Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Hyogo’

All you have to do is look (81)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 19, 2012

The Nada Fighting Festival in Himeji, Hyogo, earlier this week.

It is dangerous enough for one man to have died in 2001 and another in 2009 when mishaps occurred. While there is an element of Japanese society that questions such events due to safety concerns, most Japanese reason that the risks (and rewards) of participation are apparent, and that is not reason enough to discontinue centuries worth of tradition.

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All you have to do is look (75)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 13, 2012

Miko at the Nishinomiya Shinto shrine in Nishinomiya, Hyogo, prepare the chitose ame (1,000 year confection) to be given to children for Shichigosan in mid-November.

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Matsuri da! (133) Rumble in the forest

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 11, 2012

THE Iwa Shinto shrine was established deep in the forest in what is now Shiso, Hyogo. One story has the facility founded by an emperor in 144, and other by a different emperor in 564. The enshrined deity is Okuninushi (under a different name), who is thought to have been the ruler of Izumo province. He is the divinity of unseen worlds of magic, nation-building (in keeping with this name), farming, business, and medicine. A story told in the Kojiki has he and his 79 brothers competing to marry Princess Yakami of Inaba. He turned out to have been the studliest of them all, which so cheesed off his brothers that they conspired to kill him. Which they did, twice, but his mother — a goddess herself — brought him back to life. With 80 sons, she knew better than anyone that boys will be boys.

The shrine holds a fall festival in supplication for a good harvest from 15-16 October every year, which is a spectacle that attracts many. It’s not that complicated. Stout young lads representing five local communities carry in floats, which are really elaborate platforms for taiko drummers. Each one costs about JPY 20 million, which is about $US255,000 nowadays. The float bearers are wearing color-coded costumes by neighborhood: red, yellow, pink, green, and blue. They alternate every year being the first to enter the temple grounds.

This year, one of the floats got a new decoration. The people in this district rework it every 20 years.

I couldn’t find any information on when or why this festival started, but no one seems interested in historical records with this countryside extravaganza. It’s a stirring show with decorated floats maneuvered with masculine dispatch and chants to the beat of drums in the middle of a forest. Who needs a circus when you can have Primitivo instead? They parade around the shrine grounds and then take the floats for a one-kilometer march through the neighborhood to the river and back. After they return, the mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine, is brought out to accompaniment of gagaku.

There are plenty of Youtubes, and one of them is below. For more photos, try this Japanese-language site, or this one.

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We know what you want

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 10, 2012

HOSPITALITY in Japan means anticipating what your guest wants before the guest expresses a preference for something (though guests in Japan refrain from directly expressing preferences anyway.)

The city fathers of Himeji, Hyogo, have amplified that cultural trait and automated it. Working with Glory, a company that makes cash processing machines for banks and other companies, they’ve developed a device that uses face recognition technology to identify the sex and general age of tourists and to use that data to offer sightseeing options. The machine has been installed in the JR Himeji station.

Here’s how it works: Tourists stand still in front of the camera for a face scan that lasts just a few seconds. In addition to making gender distinctions — no, there was no mention that it was equipped with an odor sensor — it makes a rough division by age: teenagers, 20s, 40s, and 60s and above.

The folks who want more detailed information, can’t stand the idea of being scanned, or would rather deal with a human being can speak directly to tourist personnel at the counter or get a brochure.

The Himejians say the objective wasn’t just to automate the procedure or to cop some PR. The old castle in town is undergoing repairs, and the number of annual visitors is down to 700 thousand from the normal level of a million. The new machine gives the city’s tourist bureau the chance to plug the local art museum and the City Museum of Literature. The information they provide also changes seasonally.

It would be fun to know how they programmed it. What are the physical criteria for recommending the literature museum? Do they also recommend eating and drinking establishments? Say, where does a guy go in this town for a good time?

Here’s what Tachibana Hajime recommended for Two Egyptians. That’s got to be Suzuki Saeko playing the marimba.

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All you have to do is look (12)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 9, 2012

The opening ceremony for the 94th National High School Baseball Championships at the Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo. It is an elimination tournament, which means that the eventual champion will have won every game starting at the prefectural championship round.

(Photo by Jiji news agency)

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Tattoos, copyrights, and human rights

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 29, 2011

THE illogical logic sometimes used to interpret the law, particularly in civil suits, has long been a cliché in the West. For several reasons, one of which was a cultural tendency to avoid litigation altogether, logic of that sort had fewer opportunities to sprout in Japan. The non-native invasive species seems to have finally established itself, however, as a Tokyo District Court ruling last month suggests.

The case involved the cover of an autobiography written by a man who described his efforts to pass the test to become an administrative scrivener (or “certified administrative procedure specialist”) in the Japanese legal system. The man had the image of a Buddhist statue tattooed on his left thigh in 2001. When the autobiography was published in 2007, a photograph of the tattoo was used for the cover, though the photo was printed in sepia and used reverse shading. (The book is still in print, and the cover is shown next to the paragraph below.)

The tattoo artist sued for infringement of copyright, while the author countered that the tattoo was nothing more than a copy of a photo of the statue. Here come the judge: His honor ruled in favor of the plaintiff, saying that a tattoo could be covered by copyright if the artist’s conception was expressed in an original way. He also ruled that placing the tattoo on the book cover without citing the artist’s name was “an infringement of the human rights of the copyright holder”, and awarded the artist JPY 480,000 as compensation. That’s a skoche less than $US 6,300.

Explained the judge, “The tattoo differs in expression from the photo (of the statue), and presents the conception and emotions of the artist.” The human rights infringed were the right to decide whether or not the name of the copyright holder should be cited, and the right to prevent the display of an altered form of the copyrighted object without permission.

From the official records:

“It is recognized that creative devices were employed for the composition of the tattoo design and for the expression of the statue. Different tools and techniques were used for the outline and the other lines, as well the gradation of tone. The originality of expression of the plaintiff’s conception and emotions can be recognized. Therefore, it can be affirmed that the tattoo in question has copyrightability.”

The ruling also held that the techniques used to display the photo on the book cover were an infringement of the right to retain integrity.

Prof. Yamada Hajime of the Toyo University School of Economics objected on his website that the verdict was nearsighted and overly legalistic. Prof. Yamada notes that the city of Kobe is conducting a campaign to encourage the use of a local seashore area. Part of their campaign is based on a municipal ordinance that prohibits smoking, littering, and the exposure of tattoos outside designated areas. The ordinance forbids the “ostentatious display” of tattoos, as well as coarse and rough behavior, because it could cause other users of the seashore to become uneasy or frightened.

Japanese concerns about the public display of tattoos stem from the well-known yakuza taste for using them to decorate their bodies. But the gangsters usually show some discretion (or retain the means to smoothly conduct their daily affairs) by limiting even the most elaborate of tattoos on the upper body to the area that a t-shirt would cover.

Prof. Yamada pointed out that sports facilities have similar rules (though he didn’t mention public baths, many of which have a sign in front of the establishment notifying customers that people with tattoos will be denied entry). He takes issue with the decision by carrying its logic to the extreme. For example, anyone who had second thoughts about a tattoo and removed part of it due to social disapproval could theoretically be held to have infringed the right to retain integrity. He also mentions the suggestion of an acquaintance that merely getting fat could also infringe that right.

Finally, he cites one provision of Japanese copyright law that states: “The objective of protecting the rights of the copyright holder is to contribute to the development of culture.”

How, Prof. Yamada asks, does this contribute to the development of culture? It doesn’t, of course, but it’s worthy of note that some in Japan are still asking the question. Ask that question in the United States and you’re likely to be branded a philistine.

The issue of copyrighting tattoos has also arisen in the West. It’s a complicated issue there, too (but unfortunately the problem with the WordPress software that keeps me from adding hotlinks for some reason continues from yesterday). The question in the United States, however, usually involves tattoo artists copying the work of another artist, rather than the point at issue in the Japanese case.

I tried to conduct some discovery but was unable to determine whether the Japanese tattoo artist had legally copyrighted the tattoo before bringing the suit.

Why not take this opportunity to wander over to the right sidebar to examine the link to the Japanese Tattoo Institute, with examples of the ultimate in the art? They sell calendars too. There’s also a link to the excellent Hanzi Smatter site, devoted to the presentation and explanation of the unusual kanji that Westerners tattoo on their bodies. You’ll never laugh at the strange English on t-shirts and signs in Northeast Asia again. At least they’re easily disposable.

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Posted in Books, Legal system, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

‘Tis the season for Koshiens

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 8, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in the funny papers!

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

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

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

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

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

Said Oki Ayano, one member of the winning team:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hammers and sickles

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 8, 2011

THERE’S AN acid test guaranteed to separate the bogus from the bona fide for those who pass themselves off as Japan hands. It’s easy to apply, too: Anyone who uses the alleged proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” to proclaim that the Japanese repress originality is a fraud. That’s a reliable signal to turn the page, change the channel, or click on the next website.

The most important of the several reasons why that test is infallible is that they’ve botched the proverb. The handful of people who cite it and actually know some Japanese assume it is Deru kugi ha (wa) utareru, but that’s a mistake. Instead of kugi, or nail, the word is kui (杭), a post or a stake. And—because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—they’ve also botched the meaning.

The Japanese employ the concentrated insights of proverbs in speech and writing more often than people in the Anglosphere, and their long political, cultural, and literary history means they have a large supply from which to draw. That also means there are plenty of inexpensive proverb dictionaries available in bookstores, with more examples than anyone will ever be able to use in a lifetime. I have one published by Goto Shoin in 1979 that runs more than 500 pages and has definitions for roughly 10 proverbs a page. The author sources the oldest Japanese proverb as coming from the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), which was completed in the eighth century.

Here’s how the author defines this proverb:

“A post that protrudes too far will be driven in further. In the same way, people who assert their pre-eminence over the general public will be envied and meet with difficulties as a result. There’s nothing wrong with excelling or becoming a prominent figure, but human emotion resists that logic. Indeed, people who push themselves forward despite a lack of talent generally receive no forbearance from others.”

He cites one variation on the proverb as, “The post that sticks out is pounded by the waves.” He finally mentions the variation with the nail at the end of the entry, but dismisses it as a mistake. (In fact, he uses the word “bad” to describe its use.)

Therefore, the adage has nothing to do with enforcing conformity to a rigid social order. Rather, it combines a warning that one shouldn’t get too big for one’s britches with the observation that jealousy can have unpleasant consequences. And we all know that the latter is a universal human phenomenon rather than a Japan-only attribute. After all, the belief of some that the redistribution of wealth by a government through confiscatory taxation is a “progressive” concept didn’t originate here.

It doesn’t take much thought to see what happened. Either a foreigner misheard kui as kugi and jumped to the wrong conclusion, or he was steered in the wrong direction by a Japanese fuzzy on the details himself. That the proverb with the nail mistake circulates in some English-speaking circles shows it is being parroted by foreigners with a parrot’s understanding of what they’re saying. The same thing occurred when people used to believe the myth that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow.


The subject comes up because reader Get a Job Son sent in a link to an article by John Feffer in the Huffington Post titled Gambling in Japan. Feffer is described as having lived in Japan in the 90s, though the extent of his stay isn’t mentioned. Considering what little he knows, it couldn’t have been that long. Try this:

“On the outside, Japan appears to be a clean, well-ordered place. The Japanese are, stereotypically, risk-averse. According to the Japanese adage, deru kugi wa utareru: the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. This apparent preference for order and conformity helps explain the patience with which the Japanese have responded to the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and the partial meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facility – that has afflicted the country.”

Feffer doesn’t explain why a preference for conformity explains the Japanese response to the disaster, or why conformity would be a factor at all. The preference for order is certainly not unique to the Japanese, as few people anywhere are interested in the alternative. And to use one small example, neither order nor conformity explains why Hitachi’s Ibaragi plant, which manufactures generators and gas and steam turbines, resumed post-earthquake operations on 30 March and reached 90% of their productive capacity by 4 April.

Feffer’s point does not rest on a simple, shallow argument, however. It’s not possible to be a convincing public intellectual unless one uses a more complicated shallow argument. That’s why he digs up an irrelevant old anecdote of a 19th century kabuki performer who died because he couldn’t discipline his taste for the potentially poisonous blowfish, and uses it as a metaphor for the country’s mindset:

“Beneath this façade of conformity, however, lies a more interesting reality. Like Mitsugoro Bando VIII, the Japanese have become almost inured to calamity. They’ve accepted – and in some cases courted – extraordinarily risky behavior.

“Consider Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy.”

His discussion of nuclear power plants in Japan, which overlooks the placement of large hydroelectric dams on fault lines in India and China, suggests his agenda is something other than explicating the nature of Japanese behavior. Sure enough:

“Embracing nuclear power isn’t Japan’s only risky behavior. For years, the Japanese government has boasted of a “peace constitution” that restricts the country to a defense-only posture. But this constitution hasn’t prevented Japan from amassing one of the world’s most powerful militaries, confronting China and Korea over disputed islands, cooperating with the United States on a missile defense system that destabilizes the region, and playing host to dozens of U.S. military bases that endanger human lives and the surrounding environment.

“Is there somehow a contradiction between the stereotypical conformity of the average Japanese and this tendency to court disaster in the economic, military, energy, and humanitarian sectors?”

What do you know! A walking, talking strawman!

Hey, why stop at one caricature when you can use several?

“When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon late at night to come upon office workers passed out on the street, vomiting in alleyways, or being carried home by their equally inebriated colleagues. Excessive drinking after work was part of the salaryman culture. Indeed, it could be awkward for a businessman to demur from such rituals. When such behavior becomes the norm, then engaging in risky activities becomes just another way of conforming. Of course, it’s only a sector of Japanese society that drinks to excess.”

Feffer doesn’t know anything about salaryman culture, of course, because he wasn’t part of it. (He would have been sure to tell us otherwise). Nor would he know about who does or doesn’t demur from such “rituals”, what is or what isn’t the norm with drinking habits, what is or what isn’t a ritual, who does or who doesn’t conform, and who does or who doesn’t drink to excess.

Many Japanese men drink prodigious amounts of alcohol, regardless of whether they are salarymen, carpenters, or even politicians, including Prime Minister Kan Naoto and the late Nakagawa Shoichi. It has nothing to do with “salaryman culture”, which in any event had already begun to wane in the late 90s when Feffer blew through town. Had he kept his wits about him when writing this piece, it might have occurred to him to blame all the boozing on the stress of conformist behavior to avoid getting pounded in like the nail that sticks out, rather than conforming to “salaryman culture”.

In fact, had he taken the time to do some reading, he would have discovered the many stories of sake-loving divinities in Shinto mythology, created millenia before salarymen existed. The Japanese have always had a taste for the rice. People were singing out of tune and carrying each other home long before the first joint-stock corporation was formed.

But none of that is his real point anyway. He edges up to it here:

“An oligarchy of gamblers holds sway over the majority of cautious Japanese.”

An “oligarchy” controlling a race of conformist, red-nosed lushes too wimpy to express themselves, eh?

The choice of the inappropriate word “oligarchy”, the statement about a mighty Japanese military confronting China and some entity called “Korea”, the claim that a missile defense system is destabilizing, the use of the ruse of environmental concerns (about an endangered species of dugong) to object to American military installations, and the unexplained assertion that Japan is courting disaster in the “humanitarian sector” all point in the direction of a certain worldview.

Once again, Google is our friend. The Huffpo identifies Feffer only as the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. The FPIF website announces that they are a “project” of the Institute for Policy Studies. That institute openly identifies itself as a “left-wing think tank”, as even Sidney Blumenthal, the American political version of Sid Vicious, notes with approval. Noam Chomsky is an associate.

A group that so quickly cops to being leftist is sure to have some rather large rocks on their turf to provide cover for some rather slimy worms and ugly slugs. This particular left-wing think tank cooperated with the KGB in planting disinformation in Europe about NATO. A brief scan is enough to discover the usual cast of Bolshies, Reds, Pinks, Crimsons, communitarians, Gramsciites, and the other undifferentiated hairballs who use eco-lunacy, pacifism, and similar counterfeit issues to conceal their real motivations and the sweat-stained Che Guevara t-shirts under their more socially acceptable haberdashery.

Japan is not Feffer’s chosen field of study; North Korean apologistics is. Still floating around unflushed on the web is his justification of Pyeongyang’s 2009 missile launch:

“North Korea is clearly interested in still reaching out, working with, engaging with the international community.”

The Foreign Policy in Focus website informs us that a detailed statement of their positions is contained in the paper, Just Security. Feffer edited the paper, which is found on the IPS website. Here’s one of the planks of their program:

“Start a managed resource transfer from rich to poor countries through climate-friendly global justice, trade, and aid policies. This would involve a border fee on “dirty trade” that would help developing countries shift to clean energy.”

Feffer is not the first to pretend that a brief stay in Japan qualifies him to discuss the nation as if he knew something about it, nor is he the first to unload hearsay misinformation as a way to present himself as a big league thinker. This might be the first time, however, that someone has used the overseas manga edition of the country to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with Japan.


It’s curious that some would swallow the idea that the Japanese advocate pounding in posts, nails, or people as a part of everyday life. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Koizumi Jun’ichiro, no one’s idea of a conformist, spent five successful years as prime minister. The cautious Japanese electorate would love to have that reckless gambling oligarch back tomorrow if they could. They’d be so overjoyed, in fact, they might force each other to get falling down drunk and pass out in the streets. Then again, people of a certain political orientation are loath to portray a man of Mr. Koizumi’s beliefs in a positive light. Calling attention to the Koizumi record of accomplishment would only accentuate the failures of their own heroes.

The people who come to Japan and pay attention to their surroundings soon realize it is almost impossible to get through a day without discovering unpounded posts sticking out all over the place. Just yesterday, for example, I read a newspaper article about private sector efforts to hire people from the Tohoku area who have been put out of work by the disaster. At the end of the piece, the author briefly mentioned that Cococala-mura of Awaji Island would make it a policy to give preference to hiring young people from that region. Accompanying the article was the photo shown here of people working in the Cococala fields.

It was easy to turn up their Japanese language website, which reveals it to be an enterprise that would be in imminent danger of a raid by mallet-bearing thought police were the myth a reality. The project is operated by Pasona, a company specializing in temporary staffing, recruiting, and human resource consulting. Pasona hires as employees young musicians, actors, dancers, and others in the arts to work at local farms or regional businesses while they take courses in business, arts management, and agriculture. The idea seems to be to have them to do something tangibly productive with their time as they learn to become self-supporting professionals.

A company in Japan has come up with a capital idea for nurturing self-reliance and providing the means for success to people in a field in which it is difficult to make a decent living. It’s better in every imaginable way than using public funds for national arts subsidies. Is it a coincidence that Takenaka Heizo, Mr. Koizumi’s privatization guru, is the company’s chairman?

Meanwhile, a political extremist without the slightest interest in Japan is so unwilling to let a crisis go to waste that he parades the Trojan horse of his ignorance as knowledge to disguise the parasitic bacteria inside.

Something would benefit from being pounded in, but Japanese fence posts ain’t it.

My use of the word “pound”, incidentally, is as figurative as that of the Beatles.

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Posted in Agriculture, Foreigners in Japan, Language, Politics, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

Japanese food: More than just raw fish

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 20, 2010

WHEN THE JAPANESE apply their fertile imaginations to cook up new food creations, there’s no telling what delights they’ll discover.

Scratch that—there is telling! Here’s a look at what’s cooking (and brewing) in kitchens lately across the country.

Goya dumplings

Michifude Hiroshi was a successful challenger in one of the televised Iron Chef programs several years ago (in the Chinese food category). Fame begets fortune, so it was natural for the agricultural co-op JA Okinawa to sign a consulting agreement with the chef to provide advice for the development of processed foods using local produce and livestock. In return, his photo and name will be displayed on the packages of any products that result from their association.

The former Iron Chef’s first suggestion was to use vegetables that otherwise would be thrown out because their irregular shapes disallow them from being sold commercially, their esculence notwithstanding. His idea was to use the ugly vegetables as filling for gyoza, the Japanese name for the vegetable- or meat-stuffed dumplings often known as pot stickers in Chinese restaurants in the United States. JA Okinawa now plans to sell 12 different varieties on a seasonal basis, including those filled with rakkyo (an Asian scallion) or karashima (mustard greens).

First out of the box were the goya dumplings, with a package of 12 selling for 500 yen. The goya is a bitter green vegetable that’s quite popular among health conscious Japanese, particularly Okinawans. It’s slightly smaller than an American cucumber with a soft, knobby skin. Like a green pepper, it’s hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds. The goya is so nutritious the Western vegetarian might be tempted to turn it into an object of religious veneration.

One of the JA officials thinks they have a winner:

These non-standard products that can’t be sold commercially are reborn in popular food products. That has two advantages. It’s environmentally friendly because it reduces waste, and it boosts the income of farm families.

Katsuobushi cookies

Every 10 years, the city of Makurazaki in Kagoshima holds a fish cuisine competition to celebrate their incorporation as a municipality, a blessed event that occurred 60 years ago. The Makurazakians held their once-a-decade fest earlier this year, and the Grand Prize winner was a 16-year-old high school girl who created three varieties of katsuobushi cookies. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna that’s been shaved into flakes. It’s usually used to make soup broth.

Katsuobushi cookie winner with Mom

If you think fish cookies sound unappetizing, consider this: The reports say the girl’s creations were the overwhelming favorite of the judges. They had 133 entries to choose from, including hamburgers made with aji (horse mackerel) and vegetables instead of beef. She pocketed JPY 50,000 (almost $US 550) in prize money.

The cookies are made by mixing okara (high fiber soy pulp, also as healthful as the dickens) with the katsuobushi, and flavoring with ginger and soy sauce. She deliberately kept the use of butter and eggs to a minimum, which means they’re unlikely to appear on the shelves of your neighborhood convenience store anytime soon.

She also had incentive—she kept working to refine the recipe because her mother entered the same contest and she wanted to prove her chops. Mother and daughter still get along fine, however, as the photo shows. Perfecting the cookies did require some effort, as she later admitted it was difficult to get them to turn out soft and plump. She’s glad everyone likes them and thinks they might go over well as a snack in drinking establishments.

Soy yoghurt beverage

When Prof. Yanagida Fujidoshi, the head of the Institute of Enology and Viticulture in Yamanashi, downed a soy milk beverage made by Hakushuya Mamekichi of Hokuto at a food fair last July, the proverbial light bulb went on over his head. He contacted the beverage company, and together they developed a yoghurt beverage made from soy instead of milk, using wine yeast. All the ingredients—the soy, the natural spring water, and the wine yeast—are local products.

The professor and his creation

The beverage tastes so much like the real thing it’ll fool yoghurt fans despite the absence of milk. The company says the fermentation of lactic acid causes an unpleasant aroma, and conventional yoghurt products mask that aroma with milk products and fruit flavors in the later processing stages. That’s no problem with their product, however, because it’s soy and nothing but. Brewing one bottle requires about 30 soybeans, or 150 grams.

The company also claims the use of wine yeast doubles the production of lactic acid and increases by 1.7 times the amount of succinic acid, which provides the umami . They suggest selling a bottle for JPY 150 (about $US 1.63), though they won’t make an issue over it. The beverage is currently available in local supermarkets and michi no eki (literally, road or trail stations), which are rest stops along Japanese highways. Most have shops that sell local goods. There are 871 nationwide as of the moment.

The company is planning a full lineup of soy yoghurt beverages with local fruit added. It’s going to be called the Yanagida series and feature the professor’s picture on the label.

Who knows? The professor might become as well-known a celebrity as the Iron Chef.

Blueberry udon

The Japanese have been slurping down udon noodles since the Asuka period, which ended exactly 1,300 years ago this year, but the blueberry udon recently created in Asago, Hyogo demonstrates there are still some new things under the sun after all.

Udon is soup with noodles that tend to be as thick as a chopstick, but chewier and fluffier than spaghetti. The broth is usually either miso– or fish-flavored, and all sorts of varieties can be created by adding different ingredients and spices.

An Asago park well-known for its wisterias has been staging a festival for the past month and a half, and they came up with the idea of publicizing the event by creating a new dish in which blueberries are added to the flour-and-water udon noodle mix. The resulting purple noodles, color coordinated with the wysteria, were served with tempura-fried vegetables, including a type of green onion local to the area and mushrooms. This in turn was placed on wisterial petals and placed in a bowl. Reports say the tartness of the blueberries enhanced the flavor of the other ingredients.

There were plenty of blueberries available because the local chamber of commerce and industry has been growing them and looking for something to do with the surplus crop. The festival ended just last week, and during that time they planned to sell 100 bowls of blueberry udon every day for JPY 500 (about $US 5.45) each, which is not a bad price, as well as take-out meals for two or three people at JPY 450 yen each, an even better price. The producers are going to look at overall sales and make a decision on whether to commercialize the product.

Lotus ice cream

The lotus is mentioned in the Kojiki of 712 (Record of Ancient Matters), which means the Japanese have been growing the plant for as long as they’ve been eating udon. There’s more to it than the beauty, however—the lotus is a big deal in Buddhism, whose theorists have used it to symbolize the human condition. The plant is rooted in the mud of a pond, but it rises above the water to bloom and attain enlightenment.

My sweet tooth says I want to, but my wisdom tooth says no

And if you’re in Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui, anytime soon, they’ll enlighten you with some lotus ice cream, which they’ve given the name Hasukoro Inpact. That’s one prime example of the many visual treats in the written Japanese language, by the way. It’s rendered はすコロINパクト, which combines the two Japanese alphabets of hiragana and katakana and the Roman alphabet.

Speaking of treats with multiple ingredients, the Somoyama hot springs resort in Minamiechizen-cho created the lotus ice cream (actually soft ice cream) to sell on the premises. Instead of the usual crunchy cone, they use one made with cornet bread that has ground lotus leaf mixed in the dough. Don’t miss a trick, do they? The outside is crisp, but the inside is chewy. To make the confection, they start with regular vanilla ice cream and add some raspberry sherbet mixed with another sherbet made from lotus wine. The local epicures say it’s a delectable combination of the sweet and the tart. The spa is selling it until the end of June at their restaurant on the premises for JPY 380 (about $US 4.14). The reports say it will be sold after that for JPY 450, but didn’t specify how or where it will be sold.

If you’re in Japan, though, you can always call the spa at (0778) 47-3368 and ask.

Socho curry

The pictures of Chef Michifude and Prof. Yanagida adorn the labels of the products they helped develop, but Prof. Oike Kazuo of Kyoto University got his photo on the package of Socho Curry mix just because he happened to be the president (socho) of the school when the product was created.

The curry was jointly developed in 2005 by the Kyoto Broadcasting System and the Kyoto U. Co-op with the idea of making then-President Oike, the 24th, more familiar to the students. It was intended to be sold only at the campus cafeteria and in nearby shops. But it became an instant hit with the students, so they decided to produce it as a retorted curry rice product and flog it on the market for JPY 630 apiece. They’ve sold so many they’ve earned an aggregate of JPY 100 million (about $US 1.09 million) in revenue to date.

There’s no word why it’s been so successful in Japan’s crowded curry market, albeit in just one part of it, but then again college students aren’t known to be finicky eaters as long as the price is right. Nevertheless, the Socho Curry success story has got the Co-op so excited, they’re planning to develop more products.

Now for the hard stuff—here comes the hooch!

Mango lager

Hideji, a microbrewery in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, wanted to create a special beer using something distinctively Miyazakian. That was the inspiration for brewing mango lager, mangoes being a special product of the prefecture. Don’t get the wrong idea—some, but not all, of the yeast used to ferment the beer is been made from mango rinds, and some of the fruit is used in the mix. That’s why it’s classified as a happoshu (“sparkling spirits”) for Japanese tax purposes rather than beer, because it has less than 67% malt by content.

Mango lager

Theirs wasn’t an overnight success—it took three years worth of product development to come up with something they were willing to sell. The pluses include the fresh spring water the brewery uses near its location at the foot of a mountain, a slightly sweet flavor, lightness, and fewer calories. It has just 25% of the sugar content of regular beers. It also has plenty of malic acid, which is said to have energy-enhancing and anti-aging properties. In other words, it builds you up and tears you down at the same time.

Still others will appreciate the 5.2% alcohol by volume.

The Hideji brewery is so pleased they’re going to work with Miyazaki University to examine the possibility of creating other microbrews with 80 different types of yeast, including those made from such local citrus fruits such as the hyuganatsu and the kumquat. Now that’s a lab I wouldn’t mind working in.

They’re selling the beer in 330 ml bottles for JPY 600 apiece, which is a bit steep, but it is a microbrew after all. It’s available at the gift shop in the Miyazaki Airport and at the local michi no eki shops. What the heck, if you’re in Japan and the beer and mango combination has whetted either your thirst or your appetite, give the brewery a call at (0982) 39-0090 and ask if they’ll ship you some.


Beer in all its forms has far and away the highest sales of any alcoholic beverage in Japan, but some people unfamiliar with national alcohol consumption habits might not be aware that sales of the distilled beverage shochu, which resembles vodka or gin, top sake sales in some years. Way down south in such prefectures as Kagoshima and Okinawa, shochu far outsells sake, and Kagoshima doesn’t even have a sake brewery.

The word shochu is written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor”, which literally makes it firewater. I can testify that if you drink too much, it just might start some spontaneous internal combustion.

Fighting fire with firewater

The head of the volunteer fire department in Kajiya-cho, Kagoshima City, is naturally concerned about fire prevention, so he hit upon the idea to create his own shochu and call it Hikeshidamashii, which means “fire extinguishing spirit”. No, not spirits–spirit, as in demon, and no, not demon rum, either! The distinguishing feature of his brand is that the label has a fire prevention message—it reminds people of the law requiring smoke detectors to be installed by the end of May 2011. He developed the drink with another volunteer fireman who works at a liquor wholesaler. Another reason for the choice of the name is that volunteer firefighters like to wear t-shirts with hikeshidamashii written on them.

So, to put it all together, a fireman in a city renowned for its firewater has a burning desire to prevent fires, so he creates a new kind of firewater called Fire Extingushing Spirit to remind the people drinking spirits to install smoke detectors.

Try saying that without stuttering after a few shots of shochu.

If that inflames your curiosity, and you live in Japan, give the shop a call at 099-224-4531 to see if he’ll sell you some. A 1.8 liter bottle sells for JPY 1,800, which is a reasonable price for shochu.

Microbeers making a comeback

Microbeers took off in a macro way in Japan with the amendment to the tax law in 1994 that made it financially more feasible to brew and sell them. But Japanese will be the first to tell you that boomlets there quickly skyrocket and just as quickly fizzle out. That’s what happened after the middle-aged drinkers switched to the recently developed, and much cheaper so-called “third beers” made with such ingredients as pea protein, soy protein, or soy peptide instead of malt. (Yes, I agree. Ugh.) In addition to the bargain prices, the taste is much lighter than that of the real thing.

But the Japan Craft Beer Association (see link on right sidebar) reports that microbrews began making a comeback three years ago, primarily among younger people. That year, 28,800 kiloliters were brewed, double the total from 2005. A spokesman for the association said:

Most new customers are people younger than 40 who don’t have any preconceived notions about beer.

He added that they tend to view the high-quality brews as they would wine, an outlook they share among microbrew aficionados in the West. Another reason this is a welcome trend for brewers is that national consumption of all types of beer has been trending downward recently. Year-on-year sales were down 3.2% in April, the fourth consecutive monthly decline. That was the second-lowest April total since tracking of the statistic began in 1992.

Spotting an opportunity, the Kansai region’s microbrewers held the first microbrew festival in Kyoto on the 23rd last month at a shopping mall favored by young people called Shin-Puh-Kan (That’s a groovy way to spell shinpu, which means new wind.) A total of 20 breweries participated and presented 40 brands, selling their wares for JPY 300 a glass. Said an organizer:

With overall beer sales declining every year, the resurgence of microbrews is a trend both old and new. I hope we can reestablish ourselves in the Kansai area.

Judging from the following YouTube video, the mall seems to be enclosed with an open courtyard, making it an excellent site for people to mill about and drink without disturbing the neighborhood. (Don’t worry about the narration if you don’t understand Japanese–it’s just standard PR.) The mall also vaguely resembles the view of the neighborhood from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in the Hitchcock film, Rear Window, a perennial favorite in Japan. Coincidence?

Here’s an idea: The high school girl from Kagoshima could provide the Craft Beer Association with her katsuobushi cookies to sell as snacks at the microbrew festivals, and after polishing off a few rounds of mango lager, everyone could stop off for a bowl of blueberry udon on the way home!

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Bagging beans to beat the devil

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 4, 2010

SOME AMERICAN TELEVANGELISTS want you believe you have to send in money—right away!—to beat the devil, but the Japanese have a more inexpensive way to send Beelzebub packing. They scatter beans at Shinto shrines and households once a year.

Today was the day the demons took it on the lam, as 3 February is known as setsubun in Japan. Several traditional ceremonies are held to dispatch Old Scratch, and the magical rite of scattering beans (usually roasted soybeans) is one of those.

After a process of cultural evolution, the practice of setsubun was applied to New Year’s Eve in the ancient solar calendar, which is the traditional beginning of spring. Note that Chinese New Year, which is a moveable holiday, falls around this time of year. In traditional Chinese culture, lichun—or risshun in Japanese—is a solar period or term marking the start of spring, which occurs around February 4.

The connection with New Year’s led to associations of the ritual purification and exorcism thought essential for the coming year and the spring planting season.

Yet another connection was made with the tsuina rite, or zhuinuo in Chinese, another ceremony for driving out demons that originated in the Zho dynasty (1027 BC-256 BC). In those days, when men were men, the Chinese wore bear skins and masks and carried sharp weapons when they stalked the evil spirits. The practice was later adopted in some form in Japan, became an annual Imperial court event by the 9th century (hence the association with shrines), and had turned into a bean scattering rite by the Muromachi period (1333-1568).

The ceremony can be conducted at home, but nowadays most folks head for a Shinto shrine to snatch a bean bag tossed by the priests. One incentive is that some of the bags contain gift certificates for items which can range from stationery to consumer electronics products. In addition, toshi otoko, men born under the Chinese zodiac sign for that year, help toss out the beans, and some shrines bring in the famous or celebrities from the area to juice up the PR value.

The visitors to the larger shrines can number in the thousands, and somebody’s got to put those beans into the lucky bags. When it comes to performing such menial chores at a shrine, the lot usually falls to miko, or shrine maidens, the Shinto equivalent of altar boys.

The first photo shows three miko at the Ikuta Shinto shrine in Kobe, Hyogo, using a masu, a traditional measuring box, to scoop up the beans and put them into the lucky bags. On one side of each is the kanji for kotobuki, which means long life, while the illustration on the side of the masu is of a cute little devil. They put about 120 grams of beans into each bag, making them quarter-pounders, and they filled 3,000 bags, which the shrine sold for JPY 300 (about $US 3.30) apiece. Send in your money to beat the devil!

Some shrines put in certificates for different sorts of gifts. One of them is the Kirishima-jingu in Kirishima, Kagoshima. This year, among the lucky slips were those for 240 bottles of shochu donated by 41 Kagoshima distillers.

The Japanese have no problem at all mixing hooch and holiness, and many Shinto festivals involve the brewing of sacred sake. The Kagoshimanians down south, however, much prefer shochu to sake, so while it’s unusual to offer booze in the bean bags, none of this staggers the imagination, either. The only staggering is done by the shochu drinkers.

The shrine asked the distillers for donations at the end of last year in a transaction that contains an element of the marketplace in addition to the mystical. In return for offering prayers for safety for the distillers, the Kirishima shrine put up labels of their product as PR on the shrine grounds. Each of the distillers ponied up six bottles each, as you can see from the second photo. Starting at 4:00 p.m. today, the priests started tossing about 5,000 beanbags, of which 1,000 contained gift certificates. Among the lucky recipients, 240 are going to get righteously high.

Here’s a setsubun scene from the Kirishima shrine in the past.


The toshi otoko who was the main attraction at the Ikuta shrine in Kobe this year was Hasegawa Hozumi, the current WBC world bantamweight champion. He’s the only Japanese boxer to have defended a world bantamweight title more than four times.

This article on the fighters of the year for 2009 says Hasegawa “might be the best fighter boxing fans haven’t heard of”.

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

Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Getting boared in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 10, 2009

PICK ALMOST ANY TOPIC as a point of departure for exploring Japan, and it’s a near certainty that a fountain-full of serendipitous discoveries will emerge in short order. Even when the topic is boaring!

inoshishi hiroshige

The Japanese have eaten inoshishi (boar) meat, sometimes known as brawn, since ancient times, most often in stews in the winter. But boars are extremely skittish around people, perhaps as an evolutionary response for staying out of boiling cauldrons of water. They usually hightail it for cover as soon as they spot a human, making them difficult to hunt.

The meat of wild animals was considered taboo at times in the past in Japan, though that taboo was often ignored in mountainous areas. The hardy mountaineers kept eating boar meat, which was also known as yamakujira, or mountain whale (not to be confused with mountain oysters), due to a similarity in taste and texture. That’s a yamakujira shop depicted in the Hiroshige print. A Kansai rakugo comic routine called Buying Boar in Ikeda, which dates from 1707, relates the story of a man with gonorrhea who travels with a hunter in search of some wild game. (No, no, not that kind of game!) Izu, Shizuoka, was once the home of the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park, and was enough of an attraction to draw as many as 400,000 visitors in 1985. It was shut down for good last year due to declining interest and the economic turndown.

The Japanese also consider the animal a pest, both in urban and rural areas. Packs of wild boar have been known to roam city streets at night, rooting through garbage and generally being rude and ugly. Farmers dislike them because they trample, root up, and eat crops. In fact, they’ve gotten so boorish in Takeo, Saga, the municipal government established a department this April and assigned it the task of finding ways to reduce the local population.

wild boar sausage

In a classic case of making lemonade when life hands you a lemon, the city employees hit on the idea of making boar meat a special local product and marketing it nationwide. To give local hunters an added incentive to track down the animals and sell the meat, they worked with a local butcher to create food products that can be eaten year-round.

The accompanying photo was taken at a recent event in which sausage and bacon-like products made from 100% boar meat were presented to the public for tasting. The boar for the breakfast table will hit the market later this month, selling for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.25) for a 200-gram package. Lemongrass and spices have been added to the sausage to enhance the taste. The butchers have also developed a lunchmeat product resembling smoked ham, which will sell for JPY 500 yen for 60 grams. They plan to roll out hamburger- and roast ham-like products this fall.

Though the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park no longer exists, those people who can’t live without boar exhibits in their lives might consider a trip to the Go’o Shinto shrine near the geographical center of Kyoto. All Shinto shrines have statues of what are called koma-inu, or guardian dogs. In 1890, the Go’o shrine took the somewhat eccentric step of replacing their statues of guardian dogs with those of boars.

inoshishi jinja

Since most boars are chicken and likely to run in the other direction when they sense a threat, they would not seem to be a logical candidate for selection as the guardian of anything. Ah, but the shrine had its reasons. One of the shrine’s tutelary deities is Wake-no-Kiyomaro, a Japanese government official who lived in the 8th century. He is known for his efforts to separate church (or rather, Buddhist temple) and state. After he became entangled with Imperial succession intrigues and fraudulent oracles at the Usa Shinto shrine, the ruling powers exiled him, had the sinews of his legs cut, and nearly killed him. He was later recalled from exile to serve in government again, and convinced the tenno (emperor) Kammu to build a new capital at Kyoto instead of Nagaoka.

The story goes that he was set upon by assassins as he was limping along the road on his way to exile. He was saved in the nick of time by the sudden appearance of a herd of 300 wild boars. Sometimes the cavalry arrives on something other than horseback!

The Japanese expression chototsumoshin (猪突猛進), the first kanji of which is that for boar, means a headlong rush, and also has the nuance of rashness in action. Now combine that with the boars’ providential rescue of the hobbled Wake-no-Kiyomaro. That was enough to make the shrine a destination for those seeking divine assistance to ensure sound lower limbs, regardless of their current condition. Petitioners include both those in wheelchairs or people who use canes, as well as ekiden runners and soccer players.

Given the ever-fertile Japanese imagination, it was inevitable that someone would put two and two and two together to combine boar cuisine and their straight line foot speed to come up with a new form of entertainment. The folks in Sasayama, Hyogo, have been holding Inoshishi Festivals for several years now in January that draw upwards of 20,000 people. What’s the big attraction? After dining on different dishes featuring wild boar meat, the revelers head for a nearby track to watch the boar races.

wild boar races

But the feast comes first, of course, and several well-known area restaurants set up a special area where they offer original cuisine, including boar meat soup, boar croquettes, and oden. The meals are reportedly so tasty that the diners form lines to enter one shop while eating the offerings of another. The restaurants usually sell out their stock every year.

Then it’s time for the main event, which features wild boars sprinting around an enclosed track. The trotters are given ear-catching names, just as if they were thoroughbreds running the Triple Crown. Can’t you almost hear the track announcer barking out the name of one contestant? “Heading into the far turn, it’s Dekan Showboy by a snout.” The reports don’t mention whether parimutuel betting is allowed.

Now I ask you–where else can you get the chance to spend a day at the races and eat the entrants!

The idea of making lunchmeat out of brawn is not originally Japanese, as a look at this British website will show. They even sell boar meat salami. Note the high protein and low fat content compared to other meats.

Posted in Food, New products, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The DPJ and the pero-guri pol

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 18, 2009

IT SOMETIMES SEEMS as if the only person with the skills required to describe Japanese politics today would have been the novelist Charles Dickens–and sometimes it seems even he wouldn’t have been up to the task.

Tanaka Yasuo

Tanaka Yasuo

For example, spearheading the drive for the devolution of governmental authority are Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, two Dickensian characters who have parleyed their celebrity into a national soapbox to present the case for stronger local governments. The former is an attorney turned television performer, and the latter was a television comedian associated with Beat Takeshi, himself a famous comic and film director under his real name of Kitano Takeshi. The nation’s mass media are happy to give the TV veterans and audience favorites that soapbox, and the pair are just as happy with the chance to perch themselves on top and promote their cause while indulging their inner publicity hounds.

Working in a loose alliance, they’ve had a significant role in shaping the parameters of the national political dialogue this year with a potentially landmark lower house election due next month. But constant media attention and popular support is a dangerous combination that can drive anyone over the top. Over the past month, Mr. Hashimoto might finally have found the adult supervision he needed, while Mr. Higashikokubaru did indeed go over the top, but we’ll save that for later.

Of interest this week was the sudden reemergence of the celebrity governor who foreshadowed nearly a decade ago the appearance of the Dynamic Duo on the national political radar. That would be Tanaka Yasuo, an award-winning and best-selling novelist, governor of Nagano for six turbulent years, and now a national at-large delegate in the upper house of the Diet for his vanity party, New Party Nippon.

Mr. Tanaka has agreed to act as an electoral assassin for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan by running in Hyogo’s 8th district against incumbent Fuyushiba Tetsuzo of New Komeito, who has a Dickensian background of his own. Mr. Fuyushiba began his lower house career as a member of Komeito in 1986, switched to the New Frontier Party in 1994, served as a party official when former DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro led the group, and then switched back to New Komeito when it reorganized in 1998. He later served as New Komeito’s secretary-general, but resigned that post in 2006 to serve for two years as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport.

With his New Frontier Party background, Mr. Fuyushiba might be considered an Ozawan-style conservative, if that concept still has any meaning. Like the DPJ, he supports voting rights in local elections for those people of Korean ancestry born in Japan who choose to retain Korean citizenship. Yet the DPJ, depending on who’s doing the interpreting, is either trying to eliminate New Komeito as a political force because Mr. Ozawa detests them, or making them an offer they can’t refuse to have them defect from the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. But let’s get back to Mr. Tanaka.

The incumbent might seem to be in a strong position. New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. The membership of that group is said to have a relatively high proportion of Japanese-born Korean citizens, as does the population of Hyogo.

Mr. Tanaka might be able to overcome these disadvantages because he is well-known in the area for his hands-on volunteer work during the recovery from the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. He told the Sankei Shimbun that those volunteer activities opened his eyes to the necessity for changing politics and society. He added, “I want to create a type of politics with a close connection to the local residents, and destroy the vested interests of rule by the bureaucracy.” And this is definitely a year for the anti-incumbents.

La vie est belle

La vie est belle

What would Dickens make of him? He wrote a best-selling novel while still a university student, as did the granddaddy of celebrity governors, Ishihara Shintaro—with whom he is engaged in a long-running feud.

After a career as a novelist and critic, and recording one LP as a singer, Mr. Tanaka became involved in community grassroots activities. He spent six months helping the earthquake victims and then campaigned against the construction of the Kobe Airport. He was asked to run as the governor of Nagano, where he lived as a child after his father began teaching at Shinshu University. He originally declined, saying that he thought he could be more effective outside politics, but changed his mind.

Sui generis is the only term to use to describe his politics. He favors stronger local government, but is opposed to municipal mergers, particularly in remote areas. He is an anti-bureaucracy reformer who was blood-in-the-eye-angry over former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization of Japan Post, citing as his reason concerns that the measure would allow foreign interests to purchase it. Though he is known to have a personal relationship to some degree with Ozawa Ichiro, he dislikes both the LDP and the DPJ and calls himself an “ultra-independent”. He dismisses both the major parties as “department stores”, staffed by personnel seconded from business and industry groups in the case of the former, and labor unions in the case of the latter. He is critical of the influence of what he calls the Labor Aristocracy in the DPJ.

Mr. Tanaka also says he combines the best qualities of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, though it isn’t clear if he knows what they actually did, or is attracted to what he perceives as their image. He has somewhat nativist tendencies—the URL for his party’s website includes the string “love-nippon”–and he thinks that Japan should stake out a more independent international position. Yet he is also well-known for his taste in foreign automobiles, particularly Audis and BMWs. He rejects the label anti-American, preferring to refer to himself as a critic of America. (The Japanese expression he uses is the difficult-to-translate 諫米, if anyone wants to take a crack at it.) But he strongly supported Bill Clinton and redoubled that support after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. (We shall see the probable reason for that shortly.)

He ran for governor in Nagano after his predecessor became embroiled in scandals, which parallels Higashikokubaru Hideo’s entry into prefectural politics. He campaigned in opposition to unnecessary public sector projects, most notably a local dam. He was opposed by every political group except the Communist Party, as well as local legislators. But he was one of the few people in the country to understand and act on the hunger of the Japanese electorate for anti-establishment politicians. Assisted by the publicity that a friendly national media provided, he won the election and assumed office in 2000.

The media coverage lavished on his administration very much prefigured that now bestowed on Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Higashikokubaru. At one point his approval ratings were slightly above 90%, outdoing even the other two, whose ratings still languish at the 80% level.

Tanaka Yasuo 3

Mr. Tanaka recently sat for a long interview with the Sankei Shimbun, but his scattered line of thought makes it too difficult to describe concisely what he said, much less translate. Let’s look instead at this interview from four years ago in the Japan Times. It too is scattershot, combining a serious discussion of legitimate issues, grandiose unsupported statements, and more holes than a pound of sliced Swiss cheese. There are too many hard truths to keep it from being useless, but too many flaws that prevent it from being important. Complicating matters is an amateurish interviewer who seems more interested in producing hagiography than bringing to the attention of a non-Japanese audience a man who then was a nationally prominent politician. It all starts with the second sentence.

After converting his private office into a glass-walled room to make his work as transparent as possible…

Excellent PR, isn’t it? “I have nothing to hide.” It also screams, “Hey, everybody, look at me!” The glass substantiated one of the most common criticisms of Tanaka—that he’s nothing more than a publicity hound.

It’s puzzling why a journalist would be making positive references to the glass-walled room at that point in his term. Not long after he became governor, Mr. Tanaka demonstrated his transparency by entertaining a female television personality in this office. They shared a drink together while she sat on his lap. The glass walls made it easy for someone to take their photo and send it to a weekly magazine, which promptly published it. That embarrassed the people of his prefecture, who probably expected him to behave like most politicians and dally somewhere other than his office on his own time. For Mr. Tanaka, however, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Gov. Yasuo Tanaka defiantly declared “No More Dams” in a direct counter to the local economy’s heavy reliance on public works projects at the expense of ecological concerns. He also abolished the traditional, self-serving press club system in his prefecture.

Here we give the man credit where credit is due—Japan could use more governors (and prime ministers) who pursue the same policies, even when the ecology isn’t a consideration. He brings up other worthwhile points in the interview.

Besides tackling local politics, the flamboyant 49-year-old devotes his time to writing columns for magazines and criticizing and analyzing national and local politics on radio and television programs. He is also a well-known restaurant critic….When he was still a student at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 1980, he received the prestigeous Bungei Award for his novel “Nantonaku Kurisutaru (Somewhat Like Crystal).”

But he hasn’t written a worthwhile novel since then. He has, however, written a regular column for a magazine called The Pero-Guri Diaries. Here’s how Time Magazine explained it a few years ago:

“To understand Yasuo Tanaka, you need a piece of slang you won’t find in any Japanese-English dictionary. Pero-guri is a phrase Tanaka coined himself to describe the sexual act. More specifically, his sexual acts. It’s an onomatopoeic word, the pero coming from the slang pero-pero, which means to lick. The guri comes from guri-guri, which means to grind….Tanaka is Governor of Japan’s mountainous Nagano prefecture, west of Tokyo, but he’s also a writer, specializing in autobiographical pero-guri tales, which reveal a predilection for flight attendants, married women and fine champagne.

“‘Appointment with Mrs. U. Nap at Park Hyatt. The entire floor must have heard us. Midnight. She goes home to her husband… Dom Perignon at Roppongi’s Kingyo. Head to Chianti at Iikura for an espresso chaser but end up on the roof of the adjacent building, pero-pero guri-guri with the Tokyo Tower in the back. Her screaming fills the air. Pull out moist wipes from the bag and clean up.’”

Once upon a time, they used to say a gentleman never tells…And leave it to the Japan Times to fail to mention any of this in the interview.

After graduation, Tanaka at first joined the oil giant Mobil, only to leave three months later to pursue his career as a writer.

Tanaka also got married soon after joining Mobil, but got divorced 11 months later to pursue his career as a pero-guri writer.

…in 2002, conservative assemblymen who were upset by Tanaka’s challenge to tradition and decades of pork-barrel politics passed a no-confidence vote against him, and forced him from office.

Yes, they were upset by his challenge to pork-barrel politics…and creating undesirable attention for Nagano Prefecture by drinking in his glass-walled office with celebrities on his lap, his pero-guri tales, and endless self-promotion.

In the ensuing gubernatorial election, however, Tanaka made a successful comeback, thanks to overwhelming popular support.

Showing once again how desperately the Japanese voting public craves a reformer.

Then…he expanded his curriculum vitae yet again when he became leader of New Party Nippon, a new political party founded to challenge Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Sept. 11 general election.

His party mates are strange bedfellows for a reformer—in addition to Mr. Tanaka, the other four members of his party all voted against Mr. Koizumi’s reforms in the Diet. In other words, they are anti-reformers who support the status quo of tradition and pork barrel politics.

At least the other members ran for the Diet, but Mr. Tanaka didn’t. He just went around the country giving interviews about his new party, leaving the citizens of Nagano to shift for themselves in his absence.

Though (the party) is small…

So small, in fact, that they had to “borrow” one member from another party of anti-reformers to meet the minimum requirements for selection in the proportional representation phase of the election.

Tanaka hopes his fledgling party will make a difference in Japan by encouraging people to think twice about Koizumi’s ongoing reform drives, which he believes fall far short of being true reforms.

Though his interview strangely lacks any concrete suggestions for reform.

On to the content:

Many young Japanese can only define themselves by naming the company they work for or the designer brand they wear. Our society is filled with people who can’t objectively describe themselves without the help of company names or brand products.

If I were Mr. Tanaka, I wouldn’t be so quick to complain about people incapable of objectively describing themselves.

Just as I described in my book, Japan is an affluent society with an abundance of material goods, where people have no need to worry about food or clothes. But who can be proud of, or be happy about, being a member of this society?

The basic needs of human beings are food, clothing, and shelter. Despite admitting that Japan is remarkably successful in providing the basics that so many other countries lack and offering an abundance of pero-guri opportunities, Mr. Tanaka thinks this is nothing to be proud of or happy about.

Japan’s debts have increased by 170 trillion yen since [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi took office four years ago. What’s more, 100 people take their own lives each day.

That’s called a non sequitor. He might be able to do something about the first, but he’ll never be able to do anything about the second.

The interviewer, Sayuri Daimon, pipes up:

How can we reform this sick society?

Before you can call it a sick society, Sayuri, you have to show us some of the symptoms. Too much food, shelter, clothing, and pero-guri? Plenty of countries are just waiting to come down with that disease. But if the problem is pork-barrel politics, why is Japan being singled out for an illness that is endemic over the globe?

Back to the governor:

In my case, if someone gives me a hard time, I write or speak publicly about it. So I think people decided not to give me a hard time.

Was that before or after you were removed from office in a no-confidence vote?

What do you think about Koizumi’s postal reform drive?

Answer 1
Where would the money in the postal savings and postal life insurance go once they were privatized?

Uh, nowhere?

Answer 2:

What happens if a foreign company takes control of the privatized postal savings company and the postal insurance company?

Is his alliance with the anti-reformers beginning to make more sense now?

I think politics should be about what politicians actually say. For example, South American countries may have some political turmoil, but the debates in their parliaments are like an art formed by the politicians’ speeches.

Yes, Japan could learn a lot about parliamentary democracy from the politically stable and economically thriving South American countries.

…in other non-English-speaking countries, such as Thailand, there are foreign-language media that enjoy a leading position in those countries. But in Japan, unless something is reported in Japanese-language newspapers or it appears on Japanese TV, it does not become “evidence” to be taken seriously.

If the foreign-language media in Thailand have a leading position, what does that say about the indigenous media? And how can media that the Thai people—or Japanese people–can’t understand have a leading position?

My current girlfriend doesn’t seem to want to get married.

No surprise there.


Are you going to run for another term as governor?


I will do what the Nagano people want me to do. I want to listen to what people in Nagano say, whether they say I should stay or leave office.

The people of Nagano were already speaking, but he wasn’t listening. As of the date of that interview, Mr. Tanaka had the lowest approval ranking of any Japanese governor. (35% unqualified approval, 40% unqualified disapproval; when combined with those who approve somewhat, his approval rating exceeded 50%)

In fact, he was defeated for reelection the following year in 2006. He began his term as a media favorite, but his stance against the kisha club system that allows major media outlets to monopolize information put the kibosh on that. (More than politics and government needs reforming in Japan.) He certainly didn’t help himself with the prefecture’s voters by neglecting local affairs to start his own political party and get involved in a national campaign. And what can you say about the lack of common sense demonstrated by his failure to escort a female companion to a private spot for a tête-à-tête rather than share a drink with her in his glass-walled office on government property?

Nevertheless, to his credit, he did succeed in producing budget surpluses seven years running and slashing the amount of money required to win bids on local public works projects by making bidding practices more transparent.

Now imagine what will happen if he wins the Hyogo seat and joins an alliance with a government led by the DPJ, whose membership ranges from Nanking Massacre deniers to de facto Socialists looking for a piece of the action instead of holding meetings in coffee shops with the rest of the faux Social Democrats. Team them up with the corrupt petty baron Suzuki Muneo, the paleos of the People’s New Party, and the Social Democrats themselves, and circus will not be the word to describe what ensues.

But even Charles Dickens could not find the words for that.


Japan’s lax residency requirements for running in an election, which allow Mr. Tanaka to parachute into Hyogo at the last minute (though Ozawa Ichiro claims the decision was made a long time ago) are more conducive to political maneuvering in the back rooms of upscale Tokyo restaurants than they are to serving the people of a particular area.

The longer I’m in Japan, the more I’m convinced that the political class remains stuck in the Warring States Period:

(F)or all practical purposes, Japan by 1467 was in fact 260 separate countries, for each daimyo was independent and maintained separate armies. The political and territorial picture in Japan, then, was highly volatile. With no powerful central administration to adjudicate disputes, individual daimyo were frequently in armed conflict with other daimyo all through the Ashikaga period.

The only way this ends is if the electorate reminds these people just who serves whom and makes them unemployed every time they get the chance to vote.

Posted in Books, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Matsuri da! (107): Burning the old biddy

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 28, 2009

MANY JAPANESE FESTIVALS are held to pray for a bountiful harvest, but the parishioners of the Junisho Shinto shrine of Toyo’oka in Hyogo have an unusual way of going about it—they burn a straw effigy of an old woman. Scoff if you must, but there must be something to be said for its effectiveness. They’ve been doing it for almost 800 years now.


But let’s start at the beginning, even though Japanese history is such a continuum that it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint either the beginning or the end. For the purposes of the story, however, let’s point the pin at the Gotoba Tenno (emperor), number 82 in line if you’re counting. His name is also written Go-Toba.

He ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne at the age of three and reigned until the age of 18, when he was forced to abdicate by the first of the Kamakura shoguns. But he was a persistent man, and he placed his two sons on the throne to succeed him, first Tsuchimikado and then Juntoku. But the Kamakura shogun was just as persistent, and he kicked both of them out too.

Tsuchimikado and Juntoku had different mothers, incidentally, neither of whom was the official empress. In fact, Gotoba supposedly had 18 children by 11 different women, mostly court ladies, though some were the daughters of priests, some were dancing girls, some were probably both, and several were of the Fujiwara family, who frequently became the wives or consorts of tenno in those days. Both the official empress Gishumon-in and Juntoku’s mother were Fujiwaras, but Gishumon-in gave birth to only one daughter, who never married. The daughter eventually became Juntoku’s adoptive mother, which sounds as if there’s plenty more story where that came from, but it’s time to get back on the main line here.

So while Gotoba lived a life of wealth and leisure in a palace, dallying with the court ladies and writing waka, he understandably nursed a grudge. Meanwhile, the murder of the third Kamakura shogun, Minamoto no Sanetomo, created turmoil in the realm. The last straw, so to speak, came when the new Kamakura powers put Juntoku’s son (Gotoba’s grandson) on the throne, the Chukyo Tenno, who was just two years old at the time. (His reign lasted only a few months, and he wasn’t recognized as being part of the official lineage until 1870, but it’s time to get back on the main line again.)

Gotoba decided that was more than enough for any man to put up with, even a poet with a harem, so he mounted a military campaign to restore authority to the Kyoto court. The campaign became known as the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221. The widow of the murdered shogun convinced most of the Kansai samurai that they would lose their special status if there was a regime change, however, so they fought on the shogunate’s side and won.

Instead of lopping off Gotoba’s head, they exiled him to Tajima in the Oki Islands, which are part of Shimane (as are the islets of Takeshima, but there I go again). In his post-Imperial career on the islands, Gotoba became devoted to waka poetry. He ordered the compilation of the Shin Kokinshu (The New Anthology of Ancient and Modern Waka), one of three major waka anthologies with the Manyoshu and the Kokin Wakashu, and served as an editor. He also became a well-known waka critic.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the Shogunate exiled his fourth son, Masanari (who had the same mother as Juntoku), to this elegant life of exile, most likely to prevent any more so-called disturbances. Masanari’s wife was pregnant at the time and didn’t follow him until after their child was born. It was a difficult childbirth, however, and she made the trip in poor physical condition. Along the way, she asked an old woman for directions–who sent her down the wrong road on purpose.

It took the poor woman so far out of her way—to Toyo’oka, in fact—that she lost hope of ever reaching her destination and threw herself into the Maruyama River and drowned.

And that’s how the festival started: twelve nearby Shinto shrines gave comfort to her spirit by burning the old woman in effigy on the banks of the Maruyama, a custom that continues to the present. They make a tower of straw and bamboo, erect a pine tree on top, tie a straw doll to the tree to represent the woman, and torch it.

The festival is officially known as the Oto Matsuri, but it’s popularly called the Babayaki Matsuri, and if you can think of a better translation than the Festival for Burning the Old Biddy, I’m all ears.

Ah, one last part. The matsuri is not just to pray for a good harvest—it’s also to drive away harmful insects! If you want to bring some matches to help and to have fantasies about your mother-in-law, the festival is held in mid-April.

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

Shogatsu 2009: Lighting up traditional Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 4, 2009

AT LEAST ONCE IN THEIR LIVES, usually in early adolescence, Americans make a point to stay up to midnight on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball of light slide down the tower above Times Square in New York City to herald the start of the new year. My niece even went there to see it in person a couple of years ago and still lived to tell the tale.

Never ones to be shy about borrowing an idea that strikes their fancy, the Japanese turn the night sky’s darkness into daylight throughout the country on 31 December. Many venues offer a special countdown coupled with entertainment and charge an admission fee. One of them is Mitsui Greenland, an amusement park a couple of hours down the road here in Kyushu.

More interesting than the ersatz events at amusement parks, however, is the way in which the Japanese have adapted the concept and retrofitted it to more traditional settings, such as Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.


For example, the Shinto priests in charge of the Himeji Gokoku shrine in Kobe, Hyogo, don’t light up a single ball—they light up 2,000 chochin, or traditional lanterns, on the shrine grounds. The first photo shows the chochin lit up earlier this week during a trial to see if any of the bulbs had burned out. Inspecting the fixtures seems to be another part of the miko‘s job description. If you were lucky enough to be there at midnight on 31 December, you would have gotten to see the real thing.

The event is called the Mantosai, which literally means The Festival of 10,000 Lights. Before you start wondering about truth in advertising, keep in mind that it’s not supposed to be taken literally. In China and Korea as well as Japan, the number 10,000 has long been used to mean “a very large amount” rather than 10,000 in round numbers.

The shrine says they offer the ceremony in the hope of a “bright” new year. Explained the chief priest, “This year has been filled with “dark” events, including the financial crisis, but we want to raise a light at the New Year in the hope that people will be reminded of the beautiful Japanese virtue of treasuring a richness of spirit.”


Another Shinto shrine took the opportunity to use the lighting to promote one of its most recognizable assets. The Kumano Hongu shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, light up their immense torii on the former shrine grounds at Oyu-no-hara from 31 December to 7 January. The second photo shows the dress rehearsal on 27 December, in which 13 spotlights placed around the torii were turned on at 5:00 p.m., just when it starts to get dark in these midwinter days.

The torii is 34 meters (111.55 feet) high and 42 meters wide at the maximum point, so it must surely be an impressive sight bathed in floodlights in the middle of a pitch black field. They purposely used a red light for the yatagarasu crest in the middle of the torii to set it off from the overall blue hue. That’s a mythical sacred magpie with three legs that was reputed to lead people to the proper path in life. Lit up like that, it’s almost as if there’s a neon arrow pointing to the Promised Land and flashing the message, Step Right This Way!

On New Year’s Eve, or o-misoka as they say in Japan, it was lit from 6:00 p.m. to 5 a.m., but for the rest of the week visitors will have to make do with just three hours from 6-9 p.m. (By the way, try this link for a previous post about the Yata Fire Festival at the same location. They use a nice lighting scheme for that event, too.)


Even more spiritually distant from the Times Square fleshpots is the ecumenical spirit of a group in Setochi, Okayama, which provides illlumination to more than one religious institution on Mt. Kamitera. The group was organized to preserve the joint Buddhist and Shinto culture that survives on the mountain, so they made sure to shine a light on both the main building of the Yokei-ji Buddhist temple and pagoda as well as the Toyohara Kitashima shrine. They used 150 lights for the temple, which is a nationally designated important cultural treasure, as well as the shrine and torii. The group gave visitors a taste of the brightness to come when they switched on the lights from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the 30th, but then they went the whole Hogmanay on the 31st by letting them burn from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. the next morning. For an extra decorative touch, they also placed candles and lanterns along the pathways.

And while you’re still recovering from having stuffed yourself with o-sechi ryori, pickled herring, black-eyed peas, or whatever other special foods custom dictates be scarfed down during the season, you can get clicky with some blasts from the past presenting other aspects of the Japanese New Year.

Here’s a look at the Big Shimenawa in Hiroshima.

What else is there to eat? Well, there’s mochi. And soba. And even whale and shark, for the more discriminating palates.

The Japanese also deck the halls with boughs of pine trees, and all sorts of other things.

And to conclude, the New Year’s firsts shall come last!

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