It's the Little Things

A Japanese microbiologist was recently awarded a Nobel Prize. His research concerned a process called autophagy, by which unwanted cells can be destroyed through a natural mechanism.

Unwanted cells? How about cancer cells? This research has wonderful implications for the fight against cancer.

However, what people will probably remember from the Nobel awards ceremony is Mr. Ohsumi's closing remarks: “I would like to take this opportunity to note my appreciation for the many lessons and wonderful gifts from yeast — perhaps my favorite of all being sake and liquor,” he said. As for me, when it comes to yeast, I'll take bread as the greatest gift from these tiny-tiny organisms.

For better or worse, little lives have big significance. Here's to ongoing research in cellular autophagy!


UNESCO Intangible Cultural Assets: Japan's Mountain Festivals

Starting with the magnificent Mt. Fuji, Japan is a country where mountains are prominent. A folklorist named Kanzaki, in an essay reported by Yomiuri Shimbun on December 2 (2016), explains the Japanese belief that mountains are inhabited by gods, and that honoring those gods with colorful festivals is a uniquely Japanese tradition. He is careful to explain that these gods are not in any way connected with a system of religious beliefs; they are more like "amoeba", shapeless but nonetheless real to those living within their range of influence, according to Mr. Kanzaki.

Recently, 33 festivals honoring these mountain spirits have been granted UNESCO recognition as intangible cultural assets. Why? Because of their creativity and artistry.

Colorful floats! Intricate illuminations! Music and rhythmical teamwork! Japanese love their festivals, not least because putting one on fosters community ties. At mountainous locations throughout the Japanese islands of Honshu and Kyushu, festivals are held from April to November.


Want to add some Japanese color to your language? Try these sayings.

Are you studying Japanese? I've been speaking Japanese for decades, but I still need to study. This year I tried to add some proverbs to my vocabulary. Some of them work well in English, too. Want to speak more colorfully? Maybe you would enjoy popping these into conversations.

Here are some Japanese proverbs to borrow, just to make conversation a little bit more exotic.

Why stop someone from comparing apples and oranges when you can shrug enigmatically and say, “The moon and snapping turtles”? (tsuki to suppon)
Don’t urge someone to be practical; simply say, “Dumplings outweigh flowers.” (hana yori dango)
You can encourage people to smile and be nice, or you can say “No one shoots arrows at happy faces.” (warau kao ni ya tatazu)
Milk and cookies go together. Salt and pepper complement each other. How about “Plum trees and nightingales”? (ume ni uguisu)
Have you seen the dragon motif on a certain brand of Japanese beer? That’s a “kirin”. You can call a young person with a bright future a rising star, or you can call him/her “dragon pup”. (kirin ji)
One more!
Why say “many a slip between the cup and the lip” when you could say, “Even when they’re winning, samurai keep their helmets on.” (katte kabuto no o wo shimeyo)

Proverbs are like potato chips to me. Once I get started on them, it's hard to stop.


A Question for Travelers

Once upon a time, in a book about journaling, I found a great question. Here it is. "The next time you visit a foreign country, look around and ask yourself this: what do these people know that I don't know?"

Here is one answer about the people of Japan: they know how to wrap anything, from a simple box to a dozen loose, fresh eggs. Two clanking bottles of sake? No problem. A watermelon? No problem. A picnic? Of course.

Their solution is older than paper shopping bags, more environmentally-friendly than plastic, more flexible than a basket. Their traditional wrapper is flexible enough to cover any shape, and it can be used again and again. What is it? Japanese traditional wrapping is a square of cloth called a furoshiki. If you already speak a little Japanese, you may recognize the word furo (bath) in furoshiki. One of its traditional uses was to wrap up everything needed for a bath--soap, shampoo, a towel, a basin, shaving equipment, a hair dryer. These days, furoshiki are more often used as elegants cloths for wrapping gifts.

Books abound on clever and beautiful ways to wrap a gift in a furoshiki. The etiquette for the recipient after duly admiring the presentation and the gift it encloses is to return the furoshiki to the giver, who will use it over and over until it wears out. Unlike wrapping paper, it doesn't crease and there is no tape to peel away. Also unlike paper or plastic, the furoshiki may have a monetary value much higher than the gift it enclose, so returning it is the right thing to do.

There is a lot of wisdom to be found in the folkways of Japan, and the ingenuity of the furoshiki is one of my favorite discoveries.


Where Left is Right, as in Culturally Correct

This is the season when Japanese TV is filled with historical dramas. Lots of kimono and flashing swords!

In Japanese culture, there is a respectful attitude toward swords. Not everyone could have one, and those who were entitled followed certain rules. One of the rules was to use the sword only with the right hand. To do this with maximum efficiency, the sword had to hang from the left side of the body. This makes sense, of course.

Did you know that swords are the reason that, in Japan, traffic flows along the left side of the road? Think about it.

One of the other rules concerning Japanese swords is that no one but the sword's rightful owner has the right to touch it. Not even by accident. Samurai were entitled to cut down anyone who--deliberately or accidentally--touched the sword.

Picture this.

Here comes a Samurai, swaggering down the road, sword swinging from his side. Someone walks past the Samurai on the sword side and accidentally brushes the sword. Sayonara, unlucky blunderer, whether man, woman or child! To avoid accidents, another rule came into play: sword-carrying samurai kept the sword on the outside of the road, away from oncoming traffic.

Voila! The "traffic flows on the left side of the road" rule is born.


Volcanoes in Japan--Bad News and Good News

The tragic--and without any warning whatsoever--eruption of Mt. Ontake showed Japan the dark side of its many volcanoes. Is there a bright side? Yes! Geothermal energy, a serious alternative to nuclear power generation.

Here is something from The Japan Times online:

Mount Ontake obliterated the nuclear lobby’s argument that seismic sensors and global positioning technology can predict eruptions that may threaten reactors. This one came out of nowhere — like a huge bolt of lightning, survivors say. Even if we knew that one of Japan’s other 100-plus active volcanoes was about to blow, Tokyo Electric Power or Kyushu Electric Power can’t move reactors or toss huge protective domes over them. All Japanese authorities could do is evacuate surrounding areas to lop a zero or two off death-toll figures.

It’s time Japan started heeding the advice of environmentalists like David Suzuki to go geothermal. In 2012, the Canadian geneticist and author joined the board of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation at the urging of Softbank founder Masayoshi Son (who has been investing big in renewable energy projects). Since then, Suzuki has rarely missed an opportunity to try and shame Tokyo into scrapping its reactors.

“Geothermal can be a huge source of energy and very quickly,” Suzuki told Bloomberg News in March 2013, on the second anniversary of the meltdown at Fukushima. “It is an opportunity being squandered in the drive to get the reactors up and running again.”


Can you say "Henoko"?

Most people don't even know where it is, but it is probably the keystone to Japan's future as a peaceful, prosperous country where everything works and quality of living is reasonably good for almost everyone. Or, Japan can follow the US down the slippery slope of militarism to become an environmental and moral junkyard. Henoko, on Okinawa Island, has been tossed to the military machine like a bone to a rabid dog: take this! stay away from the rest of us!

Here is what The Japan Times Online reports about the people's reaction to the Henoko deal:

Thousands march on Henoko base site

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

Aug 23, 2014

NAGO, OKINAWA PREF. – More than 3,500 demonstrators marched to U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Saturday in the largest show of anger to date against the new American base being built off Henoko Bay to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in crowded Ginowan further southwest.

Lining the road four deep for 700 meters and crowding the hillsides, the protesters chanted “Stop construction” and “Save the Bay” after assembling in the morning. Some came from as far as Hokkaido, many with their children in tow.

Okinawan legislators and peace campaign leaders gave impassioned speeches against what they called Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s re-militarization of Japan and railed at the perceived discrimination of Okinawans.

The largest welcome was given to anti-base Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who was re-elected in January on a strong anti-military platform. Wearing a cape decorated with multicolored dugong, the endangered mammal threatened by the project, he greeted the crowd in Okinawan.

Inamine likened the situation on Okinawa to World War II, when more than a quarter of the civilian population died, saying that this time, the island was not under attack by the U.S. military, but by the Japanese government.

“We all need to work together to save Henoko Bay,” he said. “You can all help. We’ll never give up.”