A Thought at Christmas Time

Saturnalia—the ancient Roman festivities that took place in mid-December—may be the earliest verifiable ancestor of our Christmas/New Year festivities. Evergreens and holly probably have more to do with this tradition from frosty Europe than with the events in Mediterranean Bethlehem, as they symbolize faith in the return of the sun’s warmth and the regeneration of all that is green and growing, not to mention edible.

Japan has a tradition of reverence for the sun, too. Just look at the national flag—a red circle on a white background representing the rising sun. One of Japan’s preeminent geographers, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, wrote in one of his works that this choice showed a certain ecological wisdom. The American environmentalist Hazel Henderson would agree. Asked to place an economic value on solar energy, she replied, “Should we figure in the value of pre-warming the planet?” Without the sun, we might as well be Pluto.

Japan, too, tries to celebrate Christmas, but the festivities are more like Saturnalia—a way to brighten up a cold season that contains the shortest day and the longest night. Frankly, I like it. I like the idea of taking the given circumstances and making something out of them.

Makiguchi, the Japanese philosopher who gave our ancestors credit for recognizing the worth of solar light and warmth, didn’t advocate worshiping the sun as a god/goddess. Instead, he advocated a philosophy that asked, “Given your circumstances, what are you putting forth? What are you creating? What value are you adding to society?”

I like that thought a lot. Joy, cheer, an appropriate gift, breaking bread together! There are so many ways to put forth creative contributions out of our own particular circumstances.

Happy Holidays to All!


Another Fine Mess

The serviceman who killed the pedestrian in Yomitan now realizes that the blood all over his wrecked car came from a human being, not a tree. He is willing to apologize to the dead man's family. Great. But not as great as giving the man back to the people who were counting on him.

What would be even greater is if the US would apologize to the serviceman for sending him to a place like Yomitan in the first place. He doesn't belong there. He belongs in his own home town with people who speak his language.

It is too late to return the Okinawan man to his family, but not to late to return the 27 year old serviceman to his.

Just do it.


He's Here!

Mr. Obama arrived in Tokyo to much fanfare. It was a rare treat to see a Japanese prime minister speaking to an American president in English. It was an equally rare treat--something we haven't seen in about eight years--to see an American president speaking real English.

Let us hope that genuine communication ensues.

PS: About the same time Mr. Obama was thanking the troops for their "contribution" in Okinawa, a US GI was arrested for killing an Okinawa resident in a hit and run accident. The GI said he couldn't understand what the arresting officer was saying. Was there something about the evil of killing a pedestrian and running away that needed to be explained?


Okinawa vs New Jersey

Tomorrow US President Obama will meet in Tokyo with the new Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Hatoyama. The US air base at Futenma, in Okinawa, is one of the topics on the agenda. The base occupies the largest part of a congested city, and it is next door to a major university.

Not so long ago, a Futenma-bound US helicopter crashed and burned on that university campus, spewing radioactive material helter skelter. That was not nice. No one wants a burning helicopter on their lawn, especially one whose ashes can kill.

Okinawa--the island with all the US bases--is smaller than the US state NJ. If you have 2 hours, you can drive the length of it taking time out for lunch and a little sightseeing. There are sixteen (16!) US military installations on Okinawa. How many similar-sized US bases are in NJ?

(two: Fort Dix and Fort Monmouth)


A Parade in Manhattan

It was a glorious moment, the parade featuring the Yankees' MVP Hideki Matsui. For some reason, the sight of Mr. Matsui waving from an open car reminded me of a Walt Whitman poem. I looked up the poem, and here is the first verse:

"OVER the western sea, hither from Niphon come,
Courteous, the swart-cheek’d two-sworded envoys,
Leaning back in their open barouches, bare-headed, impassive,
Ride to-day through Manhattan."

This was written by Whitman in honor of the first Japanese visitors to the US, who paraded down Broadway 150 years ago at the opening of the Meiji Era. The poem celebrated the idea of the one-ness of the world.

I think 150 years is a very long time between parades, but the outpouring of enthusiasm was just the same.

As Whitman put it, hurray for geography! We are all in it together.


The Dust of Ages

Everyone knows the name Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital that is dotted with historic buildings. That they still stand is partly due to the restraint shown during WWII when bombs were dropped on all the most populous cities but not on Kyoto. But a lot is due to the materials used and the craftsmanship with which they were built.

One popular attraction is the 400-year old Katsura detached palace, which is a landscaping gem, worth visiting just for the gardens. True afficionados, though, fall in love with the buildings. The flooring, the ceilings, the woodwork and the columns that support it all are designed to show off the natural patterns in the logs that were selected for construction centuries ago.

Perhaps because the Katsura palace sits all by itself in a lovely natural environment, detached from the jam-packed jumble of Kyoto's crowded neighborhoods, it never fell victim to the fires that destroyed so many other original landmarks. The wooden parts aged, and grew more beautiful with time.

And then...termites!

In the mid 70's, a team was organized to save the Katsura palace by replacing all the wooden parts. First they took it apart, board by board, wrapping the beams in brown paper and tying them up with string, and then storing them lovingly in a storehouse erected just for them. A pair of mummified catfish found under the foundation was carted to the storehouse. Someone even swept all the dust from the rafters and stored the dust in a brown paper sack.

The project moved along nicely until the replacement for the termite-eaten central column was selected. It was perfect in every way except one: it was too new. It gleamed like pale yellow gold, beautiful in its own way but out of place in the dimly-lit rooms decorated with hand-painted, aged by the centuries artwork.

Can you guess how they saved the historic atmosphere and made that shiny pillar fit in?

(hint: think of the items that were tenderly packed away in that storehouse)

Someone got the brilliant idea that, if it was the dust of ages that created the special atmosphere of Katsura, then it was the dust of ages that could transform that column. One of the artisans made it his job to bathe that column three times a day in a solution made from the dust in that brown paper sack and a fixative until the pillar developed the proper coloration.

This story, first broadcast in an NHK documentary, captivated me. Imagine making good use of that bag of dust! For people like me who hate to throw things away, though, it might be better to pretend it never happened.


What's Blooming Now?

October, and the kinmokusei is blooming its beautifully fragrant heart out. The dictionary calls it "fragrant olive". Hmmm... Maybe it is a fruit-free distant cousin of the olive tree.

In any case, it sends out a sweet perfume, but you shouldn't cut off a branch and stick it in a vase to enjoy indoors. If you touch the blossoms, you'll get a poison-ivy-like rash. Some beauties are best enjoyed from a distance.


Good Gourd, A Typhoon is Coming!

Typhoon #18 struck Tokyo on Thursday morning. It was the first typhoon in two years to directly affect the metropolis, but city workers hadn't forgotten what to do. NHK news showed workers cutting down the vines clinging to public buildings that provide shade and insulation from hot summer temperatures.

Why would they do that?

They are the kind of vine that produces gourds as long as your arm, the kind that can be turned into bath sponges. (hechima) They are huge and heavy, and could have been lethal if blown around by the typhoon winds.

Who knew?


Japan in the Top Ten

The UN index rating countries according to their livability status puts Japan in the top ten. Among the criteria are such factors as lifespan, literacy and school enrollment, health care, and GNP.

The top ten countries listed on the index are: Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Switzerland and Japan.

Way to go, Japan!


Cautiously Optimistic

As I reported in my book Japan's Road to Popular Empowerment in 2000, the first time the government changed hands, the main benefit of ousting a long time ruling party is that a new set of people takes over the ministries and opens windows on deep, dark secrets.

This is happening now. You can read about it in today's Japan Times online. http://tinyurl.com/yccjqag

It's the part about Okinawa that especially interests me. I still remember a colleague on the Mainichi Newspapers being hounded out of his fast track reporting career because he suggested the reversion of Okinawa was not exactly as advertised. It turns out he was right all along.

Now that he's in his 70's, is someone going to turn back the clock and give him back his life? I don't think so.


What color is "red"?

There may be 100 words for snow in Iceland, and a hundred ways to describe the green of Ireland, but when it comes to red, the world offers more than a thousand choices of names for red. So, when Shuri Castle in Okinawa was ready to be painted red, not any red color would do. It had to be the right red.

The wooden castle built on a stone foundation burned to the ground during WWII. After Japan's southernmost province, Okinawa, was returned to the country in 1972, one of the projects closest to the Okinawan people's hearts was rebuilding the castle as a symbol of Okinawan pride and as a focal point around which to build a tourist industry.

There were many, many problems to overcome, and one of them was choosing the color. Everyone knew it should be red, but which red?

In the end, four shades were chosen: one for the columns, one for the walls, one for the frames around the windows, and one for the roof tiles.

To me, the most interesting choice was the color for the window frames. Remember, this castle was built ages ago, when every kind of paint came from the earth--not Dutch Boy or Sherwin Williams or even Martha Stewart.

The ancestors of the Okinawan kings came from the island of Kume. So, from a certain cliffside deep in the heart of Kume, red earth was dug up, powdered, and used to make paint.

From ancient times until today, when you look out a window in Shuri Castle, your eye will register the earth-red color of the home island.

*This information is from the NHK hit documentary series, Project X.

PS Please go to the July 7 post to see a picture of the red castle, Shuri.


Nine--Rhymes with Fine

Today is September 9, 2009--also known as 9-9-9.

There will be people lined up at the automated ticket machines at train stations to buy a ticket stamped 09-09-09, and better yet if it is printed at the hour 09:09, just because it is an interesting number.

People in Japan who care about the secret meanings of numbers will avoid 9, however. In Japan, the word for 9 sounds a lot like the word for pain and suffering.

In China, however, today is the day for eternal romance. Wedding halls will be booked solid. In Chinese, the word for 9 sounds a lot like the word for eternal, as in eternal love.

How is it in English? Nine, fine, mine, wine, thine, dine...

I will choose "fine", as in everything will be fine.


What You Can Win When It Looks Like You Lost

This analysis of the recent election in Japan is worth a look:

It was published in the online Yomiuri. Yomiuri is the world's largest newspaper and the front runner among Japanese newspapers.


Japan Needs a Dog...

... a large, amiable, tail-wagging shaggy dog.

You know how it goes. A guy gets mad at something that happens at work, he goes home and yells at his innocent wife, who takes it out on the kids, who start picking on the dog. The dog takes it all in stride, wags his tail, licks everybody's hands, and peace returns.

Japan doesn't have a dog to kick around.

Some people are still hopping mad because postal services were privatized, causing the loss of a lot of patronage jobs in the boonies. Never mind that postal banking continues unchanged and packages and letters are still delivered faithfully.

Leading the cry for government blood is Shizuka Kamei, who has been carrying the postal grudge since the reign of Junichiro Koizumi, several Prime Ministers ago. That's a long time, and the grudge has grown uglier and heavier.

It might have been better for Japan if they could have simply snarled at the dog and let the country go on with its main business of bringing the economy back to life.

Japan needs a national dog.


Tit for Tat

The US says it doesn't know what to think about the new regime in Japan because it is "untested". Guess what? Japan doesn't know what to think about the ambassador the US gave us, an untested person from the campaign donor class and not a diplomat.

We were expecting Joseph Nye, but that's not who we got.


See the Pretty Fireworks

Well, the election is over and Japan picked the eternal bad hair day guy, Yukio Hatoyama. The aftermath will be like fireworks. First the sky lights up with pretty colors, but when the colors are gone, all that's left is a big noise and the smell of smoke.

Is Japan burning?


Three Jolly Pirates

A commercial--no longer being aired--showed the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP/Minshuto) leaders Hatoyama, Kan, and Ozawa as cartoons of themselves cavorting in the rigging and at the helm of a pirate ship. It was hard to figure out what, exactly, the message was supposed to be.

Could it be the commercial was withdrawn because people figured out what it is that pirates really do? Hijack what someone else built and paid for, use it for their own profit, wreck it, and then abandon it.

I sure hope the ship in question isn't Japan.


Dirty Money in New Wrappers

The polls are predicting the government will switch hands from the LDP coalition to the DPJ. Normally, switching parties can be a good thing. This time, it's not.

Why? Because they won't be switching parties. The people being named as possible cabinet are all LDP born-and-bred politicians who switched bandwagons, not politics.

It's just dirty money in new wrappers. Especially Ichiro Ozawa and Shizuka Kamei, Rove and Cheney with a made-in-Japan label.

There are still two days to go before the election, and all I can say is: Help!


Sunny Side Up

The blooming season is so short. Mid-August is peak flower time in Hokkaido.

Hokkaido in Summer

Squid boats of Hakodate


Hokkaido, the Cool Country

Time out for a trip to Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido.
Mountains! Lakes! Singing birds! Cool breezes and open roads!

Hokkaido is not like the rest of Japan. It's more like Canada.

Well, it's like Canada would be if they put it in the wash and shrunk it a bit.
Summer happens next week, and I'm going up to take a look at it.


Do Bugs have Karma?

When I was a kid, we ran around with butterfly nets. In Japan, chasing butterflies is for sissies. REAL kids chase serious bugs.

One such bug is noisy like a cicada but a whole lot bigger. The biggest variety is woodchip brown and makes a noise that sounds like "Mii-mii-mii." Maybe that is Japanese bug language for a "Pick me!" love call. Another variety of cicada is a clean, green color and goes "Kana-kana-kana". They seem to be an endangered species. I haven't heard one of those in years. The third kind sounds like a wind-up toy. "Tsuku-tsuku (that's the wind-up key being turned)--hoshi (a winding down sort of sigh".

The absolutely most popular, most sought after bug in the Japanese insect universe is the stag beetle, or kabuto mushi. They are bigger than a grown man's thumb and wear an impressive set of antlers. When they fly--and from the look of them you would never guess they are capable of flight--they sound like helicopters. You can actually hear those stiff beetly wings beating the daylights out of the night air.

To be a captive kabuto mushi is not such a bad life. The kids feed them watermelon and eggplant and set them up in elegant housing. If they can't find one for themselves, someone will buy them a pet kabuto mushi from a department store.

But here's the karma part.

Everyone loves butterflies. Everyone loves fireflies. Kabuto mushi are bought and sold for real money--upwards of $10 dollars or so. However, pity the bug who comes into the world in another, unlovely incarnation. A mosquito, say, or heaven forbid, a cockroach. Would they be loved, photographed for calendar art, fed and valued?

I don't think so. Is that karma?


Can Snakes be Recycled?

The news says that Florida has a problem with formerly pet snakes released into the wild and growing huge and dangerous. Pythons are called nishiki-hebi in Japanese. Their only known use (well, as far as I know...) is to cover the sounding board on Okinawa sanshins. They look good and sound good when converted into these musical instruments.

Is there a way to introduce the Florida snake hunters to the Okinawa sanshin makers who need nishiki-hebi for their musical instruments?


Here Be Dragons

Here is a view of Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa. It dates back to the 14th century and was the royal residence until the Kingdom of the Ryukyus was absorbed by Japan in 1879.

Please notice that, made of wood and highly decorated, it is a castle dedicated to living and diplomacy, not to battles. The Okinawan kings kept their corner of the world happy and peaceful for 500 years.


One Minute of Silence

Yesterday--that was June 23--marked the day the politicians said the war was over in Okinawa. As politicians often do, they lied.

When leftover bombs explode outside kindergartens, killing toddlers...

When leftover bombs maim young men who thought they were peacetime construction workers with 40 years of work-in-the-daytime/play-in-the-nighttime ahead of them instead of years of blindness and wondering how to make a living in construction with only one arm...

When a tourist picks up a coral-encrusted shell and discovers--at airport security--that he is holding an unexploded hand grenade...

When these things happen, the war is not over.

It's over when the people who brought you the war clean up after themselves.


Break Time

I'm off to Okinawa for the annual general meeting of the Marine Cultural Research Association (NPO) and the annual sanshin qualification concours.

The weblog will be continued next week.


Nope. Definitely not in Kansas.

Last night I had a dream so scary I woke up my husband screaming for help. The whole North Korean army was chasing me, and it was my own fault.

The other day, I wrote about "buying" North Korea, the way you would try to find a buyer for a crummy property in your neighborhood just to clean it up. So, how do you buy a country, or parts of a country?

Here's a hint from the Wizard of Oz. In the original, uncut version--not the shorter form seen on TV-- there's a scene in which the Emerald City guards (black haired and sporting bristly mustaches) march past the camera. Hordes of them! They look like an army. That's because they ARE an army. The rumor was that the Turkish army was hired for the role.

So here's my question about that scary dream: why was the North Korean army chasing me? I think they wanted movie contracts.

Who wouldn't rather be in the pictures than in a war?


How much would it cost?

The total area is something like 50,000 square miles and lots of those miles are too rugged to use for anything useful. You can't grow things. You can't mine things. You can't live there.

How much would worthless land like that cost?

Let's see. 50,000 square miles is 32,000 acres. You can get 30 acres in rural Tennessee for $285,000. So, if we add three zeroes to that, maybe 32,000 acres would be a little more than $285,000,000--in really round figures, of course. Let's call it $300 million, for the sake of argument.

A thousand acres in the outback of Mexico is currently going for $550,000. That times three is 1,650,000. Add a zero to bring it up to 30,000 and we've got a price tag of $16,500,000. Not even $20 million. More affordable? Sure!

The land I'm talking about is a little farther than Mexico and a lot farther than Tennessee. It is the entire country of North Korea.

Wouldn't it be a better bargain to just buy the place outright than to keep pouring money into military options?

For mere millions--not the billions that are drained away from health and education spending by a voracious military budget--we could buy North Korea, evict the current landlord, and sleep well at night without worrying about missiles and nuclear testing. I say, let's buy it.


News: Musical Firsts

Does anyone else remember Van Cliburn, the Texas-born pianist who went to Moscow during the most frigid years of the Cold War and won a medal for playing Rachmaninoff? That was in 1958, when he was a mere whippersnapper of a young pianist.

History repeats itself.

Now Mr. Cliburn is the founder and namesake and guiding light of his own piano competition. Just the other day, a 20-year-old from Tokyo (Nobuyuki Tsukii) and a 19-year-old from China (Haochen Zhang) went to Texas and won a shared first prize in Mr. Cliburn's music concours.

It's the first time for Asians to win the gold medal in such a prestigious contest, and for the winner from Tokyo--Nobuyuki Tsujii--the joy was compounded because learning to play classic compositions had been so very hard.

He started when he was 2 years old, by listening and copying. Two hands, ten fingers, and eyes that cannot see. Mr. Tsujii has been blind from birth.

Blind musicians are not wholly unheard of, but performing classical music scores has an added complication: the music is created in cooperation with an orchestra. What do you do when you can't see the conductor?


Loppi and Me

Would you name a kid Loppi? I wouldn't either, but that's the name of my new best friend, who is bright red and incredibly dumb.

Chapter One:

My kids were teasing me that the only thing I know how to buy from the Internet is books. "I'll show them," I say, having just heard that I need to be in Okinawa ten days from now. "I'll buy my tickets from the Internet."

I call up the Japan Airlines homepage and get to work. It has to be JAL because, thanks to my dearly departed father in law, we own a few pieces of JAL stock and they send us a stockholders discount coupon every spring.

Two hours later, I've reserved both outbound and inbound seats. Two hours! With a homepage that simple to use (mwaahahahaaa), no wonder the airline is teetering on bankruptcy. I print off the record, and lo and behold, it says on the bottom of the page "Please buy your ticket as soon as possible."

Buy your ticket? Isn't that what I just did?

Here, the wise say, "No, you didn't. You just reserved a seat."

Silly me.

But the thing is, it says buy it, but doesn't say where. The whole reason I am using the computer--besides showing off for my kids--is that there are no longer any travel agencies here in town.

My son takes pity on me and dials the free dial number for JAL. Twenty minutes' of dorky music later he is connected, and the voice on the other end of the line tells him to go to the convenience store and buy the tickets from Loppi.


"The machine," she says. "It's called Loppi. You buy the ticket from Loppi."

Chapter Two:

My son, my daughter in law, and my husband who doesn't believe in machines named Loppi join me in walking to our local convenience store. Never mind that it's already dark, and it's starting to rain.

Son of a gun! There is a red vending machine--like the kind that used to sell jawbreakers in Woolworth's Five and Dime--set up in a corner next to the cigarettes. It is labeled Loppi in bright, cartoony letters.

Loppi is real! Loppi exists! Loppi will give me my tickets.

We gather round and start punching in information. Then comes the test. We thump the final button, and Loppi's red face lights up with a flashing message: You cannot buy a ticket.


Chapter Three, the sordid conclusion:

We step away from Loppi to dial JAL information again. We can hear the tinny wait-a-moment music leaking out of the phone as we huddle outside in the rain, since the store forbids cell phones inside. The voice of JAL finally picks up.

"Oh, of course you can't buy your ticket from Loppi," she says. "If you are using a stockholders discount certificate, you have to go to a travel agency."

Duh... If I had access to a travel agency, why would I have gotten tangled up in their maze-like home page?


(you are not going to believe this)

That was last night. Today, my daughter in law and I get on the train and ride to a city that has travel agencies. The clerk says, very quietly so no other customers can hear, "You can get a better deal if you don't use your stockholders discount coupon."

And she sells me outbound and inbound tickets in a little under 5 minutes, $70 cheaper than the Internet version.

Loppi! Give a machine a dumb name and it will perform dumb tricks.


May, Glorious May

Oboy! Spring is here!


Hope Lives!

This morning's Yomiuri Shimbun carried an editorial cartoon by Takeru Suzuki that was so eloquent I'm going to repeat it here.

Remember the post about Ichiro Ozawa and his money scandal? How he believed he was untouchable because "the people love him?" Only in his dreams!

The cartoon showed him holding a cell phone with the full, three bar symbol. The caption says "the message is finally getting through". Today's headlines are the same in every paper: Ichiro Ozawa--the man who has done more than any living Japanese to bring a military/industrial complex to life in a country that doesn't want one--will step down at last.

Maybe we'll get to keep our universal health coverage and an educational system that yields a hundred percent literacy after all.


Time Out

It's Golden Week in Japan--a spring break studded with national holidays.
This weblog will be continued after Golden Week.


Little Shop Around the Corner

Sanshin shop, that is, and around the corner means just off the famous Kokusai Dori, the Fifth Avenue of Naha in Okinawa.

Here you can hear the owner and chief craftsman of Chindami, one of my favorite sanshin shops, in a duet. The song is called Tohshin Doi, and is a happy song that celebrates a ship's homecoming.


Hurray for Ichiro!

The born-in-Japan Seattle Mariners' sensation Ichiro Suzuki just set a Japanese baseball record: 3,086 career hits.

What makes Ichiro different? It's not really his name that sets him apart. The name "Ichiro Suzuki" is the "Jim Smith" of Japan. Well, going by his first name instead of his family name is just a teensy bit different, and it probably wasn't his idea. He is not a man who goes for publicity gimmicks.

What really sets him apart is his ability to focus, to concentrate and be in the moment. In Japanese, the word is "shu-chu-ryoku". Ichiro has it.


The Grandfather Tree

Japan's recorded history goes back some three thousand years, and for two thousand of those years, a single cherry tree has been blooming its heart out in Yamanashi Prefecture. Two thousand years!

It's huge. It would take something like 18 grown men all holding hands to make a circle around it.

It looks every bit its age--wrinkled, knotted and bent low to the ground--and it still blooms in a spectacular way.

Nothing is more amazing than the tenacity of life.


Coming soon! This is the image photo of my novel, Katsuren, set in lush and lovely Okinawa. It is now in the publishing pipeline.


Shh... We have a secret.

Tom Friedman's masterpiece Hot, Flat and Crowded is about how developing green technology is a win-win story. He says the world will be nicer because we'll have nicer air and water, for starters. We'll also live better because we will get more comfort for less energy expenditure. (like the newer air conditioners and refrigerators that cost less to run than old ones) Businesses will do better, too, because when you think about it, pollution is just good resources gone up in smoke or thrown out with the trash.

Here's the good part: What it takes to get new, improved green technology is not lawyers and politicians. It's engineers.

Japan has lots of engineers.

We have an annual quota on how many new lawyers can be certified. The number of elected officials also dwindles year by year as cities/towns/villages/prefectures consolidate. But the number of engineers always grows.

Shh... Don't tell, but I think Japan is winning when it comes to the newest industrial revolution, the green tech revolution. Japan's secret weapon is schools that teach math and produce lots of engineers, not to mention an abhorence of waste.


Richard "I Am Not a Crook" Nixon, live in Tokyo

Last night the other Ichiro, not the super hero ballplayer but the sleazy politician, was on TV to give a speech the likes of which have not been seen since the days of America's disgraced former president. Ichiro Ozawa, LDP party born and bred but now chairman of the opposition DPJ party, claimed that the billions of yen in bribes that entered his campaign treasury did not stain his lily white soul.

Mr. Ozawa squeezed a teardrop from one beady eye, and when the cameras failed to catch it--there was only one tiny tear, and observant members of the audience knew it was coming because of the squinty way he kept blinking, trying to force it out--he ostentatiously took out a handkerchief and wiped his by then dry eyes, just to be sure his attempt at penitance was not missed.

It was great theater, even the timing.

Mr. Ozawa spaced his words during his late night press conference to fill up the time until the clock ticked safely past the deadline for filing print media news. In other words, none of the reporters' questions would be reported, only Mr. Ozawa's claim that, because the "people" love him so much, he would bravely carry on and not take responsibility the way normal people in Japan do, by removing himself from his political pedestal.

Who are these "people" who love a crook who can afford to scoff at billions being a "paltry sum" when the rest of us are doing job (and salary) sharing, just to meet the rent and grocery bills?



A milestone: 1,000 visitors to this blog.

Thank you for your interest!

True Fiction

This writer enjoys Okinawa. It's more than the weather, the scenery and the music. There's something about the atmosphere of connection--to people, of course, but also between past times and present times.

I used my background in an antiquities NPO and made up a story set in Okinawa. It's called Katsuren, and it will be published soon.

The story--and the characters--are all made up, but I think the Okinawa atmosphere will be true to life.


Sanshin Day 2009

March 4 is the day dedicated to sanshin music. There is a traditional song called Kagiya-de-fu which is played at the opening of ceremonial events, and that is the song that opened the Sanshin Day event at the Kumoji Palette Plaza in downtown Naha.

The beauty of Kagiya-de-fu is that it is always and everywhere played exactly the same way in exactly the same key. Anyone, anywhere on the planet, can join in and be in harmony whenever and wherever this song is played.

It's not a simple song, though, and the only way to learn it is to sing it with other people who already know it. What a way to build human harmony!

The words are a poem: "To what shall I compare the beauty of today? A flower, a dew drenched bud about to blossom."


Oscar! Oscar!

Two Japanese films just one Academy Awards. Banzai!
One is called Okuribito (the person who waves good-bye). The title is Departures in English.
The other is a short animation: Tsumiki-no-ie (house made of children's blocks), or House of Small Cubes in English.

Everyone needs some good news once in a while. Even though we have--I mean had-- apparently the world's goofiest joke of a finance minister, it's nice to know we still do some things really well.


Mad, Crazy Ideas?

The idea of saving the world's economy through chocolate appealed to me. Here's another crazy idea from Thomas Friedman's column in the NY Times.

He's writing about a ride through the Indian countryside in a plug-in car with a solar-powered road show thrown in. One of the comments from a witness to the trip goes like this:

“Why this mad, insane plan to travel across India in a caravan of solar electric cars and jatropha [a bio fuel] trucks with solar music, art, dance and a potent message for climate solutions? Well ... the world needs crazy ideas to change things, because the conventional way of thinking is not working anymore.”

*** At the end of the month I'm going to Okinawa and will look at their wind powered electricity farm and fresh water from the ocean desalination station.

*** Here in Hino, about one house in ten already has solar water heating equipment on the roof.

*** Out in Yamanashi, I have a friend who gets money from the electric company--they buy his extra solar power from his roof top generator.


It's Valentine's Day...

And guess what is supposed to happen? Women go out and buy chocolate for the men in their lives. All of them. Like, your co-workers. Your boss. Your son. Your father-in-law. And of course your one true love.

Chocolates range from do-it-yourself treats (there is amazing packaging on sale) to one-or-two piece gift boxes to $50 assortments and more. Women (teenagers! sophisticated singles! matrons! grandmothers!) line up 30 deep at the popular shops in order to purchase these confections. Everyone says the economy is crummy, but you'd never guess it from the lines at the candy counters.

What a sweet way to put some vigor into the economy: Let's declare every day Valentine's Day.


A Year of the Cow story

“Roads and bridges are attractive, but they create jobs only during construction,” said Shunji Nakamura, chief of the city’s industrial policy section. “You need projects with good jobs that will last through a bad economy.”

This is from an article in the online NY Times about Japan's bad example in stimulating the economy through public works projects. Construction companies like to be paid for pouring lots of concrete. They don't care what happens next. They get paid, but people are employed only as long as it takes to dig a hole and fill it with concrete.

Another idea: "...let people decide how to spend their own money..."

Here's the cow story:

A few years back, Japan gave a few hundred dollars worth of consumer coupons--from funds in the welfare budget--to low income families, the elderly, and children under 16. I remember a story about two boys who pooled their coupons and bought a calf. They raised it until it was big enough to sell, and used that money to buy more calves.

Imagine all the side effects from that original calf investment, starting with keeping the boys busy with a great out-of-school project.

Not everyone needs a cow, but how about if, say, instead of company bailouts, US owners of clunky cars got enough money back to buy a real car? Would the economy rev up a few notches?


Tremors, Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Oh My!

Here's how pansies look when they've been sprinkled with volcano dust.

There were mild tremors on Saturday and Sunday in Tokyo. On Monday morning we heard that Mt. Asama (Gunma Prefecture) had erupted shortly after midnight. The dust didn't hurt the flowers, but it did ugly things to people's shiny-clean cars.


Staying in Business

According to the latest issue of The Economist, that's the definition of sustainability for 2009. The ultimate question for business leaders this year is a simple one: can we stay in business?

Here's another question. How many companies, worldwide, that are in business today were in business 200 years ago? Two hundred years' of survival, now that is sustainablity!

The answer is, in round-round figures, 5,000. There are none in the US (short history!). I thought there might be one, Paul Revere's day job as a silver smith, since the name Revere Silver is still around, but it's not the same company. The name has been bought and sold many times over.

But that's not the point.

More than 3,000 of the oldest firms on the planet are in Japan. Can you imagine? So many companies still in business after 200 years.

The reason, according to the magazine that did the research, is simple: people come first. They are all small to medium sized businesses that put their primary stakeholders first, and the primary stakeholders are the people who do the work.



Call it setsubun or call it risshun, February 3 is the day spring begins, at least on the calendar.

Just like the Roman calendar before Julius Caesar added his July or Augustus Caesar added his August, the old Japanese calendar is a little out of whack with the actual seasons as we know them. February 3 is too soon to get out your spring wardrobe, even in the southernmost part of Japan (Okinawa). It is a day for fun, nevertheless.

Fun consists of putting on your monster (oni) face for protection and flinging dried beans all around the house. Those beans can hurt, so be sure to wear the cardboard face mask that comes with the sack of beans. Buy extra, so everyone can have a mask. (cheapskates: rush the season even further and get out the swimming goggles)

You also have to say the magic words. The words are: Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (Devils get out! Good luck come in!)

Then comes the hard part, picking up the beans.

They are edible, a little like dry peanuts but not quite as sweet. You have to eat the same number of beans as your age if you want the charm to work.

Bon apetit!


What is a donation?

The Buddha says a donation is something that is yours to give, given freely. That makes sense, doesn't it?

So how about a political donation? If you are ordered to give it, and it's not your money but something that your boss pilfered from company funds and told you to deliver to the company's preferred politician, would the Buddha approve?

Right now the Buddha is seriously frowning on the DJP's Chairman Ozawa.

He accepted money from a major construction firm in the guise of donations from employees who were reimbursed for their generosity by their boss--from company funds.


How much is "4 oku" yen?

Money scandals aren't new in Japanese politics, but this one is hot stuff because it's the first time the evidence implicates the slippery DPJ leader, Chairman Ozawa, by name.

Oku is a figure that is hard for normal people to relate to. If you had an oku to spare, you could buy four single-family suburban houses and have a little left to pay for landscaping. One oku is a hundred million yen.

Mr. Ozawa didn't get the full four hundred million yen. His share was 2400 X 10,000 yen. The largest bill in circulation in Japan is the 10,000 yen note. Can you picture a pocket big enough to carry away that much cash?

His office is saying it's nothing, not even a pecadillo. Nothing. How many people would love to have a similar bit of nothing in their pockets and not even have to pay taxes on it?


Back to Okinawa

The new year is well and truly started, and everyone is back at work. At least, the people who still have jobs are back at work.

Then this happens.

You show up at the job site sharply by 8 AM. You power up your back hoe. You dig into the construction site, and blam!

Who knew an old land mine from your grandfather's war would choose that very moment to blow up in your face?

This happened in Itoman yesterday.

Wars are easy to start. They are impossible to finish.


Tokyo Tower and the 147 Buttons

Tokyo's 50-year-old red and white landmark is doomed. You may have seen it under attack by the monster Godzilla in an old movie, but that was fiction. Actually, its purpose is to transmit analog TV broadcasts, and the analog format is being replaced by digital TV.

This means the largest self-supporting steel structure in the world has outlived its usefulness. That doesn't mean it isn't still an iconic landmark and a neat place to visit. The aquarium downstairs and the observation platform upstairs are two good reasons to see it.

I feel a great deal of sympathy for that tower, having the digital world passing it by.

We just traded in our ten-year-old analog TV for a shiny new digital one. It comes with three remote controllers--the regular TV one, the cable TV one, and the one for the deck that handles the DVD, etc.

Do you realize that means I have 147 dot-sized buttons to choose from whenever I want to make the TV do something for me? One hundred forty seven!


An Old Poem

Manyoshu is the oldest poetry anthology in Japan. The title can be translated as Ten Thousand Leaves, and it is kind of a wikipedia of verse. It's not the work of professional writers or famous poets, just people-poets who contributed their lines. Flowers mentioned in the Manyoshu is the theme of the calendar I chose for this year.

January's flower is the plum blossom. Loosely translated, the verse goes:

The first flower to bloom is the plum; to see it is to feel the coming of spring.

The "wax plum" at the entrance to my driveway is already blooming, wafting its fragrance into the icy air. The red plums will be next, and then the white fruit-bearing ones will blossom. When they are done, it will be spring.

That's a promise.


Happy New Year!

Welcome 2009!
May it be a wonderful year!

With a jubako filled with fantastic food and enough mikan to last a week, now let us welcome the new year (as the poet Rilke wrote) filled with things that have never been.

Last night's NHK music special was the best ever.
This morning's sunrise in Tokyo was as perfect as a sunrise can be.
The greeting cards delivered early this morning are waiting to be read.

Yes, this year is off to a great start.