Tuesday 24 March 2020

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine: Praying for Good Luck and Cats Bringing Good Luck

In these tough times, plenty of people turn to prayer to wish for better luck and this is particularly common in Japan, where Japanese practice diverse "religious" practices and rituals (though these are actually more lifestyle customs and cultural habits than "religion" per se - see previous post here). Some of the most ubiquitous shrines in Japan are the 14,000 or so Tenmangu (天満宮) shrines which are dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a poet and scholar who was exiled from Kyoto to Kyushu in the 10th century where he died. He was later deified as Tenjin, meaning "sky god" (天神), though Tenjin is actually the patron of scholarship and learning. Residents and visitors to Fukuoka City, the main city in Kyushu, will recognise Tenjin as a bustling area full of shops, restaurants, and bars, not to mention the beautifully named Oyafuko (親不孝) Street. Oyafukō is a term from Confucianism meaning lack of filial piety - kids who don't obey or respect their parents - and it is therefore no surprise that this street is the nightlife hub of Fukuoka (I remember the Happy Cock and the Crazy Cock clubs fondly!).

One of the most famous of these many Tenmangu shrines (alongside Kitano in Kyoto and Egara in Kamakura) is located in Dazaifu, a 40-minute train ride from Fukuoka City. Because Tenjin is considered particularly helpful in securing academic success, the shrine is usually packed with students preparing for or taking exams (jukensei =受験生). After praying (and donating) at the shrine they will often buy a lucky charm (omamori=お守り) which they can hang on their bag or splash out on a wooden ema wooden wish plaque on which they write a message and hang up at the shrine (explained here).

Michizane was very fond of plum (ume=) trees, writing a famous poem (waka=和歌) from exile in which he lamented the absence of a particular tree he had loved in the capital (translated here). In fact, legend has it that the tree - known as the flying plum tree or tobiume - flew from Kyoto to Dazaifu to be with him! Today the descendant of the tobiume can be seen just to the right of the main shrine (pictured below - not in bloom unfortunately) and it is said that it is always the first plum tree to bloom in Japan (in February, coincidentally around the same time many exam results are announced). His fondness for plum blossoms means that Temmangu shrines often have many such trees: Dazaifu reputedly has 6,000 of them, comprising 167 varieties!
The main shrine at Dazaifu Tenmangu with the "Flying Plum" tree on the right
An interesting feature at Dazaifu is the pond in the shape of the Japanese character for "heart" (kokoro=心) which is crossed by two arched bridges and islands which are said to represent the past, present, and future. The animal particularly associated with Tenjin is the bull/ox because, according to legend, during Michizane's funeral procession, the animal pulling the cart bearing his remains refused to go any further than a certain spot, and his remains were buried there marking the location of the shrine. But the bull/ox is not the most visible animal at Dazaifu: there are far more cats! Here I am talking about the maneki-neko (招き猫) or "beckoning cat" sold in every shape and form in the shrine shops (note that the beckoning or inviting gesture in Japan is actually the opposite of that used in Western countries). These cats are supposed to bring good luck - something we all need in these trying times.

Wednesday 4 March 2020

The Latest Coronavirus Situation in Japan

Hand-sanitiser everywhere!
People with friends and family in Japan are undoubtedly worried about the situation here regarding the coronavirus; a few have even contacted me to ask about the situation in Japan (scroll down for the comment/question/request function). The March 3rd announcement by WHO that Japan - together with South Korea, Italy, and Iran - were the countries of "greatest concern" undoubtedly made people more anxious, though the situation in Europe and America is now far worse than anything seen in Japan. And even though Prime Minister Abe declared a state of emergency in 7 prefectures until May 6th on April 7th (extended to the whole country on April 17th and further extended to the end of May on May 4th) this is nothing like the lockdown seen in those countries (indeed a Europe style lockdown is not legally possible). This post aims to provide concrete objective information about the situation on the ground in Japan and contains reliable sources in English. (UPDATE: the state of emergency was lifted for 39 out of 47 prefectures on May 14th and the remaining ones on May 25th).
As of May 28th, there have been 16,696 confirmed cases of the virus in Japan, not including those from the Diamond Princess cruise ship; 869 people have died. The worry is that these figures are actually only the tip of the iceberg since people have generally not been tested - until guidelines were loosened very recently - unless they have quite severe symptoms (a fever of over 37.5 for 4 consecutive days accompanied with heavy fatigue, kentaikan=倦怠感, and/or breathing difficulties, kokyū-kon'nan=呼吸困難). The national broadcaster, NHK, provides up to date numbers; the Japan Times also has a similar page with recent numbers and a map (which shows that Hokkaido has been particularly hard hit - and is now experiencing its second wave of infections). For visitors to the capital, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has an extremely detailed site which even includes data on numbers of subway passengers. Finally, the JNTO site has useful information in English plus visitor hotline numbers (with a link to an emergency chat bot here). On March 2nd, many schools closed early for the spring break following government "advice" - a sudden measure that caused a lot of trouble for many working parents. However, following government moves to re-open schools as normal for the start of the 2020 academic year (which began April 6th) many schools in relatively unaffected areas did briefly reopen, though following the emergency declaration they closed again (though special dispensation for the state of emergency to be lifted has been given in certain largely unaffacted prefectures: for example, students in Tottori, Aomori, and Akita returned to school on May 7th). Universities have also switched to online classes and though some have started in April (such as ICU), most only began online lectures after Golden Week. Interestingly, discussions have started on shifting the start of the school year from April to September, bringing it more in line with many other countries.

Since the state of emergency was declared, there are noticeably fewer people out and about in Tokyo - commuter traffic into Tokyo was reported to be some 60% lower and pedestrian traffic around Shinjuku Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest, was down 80% - and almost all are wearing masks (remember, though, that in Japan many people wear masks anyway for hay-fever and other reasons - see this post on why Japanese people wear masks). There is a general sense of underlying anxiety - in one case in Fukuoka, a passenger pressed the emergency button on the train after someone coughed without wearing a mask! The problem is that it is almost impossible to buy a mask now anywhere in Japan: drug stores see long queues in the morning and immediately sell out despite limiting sales to one pack per customer (see picture). Even toilet paper and tissues have become difficult to buy, harking back to the shortages during the 1973 oil shock; people are slipping into hoarding mode, with panic-buying not seen since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake (though shelves are not being stripped bare like in Europe).

By mid-March there were signs that things were improving: toilet paper began to re-appear and people were going out more (Yoyogi Park here in Tokyo was crowded with cherry-blossom viewers on the weekend of March 21st/22nd); however, confirmed cases, especially in Tokyo and Osaka, have spiked recently and even before the state of emergency cinemas, amusement parks, clubs, bars, karaoke boxes, some department stores, and even Starbucks in the capital have closed as part of "self-restraint" (jishuku=自粛) measures. These closures have increased siginificantly since the state of emergency began and business suspension requests took effect (Macdonald's, for example, is now take-out only). Central Tokyo was like a ghost town when I was there in mid-April with many "temporarily closed" (rinji kyūgyō=臨時休業) signs on businesses.
Empty shelves and apologies in a drugstore where the masks (left) and toliet paper (right) should be
In terms of tourist sites, theme parks, such as Tokyo Disneyland, national museums, and many other sites (such as Tokyo Skytree) have "temporarliy" closed (closed sites listed here), while large-scale gatherings (such as graduation or entrance ceremonies) have been cancelled and sports events affected (the spring sumo tournament, for example, was held behind closed doors while the summer was has been cancelled). On the other hand, other cultural sites - such as some shrines and temples - which offer some comfort in these difficult times do remain open. Most governments now have a "do not travel" advisory in place for Japan (see here for a good overview). Moreover, restriction on entry - travel bans - exists for a large swathe of countries (see here). (UPDATE: since the state of emergency was lifted tourist sites are now slowly beginning to reopen - Tokyo Tower, for example, reopened on May 28th).

For those already in Japan, though, it is reassuring to know that Japan is a hygiene-obsessed Japan at the best of times - hand-sanitiser is everywhere - and hand-washing, gargling, masks, and alcohol sprays, not to mention minimal contact - bowing instead of hand-shaking and absolutely no hugging - are part of everyday life  (another example: anti-bacterial or kōkin=抗菌 goods, from pens and slippers to bags and leg-warmers, are extremely popular). This post explores Japanese culture and the virus in more detail. Nevertheless, now people are being extra careful: in my local supermarket, for example, the cashiers are now wearing blue rubber gloves, mask, and plastic face-guards. And at stations, staff wear masks, handrails are regularly disinfected, and even the touch-screen ticket machines are frequently wiped down. Plastic screens are common in many shops. See here for guidelines on "new social behaviour".

"Wash hands, gargle" newspaper ad
Early on in the crisis, before the travel bans, the decision about whether to visit Japan or not came down to whether the worry and stress would detract from the pleasure of your visit or not. This was the conclusion of Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor for The Times and author of some amazing books on Japan, who shares his advice to a friend: "In terms of planning a holiday," he says, "I think it depends on you and your family's attitude to disruption and unpredictability." Now, of course, visiting Japan - or anywhere else for that matter - has become impossible, which is a shame since the spring flowers are beautiful and there are very few crowds. I very much hope that once the travel bans are lifted tourists will return to support those businesses reeling from the double whammy of the virus and loss of the Olympics. If you do come, though, make sure you avoid this ramen shop in Ueno whose owner has kicked up quite a firestorm with a "Japanese only" policy. Now is a time for solidarity and togetherness - not discrimination.