Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Chiba’

All you have to do is look (100)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Primary school girls perform the flower dance at the Hassaku Festival in Minamiboso, Chiba.

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Ichigen koji (200)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 17, 2012

– A person who has something to say about everything

Both China and South Korea have many museums that one-sidedly make Japan to be the villain. Taking vulnerable and exposed students to a place like that creates the danger of brainwashing. Japanese high school students have gone on school trips to South Korea and actually been made to get down on their knees and apologize. That’s education?

– Nishimura Kiyoshi, a director of the educational corporation that operates the private Reimei High School in Chiba. This year’s school trip will be to a location in Japan instead of either South Korea or China.

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Matsuri da! (131) Division of labor

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 9, 2012

THE folks in Tateyama, Chiba, have arranged their annual summer festival at the Sunosaki Shinto shrine in late August to incorporate a division of labor in the task of driving away the evil spirits and asking for safety on the sea. The girls have one part, and the boys have another part, and no, this is not leading to that Chuck Berry song.

The girls’ part comes first. That’s the Minoko Odori, the joint name for two separate dances that each have their own names and that are national intangible folklore cultural assets. The photo above of the dance scene was taken the guy who runs the Naive (Japanese language) website. The first dance is to drive out the wicked intangibles, and the second is to ask the divinities, associated with the sea, for a reset of the world.

It’s performed now by primary and junior high school girls, but once upon a time the dancers were young women around 20. The story has it that the most fetching dancers used to receive marriage proposals on the spot from the young men watching from the side. Another story has it that the young men used to dance too, and if we’re not careful all roads are going to start leading to Chuck Berry.

After the dancing is done, it’s time for the boys to do their part. Nowadays, they’re men in their early 20s, but they say the participants years ago were young boys. That sounds suspiciously like a solution for giving the lads something to do to keep them from getting in trouble with the dancers. Their job is to carry the mikoshi, a portable shrine with the divinity, from the main shrine down an exterior stairway and then along the road to the sea. I couldn’t find an explanation for the reason, but the priests likely offer another prayer for safety on the sea.

It’s not just any old stairway, either. It has 148 steps on a 30-degree slope, and the divinity inside takes it upon himself to start reeling and rocking on the way down. Naive captured that image, too:

The name of the slope itself is another word that translates to driving out evil. The Tateyamanians seem to have very high standards for the type of spirits they’re willing to let hang around.

Here’s a close-up of the mikoshi itself, this taken by the guy who runs the Japanese website Hibi Arekore.

Here’s another report of a different festival in which the guys also risk their necks bringing a mikoshi down the hill. And here’s a Youtube video of what happens at Sunosaki shrine.

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Which way to the helm room?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

For (schools) at train stations for studying abroad, it’s Nova. For speeches at train stations, it’s Noda.
– A common political joke about the Japanese prime minister that Mr. Noda uses to promote himself

APPALING crisis management ability has been one of the most frequent charges against Japan’s Democratic Party government since they took office in 2009. The Kan Cabinet’s pharisaic foozling of both the Senkakus Incident and the Tohoku/Fukushima triple disaster in particular are object lessons for the political class that will almost certainly go unheeded.

Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko doesn’t seem to have been paying attention.

An outdoor space heater generates hot air at a Japanese train station

At 10:00 a.m. on Monday the 19th, the Korean Central Broadcasting Station in Pyeongyang gave notice there would be a “special broadcast” on both television and radio at noon that day. The same notice was repeated at 10:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., though KCBS did not specify the content of the broadcast.

That caused the Japanese news media to sit up and take notice. NHK issued a report after 11:00 a.m. announcing that a special broadcast from North Korea was forthcoming. (Tokyo and Pyeongyang are in the same time zone.) While not speculating on the content, NHK also noted that advance notice of two hours was given in 1994 on the death of Kim Il-sung, and one-hour notice was provided in 2000 of the broadcast announcing the summit meeting between the two Korean heads of state.

Just before midnight Sunday night, the North Koreans conducted a test-firing of two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. Something was most definitely up.

NHK was ready. By chance, I turned on the television at about 12:03 p.m. that day (I looked at the clock first), and NHK was already rebroadcasting the video of the North Korean television announcement. It was obvious from the Korean announcer’s black clothes what had happened.

Despite the warning, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko was not quite ready to deal with the situation. He was in a car on his way to give a speech at the JR Shinbashi train station in Tokyo.

Even though it was clear that something important had happened in North Korea, Mr. Noda got in his official vehicle just before the broadcast began for a sidewalk speech he had scheduled for 12:15 p.m.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu said the prime minister gave instructions before he left to inform him of the broadcast content. An aide contacted him at 12:03 p.m. while he was en route to the station. Even then, Mr. Fujimura had to call again at 12:05 p.m. to ask him to return. He got back at 12:09 p.m. and convened a meeting of the Japanese version of the National Security Council at 1:00 p.m.

Absent from the meeting was Yamaoka Kenji, the upper house-censured chairman of the National Public Safety Commission and the minister responsible for handling the North Korean abductee issue. He was out of town on “business related to the Diet”, and didn’t make it back in time. This is becoming something of a habit for the DPJ NPSC chairs. One of his predecessors in the Kan Cabinet, Okazaki Tomiko, lasted just four months on the job because she didn’t bother to show up for work after the North Koreans shelled a South Korean island last year. (Ms. Okazaki is best known for having participated in an anti-Japanese demonstration in Seoul as a Diet member.)

Said LDP Vice President Oshima Tadamori:

That (the prime minister) left to give a speech while knowing there would be an important announcement is a truly regrettable (act) for a leader. Mr. Yamaoka’s (absence) is also a grave matter.

Added New Komeito head Yamaguchi Natsuo:

I doubt they were prepared for any change in the situation.

For its part, the DPJ was full of its usual fatuous self-congratulation. Boasted Acting Secretary-General Tarutoko Shinji:

We responded faster than any other nation.

Mr. Noda himself seemed to sense that he had blundered, and ignored questions from the news media about the criticism. An unidentified government official told Kyodo:

It is a fact that they did not gather information on the premise that something serious could have happened.

And what about the content of the sidewalk speech that Mr. Noda thought took precedence over important breaking news from North Korea about 12 hours after two missile tests? He was going to explain in public the necessity for a consumption tax increase and tying it to social welfare programs. After the end of the extraordinary Diet session, he had told aides, “I want to create situations in which I can directly promote the policies to the people.”

At least we now know where the prime minister’s priorities lie.

Mr. Noda’s singular claim to public recognition before becoming a Cabinet member was his practice of giving speeches at the Funabashi, Chiba, train station in his district every morning for 24 years. He ended the speeches when he became “finance minister” last year. Perhaps he was looking forward to this one: it was to be his first outdoor speech since becoming prime minister.

It was unsurprising that neither the lighter-than-air Hatoyama Yukio nor the less-than-sober Kan Naoto were capable of handling their duties without walking face first into a wall. Noda Yoshihiko, however, is the son of a member of the Ground Self-Defense Forces No. 1 Airborne Brigade, consisting of elite paratroopers. If any politico should understand the importance of being at one’s duty station in a potential emergency — especially when there is advance notice — it is Mr. Noda.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton ran against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primary, she claimed she would be the more reliable choice if the president received an emergency 3:00 a.m. phone call. Meanwhile, the DPJ prime minister can’t be bothered to watch a noon television broadcast when he knows it’s coming.

Some Western observers give a pass to the DPJ because they are novices at this head-of-government business. While that assessment is nominally true, it is also fundamentally incorrect.

This is what they are.


* Nova was the largest private English school company in Japan until it went broke in 2007.

* Somebody needs to tell the crew in Tokyo that Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman.

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Posted in Government, North Korea | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analogue for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January, but, as with Christmas cards, their late arrival is acceptable.

Here’s the Ampontan nengajo for 2011 with my apologies for its delayed delivery, which pushes the limits for acceptable late arrivals. As we get ready for our Great Leap Forward in the year of the rabbit, let’s take a quick look back at what happened in Japan during yearend 2010.

It started with a thorough housecleaning, as December is the month for spring cleaning in these parts. That includes Shinto shrines, which are de rigeur as a destination on New Year’s Eve or the first three days of the New Year for those who follow the tradition. Instead of climbing on tall ladders in those clothes for susubarai, or cleaning the dust from the eaves, the shrine priests and the miko (the Shinto equivalent of altar boys) make it easy on themselves by attaching bamboo grass leaves to poles so they can swipe from the ground. Here, eight priests and miko at the Gokoku jinja in Oita City, Oita are wielding four-meter-long poles in their devotion to ensure that cleanliness is next to godliness.

They also hung a 10-meter-long shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw denoting a sacred space. This one weighed about 200 kilos, and was made with the help of senior citizens clubs and veterans groups. The straw came from rice grown in a special field called a shinsenden (offering/paddy).

Everything—everything—gets cleaned at yearend, and that includes the 24 loggerhead and green turtles at the sea turtle museum in Tokushima City. Here’s Hamataro getting sponged to remove the moss and crud, after the big guy reached the turtle equivalent of kanreki (age 60) this year. They also changed the water in the pool to give their charges something clean to gurk around in. The museum likes to encourage visitors this time of year because turtles are traditionally thought to bring good luck, and it’s hard to keep a turtle in one’s pocket instead of a rabbit’s foot.

Shinto shrines aren’t the only ones who settle the heavenly accounts at yearend—Buddhist temples get involved too. The priests at the Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a temple in Narita, Chiba, near Tokyo’s international airport, burned all the ofuda amulets from the year in their annual ceremony to give thanks for blessings to Fudo Myo’o, who is one nasty-looking dude to judge from the photo at the link. He’s a divinity reputed to convert anger into salvation and who also brings financial blessings.

It took 15 priests to create a fire from a 1.5 meter high pile of cryptomeria branches to burn all 50,000 of the tapped-out amulets while parishioners prayed. The temple says the ofuda are the body of Fudo Myo’o, (an East Asian echo of the Eucharist?) and returning them to flames gives thanks for health and safety.

The temple expected as many as three million visitors during the three-day New Year period.

Shrines need extra help to deal with all the people who turn up on their doorstep, so in addition to serving as the equivalent of altar boys, the miko play the role of Santa’s helpers. They hire young women specifically for this role to handle the public during the yearend holidays to augment the miko already on their staff. The recruits undergo a day of training, during which they’re taught how to properly conduct themselves on the premises, receive guests, and how to wear the unfamiliar clothing—the white hakui and red hibakama. The new miko above were among the 80 local university and junior college students hired by the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki.

If there’s anything better than a photo of miko trying on clothes, it’s two photos of miko trying on clothes, especially when they’re having so much fun. Here are some ladies learning the ropes—or perhaps the knots—from the full-timers at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Dazaifu is a large shrine, and they also hired 80 part-timers to work until the 7th. They expected two million people to visit during the first three days of the new year, the largest turnout in Kyushu.

Once they’ve finished decorating their bodies, it’s time to decorate the premises. There are almost as many types of New Year’s decorations as there are Christmas decorations, and one of them is this shimekazari being hung by Tokushima City Mayor Hara Hideki on the front gate at the Chuo Park in the city. He had to stand on a four-meter high ladder to put up the one-meter-long shimekazari, which weighed three kilograms.

It’s actually being hung to greet spring—Shinshun—which is a synonym for New Year’s, and was up until just yesterday. The gate naturally had to be cleaned before His Honor ascended the ladder, and that chore was handled by two city officials. As yet another demonstration of how that old time religion is still good enough for many, this is an older custom that had fallen out of practice but was restored in 1989. A matching decoration was hung on the entrance to the gardens of the old Tokushima castle located next door.

Another New Year’s decoration is the kadomatsu, which is placed in front of homes as an abode for the divinities. This 3.5-meter-high number was set up in front of the Ohmi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, on 13 December. It took two hours to make using mahonia berries and flowers as well as the traditional pine, bamboo, and plum. The Otsuans used to cut down the pine trees for their kadomatsu until six years ago, when they decided to get ecological and dig up a pine tree on the shrine grounds instead. They replanted it on the 15th.

Some shrines don’t use a kadomatsu, however. The Ikuta-jinja in Kobe creates a tree-like facsimile using 2,000 cryptomeria branches, a talisman the shrine has long used for good luck in the New Year. It too stood until the 15th.

The folks at the Ikuta shrine chose cryptomeria instead of pine because centuries ago a pine tree fell over during a flood and smashed the main shrine building. These are priests, after all, and they know how to pay attention to omens when they see one.

A group of about 30 priests and miko wrapped a 5-meter-high pole in straw and then arranged the branches.

Now for the souvenirs. Here’s a group of miko at the Asakunitsuko-jinja, in Koriyama, Fukushima, making hamaya, the arrows sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits, and which some also think provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. Dang, I need me one of those!

The four miko attached small trinkets to the hamaya that symbolize wishes for children or a bountiful harvest, and others that represent the rabbit. They made 5,000, and since they’ve been at this for centuries, they probably have a good idea of demand before they start. The proper way to dispose of these arrows, by the way, is to burn them in a ceremony at the end of the year, as with the ofuda amulets above. And no, they don’t shoot any flaming arrows!

The hamaya arrows are made and sold throughout the country, but some shrines think locally and produce unique items. For example, the Urahoro-jinja in Urahoro-cho Hokkaido, makes and sells oppai mori, or literally, breast protectors. The shrine has a reputation nationwide as a Mecca (to mix religious metaphors) for those wishing to have children, give safe birth, or give milk during nursing. That means their oppai mori is a popular product.

The custom derives from the tutelary deity for the shrine, which was a breast-shaped bump on a nearby large nara tree (called the common oak in English). Some women who had difficulty giving milk and went to the shrine to pray for help in early 20th century had their wish granted. The tree eventually collapsed, but the priests took their eyes off the sparrow and switched them to the important part to salvage it. That section of the tree was moved to a new shrine in 1982 at the request of the Urahoroans.

Sold for JPY 1,000 since 2006, the oppai mori are made from the wood of the nara tree and given a decoration based on a painting by a local artist. A nearby studio produces them individually in the shape of the human breast. Some have straps so they can be used for cell phones, and I’ll bet that’s a conversation starter.

Jack Seward, the unofficial patron saint of students of the Japanese language and country, died last year at the age of 86. Any native English speaker with any interest at all in fluency beyond a standard textbook has read his memoir/manual, Japanese in Action. Here’s one passage discussing local drinking habits:

The large family of gods (in Shinto mythology) who founded Japan were heavy sake drinkers. They were often drunk, and the mythology nowhere implies censure for this drunkenness. If it was good enough for the gods, why not for us? the Japanese ask. Think of what our attitude toward drinking might be if the Bible told us that Christ and his disciples met every afternoon at a Jerusalem cocktail lounge and got glassy-eyed.

So now you won’t be surprised that the Sanzo Inari-jinja in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, sells divine sake made by a brewer at nearby Minoshima-cho for New Year’s visitors. They even had a special packaging ceremony during which the head priest filled the first large bottle. He was followed by the three Misses Sanzo Inari, who filled 100-milliliter bottles and attached labels.

In the good old days, the parishioners could have a swig on site when they made their New Year’s visits, but the shrine changed its policy in 2007 and now only gives out bottles of the heavenly brew. They say it’s to prevent DWI, but it might also prevent some guys from getting any ideas about volunteering for oppai mori duty after eyeballing the young miko. Noshima Naomi, one of the misses, said:

We did this with the wish that people would feel good (kimochi yoku) as they greeted the new year.

I’ll bet!

Mochi rice cakes are a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient in Japan, and during the New Year, they’re also used to decorate the home. These are called kagami mochi, and some families still pound them out in the yard for the holidays.

The ingredient is a particularly glutinous form of rice, and Takanezawa-machi in Tochigi is a big rice production center. That’s how the local Yasuzumi-jinja got the big idea to decorate their shrine with jumbo mochi. The priests and miko don’t have to make it themselves, as the locals donate it as thanks for a good year and supplication for a good harvest next year. The mochi cakes they use have gotten jumboer over the years, and now weigh 500 kilograms. As you can see from the video above, they need some equipment to help haul it. The lower level is 110 centimeters in diameter, while the second is 80. The miko tote only the top level.

Though many people pay the traditional first visit to a shrine on the first, any time through the third is fine. The photo above is of the Taga-jinja in Taga-cho, Shiga, the shrine with the largest turnout in the region. About 160,000 people showed up on the first day of the year to pray and buy amulets. That was about 10,000 fewer than last year, but equilibrium was achieved when 150,000 people showed up on the 2nd, 10,000 more than last year.

The holiday shrine pilgrimage is an ecumenical affair, as even Buddhist priests come too. The priests at Kofuku-ji in Nara joined the Shinto priests on the 2nd in a prayer for peace in while paying their respects at the local Kasuga Taisha (a World Heritage site) and its affiliated Wakamiya-jinja. The Buddhist priests used to read sutras at the shrine every day during the Edo period, but that practice ended when the government legally forced the separation of the institutions during the Meiji period. They still hold joint ceremonies once a year, and this year the procession included nine priests of both varieties and two miko. They offered sake and rice during the Nikkuhajime-shiki ceremony and the priests took their chance to read some sutras. They they trooped over to Wakamiya and the Buddhists read the heart sutra just to make sure.

To top it off

Once upon a time before video games, children had special amusements on New Year’s—kite-flying, hanetsuki (a type of badminton) and top spinning. There are 450 years of tradition behind the Hakata koma, or tops, in Fukuoka. Upholding that tradition is the current Shuraku Chikushi, a woman, who describes how she maintains that tradition, performs, and makes the tops she uses during her performances in this fascinating English-language interview. The interview tells you as much about Japan and the Japanese as I could—including her intention to pass the art down to her taiko-playing, jazz-listening son. There are no videos on the Net, alas, but that photo of her balancing a spinning top on the edge of a folding fan is still impressive.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Government in absentia

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More than a problem with intelligence or skills, the incompetence of the “Incompetent Gang of Four” (Kan, Sengoku, Maehara, Okada) is apparent in their overconfidence and inability to see beyond their own self-protection. They are unable to solve any problems because of an irrefutable absence of the ability to negotiate or to learn. In the worst case, they are unable even to recognize the problem. As shown by an attitude and statements that suggest the ones in the wrong are a stupid public that won’t support the Cabinet, and the Liberal Democratic Party who challenges them to debate in the Diet, failure is always treated as an external problem. The “Incompetent Gang of Four” is always right.
– Miyajima Satoshi

EVERYONE KNOWS the current Japanese government is in trouble, but it’s even worse than you knew: They’re operating as if they’ve been infected by the same Stuxnet worm that attacked the Iran nuclear program from the inside out. The world’s first weaponized computer virus took control of the centrifuges and damaged them without destroying them, while concealing what it was doing from the engineers at the control panel. As this report says: “In other words, the worm was designed to allow the Iranian program to continue but never succeed, and never to know why.”

Is there a better way to explain the behavior of the Kan Cabinet?

Outside Tokyo

A city council election was held in Matsudo, Chiba, on 21 November. The Democratic Party endorsed 11 candidates in that election, including four incumbents, and nine of them lost. One of the incumbents didn’t receive enough votes to have the cash deposit for his candidacy returned. Your Party backed two new candidates, and their aggregate vote total exceeded that of the four DPJ incumbents by more than 1,000.

Reporters for the regional edition of the Mainichi Shimbun interviewed the defeated candidates. Said one:

“We called voters to campaign for their support and votes, and as soon they heard it was the DPJ they hung up on us.”

He said he didn’t realize the central government could have that much of an impact on elections. (He should have paid closer attention to the American election returns earlier this month.) He added that people would yell at him in public when he tried to give street corner speeches:

“If that’s how you’re going to act, the DPJ can’t be entrusted with the national government.”

Moaned another one of the losers:

“One long-time party supporter asked me to leave when I visited him. ‘Go home’, he said, ‘I’m not letting the DPJ in.’”

All the DPJ candidates reported that voters dismissed them at their public campaign appearances and expressed anger at being “betrayed by Prime Minister Kan”.

Every picture tells a story (Sankei Shimbun photo)

In fact, this might have been the first election anywhere in which the losers agreed with the voters. Another incumbent, the party secretary-general in Chiba’s seventh district, said the candidates had daily “mini-meetings” during the campaign, and they often asked themselves, “Just what are they doing (in Tokyo)? It wasn’t just the gaffes—it also was the Senkakus and the Okinawa base.”

They tried to distance themselves from the national party by telling the voters they too wanted the government to get serious, but as one of the defeated candidates explained, “In the end, we had to carry the burden of the party name.”

The Mainichi thought one of the reasons for the outcome was the increase of independent voters due to the influx of new residents resulting from the urbanization of the area. Voters everywhere are more frequently identifying themselves as political independents, and that trend is particularly strong in Japan. The gaggle of RDD public opinion surveys find that those who claim no party affiliation make up more than 40% of the electorate, while the Jiji news agency poll, which is generated by face-to-face interviews, shows the default figure of independents to be more than 50%.

As for what the Matsudo election portends for the DPJ, Ubukata Yukio, the DPJ Diet representative from Chiba’s sixth district, distributed an e-mail magazine with the title, “We can only apologize to the DPJ candidates”. Mr. Ubukata wrote:

“If we go into the local elections next spring the same way, we’ll have the same results throughout the country.”

Meanwhile, two Chiba City councilmen affiliated with the DPJ left the party the same week.

Inside Tokyo

Nakano Kansei served as the DPJ Secretary-General in 2002. Last week he said:

“A national strategy is not possible without foreign policy and defense, but I doubt the current cabinet is headed in that direction.”

At a dinner with other politicians on the 29th in Tokyo, Ozawa Ichiro was resigned to the government’s failure. He was quoted as shrugging off the Kan Cabinet: “What can you do about it?” (sho ga nai)

He added:

“At this rate, the local parties will revolt, and the DPJ government will collapse from the bottom up.”

They thought someone would fall for it?

The quasi-public television and radio network NHK broadcasts important Diet proceedings live. On the 10th, they began coverage of Question Time in the lower house budget committee at 11 a.m. The committee session had begun 30 minutes earlier, but the broadcast was delayed because the DPJ government had not granted NHK permission. A political reporter for a national newspaper told one of the weekly magazines that the committee proceedings were supposed to have started at 10:00 a.m., but the opposition Liberal Democratic Party objected to NHK when they saw there would be no broadcast. The start was delayed 30 minutes.

The reason NHK didn’t turn on the cameras? “The DPJ told NHK that the LDP said a broadcast wouldn’t be necessary.”

The committee’s business that day? The first round of opposition party questioning of the government after reports had emerged that a Coast Guard officer had uploaded to You Tube the videos of the Chinese fishing boat ramming in the Senkakus.

Last year, the DPJ campaigned on the promise of a “clean and open government”. Those words have now become a weapon in the hands of every print and broadcast media outlet in the country.

Speaking of the video

The Kan Cabinet claimed that the national interest would be harmed if the videos were released to the public.

Last week, the upper house budget committee finally received a 44-minute video from the government, which it distributed to all the opposition parties. The LDP gave a copy to the national media.

If the national interest has been harmed, no one seems to be aware of it.

Sleepy and tipsy

Gendai Business Online ran an article describing the government’s initial response to the appearance of the videos on You Tube. Lower house DPJ MP Kawauchi Hiroshi heard that the videos had been uploaded from a reporter on the night of 4 November. He immediately called the Kantei (the Japanese version of the White House) to confirm the facts with Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito and the measures they would take to deal with the situation.

“It was just before midnight when I called the Kantei to get in contact with Mr. Sengoku. An aide answered the phone and said, ‘I cannot connect you with the Chief Secretary.’ When I asked why I couldn’t talk to him in this emergency, he replied, ‘The Chief Cabinet Secretary has already retired for the night. I will inform him of the matter tomorrow morning.’ I was stunned.”

The Gendai article notes that Mr. Sengoku is the point man in the Kan Cabinet for gathering important information. When he is sleeping and not to be disturbed due to extreme fatigue—something that is happening with greater frequency—not only is there no crisis management, the Kantei itself ceases to function.

Prime Minister Kan Naoto has been complaining that he lacks information because Mr. Sengoku is monopolizing the flow, but when the video went up on the Net, he was out drinking with another DPJ Diet member. Saito Tsuyoshi explained:

“Mr. Kan invited me out for some drinks to celebrate my appointment as Acting Diet Affairs Committee Chair. We arrived at a traditional Japanese restaurant in Akasaka after 9:00 p.m. and had dinner. One of Mr. Kan’s aides was also with us, but there was no indication whatsoever of any report that the videos had been released.”

They left after 11:00 p.m., when word on the Net was spreading and the mass media was beginning to move. At that point many ordinary citizens knew more about what had happened than Prime Minister Kan.

Mr. Kan learned about the videos after midnight and characteristically lost his temper. He turned on the TV and started shouting, “Where? What channel is it on?” When he was told it was on the Net and not on television, he was frantic. “How do you watch You Tube? What do you do?”

Mr. Sengoku, by now awake, was more interested in who released the videos. He first suspected the culprits were either the Coast Guard or the Naha prosecutors.

They started discussing the possibilities. Mr. Kan’s aides suggested Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji, a Sengoku ally. Mr. Sengoku brought up the name of Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a Cabinet minister in the Hatoyama government and an Ozawa Ichiro stalking horse who has been critical of the government’s handling of the incident.

In other words, the highest-ranking officials in the DPJ government suspected the videos were released by other high-ranking officials in the DPJ government.

Foreign affairs, part #2

DPJ Diet member and former Environmental Minister Ozawa Sakihito, the head of a study group of party members, arranged a meeting with Chinese ambassador Chen Yong-hua. He and his group thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the Senkakus and the North Korean shelling of South Korea. They invited all 412 of the DPJ Diet members to attend.

22 showed up.

Shooting blanks

Boldly going where no LDP government has gone before, some ministers in the Hatoyama Cabinet took immediate action to demonstrate that a governmental New Age had arrived in Japan after forming a government in September 2009. Then-Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Maehara Seiji started firing right away, and one of his targets was the suspension of construction work on the Yamba Dam in Gunma. He was anxious to show that the days of unnecessary pork barrel construction projects were over.

Unfortunately, Mr. Maehara had not studied the issue in depth before making his decision. The dam in question was controversial in the truest sense of the word. Many people opposed the project, launched decades ago to provide more water to the Tokyo region, but many also thought there was a need for it, particularly the public sector at the sub-national level. The due diligence required to make a sound decision was neglected in favor of a publicity splash.

Earlier this month, Mr. Maehara’s successor Mabuchi Sumio quietly lifted the suspension on work on the dam.

Ibuki Bunmei was right: Like grade school boys with pistols…


A ceremony was held on the 29th marking the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Diet. Attending were the Emperor and Empress, and their second son Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko (the parents of the future Emperor).

After an initial ceremony, the Prince and Princess stood up to wait for the arrival of the Emperor and Empress. One MP, identified only as a “veteran DPJ Diet member”, couldn’t restrain himself and yelled out:

“Hurry up and sit down. Can’t you see we can’t sit down either?”

The incident was related by Your Party upper house member Sakurauchi Fumiki on his blog, who also said the comment “was beyond imagining”.

The Sankei Shimbun interviewed the member in question without mentioning his name. He allowed that he “might have” said it and complained again that no one could sit down.

Like grade school boys with pistols who have to go to the bathroom…

Other people’s money

Last week, the Diet passed yet another stimulus package, this one worth $US 61 billion. One would have thought the nation’s sewers were clogged from all the stimulus money that’s already been flushed down the toilet.

The news reports were vague about how the money would be spent, saying only that the funds would be allocated to help support local governments. It’s true that several prefectural governments are struggling to keep their heads above the rising tide of red ink. Could the stimulus actually have been a public sector bailout?

Here’s a hint: One of the party’s biggest organizational supporters is the labor union for local government public employees.

The bureaucrats too

Recall that Koga Shigeaki, a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and a critic of DPJ civil service reforms, was asked last month to testify in the Diet. Mr. Sengoku opposed his appearance and added a gangsterish threat:

“It could adversely affect his future.”

Mr. Koga had been tasked to visit local companies around the country, discuss their interaction with the Ministry, and to file a report. The title of the final three pages of his report was Personal Comments, and they were sharply critical of METI conduct.

The opposition in the Diet asked to see a copy of the report. METI obliged, but removed the three pages with Mr. Koga’s criticism before sending it over. When they were called on it, the ministry explained:

“’Personal Comments’ are the individual impressions of the person himself, and are not part of a survey report for the Diet members.”

And the prosecutors

Livid over the YouTube release of the Coast Guard’s Senkakus videos, Sengoku Yoshito ordered a full court press of an investigation that mobilized up to 80 members of the prosecutors’ office. “This is a grave situation,” he thundered, and made it known that he wanted to nail the leaker’s hide to the wall.

The prosecutors decided not to arrest him.

In their 5 December issue, the weekly Sunday Mainichi wonders if the prosecutors wanted to extract some revenge from Mr. Sengoku for shifting on them the responsibility for the decision to release the Chinese fishing boat captain without a trial.

A source familiar with the investigation said it was likely the probe would continue, and that the leaker might eventually be fined for violating the National Civil Service Law.

Rather than get upset, Mr. Sengoku should be relieved that the government will be spared the entire country demanding to know why the Chinese skipper went scot-free while the Japanese Coast Guard navigator had to face trial.

Political onanism

Here’s DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya speaking in Tokyo recently, as quoted by the Mainichi Shimbun:

“We won’t be the ruling party forever, but if we can (stay in office), I think about eight years (would be appropriate).”

In other words, he thinks the Diet should not be dissolved during the remaining three years of the term, the DPJ will win the subsequent election, and the new term would also last the full four years.

One Japanese blogger wondered if the country could survive that long under uninterrupted DPJ rule.

Mr. Okada may not have been joking. Prime Minister Kan invited his predecessor, Hatoyama Yukio, out to dinner at a Tokyo Chinese restaurant on the 27th, and the two met for about 90 minutes. Mr. Kan told him:

“I won’t quit even if the Cabinet support rate falls to 1%.”

Last week, Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito was formally censured by the upper house. That is legally non-binding, but it has an impact nevertheless—Fukuda Yasuo lasted only two months after being censured, and Aso Taro three.

Mr. Sengoku was asked on the 29th if he would resign. He answered:

“Absolutely not. I’m completely committed to my duties now…I’ve gained the confidence of the lower house. (i.e., the no-confidence motion didn’t pass the DPJ-dominated chamber.) There has to be a legal disposition regarding the issue of whether there is confidence or censure (i.e., the censure is not legally binding).”

Yes, Japanese attorneys can be every bit as assertively obnoxious as their brother lawyers in the West.

MLIT Minister Mabuchi Sumio was also censured by the upper house, and he won’t resign either. As he explained,

“Reform is my assignment.”

L’etat, c’est moi” in Japanese is 国家は私である, in case you’re wondering.

Meanwhile, Shinhodo 2001 released its latest public opinion poll on Monday.

Here are some of the results for the answers to the question of what the Kan Cabinet should do next:

Dissolve the lower house and hold a general election: 47.4%
The Cabinet should resign en masse and allow a new government to take over: 14.2%

Thus, more than 61% of the respondents think the Incompetent Gang of Four should be gone. They disagree only on the manner of departure.


Do not support the Cabinet: 72.6%
Support the Cabinet: 21.0%

The Cabinet’s ability for crisis management is high: 2.2%
Normal: 22.0%
Low: 74.0%
Don’t know: 6.4%

What party do you intend to vote for in the next election?

DPJ: 13.6%
LDP: 29%

Mr. Sengoku thinks it’s all the media’s fault. At a news conference on the 30th:

“We’ve implemented different policy reforms, but the mass media never writes anything positive about us.”

How quickly he’s forgotten.

For several weeks, the circumstances of Mr. Kan’s support rating resembled the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote after running off the edge of a cliff and furiously windmilling in midair before plummeting to the canyon floor. Many voters bought the argument that there had been too much turnover in the Prime Minister’s office, so the government was buoyed by negative support rather than positive support. The new poll results show that what some are calling the Own Goal Cabinet has performed so abysmally, even that argument can no longer keep them airborne.

In just six months, they’ve managed to alienate most of the electorate, most of the party members at the sub-national level, and former party executives at the national level. Incompetence on that scale isn’t a fluke—you have to work at it.

How do they expect to deal with the public, the opposition in the Diet, and overseas governments now that they are essentially a squatter government? Your guess is as good as mine.

It doesn’t require any guesswork to understand why they’re so desperate to hang on, however. Mr. Kan and Mr. Sengoku are men of the left who’d dreamed of taking power for 40 years before their chance finally came. They are well aware that once they leave, a second chance to put any of their philosophy in practice is unlikely to come for some time. Admitting failure isn’t part of their worldview.

Japan is now a country with a government in absentia.

Great trumpet solo:

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To be technical about it

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 6, 2010

IF YOU’RE close to Chiba—which is very close to Tokyo—and would enjoy seeing Asia’s largest electronics trade show with 600 companies exhibiting the latest products and technology, it’s running now through Saturday at Makuhari Messe.

DoCoMo AR application

It’s called the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) technology fair, and here are some of the exhibits:

  • Yamaha’s TLF speaker, just 1.5 millimeters thick, that can be displayed as a flexible poster. The sounds do not deviate after emission, so they can be heard only when one stands in front of it. It can function as an advertising poster that can be rolled up and taken from place to place.
  • Fujitsu’s “omniview” system for automobiles with cameras and imaging software that gives drivers a 360º, 3D view of a car’s surroundings
  • A ring from Murata that measures heart rate and blood-oxygen levels and can transmit data to a cell phone or other device to trigger an alarm if the pulse rate is too high
  • Another Murata product–a small robot capable of riding a unicycle on a narrow, winding bridge.
  • NTT DoCoMo’s AR Walker system in which the users wear special glasses that show a small square in the corner of the vision to give information on directions and local recommendations.
  • The Lumix GH-2 digital camera that records 3D images and plays on 3D televisions
  • The Smart Grid, an IT system for managing electricity supply and demand

The event also features the CEATEC Innovation Awards, which are selected by a panel of seven American IT journalists. There are awards in nine different categories as well as a Grand Prix. The winner of the Grand Prix in 2009 was Sharp’s “mirumo” cell phone with a Memory LCD.

Two days ago we had a post about Ethan Devine’s article in Foreign Policy, in which he wrote:

Failed (Japanese) exporters didn’t go out of business; they joined the ranks of the domestic undead and sold their uncompetitive products at home. For example, Japanese cell phones were once the world’s best, but now they are badly outmoded and can barely be found outside Japan. Overpaying for lousy cell phones…

The products exhibited at CEATEC are manufactured by companies in 15 countries, which means that Sharp’s mirumo cell phone faced international competition for the best of show award. True, it isn’t sold outside of Japan yet, but Mr. Devine’s knowledge of things Japanese seems sketchy at best.

Heck, I’d be interested in checking out the mirumo, and I don’t even own a cell phone! But if I couldn’t find one right away, this year’s exhibit has Kyocera’s Zio smartphone with an Android OS, for the North American market.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Getting old

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 20, 2010

MONDAY the 20th is Respect for the Aged Day in Japan, which is a national holiday. One manifestation of the custom of Japanese (and other East Asians) to be deferential to the elderly is that all levels of government provide them with generous welfare services, as well as other gratuities that stretch the role of government beyond its legitimate functions and its means.

The Mainichi Shimbun lamented in an op-ed last week the lack of urgency for the restructuring of the health and welfare system for the aged. Everyone is aware of the critical factors: a population in demographic decline with a birth rate well below replacement level is being asked to subsidize services to older citizens, who constitute a larger part of the overall population than in other countries. That’s part of the reason some politicians and bureaucrats favor the low road of sharp increases in the consumption tax. That’s also part of the reason voters are objecting to those increases.

The government estimates that the large number of baby boomers turning 75 in 2025 will require JPY 30 trillion for their health care. As of last year, health insurance premiums brought in roughly JPY 12 trillion in revenue. To deal with this shortfall, the Liberal Democratic Party government created a new category for health care services and payment for those 75 years of age or older (or the bedridden 65 years of age or older), which total roughly 13 million people. That system took effect on 1 April 2008.

Without going into eye-glazing detail, the objective was to have those elderly able to afford it contribute more to their health care costs (though not by an onerous amount) and to equalize premium payments nationwide. Municipal governments pay for part of the system, and the wealthier governments provided greater financial assistance to their residents. The new system also automatically deducted payments from pensions, rather than have individuals be responsible for their own payments. (Japan’s system of convienient bank account transfers meant this was not a burden to begin with.) The revisions also made it easier for younger people to make the financial contributions to their own health care.

Many of the elderly immediately started complaining as soon as the new system was introduced, whining that it was a “hurry up and die” system. Of course the news media made haste to give them a platform. The opposition parties promised to roll back the reforms, but when the Democratic Party took power in a coalition government, they discovered that local governments and medical institutions didn’t want a return to the status quo ante. The new government was also unable to agree on how to modify the new system. That’s not surprising considering the DPJ’s general incompetence and the coalition partner Social Democrats pulling relentlessly to the left. Thus the system introduced two years ago remains in place.

The taxpayer-funded treats for the elderly extend far beyond health care, however, and some governments, particularly at the municipal level, are finding it difficult to face the facts. Here are two examples.

Shirahama-cho, Wakayama

Located next to the Pacific Ocean, the area is famous as one of the three oldest hot springs resorts in Japan. The Kogyoku Tenno (Emperor) bathed there in 658, and it’s still a popular resort today.

The municipality of Shirahama-cho operates four public baths, but the enterprise as a whole has been losing money. Chief municipal officer Mizumoto Yuzo told the Kii Mimpo newspaper:

I’m going to consult with the town council and the committee with jurisdiction (over the business) to see if there are some measures we can take next fiscal year.

Outdoor bath at Sakinoyu

The four baths are Sakinoyu, Muronoyu, Shirarayu, and Shirasuna. (The “yu” at the end of the first three means hot water, and is often used in public bath names in Japan.) Shirasuna is a sand bath that is open only from May to September.

The municipality’s tourism department says Sakinoyu earned roughly JPY 10 million in profit last year, but the other three are in the red. The aggregate losses for the Shirahama-cho taxpayers total JPY 9 million.

Everyone pays JPY 300 for admission to Sakinoyu. The admission fees at Muronoyu and Shirarayu are JPY 300 for people 12 and older, JPY 130 for children from six to 12, and JPY 70 for children aged five and younger. It costs JPY 100 to take a sand bath at Shirasuna. These fees were set in 1998 and haven’t been raised since.

The tourism department also says they’ve lengthened the operating hours of the baths to respond to public requests—they open earlier in the morning and close later at night—and have cut operating costs and reduced operating staff to a minimum, but they’ve reached the limits of their ability to finance the operation. This has been an ongoing problem for four years, and the lack of funds has caused the town to scrimp on upkeep. One result has been the visible aging and wear of some of the facilities.

Why is Sakinoyu making money and the others losing money? As the photo shows, the former will never have problems attracting customers. The real reason is that admission is free to Muronoyu and Shirarayu for people aged 65 and older. The age threshold was lowered from 70 and older in 1999. An estimated 240,000 people used those two facilities in FY 2009, and of those, 110,000 were old folks who got in for free. The paid admissions to Sakinoyu, meanwhile, totaled 83,000.

So now the politicos of Shirahama-cho have decided they’re going to talk about it. They might raise the fees, and they might start charging the seniors, but they haven’t decided when the changes will take effect.

What’s to talk about? Emperors are the only people who get to bathe for free. Changes to this system are overdue, but they’re still dithering in Shirahama-cho.

While they’re at it, they should come up with a plan for the immediate privatization of the facilities instead of wasting their time adjusting the fee schedule. As long as people aren’t living in mud huts without a modern water supply system, operating bathhouses is not the business of municipal governments, nor is using Other People’s Money (OPM) to foot the bill for the free baths of one age cohort. It’s no surprise that the taxpayers are subsidizing the admission of 45% of the customers at some facilities.

Chiba City

Also dithering are Mayor Kumagai Toshihito and the government of Chiba City. Neighborhood associations in the city hold different events for Respect for the Aged Day, and the Chiba City government provides financial assistance to those associations to pay for the parties. Starting this fiscal year, Mr. Kumagai says that Chiba City will raise the age limit for the per capita contributions to the neighborhood associations from 70 to 75 and lower the amount of the subsidy. He said the municipal government took the step because of an “unprecedented financial crunch”. This will amount to a saving of about JPY 50 million from the previous year’s budget. That’s a lot of ice cream and cake.

Here it is again: The municipal government of Chiba City is abandoning their fiduciary responsibility to all of its citizens by chipping in for the party favors of one group of them. Or, to be more broad-minded, they have an inadequate awareness of that responsibility to begin with. It is not the business of municipal governments to use OPM to show old people a good time.

Yet all Chiba City can manage to do is raise the age limit for the party and reduce the subsidies. What will it take for them to realize they shouldn’t be spending this money at all—municipal bankruptcy?

Suginami Ward

Some local government officials get it, however. Yamada Hiroshi, a former national Diet member and chief municipal office of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, and currently the head of the small Spirit of Japan party, is one of the few who realize the party’s over and is trying to do something about it. He is also one of the few politicians in Japan to preach the importance of personal responsibility.

Mr. Yamada often cites as an example the former practice of Suginami Ward to distribute Japanese confections (red and white manju) to meetings of associations for the elderly. The ward was so deeply in debt one of his first steps to put the government’s finances back on a firm footing was to end the free sweets. (He also cut his salary by 10%.) He was roundly criticized for being “cold” to the elderly, but he used that decision in local meetings as a teaching example to promote his efforts to restore fiscal sanity.

In 1999 Suginami Ward’s debt stood at JPY 95 billion with only JPY 1.9 billion in accessible funds. A decade later, after eliminating or privatizing some programs and reducing the municipal workforce, they were JPY 20 billion in debt with JPY 23 billion in accessible funds—in other words, in the black—and were on schedule to repay all the debt by 2011.

Fiscally responsible governments are possible–when they’re led by politicians who understand fiscal responsibility.

Roundtable Discussion

The monthly magazine Voice presents a roundtable discussion of Japanese fiscal issues in its current (October) issue with four university professors: Takenaka Heizo of Keio University (formerly of the Koizumi Cabinet), Ikeda Nobuo of Jobu University, Doi Takero of Keio University, and Suzuki Wataru of Gakushuin University.

They’re all in general agreement that the system of governmental largesse for the aged has to be reexamined. Prof. Suzuki said that people are not aware of just how generous the system is, and their awareness needs to be raised. Prof. Takenaka suggested that economic incentives are required, and proposed as one measure raising the fees people pay for the treatment of non-life threatening illnesses. He added:

I already know that people will say that human lives can’t be replaced with money, but the situation will soon be of out of control.

Prof. Ikeda said that he discussed the creation of a voucher system (also applicable for education expenses) with a group of DPJ Diet members, but one of them told him:

I understand what you’re saying, but the word “voucher” is taboo with labor unions.

Unions, of course, are the backbone of DPJ support.

Prof. Doi added that people will deliberately create the misunderstanding that such proposals amount to “market fundamentalism”. The idea, he says, is to stop the discussion of the idea by stopping thought.

The realization is growing among the people of the developed countries, if not their governments, that the Bismarkian welfare state funded with OPM (originally intended to head off the desires of a growing middle class for greater democracy) is no longer viable. If Japanese politicians at all levels and the bureaucracy don’t start to seriously examine more practical ways to provide services, and to reexamine their approach to distributing goodies that shouldn’t be free to begin with, before long the working population might get ready to pull the plug on a lot more than confections and the Japanesque bath time.


Here’s a quick video tour of the Shirahama area, with a scene from the Sakinoyu bath that shows why it is so profitable.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Government, Holidays | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 15, 2010

HAS THERE EVER been a time when little girls didn’t play with dolls? In Japan, little girls have been playing with paper dolls since at least the Heian period, which began more than 1200 years ago.

Somewhere along the way, that diversion was combined with an old Chinese purifactory rite held along rivers in the third lunar month. People exorcised their impurities by transferring them to paper images and casting them on the waters. Those paper images were called katashiro in Japan.

Early in the Edo period, which began more than 400 years ago, people started displaying three-dimensional versions of these dolls in the home. As the custom became more widespread, the dolls and the displays grew more elaborate, and it became traditional to place a full set of figures consisting of an emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians on several tiers for Girls’ Day, which is 3 March.

That custom eventually became a part of every girl’s life. Parents gave a set to girls when they were born, or on their first birthday, and the girls took them to their new home when they got married.

Little girls and big girls both still play with the dolls. Here’s a look at this year’s Hina events from several perspectives.


The Tomisaki Shinto shrine in Katsuura, Chiba puts on a really biggu show every year for its Biggu Hina Matsuri, and it gives everyone a preview by displaying 1,200 dolls on a 60-tiered platform for the 60 stone steps leading to the shrine torii. Katsuura seems to have become something of a Hina Central. There’s a Shinto ceremony to pray for the success of the festival, and the miko, or shrine maidens, perform dances. Students at the International Budo (Martial Arts) University—an accredited school—gave a naginata demonstration.

The city’s main Hina Matsuri, or doll festival, was held from 26 February to 6 March and featured 25,000 dolls in nine locations. One local primary school had an exhibit of 1,366 folk dolls from 84 countries. The city also exhibited Japan’s biggu-est hina doll, which is a towering 120 centimeters tall, or just a skoche shy of four feet. It should be no surprise that the festival is a biggu deal for the city’s merchants—it attracts more than 150,000 people every year.

Those stone steps are 15 meters high and two meters wide, by the way. It took 20 people 90 minutes to set up the display, and boy that was fast work.


The hina season is the peak period for Kuroda Hiroshi and his wife Katsumi of Koshigaya, Saitama, who work together to make traditional crafts. Mr. and Mrs. Kuroda make full sets of hina dolls by hand. One set costs from JPY 150,000 to JPY 230,000 (about $US 2,540). That’s expensive, but customers are paying for handmade craftsmanship and a unique product. Said Mr. Kuroda, “I’ve been doing this with my wife ever since we got married. If one of us were lacking, we couldn’t make good products.” He says the most popular sets now are the smaller ones with dolls from 15 to 20 centimeters high (just shy of eight inches), perhaps as a result of the economic downturn.


Arita-cho in Saga has been one of Japan’s leading porcelain and ceramics centers since the late 16th century. They’ve had plenty of experience creating elaborate and elegant works of porcelain art, particularly during the 18th century, when European nobility went into a continent-wide collectors’ frenzy and spent enormous sums on their products. It stands to reason they’ve got their fingers in this pie too.

The Arita Hina Ceramics festival began last month, and the big draw was the display of porcelain hina dolls from kilns in three countries at the municipal offices on the 28th. The kilns represented were the heavy hitters in the world’s porcelain industry. From left to right: Lladro of Spain, Kakiemon of Arita-cho, and Meissen of Germany. That’s Arita’s chief municipal officer giving the glad eye to the Spanish team. Porcelain folk were particularly intrigued by comparisons of the three companies’ distinctive use of color.

The Kakiemon and Meissen kilns have been around for centuries, but Lladro is a relative baby doll, established in 1950. It didn’t take them long to become the world’s leading porcelain doll manufacturer, however. Aficionados cite their use of color and curves as the factors that set them apart. Their price sets them apart as well. A set of two dolls sells for JPY 1.05 million, or roughly $US 11,590.

Some people sigh at their beauty. Others sigh at the price.

Living dolls

Boys generally aren’t interested in this sort of thing—it is Girl’s Day, after all—and besides, guys are more likely to sigh over living dolls than the porcelain variety.

That’s why the favorite doll event for manly men was in Higashiomi, Shiga, last week, when three young women from the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School dressed up as Hina doll attendants. They even served visitors shirozake (white sake, made with rice malt and sake), a beverage traditionally consumed at these celebrations, and posed for photos. I’ve never had shirozake, but if they want to pour, I’ve got a cup to bring.

The event was called the Human Hina Festival, and it was the centerpiece of a larger local festival that will last until the 28th. This year’s festival is the 13th. The students appeared as living dolls two days running, for two hours each. Said 20-year-old Kato Mako, one of the human hinas, “It was difficult because my feet went numb, but a lot of people took my picture, so it was a good experience.”

Being a doll must be harder work than it looks!

I mentioned last week that some Japanese still believe inanimate objects have spirits, and that also applies to the hina. It just doesn’t feel right to dump them in the trash if they’re no longer wanted or needed. It’s worth clicking the link to find out the solution some people have devised.

And yes, the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School has a website, though it’s in Japanese only. You don’t have to read Japanese to appreciate their calligraphy gallery, however.

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The new breed of Japanese politician

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 2, 2009

“I think the people of Japan and the prefecture seek a method of politics different from that based on political parties. We must change politics at the local level to win the approval of the people of Japan and the prefecture.”
– Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru

THOSE WHO RELY ON the overseas press to keep abreast of Japanese politics would get the impression that the country’s politicians are a faceless, duplicitous lot of hacks with bad suits and bad teeth barely able to conceal a belief that Imperial Japan is destined to rise again. In that version, the one exception was Koizumi Jun’ichro, the “maverick” who represented a “refreshing change”.

But that distorted view is a false impression. That’s what comes from looking through the wrong end of an obsolete telescope.

While it might have contained a measure of truth at one time, the characterization was never wholly accurate to begin with. And now, failing to play attention to current trends means observers are missing one of the most important aspects of contemporary Japan, as well as one of its most compelling political stories.

Mr. Koizumi was not an outlier: rather, he was the first of a new breed of politicians whose dynamism could further transform the face of an already transformed society.

Hashimoto Toru

Hashimoto Toru

As with all social trends, it is not possible to separate the chicken from the egg. It was inevitable that the dramatic changes that have occurred in Japanese society since the 1980s would produce a dramatically different type of Japanese citizen. What few people outside Japan have realized is that they also produced a dramatically different type of politician that is earning the enthusiastic support of those citizens.

Regardless of what one thinks about their policies, politics, and personalities, the old labels no longer apply to people such as lower house members Watanabe Yoshimi or Eda Kenji, briefly profiled in a post down the page. Nor do they apply to Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, the subject of many posts here and the one immediately below this.

After two years in office, Mr. Higashikokubaru has an approval rating of 88% as measured by his local newspaper. Politicians do not achieve that level of support by accident, no matter how long they spent in show business first, so it would behoove the rest of the political class and those who write about it to examine the reasons for his success.

In an interview in the April issue of Ushio, the first reason the governor cites for his popularity is a conscious effort to act naturally and not behave in the manner of government officials in the past. He also cites a willingness to listen to everyone without making an immediate judgment on their opinions or demands.

These traits have prompted one Japanese Internet news source to dub him “the cooperative type” of new, local politician. While that has worked for the Miyazaki governor, others are using different techniques.

Hashimoto Toru

One of those other types is a youthful firebrand who has made the devolution of authority to local government his calling card–the former attorney and television celebrity Hashimoto Toru, governor of Osaka Prefecture.

As the quote at the top of this post makes clear, the 39-year-old Mr. Hashimoto shares with Mr. Higashikokubaru the belief that the days of party-centered politics in Japan has to end. The Miyazaki governor, an independent, often says that the only party a local politician needs is the citizens.

This is an indirect corroboration of the changes in Japanese society, which traditionally was centered on group activity rather than individual behavior. One political consequence of this social structure was that all the political parties demanded Soviet-style obedience within the party once a consensus was reached, regardless of the individual views of the members.

But the younger generations no longer feel constrained to sacrifice their views on the altar of consensus, and their independent behavior is increasingly influencing that of their elders.

While Gov. Higashikokubaru is considered “the cooperative type”, Mr. Hashimoto, who has been in office only one year, is unabashedly the confrontational type. He seems to have taken a page out of the book of economist John Maynard Keynes, who once remarked that when all else failed “ruthless truth-telling” is the only answer.

This ruthless truth-telling has become such a phenomenon among the public that two newspapers, the Asahi and the Sankei, file daily features on his continuing adventures. The Sankei, being non-leftist and a supporter of devolution, is generally sympathetic to the governor. Just today they quoted him as calling the national bureaucracy “tyrannical” for their plans to erect a new building in Osaka for one of their local branches. A Japanese politician will never go far wrong with his constituents by attacking the bureaucracy in the harshest manner possible.

The Sankei also approvingly noted the stir he caused when he declared that “The regions are the slaves of the nation(al government).” The governor was specifically addressing the financial liability borne by local governments to support enterprises or institutions directly operated by the national government.

This certainly got Tokyo’s attention. Mr. Hashimoto has been invited to debate the issues with the Cabinet Office’s Committee for Promoting Regional Devolution and Reform. (You might keep this in mind if you ever read in English the tired old proverb that the nail that sticks out in Japan gets hammered down. Whoever dares repeat that these days is looking through the rearview mirror.)

Indeed, Mr. Hashimoto seems determined to be the first to do the hammering. He has been so outspoken on occasion that he has been charged, sometimes not unfairly, with intemperance, as this previous post describes.

North Korean schools

This week still more of the governor’s ruthless truth-telling stirred up a minor controversy in some quarters. This report came from the Asahi, which as a newspaper of the left has a vested interest in the character assassination of non-leftist politicians with significant popular appeal.

One of the governor’s primary initiatives has been to move the prefecture offices from the present building, which is more than 80 years old, to the Osaka City-run World Trade Center. The move was backed by local business leaders long before Mr. Hashimoto took office. Most are aligned with the Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant party of the national ruling coalition, but some from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan also supported the move. (Business leaders claimed it would spark greater regional development, and it would also solve the problem of the red ink the facility has been bleeding since it was built in the 90s.) Meanwhile, New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, and a significant amount of the population were opposed.

The Osaka Prefectural Assembly this week rejected the proposal to move the government offices, which required a two-thirds majority to pass. When asked about his defeat, Gov. Hashimoto said:

“Japan isn’t North Korea, after all. If I got my way in everything all the time, I’d become a dictator.”

More temperate public officials, hesitant to say something that could cause offense, might have considered blandness to be the better part of valor. They might have said that the people had spoken through their elected legislative representatives and the defeat demonstrates the health and soundness of the democratic process. In other words, the same boring old crap that goes in one ear and out the other.

But the Japanese public is fed up with mush-mouthed politicians, and Mr. Hashimoto was not elected because of an ability to sponge on the soft soap. He is in office because he calls a spade a spade.

The Asahi found (or was approached by) an association of the mothers in the prefecture who send their children to North Korean schools. The newspaper ran an article that reported the association’s demands that the governor withdraw the statement, apologize, and take measures to ensure the safety of the children at the schools.

Their demand says that his statement referring to North Korea in regard to a purely local issue while “North Korea bashing” is occurring due to that country’s upcoming launch of a missile is inappropriate. “We are concerned that the statement could encourage unjustified harassment of the children at the schools,” the mothers said.

The insolence of the North Koreans and their local lackeys is by no means a new phenomenon, but the moral repugnance of this particular complaint is breathtaking. Those of North Korean ancestry in Japan who are allowed to operate schools for the primary purpose of indoctrinating students in the propaganda of an enemy state should be grateful that they have the opportunity to exist at all, much less complain about democratically elected leaders in public. That opportunity certainly wouldn’t be available to them in Pyeongyang, and they know it.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans, who have threatened to turn Japan into a sea of flame, fired missiles in its direction several times, and regularly sent operatives into the country to kidnap private citizens—an infringement of national sovereignty that could also be argued to be a casus belli, is now preparing to launch a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan in violation of a United Nations ban (I know, I know) as soon as this weekend.

The schools themselves are operated by Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, whose chairman and five other senior officials are members of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly. If anyone by chance did harass the North Korean students—who are made to wear uniforms based on traditional Korean designs—it would be the blame of their schoolmasters, their parents, and the country to which they owe allegiance.

One might make the case that the Asahi is performing a service for the large ethnic Korean population in the Kansai district by reporting the news. But that would not be a credible excuse for a newspaper that has had its knives out for Mr. Hashimoto for most of his term trying to discredit him.

The Asahi seems to think that Mr. Hashimoto is irresponsible and intemperate. Some would agree, but many in Japan are thrilled to see a politician unafraid to say what he thinks and ruthlessly tells the truth as he sees it. I do not use the word “many” lightly. In January the support rate among his constituents was 82%.

Morita Kensaku

It is also worth mentioning in this context Morita Kensaku, who handily won the gubernatorial election in Chiba Prefecture in a race closely watched to see if the Ozawa fund-raising scandals would have an impact on the local DPJ candidate. (Apparently they did, to an extent.)

Morita Kensaku

Morita Kensaku

As a former actor, Mr. Morita already had the advantage of name recognition. But other Japanese observers suggest that one reason for his victory is that he presented himself as the face of the prefectural citizens and a man who transcended party. Despite endorsements by about half of the LDP members of the prefectural assembly, he avoided using those endorsements in the campaign.

His primary opponent, Yoshida Taira, was backed by the opposition DPJ. While that seems to have been a handicap this time around, the same observers note that Mr. Yoshida tried to nationalize the election by campaigning on a platform of throwing the bums of the LDP out of office and replacing them with the DPJ. In short, they say, Mr. Morita’s success may have been due to an approach identical to that of the Miyazaki and Osaka governors. All three have pledged their loyalty to the voters’ interests rather than to those of a political party.

It’s worth noting that Japan is a parliamentary democracy, and that prime ministers must be members of the Diet. That means they are legislators, a group notorious for a lack of executive skills. (That’s likely one reason the LDP usually has its prime ministerial candidates serve in several executive positions in the Cabinet and in party posts first.)

Mr. Higashikokubaru already seems intent on moving from the governor’s office to the Diet, and perhaps he thinks he looks upon the visage of a future prime minister when he faces the mirror in the morning. It remains to be seen if people such as Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Morita follow his example, or turn to individual initiatives such as Sentaku, the group organized by former Mie Governor Kitagawa Masayasu.

Whatever happens in the future, it must be emphasized that the presence of such men in Japanese politics is a lagging indicator rather than a leading indicator. That they exist is a corroboration of changes that already have occurred in Japanese society, not of changes that might happen in the future. Besides, there is now so much dynamism in political circles in Japan, particularly at the regional level, that further drastic change must be taken as a given.

But don’t expect to see much discussion of this in English anywhere, much less the media. They still think the LDP and DPJ mudboats of Aso Taro and Ozawa Ichiro are the norm.

They still think Japanese politicians are faceless.

Afterwords: Nothing about politics, but here’s an observation of a different sort. Mr. Morita is giving the banzai salute in celebration of his victory in the photo above. Notice that everyone’s hands are facing toward the front.

That wasn’t always the case. Older people with a prewar education invariably raise their hands with their palms facing each other, resembling an NFL official in American football signaling a touchdown. A few sticklers even talk about it.

Time brings about all sorts of changes, does it not?

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Matsuri da! (4): To drink is divine

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 15, 2007

SOME FOLKS either just under or just over the legal age for alcohol consumption think it’s fun to play drinking games. The point is usually for a group of friends to get blotto together as quickly as possible. The games are most often conducted in off-campus pubs of the type that have sawdust on the floor and serve thin, watery beer, fraternity houses or dorm rooms, or the garage when the parents are away.

They have drinking games in Japan, too, but with an important difference: They’re often held annually as festivals at Shinto shrines with a priest in attendance who blesses the proceedings. So when you wake up the next morning with what feels like a hatchet in your forehead, you can at least rest easy knowing that you have been blessed by the divinities.


One such festival, called the Higenade Matsuri, was held last week on the 10th at the Sobataka Shrine in Katori, Chiba Prefecture. (Clicking on the shrine photos in the first link enlarges them.) The entire festival involves more than getting drunk, but the sake bash itself is held every year as a ceremony for handing over the privilege to preside over the events from one family group to another. (Local parishioners are divided into 18 groups that take turns presiding.)

Two teams participate every year—a team from the group who presided over the previous festival, and a team from the group presiding over the upcoming festival. The members dress in montsuki hakama, or black crested kimonos for men. This is traditional formal wear in Japan, and it is the costume worn by men when they are married in a Shinto ceremony (which is the standard practice).

Another essential part of their costume for the festival is a large bushy moustache. If a man has grown his own, that’s fine, but most of them are fake. This does not preclude women from participating, as the first photograph on this page makes clear.

During the ceremony, the teams take turns drinking sake from cups. Ah, but this is Japan, so there’s more to it than that. A lot more. To start with, the cups are larger than usual, and hold about three-quarters of a pint. In other words, drinking just one cup of straight sake is enough to get royally ripped. A further twist is that a predetermined number of rounds are drunk, with a predetermined number of cups. Here’s the sequence by round: one cup, then three, five, seven, seven, and five again. This is beyond the consumption limit of a normal human being–including the Japanese–so the teams substitute members between each round.

After a couple of rounds, the drinkers start to really enjoy themselves, which will come as no surprise. Besides, there’s a crowd consisting of family, friends, and neighbors cheering the tipplers on. So when the spirit and the sake moves them, tradition has it that they can signal for extra cups by stroking their moustaches, which is what they’re doing in the first photo above. When members of the outgoing group stroke their ‘stache, they get one extra cup. But the rules state that when members of the incoming group give the same signal, they get three extra cups. Hey—it’s a tradition!

That’s how the festival got its name, by the way. Hige is the word for beard or moustache, and naderu means to stroke.

Because this is a Shinto festival, participation ensures good harvests and prosperity for one’s descendants, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was just an excuse concocted centuries ago to justify getting a snootful. People haven’t changed that much over the years. And when I say centuries ago, I’m not joking: The Higenade Festival has been held since 1215.

Another festival in which sake looms large is the Hyotan Matsuri, which was held last month at the Shibayama Hachimansha, a Shinto Shrine in Bungo’ono, Oita Prefecture. This festival is also about 800 years old. (The Japanese have been doing things like this for a loong time.)


A hyotan is a gourd, and the star of this show is Mr. Gourd, or Hyotan-sama. Mr. Gourd dons scarlet clothing and large straw sandals that measure one meter long and weigh 10 kilograms each. And if that weren’t enough, he has large gourds suspended from his hips, which are filled with sake. As the reports have it, he “walks around in a humorous manner.” I’ll bet. As he cavorts around town, he sprinkles the sake on the people lining the streets, and, generous fellow that he is, lets them drink too. Downing the sake is said to protect one from disease and disaster and guarantee a good harvest.

Don’t the Japanese come up with some interesting excuses just to have a couple of drinks?

As a bonus feature, I’ll conclude with an encore presentation of a post I wrote for another blog a couple of years ago, which seems to have spread around the net. It’s even got a Wikipedia entry with a link, so it seems I’ve gotten my 15 minutes of fame. Here’s how it went:

The Japanese love festivals whose primary purpose is consuming liquor, but the Dorome Festival in the fishing community of Akaoka-cho, Kochi Prefecture, is eye-opening even by Japanese standards—the main event is a chug-a-lug contest for both men and women. As you can see from the photo, they use oversized sake cups—those for the men hold 1.8 liters of hooch, while those for the women contain a more demure 0.9 liters. The idea is to see who can guzzle it the fastest, and the master of ceremonies and the audience encourage them with shouts of “Drink every last drop!” and “You can down another one!” I’m sure there were also plenty of people shouting Ikki! Ikki!, which is what some fools scream at drinking parties when they want you to guzzle the whole thing in one gulp. The festival records are 12.5 seconds for men and 10.8 seconds for women.


The winners are not determined solely by how fast they gulp it down, however. There’s a panel of judges that observes each of the tipplers with a discerning eye, and by all accounts, the standards are strict. In addition to time, other standards include the panache with which one drinks, one’s drinking manners, and the amount spilled.

The festival’s name is derived from the local term for sardine fingerlings, and everyone in attendance enjoys a beach party with dorome cuisine washed down by local sake, albeit at a slower pace. The sardines are usually eaten fresh with a sauce made from minced garlic greens, vinegar, and miso. Other events include a Dorome Dance by the kids, a fishing boat parade, and a chin-don performance.

Hey! Chin-don bands, food and drink on the beach, and women who can knock back a liter of sake in 10 seconds—I know where I’m going to take my next vacation!

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