Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

All you have to do is look (22)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 19, 2012

A street performance of Noh in the Ginza district of Tokyo earlier this month

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

Marquee attractions

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012

KABUKI theaters, being theaters, require marquees in the same way as the halls of London’s West End, New York’s Broadway, or the burlesque joints in the 400 block of East Baltimore St. — The Block — in Baltimore, where I grew up. But as with everything else, the Japanese have their own approach to the whole business of marquees.

The photo above shows 78-year-old Kawakatsu Seiho and the 54 maneki (literally, invitations) he drew with the names of the performers of the season’s dramas staged at Kyoto’s Minami-za this year.

Mr. Kawakatsu had just finished a special ceremony called the manekigaki (writing the invitations) at the Myoden-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto (established in 1477) before the performance of Kichirei Kaomise.

There’s more to tradition even if it does meet your eye. The style of calligraphy is unique to maneki of this sort, and is called kanteiryu. And because this is a special occasion, sake was mixed with the ink. That isn’t just for the heck of it — they say it adds luster to the ink on the boards.

Don’t miss a trick, do they?

The maneki are 180 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide and hung above the theater entrance. If you want to see what they look like in place, try the following amateur video taken three years ago at the premiere of the same drama at the same theater — Japan’s oldest, founded in the early 17th century. The cameraman could have been more relaxed, but the video provides excellent views of the exterior and interior both.

Posted in Arts, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (3)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The dance club from the Hitorizawa High School in Yokohama, selected as one of the participants in the 5th National High School Dance Club Championships

(Photo from the Sankei Shimbun)

Posted in Arts, Photographs and videos, Popular culture | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

After School Midnighters

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 29, 2012

CARTOONS sure ain’t what they used to be: The anime feature After School Midnighters, directed by video creator and Fukuoka City native and resident Takekiyo Hitoshi, will premiere in about 100 theaters next month in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The anime is a comedic film about a human anatomical model and some mischievous students at a night school. It was produced with computer graphics, and it employs motion capture technology, in which the recorded movements of people are used to create digital character models in computer animation. The movie’s creators filmed a drama troupe in Fukuoka for the motion capture. Fukuoka City resident Komori Yoichi, the man behind the popular Umizaru manga series, worked on the script.

Screening begins in Japan on 25 August. Here is an interview with the director, who says the film is a feature-length treatment of a six-minute short that was picked up by Canal+ in France in 2007. Mr. Takekiyo also explains how it’s no longer necessary to live in Tokyo or other big cities to do important work.

And here is the official site in Japanese with the theaters showing the film and official trailers. Residents of South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore will have to check local listings!

Posted in Arts, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Conspiracy of quietness

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 28, 2012

The champions of democracy in the eighteenth century argued that only monarchs and their ministers are morally depraved, injudicious, and evil. The people, however, are altogether good, pure, and noble, and have, besides, the intellectual gifts needed in order always to know and to do what is right. This is, of course, all nonsense, no less so than the flattery of the courtiers who ascribed all good and noble qualities to their princes. The people are the sum of all individual citizens; and if some individuals are not intelligent and noble, then neither are all together.
-Ludwig von Mises

SOME people insist that proper governance demands certain absolutes. As shown by the hullaballoo that arose with the Arab Sprung, some of those same people would insist democracy is one of those absolutes. Mises knew better, and the results of the recent Egyptian election won by Mohamed Morsi demonstrate why:

Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood told supporters last month…

“The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal,” Morsi said in his election speech before Cairo University students on Saturday night.


“Today we can establish Sharia law because our nation will acquire well-being only with Islam and Sharia. The Muslim Brothers and the Freedom and Justice Party will be the conductors of these goals,” he said.

The same people secure in their certainty that democracy is an absolute value would certainly be absolutely enuretic if forced to live under a legal system that chopped off hands for theft, stoned women to death for adultery (women are guilty until proven innocent and need four male witnesses to confirm they’ve been raped rather than been adulterous) and flogged and/or executed homosexuals. The same legal system treats unbelievers as second-class citizens. One aspect of that treatment is that believers are given the benefit of the doubt if there is a conflict in court testimony.

Transparency of government is also considered to be an absolute by some, but that is no more an absolute than is democracy. It is desirable in many instances, but less so in others. Legislation passed by the Diet last week contains examples of both.


Japan amended its Basic Law on Atomic Energy on the 20th, the first major change in in the law in 34 years. The primary objective was to rework the regulatory regime for nuclear power, but that wasn’t the only one. The law also now states that it has:

“The objective of protecting the lives, health, and assets of the people, and contributing to environmental preservation and national security.”

The “national security” part is new. It is so new, in fact, that it wasn’t included in the original bill approved by the Noda Cabinet. The clause was inserted because the opposition Liberal Democratic Party requested it; both the LDP and their New Komeito partners had already submitted their own bill with similar language. Mr. Noda and the DPJ went along, and there are no reports of serious objections.

None of the three main parties of the National Political Establishment (NPE) thought this required much debate in the Diet, more than a superficial explanation, or the obligation to tell the public about it at all. The Diet has a website on which pending legislation is posted, but the contents of this bill didn’t go up until the 15th, less than a week before it became law.

The bill passed after little debate in the lower house and only three days of debate in the upper house. It was not reported by any of the five primary national newspapers. The story was broken instead on Thursday by the Tokyo Shimbun, later reported in the Chunichi Shimbun (of Nagoya), and briefly mentioned in the Mainichi Shimbun. The nation’s two largest newspapers, the Yomiuri and the Asahi, covered the passage of the bill itself, but neither (as far as I could determine) specifically mentioned this change.

The Tokyo Shimbun quoted the explanation of LDP lower house member Shiozaki Yasuhisa, chief cabinet secretary in the Abe cabinet. I thought the second and third sentences were instructive:

“The possession of nuclear technology is significant from the perspective of security…There also must be an understanding of the technology of atomic energy from the perspective of security to defend Japan….(Objections) are the arguments of people who don’t see what they don’t want to see.”

He added that no objections were raised about the proposed amendment during the discussion among the three parties.

Yoshino Masayoshi, a lower house MP from the LDP said:

“Its significance is as a security measure to protect against the use of nuclear material for terrorism or other uses. There was no thought of converting it to military use.”

No, I don’t believe it either, but the whole point is to keep people guessing, isn’t it?

Japanese bureaucrats and politicians are known for their skills at parsing language in legislation to do exactly what they want to do, regardless of the legislation’s intent. Books have been written about it, including one called Bureaucrat Rhetoric. For example, changing the text of legislation from “Ministry XXX is required to YYY” to “Ministry XXX must make every effort to YYY” ensures that YYY will never be done. How nuclear technology can be used for “national security” requires no explanation or rhetorical tricks.

While there has been little or no media comment about the bill, the people who want to stay informed knew soon after the Tokyo Shimbun article was published. It doesn’t take long for links to circulate on Twitter, and they started circulating the same day.

Whatever shortfall there’s been in Japanese media commentary has been offset by the thrills offered by the South Korean media. The Joseon drama queens enjoy this sort of Japanese fable in the way some people enjoy monster movies. Not only do both scripts provide the same horrific excitement, both stories are clearly based on science fiction with no connection to life as we know it. Screaming as loud as they can in the theater just adds to the fun.

Reader rab sent in an English link from the Joongang Ilbo. Here’s one passage:

“The revision Wednesday is raising speculation that the move would act as a threat to regional security in Northeast Asia, including Korea, and could lead Japan to build nuclear weapons.”

See what I mean about science fiction? No, lovies, even if Japan were to wise up and build nuclear weapons, the threats to regional security in Northeast Asia are the nuclear powers of China, North Korea, and Russia. The speculation being raised is that the Japanese NPE is at last taking steps to uphold its primary responsibility and defend the nation against serious threats from the Chinese hegemons asquat what they consider to be the center of the universe, and the military clique running North Korea in nominal service to the Emperors Kim. (The Japanese understand the latter arrangement. They did it themselves as far back as the 8th century.)

Chinese behavior from North Korea through the Senkakus to the South China Sea leaves no doubt about their intentions. Conditions in the United States leave substantial doubt about that country’s capacity and willingness to defend Japan in accordance with its treaty obligations, particularly in smaller incidents that advance Chinese interests incrementally.

If Japan were to build nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t be a threat to regional security. It would strengthen regional security.

The Joongang quoted one Japanese politician:

“Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, however, denied the suspicion. He told reporters yesterday that the bill “emphasized the peaceful use of nuclear power plants.””

Their source was the Tokyo Shimbun article, which contained other politicians’ comments that they couldn’t find the space to print. For example, this one from Eda Yasuyuki, a New Komeito member of the lower house.

“There are provisions in the nuclear reactor regulation law for safeguarding nuclear material during transport. The technology for nuclear fuel can also be diverted to military use, and there are safeguards (inspections) in IAEA regulations. These are related to Japanese national security, so this was specified in the law as the ultimate objective.”

Mr. Eda is in favor of giving the right to vote to foreigners who are permanent residents (read: zainichi with Korean citizenship) and opposed to amending Article 9 of the Constitution, the peace clause. While it is fair to wonder what the change in language really means, such speculation must also account for the unlikelihood that someone with Eda Yasuyuki’s beliefs would sit still for nuclear weapons.

It is also curious that Japan’s Communists and Social Democratics, the parties most likely to object to weaponization, have kept their lips zipped about the news. The former publishes a daily newspaper called Akahata that puts about a dozen articles on line every day, but they haven’t mentioned it at all. Neither has the SDPJ, which supports a position of unarmed neutrality similar to that of Costa Rica (the Swiss are armed to the teeth). They also objected to providing sidearms for self-defense to Self-Defense Forces sent overseas. A trip to their website shows a photograph of people resembling minor characters in a Kubrick film complaining about nuclear power, but nothing about a potential diversion to nuclear weaponry. Are they part of the conspiracy too?

Some people who could be expected to complain did complain. From the Joongang:

“The Diet’s latest move has stirred criticism from civic groups and scholars in Japan.”

They didn’t specify the complainers, but their source article in Japan identified them as The Committee of Seven for World Peace:

“The possibility that this opens the way for real military use cannot be denied….”

Yes, I agree, “civic groups and scholars” does sound more serious than the reality, doesn’t it?

Here’s another gem from the Joongang article:

“We are closely monitoring Japan’s move,” said an official from Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “It’s too early to make a hasty conclusion that Japan has started to arm itself with nuclear weapons.”

Foreign ministry bureaucrats aren’t so thick as to raise that subject on their own after the modification of a few words in a bill, but journos everywhere are thick enough to ask that question.

The Chosun Ilbo also carried an article with similar delectations. They were worried this could elicit a “domino reaction” for nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia. Whether this meant they thought China, Russia, and North Korea would manufacture more than they already have, or that the only other country in Northeast Asia without the bomb — South Korea — would feel compelled to protect themselves from the nuclear barrage that Tokyo is sure to unleash on Seoul any minute now, they didn’t say.

Perhaps that explains why it was revealed less than a week after this news broke that the South Korean government has decided to sign a military agreement with the Japanese very soon:

“The pact — named the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) — calls for the two countries to exchange intelligence about North Korea and its nuclear and missile programmes, Yonhap news agency said. It cited a government source for its information. A foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment.”

In passing, note that the final sentence of the linked AFP article is incompetent, irrelevant, immaterial, and inacurrate, but that’s what happens when the pixel-stained wretches get a great notion to write about Japan and Korea in the same piece.

Speaking of points, we should also note that the Chosun article (which I read in its Japanese version) did present one point of interest. They combined the news on nuclear power law amendment with the observation that the Diet amended another law with military ramifications. Here’s additional information:

“The Upper House of Japan’s Diet June 20 passed legislation that shifts control of the nation’s space policy and budget, and opens the door to military space development programs with an emphasis on space-based missile early warning.

“The raft of legislation, based on the Bill to Amend the Law of Establishment of the Cabinet Office that was sent to the Diet on Feb. 14, enables the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office to take control of the planning and budgeting of Japan’s government space program. It also removes an article in a prior law governing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the nation’s equivalent to NASA, which had restricted JAXA’s ability to pursue military space programs.

“Prior to the legislation, JAXA had been de facto controlled by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and was overseen by a MEXT committee called the Space Activities Commission (SAC), leading to criticisms of regulatory capture.

“At the same time, JAXA’s space development has been restricted to an extremely narrow “peaceful purposes only” policy, which meant the agency was unable to develop specifically military space programs…”


“The passing of the law ends a process that began nearly a decade ago by politicians looking for ways to leverage Japan’s space development programs and technologies for security purposes, to bolster the nation’s defenses in the face of increased tensions in East Asia.

“On top of an increasingly confident China, Japan faces a potentially belligerent and unstable North Korea just across the Sea of Japan. Since 1998, North Korea has consistently flouted and broken promises, norms and international laws in developing and testing nuclear weapons and missiles.

“JAXA will now be permitted to develop space programs in line with international norms, which are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The treaty allows military space development, but not the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit…

“METI…is interested in promoting dual-use Earth observation and reconnaissance satellites and an air-launch space access system, according to the ministry.

“Suzuki said there also is strong bipartisan political support for Japan to develop and launch its own missile early-warning system to support the nation’s small fleet of Aegis destroyers for upper-tier defense, and its PAC-3 systems for lower-tier defense.”

So it would seem reasonable to conclude that the generation which was spoon-fed pacifism is giving way to people who have too much common sense to swallow that swilliness in the Occupation Constitution about entrusting national defense to the “peace loving peoples of the world”, in league with those of the older generation who were too smart to swallow it to begin with. Here’s one quick example of the latter: When Fukuda Yasuo was serving as chief cabinet secretary a decade ago before becoming prime minister, he alluded to Japan’s potential to develop nuclear weapons at a news conference, but had to walk it back the next day. Fortunately that was walked back only in public.

There’s a reason they call weapons “The Great Equalizer”. If the slow shift continues toward eliminating the peace clause of the Constitution, independently developing legit self-defense capabilities, recognizing the world’s realities, and rejecting the (primarily overseas) ideal vision of Japan as a ship-in-a-bottle model for world pacifism, it won’t be long before Japan is once again a “normal country”.

National defense is one of the few legitimate reasons for a strong central government to exist, and the primarily responsibility of all who serve in it. The means used for that defense — as long as they are limited to defense — need not be endlessly gummed over by the media and public. The people who need to know and want to know, both in Japan and the nearby countries, now know.

On the other hand

Some conspiracies of quietness are detrimental to the conduct of national affairs. While the news media couldn’t keep its collective hands out of its pants with the controversy over the consumption tax increase and the ramifications that will have for national politicians, the NPE slipped a few other bills through with few people noticing.

On the 21st, the Diet passed a law with multi-party support to “revitalize” theaters and concert halls, on the justification that doing so is the responsibility of national and local governments. Public sector funds already are used to support museums of art and natural history, and some claimed that the other facilities have not performed the role “originally expected of them”.

No, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, either.

This law encourages both governments to provide financial subsidies to create the “required environment” because these facilities foster the performing arts and artists. The Agency for Cultural Affairs will later develop a policy for the “assignment of specialists in the theater arts and conducting theater management”.

Not only is this indefensible in isolation, it was passed at the same time as legislation requiring citizens to pay more for the upkeep of government through the normal purchasing activities they conduct to live. Little did they know what they’re really paying for. Meanwhile, over in Osaka, Mayor Hashimoto Toru and his One Osaka organization/party are making the case to eliminate or reduce subsidies to the arts, an objective they have successfully accomplished in several cases. Not coincidentally, national polls show that One Osaka maintains a rate of support that is roughly half again the aggregate rate of support for the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Liberal Democrats and New Komeito.

In addition to the bill’s philosophical indefensibility (for anyone but statolatrists), it is clearly in opposition to the will of the people. Then again, if the popular will were a consideration, the NPE would never have passed the consumption tax increase, or would have held a referendum/lower house election first.

Among all that dealmaking, yet another decision was taken with no public debate on matters that directly concern the public. The DPJ withdrew its plan to combine public nursery schools and kindergartens (to save money) in favor of a of New Komeito plan to enhance the current system. There seems to have been no public input on this decision whatsoever.

The point here is not whether the DPJ or the New Komeito plan is better; either would probably work well. Rather, it was that a decision was made with little public awareness that an issue which concerns the education of their children was being discussed. Do you wonder why I think the news media is lazy?

A few months ago, LDP lower house pol Aisawa Ichiro tweeted that he was a major force in the adoption of a bill by the Diet to provide government support for athletics to turn Japan into a Great Power in Sports. Mr. Aisawa thought this was wonderful.

That’s another one no one knew anything about.

(I sent a reply to his Tweet asking why additional expenditures in this area were necessary in light of the government’s fiscal deficits. He didn’t answer, but either he or his staff added me to the list of people he follows.)

A hint for the likely explanation for the passage of the three of bills in the form they took and the manner in which they were passed is found in the official title of the government ministry with responsibility for all of them: The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

The bills for concert hall funding and sports superpower promotion in particular will provide easy money for things people do anyway to give useless bureaucrats in useless jobs in useless agencies a way to spend their daily cubicle time instead of finding gainful employment. That is less clear for the nursery school/kindergarten bill, but one does detect the flopsweat odor from bureaucrats terrified at the idea of getting cut out of the action.


The Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group now has a Japanese government bond portfolio worth JPY 49 trillion and a private sector loan portfolio of JPY 46 trillion. It is the first time the former amount has exceeded the latter for that entity.

Has it occurred to the NPE that the government gavage requiring financial institutions to gorge on all that money of the mind prevents them from lending their available funds to the private sector, which could then create more jobs that are better paying, more stable, and more productive, thus providing Leviathan with more tax revenue and eliminating the need to increase taxes?

Of course not.

Well, dip me in chocolate and feed me to the high school girls’ archery club. Maybe government interference in the arts is a blessing after all. Aren’t they darling?

Posted in Arts, Business, finance and the economy, Education, Government, Mass media, Military affairs, Politics, Science and technology, South Korea, Sports | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Artistic expression

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 19, 2012

CAN’T pass this story up, though it’s not Japan-related.

From the Bangkok Post:

The Culture Ministry will call a meeting with organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent after the popular programme aired a female contestant painting on a canvas with her bare breasts on national television on Sunday.

“There must be limits on artistic expression. I was shocked when I saw the clip,” Ms Sukumol said. “The ministry will meet the organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent to get an explanation.”

There were three judges on the program. Two passed the contestant and one flunked her. Two of the judges were men and one of them was a woman. The judges who passed the contestant said it was another type of artistic expression.

No, you don’t have to ask. You already know.

There’s a six-minute video at that link, by the way. The program was recorded before broadcast, so one small section of the screen was electronically altered.

There’s no accounting for taste, I know, but I would have preferred to see the female judge (actress Pornchita Na Songkhla) render that painting rather than the actual painter. Her nickname is Benz.

Oh, brothers and sisters, ask and ye shall receive! Benz (who thought the performance was inappropriate for Thai culture) has some experience with this sort of thing herself. As the blogger Kaewmala reports at this website, she starred in a photo layout for Image magazine in 2010. In a couple of those photos, she’s topless and covered with chocolate. In another, she bares half her chest (vertically, from the middle out) with two rather dark-complexioned gentlemen pulling on her blouse.

As the site notes, that raises the question of whether some breasts are more artistically equal than others.

Now that’s an issue that deserves thorough debate!

Kaewmala also reports that Judge Benz really digs it when boys do it:

In fact, the gender split is reversed in this vote on the same program. The comparison of this video with the one in the link above is one of the most educational experiences I’ve ever had on the Internet.

There’s a big black hairy guy in this one, too. One commenter says the pianist’s name is Elton.

Posted in Arts, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Music, Thailand | Leave a Comment »

Hashimoto Toru (9): Cultural subsidies

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 8, 2012

OSAKA Mayor Hashimoto Toru has been questioning local government subsidies for the traditional art of bunraku (and all arts subsidies) since he was the governor of Osaka Prefecture. Part of the issue is the double subsidy received: one from the city and one from the prefecture. At a news conference in January, he said that he supported bunraku, but not the Bunraku Society.

Last night he fired off a volley of Tweets explaining his views. More than a few Americans would be willing to chop off a little finger and cover their body in tattoos to have a local politician in his position and with his audience make the following case.


I was disappointed to read an article by Mr. Takemoto, a national living treasure, in the evening edition of the Mainichi Shimbun on the 6th (Osaka), titled “The Future Will Not Forgive the Disrespect for Bunraku”. (NB: He is probably referring to Takemoto Tsunatayu, the ninth holder of the name in a lineage dating to 1776.) I had heard reports of a budding awareness of reform among those involved in the art in regard to promoting the structural reform of bunraku.

I’ve been criticized from all quarters for disrespecting culture by cutting culture-related subsidies.  Those subsidies can either revive the recipients or kill them, depending on their use. Most government subsidies kill most of the recipients. That’s because the subsidies flow freely to “men of government” and the people involved in the art, and their first priority becomes government funding.

We must seek a cooperative effort from the recipients if the use of the money is to be beneficial. Reform and improvement are essential at all times. But the people involved prefer the easy way out. They want to keep receiving the subsidies as they have in the past, regardless of the effect. That soon creates vested interests, and the money keeps flowing regardless of the effect.

In Japan today, in every sector, taxes continue to flow to entities that have become vested interests regardless of the effect. Japan is struggling with long-term stagnation without growth. It is no different in the cultural sphere. They’re happy if the money continues to flow as it has in the past. They use it for their own purposes with no thoughts of the original intent of promoting culture.

Why is it that bunraku does not attract an audience? When I was governor, I frequently pointed out the structural problems in the world of bunraku. But the government authorities directly responsible are incapable of a sound analysis, and when the grandees of the art come before them, their job becomes to continue the subsidies as before. There are structural deficiencies in the world of bunraku, and no one assumes responsibility for the promotion of the art.

There is no communication whatsoever from the Association for Bunraku Promotion, the Bunraku Society, or the artists. There is no strategy at all for promoting bunraku. Their awareness is limited to the idea that it is only natural to receive protection. The first step on the road to ruin in any enterprise is taken when the idea of special privileges arises. It is the same with culture. There is nothing more harmful than the awareness of special privileges. When I was governor, I thoroughly examined the ideal approach for bunraku.

The only thing in their minds is that both the prefecture and the city should maintain their subsidies…The primary reason for the decline of bunraku is that the governmental authorities and those involved in the art have given no thought to this at all…They are squatting atop culture with an outlook and values far removed from those in society at large. The state of bunraku today is the result, and they have no awareness of that whatsoever.

It has not dawned on them that their failure to attract an audience is their responsibility. There is a reason they cannot attract an audience, and it is entirely the responsibility of the people involved with bunraku. But they shift that responsibility to other people, and they continue to demand that they be protected with tax funds because they are a tradition, as if it were part of the very nature of things. They lack any sense of humility whatsoever toward their use of tax funds. Taxes are the money collected from citizens who strain to the point of desperation. (literally, are covered in blood)

Receiving tax funds requires the utmost in gratitude toward the citizens, regardless if it is a culture with a 300-year history or anything else.

(end translation)

I did some slight editing to remove repetition and to facilitate understanding.


That bunraku is a marvelous art form and a national treasure is undeniable. Here’s a scene called Sake Shop from a longer piece called Hadesugata Onna Maiginu that dates from 1772.

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

Political kabuki in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 31, 2012

FOR reasons beyond understanding, Americans have glommed onto the word kabuki and applied it to political situations to describe debate/discussion/behavior/bloviation that is little more than a theatrical performance, in which the actors play to exaggerated stereotypes to disguise either a predetermined outcome or their real motives. The Brits use it much less frequently in that context, and when they do, they tend to add a word at the end by calling it political kabuki theater.

That sort of behavior has as much in common with kabuki as real kabuki has with vaudeville. The plays themselves have every bit the drama and meaning as most of Shakespeare, and the earliest ones are about the same age. To expect the average journo or commentator to understand that, however, would be to credit them with more erudition than the flybaits whose careers they follow.

The Japanese also have their own equivalent of what is referred to as political kabuki, of course. In fact, no one does it better. They just don’t call it kabuki. An excellent example is the stylized drama that’s been playing on the political stage for the past month over the issue of restarting the Oi nuclear power reactors in Fukui. It’s nearing resolution, and it now seems this kabuki will be more productive than those staged overseas. It centers on putting the arrangements in place for the eventual resumption of nuclear power production nationwide.

Recall that for other reasons beyond understanding, Japan’s political tachiyaku, Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, chose to elbow his way to the front of the anti-nuclear power parade in Japan. It is beyond understanding because it is almost certainly an exercise in populism, even though his popularity is such that a populist appeal wasn’t necessary.

Hosono Goshi holds forth (Asahi Shimbun)

His position has infected even those of his senior advisors and political allies who have long track records of adult behavior. Your Party, the only serious reformers among the national political parties, became Hashimoto allies because they share the policies of regional devolution and bureaucratic reform. But they too have started running the anti-nuke voodoo down, and their new approach is even more confounding because their secretary-general, Eda Kenji, is a sensible man who was once a star bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, the ministry responsible for the oversight of the nuclear power industry.

Another former METI hanagata is the bureaucratic reformer Koga Shigeaki, who is now a Hashimoto senior advisor. He recently appeared on television to charge that Kansai Electric might engage in deliberate “nuclear terrorism” by sabotaging their own thermal power plants as a weapon to get the nuclear plants back on line.

Mr. Koga must have developed a taste for plywood — he’s still chewing the scenery, though he has toned it down a bit. Asked by reporters to explain that statement, he said:

“I wanted to say that they were threatening to create a situation in which there would be a power shortfall, based on the premise of restarting the plants. When Kansai Electric and METI cry “blackouts, blackouts”, that is terrorism.”


“I used the word terrorism because neither Kansai Electric nor METI formulated measures even though they knew last summer there would be a power shortage this summer.”

This approach by One Osaka and its allies might have found support at the national level were Kan Naoto — who “loves” wind power — still prime minister. Fortunately, the DPJ finally found an adult member of their party to serve in that position, and Noda Yoshihiko wants to get the nuclear plants back on line as soon as possible. Current METI chief Edano Yukio, Mr. Kan’s chief cabinet secretary during the nuclear accident, has the sugarplum dream of being prime minister himself, so he’s found himself some new chums in the METI bureaucracy.

The immediate problem is the anticipated 15% power shortfall this summer in the Kansai region — home to Panasonic, Sharp, and other major manufacturers — if the Oi plants are not restarted. It will take six weeks to get them back up to speed, and time is running out.

The government doesn’t need permission from anyone to permit nuclear power generation to resume, but that would leave them open to the charge of ignoring the concerns of the public and the local governments involved. Thus they have begun executing a program of eggshell-walking and convincing local government leaders and citizens’ groups that it is safe to press the nuclear button.

On 19 May, the prime minister dispatched Hosono Goshi, the Cabinet minister responsible for nuclear energy, to explain the new safety standards to the Union of Kansai Governments. That’s a group consisting of the governors of seven Kansai prefectures. (The governor of Nara chose not to join.) The union was formed in October 2010 to coordinate region-wide emergency medical services and disaster response, among other work. But more important, it is a vehicle to promote regional devolution, one of Mr. Hashimoto’s primary objectives. The seven prefectures have a combined population of almost 21 million people.

Hashimoto Toru helped create the union when he was the Osaka Prefecture governor.  He’s now the mayor of Osaka City, which is not an official member, but what are rules to a big enchilada?

In fact, he was responsible for the union’s rejection of the new nuclear safety standards presented by Mr. Hosono at the 19 May meeting. He dismissed them by saying they weren’t standards, but merely “anti-tsunami measures”.

The Second Meeting

It took but a fortnight for the government to come up with some revisions — golly, that was fast — and present them to another meeting of the Union of Kansai Governments yesterday. Mr. Hashimoto wasn’t present because he had to attend an Osaka city council session, but Union Chairman Ido Toshizo, the governor of Hyogo, stayed in contact with him by telephone to keep him informed of the discussions and to write down his instructions.

Here’s what happened: Mr. Hosono told the meeting that the government will soon present new safety measures to the Fukui governor (Oi is in Fukui). If they suit the governor’s fancy, Prime Minister Noda will “take the responsibility” for making the decision on restarting the reactors himself, early in June. One of the two METI vice-ministers and a ministerial aide will be stationed at Oi to make sure everything is tip-top. There will be stronger “provisional safety standards” for the “limited” restart of the reactors, and those standards will be reviewed for further improvement after the establishment of a new atomic energy regulatory agency, which the DPJ government finally got around to bringing up in the Diet. The chief municipal officer of Oi-cho, where the reactors are located, has already signaled that he will give his blessing to get those turbines moving again. In essence, the plan leaves everything up to the national government.

Now break out the popcorn and watch the political kabuki.

Mr. Hashimoto earlier hinted that he would be amenable to “limited operation”. When Gov. Ido conferred with him by phone during the meeting, the mayor said he would agree this time on the condition that the words “provisional” and “limited” were inserted in the statement.

Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro, the mayor’s primary political ally in the region, asked:

“Will the restart be approved using existing guidelines even though the government’s safety standards are not thorough and complete?”

Mr. Hashimoto asked:

“If the safety standards are provisional, then plant safety itself is provisional, isn’t it? Why will the reactors be restarted without waiting for the establishment of the nuclear regulatory agency?”

Some of the other governors were just critical, but here is their official statement released as soon as the meeting ended:

“We strongly seek an appropriate and limited decision (from the national government) on the premise that this decision will be provisional.”

In other words: Thanks for letting us save face while we go along with letting you restart the plants.

When asked what “limited” referred to, Mr. Ido said it included both the safety standards and the resumption of nuclear power generation.

The Facts of Life

What happened between 19 May and 30 May to change everyone’s mind? Nobody’s saying, but it likely involved what regional business leaders were telling the politicians in private, and which was just revealed in public earlier this week by the Nikkei Shimbun, the country’s primary business and financial daily.

The Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry took a quick survey from the 21st to the 25th of 73 large regional companies to determine the effects of a 15% power cutback this summer. 70% said it would cause serious problems, and 56% said their profits would suffer. Only 29% said that it would be possible to achieve a 15% reduction in power use. Most (32% of the respondents) said the best they could achieve was a 5%-10% cutback. That was roughly the level of savings Kansai Electric’s large consumers managed last summer. More than a few said they would have to reduce working hours altogether, increase the number of days they would close, or move shifts to later at night.

What everyone already knew was that many companies in Tokyo started relocating offices and plants in other parts of Japan (and the world) to ensure stable energy supplies for their business. They also knew that the oil imports required to offset the loss of nuclear power was deuced expensive.

So, as one wag on the Internet put it, the “Union of Kansai Yakuza Gangs” has now shifted its position from “there will be enough power even without the nuclear plants” to “there will be enough power if we save energy” to “there will be enough energy if we have rolling blackouts and receive power from other parts of the country” to “OK, but it’s only provisional”.

It’s also curious that Hashimoto Toru, the Twitter Machine Gun who fires off 20-30 tweets a day to spray his opinions on the public at large and kick his opponents in the groin, has been observing radio silence of late. Some have concluded that he has been quietly reassessing his position.

Does anyone doubt that once the Oi nuclear reactors go back on line, they will stay on line unless there’s a historically immense shift of tectonic plates in the immediate area? Does anyone doubt that when the Oi reactors go back on line, the other idled plants nationwide will eventually follow?

Thus, mere days after the overseas Split Wood Not Atoms sect rejoiced because Japan was now “nuclear free”, those smiles have been flipped into frowns.  Reuters quoted Greg McNevin, a spokesman for Greenpeace International as saying:

“We have consistently said that none of the safety or emergency measures that have been called for by experts in the community has been completed.  Our consistent position is that this is being rushed.”

Silly boy. One of the defining elements of kabuki theater is mie, in which the actor assumes an extravagant, stylized pose. Greenpeace seems to think their own mie have the mojo to work on the Japanese stage. But none the several Japanese-language articles I read quoted his (or any other foreigner’s) comments, and an audience that doesn’t exist can’t applaud. Text message to the Greenies: Becoming a real kabuki actor requires years of apprenticeship and study.


All of this brings up several interesting questions. Does this represent the first defeat for Hashimoto Toru in his confrontation with the national establishment? Does this face-saving agreement mean that the establishment and Mr. Hashimoto are accommodating themselves to each other? Is the Osaka mayor cooperating with the DPJ government that he pledged to bring down? Will his objections actually result in more stringent standards for nuclear power operation?

Is Mr. Hashimoto in fact not anti-nuclear power at all, but using that provisionality as one string on his anti-establishment guitar, with the added benefit of greater safety?

We’ll find out eventually what went on backstage. We always do.


With serendipitous synchronicity, a Japanese blog post floated up yesterday in which the author described a visit to observe the work underway at the Hamamatsu nuclear power plant. That was the first one to be shut down after the Fukushima accident. There were legitimate concerns about its safety, and work to improve plant resistance to natural disasters had already begun.

It never stopped, even though the reactors did. The blogger wrote:

Construction is proceeding on a wall that rises 18 meters above sea level and surrounds the entire facility. An emergency generator and a nuclear reactor cooling pump are being installed in a structure 20 meters above sea level in which seawater cannot penetrate. Technical developments in 30 categories are being incorporated in the work, which will result in the strongest anti-tsunami measures of any plant in the world. This is more comprehensive than I had imagined.

The wall is two meters thick, 1.6 kilometers long, and its foundation extends from 10 to 30 meters underground. The construction work will be completed in December.

It seems not to have occurred to some people in Japan that nuclear power plant operation might be forever suspended.


It also never occurred to Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi to stop being so tiresome. Here’s the statement he released after the agreement:

The safety standards are ridiculous, there is still no regulatory agency, there are no stress tests under the new safety standards, there is no crisis management system based on the premise of an accident, there are no plans for the disposition of the spent fuel, there is no private sector insurance for compensating accident victims, and it is not possible to cite a reason for approving the unsafe time-limited operation! Is this right?

Now that’s political kabuki. At least he didn’t insert multiple exclamation points at the end of every clause.

Absent from the discussion is that any destruction which might occur at Oi is premised on tsunami damage (not earthquake damage) and that estimates of fatalities in a tsunami large enough to damage the plant run as high as 10,000. Some have suggested that Mr. Hashimoto might have recognized the contradiction of demanding absolute safety for the plant without demanding measures to prevent tsunami damage.


Paddy Regan, the director of the MSc course in radiation and environmental protection at the University of Surrey, Guildford, wrote an article that appeared in the Telegraph of Britain. It starts this way:

Three places: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. And three more: Banqiao, Machhu II, Hiakud. Most people react with horror to the first trio, while the second three locations usually draw a blank look. In fact, the latter were the sites of three major hydroelectric dam failures: in China and India in 1975, 1979 and 1980, which were directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. In contrast, the death toll directly associated with radiation exposure from the three best-known civil nuclear accidents is estimated by the World Health Organisation to be conservatively about 50, all associated with Chernobyl.

He continued:

The Italian foreign ministry, for example, recommended that its citizens flew out of Tokyo to avoid potential radiation exposure in the first couple of weeks following the Fukushima leak. While the radiation levels in the Japanese capital rose significantly above normal, they remained lower than the typical average background radiation levels in Rome, leading to the bizarre situation of individuals being relocated to places with higher radiation levels than those they were leaving.

It also contains information that seems beyond the ability of the Hysterians to comprehend:

And a pervasive myth has taken hold that even tiny amounts of radiation are unsafe. In reality, this cannot be so, as humans have evolved in an invisible sea of naturally occurring radioactivity. Much of this arises from radioactive forms of potassium, uranium and thorium; remnants of the Earth’s formation more than 4 billion years ago. Human bodies are bubbling with radioactivity, with around 7,000 atoms decaying each second due to radioactivity from potassium-40 and carbon-14.


* Some Americans do understand the stupidity in the use of the term political kabuki, as this article demonstrates.  It’s a good explanation of why the coinage is inapt and includes the pertinent observation:

“If a former theater critic such as Frank Rich can’t be trusted to use it properly, who can?”

Alas, the five reasons he asserts — not suggests — for the American creation of the phrase were pulled straight from his backside.

* Though kabuki is now high art and a living tradition, its origin is attributed to female drama troupes who became popular because their performances included erotic scenes and provocative dances. They were also often prostitutes, and fights frequently broke out among the spectators for reasons that require no explanation.

As Brother Dave Gardner used to say, Ain’t that weird?

The Tokugawa Shogunate, still in its early days, banned women from performing in the dramas, but their parts were taken by men who also sold their favors.

Maybe a case can be made for the legitimacy of the term “political kabuki” after all.

* Enough of the Ersatz brand, here’s some of the hard stuff. It’s a short, edited version of a performance of Kanjincho (List of Contributors). The story is based on an older Noh play, was originally performed as a kabuki drama in 1702, and assumed its current form in 1840. Reading the plot summary at that link will give you an idea how shocking it must have been in the context of Japan’s vertical society at the time.

No erotic scenes or provocative dances though. Sorry.

Posted in Arts, Business, finance and the economy, Politics, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Hashimoto Toru (7): Exasperation

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 19, 2012

OSAKA Mayor Hashimoto Toru might be Japan’s Most Exasperating Person, if such a title existed. As often as he says or does something that makes the advocates of small and sensible government feel like firing confetti from cannons, he just as often says or does something that gets people thinking about dressing him in tar and feathers. Here are two examples of each.


One of the many candidates for Exhibit A in the trial against public sector profligacy is the redistribution of other people’s money to buy art. Some people seem to believe cultural activity would cease to exist, or not exist at all, unless The State writes the checks.

When serving as Osaka Prefecture governor, Mr. Hashimoto ended the annual JPY 450 million handout to the Osaka Century Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was established in 1989 and operated by a foundation with a 2005 budget of JPY 700 million. Solvency was a problem despite the largesse, and people began discussing the possibility of merging the four Osaka area orchestras to save money. The governor started paring in 2008 and eliminated the subsidy last year.

Despite the savings, the response from some quarters was that the philistine Hashimoto was hindering the promotion of culture.

Frédéric Bastiat had an answer for that — and many other things besides — in an 1850 pamphlet titled The Law. It has never been bettered:

“Every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

Some people make the excuse that the civilized Europeans, those pillars of fiscal sanity, have state-supported culture, and that we too will become just as civilized if we allow government to pay for it all.

Roger Kimball, the editor of the New Criterion, a magazine of culture/arts/politics criticism, had an answer for that — and many other things besides:

“Have you taken a look a Europe and its state-supported culture recently? Really, this objection is almost too embarrassing to answer. What makes you think that state involvement of culture leads to anything other than the growth of the state and its insinuation into areas of life they have no business being in? Take your time.”

Mr. Hashimoto was less elegant in his rebuttal, but no less accurate. During the debate conducted over orchestra funding in 2009 at a business planning meeting for the prefecture, one conscientious objector said that the government should recognize its responsibility. Rebutting logic of that sort doesn’t require elegance, so Mr. Hashimoto said:

“If you want to keep the orchestra, your employees should join a fan club.”

The orchestra survived, though there were no reports on whether a fan club was formed. It’s now called the Japan Century City Orchestra. The Kinki Sangyo Credit Union in Osaka announced they’ll pick up JPY 200 million of their tab.

Now Mr. Hashimoto has to do it again as Mayor of Osaka. The Osaka Philharmonic receives a JPY 110 million subsidy from the city government, and the city’s project team looking into government expenditures is recommending a 25% cut. They’re also thinking of eliminating entirely the subsidy to The Osaka Municipal Symphonic Band, which operates an outdoor concert venue near Osaka Castle. The municipal band, formed in 1923, is the oldest orchestra in Japan and the only one affiliated with a local government.

The welfare queens started moaning en chorale. The choirmaster is composer/songwriter Miyagawa Akira, who organized a concert to support the band with 40 other musicians. Said Mr. Miyagawa:

“It would be reckless if the city decides to simply end the subsidy with no concern for its image.”

But even he understands that carte blanche no longer applies. He allowed that the municipal band needed to change “partially” to get public support.

As Mr. Hashimoto tweeted after the philharmonic found a sponsor, ”Culture will also have to do its share.”

They’ve already started. The municipal band holds four Friday evening concerts every July, which attract 20,000 people during the month. They’re now soliciting money in exchange for naming rights.

Japan’s Communist Party charges that Mr. Hashimoto is opposed to cultural funding because it doesn’t turn a profit. But we should consider the source, which never considers the possibility that anything should exist outside of the public sector. They also never consider the possibility that profitability is an excellent indicator of popular support.

At the end of April, I attended a concert presented by the symphony orchestra of the local university, which was augmented by area amateurs. The program included Beethoven’s 7th and a piece by Saint-Saëns. The hall was 75-80% full on a fine Sunday afternoon, and we were treated to an excellent performance. Culture worthy of the name is strong enough to survive on its own. Confiscating the assets of private citizens in support of a dubious proposition leads to “the growth of the state and its insinuation into areas of life they have no business being in”.

Human rights

Mayor Hashimoto is not calling into question the public funding of the Osaka Human Rights Museum, AKA Liberty Osaka, but rather the nature of its activities. That is unfortunate; the name alone suggests that the museum’s objective is to violate the human rights of the majority by promoting privileges for selected minorities.

While still governor, he told the foundation that some changes would have to be made. He has a voice in the institution’s management because both Osaka Prefecture and the city subsidize the foundation.

Said the mayor:

“When I was governor, I instructed the museum to change some of its exhibits because they were terrible. I spent quite a lot of time discussing the concept of the changes with the museum authorities. I wanted an educational institution that thought about what had to be done to enable children to think about their own future and to make their dreams and wishes come true.”

Some museum visitors were unhappy about the changes the museum made and complained about it. He returned with Osaka Gov. Matsuo Ichiro for another look, and they weren’t happy about the changes either. Mr. Hashimoto described it as “the usual parade of discrimination and human rights” themes.

As the mayor described the “dreams of the future” section, there was something hanging on the museum wall…Do you want to be a carpenter? Apply to the want ads from building contractors. Do you want to become a baseball player? Be selected in the draft. Do you want to become a teacher? Pass the certification test for teachers and get appointed by the Board of Education. He tweeted:

“What part of this is an educational facility that thinks about the future? This is grotesque.”

A cybertrip to the museum’s Japanese language website (no English) reveals the grotesqueries right away. The museum says its mission is to raise consciousness about those people suffering from discrimination, such as the burakumin, Koreans resident in Japan, Uchinaanchu, the Ainu, the disabled, women, lepers, people with HIV/AIDS, sexual minorities, the homeless, and “others”.

To break that down:

Burakumin: It has been widely reported that Mr. Hashimoto’s father and his family were burakumin, a social (not ethnic) minority that has been subject to discrimination. He and his mother deny it, his uncle affirms it, and almost no one in Japan cares. Attendant to legitimate anti-discrimination activities, burakumin rights advocates run hustles of the sort people in the States have long been familiar with. (Books have been written about it.) A publicly funded museum in Osaka promoting burakumin rights is roughly equivalent to insisting that the U.S. needs to maintain affirmative action programs with Barack Obama sitting in the Oval Office.

Korean residents in Japan: There are about 610,000 Japan-born and –bred ethnic Koreans who voluntarily choose Korean citizenship, some of whom have never set foot on the Korean Peninsula. Some people think their choice of national loyalties should not prevent them from having voting rights in Japan, as championed in the fine print of the ruling Democrati Party’s manifesto. Those with South Korean citizenship can vote in South Korea. Those with North Korean citizenship are represented by Chongryun, whose chairman and five other officials are members of the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyeongyang.

Chongryun also operates schools for ethnic Koreans, with pictures of Kim I, II, and (presumably) III on the walls, and implements a curriculum that promotes the juche philosophy. Some people think it is discriminatory that these schools do not receive the same Japanese government financial assistance as Japanese schools.

Uchinaanchu: That’s what some Okinawans call themselves in the Okinawan dialect/language. Everyone else in Japan calls them “Okinawans” when a distinction is necessary. The museum’s choice of that term suggests they might support a separatist movement. Most Okinawans don’t. In fact, the younger they are, the less likely they are to be separatists. The museum’s choice of the term also suggests an eagerness to be me-too multiculturalists. Can’t miss that progressive bus!

I watch Okinawan Japanese interacting with non-Okinawan Japanese all the time. I have never seen or heard non-Okinawan Japanese discriminating against Okinawan Japanese. Or even make jokes about them. Doesn’t happen.

The Ainu: Perhaps some of this ethnic minority are still discriminated against, if anyone could find any of them. There aren’t that many left, their numbers are dwindling, and the government is already paying people to be Ainu for a living.

Women: With his new Cabinet evenly split 50-50 between men and women, French President François Hollande has shown he thinks gender is a more important qualification for high-level personnel appointments than competence. Some Japanese think it is discrimination to not behave as M. Hollande. That opinion even extends to the personnel choices of  private sector companies, which are nobody’s business but the companies.

Then again, if the Cabinet ministers in France are anything like those in Japan, competence is not one of the criteria for their selection to begin with.

Sexual minorities: Some Japanese men have become fabulously well-to-do by queening it up on national television for decades. (I can think of six off the top of my head, and I almost never watch television.) This week, Tokyo Disney Resort — yes, Tokyo Disneyland — said two lesbians can have a wedding ceremony at a hotel on the site.

As the AFP news agency puts it:

“Homosexuality in Japan is widely accepted but not openly discussed.”

What’s to discuss? You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t believe the AFP, by the way, hit the link to the Beautiful Way of the Samurai on the right sidebar.

John McKeller, the leader of HOPE (Homosexuals Opposed to Pride Extremism, has an answer for that — and many other things besides:

“(E)ven as a young, radical college student, I had no time for the clubby, leftist lemmings who comprised the early gay activists. They were dull, they were depressing, they always looked and acted as if they were born to be offended and victimized, they could never discourse for more than 5 minutes without hitting some tiresome barrier of resentment or ideology…

…In 1967, Pierre Trudeau supposedly liberated us when he said “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”. Subsequently, matters of privacy and discrimination were laudably and necessarily dealt with in the early 1970’s. But today, the bedrooms of the nation are in everybody’s faces. Today, it’s all about benefits, privileges, social engineering, nihilism and redefining normalcy. Today, it’s all about blurring every distinction between personal and political issues and vigorously stifling any attempts at discussion or debate.”

Ignore the false front of idealism and look at the reality: the objective of the museum and the similar activities of NGOs and GOs the world over is not “equality”, but power. Fertilize it with public money and it will reward the behavior of such grifters as Harvard professor and U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. Or even this guy.

The inspiration is not positive, but punitive. Among the fellow travelers on the same road are those whose taste in intellectual fashion favors the jackboot. Here’s an impressive display of semi-literacy and word manipulation from a woman in Britain, who concludes that it’s all very sweet. Read it all the way through and see if you don’t feel like throwing a satsuma at her.

Some elements of the ruling DPJ are at the forefront of the Japanese vanguard of rights hucksterism. They slipped into the election manifesto of 2009 the establishment of a “human rights committee” as a wing of the Justice Ministry. Prime Minister Noda (further to the left than is generally recognized) thought it was so important, he wanted to submit a bill creating that committee to the Diet this year. He didn’t explain why it was important, but explanations are not his forte. Justice Minister Ogawa Toshio also thinks “it is essential to establish a human rights committee that can respond appropriately to human rights violations.”

It was stymied not by the opposition parties, but by opposition within the ruling party. Enough people in the DPJ thought the whole business was a violation of free speech and Article 21 of the Constitution. Finally the bureaucrats stepped in and said “it was too early” because there has been no debate among the people. If a debate eventually does occur, it would be helpful to translate Mark Steyn into Japanese:

“I regard (human rights commissions) as an abomination. All the key protections of common law, the presumption of innocence, truth as a defence, the right to due process, the right to confront your accuser in open court, all these things go by the board under a human rights commission system, which is essentially a hierarchy of fashionable victim groups…essentially if someone feels offended by you, you are guilty…because we have elevated the human right not to be offended into a bedrock human right. I think particularly in multicultural societies that governments are very comfortable with this because they regard themselves as the sole legitimate arbiter of acceptable public discourse between different social groups.”

Alas, Mr. Hashimoto drops the ball in the end. He wants to have museums of modern history that present both sides of historical arguments. Just call the whole thing off. Historical arguments are as hardy as cultural activities, and have no trouble surviving on their own.


Amamiya Masayoshi, the Bank of Japan’s Executive Director of Monetary Affairs and Financial Markets, was recently appointed the head of the bank’s Osaka branch. The Osaka office serves as the primary cash backup for the Tokyo office. (It took three hours to transfer stewardship of the funds when Mr. Amamiya assumed his duties.). The appointment caught even some inside the BOJ by surprise. Most speculation has it that the bank wanted someone in Osaka capable of explaining the economic facts of life to Mr. Hashimoto.

One of the Osaka mayor’s primary advisors is former Finance Ministry official Takahashi Yoichi, so it does seem odd that he would need additional tutoring. Then again, Mr. Hashimoto has some odd ideas that he got from somewhere. For example, he wants to amend the Bank of Japan law to permit the government to establish price targets.

Godfrey Daniel!

Prices are established by all of us acting alone together in our best legal interests. It’s called the Invisible Hand. The Visible Ham-Hand of the public sector is incapable of establishing prices that are legitimate. If it were, the Soviet bloc would still exist.

But that’s not all. The mayor also thinks the BOJ is too independent and the government should also set monetary policy targets.

Mother of Pearl!

If that happens, we should get the government to provide everyone with free yoga lessons. All the better to kiss our backsides goodbye. Society’s weak will need a Head Start on the physical training.

If anything is sure to screw things even further up than the financial bureaucracy has already screwed things up, it would be to allow the human airbag ventilating system in Nagata-cho/Washington/Brussels/Anywhere Else to determine prices and monetary policy.

Spit on a stick!

The man whispering these sour nothings into the Osaka mayor’s ear is likely the aforementioned Takahashi Yoichi, who also advises Your Party. One thing all these people have in common is an admirable understanding of the problems and an execrable understanding of the solutions. It is all the more puzzling because Mr. Takahashi was closely involved with the Japan Post privatization of Koizumi Jun’ichiro.

The first thing Mr. Amamiya of the BOJ should whisper in Mr. Hashimoto’s ear when they meet is that the government is no more capable of handling the market for money than it is for cars, cabbages, or medical care.

Most people thought Frederich Hayek was whacked when he called for the denationalization of money. But read what he wrote:

“Since the function of government in issuing money is no longer one of merely certifying the weight and fineness of a certain piece of metal, but involves a deliberate determination of the quantity of money to be issued, governments have become wholly inadequate for the task and, it can be said without qualifications, have incessantly and everywhere abused their trust to defraud the people.”


“The government monopoly of the issue of money was bad enough so long as metallic money predominated. But it became an unrelieved calamity since paper money (or other token money), which can provide the best and the worst money, came under political control. A money deliberately controlled in supply by an agency whose self-interest forced it to satisfy the wishes of the users might be the best. A money regulated to satisfy the demands of group interests is bound to be the worst possible.”

Now those are ideas whose time has come. While few people expect a legitimate free market in money to emerge any time soon (underground markets are a different story), it should be now clear to most people that a government which regulates money or monetary policy will always do so to satisfy the demands of group interests. (That includes businesses too big to fail.) It should be especially clear to the people who operate human rights museums. They’re working the same street corner, after all.


Mr. Hashimoto can be fairly charged with populism for his anti-nuclear power stance justified solely by emotional harangues, without offering an alternative of any sort. But that’s not the worst part. Here’s the mayor as quoted by the 14 May Yomiuri Shimbun on the question of restarting the Oi nuclear power plant in the Kansai area:

“There will never be a situation such as this again. The next generation must fully experience what it will be like to live under government decree to restrict energy usage.”

Jesus Menstruating Goldfishes! What tar pit of the soul did that bubble up from?

Emotional distortions projected in public have nothing to do with logic, but since this is a policy question, let’s apply it as logic — “The next generation must fully experience what it will be like to live under government decree to restrict bandage and antiseptic usage and apply buffalo dung poultices instead.”

Even in the event that he one day becomes prime minister, his own supporters wouldn’t let him get away with that. In fact, his closest political ally, Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro, already has objected:

“Last year’s rolling blackouts had a major impact on the economy. There’s no reason to so facilely accept restricted energy usage.”

And if you use too much energy? Mr. Hashimoto didn’t come up with a solution for that, but the Energy Strategy Conference of the city and prefecture of Osaka did. According to the 15 May Osaka edition of the Mainichi Shimbun, they suggest creating an Energy Conservation Notification Center to which citizens could report offices and shops that they think are too bright.

Sorry. All out of colorful oaths.

The standards these neighborhood informants would use to determine whether the illumination of the establishments was too bright were not specified. Human nature being what it is, however, one of the standards will surely become, “That guy/company/shop clerk is a creep.”

They also suggest shutting down government offices during the hotter hours of the day in summer, which is not a bad idea in theory. I’m self-employed and work at home, and I often take a siesta or read at those times. But I can work at night, on weekends, and whenever I feel like it, deadlines permitting. What would employees do with two or three hours of free time at a job site far from their home? (Stop that snickering!) Returning home is not possible for most people. Will they be made to stay late at night to catch up?

Rather than the idea of government restriction of energy usage, they should be focusing on deregulation that permits increased energy supply and distribution. A system will go into effect this July in which the existing utilities will be forced to pay roughly twice the cost of nuclear-generated power to enterprises generating energy from alternative sources. Of course the people really paying for it will be the consumers.

See what happens when the government sets price targets?

But since the government. or a government monopoly, is as incapable of dealing with the power market as it is with anything else, the plan should be to borrow the idea of that crazy guy Hayek and denationalize/deregulate supply as well as production (and prices), create smart grids, and throw the market open to everyone.

That brings us to the most puzzling and exasperating aspect of all. Those people who, like Hashimoto Toru, talk about privatizing the public sector and operating the government on businesslike principles, are usually the same people who immediately understand the problems with culture subsidies and human rights scams. They are seldom the people who think government control of prices and money is a good idea. They are almost never the people who talk about the need to experience life with government restrictions on power. (That’s what these people do.)

I would have thought it impossible for these ideas to coexist. Hashimoto The Exasperating has achieved the impossible.


These are serious questions about the role of government in society, but the story in the English-language media about Hashimoto Toru this week was his prohibition of tattoos for Osaka city employees. Such is the media’s four-panel comic strip approach to the world. While they noted that most public establishments, including public baths, and several large private companies have the same prohibitions due to the association with yakuza, they missed one of the key parts of the story. More than half of the 110 or so city employees with tattoos are employed at the Environmental Division, which is a euphemism for garbage collectors. There are unlikely to be many gangsters on the garbage trucks. In Osaka, those trucks are much more likely to be manned by burakumin.


In a demonstration of non-government funded cultural diversity, Kevin Kmetz plays a Bach prelude on the shamisen in Tokyo.


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Ichigen koji (77)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 4, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

From tonight’s Shoten television program

Utamaru (the moderator of the panel of rakugo comedians, explaining the premise for the weekly joke contest): You’ve been out drinking with people from work and had too much, and now you want to go home early. I’ll play the part of a supervisor you don’t like. You say to me, “I’ve got to be going now because XXX”. I’ll try to dissuade you and say, “No, let’s go to one more place!” You continue the conversation from there.

Enraku (one of the comedians on the panel): Prime Minister, I can’t drink any more. I just can’t drink any more, so let’s call it a night.

Utamaru: No, let’s go to one more place!

Enraku: But we’ve done nothing but drink (i.e., swallow) all the American demands so far!

When one of the comedians comes up with a joke or routine that is particularly funny or clever, the moderator awards the comedian with a zabuton, or cushion for seating on the floor.

Enraku was awarded a zabuton for this joke.

Utamaru is in the pale green kimono at the far left, and Enraku is in the lavender kimono third from the right.

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Ichigen koji (69)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 6, 2011

– A person who has something to say about everything

I have no past and no future. The only value is in today, and whether I will be able to make one more film.

– Actor Otaki Hideji, 86, on his selection as a person of cultural merit

Here he is in a brief television commercial for a bug spray. The man on the left says the spray can be recommended because it doesn’t foul the air, so it’s safe for infants and pets. Mr. Otaki retorts that he has no infants or pets — there’s only the two of them — and concludes by grumbling about his boorishness.

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Arty or crafty?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 16, 2011

THE traditional Japanese paper known as washi is used to make all sorts of things in addition to ordinary sheets of paper. They include clothes, household goods, toys, ritual objects used in Shinto, furniture, the paper used in shoji sliding doors, loudspeaker cones, umbrellas, Japanese banknotes…

…6.8-meter-high statues of the tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur…


The accompanying photo is proof that the paper dinosaur exists, placed outdoors in Katsuyama, Fukui, near — where else? — the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. It was built with a frame of bamboo struts covered with chicken wire. That was overlaid with Echizen washi, one of the region’s traditional handicrafts. It was deliberately left colorless to preserve the washi appearance, and it was waterproofed to keep it from falling apart in the rain. The folks in Fukui put it up now for paper dinosaur fans because it contrasts with the surrounding greenery. They’ll keep it up until December, when it begins to snow. The idea, of course, is to attract tourists.

Hey, I’d go see it if I were within easy distance of Fukui — and admit it, so would you!

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‘Tis the season for Koshiens

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 8, 2011

THE summer edition of the national high school baseball championship got underway at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo this weekend. That is a very big deal in Japan: NHK broadcasts every game of the tournament live, nationwide, without commercials. One of the classic scenes of daily life is the family get-together during the mid-August O-bon holidays with the eating, the drinking, and the attention of the males alternating between the people in the room and the games on television. The format of an elimination tournament adds an element of spice to the drama — the losers go home, while the championship team will have been undefeated, starting with the first game of the local prefectural round.

All the games are played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo. The park was built in 1924 specifically to serve as the venue for the summer tournament, which dates from 1915, and the smaller spring invitational tournament, which debuted the year the stadium opened. So closely is the park associated with the championship that the event is referred to simply as Koshien. Ask someone whether their high school has ever been to Koshien, and they’ll know immediately what you mean.

In fact, the term Koshien is now applied to other summertime high school competitions, including events that have nothing to do with sports. One of these is the Calligraphy Performance Koshien, staged on 31 July in Shikokuchuo, Ehime. Though it is based on calligraphy, it was conceived in the 21st century — this year’s competition was only the fourth. Teams of 10 calligraphers use brushes and ink on sheets of paper four meters high by six meters wide to render artistic and/or philosophical messages as they dance to music that accompanies their performance.

Representatives from 15 high schools around the country participated in the finals, and the squad from Oita High School in Oita City, Oita, won for the second straight year. This year, most of the participating schools created works based on the theme of earthquake/tsunami recovery. In addition to the normal criteria used to evaluate calligraphy, the teams were judged on the degree of completion of their work, the movements of the team members as they brushed on the characters, and their dance routines.

The creation of the Oita High champs was based on the theme of compassion (思いやり) and they used the form of a mid-summer greeting card (shochu o-mimai) as their motif. Said the team captain:

We can thank the people around us for our consecutive victories. We wondered what we could do to help the people in the area, and decided to encourage them with our calligraphy.

The students of the calligraphy club at Mishima High School in Shikokuchuo came up with the idea as an event to attract people to the local shopping district. Their inspirational spark fired everyone’s imagination, they were invited to appear on television, and then the rest of the country got into the act.

See you in the funny papers!

You don’t even have to ask — of course there’s a Manga Koshien for high school students. That’s the term commonly used to refer to the annual High School Manga Competition, which was held this past weekend in Kochi. This year’s event was the 20th, and the winning team came from Tochigi Girls High School, which inked it out with 24 other schools in the final round.

In this competition, the teams are given the same topic and have to create a comic on that topic immediately. They do this twice — the topics for the Saturday preliminaries and the Sunday finals are different.

The topic for the final round this year was “The 100th Manga Koshien”. The Tochigi girls came up with a comic depicting the 100th anniversary event, which in their imagination offered a prize of JPY one million (100 man en in Japanese), had 100 judges, but very few schools participating because of the population decline due to the low birth rate.

The head of the judge’s panel, Makino Keiichi, said:

Some (judges) thought that was a negative concept, but it is (in the spirit of) manga to depict things honestly.

Said Oki Ayano, one member of the winning team:

It was a good idea to deal straightforwardly with a social issue. I’m really happy.

The cartooning champs said they’ll donate their JPY 300,000 award to the Tohoku relief effort.

Consider what these two events have to say about the health and cultural dynamism of the Japanese. Who else would have thought to combine the elegance of the centuries-old art and discipline of calligraphy with pop music dance routines and turn it into an extra-curricular activity for high school students? Consider also that the winning Manga Koshien high school team was aware of a contemporary social issue, had the wit to come up with an idea based on that issue on the spur of the moment, incorporated it into the general outline presented to them, and had the guts to put it on paper as their entry in the championship round.

Now consider how seriously to take those people who enjoy talking and writing about the malaise in Japan.

Here’s the Oita High School team strutting their stuff in the paint at the first Calligraphy Performance Koshien four years ago. Notice the touch of placing the seal on the lower left-hand corner of their work at the end. Baby love!

Dang, I got to find a way to get me to Ehime next summer!

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Matsuri da! (115): Rebirth

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 29, 2011

LIFESTYLE Luddites sporadically surface with the lament that globalization is holding a knife to the throat of indigenous cultures. Because cultures are less fragile and more resilient than they understand, however, this posture is really just a stalking horse for an unwillingness to allow the people of a particular place access to the same choices that globalization has allowed them. When the folk shed their colorful traditional garb for Western dress and develop a taste for musical styles other than those that rocked the world of their grandparents, it spoils the experience of enjoying them from afar, away from all the flies and the dysentery.

A look at the Japanese and their simultaneous embrace of their own traditions and the latest in global fashionability should be enough to improve anyone’s posture. The urban youth are just as likely as their fellows anywhere else to wear ugly untucked t-shirts, eat gloop, and listen to the unlistenable, but they are also just as likely to time slip without warning several centuries into the past to savor the celebrations of the ancients.

Earlier this month, for example, the Chokaisan Omonoimi Shinto shrine in the Fukura district of Yuza-machi, Yamagata — which dates from 871 at the latest — held its annual festival in supplication for a bountiful harvest. The event has several elements, including parades with three different mikoshi, or portable shrines. One of the mikoshi is for children, and another is in the shape of a ship that the carriers toss about to depict a sea voyage. The primary attraction, however, is the Hanagasa dance, or Fukura dengaku, a pre-planting rite. The dancers don headdresses with red decorations representing rice blossoms that rival anything worn by Carmen Miranda at the peak of her Hollywood career. Suspended from the brim are strips of paper called shide that represent the rain. Instead of castinets they provide clatter with an instrument called a sasara that for some reason is said to symbolize the croaking of frogs. At the end of their performance, the dancers toss the hats into the audience, and snatching one is supposed to guarantee good luck in the coming year. Anyone who’s been in the midst of a crowd in Japan during similar events knows the wisest course of action is to dive right in and grab one of your own. That’s beats being shoved roughly out of the way with an elbow to the ribs by somebody’s grandmother.

Though the festival dates from sometime in the Muromachi period, which ran from 1338 to 1573, and was designated an intangible prefectural cultural treasure in 1993, a look at this YouTube video featuring all the highlights is enough to see this isn’t a museum piece frozen in the aspic of the past.

In October 2007, the Yamagatans went on the road to Seoul to perform with other Japanese and Korean groups in the Japan-South Korea Exchange Festival, which you can see and read about here.

Teramachi Ichiza

Another of the benefits of globalization in Japan is the unexpected delights that result from all the mixing and mingling. One of the earliest manifestations of that was the chin-don bands, in which musicians dress in fanciful clothing to perform as a living jukebox stacked with global pop music on instruments both Japanese and Western, usually to advertise local shops. There are several excellent examples on-site that can be accessed at the tag below, but here’s another — Teramachi Ichiza from Iwate. The group, which usually works the Tohoku area, has won awards at national chin-don competitions for its performances. The members live in the mountainous part of the prefecture away from the coast, so they weren’t affected by the earthquake/tsunami, but they decided to suspend their activities after the disaster anyway in the spirit of self-restraint.

In the spirit of rebirth, however, they resumed performing in the Iwate city of Ofunato in the coastal area known as Goishi Kaigan at an event designed to buck up everyone’s spirits. (Enka megastar Sen Masao, an Iwate native, also sang.) The members of Teramachi Ichiza decided to bring their axes and blow because it had been 49 days after the earthquake. The 49-day Buddhist period of mourning originates in the Tibetan concept of bardo, the transitional period between one’s previous life and the consciousness’s entry into the life to come. Doesn’t that joyful noise contain an echo of the second line parade of brass bands in New Orleans switching from a dirge to jazz once they depart the cemetery after a funeral?

The chin-don band’s performance at Ofunato doesn’t seem to have been recorded, but their performance at the Miyako Horsehair Crab Festival in Iwate this February was.

This is what happened to Miyako one month later:

But destruction is not a permanent end. Doubters need only look to a small story at a park in a community center in the Kaminiida district of Yonezawa, Yamagata. A 300-year-old cherry tree on the center grounds collapsed last winter in the heavy snows. Before the deadwood could be cleared away in the spring, however, center director Nagaoka Takao spied shoots sprouting from the old trunk. He watered them with a PET bottle for the next two months. When cherry season arrived in the Tohoku region, so did the blossoms on the fallen tree.

Cultures included, we are all less fragile and more resilient than we sometimes think.

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The song, the scene, and the band’s name — they get it, too.

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Why does the world like Japanese manga?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fighting evil by moonlight,
Winning love by daylight,
Never running from a real fight,
She is the one named Sailor Moon.
– The first verse of the Sailor Moon theme song in English

JAPAN was once known as the land of the rising sun, but it might be more appropriate to say that more people know it today as the land of manga and animations. Here’s yet another example: An annual exhibition titled the Manga Day Commemorative Four-Panel Cartoon Awards is underway until 20 February at the Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum (English-language website) in Kochi City, Kochi. It will run until 20 February.

The museum established the awards to recognize contributions to the development of manga culture, and this is the sixth exhibit. In October, judges at the museum selected 15 works from among the 1,197 four-panel strips submitted by 878 artists in 42 prefectures and the United States. The current exhibition presents the prize winners and the 139 works that made it past the first round of judging. There’s also an exhibit of 430 manga created by children of primary school age or younger that have been deemed to have promise.

The exhibit just began, so I’m not sure about the connection with Manga Day, which is 3 November in Japan. The museum was built to honor Kochi native Yokoyama Ryuichi, a famous manga artist who in 1961 created Japan’s first televised cartoon show, Instant History. He is also the first manga artist to have been named a Person of Cultural Merit.

Why have Japanese manga captured the imagination of young people around the world? Makino Keiichi, head of the Faculty of Manga at Kyoto Seika University, thinks their popularity originates in two aspects of Japanese culture: kanji and Yaoyorozu no Kamigami. The latter expression is literally “eight million kami” (divinity, divine essence), but what that eight million really means is “a heck of a lot”. In other words, the divine essence resides in all things.

Mr. Makino uses the kanji 重 as an example of the first aspect. He says that depending on the context, Japanese will immediately determine its meanings from among the possibilities of “overlapping”, “heavy”, “-fold” (as in three-fold), or “piled up”, and its reading from among the possibilities of kasanaru, omoi, e, ju, or cho.

He explains:

“Manga are the same as kanji. When the readers see one panel of a comic, they immediately understand the meaning and freely interpret the image. That culture is the backdrop for manga, so Japanese manga artists don’t draw anything into the background that isn’t necessary. They only include the content necessary to convey the information. That results in creations with communicative power which can be understood at a glance by foreigners and children.”

As for the second aspect, he explains that the Japanese believe the divine essence resides in everything, and this sense of spirituality underlies the rich story content of Japanese manga.

“It’s different from the monotheism that forbids idolatry. In Japan, the divinities and spiritual creatures take a multiplicity of forms and become anthropomorphic. I suspect that openness is what enables the free expression of stories and characters.”

Mr. Makino adds that in the West, the Devil is a frightening creature, but that demons and Tengu in Japan are depicted with human characteristics.

“Even that which is frightening is not rejected, but made into an engaging character.”

As demonstrated by the worship of the eight million divinities, a characteristic of Japanese culture is its acceptance of and openness to things foreign, which he cites as one reason for the diversity of storylines.

“Before they’re aware of what’s happening, people throughout the world become captivated by the spiritual culture of Japan.”

Now you know how the Sailor Moon girls got their magical powers!

Makino Keiichi has his own Japanese-language website that’s still under construction, but you can see some of his unusual creations on one part of it. Kyoto Seika University and the city of Kyoto operate the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of comics.

It’s not just the visual art or the stories, either. Listen to where this music from the Seek the Full Moon animation takes you in 80 seconds.

One final note: If you think Mr. Makino is off base with his Yaoyorozu no Kamigami idea, consider that today at the Museum of Art, Kochi–in the same city as the manga exhibition–a pop art exhibit opened showing the works of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among others. Kochi City has a population of about 340,000 and is somewhat isolated on the island of Shikoku, where it is one of the primary cities.

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