Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Kanagawa’

All you have to do is look (143)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 20, 2012

The original text of the waka Kimi ga Yo, which became the lyrics of the Japanese national anthem. It was published in 905 in the Kokin Wakashu (Collected Waka of Ancient and Modern Times).

And here’s what the national anthem sounded like when it was first performed in 1870. This performance is by a band at the Myoko-ji Buddhist temple in Yokohama. This music was composed by John Fenton, an Irish military band director, in three weeks. It was replaced with the current music 10 years later because it was thought to lack solemnity.

It is performed annually at the temple because Fenton also served as a military band leader there, and it beats the heck out of me why a Buddhist temple hired a military band leader from Ireland.

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All you have to do is look (91)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 29, 2012

Torii at the Donen Inari Shinto Shrine in the Namamugi district of Yokohama. The Namamugi Incident occurred near here in 1862.

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All you have to do is look (3)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The dance club from the Hitorizawa High School in Yokohama, selected as one of the participants in the 5th National High School Dance Club Championships

(Photo from the Sankei Shimbun)

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Ecumenism and equanimity

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The performance of Furusato probably sounded something like this.

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

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

Do I read too much into it all? Perhaps.


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

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

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

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

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

Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

That’s how I began the New Year’s post for 2011. Beats me if I can think of a way to improve it, so that’s how I’ll begin the Ampontan nengajo for 2012. The first paragraph may be recycled, but the rest isn’t!

Cleanliness really is next to godliness in Japan. One reason is that the concept of kegare, or impurity, is an important part of the Shinto worldview. A manifestation of that on the mundane level is the conduct of spring cleaning at yearend. Then again, spring was traditionally considered to have begun with the New Year, an idea that survives in the nengajo message that offers congratulations on the “new spring”. Shinto shrines are also given a thorough spring cleaning at yearend. That ritual is called susubarai, which translates as an exorcism or purification of the soot.

Here’s a scene from this year’s susubarai of the main hall at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki. Those bamboo poles are four meters long. Ibaraki is near the three prefectures that were hardest hit by March’s Tohoku earthquake, and the shrine’s torii and beams in the main hall were heavily damaged. Said the chief priest:

The shrine deity is the one who limits earthquake damage, so I think that’s the reason it wasn’t any worse. We want to have the new torii finished by the 2014 spring festival. I pray that next year will be a good one.

He’s not alone in that.

The susubarai at the Oyama shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, is called the sendensai, or the festival for purifying the hall. It is a festival of sorts, as the miko shrine maidens start by performing a traditional dance, which is followed by a rite for purifying the tools used for cleaning. If cleanliness and purity is the point, half measures just won’t do.

Then they got to work and exorcised the soot at the main hall. It was 2º C when the picture was taken. That isn’t the most spring-like of temperatures, which is the main reason I’m not excited by the custom of spring cleaning at home in December. Surely they were wearing something warm underneath. The entire operation was handled by 12 people, and those poles they’re wielding are seven meters long. Take the time to look at this photo of the shrine’s front gate: the architecture is both striking and unusual.

It stands to reason that some shrines will be easier to clean than others. Among the others is the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, which has more than 500 kirin (sorry for the Wikipedia) and dragons on the outside. That’s particularly true when the kirin and the dragons are national cultural treasures. The shrine was established in 1617, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of none other than The Shogun himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It takes 100 people to do all the work here.

Buddhist temples also get the yearend purification treatment, and the insides of the temples get just as dirty as the outsides. The priests and parishioners of Nishi (west) and Higashi (east) Hongwan-ji, a temple complex in Kyoto, have a unique method for driving out the old year’s dirt using bamboo sticks and large fans. It must work: They’ve got 445 tatami mats in the main hall in the west and 927 in the east to clean, and they’ve been cleaning them on 20 December every year since the 15th century.

It starts when the chief priest gives a signal, and the entire line starts whacking and waving. The more nimble climb a ladder to the transoms and blow it out that way. The ritual is also a way to give thanks for a safe year, and it ends when one of the priests draws the character for long life in the air.

While some shrines have to deal with the cleaning of kirin or dragons on the exterior, some Buddhist temples have challenges of their own, such as cleaning statues of the Buddha. That’s quite a challenge at the Kiko-in Obihiro, Hokkaido, whose 6.8-meter-high statue is the largest wooden Buddha north of Tokyo. To be specific, it is a statue of Amida Nyorai. Those bamboo poles are three meters long. It only takes them about 30 minutes, however, as the work surely becomes lighter when it’s sanctified. It’s also a gesture of thanks for the past year.

The cleaning involved with sending off the old year includes the disposition of more than dirt. The shrines also have to do something with all the ema that people entrusted to them during the year. Ema are small wooden plaques on which people write their prayers and wishes. They’re left at the shrine, where they’re received by the divinity. It’s unacceptable to just dump them in the trash, not only for emotional or spiritual reasons, but also because a shrine can have 45,000 of them, as the Hofu Tenman-gu in Hofu, Yamaguchi, did last year. Many of them bore wishes for success in upcoming entrance exams, and most of them were probably granted. It’s an elegant solution: The shrines combine ritual purification and an environmentally friendly fire lit by candles.

Once they’ve taken care of the old year’s business, it’s time to get to work on the new. Speaking of ema, most shrines put up big ones of their own with the symbol from the Oriental zodiac for that particular year. Happy year of the dragon!

Here’s the Big Ema installed at the Kumano shrine in Wakayama. Big in this case means 2.8 meters high and 3.9 meters wide. The eastern-central part of Japan was lashed by a summer typhoon that caused substantial damage, and the Kumano shrine was not spared. Therefore, the painting on this year’s ema has the image of a rising dragon breaking through the black clouds of disaster. The chief priest painted it himself in four days, and it took six priests to carry it to the grounds and replace the old one in the back with the new one.

Just as some Western families hang wreaths on their homes at Christmas, the Japanese adorn the outside of their homes or offices with kadomatsu (corner pine), which is viewed as a temporary abode for the divinities. The folks at Omi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, are known for their jumbo kadomatsu. This year’s version is just as jumbo at four meters high, and it was arranged to resemble a soaring dragon. It was made by a group of parishioners, who also handled the susubarai. For the past seven years, they’ve used a pine tree on the shrine grounds that they temporarily transplant, roots and all. Said one of the kadomatsu designer/gardeners:

There were all sorts of disasters this year, so we made this with the wish that everyone would have a happy life next year.

Another decoration for home or shrine is the shimenawa, a straw rope that denotes a sacred space in general, and the temporary abode of the toshigami, the divinity of the new year, in particular. Of the 30 hung at the Kogane shrine in Gifu City, the one at the front is a jumbo version eight meters long, 40 centimeters in diameter at the thickest part, and 30 kilograms in weight. It’s made from straw from mochi rice stalks, mochi being an even more glutinous variety of rice than japonica.

The Kogane shrine is known for providing good fortune to those interested in money and wealth. In fact, the kanji used for the name of the shrine is the same as that for money, but with a different reading. Shrine officials expect 130,000 hopeful high rollers to visit in the first three days of the new year.

While we’re on the subject of jumbo decorations, here are two jumbo origami of dragons in red and white, the Japanese national colors, at the Tsurusaki Shinto shrine in Hayashima-cho, Okayama. (Japanese language, but nice photos.) They’re 1.8 meters high and four meters long, and if you can’t make it for New Year’s, don’t fret — they’ll be up until the end of the month, and they’re illuminated until 9:00 p.m. every night. Said the chief priest:

With Japan covered by a dark cloud due to the disasters and other reasons, we hope this year everyone can soar again like the dragons that push their way into the sky.

As evidence that old religions can incorporate new elements, this is only the 11th year for the shrine’s origami displays. They started in 2001 with the year of the horse. To symbolize their support for Tohoku recovery, they procured the paper from a wholesaler in Sendai.

An even newer New Year twist on a traditional Japanese art is a public performance of calligraphy by a priest at the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, on a platform in front of the main hall. The folks at the shrine, which is the same one with the big ema above, started the tradition just two years ago. In keeping with the theme of jumbo-ness, this calligraphy is three meters square and was rendered with a brush one meter long. The character can be read as either kirameki or ko, and it means glittering.

Calligraphy is not done with just a flick of the wrist; it also demands internal stillness. The reports from Wakayama say the priest stared at the cloth for a time for spiritual preparation before he started. The reports also say the priest put his entire body into it, which the audience appreciated. One of those watching was a woman from Nagoya, who said:

There was a dignified and awe-inspiring atmosphere, and I found myself straightening my back without realizing it.

Said the calligrapher/priest:

Conditions were very harsh this year with the Tohoku disaster and the typhoon. I hope that next year, each one of us recovers and shines.

Are you noticing that people use the holiday as a way to cleanse themselves of more than just dirt and old objects?

You’ve also probably noticed that the priests aren’t doing all this work by themselves. Their helpers are the Japanese equivalent of Santa’s elves, the miko shrine maidens. Those are the young women dressed in white hakui and red hibakama. (There are those colors again.)

So many people visit during the three-day period that the shrines have to hire extra miko part-time to help. They’re usually high school and college-aged girls, and dealing with the public in a manner befitting a religious institution requires special training in manners and speech. That training also includes instruction in how to wear the clothing, and how to properly hand over the amulets that people buy on their visits. Here’s a scene from the orientation for the 23 arubaito miko conducted by the Toishi Hachiman-gu in Shunan, Yamaguchi, which will celebrate its 1300th anniversary next year. To give you an idea of why the shrines need to supplement the help, the Toshi Hachiman-gu expects 200,000 people to drop by from 1-3 January.

Bigger shrines require more miko, and the Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto needed 70 this year for New Year’s duty. (That one’s in English.) They expect 500,000 visitors in the first three days of the New Year. One reason so many people come is that one of the shrine divinities is the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, renowned for his learning and erudition. That attracts all those who want to pray for success on the entrance exams for schools or places of employment.

The first order of business for miko training at Kitano is to say a prayer at the main hall, after which the priest performs a purification ritual. That’s followed by an explanation of the buildings, fixtures, and amulets, and the proper way to interact with the worshippers.

Most of the shrines are somewhat strict about the appearance of the Jinja Girls — dyed hair is usually prohibited. Well, wait a minute, let’s modify that. The women old enough to dye their hair, i.e., post high school, are old enough to know that they can buy a bottle or tube and go back to basic black for a few days before getting stylish again.

While they’re sticklers for appearance, the shrines are downright ecumenical about identity. The job is usually open to young women of any nationality. I read one account of a Korean university student in Nagasaki who enjoyed her experience so much one year, she signed up for a second. I’ve also read about one shrine hiring an Italian woman for the season. In fact, here’s an article from China talking about New Year’s customs and the Chinese girls who also serve as miko. Aren’t those hairbands nifty?

Meanwhile, the Gokoku shrine in Kagoshima City trained 40 new miko to help greet their expected visitors. One 20-year-old said she had wanted to wear the white clothing for a long time and was happy to finally get the chance. She also promised to do her best to ensure that the worshippers will be able meet the new year with a good feeling. About 150,000 people are likely to drop on by, so let’s hope she doesn’t get tired from being that cheerful for that long to the crowds. Then again, it isn’t as if she he’ll have to cope with the “behavior” of American shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

Here’s the training for 20 miko at Tottori City’s Ube shrine, which is thought to have been founded in 648, so they’ve been at this for more than 1,300 years. The chief priest told the novitiates he wanted them to be sure to give the parishioners a cheerful smile, which might be more difficult than it sounds. How easy is it to be solemn and smiley at the same time?

This shrine also has a connection with money matters, and is said to be just the place for those praying for success in business. In fact, it was the first Shinto shrine to be depicted on paper money — an engraving of the shrine and the founder appeared on the five-yen note in 1900. It also showed up on five-yen and one-yen notes into the Showa era, which began in 1925. They make only five- or one-yen coins instead of notes now, but in those days, a yen was still a yen.

If the global economy doesn’t improve, I might get on the train to Tottori myself.

Hey now! Some guys like photos of women with large silicone implants hanging out of small bikinis. Me, I go for the miko! It’s my website and I’ll steal the photos I want, and I want one more:

Here they are receiving instructions at the Kamegaike Hachiman-gu in Kanagawa City. This is a popular New Year’s destination because it has all the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Fortune of Japanese mythology and folklore. Legend has it that the munificent seven come to town on New Year’s and distribute gifts to good little boys and girls of all ages, just like Santa Claus. Instead of a reindeer-powered sleigh, they show up on the good ship Takarabune, which literally means treasure ship. In another Christmas analog, children are given money in envelopes on New Year’s as a gift, and sometimes these envelopes have a picture of the Takarabune on them.

The Kamegaiki shrine is also a good place to go for those who are desirous of safety in traffic and the luck in the draw in the lottery. Then again, the sacred sake the shrine gives away is another attraction. Clever punsters that they are, some Japanese employ the word for a Shinto shrine to refer to the holy hooch as “jinja ale”, and no, I did not make that up.

The more you think about it, the more appealing Shinto gets.

Speaking of grog, the Takara Shuzo sake brewers of Kyoto conducted a survey to find out everyone’s favorite New Year’s drink, and topping the list was sake. (That’s the same takara as the treasure in the takara above.)

The survey was conducted in the Tokyo and Kinki regions among 400 men and women aged 20 to 60+. When asked to name their New Year’s poison, 57.8% replied sake, 53.6% said beer, and 21.2% said wine. (Multiple (hic) answers were possible.) Sake was the leading choice in all age groups except for the people in their 30s.

It’s not all good news for the brewers — some people said they drink it only on New Year’s Day. The explanation of 56.9% was that it’s a special occasion. Others said they just go along with the choice of their family and friends.

In addition to downing the regular old sake, another special holiday custom is three sips from a cup of o-toso, sake mixed with (originally) medicinal herbs and mirin. The survey found that 88.6% of the respondents knew what it was, and that 50.8% drink it either every year or occasionally on New Year’s. The survey also turned up the fact that 53.5% of the people mistakenly thought it was a specially brewed sake, rather than being a mixture. That group consisted mostly of young people.

It was originally drunk to flush out the illnesses of the old year and promote long life in the future. The characters for toso, by the way, are 屠蘇 (the o is the honorific). The first means “to massacre”, and the second is most commonly used to mean a revival or resurrection. Some Western Christians get carried away by the connection they see, but the standard Japanese explanation is that the second character originally represented “the demon that causes illness”. In other words, o-toso is drunk to slay the demon. It’s more likely the origin of the expression Demon Rum than a derivative of the Easter story. Different season altogether.

Of course there’s a connection between liquor and miko, and not what you’re thinking, either. Here are some shrine maidens out tachibana citrus fruit picking at the Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu in Kyoto. Iwashimizu is so famous for the fruit that it’s used as a symbol on the shrine crest. The trees are planted on the east and west of the main building, and the miko can pick 10 kilograms of the three-centimeter fruit in 30 minutes of farm labor. These fruit are not for eating — they’ll be the main ingredient in tachibana citrus fruit wine instead. Nowadays they subcontract the work to a sake brewery in Joyo, Kyoto, and it will take three years before it’s drinkable. They donate the finished product to the Imperial household. During the Edo period, they also passed some of the stash around to the shoguns.

Speaking of the Imperial household, the members like this place. There’ve been more than 250 household visits to the shrine since 860.

And speaking of all this booze, here’s a report from Asahi TV about making New Year’s sake in Utsunomiya, Tochigi. It was below zero on the morning this segment was filmed:

But back to the miko and New Year’s amulets! They do more than sell them — they make them, too. See what I mean about Santa’s elves?

Here they are at the Atago shrine in Fukuoka City making o-mikuji fortunes for the New Year. They’ll offer 14 kinds, including the red daruma and, for the first time, the medetai mikuji. Medetai is a word for a joyous occasion, but the pun is in the shape of the fish — the tai, or sea bream, which is served at other joyous occasions, such as wedding ceremonies. The Japanese like the fish so much they have an expression that insists they’re great even when they’ve gone bad. The shrine made 800,000 last month for the 700,000 visitors they expect, so they might have a few left over.

They also made lucky arrows at the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura, Kanagawa, the most important shrine in the city. These arrows are called hamaya, which are sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits. Some also say they provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. The sale of hamaya is derived from the days when the exhibition of archery skills was a part of New Year celebrations. They’ve got two varieties here: One 60 centimeters long and the other 94 centimeters long. They’re wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), have bells on the end, and are affixed with kabura, a device that makes a whistling sound when the arrow is fired. It was once a popular item among the archers participating in contests or banditry. The shrine makes 245,000 of them, which takes most of the year.

They’re also readying amulets for sale at the Hakusan shrine in Niigata City. Shrine officials think the facility was built in either the 10th or the 11th century, but they’re not sure because two fires in the 16th century destroyed some of their records. In this case, the amulets are rakes and arrows, and people got a head start on buying them on the 26th. The shrine prepared 40,000 for their 170,000 visitors to come.

The word for the traditional bamboo rake is kumade, literally a bear’s paw, and they were used to rake leaves and grain. They started selling them as New Year’s trinkets during the Edo period so folks could play croupier and rake in the good fortune.

New Year’s amulets are also produced outside the shrines. One example is the dragon dolls, for the year of the dragon, made at a studio at the Toyama Municipal Folk Craft Village in Toyama City.

Another is the earthen bells in the form of dragons made by the Nogomi Ningyo Kobo in Kashima, Saga. A nogomi ningyo is a local toy conceived by the late studio’s founder soon after the war. He passed the business on to his son Suzuta Shigeto, a national living treasure for his fabric dyeing artistry, so we’re talking serious art here.

The studio is offering three types this year, one a design by the founder, another a jade (colored) dragon, and another designed by Shigeto to represent a dragon riding the clouds. He said he wanted to create the image of vigorously climbing and riding beyond the troubles of the past year. All of them are handmade, and the report said that the slight variations in sound and color would beguile potential customers. They’ll make only about 7,000 to sell throughout the country for the holiday, and all things considered, they’re probably more expensive than the items on sale at a shrine.

Shinto isn’t the only source for New Year’s ceremonies. A traditional ritual for presenting water from the fountain of youth to the governing body of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa, is still held today, and this year was held on the 25th in Naha. Forty people dressed as government officials and female priests lined up for some water carrying. The elixir in question is a mixture of two varieties of water that’s been concocted at the Enkaku-ji Buddhist temple. The original idea was to meet the New Year with a wish for the kingdom’s peace and the king’s health and long life.

Which to choose? The Ryukyu waters, sacred sake, or o-toso?

Finally, it isn’t possible to discuss New Year’s in Japan without a mention of the Kohaku Utagassen. That’s a New Year’s Eve musical variety show based on the premise of a singing battle (utagassen) between the female Ko team — Red! — and the male Haku team — White! It debuted on radio in 1951 as a one-hour special, but has now evolved into a four-hour extravaganza broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. At one time it was the highest-rated single show on Japanese television, but changing times and tastes have taken it down a few notches. Nevertheless, it is still the highest-rated musical program every year.

An appearance on the program is a sign that the performer has made it in Japanese show business, and because NHK requires (or used to require) that all singers pass a singing test to appear on the network, it meant that viewers would be getting quality entertainment. It features all styles of music, including enka for the old folks (Sakamoto Fuyumi was on last night for the 23rd time) and straight pop for the kids. Selected members of the AKB 48 girls also appeared for the third time as a group last night, early in the evening, and I was surprised at how good they sounded.

In keeping with Japanese ecumenicalism, foreigners, especially East Asians, are frequently invited to appear; the South Korean pop idol BoA has been on six times. Largely unbeknownst to their fans in the West, Cindy Lauper and Paul Simon once performed in the same year.

Last night, the Red team won the contest for the first time since 2004. The White team has the series edge to date, 33 to 29.

Whose performance to pick from the wealth of options on YouTube? I’ll go with the special one-off appearance of the Drifters in 2001. Those aren’t the American Drifters, but the Japanese group. They started out as a band in the late 50s and evolved into a comedy team whose television program ran from 1969 to 1985 and became the highest-rated regular program. (They also made a couple of movies, at least one of which was quite entertaining.) Older folks might remember their 40-second performance as the opening act for the first Beatles concert in Japan.

The man in the green is Ikariya Chosuke, the nominal leader, who died in 2004. Later in his career he starred as an attorney in a courtroom drama series similar to Perry Mason, but with lighter moments. He also won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film Bayside Shakedown. He was the host/narrator of the Drifters’ TV show, and often wound up as the guy getting dumped on by the others.

The man in the orange is Shimura Ken, who started working with the group in 1968 and became an official member after replacing one of the originals in 1974. Most of The Drifters weren’t really comedians, but rather performers acting in comic sketches. Shimura is an exception, however, as he is a talented comic, and at his best was as funny as any comedian anywhere. (You other foreigners can cool it with the wise lips right now.) He took over The Drifters program with a show of his own that was often hilarious and sometimes bordered on the surreal. He and the staff of that program were masters of running gags, both within a single program, and also from show to show.

Translating the lyrics wouldn’t be productive — did you catch the brief background chorus of papaya, papaya? — but it’s more fun to watch the dance troupe anyway.

Shimura Ken might say, Dafun Da!, but I’ll stick with: Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu. Happy New Year!


Very late on New Year’s Eve (one report said early New Year’s morning), one of the three most-wanted criminals in Japan gave himself up to police:

Makoto Hirata, a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released deadly sarin gas on Tokyo subways in 1995, surrendered to police last night, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

Hirata, 46, and fellow Aum members Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi are listed as Japan’s three most-wanted fugitives, on a police website. Hirata was wanted in connection with the murder of a notary, while the other two are alleged to have been involved in the poison gas attacks.

Hirata turned himself in at the Marunouchi police station in central Tokyo, NHK said, citing the Metropolitan Police Department. He is being questioned at the Osaki police station, according to the broadcaster.

Another New Year’s cleansing of impurities, is it not?

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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!

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Matsuri da! (120): What goes down must come up

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 5, 2011

PARTICIPATING in the activities of most of the world’s standard-brand religions doesn’t require much physical exertion, other than getting yourself to the church/temple/mosque on time. (The less said about the exceptions of self-flagellation and self-immolation the better.)

Those who keep the Shinto tradition alive in Japan would rather enjoy than beat or burn the heck out of themselves, but heavy and difficult manual labor is part of the package at some shrines. One example is the autumn festival held at the Oyama Afuri shrine in Isehara, Kanagawa. A Shinto shrine is said to have been first established on that site, the summit of a 1,251-meter-high mountain (Oyama means “big mountain”), more than 2,200 years ago. Those skeptical of legends should know that shards of earthen vessels have been excavated at the mountain top that are thought to have been used in Shinto festivals and have been dated from the Jomon Period. That ended around 300 BC.

The shrine itself consists of two separate buildings: An upper shrine and a lower shrine, named for their position relative to each other. Their autumn festival is held for three days at the end of August, and it starts with a ceremony called the okudari. During that ceremony, the parishioners carry a portable shrine called a mikoshi that transports the tutelary diety from the lower shrine to the town below. As you can see from the photo here and the photos on the shrine’s Japanese-language website, that requires much more than rolling up one’s sleeves and spitting into one’s palms. The transportation of the divinity requires two separate groups of people — one to carry the mikoshi and another to keep it stable with ropes. Then there’s another group of taiko drummers to keep the spirits bright and to lighten the load. The trip downhill takes about 40 minutes.

When they reach bottom, they stash the mikoshi at the shrine office to watch over the proceedings for the next three days and to protect the town and its people. Those proceedings consist of a performance of yamato-mai, a dance often performed at Shinto rites and the ceremony during the Emperor’s accession to the throne. There are also other dances by maiko (shrine maidens), performances of noh and kyogen, and a procession of mikoshi from other local shrines.

Here’s a brief glimpse of that procession two years ago:

On the third day they rise again and carry the mikoshi back to the lower shrine, now that summer has been officially declared over. I couldn’t find a report on how long it takes go back up the mountain, but if my walk down and back up the Grand Canyon some years ago can be used as a yardstick, they’d have to multiply the descent time by at least three.

Any mundane thoughts of hazardous duty pay or restrictions on the amount of weight that can be lifted are left behind as they head for Higher Ground. Everyone’s probably thankful that they don’t have to climb to the upper shrine, but they’d surely find a way to do that too if it were part of the tradition.

There are no videos available of the mikoshi being hauled down and up the mountain, but there is a video of a six-minute cable car ride to a station at the top filmed from the interior. It’s worth the virtual trip.

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Letter bombs (18): Flybaits

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 19, 2011

A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
– H.L. Mencken

AN E-MAIL came from Peter in Toronto telling me of his blog about Japan. Peter wants to move to this country and reform it from the inside out by becoming a Japanese politician.

As the law stands now, Hong Kong-born Peter would have to become a naturalized citizen to run for public office here, but there is a precedent for him to follow. Martti Turunen was a Lutheran missionary who came to Japan from Finland in 1968. He divorced his Finnish wife two years later, married a Japanese woman in 1974, became a Japanese citizen in 1979, and moved to Kanagawa in 1981.

Six years after arriving in Japan, he ditched the missionary gig and started teaching English. He must have a taste for lathering hot air over groups of fidgeting listeners, because he ran for and won election to the municipal council of Yugawara-machi in 1992. Three years after that, he got really ambitious and ran for the Diet. Four tries later — three for the upper house, one for the lower — he finally hit the big time in 2002 when celebrity pol Ohashi Kyosen got tired of being a small fish in a large pond after just six months and resigned his upper house proportional representation seat. Mr. Turunen, whose Japanese name is Tsurunen Marutei, replaced him because he was the runner-up in the previous election.

Mr. Ohashi, by the way, is a specimen in his own right. He was a well-known master of ceremonies in the broadcast media, an operator of gift shops overseas with Japanese-speaking staff for Japanese tourists, and a showbiz racetrack tout. He was recruited to run for the Diet by Kan Naoto — you know him — and won a PR seat in 2001.

He proved to be the prickly type almost immediately, however. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in America occurred shortly after he took office. He was the only DPJ member to vote against the Diet resolution condemning the attacks because it was tantamount to “supporting America”. He tried to convince then-party leader Hatoyama Yukio that the DPJ should join Socialist International and come out of the closet as a left-wing party. He said the Japanese Democrats should position themselves as a “center-left” party, which reveals what the Anglosphere mass media means when they use that term to describe the current Japanese government. (That also gives us an idea about Mr. Kan’s eye for talent and his own political proclivities). Mr. Hatoyama deflected the suggestion, saying there was no consensus for it within the party. When Mr. Ohashi made his exit stage left, he complained that he didn’t realize the Democratic Party of Japan had become so undemocratic.

But let’s return to Mr. Turunen, though there’s little of consequence to say about him. He doesn’t seem to have done much in Nagata-cho for the past 10 years except sit there and (presumably) vote. From what I could dig up on the web, his political philosophy consists of growing and eating organic vegetables, recycling food waste, and using the suffix –san when addressing everyone, regardless of social status. He is so excited about “effective micro-organisms” he has 11 articles about them on his website. He favors giving Korean citizens born in Japan the right to vote. Instead of Lutheranism, he now proselytizes for the Church of Global Warming. He once described his outlook for the Japan Times:

“I don’t need to try to be Japanese or assimilate too much. I want to be accepted as a foreigner and still contribute to this society.”

That’s a curious attitude for someone who went to the trouble to become a naturalized citizen.

Therefore, being born a non-Japanese outside of Japan will not prevent one from becoming a politician in Japan. Judging from Mr. Turunen’s record, the absence of any recognizable ability, real-world accomplishments, or worthwhile insight isn’t a serious obstacle either. (Indeed, judging from his curriculum vitae, one doesn’t have to be a native English speaker or to have lived in the Anglosphere to operate an English language school in this country. Now that’s what I call the land of opportunity.)

The highlight of his career seems to have been the day he was sworn into office, an achievement he shares with Barack Obama, another politician with a variegated citizenship history. Considering that the voters of Kanagawa have chosen to award their PR votes to the DPJ for the past decade with people such as Mr. Ohashi and Mr. Turunen on the list, anyone has a plausible shot at a seat. That would confirm Margaret Thatcher’s advice to a young person who thought there wasn’t any room at the top for a person interested in a political career. “Nonsense,” said Mrs. Thatcher. “There’s plenty of room at the top.” Nature abhors a vacuum, even if it’s only dust filling the empty space.

The real problem with politics as a profession in any country isn’t that the chief job requirement is to have the character of a party balloon, either fresh and inflated or limp and slobber-filled. Rather, it is explicit in the Mencken observation quoted at the top of this post. Though his comment was in reference to American politicians almost a century ago, it applies to all of them, everywhere, in any age. Even Nikita Khrushchev noted that politicians were alike the world over: “They promise to build a bridge where there is no river.” Imagine what he might have said had he spent his career in a system that required he periodically lubricate the voters.

One Japanese politician who validates the universality of Mencken’s assertion is Matsubara Jin of the ruling DPJ, though as the Japanese would say, the choice of pols for that distinction from among any party is yoridorimidori; i.e., the options are multitudinous and varied. Mr. Matsubara appeared on Beat Takeshi’s Terebi Takkuru on Monday night. That’s a television program on which politicos, academics, commentators, and celebrities are invited every week to discuss current events and issues. Host Beat Takeshi, a comedian who also directs films under his original name of Kitano Takeshi, usually limits himself to the occasional interjection, leaving it to his guests to provide the polemical fireworks.

Over the past few weeks, the panelists have been discussing Kan Naoto’s plan to increase taxes to pay for the reconstruction of the Tohoku region. It’s gratifying that the program is providing plenty of airtime for opponents to make their case and fry the Finance Ministry in the process. (A discussion program on a major network bashing a left-of-center government and its representatives for that reason would be unthinkable in the United States.)

This week’s lineup of guests included a few members of the recently formed group of Diet members working to stymie a tax hike, which we discussed a few posts ago. In addition to Mr. Matsubara, others who appeared were Eda Kenji of Your Party and ex-Finance Ministry bureaucrat and current academic Takahashi Yoichi, both of whom I frequently quote here.

The discussion eventually flowed in the direction of the Kan Naoto proposal to cut national civil service salaries by 10% to help with the financing of the reconstruction. That’s when Mr. Matsubara lost the plot.

Even though he cites Margaret Thatcher as his primary political inspiration, Mr. Matsubara said that if the salaries of public sector employees were to be temporarily reduced, then private sector employees should be made to take home lighter pay envelopes too.

Had Mrs. Thatcher heard anyone say that in a policy debate, much less one of her admirers, she would have verbally filleted him and lined his giblets in a neat row on the cutting board before he could say Ginsu Knife. It took only a few seconds more for the rest of the panelists to hoot him down.

Now that’s a politician who has become indistinguishable from a streetwalker. Mrs. Thatcher saved England by walking into the union’s den with a stool and a whip. Meanwhile, both private and public sector unions are the backbone of organizational support for Mr. Matsubara’s DPJ. If his political ideals really are similar to Mrs. Thatcher’s, he’s sold them out for the salary and perks of a Diet seat. The price he pays is to be a party hack in public and a hypocrite in private.

A few years ago, I followed an Internet mailing list devoted to the discussion of music. One list member was a musician who wrote a minor hit song in the late 60s and led a band with a minor hit record in the early 70s. One day he told a story about a meeting he had with a record company executive in Los Angeles. They were joking around at lunch, and the musician mused, “You know, what I’d really like to do is become governor of (his home state).”

He said the executive turned serious and replied, “That can be arranged.”

I understand and appreciate Peter’s desire to make a difference through the political process, particularly because I once thought about doing the same thing myself. But I suspect it’s not possible to put oneself in a position to accomplish something in politics and still get to sleep at night, absent a narcissistic personality disorder or enormous alcohol consumption.

It’s long been the practice for show business or sports celebrities to make politics a temporary second career by running for an upper house seat. Both major parties actively recruit them for their name recognition. It’s not essential to already have a fully formed politicial philosophy; the point of the exercise is to be a safe vote doing their sponsor’s bidding once in office. The latest example was the Olympic gold medalist in judo, Tani Ryoko, whom Ozawa Ichiro recruited as a DPJ candidate for the 2009 upper house election. There’s more on the phenomenon in a previous post here.

Speaking of H.L. Mencken, here’s what he wrote about the public speaking abilities of then-President Warren Harding about 90 years ago:

“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble, it is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

That’s such an apt characterization of Kan Naoto’s public speaking abilities it’s enough to make me wonder whether there’s something to that reincarnation idea after all.

Here’s a video credited to a Malaysian group called Fredo and the Flybaits. Does not the word flybait perfectly capture the essence of a politician?

In this video, however, the Flybaits don’t show up. It’s just a solo Fredo performance. (Freedo is a misspelling.) We should be so lucky with the other flybaits.

Wait for the Elvis impersonation!

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A tide in the affairs of men

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 6, 2010

We are the forces calling for a change of government. To that extent, we are the same as the DPJ. But we’re thinking beyond that. We stand for a change of government and political realignment. Without political realignment, it will be impossible to correct the structural deformities in the way in which the Japanese state is operated.
– Watanabe Yoshimi, before last year’s general election

What the people want to see is a true reform party, not additional forces supporting Mr. Ozawa or tax increases.
– Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP’s reform faction

IT’S BEEN AS PLAIN as the nose on an elephant’s face since the Koizumi administration that the Japanese people want exactly what Nakagawa Hidenao says they want—a true reform party. They’ve demonstrated time and again that they will accept no substitutes, but too many of the country’s politicos would rather cut class than learn the lesson. The Democratic Party of Japan are just the latest in a long and sorry line to think they could get away with ignoring the obvious.

Attention is increasingly focusing on Your Party, led by Watanabe Yoshimi and Eda Kenji, as the only group that seems to be paying attention. The latest Kyodo poll released at the beginning of the week shows they’ve clearly established themselves in public opinion as the third-leading party in Japan, despite being only eight months old. Their support figures climbed to 9.6% from 4.0% in the space of a month, and all they had to do was act naturally. That’s more than half the percentage-point total of the LDP, which ranked at the 18% level. They had planned to sponsor only 10 candidates in this summer’s upper house election, but now could officially back as many as 30.

They’re also starting to gain traction in local government. The city of Zushi in Kanagawa, a Tokyo-Yokohama bedroom community with a population of roughly 50,000, held a city council election on 28 March. Your Party sponsored three candidates for the 20-seat chamber, and all three were elected. Two of their candidates ranked first and second in total votes with a margin far out in front of the rest of the pack. The three Your Party members won an aggregate of 5,500 votes, while the five candidates sponsored by the Democratic Party of Japan, now the national ruling party, could muster only 3,800 votes among them, and two of them lost. YP received 21.4% of the total vote, while the DPJ candidates got only 15%. Some Japanese pundits are calling it the Zushi no Ran, or Zushi Rebellion.

The results are significant because the city has a lot of independent voters, and in keeping with trends in other democracies worldwide, that is now the self-identification of roughly half of the Japanese electorate. One DPJ Diet member lamented to an Asahi reporter, “The independents totally deserted us.” Another factor is that the area is the political base of one of the party’s MPs in the lower house of the Diet, Asao Keiichiro, a proportional representative.

The party is starting to pick up new members in local government assemblies nationwide, a noteworthy trend because local elections will be conducted simultaneously around the country next year. Said YP Secretary-General Eda Kenji, “(The Zushi election) is an important indicator in terms of forecasting the upper house election. The results are encouraging.” Party head Watanabe Yoshimi says their goal this summer is to increase their upper house representation from the current single member to at least 10.

Number three…or number two?

Meanwhile, party member Yamauchi Ko’ichi writes on his Japanese-language blog that he objects to the mass media calling them a “third pole”, or third force:

“Since the Aso administration, the Liberal Democratic Party has reverted to its previous course of distributing pork and holding hands with the institutions of the bureaucracy. They’ve turned the rudder toward big government and greater regulation. (That’s the reason I left the party.)

“The DPJ’s strength originally comes from public employee unions and former Socialist Party members. It’s obvious from the start that they are left of center, and incline toward big government.

“No explanation is needed for the big government proclivities of the socialist parties, including the Communists and the Social Democrats.

“Looking at it that way, Your Party is now the only one championing a disassociation from the bureaucracy, a state/province system based on regional sovereignty, and anti-pork barrel politics.

“From the perspective of principles and policies, the political world is really composed of only two opposing poles, or two arguments. Those are Your Party versus all the other political parties. Big government, pork, and income distribution, as opposed to small government, anti-pork, and growth.

“In terms of the number of Diet seats or the support rates for individual parties, Your Party can be considered a “third pole”. But from the perspective of principles and policies, Your Party is the “second pole”.

Mr. Watanabe, however, still uses the “third pole” expression. In an article in the April edition of Shincho 45 magazine, he writes that political realignment will start in earnest after the upper house election (echoing Watanabe Kozo—no relation—of the DPJ, quoted here last week). He adds:

The authentic political Big Bang will occur when Ozawa Ichiro breaks up the Democratic Party of Japan. The scenario for the shortest course is another lower house election following the upper house election to select a government and to create a new political order.

Of the DPJ, he says,

They made the mistake of thinking they could do anything they wanted if they took power, and that the voters would allow them to do whatever they wanted because they supported them in the election.

He cites the proverb from The Tale of the Heike, “Ogoru Heike ha hisashikarazu”, or arrogant behavior based on excessive pride in position or wealth will guarantee one’s downfall. Finally, he agrees with commentator Yayama Taro’s comparison of Hatoyama Yukio to Tokugawa Keiki, the 15th and last Shogun who ruled for less than a year and stepped down in the face of a rebellion.

The party’s goal for now, says Mr. Watanabe, is to be a part of a larger reform government in coalition with like-minded forces.

When Watanabe Yoshimi left the LDP for turning its back on reform and then launched Your Party, he was mocked by the wise lips in both the LDP and the DPJ. Some dubbed him the proverbial rat leaving the sinking ship. Those suffering from premature hubris in the DPJ dismissed him by saying he had cut himself out of the real action, now that they were going take control of the government.

They’re not the ones laughing any more. Your Party has always sailed on the tide of reform, but now the wind’s at their back. All they have to do is stay the course.

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Nippon Noel 2009 (1): Just some paper, flowers, and lights

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 4, 2009

THOUGH JAPAN is not a Christian country, the people know a good festival when they see one, and that’s why Christmas is celebrated in public spaces here as a winter festival of light. Two years ago, we had a series of posts called Nippon Noel presenting some of those public displays, which often involve a combination of light and Christmas trees. Sometimes they combine the idea of tree shapes and items unique to Japan, such as fishing boat pennants. But because Christmas for most Japanese is a postwar phenomenon, they have no long-standing tradition of decorating real evergreens in the home. (Those Japanese who do have decorated Christmas trees in the home use small, artificial trees.)

That means the Christmas evergreen here is more symbol than tangible object, which has allowed the Japanese to employ their artistic sense and create public displays based on the concept of “Christmas tree” that are quite striking, attractive, and often unique. You can see past posts on that topic by clicking on the Christmas tag at the end of this post. One even features a story about a Christmas tree at a public aquarium lit by an electric eel; in fact, he’s providing the juice again this year, according to a report I saw yesterday. Last year I didn’t have the time to collect any stories, but here are three for Christmas 2009.

The first is a display of two trees, or to be more accurate, conical structures representing trees, at the Chiyoda Ward office in Tokyo. Rather than the usual glass ornaments and tinsel, these are trimmed with decorations made from washi, or traditional Japanese paper, created by about 100 local primary school students and their parents. Both trees are 2.3 meters tall and are illuminated from the inside. They’ll be up until 25 December, which is not a public holiday here. That’s when people start to get geared up for New Year’s Day, which is the real yearend celebration.

The Hakone Gora Park in Kanagawa doesn’t use a real tree for its interior decorations either. A large pyramid structure has been built in the park’s greenhouse, on which 700 poinsettia plants have been arranged to create the impression of a Christmas tree. Dark curtains have been hung on the ceiling to provide a backdrop, and the scene is illuminated. Each of the four sides of the pyramid base is 3 meters long, and the pyramid itself is 3.5 meters high. The red and green poinsettias are decorated with blue, green, red, and yellow lights. Surrounding the display are what are termed objets representing snowmen, reindeer and other seasonal symbols. Visitors who want a poinsettia of their own to take home can buy them on-site for JPY 1,000 apiece. The exhibit is open from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. right now, and until 8:00 p.m. from 19-25 December. Park officials have also festooned a Japanese cedar outside in the park itself with 25,000 LEDs for illumination to create something a bit more traditional. That tree, which is more than a century old, is the park’s symbol.

Sometimes the Japanese don’t need a tree structure at all—an illustration of a tree will do. That’s the basis of the Christmas lighting display at the Sony Building in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, which also combines the custom of people tossing coins into a fountain to make a wish. The fountain here is called the Ai no Izumi (literally, Spring of Love), and visitors use their legal tender to purchase a special mock coin to cast on the waters. When a sensor inside the fountain detects the special coins, it activates a mechanism that increases the brightness of an LED display on the side of the wall that depicts a Christmas tree. You’ve heard of the more the merrier? This is the more the brighter. The money collected will be given to the Japan Red Cross and other groups for distribution to children’s charities around the world. This is the 42nd year the Sony Building has had a display of this type, and in that time they’ve collected a total of JPY 64 million. The LED tree on the wall will be turned off after the 20th, however.

The Japanese don’t play a lot of Christmas music—and half of what they do play seems to be Happy Christmas by John Lennon and Yoko Ono—but they don’t need a melody or lyrics to instinctively understand how to make spirits bright.

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Chakkirako: Its time has come

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 17, 2008

BIG NEWS on the festival front: The Agency for Cultural Affairs announced it will nominate the chakkirako and 13 other items for registration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO next year.

A UNESCO committee will formally decide on the registration of 17 items from Japan in September 2009. They’ve already informally agreed to include Noh, Kabuki, and the Joruri puppet theater on the list. These three were cited in UNESCO’s Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

As UNESCO’s website puts it, “The 90 proclaimed cultural expressions and spaces are located in 70 countries from all regions of the world.”

I hope they don’t get any big ideas about hip-hop!

But that overlooks the big question: What is chakkirako?

It’s a folk art in which a group of 10 girls aged 5 to 15 dress in brightly colored kimono to perform six dances accompanied by adult women singing songs. As they dance, the girls strike together implements known as chakkirako, which are bamboo sticks decorated with colorful paper strips and bells. That suggests the name has an onomatopoetic origin. The girls also perform fan dances.

Chakkirako is performed once a year on 15 January (Little New Year’s) as an offering at the Kainan Shinto shrine in Miura, Kanagawa, for a good fishing harvest and maritime safety. A shrine was first built on that site in 982.

A curious aspect of chakkirako is that no one knows exactly how it began. There is a legend that 12th-century shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo visited the area and saw a group of people fishing from the rocks along the shore. To provide a little impromptu entertainment for the distinguished man, a girl started fooling around with some bamboo she picked up off the beach and her mother sang along.

But the actual recorded history of the dance goes back about 300 years. It was handed down mostly among the local fishermen’s wives. At one point there were concerns it would die out because of a shortage of girls capable of performing it, but a group of volunteers formed a preservation committee and got to work. Now their efforts are about to bear fruit.

Here we go again: I really don’t see the point of this UNESCO project. As the work of the Miura preservation committee demonstrates, people are quite willing to donate their time and effort to maintain cultural traditions they think have value. The world doesn’t need a group of international cultural bureaucrats making qualitative judgments for us, and we certainly don’t need to put them on the public payroll.

But the local people would welcome registration for two reasons. First, it would earn them international recognition, and second, this recognition could increase tourism to the area.

They might have a point. I couldn’t find any YouTube videos of the performance, and there isn’t a lot of other information about it on the Web, either.

Who knows? In a few more years, chakkirako might become a household word!

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Shogatsu: Miko make the New Year wheels go round at Shinto shrines

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

POPULAR CHRISTMAS MYTH has it that Santa’s little helpers work hard all year long at the North Pole making Christmas presents for good little girls and boys. New Year’s Day in Japan is an analog for Christmas, and so presents are given to good little Japanese girls and boys in celebration of that holiday too. They receive only one gift, however, and that is an o-toshidama, or cold hard cash, and the printing and stamping work for that is handled by the elves employed at the National Mint, headquartered in Osaka.


If there is a match for Santa’s elves, it would be the miko, or young female assistants at Shinto shrines. A lot of the work associated with the activities related to New Year’s Day shrine visits—especially the production and sale of good luck talismans–falls on their shoulders. Here’s a sample of what they’ve been doing behind the scenes leading up to the three-day New Year’s period that began today.

O-mikuji, literally the sacred lottery, are slips of paper with printed fortunes sold at Shinto shrines, often from a sort of vending machine. The Keta Taisha in Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture, makes about 200,000 individual fortunes for the first Shrine visit of the new year, but there are only 50 different predictions. To ensure the random distribution of the fortunes, the miko hold a ceremony every year called the Mikujiawase. One look at the picture above tells you exactly what’s involved. This year a total of 21 miko participated.


Here the budding shrine maidens clap their hands together before the divinity as they take part in training to become a yearend miko. About 70 high school and college students from Taga-cho and Hikone got schooled in the ABCs of the costume and the proper work attitude at the Taga Taisha in Taga-cho, Shiga Prefecture.

The miko will have their hands full dealing with the throngs of people who visit shrines starting on the night of 31 December and continuing for the next three days. Knowing how to deal with the public is a critical task for any company employee, but it’s all the more important at a Shinto shrine overseeing a tradition more than a millenium old.

Some of the job requirements during their employment include prohibitions on dyed hair, smoking, and cell phone use, as well as the polite reception of the shrine goers and a clean, wholesome appearance. 
The seasonal shrine help are shown wearing their traditional outfits consisting of white tops called hakui and red pantaloons called hibakama.


Meanwhile, the Kashihara Shingu shrine in Kume-cho, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture replaced its large ema, or votive picture, with a new version bearing the symbol of the Oriental zodiac sign for the coming year—the year of the rat.

The ema is where shrine goers hang their written requests for the divinity. It is characteristic of Shinto that shrine visitors tend to skip the unctuous flattery during their prayers and get straight to the point of asking for whatever it is they want.

This year’s ema is 4.5 meters high and 5.4 meters wide. Atsushi Uemura is responsible for the artwork every year, and this year he designed a picture of two rats with ears of rice. Uemura is a member of the Japan Art Academy, a special institute affiliated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The large ema were first placed here in 1960 to commemorate the birth of the Crown Prince.


One of the tasks of the miko and the Shinto priests are to make hama-ya. Here they are beavering away at the Tsuruoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.
These hama arrows are sold at shrines during the holidays. The crew at this shrine made 200,000 60-centimeter types, which will sell for 1,000 yen ($US 8.92), and 45,000 90-centimeter types, which will sell for 2,000 yen.

The word hama is written with the characters that mean “to repel evil spirits”, though it originally meant target. Some still uphold the tradition of the mother’s family sending the arrow with the hama-yumi, or bow, to her male children on New Year’s. In some places, boys once held archery competitions on New Year’s to predict the fall harvest.

The arrows are made of bamboo, wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), and attached with a special head and a bell. The practice itself originates from the bow and arrow Minamoto-no-Yoriyoshi presented to this shine in the 11th century. Yoriyoshi was the head of the Minamoto clan and led Imperial forces in a successful campaign against the northern rebels. He also founded this particular shrine in 1073, which became the primary shrine of the Minamoto clan when they began the Kamakura Shogunate about a century later.


They’re also decorating auspicious objects for shrine visits at the Shirayamahime shrine in Shirayama, Ishihara Prefecture. This photo shows the work involved in decorating these hama-ya, which are said to repel disaster and attract good fortune. Other decorations include pictures of a rat (as in The Year Of The–) and earthen bells.

The shrine makes eighty different auspicious objects and keeps adding to their product lineup all the time. Last year, for example, they added a kite. They will make about 100,000 individual items for sale in all.

Work was recently completed at this shrine on the major repairs in advance of the ceremonies for its 2,100th anniversary this year. They expect from 180,000 to 200,000 visitors over New Year’s. The auspicious items will be sold for prices ranging from 500 yen ($US 4.46) to 10,000 yen ($US 89.28).


The seven miko and Shinto priests at the Takase Shinto shrine in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, are also preparing auspicious objects. They churned out about 200,000 hama-ya, rat figurines, and, as a new item this year, lucky charms for success on exams or in sporting competitions. They also sell charms for a good harvest or family safety.

The shrine expects from 220,000 to 230,000 visitors during the New Year’s holidays.

The Shirahige Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward dates from 951. It is one of five shrines in the area associated with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, and about 50,000 people make the rounds to all five during the first week of the year.


The miko at this shrine are making treasure ships for the munificent seven to sail on the Sumida River. This originates in the old custom of slipping a picture of the seven on board a treasure ship under the pillow on the night of 1 January to make the first dream of the year a lucky one.

These ceramic boats are 19 centimeters long and 7 centimeters wide with chopsticks for masts. Those who put figurines of the seven on board and place them in the home are said to have good fortune sail their way. They cost 1,000 yen each, with the figurines going for an additional 300 yen each–a small price to pay for a year’s worth of good luck.

May a treasure ship sail your way in 2008, or Heisei 20, whichever counting method you prefer!

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