Japan's Longest Day, by The Pacific War Research Society
This is a much more interesting exploration, given the rather dry name of the book’s authorial group, than one might expect. It covers the 24 hours between noon on August 14 and August 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced over national radio Japan’s imperial decision to accept the Potsdam Proclamation unconditionally, surrender to Allied forces, and end WWII. This broadcast not only concluded 15 years of martial action and aggression throughout the Pacific region by Japan and marked the nation’s first military defeat. It also stunned the entire populace, perhaps mostly so for transmitting the decidedly mortal and shockingly diminutive voice of their emperor, delivering its high-pitched message through the plebian airwaves for the first time in history.
The authors go to great lengths to make the book a compelling drama, and they mostly succeed, as they follow hour-by-hour the wrenching decisions of the emperor and his cabinet, an attempted coup by one wing of the military, and the grisly murder and suicides of some of the nation’s highest-ranking officers. Occasionally, their attempt at concluding each chapter with a cliff-hanger falls short or feels stale, but for the most part, this book is captivating. It offers a fascinating window into Japanese warrior mentality and national pride as they collided with the end of the Second World War, evoking how chilling and touching both could be, and how tragic and disturbing was the destruction wrought on the shores of every nation touched by the Pacific War.
Tracy Slater, PhD
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Thursday, September 28, 2006
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The old Koizumi Cabinet resigned today, and the members of the new Abe Cabinet were announced.
The biggest question is what Abe will do vis-a-vis China. To put it very simply, will he continue visiting Yasukuni Shrine or not? That is the issue on which Japanese national hubris cannot seem to back down on, and prime ministerial visits to the shrine seem like unattractively and unwisely quixotic gestures to make under the nose of the stirring giant that is China.
Of far more interest to most people at this time of the year, however, is the changeable weather in Tokyo. This morning was gloriously sunny in Tokyo, but by midday it was teeming. Here's a shot of Kojimachi in Chiyoda ward, one of Tokyo's main central business districts and only a few minute's walk from Nagatacho, the political center of the nation, as well as the Emperor's residence.
Kojimachi may not be much to look at in terms of architecture, but I thought this photograph captured something of the area's life and buoyancy.
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Saturday, September 23, 2006
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Thursday, September 21, 2006
Some fine weather has come in the wake of the recent typhoon, so I took the chance to go for an early morning walk along the Misumi River.
Misumi is about halfway between Hamada and Masuda on the coast of Iwami (Eastern Shimane), and there are almost no sites of interest to tourists, which is one of the things that makes it attractive.
Started out from Miho Misumi JR station and headed along the river towards the sea.
Passed a couple of old Kofun (Burial mounds). Iwami may be a backwater of Japan nowadays, but in ancient times it was the "front" of Japan, facing the Korean Peninsular, and was one of the first areas to be settled by the Proto-Japanese.
This heron looked to be getting ready for a morning of fishing.
There is hardly a stretch of coast or riverbank in Japan that has not been covered in concrete or composed of concrete tetrapods, but its such a beautiful morning that even the tetrapods have a strange kind of beauty to them today.
One of the delights of exploring off the beaten track is discovering little gems, like the carvings on the local Hachiman Shrine. A little more detailed and a slightly higher quality than the average shrine carvings.
At the mouth of the river there are fishermen all over. I don't know about other parts of Japan, but round here there are a lot of avid fishermen.
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Today was the end of an era in Japan. The race between factions of the Liberal Democratic Party to provide a new prime minister came to an end. The terse, inscrutably mannered Koizumi who had led the country towards a generally more relaxed and transparent way was succeeded as LDP party chief by till then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.
Abe is a politician from a vintage political family. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), was Minister of Commerce and Industry during the war (1941-45) and prime minister from 1957 to 1960, resigning in the midst of the furore of opposition that engulfed the nation when the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation with the United States came up for renewal.
Abe is 51 - considered young for a cabinet minister here, let alone a prime minister, and Abe will become the first Japanese prime minister to have been born after World War II. During his campaigning amongst the LDP to become prime minister-in-waiting he focussed on the need to amend the constitution to allow Japan a more active military role in its partnership with the United States, and on the need for educational reform.
His stance on the constitution is more about foreign policy than anything else, and it is in this arena that he is most likely to leave his biggest mark. For all Koizumi did to restart Japan after its economic stalling, he also did a lot to erode Japan's credibility with its immediate Asian neighbors with his visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe is unlikely to move in a different direction, and looks set to continue to invest heavily in an American-allied future for Japan, keeping the country aligned against the rising power of China.
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Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Outrageous Japanese: Slang, Curses, and Epithets by Jack Seward
Originally published in 1991, Outrageous Japanese: Slang, Curses, and Epithets has been brought out in a revised edition for a new generation of Japanese learners. All of whom should be warned: many of the expressions, words, and sayings are not currently in use in Japan circa 2006.
Author Jack Seward arrived in Japan with the US Occupation in 1946. He clearly has a very strong grasp of Japanese—language and people—but of the 1950s and 1960s variety. And, unfortunately, it shows.
Having spent more than fifteen years in Japan, I was befuddled by many of the terms, and had that sinking feeling that I had better get back to my slang texts—or, better yet, to a bar.
However, in a preemptive move, before heading out to Shinjuku or Umeda or Kiyamachi--or any other favored locale--I tried out many of the expressions on a wide variety of age groups of Japanese. Those under 40 had heard almost none of them; students at an elite university asked me directly if many of the expressions were really Japanese, or "some kind of Chinese"? People in their 50s reacted with a natsukashi! (a word used to express nostalgia) when they recognized a phrase or two.
In addition, there are typos littered throughout the book. Some are simple misspellings, others are just plain wrong. In a book that advertises itself on the cover as a “revised edition,” one would hope for better editing.
Perhaps the best recommendation one can give the book is that it is a peep into a bygone era—when American soldiers in Japan had great purchasing power and respect, when Japanese women truly were second class citizens, and when few Japanese spoke English. If you want to know the slang of Roppongi bars and its denizens circa 1961, this is the book for you.
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Sunday, September 17, 2006
It’s late summer, the days are almost cool, but the muggy vestiges of midsummer still hang in the air, as does the thinned out trilling of the last cicadas.
Over the past 10 days the streets of Tokyo’s neighborhoods have been festooned with paper lanterns, usually by, and bearing the name of, the local neighborhood committee.
This afternoon, as I type this, there is the sound of rhythmic whistleblowing against a background of drums and chanting coming to me from just a block or two away. It’s a compelling sound that makes sitting at home feel like you’re missing out on something. I am tempted to go and get coverage, but it’s spitting very lightly outside, I did my back in a couple of days ago, I’m waiting for a phone call, and I’m hungover.
Last night, though, I got a shot of this very attractive display of lanterns just a little down the road on the main road of Omekaido that cuts through Nakano ward. I noticed also the makeshift sheds on a few roadsides housing the omikoshi floats, drums and other paraphernalia for local festivals. Various temples are hung with red and white stripped bunting, are set up with sideshows and stalls selling snacks, and thronged with locals in cool cotton yukata robes.
Autumn will be here soon, bringing a whole lot more opportunities for festivity and getting together to ‘observe the leaves’ (i.e. get blotto under them). Here is a piquant foretaste of fall that I snapped on the sidewalk in Chiyoda ward a couple of days ago, just across from the British Embassy.
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Friday, September 15, 2006
Tokyo's metropolitan government plans to change the city's bylaws to allow it to dictate color changes to any buildings considered ‘oddly colored’. From next April developers of large-scale construction projects will be obliged to consult with the city government from the planning stage regarding appropriateness of colors for the surrounding landscape.
What triggered this were complaints by ‘residents' who live in the area of the Italian Cultural Center (see right), completed last October, that the red exterior of the building was ‘out of keeping’ with the local landscape. The metropolitan government duly put the case to the Italian Embassy, but, with the lack of any relevant bylaws, it is completely up to the Italian Embassy to comply or not. With the planned change of regulations, those who do not comply with such requests will be liable to a fine of up to 500,000 yen (c.USD4,260) - not exactly 'teeth'.
As for the local ‘residents’ who complained, the Center is, indeed, flanked by a luxurious apartment building (just visible at left of photo at left), no doubt many of whose inhabitants wield considerable influence in high places. But being right next door to the building, the Center hardly forms part of the broader 'landscape' out over which the residents gaze. However, the Italian Cultural Center is a mere stone's throw from the banks of the Chidorigafuchi moat that runs around Koukyo, or Imperial Palace, so it is much more interesting to speculate that the most illustrious of the surrounding ‘residents', the Imperial Family itself, may have ‘seen red'.
Considering that vermillion is the traditional color of things religious in Japan, it is a little surprising that while temple towers and certain painted shrine torii gates are allowed to ‘clash’ as much as they like with the surrounding green of the parks and woods they often nestle in, much the same hue is shouted down in the Italian Cultural Center, which, moreover, is a decidedly more muted shade of red than vermillion. The Center certainly adds what I think is a much needed splash of color to what is an extremely drab neighborhood. (The photo below is of the drear buildings across from it.)
On the other hand, a close Japanese friend of mine treats what I consider to be the main refreshing highlight of my blandly wallpapered rented room, a large, red bookcase, as an aesthetic anathema. Thank god, perhaps, he isn’t the Emperor! (or was it the Empress?)
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Thursday, September 14, 2006
A byobu, or Japanese screen, thought to have been lost or destroyed was recently rediscovered in Kyoto. The screen is believed to be the work Kano Eitoku (1534-1590), a legendary painter of byobu of whose works not even ten remain. Kano worked during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and enjoyed the patronage of both Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
The byobu is a free-standing four-panel folding masterpiece that tells a historical tale from left to right. It features Byodo-in Temple, in Uji, Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple, and displays all four seasons. Both the aristocracy and ordinary people appear in the painting. (Note: the byobu pictured at right is not Kano Eitoku's but is available online.)
Though the piece is not signed, experts from Doshisha University have credited the work to Kano based on the use of color, themes, and overall expressiveness.
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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
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Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Kagura festivals are a modern invention, starting in the post-war period and gaining in popularity until it seems that now every year a new one starts up somewhere in Shimane and Hiroshima. They provide entertainment in the period between the end of the summer matsuri (festivals), and the onset of the Harvest matsuri in November.
I'm particularly interested in kagura masks, so I was pleasantly surprised to see one that I hadn't seen before, the Demon (Oni) mask in the photo above. Iwami Kagura masks are the best in Japan in my opinion.
The festival was held in Gotsu's Milky Way Hall, a modern 700-seat theatre, and it was packed for the whole day of dances. 1,500 yen for 9 hours of entertainment is not a bad deal.
Iwami Kagura is normally performed in local shrines by local people, and go on through the night till dawn. Kagura festivals however bring together up to a dozen different groups from a wider area and each group performs just one dance.
With a fullsize stage area, and professional lighting and sound system, the venues for kagura festivals have allowed the groups to develop innovations that take advantage of more theatrical forms.
The full complement of 8 serpents can dance in the finale, the dance based on the Yamata no Orochi myth, the best-known myth in this area. Thanks to the popularity of Iwami kagura, the people in Iwami probably know more of Japan's ancient myths than most of those in other parts of Japan.
I spotted this truck in the parking lot, and it gives a good idea just how fanatical some kagura fans can get around here, but Iwami Kagura is virtually unknown in the rest of Japan, a real shame as it is exciting, dynamic, and easily appreciated without knowing the language or the stories.
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Monday, September 11, 2006
A friend took me to one of Shinjuku’s old establishments, Acacia, a yoshokuya, or ‘Western food restaurant’. A ‘yoshokuya’ has very little to do with Western food as we know it, though.
Rather, it is an approximation of what the Japanese defined as 'typical' Western food at the turn of the century. In our case (we ordered the same thing) this meant a very reddish boiled mince wrapped up in boiled cabbage leaves in a thick floury gooey, translucent sauce of some kind, plus a side salad.
It came with a bowl of rice, which, as my (Japanese) friend commented, was completely out of keeping with the ‘Westernness’ of the dish. Buns would have been much more appropriate but, according to my friend, it was all Japanese at the turn of the century could do to drag themselves away from fish, let alone rice.
It didn’t taste bad, but in its stodginess and utter simplicity of taste, it almost seemed like a parody of English fare – something out of Oliver Twist. It washed down well with beer, which kind of made sense. The atmosphere of the restaurant itself was similar. The building itself was obviously old, and the interior was entirely wooden – much of it quite beautifully carved. The artwork on the walls added a pleasantly modern touch, and the service was unaffected and friendly.
Acacia is accessible from the Subnade exit number 10. Just go up the alley that’s immediately on your right as you come out onto Yasukuni-dori, and you’ll see Acacia on your left after a few paces.
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Saturday, September 09, 2006
While the lights of the city dance, horns honk, and the late night streets of Tokyo's loud, trashy Shinjuku are a tipsy riot, there is something inevitable and calming about road construction teams.
Blazing in their own pool of brilliant white light, dressed identically in tough, drab pastel uniforms and white helmets, they always seem to be forming some kind of rough circle around something that draws their collective gaze downwards. There is no hurry or sense of panic. Even the flashing lights flash with simple unshowy on-off regularity.
Here is a team of road construction workers caught on film in west Shinjuku in late summer. If your connection is slow and/or you want laughs and action, don't bother with this one. If you want to lulled into something, then click.
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Thursday, September 07, 2006
The office being in one of Tokyo’s main business districts, Kojimachi, I make a habit of wandering the neighborhood at lunchtimes looking for new places to eat. Lunch was very late today – after 2.30pm, which is when nearly all the restaurants except the most fast-food-style ones close to prepare for dinner. So after swallowing a very quick bowl of cold soba noodles I kept walking just for the sake of it.
Right next to what translates as something like the All-Japan Municipal Hall (i.e. where various municipalities nationwide have their presence) is a small space – a building-sized gap in the row of buildings that lines the street between Kojimachi station and Nagatacho station. It has been turned into something like a park. In spite of the size restrictions it has been very tastefully done with a main walkway from one street to the other, and off it a paved footpath that winds briefly through, and is shaded by, trees and other vegetation.
I had never investigated it before so walked into it, and discovered a series of quirky porcelain sculptures. After the novelty of staring at them had worn off a little, I took the opportunity of looking at the details incribed on the plinths they stood on. I'm afraid I didn't have any writing material with me, so I don't remember clearly, but I am pretty certain that in spite of the striking visual similarities, they were not all by the same artist.
Anyway, I have put up four of them here: two flying characters, one looking a bit shocked, the other looking plain grumpy, and two busts: a glum man and a haughty woman. (Click on them to enlarge.) The latter two particularly aroused my interest in that their titles correspond to the stage I have reached: "middle age". Being 40+ isn’t really as bad as this artist made out though – I promise!
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Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Today the wife of the Emperor’s second son, Princess Kiko, gave birth to the imperial family’s first new male member in more than 40 years. There had been an unusual amount of interest in this pregnancy and speculation about the possible sex of the child because, in spite of there having been queens in Japan’s ancient history, the Chrysanthemum Throne does not now allow a woman to ascend it.
The child hasn’t been named yet. That will happen when he is seven days old. Apparently he and his mother are healthy, and the news was greeted across the nation with jubilation.
The resolution of the gender issue has no doubt been responsible for a lot of the pleasure the nation is feeling, but it would be a mistake to exaggerate this factor. Most, if not all, the Japanese I know and have spoken to don’t care whether it is a boy or a girl and consider the issue fusty and outdated.
PM Koizumi had been considering changing the succession law to allow women to reign, but the birth has taken the necessary driving force out of that. I personally wish that she had given birth to a girl as it would have helped stir things up a bit in this politically and socially inert nation.
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Sunday, September 03, 2006
I had the opportunity yesterday to watch the local Volunteer Fire Service in operation.
Around 2pm I heard the sound of a siren coming into the village. And then another. Every house in the village has a loudspeaker connected to the Town Hall, and if mine wasnt disconnected I would have heard the emergency message that there was a fire.
The noise of the sirens was enough to draw me out of the house and I saw smoke and flames billowing from the end apartment of a small 4 apartment block.
Most firefighters in Japan are volunteers. There are a million of them compared to 100,000 full-time professional firefighters.
Our village's fire station is a small garage-sized concrete building that holds a couple of pumps and a few hoses. The trucks must come from neighboring towns.
The firefighters have almost no equipment other than pumps and hoses. No protective gear, not even helmets, no breathing gear, and little in the way of emergency tools.
The fire was put out fairly quickly, and no-one was hurt, but I shudder to think what would have happened if it had been more complicated.
Employees of Town Halls are expected to "volunteer", even the young office ladies, but they do not fight fires. Making tea for the men, and joining in the marching and parades is the limit of their duties.
The current volunteer fire service was created during the Second World War, and is woefully inadequate for anything other than a simple fire, as was shown in the aftermath of the Hanshin Earthquake.
But, they, and the others in the village who pitched in, did a good job putting this fire out effeciently.
Japan Shimane fire volunteer fire service
Friday, September 01, 2006
I had to go up to the Prefectural capital, Matsue, yesterday, and with a few hours to kill I decided to finally make a visit to the castle. Built in 1611, Matsue Castle is one of only a handful of castles in Japan that has not been destroyed by fire or war. Most Japanese castles are replicas or reconstructions.
For 230 years, until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the castle was home to the Matsudaira Clan, a junior branch of the ruling Tokugawa.
After paying the 600 yen entrance fee, a woman came running out of the office and gave me some change. Apparently thanks to the Yookoso Japan campaign there is a hefty discount for foreigners to all Matsue's tourist sites.
From the top floor of the castle there are fine views over the city and surrounding area. With a population of about 150,000, Matsue is not so big, and is actually quite a pleasant city.
A pleasure boat trip around the extensive castle moat is very popular with visitors. With the moat, canals, rivers, and Lake Shinji (7th largest lake in Japan), some call Matsue the Venice of Japan, but that, I think, is an exaggeration.
In the shadow of the castle lived Matsue's most famous son, Koizumi Yakumo, better known as Lafcadio Hearn. The Greek-American writer spent one year here, teaching English, at the end of the 19th Century, and his home is open to tourists. While here he wrote "Glimpses Of An Unfamiliar Japan", which I heartily recommend to anyone who plans to visit this part of Japan.
Hearn's favorite shrine, Jozan Inari, is within the castle park, and is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of fox statues.
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