Monday 31 December 2018

Omikuji Fortune Papers and Ema Wooden Wish Plaques

2019 is here and, as I wrote this time last year, for most Japanese that means a visit to a shrine (or temple) to make prayers and wishes for the new year, a practice known as hatsumōde (初詣). Made up of the characters for "first" and "make a pilgrimage", this "first visit" can be anytime from the evening of December 31st up until January 7th (a period known as matsu-no-uchi =松の内). Matsu means pine and pine decorations are ubiquitous on gates and doors at this time of year (pine, like bamboo, is said to symbolise longevity and strength/hardiness). The most popular shrines, such as Meiji Jingu in Shibuya, are packed for the first three days of the year when most Japanese are off work.
Prayers and wishes for the new year can be made spiritually after bowing and clapping at the shrine but they can also be made in more material fashion by purchasing a cheap fortune paper known as an omikuji or a more expensive ema (絵馬=horse picture) wooden plaque. The latter cost around 500 to 700 yen and your wish or message is written on it directly before being hung (in public!) at the shrine (as seen in the picture). Eventually they are ritually burned at special events symbolising one's "liberation" from the wish. In contrast, the omikuji folded fortune paper might set you back 100 or 200 yen and, as the name suggests (kuji literally means lottery), you can get any of (up to) twelve ranging from great blessing (dai-kichi =大吉) to great curse (dai-kyō =大凶). The message on the omikuji resembles a horoscope and usually refers to love, money, health, study, or travel.

There seems to be two camps about what to do precisely with your omikuji after unfolding the paper itself. Some people say that if it is one of the (up to seven) blessings you should hold on to it but if you are unlucky enough to get one of the (up to five) curses you should tie it to a designated place or even tree branch at the shrine (a pine branch is supposed to be auspicious because bad luck is said to "wait" - also matsu in Japanese - at the shrine rather than follow you home). Others people, however, always leave their omikuji tied at the shrine regardless of whether it is good or bad. Those who take home their lucky paper see it as a message from god and therefore consider it important to keep the paper in one's wallet or purse as a  guiding principle (shishin =指針)  or "compass needle of fate" in daily life. In contrast, those who tie their paper at the shrine, whether it is good or bad, do this because they believe it brings a stronger connection to the kami. Advice can differ from shrine to shrine: see here for a good explanation (in Japanese) entitled "Should I tie the omikuji?" (おみくじを結んだ方がいいですか)from the famous Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (太宰府天満宮) in Fukuoka. For a detailed explanation of how to buy an omikuji see here - or check out the video below!

Monday 24 December 2018

Magical Sweet Potatoes: From Stone Roasted Spuds to Limited Edition Ice-Cream

If I had to choose one sound that encapsulates winter in Japan it would probably be the whistle and recorded yaki-imo chant of the stone roasted (ishi-yaki) sweet potato truck crawling through the neighbourhood at night (see video below). Ishi (石) means stone, yaki (焼き) means cook or heat, while imo (芋) means potato. This refers not to the Western style spud but the yellow-fleshed Japanese sweet potato or satsuma-imo (さつま芋) as well as the purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet yam (beni-imo or murasaki-imo).

There is a whole vocabulary to describe the different types and tastes of these stone roasted potatoes. The menu of the stall pictured below lists four main types:  tomitsu-red from Fukui (top left), milk-sweet-silk (top right), murasaki-imo as described earlier (bottom right), and another type of tomitsu from Fukui (which is obscured by a note saying "now roasting/curing - please wait!). The taste/texture of each potato is also given:hokkori (from hokuhoku describing the fibrous fluffy soft potato texture); shittori (moist?); nettori (creamy, sticky); mitsu (honey); and kaori (fragrant). Note the halal mark to the left of the menu and the English sign saying (I quote), "No add any sugar, only baking. Magical sweetness in here." Couldn't have said it better myself.
Sweet potatoes find their way into a huge variety of products that Japanese love. One example is shōchū; although usually made from the fermentation of rice this Japanese spirit also has a sweet potato version (known as imo-jōchū). Moreover, the natural sweetness of the satsuma-imo naturally lends itself to sweets and confectionery. One best seller is purple sweet potato ice-cream: Häagen Daz' limited edition (kikan gentei =期間限定) murasaki-imo (紫いも) ice-cream was unbelievably popular (for a recipe see here). And it doesn't end there. This site lists a variety of interesting ways Japanese use sweet potatoes as a key ingredient in sweets, including kit-kats, tarts, milk-shakes, cookies, chocolates, and various other snacks. Magical sweetness indeed!

Sunday 16 December 2018

Japan's New Migration Law: A Visit to the NHK Broadcasting Center

It seems an age since I last put up a new post - my apologies! Rest assured I have not been run over by a truck but was simply ridiculously busy, as are many Japanese during the end of year period (nen-matsu =年末). I do have a stock of new stories lined up - including sweet potatoes, plastic rubbish, and dashi (soup stock). Today though I am going to stick to something topical: the recent passage of the revisions to the immigration law which have raised quite a bit of attention both in Japan and and worldwide (see my interview on BBC World News at the bottom!).

I have written previously here about Japan's lack of an immigration policy and its rather unfriendly and unwelcoming system of control over foreign residents. As I have explained elsewhere, Japan has long followed a de facto ‘no immigration principle’ — an institutionalisation of the ‘homogeneous people’ ideology of the Japanese nation — and this continues to play a key role in structuring national identity. However, faced with acute labour shortages that threaten to undermine the steady economic growth seen under Abenomics the government has taken radical action: for the first time in the post-war period it is to officially allow blue-collar workers (tanjun rōdōsha =単純労働者) into the country by setting up two new visa categories (for a short explanatory article see here).

As I mentioned above, the interest from outside Japan has been intense. A number of journalists have contacted me to ask what it all means, and to find out whether Japan will finally adopt a proper immigration policy (short answer: no). The BBC even asked me to appear for a short 3 minute interview on World News last Monday. Though I could have done it through Skype from my office I was quite interested to see what the BBC studio in Tokyo actually looked like so decided to head to the NHK Broadcasting Centre (hōsō-sentā =放送センター) where the BBC has an office. The Centre itself is located in Shibuya and is actually a huge complex of offices and shops which includes NHK Hall, where classical concerts are held, and NHK Studio Park, a hands-on interactive museum (PDF here).

The BBC "studio" actually turned out to a tiny (and unmanned when I was there) space a little bigger than a broom cupboard on the 7th floor of the Centre! There was little but a desk in front of a Tokyo backdrop and a camera (see picture). The lady who met me in front of the building and let me in popped an earpiece in my ear and sat me down in the hot seat where I waited until Singapore was ready to do the live interview segment. Needless to say, my romantic image of crazily busy international newsrooms with staff rushing about to meet deadlines was somewhat shattered!