Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Miyazaki’

All you have to do is look (99)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A commemorative photograph taken in Miyzaki after a sumo youth tournament. The former grand champion Takanohana is third from the right in the rear.

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

Kagura Koshien

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 20, 2012

THE climactic stage of the 94th annual national high school baseball championships has arrived — the semifinal games will be played today, and the finals are tomorrow. One of the most well-known sporting events in Japan, the championship is commonly referred to as Koshien after the name of the Hyogo stadium where the games are played. (It’s also the home park of the Hanshin Tigers major league team, who are forced to take a long road trip every summer at this time.)

This event is so well known that the term Koshien is now used colloquially to refer to any national high school championship competition. This post presented the Koshien for a new competition featuring the combination of calligraphy with dance and music. One of my college students this spring said performing with her club in a similar competition was her favorite memory from her high school days. (There’s also a brief description of the Manga Koshien.)

Another new and different Koshien began last year with content that might surprise even Japanese — the performance of kagura. That’s an ancient Shinto ritual of dance and music for the divinities whose origins are at least 1,300 years old. It is also performed in some areas of the country as a folk-drama during shrine festivals. The appeal of kagura in the latter context is easy to understand when you realize the art contains elements similar to that of a Broadway musical comedy, albeit from a different millennium.

This year’s Kagura Koshien was the second, and it was held at the end of last month in Akitakata, Hiroshima, at the Kagura Monzen Tojimura. In addition to a kagura dome, that facility also has a hot springs resort with lodgings.

Ten schools from five prefectures took part, with representatives from Hiroshima, Shimane, Tottori, Kochi, and Miyazaki. Last year’s inaugural event featured five schools, and while the first three of those prefectures are in the same region, Miyazaki is in Kyushu, which is some distance away. That suggests the idea is catching on in other parts of the country. The event organizers reported there were about 1,600 spectators. Said one of the students, 17-year-old Fujii Riiya:

“I learned a lot by watching the kagura of the other schools. I hope the younger students take part next year.”

Here’s an explanation of the origins and more formal varieties of kagura, and here’s a description of the pop variety, with a blow-by-blow account of one of the plots.

And in an excellent example of synchronicity, this YouTube video digest of the Kagura Koshien was uploaded just this weekend. Watch it to discover how an ancient ritual could capture the imagination of high school students.

Posted in Arts, Education, Festivals, Imperial family, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a 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!

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

Exquisite music

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 14, 2011

MORE than 800 years ago, in 1196, the Buddhist priest Hozan Kengyo was sent from the Myo-on-ji Jorakuin temple in what is now Shiga to attend the opening of a new temple in today’s Hioki, Kagoshima. Hozan was proficient in the biwa, and he taught 12 pieces of religious music to the local priests. It was performed with eight instruments, including the biwa, flute, taiko drum, and shell horns.

The name of the new temple was the Nakashima Jorakuin, and the music Hozan brought with him was known as Myo-on Junigaku (myo-on means exquisite music). The Japanese biwa is derived from the lute by way of the Chinese pipa, but several different types have been developed in Japan since then. This temple is said to be the origin of the Satsuma biwa, which was used not only for performing music, but also for the mental and moral training of the local samurai. In the past, only blind priests could serve at this temple, and many of the chief priests were renowned for their musical talent.

Nakashima Jorakuin is affiliated with the Tendai sect, at one time the mainstream Buddhist sect in Japan and at its zenith when the temple was founded. Tendai was once associated with the Imperial court, and the Jodo and Nichiren sects are derived from it. A class of warrior-monks emerged from the sect after the 12th century, which applied pressure to the Imperial court and took sides in military and political disputes to defend what it considered to be temple interests. That ended when the warlord Oda Nobunaga almost completely destroyed their headquarters in 1571.

The main temple of Nakashima Jorakuin was moved to a location near the Kagoshima Castle in 1619. With the early Meiji-period anti-Buddhist movement to disestablish Buddhism and replace it with Shinto, and the damage suffered during American bombing missions in World War II, the temple was again moved, this time to Miyazaki. What remains on the original site in Hioki was the subsidiary temple, which has been reduced to one building and the graves of the chief priests. Kagoshima has designated it a prefectural historical site.

Kagoshima also designated the 12 pieces of myo-on junigaku music as an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture in 1971. The repertoire was once performed by blind priests throughout southern Kyushu, but it is now heard only once a year and only at Nakashima Jorakuin, accompanied by readings of sutras unique to the temple.

That performance always falls on 12 October. Ten musician-priests came from Kagoshima and Miyazaki this year to play. Said a sixth-grade boy who attended:

“I think it’s amazing when I wonder how the people of the past, who couldn’t record music, were able to memorize a performance of nearly an hour.”

Here’s a two-minute YouTube clip from last year’s performance of music that has changed little, if at all, from a millennium ago.

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

Serious criticism

Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 1, 2011

“Where there is no market economy, the best-intentioned provisions of constitutions and laws remain a dead letter.”
– Ludwig von Mises

WRITING on a site called The Daily, Sikha Dalmia succinctly identifies the real problem with Fukushima:

The liability cap (in the event of an accident) effectively privatizes the profits of nuclear and socializes the risk. It uses taxpayer money to diminish the industry’s concern with safety — which government regulations can’t restore. In 2008, Tokyo actually started offering bigger subsidies to communities that agreed to fewer inspections. The problem of regulatory capture is particularly endemic in Japan given that regulators seek industry jobs upon retirement, and hence often cozy up to companies they are supposed to oversee.

Nuclear’s advocates argue that, if anything, Fukushima testifies to just how safe nuclear is given that the reactor reportedly shut down as designed in the face of a 9-magnitude earthquake even though it was built for only 7.5-magnitude. Had a freak tsunami not knocked out the backup generator needed to cool down the fuel rods, none of this would have happened.

Perhaps. But had the industry been underwritten by private companies that risk getting wiped out by lax procedures instead of a government that risks nothing, might they not have refused to insure a reactor in an earthquake-prone zone or demanded better seismological studies than those available or ensured that backup generators were built to withstand a tsunami?

Exactly. The problem he cites–a form of crony capitalism–is not exclusive to Japan, but he goes to the core of the issue when few others are aware of it.

He might have given more thought to some aspects of the article. Such as:

Nuclear meets about a third of Japan’s energy needs (compared to 20 percent in America) not because it is more competitive than the alternatives; it is not. Nuclear’s exorbitant upfront capital costs and long — and uncertain — lead times make it every bit as unattractive to investors in Japan as elsewhere, especially compared to other fuels.

It might not be more competitive than other energy sources, but some explanatory data instead of an unsupported declarative statement would have been helpful.

He also too blithely dismisses Japan’s lack of energy resources:

But nuclear appeals to Japan’s mercantilist rulers, who, since the mid-’60s, have regarded the country’s lack of indigenous energy resources as a major strategic vulnerability that must be corrected at all cost.

He neither examines, nor even mentions, Japan’s alternative. Then again, no one could be expected to mention the efforts underway to employ other energy sources, because they are seldom mentioned in English. Miyazaki Prefecture, for example, intends to become a center for solar power generation, and a so-called “mega solar power plant” has just been built on the site of the former test track for maglev vehicles in Tsuno. There are still serious drawbacks with energy sources of this type, however. Despite the mega designation, its annual output will be enough for only 300 households.

As Mr. Dalmia notes, political considerations pervert the market’s natural ability to take safety issues into account. But we will have made progress if people begin to understand that Big Business ≠ The Market, that the market will naturally gravitate to better solutions, and that it will determine of itself whether those solutions are viable. For example, Matt Ridley points out the potential advantages of thorium:

“Thorium has lots of advantages as a nuclear fuel. There is four times as much of it as uranium; it is more easily handled and processed; it “breeds” its own fuel by creating uranium 233 continuously and can produce about 90 times as much energy from the same quantity of fuel; its reactions produce no plutonium or other bomb-making raw material; and it generates much less waste, with a much shorter half life until it becomes safe, so the waste can be stored for centuries rather than millennia.”

There’s only one way to find out whether it is a better means of providing energy, and putting bumper stickers with such slogans as “Split Wood, Not Atoms” on your auto isn’t it.

Posted in Science and technology | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »

Yet more true facts

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 27, 2011

THE PREVIOUS POST about misconceptions elsewhere of Japan-South Korea relations reminded me of similar misconceptions overseas about a supposed waning of the spirit of Japanese enterprise. That’s illustrated by the recent rash of ADD-impaired stories presenting Japan shuffling off the world’s stage like some forgotten old duffer with hair growing out of his ears.

Oh, really?

Here’s a sample of stories featuring developments that occurred over the past two months in Kyushu alone. Decide for yourself who’s shuffling and who’s strutting.

* Kitakyushu Hydrogen Town Project

Trials of the Hydrogen Town project in Kitakyushu got underway on 15 January and will run until the end of March. The trials involve using underground piping to send hydrogen to individual residences and commercial facilities, where it will be used in fuel cells to generate electric power and heat water. The hydrogen used is created as byproduct at local steel mills. The project organizers hope to resolve any issues regarding consistent hydrogen supply and its safe use. These will be the first large-scale trials in the world for the use of hydrogen in urban areas.

* Nanosatellite Testing Center Opens at KIT

The Kyushu Institute of Technology opened the Center for Nanosatellite Testing, a facility for conducting trials with artificial satellites no larger than 50 centimeters in diameter and weighing less than 50 kilograms. It is the world’s first facility with the capacity to conduct all the required performance tests for nanosatellites, including the ability to withstand temperature changes and vibrations. These satellites, used primarily for taking photos of Earth, have become increasingly popular in recent years because they are somewhat inexpensive.

* New Development in Cancer Stem Cell Treatment

Dr. Nakayama Keiichi and a team of researchers at Kyushu University’s Medical Institute of Bioregulation discovered that a certain protein will change the state of cancer stem cells, which are impervious to chemotherapy and radiation, into a state that allows them to be attacked. Even when other cancerous cells are removed, the remaining cancer stem cells have the potential to create a recurrence of the disease. Converting the protein into a usable medicine might bring a cure within reach.

* Honda to Conduct Electric Vehicle Trials in Kumamoto

Honda announced it will begin trials of new model electric motorbikes, electric cars, and plug-in hybrids next year at its Kumamoto Prefecture plant. The recharging station used in the trials will employ solar power to generate the electricity. The motorbike trials are slated to begin next spring, while those for automobiles will begin in the latter half of the year.

* Desalinization Certification Plant Built in Kitakyushu

Water Plaza Kitakyushu, Japan’s first desalinization certification plant capable of certifying both the conversion of seawater to fresh water and the purity of reclaimed sewage water, will begin operation in April. The plant was built by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). The operators hope to disseminate the technology and operational expertise gained from the plant both in Japan and overseas.

* NEECO to Make Energy from Chicken Dung in India

Fukuoka City-based Nishi-Nippon Environmental Energy Co. plans to launch a biomass power generating business in India by the spring of 2012 using chicken dung as fuel. If the enterprise is successful, the company hopes to expand the business throughout India and the rest of Asia. The company is using the expertise gained from operating a similar enterprise in Miyazaki Prefecture, which produces 25% of Japan’s chickens.

* Ecogenomics Sells DNA Chip Technology to China

Bio-venture company Ecogenomics is now selling to Chinese government agencies its DNA chips, which are devices for genetic testing. The adhesion and reaction of bacteria and chemical substances on the DNA chips makes them effective as medicine for pathological conditions. They are also said to be effective for preventing cancer and infectious diseases. The company has its own technology for the comprehensive processes from design to manufacture to create products that meet the individual testing needs of its customers.

While putting this post together, I discovered another example from outside Kyushu, as described today in the Asahi:

Researchers at RIKEN, Yokohama City University and The University of Tokyo have uncovered how gut bifidobacteria protect the body against lethal infection by enhancing the defenses of colonic epithelium. Published in this week’s issue of Nature, the finding provides first-ever clues on the mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of gut microbiota, promising more effective probiotic therapies for a variety of disorders and diseases.

To find this information, however, one has to read Japanese newspapers.

Chemistry is another popular field in Japan.

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Posted in China, Education, Environmentalism, New products, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Japanese food: More than just raw fish

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 20, 2010

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

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

Goya dumplings

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

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

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

One of the JA officials thinks they have a winner:

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

Katsuobushi cookies

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

Katsuobushi cookie winner with Mom

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

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

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

Soy yoghurt beverage

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

The professor and his creation

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

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

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

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

Blueberry udon

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

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

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

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

Lotus ice cream

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

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

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

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

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

Socho curry

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

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

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

Now for the hard stuff—here comes the hooch!

Mango lager

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

Mango lager

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

Still others will appreciate the 5.2% alcohol by volume.

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

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


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

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

Fighting fire with firewater

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

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

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

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

Microbeers making a comeback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here, take this cash, I don’t need it

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 5, 2009

WHEN SOMEONE wants to give you something, goes the Japanese proverb, you should take it, even if it’s a warm jacket in summer. (That’s Itadaku mono nara natsu demo kosode in the original. The jacket they’re talking about is a kosode, shown in the photo, which is the last thing anyone would want to wear during Japan’s sultry summer months.)


The sentiment seems to be universal, considering the English-language warning against looking in the mouths of gift horses (to check their age by inspecting their teeth).

Meanwhile, the wildly popular Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo (click the tag for more stories) is surfing on public approval ratings northward of 80% after more than two years in office for his strong stands on devolution and responsible local government. Are his ratings about to climb even higher now that he wants to turn down a taxpayer-funded kosode in June?

Yesterday the governor said he wants to halve the 40 million yen in retirement benefits he’s entitled to receive for serving a four-year term. (That’s about $US 415,000.) He plans to introduce a bill cutting his own benefits at the next session of the legislature this month.

One of the governor’s campaign pledges in January 2007 was the introduction of an accomplishment-based evaluation system that included returning retirement benefits if the Miyazakians weren’t happy with his performance. He cited that pledge as the reason for his decision.

Mr. Higashikokubaru’s popularity is so high that the citizens might be tempted to increase his pension rather than cut it, if given the chance. Nevertheless, that’s nearly a quarter of a million dollars the prefectural treasury doesn’t have to spend. You’d think the legislature would be delighted.

Nah. They’d rather pry open the horse’s mouth instead. One delegate said, “I don’t understand the justification for a 50% cut.” Another suggested it was rash for the governor to cut his pension only halfway through his term.

Mr. Higashikokubaru then allowed as how it would be difficult to establish objective standards to judge his accomplishments to date. Instead, he said, he would use the difficult financial situation of the prefecture and the harsh economic climate to justify the reduction.

Of course everyone knows—and he knows we know—the real reason for his Gandhi-like self-abnegation is that he’s thinking of running for a Diet seat in the upcoming election. It’s just another way for the governor to remind the voters he’s always been their pal. An additional benefit is that he can use that reminder as a trump card any time he wants in the future, regardless of the office he’s seeking or the voters he’s trying to woo.

But why should any legislator want to question his motives? Why try to prevent him from saving the taxpayers money? Do the delegates want to explain to the public and the media why they’re encouraging him to dip deep into the public till? Even if all of them are thinking: You don’t want free money, you crazy boy?

Their thought process doesn’t end there, of course. Everyone knows—and they know we know—the real question they’re asking is this: What are you trying to do, kill this job? If the popular governor does it, they might be forced to do the same. Politicians can get very sulky when someone downsizes the public trough.

Here’s another question: Why can’t they figure out it’s in their best interests to jump on the bandwagon with a smile, even if they have to fake it? The political winds in Japan have been blowing so strongly for so long that it shouldn’t take a weatherman to know from which direction it’s coming. Voters throughout the country have long made it plain what they’re looking for, so one would think the basic political survival instinct should have kicked in by now. To paraphrase another proverb, half a pension is better than none at all.

Politicians buying votes by giving money back to the people–what a novel concept! With any luck it’ll become a fad.

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The new breed of Japanese politician

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 2, 2009

“I think the people of Japan and the prefecture seek a method of politics different from that based on political parties. We must change politics at the local level to win the approval of the people of Japan and the prefecture.”
– Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru

THOSE WHO RELY ON the overseas press to keep abreast of Japanese politics would get the impression that the country’s politicians are a faceless, duplicitous lot of hacks with bad suits and bad teeth barely able to conceal a belief that Imperial Japan is destined to rise again. In that version, the one exception was Koizumi Jun’ichro, the “maverick” who represented a “refreshing change”.

But that distorted view is a false impression. That’s what comes from looking through the wrong end of an obsolete telescope.

While it might have contained a measure of truth at one time, the characterization was never wholly accurate to begin with. And now, failing to play attention to current trends means observers are missing one of the most important aspects of contemporary Japan, as well as one of its most compelling political stories.

Mr. Koizumi was not an outlier: rather, he was the first of a new breed of politicians whose dynamism could further transform the face of an already transformed society.

Hashimoto Toru

Hashimoto Toru

As with all social trends, it is not possible to separate the chicken from the egg. It was inevitable that the dramatic changes that have occurred in Japanese society since the 1980s would produce a dramatically different type of Japanese citizen. What few people outside Japan have realized is that they also produced a dramatically different type of politician that is earning the enthusiastic support of those citizens.

Regardless of what one thinks about their policies, politics, and personalities, the old labels no longer apply to people such as lower house members Watanabe Yoshimi or Eda Kenji, briefly profiled in a post down the page. Nor do they apply to Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, the subject of many posts here and the one immediately below this.

After two years in office, Mr. Higashikokubaru has an approval rating of 88% as measured by his local newspaper. Politicians do not achieve that level of support by accident, no matter how long they spent in show business first, so it would behoove the rest of the political class and those who write about it to examine the reasons for his success.

In an interview in the April issue of Ushio, the first reason the governor cites for his popularity is a conscious effort to act naturally and not behave in the manner of government officials in the past. He also cites a willingness to listen to everyone without making an immediate judgment on their opinions or demands.

These traits have prompted one Japanese Internet news source to dub him “the cooperative type” of new, local politician. While that has worked for the Miyazaki governor, others are using different techniques.

Hashimoto Toru

One of those other types is a youthful firebrand who has made the devolution of authority to local government his calling card–the former attorney and television celebrity Hashimoto Toru, governor of Osaka Prefecture.

As the quote at the top of this post makes clear, the 39-year-old Mr. Hashimoto shares with Mr. Higashikokubaru the belief that the days of party-centered politics in Japan has to end. The Miyazaki governor, an independent, often says that the only party a local politician needs is the citizens.

This is an indirect corroboration of the changes in Japanese society, which traditionally was centered on group activity rather than individual behavior. One political consequence of this social structure was that all the political parties demanded Soviet-style obedience within the party once a consensus was reached, regardless of the individual views of the members.

But the younger generations no longer feel constrained to sacrifice their views on the altar of consensus, and their independent behavior is increasingly influencing that of their elders.

While Gov. Higashikokubaru is considered “the cooperative type”, Mr. Hashimoto, who has been in office only one year, is unabashedly the confrontational type. He seems to have taken a page out of the book of economist John Maynard Keynes, who once remarked that when all else failed “ruthless truth-telling” is the only answer.

This ruthless truth-telling has become such a phenomenon among the public that two newspapers, the Asahi and the Sankei, file daily features on his continuing adventures. The Sankei, being non-leftist and a supporter of devolution, is generally sympathetic to the governor. Just today they quoted him as calling the national bureaucracy “tyrannical” for their plans to erect a new building in Osaka for one of their local branches. A Japanese politician will never go far wrong with his constituents by attacking the bureaucracy in the harshest manner possible.

The Sankei also approvingly noted the stir he caused when he declared that “The regions are the slaves of the nation(al government).” The governor was specifically addressing the financial liability borne by local governments to support enterprises or institutions directly operated by the national government.

This certainly got Tokyo’s attention. Mr. Hashimoto has been invited to debate the issues with the Cabinet Office’s Committee for Promoting Regional Devolution and Reform. (You might keep this in mind if you ever read in English the tired old proverb that the nail that sticks out in Japan gets hammered down. Whoever dares repeat that these days is looking through the rearview mirror.)

Indeed, Mr. Hashimoto seems determined to be the first to do the hammering. He has been so outspoken on occasion that he has been charged, sometimes not unfairly, with intemperance, as this previous post describes.

North Korean schools

This week still more of the governor’s ruthless truth-telling stirred up a minor controversy in some quarters. This report came from the Asahi, which as a newspaper of the left has a vested interest in the character assassination of non-leftist politicians with significant popular appeal.

One of the governor’s primary initiatives has been to move the prefecture offices from the present building, which is more than 80 years old, to the Osaka City-run World Trade Center. The move was backed by local business leaders long before Mr. Hashimoto took office. Most are aligned with the Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant party of the national ruling coalition, but some from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan also supported the move. (Business leaders claimed it would spark greater regional development, and it would also solve the problem of the red ink the facility has been bleeding since it was built in the 90s.) Meanwhile, New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, and a significant amount of the population were opposed.

The Osaka Prefectural Assembly this week rejected the proposal to move the government offices, which required a two-thirds majority to pass. When asked about his defeat, Gov. Hashimoto said:

“Japan isn’t North Korea, after all. If I got my way in everything all the time, I’d become a dictator.”

More temperate public officials, hesitant to say something that could cause offense, might have considered blandness to be the better part of valor. They might have said that the people had spoken through their elected legislative representatives and the defeat demonstrates the health and soundness of the democratic process. In other words, the same boring old crap that goes in one ear and out the other.

But the Japanese public is fed up with mush-mouthed politicians, and Mr. Hashimoto was not elected because of an ability to sponge on the soft soap. He is in office because he calls a spade a spade.

The Asahi found (or was approached by) an association of the mothers in the prefecture who send their children to North Korean schools. The newspaper ran an article that reported the association’s demands that the governor withdraw the statement, apologize, and take measures to ensure the safety of the children at the schools.

Their demand says that his statement referring to North Korea in regard to a purely local issue while “North Korea bashing” is occurring due to that country’s upcoming launch of a missile is inappropriate. “We are concerned that the statement could encourage unjustified harassment of the children at the schools,” the mothers said.

The insolence of the North Koreans and their local lackeys is by no means a new phenomenon, but the moral repugnance of this particular complaint is breathtaking. Those of North Korean ancestry in Japan who are allowed to operate schools for the primary purpose of indoctrinating students in the propaganda of an enemy state should be grateful that they have the opportunity to exist at all, much less complain about democratically elected leaders in public. That opportunity certainly wouldn’t be available to them in Pyeongyang, and they know it.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans, who have threatened to turn Japan into a sea of flame, fired missiles in its direction several times, and regularly sent operatives into the country to kidnap private citizens—an infringement of national sovereignty that could also be argued to be a casus belli, is now preparing to launch a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan in violation of a United Nations ban (I know, I know) as soon as this weekend.

The schools themselves are operated by Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, whose chairman and five other senior officials are members of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly. If anyone by chance did harass the North Korean students—who are made to wear uniforms based on traditional Korean designs—it would be the blame of their schoolmasters, their parents, and the country to which they owe allegiance.

One might make the case that the Asahi is performing a service for the large ethnic Korean population in the Kansai district by reporting the news. But that would not be a credible excuse for a newspaper that has had its knives out for Mr. Hashimoto for most of his term trying to discredit him.

The Asahi seems to think that Mr. Hashimoto is irresponsible and intemperate. Some would agree, but many in Japan are thrilled to see a politician unafraid to say what he thinks and ruthlessly tells the truth as he sees it. I do not use the word “many” lightly. In January the support rate among his constituents was 82%.

Morita Kensaku

It is also worth mentioning in this context Morita Kensaku, who handily won the gubernatorial election in Chiba Prefecture in a race closely watched to see if the Ozawa fund-raising scandals would have an impact on the local DPJ candidate. (Apparently they did, to an extent.)

Morita Kensaku

Morita Kensaku

As a former actor, Mr. Morita already had the advantage of name recognition. But other Japanese observers suggest that one reason for his victory is that he presented himself as the face of the prefectural citizens and a man who transcended party. Despite endorsements by about half of the LDP members of the prefectural assembly, he avoided using those endorsements in the campaign.

His primary opponent, Yoshida Taira, was backed by the opposition DPJ. While that seems to have been a handicap this time around, the same observers note that Mr. Yoshida tried to nationalize the election by campaigning on a platform of throwing the bums of the LDP out of office and replacing them with the DPJ. In short, they say, Mr. Morita’s success may have been due to an approach identical to that of the Miyazaki and Osaka governors. All three have pledged their loyalty to the voters’ interests rather than to those of a political party.

It’s worth noting that Japan is a parliamentary democracy, and that prime ministers must be members of the Diet. That means they are legislators, a group notorious for a lack of executive skills. (That’s likely one reason the LDP usually has its prime ministerial candidates serve in several executive positions in the Cabinet and in party posts first.)

Mr. Higashikokubaru already seems intent on moving from the governor’s office to the Diet, and perhaps he thinks he looks upon the visage of a future prime minister when he faces the mirror in the morning. It remains to be seen if people such as Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Morita follow his example, or turn to individual initiatives such as Sentaku, the group organized by former Mie Governor Kitagawa Masayasu.

Whatever happens in the future, it must be emphasized that the presence of such men in Japanese politics is a lagging indicator rather than a leading indicator. That they exist is a corroboration of changes that already have occurred in Japanese society, not of changes that might happen in the future. Besides, there is now so much dynamism in political circles in Japan, particularly at the regional level, that further drastic change must be taken as a given.

But don’t expect to see much discussion of this in English anywhere, much less the media. They still think the LDP and DPJ mudboats of Aso Taro and Ozawa Ichiro are the norm.

They still think Japanese politicians are faceless.

Afterwords: Nothing about politics, but here’s an observation of a different sort. Mr. Morita is giving the banzai salute in celebration of his victory in the photo above. Notice that everyone’s hands are facing toward the front.

That wasn’t always the case. Older people with a prewar education invariably raise their hands with their palms facing each other, resembling an NFL official in American football signaling a touchdown. A few sticklers even talk about it.

Time brings about all sorts of changes, does it not?

Posted in Politics, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

“This time for sure” for Sonomanma?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WE’VE HAD SEVERAL POSTS about the political career of former comedian Higashikokubaru Hideo, who performed under the name of Sonomanma Higashi as an associate of Kitano Takeshi (film director and comedian Beat Takeshi). He was elected governor of largely rural Miyazaki in January 2007 in a runoff to replace a man who resigned over bid-rigging scandals (and who was found guilty just last week).

Mr. Higashikokubaru is wildly popular among his constituents and has also become a nationally-known spokesman promoting devolution to strengthen local government in Japan. (There’s a long interview with him in the current edition of the monthly magazine Ushio.) His frequent appearances on network television programs that have nothing to do with politics have fueled speculation that he would love to maintain his national audience. The best way to do that and stay in politics is to run for a seat in the lower house election that must be held by September at the latest.

In fact, our last post on Sonomanma described discussions he supposedly had with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about running in an election that was expected to be held in the autumn. He was prevailed upon by local supporters to finish at least one term in the statehouse before making a national move. Or so the story goes.

Others claim he refrained because it looked very much like the LDP would be beaten badly in that election, and he didn’t want to be allied with the losing side. (One of his supporters used the Japanese equivalent of the expression, “draw a short straw”.) But he might have recalcuated his chances in the wake of the scandal currently engulfing Ozawa Ichiro, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. That has given the LDP something resembling a second wind, at least for the time being.

Speculation ramped up even further after Mr. Higashikokubaru held a fund-raising party at a Tokyo hotel last Saturday attended by about 700 people. Since taking office in January 2007, the governor has held 17 of these parties, but this was his first in the capital. Prefectural governors very seldom hold fund raisers in Tokyo, so this one raised more than a few eyebrows.

To allay concerns of the event being overtly political in an environment in which fund raising has become controversial, the only politicians invited were Diet members from Miyazaki. The reports did not include word on how much money the party brought in.

While he is being courted by the LDP, the governor ran as an independent in the gubernatorial election, saying that the only party a local politician needs is the citizens. But he is known to be philosophically closer to the devolution/reform wing of the LDP than to the opposition.

Then again, perhaps he thinks that siding with the DPJ, which is little more than an unwieldy anti-LDP coaltion held together by the Ozawan Iron Fist, would be the equivalent of drawing an even shorter straw.

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Nothing is ever sonomama with Sonomanma

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 25, 2008

FIRST HE MIGHT. Then he won’t. Now, he just might after all.

The plans of the former comedian, current reform-minded governor of Miyazaki, and eternal publicity hound Higashikokubaru Hideo are once again the subject of speculation in regional newspapers. The governor asserts that his motivation is to reform government in his home prefecture and spread those reforms nationwide, but most people assume that national politics has always been his goal.

His political career began after his predecessor in Miyazaki resigned and was arrested for bid-rigging. The failure of another politician, lower house member Nakayama Nariaki of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, seemed set to launch Mr. Higashikokubaru’s Diet career. Mr. Nakayama lasted only five days as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport in the Aso Taro cabinet after he offended the teachers’ union. He then announced he would not run for reelection to the Diet in Miyazaki #1 in early October, when an election was expected imminently.

The Miyazaki governor openly flirted with the possibility of running for Mr. Nakayama’s seat, only to give up the idea when his supporters in the prefecture said they would rather have him complete his first term instead of leaving before it reached the halfway point.

This weekend, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran an article claiming that the governor was much closer to declaring for the Diet seat than previously thought, and that he is again weighing the pros and cons of running in an election expected to come early next year.

The newspaper cites sources familiar with the conversation that the governor and Mr. Nakayama met in secret in Miyazaki City on 2 October and discussed the former’s candidacy. Mr. Nakayama, who had just resigned from the Cabinet, told Mr. Higashikokubaru that he wouldn’t stand for reelection in his district in the next lower house election. He urged the governor to run in his place. The governor replied that he was very interested in a Diet seat and wanted to run as an independent (in keeping with his stated political philosophy), albeit with LDP support. He also expressed concerns about being viewed as Mr. Nakayama’s designated successor.

Then, during a meeting in Tokyo on 8 October that both attended, Mr. Nakayama said in his introductory remarks that “(They would) have a hard time of it unless you (Gov. Higashikokubaru) somehow decide to run.” (The Japanese language allows sentences without subjects, and sometimes it is not clear what is being referred to. This is a case in point. It wasn’t specified whether the speaker, the people of the district, the people of the prefecture, the LDP, or various combinations of those would have a hard time of it.)

Despite the encouragement, the governor finally said that he would submit to the popular will and stay in Miyazaki. But he might be reconsidering that decision, as suggested by some of his statements during a speech in front of a fund-raising party of 600 in the prefecture on the 20th. Then again, he was all over the map, so divining his intentions is not easy. Here’s a sampler of what he said:

(The) differentials (in regional prosperity) won’t be overcome until the country’s system is changed. All I’m saying is that I want to change the system.


“There are 480 people in the lower house and 242 in the upper house. I don’t really want to become one of 722. If that’s the case, I won’t go, even with all this talk about running in my first term.”

But then:

“First election, first Cabinet appointment…I won’t go without a Cabinet-level appointment.”

Note that the governor will have completed only his second year in elective office in January 2009, but he’s already talking about a Cabinet post.

Then he closed with:

“Some of what I said here was a bit dicey.” (危うい、and what exactly he meant by that is a bit uncertain, too.)

The newspaper asked the Governor about his discussion with Mr. Nakayama, and he denied that it occurred. When they asked Mr. Nakayama, however, he replied:

“I can’t say now.”

Not very skillful at dissembling, is he?

A source in the LDP said that Prime Minister Aso Taro was enthusiastic about the idea of a Higashikokubaru candidacy. He added that some upper-level LDP officials chewed over the idea of appointing him the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, or giving him a portfolio as a special tourism minister. The latter idea might be a good one; the governor is a tireless promoter of the prefecture and its products, and he does have a show business background.

The local branch of the LDP decided to back former upper house MP and member of the Hashimoto Cabinet Uesugi Mitsuhiro for the Miyazaki #1 seat, but the Nishinippon Shimbun passes on word from an unidentified local official who said the party wants Mr. Uesugi to talk to Mr. Nakayama and work something out. He suggests they are laying the groundwork for a Higashikokubaru candidacy using Mr. Nakayama as cover.

Here’s an opinion from one official in the Miyazaki prefectural government:

“The governor seems to be bored by his current job. He wants to perform his next role.”

Others, however, say that with the Cabinet approval rate dropping, he doesn’t want to get on board the LDP “mud boat”. (If you’re not familiar with that Japanese expression, think of how long a boat made of mud might float crossing a river with passengers.)

But the article concluded with this from another observer:

“Once you get the idea you want to run, that feeling never goes away.”

Exactly. And for a man who is now in the national limelight a second time, it is likely to grow only stronger.

Let’s hope that the entertainer/politician who still appears as a panel member on nationally broadcast quiz/entertainment programs is learning something as he passes through the governor’s mansion.

Afterwords: Hit the search engine on the left sidebar for more posts on Gov. Higashikokubaru.

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Matsuri da! (89): You art what you eat!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE INTRODUCTION OF WET PADDY rice cultivation some 2,000 years ago defined the Japanese nation. Growing rice was once considered a religious act, in which the spirit of the rice plant was invoked. It required labor-intensive farming, advanced water control systems, and the combined effort of the greater community. That created the environment in which the traditional extended family system evolved.

Until modern times, the rice crop was the standard used for managing land and levying taxes. The word for cooked rice itself is synonymous with a meal; the other foods served with it, even expensive beefsteak, are considered o-kazu, or side dishes.

Children in the region where I live are sent on field trips at least once during their school career to plant rice by hand. Dressed in gym class t-shirts and shorts, they slosh around in the wet rice paddy in bare feet to find out first hand how to place the seedlings in the mud to make sure they don’t fall over. What better way to understand the work required to put their daily bowl of rice on the table?

The Daijosai, sometimes translated as the Great Food Offering Ritual, is the third of three ceremonies through which a new tenno (emperor) ascends the throne. The preparations include an ancient divination technique to select consecrated paddies for growing the rice to be used. It is cultivated using ritual procedures, and when harvested is sent by special minister to the ceremony site. The tenno offers this rice to the sun goddess Amaterasu and other divinities before eating it himself to partake in spiritual communion with them.

“You are what you eat” is a concept as old as humankind and has been incorporated in religious worship throughout the world. The Catholics believe in the concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Believers partake of this on Sunday mornings, after confessing their sins on Saturday.

And that’s how the Japanese came to believe that the tenno was a living god.

June is the month for planting rice in Japan, and the start of the season is celebrated by hundreds of rice-planting festivals everywhere in the country.

One is the Yukisaiden Otaue Matsuri held on the 1st in Okazaki, Aichi, shown in the first photo below. The first festival was for planting the rice used in the Daijosai of the Taisho tenno, the current tenno’s grandfather. The song, dance, tools, and clothing used in the ceremony have been designated intangible folk cultural treasures of the city

Members of a local preservation society and sixth-graders in primary school trooped into the fields to plant 2,500 rice stalks by the traditional method as they sang a local rice-planting song. Girls or young women are usually the ones to do the ceremonial planting, and the language even has a special word for them: saotome.

All the rice planted was of the same Banzai variety used in the Daijosai 90 years ago. The rice was derived from the leftovers a local farmer discovered in his farmhouse in 2005.

Sometimes the planters work to a song or musical accompaniment. The 23 saotome in the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine festival in Suwa, Nagano, however, plant the seedlings on signals from a foreman. These saotome are in their teens and 20s and were selected to represent each district served by the shrine. The harvested rice will be offered at the Niinamesai, the Shinto harvest festival, in November.

All 33 saotome in the festival held in Goshogawara, Aomori, on the 16th were high school seniors. A local high school conducts the festival every year, rather than a Shinto shrine. The girls wear clothing made by predecessors who did the planting 10 years ago. It looks like comfort was their primary consideration.

It required 55 saotome from local junior high and high schools for the Taga Taisha shrine festival in Taga-cho, Shiga, however. The girls received the rice plants at the shrine and proceeded to the paddy. After they arrived, miko, or shrine maidens, ritually purified the paddy with hot water. Only 32 of the girls did the planting, while the rest performed the dances and songs. The rice will be harvested in September at the Nuibosai ceremony and offered for consecration in November at the Niinamesai.

Meanwhile, it took only five saotome to do the planting in Maeda Toshiharu’s 200-square-meter paddy in Torahime-cho, Shiga, but the rice will still be sent to the tenno as an offering. Here the miko performed the ceremonial dance and the first ceremonial plowing before the high school girls did the dirty work.

The festival of the Tsumakirishima shrine down south in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, was held on the 7th with 12-grade girls serving as the saotome. This event started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1868), but stopped in 1940 because of World War II. The older folks in Miyakonojo remembered how much they enjoyed it, however, so they decided to start it up again in 1989. It’s been an annual event ever since.

Here they use a special variety of red rice. Not all rice is brown—there are 1,500 varieties in Japan, and some of them come in different colors. It’s a veritable rainbow coalition of cereal diversity. There are even varieties of black rice, which my wife and I add to the genmai (brown rice) we eat for dinner. We mix it because the black rice is gummy and sticky and not ideal for eating by itself. I tried it once, and it didn’t work out well. Cleaning the rice cooker afterward wasn’t so appealing, either.

One saotome said the festival was a lot of fun because she enjoyed the sensation of her bare feet squishing in the warm mud. I wonder if that was the girl smiling for the camera. Hi there!

Miyakonojo’s festival was suspended during the war and didn’t get restarted until almost 50 years later, but the Hikamianego Shinto shrine in Nagoya has kept theirs going since 1933 without a break. Legend has it that this shrine was established in 195 and moved to its present location in 690. Note that those dates have only three digits.

The 10 saotome working in the shrine’s sacred paddy aren’t schoolgirls, but flesh-and-blood farming folk or employees of the local agricultural cooperative. The report says they sing a planting song as they work. They do resemble a chorus line, come to think of it.

The festival of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto is well known throughout the country for being photogenic, even though it is relatively recent—it started in 1948. It was held on the 10th, with girls performing the o-tamai (rice paddy dance) as both men and women handled the planting.

The rice will be harvested in another Nuibosai festival and offered to the divinities. Reports say the festival mood is solemn. Those folks up on the wall do look like a serious bunch, don’t they? That’s the o-temai the girls are doing.

The local farmers also play an important role in the Nitta Shrine festival in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, as they swing bamboo sticks called yakko in a ritual to drive away the insects. Here the planting is done by 24 men and women, this year in the rain, as they sing a rice planting song.

Singing in the rain! Whistling while they work! Swatting insects with bamboo sticks!

The Tashibunosho district of Bungotakada, Oita, looks remarkably like a farming village in the Japanese middle ages. Their planting festival was held on the 8th by the Usa Jingu shrine. It started with a Shinto ceremony and was followed by 150 planters taking care of business, with the paddy’s owner and students from Beppu University helping the saotome.

They start planting when Buddhist priests from the Fuki-ji temple give them the high sign by blowing on conch shells. This is an example of ecumenism Japanese style—many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples once shared the same facilities, and the Usa Jingu and Fuki-ji were a combined operation as far back as the 12th century.

This one’s not such a solemn affair. It starts with a comical sketch of a cow dummy and a herder in the paddy. The cow gets stuck in the mud and falls over, and later runs amok to avoid the work. Perhaps she didn’t care for her bare hooves squishing in the mud.

The miko do all the work at the 300-year-old festival of the Yutoku Inari shrine in Kashima, Saga. They serve as the saotome to plant the rice, perform the o-taue dance, and provide the musical accompaniment with clappers and flute. Maybe they ought to think about organizing a union.

This rice is also harvested at a Nuibosai festival, and some of it will be made into sake for the Niinamesai.

The high school girls are back as the saotome in Mitoyo, Kagawa, for the festival conducted by the Hokohachiman-gu shrine. This event is nearly 100 years old, and the rice will be used for a December Niinamesai. They alternate the use of private paddies, and this year’s field was chosen as the lucky one for the first time in nearly 50 years. Crop rotation with a long lead time makes it easy on the local farmers.

Instead of an o-temai, they perform a lion dance, or shishimai, to the accompaniment of taiko drums

You can be serious and still have fun, as this event held last Saturday demonstrates. The planting in Himeji, Hyogo, was not part of an old Shinto ritual. It was to create rice paddy art using eight rice varieties with different colors. Viewing the paddy from above after the rice plants grow will reveal a picture of the Himeji Castle. The 1.6-hectare rice paddy covers nearly as much ground as the castle itself.

About 100,000 rice plants were used for the planting, which took three days to finish. On the first day, 340 people turned out and used a diagram to plant the different strains in just the right spots. Pointillism in agriculture.

The castle is slated to undergo major repairs this fall. The chairman of the organizing committee said they conducted the event not only to promote tourism, but also to reeducate area residents about food and farming.

The paddy castle magic will be best seen in mid-July, and the prime view is from Mt. Shosha, which has a convenient ropeway for carrying people to the summit.

Is this another take on “you art what you eat”? Or is it art you can eat?

Posted in Festivals, Food, History, Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Matsuri da! (10): One ton of festival fun

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 18, 2007

Faith can move mountains, say the Christians, and the participants in the Hote Festival held every March 10 in Shiogama, Miyazaki Prefecture, understand just what they mean. The festival is associated with the city’s oldest Shinto shrine, the Shiogama-jinja, which dates back more than 1000 years. It’s located at the top of the 57 meter-high Mt. Ichimori nearly in the middle of the city. Just getting there is a sign of devotion—it requires a tiring climb of a stairway with 202 steps. Could climbing a stairway to heaven be any more difficult?


While the folks in Shiogama don’t move the mountain during the festival, they do haul one very large mikoshi, or portable shrine, down those steps to signal the start of the event. The mikoshi isn’t 16 tons, but at one ton it’s still a brute to maneuver, and it takes 16 young men (dressed in the garments of Shinto priests) to coax it down the side of the mountain step by step. But this is a Japanese festival, which means there’s always an extra wrinkle, and the Hote Festival is no exception. Lovely shrine maidens ride atop the mikoshi the whole time, surely praying to the Shinto divinities that the boys don’t let it drop on the way down.

The Christians also say that the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and the 16 hearties carrying the mikoshi might agree with that, too. Legend has it that the mikoshi moves through the will of the divinity enshrined inside. They take their time coming down the mountain. Maybe that’s to conserve their energy, because then they have to parade around the city. Legend also has it that the mikoshi frequently used to butt into homes and other buildings along the narrow roads of the parade route, but the residents likely considered that a sign of blessings in the year to come.

The festival itself began in 1682 in supplication to the divinities for protection against fire and for success in business. The characters used to write Hote are the ones for sail (as in canvas) and hand, and that’s only fitting, as Shiogama is a port city and was once a whaling center. Its main industry is still fishing, and it’s known as one of Japan’s primary ports for tuna fishermen. And it also has the most sushi restaurants per square kilometer of any city in the country

Once the mikoshi makes its rounds, the folks of the city get down to the serious business of having fun until early the next morning. What a deal! In Shinto you get to praise the Lord by drinking and carousing until all hours. By the time it’s all over, they’re probably talking in tongues too.

I’m not sure how much merrymaking is on tap for the 16 guys who carried the shrine down the side of Mt. Ichimori, however—when the parade ends more than seven hours later they have to carry it back to the shrine up those same 202 steps!

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