Sunday 30 April 2017

Climb Mount Takao and meet Tengu

A giant stone statue of Tengu at Takao Station
Tengu statue at Takao Station
A winged Tengu Statue on Mount Takao
Tengu statue on Mount Takao
Last Sunday I climbed Mount Takao (Takao-san=高尾山), a beautiful 599m peak in Western Tokyo less than an hour by train from Shinjuku Station. On a good day you can even see Mount Fuji from the top! Getting off at Takaosan-guchi Station, it is possible to skip the steepest part of the climb and take the cable car or chair lift to half-way, though no part of the climb is particularly hard. This is a popular spot so expect to ascend slowly taking in various temples, shrines, torii, and very old cedar trees along the paved route up. Takao is a sacred mountain and you will see many instances of the long-nosed Demon/God Tengu (pictured, right, at Takao Station and, left, further up the peak) who acts as the protector of the mountain. In Japan, if someone is acting in an arrogant, conceited, or haughty fashion people might place their fist in front of their nose to impersonate Tengu and say that that person is "becoming Tengu" (tengu ni naru).

One unusual feature I noticed on the mountain were the plethora of black balls sitting on a stone lotus plinth with a spinning wheel underneath (right). On each ball was written one of six kanji characters reflecting the six "roots" or senses: eye (目), nose (鼻), ear (耳), tongue (舌), body (身), and mind/heart (意) - the latter to interpret and judge the senses. According to the "instructions" (left) one is supposed to spin the wheel thereby reflecting on and cleansing/purifying (seijō =清浄) the self, enabling one to feel rejuvenated and look ahead to the future. In sum, climbing Mount Takao will help you to feel refreshed both mentally and physically - but be careful not to become too proud of yourself...

Friday 28 April 2017

Crayon Shin-Chan: The Bad Boy of Japanese Manga

A green Tokyo subway train plastered with pictures of Crayon Shin-Chan to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the anime
A Tokyo subway train celebrating 25 years of Crayon Shin-Chan
Japan is world famous for its cartoons (manga) and animated cartoons (anime) and one of the longest running of these, in the same league as Doraemon and Detective Conan, is Crayon Shin-chan. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the anime, some Tokyo subway trains were decorated with the little guy's face (picture right).

Shin is a five-year old kindergartner who drives his parents mad by breaking all sorts of social rules, misbehaving, and generally acting inappropriately. He is definiitely more kimo-kawa (creepy-cute) than kawaii cute; he can be rather disgusting and even sexist, something which saw Japanese PTAs label the programme as unsuitable for children. Indeed, not a few Japanese parents have banned the programme in their house: it is more South Park than Tom and Jerry! Even abroad, despite being aired in 45 countries in 30 languages, Shin-chan has been controversial; in Spain, for example, there was a campaign to move it to a later time-slot, in Indonesia it was labelled as "porn," while in India it was reportedly banned outright.

Click to preview on amazon
Nevertheless, for the student of Japanese, Shin-chan can be a useful learning experience, since he often plays with language, much to the consternation of his parents, such as switching around the set-phrase pairs which form the glue of Japanese social interaction. For example, his reversal of "I'm home!" (tadaima) and "Welcome back!" (okaeri-nasai) makes for highly amusing viewing - and the phrases themselves will stick in the mind. The trailer for the new film can be seen here and the comic previewed on amazon by clicking left.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Wisteria on the Vine

The light purple wisteria (fuji) flowering on a trellis
Fuji (wisteria) flowering on the vine
At this time of the year, with the temperatures climbing and the sun coming out, one of the most prominent sights in the neighbourhood are the fuji-dana (藤棚) or wisteria climbing vines (pictured right). Fuji means wisteria and tana/dana is a shelf or a rack but in this case means trellis. Many places hold fuji matsuri (festivals), often lit up at night, such as the one held at Kameido-ten Shrine in Tokyo. However, the largest wisteria tree in Japan, known as the "Great Fuji" is located in Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi, Japan. It is said to be some 150 years old and covers a trellis spanning over 1,000 square metres. This is by no means the oldest though: Buzoji temple in Chikushino, Fukuoka, has a pair of trees which are believed to be at least 700 to 800 years old - maybe more! Wisteria is typically in full bloom from late April to early May. As well as the most common light purple blooms - fuji-iro is lilac or lavender in Japanese - Ashikaga also showcases pale red, white, and yellow wisteria.

Aside from the flower name, the kanji for wisteria can be found in some of the most common family names in Japan, reflecting the fact that the Fujiwara clan was one of the most powerful families in ancient Japan. Aside from Hayafuji, Fujihara, Fujita, Fujii, and even just Fuji, surnames using the on-reading of or are extremely common: three of the top ten most popular surnames contain this kanji, namely Kato, Ito, and (the most popular) Sato. Other common names include Ando, Kondo, Eto, Endo, Kudo, Saito, Shindo, Sudo, and Nito. In sum, regardless of the season, "fuji" is found throughout the year all over Japan which makes it a particularly useful character for the Japan lover to learn!

Monday 24 April 2017

Budokan Concerts and Foreign Bands

The Budokan lit up at night with the golden "onion" dome visible on top
The Budokan, with the famous golden "onion" dome on top
Last Friday I went to the Budokan (left), one of Japan's most famous live venues. As the name suggests though, its primary purpose is not music but martial arts (=budō or 武道) and the venue was in fact originally built to host the judo at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games. When The Beatles became the first band to play here in 1966, some people complained that hosting a Western music concert would "defile" the sacred martial arts arena. Housing around 15,000 spectators and with a distinctive octagonal roof with a gold "onion" (tamanegi) on top (made famous in a song) and unique overlapping wings inside (see video below), the acoustics are excellent.

Unfortunately, the band didn't do the arena justice at all - the singer was horribly out of tune - reflecting the fact that many older Western groups see Japan as a cash-cow and continue to tour even when way past their sell-by-date. Japanese audiences though are eminently polite and booing and walk-outs are unheard of. Indeed, they are "almost over-appreciative" (in the words of Eric Clapton in the notes of his 1980 Budokan live album) and even fumbling attempts at speaking Japanese and audience interaction are typically met with screams of approval.

Saturday 22 April 2017

What colour is it? Green and blue in Japan

A picture of bright yellow yamabuki or Japanese yellow rose
Kerria Japonica (yamabuki) or Japanese yellow rose
One of the fun things about learning a foreign language is that you realise that many words and concepts you took for granted are in fact arbitrary. A prime example is colour (iro in Japanese=色) and colour labels can differ in interesting ways between cultures. For example, Japanese has many colour labels named after things in nature such as kuchiba (fallen leaves)-iro and uguisu (Japanese nightingale)-iro. Fruit labels are particularly common and include daidai (tangerine)-iro, anzu (apricot)-iro, and momo (peach)-iro. Interestingly, the colour beni-iro although named after the yellow-orange flower beni-bana (safflower) is translated as crimson in English while yamabuki-iro (a colour named after the bright "yellow" spring flower Kerria Japonica pictured above right which was introduced in an earlier post) is closer to orange on the colour spectrum in Japan - and Japanese insist the flower has an "orange" tint!

A green "walk" sign which Japanese call "blue"
A green (blue?) crossing sign
Even more interesting are the colours "blue" and "green" in Japanese. While ao(i)-iro or simply aoi (青い) is translated as "blue" in the dictionary this doesn't capture how it is actually used in practice. Aoi in Japanese, especially in the past, typically covered a broader spectrum than the English "blue", and is probably best described as green/blue (grue?). Today, there remain many reminders of this "grue" perception such as the fact that the "green" traffic signal and walk symbol (pictured left),  "green" apples, and "green" leaves are referred to as "blue" (aoi) in Japanese. In the case of the first two, one explanation is that Japanese see red and blue, being primary colours, as opposites and using aoi in these cases makes the contrast with red clearer.

A final example of using aoi (blue) where we would use green in English are the words used to describe young people who in English would be "green behind the ears" or "greenhorns." In Japanese young people are seinen (青年), adolescence is seinenki (青年期), and puberty is seishunki (青春期), all using the kanji for "blue." But just to add to the confusion, in the past infants up to three years-old were called midori (green) ko/go with the nuance of a young bud or leaf. New-born babies, however, have always been called aka-chan or "little red one" using the character for red (赤)!

Thursday 20 April 2017

Goodbye Cherry Blossoms, Hello Cherries

Pink cherry blossoms in full bloom and green leaves marking the end of the blossoms
Leaves sprouting on the sakura trees
Now in Japan, the sakura blossoms are falling fast, covering the streets with a blanket of pink (video below), and the green leaves are sprouting on the cherry trees, a phenomenon known in Japanese as ha-zakura (葉桜) - literally leaf-sakura. There is a real sense of disappointment since the best is over and those who didn't manage to organise their hanami party under the blooms will have to wait for another year. On the other hand, the cherry fruit season is just around the corner. Cherries are known as sakurambo in Japanese, which is typically written phonetically (さくらんぼ) rather than in kanji. They start appearing in supermarkets from late June and are very much a summer seasonal keyword (kigo =季語) in letters, poetry, and elsewhere in contrast to the spring rooted sakura. The red/pink sakurambo are rather expensive next to the imported dark American cherries which have become common in recent years - but the taste and texture are very different. One way to eat your fill is to join a cherry picking event such as the one here which is located in Yamagata Prefecture, the most famous area for cherries in Japan.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

North Korean Missiles and Korean Residents in Japan

Picture showing the front gate of Japan's only Korean University located in Kodaira City
Korean University Entrance, Kodaira City
With tensions rising on the Korean peninsula it was rather unnerving to hear Prime-Minister Abe recently warn that North Korea could launch sarin-loaded missiles towards Japan. Tokyo would no doubt be a prime target: as well as being the seat of government, seven US military bases are located in the capital. Western Tokyo would be right on the flight-path, though I have heard it said that Kodaira-City would probably be avoided since it houses Japan's only Korean University (Chōsen Daigaku). Established in 1956, the medium of instruction is Korean and the university (pictured right) is funded by the North Korean Government. 

Koreans make up the second-largest group of foreign residents in Japan (Chinese are top) and comprised 491,711 indviduals in 2015, the majority of who were "special permanent residents" (SPR). SPR is a unique category that is almost wholly made up of Koreans and their descendants who came or were forcibly brought to Japan in the pre-war period and were either unable to or chose not to go back after the end of the war. The term "Zainichi" (在日) Korean (or simply "oldcomer") is typically used to refer to these long-term Korean residents of Japan (and their children) who trace their roots back to Korea under Japanese rule, distinguishing them from the later wave of "newcomer" Korean migrants who came mostly from the 1980s. While many have naturalised (become Japanese citizens) many have not, fearing loss of their cultural identity in a country which doesn't recognise dual-identities such as Korean-Japanese. In this respect, the Korean population in Japan is rather unique; as Erin Chung puts it, Japan is currently the only advanced industrial democracy with a fourth generation immigrant problem.

[UPDATE: Tokyo subway services stopped for 10 minutes on April 30th following reports of a ballistic missile launch - the first time ever services have been suspended for such a reason]

[UPDATE #2: North-Korea fires a ballistic missile over Hokkaido on the morning of August 29th, triggering the J-alert warnng system in Northern Japan]

Detailed pictures of various scenes in Shin-Okubo,Tokyo's Korea Town, including a Korean syupermarket, K-pop shop, food stall, and pop culture department store
Shin-Okubo, Tokyo's Korea-Town. From left to right: Korean supermarket, K(orean)-pop store, food stall, and Hanryū (Korean Wave) Department Store selling various Korean popular culture goods

Sunday 16 April 2017

Banks of Colour - Spring is well and truly here!

Spring is a very colourful season in Japan; blankets of bright shrubs and flowers catch the eye everywhere, even aside from the sakura and ubiquitous tulips and daffodils. The latter is  called suisen or 水仙 in Japanese (and Chinese) which mysteriously means water-hermit! The picture below shows (right) Kerria Japonica (yamabuki) or Japanese yellow rose, (middle) dame's rocket/gilliflower (hana-daikon), and (left) spring-star or spring-star flower (hana-nira). The first is a golden yellow shrub native to Asia but named after a Scottish gardener (William Kerr). The second, is considered a weed in some places; the name hana-daikon supposedly comes from the fact (?) that the flowers resembles a daikon (white-radish). The third is a small white flower with six petals like a star with a distinct purple line down the centre of each petal. It is apparently related to onions and gives off an onion-like smell if crushed!
Three pictures of spring flowers, the white springstar, purple dame's rocket, and bright yellow Kerria
From left to right: springstar/spring-star flower, dame's rocket/gilliflower, and Kerria (Japonica)

Thursday 13 April 2017

One Bicycle - Four Riders?!?

April means back to school in Japan, and for many mothers (and a surprisingly few fathers) this means shuttling their children to and from nursery or kindergarten by bicycle. A bicycle is colloquially called chari in Japanese and the type typically ridden by a parent taking their kid/s to nursery is called a mama-chari (even if dad is riding!). Mama-chari usually have a child-seat at the back and a basket at the front, though an extra child-seat can be added to the front if two little ones need transporting. On top of this, one also occasionally sees a baby strapped to the parent's chest or back papoose-style, making for a grand total of four riders!

A picture of a parking lot full of mama-chari bicycles next to a local kindergarten. Most have one or two child seats and are power-assisted.
A Line of Mama-chari parked next to a local kindergarten
This may seem a little dangerous to non-Japanese and indeed fatal bicycle accidents have risen in recent years, something which prompted the government to revise the Road Traffic Law in 2015. The new law allowed a cyclist to carry one child under the age of six in a designated child seat; children under 13 also had to wear a helmet. However, the ban was greeted with outrage by Japan's army of mama-chari parents who campaigned against the ruling, forcing the government  to back down. Now, discretion is left up to individual prefectures who generally allow two-under-sixes if the bicycle is a proper model, though strapping a third child is usually not allowed (see, for example, Tokyo's rules here). But, as one soon learns living in Japan, there are many rules but few which are actively enforced: bicycle helmets, cycling on the pavement, and riding holding an umbrella are typically ignored - and mothers with kids are almost always left alone.

Riding with kids front and back is a precarious - and tiring - experience, and recent years have seen a number of lighter electric models introduced with smaller 20-inch wheels giving a lower centre of gravity and a more stable ride. For an example of a popular power-assisted model see the Panasonic Gyutto Annys EX here which costs a paltry ¥160,000 (£1,160 or $1,440), including tax!

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Be Careful! It's Dangerous! (Part 2: Suspicious People)

A previous post discussed the Japanese penchant to display warning signs telling people to be careful (chūi =注意). Such signs (see below) can be found all over the neighbourhood. The example given previously was a small copse with a (pretty much unnecessary) sign cautioning passers-by to "be careful of the mud." Now a second sign (left) has appeared in the same place advising people to watch out for "suspicious people" (fushinsha =不審者). This time the sign is attributed not only to the municipal "water, nature, and parks" section but also the city police. The copse itself is surrounded by houses, fairly bright, with few trees.

Four photos of "go-chūi" (be careful!) signs in the neighbourhood, from left to right telling people to be careful of (1) children jumping out into the road (2) overhead electric cables (3) parking in the correct space and (4) an interesection near a primary school
A selection of "go-chūi" (be careful!) signs, from left to right (1) children jumping out into the road (2) overhead electric cables (3) parking in the correct space and (4) an intersection near a primary school
As a non-Japanese resident, I must admit that the sign makes me feel a little uncomfortable. There is a perception in Japan of foreigners as criminals - a big reason for the resistance to immigration - and foreigners (usually non-Caucasian looking foreigners), are sometimes arbitrarily stopped and asked to produce their resident card which they must legally carry at all times (applies even to permanent residents). This is called shokumu shitsumon (職務質問) or police questioning. The specific law is called the Keisatsukan Shokumu Shikkō Hō (警察官職務執行法) and lets police question people "acting suspiciously" - that is, fushinsha as written on the sign. I have personally never been stopped, but many of the (decidedly non-suspicious-looking) international students in my classes have.

Sunday 9 April 2017

Noisy Candidates, Quiet Citizens: Elections in Japan

A wooden board carrying posters of all the candidates in the upcoming municipal election in Kodaira City
An election board in Kodaira City
Today (April 9th) Kodaira City holds a double election (senkyo=選挙): one for the mayor plus a by-election to fill a vacancy on the local council. All over the city, wooden boards with pictures of the candidates have magically sprung up (picture left). While there are only a handful of candidates in this particular local election, metropolitan and national elections require much bigger boards requiring an awful lot of signage (and wood).

Japanese elections are strictly regulated and what candidates can do and say is severely limited. Door-to-door canvassing is illegal in Japan so candidates typically drive around in sound trucks (see below) blasting out their message and name and furiously smiling and waving. Pre-election campaigning is also illegal, so the trucks are (thankfully) heard for only a short period, in this case 12 days before election day. Critics have noted that the abundance of rules effectively limits public participation in elections; indeed the turnout rate, especially amongst youth, is extremely low (see here for turnout data on elections 1967-2014: the bottom blue line represents those in their twenties). Token measures, such as lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 (in 2015), introducing voter education and mock elections in schools, and (since 2013) allowing (limited) online internet campaigning (but not emailing) seem to have made little difference. On top of this, becoming a candidate is extremely expensive and campaigning is largely self-financed in Japan: as a result, politicians tend to be older, wealthy males, often from political family dynasties.

Friday 7 April 2017

Sakura Cherry Blossoms and Global Warming

The official Someiyoshino cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine with the explanatory signboard inset
The official sample cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo
On Sunday (April 2nd) came the official announcement that Someiyoshino (the most popular variety of cherry blossom - white with a tinge of pink) were in full bloom in Tokyo, 12 days after they began flowering. In Japan, sakura - the generic name for cherry tree - are observed with scientific precision and the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) publishes detailed maps and forecasts that allow people to track the sakura zensen (cherry blossom front) as it moves north. The picture on the left shows the sample specimen tree (hyōhonboku) located at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which is used by the JMA as the basis for their announcements. There are 96 such designated trees throughout the nation. People keep a close watch on this information when planning their "cherry blossom viewing" (hanami =花見) parties. But despite the image of sakura as being deeply symbolic for the Japanese, people attending hanami parties are usually more interested in eating and drinking than admiring the blossoms. This is captured in the phrase hana yori dango - literally "(sweet) dumplings over flowers," carrying the general meaning that practical things are more important than aesthetics!

People enjoying "Hanami" Parties at Yasukuni Shrine (2nd from left) and Boating at Chidorigafuchi (3rd from left), both prime-viewing spots for cherry blossoms in Tokyo. Note the five petals each with a distinctive "nick" at the top of the petal
Incredibly, cherry blossom data is available as far back as the 9th century for Kyoto - reflecting the fact that hanami has long been a popular cultural past-time for the Japanese. While the average peak bloom has consistently been between April 10th and 20th since the 1800s, recent years have seen a dramatic drop. In the past few years especially, the flowering (kaika =開花) and full bloom (mankai=満開) dates have become noticeably earlier, thought to be a sympton of global warming. For example, in the 1960s, flowering typically began at the start of April in Tokyo, and thus the blooms were closely associated with school and university entrance ceremonies. Now, the opening of the buds occurs during graduation ceremonies which are held near the end of March (mankai was March 22nd in Tokyo in 2021). Moreover, the gap between kaika and mankai has also grown longer since (somewhat non-intuitively) the period between flowering and reaching full bloom is longer in hotter climes (such as Kyushu) than colder ones (such as Hokkaido).

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Revolving Sushi: Japanese Efficiency Personified

A collage of four pictures from a kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant: from top right clockwise, extensive menu, special order, computer screen, and stacked plates
Kaiten or Conveyor Belt Sushi: Remarkably Efficient
Conveyor belt or kaiten (revolving) sushi is hardly uncommon outside Japan, but the Japanese version (like many things in Japan) is both more automated and more efficient. On entering, if the restaurant is full (which is often the case) you enter the number of people in your party and preference (table/counter) and get a numbered ticket: when your number is displayed, you are taken to your seat. After sitting down, you take what you want as it passes by or else order through the computer panel (pictured bottom left) in either English or Japanese. Soups and drinks are usually brought to you by a server but everything else comes along on the belt. Once you're done, you press another button to call over the server who counts your stack of plates (pictured top left) in the blink of an eye and prints out your bill. You then go over to the cash register to pay. Very smooth!

At Hamazushi, one of the largest chains in Japan you are certainly not limited to raw fish. Tempura and meat sushi, including duck, hamburger, and raw ham, are available, as are seaweed rolls and sushi wrapped in seaweed (known as gunkan or battleships). There is also an extensive side-menu, which includes everything from chips and salad to fried chicken and green boiled soybeans (eda-mame). Finally, there is even dessert, including fresh fruit! One top tip is to order rather than simply take what's passing: this will be freshly prepared just for you and arrive in a few minutes on top of a black bowl (pictured bottom right in the picture above) which reads go-chūmon hin (ご注文品=ordered item). This ensures no-one grabs it before it reaches you! All for only ¥100 (70p/90c) a plate for most items - less on weekdays!

Monday 3 April 2017

Signs of Spring and Memories of Wada

The fragrant lotus-like white/purple flowers on the mokuren (Lily Magnolia) tree are everywhere this time of year and for the very season-conscious Japanese these are a sure sign that spring is just round the corner: first the ume (plum) trees flower, next the mokuren (the flowers come before the leaves!), and finally the sakura (cherry) trees blossom. Mokuren is sometimes called Japanese Magnolia outside Japan, but is in fact originally from China. This may be one reason why it is usually written in katakana (which is reserved for foreign imports) rather than kanji.

Walking down a street lined with these the other day, I noticed the explanation below tied to the trunk of one of the trees. It gave the name as Magnolia salicifolia, or willow-leafed (Northern Japanese) magnolia which is a variety which does actually originate in Japan. The specific name on the sign is "Wada's Memory" which is listed as a "cultivar", that is a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding. This variety, with double white scented flowers, has gained various horticultural awards of merit. Wada is a common Japanese surname and this variety is apparently named after Japanese botanist Koichiro Wada who introduced many Japanese plants to the West. See here for some interesting biographical information on Wada, including the fact that he was still very much alive when the tree was named after him in the 1940s!

Saturday 1 April 2017

Pachinko and other Addictions: Escaping Reality?

A picture showing a line of Japanese playing pachinko in a blur of flashing lights and smoke
The ubiquitous and unique Japanese pachinko parlour
Pachinko parlours (パチンコ屋) are everywhere in Japan and at weekends are invariably packed. Peek inside and you'll see rows upon rows of bright flashing machines - they look like a cross between a slot and a pinball machine - in a noisy, smoky, hypnotic amusement heaven. The game basically involves feeding small metal balls into the machine and watching them cascade down and bounce off pins, triggering payouts of more balls (see here for a guide to playing). There is some skill involved in controlling the feed speed, but the real skill is choosing the right machine: pros will line up early to get their desired machine. In this way, it is certainly possible to make a profit, but since gambling for cash is illegal in Japan, the balls one wins must first be exchanged for prizes (tokens) inside the parlour and these are then taken outside the parlour to a little "TUC" booth for cash.

Pachinko is not the only exception to the "no gambling" rule in Japan. Horse, boat, and bicycle racing are immensely popular, especially amongst older men. You will often see such guys clutching specialist sports newspapers on the bus or train on the weekend as they make their way to the track or riverside. With one eye on tourism, especially Tokyo the 2020 Olympics, the government pushed through a law to legalise casinos in December 2016, ignoring widespread public fears of a rise in gambling addiction (gyanburu izonshō =依存症). This week, the government belatedly drew-up an addiction prevention law, a first in a country with more than 5 million suspected gambling addicts, a very high number given that gambling is in principle illegal. Watching the lines of (mostly) men lose themselves in the hypnotic smoke, noise, and lights that is pachinko on evenings and weekends, the bigger question is: what exactly are these people trying to escape from?