Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Why Japan has no immigration policy - and doesn't look likely to create one anytime soon

A slightly unorthodox blog post today, but I'll put my professor hat on and talk a little bit about my field of speciality - migration (or the lack of it) in Japan! I'm prompted by a flurry of media interest in the topic: I was contacted by CNN last month (spot the quote) and on Monday CNBC Asia (Street Signs) had me on via skype link for a brief live interview. See here for the video!

Three robots in the Softbank shop in Harajuku
Robots: Not the answer to Japan's labour shortages
A key theme seems to be incredulity that Japan doesn't seem to have the same sense of crisis over its demographic free-fall as shared by much of the rest of the world. Japan's population is set to plunge by 40% to 88 million by 2065 with over-65s accounting for almost 40%. Nevertheless, despite growing labour shortages, especially in areas such as nursing, caregivers for the elderly, construction, and agriculture, Japan still doesn't have a proper migration policy (imin-seisaku =移民政策). Why not? The simple answer is the perception - which has no statistical reality - that foreigners would harm public security/safety (chian =治安) and upset social harmony and cohesion. This is reinforced by reports of terrorist atrocities abroad and a still popular ideology of racial homogeneity at home. The result is plenty of backdoor schemes to solve the labour shortages - the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) is increasingly being utilised for this purpose - but no stomach or political will to introduce a proper guest worker programme.

In sum, I would say that the Japanese have already accepted a smaller economy - and reduced influence in world affairs - if that is the price they have to pay to maintain social harmony and public security. There is really no reason to be particularly bewildered about this: policy-making is rarely logical and rational and more often based on images, perceptions, and emotions: policy has to resonate with the general public. Take Brexit for example: the British public, driven by discontent over migration, has decided to prioritise social harmony over the economy and move towards a tightening of borders and a "closing-in." Is this really much different from Japan?

Sunday, 27 August 2017

What's the Story Morning Glory?

Yōjiro-asagao (曜白朝顔)
Summer holidays are nearly over for children in Japan (most schools go back on Friday) and for many kids that means a last-minute rush to complete their summer homework. One common project for elementary schoolers is to tend to and observe the Morning glory plants they started growing during the first semester (it's common to see first-graders carrying these back home just before the summer holiday starts). Morning Glory is called asa-gao (朝顔) literally "Morning face" in Japanese signalling the fact that most of these flowers bloom in the early morning.

Board explaining the symbolic meaning of Morning glory flowers with flowers in the background at Haneda Airport
Haneda Airport Morning glory exhibition
Japanese have a particularly strong affection for asa-gao; it was introduced in the 9th century and the Japanese were apparently the first to cultivate it as an ornamental flower, with hundreds of varieties developed during the Edo period. Recently, Haneda Airport held an exhibition celebrating the asa-gao (left) ; the board below explains that the flowers symbolise (1) bonds of affection (aijō no kizuna =愛情の絆), (2) short-lived love (hakanai-koi =はかない恋) and (3) solidarity/unity (kessoku =結束) - between humans and nature? Although, as the first paragraph suggests, it is clearly a summer flower - many artists have painted it as a symbol of summer, particularly in Edo woodblock prints - in haiku poems they are actually symbols of autumn, perhaps reflecting the old calendar. Fukuda Chiyo-ni (福田 千代尼), regarded as one of the greatest female haiku poets, wrote a number of poems on the Morning glory, including the following:

朝顔に (Morning glory)
つるべ取られて (entangled around the well-bucket)
もらひ水 (I go to get water elsewhere)

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Stag Beetles, Rhino Beetles, and Samurai Helmets

A variety of beetle goods including tree logs and jelly for feeding
Shop displaying various goods for taking care of beetles
The noisiest insect in Japan in the summer must be the cicada, but the most sought-after are the different varieties of beetle. In the evenings, you will often see young children accompanied by parents carrying a net, insect box (mushi-kago/kēsu), and a flashlight (these insects are nocturnal) searching trees for the prized beetles. One trick is to smear sugar-water (satō-mizu =砂糖水) onto the tree trunks to attract the prized-pets. Once captured, they are looked after carefully and a source of pride to many children; stores sell a whole gamut of insect goods (konchū yōhin =昆虫用品) from food (jelly) to logs and fly sheets (pictured right). Famous Japanese actor Aikawa Sho (哀川翔) is well-known for his love of beetles and sells a "breeding set" (shi-iku setto =飼育セット) including maggots (yōchū =幼虫) for ¥1,420 here! The maggots, incidentally, can be found for free if one is prepared to engage in a bit of digging in the soil at the base of the trees...

The stag beetle with its deadly looking pincers
Stag Beetle (kuwagata-mushi)
The Rhino Beetle with its long protruding horn
Rhino Beetle (kabuto-mushi)
In terms of beetle types, the most well known are the stag beetle (kuwagata-mushi), with pincers or "antlers" (pictured left) and the most highly prized rhinoceros beetle (kabuto-mushi) with its distinctive long and short horn (pictured right): the word kabuto means samurai helmet in Japanese. As the flyer below shows there are a number of variations based around these two main types. For children who capture and keep these as pets during the summer months, a popular pastime with friends is beetle fighting: typically two beetles are placed on a log and the loser is the one who gets shoved off. This is even enjoyed by adults, especially in Okinawa, where it has become a somewhat problematic form of gambling.
Newspaper flyer for a summer housing fair advertising a Natsu no Ikimono (Summer Animal) exhibition (original here)

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Hokusai Museum: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

Pamphlet & Flyer for Sumida's Hokusai Exhibition
The Sumida Hokusai Museum
After reminiscing about last year's Mount Fuji climb in the previous post, I was spurred on to visit the Sumida Hokusai Museum (すみだ北斎美術館) which currently - ending August 20th - has a special exhibition elegantly entitled "HOKUSAI×FUJI - Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji - A Towering Lineup" (北斎×富士 ~冨嶽三十六景 富嶽百景 揃いぶみ~). The museum itself was opened only at the end of last year to honour the "world-renowned ukiyo-e artist" Hokusai (1760-1849) who was born and spent most of his life in Sumida-ward in North-east Tokyo. Hokusai is a timeless figure; he was the only Japanese listed among Life magazine's "The Hundred People who made the Millenium." The museum itself has a collection of some 1800 of his works, many of which are on permanent display, so don't worry if you missed the latest special exhibition (another special exhibition starts September 9th entitled "Hokusai the Performer"). The museum is housed is a strikingly futuristic building  (above) designed by the award winning Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, winner of the "Nobel Prize of architecture," the Pritzker Prize, in 2010.

Hokusai at work in his studio (Sumida Hokusai Museum)
"Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" - published around 1831 and later supplemented by a further ten images due to its popularity - is definitely the most well-known of Hokusai's works. The prints are actually created using multiple wood-blocks, made from hard mountain cherry (yama-zakura =山桜) trees with a different colour for each block. Mass production was possible through a three-step process: the artist (Hokusai in this case) draws, a carver cuts the wood blocks, and finally a printer prints each colour block to produce the prints. The museum has an amazing life-size model of Hokusai at work in his "studio" (house) when he was 84-years old (pictured left).

The three most iconic pictures from "Thirty-Six Views" are (1) The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏) (the first print in the series) (2) A Mild Breeze on a Fine Day (凱風快晴) also known as "Red Fuji" and (3) Rainstorm beneath the Summit (山下白雨) featuring streaks of lightning which are used in the Sumida Museum's logo. The interesting thing about all the images is that they are not uniform: the shape of the mountain varies depending on the location and also the weather/season. The red glow of "A Mild Breeze" for example is due to the sun striking the mountain in the early morning at the end of summer/start of autumn. Hokusai was a member of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism whose obsession with Fuji was certainly spiritual in nature, and he was said to be particularly interested in Fuji's connection with immortality and eternal life (he lived until 90); given these strong religious beliefs I wonder what he would have made of the museum gift-shop (pictured below) full of expensive Fuji-themed cookies and cakes featuring his drawings...

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Climbing Mount Fuji: Heaven and Hell above the Clouds

Around this time last year, I climbed Mount Fuji (Fuji-san=富士山), probably top of Japan's bucket-list of "things to do before you die" (死ぬまでにしたいこと). And die I nearly did, what with the tough climb coupled with the mountain sickness near the top of the 3776m peak. Needless to say, I won't be doing it again (ever), but I'm glad I did it once - if only for the sense of achievement. Even in Tokyo, 100km away, Mount Fuji is visible on good days so every time I catch a glimpse of it from my apartment I remember the pain and the pleasure!
Clouds in the foreground with the orange rays of the sun spilling out
The sun rising majestically above the clouds as seen from the summit of Mount Fuji, August 18th 2016
It's possible to climb by yourself, but I opted for a tour which provided all the necessary gear plus a professional guide. This was a bus tour leaving from Shinjuku which saw us arrive at the 2,300m 5th Station for a quick lunch before taking the Yoshida trail (there are multiple trails from different sides of the mountain) to the 3,460m 8th Station for supper and an attempt at sleep in a (jam-packed) mountain hut before waking up in the middle of the night for the final climb to the summit in time for the sunset (pictured). Standing above the clouds with over a thousand others waiting in silence for the sun to rise and the feeling of awe as it slowly emerged and crept above the horizon was truly an unforgettable experience.

Talking of the crowds, since Mount Fuji became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013, climbers have increased creating bottlenecks, congestion, and numerous problems such as litter and lack of toilets (bring some small change for these!). This year saw the first ever tally of climbers in response to a request by UNESCO to address the over-crowding problem. Early to mid-August is the peak time for climbing, so try and avoid this time, especially weekends. Or maybe just avoid it altogether: to quote my eldest daughter afterwards, "that was hell."

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Obon Holidays and Soul-Carrying Animals

Friday was Mountain Day (yama no hi =山の日), a new national holiday in Japan which started only last year. Coming just before the traditional Obon (お盆) summer break (August 13th-15th this year), many Japanese took the opportunity for a holiday: Friday was the peak day for passengers leaving Japan at airports throughout the country, with Wednesday the expected peak return day. Other Japanese will go back to the their home-town (furusato =古里・故郷) during this period, with a similar travel rush (kisei rasshu =帰省ラッシュ) at train stations in the big cities. An interesting language feature is the description of trains leaving the capital as kudari-ressha (下り列車) - literally "down trains" since the capital is figuratively higher than other towns and cities.

As mentioned in a previous post, Obon is a time to honour the spirits of one's ancestors who are said to return to their earthly homes for a brief visit during this period. The picture shows some vegetable animals with wooden chopsticks for legs commonly made by children and found on the street during Obon. The cucumber "horses" (shōryōuma =精霊馬) are said to bring the dead back home quickly while the slow-moving aubergine/eggplant "oxen" (shōryōushi =精霊牛) take their time helping them back. More information, including how to make your own can be seen here. For a modern take on this old tradition see here.

For many Japanese, Obon is one of only three annual holidays when they are guaranteed time-off - the other two being Golden Week (ゴールデン・ウィーク) at the end of April/beginning of May and New Year (shōgatsu =正月). During these periods, aside from the service industries almost all businesses will shut down. For example, the other day, we rang one company about getting our oven fixed and they told us to ring back on the 21st! This may be an extreme case though: for the most part, taking more than a week off is frowned upon and for many families a four or five day trip abroad is about as good as it gets. Needless to say, ticket and hotel prices during these three holiday periods are sky-high: yet, Hawaii and Guam will be chock-a-block full of Japanese tourists during these times. School-kids also have their "core vacation" around Obon. Even though the school holiday officially runs for six weeks from around July 20th to the end of August, for much of that time not a few students will still be attending school for supplementary classes and club activities! Of course, for those students applying for entry to university or high school - known as jukensei (受験生) - there is no vacation at all: just 10-12 hours daily study and 5-6 hours sleep a night! Sounds like they might need a KitKat...

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Cicada Poetry: The Sound of Summer

The empty shell or exoskeleton of a cicada stuck to a leaf almost perfectly intact
Cicada nymph exoskeleton (nuke-gara)
閑さや (Stillness)
岩にしみ入る (seeping into the rocks)
蝉の声 (the cicada's voice)
(Basho Narrow Road to the Deep North,1689)

Summer means a lot of things in Japan - rainy season, stifling heat, humidity, ghost stories, fireworks, grilled eel - but the sound of summer is without doubt the "the cicada's voice" (semi no koe =蝉の声). We don't have these rather large tree bugs in the UK so it came of something of culture shock to encounter them in my first summer in Japan. They emerge from the ground when the rainy season ends thereby marking the start of the truly hot, humid, and fierce Japanese summer. This is nicely captured by another old haiku, adapted from Lafcadio Hearn (1900:79):

初蝉や (The first cicada begins to cry!)
「これは暑い」と ("Oh, how hot it is!")
いう日より (from that day on)

A cicada nymph which has just emerged from underground looking for a suitable spot to shed its skin
Cicada nymph (video here)
Finger-size holes pockmarking the base of tree trunks show us where the nymphs, after many years underground, dug themselves out. The picture left shows how they look in this state as they crawl out and seek a good place to anchor themselves to, a place where they can safely break out of their larval skin leaving an amazingly complete exoskeleton behind (with a zipper-like slit running right across the back). The picture above shows this empty shell (nuke-gara in Japanese), stuck to the bottom of a leaf. Somewhat surprisingly, whereas the nymph and the shell are only about 2.5cm long, once free of the shell the cicada itself is double this size, perhaps because of the long intricately patterned wings. The beautifully camouflaged adult cicada (below) will climb or fly up into the trees and the various males will then begin their symphony as they compete to attract mates.

A 5cm long "oil" cicada with beautifulky patterned wings
Adult abura-zemi
There are a whole host of names for different kinds of semi, many of which are onomatopoeic renditions of the sounds they make. In his 1900 book Shadowings, Lafcadio Hearn dedicates an entire chapter (pp. 71-104) to cicadas and all their different calls, a chapter which includes illustrations and a number of poems. He describes eight cicadas in detail in rough order of appearance: (1) haru-zemi (2) shine-shine/yama/kuma/ō-zemi (3) abura-zemi (oil-cicada because its sounds like oil frying in a pan! See video below) (4)  mugi-kari-zemi (5) higurashi/kana-kana-zemi (6) min-min-zemi (7) tsuku-tsuku-bōshi-zemi (for Hearn the most beautiful and also one of the last cicadas) and (8) Tsurigane-zemi. Most of these are pictured with audio here. One obvious omission from his list (unless he was using a different name?) is the nii-nii-zemi which appears from the middle to the end of July and makes a noise just like its name! However, the most common species is the abura-zemi (pictured), a cicada Hearn appears to have a particular soft spot for:

The aburazemi begins to chant about sunrise; then a great soft hissing seems to ascend from all the trees. At such an hour, when the foliage of woods and gardens still sparkles with dew, might have been composed the following verse - the only one in my collection relating to the aburazemi: Ano koe de (あの声で=speaking with that voice)/tsuyu ga inochi ka (露が命か=has the dew taken life?)/abura-zemi! (Hearn 1900:81)

The reference to "dew" no doubt symbolises the ephemerality of the cicada, an insect who gestates underground for years but lives for only about a week above ground. One will often see seemingly dead semi on the ground, but if you approach them they sometimes come back to life in a final burst of song, humourously referred to as "semi-final" (セミファイナル)! For this writer, the cacophony of sounds from dawn until dusk (and sometimes even later) seem to signify a summer that lasts forever, one of no beginning and no end filled with the constant buzz of tens of thousands of shrill voices crying in the intense, oppressive heat. It is enough to induce a certain heady insanity - and remind us of our own mortality.
That it will die before long (頓て死ぬ)
 there is no sign (けしきは見えず)
in the cicada's cry (蝉の声)
(Basho, None is Travelling 1689)

Monday, 7 August 2017

Japan: The Mushroom Capital of the World?

Meiji's popular snack Kinoko no Yama
Despite the rainy season ending, we've actually had quite a bit of rain recently. When it does rain during these very hot humid days (humidity was around 80% today!), mushrooms tend to spring up very quickly (pictured above and below). As a kid growing up in England, pretty much the only mushrooms we had were the white or brown button or larger portobella/o mushrooms. In Japan too, masshurūmu (マッシュルーム) refers to Western-style button mushrooms but for others the kanji take (茸) is used. This is pronounced "ta-kay" when used in a compound to describe the name of a specific type of mushroom - such as shii-take (椎茸)  - but pronounced as kinoko when on its own. Kinoko is also the generic term for mushrooms - including button mushrooms - in general although it is often written as キノコ in katakana, the alphabet used for foreign borrowings. Just to add to the confusion, キノコ was originally written as 木の子 which rather delightfully means of "child of the tree." 

One thing that surprised me coming to Japan was the sheer variety of types of kinoko and the fact that Japanese regularly eat a variety of different mushrooms which they clearly distinguish and label. The picture below shows a typical supermarket selection which includes six common staples (see here and also here for a summary). One mushroom missing here is the matsu-take mushroom, gourmet mushrooms that often go for tens of thousands of yen: they are an autumn food and harvested between September and October. The interesting thing is that many of these Japanese mushroom names - especially shimeji, shii-take and enoki - are now also used in British and other supermarkets (though often prefixed with the word "exotic" signalling that the button mushroom remains the standard). The ubiquity of Japanese mushroom names abroad suggests that the humid climate makes for a perfect environment to grow mushrooms (apparently there are more than 5,000 varieties, only about a third of which have been classified and named). Is Japan the mushroom capital of the world?
A selection of six common types of mushroom in a Japanese supermarket
TOP (l to r): eringi, mai-take, nameko; MIDDLE: enoki, shii-take, buna-shimeji (cut); BOTTOM (r) buna-shimeji (uncut)

Friday, 4 August 2017

Must-Read Japanese Books in English (Part 2: Lighter Reading)

There was lot of interest in the previous post on classic Japanese literature - it seems people are seeking good summer reading suggestions for the beach! - so here is part 2, as promised, this time focusing on more recent and much "lighter" books. As in the previous post, you can click on all the images for more information and sometimes a preview on amazon. As always, feedback and other recommendations are more than welcome! Poetry is perhaps a future possibility...

One of the most popular genres in Japan is crime fiction, known as "deductive-reasoning fiction" (suiri shōsetsu =推理小説) in Japanese. Although it has pre-war precedents, it is generally a post-war movement: the Mystery Writers of Japan Club (日本推理作家協会) was established in 1947. An ex-president of MWJ and one of Japan's most popular mystery writers is Keigo Higashino. His 2005 The Devotion of Suspect X is a modern murder-mystery classic and also the first of four novels in his Detective Galilieo series which has had huge success as a spin-off Fuji TV drama (and movie) starring the musician Masaharu Fukuyama (pictured right on the DVD of the 2008 version of the film).

In similar vein, Natsuo Kirino's 1997 Out (left) is a riveting but rather gruesome murder story written somewhat sympathetically, like Suspect X, from the killer's perspective. Hideo Yokoyama's 2013 Six Four - coming in at a massive 640 pages in the 2016 English translation - is also crime fiction but focuses less on the crime investigation and more on the human relations and power struggles within the police department and the workings of the Japanese police force itself - see here for a review.

The first book I ever read in Japanese and still one of my all-time favourites is The Newcomer (Ichigensan) written in Japanese by Swiss-born David Zoppetti who was TV Asahi's first non-Japanese employee and a staple on its News Station programme in the 1990s. It was awarded the Subaru Prize for Literature (すばる文学賞) in 1996. The story is a semi-autobiographical treatise about the experiences of a foreign student of Japanese literature at Kyoto University. The novel centres on the protagonist's relationship with a blind Japanese girl, someone who judges him solely on his Japanese ability and personality, and contrasts this with his (often discriminatory) encounters with other Japanese who cannot see beyond his "foreign" appearance. The 1999 film (right) is also excellent and the message about (non)acceptance of difference still resonates in a Japan which remains rather closed and insular. Incidentally, I have marked Friday as the day for a new "Book of the Week" and The Newcomer becomes the second nomination.

Finally, not wanting to ignore the teenage market, an honourable mention should go to Nahoko Uehashi's 12-volume Moribito (守り人=Guardian) fantasy series if only for the fact that it has been the only non-English book that actually challenged the ascendancy of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in my house! Unfortunately, only the first two books have been translated with future translations put on ice apparently due to unsatisfactory sales. Given that it is massive in Japan - the NHK drama stars the enormously popular Haruka Ayase (pictured on the DVD box-set right) - I wonder if there is not some cultural aspect to its (lack of) popularity: is good fiction always universal?

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Must-Read Japanese Books in English (Part 1: The Classics)

Back in June, celebrating 50 posts, I mentioned ideas for new things on the blog one of which was reading recommendations. In the ensuing months, I've received quite a few suggestions from friends (thank-you!) so I'm going to put these together with my own favourites and introduce some must-read books by Japanese authors past and present. I'm hoping this will mark the start of a regular "book of the week" feature which (if all has gone to plan!) should be sitting to the right of this page as you read (assuming you're reading the web not the mobile version). You can click on the book image, as with all images on this page, to get more details and (often) see a preview on Amazon Japan. Since there are rather a lot of recommendations, I'm going to focus on the classics in this post and introduce some easy/casual reading in the next! I tried to limit myself to one book per author - not always successfully - but if you have other suggestions - or authors I've missed - please do let me know! Note that publishing dates are for the Japanese original.

Starting off with the classic of classics, I have to mention Shikibu Murasaki, the female author of the world's first (modern) novel The Tale of Genji. Written in the 11th century, even Japanese struggle to read the original (it's studied in schools like Shakespeare is in the UK) but the translation by Royall Tyler is the go-to version (left). Be warned, it can be rather racy, focusing as it does on the protagonist's romantic affairs and entanglements; moreover, characters are not named, since this was considered rude in Heian court society! For a more accessible (and less explicit!) read, the 13-set manga version by Waki Yamato (right) has wonderful illustrations and becomes the very first "book of the week" (though, unfortunately, only partially translated into English at this time).

Moving into the 20th century, Natsume Soseki's (1905) I am a Cat is a gorgeous, light, and satirical read which is in stark contrast to his 1914 deep and dark Kokoro (Heart). Shusaku Endo's 1957 The Sea and the Poison is a heavy but honest and moving account about medical experiments on a captured American airman during the war, a story apparently inspired by true events. Nobel-prize winner Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter (1964) is the first of a series of works based on aspects of his disabled son Hikari's life; the feelings of guilt and responsibility are beautifully described.

More recently, the first and undoubtedly most famous novel by Banana Yoshimoto - pen name of Mahoko Yoshimoto - is her 1988 Kitchen, which has a distinctly youthful, even Western, slant as it deals with food, love, and gender. Finally, there is Haruki Murakami, the extremely talented and prolific writer who is surrounded by a buzz of "will he/won't he win the Nobel Prize for Literature" gossip each October here in Japan. My recommendation is his (1994) Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which is a surreal story involving a lost cat, the supernatural, and a collection of fantastical, sometimes romantically involved, dead-beats that also broaches controversial subjects such as the emptiness of contemporary politics and Japan's WWII aggression. Happy reading!