AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Fukushima’

All you have to do is look (93)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Shirakawa Chochin Matsuri last month at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Shirakawa, Fukushima. One of the three largest lantern festivals in Japan, it is more than 350 years old and held every other year. It was supposed to have been held last year, but was postponed due to the effects of the Tohoku disaster in March.

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All you have to do is look (49)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tokyo Electric Power released roughly 600 photographs taken at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant immediately before and after the 11 March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. This one shows the landing dock just before the tsunami arrived, with the water withdrawing and exposing the dock.

And this one shows the tsunami coming.

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All you have to do is look (19)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Jangara Nenbutsu dance peformed yesterday in Iwaki, Fukushima. (Photo and video by the Asahi Shimbun)

This is a traditional Buddhist dance performed as an offering while going from house to house in the neighborhood.

In this neighborhood, 50 people died and 1,360 homes were either partially or completely destroyed in last year’s tsunami. You can hear the sound of the waves in the video.

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Ecumenism and equanimity

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 28, 2012

THE scene in the photograph above contains what today are incongruous elements, as Japanese will immediately recognize. But in another sense, the scene is neither new nor incongruous at all.

At the upper right are Shinto priests from the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa, conducting a Shinto service in front of the Great Buddha in the Todai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara. Todai-ji dates from 728, while the Tsurugaoka shrine is the junior institution, having been founded in 1063.

The story of the relationship between the indigenous proto-religion Shinto and the continental import Buddhism is too long and complex to examine here. Relatively speaking, they are separate and equal, but were more closely connected at times in the past, with some buildings used as both shrines and temples. The Meiji-era government ended all that by decree.

They came together again to conduct a joint Buddhist-Shinto ceremony at Todai-ji on the 21st to pray for the souls of those who died in the Tohoku disaster and for the recovery of the area. It began at 6:30 a.m. with a Buddhist memorial service in which 300 people participated. Monks read from 600 scrolls of the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.

The delegation from the Kamakura shrine included about 100 people, and their part of the service started with a Shinto prayer. Shrine maidens (miko) performed a kagura (Shinto dance) to pray for peaceful seas. There were eight dancers in the group, a larger number than usual, and this is what it looked like. (Again, the image of miko in front of the Great Buddha is an incongruous sight nowadays.)

Finally, the Junior Chorus Ensemble, consisting of 20 junior high and high school girls from Minamisoma, Fukushima, performed the well-loved classic Furusato, or Home Town. It was composed in 1914 for children to sing in school.

The two institutions also have a long relationship. The tutelary deity of the shrine is one of the early shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo. He provided assistance to the temple after it was destroyed during the Siege of Nara in 1180. The smaller Taira army overwhelmed a larger group of warrior monks in established defensive positions in Nara to burn down much of the city, including all but one of the Buddhist temples. The Heike Monogatari describes the original Great Buddha statue at Todai-ji melting in the heat of the fire.

The performance of Furusato probably sounded something like this.

Here’s an excerpt of the kagura dance, Urayasu no Mai. It’s not as old as you might think. This dance was created in 1940 as part of the national celebrations commemorating the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Imperial line.

Could one of the reasons the Japanese were not overcome by hysteria during the Tohoku disaster be a certain perspective and equanimity inculcated over many centuries as a result of the vicissitudes of history, snippets of which are described above?

Do I read too much into it all? Perhaps.

Afterwords:

* That’s an unfortunate choice of words in the book review at the link:

…(L)ike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, (Japan) embraced reactionary modernism.

Nothing “reactionary” about them at all, unless you were a Stalinist. Fascism was a progressive movement, as even the progressives — such as FDR — recognized. The term was coined in 1984 by Jeffrey Herf.

* My sister gave me a print of this illustration of Minamoto no Yoritomo as a gift not long before I started studying Japanese. She had no idea who it was, but she said it reminded her of me.

Posted in Festivals, History, Music, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Rocky road ahead

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 31, 2012

FOR a better understanding of the phenomenon Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru represents, the following anecdotes offer a clear and compelling window on the popular mood.

Rock target Ota Kazumi

The first story comes from the 9 February edition of the weekly Shukan Shincho and concerns DPJ lower house member Ota Kazumi, a second-term MP and member of the Ozawa group. She first won election in Chiba and then switched to a district in Fukushima (where her parents are from) for the lower house election in 2009.

Japanese politicians deliver street corner speeches more frequently than their counterparts in the United States, and Mr. Ozawa in particular likes to impress on his acolytes the importance of retail politicking and mingling with the public. Ms. Ota decided to speak outside a Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day, as a political journalist explained to the magazine.

That holiday is a rough analogue for Christmas in the West and has many secular and Shinto traditions. One of them is for families to visit three Shinto shrines in the first days of the new year. Some people still dress up for the visits, and it’s common to see younger women wearing kimono.

This year, no sooner had Ms. Ota began to speak when the crowd started to heckle and jeer. There were shouts of “liar” and other insults. Some even threw rocks at her, though the journalist didn’t specify how many people were throwing. She had planned to speak for two hours, but cut it off after 45 minutes.

Take a few seconds to let that sink in. On the most important holiday of the year, in a country known throughout the world for its manners and courtesy, standing outside of what is, in many senses, a religious institution, while people are participating in a traditional activity of the holiday season, they shout down and throw rocks at a politician…who is a woman.

There you see the Japanese equivalent of overturning and torching automobiles, or police and mobs throwing Molotov cocktails, tear gas, truncheons, and punches at each other. In Libya she might have wound up with a bloody backside.

But put any sympathy you might have for Ms. Ota on hold until you read the rest of the story.

One of the political controversies in 2008 during the Fukuda administration was the disposition of the soon-to-expire gasoline surtax, a “temporary” levy that had been maintained for more than 30 years. Some Democratic Party MPs organized a performance troupe they called the “Gasoline Price Cutting Squad”. They amused themselves by blocking hallways in the Diet chamber and temporarily confining the chairman of the lower house to his office. The idea was to publicize the DPJ’s pledge to eliminate the tax and cut gas prices. That pledge wound up in the party’s 2009 manifesto.

Yeah, it was as childish as it sounds.

Soon after their 2009 landslide and formation of a government, the party announced they would preserve (de facto) the gasoline surtax they had promised to eliminate immediately on taking office. Ms. Ota was asked about that and her activities as a member of the squad on a 22 December 2009 news program. Her answer:

“Oh, did I do that? Ha ha ha!”

On her official website, she explained that the party hadn’t failed to implement the manifesto pledge, but had only delayed its implementation. She also charged that the program was deliberately trying to manipulate public opinion against her.

The DPJ later officially removed the pledge to eliminate the tax from its manifesto.

If I were Japanese and saw her — or any other DPJ pol — giving a street corner speech, I’d be tempted to break off chunks of sidewalk or building cornices and hurl those.

The same journalist had another story for the Shukan Shincho:

“Innumerable DPJ diet members have stopped giving street corner speeches, because opposition to them is so great, it’s like pouring gas on a fire.”

An unnamed “mid-tier” DPJ Diet member lamented that all he can do when he visits groups in his district is bow his head and apologize.

That’s why people aren’t raising their eyebrows over reports that surfaced on the 26th of the results of a private poll conducted by the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. The survey found that Mr. Hashimoto’s One Osaka group would win about 60 of the 77 lower house seats in the Kinki region — roughly 80% — if an election were held today. The group wants to run 300 candidates nationwide.

And that’s why it’s no surprise that other reports say the DPJ wants to put an election off as long as possible (they have until the summer 2013) in the hope that Mr. Hashimoto’s star fades by then. Or that some in the LDP, particularly prominent party members projected to lose in the next election and those still affiliated with factions, want the polls to be held as soon as possible before Mr. Hashimoto and One Osaka select a slate of candidates from his political juku. Nevertheless, circumstances and the wild card of Ozawa Ichiro and whatever it is he’s planning to do this time could cause an election to be held as early as June. Even people in the other hemisphere will feel the earth move under their feet on that day.

It’s curious: Some Westerners who couldn’t distinguish a 6 from a 9 in contemporary Japanese affairs have convinced themselves that the country is an irrelevant non-player tumbling down the tubes of history. What they can’t see — and couldn’t, even if they were looking — is that Japan could well be the first of the world’s democracies to spear, if not gut, the belly of the beast.

****
They’re rumbling down in Indonesia too. Is that Shiva playing the drums?

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Nippon Noel 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 25, 2011

CHRISTMAS customs in East Asia may lack the self-perpetuating momentum of the holiday in Christian countries in the West with a longer tradition, but the season and its symbols can still generate intense emotion in this part of the world. An example is the the steel towers decorated as Christmas trees that an evangelical group erects every year two miles from the North Korean border on the 100-foot-high Aegibong Hill. They were to have been illuminated on Friday, which would have made them visible to soldiers on the northern side of the border and residents of the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The decorations have caused periodic friction between the two countries — Bah, humbug might well be the North Korean national motto — and so were stopped in 2004. The group resumed the practice in 2010, but this year the Scrooges in Pyeongyang said they’d shoot out the lights and it would be the southerners’ fault if they did. Since no one has any idea of the leadership’s current state of mind up north, or even who constitutes the leadership, the South Koreans decided discretion was the better part of holiday virtue and will refrain from flipping the switch on the towers this week.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more peace on the Japanese part of the earth, and they can and do light all the Christmas trees they want anywhere they feel like it. The Japanese view Christmas as an excellent opportunity to stage a festival of light. Indeed, with all the imagination incorporated into the designs, their variations on the theme of tannenbaum might be considered a minor form of public art. Here are some of the best in 2011.

Tokyo

They’ve been partying since 13 November at the Aqua Christmas 2011 festivities in Odaiba. The sponsors have exhibited a seven-meter-high Marina Fantasy Tree that represents a Christmas tree rising out of the sea, which is a satisfying image for an island country. An added touch is that the colors change in coordination with the music.

They’re just as abstract over at the Shinjuku Southern Terrace shopping facility. Inside the tower are two switches that change the lights from red to green to blue to a Christmasy pink to yellow to rainbow, accompanied by stately bell sounds. They’re calling it the Kizuna Tree, with kizuna being the human ties that bond, and they suggest it’s an excellent way for couples to strengthen their own ties. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year in Japan, and if a young couple were to stop by to strengthen their ties at the Kizuna Tree and wound up buying something before they left, then so much the better.

The cutbacks in power consumption necessitated by the Tohoku disaster forced people to use their imaginations and discover new ways to find the juice for the lights. The most frequently adopted solution is LEDs, but many places also use wind power, and some even went with vegetable oil.

Wind power was the choice to light up a 400-meter stretch of zelkova trees in toney Roppongi Hills. It’s the first time they’ve trimmed the trees for Christmas in this neighborhood, so they decided to get creative with pink and beige lights designed to look like a waterfall. Those lights don’t look pink or beige, and they don’t resemble a waterfall either, but that’s what the copy said.

Awareness of the Tohoku disaster is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and that’s why the trees displayed in the central concourse at the JR Ueno Station were decorated with ornaments made in the areas hardest hit in March. They were put together by women in Kuji and Rikuzentakata in Iwate, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi who were suddenly unemployed in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami. The operation was put together by a group in Saitama called Team Tomodachi to help those in the stricken areas. They asked the women to make the ornaments, which they then sold to remunerate them for their work. The material used was the leftovers from the process for manufacturing organic cotton products.

The trees themselves were put up by Atre Ueno, a local shop, with the help of the Tokyo and Sendai branches of the East Japan Railway Co. and Ueno Station.

Seven women from Ishinomaki came to Ueno in November to hang the ornaments with Atre Ueno employees. One of the women explained that she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it when someone approached her with the idea — she had spent her whole life processing wakame seaweed by hand, and crafts were not her hobby. The longer the group worked together, however, the more fun they had. She said that, on reflection, she lost a lot this year, but also wound up gaining something as well.

Kyoto

A look at some of the posts under the Christmas tag for a peek at Christmases past will show that PET bottles are a favorite choice as a tree material substitute. All the trees along this pedestrian walkway near the municipal offices in Nantan, Kyoto, were made with the preformed polyethylene terephthlate. The members of a local club found about 3,500 empties, which surely left them with sticky fingers. They weren’t too sticky, however, to prevent them from putting together 30 1.8-meter trees of six levels with 30 bottles, and two 2.4-meter trees of eight levels with 500 bottles, and then lining them up along the 200-meter pathway. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see for yourself, they’ll be lit until 8:00 p.m. tonight.

Ibaraki

An executive committee consisting mostly of JCs got profligate with the LEDs a little further to the north in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, and used 200,000 to decorate a 200-meter-long row of zelkova trees at the city’s Tsuba Center square near the train station for the seventh year.

This year, they wanted the display to reflect the wishes for national recovery, so the lights spell out Gambaro Nippon, or Let’s Fight, Japan.

There’s another tree-based illuminated decoration at the Chuo Koen (Central Park) in the city. If you can’t make it there for Christmas, don’t worry — they’ll be up until 9 January, and that makes a few more than the standard 12 days of Christmas.

Nagoya

Santa will visit and a tree will be lit at the Noritake Garden, a ten-year-old park in Nagoya. Mr. Claus will again climb the chimney on the ceramics plant to plant a 12-meter-high tree there. The reduced supply of electricity this year caused by fallout from the Fukushima disaster will be offset by a solar power generator installed at the facility in October, capable of producing an average of 120 kW a day.

Osaka

Everybody likes Christmas surprises, so the Shinwa Construction Co. in Osaka has had a suprise for a different neighborhood every year for the past eight years. They use the front lot of whatever condominium that they happen to be in the process of building and put up a 12-meter-high Christmas tree with 30,000 LEDs with no warning on 1 December. Naturally, this keeps the Osakans wondering where the tree will turn up every year, and making a special trip to see when they find out. This year the tree was put up in Yodogawa Ward, but this photo shows one from about five years ago.

The company also staged a “Christmas Event” on the 22nd and 23rd with an artificial snow machine and stalls selling such Yuletide delicacies as oden and yakitori roasted o’er an open fire.

Kanagawa

Not all that gllitters is an LED. The 10-meter-high tree put up by the Ukai Venetian Glass Museum in Hakone consists of 70,000 pieces of crystal glass, which flash in seven different colors in the sunlight. Though it’s illuminated externally at night, as you can see in the video, the tree itself has no internally lit ornaments. The facility also added 60 candles and 180 lanterns to the park exhibit on 1 December.

Hokkaido

The northern island of Hokkaido is cold enough to pass for the North Pole — they start wearing jackets at night at the end of August — so Christmas comes naturally to the natives. The city of Hakodate is also known for the big trees at its Hakodate Christmas Fantasy. It’s so well known, in fact, that the city of Hirosaki in the neighboring prefecture of Aomori put up their own 20-meter tree at the site. Hirosaki Mayor Kasai Noriyuki explained the display was to promote ties between the two cities.

And hey, what’s Christmas without a fireworks display?

Kagoshima

The Kagoshimanians also got into the Christmas spirit by making three trees out of PET bottles, which they displayed at a big shopping mall in the center of the city. It’s the third year Yamagata-ya has put up PET bottle trees to enhance awareness of ecological activities and recycling. The main six-meter-high tree used about 2,800 bottles brought by customers and 6,500 LEDs provided by the store, and if you look behind the adult Santa in the photo, you can see one of the three smaller subsidiary trees. They got the store customers to help put them together and hang the decorations, which is a bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint the fence, though this was more fun and a lot less messy.

Fukushima

A cosmetics manufacturing and sales company way down south in Fukuoka City decided to help make spirits bright up north after a very gloomy year in Fukushima, whose name will now be forever associated with a nuclear disaster. That’s why they put up this big tree next to the JR Fukushima Station in the city. Trimming any tree with more than 40,000 LEDs is bound to brighten the neighborhood and spirits both. Said local resident Matsumoto Ryoko, aged 75:

Just looking at it cheers me up. After this difficult year with the disaster, these are lights of hope.

They’ll be lit in their city until 11:00 p.m. tonight, and hopefully in their hearts for many more nights to come.

*****
The year I came to Japan there was a musical tsunami in the form of Yamashita Tatsuro’s soundtrack to the movie The Big Wave. It hit #2 on the charts, making it one of the most successful soundtrack records in Japan. It was especially popular among people in their 20s and 30s, both because it was so well done, and because Yamashita himself was a favorite among people of that age at the time.

One half of the LP consisted of Yamashita’s tunes, and the other half of Beach Boy remakes that are more listenable than the originals, but then my taste lies in directions other than that of the Wilson brothers. He didn’t need any brothers for the harmonies because he overdubbed all the vocal parts himself.

Yamashita is (or should be) in the top rank of international pop music auteurs. Asked about his musical inspiration, he said he grew up listening to FEN (Far East Network), the radio station for American servicemen in this part of the world, which anyone with a transistor radio in Tokyo can hear. The production values of his music also recall uptown soul music, so if you can imagine a Japanese singer creating original material that mixes Beach Boy and soul music influences, then you’re close to the Yamashita sound.

Even better known than the original Big Wave LP is his Christas song, called Christmas Eve, which was released as a single the year before. It reached only #44 on the 1983 charts (the LP from which it came was #1), but it had miraculous staying power: it’s the only Japanese pop song to reach the Top 100 for 20 straight years. The single eventually sold 1.8 million copies, boosted by its use as the theme song for JR East’s seasonal commercials starting in 1986. The residuals alone must surely mean that all of his Christmases will be bright.

What better cyber-present could there be than an embedded video of the song with scenes from the commercials throughout the years? Here’s hoping that your real presents are as sweet as the girl waiting behind the train station pillar in 1989. メリークリスマス!

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Visions of mochi dancing in their heads

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 24, 2011

ARE there any people more culturally syncretic than the Japanese? Examples of that syncretism present themselves every day in Japan, but this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

A Fukushima City nursery school held its annual Christmas party this week, and about 50 parents and children attended. Though only about 1% of Japanese identify as Christians, secular Christmas parties are commonplace, as they are in some other non-Christian countries. Speaking of syncretism, one survey that broke down the national population by religious affiliation found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions.

This was a party for young children, so the guest of honor was Santa Claus. But it wasn’t the usual department store actor playing Santa. The report said this Santa was certified by the Finnish government. The newspaper was probably referring to the Lapland government, which has a Santa Claus office at the Arctic Circle.

So, how did the Fukushimanians show their appreciation for a visit from an officially certified Kris Kringle? They put him to work pounding mochi!

Mochi is a type of rice cake, for want of a better term, made with a particularly glutinous form of rice. The old-fashioned way to make it was to place the steamed rice in a large container called an usu that serves as a pestle, and to pound it with a wooden mallet known as a kine until it solidifies. Mochi is a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient, and the cakes are also used to decorate the home during the New Year. One traditional seasonal activity is to have a gathering of family or friends to do the pounding out in the yard. I’ve done it — once. It was worth it to be invited to be a part of the tradition and to see what happens, but it’s also real work that requires almost as much energy as chopping wood. Good timing and care is essential because two people work together: One to do the hammering, and the other to turn and wet the mochi in the usu. The rice will stick to the mallet unless it’s moistened, but the assistant has to get his hands out of the way fast.

The local report doesn’t say how long they put Santa to work swinging the kine, but it does say the kids got excited because he pounded so hard the water splashed on their faces. Good for Santa for getting into the New Year spirit!

Eating mochi also requires care, because it takes a long time to chew. Some people get impatient and swallow chunks of it that are too large. Early in the new year every year there are newspaper reports about the number of people nationwide who died from choking on their mochi.

By the way, any junior Scrooges concerned about exposing the kids to radioactive rice and air can relax. The nursery school bussed everyone to Yonezawa, Yamagata, for the event, where they used a borrowed space. The school has been regularly driving the kids to Yonezawa and back this year because it wants them to play outside without worrying about nuclear plant fallout. The head of the school said it allows them to talk to the parents about education rather than radiation.

That also allows Santa to return to the North Pole without having fed his reindeer any radioactive hay!

*****
One of the best mochitsuki videos is this one showing a performance with music in the United States. The handclapping at the end is how parties are often ended in Japan.

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Posted in Food, Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Japan’s political kaleidoscope (8): The new, the old, and the Noda

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 6, 2011

PLENTY of people were saying plenty of interesting things last week with the start of the Noda Cabinet. Here are some of them.

The Asahi Shimbun

It wasn’t what the Asahi said in an English-language article that was remarkable. Rather, it was the fact that they — Japan’s preeminent newspaper of the left and Kan Naoto’s only reliable water carrier — were the ones to say it. It started with the headline:

Noda, Finance Ministry Speak as One on Tax Hikes

The first sentence:

Having an advocate of tax hikes as prime minister is a dream come true for Finance Ministry mandarins who have long championed an increase in the consumption tax rate.

The body of the article contains a good description of how the bureaucracy in general, and the Finance Ministry in particular, becomes entwined in the political process. Now for the finish:

Senior Finance Ministry officials asked Noda to appoint either former Secretary-General Katsuya Okada or former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku as finance minister because both men support tax increases.
Eventually, Noda picked Azumi Jun, handing him his first Cabinet portfolio.
“Noda chose a lightweight minister without losing any sleep over the matter because he served as finance minister himself,” a DPJ lawmaker said.

That last sentence is clever for the plausible deniability it provides. Did they mean Mr. Noda isn’t losing any sleep because he is capable of acting as his own finance minister, or because he was a lightweight finance minister himself who subcontracted policy decisions to the ministry. I suspect the latter.

I don’t recall much of this from the Asahi when Kan Naoto, the preceding Finance Ministry puppet and tax hike promoter, was in office, but perhaps I disremember.

Please note that I’m still having trouble with the link function. I just sent a note to WordPress. The article should be easy to find, however.

Hasegawa Yukihiro

It’s worth reading anything by Mr. Hasegawa, an award-winning book author, columnist, and member of the editorial board of the Tokyo Shimbun. Here are some excerpts from an article in Gendai Business Online commenting on Noda Yoshihiko’s use of the term “no side” after winning the DPJ presidential election.

The phrase comes from rugby and is (or at least was) used by the referee to signal the end of the match. I’ve read that it’s obsolete, but being from a country that doesn’t play rugby, you could fool me. Japanese politicians often use it in this context to call for party unity.

*****
“The use of the expression “no side” is straight from the Liberal-Democratic Party politics of a generation ago.

“In those days, Kasumigaseki (the bureaucracy) handled all the policy questions. Policy was essentially identical to that which they created, so the politicians in Nagata-cho promoted themselves using traits unrelated to the core of policy, such as decision and execution, or tolerance and compassion. It could even be said they had no other way to compete than to emphasize their capacity to execute policies or their broad-mindedness.

“People understood that politics of that sort was a failure, so the Democratic Party championed the cause of disassociation from the bureaucracy and political leadership during the general election two years ago. The politicians said they would retrieve policy from the hands of the bureaucracy. In the end, however, they were ensnared by Kasumigaseki, and their effort at eliminating the reliance on the bureaucracy failed. We’re now in the third DPJ government with the Noda administration, and there’s nothing else to say but “no side”….

“….The “no side” politics are unlikely to be successful because politics that are carried piggy-back by Kasumigaseki no longer functions. Kasumigaseki has gotten too big. It micromanages everything in the private sector (literally, every time [the private sector] raises or lowers its chopsticks), and maintains a system of skimming off taxes through amakudari. There will be no revival for the Japanese economy.

“The recognition that the root cause of the economy’s stagnation is the system of Kasumigaseki leadership has begun to spread throughout the population due to the bitter experience of the Tohoku disaster and the Fukushima accident. In Nagata-cho, they are beginning to realize that perception is growing.

“Many Democratic Party MPs are in a mouth-to-mouth feeding relationship with Kasumigaseki, and the politicians have noticed they’ll be at risk in the next election. While Noda won the DPJ election, many within the party are still opposed to a tax increase.

“The euphoria following the selection of the new party president had an immediate feel-good effect, but the Diet members will shortly return to reality. The turbulence will reemerge with a vengeance as soon as a serious effort is made to pursue a policy of higher taxes.

“What’s more, that day will soon arrive. They’re now at the stage of formulating a third supplementary budget calling for an increase in core taxes as a funding source for Tohoku reconstruction. They also plan to present a bill by next March to raise the consumption tax to fund social welfare. In short, the debate begins in the fall.

The thaw

The first of the highly publicized governmental policy reviews held by the DPJ in November 2009 was one of the most transparent political dog-and-pony shows ever staged. The idea was that the politicians would put the bureaucrats’ feet to the fire by grilling them about questionable policies. They would end the wasteful enterprises and use the money to fund their campaign promises.

It didn’t take long to find out that the reviews were scripted — literally — by the Budget Bureau of the Finance Ministry, complete with recommendations on which policies to cut. It was a convenient way for the ministry to strengthen its control relative to the other ministries. Further, the recommendations of the review panel had no force in law. Some of the programs ostensibly cut, such as one for the Education Ministry, were quietly restored into the budget of a different ministry a few months later.

The panel did have some good ideas, however. One of them was a freeze on building new housing for national civil servants, other than reconstruction in the event of an emergency. (This is often a job perquisite in both the public and private sectors.)

But it seems there’s been a late summer thaw. Construction began on 1 September of an 800-unit apartment block in Asaka, Saitama. Whatever debate was conducted about lifting the freeze hasn’t been reported, and there’s no indication the Government Revitalization Council was involved.

Each of the apartments has a living room, dining room, kitchen, bath, and three extra rooms. The rent and deposit are free, courtesy of the taxpayers. The cost of the project has been estimated at JPY 10.5 billion. Despite a location next door to the Asaka municipal offices, only national civil servants are eligible to live there. It’s prime real estate 10 minutes on foot from the train station.

The housing accommodations for national public employees are under the jurisdiction of the Finance Ministry, so the Finance Minister had to give his authorization to end the freeze and begin construction. Based on the timing, that means the person who approved the project in apparent contravention to government policy was the new prime minister, Noda Yoshihiko.

How thoughtful of him to let us know.

If the government was serious about ending wasteful government expenditures, all these properties would be sold and no new ones built. The private sector has no problem handling housing construction. The public sector has the problem of funding rent-free accommodations for its employees with public funds.

Eda Kenji on the polls

Mr. Eda is the secretary-general of Your Party. Here are excerpts from two blog posts last week:

“It was predictable to an extent, but all the polls conducted over the weekend showed the support rate for the Noda Cabinet at roughly 60%. The highest was the Yomiuri at 65%, and the lowest was the Asahi at 53%. Interestingly enough, the rate of support in the newspaper polls was highest at those papers leaning to the right, perhaps because Mr. Noda leans to the right himself. (Note: Does the motivation for the first Asahi article make more sense now?)

“This high support is likely the result of the effect of the Aida Mitsuo poem (about the dojo fish), Mr. Noda’s personal modesty, and the good feelings about the Cabinet selections made with party unity in mind. The polls also probably reflect the reaction to the fact that Mr. Kan was so terrible.

“Nonetheless, I think the people of Japan are really kindhearted. (To use the analogy of the traditional wedding present of cash), the amount of the present for a third wedding and honeymoon in two years shouldn’t be the same as it was for the first….If this continues, I am deeply apprehensive about the disappearance of a sense of tension from politics and the politicians. Most politicians are risk-averse opportunists. They’ll look at the going rate for wedding presents. If the Cabinet is a failure, they’ll think all they have to do is replace the head….At any rate, when the yearend budget formulation is finished, the rate of support will have plummeted and the government will again be on the verge of collapse….

“…Meanwhile, some in the LDP are saying it will be difficult to combat the Noda Cabinet and its initial support rate. Well, of course it will be. The LDP has joined with the DPJ as two of the parties in the three-party agreement, they’ve laid out a course of tax increases to pay for reconstruction, and they’re on board with a 10% consumption tax increase for social welfare schemes. With the difference between the two parties on these issues so small, no wonder the LDP finds it difficult to attack.”

A note on polls

Some in the Western media have reported that the new Cabinet has received “strong voter support”. If this is the best they can do when filling space, they should consider syndicated horoscopes instead. The support is nothing more than a first impression, it’s skin deep rather than strong, and since the polls are conducted by random digit dialing, no one knows whether the respondents are voters or not.

One doesn’t have to have a long memory to recall that Kan Naoto had even higher ratings in June 2010 when he displaced Hatoyama Yukio and shut Ozawa Ichiro’s supporters out of the Cabinet. As summer turned to fall, however, he lost more than 40 points in one newspaper poll in two months over his government’s mishandling of the Senkakus incident. Mr. Noda’s numbers are only a tad better than those of the LDP’s Fukuda Yasuo when he took over in 2007, and he lasted just a year.

Besides, there’s no reason to pay serious attention to what the foreign media writes about Japanese politics until they demonstrate that they understand most Japanese prime ministers aren’t “leaders” as understood in the Western sense, but the principal spokesmen for the decisions of their party.

The obvious exception was Koizumi Jun’ichiro. His successor Abe Shinzo tried to do the same, and did have some success (as the next excerpt shows). But Mr. Koizumi was an act nearly impossible to follow, and the primary audience was a news media more irritated than a pack of gunpowder-fed junkyard dogs after five years of success and popularity by someone who wasn’t a European-style social democrat. Kan Naoto tried too, but because character is one of the prerequisites for leadership, he was unlikely to succeed from the start.

Okazaki Hisahiko

Mr. Okazaki was once ambassador to Thailand, and he writes on diplomacy and foreign affairs. Here are some excerpts from a piece that appeared in the Sankei Shimbun.

I have hopes for the Noda Cabinet

“After it seized power, the DPJ offered only those anti-establishment arguments that are the critical elements of their defining characteristics, were uncontrolled in their self-indulgence, and were rebuffed at every turn. They learned from those lessons, and their promise to change the planks of their party platform for the three-party agreement is the most concrete example….They tested the most childish ideas of postwar liberalism, such as anti-Americanism and an approach to Asia, and they learned how unrealistic that is…

“They get the sequence backwards when they ask for experts’ opinions after something has happened. They should be listening to opinions regularly, and when something happens, they must decide. Their subordinates are already busy, and the excessive workload of selecting and convening the members of a commission is too heavy….

“If they’ve learned the lesson that the people have suffered and had to bear heavy burdens since they’ve taken power, it will be a positive for the two-party system in the future. Most important, I think, has been the generational change….In the DPJ, the generation of radical student demonstrators has left the scene, and they’ve moved on to the next generation.

“The LDP has also changed during this time. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stepped down due to illness, having amended the three laws regarding education, established the legal framework for a national referendum (for amending the Constitution), and came right to the point of permitting the exercise of collective self-defense. The party responsible for frustrating the end of the postwar regime was not the DPJ, however, but the LDP. Since it’s been in the opposition, the LDP has firmed its support for recognizing the exercise of collective self-defense as party policy…

“With the new administration, they should not be so niggardly as to worry about the DPJ recovering its reputation and the effect that would have on the next election. If there is an offer to cooperate on policy, it would be best for them to humbly accept it and cooperate. It’s more important to deal with the crisis in Japan of the continuing (political) vacuum.

“I returned from a banquet in a taxi on the night the DPJ held their presidential election, and even the other passengers were saying how relieved they were that it went well. No one knows what’s going to happen in the future, but those were the voices of relief that the days of Hatoyama and Kan, who used the nation of Japan as the subject in a vivisection experiment for amateurs, are over.”

Takahashi Yoichi

The relentless Mr. Takahashi is a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat, author, journalist, and university professor. He is not as sanguine about Mr. Noda as Mr. Okazaki:

“Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko wrote the book The Enemy of Democracy when the DPJ was still in the opposition. In it, he said:

26,000 former national civil servants have taken amakudari jobs in 4,700 (public) corporations, and JPY 12.6 billion of hard-earned tax money flows to these amakudari corporations annually. No matter what budgets we formulate, we will be unable to overcome our economic crisis until this gimmickry is ended.

And

The facile recognition of an increase in the consumption tax represents the suspension of thought, and it ends the elucidation of such gimmicks as the wasteful use of the special account.

“The people’s hopes in these words were betrayed. The DPJ was unable to compile a budget or effectively utilize the Finance Ministry or the Bank of Japan because they did not reform the civil service system. That meant their plan to assert political leadership went nowhere. What I look forward to is to the extent to which the Noda administration will reform the civil service system.”

—————-
The aforementioned Eda Kenji thinks it’s impossible for the DPJ to reform the civil service system because they depend on public union support.

Kono Taro

Mr. Kono presents himself as a small-government classical liberal, but he’s not quite there yet. Here’s a sentence from a recent website post:

We’ve attacked the ruling party by saying, for example, that the child allowance was just an example of doling out of baramaki, i.e., lavish entitlements (which it was) and we made them stop. But I cannot say the LDP has explained how it will support child-rearing.

And neither does it have any business supporting child-rearing. They can explain that government can best support child-rearing by creating an environment in which the economy thrives and allowing parents to handle child-rearing by themselves. In other words, by butting out.

Mr. Kono would do well to examine the tax proposal by former ambassador to China and Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination in the U.S. Mr. Huntsman is no small-government classical liberal, but he’s got the best idea for tax reform presented by any of the candidates. From The Wall Street Journal:

The heart of the plan lowers all tax rates on individuals and businesses. Mr. Huntsman would create three personal income tax rates—8%, 14% and 23%—and pay for this in a “revenue-neutral” way by eliminating “all deductions and credits.” This tracks with the proposals of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission and others for a flatter, more efficient tax system.

That means economically inefficient tax carve outs for mortgage interest, municipal bonds, child credits and green energy subsidies would at last be closed. The double tax on capital gains and dividends would be expunged as would the Alternative Minimum Tax. The corporate tax rate falls to 25% from 35%, and American businesses would be taxed on a territorial system to encourage firms to return capital parked in overseas operations.

Mr. Huntsman would repeal two of President Obama’s most economically debilitating creations, ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. Mr. Huntsman has it right when he says, “Dodd-Frank perpetuates ‘too big to fail’ by codifying a regime that incentivizes firms to become too big to fail.” He’d also repeal a Bush-era regulatory mistake, the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting rules, which have added millions of dollars of costs to businesses with little positive effect.

Mr. Huntsman says he’d also bring to heel the hyper-regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the National Labor Relations Board, all of which are suppressing job-creation.

In addition to the foregoing, Mr. Kono should consider restoring the policies to promote agribusiness that were begun under the Abe administration and ended under the Hatoyama administration. There was quite a bit of unused farmland in Fukushima Prefecture, to cite one example, even before the nuclear accident. The DPJ chose to offer baramaki in the form of individual farming household supplements to take advantage of the disproportionate representation of agricultural regions in the Diet for electoral purposes.

Both Japan and Mr. Huntsman would also do well to heed the success of Russia, which introduced a 13% flat tax a decade ago. That resulted in a string of annual budget surpluses that started in 2001. They had a deficit of 3.6% of GDP in 2009, not the best of years for government budgets, but were back into surplus last year.

While he’s at it, Mr. Kono might also take a tip from Gouverneur Morris, who wrote much of the American Constitution:

If the legislative authority be not restrained, there can be neither liberty nor stability. However the legislative power may be formed, it will, if disposed, be able to ruin the country.

And Morris wasn’t a classical liberal — he believed in a natural aristocracy.

The high yen

The sharp appreciation of the yen hasn’t been all bad for Japanese businesses. Japanese companies are shopping till they drop in corporate supermarkets overseas now that prices are at bargain levels. According to M&A originator and executor Recof, their purchases of overseas firms from January to August alone were valued at JPY 3.8842 trillion, already more than last year’s JPY 3.7596 trillion. They amounted to JPY 465.8 billion in August, double the amount for July. The buying is on a pace equivalent to that of the second-highest year, 2008, when JPY 7.4256 trillion was spent to snap up overseas corporations. Recently Kirin Holdings bought a large Brazilian beverage company, and Asahi Holdings now owns an Australia/New Zealand-based liquor manufacturer.

It’s all in the name

Here’s the first sentence from an AP article yesterday:

Typhoon Talas dumped record amounts of rain in western and central Japan on Sunday, killing at least 25 people and stranding thousands as it turned towns into lakes, washed away cars and set off mudslides that buried or destroyed houses.

Forget the AP’s frustrated novelist prose — What is this “Typhoon Talas” of which they speak, which isn’t a name a Japanese person would come up with? Here in Japan, it’s Typhoon #12.

It turns out to be the creation of the Typhoon Committee of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and the World Meteorological Organization, a revealing bit of nomenclature itself.

While those bodies need a way to quickly differentiate the storms, how is their function enhanced by names they don’t need and no one other than they or the news media use?

An article on the Discovery News site explains about the lists of names:

The two lists most Americans are familiar with cover the Atlantic and East Pacific. But there are also lists with culturally appropriate names that cover the Central North Pacific, Western North Pacific, Australian Region, Fiji Region, Papua New Guinea Region, Philippine Region, Northern and Southern Indian Ocean.

In other words, it would be news to Discovery News to discover that Talas isn’t “culturally appropriate” for Japan, the only country affected by WNP #12.

The article concludes:

As to whether using human names is the best approach: “That actually is an issue that comes up,” said Read (director of the National Hurricane Center). “Is there a better way to do this?”

Yeah. The way the Japanese do it.
*****
Sounds like an Okinawan/Indonesian blend to me.

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Matsuri da! (117): Bigfootin’

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 5, 2011

EVEN the people of Fukushima Prefecture who don’t live near the power plant and were unaffected by the accident must realize that the name of their home will forever be abused as a code word by the opponents of nuclear energy. Yet, despite the dark cloud that’s been painted as a permanent feature onto the skies of their lives, the Fukushimanians continue to go about those lives as they always have — and that means having a good time when the opportunity presents itself.

Early last month, the residents of Fukushima City held Phase Two of the Fukushima Waraji Matsuri, or the Straw Sandal Festival. Since this is a Japanese festival, you’ve probably already guessed that it has nothing to do with normal straw sandals used in the normal way. You guessed right. This event involves only one sandal — which weighs close to two tons, is longer than 12 meters, and is paraded around town by groups of 40 people.

Parades aren’t all they do with Bigfoot, either. They also have three sandal race events, featuring teams of primary school students, women, and adult men.

Phase One of the festival got off on the good foot in early February when they made the other half of the giant sandal pair and offered it to the Haguro Shinto shrine. It’s like stepping into trousers — one foot at a time. The shrine is located on one of the three peaks of Fukushima City’s 275-meter-high Mt. Shinobu, which is often used as subject matter for waka poetry. The second was offered at the Ashio shrine after a day at the races and before being hung vertically from a steel pole with its mate. (The first character in the ashi of Ashio means foot, which may or may not be related.)

The festival took its current form in 1970 when the city government and the Chamber of Commerce decided to update a local custom at least 300 years old known as the Shinobu Sanzan Akatsukimairi, or the Dawn Pilgrimage to the Three Peaks of Mt. Shinobu. In the modern version, the sandals are offered as supplication for “healthy walking”. It’s held over two days, and in addition to the races and the parades, it includes both modern and traditional dancing.

Not only does it take the usual commitment to organize an event of that sort, it also takes about 2,000 bundles of straw, 10 rolls of bleached cotton, several green bamboo poles, and about 70 people working for roughly ten days to make one of the sandals. It also takes money, but that wasn’t a problem this year. Said one of the members of festival’s executive committee:

We thought we’d have a lot less money to work with (considering conditions in the prefecture), but local companies gave us a lot more help than we expected, and we also got contributions. Some companies even gave us more than they usually do.

There was one change in the procedures this year, however. More for the participants’ peace of mind than anything else, the executive committee measured the radiation levels at six points in three locations, as well as that of the straw, and publicly announced them. The straw was clean!

Here’s a short video showing some guys in traditional duds parading with the sandal in a downtown area, a few Shinto priests, and some sparkly young women doing a modern song and dance routine. It’s as good a visual metaphor for contemporary Japan as you’ll find anywhere.

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Rubble

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 11, 2011

ACHIEVING the national objective of rebuilding the Tohoku region after the earthquake/tsunami requires that the rubble from the disaster be removed first. That will be no mean feat — the events of 11 March created an estimated 25 million tons of debris, 21.83 million of which is strewn throughout the three prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima.

As of 28 June, however, nearly four months later, only an estimated 32% of the rubble had been hauled to temporary collection sites. The rest of it is still lying where it’s been the whole time. Several reasons have been cited for the lagging effort. First, the law states that private property owners, either residential or commercial, are responsible for their own garbage. Second, municipalities are responsible for handling the refuse of residential households, while prefectures are responsible for industrial material. (It is of course impossible to differentiate which is which in this situation.) Third, the immense amount of debris has overwhelmed the ability of all local governments to pay for its disposal.

It’s been apparent from the start that these extraordinary circumstances would require extraordinary measures by the government to deal with them. Such measures would include temporary exemptions from/suspensions of the law. In addition to the obvious ones, other measures could include providing temporary authorization to deal with the debris for those businesses not licensed to handle refuse, such as construction companies.

Despite the need for this legislation, and despite the opposition parties urging them to get on with it already, the Democratic Party government of Japan unintentionally modeled itself after a character from the Uncle Remus stories: Tar Baby just set there and don’t say nothin’. The difference is that the Tar Baby was created for a specific reason by a character with country smarts. That disqualifies the DPJ.

As we’ve noted before, the municipalities in the region did ask — desperately — the national government for help. The Kan Cabinet told them to handle it themselves.

Mr. Kan’s government managed to rouse itself in some sectors, after a fashion. They created a Cabinet Ministry for Conserving Electricity after the Fukushima disaster and handed the portfolio to a former model/TV personality. It was a waste of time, both the nation’s and the airwaves, because the Japanese knew what to do without any government urging at all. But they didn’t appoint a minister to handle the cleanup until nearly four months later. The man they did appoint, Matsumoto Ryu, disgraced himself in a matter of nine days and had to resign. His name is now so synonymous with mud his daughter is afraid to go to school.

After the Hyogo earthquake, it took fewer than nine days for the Socialist/LDP coalition government of Murayama Tomiichi to appoint a minister responsible for the cleanup and reconstruction.

To get the Kan Cabinet to get off its duff, four opposition parties — the LDP, New Komeito, Your Party, and Sunrise Party Japan — formulated legislation of their own to allow the government to handle the cleanup. It was introduced in the Diet by one of the LDP MPs.

Then, and only then, did the Cabinet finally agree on the bill they’ll submit to the Diet. Last week.

But they haven’t submitted it yet. Their bill and the opposition bill need to be reconciled. The opposition parties think the national government should assume all the expenses for cleanup because it is a national emergency. The Kan administration still thinks local government should pay for some of it, to be partially offset by grants.

That’s not surprising in the least. After all, they still insist on keeping their worthless child allowance payments despite the lack of money to pay for them. Voters won’t see the money the government spends on cleanup — the people in the three prefectures will just notice that somebody finally hauled the crap away. They do see the money the government deposits in their bank accounts every month, however. Thus, there’s no profit in it for the DPJ.

Even the Japanese news media has glossed over the facts of the situation. Kyodo’s article on the Cabinet’s bill devotes only part of one sentence to the legislation “the opposition already introduced”.

Among the rubble that won’t be cleared away are the articles and website postings assuring everyone that the DPJ would be so much more efficient dealing with the disaster than the “hapless” Murayama government, in the word of one academia grover writing at The Diplomat. Indeed, academics with an agenda to flog or with mochi to paint into pictures are the ones primarily responsible for this detritus. They won’t suffer for their willful ignorance, however; they’ve got tenure, and the journos will still call on them to serve as credentialed mouthpieces when they need to peddle their papers.

They also told us that the DPJ/Kan government would be the model of openness compared to the LDP, but we haven’t seen much of that line since it became apparent that Mr. Kan and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio began lying to the people on 11 March about the 11 March Fukushima accident.

I feel sorry for those people interested in Japan who can read about the country only in the English-language media, and thereby think they know something about what is happening here.

*****
During the Cultural Revolution, the Maoists sent the intellectuals to the countryside for a healthful stint of bracing farm labor to assist their reeducation. My reeducation program for some of the Nagata-cho flybait, however, would start with this video.

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What to do with the gods

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THE SURVIVORS of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami, as well as those residents near the Fukushima power plant forced to evacuate, must deal with the most basic of problems: securing food, clothing, and shelter. The immediate but temporary short-term solution to those problems is a matter of logistics. Resolving those problems will be difficult, but the difficulties lie in execution rather than conception.

The disaster has also created more subtle problems that do not admit of easy answers. The degree of logistical efficiency is irrelevant, and there are no satisfactory short-term solutions, either temporary or permanent. Those problems are not one of the physical survival of people, but rather the survival of the physical symbols of cultural identity.

Residents within a 30-kilometer radius of the Fukushima power plant have been evacuated from the area for an indefinite time. The people affiliated with and responsible for Shinto shrines in the evacuation zone are unsure whether they should take with them the physical objects representing the divinities in the shrines, known as shintai.

This isn’t a trivial issue for the people involved. They believe the spirit of the divinity at the shrine resides in the physical object, and they also think those divinities have protected the area for many years. In the Japanese perspective, “many years” usually means “several centuries” and often means more than a millennium.

The Association of Shinto Shrines, which represents more than 8,000 institutions, said:

“Shrines have been protected by the people of the community for many years. When the people who have been evacuated return, shrines, if they function, will become the spiritual center of life in the community through ceremonies and events.”

The association would prefer that the shintai not be moved. They understand that the evacuation could be for a long time, however, so say that preference must be given to local circumstances.

Another factor is Article 81 of the law governing religious corporations, which applies to the entities responsible for both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. That law states the corporations are subject to dissolution if their facilities have been destroyed and they are unable to replace them for more than two years, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Common sense says that the extenuating circumstances are as plain as the nose on your face, but government bureaucracies are filled with people who develop visual impairments as a means to justify their existence. The Agency of Cultural Affairs, which has jurisdiction in the matter, says the extenuating circumstances clause could apply, but want to wait to make a final determination until after they conduct a survey. The local people say that’s unreasonable, and they want their institutions to be removed from consideration for dissolution now.

The ramifications of this law could have an effect not only on the shrines and temples in the evacuation zone near Fukushima, but also on those in Iwate and Miyagi unaffected by the radiation because they (and the priests) disappeared in the tsunami.

The problem at hand for the shrines near Fukushima involves the shintai, however. Some people think it would be best to have them stay and keep watch over the land while they’re away (they use the phrase rusuban in Japanese), but others think they should be evacuated with the population for use in festivals and other ceremonies. In some cases, the priests have taken custody of the physical objects themselves, but that’s not always possible. Some shintai are large, heavy rocks that can’t be moved without equipment.

There are 14 Shinto shrines within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant and four more in the 20-30 kilometer belt. The situation is more difficult for those in the former group. Some priests left with just the clothes on their back, so they have no idea what shape the shrine itself is in, and some of them died or are still missing in the tsunami. Even those who were allowed to briefly return to their homes can’t go to the shrines because entry is restricted to residences.

Okada Masashi is the chief priest at the Naraha Hachiman shrine within the 20-kilometer radius. He said:

“All the officers among the parishioners at all the shrines will discuss whether to evacuate the objects before making a decision, but everyone is troubled by the options.”

The tutelary deity at the Naraha Hachiman shrine is the spirit of the Ojin Tenno, an emperor whose reign is said to have lasted from the late 3rd to the early 4th century. (He may or may not have existed, and it’s possible he has been confused with a different tenno now generally considered to have been a real person instead of a legend.) About 1,000 families are in the shrine’s district, but people from only 50 have stayed, all of whom are working at the plant. So has Mr. Okada:

“My role is to protect the tradition that has been handed down in this place. I will continue to wait until everyone returns.”

The shrine’s spring festival was held on April 19, but he was the only person to celebrate it. He said he prayed for everyone to return as quickly as possible.

Let’s hope his prayers are answered.

Naraha Hachiman Shrine

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The New York Times: As much currency as the Zimbabwe dollar

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“Prime Minister Kan has been extremely busy during this unprecedented disaster. He’s screaming at people in the Kantei, he’s barging into Tokyo Electric and screaming at them, and he’s screaming when he comes back. The problem with the prime minister screaming without regard to time or place is that none of it brought about an improvement in the situation.”
– The 2 April issue of the weekly Shukan Gendai

THOSE still interested in smokestack-industry journalism might find it fun to go slumming at the New York Times website and read their article, Nuclear Crisis, Crippling Mistrust, about the Japanese government’s initial efforts to deal with the nuclear accident at Fukushima.

A more apt title would be Media Crisis, Crippling Mistrust. That the article contains a substantial amount of distortion, manipulation, and unintentional, spit-out-the-beverage humor will be no surprise — it’s a collaborative effort by two of the Times’ journalistic gimps, Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler. The former is well-known for his hatchet jobs on Japan when he was that paper’s Tokyo correspondent, while the latter’s primary talent seems to be opening his mouth wide and saying Ahhh to receive DPJ government spoonfeedings.

But perhaps that assessment is too harsh. The pair had to work under a greater handicap than usual because the Kan administration, whose party promised greater access to the media when they were in the opposition, excluded overseas reporters as well as freelance and net journalists from the prime minister’s and chief cabinet secretary’s news conferences updating earthquake/tsunami information because “it was an emergency”.

So the Times did the next best thing and faked it by rewriting the government’s handouts.

The following is a comparison of what the Japanese government wanted the Times to tell those people it still thinks are American opinion leaders, and what the Japanese government doesn’t want them to know.

The Times Tale #1:

The Kan government essentially left the handling of the nuclear crisis in the crucial first three days to Tepco, focusing instead on relief efforts for the hundreds of thousands left homeless, Mr. Terada and other aides said.

What Everyone in Japan Knows #1:

When the earthquake occurred shortly after 2:00 p.m. on 11 March, Mr. Kan and his advisors immediately went to the government’s crisis center. That night, the prime minister himself conducted discussions about ways to deal with the nuclear crisis, drawing up scenarios on a whiteboard. The discussions lasted all night.

At about 5:00 a.m. on the following day, he skipped a meeting of a group organized to deal with the emergency and flew by Self-Defense Force helicopter to view the Fukushima reactors from the air. (The trip itself remains very controversial in Japan. Critics charge it delayed the start of measures to cool the reactors. Others claim the trip had no intrinsic value, and that the prime minister made it only because of his taste for performance politics.)

After he returned, the prime minister told aides:

“The nuclear problem can be handled under Kantei leadership.”

(NB: The term Kantei in Japanese is analogous to the terms White House, the Kremlin, or 10 Downing St. in English.)

At 1:00 p.m., still fewer than 24 hours after the quake, a deputy minister addressed a news conference and said the fuel rods at the Fukushima reactors might already have started to melt. The Kantei was already aware of this possibility. That night, the prime minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio removed him from his job and reassigned him because he had “alarmed the people”.

At roughly 3:00 p.m. on 12 March, slightly more than 24 hours after the quake, Mr. Kan chaired a meeting of all party heads in the Diet and told them:

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The nuclear reactor is fine…Even at the worst, there will be no leakage of radiation.”

TT #2

“…(A) nationwide system of radiation detectors known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or Speedi. Mr. Terada and other advisers said they did not learn of the system’s existence until March 16, five days into the crisis.

“Mr. Kawauchi (Hiroshi, an MP from the prime minister’s party) said that when he asked officials at the Ministry of Education, which administers Speedi, why they did not make the information available to the prime minister in those first crucial days, they replied that the prime minister’s office had not asked them for it.”

WEIJK #2

The Nuclear Safety Technology Center (NSTC), which administers SPEEDI, sends out information in real time during an emergency over dedicated circuits to the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), all the related agencies in the government, and all prefecture governments. Tokyo Electric informed the government of the power loss at Fukushima on 3:42 p.m. on 11 March, slightly more than one hour after the earthquake. The government immediately instructed the NSTC to operate in emergency mode, which it did at around 5:00 p.m. SPEEDI began sending data hourly, and the amount of data transmitted reached 6,500 pages by 20 April. The government had released only two pages of that data by the end of April. The NSC published the first page on 23 March, 12 days after the earthquake/tsunami, and the second page on 11 April.

An article in the 6 May edition of the weekly Shukan Post claims that Mr. Edano had to have known about the SPEEDI data from the start of the emergency, which means that Mr. Kan had to have known too. The Post interviewed the head of the bureau in the Education Ministry responsible for SPEEDI, who said,

“A senior official at the Kantei ordered that information from SPEEDI was not to be made public (on the 15th). The next day (the 16th) the responsibility for SPEEDI was transferred from the Ministry to the NSC.”

The Post also interviewed the head of the NSC, who denied the story, but the magazine didn’t believe him:

“All the local governments involved told us the (system began functioning immediately). In accordance with the system’s guidelines, maps (showing radiation dispersion) were transmitted to the Fukushima Prefecture government office from the start (of SPEEDI operation). The prefectural government did not issue warnings to municipalities and residents, however. Explained a member of the Fukushima Prefecture group established to deal with the accident, ‘NSC decided whether or not to release the information, and we were prevented from releasing it on our own’.”

Incidentally, the Times found the space for the quote above from Kawauchi Hiroshi, but missed his statement published in the 31 March edition of the weekly Shukan Shincho:

“The prime minister has further stressed political leadership and Kantei leadership, but I do not think that was functioning at all during this crisis.”

TT #3

“(O)n March 14, the gravity of the plant’s situation was revealed by a second explosion, this time at Reactor No. 3, and a startling request that night from Tepco’s president, Masataka Shimizu: that Tepco be allowed to withdraw its employees from the plant because it had become too dangerous to remain.

“When he heard this, Mr. Kan flew into a rage, said aides and advisers who were present. Abandoning the plant would mean losing control of the four stricken reactors; the next day, explosions occurred at the two remaining active reactors, No. 2 and No. 4. ‘This is not a joke,’ the prime minister yelled, according to the aides.

“They said Mr. Kan convened an emergency meeting early on March 15, asking advisers what more could be done to save the reactors. Then he gave Tepco barely two hours’ warning that he planned to visit the company.

“At 5:30 a.m., Mr. Kan marched into Tepco headquarters and stationed one of his most trusted aides, Goshi Hosono, there to keep tabs on the company.

“Mr. Kan gave a five-minute impromptu pep talk, said his aide, Mr. Terada.

“’Withdrawing from the plant is out of the question,’ Mr. Kan told them.”

WEIJK #3

That’s not all he told them in the ensuing 15 (not five) minutes. Mr. Kan ordered the press corps accompanying him out of the room. The prime minister grabbed a microphone and started shouting loud enough for the reporters standing outside in the hall to hear. He told Tokyo Electric officials, ‘Kakugo wo kimete kudasai’, (i.e., their workers should be prepared to die) and said that if they withdrew from the plant he would crush the company (100% 潰れる). He wound up staying for a three-hour conference, but he was still screaming when he returned to the Kantei.

Five-minute impromptu pep talk, eh?

The utility’s workers were exposed to radiation initially reported to be 2.5 times over the acceptable limit. On the 16th (the next day), however, the prime minister ordered Self-Defense Forces dropping water on the reactors from a helicopter to withdraw because of the risk of radiation exposure.

While recognizing there was a lot for which to hold TEPCO accountable, the Japanese media wondered why Prime Minister Kan issued a de facto order to the utility to send its employees into a situation that had the potential of resulting in their death from radiation exposure (which he mentioned himself), though he has no legal authority to tell a private sector company what to do. In contrast, he pulled back the SDF — public sector employees whose job involves receiving orders that might result in their deaths — because of dangerous radiation levels.

That Mr. Kan screams a lot is common knowledge in Japan. One DPJ member — again, a member of the same party — told the media that when the prime minister barged into Tokyo Electric headquarters and started yelling at them it was nichijosahanji. (A daily occurrence; literally, “daily rice and tea”)

“Everyone’s disgusted with him because he calls in officials off the top of his head and starts screaming at them. When an official with a better grasp of the situation tries to point out his errors, he yells, ‘I’m not listening to anything you say!’ When they resign themselves to just conveying the facts, he loses his temper and says, ‘Are you trying to make me decide?’ Everyone knows something serious is bound to happen unless there’s a change, but no one can stop him.”

The cover headline of the subsequent issue of the Bungei Shunju, Japan’s most prestigious monthly, read: Kan Bangs the Table and Yells / Senior Bureaucrat: “I don’t want to look at the prime minister’s face for even a second”

TT #4

“On March 12, about 28 hours after the tsunami struck, Tepco executives had ordered workers to start injecting seawater into Reactor No. 1. But 21 minutes later, they ordered the plant’s manager, Masao Yoshida, to suspend the operation. They were relying on an account by the Tepco liaison to the prime minister, who reported back that he seemed to be against it.

“‘Well, he said that was the atmosphere or the mood,’ Sakae Muto, Tepco’s executive vice president, explained at a news conference.

“Mr. Sassa (Atsuyuki), the former head of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office, said: ‘Mood? Is this a joke? Making decisions based on mood?'”

WEIJK #4

When the man with the ultimate authority is psychologically unsound and is emotionally out of control as a matter of nichijosahanji, sends people over whom he has no authority to their possible deaths, and threatens to destroy their company if he is not obeyed, of course the people who must deal with him make decisions based on his mood. They can’t afford to joke around. Here’s another report:

“When a member of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency explained a point to him, he retorted, ‘You haven’t been to the site and seen it (like I have), have you?’ He phoned a bureaucrat he had never met out of the blue and issued instructions. He concluded with, ‘It’ll be your fault if something happens’.” (That English cannot convey the faux tough guy roughness of the original Japanese: 何かあったらお前らのせいだぞ)

TT #5

“Mr. Aritomi said that even with Mr. Hosono stationed inside Tepco, the company still did not disclose crucial information until mid-May, including final confirmation that three of the plant’s four active reactors had melted down.”

WEIJK #5

Tokyo Electric told the prime minister at about 10:00 p.m. on the night of the earthquake that they expected a meltdown to occur. Their readings of iodine levels at the plant early the next morning confirmed their expectations. In any event, instead of telling other people in the Diet that he wasn’t sure, Mr. Kan was flatly denying that a meltdown had occurred into mid-May.

TT #6

“(T)he Japanese met an hour beforehand (on 20 March) to discuss developments and to work out what they were going to tell the Americans. Mr. Nagashima said the meeting brought together the various ministries and Tepco, with politicians setting the agenda, for the first time since the crisis began.”

WEIJK #6

Onishi and Fackler pulled that last sentence from their backsides; as we’ve seen, the politicians set the agenda from the day the crisis started. That was the problem.

Here’s one freelance journalist:

“The prime minister and his ‘political leadership’ are suspected to be the reason for the confusion of the blackouts, and the disrupted transport, business, schools, medical institutions, which were implemented on the spur of the moment with no input from ministries. He criticized Tokyo Electric for providing information late, but ignored his own inability to gather information.”

And another:

“Mr. Kan’s greatest mistake was that he was supposed to be the commander but acted like a squad leader on the ground. He established a headquarters within the offices of Tokyo Electric. This was just a performance designed to catch the attention of the mass media and promote himself among the people. Meanwhile, he treated the government’s emergency and disaster relief headquarters as a side job, giving it short shrift. That’s because there’s no glory and no media coverage in it.”

Here’s a headline in the Daily Yomiuri on 17 March:

“Distribution channels blocked; Government has done nothing for six days / No specific plans from disaster headquarters”

The problems extended to foreign affairs. The Taiwanese government got in touch with the Japanese government on the day of the earthquake to tell them they could dispatch an emergency rescue team to the area immediately. The prime minister made them — and the people in Tohoku stranded by the earthquake — wait for two days until after the Chinese rescue team arrived.

All of this goes without saying for the people who know Mr. Kan best. Sengoku Yoshito was the chief cabinet secretary in the first Kan cabinet, and returned as the deputy chief after it became apparent that Matsumoto Ryu, nominally the Minister for Disaster Measures, was incapable of doing his job. He reportedly told a close aide:

“Handling affairs from the earthquake to the recovery is beyond Kan’s ability.”

Here’s an example of what that means: The prime minister has been widely quoted in the Japanese media as telling people that he is an expert on nuclear energy. Meanwhile, the Nikkei Shimbun reported that he wanted a “second opinion” from people not associated with the bureaucracy or Tokyo Electric, so he called in outside experts for a discussion. One of the first questions he asked was, “What is this ‘criticality’?”

Loathe to criticize too harshly someone who shares their political beliefs, the New York Times couldn’t find the space for any of the above. They did find the space for this bagatelle, however:

“Critics and supporters alike said Mr. Kan’s decision to bypass this system, choosing instead to rely on a small circle of trusted advisers with little experience in handling a crisis of this scale, blocked him from grasping the severity of the disaster sooner.”

Who anywhere has the experience in handling the deaths of more than 20,000 people and more than 80,000 people still in shelters as the aftermath of the fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history, the largest recorded tsunami in an area where large tsunami occur roughly every 30 years, and the resultant meltdown of three nuclear reactors?

As for his alleged inability to grasp the severity of the disaster sooner, he understood a meltdown was likely on the day of the disaster and he started ordering evacuations the next day. He was thrashed by the media and the public when it was reported on one occasion soon after the disaster that he said northeast Japan might be rendered uninhabitable, and on another occasion that no one would be able to live there for 10 to 20 years.

Of the many criticisms of the Kan administration, one of the most frequent is that they never accept responsibility and always blame someone else. Either the New York Times fell for it (which means they need new correspondents in Tokyo) or are acting as accomplices.

One reporter assigned to cover the Democratic Party of Japan told the Shukan Shincho that Mr. Kan’s behavior in the first week after the earthquake/tsunami resembled that of Adolph Hitler in the final days of the Third Reich.

Speaking of the Third Reich, anyone who wants to read the Times article and see what an English-language article in the Völkischer Beobachter might have looked like in the heyday of that publication can use the search engine of their choice to find it. No links from me.

Links are for journos on the legit.

*****
Such dubious souls

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Posted in Government, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Mass media, Science and technology, Taiwan | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Fukushima power plant

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 12, 2011

STRATFOR Global Intelligence provides a useful overview of what happens during a nuclear reactor meltdown, which may be happening at Fukushima Plant #1.

They write:

(T)he earthquake in Japan, in addition to damaging the ability of the control rods to regulate the fuel — and the reactor’s coolant system — appears to have damaged the containment facility, and the explosion almost certainly did. There have been reports of “white smoke,” perhaps burning concrete, coming from the scene of the explosion, indicating a containment breach and the almost certain escape of significant amounts of radiation.

To be more precise, the tsunami temporarily knocked out both the main power supply and the backup generator, and that’s what caused the problem with the coolant system. The principle is simple–the idea is to keep adding water. At one point they were using a fire truck. It’s even possible to use the nearby sea water, and the latest report says that’s exactly what they’ve decided to do.

It is also not just an issue of “white smoke”; the exterior walls and roof of one of the buildings at the plant no longer exist, and the superstructure is exposed.

This does not mean that the worst case scenario as described by Stratfor has come to pass, but authorities have decided to expand the area of evacuation from a radius of 10 kilometers (six miles) to 20 kilometers.

Quick update: Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio just spoke at a news conference and said that as of now, the containment vessel at the plant has not been damaged, and that the radiation emissions have declined since this afternoon’s explosion.

Posted in Science and technology | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll bet!

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

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

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

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

To top it off

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

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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