AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Yamanashi’

Sushi and ramen

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 17, 2012

TWO of Japan’s most popular culinary exports lie at the extreme ends of the scale for pretentious gourmandizing: Sushi and ramen. There are exceptions in attitudes, of course. Some dilettante epicures in the West who have taken the trouble to memorize Japanese fish names the way others can read menu French might be surprised to hear that Japan has plenty of sushi chains that are the rough equivalent of cheap American steakhouses. I saw a college student working part-time behind the counter at one use a propane torch to quick-thaw a block of frozen tuna. It is unlikely he was spending five years as an apprentice to become an itamae. In contrast, some people discuss ramen the way others get glowy about the bouquet of chocolate craft beer. Here’s a quick story about each.

Japan’s leading sushists

The Mainichi Shimbun recently wondered who amongst them are the nation’s biggest sushi eaters, so they conducted a survey by prefecture of the number of sushi shops per 100,000 people. Even they were surprised to find that the champs in Japan were the folks in Yamanashi — a landlocked prefecture that is the location of the northern slope of Mt. Fuji. There are 38.1 shops per 100,000 Yamanashians. Ranked second was Ishikawa, with 33.5, but that’s on the Sea of Japan coast. At the bottom of the table was Kochi on the island of Shikoku, and that too has a seacoast. They have only 10.9 shops/100K, which means that Yamanashi has more than 3.5 times the number of restaurants.

The Mainichi reporter took a stroll in Kofu, the Yamanashi capital, and counted six shops in one 100-meter stretch. He discovered during his interviews that the lack of access to the sea is probably the reason for sushi’s popularity. Seafood of all kind is considered a delicacy, and sushi has become de rigueur for celebrations of all types, including children’s birthday parties. Some people go to a noodle shop or a burger joint for a snack, but in Yamanashi they’re more likely to make it sushi.

While they might consider it a delicacy, parents don’t fork over Cordon Bleu prices for their kids’ birthday treat. One person the reporter interviewed there was the operator of the local Wakazushi Deli Caboose chain. The name says it all.

The ultimate ramen champion

Meanwhile, here’s the lede of a story that recently appeared in the Straits Times of Singapore:

After a year of serving hearty bowls of ramen, Ikkousha has been crowned Ultimate Ramen Champion 2011. Its classic tonkotsu, or pork broth ramen, features thin Hakata-style noodles.

Since the competition for the best ramen outlet out of six started in July last year at Bugis+ (formerly Iluma), more than 100,000 bowls have been sold at Ikkousha.

It was called a 2011 contest, but it ended in July this year.

While the usual ramen shop in Japan does feature cooking on the premises by the proprietors using unique recipes and ingredients they purchased themselves, you are unlikely to read a passage in a newspaper here that is the equivalent of this:

The Straits Times’ restaurant critic Wong Ah Yoke had also picked Ikkousha as the winner in his review of the Ramen Champion contenders last year. He says: “Every component in a bowl of Ikkousha ramen is just right. The noodles are thin but still firm and the chashu has just the right balance of fat and meat. Also, the broth is tasty without being too salty and doesn’t have a strong porky smell, which is probably why it goes down well with Singaporeans.”

Ikkousha’s ramen also scored top marks when rated by nine judges who were present at the media event on Tuesday at Bugis+.

They included Hiroyuki Yamamoto, minister and deputy chief of mission of the Japanese embassy in Singapore, chef Andre Chiang of Restaurant Andre at Bukit Pasoh and Kumo Japanese Kaiseki Restaurant’s executive chef Hirohashi Nobuaki.

Even some Japanese overseas can get sniffy about a bowl of noodles:

Another judge, Koji Tashiro, executive director of Komars Group, which owns Ramen Champion, says in Japanese via a translator: “This tonkotsu-style of ramen is actually not very popular in Japan but very successful in other countries.

“Not very popular”, eh? Mr. Tashiro should smile if he says that here in Kyushu. The tonkotsu variety (which literally means “pig bone”) is the standard here. The proprietor/chef/waiter/janitor at the shop where I most frequently dined when I first arrived called me over one night to show me the pig’s head simmering in the pot. Walk into a shop in this part of the country to order ramen and tonkotsu is what you’ll get. To eat the standard variety in the rest of Japan, you have to specify it by using the term “soy sauce ramen”. That has a dark brown broth, while the soup in tonkotsu has more body and is a milky beige.

When the natural human taste for kustom kulture is applied in Noodle World, East Asia, the result is as described in this passage:

Chef Tetsuya Tomiyama, 32, says he is excited about Singaporeans taking to his creative Sichuan spin on ramen. He says in Japanese: “In Japan, there is tasty ramen everywhere and so I wanted to be creative with my own signature version. I’m sure it will create an impression on diners.”

It might go over well:

Engineer James Cheong, 30, says: “I was hoping there would be more new players coming in but at least the current chefs have introduced new items. I will definitely try the ramen from the new players. The Sichuan-style version sounds very intriguing.”

It might also go over well in Japan. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like ramen, so everyone would probably try it once to see what it tasted like. I would.

*****
The semi-retired multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer Suzuki Saeko created a well-known commercial for Nisshin chicken ramen years ago that people still remember. She wrote the music, probably performed most of it, and did the singing.

But the musician who really loves ramen is Yano Akiko, the ex-wife of Sakamoto Ryuichi. Here she is with her piano trio in a live performance of “I Want to Eat Ramen”.

Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you might start to wonder before the song is over if ramen is what she really wants to eat.

Posted in Food, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ichigen koji (132)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2012

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

The people who look at the shuttered shops near the station and declare that the regional economy is in decline, and that regional cities are devasted, have only a superficial understanding. They do not understand the structual changes in regional economies. Using this idea alone to review films such as Saudade, which is based solely (on the above idea), shows that film critics in Japan know little of the world.

– Fujiwara Toshi

He is perhaps talking about reviews such as this:

I saw Saudade at Eurospace in Shibuya (a self-described “art house cinema”). It is a drama of a group of Japanese and foreigners that takes place on the stage of a declining regional city. The film is set in Kofu, but for me, who was born and reared in Otaru, a regional city that is truly in decline, the film was quite moving.

Or this.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Films, Popular culture, Quotations | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Nippon noel 2010

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 26, 2010

CHRISTIANS ACCOUNT for just one percent of Japan’s population, but no one can spot the potential for a good festival better than the Japanese. That’s why they’ve adopted Christmas, with all its secular symbols, as a winter festival of light–most fitting for the time of the year in the northern hemisphere with the least amount of daylight.

One of the most attractive aspects of the season is the Japanese use of the Christmas tree as an art form. Here are some of this year’s examples.

Local volunteers in Nanyo, Yamagata, began decorating a 25-meter fir tree at a local primary school in 2003, and they’ve continued every year since. They’ve also been adding to the amount of bulbs they use to trim the tree, and this year they hung 20,000 in four colors. This is actually called an “illumination event” because the tree will be lit every night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. until mid-January, but that didn’t stop the piano, flute, and violin trio from playing Christmas hymns as well as selections from the classics at the lighting ceremony.

What’s better than having a Christmas tree? Two trees! These two fir trees down south in Yamaguchi City, 26 and 20 meters high respectively, are estimated to be 450 years old. They’re festooned with 35,000 lights hung by 50 volunteers. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll be able to see them until 10 January.

This tree in a park in Anan, Tokushima, is only 15 meters high, but it’s decorated with 500,000 light-emitting diodes. A lighted Christmas tree is not just a seasonal decoration here—it’s part of the Anan Luminous Town Project that’s been held two or three times a year since 2003. This December was the 17th time the project was presented. Anan is a luminous town because it’s the headquarters of the Nichia Corp., the nation’s largest LED manufacturer.

The Tokushimanians devised a new way to build their tree this year. Previous trees were raised on site using ropes or a crane, but this year’s model was built with a bamboo frame. Nothing says Christmas in Asia like bamboo. A total of 120 lengths of 4-6 meter-long bamboo were used. They liked the idea so much they also built a 10-meter-high bamboo pyramid and bamboo wreaths.

In addition to being one of the Christmas colors, green is also the color of the ecological movement, and one way the Japanese put the green into Christmas is to make trees out of used PET bottles. Here’s a 7.25-meter PET bottle tree at the L’Espace City shopping complex in To’on, Ehime. How interesting that the “green” tree is blue, but that won’t surprise anyone who understands the language. The tree wasn’t erected solely to raise ecological awareness—it also is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of L’Espace City. That’s why the 16,000 LEDs will be lit from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until end of January. It was assembled by a non-profit and some private companies in the city, which started collecting bottles at schools and shops in the fall. They found more than 10,000 in three months.

This PET bottle eco-tree adorned a Fukui City parking lot. Fukuan adults and kids have been trimming PET bottle trees in public for the past four years, and they used 700 PET bottles and electric lights for this year’s five-meter creation. To add to the holiday atmosphere, two Santa Clauses passed out candy, and they drew a picture of Snow White on the side of an adjacent building. The kids also built a haunted house. Why? Because it’s Christmas!

Fukui City adults and children also worked together to build this cardboard Christmas tree designed to lie on the floor of the gym at the Higashiago Primary School. The Christmas celebration for the grade schoolers included several events, including reading aloud from storybooks and group singing. This tree was created by 150 people working in groups of six or seven. It was 15 meters high and nine meters wide, and decorated with ornaments made from wrapping paper and milk cartons brought from home. They also set up and lit 200 candles in the form of a tree, and then went up to the second floor to enjoy the results of their handiwork from on high.

What else can be used for Christmas tree material besides PET bottles, bamboo, and cardboard? Glass! The employees of Aqua World, the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium, created this glass tree from 108 individual pieces with tropical fish inside. They wanted small colorful fish for the decorations, so they chose the betta Siamese fighting fish. That breed is well known for aggressively defending its territory and fighting until the finish. Territorial disputes aren’t really in the spirit of the season, so the feisty fish have been isolated from each other within the tree. A lonely Christmas for them is the best solution for everyone.

Speaking of fish, the Kagoshima City Aquarium had kindergarten students from 42 schools in the city work since early November to create fish ornaments for their Christmas trees. Yes, trees—they had 34 in all spread throughout the facility. Now how’s that for a scheme. They got the kids to do all the work of making Christmas decorations and called it an art project!

The Japanese are known for their appreciation of ephemeral beauty, and here’s an excellent Yuletide example. The ANA Hotel Clement Takamatsu in Takamatsu, Kagawa, arranges the lights in 46 guest rooms on the northeast side of the building on floors 5-19 in the shape of a tree. They ask the guests in the other rooms on that side of the building to shut the curtains, and the result is a tree pattern that is 48 meters high and 43 meters wide.

The hotel does this only on Christmas Eve, and for only one hour, starting from 6:00 p.m. The more you think about it, the more Zen it gets!

Drivers in Mino, Osaka, can’t miss this tree, nor have they for the past 15 years. This creation of the Mino Chamber of Commerce is almost impossible to miss—it’s 50 meters high and towers over the Green Road Tunnel.

Christmas is not always filled with peace and light, as louts are on the prowl every day of the year. To remind everyone of the need to be alert even on 25 December, the police department of Muroran, Hokkaido, made a tree of 30 PET bottles decorated with handmade Christmas cards from each of the separate bureaus. Instead of the generic “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, the cards contained crime-busting messages, such as “Don’t forget to lock the windows and doors when you go out.” Said the Muroran police chief, “A safe and sound yearend is the best Christmas present after all.” The kids might not agree, but their parents probably will.

Incorporating the Christmas theme with all sorts of national symbols is a seasonal tradition everywhere, and Japan is no exception. That might be one of the reasons the Fuji Q Highland amusement park in Yamanashi built a 60-meter-high, illuminated steel frame representation of Mt. Fuji in their parking lot for the season. It’s decorated with 100,000 LEDs. The park says that other than free-standing electric towers, it is the highest illuminated object in Japan.

Snow is a key part of Christmas music and imagery, even in places where it doesn’t snow. So in keeping with the seasonal theme, here’s a photo of the first snowfall on Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi in November. Luckily it includes some Christmas reds for contrast. Snow has dusted the summit since 25 September, but this was the first time the whole mountain was covered. It was – 1º on the ground when the picture was taken but -12.1º on top of Old Snowy. Makes me glad to be in Kyushu!

Yes, this Ampontan Christmas card is a day late, but accept it in the spirit of Suzuki Saeko—don’t you wish it could be Christmas every day?

If you’re still in the seasonal mood, click on the Christmas tag for some truly inspired trees from previous posts.

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

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

Pass that bottle to me

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 28, 2010

IT’S ONLY the first bottle that’s expensive, goes a French aphorism about wine, and that’s one universal insight we can all drink to. The Japanese have a saying of their own: Sake ga sake o nomu, or the liquor drinks the liquor. In other words, once you work up a head of steam, it’s time to clear the tracks.

Bacchanalians in both American and Europe have taken a shine to the traditional Japanese beverages of sake and shochu in recent years, as these statistics show. Now they’re also beginning to get hip to the fact that the Japanese can mash it up with Western grog as well.

For proof, Minoh Beer Imperial Stout, made by the A.J.I. Beer microbrewery of Minoh, Osaka, was named the World’s Best Stout earlier this month. In a British beer contest. For the second straight year.

The organizers of the World Beer Awards said the stout is “silky textured with a sweet rounded malt opening”, and perhaps that’s better understood after you’ve got one or two Minohs under your belt. Here’s a quick look at Minoh and some other winners at the World Beer Award 2010 website. The page also features the best brews by region, and Japan is well represented here too, with awards for different beer varieties in the Asia division.

That’s not even the best part of the story. The World’s Best Stout is brewed by the Oshima sisters—Mayuko and Kaori—whose father was a liquor store owner and got them started in the business. Who could ask for better in-laws than that? Here’s a detailed report in English by a beer-loving gent who visited the brewery in person and took plenty of photos. (The dude really likes production equipment.) There’s also a cutout of a newspaper photo that shows a third sister, Nozomi.

This site has a nice English-language interview with Kaori, who is identified as the brewmistress. It also has a photo of the world’s best stout poured out in a glass, and yes, it does look tasty, doesn’t it? Finally, the Minoh beer website has plenty of information about all the beer they make and where to buy it, but only in Japanese.

If there’s anything better than a pleasant surprise, it’s two pleasant surprises, and here’s the second. Japanese vintners, aided by Ernest Singer, have begun attracting attention among overseas oenophiles by turning koshu—the local version of Sneakin’ Pete—into an upmarket white wine that the New York Times says “could become the first Asian wine to draw international recognition”.

In yet a third surprise, it turns out that the New York Times is also capable of excellent journalism, albeit in the Dining and Wine section. Their article on the development of koshu wine is very readable; it’s rich, full-bodied, and smooth on the palate, with only subtle hints of snoot and condescension.

Mr. Singer was a Tokyo-based wine importer who became intrigued with the potential of koshu when he drank an experimental batch of dry white wine made using koshu grapes, which are grown mostly in Yamanashi. The article describes how he leased some land and came up with the concepts for using the grape to make some top drawer tipple. (The heavy rains of summer and fall mean that Japan is not the ideal place to grow grapes for wine, though the grapes grown for eating are quite good.)

A group of Japanese koshu producers and Mr. Singer have formed Koshu of Japan to promote the beverage overseas. Here’s their English-language website, and here’s a page that provides some information on the history of the koshu grape in Japan. (It’s been around since the 8th century.) Finally, here’s the Japanese-language website of one of the leading Japanese producers. They go by the name of Grace Wine in English, but Chuo Budoshu (Central Wine) in Japanese.

They make more than koshu in Yamanashi, by the way. The Sadoya Winery in Kofu is holding a special sale of 100 bottles of 50-year-old wine, one red, one white, made with European grapes from their own vineyard. The crop was particularly good that year, as the vines were recovering from a typhoon the year before and rainfall was light. If you’re in Japan you can stock your wine cellar by calling the winery direct at (055) 251-3671, but be prepared to pay JPY 15,000 a bottle.

Grape stompin' in Hiroshima

Nothing goes better with wine than women and song, so it’s about high time we got to that part. Not long ago the Miyoshi Winery of Miyoshi, Hiroshima, held their annual fall wine festival. One of the attractions was a wine-pressing dance performed by 10 ladies from a local ballet class stomping on 200 kilograms of merlot grapes in a four-meter-diamter tub, though in the photo it looks more like a plastic wading pool for adults. They created the dance themselves based on their observation of traditional European wine-stomping methods.

Of course they’re barefoot! (And keep your foot fetish fantasies to yourself.)

It was so much fun, the reports say, that some kids jumped in spontaneously and began dancing on their own. One second-grade girl interviewed admitted it was a little painful at first, but after a while she started to enjoy the lumpy feeling on her feet.

What the heck—a little toe jam probably enhances the bouquet.

UPDATE:
Now Japan has the world’s top whiskey as well:

Suntory Liquors Ltd.’s Suntory Single Malt Whiskey Yamazaki 1984 has been awarded the top prize among some 1,000 entries in an international liquor competition held in London…

Not only was it the best among 300 whiskies, it was also named the Supreme Champion Spirit among all the prize winners in every category.

*****

And now for the song! If you’re a beer hound, you’d better drink it while you can, because there isn’t any in heaven, assuming you’re sober enough to head in that direction. In Heaven There Is No Beer is originally a German tune that’s often performed as a polka, but if the three Oshita sisters of Osaka can make the world’s best stout, then surely Flaco Jimenez can perform the song Norteño style, singing both in English and Spanish. The embed code isn’t coming up for some reason, so here’s the straight YouTube link. Don’t let that stop you from clicking.

For those who prefer the grape to the hops, Sticks McGhee proves that no one outfunks wine drinkers by performing Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. It isn’t the most exciting video around, but that’s by far the best version of one hot song that put Atlantic Records on the map. Hoy hoy!

And what better sums up the spirit of today’s post than this traditional Chinese song whose title translates to Liquor Crazy. Despite the name, it’s rather elegantly performed on the ruan, or four-stringed moon lute. It sounds like the sort of tune the late John Fahey would have liked, but then he was liquor crazy too—particularly about bourbon.

Kampai!

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

Posted in Food, Foreigners in Japan, New products | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

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.

Firewater

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!

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

Posted in Food, New products, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Japan’s Political Kaleidoscope (3): DPJ edition

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 12, 2009

THE MOST RECENT JPK focused on the two sides of Aso Taro before “no side” is called for him, which might be sooner than we think. Turnabout being fair play, it’s time to cross the aisle for a look at recent developments with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a worthy subject for examination if only because they always seem to be on the verge of losing the elastic in their political trousers.

How I spent my summer vacation

The last time we checked in with Kan Naoto, the veteran of nearly 30 years in the Japanese Diet was off to England for a three-day field trip to study the workings of Parliament.

Mr. Kan held a press conference in London to tell the class what he had learned. He said he discovered that the opposition party in Great Britain has a formal meeting with the national bureaucracy before an election to prepare for a smooth handover of power. He asked the Japanese government to permit a meeting of the same type.

“I intend to ask the government to recognize formal contact between the bureaucratic organizations and the party before the next election.”

That’s a good idea, but finding that out required a three-day junket in Westminster? It’s something a junior staffer from the British Embassy in Tokyo could have told him over a two-hour lunch, saving everybody a lot of time and money. Then again, he would have missed seeing the changing of the guards and hearing the chimes of Big Ben. Perhaps he prefers to study using the full immersion technique.

Tails wagging the dog

Awarding seats in the legislature to parties that haven’t won elections using a formula based on the proportion of votes received amplifies their power beyond justification. There are people in every country who believe all sorts of things, but the right to free speech and free thought does not include the right to be taken seriously, much less the right to have a voice in government. The general plot in a democracy is to fashion a rough consensus based on majorities and move in that direction. The only effect fringe elements have on society at large is to cause paralysis or work at cross-purposes with the majority. What else would anyone expect to happen in the world of politics?

As part of its strategy to take control of government, the DPJ formed an alliance with the Social Democratic Party, who represent the flannel-headed death spiral left, as well as the semi-fossilized People’s New Party, who are blocking privatization of unnecessary government ministries and bureaucratic reform.

Many Japanese politicians also realize there’s a problem, and moves are afoot to reduce the number of MPs in both houses of the Diet. (Proportional representation is not the only issue; there are just too many legislators in Japan at all levels of government, period.) Proposals are floating around that call for cuts ranging from 50 to 180 of the lower house legislators. That 180 is an important figure because it’s the number of proportional representation seats in the House of Representatives.

The DPJ adopted a platform plank during the last national election to reduce those seats from 180 to 100, nearly halving the number of proportional representation delegates. But they could afford to be honest since the voters weren’t ready to take them seriously as the head of a national government yet. It’s funny how that changes the closer one gets to power.

The SDP is taking them very seriously, however. They have seven seats in the lower house, only one of which they won outright. The rest are all filled by proportional representation delegates. Eliminating those seats eliminates their voice, such as it is.

So it’s no surprise that their participation in a DPJ-led coalition government is conditioned on maintaining the status quo on proportional representation. Said party head Fukushima Mizuho:

“An electoral system based on one delegate in a winner-take-all district will lead to a two-party system. The Diet requires a multidimensional value system, including small parties.”

Defending this idea inevitably means that one has to defend minority control of the majority, which is anathema to the idea of a democratic government.

Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that the last non-LDP government in Japan fell apart when the Socialists, the previous incarnation of the SDP, bolted the coalition.

Yukio steps in it again

The subject of proportional representation intersected with DPJ party head Hatoyama Yukio’s tendency to babble, particularly where the PNP is concerned.

Said Mr. Hatoyama during an FM radio broadcast:

“Our preference is a coalition with the SDP and PNP until we can take an absolute majority in the upper house election next July.”

The PNP was not amused, and who could blame them? Asked party chief Kamei Shizuka:

“Would anyone get married knowing they’ll divorce in a year?”

From that you can tell pre-nuptial agreements aren’t yet commonplace in Japan.

But Mr. Kamei is more old-fashioned. If you want us to hop into bed in bed with you, he suggested, give us a real kiss instead of a kiss-off.

To show their displeasure, the party postponed a decision on offering their support to 50 candidates in the lower house election proposed by the DPJ.

Mr. Hatoyama offered an excuse:

“My true intent was not conveyed.”

That’s the best he can come up with after 40 years of marriage? Then again, maybe he’s never had to do better. In 1996 it was revealed that he had a mistress in Hokkaido for 10 years, but his wife blamed herself and took him back.

Considering the mood of electorates world-wide and the odds a DPJ administration will belly flop, it might not be such a good idea for them to start counting any badger skins from an upper house election. (The Japanese proverbially warn against counting those pelts rather than unhatched chickens.)

Not all the DPJ Diet reform plans are meeting with opposition from their small-party allies, however. Some are meeting with opposition from DPJ members themselves.

For example, some want to include a measure in the platform reducing the number of upper house seats. Naturally those DPJ members with upper house seats aren’t ready to get on board that train. They say the party is being “too hasty”.

So, what will the party’s latest edition of its “true intent” turn out to be?

Yukio tries to wipe it off

Those who have been following the DPJ hymnbook know that Mr. Hatoyama’s plan for reforming the Japanese bureaucracy is to have everyone at the level of department head or above resign when the party forms a government. They’d be rehired on the condition of signing a loyalty oath pledging to support DPJ policies. Acting Party President Kan Naoto has already begun backing off that one, and now Mr. Hatoyama is sidling away too, though he hasn’t conveyed his true intent yet. He said:

“(When the) current law is unraveled, (we find) it’s difficult from a legal perspective to demote civil service personnel. (So) it’s my understanding this will not necessarily take the form of a written resignation.”

Unraveling that statement leads to the question of what form it could possibly take. Let’s assume they won’t be lined up against the wall, given a last cigarette and blindfold, and shot.

Here’s an idea: Make a phone call to Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP and tell him you’ll support his bill to make it easier to demote civil servants as well as outlaw the revolving employment door for retired bureaucrats. He’s got more than 100 signatures on the bill, and he said he wrote it specifically to get DPJ backing. If you worked together, it would easily pass both houses.

That’s assuming you’re serious, of course.

Manifestly devolving

The DPJ has formulated the outline for a new platform a plank on devolution. It’s seen as a nod to the ideas (and more importantly, the popularity) of Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, surely with the intent of capturing his support in the election. The party claims it will promote a great shift of authority to local government by 2013, their fourth year in office, if they’re still there.

They plan on eliminating the prefectural government liability for local agencies of central government enterprises, which is near the top of Mr. Hashimoto’s wish list. Also included for elimination are grants with strings attached to specific agencies.

The party hopes this will neutralize the authority of the central bureaucracy and the influence of the zokugi-in, those legislators sitting in the Diet who serve as the handmaidens of the individual ministries by acting as their de facto in-house lobbyists.

They’ve also ditched Ozawa Ichiro’s idea to reorganize local government around 300 units, which Mr. Hashimoto and the National Association of Towns and Villages opposed. In its place they’ve offered up a vague program for basic local governmental units (usually municipalities in most countries) with authority equal to that of prefectures. They promised to “think about” the state/province system, an LDP idea that is already halfway down the runway, and which Mr. Hashimoto likes.

In fact, DPJ bigwig Okada Katsuya visited the Osaka governor and played up to him by suggesting a state could be created in the Kinki region. Mr. Hashimoto says he will “cheer on”, rather than endorse, a party in the upcoming election, so perhaps Mr. Okada thinks that flattery will get him everywhere.

Never underestimate the power of a local politician from a populous region with poll ratings north of 80%!

Political indoctrination of children Public school education

Koshi’ishi Azuma, one of the troika of DPJ acting presidents with Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto, addressed the Supreme Soviet general meeting of the Japan Teachers’ Union, held at Social Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo. Mr. Koshi’ishi is one of seven DPJ legislators to have a Socialist Party background, and he formerly headed the JTU-affiliated Yamanashi teachers’ union. Once a Red, always a Red, eh?

You think I exaggerate? Last month Mr. Koshi’ishi said at a press conference:

“Rather than inspecting North Korean ships, we should inspect the Aso Cabinet.”

As he frequently does, Mr. Koshi’ishi spoke about the relationship between politics and education:

“There is no such thing as education without politics.”

Well, that clears that up. The JTU criticism of the use of innocuous patriotic gestures in the schools, such as singing the national anthem, is so habitual as to be knee-jerk. Now we know it’s not because it injects politics into education, but rather because it injects the politics they dislike into education—i.e., they’d rather sing the Internationale.

Koshi'ishi Azuma

Koshi'ishi Azuma

But there was no mystery about what he thought to begin with. The Yamanashi union got caught a few years ago squeezing contributions from primary and junior high school teachers for his election campaign, and they even had teachers working the phone banks to bug voters at home. The teachers themselves admitted the money went into a dummy bank account for Mr. Koshi’ishi, who wound up with JPY 3 million.

At another JTU meeting in Tokyo in January, he said:

“It is not possible to be politically neutral in education…We will change education through politics.”

Statements such as these skate close to the edge of violating the Japanese laws regarding politics and education, and–let’s face it–are a de facto pledge to indoctrinate students.

The Japanese electorate might be desperate for a change of government, but it’s unlikely this is what they have in mind. Most of the DPJ rank and file probably don’t care for it either, but that’s the price they pay for trying to paste together unwieldy coalitions.

As an example of how far the DPJ is willing to follow the JTU party line, they said they would abolish the JTU-opposed supplementary reader on morality, Kokoro no Noto (Notebook of the Heart), of which several editions are used in primary and junior high schools. It would save JPY 300 million ($US 3.24 million), which admittedly is a bit steep.

Developed by a psychologist, the book is very easy to read, is written in a soft and fuzzy tone, and talks about the importance of working for a living, raising a family, and becoming a responsible citizen. In other words, it’s as controversial as vanilla ice cream.

But here are the objections raised at one website:

“For example, about working, the reader includes such sentences as, ‘When do you get the feeling that you have worked? Is it when you’ve studied? Is it when you’ve come home from school?’, and ‘Working is not only for your own sake, but also for contributing to society.’

“We think that tries to whitewash the idea of working. Considering the reality of employment in Japan today, some children are not able to have a satisfying life at school because of the burden they feel from their parents (having lost their jobs) due to restructuring.”

No, I did not make that up.

Their real beef, however, is probably to be found on the page about patriotism (the only one) that appears later in the book. Here’s the complete and unexpurgated version of how one reader treats the subject:

“If you extend the feeling of loving your hometown outward
It will connect with the feeling of loving Japan.
The feeling of loving this country where we live
And wishing for its development is perfectly natural.
But, how much about this country do we know?
We should have a thorough knowledge of Japan now and renew our awareness of its splendid traditions and culture.
When seeing the excellence of this country, and passing on its merits to the future,
Loving Japan as a member of international society, and as one of the people on the Earth,
Must not be the narrow and exclusionary glorification of one’s country.
Loving this country will connect with loving the world.”

Mark my words! If they force Japanese junior high school kids to read this propaganda, before you know it they’ll want to start marching into the Korean Peninsula again!

Is it any surprise that people who think Aso Taro is a criminal and Kim Jong-il should skate would respond to the sentiments in the above excerpt like Dracula to a cross?

Look for a lot of Ministry of Education news to be generated in the event of a DPJ victory.

Grave robbers

Now that we’re on the subject of people who sleep in coffins, what is it with necrophilia and Democratic Parties? The Democratic Party of the Daley machine in Chicago (where Barack Obama learned whatever it is he knows about politics) has long been the butt of jokes for having perfected the technique of counting the graveyard vote. It’s part of the American political folklore that the Illinois ballots cinching the White House for Richard Nixon in 1960 are in a cement-weighted chest at the bottom of Lake Michigan.)

Now it turns out that the Democratic Party of the Hatoyama machine in Hokkaido modified the grave robbing technique by having the dearly departed donate money to DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio rather than rise up and vote for him.

Good idea. The write-in ballot is used in Japan, and that could get messy.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on 16 June that from 2003 to 2007, at least five very still people contributed an aggregate of 1.2 million yen on 10 occasions to Mr. Hatoyama’s personal political fund raising group. When contacted, relatives of four of the five said WTF? and the fifth said he wasn’t sure. Perhaps he needs to conduct a séance.

When asked about it at a press conference, Mr. Hatoyama said he would look into it right away. He also said:

“I’m surprised, because it was completely unexpected.”

What was unexpected? Getting caught, or getting money from dead people?

Then a curious thing occurred—several other media outlets, including the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Kyodo news agency, and weekly magazines, started matching up obituary columns with Mr. Hatoyama’s list of donors. The original list swelled to 90 corpses (or the urns containing their ashes) who donated up to JPY 21.77 million (about $US 235,000) in 193 instances.

And here we thought all the zombies were in the LDP!

The DPJ boss asked his attorney to investigate. The lawyer came back to report that the donations were derived from JPY 10 million which Mr. Hatoyama had entrusted to an aide if political funds ran short. The aide was embarrassed that he wasn’t able to shake down enough people, so he used those funds to cover for it. The report quotes the aide:

“I should have asked for donations in person but I neglected to do so. So I repeatedly made false accounts (in the political fund reports).”

Said Mr. Hatoyama:

“I assume that since there was so few donations from individuals for me, (the aide) thought it would be embarrassing if the fact came into light.”

The DPJ wants everyone to think that settles it.

The party—which submitted a bill to the Diet for amending the political campaign law to prohibit corporate donations after their former chief Ozawa Ichiro’s fund-raising group got caught taking illegal contributions from a construction company—refuses to cooperate with a Diet investigation of the matter. Said Okada Katsuya:

“(Hatoyama Yukio) has fulfilled his responsibility to explain.”

But wait!

There’s a lot that hasn’t been explained. For starters, if Mr. Hatoyama gave all that money to his aide to cover expenses, which the aide diverted to graveyard donations, why didn’t he ask the aide for a yearend accounting of the money provided? You know–follow normal business practices. If he’s that cavalier with his own money, how will he be with the national treasury?

“There’s something wrong here someplace.”
– Bo Diddley, Ooh Baby

But another question remained unanswered: What shortfall in donations? Mr. Hatoyama said the aide was embarrassed over the lack of money collected, but that wouldn’t be the appropriate word for the amount of individual donations the DPJ leader received, unless it was used in the context of an embarrassment of riches.

According to Mr. Hatoyama’s political fund reports between 2003 and 2007, he received from 50 million yen to 110 million yen annually in individual donations.

Further, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that during the 10 years from 1998 to 2007, Mr. Hatoyama received JPY 590 million yen (about $US 6.37 million) in political largesse. (Remember that he represents just a single legislative district.) Rather than having a shortage of fund raising, his committee brought forward money at the end of every fiscal year.

But wait!

Even subtracting the JPY 21.78 million in dead man money from the total, Mr. Hatoyama scraped up far more that of other DPJ and LDP leaders in recent years, including former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Ozawa Ichiro himself. And Mr. Ozawa was getting money from construction companies.

The annual political contributions to other LDP and DPJ party presidents averaged JPY 1.40 million during that same time period, a paltry amount in comparison.

And of those donations to Mr. Hatoyama less than JPY 50,000 ($US 540), which is the level at which tax deductions kick in, 60% were from anonymous contributors. In 2003, at least 1,500 of the quick rather than the dead made these small donations without stating their names or addresses.

A useful contrast is the individual contributions given to blueblood Aso Taro, whose family is so fabulously wealthy he pretends to read comic books to acquire the common touch. They exceeded JPY 10 million only once, and anonymous donations accounted for less than 10% of the total.

Mr. Hatoyama is on the record as calling for greater use of tax-exempt contributions to encourage individuals to give money to candidates, yet he is the undisputed champ for pulling in small anonymous contributions that aren’t eligible for tax deductions.

The law states that individuals can contribute a maximum of 10 million a year. Did Mr. Hatoyama and his supporters employ anonymous donations that wouldn’t show up on tax statements to get around the law?

But wait!

In addition to dead people, it also turns out that the DPJ president also hauls in a substantial amount of swag from local legislators at the prefectural and municipal level. He’s the official representative of a DPJ district level group in Hokkaido that receives hundreds of thousands of yen annually from local pols, and an aggregate of JPY 16.50 million over five years.

What’s so unusual about that? One Diet member from the LDP–you know, the money politics party–said that he had never heard of local politicians donating to the campaigns of national politicians before.

But wait!

The local politicians have a tendency to give their money to Mr. Hatoyama on 25 December. That’s not a public holiday in Japan, but it’s still an unusual coincidence. Christmas in 2005 fell on a Sunday, yet that’s the day the fund-raising group reported receiving the cash-stuffed envelopes in its stocking. Ho ho ho!

Is the group visiting the homes of local politicians in Santa suits picking up individual donations on Christmas Sundays?

Or, in addition to their mobilization of the deceased, does the DPJ share with their American counterparts a puerile sense of humor? What will the party try next, a dead flower hanami?

But wait!

There were 26 local legislators who gave money to the group in 2007—Christmas Day again—and all of them received the documents issued by the government permitting their donations to be deducted from their income tax. The local DPJ explained that the donations were a substitute means for offseting party expenditures. But party expenditures are not eligible for income tax deductions, so if they received deductions, they broke the law.

The contributions ranged from JPY 18,000 to JPY 264,000.

There’s even more!

Another political support group for Mr. Hatoyama based in Muroran, Hokkaido, reported JPY 0 ($US 0.00) in operating expenses on their financial statements for the three-year period starting in 2005. The DPJ explained that their president’s main group paid the office’s rent and phone bill. They said the other group was just a volunteer body created to organize and hold events, that it had no employees, and that it didn’t use the offices every day.

It turns out, however, that the volunteer group’s offices are in a building owned by Mr. Hatoyama’s mother. Of course the LDP pointed out that the recording of zero expenditures is eccentric bookkeeping, and that if his mother let them use the offices rent-free, it should be considered a political donation.

Ooh, baby. Bo knows. There’s something wrong here someplace.

Haven’t these people learned how to deal with revelations of unpleasant facts yet?

It doesn’t matter if the media is discovering this on its own, or if sources within the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy are feeding them the information now to derail any civil service reform before it leaves the station.

It’s all going to come out now. Trying to stall in the Diet by saying it’s already been explained isn’t convincing anybody.

Just hold your nose while we hold ours, take the medicine, and get it over with.

Posted in Education, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

Matsuri da! (105): The festival for manly men

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 30, 2009

DESPITE THE INTENSE COMPETION that is often part of Shinto festivals, which can range from events resembling ad hoc sporting events to those that look like shrine-authorized street rumbles, few of the matsuri have a martial air. One exception is the yabusame festivals, during which archers mounted on galloping horses fire arrows at targets as they race by.

A manly man and his manly men

A manly man and his manly men

Another exception is the Lord Shingen Festival, one of the largest in Kofu, Yamanashi. That annual event is held in early April near the anniversary of that manly man’s death on the 12th. The event honors the life and times of the local daimyo, Shingen Takeda, who was quite the 16th century warlord and the city’s founder. He strutted his ruthless stuff during the bloody Warring States period in Japanese history, which means he didn’t fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules. He reached the top by knocking off his predecessor—his father—and then spent the rest of his 52 years war-gaming for real through various military campaigns.

We don’t know whether it was the genes or the Yamanashi water, but Shingen’s eldest son was a chip off the old block who plotted to accelerate his own succession. Dad, having traveled down that road himself, sensed what was afoot and had the lad confined to quarters. Number one son died under mysterious circumstances two years later. Perhaps he should have considered himself lucky. When Shingen discovered a similar plot by his cousin, he ordered the man to cut his belly open on the spot.

Shingen is sometimes referred to as The Tiger of Kai for his mastery of the battlefield, Kai being the name of his ‘hood in those days. But the daimyo had a sensitive side as well, and during his youth he was known for writing excellent poetry.

Kofu spares no effort to recreate his history in its 450-year time slip to those glorious days of yesteryear, when the warriors were brave, courageous, and bold manly men. Replicas of furinkazan, Lord Shingen’s personal flag, are hung throughout the town during the event. The festival is a two-day affair that kicks off with a parade featuring a brass band, musical performances, and a fireworks exhibition. There are also special readings for parents and children of folk tales in which Shingen plays a prominent role, and a lecture titled Takeda Shingen and His Times. The organizers offer a walking tour of local sites associated with the lord that passes through the remnants of the Takeda shrine. Visitors tuckered out after all that walking can relax free of charge at a local hot spring facility. And because the event takes place in early April, they can appreciate the beauty of the cherry blossoms at the former Shingen residence. Perhaps some of them are moved to write poetry of their own.

But the real fun begins on the second and final day. Around 11:00 a.m., twenty-four mounted horsemen wearing the battle dress of Takeda’s generals are joined at Takeda shrine by 1,600 local men dressed as samurai infantry in period costumes, as well as performers of the Shingen dance. They march through the center of Kofu bearing torches and hauling cannon on what is now called Heiwa-dori (Peace Street), just as the proudly non-pacific Shingen and his army did before pushing off for the Battle of Kawanakajima. Along the way, they meet up with a procession of wheeled floats. During the course of the parade, the mounted samurai gallop from Kofu City Hall to the train station. The entire procession stops by the old Takeda Shinto shrine to pray for victory. The festival’s climax occurs in a riverbed at Isawa Kawanakajima during a recreation of the 1561 battle in which Shingen defeated Uesugi Kenshin. The latter was known as the Dragon of Echigo, which suggests that he was a manly man as well, despite his defeat.

lord-shingen-2

Stout-hearted lads they all must have been, but Lord Shingen was no shrinking violet it came to expressing his tender side. The historical archives of the University of Tokyo contain a written love pact signed by Shingen and Kosaka Masanobu, a boy of 16. As part of the love pledge—a samurai pre-nup?—the 22-year-old Shingen swears that he hasn’t and will not dally with another, specifically-named retainer. He also promises that he won’t harm the boy since his intent is a sexual relationship. (This information is derived from Gary Leupp’s Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan.)

Relationships of this sort were common among the manly samurai for several centuries, which presents an interesting parallel with ancient Greece. Some men even encouraged the practice, in part for the benefits that accrued to the younger partners, as they were supposedly given instruction in virtue and the appreciation of beauty. (Another possibility was that it was a workable justification for the seduction of a comely youth.) Thus, as in ancient Greece, the relationship combined the way of the warrior with cultural development. In contrast, some manly men claimed that the love for women caused men to become more feminine. (You could have fooled me, but then again a teenaged boy wouldn’t start bugging his patron to lift up the toilet seat and take out the trash.)

The famous Hagakure, the how-to book for samurai written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the early 18th century, even provides some advice for samurai man-boy love:

“A young man should test an older man for at least five years, and if he is assured of that person’s intentions, then he too should request the relationship… If the younger man can devote himself and get into the situation for five or six years then it will not be unsuitable.”

The Japanese term for this practice is wakashudo, sometimes shortened to shudo. Waka is the word for young, shu can sometimes mean companions, and do means way or path. The younger men in the relationship were called wakashu, while the older men were known as nenja. That word is composed of nen, which combines the senses of solicitude, desire, and attention, and one of the words for person.

Those familiar with things Japanese will have already picked up that this practice was thought to be a do, in the same way that budo is the way of the warrior. The same kanji also crops up in kendo, kyudo, judo, aikido, and even Shinto.

Kendo literally means the way of the sword. Perhaps wakashudo represented a different form of swordsmanship!

Afterwords: Some of the information on waksashudo came from this website. The creator asks that this form of citation be used: Andrew Calimach, World History of Male Love, “Homosexual Traditions”, The Beautiful Way of the Samurai, 2000. There you go. The site is well done and has links that are worth following, so I’ve added it to the right sidebar. The link to the Hagakure is already there.

The author of the first website suggests that the influence of Western Christian ideas conveyed through missionaries and after the Meiji Restoration, “a direct result of the opening of Japan carried out under the threat of American guns in 1854”, spelled the end of wakashudo. I’m not sure I agree. Some say that prostitution was outlawed for (ultimately) the same reasons, but men today interested in purchasing those services won’t have any trouble finding them. The same cannot be said of wakashudo, though men of any country today with means, power, and those sexual preferences are probably able to indulge themselves just as easily as Lord Shingen.

Update: My passing reference to yabusame drew some interest, and reader Tomojiro sent along this Youtube clip of a BBC report on the art/discipline. Give credit where credit is due: there’s a lot of worthwhile information and video, and it’s light on the snark. Thanks Tomojiro!

Posted in Festivals, History, Military affairs, Sex | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »