Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Miyagi’

All you have to do is look (84)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 22, 2012

Temporary bus service that began at the end of the summer on 55 kilometers of the railroad line between Kessennuma and Yanaizu in Miyagi Prefecture, rendered unusable by last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

Photo by Sankei Shimbun.

Posted in Photographs and videos, Science and technology, Social trends | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (15)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 12, 2012

The lotus festival in Tome, Miyagi

Posted in Photographs and videos, Popular culture | Tagged: , | Leave a 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.

Posted in Festivals, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Hauling ash

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

LAST SUNDAY we had a post that dealt, in part, with a mini-sit-in held at the entrance of a refuse incineration facility in Kitakyushu that was to conduct a trial burning of 80 tons of debris generated by the Tohoku disaster. The demonstrators held up the process until the police removed them from the premises.

The incineration went ahead as scheduled, the city measured the radioactivity in the fly ash collected in the smokestack filters, and the results were announced yesterday. The national government’s minimum standard for landfill is no more than 3,000 becquerels per kilogram. As I noted last week, the city is known for its rigorous environmental standards, and their target for the fly ash was a much lower 330 becquerels per kilogram.

One of the incineration sites measured 19 becquerels, and the other measured 30.

The city’s standard for the bottom ash (the ash that never left the incinerator) is no more than 100 becquerels per kilogram. They detected none at either location. The mayor will announce the city’s decision next month on whether to continue the incineration, and these results make it more likely that they will.

It is of critical importance that other regions help with the incineration.  The Tohoku earthquake disaster created 29 million cubic meters of debris. Most of it has yet to be disposed of, though it has been organized into piles. Preventing that disposal is a combination of hysteria, willful ignorance, and the Not In My Backyard phenomenon:

“We think the debris is contaminated with Caesium and we do not trust the government tests,” she said. “There has been a lot of misleading information from officials so it is difficult now to trust any directive from above.”

Mrs Aki, who conceded that the city was probably evenly split for and against the decision, suggested that the waste should remain in the tsunami zone, and perhaps be stored in the exclusion zone around the stricken nuclear plant, which will be a dead zone for decades.

In other words, out of sight, out of mind. One foreigner on Twitter recently asked an open question (in Japanese) of the protesters: Do you really think the government is making all this up? Is this man betraying the public trust?

“We have tested all of our rubbish and not found any radiation,” said Sato Yoshinori, a spokesman for Ishinomaki council. “The amounts we found were background levels. So it is a shame that people perceive there is danger in a place like Ishinomaki, that does not have any radiation. It is a shame they do not see that.”

Ishinomaki is the source of the debris incinerated at Kitakyushu.

As to be expected, the usual concerns remain, and some of them are on the legit. The Nishinippon Shimbun quoted someone identified as being in the “agricultural and maritime industry” as saying:

“No matter how often the government insists that it is scientifically safe, it is possible that the reputation of our products will be harmed if that is not fully understood by the consumers.”

Then there was this from Saito Toshiyuki:

“It is a fact that radioactive material was detected in the fly ash, and the city’s target figures themselves are unclear.”

Mr. Saito is an attorney and an anti-nuclear power activist, but you probably guessed that already. The patter and the pattern are universal. That includes the implication that it’s a terrible, terrible outrage if everything everywhere isn’t absolutely perfect and pure and socially just at all times, and there are no leaky faucets in anyone’s lives.

Meanwhile,  a citizens’ group in Tokyo called (roughly) “National Referendum on Nuclear Power: Let’s All Decide Together”,  asked the metro district government today to pass a law to allow a local referendum.  You’ve also probably guessed what their preferred outcome would be.

That cranky old fart xenophobic right-wing nationalist creep Ishihara Shintaro, the metro district governor, replied briefly and to the point:

“That is a judgment the national government should calmly make.”

He has the ear and political friendship of Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, who has emerged as the national leader of the nuclear hysteria faction. Perhaps Mr. Ishihara would consider playing the role of wise old uncle and lay some wisdom on him.

It has not escaped the notice of some Japanese that one man is behaving like an adult and the other is behaving like a child.

N.B.: For reason #21,947 demonstrating why I bang on so often about the lackwits assigned by the overseas English-language media to write about Japan, look carefully at the linked Telegraph article. On this website, I use the Japanese (and Chinese and Korean) custom of writing family names first and given names second. Most English-language media outlets, however, reverse them into the Western order. The names of the two people provided to the Telegraph’s correspondent were in the traditional Japanese order. That would be obvious to anyone who has spent about a month in Japan and gotten accustomed to people’s names.

Not the journo at the Telegraph, however. He refers to the woman as “Mrs. Aki”. That’s the equivalent of calling someone “Mrs. Debbie”. A closer look at that page shows that he is identifed as a “foreign correspondent” and Tweeting from China. There is no mention of whether he packed his Burberry trenchcoat for his grand East Asian adventure.


Let’s continue the theme from the previous post, titled Cultural Notes.

The situation in the Tohoku region is bad enough, but it’s much worse in Haiti, more than two years after its earthquake. The emphasis is mine.

But two years later, over half a million people remain homeless in hundreds of informal camps, a majority of the tons of debris from destroyed buildings still lays where it fell, and cholera, a preventable disease, was introduced into the country and is now an epidemic killing thousands and sickening hundreds of thousands more. Haiti today looks like the earthquake happened two months ago, not two years.

Haitians ask the same question as the US Congress, “Where is the money?”

The authors think they have identified the problem.

The effort so far has not been based a respectful partnership between Haitians and the international community.

But the New York Times thinks real progress is being made:

Haitians have seen real progress in the last two years. About half of the 10 million cubic feet of quake debris has been removed from Port-au-Prince and other areas. More people have access to clean water in the capital than before the quake. With investment from a Korean garment maker, an industrial park is being built in the northeast, with the promise of 20,000 jobs.

They have a suggestion for speeding up the process:

A United Nations analysis showed that while many nations have been generous, particularly the United States, Brazil, Canada, Spain and France, almost all the money has gone to nongovernmental organizations and private contractors. To build Haitian capacity, that will have to change, and the commission can help — by giving guidance to Haiti’s ministries and monitoring their efforts.

But oddly, in the next paragraph, we see the answer to the charge that there’s hasn’t been a respectful partnership, and the reason the money isn’t going to the government:

President Martelly is a more engaged leader than his predecessor. In the fall, he announced a plan to house 30,000 residents of six tent cities with rental subsidies and new construction. More than a half-million Haitians remain in camps and it is not clear if he will take on powerful landowners to free up the land needed for rebuilding. He needs to abandon his focus on building an army. What Haiti needs is a professional, accountable police force.

If this president is more engaged, even though his focus is on building an army instead of cleaning up the rubble, we can only imagine what his predecessor must have been like. (Perhaps the threat of invasion from the Dominican Republic is greater than we realized.) We also can imagine the behavior of the local police.

Ah, but the human spirit remains triumphant in the face of all disasters. Here’s a glowing report on the response of some Haitians:

The metal figures standing like sentinels in the middle of an exhibit of contemporary Haitian art are created from a mishmash of scrap metal and found objects: nails, marbles, old shoes, bed springs, tire treads, hub caps, pieces of fans and other discards.

…The figures created from found objects were sculpted by Guyodo, Andre Eugene and Jean Herard Celeur, three members of the group Atis Rezistans, an artists’ collective living and working in downtown Port-au-Prince. The group has showcased its artwork and creative process in a mash-up of high art-meets-the developing world called “Ghetto Biennale,” which opened a month before the earthquake and returned last month.

Their work in “Haiti Kingdom of This World” exemplifies the exhibit’s theme of celebrating Haitian artists’ creativity and resourcefulness while challenging viewers to look beyond Haiti’s reputation for disorder, poverty and failure.

If I were so challenged, I’d return the challenge and ask why they thought it was so important to stage an art exhibit created from earthquake debris instead of temporarily suspending their artists’ collective after the earthquake and organizing volunteer groups to drag and drop into piles the crap that remains where it fell, enabling the NGOs and private contractors to get at it while Monsieur Le President is reviewing the troops and the police are busy shaking people down.

It’s worth reading that piece, by the way, if only for entertainment purposes. It contains enough adjectives, adverbs, and artsy-fartsy platitudes to choke a museum curator.

The Haitians do have one advantage over the Japanese, however. I doubt any of them are complaining about the environmental hazards of the cleanup operation or holding sit-ins in front of incineration sites.


The Huffpo culture critic missed her chance to really impress her readers when she used the term “found objects” instead of the official Art jargon of objets trouvés.

Speaking of finding things, I found this video on YouTube of a performance by the son of my favorite Haitian singer, Coupé Cloué. Everything seems to be spic and span in his neck of the woods. His father chose that stage name, by the way, because it combines two French words used in Haiti as slang for the sexual act.

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

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

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

Island hopping

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

Hamada Eri

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokushima seaweed comes home

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

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

Off to see the Iyoboya

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

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

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

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

Snow fun in Kamakura

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

Let 100 dragons soar

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

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

Rebuild it and they will come

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

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

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

Leg room

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

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

Hokkii rice burger

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

Goya senbei

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

Strawberry sake

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

Extra credit

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

Really high

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

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

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

That's where they make it, you know.

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

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

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

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

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

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

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

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

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

And don’t forget Okinawa!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

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

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.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

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

Observations on the road to Götterdämmerung

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 8, 2011

WITH the prime minister steering the ship of state in the general direction of Götterdämmerung — either his own or the nation’s — I’m working on a post that requires more translation, editing, and organizing. Until then, here’s a sampling of what some people are saying.

For the sake of the people, for the sake of the disaster-stricken area, for the sake of the Democratic Party, I want the prime minister to resign quickly, by even a minute or even a second.

Watanabe Kozo, Democratic Party Supreme Advisor

The politics of toadying to voters to win votes in elections is the source of our current confusion.

Gemba Koichiro, Democratic Party Policy Research Committee Chairman

In general, Kan Naoto does not see politics as a battle over policy, but as a fight between stray dogs. He is a politician of whom it is rather difficult to say that he is normal.

– A Democratic Party senior official who wished to remain anonymous

Even the Democratic Party is unable to prevent Prime Minister Kan from turning power into his personal possession.

Nakagawa Hidenao, Liberal Democratic Party lower house MP

Show business has the actor Gekidan Hitori (literally, one-man drama troupe), and now we’ve got a prime minister who is a Naikaku Hitori (one-man Cabinet).

Koike Yuriko, Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party General Council

Looking at the situation makes me think there’s a systemic inadequacy, because there’s no system for the recall of the prime minister (and Diet members). Considering the national interest, don’t we need a mechanism for recall?

Takenaka Heizo

Executives from the government and the Democratic Party come (to the devastated area) one after another, but they never do anything for us.

– A chief municipal officer in Miyagi, quoted by the Nikkei Shimbun

They talk about a tax increase, but you can’t bring up water by lowering a bucket into a broken well where water doesn’t collect.

Kamei Shizuka, head of junior coalition member People’s New Party

We’ll be in trouble if the Kansai region isn’t revitalized (by turning it into a subsidiary capital). Greater centralization (in Tokyo) would not be welcome. There’s no other city whose daytime population increases (over the night time population) by four million people.

Ishihara Shintaro, Governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan District

Azumi Jun edition

There is no other way to pass difficult legislation than by discussion, including with the LDP and New Komeito. It is truly regrettable that (Prime Minister Kan) has created a situation in which we are unable to negotiate with either of them.

Azumi Jun, Democratic Party Diet Affairs Committee Chairman

I hope he (the prime minister) leaves quickly. This situation is embarassing and I can’t go home to Ishinomaki.

Azumi Jun to reporters, after he was told that he had been considered to replace Matsumoto Ryu as Reconstruction and Recovery Minister because he was from Ishinomaki, Miyagi. Mr. Azumi, a Kan opponent, viewed his consideration for the post only as a Kan strategy to extend the life of his administration.

This is truly a despicable Cabinet. Is there any value in supporting it as a party? I am truly angry. That’s all.

Azumi Jun again, before storming out of a meeting of the Democratic Party’s executive council.

We should make preparations to hold an election for party leader (to replace Kan Naoto) in August.

Kawakami Yoshihiro, Democratic Party upper house member, after Mr. Azumi left the meeting.

If we decide to hold an election, the prime minister will become a lame duck.

Okada Katsuya, Democratic Party secretary-general, objecting to the idea

The Kan administration is already a lame duck. At this rate, the entire Democratic Party will become a lame duck.

Kawakami Yoshihiro’s reply

This is even worse than the power struggles among the extreme leftists. At least the extreme leftists had principles.

Kamei Shizuka again, criticizing Azumi Jun’s criticism

That is his failure as the (DPJ) Diet Affairs head. What sort of guy would complain about the head of the house to outsiders? He should think about how people will view this.

Ishii Hajime, Democratic Party vice-president, criticizing Mr. Azumi’s criticism. Both Mr. Kamei and Mr. Ishii were originally in the Liberal Democratic Party. Readers will note the irony of the unfavorable comparison to the far left with the demand that he follow the party line and not criticize the Dear Leader in public. I used the English “guy” to translate Mr. Ishii’s yatsu, which in this case has a derogatory connotation.

A couple of weeks ago we had a video from Thailand that I thought should rank in the global top ten of unusual music videos. Here’s one to make the other look tame by comparison.

It’s called The Art of Self Defense by Josie Ho, a singer, actress, movie producer, and daughter of casino tycoon Stanley Ho, one of the richest men in Macau.

That means she can afford a plane ticket to Tokyo, where she should try that cake treatment on a certain politician there.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics, Quotations | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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:

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

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

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

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


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 5, 2011

THE EARTH is still quaking in Tohoku—there was an M3 temblor there yesterday—but residents have rolled up their sleeves and started cleaning up. The Kahoku Shimpo, a daily newspaper published in Sendai, Miyagi, reported last week reported that work began in earnest on the 28th. One sentence in that report describes the extent of the destruction from another perspective: The prefectural government intends to remove all the debris within a year and to dispose of it within three years.

They have their work cut out for them. In addition to clearing away the wrecked houses, they will also have to dispose of automobiles and equipment from plants in the maritime industry. They’re focusing their initial efforts on clearing roads for the passage of emergency vehicles.

This will be a two-stage process. The debris will first be collected at several designated primary collection sites in each municipality. It will then be transferred to several larger secondary collection sites in the prefecture, where it will be crushed or burned. The final step is to recycle that which can be recycled.

The prefecture estimates the volume of wreckage will total 18 million tons. That’s equivalent to the amount of debris handled by Miyagi in 23 years, and exceeds the 14 million tons of debris that was the fallout from the Hanshin earthquake. About 15 million tons of the junk is the result of the tsunami, and about 12 million tons of that is accounted for by wood frame houses.

In normal circumstances, each municipality would be responsible for the work, but the prefecture is taking charge of this effort. The national government indicated it will assume the liability for most, if not all, of the costs.

Among the debris are the remains of 23 JR railroad stations, as the English-language version of the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

JR East is still checking the damage to seven rail lines in Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori prefectures, and has found 680 places that need repair. The damaged sections are about 22 kilometers in length. The Joban Line suffered the most track damage, but the Kesennuma Line alone lost nine stations, including those at Shizukawa and Utatsu.

That’s a lot of train stations, but readers familiar with local railroad lines in Japan know that some station buildings are smaller than houses. That wasn’t the case with the two specified here, however. This is what the now non-existant Utatsu Station looked like before 11 March.

Some aspects of the cleanup work are controversial, and no one will be surprised that the controversy is caused by the left-of-center DPJ government’s default position that the national government should be responsible for everything—including some pies it has no business sticking its fingers into. In this case, it is their approach for dealing with large areas of land that are expected to be abandoned for some time.

The DPJ is now discussing legislation to facilitate the government’s purchase of the land. By law, the national government is required to pay 75% of the cost to move the people left homeless into evacuation shelters, with local governments picking up the rest. According to one account, a party member said, “Nationalizing land would facilitate the rebirth of tsunami-hit communities by coordinating reconstruction efforts.”

They don’t explain how or why that would be so, because the only thing nationalization facilitates is the growth of government. It retards everything else. Finding temporary housing for people is one thing, but rebuilding entire communities is another. The details in the Japanese print media are sketchy—a word that best describes the DPJ’s policy conceptions for any issue—but one Japanese-language media source used the phrase “the restriction of land ownership rights” to describe the legislation being discussed.

Sometimes absolutism is necessary, and this is one of those times. Any politician who would “restrict land ownership rights” for any reason should be permanently disqualified from public office.

The now-abandoned land is owned by someone. If that someone is still alive, the disposition of that land is his responsibility. If that someone is no longer alive, he will have heirs, and the disposition of the land is their responsibility. If there are no heirs, the land can be sold at public auction. The potential exists for plenty of private sector solutions to the problem, but few good solutions exist to deal with the problem of governments that think limiting land ownership rights is part of their job description.

Will a large-scale land purchase and rebuilding progam cause them to think about limiting other rights? I think not. The people committed to working in governments of that sort began with the premise of limiting personal rights before they got involved with politics as a career.

Finally, someone might be cleaning up on Tokyo Electric Power Co. stock. The utility’s stock price plunged three straight days starting on the 28th, and reached the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s limit down level each of those days. On the third day a mystery investor stepped in. The price had fallen to JPY 466 as the close of trading approached on the 30th, and just at the close, someone forked over JPY 18.6 billion to buy 40 million shares. The price rebounded to JPY 524 yen the next morning, before settling into a range of JPY 500. In later trading it fell again to reach a low for the year of JPY 461. It finally closed at JPY 466, the same as the previous day.

As the website J-Cast reports, market watchers naturally wondered who had all that scratch to spring for all that stock. The entity who owned 40 million shares of Tokyo Electric’s 1.6 billion shares outstanding would have 2.5% of the total. Had the owner maintained his stake on the 31st, the end of the business year, it would have been enough to rank him among the company’s major stockholders.

Said international financial analyst Edagawa Jiro: “The investor that purchased (the stocks) was probably a speculator who intends to sell them quickly. Even if he doesn’t sell them all at once, he’ll probably do so before long.”

The stock had been trading at roughly JPY 2,000 before the earthquake, and it took two weeks to fall to that low. It had been considered a blue chip stock, so speculators were attracted by the price swings.

Mr. Edagawa again: “Speculators from around the world are focused on TEPCO stock. The yen fell in currency markets on the 30th, so the Japanese market environment made it easy for overseas capital-affiliated funds to invest. This was a large amount of money, so it might have been a hedge fund.”

Had the new owners unloaded their stake when it reached a high of JPY 524 on the 31st, they would have walked away with JPY 2.3 billion.

J-Cast notes that markets are always volatile after a disaster. Transactions on the First Section of the TSE exceeded JPY 2 trillion from March 14 to 18. Though the Nikkei share price index fell to the 8,000 level on the 31st, buying by bargain hunters drove it back up to roughly 9,700. One securities company analyst said the entire market was primed for trading by speculators and professionals, suggesting indirectly that individual investors should be careful. Mr. Edagawa thinks some twists and turns might still be in store for Tokyo Electric stock.

While a sharp drop in TEPCO’s stock price was inevitable, market analysts think the reason it fell so low so precipitously at the end of the month was the government floating the dandy idea of taking an ownership stake in the utility.

Here’s another absolute: When the ship of state docks at the Left Bank, rodents will scamper up the mooring lines and cracks will open in the hull.

It’s time to invite Betty Wright to Northeast Japan. Wait for the line about Whitney Houston.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Social trends | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 21, 2011

MONDAY is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring and a public holiday in Japan. This year spring arrived 11 days after one of the five strongest earthquakes ever recorded and the resulting tsunami killed more than 20,000 people. That was followed by a seven-day period with 262 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater.

It was fitting, then, that Monday’s news reports focused on renewal and recovery. Nissan Motors and Sony announced they will restart production this week, and gasoline production and deliveries in the Tohoku region began yesterday. Factories in Kyushu have been operating at full production for nearly a week, particularly in the energy (gasoline), food products, and pharmaceuticals sectors. Yamato has resumed express parcel delivery service in the three prefectures where the damage was the greatest. The website J-Cast reported that radiation readings in the capital region were declining, and were at normal levels at noon in Tokyo.

More important, the SMBEs that are the backbone of all national economies have been picking themselves up off the floor. The Kisennuma, Miyagi sake brewery producing the well-known Fushimi Otokoyama brand got started on the final batch of winter last week. The company was founded in 1912, and their office building, which dates from 1980, was destroyed in the tsunami. The brewery itself, however, was intact, and it took only two people to get it running again. One of them has been sleeping in his car or in the brewery itself.

No one knows when the essential lifeline services will be restored in Kisennuma, and 80% of the city’s liquor merchants, the brewery’s primary companies, have been damaged. That hasn’t deterred company President Sugawara Akihiko:

“This will protect local employment and industry. I want to brew good sake now more than ever.”

In Iwanuma in the same prefecture, the employees of Iwanuma Seiko, a precision machining company, began cleaning up the premises. They have no electricity, the floor is buried in mud, and the only light is that which shines through the plant windows. A truck with relief supplies finally reached them on the 17th.

Company President Chiba Kiyoshi was in Tokyo on a business trip when the earthquake and tsunami hit, but his wife responded quickly to the emergency and all 50 employees escaped harm.

The monetary losses they incurred are incalculable at this point; 60 of their machines were flooded and under water. That’s not how the 63-year-old Mr. Chiba views his situation, however:

“We can buy new machines as replacements. But our employees have stayed with us, and they can’t be bought with money. That’s the best thing…we must absolutely not be defeated.”

Gambare Shiogama was launched two years ago in the Shiogama district of Miyagi to use local traditional techniques and modern equipment for the production of salt from sea water. The disaster occurred just when they thought they had finally gotten the kinks ironed out. Production isn’t possible at moment, but the company finally confirmed on the night of the 17th that their employees were safe. Said plant manager Oikawa Fumio:

“We’ll start again no matter how long it takes. Our original purpose for making salt was to stimulate the local economy. Now more than ever is the time to give it everything we’ve got (gambare).”

Meanwhile, in another time-space continuum, an article appeared in the Western media today with the following headline: “Rich Japan’s Descent into Misery Stuns”.

I like this one better: “Bankrupt Media’s Descent into Irrelevance Stupefies”.

There are also contrasting views in the Japanese media. For example, the headline on the cover of the 1 April special edition of the weekly Shukan Post reads, “Let’s Put Our Faith in Japan.” Here’s what it looks like:

The special edition of the weekly Aera that hit newsstands a day or two ago had a different approach, however. The headline reads, “Here Comes the Radiation”. This is what it looks like:

Neither Japanese language ability nor familiarity with the magazines’ content is needed to know which was published by the media outlet with the left wing political philosophy.

It’s also worth noting that the yellow vertical headline at the right on the Shukan Post cover reads, “Radiation Contamination and False Rumors”.

The Japanese have no doubt about where they stand. Shinhodo 2001 conducted a quick poll in Tokyo and asked the question, “Can Japan recover?” The results were lopsided:

Yes: 94.6%
No: 2.6%
Don’t know: 2.8%

Aera’s publisher Asahi posted an apology on their website today for their choice of cover and headline.

The plums are in bloom here in Kyushu. In another week or two, it will be cherry blossom season.

Any day now, spring will be here for real, not just on the calendar.

UPDATE: Can’t let this post by James Delingpole go by without mention. It’s titled, Whatever Happened to the Nuclear Meltdown?

The best parts aren’t his, though. He quotes Lewis Page:

“As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.”


The Fukushima reactors actually came through the quake with flying colours despite the fact that it was five times stronger than they had been built to withstand. Only with the following tsunami – again, bigger than the design allowed for – did problems develop, and these problems seem likely to end in insignificant consequences….Other Japanese nuclear powerplants in the quake-stricken area, in fact, are sheltering homeless refugees in their buildings – which are some of the few in the region left standing at all, let alone with heating, water and other amenities.

He also quotes from a letter to another website by German astronomer and physicist, Dr Peter Heller:

“Stopping nuclear energy is nothing less than rejecting the legacy of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and all others. It is tantamount to scrapping it, labelling it as dangerous – all in a fit of ignorance. And just as creationists attempt to ban the theory of evolution from the school books, it almost seems as if every factual and neutral explanation in Germany is now in the process of being deleted.

“The media suggests a nuclear catastrophe, a mega-meltdown, and that the apocalypse has already begun. It is almost as if the 10,000 deaths in Japan were actually victims of nuclear energy, and not the earthquake or the tsunami. Here again one has to remind us that Fukushima was first hit by an unimaginable 9.0 earthquake and then by a massive 10-meter wave of water just an hour later. As a result, the facility no longer found itself in a highly technological area, but surrounded by a desert of rubble. All around the power plant the infrastructure, residential areas, traffic routes, energy and communication networks are simply no longer there. They were wiped out. Yet, after an entire week, the apocalypse still has not come to pass. Only relatively small amounts of radioactive materials have leaked out and have had only a local impact. If one considers the pure facts exclusively, i.e. only the things we really know, then it exposes the unfounded interpretations of scientific illiterates in the media.”

But we knew that already, didn’t we?

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Mass media, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »

Matsuri da! (99): Bringing it all back home

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 2, 2008

THIS POST last June briefly examined the importance of rice in Japan and included capsule summaries of the many rice-planting festivals held in late spring throughout the country. Now you know darn well that if people are going to take the trouble to have a special ceremony for planting the rice, they’re going to have another when it comes time to harvest it. And here they are!

The ritual for cutting the rice itself is variously called the nuihosai, the nuibosai, or even the nuiboshiki, but they all mean the same thing. Some of the rice (and other crops) harvested during these ceremonies is offered to the divinities a month later in a ceremony called the niinamesai. Here’s a quick look at what’s been going on out in the fields. Don’t be shocked—some of it involves putting schoolgirls to work doing manual labor on the farms!

Shingu, Wakayama

Five junior high school girls clad as otome, or rice paddy maidens, hacked away during the nuihosai at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, a Shinto shrine. The Shingu otome worked in a 10-are (quarter acre) wet paddy planted in April. The paddy yielded 480 kilograms of rice, which made everyone pleased as punch. The rice itself will be used for shrine ceremonies, while the ears were offered at the Ise shrine. (That’s closely associated with the Imperial family, making it one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The enshrined deity at the Inner Shrine is Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is the mythological ancestor of the emperors.) Teenaged Japanese girls don’t have a lot of practice at wielding the scythes, so the onlookers had to give them the benefit of their experience—whack from below and at an angle. That’s one thing about old folks—they like to stand around kibitzing. Here’s another—they’re usually right!

Naruto, Tokushima

Held at the O’asahiko Shinto shrine, this nuihosai started with a Shinto ceremony. Then five karime, or cutting girls, from the local primary school, went to work. Meanwhile, about 40 people watched from the sideline and gave the girls the benefit of their extensive experience. (Whack from below and at an angle!) The rice was planted at the end of May, and the harvest totaled about 450 kilograms. It will be offered at the November niinamesai and to the shrine every day throughout the year.

Sabae, Fukui

Instead of rice, the karime at this nuihosai harvested foxtail millet, a plant frequently cultivated in East Asia and infrequently seen in Japanese supermarkets. Millet can grow to a height of five feet, which might require different whacking techniques than those used for the smaller rice plants. A local farmer planted this small field in June. The crowd estimated at 170 who came to watch and make speeches included area residents and officials from the prefecture, city, and JA (the national agricultural cooperatives association). The millet will be dried and offered both to the Imperial household in Tokyo and at the local niinamesai.

Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui

Fukui also harvests the traditional rice instead of millet, and that’s what the sixth-grade karime are doing here. You can’t see him, but helping out the girls is Ishikawa Tetsuji, who planted the field in May. Mr. Ishikawa said that growing the rice in such a natural setting enabled him to derive a sense of spiritual culture. He said he also felt a particular responsibility because Fukui is the home of koshihikari rice. That’s a super-premium strain of rice created in the 1950s, and it has become one of the most popular in the country. It’s also popular at the Imperial Palace, where the crop was recently offered. It will be used later this month at the niinamesai with Fukui millet and other rice from around the country.

Mine, Yamaguchi

The Imperial household is going to have enough rice to feed the entire diplomatic corps when these ceremonies are all over. Two liters of the rice harvested in Mine, Yamaguchi, which was cut by 15 karime, are also being shipped to Tokyo. This year the job of planting the ceremonial crop fell to Kitahara Masahiko, which he did in May on his three-are (300 square meter) field. Mr. Kitahara allowed as how the great weather this year resulted in an excellent crop. Now when was the last time you heard any farmer anywhere talking up his harvest? The average farmer would rather choke on his cut plug than talk about how good he’s got it. It might make the government think twice about agricultural subsidies, for one thing. (The Japanese usually soft-pedal their good harvests by saying they are mazumazu, or not so bad.) He also said he was thrilled to do the work because it was the greatest honor that could be received in a lifetime of farming.

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka

They call it a nuiboshiki in Hamamatsu, and theirs was held at a rice paddy near the Iinoya-gu Shinto shrine, which every year grows isehikari rice received from the aforementioned Ise shrine. Eight grade-school girls dressed up as otome to harvest the rice they planted themselves in the spring, and they look like they’re enjoying themselves. A group of about 10 people stuck around to kibitz, telling them to whack from the bottom at an angle. The crop this year was about 100 kilos–sounds about right for grade school girls–which was dried for offering at the shrine. More was offered in mid-October at the Ise shrine itself at a ceremony called the kannamesai.

Omaezaki, Shizuoka

Hey, where did that hair-legged guy come from! That’s Masuda Noboru, stomping around his own rice paddy in Omaezaki, where he planted koshihikari rice on 2,818 square meters in April. That yielded a harvest of about 500 kilograms—better than the usual crop, according to Mr. Masuda. He cut the rice plants himself for presentation to the tenno (Emperor) at the niinamesai. It’s a wonder the Imperial family doesn’t have a weight problem with all the food people send them from around the country. The Palace’s cut was 1.8 kilograms. According to the city government, this was the first time the ceremony was conducted in the municipality. Sometimes in Japan a centuries-old tradition can start just this year, and sometimes it can be a one-man operation.

Iwanuma, Miyagi

Iwanumanians use the term nuihoshiki to describe the ceremonial rice harvest at the Takekoma shrine, which dates from 842. The harvest was also a study session–about 50 Shinto priests went out to work in the fields, some of whom were shrine officials and priests from six prefectures throughout the Tohoku region taking part in religous training. A guy just can’t go out there and start hacking–you have to learn how to do this the right way first. (Whack from the bottom at an angle.) After the main priest ritually purified the paddy and offered a prayer, shrine officials and miko (shrine maidens) dressed as otome formed a row to cut the rice stalks. It’s a shame the miko weren’t closer to the camera. The priests bundled the rice and presented it to the divinities in thanks for the harvest. This year’s crop was said to be average, despite the heavy rains of late August. After the rice is dried in the sun, it will be offered at the niinamesai in late November.

Sanuki, Kagawa

Nuihoshiki? Check. Rice paddy? 200 square meters. Niinamesai? Check. The local shrine’s cut? 1.8 liters. Growth time? Four and a half months. Yield? Pretty good, despite the lack of rain and the heat. Participants? About 100, including city and prefectural government officials and 18 members of the farmer’s family. This one seems to have been a ceremony for the regular folks. I hope they’re not looking for a needle in the rice stacks.

Ise, Mie

And here’s the Ise shrine’s own nuihoshiki, which this year was held in the rain. The rice was harvested by the priests from a shrine rice paddy in Kusube-cho. Those are some elegant threads and umbrellas for agricultural work. What’s the guy in yellow saying? “Whack from the bottom at an angle”? The event is a statement for self-sufficiency, as the rice grown and harvested here will be used for events at the shrine. Participating in the event were about 80 people, including shrine officials and area residents. After the initial prayer, they entered the paddy to cut the rice with sacred scythes. Don’t you wish you had a sacred scythe, too? The rice was separated into two groups, one for use in the Inner Shrine and one for use in the Outer Shrine. It was then stored after inspection by lower ranking priests, called negi. Both ordinary rice and the more glutinous mochi rice were grown in the paddy. (The latter variety is used to make the rice cakes for New Year’s decorations.) About 240 bags were harvested, and the first offering will be at an event called the kannamesai on 15 October.

Tsuruoka, Yamagata

This ceremony was held by JA, the national association of agricultural cooperatives, to harvest rice for the Dewasanzan Shinto shrine at their own ceremonial rice paddy. The torii in the photo shows just how close the shrine is. That photo also shows just how much work religion can be sometimes. The 17-are (0.42 acre) rice paddy is known as a kensenden (a paddy that is an offering to the divinities). It was created just last year in the hope for a divine reboot of area agriculture, which has been suffering lately due to bad weather. The work was done by 40 JA employees as well as the miko, and they certainly don’t need any kibitzers telling them how to to go about chopping rice. The event started off with a miko dance, a lottery offering, and a religious ceremony. That’s something for everybody! (I pick the first.)

Kashima, Saga

Those ladies look like they’re having fun. Maybe they’re playing Tom Sawyer and trying to con us into painting the fence. That’s the nuiboshiki in a consecrated paddy at the Yutoku Inari Shinto shrine in Kashima to give thanks for the fall harvest. The miko, clad as otome, formed a horizontal row to cut the rice plants. This traditional ceremony gathers the rice used for the niinamesai on 8 December and is more than 300 years old. To start, 11 miko perform a solemn dance at the shrine in supplication for a big harvest. Then three miko use flutes and percussion to perform a song for an abundant year while the other eight go to work with a scythe. The harvest was better than average, and the priest was glad there was no typhoon damage. The shrine’s rice planting ceremony was covered in the June post, and the miko wore the same clothes then. And then washed them for this ceremony, of course.

Buzen, Fukuoka

Good morning, little schoolgirl…I’m a little schoolboy too! The Otomi shrine leaves nothing to chance during its nuihosai—they have three taosa, or paddy bosses, overseeing the work of the six karime from primary and junior high school on a special 1.5 are consecrated rice paddy. One boss for two girls? Now that’s labor intensive agriculture! This was just the shrine’s 14th rice harvesting event to offer thanks to the divinity for a bountiful harvest. They cut in time with music provided by flutes and taiko drums. The rice was a local prefectural variety planted in June. Fukui Aya, one of the karime, was out cutting for the second time. She said, “When you put on the clothing, it definitely gives you a sacred feeling.”

And with that, the granaries are filled for the winter!

Posted in Festivals, Food, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Nippon Noel: How the Japanese spend Christmas

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2007

HOW DO THE JAPANESE SPEND CHRISTMAS? The best way to answer that is to let the Japanese answer themselves, and the good news is they already have—through surveys.

A group called Work-Life conducted one such survey from 19-22 November. The survey subjects were 891 men and women from the ages of 20-59. Here are the questions and their answers.

Q: Do you feel Christmas is a special day?
The group with the highest percentage of affirmative answers were those in their twenties at 66.5%. Interest in the holiday declined with age, and fell to 36% for people in their 50s.


Q: How do you plan to spend the day?
The highest response was to relax at home, given by 56.8% of the respondents. This was followed by people who planned to have a party at home (22.8%), and people who planned to go out for dinner (18.4%)

Q: For those who plan to relax at home and those who plan to have a party at home, what sort of meals will you eat?
The people who said they expected to have pre-prepared meals, either partially or entirely, accounted for nearly 70% of the responses, showing that home meal replacements will be an important part of Christmas dinner for many. (Finding out things like this is why they conduct the surveys in the first place.)

Broken down by age group, 80% of people in their 20s say they will use home meal replacements. The incidence of this answer trends downward as the respondent’s age increases. Conversely, the older people get, the more likely they are to make their own dinner at home.

Q: For those who plan to have home replacement dinners or to buy pre-prepared ingredients, how much do you plan to spend? (Don’t include Christmas cake and drinks.)
A total of 75.4% of the respondents said less than 5,000 yen. (Roughly US$44.00)

Q: How does this compare to last year’s expenditures?
74.6% replied there would be no change. Fewer than 10% of the people in their 40s or 50s said they would spend more or slightly more, but slightly fewer than 30% of those in their 20s and 30s planned to spend more. Thus, younger people plan on having a more elaborate Christmas celebration.

Q: For those going out to dinner, what type of establishment will you visit?
68.9% said a restaurant, followed by 15.9% who answered an izakaya (a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place).

Q: How much will you spend at these establishments?
Only 5% of the respondents said more than 30,000 yen (US$265.00), and 65.9% said less than 10,000 yen ($88.00). The survey group concluded that people aren’t splurging as they did during the bubble economy days, despite Japan’s brightening economic picture.

All About Presents

What would Christmas be without presents? A survey conducted by Japan.Internet.Com and goo research uncovered some information on Japanese attitudes towards Christmas gifts.

Those surveyed were 1,089 Internet users from their teens to 60 and older. 53.35% were men and 46.65% were women.

Q: Do you plan to give a Christmas present?
44.9% of the respondents said yes and 20.11% said they were thinking about it. 34.99% said no.


Q: To whom will you give a present?
75.05% answered a family member, and 23.11% said a lover. 16.36% of those participating said a friend or acquaintance. Meanwhile, 4.29% said themselves (Multiple answers were possible.)

Q: Where will you buy the presents?
82.41% said brick-and-mortar stores, and 28.83% said an Internet shop. Those are interesting results for an Internet survey.
Just 7.36% said they would give something homemade, and 2.86% said they would give something they already had on hand.

Q: How much money will you spend?
38.24% said between 1,000 (US$8.83) and 5,000 yen, and 31.90% said from 5,000 to 10,000 yen.

Q: What will you buy as presents?
The reply from 30.47% was clothing, 17.38% said confections, 17.18% said game software, and 15.75% said jewelry. In fifth place was “others”, with 14.72%. When those giving “others” as an answer were asked to specify what they would buy, most said toys.

Q: What would you like to receive as a present?
14.97% hoped for jewelry, while 13.59% wanted clothing, and 11.75% said gift certificates.

Yet another survey found that about 90% of all children would receive Christmas presents. (That corresponds with the answers I got in an informal discussion of this question with the students of two college classes I taught in the spring.

Finally, for the sake of comparison, let’s look at some answers from an Internet survey last January conducted by My Voice Communications. They had 10,000 respondents.

45% said they bought Christmas cakes
40% bought presents.
29% had some kind of Christmas decorations in their homes
25.8% said they had a party at home.
More than 20% prepared Christmas dinner at home.
26% said they did nothing special.

The Trees

We’ve seen before that the Japanese have an imaginative approach toward Christmas trees. Here’s a word about the two trees in the photos accompanying this post. The first one is probably unlike any in a Western country. Located in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, it is made of 30 tairyobata, or banners hung by fishing boats to signal a large catch of fish.

A crew of 15 hung a fishing net arranged to look like a tree on the side of a wall 17 meters high on a square near the harbor and decorated it with lights. They also stretched rope down from the roof and attached the banners so that they hung in a triangular tree shape.

The tree, which was first erected last year, will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until the 31st.

The second tree is on a traffic circle in front of the Entetsu Railroad’s Hamakita Station in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. It will be lit every day from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. until 15 January.

The tree has roughly 9,000 LEDs that are used for illumination. There are also lights resembling snow crystals and stars decorating a nearby mural, as well as 40 other illuminated trees in the area.

Posted in Food, Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »