Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Tokushima’

Nippon Noel 2009 (3): Straight from Santa’s arbor

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 26, 2009

IT DOESN’T FEEL like Christmas without the decorations, and Christmas decorations aren’t complete without the most important symbol of the secular festival—trimmed Christmas trees. As a click on the Christmas tag below will reveal, the Japanese apply their prodigious imagination for adding Big Fun to festivals and create unique tannenbaum designs. Here are a few more in this year’s Christmas card of a post.

Saga ceramics

The towns of Arita and Imari in Saga are known throughout the world as production centers for ceramics and porcelain. Close by in the same prefecture is the Hiryu Kiln in Takeo, which has the world’s largest noborigama, or climbing kiln. Those kilns have multiple chambers, making possible the creation of fine porcelain. This year was the second year the kiln produced ceramic Christmas trees, both for exhibit and sale. The photo shows a few of the 100 from this year’s batch. The base of the trees is 15 centimeters in diameter, and they are 20 centimeters tall. Light-emitting diodes in three colors provide the illumination. If you’re interested in placing one on your end table or mantel as a seasonal adornment, prices start at JPY 3,500 (about $US 38.26).

Tokushima bread

It’s a simple matter for ceramists to apply their skills to Christmas decorations, but that’s a bit more difficult for bakers to do. The bread chefs at the Tokushima Grand Vrio Hotel in Tokushima City were not to be deterred, however, and they came up with the idea of making the hotel’s first floor Christmas tree out of French bread. This year’s version was the fourth for the hotel’s doughboys. The 2.5-meter-high tree, which looks a bit like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, was built with 132 loaves of bread in six tiers. The long tubular shape of most bread doesn’t lend itself to seasonal decorations, so the chefs created their own Christmas bread art by making edible ornaments in the shape of stars, wreaths, airplanes, and tigers—2010 being the year of the tiger in the Oriental zodiac.

Making a good design better

The train station in Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, is the only one in Japan to have received a Good Design award from the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Association. Buildings recognized for their good design deserve a Christmas display worthy of the honor, so the Iwamizawans decorated the 25-meter-high dawn redwood, or metasequoia, in front of the station with 30,000 blue, red, and green LEDs for Project Xmas 2009. The station building received the award this year, so those 30,000 lights are 20% more than are hung in a normal year. A crowd of about 300 people showed up to watch the lighting ceremony, in which a group of parents and their children dressed up as Santas to hold a countdown. The lights go on from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Obama’s PET bottles

Who else but the Japanese would find a way to turn garbage into seasonal beauty and develop the citizens’ eco-consciousness at the same time? As this post from 2007 shows, making Christmas trees from discarded PET bottles has become something of a national pastime, and the folks in Obama, Fukui, got into the act for the first time this year. About 150 of the Obamanians teamed up to build a six-meter-high tree with 4,286 PET bottles in front of a culinary school. This was no casual activity—it took three months to assemble the PET tree using 500-milliliter and two-liter bottles. The base of the tree is 3.5 meters in diameter, and steel was used to make both the trunk and the base. The base was secured to the treetop with 16 wires. The bottles were hung by the cooking school with care by passing other wires through each one from a hole in bottom to the mouth. To create the effect of interior illumination, lights were attached to the steel frame. Who would have thought that sticky plastic gunk could be made to create something so attractive? The tree will be lit from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. until January.

Trees on a Tokyo beach

Having spent my high school years in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I can vouch for the fact that it does snow on the beach. It’s incongruous to see snow drifts on sand that was the scene of summertime fun just a few months before, but it does happen. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to brighten up the beach with decorations on a seasonal theme, even in Tokyo. That’s the objective behind Candle Night in Odaiba 2009, in which the beach is lit up by 3,000 candles covered with paper lamps. The candles are arranged to look like Christmas trees, shooting stars, and snow crystals. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see the combination of several traditions with some local innovations, the candles are lit from sundown to 9:00 p.m., as long as the surf’s not up.

Bottoms up

What’s a hotel to do during Christmas if it wants to attract casual visitors but doesn’t have a boulangerie on the premises? The proprietors of the Grand Park Otaru in Otaru, Hokkaido, must have stood on their heads to come up with an answer, but they found one that works. They decorated their first floor lobby with an upside-down Yuletide tree. The tree—or should it be cone?—is three meters tall from the base down to the top. It is festooned with the usual decorations, including balls, lights, and boxes crafted to look like presents. Speaking of what things looks like, the people who stopped by to see for themselves thought the tree looked like a bouquet.

Christmas Day-o

Bananas wouldn’t seem to fit with the wintertime images that have become associated with the holiday festivities, but that didn’t stop a public-private sector partnership for municipal development in Iga, Mie, to trim a tree in a local shopping arcade with bananas. The three-meter-high tree was made with materials that would ordinarily have been discarded as unusable by local businesspeople and merchants. Seven bamboo poles were used for support, and that’s another material which seldom comes to mind as a Christmas decoration. The primary ornaments were 400 bananas that couldn’t be sold for consumption because of size standards, and would have otherwise been thrown away. In addition to the bananas, other decorations included cotton—to represent all the snow in banana-growing countries, of course—and two Santa dolls climbing up the side. Ten people put it together earlier this month, and if they wanted a snack while they were working, they probably didn’t send out for pizza. This tree is illuminated from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., though the reports didn’t say how they managed to get the LEDs inside the fruit without peeling them first.

In most Western countries, 25 December has traditionally been the start of Christmas celebrations, so people leave the trimmings and decorations up until at least the first week of the new year. But in Japan, the big yearend holiday is still a week away, and that means most of these trees, lights, bread, bananas, and PET bottles will disappear for another year starting from the 26th.

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Nippon Noel 2009 (2): Instead of street corner Santas…

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 18, 2009

IF CHRISTMAS IS FOR KIDS, how do children get in the holiday spirit in Japan, which doesn’t have traditions of dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh, good King Wenceslaus surveying the winter landscape on the Feast of Stephen, or, for bigger kids, having a close encounter under the mistletoe after a couple of cups of eggnog as a prelude to Santa sliding down the chimney? Here are three examples.

The first is a special class for children and their parents in Christmas ikebana, or flower arranging, in Tokushima City. Held in a local community center, it was part of a program sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. The class attracted 20 primary school students and their parents.

Providing the instruction was a director of a national ikebana association and officers of the local branch association of one of the flower arranging schools. The children used holly, lilies, azalea branches dyed red, and carnations to create flower arrangements with a Christmas theme. Said 11-year-old Hayakawa Yuri: “I was able to do it better than I thought I would. I want to see how it looks in my room.”

Meanwhile, the Susami Aquarium in Susami-cho, Wakayama, which features exhibits of local shrimp and crabs, decided to decorate their main attractions to offer a festive accent to the season. They dressed up two types of crabs as reindeer with Santa, or, to ensure a white Christmas, covered in snow.

One of the varieties given a seasonal makeover was the sponge crab dromidiopsis dormia, which has 15-centimeter-wide shells as an adult. Sea sponges naturally attach themselves to the shell, so the museum employed this trait to stick on sponges reworked to look like Santa dolls. The other was a local variety of spider crab with two-centimeter shells that sometimes disguise themselves with floating debris. The museum has loaded 20 with white thread to represent snow in an exhibit that lasts until the 25th.

Finally, in Rumoi, Hokkaido, municipal workers came up with a clever idea that uses the Chii-chan character. Chii-chan was an idea conceived by city employees to promote local scallop production throughout Hokkaido. Employees drafted 200 of the young scallop shells into holiday service, drew faces on them, and dressed them in red to resemble Santa Claus. The photo here shows them being displayed in a city building.

The Chii-chan/Santa figures are being given as presents to those who contribute to a campaign conducted by the Marine Rescue Japan organization. Some children, anxious for a Santa of their own, have even donated to the campaign.

So who needs visions of sugarplums dancing in your head when you can groove on Yuletide fantasias featuring original ikebana, sponge crabs, and scallop shells instead?

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BAREFOOTIN’ IN TEE-SHIRTS and short pants, all the better to deal with the 30-minute turnarounds of pouring rain and blazing sun: yeah, summer has arrived at last in Japan. During the dog days, the archipelago offers all sorts of hot-weather delights, including watermelon, shaved ice, and best of all, the transformation of even the most neo-radical of young women into traditional beauties once they exchange their jeans for yukata (a summer kimono).

What else is going on up and down the islands? Well, take a look and find out!

Firefly festivals

Once upon a time, summer nights on the East Coast of the United States came alive with a light show au naturel created by fireflies. The march of progress and suburbia seems to have ended all that, but the lightning bugs, as we used to call them, are still alive and flickering in the countryside here.

This is Japan, so take it as given that people know just when to expect their appearance every year, just how long it will last, and how to organize the viewing parties and festivals held to coincide with those dates.

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

The photo shows the fireflies near the Ayu River in Tanabe, in the southern part of Wakayama. It’s one of several locations in the area known as superb firefly viewing sites from the end of May to the beginning of June.

But as with the cherry blossoms and the rainy season, the firefly front keeps marching north, and right now the folks in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are enjoying a month-long firefly festival at the Onogawa spa. The festival is sponsored by the spa’s tourism association and the Yonezawa Firefly Protection Society. The opening ceremony was held at the local memorial firefly tower to pray for the safety of the participants during the event. Those Yonezawans must really like fireflies!

It’s not a festival in Japan without liquor, so right after the prayers they perform another centuries-old ritual by knocking open the head of a sake barrel with wooden hammers and passing the hooch around. They say some people see double when they drink too much, so you can imagine the sort of visions that light up the retinas of the festival-goers when a wave of fireflies floats by.

The viewing in Yonezawa begins on the riverbank right after it gets dark at 8:00 p.m. and lasts until 9:00. The area is such a firefly mecca that three different species breed here, and who but the entomologists knew there were different types of lightning bugs? For a spot of relaxation after all this excitement, the open-air baths stay open until nine, and there’s a tea house set up temporarily next to the firefly tower. The festival fun lasts until 31 July, but some people like to time their visit for the amateur entertainment contest on the 4th and 5th.


Sliding over from zoology to botany, here’s a photo of the festival held by the Miyajidake Shinto shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, for the first cutting of Edo irises in a local garden. The purpose of the event, called Hatsukiri—first cutting, appropriately enough—is to present the irises as an offering to the divinities. They’ve got plenty of flowers from which to choose, because the garden has 30,000 individual plants. While the priests grunt, bend over, and swing their scythes, two miko hold irises as they perform a dance accompanied by a flute. More than 200 people came to watch. A small turnout, you say? That’s not a bad crowd for watching two girls perform a centuries-old dance in costume in a garden in a town of 56,000 while priests cut flowers. How many people would show up where you live?

hatsukiri 2

The shrine held its Iris festival on the same day. They place 70,000 irises in front of the shrine and light ’em up until 9:00 p.m. for 10 days. The shrine has its own iris garden too, started from bulbs sent by the Meiji-jingu in Tokyo in 1965. They now have 100,000 plants in 100 varieties. That’s a heck of a lot of irises, but they need that many to go around for all of Shinto’s yaoyorozu divine ones. (Yaoyorozu is the traditional number of divinities in Shinto. It literally means eight million, but figuratively represents an infinite number, signifying that each natural object has a divine spirit.)

Seaweed cutting

Irises weren’t the only flora getting cut for a Shinto ritual. Four priests from the Futamikitama Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, boarded a boat with some miko and sailed offshore for some seaweed cutting. They present the seaweed—fortunately an uncountable noun—to the divinities, allow it to dry out for a month, and then distribute it to their parishioners to drive out bad fortune and eradicate impurities.


At 10:30 a.m., the priests set sail on their skiff festooned with red, yellow, green, purple, and white streamers, with bamboo grass placed at bow and stern, and headed for the special seaweed site 770 meters northeast of the Futami no Meoto, sometimes called the Wedded Rocks. (The word meoto designates a pair of something, one large and one small.) Since this is a special ritual, they can’t just start cutting—first they have to circle the divine Kitama rock on the seabed three times, then they haul out a three-meter long sickle and get to work.

Sea goya

Since the subject is aquatic plants, now’s as good a time as any to report that the Fukuka Aquaculture Center in Kin-machi, Okinawa, is ramping up production of a new variety of sea grapes they hope to popularize in Japan after sales start next month. The center has dubbed the new type “sea goya”, after the knobby bitter squash for which Okinawa is famous. (Here’s a previous post about sea grapes in Okinawa and goya in general.)

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

The center’s director said they discovered these particular sea grapes among a batch imported in March 2008. The new variety flourished in the southern climate, and that gave people the idea to turn it into a new product, particularly as they were looking for ways to juice the market after the prices of regular sea grapes and mozuku seaweed tanked.

They decided to call the new plant sea goya because it’s more elongated than regular sea grapes and has the bitter flavor of goya. The center has already applied to register the name as a trademark, and they’re confident the application will be approved. After hearing about the new product, more than 10 companies inquired about handling the distribution.

Nara ayu

After insects, irises, seaweed, and sea grapes, here come the freshwater fish: namely the ayu, or sweetfish, which we’ve encountered before in a post about their encounters with traditional traps.

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

These sweetfish, however, were caught by means with an even longer and exalted pedigree—trained cormorants. The birds require keepers that are somewhat analogous to falconers, all of whom ply their skills for the Imperial Household Agency because the technique is a tradition of the Japanese Imperial household. (Dig their costumes in the photo at the link.)

Six keepers were employed to catch the fish at the Imperial fishing grounds on the Nagara River in Gifu City, but the keepers can handle up to a dozen birds on the end of ropes, so they must have taken quite a haul. They go out in boats too, but at night, and they take along lighted torches. The fish are attracted to the flame like maritime moths, and the birds dive in after them. The lower part of the cormorants’ necks are collared to prevent them from swallowing the fish, and after they’ve snatched one, the keepers reel them in and make them cough it up. That’s got to be more cruel than feeding a dog peanut butter.

The fish were packed into paulownia boxes and shipped to the Kashihara-jingu, a Shinto shrine in Kashihara, Nara, as well as the Imperial Palace and the Meiji-jingu, another Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Both shrines have an Imperial connection.

The Japanese have been using cormorants to catch sweetfish since at least the 8th century—don’t you wonder who came up with that idea?–and the Nagara River event is more than a millennium old, but this shrine has been receiving the sweetfish shipments only since 1940 to offer in prayer for the safety of fishing and a good catch. (The 1940 date suggests it might have begun as part of the celebrations that year marking the 2600th anniversary of the establishment of the Japanese Imperial House.)

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

Yet another sign of summer in Japan is the yaoyorozu of rice-planting festivals held throughout the country. It’s easy to figure out why—they grow the rice in wet paddies, which are made even wetter by all the rain that falls this time of year.

high school sake rice project

But the students at Miyoshi High School in Miyoshi, Tokushima, weren’t planting this rice as part of a festival; they were getting classroom credit. The lads aren’t planning to be farmers when they grow up–rather, they’re enrolled in a course covering the brewing and fermentation of food products. They’ll harvest that rice in the fall and use it to make sake.

The rice is grown on a 3,000-square-meter paddy the school rents from area residents. The teachers do most of the planting with a machine, and then some of the second year students wade right in and plant by hand those parts the machine can’t reach. They expect to harvest 1.5 tons of the rice in mid-September, which can probably be converted into enough sake to keep the town of Miyoshi more lit than a riverbank full of fireflies until New Year’s. The school started the project last year, and this year they increased the size of the cultivated area six-fold to use only the rice grown by students.

One of those students, 16-year-old Fukuda Shinya, had planted rice before, but he said the seedlings were more difficult to handle because the size was different than that of regular table rice.

Now why couldn’t I have gone to that school!

Shochu collector

While the high school students were outdoors sweating and getting dirty as they planted the rice for the sake they will later brew, Masuyama Hiroki (73) of Izumi, Kagoshima, was relaxing with an adult beverage as he contemplated the success of his 12-year effort to collect one bottle each from all the prefecture’s shochu distillers. This is Kagoshima, where everyone drinks shochu and almost no one drinks sake, so he had his work cut out for him.

shochu collector

He’s so proud of his accomplishment he’s got them lined up on the wall, and hasn’t twisted the cap on a single bottle. Mr. Masuyama decided to make it is hobby after he retired from a job with the prefectural government in 1996 and started working in sales. His business trips took him throughout Kagoshima, and after he got the idea—probably in a bar during one of those business trips–he made a list and started buying while he was selling. He started with 1.8 liter (1.92 US quarts) bottles, but they were too heavy and took up too much space, so he switched to bottles half that size. He had a few difficulties completing the collection, and no, one of them wasn’t a tendency to polish off a bottle before before he could display it on the rack. For one thing, the smaller bottles were sold mainly to commercial establishments, but he applied his salesmen’s skills to get what he wanted. Another was that he didn’t have much of a chance to go to the prefecture’s many outlying islands on business. After retiring from his second job, it took two more years to finish the project.

Mr. Masuyama says he enjoys looking at his collection while having a late-night drink, but his libation doesn’t come from those shelves on the wall. He hasn’t opened any of the bottles and says it would be a waste to drink them.

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

Shinto shrine maidens, known as miko, get to do all sorts of fun stuff. In this post alone, they’ve sailed out to the Wedded Rocks to help the priests cut seaweed, carried the sacred sweetfish caught by cormorants, and danced while the priests cut Edo irises in Fukutsu. Even better, they get to handle the money at the shrine during New Year’s.

miko class

Doesn’t that sound like a great part-time job? If that’s the kind of work you’re looking for, the Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, is offering a beginner’s level course that provides instruction in how to become a miko. Even better, the class will last only one day, on 17 August—the middle of summer vacation!

Kanda Myojin conducts the class every year with the idea of giving young Japanese women a better idea of their traditions and culture, as well as teaching them more about the shrine. Last year, the student body consisted of 24 women who got to wear the red and white outfit for a day as they studied the shrine’s history, the daily conduct of affairs at the shrine, and its religious ceremonies.

Considering they charge only JPY 5,000 yen ($US 52.40), that sounds like a good deal. They’re looking for 20 unmarried young women this year from 16 to 22, and enrollment is open until the end of the month.

The declaration of the eisa nation

Start with a party, end with a party. This particular hoedown is the eisa dance native to Okinawa. Centuries ago, it was performed as a rite for the repose of the dead, but now it’s done for entertainment and is more likely to wake the dead than ease their way into the next world.

eisa summer party

Okinawa City issued a proclamation declaring itself Eisa Town earlier this month, and held a Declaration Day Eisa Night event outside the city offices to lay claim to the title. Six groups made their eisadelic statement as they performed in original/trad clothing they created themselves. Eisa Night means that eisa season has officially started in the city, and summer in this city means that local youth groups will give public performances every weekend until the really big show, the Okinawa Eisa Festival in September.

During her greeting at the ceremony, Mayor Tomon Mitsuko said, “We hope you come to Okinawa City on the weekends and enjoy yourselves.” Then the dancing started and everyone proceeded to do just that.

It’s not just for the Ryukyuans, either. One of the six groups performing was the Machida-ryu of Machida, Tokyo, who started their own group in 1999 after a trip to Okinawa. They were so captivated by the dance they had to do it themselves at home. Now the troupe has more than 100 members.

There’s an idea: create your own Okinawan dance and drum ensemble and visit Eisa Town next year. If you want to learn, watching the video is a great way to start!

Posted in Agriculture, Education, Festivals, Food, Imperial family, New products, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The tower of logo-babel

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 19, 2009

THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN are two countries separated by a common language, observed George Bernard Shaw, but at least the written matter in one country can be read by the people in the other. Those two countries, along with the rest of the Anglosphere, use the same writing system.

Imagine how much greater the separation must be in the Sinosphere, where there’s more than one way to write Chinese. Many languages are spoken throughout the region that might be called Greater China, but different approaches to the lexicographic system for the written Chinese language are one manifestation of the perennial battle royale in Taiwan over the question of how closely they should associate with the Mainland. On one side are those who want to adopt the PRC’s standard writing system (now that they’ve already adopted the PRC’s Romanization system). Arrayed against them are those who think that’s just a ploy to promote unification on PRC terms. The latter group is using an argument based on the unusual combination of preserving tradition and maintaining ethnic diversity to support their claim.

First, here’s some historical background to get everyone on the same page. The Chinese have been using ideographic characters since at least the 11th century BC. They’ve developed several writing systems throughout their history, but the characters they use today became roughly standardized about 2,000 years ago. Other people throughout East Asia adopted (or adapted) them to write their own language. They were used in the earliest documents written on the Korean Peninsula, and the Koreans used them until they developed their own alphabet. The Korean writing system was formally adopted in 1446, but did not come into common use until the late 19th century. Thus, literacy in Korea until fairly recently required the ability to read Chinese characters.

The Japanese used Chinese characters to write their own language at first, but only as phonetic symbols to express Japanese pronunciation and not necessarily for their meaning. While those early texts appear to be superficially Chinese, no Chinese reader would understand them because it’s still the Japanese language. Japan later developed two phonetic alphabets to use in conjunction with the characters to express vernacular grammatical elements, and these alphabets came into general use from the 8th to the 12th centuries.

The Chinese characters are called kanji in Japanese (which is now also an accepted English word), hanja in Korean, and hanzi in Chinese, but they all mean the same thing: Chinese (Han) letters.

Some of the traditional Chinese characters are quite complicated and require many individual strokes to write. In 1946, the Japanese started modifying their written language by reducing the number of kanji they required students to learn and simplifying their written forms. For example, the character gaku, which appears in such words as daigaku, or college, and gakko, or school, once had 18 strokes, but now has only eight. Some of the modifications were so extensive it would be impossible for contemporary readers to identify the connection. (Here’s a chart comparing the old and the new, for Japanese readers.)

The Chinese started simplifying the same characters in the 1950s, but their modifications were different than those the Japanese adopted, making the divergence between written Chinese and Japanese that much greater. The Koreans still use the traditional form of the characters for hanja when they do use them, but that is seldom. The Taiwanese are the only people to have retained the traditional form of the characters in everyday applications.

But now some people want to change that.

The current president of the Republic of China/Taiwan is Ma Ying-jeou of the reconstituted Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT). That was Chiang Kai-shek’s party of the Chinese who fled China when Mao and the Communists took over to set up a government in Taiwan.

Earlier this month, the president proposed that Taiwan adopt the Beijing government’s simplified character set for writing only and retain the traditional characters for reading. The skeleton of the story is in this AFP article.

Said Mr. Ma:

“We hope the two sides can reach a consensus on (learning to) read standard characters while writing in the simplified ones…It is also our hope that the standard characters can be listed as World Heritage by the United Nations one day,” he said in a statement.

AFP is perhaps the least-bad of the major media outlets reporting on Northeast Asia, and this article gets the basic facts right. Yet they still manage to tilt perceptions in the direction they want all right-thinking people to support.

Relations with China have improved dramatically since Ma’s Beijing-friendly government was inaugurated in May 2008, vowing to promote reconciliation and trade ties.

Note that the Taiwanese president also wants the standard characters to become a “World Heritage”. He does not explain why any Chinese should think a UN imprimatur would enhance the prestige of a written language several millennia old and still in daily use by more than a billion people.

Though it’s not mentioned here, Mr. Ma also hopes that the PRC will implement two United Nations human rights covenants (the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) in Tibet in the future.

Add his Harvard Law degree to his wishful thinking about Chinese behavior and it’s easy to see why Time Magazine chose him as one of their top 100 “Leaders and Revolutionaries” for 2008.

Meanwhile, AFP chose an over-the-top yardbird to provide the only dissenting quote in the article.

“Ma is seeing China as his master. He is even trying to change our writing habits to please China, which is absolutely unnecessary,” said Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP.)

It’s not as if they didn’t have other people from whom to choose. Take this editorial from the Taipei Times:

Since taking office, Ma has been leaning toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as can be seen in many things, from his statement on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre to his plans to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement with China.

This may be the trend of the times and Ma may not have a choice, but this does not mean that Taiwanese should learn only to recognize traditional Chinese while writing with simplified characters, because there is a thin line between this and unification — or, rather, being unified.

In ancient China, the standard for unification included standardized wheel width for carts and a standardized script. Today, Ma is promoting simplified Chinese without receiving any goodwill from Beijing.

This is not far from unification as seen by ancient Chinese — how can we not be worried?


Ma may see an acceptance of simplified Chinese characters as part of cross-strait economic and cultural exchanges, but it constitutes a form of political recognition.

Mr. Ma’s statement on Tiananmen, incidentally, praised the Chinese for the progress they’ve made on human rights. (One of these days, perhaps we’ll understand why the people for whom Harvard Law degrees, Time Magazine lists, and the UN are so important think it’s commendable to be friendly with the maleficent Chinese regime, yet were so outraged by the existence of the South African apartheid government, or even the comparatively benign Chile of Augustin Pinochet.)

But the KMT wanted to quickly ameliorate any concerns. They explained:

President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday proposed a concept of “reading in traditional characters, writing in simplified characters…The Office of the President today explained that the suggestion was aimed at 1.3 billion simplified character users in China, not Taiwan. (emphasis mine)

The concept aims to make Chinese people get to know the traditional character symbolizing authentic Chinese culture, said the Office. Traditional characters should be used in publications, but simplified ones are allowed in writing. It is not necessary to promote the concept in Taiwan as Taiwanese are familiar with traditional characters, the Office noted.

The Presidential Office explained that some media misunderstood that Ma intended to push forward the use of simplified characters in Taiwan, and thus clarified that the use of traditional character in Taiwan, a token of preservation of Chinese culture, will not be altered.

Most Taiwanese people are accustomed to using traditional characters in writing. But, for the sake of convenience, it is difficult to ban the use of simplified ones in writing. However, schools, government agencies, and military units should still use traditional characters at all time, according to the Office.

Do we have that right? The KMT wants people to believe the president suggested adopting the simplified PRC writing system in Taiwan so that the people on mainland China will reconstitute its entire educational system for 1.3 billion people and have them turn back the clock and recognize traditional characters?

Did they really think anyone would believe that, or, as seems to becoming common for politicians these days, did they just say it because they had to say something and didn’t care if anyone believed it or not?

But that still leaves another question: if all the books and documents in Taiwan are going to be in traditional characters; the schools, government, and military will use all trad/all the time; and since most people today usually communicate in writing by using the Internet and text messages…

What’s the point?

The Taiwan News has some other objections:

Despite hasty denials by a presidential spokesman, such an interpretation (promotion of unification) is by no means far-fetched given the apish decision by the restored KMT administration to officially adopt China’s Hanyu Pinyin romanization system and exile to the margins Taiwan’s home-developed Tongyong system on the grounds that Hanyun Pinyin was the “international standard,” presumably because of the PRC’s rising global clout. This conclusion was based less on Hanyu Pinyin’s questionable advantages than on an ideological drive to “link” the PRC’s “putonghua” with “Mandarin,” which the KMT defines as the unitary “national language” of the “Republic of China,” and ignored Taiwan’s multilingual environment, in which Tongyong could well be more suitable.

Their concerns are not unfounded. While the advocates of Tongyong pulled off some backdoor maneuvering of their own to get it adopted a few years ago, the Ma administration quickly rolled that back, ditched Tongyong, and adopted the PRC Romanization standard after taking office.

One of Tongyong’s advantages, by the way, is that it allows foreigners who don’t know Chinese to better pronounce family and place names. For example, non-Chinese speakers are at a loss how to deal with the Q in Qingdao (青島) and the X in Xian (西安). Tongyong used other spellings.

The opposition might also have a point that the PRC will see this as a concession without making any of their own:

Ma’s proposal received immediate applause Wednesday morning from PRC Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesman Fan Liqing, who gushed that “both simplified and complex characters were rooted in Chinese culture” and proposed that “experts on both sides can actively discuss how to make mutual interchanges in writing more convenient.”

Notice that Mr. Fan said nothing about restoring the use of traditional characters for reading in the PRC. He knows that isn’t going to happen.

“(A) most objectionable facet of Ma’s remarks concerned his implicit privileging of Mandarin, “the” national language in Taiwan, and his complete lack of mention of the fact that Taiwan has at least three Sinitic languages (Mandarin, Hoklo and Hakka), which do not entirely use the same Han characters, and over a dozen Austronesian languages which have no relationship whatsoever to Han characters but are equally or even more entitled to be considered as “Taiwan languages.”

The anachronistic attachment of Ma and KMT ideologues to Mandarin and Han characters as an unitary “national language” reflects their continued colonialist imposition of a racial and patriarchal conception of “Chinese” culture on Taiwan’s multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual democratic society, as reflected by the arrogant and false declaration of his inaugural address last May 20 that “all the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to the Chinese race nation (zhonghua minzu).”

How refreshing to see the bogus concept of multiculturalism put to a positive use for a change. And then they drive the point home:

Instead of compromising Taiwan’s cultural sovereignty and democratic pluralism, the KMT government should demand that the PRC should fulfill its own international commitments and “converge” with the world community by implementing full freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought.

Writing in the August 2008 issue of Voice, Omae Ken’ichi suggested that the ties between the constituent elements of Greater China will loosen, and that the Sinosphere will eventually become a confederation rather than a single nation. The article itself was poorly written and poorly argued (and a disappointment, because that’s why I bought the issue), but this lexicographical dispute presents some of the reasons that confederation might come into being.


Meanwhile, as the Chinese argue about how to best write their own language, a native of Inner Mongolia—also part of Greater China—studying in Japan is creating art by combining two different languages.

A graduate student at Shikoku University conducting research into calligraphy is presenting an exhibit of his creations in Naruto, Tokushima.

Usually I include names with these stories, but in the article this man’s name was written in katakana, the Japanese alphabet used for foreign names (other than Chinese and Korean names, for which kanji is used). It’s not possible to track back the katakana and come up with an accurate Romanization of the man’s name–and doesn’t that dovetail perfectly with the theme of this post?


His calligraphic art is the combination of the 800-year-old Mongol script with kanji. Mongolian also has a calligraphic tradition, and he is studying ways to fuse kanji with that script. Written Mongolian is one of the few vertical scripts in the world read from left to right. (You can read more about it at this website.) The student has also created some works with the two scripts side by side that show identical words and phrases.

To create a bit of Mongolian atmosphere for the exhibit, the museum is serving chai, or milk tea, and playing tapes of horsehead lute in the background.

He came to Japan five years ago and began attending a calligraphy class to improve his Japanese. He was fascinated by the strength of the brushes and the beauty of the work, so he enrolled in college to focus on those studies. He’s now in his first year of grad school.

So to sum it all up, two countries with the same basic language want to impose their own lexicographical views on each other because they can’t read what the other has written, while in Japan a man can combine two entirely different writing systems, call it art, and hang it in a museum to be viewed while drinking tea and listening to music.

And some people wonder why I don’t read fiction any more!

Posted in China, Education, Language, Taiwan | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Yacurling we will go

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 30, 2009

THERE MAY BE nothing new under the sun, but big fun often results when imaginative people modify and adapt whatever’s at hand to create something semi-new. One such group of people, led by 66-year-old physical education instructor Kita Ryoko in Mima, Tokushima, decided they wanted to invent a new sport that could be played by people of any age.


What they came up with was yacurling. It’s similar to curling, but played on a gymnasium floor with a kettle instead of on specially treated ice with a granite stone. Curling has shown up on everyone’s radar in Japan since the better-than-expected performance of the women’s team at the 2006 Winter Olympics. The women’s team also finished fourth at the 2008 World Championships, though they didn’t fare so well this year. (The women from China won instead.)

Ms. Kita and her crew started with a five-liter yakan, which is a Japanese-style kettle. (There are different sizes, but they all look the same.) They cut three holes in the bottom of the kettle and inserted casters to allow it to roll. To make sure it moves along smartly, they put 2.5 kilograms of ballast inside.

The players stand nine meters away from the target (which in curling is called the house). The house in yacurling has a diameter of 0.65 meters. The winner is the player who can roll the stone (yakan) closest to the center. Unlike curling, the stone is recovered after each toss, so strategic placement and knocking the the other team’s stones out of the way aren’t factors in this game.

The inventors worked out the kinks at a local sports club on Saturdays and were delighted to discover that it was harder than they thought it would be. Now they hope to get other people interested.

For the sake of comparison, a curling stone is from 17 to 20 kilograms in weight (and costs several hundred dollars). The house is 3.7 meters wide, and the players stand from 45 to 46 meters away.

Yacurling looks like an inexpensive way to have fun to me. Of course it’s just a game rather than a new sport, but who wouldn’t want to try it at least once?

About that name—Japanese vowels have only one pronunciation each. The Japanese A is always pronounced like the A in “father”. Curling in Japanese is rendered ka-ri-n-gu, so the first two syllables in yakan (N at the end of words is a separate unit) are pronounced the same as the first two in yaka-ringu (yacurling).

The reports didn’t say whether it was an individual sport or a team sport, so I don’t know if the team members use a mop on the floor to help the kettle roll home!

The more I think about this, the more it reminds me of something the members of my college fraternity would have cooked up. One night well past the witching hour, two of the members stole a wheelchair from a nearby hospital (I know, I know), and within 24 hours, we were having contests in the living room to see who could do a wheelie the longest (i.e., ride around balanced on the two back wheels with the front wheels in the air).

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Sports | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Spending the public’s money

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 2, 2009

SOME POLITICOS come from the left, some come from the right, and the other 90% come from the position of expedience to ensure their own survival in office, but one thing they all have in common, regardless of their country of origin, is the love of spending the public’s money as if it were their own.

Love Island

Love Island

The idea that public funds are not theirs to use unless there’s a good reason and the public interest is at stake seems to have escaped them. That in itself is bad enough, but the problem is compounded when the money is spent on useless endeavors. It isn’t just a taste for pork; public servants also find it delectable to dine on taxpayer funds by spending money on projects that sound good, regardless of their inadvisability.

It’s not easy to track the wastage at the national level, and it’s made more difficult because the self-congratulatory marvels of the media usually can’t be bothered to stir themselves from their porta-thrones to do any serious digging. Imagine then how difficult it is to keep tabs on these expenditures at the local level.

Some examples have been coming to light in Japan in recent years, most notably the case of Yubari, Hokkaido. Smack dab in the middle of a snow belt, the town of 13,000 people had a municipal Ferris wheel, History Village, robot museum, stuffed animal museum, fossil museum, and coal mine museum. There were more than 20 facilities paid for by the central government with the objective of attracting tourists to a semi-isolated rural area, but they were all dismal failures, as anyone in the private sector could have predicted. The town now has a debt equivalent to $500 million, forcing them to curtail more mundane but much more useful city services. Yubari once had 11 schools; soon it will have only three or four. It once had a library, city hall branches, bus discounts for the elderly, municipal trash collection, and a lavatory at the train station. Not any more.

And the Ferris wheel isn’t operating either.

Still other examples of wasteful public expenditure are in plain sight, and people seem unmotivated to do anything about them. Take the case of Naka-cho, Tokushima.

Twenty years ago the municipality formed a public-private partnership to operate a resort on public property. The resort is named Aiairando (Love Island; Love Love Land is also possible). It is owned by Naka-cho and operated and managed by the partnership, which is called I.F.

The resort covers about four hectares of land. It has a wooded plaza, 14 cottages, a woodworking studio, a campsite, tennis courts, a restaurant, shops, and a garden with 10,000 hydrangeas. The public was initially interested in Aiairando, and visitor totals reached 38,640 in 1991, generating income of roughly 37 million yen (about $US 400,000 today).

But public interest soon waned, so an attempt was made to lure back the public by installing playground equipment and eliminating the admission fee. This resulted in a temporary rebound, but the numbers started falling again. The park was visited by 15,767 people in 2007, and it generated income of only nine million yen (about $US 92,000). Five million yen of that was accounted for by the operating commission paid by the municipal government.

I.F. executives attribute the visitor falloff to the number of similar resorts in the area and the diversification of leisure activities. They also note that the facilities themselves have aged, and warn that visitors will not come unless new facilities are provided. Yet, they say, the municipality is on a tight budget and it would be difficult to ask them for money.

Here’s the worst part: Naka-cho’s chief municipal officer says the original objective for the resort was not to generate income. Yet, despite the problems with finances, the municipality is still considering ways to improve the facilities.

If he’s serious about any of that, the man should be out of a job. It is not the business of municipal governments to operate resorts, for any reason whatsoever. Yet, when everyone admits there are similar resorts in the area, why is Naka-cho still involved in this one?

And why did it get involved in operating a resort if the idea wasn’t to generate income to begin with? A municipal park may improve the quality of life in a district, but people are capable of fending for themselves when it comes to finding more sophisticated ways to spend their free time.

So the resort wasn’t really needed, no one’s coming any more, the facilities need replacing, and what does the CMO say? The town will look for ways to find the money the resort needs.

In the private sector, people are cautioned about throwing good money after bad. Apparently that concept hasn’t penetrated the public sector yet.

But why should we expect it to?

It’s easy to spend money when it isn’t yours to begin with.

Posted in Government | Tagged: , , | 4 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 »

Tastes terrible–give me a second helping, please!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BY MAKING the most unhealthful foods sinfully delicious and the most nutritious foods a challenge to the palate, Mother Nature played a cruel trick on us all. Beefeaters are legion the world over, yet a graph showing the per capita beef consumption in Japan after World War II has a vertical curve almost identical to one showing the increase in the incidence of colon cancer during the same period. On the other hand, we all know the dinner table wars many parents have to wage to get their children to eat spinach.

There are several reasons the Japanese life span is among the highest in the world, and one of the most important is diet. One Japanese doctor told me the secret for a long life is to eat the way Japanese women did 40 years ago: fish, tofu (soybeans), rice, and no fatty foods. That’s a secret worth knowing, considering that Japanese women have the world’s highest life expectancy at 86 years. In fact, Japanese women have had the world’s highest life expectancy since 1985.

Among the Japanese, the traditional Okinawan lifestyle results in even greater longevity. As Bradley Willcox, Craig Willcox, and Suzuki Makoto (all doctors) write in The Okinawa Program, a book promoting the islanders’ healthful diet and lifestyle,

“If Americans lived more like Okinawans, 80 percent of the nation’s coronary care units, one-third of the cancer wards, and a lot of the nursing homes would be shut down.”

So it won’t come as a surprise to find out that some foods in the traditional Okinawan diet are unfriendly to the taste buds.


One of those is a vegetable whose generic Japanese name is nigauri, but in recent years has come to be commonly known by the word used for it in Okinawa: goya. Despite the switch in terminology, the former is the better descriptor: in Japanese it means bitter gourd (or melon).

The goya is green and slightly smaller than an American cucumber (which is thicker than the Japanese variety). Like a green pepper, it is hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds, and it has a soft, knobby skin.

It is indeed bitter; it’s not the sort of vegetable that people would slice and put into a tossed salad. That’s why the Okinawans most often eat it in a stir-fry with eggs, tofu, and bean sprouts, and sometimes pork, though some people keep it simple and just use the eggs.

It’s an excellent source of vitamin C, and is also said to moderate the blood pressure. What sets goya apart from other vegetables rich in vitamin C, however, is that it retains the vitamin even when cooked at high temperatures. The reason for its bitter taste is that it contains curcurbitacins, which doctors think help prevent cancers.

Goya is not native to Okinawa or Japan, but is thought to have arrived in the country from China several hundred years ago. The Chinese variety is known as chin-li-chih, goo-fa, or ku gua, and is slightly less bitter than the strain found in Japan. It’s also eaten in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and India.

Not only is goya nutritious, it’s also good for what ails you. People throughout Asia have used it as a medicinal plant, including the Chinese and Arabs. It’s also used in the traditional Ayurveda medicine of Inda to treat skin diseases.

Thus it’s only logical that Kamiita-cho municipal employee Dan Hitomi in Tokushima has created a trial version of goya soap to publicize the town’s goya production. The first photo shows Ms. Dan holding a cube of the pale green soap, which is made entirely of natural ingredients and commercially available vegetables.

To create the soap, Ms. Dan took the liquid squeezed from goya rind and added it to water, sodium hydroxide, olive oil, and other vegetable oils. She poured the mixture into a mold, let it harden for a day, and then dried it out for a month.

Ms. Dan, who has been making soap as a hobby for 10 years, claims there is no goya odor (though the vegetable doesn’t have an unpleasant smell to begin with) and it is more gentle on the skin than other soaps using discarded oil. That makes the bitter gourd good for you, both inside and out

But goya has even more benefits. The vegetable grows on a vine, and the Okinawans often suspend those vines from the roof eaves of traditional houses. This has a two-fold effect. First, it provides the plant with the sunshine it needs to grow, and second, it cools off the interior of the house during the hot summer.

That goya vines have a cooling effect has been demonstrated by an experiment conducted this summer at the Environmental Disaster Prevention Research Center of the University of Tokushima. The second photo shows the vines suspended over the windows of a small building at the center. The study found that this “goya curtain” reduced interior temperatures by 1.5° to 2.5° C when the outdoor temperature was 30° C or higher. The use of the goya curtain made the interior cooler than hanging a traditional bamboo curtain.

And just think—the people who live in homes with a goya curtain don’t even have to go outside to pick some for the dinner table!

The only drawback is that the cooling effect is negated by closing the windows, which will turn off those people who can’t live without air conditioners. Then again, those folks would be unlikely to live in a traditional Okinawan house to begin with.


Okinawa is also home to some fruit tart enough to cause tongue spasms. One of those is known as shiikwasa, which is the Okinawan name for the hirami lemon. This small, green citrus fruit is extremely sour, with a touch of bitterness. It is packed with flavonoids, which fight cancer, and also lowers both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

A shiikwasa is sometimes squeezed over sashimi or cooked fish to add flavor, much as lemons are used in the West. The juice is sold in concentrated form, and this can be drunk as a beverage if mixed at a roughly 8-1 ratio with hot water (which I sometimes do).

The shiikwaasa harvest has now started in the Katsuyama district of Nago in Okinawa, and some of the crop is shown in the third photo. Local farmers say this year’s harvest is a good one owing to excellent weather conditions—no typhoons hit during the growing season, total rainfall was down during the rainy season, and the heavy rains came just at the right time.

The use of the fruit depends on the time of year it is harvested. The shiikwasa picked now will be used to garnish fish, but the fruit taken from October to mid-December will be used for juice. Finally, the fruit harvested from the end of December to the end of February will be sold as produce to be eaten raw. (I can’t imagine eating one raw, but surely the Okinawans know what they’re doing.)

For accuracy’s sake, I should add that many similar kinds of fruit with different names are grown throughout Kyushu. Perhaps the most well-known is kabosu, which is grown in Kumamoto and is also being harvested now for sale at produce shops throughout the region. (I don’t know anyone who eats them raw, either.)

Though Okinawa farmers produce an abundance of food that promotes longevity, there’s a reason the doctor told me to follow the dietary habits of Japanese women 40 or 50 years ago. That’s because many younger Japanese women (and younger Okinawans) no longer follow those dietary habits themselves. Like most people everywhere, they tend to eat more of the things that taste good, rather than the things that are good for you.

Those Epicurean ways new to post-war Japan might make for more delectable dining, but it comes at a cost. Life expectancy figures may start slipping for Japanese women, as they already have for younger Okinawans.

But then, Mother Nature is the one who sets the rules, and we break them at our own risk.

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Posted in Agriculture, Food | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Shogatsu: Pounding Mochi for New Year’s Day in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 30, 2007

NOW THAT the Christmas decorations have been taken down, Japanese attention has turned to the real yearend holiday, which is the most important holiday on the calendar—New Year’s Day.

Though Christmas has become a part of life in Japan, it’s little more than a festival of light and a commercial opportunity. It may be a pleasant diversion for children and young people, but unless it falls on a weekend, 25 December is still a working day here.


One of the perennially popular seasonal songs in the US is I’ll Be Home for Christmas (written in 1943 at the height of World War II). But the yearend holiday the Japanese come home for falls on 1 January, and that’s the day everyone around the country has been getting ready for.

Just as there are many traditions associated with Christmas in Western countries, there are also many traditions associated with New Year’s Day in Japan.

One such custom is mochitsuki, or mochi rice pounding, which is performed to produce a traditional food. Mochi is a type of rice cake made from a very glutinous form of rice, and in the old days people made it by hand using a mortar and a wooden mallet. Steaming rice is pounded into sticky whole and then formed into either rounded cakes or sheets that are cut into squares.

Mochi has long been an essential part of some religious ceremonies, and none are more important than those held at yearend. Three mochi cakes of different sizes, called kagamimochi (mirror mochi), are displayed as a decoration in both homes and shrines. The cakes themselves are also eaten in zoni, a kind of soup that can be made in several different ways. The most auspicious food eaten during the season, zoni is thought to have originated in the 15th century in a ritual for partaking food with the divinities.


Those people who still pound mochi for tradition’s sake do it out in the yard at their home with family or friends. But the custom is also performed at other sites. One example is the mochitsuki shown in the first photo at the municipal offices of Mima, Tokushima Prefecture. The city employees of Mima hold the ceremony annually to mark the end of the work year, but they add a twist—they swing their hammers in time with music played on shamisens.

Twenty members of Udatsu, a shamisen mochitsuki preservation association, work the mochi while music is performed in the background. This year, they hammered out 36 kilograms worth. Other city employees formed the rice cakes, which were distributed to people who came to the offices that day. The custom in Mima of combining mochi with music predates City Hall–it has 420 years of history behind it.

Mochi demand is much too great to fill completely by hand, however, so even as you read this small businesses throughout the country are operating round-the-clock to put a smile on the faces of mochi lovers nationwide. The second photo shows the mochi made at Co-Op Kobe in the city of the same name, which began production this season on the 26th. Their small plant employs 230 people, including students hired just for the season, and the work will go on 24 hours a day for a six-day period until the 31st.

This year, they expect to make about 10.5 million cakes weighing 40 grams each. The reports cheerfully inform us that if the Co-Op Kobe cakes were piled one on top of another, the stack would be 210 kilometers high, or 56 times higher than Mt. Fuji.


The folks in the previous two examples are making mochi to be eaten, but third photo shows the miko, or shrine maidens, at the Suwa Shinto shrine at Nishiyama-machi in Nagasaki City making two giant kagamimochi for decoration.

The two bruisers they’ll be slapping together are made with mochi rice grown in Isahaya and will weigh 30 kilograms each. After they finished the pounding, they let the mochi set until the 30th–today!–and then put the two huge cakes together. One miko said the more she pounded, the more she enjoyed the sensation of the rice sticking to the mallet, though she still wound up with callouses. (And probably sore shoulders, too.)

Not all mochi rice is used for food. This is Japan, after all, so some of it is diverted to sake production, as you can see in the fourth photo.

The Aso Shinto shrine in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, makes sweet sake to distribute to the people who visit the shrine on New Year’s Day. They finished the job on the 21st, and are letting fermentation work its magic until New Year’s Eve.

They use rice donated by parishioners. The reports say that sake made with mochi rice has a more full-bodied, sweeter flavor, but I’ve never had any, so I can’t confirm that.


Sometimes at this time of year people in Japan ask me if I’ve got that New Year’s spirit, but I always have to disappoint them by saying no. The New Year’s spirit, much like the Christmas spirit, is the result of holiday experiences accumulated from the age of zero, and the American New Year’s holidays of my childhood were too boring to create nostalgic memories. All the fun came during Christmas, it was too cold to go outside and play, and television, with college football games morning, noon, and night, was even more boring than usual.

I did pound mochi once during my first year in Japan. Rather than put me in the New Year’s spirit, however, it just reminded me how lucky I was that I don’t have to make a living from manual labor. It’s a lot of work swinging that mallet, and it took a lot longer than I thought for the rice to congeal into a whole. I enjoy the taste and consistency of unpounded mochi rice, but don’t consider mochi rice cakes a treat—too gummy and hard to chew—so I’ve politely declined invitatations since then. The enjoyment came from the sweat-based camaraderie developed with the other people who worked just as hard as I did.

For a video of mochitsuki, look in the third column from the right on the list of this page of Brovision videos of life in Japan (link also on the right sidebar). That’s exactly what happens!

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Matsuri da! (46): Japan’s dancing fools!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 16, 2007

IN OUR PREVIOUS MATSURI REPORTS, we’ve covered festivals with mikoshi races, mikoshi spinning, team competitions to smash mikoshi, groups charging down steep hillsides with a mikoshi at night, boat races, tug-of-war competitions with huge ropes, tug-of-war competitions with huge logs, drinking contests, fights to gain possession of balls, water splashing, and simulated sex. What else could possibly go on at a Japanese festival?


These three events are all O-Bon festivals held during the period from August 13 to 16, and all feature dancing. In fact, the whole point of the first and most famous festival, the Awa Odori festival of Tokushima Prefecture, is to get ripped, get goofy, and dance. (If you’ve seen Jack Nicholson’s dance scene in Goin’ South, you get the idea.)

That’s exactly how it all began. The local feudal lord held a banquet to celebrate the completion of his new castle in 1587. Japanese parties can get just as crazy as parties anywhere else once the participants get a snootful, and on this occasion, everyone seems to have gotten their snoots very full indeed. They got drunk and started dancing, and the dancing was so wacky and so much fun they decided to do it every year. Now, instead of dancing in the castle, they form groups called ren and do it down main street.

They still get drunk, too, but nowadays most people wait until after the dances are over.

Each ren has from 50 to 500 people, and anywhere from 200 to 500 ren perform a day. The dances are done to a bright, fast-paced melody accompanied by shamisen, gongs, and flutes. The lyrics of the song go:

Odoru aho ni miru aho, onaji aho nara odoranya son son.

Or (very) roughly:
Fools watch the dancing fools,
Since we’re all fools, we might as well dance.

And don’t let the tradition of more than 400 years fool you—one of the most important elements of the dance is spontaneity. The men are noted for letting it all hang out, while the women are more elegant. Once the official presentation is over, the spectators can join in the dance themselves, and the streets of Tokushima fill up with drunken, dancing Japanese.

Try this page for some more photos, all excellent. This Japanese site has some short but groovy videos. And clicking on this link lets you hear the music and lyrics. For more, here’s a YouTube clip, and another, and somebody stop me before I put up one more! (One wonders if the Tokushima maternity clinics get crowded every May.)

The Awa Odori dancers wear traditional summer yukata, but the 20 or so men who do the Chankoko Dance on the island of Fukue off Nagasaki Prefecture wear grass skirts, headgear decorated with flowers, and taiko drums around their waists. They dance in a circle and sing Omo omo onde, oniyamyode, omo onde. It’s anybody’s guess what that means, but some suspect it was originally a Buddhist sutra.

Most Japanese festivals are derived from Shinto, but this was originally a Buddhist dance to invoke the deities, and has been performed locally for more than 800 years. The men proceed from house to house and are invited to dance at the homes of people whose relatives died in the past year. They also dance at Buddhist temples.

The name Chankoko is onamatopoetic and comes from the sound of the drums and gongs accompanying the dance. The unfamiliar lyrics and the atypical costumes suggest its origins lie outside of Japan, perhaps in islands further south.

Finally, there is the Kujira Odori, or Whale Dance, of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. The first recorded whale hunters in Japan are from this municipality, and every year during the O-Bon season they perform a dance that mimes whale hunting. It has been performed for more than 300 years as a prayer for a good catch.

The dancers, singers, and drummers are known for their colorful clothing. They wear happi coats with red, white, and blue horizontal stripes, red headbands, yellow sashes, and white trousers. The dancers carry hollowed bamboo tubes that are about 50 centimeters long and filled with pebbles. The tubes are wrapped with tape of three different colors and have red tassels on the ends. The dancers shake these tubes as they dance their way onto the bow of a ship. Each of the colors is symbolic: black represents the whales, red stands for the red snapper (a fish), green is for the land, and white is for the waves.

Three dance festivals (out of dozens) held during the same week every year: one in celebration of getting drunk and dancing, another from the South Pacific with men in grass skirts, and a third celebrating whaling. Where else in the world will you find such simultaneous variety in folk traditions? And this in a country reputed for its homogeneity!

Here’s an excellent video of Awa Odori taken (I think) from local television.

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