A Milestone for an Aging Society

“What is life? Life is an allotment of time. How we use that time is up to us.”

So said Dr. Shigeaki Hinoharu, a medical practitioner and much-loved speaker, who passed away July 18 at the age of 105. Dr. Hinoharu was still treating patients after his hundredth birthday. As a speaker, his audiences included children as well as adults of all ages. It is fair to say he was a living example of everything he taught about how to live well: Be active. Use your allotment of time for yourself but also for others. Stay in touch with your body and get regular medical check-ups.

"Life is a river. Just as rivers flow to the sea, every life flows toward its eventual merger with a sea we call death."

So said Dr. Hinoharu, whose 105 years were a warm and loving tribute celebrating the gift of life.


Shogi, an Old Game with New Heroes

Shogi is a strategy board game played by two persons. It involves flat pieces arranged on a 9-square X 9-square board. With knights, foot soldiers, generals and a king whose imminent capture ends the game, it can be compared to chess. A Japanese traditional game, it is played today the same way it was played in the 16th century.
Professional shogi players are ranked, and the ranks are called “dan”. A certain number of wins is required before a player can have professional status. It is the victories that count, not the age of the player. Recently, a 4th “dan” professional player named Sota Fujii has been making headlines, for two reasons.
The main reason for the headlines is, Mr. Fujii has been undefeated since turning professional last year. That means 29 straight victories against other professional players. A string of victories that long is unprecedented. The second reason is, at age 14, he is still in junior high school.
In related news, makers of shogi boards are experiencing a burst of prosperity. Parents are buying shogi sets for their children. What a wonderful gift: a game that can be played without electricity, and one that requires another human being with whom to play.


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.