Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Iwate’

All you have to do is look (94)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 1, 2012

Jodogahama, the name for this part of the coast in Miyako, Iwate.

Photo from the Sankei Shimbun

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All you have to do is look (79)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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

More on namahage here. Photo from the Sankei Shimbun.


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All you have to do is look (58)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 24, 2012

Airdome lettuce in Rikuzentakata, Iwate, which was severely damaged in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Photo from the Sankei Shimbun.

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All you have to do is look (45)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Hanamaki Festival held last weekend in Hanamaki, Iwate, with 12 ornate floats. One of them appeared for the first time in 20 years to commemorate Hanamaki’s 400 years as a municipality. The children’s float is above. Here’s one video.

And another, with the shishi odori, or deer dance.

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All you have to do is look (33)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 30, 2012

Twenty-seven second-year students from Yonesaki Junior High School in Rikuzentakata, Iwate, try their hands at recovering oysters raised at a local fishing port.

Photo from the Tokai Shimpo

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The voice of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 28, 2012

THE Tokai Shimpo is a local newspaper serving three small cities on the Pacific Coast of Iwate. They do not offer national or international news on their simple website. It is so simple that their editorial section is labeled “Columns”, and the columns are not given individual links. Readers just scroll from one to the next.

On Friday 25 August they published a column on the current problems with South Korea. By Monday people were discussing it on large national news websites. For a short piece in an obscure publication to have attracted such attention so rapidly suggests that many people have recognized that somebody has said what they would like to say themselves. In that sense, it is the voice of Japan.

Here it is in English.


The Japanese dislike debate, and negotiation is not our forte, so we tend to resolve problems that arise unexpectedly with soothing, vague words. But we have a history, both as a nation and as individuals, of others repeatedly perceiving that as weakness and taking advantage of us. The overbearing attitude of our neighbor, South Korea, is an extension of that.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was thought to have a friendly attitude toward Japan, if only because he had lived here. But recently, he has ostentatiously visited Takeshima and sought an apology from the Emperor. This abrupt change has surprised Japan.

While these acts are said to be a means to recover his fading popularity, it is clear, both from an international perspective and the perspective of common sense, that this behavior lacks thoughtfulness and foresight. Japan’s stance for both Takeshima and the comfort woman issue has been to ask them to present the basis for their claims. But failing to respond and demanding that we do as they say without discussion is not persuasive.

By any reckoning, returning Prime Minister Noda’s letter unread, and then antagonistically sending it by mail when Japan refused to accept its return, is not the response of an adult. This behavior in full view of everyone is likely to diminish their presence. Why do they not devote serious reflection to the negative consequences that will result from the locking of horns of close neighbors?

It is advisable to refrain from a high-handed attitude when one perceives the other party as weak. Though some might say Japan has become enervated, they will have to deal with the consequences that result from behaving so intemperately.

Some in the media are repeating the clichéd advice that we should behave calmly, but they might give some thought to that. The one we want to behave calmly is our neighbor.

Posted in International relations, Mass media, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

All you have to do is look (16)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 13, 2012

The Sansa Odori Festival in Morioka

(Photo from the Morioka Times)

Posted in Festivals, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (130): Wishes, thanks, and fights

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2012

ONE of the elegant customs of a Japanese summer is the Tanabata festivals, which are held throughout the country on the 7th. The custom originated as a combination of Chinese and Japanese traditions. An ancient Chinese legend had it that the Weaver Star (Vega) and the Cowherd Star (Altair) were celestial lovers who could meet but once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. This became merged with a Japanese legend about the celestial weaving maiden Tanabatatsume, who made clothing for the gods. The festival was once upon a time observed by the Imperial Court.

Most of the modern Tanabata festivals include a display of bamboo branches hung with strips of colored paper and other ornaments. People write their wishes or romantic requests on the paper before hanging them on the bamboo. These branches are displayed in many places, including municipal offices or medical clinics.

But some of the festivals can be extravagant civic presentations. One was held in Sendai, the unofficial Tohoku capital, on Monday. In a region still recovering from the 11 March 2011 disaster, the theme of this year’s festival was wishes, hopes, and thanks. About two million people showed up, many of whom wrote and hung their wishes on 3,000 bamboo poles at 40 locations throughout the city. Here’s what part of it looked like.

The city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate has a similar festival, but theirs is smaller. One reason is that it’s not as big as Sendai. Another is that much of the city was washed away in last year’s tsunami, including some of the floats. And finally, staging the festival required that they work around the debris that hasn’t been incinerated or otherwise disposed.

But there’s more to the story. With a Japanese festival, there’s always more to the story.

In addition to the decorative float parade, they have what’s called the Kenka Tanabata, or Fighting Tanabata. The primary attraction at many matsuri is physical competition. Some involve teams, with mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines) or floats used as part of the weaponry. The participants are dead serious and play to win. The original idea is that the divinities will have favored the winning team, whose neighborhood or group will then enjoy good fortune, good health, a good crop, or a good catch of fish in the coming year. That doesn’t seem to have been the original idea in Rikuzentakata, however.

The city had four fighting floats that were elaborately decorated behemoths. Two platform levels were built on the base of the four-ton bruisers, and children played flutes and taiko drums on one level during the parades. Sometime around 900 years ago, give or take a decade, the four main districts in the city built one each, and teams from each district pulled them on ropes through the city as part of the festivities.

But the floats were too large to pass each other side by side in the narrow city streets. So they did what comes naturally — they started having contests in which the two teams would ram their floats into each other. The team that tipped the front wheels of the other float into the air was the winner. As is often the custom with Japanese festivals, onlookers are free to join the fray spontaneously on the side of the team representing their neighborhood, or for any other reason they come up with in the excitement or the intoxication of the moment.

Last year, however, the tsunami washed away three of the four floats. The Rikuzentakatans had to console themselves with pulling the last remaining one through town with ropes. Tanabata in the city last year must have been a real drag.

This year, however, contributions from around the country enabled them to build a new float, which meant they could resume their 900-year-old tradition, demonstrate their civic pride, and celebrate their recovery by smashing into each other again!

Earlier this week, my RSS feed regurgitated another article from another journo pretender parading the phoney anthropomorphism of a weakened Japan slinking off the world’s stage. The gudgeon couldn’t even spit it out of his own cybermouth, but took the weasel path of passive-aggressive punditry by telling his unfortunate consumers that it was the observation of other people. You know the type. “Just sayin’.”

But ain’t nobody slinkin’ off nowhere in this country that I can see. At that same time that article appeared, the residents of a city that was almost flooded off the map were back parading among the rubble and float smashing with some help from the rest of the country.

Now, I could be wrong about the innate national resiliency (and really, the innate resiliency of all people everywhere).

But I don’t think so!

The climax of the Kenka Tanabata is staged at night and the floats are illuminated, but here’s a brief scene of what it looked like in the daytime a few years ago. It takes a few seconds for the sound to kick in.

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A year of smiles

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 3, 2012

IT is not possible to have too many pictures of miko!

This photo shows Obama Hiroko on the left and Goto Asuka on the right, third-year classmates at the Ofunato Higashi High School in Ofunato, Iwate.

Iwate was one of the three prefectures hardest-hit by the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami. Ms. Obama and her family lost their home and are staying with relatives. She decided to become a miko shrine maiden for the New Year holidays as a lesson in the study of society, and as a memory of her high school days.

Ms. Goto said:

There was a lot of sad news last year, so I hope we can smile this year.

The sign they’re holding says, “A Year of Smiles”.

I can’t think of a better New Year’s resolution. Can you?

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Nippon Noel 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 25, 2011

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 11, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Government, Mass media | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Who’s sorry now?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 5, 2011

HAS THERE ever been a sorrier crew to steer the ship of state than the Kan Cabinet? Besides the Hatoyama Cabinet, I mean.

The Master of Wit and Repartee

Democratic Party Secretary-General Okada Katsuya has now been reduced to apologizing to the opposition for the behavior of Prime Minister Kan Naoto. Mr. Okada understands that’s a thankless task. He’s already said in public that Mr. Kan is “the most difficult man” he’s ever worked with.

He met yesterday with Ishihara Nobuteru and Inoue Yoshihisa, his counterparts in the LDP and New Komeito, and the Diet Affairs chairmen of all three parties. He told them he was sorry that the prime minister picked Hamada Kazuyuki, an obscure LDP upper house member, to serve as the internal affairs parliamentary secretary in charge of reconstruction. We’ve seen this several times before: It’s the sort of move Mr. Kan thinks is clever, but exasperates everyone else, including his own party.

Mr. Okada asked for their cooperation to resume normal debate in the Diet:

“It is regrettable that (this appointment) severely impaired the relationship of trust. I apologize from my heart.”

Specifically, he hopes to win their cooperation for passing the three bills Kan Naoto cites as his condition for resigning. Could it be that the prime minister has devised a new strategy for dealing with the legislature? Behave so obnoxiously the opposition will give you what you want just to be rid of you.

Speaking of the sorry and the obnoxious, Matsumoto Ryu, the recently appointed minister in charge of rebuilding the Tohoku region, visited the governors of Iwate and Miyagi on Sunday. In a post that same day, I described him as follows:

“…Matsumoto Ryu, a limousine leftist who has never demonstrated the ability to manage a shaved ice stand, much less a national effort that will require the coordination of several Cabinet ministries and the cooperation of the opposition.”

How’s that for cautious understatement? Mr. Matsumoto was unable to get off on the good foot with the governors because he stuck both of them in his mouth. At the same time. As far as they would go.

All that shoe leather must have made enunciation difficult, but everyone understood what he said to Iwate Gov. Tasso Takuya:

“Temporary housing is your job, and we will conceptualize the sort-of permanent housing to follow, so this will be a battle of wits. What sort of wisdom can you provide? We’ll help those who offer their wisdom, but we won’t help the ones who don’t offer any at all. That’s the sort of emotion you should have. That’s why I’m saying to you, don’t tell us you want this and that. Give us your wisdom.”

Nothing like that old “We’re all in this together” spirit to engender a sense of shared sacrifice and effort to recover from a national disaster, is there?

Mr. Matsumoto is also quite the charmer:

“I’m from Kyushu, so I don’t know what Tohoku city is in which prefecture.”

If someone were of a mind to make excuses for the DPJ, he might suggest that Mr. Matsumoto intended to tell a joke at his own expense to make the inakappei feel at ease in the presence of one of the Big Enchiladas from the national government. That would have to be someone from overseas making the excuses, however. Most of the Japanese have stopped trying.

You’ve heard of people with a tin ear? This guy’s got a tin tongue.

During his eventful Sunday, Mr. Matsumoto also called on Miyagi Gov. Murai Yoshihiro. Scenes of the meeting were broadcast on local television. The ratings must have been stunning. Here’s how the newscaster explained the footage to the viewers:

“You could sense a change in (Matsumoto’s) mood when Gov. Murai did not (immediately) come out to meet him. The governor emerged a few minutes later with a smile on his face, and offered to shake hands, but (Matsumoto) refused. There was tension in the room.”

Of course there was tension. Mr. Murai from the sticks made The Very Important Man From Tokyo wait for a few minutes. Before they started discussing other matters — such as the Tohoku cleanup — Mr. Matsumoto felt compelled to deliver a lecture on behavior:

“When a guest visits, you should call for them after you’re in the room. You were in the Self-Defense Forces, so you should already know this. Behave properly without being told. (To the media) This part is off the record. It will be the end for any company that prints this.” (書いた社はこれで終わりだから)

By the end, he presumably meant the end of access to him. At least I hope that’s what he meant.

His discussion of policy was just as enlightening and entertaining in Miyagi as it was in Iwate:

“You can take advantage of our kindness to the extent that it’s acceptable. We’ll be dumping off on you anything we can.”

On the idea in Miyagi to consolidate coastal fishing ports:

“Properly consolidate your ideas in the prefecture. If you don’t, we won’t do anything.”

After the meeting, he explained to the media the reason for his lesson in etiquette to the governor:

“After I was called and entered, he didn’t arrive for three or four minutes. In Kyushu, when a guest arrives, the host is already there. Whether it’s a matter of discourtesy (or not), one should have a clear understanding that the younger should give preference to the elder.”

The hicks in Miyagi weren’t impressed. The next day, the party caucuses in the Miyagi prefectural assembly held a conference. Shortly thereafter, the assembly passed a resolution formally complaining to the government about the minister’s behavior:

“Those statements applied a great deal of pressure, and he lacks the awareness (required of) someone in his position.”

They also reminded the government that they were not in a master-subordinate relationship with them.

But the minister didn’t understand what the fuss was about. He was asked at a news conference yesterday if he thought his behavior was a problem:

“I don’t think it was a problem. Look at the entire conversation from the time I sat down until the time it was over.”

At the same meeting during which Okada Katsuya apologized to the opposition for Mr. Kan’s Cabinet appointment (no, that was a different guy, remember), the opposition told Mr. Okada that they found Mr. Matsumoto’s behavior unacceptable. The DPJ secretary-general replied:

“I will caution Mr. Matsumoto, and also inform Prime Minister Kan.”

The media also asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio what he thought. He didn’t want any part of an answer:

“Mr. Matsumoto is working with a strong sense of responsibility and mission. It is not for me to confirm what he really meant.”

In other words, ask his boss, and that ain’t me.

They finally did ask his boss, of course, and that was the sorriest part of the entire episode. One reporter brought up the subject of Mr. Matsumoto with the prime minister at a news conference. Mr. Kan ignored the question.

This morning Matsumoto Ryu resigned after nine days on the job. It wasn’t because he realized he had done anything wrong, mind you. He merely said that his comments might cause difficulties in Diet negotiations.

When the Diet agreed to extend their session by 70 instead of 50 days, Mr. Kan excitedly told his aides that anything could happen in that time.

He was right.


Gov. Murai tried to be graceful about part of the situation. He said he thought the “off-record” comment was a joke. It might have been, but not in the sense that Mr. Murai meant it.

Jean Knight still understands BS when she sees it:

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Posted in Government, I couldn't make this up if I tried | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

What to do with the gods

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope his prayers are answered.

Naraha Hachiman Shrine

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Posted in Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Whale of a good time

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 9, 2011

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

WE’VE ALL seen websites and blogs where people upload photos of food they cook at home or eat at a restaurant. I’ve never done that before — it never looks as appetizing as the bloggers think — but let’s give it a try and see what happens. For example:

Whale chirashizushi!

Whale nikujaga! (stewed meat, potatoes, and onion)

Deep-fried whale skewers!

Whale stewed in citron juice!

Whale tongue stew!

Smoked whale hors d’œuvre! (Meat and hide)

And this unidentified lip-smacker!

Or this!

And this one too!

Some dietary ideologues would never be happy unless they were unhappy that somebody somewhere might be enjoying these dishes, none of which I’ve eaten but all of which I’d try. I’ve always liked the whale I’ve been served, including the meals my wife cooked with whale as the main ingredient.

Some other ideologues wouldn’t be happy unless they were unhappy about those barbaric Japanese butchers cleavering away at the sacred cows of the sea.

Their bad. Those photos come not from Japan, but from Ulsan, South Korea, where the local whale festival was held at the end of May. An annual event more than 10 years old, the festival runs for three or four days and attracts upwards of 250,000 people. (See this previous post on the festival for more information.) The Ulsanians developed a taste for whale during the colonial days, which will make another group of ideologues happy by reminding them of the unhappy days before they were born, but — who cares!

The theme of this year’s festival was a whale cuisine exchange with Kumamoto in Kyushu, with which Ulsan has long had ties. The Japanese were happy to attend.

The woman at right is from Nagasaki, the woman in the center is from Kumamoto, and the two women at left are chums from Hokkaido, whale-chomping centers all. The woman dressed in the traditional chima chogori operates one of Ulsan’s 20 whale restaurants. (It’s not possible to give an accurate rendition of her name because it appeared only as Shin in katakana in Japanese.) In addition to her crimes against humanity by serving cannibal fare, she was also the food coordinator for the internationally successful South Korean television show Daejangeum, known in English as “Jewel in the Palace”. Here’s a summary of the program from the show’s website:

“The miniseries…is based on the story of a real historical figure (Jang-geum) who was the first and only woman to serve as head physician to the King in the rigidly hierarchical and male-dominated social structure of the Joseon Dynasty. Daejanggeum, in English, ‘the Great Jang-geum,’ caught the attention of Korean TV viewers with its unique combination of two themes: the successful rise of a female, which is rarely covered in historical genre, and the elements of traditional food and medicine.”

The series was very successful on cable in Japan, and it has been rebroadcast several times. One of the spin-offs was a cookbook featuring the dishes presented on the program, which the woman in the photo surely had a key role in compiling. The cookbook was also sold in Japan, though it probably contained no whale dishes.

Maybe it should have. The theme of the show was traditional food and medicine, and the red meat of the whale contains the dipeptide balenine, which some athletes now take in supplement form because it improves blood flow and restores resiliency to muscle after workouts.

The Ulsan — Kumamoto connection dates back to the late 16th century when Kato Kiyomasa, the first daimyo of the Kumamoto domain in Higonokuni, participated in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula. Kato built a castle in Ulsan (of which a few foundation stones remain) that became the model for the Kumamoto Castle, which he also built. The latter structure was finished in 1607, but most of it was torn down during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. It has since been restored and is now a major tourist site.

Some workers from Ulsan helped build the Kumamoto version, and legend has it that the view from the hill on the southwest side of the castle reminded them of home. That’s how the district they spied later became known as Urusan-machi. The area is now part of Shin-machi after a municipal reorganization, but the Urusanmachi name survives as one of the Kumamoto City trolley stops:

Meanwhile, action on the Festivus Balaena front will shift to Japan later this summer, as the folks at the Sumiyoshi Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Sakai, Osaka, decided to revive their own whale festival. Both the facility and the event are as old as the hills, or perhaps in this case, as old as the waves. The shrine is celebrating its 1,800th anniversary this year, and it was already a millennium old when they began holding the whale festival, which dates from sometime in the Kamakura period. That ended in 1333.

The event has been held only sporadically since the Meiji Era (which began in 1868). Once upon a time, it was offered every 20 to 30 years. That’s unusual for Japanese festivals, most of which are annual affairs. This year’s revival, however, will be the first in 57 years. It is held in supplication for sea safety, and originated in a dance to placate the unhappy fisherman who came home empty-handed on whale-hunting expeditions. The Osakans thought it would be an excellent idea to bring it back as a way to help calm the waters after so many people died in the Tohoku tsunami this year. One of the advantages of such a long national history is that when something new is called for, it’s always possible to dive into the past and retrieve something old that most people didn’t know existed.

It’s been so long since the last time, however, that most everyone forgot how to do it. The Sakai municipal government worked with local historians to study photos and jog the memories of festival vets who were around during the last big blow in 1954. The main attraction is a 27-meter-long bamboo and cloth whale float, which is roomy enough for people inside to open and close the beast’s mouth, move its tail, and spurt water. Meanwhile, people alongside will chant the whale chant and dance the whale dance. Megafauna fans in Sakai will get to see all this on 24 July if they visit the shrine, and on 1 August when the leviathan is paraded from the shrine to the city.

Said one historian:

“I’m glad they’re bringing it back. Several generations now don’t know about the festival, but I want them to enjoy the vitality and spirit of fishermen of old.”

And while we’re on the subject of of big game hunting, some of the pretend buccaneer/junior ideologues of Sea Shepherd are in Japan to do what they do best — irritate the hell out of normal people — by traveling to Iwate to take photos of the dolphin hunt. Iwate’s local catch accounts for more than half of Japan’s dolphin and whale industry by tonnage. It is also one of the three prefectures most seriously damaged by March’s earthquake/tsunami. The Mainichi Daily News explains what happened:

“Earlier this month, the members took pictures of a fish market devastated by the disaster as well as fishing boats and posted the photos on the group’s website, triggering anger among some local fishermen over their return to the town.

“A local fisherman said, ‘Dolphin hunting is not done in May. Many boats were swept away due to the quake and tsunami, and the fish market is also in a terrible condition. There is nothing left to take pictures of.’”

We shouldn’t be too harsh on the swabbies — you know they’re determined not to be happy unless they can be really unhappy about whaling or dolphining. If they had something productive to do with their lives, they’d already be doing it. After all, it takes more than a few degrees of eccentric warp to think one is doing the world a favor by getting in the way while the people who suffered one of history’s greatest natural disasters are trying to rebuild their lives and homes.

If it’s pictures they want, I can’t help them with dolphins, but I could send them the link to the Japanese site promoting whale cuisine where I swiped the photos above. All they have to do is ask.


It was entertaining to re-read the comments on my old post to which I linked above. It’s curious how some people aren’t happy unless they aren’t happy that other people are happy about living in Japan.

The Sea Shepherd recruiting song

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Posted in Festivals, Food, Foreigners in Japan, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | 45 Comments »

Matsuri da! (115): Rebirth

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 29, 2011

LIFESTYLE Luddites sporadically surface with the lament that globalization is holding a knife to the throat of indigenous cultures. Because cultures are less fragile and more resilient than they understand, however, this posture is really just a stalking horse for an unwillingness to allow the people of a particular place access to the same choices that globalization has allowed them. When the folk shed their colorful traditional garb for Western dress and develop a taste for musical styles other than those that rocked the world of their grandparents, it spoils the experience of enjoying them from afar, away from all the flies and the dysentery.

A look at the Japanese and their simultaneous embrace of their own traditions and the latest in global fashionability should be enough to improve anyone’s posture. The urban youth are just as likely as their fellows anywhere else to wear ugly untucked t-shirts, eat gloop, and listen to the unlistenable, but they are also just as likely to time slip without warning several centuries into the past to savor the celebrations of the ancients.

Earlier this month, for example, the Chokaisan Omonoimi Shinto shrine in the Fukura district of Yuza-machi, Yamagata — which dates from 871 at the latest — held its annual festival in supplication for a bountiful harvest. The event has several elements, including parades with three different mikoshi, or portable shrines. One of the mikoshi is for children, and another is in the shape of a ship that the carriers toss about to depict a sea voyage. The primary attraction, however, is the Hanagasa dance, or Fukura dengaku, a pre-planting rite. The dancers don headdresses with red decorations representing rice blossoms that rival anything worn by Carmen Miranda at the peak of her Hollywood career. Suspended from the brim are strips of paper called shide that represent the rain. Instead of castinets they provide clatter with an instrument called a sasara that for some reason is said to symbolize the croaking of frogs. At the end of their performance, the dancers toss the hats into the audience, and snatching one is supposed to guarantee good luck in the coming year. Anyone who’s been in the midst of a crowd in Japan during similar events knows the wisest course of action is to dive right in and grab one of your own. That’s beats being shoved roughly out of the way with an elbow to the ribs by somebody’s grandmother.

Though the festival dates from sometime in the Muromachi period, which ran from 1338 to 1573, and was designated an intangible prefectural cultural treasure in 1993, a look at this YouTube video featuring all the highlights is enough to see this isn’t a museum piece frozen in the aspic of the past.

In October 2007, the Yamagatans went on the road to Seoul to perform with other Japanese and Korean groups in the Japan-South Korea Exchange Festival, which you can see and read about here.

Teramachi Ichiza

Another of the benefits of globalization in Japan is the unexpected delights that result from all the mixing and mingling. One of the earliest manifestations of that was the chin-don bands, in which musicians dress in fanciful clothing to perform as a living jukebox stacked with global pop music on instruments both Japanese and Western, usually to advertise local shops. There are several excellent examples on-site that can be accessed at the tag below, but here’s another — Teramachi Ichiza from Iwate. The group, which usually works the Tohoku area, has won awards at national chin-don competitions for its performances. The members live in the mountainous part of the prefecture away from the coast, so they weren’t affected by the earthquake/tsunami, but they decided to suspend their activities after the disaster anyway in the spirit of self-restraint.

In the spirit of rebirth, however, they resumed performing in the Iwate city of Ofunato in the coastal area known as Goishi Kaigan at an event designed to buck up everyone’s spirits. (Enka megastar Sen Masao, an Iwate native, also sang.) The members of Teramachi Ichiza decided to bring their axes and blow because it had been 49 days after the earthquake. The 49-day Buddhist period of mourning originates in the Tibetan concept of bardo, the transitional period between one’s previous life and the consciousness’s entry into the life to come. Doesn’t that joyful noise contain an echo of the second line parade of brass bands in New Orleans switching from a dirge to jazz once they depart the cemetery after a funeral?

The chin-don band’s performance at Ofunato doesn’t seem to have been recorded, but their performance at the Miyako Horsehair Crab Festival in Iwate this February was.

This is what happened to Miyako one month later:

But destruction is not a permanent end. Doubters need only look to a small story at a park in a community center in the Kaminiida district of Yonezawa, Yamagata. A 300-year-old cherry tree on the center grounds collapsed last winter in the heavy snows. Before the deadwood could be cleared away in the spring, however, center director Nagaoka Takao spied shoots sprouting from the old trunk. He watered them with a PET bottle for the next two months. When cherry season arrived in the Tohoku region, so did the blossoms on the fallen tree.

Cultures included, we are all less fragile and more resilient than we sometimes think.

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The song, the scene, and the band’s name — they get it, too.

Posted in Arts, Festivals, Music, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »