Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Akita’

Ichigen koji (222)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 7, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

Neither politicians nor the bureaucracy are as respected as they once were, but the title of “university professor” still has prestige. Under the pretext of learning and culture, governments will inject tax money into money-losing universities and no one will complain. This is Japan’s final taboo.

The promotion of science and technology is also sacred ground for the government, and journalists do not criticize universities, and I speak from the standpoint of a part-time professor lecturing on the mass media. When it comes to prolonging unproductive services, universities are worse than agriculture.

Private universities have already collapsed. National universities are now collapsing at the graduate school level through the “laundering” of academic backgrounds.

– Ikeda Nobuo. He is speaking in reference to the uproar caused by Education Minister Tanaka Makiko’s decision to refuse authorization for three new colleges. The decision has been reversed, and the three proposals will undergo a new screening process. De facto, that means they will be approved.

All three of the schools are local institutions. One is a junior college of the fine arts in Akita whose operators want to convert it into a four-year college. Another is a women’s college in Aichi.

But it gets better!

I don’t know what’s specifically wrong with the three schools. I also don’t think they’re bad.

– Minister of Education Tanaka Makiko

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All you have to do is look (79)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The city of Oga, Akita, is known for its Namahage Festival, in which men wear the masks of ogre-like deities and visit homes on New Year’s Eve to promote domestic safety. Oga Mayor Watanabe Yukio, second from right, is shown here on a visit to Noda-mura, Iwate. That village has a similar custom, called the Namomi, but the costumes were lost in last year’s tsunami. They will recreate them using the namahage masks as a reference.

More on namahage here. Photo from the Sankei Shimbun.


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Forbidden fruit

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 6, 2012

Step out of your cave: the world awaits you like a garden. The wind is laden with heavy fragrance that longs for you; and all the brooks would like to run after you. All things long for you.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Most human beings spend their lives making mechanical reactions to exterior challenges. Just press any psychic button and you can make a man respond with irritation or shock or tears or envy. Not developed beyond the mechanical stage, he is the slave of everyone who presses the buttons.

– Vernon Howard

THREE years ago this month, a Seoul blogger visited the “South Korea-Japan Exchange Festival 2009 in Seoul”. This event was inaugurated in 2005 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the two countries. It was held simultaneously in both countries that year for the first time.

The blogger’s name is given in the Japanese katakana alphabet and not Chinese characters in the report I read, so I won’t try to Romanize it. He was inspired to write because he saw a presentation of the activities at the Kanto Festival held every summer in Akita and wanted to describe it for his South Korean readers. He added the following.

The festival will also be held in Tokyo this year, and I’ve read that many Japanese will be singing Korean songs at the event. This has been widely covered by the South Korean mass media.

Until the 1980s, I had no contact with Japanese culture at all. But it was not possible to prevent the influx of culture. As was Adam when he ate the forbidden fruit, we were attracted to that culture, particularly the manga, the films, and the music.

Conditions in South Korea today are completely different. But the South Korean government has made little progress in opening up to Japanese culture. For example, we still can’t listen to J-pop on terrestrial radio, or regularly watch Japanese programs on TV.

I hope that a new cultural interaction arises as a result friendship deepens between the two countries. Korean culture is popular in Japan now, and South Korean television programs are shown in Japan. Isn’t there a need for the government to promote an opening and accept more Japanese culture?

(end translation)

Reading this, I was reminded that one of the most popular pieces of classical music during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War era was the Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Nobody cared that both of them were Russian.

It would seem that if rules similar to those in South Korea were applied in the United States at that time, Americans wouldn’t have been able to listen to that music.

Why, it’s almost as if some powerful elements in the South Korean establishment don’t want Koreans to get along with the Japanese…

Meanwhile, the Japan-South Korea Festival 2012 in Tokyo will be held from 29 September to 2 October, and the companion event is still scheduled for 3 October, a holiday, in Seoul.

Speaking of the Kanto Festival in Akita, by the way, it’s no surprise that the South Korean blogger was impressed. It was held from 3-6 August this year, and this is what it looked like. Stick with it to see what they do with those lanterns. They’re said to represent rice plants.

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

Mango makgeolli: Another Japan-Korea love match

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 24, 2010

Makgeolli is a very healthy drink, it is a good addition to one’s diet, and it has been used by women to enhance beauty.
– South Korea President Lee Myung-bak

IF YOU THOUGHT the mango beer presented in a post last week was an unusual combination for an alcoholic beverage, wait until you read about mango makgeolli!

Makgeolli is a hyper-sweet, milky-looking liquor made from rice that’s traditionally drunk from bowls. Part of its charm is the fermented rice solids floating in it, so it’s usually shaken or stirred before it’s poured. The popular conception of makgeolli has long been one of hooch for hayseeds, and in that sense it might be considered the Korean version of white lightning. Every one of these aspects makes it an analog for the Japanese drink doburoku, which you can read more about here.

Lately, the Koreans have been devising ways to turn makgeolli into an upmarket beverage, and these include adding fruit flavors and pitching it to women. Enter stage left a Japanese businessman from Noshiro, Akita, who worked with a Korean makgeolli brewer to develop a mango makgeolli creation suited for the Japanese market. The entrepreneur, Tsukamoto Tamio, operates a business hotel in Noshiro where he first sold the drink.

It’s 20% pure mango juice, so you can imagine how sweet the combination must be. It contains no artificial coloring or aromatics. Enough people discovered and enjoyed it for him to launch sales on this Japanese-language website since last month. It’s also available at mass merchandisers in Noshiro and Akita City, and eating and drinking places in Noshiro.

The nature of the drink has made it popular among women, and they’re a market segment always appreciates a low calorie count. Mango makgeolli has 19.4 calories per 100 milliliters, compared to 40 for beer, 75 for wine, 110 for sake, and 135 for shochu. Another number that some might appreciate is the 8% alcohol by volume.

It costs JPY 735 (about $US 8.16) for a 750 ml PET bottle, and JPY 420 for a 300 ml glass bottle, which is shown in the photo. The one on the right has been sitting on the shelf undisturbed, while the one on the left has been shaken.

Mr. Tsukamoto is importing it through the Port of Akita, and he’s set up a two-way commercial enterprise by selling local items to South Korea over the Internet. Akita currently enjoys a high name recognition in Korea because it was one of the locations where the big-budget, blockbuster television series Iris was filmed. The espionage thriller was wildly popular last fall in South Korea, and it generated a surge of Korean tourism to Akita. The same phenomenon in reverse had Japanese visiting the shooting locations for such Korean TV dramas as Winter Sonata. (Iris is now being broadcast on Japanese television.)

These two YouTube videos present an interesting contrast. The first is a Korean video in English promoting the new varieties of makgeolli. It’s well done–perhaps too well done in places. One of the supposedly casual customers interviewed on camera is a young woman attractive enough to be a model whose blouse color just happens to match the color of her drink.

The second is a video of a doburoku festival filmed in Shirakawa-go Gifu. The environment is quite different from the first video, but just as fascinating. It’s easy to see the resemblance between the two drinks–even down to the October date of their respective festivals. It also reminds me that I’ve been negligent writing festival posts recently!

The Japanese aren’t adding fruit syrup to doburoku, but here’s a post about a company that came up with the bright idea to make doburoku ice cream.

Notice all the connections between Japan and South Korea in this story? None of them will particularly surprise the people of either country. To quote once again a South Korean speaking in Japanese that I heard on a live NHK radio program broadcast from Seoul a few years ago, the only ties between the two countries that aren’t flourishing are the political.

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Posted in Festivals, Food, Japanese-Korean amity, New products, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Drawing conclusions from Japanese demographics

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 8, 2008

THE REALITIES OF DEMOGRAPHICS and the aging of Japanese society are causing some people, primarily in private-sector businesses, to draw their own conclusions and act accordingly. Meanwhile, others are oblivious to the new realities because they can’t see–or don’t want to see–beyond their own front yard. The latter group might wind up regretting their failure to pay attention.

Here are some examples:

Item 1

The Nishinippon Shimbun published a survey earlier this week that revealed 58 hospitals and clinics in all seven Kyushu prefectures eliminated their pediatric wards during the period from April 2007 to April 2008. The primary reasons cited for the step included the declining number of children and a shortage of pediatricians. In contrast, 35 facilities added an internal medicine ward.

Some hospital officials pointed out the difficulties of pediatric practice. Because both parents are working in many more families than before, they take their children for medical examinations during their off hours, when most examinations are being conducted on emergency patients. It is also difficult to determine the severity of a child’s illness, and illnesses in children tend to become more severe more quickly than in adults. That means pediatricians must work longer hours without a commensurate increase in pay.

The 2004 reform of the system for medical education resulted in greater freedom for students to select their course of study. Since then, the number of medical students choosing pediatrics has sharply declined.

One hospital director also cited business factors as a reason. The remuneration for treating children is low, their diagnosis and treatment involve a lot of time and trouble, and fewer tests and drugs are ordered. Pediatrics always has been a money-loser for hospitals, but the falling population of children has spurred the elimination of the wards that treat them.

Here’s what is being left unsaid, but is perfectly obvious: Bright young medical students have drawn the conclusion that pediatrics is not a growth sector in Japan, and some hospitals think the sector is more trouble than it’s worth.

Why are pediatrics wards becoming unnecessary in some hospitals?

Item 2

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications released a report for 5 May–Children’s Day–estimating the national population of children on 1 April this year. The estimate counted a record low of 17,250,000 children aged 14 or younger, down 30,000 from the previous year. The number of children in this category have declined every year since 1982, or 27 straight years. According to the ministry, this age group accounts for 13.5% of the population, one of the lowest levels in the world. This percentage has been dropping for 34 consecutive years.

On the same day, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (link also on right sidebar) reported there will be fewer than 15 million children by 2015, and they will account for less than 12% of the population. The institute said that urgent measures were needed to deal with this situation.

The institute broke down the percentages by prefecture. Tokyo had the lowest percentage with 11.7%, followed by Akita with 11.8%. This is significant because these two locations represent different population extremes. It isn’t surprising that there would be fewer children in Tokyo, a megalopolis with a high percentage of singles. But Akita is a more rural prefecture with a much smaller urban population.

The prefecture with the highest percentage of children was sunny Okinawa at 18.1%. The only one in which the percentage of children rose over the past year was Tokyo–by 0.1%.

The private sector has drawn its own conclusions from this information and is taking steps to seize their financial opportunities.

Item 3

On the same day that its report on local pediatrics wards appeared, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran a feature explaining that Kyushu Electric Power, Saibu Gas, Nishitetsu Railroad, and other big businesses in the Kyushu region are ramping up their business investments in homes for the aged by building facilities on their unused land holdings. These companies are parlaying their name recognition to create facilities that provide services similar to those of hotels. Some are assisted care facilities that require initial payments ranging from several hundred thousand yen to several million yen, and a few upscale institutions require initial entry payments of more than 100 million yen (about US$ 952,000).

A facility built in Fukuoka City by Saibu Gas has 122 units on 24 floors with Italian furniture in every unit and a natural hot spring on the premises. The minimum entry fee is 30 million yen. It opened in 2006 and now has an occupancy rate of 40%. Two of those units carried the 100-million-yen price tag.

The extreme aging of society

Recall that the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecast that children aged 14 and younger would account for less than 12% of the population in seven years. Statistics from the institute’s website also show that the percentage of Japan’s population aged 75 and older rose from 1.4% in 1930 to 4.7% in 1995 and to 8.8% in 2004.

Everyone knows the reasons for this: the Japanese are a healthier people to begin with, and they are living longer as a result of the advances in medical science.

That means the day there are more people aged 75 in Japan than those younger than 15 is just over the horizon. How far away is it? We might be able to count the years on our fingers, with a few toes thrown in.

To its credit, the Japanese government drew its own conclusions about this situation a long time ago. Japan’s semi-socialized medical system provides exceptional care with few of the drawbacks of the systems in Canada or Great Britain, for example. Until recently, the elderly were required to pay just 10% of their costs, and those who were registered as dependents of employed children (not unusual in this East Asian country) were exempt from payments altogether.

Considering the general abundance of modern life and the success of the Japanese pension system, the elderly—who are naturally the primary consumers of health care—had quite a deal for themselves.

But the country is in a difficult fiscal situation: gross public debt is more than 170% of GDP and is expected to continue to rise. More old people are using more health care resources paid for by public funds. And the tax-paying population is going to decline in the future, not grow.

The government began planning changes in the system a few years ago, and they inaugurated the new system on 1 April this year. Those people aged 75 and older will be required to be responsible for their own health care costs (though this has been purposely delayed to limit the political backlash), and there was a marginal increase in the monthly payments.

It’s difficult to blame anyone for the inevitable uproar that resulted.

Gray anger

The government is trying to keep outlays from getting out of hand. It’s not unreasonable to expect people to assume more responsibility for their health care, particularly when the system is so generous and affordable to begin with.

People who have ceded their responsibility for the basic functions of life to the government are not going to act their age when that government tells them fairness requires they start assuming more personal responsibility.

As the novelist Upton Sinclair once observed, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. Replace salary here with benefits, and the statement describes the reaction of many Japanese elderly to the new system.

One old man on the street interviewed for national television blustered for the camera that it was as if the government was telling him it hoped he died early. In fact, some people have started calling this the “hurry up and die” insurance system.

The reaction was so intense it was cited as one of the reasons for the defeat of the ruling party’s candidate in a by-election for a lower house seat in Yamaguchi.

Yes, that is blubbering selfish stupidity, but no one seems anxious to set them straight. Indeed, no one explained the new system to them to begin with. Discussions about the reforms became public around the time the war in Iraq started, and the mass media, being an entertainment enterprise, knows that people dying in explosions wins the ratings battle every time. Instead of covering a development that involved all Japanese, they devoted their time and resources to covering a story that involved almost no Japanese.

And when it became a matter of public discussion, the media chose to fan the political flames and turn it a potential election issue between the ruling party and the opposition rather than present it in a reasonable way.

Meanwhile, communicating with the citizens has never been a forte of the Japanese government.

Failing to connect the dots

The only ones who seem to be unable to draw any conclusions are those people over the age of 75, though they are probably hiding their eyes deliberately. The government is fiscally strapped. Personal liability for health care costs is low. The population is rapidly aging, and more elderly are using health care services more often. The number of children is plummeting, which means the pool of potential taxpayers to pay the bills is shrinking.

And yen trees don’t grow in the gardens of Nagata-cho.

Responding to the criticism, Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo said the government would study ways to alleviate the burden on the lower-income elderly using funds from the national budget, but the new system would remain in place.

The contours of future developments are not difficult to make out, however. As health care costs continue to rise in tandem with the number of late-stage elderly, the older citizens will exercise their right to vote until they find a party that will shelter them from financial reality.

There will be no shortage of politicians volunteering for the task.

But that will inevitably place a larger financial burden on an increasingly smaller group of younger people who are employed. As with other social welfare programs, the Japanese health care system shares the same characteristics as a pyramid scheme—it requires a growing population to sustain, and that’s no longer possible in Japan. The taxpaying population won’t put up with it forever, and one day they will demand tax relief, perhaps with an American-style taxpayer revolt.

In that scenario, the logical first step would be to ration health care. Arguments in favor of that step already are being made elsewhere. As this article points out:

(In the book Setting Limits, author Daniel) Callahan proposed that the government refuse to pay for life-extending medical care for individuals beyond the age of 70 or 80, and only pay for routine care aimed at relieving their pain.

As we’ve seen, some people have been calling the new Japanese health care plan for the late-stage elderly the “hurry up and die” system. Of course that’s just silly, but it’s time those people started drawing conclusions of their own.

Otherwise, before too long, they might find that the rest of society really has begun to wish they would hurry up and die.

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Posted in Demography, Government, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , | 15 Comments »

Matsuri da! (53): Out of the waterfall into the fire!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 6, 2007

A QUICK QUESTION: If you were going to purify or drive the evil from a religious object, how would you do it?

The Japanese choose to cover all their bases. Sometimes they use water—parading a mikoshi, or portable shrine, under a waterfall—and sometimes they use fire, by marching another mikoshi through a blaze built on shrine grounds. It doesn’t pay to take any chances!

One example of the first occurs as part of the Mikoshi no Takiabi Festival (literally, the festival for bathing the mikoshi in a waterfall) held by the Shirataki Shrine in Happo-cho, Akita Prefecture, early in August.

The festival itself was conducted for many years without using the 17-meter waterfall located just behind the shrine as a purification device. A group of roughly 40 men gather early in the morning at the shrine, which is said to date from 853, and depart at about 7:00 a.m. to parade the mikoshi through the neighborhood. It is described as a “rough festival”, in which the bearers violently swing the mikoshi from side to side and up and down during their procession. This is said to denote the strength of the spirit within.

But August in Japan is intensely hot, and one year just before the start of the Second World War, when the men returned to the shrine in the early afternoon–probably dripping with sweat–they decided on the spur of the moment to cool off under the falls. They enjoyed themselves so much they took another spin underneath the water, adding the chant, “Wasse, wasse!” And thus a new tradition was born!

The event was originally a purification ceremony, but it now incorporates wishes for domestic safety and prosperity in business.

In contrast, the 1,800-year-old Kushida Shrine in Imizu, Toyama Prefecture, burns the badness out in a festival held in mid-September. As in the Akita Prefecture festival, the men start by carrying the mikoshi through four surrounding neighborhoods during the day. They are accompanied by traditional lion dancers, a common part of festivals in Japan. When they make their way back to the shrine at around 6:00 p.m., the priests start a fire using old cedar on the path leading from the entrance to the main shrine building, just past the torii gate.

The first to pass through the fire are the lion dancers, and the men carrying the mikoshi follow just behind and tempt the flames. This is said to rid the area of evil.

The origins of the event are unclear, but local stories say it started at an old Buddhist temple in the area by adherents of Fudo-myoh, giving the Shinto rite an added dimension.

Didn’t I say the Japanese like to cover all their bases?

Try this site for an impressive photo of the mikoshi near the waterfall. And here’s another great shot.

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

Matsuri da! (40): The balancing act in Akita

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 2, 2007

STARTING ON FRIDAY and continuing until Monday is an event that exemplifies what I mean when I say that Japanese festivals are the world’s best free entertainment. That would be the Kanto Festival in Akita City, Akita Prefecture. It is one of the three major festivals of the Tohoku (northeastern) region, and it has been designated an important intangible cultural asset by the national government. More than one million people turn out to witness the spectacle every year.

The festival took on its current form during the middle part of the Edo period (which would be sometime in the 18th century) as a midsummer event to drive away the evil spirits and pray for a bountiful harvest. The first record citing the festival dates back to 1789. It is one of many lantern festivals in Japan, but none of the others are quite like this one. Men clad in traditional happi coats carry 235 poles filled with a total of about 10,000 lanterns down the city’s main street. Each pole holds up to 46 lanterns on crossbars. The poles are 12 meters high and weigh 50 kilograms each.

The men do not carry them on special belts, such as those worn by the people who carry flags in parades. No—they balance them on their hips and foreheads, encouraged by shouts of “Dokkoisho!” from the crowds lining the street.

And this is what it looks like:

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