in the decision making process as the DPJ.”

During the same interview, he defined political leadership:

“Chart a general course and take responsibility for it. Take responsibility for your statements. That’s political leadership.”

Speaking to the Nikkei Shimbun about government pensions in 2005, he said:

“The DPJ follows the Swedish model. They’re trying to pull us toward a society in which the people are liable for 75%. It is clear they will rely on taxes, which will result in a large tax increase.”

In 2009, he called the DPJ party manifesto “almost fancy,” said it resembled “works of illusionist paintings”, and was “something like artificial bait for the election.” He also said the DPJ’s pet policy of child allowance payments “would not be fully achieved unless the consumption tax rate was raised to 25 percent or higher.”

He maintained that attitude through the 14th of this month, when he said at a press conference:

“The certainty of the effect of the (child allowance) policy was not fully explained when it was introduced…my spirit of criticism remains.”

He changed his mind in the intervening five days. On the 19th in an interview with Fuji TV, he said:

“I have little sense that it is unnatural”

Fujii Hirohisa named bench coach

The Hatoyama Cabinet’s first Finance Minister, Fujii Hirohisa (78) was brought back as the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. He is the former head of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, and his appointment is an unmistakable signal to both the ministry and those hoping to reform Japanese government by curbing its influence.

He left the Hatoyama administration after little more than three months for “health reasons.” Those weren’t specified, but it might have been a sore back from being pushed out the door by former friend and ally Ozawa Ichiro. There were also rumors he had to carry a stash of liquor in his official vehicle to help him make it through the day. Perhaps Mr. Kan finds him a kindred spirit.

Other transactions

Sengoku Yoshito assumed the Justice Ministry portfolio when the former minister Chiba Keiko finally resigned after losing her upper house Diet seat last July. He was replaced by Eda Satsuki, who years ago started out in the same party as Kan Naoto: the Socialist Democratic Federation. He is known to be an opponent of the death penalty in a country whose electorate consistently polls from 60% to 70% in favor of capital punishment.

It was rumored that party poster girl Ren Ho was thinking of jumping the Kan Cabinet mudboat and running for governor of the Tokyo Metro District, but she chose to stay on board. Her puny 8.8% support rating among Tokyoites from among a hypothetical slate of candidates in a Shinhodo 2001 poll might have been one of the reasons.

Also staying put is Agriculture Minister Kano Michihiko. This is Mr. Kano’s second time in that post (the first was in 1989 during the GATT Uruguay round discussions). He is viewed as an ally of the Agriculture Ministry bureaucracy. As such, he is opposed to the prime minister’s proposal to join the TPP. Many thought he would be replaced for that reason, but now he most surely will join with ministry bureaucrats and the national agricultural co-ops to try to block entry into the TPP.

If you’ve gotten the idea by now that Kan Naoto has no idea what he’s doing, I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise.

Absurdity cubed

Political commentator Yayama Taro was a long-time LDP supporter who backed the DPJ in the 2009 election because he saw them as the only way at the time to push forward with reform of the bureaucracy and government. His views have changed again:

“Prime Minister Abe of the LDP was the one who began to attack this disease, and Watanabe Yoshimi took up the baton as Reform Minister. They were unable to separate the adhesion between the politicians and the bureaucrats that has lasted 60 years. The DPJ won a massive victory in the 2009 election using the slogan, “Disassociation from the bureaucracy”.

“The resolution of this problem required the establishment of a National Strategy Bureau, a governmental reform council, and putting fiscal policy under the direction of the politicians. While implementing reform, they would establish a cabinet personnel bureau to evaluate civil service personnel.

“It should have been the work of the Hatoyama administration to pass the required legislation, but Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa said a National Strategy Bureau wasn’t necessary and an office would do. Deputy Prime Minister Kan headed the office. He later became Finance Minister and was completely brainwashed by the ministry. He has not been interested in disassociating from the bureaucracy since becoming prime minister.

“Yosano is the politician the Finance Ministry bureaucrats have relied on the most. Based on his ideas and what he’s said, some have even referred to him as a Finance Ministry plant. Now he’s the Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister and Fujii is the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. There are no laws securing the political disassociation from the bureaucracy. These personnel choices are simply to enable tax and social welfare policies in accordance with Finance Ministry specifications. The specifications for both policies were proposed by Yosano during the Aso administration. If the DPJ thought those policies were acceptable, they should have been adopted a long time ago.”

One economic news website quoted a politician whom the identified only as a former member of an LDP government:

“I have no idea what that person (Kan) wants to do. Even when he talks about the Heisei Opening of Japan, it has no backbone, and I can only view it as playing with words. The Cabinet reshuffle was just a switch from Mr. Sengoku to the Sengoku henchman Mr. Edano. The entry of the “lost bird” Mr. Yosano in the Cabinet has brought criticism rather than acclaim. A key will be how they change their methods of conducting the Diet. During the extraordinary session last fall, they adopted the fewest amount of bills as a percentage of proposed legislation in history.”

Coalition partner Kamei Shizuka was asked at a news conference on the 19th what he thought about the Cabinet and the prime minster’s policies about taxes, social welfare, and TPP. He answered:

“To present policies that you cannot achieve is not politics.”

As we’ve seen, one of those policies he might not achieve is participation in TPP. A total of 110 DPJ MPs affiliated with Ozawa Ichiro has formed a group to oppose Japanese participation, even though Mr. Ozawa has said he supports a free trade agreement.

Does even Mr. Kan know what he’s going to do? He just got back from giving a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he said that Japan will make a decision on its participation in TPP by June.

Before they worry about opposition either from inside or outside the party, the Cabinet still has to get on the same page. Kan Naoto says the issues of pension reform and the consumption tax are separate, but Yosano Kaoru says they must be considered together. Mr. Yosano’s stance on social insurance differs from the tax-based approach of the DPJ manifesto. The DPJ still does not have a common policy for a system for health care for the late stage elderly, despite their opposition to the system that came into effect during the Fukuda administration.

At a news conference on the 24th, Fujii Hirohisa was asked about Mr. Yosano’s statement that the age of eligibility for pension payments should be raised to 70:

“That’s his personal opinion. That question hasn’t been raised in a formal discussion.”

Absurdity in the fourth dimension

Mr. Kan is a recent convert to tax increases, at least in public. Speaking as the Finance Minister in the Diet on 21 January 2010, he said:

“First, there is the debate over the consumption tax, but as both the prime minister (Hatoyama) and I have said repeatedly, the current coalition government will not raise the consumption tax for four years….I think the primary reason the tax hasn’t been raised is the lack of trust by the people. They believe if they allow a government spending so wastefully is allowed to increase taxes, they will use the money wastefully.”

He also gave an opinion on when the discussion of a tax increase should begin:

“When we have so completely eliminated government waste that we could stand on our heads and not get a nosebleed…If we were to raise taxes at the present stage, when waste has not been sufficiently eliminated, we’d just repeat the same mistakes.”

Since he made that statement, there has been no sale of government assets, no effort to uncover the special accounts and hidden reserves in the bureaucracy, no effort to reduce personnel expenditures (they’ve put it off until 2013 at the earliest), only the most half-hearted of efforts to reduce government programs, a record-high budget with a record-high deficit, and a new proposal for an even higher budget.

The scorecard

The Cabinet reshuffle had no effect on market trading. Said Segawa Tsuyoshi, an equity strategist at Mizuho Securities:

“That it has absolutely no impact on stock prices demonstrates the relationship between politics and the market.”

In other words, the markets expect nothing from this bunch.

Kamei Shizuka visited the office of the Chief Cabinet Secretary as the official representative of the DPJ’s coalition partner to ask for an explanation of the prime minister’s Diet speech. He was angered when he discovered that Mr. Edano was not there, and the deputy secretary Fukuyama Tetsuro agreed that he should have been. Said Mr. Kamei:

“Don’t hold it against us if we leave the coalition.”

Mr. Edano belatedly showed up to provide an explanation, but Mr. Kamei was not mollified:

“They are incapable of consideration for other parties in their coalition. Politically, they have no idea what to do.”

One Western commentator observed that the DPJ is finding out that governing is different than campaigning. The real problem, however, is that they still haven’t found out, and the people in charge likely never will.

They’re certainly unlikely to find out in time for the 1,402 sub-national elections scheduled for April. DPJ-backed candidates have had their clock cleaned in several local elections after the government’s mishandling of the Senkakus incident with China, and their prospects are growing dimmer.

Yet at a party conference earlier this month, here’s what the prime minister had to say about DPJ support for those elections.:

“I’ve been in political parties that had no money for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve been in a party that can use all these funds for its activities. Shouldn’t I generously use the money that’s required (to compete)?

“All these funds” refers in part to the subsidies each political party receives out of public funds. The amounts vary based on their Diet representation. Those are the views of the man the foreign media hailed as a “fiscal hawk” when he assumed office last June on his fiduciary responsibility for taxpayer funds.

If Mr. Kan thought he would be showered in glory for the brilliant maneuver of including an opponent in his Cabinet, he was mistaken. An Asahi poll found 50% of voters opposed to Mr. Yosano’s selection.

On the 19th Oshima Tadamori of the LDP, the new minister’s party two parties ago, said Mr. Yosano had signed a pledge during the previous election in which he promised to resign from the Diet if he acted against the LDP. He’s now part of the DPJ caucus, but still in the Diet.

Said his old high school running buddy and co-president of the Sunrise Party, Hiranuma Takeo:

“It’s too bad that he’s leaving…When we formed the party, Mr. Yosano said that if we entrusted the government to the DPJ, Japan would be finished, so we had to bring it down. I wonder what’s going to happen with that.”

When Mr. Yosano gave his first speech as a member of the Cabinet in the Diet last week, he was heckled by members from both the LDP in the opposition and the DPJ in government. Would you dislike someone more if he was an enemy, or if he was a traitor?

After the speech, LDP MP Koizumi Shinjiro said:

“This is like a marriage proposal without a wedding ring. They won’t make any headway without sincerity and trust.”

And DPJ MP (and former Foreign Minister) Tanaka Makiko said:

“I do not sense any enthusiasm.”

Left unprotected

Sengoku Yoshito saw as one of his primary duties the prevention or amelioration of the inevitable Kan Naoto blunders. His departure from the Cabinet thus presented the country with the unlovely prospect of Mr. Kan fending for himself. The prime minister’s only political skill is the bullying of opponents—a skill no doubt honed by all those years of arguing politics in drinking establishments. His sense of the appropriate is also different from that of most people. (That is not photoshopped, by the way.)

It’s only been two weeks, and already we’re going to have to shift to a second hand to get enough fingers to keep up with the blunder tally.

His temper has earned him the nickname Ira-Kan, which translates nicely to the Irascible Kan. At a recent news conference he was asked whether he would call an election to have the people revalidate the party’s promise to cut waste before boosting the consumption tax. He glared, turned away from the questioner, and gave no answer at all.

He was also asked what he thought about the general perception the new Cabinet is a group put together to raise taxes. He answered:

“It’s unfair to be judgmental and change the subject of discussion.”

When the opposition suggested it would not participate in DPJ-led discussions about social welfare reform, he got judgmental himself.

“If the opposition parties do not actively participate in discussions about social welfare reform, it is no exaggeration to say that will be an act of treason against history.”

See what I mean about his only political skill?

That’s when he lost New Komeito. The DPJ has been hoping to tempt the opposition party into the coalition and thereby solve its problems in the Diet, but his statement seems to have ended any chance of that. Said party head Yamaguchi Natsuo:

“That’s a rather presumptious choice of words, isn’t it? The prime minister has a responsibility. What does he think he’s doing, challenging the opposition like that?”

The prime minister most recently stepped in it when he was asked about rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Japanese government bonds, partly because they thought the DPJ didn’t have a coherent strategy for dealing with national debt. Mr. Kan, a former Finance Minister, replied using the word utoi, a word seldom used by prime ministers. The word has several meanings depending on the context. One is that he hadn’t heard the news, and another is that he doesn’t really understand the subject very well because it doesn’t have much to do with him.

He was immediately called on his word choice by the opposition, the media, and his wife (during an event in Kyoto). Mr. Kan explained that he meant he hadn’t been given any information about the news at the time, which is a) probably untrue, but if true means b) his Cabinet is inept at gathering and managing information. The news had already been out for an hour.

Everyone else suspected the other nuance, in part because of the financial illiteracy he demonstrated when Finance Minister. He made a statement in the Diet that revealed he had no idea what the multiplier effect was. He also admitted to giving up on Paul Samuelson’s standard textbook Economics after the first 10 pages.

Mr. Kan was forced to explain at a news conference that his latest blunder didn’t mean he didn’t know government bond ratings from hot pastrami. Yosano Kaoru defended him, however:

“That is not a problem about which the prime minister should make a statement. It was proper for him to use the word utoi.”

In other words, interpretation #2. One wonders whom Mr. Yosano thinks should deal with the problem—the Finance Ministry bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki?

But that was not Mr. Kan’s position in May 2002 when the rating of Japanese government bonds was downgraded during the Koizumi administration. He publicly slammed the prime minister and finance minister and sarcastically asked whether they knew of the ramifications of the change. The Japanese media quickly dug up this old quote and dubbed it the “boomerang effect”.

No excuses for this absurdity

And how have the members of the English-language news media who cover Japan reported the Cabinet reorganization story? They played mimeograph machine for the government’s (or the Finance Ministry’s) briefings by filing articles under their own bylines that almost unanimously described Yosano Kaoru as a “fiscal hawk” and claimed the new Kan Cabinet was committed to “tax and pension reform”. And they think the Japanese media practices convoy journalism?

Rick Wallace in The Australian even went so far as to say this about Mr. Yosano:

“Perhaps the closest thing to a deficit hawk in a country where governments routinely live beyond their means…”

If Wallace is interested in seeing what a Japanese deficit hawk looks like, he might try some of the books by Nakagawa Hidenao, Eda Kenji, or Watanabe Yoshimi. If reading written Japanese is not his forté, he can always try this. I’d also suggest he look at the deficit totals in the annual budgets for the past 10 years to see who’s supported living beyond the country’s means and who hasn’t, but all that research might give him vertigo.

Lisa Twaronite, meanwhile, seems committed to getting it wrong, despite reading this post, which she commented on. She had this to say:

“Yosano, known as a fiscal conservative, has called for raising Japan’s 5% consumption tax to help chip away at Japan’s mountain of public debt.”

…thus bringing an entirely new dimension to the term, “conservative”. At least she briefly mentioned the reason Sengoku Yoshito was censured, which was more than Rick Wallace could do.

In an admirable display of corporate loyalty, the BBC took its correspondent’s word for what was happening:

“Our correspondent says the changes also bring to the fore ministers who support reform to tackle Japan’s massive public debt and the trade liberalisation sought by business leaders.

“The appointment of a veteran fiscal hawk, Kaoru Yosano, as economic and fiscal policy minister is being taken as a signal that Mr Kan is serious about reining in the costs of Japan’s rapidly ageing society.”

In contrast, the People’s Daily of China wrote last 24 December:

“The Cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Friday approved a draft budget which hit a record 92.40 trillion yen (1.11 trillion U.S. dollars) for fiscal year 2011.The figure is marginally higher than the initial budget for 2010, which stood at 92.30 trillion yen, as the government seeks to raise spending on key policies amid rising social welfare costs.The budget will include more than 44 trillion yen (530.11 billion U.S. dollars) from issuing new government bonds, a second straight year when bonds have exceeded tax revenue as a source of income. The swelling budget is believed to be contradictory to Kan’s pledge to cut spending to restore the nation’s fiscal health.”

When the People’s Daily reports on Japan are more accurate than those of the BBC, it’s time for some people to reevaluate their assumptions about contemporary journalism.

Assuming any of these people are not European-style social democrats and actually are interested in a functional definition of fiscal conservatism, they might consider this by columnist Robert Samuelson:

“If we ended deficits with tax increases, we would simply exchange one problem (high deficits) for another (high taxes). Either would weaken the economy, and sharply higher taxes would represent an undesirable transfer to retirees from younger taxpayers.”

They might also look into how other countries have accomplished spending reductions, as Dan Mitchell explains here.

What can you expect?

After reading those reports, it will come as no surprise that the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan is “facing difficulties”:

Georges Baumgartner, current president of the FCCJ and a veteran reporter for Swiss Radio and Television, expressed his frustration with the lack of news in Japan that would interest people elsewhere. “It’s quiet, like a little country like Switzerland,” said Baumgartner, who has been reporting from Japan since 1982. Japan is “blocked and paralyzed by the politicians and bureaucrats who don’t have the political will and courage to restructure the country to give a chance to young people. There is no new energy. . . . There are days that you can’t sell any story to your editors back home.”

Any journalist who thinks Japan is a quiet country with no news of interest is unqualified for his position on the face of it. True, they do have to please their editors back home, the ones responsible for turning their business into the smokestack industry of the information age. Then again, Baumgartner thinks the FCCJ is “a little island of freedom in Japan”, a presumptuous and arrogant bit of horsetootie that might explain why his organization has become irrelevant. (Let’s play journalistic poker. For every story someone can cite that the Japanese press has ignored, I can call and raise that bet with stories the New York Times et al. have ignored.)

If the FCCJ were populated by people nimble enough to hop off their bar stools and conduct serious research, they might have taken the approach on this story adopted by Takahashi Yoichi in Gendai Business Online:

“It is a restructure of a government facing its final days.”


“(Yosano) is called a fiscal hawk because he parrots the Finance Ministry line. The objective is a fiscal balance, and the means is a tax increase.”


“The new cabinet is a lineup of people whose arguments support continued deflation and tax increases. Prime Minister Kan says the economy will improve with a tax increase. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano says the economy will improve with a rise in interest rates. Fujii Hirohisa favors a higher yen and “fiscal restructuring”. If these people put their ideas in practice, the DPJ really will destroy the Japanese economy, as the title of Mr. Yosano’s book had it.”


* Mr. Yosano now says he thinks the consumption tax should be “more than 10%” by 2015. Watch for closer to 20%, assuming the same or similar people are still in charge.

* Another avenue the journos choose not to explore is Standard & Poor’s record of credit ratings. For example:

“Investors snapped up the $340.7 million CDO, a collection of securities backed by bonds, mortgages and other loans, within days of the Dec. 12, 2000, offering. The CDO buyers had assurances of its quality from the three leading credit rating companies –Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Group Inc. Each had blessed most of the CDO with the highest rating, AAA or Aaa. Investment-grade ratings on 95 percent of the securities in the CDO gave no hint of what was in the debt package — or that it might collapse. It was loaded with risky debt, from junk bonds to subprime home loans. During the next six years, the CDO plummeted as defaults mounted in its underlying securities. By the end of 2006, losses totaled about $125 million.”

S&P downgraded Japanese government bonds, but they’re maintaining their top AAA rating on U.S. debt despite the huge American deficit and phalanx of foreign creditors.

The country’s in the very best of hands.

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Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (3)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 12, 2010

JAPAN MAY OR MAY NOT become the world’s next cultural hegemon, but the daily parade of cultural phenomena in this country is too immense and diverse to keep track of it all. It’s better just to let it wash all over you and enjoy whatever you can whenever it flows by.

Here’s a baker’s dozen of rivulets from the recent flood.


The Nio guardian statues stand guard as sentries at the entrance gate of temples. As the Buddhists have it, they are emanations of Vajrapani Bodhisattva that represent the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, birth and death. It takes two to guard the gate, one with mouth open, and the other with mouth closed.

But just like the rest of us, the alphas and the omegas need something to cover their bare feet. The solution in some places is supersized waraji, or straw sandals. That’s no exaggeration–Kataoka Tsuneo in Echizen, Fukui, recently made a pair more than two meters long. Or to be precise, they were 2.1 meters long, 85 centimeters wide, and 14 centimeters thick. At 6 feet 10 inches, they’re longer than most people are tall. They also weighed between 40 to 50 kilograms each.

To be even more precise, Mr. Kataoka didn’t make them by himself. “It’s an impossible job for one person when they’re this size,” he admitted, so he called on two apprentice cobblers to help. It took the trio a week to put the sandals together.

This isn’t the sort of thing that people regularly do, even in Japan. Said Mr. Kataoka, “It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve made any sandals that big.” He made a one-meter pair for some smaller Nio last year, but said, “Orders for something like this don’t come around all that often. Even if I wanted to make some, it’s hard to find the time.”

He gave them to a temple in Yamagata this month after he applied the finishing touches.


Every alpha has its omega, and even the strongest of straw sandals wear out eventually after standing sentry duty at the temple gates for so long. But when those waraji are no longer usable, they can’t just be tossed out in the trash. Many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, and that goes double for objects that require specialized skills to make and were used at a religious institution. They’ve been invested with a lot of ki, after all. Disposing of them requires a special ceremony.

The most famous giant straw sandals in the country are the pair used at Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. That’s the oldest temple in Japan, and you can read about its origins here.

The practice of hanging waraji at Senso-ji started in 1941 when lower house MP Matsuoka Toshizo donated the first pair as a symbol of national defense. They’ve been replaced once every decade since then. The sixth pair was 4.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide, and weighed one ton each. They were donated in 1998 and hung on the Hozomon (gate). This particular pair was made by a resident of Murayama, Yamagata—Matsuoka Toshizo’s hometown—and they’ve been on display in that city since being returned in 2008.

But all good things must come to an end, so they were dispatched in a rite called the Otakiage. After an initial Shinto ceremony, about 50 Murayamanians took them apart by removing the wires holding the straw in place. A fire was then lighted to burn the straw, during which a Buddhist mass was conducted. And since it would have been a shame to waste that nice bonfire, the 200 or so people who showed up to watch were given mochi rice cakes, which they stuck on the end of bamboo sticks and roasted.

If that ain’t the alpha and the omega, I don’t know what is.

Since many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, no one was surprised when the chairman of the event said:


I’ll be darned if I can come up with a satisfying English translation that does justice to the original and is still comfortably readable. Let’s try this:

“The sandals didn’t lose their shape and did us the favor of making every effort to hang together until now, so we want to thank them for their service.”

Regardless of how it sounds in English, that sounds perfectly natural in Japanese.

The world’s largest lawnmower?

Streetcars still run in some Japanese cities, including Nagasaki City and Kagoshima City. Several years ago, Kagoshima City planted turf in between the tracks to ameliorate the heat island effect and add some greenery to the city at the same time.

But as anyone who has a lawn knows, that grass grows and it has to be cut. Hiring students part-time and sending them out with a fleet of lawnmowers wouldn’t cut it on the streetcar line.

So the Kagoshima City Transportation Department and the Osaka Sharyo Co. recently began trials of what they think is the world’s first grass cutting train, with the objective of putting it into regular service at the end of the month. The train also is able to water the grass, if only to make sure they have something to cut. Either that or it’s a make-work project for the railroad workers union.

The first trial was run on a stretch of track on which the grass wasn’t high enough to cut—it doesn’t grow so fast in winter down south in Kagoshima. They just wanted to test the all the equipment to see if it functioned.

Function it did, so the next day they switched to a track where the grass had grown. Everything worked quite well, though there was one drawback. The train moved at a speed slower than a human walks, and that caused a lot of strain on the driver. Maybe they’re not unionized after all.

One thing the reports didn’t mention—what are they going to do with all those grass clippings? I can’t imagine the Japanese just leaving them there on the street.

The crop’s not for eating

They were also cutting some plants down to size out in the country last month.

Backyard drama!

Last month some more plants were cut down to size. Instead of cropping grass, the farmers in Ogimi-son, Okinawa, were harvesting their crop of futoi, or what the dictionaries say is called zebra rush in English.

Whether in Japan or the Anglosphere, however, the use of the plant is the same—it’s for decoration. Urges one English-language website, “Add authenticity to your backyard wetland habitat by planting zebra rush.”

Backyard gardeners are now recreating authentic swamps? I’ve been away for longer than I thought. But wait, it gets better:

“The distinct alternating green and white stripes of the Zebra Rush instantly add pattern, density, and vertical drama to your backyard paradise.”

I’ll stick with the humdrum azalea bushes and dogwood trees.

The plant grows three feet tall, or as the website would have it, “narrow spiked stems tower 3 feet tall”, but that’s too big for its Japanese use. Here it’s employed as a prop in flower arrangements, where it presumably lends drama to the art of ikebana. Do the farmers in the Kijoka district of Ogimi-son, the national leader in futoi production, consider it so dramatic? They probably don’t care as long as they can make a buck at it.

By all accounts, the winter crop in Kijoka was a bumper harvest because of the warmer weather in that part of the country this year. The farmers rushed their zebra rush to the closest JA cooperative, which by now must be blase to all that drama. They collected it, bunched it, and sent it to auction markets throughout the country.

White lightning

After all that work, it’s about time to knock back a drink, don’t you think? As they say in the U.S., it’s bound to be 5 o’clock somewhere in the world, and whaddaya know, a quick look at my watch shows it’s just now chiming five in Zanzibar.

It’s not out of the question that the mochi roasters in Yamagata, the grass-cutting train operators in Kagoshima, or the futoi farmers in Okinawa chose to relax with some doburoku, the Japanese version of homebrew for the mass market. Doburoku is a milky white, sweet type of sake that hasn’t been fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.

Not just anyone can make the hooch, however—the 131 breweries producing it need a special license and they have to be located in one of 91 designated districts around the country. But unless one has a special taste for it, most people think of it as that funky stuff over there on the next shelf that they might buy once every few years for a change of pace or out of nostalgia.

The members of the Sakebunka Institute in Tokyo had a big idea, however. They decided to hold the Tokyo Doburoku Festival 2010 in January, which they claim was the first event of its kind. One of the institute’s stated objectives for the festival was to spread the sake culture. Since Sakebunka means “sake culture”, they’re just doing what they were organized to do. And since this is a cultural kaleidoscope, we’ll pitch in and do our part.

The institude asked all the producers in the country to submit entries, and they received 75. The liquor went through two rounds of judging. For the first round, the institute formed five groups of 30 people each, who swilled 15 different types. They voted, some sober assistants tallied up the totals, and those in first and second place moved on to the finals.

The judges in the second round consisted of five specialists—including sommeliers—and five regular folks. Seven of the beverages were awarded grand prizes, with one chosen as the primo stuff and two others chosen as pretty dang good. The brewers in Iide-machi, Yamagata, were excited that their Iide Nakatsugawa doburoku, shown here, was chosen as one of the seven grand prize winners. It didn’t finish in the top three, but its aroma and flavor lifted it up into the upper 10% of all the entrants. Others favored its slight sweetness, fruitiness, and good balance.

The Iidenians had good reason to be thrilled–the district was designated as a doburoku producer in March 2004, which means they’re still relatively wet behind the ears. This particular brand is known for using 100% sake rice and a lot of rice malt.

Cultural mavens and liquor lovers who read Japanese can see the results on the Sakebunka Institute page here. Those interested in reading about a more righteous doburoku festival at a Shinto shrine can do so here.

Drinking like a fish

You’ve heard of lushes who drink so much they get pickled? Well, in the same Iide-machi doburoku district, they use the booze to pickle the fish—specifically, the seem fish, or yamame in Japanese. The pickling project was conceived and launched last year by employees at the local Shirakawa-so ryokan. The idea was to create a new product using local fish, the local doburoku, and the local cold weather.

The fish are soaked for 15 hours in a special sauce made from the doburoku and tamarijoyu, a soy sauce made from refined soy. Then they’re dried for three days in the cold air. They process about 3,000 fish specifically for the guests at their ryokan. Those who’ve eaten the sake-soused fish say it has a unique and rich flavor. The pickling work ended in mid-February, so all that’s left is the eating.

It’s not every product that would receive attention from sommeliers and gastronomes at the same time, but the Iide Nakatsugawa seems to qualify.

The antidote is in the poison

There’s more you can do with sake than to get high or to get pickled. The Shurei sake merchants of Naha, Okinawa, have developed and are selling an awamori-based medicinal herb drink called Genkoku. They’ve acquired a patent for their manufacturing process after a wait of seven years.

Like doburoku, awamori has a different legal classification. That’s because it’s made only in Okinawa with a different kind of yeast, and some varieties still use rice from Thailand. Awamori is a form of shochu rather than Japanese sake, but of the many distillers in the Okinawan islands, only one produces what is legally called shochu. The rest make awamori.

Genkoku has nine ingredients, including local turmeric, eucalyptus, gardenia, and safflower. You can make up your own mind whether that’s a waste of good shochu or a waste of good medical herbs. The president of the distillery created the product by idly mixing herbs brought by a friend into his awamori. The result is an amber liquid with a mild taste that is said to be very drinkable. It’s now sold in specialty stores and some supermarkets with little or no advertising. They charge JPY 4,200 yen (about $US 46.50) for a 720 ml bottle, which is about 40 proof according to the U.S. definition. They sell about 7,000 bottles a year, 70% of it to people outside Okinawa. Fans of the beverage say it makes them feel better or sleep better.

The herbs must cover the first part. Most any hooch will take care of the second.

A southern fish burger

Now that we’ve had the aperitifs, it’s time for dinner, and the first selection on the menu is the Minami burger. That’s a culinary creation by the Minami-cho Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tokushima using local finfish and shellfish. They’ve already conducted a trial by selling 100 Minami burger meals with the main course made from fried ribbonfish, or tachiuo in Japanese. A Minami burger consists of fried fish, lettuce, cucumbers, and tartar sauce. That sounds pretty tasty, and you can’t beat the JPY 200 price ($US 2.21). The Tokushimanians came up with the idea because novel burger-type sandwiches are all the rage, and local fishermen catch a heap of ribbonfish.

They chose the tachiuo to start because it is caught nearly year-round, and ribbonfish fry is popular in local restaurants. It’s been so successful they’ve been mulling the creation of more new burgers upscale epicures using Ise ebi and turbin shells (sazae). If sales go well at the local Ise ebi festival, they’ll try to get shops in town to make them.

Burgers on the sly

If stealth food is more to your taste than ribbonfish, you might be tempted to try the Ninja Burger cooked up by students at Konan High School in Koka. Shiga. As part of their studies of dietary habits and health, the students were asked to create 11 new products for a food stall in a parking area of the Shin-Meishin Expressway, and that’s how the Ninja Burger snuck into the menu. The sales outlet chose that dish to sell because it can be served five minutes after ordering, it was more efficient to make, and it uses an old strain of local rice with ninja connotations.

The students replaced the bun with a fried combination of black rice, mochi rice, and white rice. That’s filled with chicken, cabbage, and lettuce, and this burger sounds tasty too, doesn’t it? The shop sells it as part of a set with a small salad and soup for JPY 500, but offer only 10 servings a day. Whether it was because of the ingredients, the scarcity, or the ninja cachet, the product took off. One diner interviewed said the aroma and the sweetness of the chicken were a good match.

Koka is the home area of ninjutsu, and the ninja were said to fancy the black mochi rice. Perhaps that’s because it contains anthocyanin, which improves the vision. Some of the other ideas the students came up with were a black rice parfait, in which the rice is powdered and mixed with ice, and takoyaki (octopus balls fried in batter) using local beef instead of octopus.

Make mine the ninja burger!

Zaasai’s the limit

Zaasai is what the Japanese call zha cai (搾菜, or pressed vegetable), a Chinese dish that is the pickled stem of a species of mustard plant, first made in Sichuan. The plant itself is related to mustard greens, which are eaten as funky food in the southern U.S.

The Chinese salt, press, and dry the stem, rub in red chili paste, and allow it to ferment in a process similar to that for kimchi. The result is spicy, sour, and salty, and is said to have an aroma similar to sauerkraut with chili paste.

The Japanese variety is not spicy and only slightly sour. It is most often cut into small pieces and eaten as a topping on rice. My wife and I often ate it until my wife decided not to buy any more food coming from China, and apparently she was not alone. Most of the zaasai consumed in Japan is grown in China, but sales have taken a hit in recent years. The demand is still strong, however.

That inspired a research group consisting of 34 farming volunteers in Takahata-machi, Yamagata, to start a three-year project to grow the plant themselves. Before the planting, they held discussions with farmers in Tsukuba, Ibaragi and Miura, Kanagawa, who also grow the crop. It turns out that cultivation is not much different from that for other green vegetables. It also can be grown in greenhouses. As you can see from the photo, they’ve already harvested some. In addition to the parts used to make zaasai, they’ve sold the unused parts of the plant to companies and Tokyo Chinese restaurants.

Good luck to them. I liked it myself, and if they can come up with a viable Japanese version, maybe my wife will start buying it again.

Pucker power

After feasting on doburoku, minami burgers, and ninja burgers, the next thing we’ll need is some mouthwash to freshen up the breath. Fortunately, there’s something new in those lines, too.

We’ve already had a post about the terrifically tart shiikwasa fruit, or hirami lemon, native to Okinawa, that is used to put capital letters on otherwise simple flavors and as a health drink. Now Tennen Kobo of Okinawa City, which develops and sells aromatherapy products, has found another use for the citrus fruit. It recently began sales of Clear Gift, a mouthwash made using shiikwasa extract. The juice works to harden the proteins and oils in the mouth, making them easier to remove and improving the breath. The product contains no surface activating agents, artificial fragrances or colors, or preservatives. The extract is combined with xylitol and four tea extracts.

Tennen Kobo is promoting its use for older people and children who don’t like mint and have trouble brushing their teeth. The company sells it through dental clinics and hopes to move 10,000 bottles the first year. If the idea appeals to you, it’s also sold on the net for JPY 3,700 yen for a 500 ml bottle. It took a year of work with the sales agency Ryubi Sangyo of Naha to come up with the product.

I can see how it would be effective. Shiikwasa are so tart any bacteria that wanted to survive would flee its presence.

New wine in old bottles

Eat, drink, and be merry, goes the saying, and right about now it’s high time for the merry part. With gagaku, though, you’ll have to find your merriment through quiet contemplation rather than cutting the rug.

One form of gagaku is an ancient music that originated on the continent which gradually took on a Japanese cast and became associated with the Imperial court. It’s still performed by musicians working with the Imperial Palace, which makes it the longest continuous stage art in the world. But there are also gagaku groups that play music written by contemporary composers in the classical style. The foremost of those groups is Reigakusha, which is shown here performing in Fukushima in January. The concert was held to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Music from Japan, an organization that performs contemporary versions of traditional Japanese music around the world. Shortly thereafter, they traveled to New York City and Washington D.C. to present the first performances of two new pieces. The group frequently appears in New York, and they are actually funded in part by the New York state government. Last month they performed at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, and no, I don’t want to know how a concert hall admitting the general public (or should I say pubic?) wound up with that name.

Here’s a minute-and-a-half taste:

Venus de Jomon

For the devotees of wine, women, and song, we’ve had everything in this post but the women. But the last shall come first, says the Christian holy book, and nothing comes more first than a hot babe!

Now I ask you—is she hot, or is she hot!

There are two types of figurines among the ancient cultural treasures in Japan, the doguu and the haniwa. The former come from the Jomon period, while the latter, which are much better known, come from the kofun or burial mound period.

All the doguu are females. While scholars say it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the sex of the doguu, there is no mistaking the gender of some male haniwa. There was an exhibit of the former at the Tokyo National Museum last month (right sidebar), which presented 67 in all, including some designated as national treasures.

The old saw about some artists having to go abroad to find fame and recognition before being recognized in their homelands might work for cultural artifacts, too. The Cultural Affairs Agency sponsored this exhibit in the British Museum in London from September to November last year, and it went over so well they decided they might as well show it to the Japanese themselves.

There’s no mistaking the sex of the doguu shown here. She’s familiarly known as the Jomon Venus, probably because of those heavy hips. Now that’s a lot of Ponderosa! She’s only 27 centimeters high, and hails from an archaeological site in Chino, Nagano. She’s also known as the Detchiri Doguu, and no one will be surprised to find out the first word is a Japanese creation that means protruding butt. She also seems to be pregnant. Were women built like that in Japan in those days, or is that just Jomon cheesecake?

Most of the doguu date from 2,000 – 1,000 BC, and they are thought to have been fertility symbols. Well, flash a protruding butt in front of any male at any time in human history and what do you think’s going to happen?

That brings to mind a comment of one of the world’s most famous living lechers, former President Bill Clinton of the U.S. During a visit to view “Juanita”, a recently discovered Incan mummy displayed at the National Geographic museum, he commented, “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”

They’re going to have to erect Nio guardian statues to keep that man out of the National Museum on his next visit to Tokyo!


Speaking of inanimate objects having a spirit, here’s a story: I recently bought a used nine-volume set of the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, the premier English-language reference work on the country. I already had the single-volume version, which itself is probably second on the list, but there’s nothing finer than the full set.

I spent an hour or so in the used bookstores of the Kanda district in Tokyo last October looking for it, and finally discovered a set on sale for JPY 100,000 (about $US 1,100). That’s expensive, but I was still willing to pay the price–the reference is that good.

Just before spending the money, however, I spoke to a woman whose husband died a couple of years ago. He had a set of his own. I asked her about the possibility of buying it, and she was more than happy to let me have it. She knew I really wanted it, and said that her husband would have wanted me to have the books. She added, “Besides, the books will be happy too.”

I don’t think it’s weird at all.

Posted in Agriculture, Archaeology, Food, History, Music, New products, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Down on the farm

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 25, 2010

THE GLOBAL INFOTAINMENT MEDIA is intensely curious about trends in Japan, both to satisfy its voracious appetite for content and to maintain its preferred narrative of Japan as East Asia’s Goofball Kingdom. But here’s one trend they seem to have overlooked. Prof. Ito Motoshige of Tokyo University and the director of the National Institute for Research Advancement recently interviewed Itochu Corp. Chairman Niwa Uichiro for publication. This is how Prof. Ito set up the interview:

“Interest in agriculture is intense now. Publications ranging from business and economics journals to fashion magazines are covering the subject, and the slang term no-gyaru has even arisen to denote the young women engaged in farming.”

No-gyaru is a pun based on nogyo, the Japanese word for agriculture. Who knew that it was hip to be a hayseed in Japan nowadays? Certainly not the readers of the English-language media.


Itochu is a large trading company with its fingers in a bakery full of pies, including the refining and sale of Chinese rice, so Mr. Niwa has at his fingertips a cornucopia of fascinating statistics about farming in Japan.

He asserted in the interview that Japanese agriculture could be internationally competitive, and the way to achieve that goal would be to maximize the use of land as an asset to produce value and to inculcate a sense of entrepreneurship among the farmers. Here are some highlights from that interview.

By the numbers

12% of Japanese territory is farmland
16% of Japanese territory was farmland 45 years ago
8.3% of Japanese farmland is not cultivated.
The latter figure represents an increase of three times in 20 years, and is equal to the land area of Saitama Prefecture.

2.99 million people: The farming population in 2008, a drop of 80% in 49 years
60%: The percentage of the farming populaton 65 or older

Demonstrating the fundamental problem with bureaucracies the world over:

290,000 people: The number of JA group employees 45 years ago (The central committee of agricultural cooperatives)
300,000 people: The number of JA group employees today

410,000 households: Employed in agriculture only, 16% of the total involved in agricultural production either full time or part time

56%: The ratio of Japanese cropland accounted for by rice paddies
4.2 tons of rice per unit of production area: The global average
6.7 tons of rice per unit of production area: The Japanese average

The Itochu president argued that Japanese rice is not as expensive to produce as some might think. Production costs per kilogram range from JPY 344 for 0.5 hectare plots or less, to JPY 160 for 10-15 hectare plots. He says that Itochu’s costs for refining and selling Chinese rice are JPY 105 per kilogram, and don’t include export costs.

Japanese rice would be price competitive, he maintains, even if all agricultural tariffs around the world were immediately removed. The key is to promote agribusiness on a large scale rather than through small farms.

This would be financially beneficial for agricultural workers, too. Converted to hourly wages, the producers on larger farms make JPY 3,100, or more than salaried employees. In contrast, those on the smallest farms make JPY 300 per hour, less than convenience store workers.

Mr. Niwa suggests that rice production should be concentrated in areas with broad plains, such as Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, while areas in the more mountainous western Japan, where it would be more difficult to operate larger farms, should switch to other fruits and vegetables. He says the latter farms would produce crops competitive with imports. For example, he reports that the more expensive Japanese cherries still sold well against imported American cherries due to their superior taste and freshness.

He proposed the delivery of food directly from the production site to the consumption site as an avenue that should be explored further. (I can vouch for this myself; we get apples shipped directly to our house from different production areas in Japan once a month from October to March. I’d recommend it to anybody.)

The government gets in the way

Mr. Niwa laments, however, that laws on land use and agriculture haven’t changed in 50 years. The government’s policy over the past half century has been to encourage acreage reductions to prop up rice prices. He holds that this has been a complete failure from a market perspective, and he used an analogy to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the approach.

It is as if, he suggested, a company responded to poor sales figures by slashing production and raising prices.

He is not the first to claim that the Ministry of Agriculture has been a complete a waste of time and resources. He also mentioned the zokugiin of the Diet, the MPs allied with different ministries and who promote their interests in the legislature. The zokugiin, he says, work to maintain those policies to receive the electoral support of rice farmers in particular, who benefit financially from the higher rice prices and the subsidies for acreage reductions.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan is taking a step backwards from moves to encourage agribusiness and larger farms that were begun during the LDP administration of Abe Shinzo. The DPJ offered as part of their election platform a promise to provide subsidies to individual farm households.

That, says Mr. Niwa, is a mistake. The formulation of agricultural policies should be left to local governments, based on local conditions, and focus on policies for enterprises devoted exclusively to agriculture, whether operated by an individual or by a corporation.

He also suggests that local governments could form committees to lease farmland from individual farmers, aggregate it, and lease it in turn to those who want to work the land, including companies involved in agribusiness.

This is already happening today, and not all those companies are purely agricultural concerns. For example, Fukuoka City-based Kyudenko, primarily engaged in providing electric power facility engineering services, announced last week it had formed an agreement with the city of Amagusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, to grow olives. The agreement starts in FY 2010 and will run for three years. The company will plant 6,700 olive trees on unused cropland in the city, and will study cultivation techniques and the potential for profitability over that three-year period. If they like what they see, they will continue to grow olives. Kyudenko says it is open to using either public land or privately owned land.

In short, applying market principles would improve Japanese food production, make it a competitive enterprise, and solve the problems of unused land, the aging of the farming population, and the lack of successors. Key for the success of that endeavor would be to devolve authority to the local level and remove the influence of the bureaucracy and national legislator-lobbyists.

Where have we heard that one before?

Exploration and discovery

How did the media miss the chance to find out about the no-gyaru phenomenon and this discussion of domestic agricultural reform? They didn’t turn the page.

This interview appeared in last September’s edition of the monthly Voice. It was the same issue that published an article by Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio explaining his political philosophy. It later was translated into English for the New York Times and caused a minor stir for its eccentric positions and apparent tilt away from the United States in foreign policy matters.

Mr. Hatoyama’s article ended on page 141, while this one began on page 142. The quote about no-gyaru was in the first paragraph.

Why should the impractical thought processes of a man destined to have the political lifespan of a firefly be of greater interest than a disussion of how a nation feeds itself?

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

Land use in China

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 8, 2009

IN THE POST immediately preceding this one, Prof. Shimojo Masao makes a reference to agricultural reform in China and the private ownership of land. He holds that agricultural problems in China will not be solved until land can be privately owned and democratic reforms established.

In one of those serendipitous examples of synchronicity, fewer than 12 hours after posting it, I ran across this article from the Hoover Institute that compares land reform in Russia in the post-Soviet era and in China in the post-Mao era. It is both enlightening and frustrating. On the one hand, it does present a contrast worth considering. On the other, the authors celebrate the wonders of Chinese agrarian reform while glossing over the critical fact that Chinese farmers still cannot own land outright. They offer a vague hope that it might be possible in the future, depending on the way in which a new law passed in 2007 will be implemented.

I understand that academics and intellectuals as well as journalists want to pitch a tent to present a point of view, and create narratives to further that presentation. But why is it so difficult for them to realize the reader needs the basic facts first. They’re not going to find them all here. The curious reader will have to plow through several more articles and sift through several bushels of infotainment before a picture begins to take shape.

That picture contains several scenes the Hoover Institute article doesn’t even hint at–serious anti-governmental unrest in rural areas and a Chinese debate over what degree of private ownershop is necessary.

It will come as no surprise the author of this Time magazine article chose to dramatize government thuggishness–it’s a glossy infotainment mag, after all–but still didn’t manage to get the facts down. (He says land is owned by the state. Chinese farmland is owned by the individual villages.) This recent Financial times article has more information, but still does not present the basic fact about Chinese land ownership.

This Christian Science Monitor article has the same problem. None of these articles, however, make it clear that the Chinese government is still opposed to private ownership. That information is to be found in this piece in the Vancouver Sun.

This summary by the Council on Foreign Relations is much better, but again they have little to say about the new law. (It will allow freeholding rather than outright ownership.) Instead they just provide a link to the English translation of the law itself. Couldn’t they have found the time and space–a clearly written paragraph?–to properly explain, rather than invite the reader to wade through 247 articles of legalese?

Yet again one has to recognize the brilliance of Akutagawa Ryunosuke for his literary montage Rashomon, later turned into a film by Kurosawa Akira that starred Mifune Toshiro. It tells the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife from the perspectives of four people. Their accounts differ so greatly the reader or viewer wonders if they are describing the same incident.

That, however, was fiction. How unfortunate that it also describes the state of academic writing and journalism.

Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, China, Government, Mass media | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Shimojo Masao (6): The countries of the Confucian cultural sphere

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF JAPAN, the names of the countries that were once part of the Confucian cultural sphere are now entirely different. Qing of the Manchu Dynasty has been divided and become the Peoples’ Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), while Joseon has been divided and become the Republic of Korea and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. Their social systems have also diverged, with some becoming socialist states and some becoming capitalist states.

Of these, Taiwan and South Korea adopted the market economy and advanced economically. At the end of the 19th century, they were part of highly centralized states. The one on the Korean Peninsula was then called the world’s poorest country, and Taiwan was a remote region on the outskirts of Qing. What lies behind their achievement of economic growth on the level of that of developed nations?

The one factor both have in common is that they were under the administration of Japan until the latter’s defeat in 1945. Taiwan was ceded to Japan after the Japan-China War of 1894, and Joseon merged with Japan in 1910. During that period, the ground was prepared that enabled the economic structures of a centralized government to take on the characteristics of a market economy.

There are examples to corroborate this. Today, with its rapid economic growth, China cannot halt the expanding gap between the cities and agricultural villages. In 2006, the government decided to launch the semaul (new village) movement, an effort to strengthen agricultural villages that was first implemented in South Korea in the 1970s.

The roots of the semaul movement are found in the period of Japan’s colonization and administration. It began in 1907 with the activities of the Regional Financing Association (the forerunner of the South Korean agricultural cooperatives), which converted tenant farms into independent farms. Its slogan was “Diligence, Self-Help, Cooperation”, and it encouraged the autonomous activities of the farmers. The semaul movement had the identical slogan, and it closely resembled the agricultural promotion policies during the period of Japanese administration.

Grappling with the severity of the so-called Three Agricultural Problems (farming villages, agriculture, farmers), the Chinese government launched the “New Farm Village Construction” program modeled on the success of the semaul movement. That is difficult to achieve in the single-party dictatorship of China, however. It is the same sort of difficulty encountered after the centralized Soviet Union collapsed and a market economy was introduced into a national structure based on a planned economy. It is impossible to create a market economy without recognizing the private ownership of land and creating the foundation of a democratic society.

In this regard, the South Korean view of the Japanese colonial administration as nothing but an invasion is an incorrect historical understanding. That’s because the foundation that promised the economic growth of today had already been laid during the period of Japanese administration. That is the backdrop for the economic development of South Korea and Taiwan. This fact should provide some hints for the advancement of developing countries and considerations of an East Asian entity.

– Shimojo Masao

Posted in Agriculture, Books, China, History, South Korea, Taiwan | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BAREFOOTIN’ IN TEE-SHIRTS and short pants, all the better to deal with the 30-minute turnarounds of pouring rain and blazing sun: yeah, summer has arrived at last in Japan. During the dog days, the archipelago offers all sorts of hot-weather delights, including watermelon, shaved ice, and best of all, the transformation of even the most neo-radical of young women into traditional beauties once they exchange their jeans for yukata (a summer kimono).

What else is going on up and down the islands? Well, take a look and find out!

Firefly festivals

Once upon a time, summer nights on the East Coast of the United States came alive with a light show au naturel created by fireflies. The march of progress and suburbia seems to have ended all that, but the lightning bugs, as we used to call them, are still alive and flickering in the countryside here.

This is Japan, so take it as given that people know just when to expect their appearance every year, just how long it will last, and how to organize the viewing parties and festivals held to coincide with those dates.

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

The photo shows the fireflies near the Ayu River in Tanabe, in the southern part of Wakayama. It’s one of several locations in the area known as superb firefly viewing sites from the end of May to the beginning of June.

But as with the cherry blossoms and the rainy season, the firefly front keeps marching north, and right now the folks in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are enjoying a month-long firefly festival at the Onogawa spa. The festival is sponsored by the spa’s tourism association and the Yonezawa Firefly Protection Society. The opening ceremony was held at the local memorial firefly tower to pray for the safety of the participants during the event. Those Yonezawans must really like fireflies!

It’s not a festival in Japan without liquor, so right after the prayers they perform another centuries-old ritual by knocking open the head of a sake barrel with wooden hammers and passing the hooch around. They say some people see double when they drink too much, so you can imagine the sort of visions that light up the retinas of the festival-goers when a wave of fireflies floats by.

The viewing in Yonezawa begins on the riverbank right after it gets dark at 8:00 p.m. and lasts until 9:00. The area is such a firefly mecca that three different species breed here, and who but the entomologists knew there were different types of lightning bugs? For a spot of relaxation after all this excitement, the open-air baths stay open until nine, and there’s a tea house set up temporarily next to the firefly tower. The festival fun lasts until 31 July, but some people like to time their visit for the amateur entertainment contest on the 4th and 5th.


Sliding over from zoology to botany, here’s a photo of the festival held by the Miyajidake Shinto shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, for the first cutting of Edo irises in a local garden. The purpose of the event, called Hatsukiri—first cutting, appropriately enough—is to present the irises as an offering to the divinities. They’ve got plenty of flowers from which to choose, because the garden has 30,000 individual plants. While the priests grunt, bend over, and swing their scythes, two miko hold irises as they perform a dance accompanied by a flute. More than 200 people came to watch. A small turnout, you say? That’s not a bad crowd for watching two girls perform a centuries-old dance in costume in a garden in a town of 56,000 while priests cut flowers. How many people would show up where you live?

hatsukiri 2

The shrine held its Iris festival on the same day. They place 70,000 irises in front of the shrine and light ’em up until 9:00 p.m. for 10 days. The shrine has its own iris garden too, started from bulbs sent by the Meiji-jingu in Tokyo in 1965. They now have 100,000 plants in 100 varieties. That’s a heck of a lot of irises, but they need that many to go around for all of Shinto’s yaoyorozu divine ones. (Yaoyorozu is the traditional number of divinities in Shinto. It literally means eight million, but figuratively represents an infinite number, signifying that each natural object has a divine spirit.)

Seaweed cutting

Irises weren’t the only flora getting cut for a Shinto ritual. Four priests from the Futamikitama Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, boarded a boat with some miko and sailed offshore for some seaweed cutting. They present the seaweed—fortunately an uncountable noun—to the divinities, allow it to dry out for a month, and then distribute it to their parishioners to drive out bad fortune and eradicate impurities.


At 10:30 a.m., the priests set sail on their skiff festooned with red, yellow, green, purple, and white streamers, with bamboo grass placed at bow and stern, and headed for the special seaweed site 770 meters northeast of the Futami no Meoto, sometimes called the Wedded Rocks. (The word meoto designates a pair of something, one large and one small.) Since this is a special ritual, they can’t just start cutting—first they have to circle the divine Kitama rock on the seabed three times, then they haul out a three-meter long sickle and get to work.

Sea goya

Since the subject is aquatic plants, now’s as good a time as any to report that the Fukuka Aquaculture Center in Kin-machi, Okinawa, is ramping up production of a new variety of sea grapes they hope to popularize in Japan after sales start next month. The center has dubbed the new type “sea goya”, after the knobby bitter squash for which Okinawa is famous. (Here’s a previous post about sea grapes in Okinawa and goya in general.)

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

The center’s director said they discovered these particular sea grapes among a batch imported in March 2008. The new variety flourished in the southern climate, and that gave people the idea to turn it into a new product, particularly as they were looking for ways to juice the market after the prices of regular sea grapes and mozuku seaweed tanked.

They decided to call the new plant sea goya because it’s more elongated than regular sea grapes and has the bitter flavor of goya. The center has already applied to register the name as a trademark, and they’re confident the application will be approved. After hearing about the new product, more than 10 companies inquired about handling the distribution.

Nara ayu

After insects, irises, seaweed, and sea grapes, here come the freshwater fish: namely the ayu, or sweetfish, which we’ve encountered before in a post about their encounters with traditional traps.

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

These sweetfish, however, were caught by means with an even longer and exalted pedigree—trained cormorants. The birds require keepers that are somewhat analogous to falconers, all of whom ply their skills for the Imperial Household Agency because the technique is a tradition of the Japanese Imperial household. (Dig their costumes in the photo at the link.)

Six keepers were employed to catch the fish at the Imperial fishing grounds on the Nagara River in Gifu City, but the keepers can handle up to a dozen birds on the end of ropes, so they must have taken quite a haul. They go out in boats too, but at night, and they take along lighted torches. The fish are attracted to the flame like maritime moths, and the birds dive in after them. The lower part of the cormorants’ necks are collared to prevent them from swallowing the fish, and after they’ve snatched one, the keepers reel them in and make them cough it up. That’s got to be more cruel than feeding a dog peanut butter.

The fish were packed into paulownia boxes and shipped to the Kashihara-jingu, a Shinto shrine in Kashihara, Nara, as well as the Imperial Palace and the Meiji-jingu, another Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Both shrines have an Imperial connection.

The Japanese have been using cormorants to catch sweetfish since at least the 8th century—don’t you wonder who came up with that idea?–and the Nagara River event is more than a millennium old, but this shrine has been receiving the sweetfish shipments only since 1940 to offer in prayer for the safety of fishing and a good catch. (The 1940 date suggests it might have begun as part of the celebrations that year marking the 2600th anniversary of the establishment of the Japanese Imperial House.)

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

Yet another sign of summer in Japan is the yaoyorozu of rice-planting festivals held throughout the country. It’s easy to figure out why—they grow the rice in wet paddies, which are made even wetter by all the rain that falls this time of year.

high school sake rice project

But the students at Miyoshi High School in Miyoshi, Tokushima, weren’t planting this rice as part of a festival; they were getting classroom credit. The lads aren’t planning to be farmers when they grow up–rather, they’re enrolled in a course covering the brewing and fermentation of food products. They’ll harvest that rice in the fall and use it to make sake.

The rice is grown on a 3,000-square-meter paddy the school rents from area residents. The teachers do most of the planting with a machine, and then some of the second year students wade right in and plant by hand those parts the machine can’t reach. They expect to harvest 1.5 tons of the rice in mid-September, which can probably be converted into enough sake to keep the town of Miyoshi more lit than a riverbank full of fireflies until New Year’s. The school started the project last year, and this year they increased the size of the cultivated area six-fold to use only the rice grown by students.

One of those students, 16-year-old Fukuda Shinya, had planted rice before, but he said the seedlings were more difficult to handle because the size was different than that of regular table rice.

Now why couldn’t I have gone to that school!

Shochu collector

While the high school students were outdoors sweating and getting dirty as they planted the rice for the sake they will later brew, Masuyama Hiroki (73) of Izumi, Kagoshima, was relaxing with an adult beverage as he contemplated the success of his 12-year effort to collect one bottle each from all the prefecture’s shochu distillers. This is Kagoshima, where everyone drinks shochu and almost no one drinks sake, so he had his work cut out for him.

shochu collector

He’s so proud of his accomplishment he’s got them lined up on the wall, and hasn’t twisted the cap on a single bottle. Mr. Masuyama decided to make it is hobby after he retired from a job with the prefectural government in 1996 and started working in sales. His business trips took him throughout Kagoshima, and after he got the idea—probably in a bar during one of those business trips–he made a list and started buying while he was selling. He started with 1.8 liter (1.92 US quarts) bottles, but they were too heavy and took up too much space, so he switched to bottles half that size. He had a few difficulties completing the collection, and no, one of them wasn’t a tendency to polish off a bottle before before he could display it on the rack. For one thing, the smaller bottles were sold mainly to commercial establishments, but he applied his salesmen’s skills to get what he wanted. Another was that he didn’t have much of a chance to go to the prefecture’s many outlying islands on business. After retiring from his second job, it took two more years to finish the project.

Mr. Masuyama says he enjoys looking at his collection while having a late-night drink, but his libation doesn’t come from those shelves on the wall. He hasn’t opened any of the bottles and says it would be a waste to drink them.

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

Shinto shrine maidens, known as miko, get to do all sorts of fun stuff. In this post alone, they’ve sailed out to the Wedded Rocks to help the priests cut seaweed, carried the sacred sweetfish caught by cormorants, and danced while the priests cut Edo irises in Fukutsu. Even better, they get to handle the money at the shrine during New Year’s.

miko class

Doesn’t that sound like a great part-time job? If that’s the kind of work you’re looking for, the Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, is offering a beginner’s level course that provides instruction in how to become a miko. Even better, the class will last only one day, on 17 August—the middle of summer vacation!

Kanda Myojin conducts the class every year with the idea of giving young Japanese women a better idea of their traditions and culture, as well as teaching them more about the shrine. Last year, the student body consisted of 24 women who got to wear the red and white outfit for a day as they studied the shrine’s history, the daily conduct of affairs at the shrine, and its religious ceremonies.

Considering they charge only JPY 5,000 yen ($US 52.40), that sounds like a good deal. They’re looking for 20 unmarried young women this year from 16 to 22, and enrollment is open until the end of the month.

The declaration of the eisa nation

Start with a party, end with a party. This particular hoedown is the eisa dance native to Okinawa. Centuries ago, it was performed as a rite for the repose of the dead, but now it’s done for entertainment and is more likely to wake the dead than ease their way into the next world.

eisa summer party

Okinawa City issued a proclamation declaring itself Eisa Town earlier this month, and held a Declaration Day Eisa Night event outside the city offices to lay claim to the title. Six groups made their eisadelic statement as they performed in original/trad clothing they created themselves. Eisa Night means that eisa season has officially started in the city, and summer in this city means that local youth groups will give public performances every weekend until the really big show, the Okinawa Eisa Festival in September.

During her greeting at the ceremony, Mayor Tomon Mitsuko said, “We hope you come to Okinawa City on the weekends and enjoy yourselves.” Then the dancing started and everyone proceeded to do just that.

It’s not just for the Ryukyuans, either. One of the six groups performing was the Machida-ryu of Machida, Tokyo, who started their own group in 1999 after a trip to Okinawa. They were so captivated by the dance they had to do it themselves at home. Now the troupe has more than 100 members.

There’s an idea: create your own Okinawan dance and drum ensemble and visit Eisa Town next year. If you want to learn, watching the video is a great way to start!

Posted in Agriculture, Education, Festivals, Food, Imperial family, New products, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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 »

Seaweed for the emperor

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It’s good to be the king.
– Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I

Perquisites naturally accrue to the kingfish alpha males squatting atop the greasy pole of success—emperors and kings traditionally received tribute, China’s Mao Zedong had a parade of young virgins brought from the countryside for his delectation (reportedly eight in the same bed at the same time) and Kim Jong-il seems to have lived out a frat boy’s dream of despotism, indulging in multiple love affairs, a passion for motorcycles, and a taste for Hennessey VSOP cognac at US$ 630 a bottle.

And then Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky.


The same is true in Japan, too, though licentiousness is no longer a factor, if it ever was. The shogun and the tenno (emperor) received tributes of rice, and the tenno still does. But today’s tenno has another advantage in addition to being able to partake at will from the nation’s granaries: He receives free seaweed!

Well, wakame, to be precise, or to put it another way, Undaria pinnatifida. Every Japanese eats wakame, which is most often used in miso soup or tofu salads, and sometimes as a side dish or garnish. It’s rich in calcium, iodine, thiamine and niacin. It’s also said to burn fatty tissue and have a high nutritient-to-calorie ratio, which makes it a favorite of health food folk.

I bring this up because the Imperial Household just got its annual wakame shipment this week from the Munakata Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Munakata, Fukuoka. Jinoshima, an island in the Tsushima Strait that is adminstratively part of the city, produces the seaweed for the dining tables of Japan. A special shrine committee that includes local maritime industry cooperatives conducts a special harvest of 30 kilograms every year at the end of February and selects six kilograms for shipment to Tokyo.

The wakame is dried on boards and then sent to the Munakata shrine. The photo shows the shrine priests and the miko (shrine maidens) cutting it into sheets measuring 25 centimeters long by 20 centimeters wide. They then insert six sheets into a package, which are in turn put into about 15 bags that will contain a total of 1.5 kilograms of the delicacy. The bags are placed into a box of Japanese cedar, and four boxes will be shipped in all.

Come on now, you don’t send the man food wrapped in tin foil!

Interestingly, this tradition for the Munakata shrine isn’t as old as one might think. They’ve been shipping the seaweed since 1963, and this year is only the 47th time they’ve made the offering. Just as interesting, it seems that even Shinto shrines keep an eye on PR for the mass media. Here’s the statement the chief priest made to the press:

This year again, we were able to harvest excellent quality wakame of a deep green color with the strong aroma of the sea.

Ah, but the story doesn’t end there. The shrine doesn’t just send someone down to the post office to ship the stuff off to Tokyo—they take it to the Fukuoka Airport and hold a special ceremony to hand over the boxes to the flight attendants. And we’re in luck, because here’s the local RKB-TV report of that ceremony on video!

The only part of the narration that already hasn’t been covered is the explanation that the passengers on the same plane will each receive a commemorative ornament of a fugu (blowfish) on which has been written the character 福, or good fortune.

Ain’t that always the way? The top dog gets the pick of the wakame crop, and everyone else gets a cheap blowfish figurine.

The video says that the airline will deliver the seaweed to the Imperial Household Agency. Heck, if I were the tenno, I’d tell the agency to have those stewardesses deliver it in person to the palace and have them stay for lunch.

You just know Mao and Kim would have!

Afterwords: Here’s shocking news for wakame lovers everywhere–people outside of Northeast Asia don’t care for it very much. In fact, New Zealanders consider it a weed that’s clogging up the Wellington harbor, and it’s been nominated as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Imperial family, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

One man’s gunk is another man’s gold mine

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 3, 2009

FOR MOST PEOPLE, seaweed is just unpleasant gunk that gets in the way of a good time. It’s the stuff everyone tries to avoid when swimming at the seashore, or that gets tangled in fishermen’s lines and stuck on the bottoms of boats.

But the Japanese, of course, love to eat it.

And now, the Okinawans are beginning to view it–as well as other aquatic plants—as a marine bioresource.

The grapes of the sea

The grapes of the sea

To turn all that gunk into products that are beneficial for the user and profitable for the consumer, the Okinawa government, through the Okinawa Prefectural Fisheries and Ocean Research Center, has been working for the past three years with the University of Tokyo, the University of the Ryukyus, and bioventures and health food companies in the private sector to develop the marine bioresource industry. They’re also working to establish better control of intellectual property, primarily through the Okinawa Technology Licensing Organization, to ensure that research results and benefits flow to local enterprises. The Ministry of Education is kicking in 100 million yen (about $US 1.026 million) to help with the effort, and the prefectural government is adding another 41 million yen to the pot.

One project they’re working on is the cultivation and promotion of so-called green caviar (Caulerpa lentillifera), or sea grape, as it is known in Japanese. Usually found on sandy or muddy sea bottoms in shallow protected areas, it is eaten in salads and all sorts of other dishes, as you can see from this link. They’re also studying ways to maintain hygiene in the production of the plant as a food item, the creation of secondary products using the plant (such as shampoo), methods for increasing yield, and the development of a fertilizer specifically for the plant.

Try to imagine the fertilizer delivery mechanism for a plant that grows on the sea bed!

Another project is an examination of the efficacy of fucoidan, a substance present in such popular Japanese seaweed varieties as hijiki, kombu, and wakame, and which some think has potential for cancer treatment. In the same way that many local governments in Japan are doing with other products, the Okinawans are trying to boost its value by creating a regional brand.

Still one more project is the development of a kit for the simple and quick detection of ciguatera toxins, which are found in some subtropical fish.

One man’ s meat is another man’s poison, some say, but Okinawa is hoping that some people’s gunk turns into a treasure for all the islanders!

Posted in Agriculture, Business, finance and the economy, Food, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

How many points on that buck?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 31, 2008

HERE’S SOME NEWS that Japanese sportsmen will cheer: The regional newspaper Agara reports that deer season in Wakayama will start on Saturday, two weeks earlier than usual. It will also be extended for an extra month to end on 15 March. The season has been lengthened specifically to control the deer population, because the animals are causing serious problems for local farmers. As a result, the season will be concurrent with that for wild boar, another animal responsible for significant crop damage.

The financial loss to agriculture caused by deer in Wakayama alone has more than doubled from 16.9 million yen in 1998 to over 36 million yen ($US 366,630) every year since 2003. The volume of crops lost has also skyrocketed. Deer in the prefecture spoiled a total of 24 tons ten years ago, but that had soared to 3,337 tons by last year.

Another aspect of the new policy will be an emphasis on hunting females. In the past, the limit had been one deer per hunter per day, but this has been increased to two—only one of which can be a male.

The prefecture’s office for the protection of the agricultural environment said:

“The damage to agriculture caused by wild animals in 2007 totaled roughly 300 million yen, and deer accounted for a large part of that. The new policy focuses on the hunting of females, and we hope there will be a decline in their numbers.”

The only deer that inhabits Japan is the Sika deer, which is common throughout East Asia. Deer hunting was prohibited in the 1950s because the animal was close to extinction, but the ban was lifted in the 1980s when the population was quickly restored. (Wolves are extinct in Japan and the deer has no other natural enemies.)

The Sika deer is said to be harder to kill with a rifle shot than the variety in North America. The breed is also causing problems elsewhere; year-round culling is encouraged in Great Britain because of the danger they present to forests, but this has yet to solve the problem.

If the deer stalkers in Japan needed any more encouragement, here’s another factor: Sika venison is said to be delicious. I can’t vouch for that, unfortunately, because I’ve never been to a restaurant with deer on the menu and never eaten any served at a private home.

Foreigners who live in the big city might be surprised to know there is a long tradition of deer hunting here. This is a description written in English of deer hunting in Japan in the 1890s. The article says the hinds were the primary targets of hunters because the unborn fawns were considered a delicacy.

That makes me wonder: Was the meat eaten raw as sashimi?

Posted in Agriculture, Food | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Soba in bloom

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 17, 2008

EVERYONE KNOWS what the rice plant or wheat looks like before it’s harvested and processed into food, but perhaps only a few people would recognize buckwheat—the plant used to make soba noodles—even if they were standing in front of it.

But the photo at the left shows a field of soba in bloom near Shirahama-cho in Wakayama, so they no longer have any excuse! A group of farmers in the area decided last year to grow soba as an off-season crop after the rice harvest, which is starting to become an agricultural trend in Japan. This 50-are field (1.24 acres) was planted on 10 September, and it grew quickly enough for the soba to flower by the end of the month.

Wakayama, as it turns out, is not known for soba production. Hokkaido is the national champion by a wide margin, and Wakayama doesn’t even rank among the top ten prefectures for area under cultivation.

Considering the quantity of soba consumed in Japan, it was surprising to discover that 80% of the soba eaten here is now imported, and that imports didn’t begin until 1952. (Before World War II, Japan was an exporter.) The bulk of the imports come from China, followed by the United States. Most of the crop is processed for noodles, but soba sprouts are also eaten in salads. The dried plant is used for pillow stuffing, though production is somewhat limited because the plant is an allergen.

Now that you know what the flowers look like, there are about two weeks left to spot them. The blooms will last until the end of this month, and harvest begins at the end of November or the beginning of December.

But any time’s a good time to eat some!

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Behind the rice curtain

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 8, 2008

THE SCENE FOR YESTERDAY’S POST was Tanabe, Wakayama, and by a happy coincidence, here is another story about the city that appeared today.

It’s now the season for harvesting rice in Japan, when the farmers cut the grain, tie it in bundles, stack it on end, and leave it in the field to dry. This farm household in Tanabe has a different system, however: they strap logs together to erect a large frame, from which they hang the rice sheaves.

They’ve been doing it for more than 45 years now. (I’d mention their names, but I’d have to guess at the reading.) The frame itself is five meters high and 18 meters wide, and it holds nine rows of stalks. One of the family members climbs the ladder while another uses a wooden pole to snatch the stalks and swing them up for hanging. The entire process, including the frame assembly, takes two full days.

Years ago, the family used to pile the rice from their terraced paddy in one place for drying. One of the reasons they switched to this method was to prevent the wild boar and deer in the area, whose numbers are increasing, from eating it.

The farmer here is one of the lucky ones—his son and her wife plan on taking over the farm. Nowadays the children of many Japanese farmers want nothing to do with farm labor.

It’s not a particularly important story, but I liked the picture, and I’m always interested in people coming up with clever variations on methods that for everyone else have become a cut-and-dried process.

And with the old method of rice harvesting, it literally is a cutting and drying process!

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Tastes terrible–give me a second helping, please!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BY MAKING the most unhealthful foods sinfully delicious and the most nutritious foods a challenge to the palate, Mother Nature played a cruel trick on us all. Beefeaters are legion the world over, yet a graph showing the per capita beef consumption in Japan after World War II has a vertical curve almost identical to one showing the increase in the incidence of colon cancer during the same period. On the other hand, we all know the dinner table wars many parents have to wage to get their children to eat spinach.

There are several reasons the Japanese life span is among the highest in the world, and one of the most important is diet. One Japanese doctor told me the secret for a long life is to eat the way Japanese women did 40 years ago: fish, tofu (soybeans), rice, and no fatty foods. That’s a secret worth knowing, considering that Japanese women have the world’s highest life expectancy at 86 years. In fact, Japanese women have had the world’s highest life expectancy since 1985.

Among the Japanese, the traditional Okinawan lifestyle results in even greater longevity. As Bradley Willcox, Craig Willcox, and Suzuki Makoto (all doctors) write in The Okinawa Program, a book promoting the islanders’ healthful diet and lifestyle,

“If Americans lived more like Okinawans, 80 percent of the nation’s coronary care units, one-third of the cancer wards, and a lot of the nursing homes would be shut down.”

So it won’t come as a surprise to find out that some foods in the traditional Okinawan diet are unfriendly to the taste buds.


One of those is a vegetable whose generic Japanese name is nigauri, but in recent years has come to be commonly known by the word used for it in Okinawa: goya. Despite the switch in terminology, the former is the better descriptor: in Japanese it means bitter gourd (or melon).

The goya is green and slightly smaller than an American cucumber (which is thicker than the Japanese variety). Like a green pepper, it is hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds, and it has a soft, knobby skin.

It is indeed bitter; it’s not the sort of vegetable that people would slice and put into a tossed salad. That’s why the Okinawans most often eat it in a stir-fry with eggs, tofu, and bean sprouts, and sometimes pork, though some people keep it simple and just use the eggs.

It’s an excellent source of vitamin C, and is also said to moderate the blood pressure. What sets goya apart from other vegetables rich in vitamin C, however, is that it retains the vitamin even when cooked at high temperatures. The reason for its bitter taste is that it contains curcurbitacins, which doctors think help prevent cancers.

Goya is not native to Okinawa or Japan, but is thought to have arrived in the country from China several hundred years ago. The Chinese variety is known as chin-li-chih, goo-fa, or ku gua, and is slightly less bitter than the strain found in Japan. It’s also eaten in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and India.

Not only is goya nutritious, it’s also good for what ails you. People throughout Asia have used it as a medicinal plant, including the Chinese and Arabs. It’s also used in the traditional Ayurveda medicine of Inda to treat skin diseases.

Thus it’s only logical that Kamiita-cho municipal employee Dan Hitomi in Tokushima has created a trial version of goya soap to publicize the town’s goya production. The first photo shows Ms. Dan holding a cube of the pale green soap, which is made entirely of natural ingredients and commercially available vegetables.

To create the soap, Ms. Dan took the liquid squeezed from goya rind and added it to water, sodium hydroxide, olive oil, and other vegetable oils. She poured the mixture into a mold, let it harden for a day, and then dried it out for a month.

Ms. Dan, who has been making soap as a hobby for 10 years, claims there is no goya odor (though the vegetable doesn’t have an unpleasant smell to begin with) and it is more gentle on the skin than other soaps using discarded oil. That makes the bitter gourd good for you, both inside and out

But goya has even more benefits. The vegetable grows on a vine, and the Okinawans often suspend those vines from the roof eaves of traditional houses. This has a two-fold effect. First, it provides the plant with the sunshine it needs to grow, and second, it cools off the interior of the house during the hot summer.

That goya vines have a cooling effect has been demonstrated by an experiment conducted this summer at the Environmental Disaster Prevention Research Center of the University of Tokushima. The second photo shows the vines suspended over the windows of a small building at the center. The study found that this “goya curtain” reduced interior temperatures by 1.5° to 2.5° C when the outdoor temperature was 30° C or higher. The use of the goya curtain made the interior cooler than hanging a traditional bamboo curtain.

And just think—the people who live in homes with a goya curtain don’t even have to go outside to pick some for the dinner table!

The only drawback is that the cooling effect is negated by closing the windows, which will turn off those people who can’t live without air conditioners. Then again, those folks would be unlikely to live in a traditional Okinawan house to begin with.


Okinawa is also home to some fruit tart enough to cause tongue spasms. One of those is known as shiikwasa, which is the Okinawan name for the hirami lemon. This small, green citrus fruit is extremely sour, with a touch of bitterness. It is packed with flavonoids, which fight cancer, and also lowers both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

A shiikwasa is sometimes squeezed over sashimi or cooked fish to add flavor, much as lemons are used in the West. The juice is sold in concentrated form, and this can be drunk as a beverage if mixed at a roughly 8-1 ratio with hot water (which I sometimes do).

The shiikwaasa harvest has now started in the Katsuyama district of Nago in Okinawa, and some of the crop is shown in the third photo. Local farmers say this year’s harvest is a good one owing to excellent weather conditions—no typhoons hit during the growing season, total rainfall was down during the rainy season, and the heavy rains came just at the right time.

The use of the fruit depends on the time of year it is harvested. The shiikwasa picked now will be used to garnish fish, but the fruit taken from October to mid-December will be used for juice. Finally, the fruit harvested from the end of December to the end of February will be sold as produce to be eaten raw. (I can’t imagine eating one raw, but surely the Okinawans know what they’re doing.)

For accuracy’s sake, I should add that many similar kinds of fruit with different names are grown throughout Kyushu. Perhaps the most well-known is kabosu, which is grown in Kumamoto and is also being harvested now for sale at produce shops throughout the region. (I don’t know anyone who eats them raw, either.)

Though Okinawa farmers produce an abundance of food that promotes longevity, there’s a reason the doctor told me to follow the dietary habits of Japanese women 40 or 50 years ago. That’s because many younger Japanese women (and younger Okinawans) no longer follow those dietary habits themselves. Like most people everywhere, they tend to eat more of the things that taste good, rather than the things that are good for you.

Those Epicurean ways new to post-war Japan might make for more delectable dining, but it comes at a cost. Life expectancy figures may start slipping for Japanese women, as they already have for younger Okinawans.

But then, Mother Nature is the one who sets the rules, and we break them at our own risk.

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