Monthly Archives: August 2005

Tochigi-ken, the Buckeye Prefecture

Tochigi Prefecture, in which Ashikaga is located, is named after 栃の木 (tochi-no-ki), the Japanese horse chestnut, Aesculus turbinata Blume, a close relative of the Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra, and the European horse chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum L. Marronnier, the French name for horse chestnut shows up in would-be glamorous commercial names here and there in the prefecture. I’ve seen it in Nikko, Utsunomiya, and Ashikaga. For some reason, “Horse Chestnut” does not seem to have the same appeal, or at least I’ve yet to see it in our Tochigi travels.

Much, much more on this subject can be found on an Imaginatorium web page authored by Brian Chandler, one of the hundreds of English teachers in Sano, judging by their literary output on the web and in print.

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Hawai‘i in Japan

Even before coming back to Japan, I knew that every year for the past few decades at least a million Japanese citizens have visited Hawai‘i, many more than once. But I’ve been surprised again and again by the depth and breadth of Hawai‘i connections all over Japan.

Hawai‘i-roasted Lion’s coffee, Kona coffee, and Hawai‘i macadamia nuts and chocolates were available in the first small grocery store we shopped at in Shinagawa station in Tokyo. And, of course, every train station travel agency displays plenty of flyers for Hawai‘i vacations. We’ve noted a lot of aloha shirts and Hawai‘i T-shirts–at least in August–and not just on yakuza types. We’ve seen T-shirts plus aloha shirt combinations for sale in Ito Yokado, a nationwide discount department store. (The layered look is quite popular with young people here.) T&C Surf Design stuff is ubiquitous. (I’ve even seen it on wooden geta.)

One of the most prominent restaurants in Ashikaga, right on main street near the JR train station, is a Royal Host franchise with a full-on Hawai‘i theme and hibiscus logo, as if were lifted right out of a Waikiki hotel oriented to Japanese tourists. It offers Kona coffee, macadamia chocolates, orchids and pineapple on the plate, a “Big Island” four-kinds of meat dinner, and even Loco Moco on the menu. Loco Moco is even mentioned on the banners out front. When we ate there one day, I ordered their cold noodles, which turned out to be a passable attempt at Korean-style nengmyon, complete with sliced apples, sliced boiled egg, (mild) kimchee, and a subtly sesame-flavored broth. They’re open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., and seem to attract regular customers of all ages.

But even more impressive are the chance encounters that turn up surprisingly deep connections.

The travel-happy owners of our favorite okonomiyaki restaurant in Ashikaga have been to Hawai‘i six times–and to Bali twelve times! The many Indonesian artifacts in their store prompted me to inquire.

Yesterday, my wife and I went up to the immigration office in Utsunomiya and stopped at a coffee shop called Akai Tori (‘red bird’) on the way back, just as we passed Futaara Shrine. The place was filled with Hawaiian collectibles from the 50s and 60s. The owner had been to Hawai‘i five times

The most poignant tale came from a widow running a small Ainu craft and souvenir shop at the small Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa on Hokkaido, which has had an official visit from a Maori delegation, but none from Hawai‘i’s Kanaka Maoli. While we were poking around her neighbor’s shop, she began talking to our daughter, whose Hawai‘i connections prompted a sweet but sad story. Her husband had made many trips to Hawai‘i as an Ainu woodcarver when Shirokiya department store in Ala Moana shopping center held its annual Asahikawa food and crafts fair. He brought his family along a few times, and the son ended settling in Hawai‘i after marrying a local girl. His mother had attended his Hawaiian wedding and–too few years later–sadly returned to attend his funeral as well. He died in his 40s. His mother kindly dressed our daughter up in an Ainu robe and headband so we would take a photo, all free of charge–although we did buy the headband, which was embroidered by the widow herself.

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Ha Jin on Chinese Cannon Fodder in Korea

One afternoon during the “airing grievances” session [among Chinese POWs in Korea], the medic said something almost incredible, though there must have been some truth to the story. He told us: “When our former division suffered heavy casualties near Wonsan, we rushed over to evacuate the wounded men. There were hundreds of them lying on a hillside. I was naive and just went ahead bandaging those crying for help. But our director told us to check the insides of the men’s jackets first. If the insignia of a hammer crossed with a cycle was there, that man must be shipped back immediately and given all medical help. So we followed his orders. All those men who had the secret sign in their jackets were Party members. We left behind lots of ordinary men like ourselves.”

The audience remained silent for a good minute after he finished speaking. I knew the medic and didn’t think he had made up the story. Wang Yong broke the silence: “The Reds used us like ammo. Look at the GIs, they all wear flak vests on the battleground. The U.S. government cares about their lives. How about us? How many of our brothers could’ve survived if they’d put on the vests like the GIs? Recently I came across an article. It reports that General Ridgway says the U.S. forces could abolutely push the Communist armies all the way back to the Yalu, but he won’t do that because he doesn’t want to sacrifice thousands of his men. Just imagine: what if the People’s Volunteer Army could drive the Americans down to the Pacific Ocean? Wouldn’t Mao Zedong sacrifice every one of the Volunteers to accomplish that goal? You bet he would. Didn’t he already send us here to be wasted like manure to fertilize Korean soil?…

Wang’s analogy of us to human fertilizer revived thoughts I had been thinking for a long time. True enough, as Chinese, we genuinely felt that our lives were misused here, but as I have observed earlier, no matter how abysmal our situation was there were always others who had it worse. By now I understood why occasionally some Korean civilians were hostile to us. To them we had come here only to protect China’s interests–by so doing, we couldn’t help but ruin their homes, fields, and livelihoods. From their standpoint, if the Chinese army hadn’t crossed the Yalu, millions of lives, both civilian and military, would have been saved. Of course, the United States would then have occupied all of Korea, forcing China to build defenses in Manchuria, which would have been much more costly than sending troops to fight in our neighboring country. As it was, the Koreans had taken the brunt of the destruction of this war, whereas we Chinese were here mainly to keep its flames away from our border. Or, as most of the POWs believed, perhaps rightly, we had served as cannon fodder for the Russians. It was true that the Koreans had started the war themselves, but a small country like theirs could only end up being a battleground for bigger powers. Whoever won this war, Korea would be the loser.

I also realized why some Koreans, especially those living south of the Thirty-eighth Parallel, seemed to prefer the American army to us. Not having enough food supplies or money, we had to press them for rice, sweet potatoes, any edibles, and sometimes we stole dried fish and chilies from under their eaves, grabbed crops from their fields and orchards, and even dug out their grain seeds to eat. By contrast, the Americans had everything they needed and didn’t go to the civilians for necessities. Whenever the U.S. troops decamped, the local folks would rush to the site to pick up stuff discarded by them, such as telephone wires, shell boxes, cartridge cases, half-eaten bread, cans, soggy cigarettes, ruptured tires, used batteries. We thought we had come all the way to help the Koreans, but some of us had willy-nilly ended up their despoilers.

War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 301-303

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Japan Horse-racing Trivia

The Japan Racing Association (JRA) has 10 racecourses (seven running clockwise, three counter-clockwise) [emphasis added] and two training centers (Miho Training Center and Ritto Training Center). Roughly 3,450 races are held mainly on Saturdays and Sundays, for a total of 288 racing days a year. The number of racing starts per year is approximately 47,382. The JRA holds two types of races: Thoroughbred flat races and Thoroughbred jumping races, with flat races comprising 95 percent of the racing calendar.

SOURCE: Masa-aki Oikawa, “Epidemiological Aspects of Training and Racing Injuries of Thoroughbred Racehorses, and Corresponding Countermeasures,” Japan Racing Journal 10 (2002)

When I channel-surfed through a bit of horse-racing on Sunday, the Niigata race looked normal to me, with the horses running counterclockwise, but the next races showed horses running clockwise at Sapporo and Kokura. This surprised me, but apparently it wouldn’t surprise many Australian horse-racing fans, or those anywhere else in the Commonwealth.

I never realized that North Americans were so unicircuitous, and I look for Canadian tracks to begin running anti-counterclockwise.

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Ha Jin on Belief vs. Belonging

I believed in socialism, which I felt was the only way to save China. I had seen how my country had been ruined by the Nationalists. Inflation, corruption, crime, poverty, all the evil forces had run amok in the old China. I remembered that a distant uncle of mine had once ridden a bicycle loaded with two sackfuls of cash to a grocery store and spent it all, but returned with only forty pounds of sweet potatoes. How could common people have continued to live under that regime? By contrast, shortly after the Communists came to power, people in dire poverty were relieved, usury and market cornering were banned, and criminal gangs disappeared. For better or worse the Communists had brought order and hope to the land.

To my surprise, one afternoon Ming said to me about my application for membership in the United Communist Association, “They may not let you in.” This implied that they had been instructed to turn me down.

“Why?” I asked.

“Probably because you translated hymns for Father Woodworth. Also, some people said you often read the Bible alone.”

“For goodness’ sake, you know I just mean to improve my English. I stopped having anything to do with Woodworth the moment I found out his true colors.” …

Then it dawned on me that to the Communists, my association with Father Woodworth must have amounted to a moral relapse, which revealed my “petty bourgeois outlook,” a phrase they often used to criticize an educated individual like me. However, I wasn’t applying for Communist Party membership but only for that of a mass association. There was no reason for them to reject me. On second thought, I wondered why I was so eager to seek their approval? Why worry so much about joining that organization? Perhaps I dreaded isolation and had to depend on a group to feel secure. Why couldn’t I remain alone without following anyone else? One should rely on nobody but oneself…. I’d better stay away from the herd.

No. If I mean to return to China, I have to take part in the pro-Communist activities; otherwise I’ll cause more trouble for myself. Whether I join them or not, they’ll never leave me alone, so I mustn’t stand aloof. Either you become their friend or their enemy. The Communists don’t believe anyone can remain neutral …

War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 122-123

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Theory and Practice of Japanese Recycling

The Japanese government regulates the classification of consumer waste and recyclables very meticulously. In 2001, it even passed a law “requiring retailers and manufacturers to take back used air conditioners, televisions, washing machines and refrigerators”–the first such “take-back” law, according to the industry journal WasteAge.

My impression is that about 30% of Japanese industry is packaging, and another 30% is deconstruction of consumer waste. In the grocery stores, you can find a single onion–or lemon, or unwashed celery stalk, or whatever–individually packaged. I suppose the stick-on price tag causes unacceptable damage to the perfect surfaces of the fruits or vegetables on display.

Metal food and drink containers are marked as either recyclable steel or aluminum. Beverage cans are just as likely to be steel as aluminum in Japan, while they are nearly 100% aluminum in the U.S., but Japanese consumers recycle their aluminum at higher rates than Americans do.

The tag on a tiny package of food or drink will carry separate recycle labels for both the paper tag and the plastic container. Plastics are further marked as either PET (polyethylene tenephthalate) bottles, PP (polypropelene), PE (polyethylene), or more generic プラ (pura ‘plastic’) wrap.

The first major hint we got, after we moved into our nice apartment in Ashikaga, that practice might not accord with theoretical ideals was our attempt to find out what to do with general plastics. Communities differ in their recycling capabilities. Not all can handle all categories. The illustrated poster in our lobby (here’s an English example PDF from a major metropolitan neighborhood in Tokyo) gave very detailed instructions about what kind of waste products get picked up on which days of the week or month, but said nothing about general plastics. Nor could we find any separate place for them in the trash room where residents leave their sorted and bagged waste.

Well, it turns out that plastic wrapping in Ashikaga is just another class of burnables. Most public trash bins in train stations broadly classify waste–other than drink containers–into burnables and nonburnables. (Newsprint often has a separate bin as well.) However, people are often extremely careless about what they put in these public receptacles, or frustrated at the lack of other options, and the clean-up crews must spend a good deal of time re-sorting the contents of each bin. The same goes for the variety of items that often end up in the can and bottle bins next to most of the streetside vending machines.

Two plentiful items, styrofoam containers and milk cartons, can only be recycled at grocery stores in most communities, it seems. But the receptacles in front of the stores I’ve seen have required consumers to cut the milk cartons apart, rinse them, and hang them out to dry before putting them in the recycle bins. All other containers, too, are supposed to be rinsed out before recycling. Japanese recycling depends crucially on the country’s abundance of water.

Just as I was finishing up this post, a sound truck drove down the street below our building blaring, not political messages (as is usual in the days before an election), but instructions for how to stop the van and turn over hazardous items like batteries and spray cans.

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Reinventing the Japanese Monarchy, 1927

The Fifty-second Imperial Diet, which had adjourned following Emperor Taisho’s death, had reconvened on January 18, 1927. Hirohito and his entourage lost no time in trying to influence political trends and make the political world aware of his presence.

First, on January 19, 1927, the idea of a fourth national holiday was proposed in the House of Peers as if it had originated there rather than in the court…. A short time later, the Diet approved a bill establishing November 3 as Meiji’s holiday (Meiji setsu), and the sanctioning announcement was made by imperial ordinance on March 3.

The tenth anniversary of Meiji’s death, July 30, 1922, had passed relatively unnoticed by the court and the public, except for visits by the regent [Hirohito] to Kyoto and the Momoyama mausoleums. Why now the new holiday? Because Hirohito’s enthronement was in the offing, and his entourage needed every device it could muster to invest him with greater charisma and blot out Taisho’s image. Hirohito could hardly be sent back in time to participate in great victories that had been won when he had been only four years of age. But Meiji could be transported, via the new holiday, and the appropriate fanfare, to a new generation and era, and Hirohito thereby made to shine brighter, if only by reflected radiance.

Due to the official mourning for Taisho, the first national celebration of Meiji’s birthday could not begin until the following year [1927]. The honoring of Meiji therefore would occur during the enthronement and deification of his grandson, the noncharismatic Hirohito, whom the press was describing already as the new “incarnation of Emperor Meiji.” Before the year of mourning for Taisho had even ended, the public had grown accustomed to thinking of the preenthronement emperor as the new Meiji, and as the grandson who would perfect the imperial legacy.

Later, intending to remind the young emperor of the toil rice cultivation required, and so identify him in the public mind with the plight of the rice farmers in a period of agricultural depression, Kawai invented a new court ritual. He suggested that Hirohito cultivate rice within the palace precincts. Hirohito agreed and a field was prepared inside the Akasaka Palace grounds for this purpose. On June 14, 1927, Hirohito received rice plants from different regions of the country and staged his first rice-planting ritual. Later, after his enthronement, he moved his residence to the palace, and seventy and eighty tsubo (280 and 320 square yards) of dry and wet field, respectively, were reclaimed for the purpose of ceremonial rice planting. A small mulberry grove beyond the wet fields was also prepared for Empress Nagako to engage in sericulture, thereby identifying her with Japan’s most important export commodity, silk.

SOURCE: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 182-183

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Japan Rail Pass Travels

We initiated our Japan Rail Passes 3 weeks ago with a same-day roundtrip by bullet train from Tokyo (東京 ‘east capital’) to Shizuoka (静岡 ‘calm hill’) in a fruitless effort to view Mt. Fuji (富士山 ‘rich gentleman mountain’). Not once did we see any mountaintops–all being obscured by clouds and haze. I don’t know how many times as a kid I strained in vain for a glimpse of Mt. Fuji as we passed Shizuoka on the train. (I have seen it on other trips, but only from afar.)

On Monday, I made a final day trip by rail pass to see one other famously beautiful place, the Matsushima (松島 ‘pine island’) bay and islands near Sendai (仙台 ‘hermit platform’). (My wife was tied up with obtaining her work visa, and my daughter had left on Sunday to return to college in the U.S.) Matsushima was spectacular–as lovely as Miyajima (宮島 ‘shrine island’) in my estimation–even though I didn’t get a chance to see all the best views.

In between, we made a roundtrip from Tokyo to Sapporo (札幌, an Ainu name whose kanji meanings are arbitrary), with a day trip from Sapporo to Asahikawa (旭川 ‘rising-sun river’). We had to pay extra for the sleeping berths going up.

We also made day trips from Ashikaga (足利 ‘foot profit’–the second kanji is never read kaga except in this placename, so perhaps kaga formerly meant something less favorable, like ‘swelling’ or ‘carbuncle’) to Niigata (新潟 ‘new lagoon’, but with a rarer pronunciation for ‘new’), Nikko (日光 ‘sun shine’), Utsunomiya (宇都宮 ‘sky capital shrine’), and twice to Narita airport. I think we got our money’s worth. I’ve got a few travelogues to write up now.

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Earthquake Blogging

A little while ago, at 11:29 Japan time, a magnitude 5.0 (Japanese scale) earthquake shook our building slightly. NHK almost immediately cut to earthquake coverage, repeating over and over that the epicenter was around Nagaoka in Niigata Prefecture, that there is no danger of a tsunami, that there have been no reported injuries, and that the eastern Shinkansen trains had already resumed normal operation. The magnitude in Tochigi Prefecture, where we are, was 2.0.

I’m getting superstitious. We spent yesterday in Niigata. But maybe the crucial factor is that the last time we had a big earthquake was the same day we were scheduled to take the Narita Express to go to the airport. Today, we are again scheduled to take the Narita Express to the airport to send our daughter back to the U.S. for another year of university–and a third year of college Japanese. If this pattern holds, then northern Japan can expect another largish earthquake on September 28, when I’m scheduled to fly back to the U.S.

We may have to rethink our tentative plans for a daytrip to Sendai on Monday, the last day our rail passes remain valid. I’d hate to bring that lovely city another earthquake only a week after their last one.

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How Little Hou Created the Walking Telegraph Code

Day after day we racked our brains, but still couldn’t find an adequate transmission method [to communicate remotely between prison compounds in Korea]. Little Hou was truly a smart fellow and engrossed in the code work most of the time. When he was eating or taking a break, he would mention to us one possibility and another, but none of them would work. Then one morning he hit on a brilliant idea, namely to simplify the Morse code as much as possible, to the degree of letting one dot or one dash stand for a numeral. This would not only speed up the transmission, but also reduce confusion. Based on this conception, he and Mushu created the Walking Telegraphic Method: the sender of the message would stand behind the window of the war criminal’s cell [= the isolated cell in which Commissar Pei, the leader of the Chinese POWs, was held]. If he walked to the left side, it meant a dot; if he walked to the right, it denoted a dash; if he hunkered down below the window, that indicated the beginning of a new group of numerals. One dot meant 1, one dot plus one dash–2, two dots plus one dash–3, two dots–4, three dots–5, three dashes–6, two dashes plus one dot–7, one dash plus one dot–8, two dashes–9, and one dash–0. As a rule, every four numerals represented a word [probably = Chinese character]. After the receiver jotted down the numerals, he passed it on to the code man, who could decipher them with the aid of the codebook Little Hou was making. In reverse order to our cell, the war criminal’s room had a window facing Compound 6, so they could send and receive messages from within the room. This method would definitely resolve the problem of transmission. How excited we were! We wanted to shout for joy, but we didn’t dare. We only lifted Little Hou on our shoulders and walked a few rounds in the cell. Then he returned to working on the code.

When the lead in the pencil was worn down, Mushu would bite the tip sharp. As the main worker, Little Hou didn’t get enough sleep, his eyes bloodshot. We worried about him, but couldn’t do much to help. Without a dictionary, we couldn’t remember all the essential words, but we managed to come up with over eight hundred common characters. This wasn’t bad. The code shouldn’t be too elaborate; otherwise it would be difficult to master. So we aimed at fewer than one thousand characters. Whenever an often-used word came to mind, we would tell Little Hou. The penciled pages looked complicated and incomprehensible to me, but Little Hou could trace what he had done to avoid repetition.

Finally a booklet–loose sheets of toilet paper bound by a shoelace–was completed, which listed all the codes and gave instructions about the Walking Telegraphic Method. We put a title on the cover: The Pei Code.

War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 224-225

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