Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Fish’

Good eating

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 19, 2012


It’s been my experience that any animal that comes out of salty water is good eating.
– from the story The Black Clams in Old Man Flood, by Joseph Mitchell

HUGH Flood, the Old Man Flood of the story, was referring to gastropod pests called quarterdecks, a limpet that attaches itself to oysters and smothers them to death. He convinced the owner of an oyster bed the parasites had ruined to eat a few raw, and he thought they tasted like the tomalley of a lobster.

If Flood was willing to eat those, he’d have been more than ready to eat one of the delicacies of Ryugatake-machi on Amakusa island in Kumamoto — starfishes.

Actually, they don’t eat the starfish themselves but the eggs that fill up their body cavities. Stick them in a pot with water and salt, boil them for 30 minutes, and the Amakusans are set for some good eating.

They used to be plentiful and eaten mixed with sea urchins and clams, but the water isn’t as clean as it once was. Still, it’s not so dirty that the treat can’t be enjoyed from February to the beginning of May, when they’re in season.

Starfish eggs are said to taste like sea urchin, or uni in Japanese, which is a common seafood ingredient for sushi. I like that a lot myself and think the flavor resembles what Baltimoreans call mustard. That’s the yellow (and sometimes greenish) material that collects in the shells of crabs they eat from the Chesapeake Bay. If that’s what they taste like, they’re good eating indeed.

If you want to find out more about these funky epicurean delights, you can buy the Cooking Starfish in Japan e-book for JPY 980 and read and see all about it.

Or, you can watch this Youtube, which shows you everything from start to finish in just under five minutes.

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All you have to do is look (126)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 3, 2012

Handling and bidding on the potentially fatal fugu (blowfish) at the Haedomari Market in Shimonoseki, Yamagata. The market handles more fugu than any other in Japan. The auction is conducted by pulling the broker’s fingers in the black cuff. The highest price this day was JPY 11,000 per kilogram.

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All you have to do is look (82)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 20, 2012

Drying fish in Hirado, Nagasaki

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All you have to do is look (7)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 4, 2012

The photo above was published in the Joongang Daily of South Korea yesterday. It ran with this caption.

About 200 tons of blue fin tuna are auctioned at a fish market in Busan yesterday. Seven fleets of tuna fishing boats caught the school of blue fin tuna on Sunday east of Jeju Island. The total amount of blue fin tuna auctioned off this year by last Sunday was 109 tons. An 84-kilogram (185-pound) tuna sold for 2.4 million won ($2,000) at the auction.

Also yesterday, the following article appeared in the Nishinippon Shimbun:

“Japan’s Fisheries Agency revealed that it had received a response from the South Korean government in regard to their July request that South Korea limit its catch of bluefin tuna. The agency said the Korean answer was that it would be “difficult” (i.e., it’s not going to happen).

“The agency also said it would study the reply carefully to determine its response. According to the agency, the South Korean government explained that one of the reasons their fishermen catch so many bluefin tuna is that the fish accidentally get caught in their nets spread to catch aji and saba (two varieties of mackerel). The South Korean government said it was not intentional. The agency added that South Korea recognized the necessity for international cooperation in resource management. The South Koreans also asked Japan to provide data on their bluefin tuna imports.

“Imports of the fish from South Korea have risen 2.5 times over the past year to about 1,349 tons. The agency is concerned that South Korea is not abiding by catch restrictions determined by international agreement.”

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Shocking the black bass

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012

SOME people amuse themselves by introducing different species of fauna to new places, inadvertently causing havoc among the native inhabitants. The Maritime Products Division of the Shiga Prefecture government is anxious to disintroduce the non-native black bass from Lake Biwa because they feed on the locals. A lot.

The Shigans hit on the idea of shocking the little devils to make it easy to scoop them into nets for disposal. So as not to ruffle the scales of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Ichthyoids, they just juice them with 1,000 volts for less than a minute, which knocks them unconscious. They then float to the surface along with the other stunned sea creatures, but only the aliens are scooped. The black bass spawn from April to July, so the prime shocking time is just coming to an end. The technique is reportedly effective because it also jolts the hard-to-reach finsters lurking in the rocks.

How effective? Last year they shocked and scooped 1.8 tons of black bass, as well as 81 kilograms of blue gills, another maritime invader.

The specially outfitted ship is capable of inserting electric terminals into the sea from the bow. Prefecture officials borrowed a boat last year from the National Federation of Inland Water Fisheries Cooperatives and conducted 19 trials. The ship is named after the god of thunder (or lightning, both work in Japanese), and it operates out of the Port of Otsu.

The system worked so well, they bought their own boat this year!

Here’s what Real Fish sound like when they take up musical instruments and form a band. The school decides to head in a different direction about 1:30 in.

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei

They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

And don’t forget Okinawa!

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Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Finis for the fins?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 3, 2011

Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you and remain silent.
– Epictetus

SOCIAL critic Miyazaki Masahiro offered some observations on recent trends in Chinese cuisine earlier this week. Here they are in English.

With everything else being destroyed in China, is the core of their food culture also at risk? Shark fin soup, the sine qua non of sophisticated Chinese cuisine, has become a target of attack. This has surprised both the Chinese and the Japanese, who export shark fins to China. Activists have converged on Shanghai to strip the Chinese of their dietary culture by demanding that people stop eating shark fin on some pretext or other — environmental protection, ecological protection, anything will do.

Japan has been deprived of the whale. In China too, bear paws and dog meat are now de facto illegal. (Manchuria is an exception. There, dog meat restaurants still flourish.) Stewed bear paw has, for all intents and purposes, been banned for about two years. The primary reason cited was hygiene, and now there is mock bear. But bear paws are considered an indispensable part of elegant dining, though it took a month of stewing in a pot to soften them and remove the toxicity.

Whole grilled squab is popular in Guangdong, but the shops serving civet have disappeared from the main streets. A campaign promoting a trial tasting of dog meat had been scheduled, but was canceled.

Most people in Beijing no longer eat dog meat. Even in Guangdong, owl eyes, which had been a favorite of young women (because they were said to improve eyesight), are not as popular as they once were, and there are signs that grilled squab (doves) will be the next target. (Why it is that Japanese women’s groups don’t criticize the Chinese for eating the symbol of peace, I don’t understand.)

And then there is shark fin.

It’s said that 30% of the world’s shark species are threatened with extinction, and most of those have disappeared into Chinese stomachs. China imports most of its shark fin from Japan. It became so scarce after the Tohoku earthquake that local fishermen began receiving premium prices.

WildAid was held on 22 September 2011 in Shanghai, and many Chinese were surprised to see basketball star and national hero Yao Ming in attendance. Most Chinese love shark fin soup (N.B.: It’s traditionally served at wedding banquets), and a controversy erupted when Yao Ming and Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, held a news conference to declare that eating shark fin was barbaric and should be banned.

I wonder — is this the first time Chinese food culture has come under simultaneous attack from inside and outside the country?

(end translation)

The World Park Junkies have survived all these years, so maybe shark fin soup will too.

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Posted in China, Food, Social trends | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Plankton picture book

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

WHAT other country’s knowledge and appreciation of marine life can match that of Japan on a national scale? Sushi and sashimi have become international cuisine, they’ve made seaweed of all sorts palatable and its cultivation quite profitable, they’ve prepared the potentially poisonous fugu as a dish for gastronomes for centuries, the appreciation of carp and their breeding is an elegant pursuit, carp streamers are part of the national culture, and their expertise on the best ways to eat whale and dolphin drive some people to spittle-flinging rages.

They also know a thing or two about plankton.

Plankton can be small enough to be measured in nano-units (one-billionth of a meter) or as big as a whale. Those that breed by absorbing carbon and phosphorus are classified as flora, while those that feed on the flora plankton are classified as fauna. When some types of plankton reproduce abnormally, they can change the color of the sea water. Those are the buggers responsible for red tides, which kill fish by reducing the oxygen supply in the water.

The Yuu Microlife Museum in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, the country’s only facility specializing in marine microorganism research, published this year an illustrated encyclopedia of plankton that has generated a surprising response for a work of this type. They intended for it be of interest both to the general public as well as the specialist, and they seem to have succeeded. It’s easy to carry around and has many color photographs of plankton for quick recognition, including those that cause the red tides. Local government employees responsible for measuring sea water purity for the early detection of red tides now consider it an indispensable reference.

The 205-page book on A5-sized paper is an updated version of a similar book for the plankton of the Seto Inland Sea, which the museum published at the end of 2008. Researchers from the Fisheries Research Agency in Yokohama helped the museum put it together to present the primary 172 species of plankton inhabiting the seas around Japan.

For the hydrospace enthusiasts, there are color microscope photographs of the plankton and charts enabling the identification of species by their characteristics, including size and the presence or absence of tentacles and legs. There’s a companion DVD showing video of the plankton floating in the sea.

How often is a scientific reference book appreciated by children, research scientists, and commercial interests? This seems to be one. The museum published 2,000 copies in January, and the first print run has already sold out. Demand is such that they printed 2,000 more. Apart from the researchers and university libraries who would normally be expected to buy the book, it’s also popular among local government employees and people who just enjoy flipping through the photos.

The Yamaguchi Prefecture Maritime Research Center has issued the book to all four of its branch offices. Their employees are rotated once every two or three years, and some whose job it is to conduct periodic seawater inspections find it difficult to distinguish the different plankton species. Some were willing to drive two hours to the center just to refer to the book.

The center has also suggested that the firms breeding fish in seawater farms use the book as a reference for identifying harmful plankton and thereby minimizing losses.

If a plankton picture book seems to be just the thing for your home library, or, with Christmas on the way, you want to give a thoughtful gift to the marine biologist in your family, call the museum at 0827-62-0160 and get ready to send them JPY 2,520.

Put it on the shelf next to the Dialogues.

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

Sweetfish, fireworks, and summertime fun

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 18, 2010

MUNICIPALITIES everywhere hold special events outdoors when the weather gets nice, and often those events include large fireworks displays. As you might imagine, summer galas with fireworks are common in Japan. My wife’s family home is near a river, and the second floor of the house offers an excellent view of the local fireworks festival. Our house is a 10-minute walk from the municipal offices, where another fireworks extravaganza is presented every year.

Not many of the summertime events I saw in the United States started off with a special ceremony. For the fireworks festivals, people just head for a site with a good view and wait for the light and sound show to begin.

That’s not usually how it happens in Japan, however. People here like to hold a ritual/ceremony/event first to get off on the good foot, even if it’s small and few people attend. One opening ceremony that’s particularly appealing is conducted by the people who present the annual Hita River Opening Sightseeing Festival in Hita, Oita. The city is on the Mikuma River and likes to promote itself as a hydrophiliac municipality, so that’s where the events take place. As they do every year, the city began their 63rd festival this year with a small observance to thank the river divinities and ask their blessing for a safe event. Three young women, serving as the public relations face of the festival, dressed as miko (Shinto shrine maidens) and released 34 ayu, or sweetfish, into the river from the edge of a small stage.

Is that not a short but sweet gesture that shifts the emphasis from receiving to giving, and a gentle reminder of that which should come first?

About 90 people came to watch, including local government officials and representatives of the tourism industry. A much larger number of people came to watch the fireworks, in which 10,000 individual devices were released into the sky over the next two nights. There’s also what the Hita folk call the Hangiri Gempei Contest, which involves goofy competitions on the river. In one of them, individuals dressed in unusual costumes climb into what look like oversize wooden washtubs to do battle and try to capsize each other. They probably laugh themselves silly while everyone else enjoys the scene from the riverbank.

This is the first public event of summer in Hita, so it’s held at the end of May every year. The story got lost in the shuffle among the other files on my computer, but I thought it was good enough to present even if it is two months late. And speaking of good sweetfish stories, here’s another one about taking the ayu from the river instead of putting them back in.

Oh, and before I forget—here’s a superb photo of the fireworks over the river.

What the heck! To find out what’s been going on in Kyushu this weekend, take a look at the mad morning dash in Fukuoka City, the Kagoshima lanterns, and weather forecasting using the Divine Wind.

I’m tellin’ ya, this is a happening place!

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Posted in Festivals, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Letter bombs (6): Ignorance goes viral

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 21, 2010

For people whose job it is to describe the world, journalists often seem to have remarkable difficulty imagining life in other people’s shoes.
– Michael Kinsley

The buzzing of the flies does not turn them into bees.
– Georgian proverb

JOURNALISTS and their employers have always been dependable for providing an undependable view of events that is more agenda-driven entertainment than information. Former American President Harry Truman once sighed that he felt sorry for his fellow citizens who woke up in the morning and read the newspaper, thereby thinking they knew something of what was happening in the world.

Isesaki flag

The revolution in information technology that has occurred since Truman’s time has given us much more tech than info. Though more pixels are hurled onto more screens, and more talk is belched into the ether, its accuracy and value are in indirect proportion to its quantity. The new technology also allows anyone to participate, but as the Georgians had it, the buzzing of those flies does not turn them into bees. The cacophony they create resembles nothing so much as a conductorless orchestra of vuvuzelas on a radio with a missing volume knob. Ignorance has gone viral.

They’re even more dependably undependable regarding Japan, a subject they almost never get right. A Japanese friend still keeps a clipping from an American newspaper he saw while on a trip to that country with a map of Japan showing Yokohama where Osaka is. (Osaka is 241 miles almost due west.) But as this post will show, they really don’t want to get it right.

This edition of Letter Bombs contains three items sent in by readers, one of which has an embedded fourth item. To these I’ve added a discovery of my own. All of them demonstrate that neither the bees nor the flies care a whit about the facts. They’d rather feed on the offal of a narrative of Weird Japan, the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated by losers and perverts.

The Bogus #1

Mac sent in the first article by The Guardian’s man in Japan, Justin McCurry, whose body of work suggests his ambition is to become the thinking man’s WaiWai. McCurry slid forward on his stool at the FCCJ bar and pulled out another one. There are too many fascinating stories in this country of 127 million to cover them all, but the one McCurry selected for his Guardian readers was about the municipal government of Isesaki, Gunma, a city of 209,000 people, ordering its employees to shave their facial hair.

His manner of presenting information about Japan has become so predictable it deserves to be recognized as the McCurry Method ™. This consists of blending dollops of mythomania into meaningless generalizations applied to the entire population and to entire eras with the journalistic equivalent of an industrial paint sprayer, propelled by a condescending sense of superiority.

He starts with a line straight out of the Ryan Connell WaiWai stylebook:

(B)ureaucrats in one town could find themselves sent to the bathroom, razor in hand, for sporting even the suggestion of a five o’clock shadow.

There’s a reason they don’t issue artistic licenses to the people writing for a daily paper. None of this works even as hyperbole, least of all the idea that the average Japanese man is capable of producing a five o’clock shadow. Well, some are—by five o’clock the next day.

Authorities in Isesaki, Gunma prefecture, have ordered all male employees to shave off their facial hair, and banish all thoughts of growing any, following complaints from members of the public who said they found dealing with bearded bureaucrats “unpleasant”.

Might as well use that counterfeit artistic license until it expires from overheating. Imagine an Isesaki municipal bureaucracy capable of mind control, banishing thoughts of banned beards from all those who dare enter its precincts. You can’t even look out the window and daydream of a tidy Van Dyke.

Here’s a textbook application of the McCurry Method ™:

The Isesaki ban is reminiscent of the strict rules on physical appearance enforced by conservative companies in the postwar period in the belief that Japan’s rise to economic superpower required absolute conformity.

That’s in contrast to the wild and crazy guys with beards to their sternums, ponytails to their shoulder blades, and rings in their ears, lips, and noses to the grindstones at the hip, tolerant, a-go-go American and British industrial corporations of the 50s and 60s.

Shall we hold a pool to speculate where McCurry got the idea that the Japanese corporate establishment “believed” that “absolute” conformity was the key to becoming an economic superpower? Here’s where I put my money: He pulled it out of his backside.

What’s he going to write next? The robotic Japanese are automatons and economic animals who live in rabbit hutches, dream of conquering the world economically because they couldn’t militarily, and are so xenophobic they think Wogs begin at Calais?

Whoops, sorry about that last one. That comes from McCurry’s neck of the woods.

For an illustration of the strict ban on facial hair in Japan during the postwar period, here’s a photo of the man at the top of the social ziggurat in those days:

But this was the first time that an absence of whiskers had been enforced among civil servants, the internal affairs and communications ministry said.

But this was probably not the first time McCurry rewrote something to enhance the narrative. What the ministry really said was that they had “never heard of” any municipality in the country introducing such a rule, not that it had never happened.

The ban, the first of its kind among Japanese public officials, applies to any manifestation of facial hair, from lovingly cultivated full beards to trendy goatees and designer stubble.

And we all know that the range of facial hair from lovingly cultivated full beards to trendy goatees and designer stubble constitutes the A to Z of masculine hirsuteness.

A more realistic view was offered by Nakata Hiroshi, now running for an upper house Diet seat. When he was the mayor of Yokohama, he would have been in a position to institute such a ban.

Some beards are stylish, and some are unsightly, and it’s not possible to clearly define what would or would not make other people uncomfortable. This is a service industry whose employees should be aware that they interact with the public, and that everyone is checking out everyone else’s appearance.

Here are some more things McCurry didn’t see when he wasn’t looking: Facial hair for male employees is also banned at 7-Eleven Japan (full-time employees and student part-timers alike), Oriental Land, the operators of Tokyo Disney Resort, and the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, the country’s premier sports franchise.

He also missed this site for a business consulting firm in the U.S.:

(E)mployers in the USA have a legal right to ask you to adhere to dress codes:
“A person can be fired because the company doesn’t like your shoes,” explains Robert D. Lipman, who manages the New York employment firm Lipman & Plesur, LLP …“People say ‘This is America. We should be able to do what we want.’ But I tell them that once you walk into a private employer’s workplace, your rights are limited.”

Less than a minute of research turned up this site from solicitors in Britain:

Standards of dress and personal presentation are relevant to most employers and having a policy on dress code can be important.
Where the employees meet customers and are effectively the shop window for the company, the benefits of presentable appearance are obvious. But even where the employee’s work is internal, there are less tangible benefits such as:
•creating a team atmosphere,
•engendering standards of professionalism, and
•creating a corporate image.

McCurry seems to fancy himself a successor to the tradition of British essayists, so it’s fitting to close this chapter with a quote from one of the best, William Hazlitt:

“The true barbarian is he who thinks everything barbarous but his own tastes and prejudices.”

The Bogus #2

Aceface found an article by people who didn’t look very hard either: a group of Internet hucksters calling themselves Business Ideas International, who claim to be based in Japan. A look at their website turns up business ideas resembling the sort of suggestions that used to be advertised on matchbook covers in the United States. (Start a DJ business and rock your way to financial freedom! How to get paid to play video games!) The combination of lackwits producing junior high school prose and preening with the conceit that they know what they’re talking about makes one wonder how they succeed in business even when they really are trying, much less offer advice to others.

The title is: 5 Twisted Business Ideas (That Could Only Have Come From Japan)

Sushi, Geisha, Schoolgirls and Anime are usually among the first things that come to mind when people mention Japan. Business Ideas International is based here in Japan though – and we’ve got the inside scoop. We can tell you from first-hand experience that the quirkiness of the land of the rising sun is not just limited to these usual pop-culture icons.

Give the business mavens credit for thinking outside the box. Who else would consider sushi and geisha “pop-culture icons”?

As someone who has regularly interacted with both Japanese and American schoolgirls, by the way, I’d say the Japanese variety are considerably less quirky.

(H)ere’s just a sampling of five twisted business ideas that could only have come from Japan.
#1 Love Doll Rental
It’s weird enough that some guys settle for a “real life” doll instead of a real girlfriend. But leave it to the Japanese – the place where these dolls-as-partners were invented – to take things a step further.

The earliest recorded instances of love dolls are the “dama de viaje” or “dame de voyage”. Those are Spanish and French terms for female dolls sewn out of old clothes for use as substitutes on sailing ships during long voyages. The Japanese and German navies performed similar experiments in the 1930s, and the Germans called theirs seemannsbraut. The Japanese like the term Dutch wives.

There was a big to-do in Britain in 1982 when a company called Conegate tried to import inflatable sex dolls from West Germany, but customs seized them. They were so anatomically accurate the authorities considered them indecent. The High Court overturned the verdict of an initial hearing on appeal and allowed the sale of seemannsbraut in the UK.

You see, here in Japan, if you’re not a “one-fake-woman” kind of guy, and prefer to “work the scene” you can opt to rent a love doll by the hour.

Thus demonstrating the aptness of Henri Amiel’s epigram that cleverness is serviceable for everything and sufficient for nothing.

But there’s a reason for the rentals.

With $2 million in sales last year, (Matt) McMullen now employs 14 people at his San Marcos, Calif., company (Real Doll) and makes about six or seven dolls a week, each requiring 80 hours of labor.

The linked article says that some dolls sell for as much as $US 6,500. To get an idea of what’s available, here’s a website with immaculate English offering “realistic latex & silicon love”.

Could it be that BII is chagrined they didn’t come up with the rental idea themselves?

Business Ideas International prides itself on being a publication that is SFW, so we won’t go into too many more details. Needless to say, let your imagination wander – what ever pops into your head, yup, that’s what they do.

How would the people of Business Ideas International know what Japanese men do with sex dolls? Unless…

#2 Roadside Alcohol Vending Machines
Nothing takes the edge of (sic) the morning drive to work like an early A.M. beer-buzz right? If you agree, you’ll love Japan. Here there are literally thousands of street-side alcohol vending machines. You can just pull up to one, stick in your ID and a couple hundred yen, and out pops a can of premium beer or potent Japanese sake. Open her up and keep on driving. Gives a new meaning to “one for the road”.

Anyone who thinks the Japanese show up for work with a morning buzz because they bought some beer at a vending machine instead of pulling into a 24/7 convenience store offering a greater selection of the same product is not old enough to work for a living. Incidentally, drunk driving laws in Japan are more stringent than in the US. Any alcohol in your system at all lands you in jail. No malarkey about blood alcohol percentages.

Remember, these people claim to be based in Japan.

The vending machines selling alcohol are for walk up (or pedal up) business, not drivers, but let’s not judge Business Ideas International too harshly. Anything to do with business, ideas, or Japan seems not to be their forté.

#3 Every Invention By Dr. Nakamatsu – Ever
If you don’t live in Japan, chances are you haven’t heard of Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu.

Even if you do live in Japan, chances are you haven’t heard of Dr. Nakamatsu.

Dr. Nakamatsu’s most notable invention is one that helped change the world at the time – the floppy disk. IBM made a deal with him in the late 70’s for his floppy-disk related patents that are bound by a non-disclosure agreement, so they may take most of the credit. Although the sum paid to him has never been revealed, he has lived the life of an extremely eccentric multi-millionaire ever since. Besides the floppy disk, Dr. Nakamatsu also holds patents for the core technology behind the CD, the DVD, the digital watch and even the taxi-cab meter.

They missed the patent for the automated pachinko machine, but what the heck. BII thinks that every invention by Dr. Nakamatsu ever is twisted. However, they do note that he also sells:

Pyong-Pyong Flying Shoes, Love Jet 200 Anti-Impotence Perfume, Yummy Nutri Brain Food…

Put “eccentric inventor” into Google and you’ll get almost two million hits. Dr. Nakamatsu actually appears in a few of them, but most of them refer to the tradition of eccentric English inventors.

Either Business Ideas International is jealous that Dr. Nakamatsu has more money than they ever will, or this is some undergrad’s idea of a put-on.

#4 Maid Cafes
Cute Japanese girls dressed in French maid costumes take your order and serve you food. They also occassionally (sic) get up on stage and sing and dance for you. ‘Nuff said.

Nah, not nearly “‘nuff said”.

Let’s talk about the American-based restaurant chain Hooters. The waitresses wear orange shorts cut at crotch level, tanks tops designed to show off their superstructure—hence the name “Hooters”–pantyhose, and bras. This is taken from the company’s website:

Hooters of America, Inc. is the Atlanta-based operator and franchiser of over 455 Hooters locations in 44 states in the US, Argentina, Aruba, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Columbia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, England, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Korea, Mexico, Paraguay, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands. The privately held corporation owns 120 units.

Now there’s a Business Idea International! Hooters has yet to hit Japan, however. Maybe all that latex & silicon love is squeezing them out of the market.

The element of female sex appeal is prevalent in the restaurants, and the company believes the Hooters Girl is as socially acceptable as a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, or a Radio City Rockette…Claims that Hooters exploits attractive women are as ridiculous as saying the NFL exploits men who are big and fast. Hooters Girls have the same right to use their natural female sex appeal to earn a living as do super models Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. To Hooters, the women’s rights movement is important because it guarantees women have the right to choose their own careers, be it a Supreme Court Justice or Hooters Girl…Sex appeal is legal and it sells.

They’re feminists!

Hooters does not market itself to families, but they do patronize the restaurants. Ten percent of the parties we serve have children in them. Hooters is in the hospitality business and provides the best possible service to anyone coming through the door. For this reason, the chain offers a children’s menu.

So to sum up: A children’s menu in a restaurant called Hooters wink wink nudge nudge is normal, but some Japanese men patronizing restaurants with waitresses wearing French maid outfits is twisted.

#5 Live Seafood Restaurants
While many English-speaking countries have caught the Sushi Restaurant buzz, food connoisseurs abroad are still missing out on the REAL seafood dining experience here in Japan.
Apparently for the Japanese, just serving your food raw was not good enough for them. “If we’re not going to cook it”, an enterprising restaurant owner apparently thought, “why should we even bother killing it?”…


…and so the live seafood restaurant was born. That’s right, in Japan, you can go to a restaurant and be served a plateful of food that’s still alive and kicking.

Putting aside the image of kicking seafood, the folks at Business Ideas International apparently have not been to China or South Korea. Not very international of them, is it? Neither do they read Britain’s Telegraph, nor visit YouTube:

Chinese diners eat live fish in YouTube video
Animal rights campaigners have criticised the Chinese over their extreme eating habits after a video of diners eating a live fish became a hit on the internet.

The article is dated November 2009. The BII piece was posted in May 2010.

The Telegraph article contains this passage:

Reports have claimed some restaurants offer monkey’s brains. Other dishes include rats, dogs, snakes, lizards and baby mice.

I’ve also heard the monkey brains story from a Japanese man who operates a small restaurant and likes Chinese food. He visited China on a special tour for people in the industry.

Yesterday, I did a search at Google Videos and YouTube: “China live food” got 2,400 and 1,780 hits respectively. “Japan live food” got 1,800 hits and 1,410 hits, and “Korea live food” got 1,140 and 911. Not all of them were about the actual consumption of live food, however.

Incidentally, unless you’re interested in getting ill, all shellfish must either be eaten live or be cooked while live. The Health Department of the State of New York has issued an official warning. Raw oyster bars have long been popular on the American East Coast and in France. They’re so common in the U.S. the dish is called shooters.

Hey, who’s up for some shooters at Hooters!

At the very least, we hope this post has made you realize that no business idea is too strange or outlandish.

It also made me realize the extent to which ignorance has gone viral.

The Bogus #3

As we saw from the previous example, there exists a type of low intelligence that’s become convinced of its cleverness without seeing through the transparency of its oafdom. An even clearer demonstration is the Adam Frucci post at Gizmodo sent in by Dokushoka. It’s the journalistic equivalent of picking one’s nose in public.

The title is: Elderly Japanese Would Rather be Tended to by Robots than Foreigners

Frucci provides no specific information on what elderly Japanese think. How can he? That’s because he pulled it out of the primary source for people who write about Japan: His own backside.

What he does is provide in this “article” is a hot link at the bottom to the BBC, which is presumably his source. The link covers the space of only three letters inside parentheses, meaning most people will miss it or not bother with it. That’s the point.

Those few who do click on the link will be directed to a BBC report by Roland Buerk. It has no text—only about 2:40 worth of video, which means even fewer will bother. That’s also the point.

I watched.

That title is: Japan MAY accept robots over immigrants. (Emphasis mine) It’s about the nursing shortage in Japan. In his own variation on the McCurry Method ™, Buerk provides no specific numbers about a national nurse shortfall, but just expects everyone to take his word for it. He does talk to one woman employed at a hospital who says it’s difficult to find staff.

Back to Frucci:

Many of the potential nurses to tend to said old people happen to be from neighboring Asian countries. Not so fast! What about robots?!

Not so fast indeed! What about reality?! Frucci eliminates a critical part of Buerk’s story, which is that nurses must pass a medical terminology test in Japanese to stay more than three years. The failure rate is 98%. Buerk calls this “an example of Japan’s barriers to immigration”.

I’d call that another example of faux journalism and cultural arrogance. How loathsome of those Japanese to spend 1,500 years developing a difficult written language just to prevent other people from moving there.

The BBC briefly interviews a Filipino nurse complaining that even Japanese people have trouble reading the test vocabulary because they’re specialized kanji.

But of course they’re specialized kanji—they’re medical terms. Most laypeople in English-speaking countries couldn’t pass a medical terminology test in their own language either. How many people do you know who could define nosocomial infection, iatrogenic illness, or lethologica without looking them up? The English-language Internet is filled with advice to students for dealing with medical terminology tests.

Had anyone involved with the story known what they were talking about or cared to discover the truth, they’d know that learning kanji is sometimes a beneficial shortcut. Before I came to Japan, I had no idea what nephritis was. When I came across it in kanji, I understood immediately: inflammation of the kidney.

Back to Frucci:

Japan is a very racially homogenous society, where immigration is frowned upon and genetic purity is seen as a good thing.

Putting aside what Frucci thinks he knows about Japanese attitudes toward “genetic purity”, here’s a link to an article published in the monthly magazine Voice—available at newsstands everywhere—almost seven years ago by six members of the now ruling Democratic Party in Japan calling for the immigration of 10 million people. Two of them are now in the Cabinet.

And with the birthrate slowed, they’re moving towards an era where (sic) a full half of the population will be over 65.

His source, Buerk at the BBC, says only that a quarter of the population is over 65 now. He says nothing about an era “where” a “full half” of the population is over 65.

See what I mean about pulling stuff out of their backsides?

Buerk’s turn:

Compared to the melting pots of London and New York, foreigners really stand out here.

On the contrary, the many Chinese and Korean foreigners here don’t stand out at all, but then some people think they all look alike. As Britain’s Prince Philip had it, they’re all “slitty-eyed”.

In passing, I’ll note this belief that the term “foreigner” belongs exclusively to them is endemic among Caucasians in Northeast Asia.

The possibility of allowing mass immigration is barely even discussed.

Buerk doesn’t seem to be big on reading Japanese either. He’s also not the first European to look the other way when the subject is the impact of mass immigration in Europe. After all, Mohammed has been the most popular name for baby boys in London and Yorkshire since 2008. Here’s a headline from a Swedish newspaper a few months ago: “Gothenburg Man Arrested over Somali Terror Plot”.

Eventually they COULD be put to work in restaurants and shops…Accepting a robotic future in Japan COULD be more popular than accepting mass immigration. (Emphasis mine)

Eventually somebody COULD do some real research about this country—it’s easy if you try—but that’s not bloody likely, is it?

The Beeb and Buerk knew enough to use the weasel word to give them plausible deniability against the charge of overt statements without a basis in fact, but that flew over Frucci’s head. He writes:

That means they’ll need one of two things to take care of that aging population: foreign nurses or robot nurses. Guess which option seems more reasonable to them?

Frucci is also a masterful prose stylist…

Yes, robotic fucking nurses.

…whose primary source after Buerk is his buttocks:

(H)ospitals are going to be shut down because of a lack of staff and people are going to be left without vital medical care.

Not even Buerk claimed people were going to be left without vital medical care.

Here’s some more glittering prose:

Sooner or later, they’re going to need to allow immigrants from neighboring Asian countries to enter the country and work in much greater numbers in order to make up from (sic) the soon-to-be greatly diminished Japanese workforce.

Soon according to Buerk was 40 years, if current demographic trends hold.

And not just to build goddamned robots.

But perhaps I misunderstand. Frucci may be deliberately adjusting the level of his writing and intellectual content for his audience. From the comments:

I just wrote a research paper on this same subject. The Japanese are very xenophobic and homogeneity is important to them. So to except about a million (yes I said a millions about 15 million to be exact) immigrants is a tough thing for them.

Here’s another:

Japan is such an odd place that I am willing to believe that they think robots are better than humans of a different ethnicity. Stay classy Japan.

Recall what President Truman said about the effects of newspaper journalism? Here’s one more:

Foreigners also prefer that robots take care of old Japanese people.

How much do you want to bet that guy fancies himself a master of wit and repartee?

The Bogus Bonus!

I ran across this article in Britain’s Telegraph by Danielle Demetriou. That it was the only article about Japan on an American site with political and social commentary demonstrates the poisonous effect journalists have on the views of their product’s consumers in the Anglosphere.

It’s a perfect fit for this post. It now contains links to an aggressively ignorant business promotion site and an aggressively ignorant tech blog sandwiched by poorly researched articles from British broadsheets of the left and the right.

Here’s the headline:

Tokyo sees rise in ‘divorce ceremonies’
As Japan’s divorce rate soars, couples in Tokyo are ending their marriages with as much care as they began them. (Emphasis mine)

It includes this sentence:

Their introduction is timely: more than 251,000 divorces took place in Japan in 2008, a figure blamed partly on the poor economic climate and the end of the salaryman-led family units which used to be the bedrock of much of Japanese life.

Comparing that with this section of the English-language website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications brings up some intriguing questions.

In Japan, divorces were on a generally upward trend from the 1960s until 2002 when they hit a peak of 290,000. Since then, both the number of divorces and the divorce rate have declined for six years straight. In 2008, the number of divorces totaled 251,000, and the divorce rate was 1.99 (per 1,000 population).

Did Demetriou access this herself, get the accurate divorce statistic, and pull the rest out of her backside to juice up the story? Or did someone access it for her first and fail to provide the full context, forcing her to pull the rest out of her backside to juice up the story?

And just what is “soaring divorces blamed on the poor economic climate and the end of salaryman-led family units” supposed to mean?

Japan’s divorce rate per 1,000 population is one of the lowest in the world and is declining. The unexplained and inexplicable reference to the “end of salaryman-led family units” is a borrowing of the McCurry Method ™. Now I’ll borrow the pretentious phrase of those thin-skinned scribes caught with their pants down pulling stuff out of their backsides: I stand by my claim that the journos are making stuff up to ridicule the Japanese and thereby sell product.

Saori Teshima had long dreamt of the moment.

How would Demetriou know?

So goes another divorce ceremony – a bizarre, but increasingly popular ritual among Japanese couples, who choose to end their marriages with the same pomp and ceremony with which they began them.

Who is Demetriou to use “bizarre”, the contemporary teenager’s default term of derision, to describe a preference for ceremonies to mark the milestones of one’s life? I was graduated from school twice in my life—once from high school and once from university. Japanese also have graduation ceremonies for those finishing kindergarten, primary school, and junior high school. They also have entrance ceremonies and ceremonies to mark the start of the school year.

Saturday night, I attended a party for a man’s kanreki—his 60th birthday. The Japanese have observed customs associated with kanreki for several hundred years.

But it’s understandable why some British would consider a divorce ceremony bizarre. Their divorce rate is roughly six times that of Japan. From the Office of National Statistics, UK:

The rate of divorce in the United Kingdom has been dropping in recent years. In 2007 the divorce rate in England and Wales was recorded at 11.9 people per every 1000 of the married population. This is the lowest divorce rate recorded since 1981.

If they started conducting divorce ceremonies, when would they ever sober up enough to go to a pub for the binge drinking required to properly enjoy a soccer match?

Britain also has the highest number of unmarried mothers in Europe. Ceremonies and commitments? Screw that for a lark.

Pioneering the trend for divorce ceremonies is Hiroki Terai, 29, an entrepreneurial former sales man from Japan’s Chiba district…

Chiba is a city and a prefecture (i.e., province or state) right next to Tokyo. Odd that The Telegraph’s Japan correspondent wouldn’t know that it isn’t a “district”.

…who dreamt up the idea after friends of his decided to separate last year. Since setting up a company devoted to divorce ceremonies in March, he has been contacted by more than 700 people and conducted 21 divorce ceremonies – costing from £44 to £700 – with a further nine booked.

In other words, this “increasingly popular ritual” is performed for 0.01% of all divorces.

Roland Kelts, a Japan culture expert and lecturer at the University of Tokyo, described how divorce ceremonies were a welcome tool for Japanese to deal with shifting family structures.
“Today’s Japanese women are well-educated and worldly,” he says. “They watch Sex and the City and wonder why their husbands are not more dynamic. And their husbands, having lost the security of lifetime employment and its perks, are wondering why their wives are so impatient. No wonder divorce has risen to a third of Japanese marriages.”

Only an academic could achieve the hat trick of pulling something from his backside, applying the McCurry Method ™, and beclowning himself in a few meaningless sentences. My favorite was the non sequitur of men losing their lifetime employment perks and then wondering why their wives were impatient.

Kelts’s “discipline” is pop culture in general and manga in particular, which might explain why he’s hit an intellectual glass ceiling here. Yes, an entire nation of Japanese women, just recently backwards and uneducated, knew nothing about sex before they married and even less afterwards, but turned on the cable to Sex and the City and found it so believable they got impatient with their limp, uninterested husbands.

And so the divorce rate has fallen for six years straight.

The Bona Fide!

It’s time for a palate cleanser after swallowing all that inedible fare. Fortunately, Mac also sent in a Youtube video of a live performance by the Shibusashirazu Orchestra, whom he says played at his local rice festival. The music is a heady blend of modern jazz and pop played with straight-ahead gusto on both Western and traditional Japanese instruments. To this they add free-form stage performers and modern and traditional Japanese dance. Their name literally translates to “not knowing tasteful sobriety”, and that’s no joke.

If they were from America or Europe, you’d know about them already. But after you watch the clip to the end, you’ll know something McCurry, BII, Frucci, Buerke, Demetriou, and their readers don’t.


* Any municipality with a flag such as the one used by Isesaki has to be a cool place no matter what happens there.

* Haruyama Fumio, the chair of the human rights committee of the Gunma Bar Association, says the Isesaki facial hair ban restricts the freedom of individuals.

Count on a human rights lawyer to know nothing about human rights.

Part of the transaction between the employer and the employed is that the employed voluntarily gives up certain rights at the employer’s request. That’s why none of the staff at the elegant hotels in London’s Mayfair district wear Hawaiian shirts and beach sandals to work, for example.

If Justin McCurry wants to work out of his rabbit hutch, he has every right to wear a French maid costume, paint his face to look like Hello Kitty, and identify himself as Justine on the telephone if he chose to do so. No one would care. But his employer would surely object if he were to dress and behave that way on the rare occasions he sallies forth to interact with the Japanese public as part of his job.

Of course, if people found dress and facial hair codes to be an infringement of their rights, they’re free to refuse a job offer.

All of this should be elementary.

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Posted in Food, Foreigners in Japan, Government, Letter bombs, Mass media, Music, Popular culture, Sex, Social trends | Tagged: , , , | 27 Comments »

Shimojo Masao (10): Whaling and the Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

IN APRIL 675, the Temmu Tenno (emperor) issued an imperial edict banning the consumption of cows, horses, dogs, monkeys and chickens as food in Japan, a fervently Buddhist country. The custom of meat-eating was not widespread in Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the acceptance of Western culture and institutions began. Animal proteins were obtained instead by catching fish in the surrounding seas. The hunting of whales and dolphins, which environmental protection groups in Western countries have made an issue in recent years, was one of the traditional fishing methods. Eating such foods as sushi and sashimi arose in a Japanese food culture based on fishing, and those foods are now recognized as healthful throughout the world.

In contrast, however, the dietary custom of eating fish raw did not arise on the Korean Peninsula and China, though they bordered the same seas. In those countries, the distribution channels for the sustainable consumption of fresh fish were not established, significant fishing industries did not arise, and markets in the consumption regions did not form. The successive dynasties of China built their capitals inland, and the development of distribution systems lagged. A meat-eating culture arose on the Korean Peninsula, where products were bartered in markets that opened once every five days. Sashimi began to be eaten on the Korean Peninsula after the modern period when the region was under Japanese rule. It was also only recently that the general public in China began to eat raw fish in the form of sashimi and sushi.

Thus, the seafood products previously eaten on the Korean Peninsula and in China were dried and/or cured, and sold without regard to their freshness. Such ingredients as shark fin, a popular dish in Chinese cuisine, as well as abalone, sea slugs, and kombu, a processed seaweed, were delicacies brought from far-off Japan. That manner of trade began during the Edo period (1603-1868) and continued thereafter. Shark fin and kombu are products from northeastern Japan and points north. During the Edo period, they were taken by sailing ships known as kitamaebune to Nagasaki by way of the Sea of Japan, and from there exported to China.

This peaceful East Asian world was disrupted by the arrival of foreign ships from Russia, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries. Their objective was two-fold: to seek trade with Japan, and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels. The post-Industrial Revolution countries in the West used whale oil in the lamps illuminating factories, so whaling in the seas near Japan was vital for them.

The uninhabited island known as Matsushima in Japan throughout the Edo period became known as the Liancourt Rocks on Western maps when the French whaling vessel Liancourt discovered it in 1849. Whaling, which had been conducted as a way to secure food in Japan, was conducted among the Western powers as a way to secure whale oil. Eventually, the demands of the Western powers that sought trade with Japan and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels led to the forced opening of the country, backed up by their military might. This was the principal cause of the disruption of the stable East Asian order.

Speaking of whaling, some peculiar logic has arisen in recent years–the thinking that whales and dolphins are special animals for people, and that this is tied in with the concept of environmental protection. That’s a serious contradiction with the culture of whaling in the West in the 19th century. The Academy Award-winning American film The Cove, which secretly filmed the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama, and condemned that hunt; Sea Shepherd’s violent obstruction of whaling; and other activities closely resemble the one-sided behavior of the Western Powers in the 19th century.

– Shimojo M.

UPDATE: Those reading this post for the first time who would like to read additional information about Korean whaling might find this worthwhile.

Posted in Environmentalism, Food, History, International relations, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 17 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (3)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 12, 2010

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The world’s largest lawnmower?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crop’s not for eating

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

Backyard drama!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking like a fish

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

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

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

The antidote is in the poison

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

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

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

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

A southern fish burger

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

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

Burgers on the sly

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

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

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

Make mine the ninja burger!

Zaasai’s the limit

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

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

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

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

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

Pucker power

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

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

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

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

New wine in old bottles

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

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

Here’s a minute-and-a-half taste:

Venus de Jomon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I don’t think it’s weird at all.

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

Get the number of that fish!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 10, 2009

WHAT DO YOU GET when you combine the Japanese love of new technology and gadgets with their insistence on food freshness and concerns caused by recent incidents of falsely labeled food products, particularly those from overseas?

QR Code Fish

Maritime mug shot

Several possibilities come to mind, but one is now undergoing trials conducted by the Nagasaki Prefectural Institute of Fisheries and the Yokohama-based National Research Institute of Fisheries Science. The two groups are working with a Nagasaki fishing cooperative to test the viability of a system in which tags with QR codes are placed on individual fish to allow consumers to trace the region where it was caught, the cooperative that caught it, the network used to distribute it, and the date it was shipped. It’s the first system of this type in Japan, and one of the innovations for this particular application is that the tags don’t require a special reader.

Here’s how it works: Consumers use their cell phones to photograph the QR code on the tag attached to the fish head, connect to the Internet, access a site jointly operated by the Japan Fisheries Association (link at right sidebar) and the Fishing Boat and System Engineering Association, and get the fish story firsthand. In fact, consumers don’t need even need a cell phone camera—they can get the same information by using their PCs to input the tag number at the website.

The fish being used for the trials is a type of horse mackerel (aji in Japanese) caught in the strait between the Goto Islands and Nagasaki Prefecture. Reports say this fish was selected because it’s easier to trace from catch to shipment, though the reports didn’t say why. Each of the 150 fish in the initial trial shipment weighs at least 250 grams (8.8 ounces). They will be sold for about JPY 1,000 apiece (about $US 11.11) within four or five days at Tokyo department stores, which are about 966 kilometers (600 miles) away from the point of shipment.

The two groups conducting the trial say the system could benefit consumers because it will enable them to quickly check fish quality and freshness. That’s not always easy to determine with the naked eye, and some Japanese distribution routes are complicated. The consumer will also know just where the fish was caught.

The fishing co-ops hope it promotes this particular kind of fish and boosts slack fish prices. The trials are also being used to determine the amount of work required to tag each fish and the amount of additional distribution costs. The system will go into full-scale operation if it functions smoothly and if the producers and the consumers are comfortable with it.

Here’s the website that will be used for the system, for those who read Japanese.

Now I ask you: Did you ever think you’d see the day when you could use your own telephone while shopping at a retail outlet to check the freshness of a fish on display in a bin?

Posted in Food, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

But how long can she hold her breath?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 8, 2009

JK pearl divers
ANOTHER SMALL STEP for Japanese-Korean amity was taken last week during a forum in Toba, Mie, convened by female divers to discuss their efforts to register their way of life as a UNESCO intangible cultural property. For centuries, women in both countries have dived without mechanical aids to catch abalone and other shellfish for a living. Japan and South Korea are the only countries in the world where it is a tradition for women to engage in this income-generating activity, and the working women of both countries have been forging closer ties in recent years. The Koreans initially approached the Japanese, as described in detail in this previous post. That they should work together is only natural—both groups of divers have a long tradition of working in each other’s country. And Toba was a natural place to meet, as half of the Japanese female divers live there.

While most of the ama attending were from Japan—63 came from nine prefectures—one of the Jeju Island haenyo participated, as well as a Korean researcher. The women shared their experiences in addition to discussing strategies for receiving UNESCO recognition. One participant said she had been born and reared in Tokyo, but was so eager to do the work she moved to Chiba. The Korean woman sang the traditional haenyo song.

Another diver who showed up and spoke at the forum was 19-year-old Omukai Chisaki, who is perhaps the first female abalone diver contracted for work because she catches the masculine eye as well as she catches shellfish. Ms. Omukai, hired specifically to serve as a tourist attraction, dives for abalone and poses for snapshots during the summer months in Kuji, Iwate. Perhaps she offered her fellow divers tips on cosmetics that retain their luster after long hours toiling underwater and the most fetching angle to place the goggles on the head when being photographed.

Omukai Chisaki

Omukai Chisaki

Speaking of photos, the accompanying screenshot shows why she was a hot topic this summer among Japanese weekly magazines and TV programs, despite the caption that says she is shivering. The shared culture meant that she also generated considerable buzz across the Korean Strait. A South Korean news report on Ms. Omukai’s summer job ranked fourth in total hits as a search topic in library computer systems on the day it appeared.

The elites won’t like to hear it, but it’s no surprise that cuteness provides more juice to bilateral relations than a boatload of summit meetings and academic conferences. Perhaps sending UNESCO officials to see Ms. Omukai in action would seal the deal for the organization’s approval. Seeing is believing, after all.

Posted in International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

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

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

Firefly festivals

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

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

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

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

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

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

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


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

hatsukiri 2

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

Seaweed cutting

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


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

Sea goya

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

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

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

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

Nara ayu

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

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

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

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

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

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

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

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

high school sake rice project

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

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

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

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

Shochu collector

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

shochu collector

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

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

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

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

miko class

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

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

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

The declaration of the eisa nation

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

eisa summer party

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

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

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

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

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