Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Origin of the Samurai

Prior to the 9th century in Japan, the Nara and Kyoto courts used the Chinese model of waging war which was the use of an army conscripted from the peasantry. But this proved to not be sufficient to deal with situations that arose, so instead the government began to grant commissions to make war on local landowners and then rewarded them for their trouble. So, instead of controlling the clans, the imperial court's military needs now encouraged them. The clans elite warriors, who rode horses and used bows were the forerunners of the samurai.

The 9th century was a time of upheavals and economic decline due to plagues and episodes of starvation. Influential local rulers exploited this against the court. With riots and lawlessness, there was nowhere for the court to turn but to powerful local lords. The court began granting far-reaching powers to these lords to levy troops of skilled warriors, and to act on their own initiative when disorder threatened. This system grew to favor the strong and the rich.

The 10th century is the time that we first see the term 'samurai', which literally means 'those who serve', being used in purely military context. At first it referred to men who went to the capital to provide guard duty. In time however, it began to denote a military man who served any powerful landlord. The word rapidly acquired a strong aristocratic and hereditary aspect, so the samurai lineages began to be recognized and valued.

The 11th century was a time when particularly strong samurai clans emerged. They were the Taira and the Minamoto, and their exploits dominated Japan for the next 100 years. Samurai from both clans took part on both sides during the Hogen Rebellion of 1156, an armed encounter in Kyoto that was concerned with imperial succession. It was not long before another succession dispute put the Taira and Minamoto in direct opposition. The Taira were victorious in the struggle called the Heiji Rebellion of 1160 and disposed ruthlessly of their rivals.

But in 1180, the survivors of the Minamoto purge, key members of whom had been children spared by the Taira, reopened hostilities at the battle of Uji. This was the first armed conflict in a war that would become known as the Gempei War. The battles of the Gempei War became benchmarks for samurai excellence that were to last for the whole of samurai history. Heroic tales and works of art logged the incidents in the Gempei War as a verbal and visual catalogue of samurai heroism that would show future generations the most noble, brave and correct ways of being a samurai. Nearly all the factors that were to become indelible parts of samurai culture have a reference point somewhere within the Gempei War.

The other way in which the Gempei War made its mark on samurai history lay in the steps the victors took to confirm their triumph. In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo took the title of shogun. This was the rank that had previously been bestowed temporarily on samurai leaders who had accepted imperial commission to deal with rebels against the throne. But Yoritomo took the title for himself for his new role as military dictator. The difference was that the temporary military commission had now become permanent and was not relinquished until another eight centuries had passed.

Government exercised by the shogun was called the bakufu, a name derived from the maku, the curtains that surrounded a general's headquarters on a battlefield. It was a good name for the new system of ruling that relegated the emperor to the position of figurehead with immense religious power but no political power. The control of Japan's affairs now lay with the leader of the greatest family of samurai.


Samurai: The World of the Warrior by Stephen Turnbull

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

310 mph Shinkansen

Below is an article from the Los Angeles Times about the future of high speed trains in Japan. I really wish the United States would build these types of trains, especially between crowded cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles. In California, they are proposing to build a high speed train line between LA and San Francisco. However, the "highspeed" train my not even top 200 mph, while Japan is already working on trains that will travel over 300 mph. If California wants to get people to use cleaner trains rather then dirty airliners, the trains need to be faster.

From the Los Angeles Times


Japan: Blurring the line between bullets and trains

It's not enough that trains run on time in Japan -- they've got to break land records. In 2025, the country plans to be traveling by rail at 310 mph.
By John M. Glionna

March 24, 2009

Reporting from Nagoya, Japan — This is a nation addicted to speed.

And to ride Japan's super Shinkansen, or bullet train, is to zip into the future at speeds reaching 186 miles per hour.

From Nagoya to Tokyo, the scenery whizzes past in a dizzying blur as the sleek engine with its bullet-like nose floats the cars along elevated tracks -- without the clickety-clack of the lumbering U.S. trains that make you feel as though you're chugging along like cattle to market.

These days, Californians dream of a future with high-speed elevated rails that would link Southern California and Las Vegas in less than two hours, or L.A. and San Francisco in just over 2 1/2 .

Japan, meanwhile, will soon have a class of train that could make the trips in less than half those times.

This is a nation where it's not nearly enough that the trains run on time -- they've got to break land records. And even that's not enough.

By 2025, a network of bullet trains connecting major cities is to feature magnetically levitated, or maglev, linear motor trains running at speeds of more than 310 mph.

Developed for use during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Shinkansen trains were the brainchild of Hideo Shima, a government engineer who died a decade ago at the age of 96. Over the years, the trains have signaled Japanese prosperity, a gauge of just how far this technology-crazed culture has come and where it's headed.

Designed to traverse Japan's mountainous terrain, the trains use tunnels and viaducts to go through and over obstacles rather than around them. They travel on elevated tracks without road crossings and apart from conventional rail. An automated control system eliminates the need for signals.

Officials boast that on average the trains are less than half a minute late each year, which includes delays caused by earthquakes, typhoons and snow. During the line's 45-year history and transport of 7 billion passengers, there have been no deaths from derailment or collisions.

An E-5 series of train scheduled to take to the rails in 2011 promises speeds of nearly 200 mph, improved suspensions and a car-tilting system to make the ride more comfortable on curves. Power-reclining shell seats in first class will provide what engineers call a "peaceful and soothing time during your travels."

Amtrak, eat your heart out.

But Japan isn't stopping there.

The trains planned for 2025 will reduce the travel time between Tokyo and Nagoya to 40 minutes from about 90 minutes. At that speed, commuters could go from L.A. to the Bay Area in just over an hour. Rail officials say as many as 200,000 passengers could use the line daily.

Still, the Shinkansen isn't perfect.

The trains often cause a rail version of a sonic boom as they emerge from tunnels. That's because they enter so fast that they create a bubble of air pressure that is pushed along until they emerge.

The trains remain in stations for only two minutes -- not a moment more or less -- before easing out and quickly gaining speed. By the time they reach top velocity, the world has begun to change. There's no tooth-jarring shudder as when jets lumber down the runway. This ride is smooth. The turns are gentle, peaceful, even serene, though every once in a while a passenger is awakened by the boom of a train passing by or exiting a tunnel.

For the most part, you don't realize you're traveling faster than almost any other man-made land vehicle until you look out the window and see the scenery passing by so fuzzily that you think you've lost your glasses.

For most of the ride you settle into your seat, buy a beer or coffee from the passing snack cart and realize once again that you're not in America anymore.


Monday, March 23, 2009

In Toyota City, the good times rolled . . . away

Below is an article from the Los Angeles Times about the hard economic times in Toyota City, Japan's Detroit. Japan is not used to this type of job insecurity. But I guess when a company has its first annual net loss in 59 years, job insecurity is not a surprise.

From the Los Angeles Times

In Toyota City, Japan, the good times rolled . . . away

The ultimate company town thought it was immune from economic downturns. But that was before the global recession hit and the automaker started slashing jobs.
By John M. Glionna

March 22, 2009

Reporting from Toyota City, Japan — When times were good and the auto business hummed along like a finely tuned engine here in the Detroit of Japan, this tightknit company town was considered a workers' utopia.

City officials were the envy of the nation, nursed by a paternal multinational firm that paid generous wages and showered the community with perks such as a top-notch sports stadium, concert hall and art museum -- all carrying the Toyota brand name.

That was before the worldwide economic pileup that brought widespread personal wreckage to the hometown of the world's mightiest automaker.

Unlike in Detroit, where years of steady decline preceded the current financial crisis, Toyota City's fortunes went from cruise speed to brick wall. Regarded a model of economic prosperity, it endured an unthinkable drop from first in the country to worst in less than nine months.

In this community three hours southwest of Tokyo, it's a phenomenon known as Toyota Shock.

"Toyota City is hurting," said Norio Seki, general director of the city's industrial labor division. "We're in trouble."

Last summer, Toyota was just months away from overtaking General Motors as the world's biggest car company. Jobs were plentiful here in Toyota City, where 80% of workers are employed in the auto industry.

Then Japan slumped into recession. Exports in the world's second-largest economy plummeted at a record pace, and domestic demand dropped alarmingly.

Mammoth blue-chip firms such as Toyota and Sony weren't exempt from the financial carnage. Even before announcing last month that it was facing its first annual net loss in 59 years, Toyota had begun an unprecedented production slowdown that called for reduced shifts and 10-day closures at its 12 domestic plants.

It also fired 9,000 contract workers -- more than 10% of its 85,000 employees -- and warned that more firings could follow, even among once-protected full-time workers.

As a result, Toyota City saw its number of available jobs fall more than 50% between October and December compared with the same period of 2007, officials say.

January brought more bad news: The number of job seekers soared 130% from the same month in 2008, from 1,489 to 2,627. That brought Toyota City unwanted attention as Japan's most out-of-work town.

"There used to be so many jobs we couldn't fill them all, but that all dried up overnight," said Masami Kawajiri, director of a federal job center in Toyota City. "Now our only choice is to do our best for job seekers, one by one. To think about them all at once would be too overwhelming."

City hall has fared no better: Officials predict a 96.3% drop in the corporate taxes they'll collect this year, a loss that jeopardizes city services. The Aichi prefecture government, which relies on Toyota for one-fourth of its corporate tax revenue, is projecting a $1-billion shortfall in 2009.

For its part, the automaker can only watch the decline of its home city as its scrambles to climb out of its own financial hole.

From an operating profit of $37 billion last year, Toyota expects a $5-billion loss for the fiscal year ending March 31. The company is also seeking government loans to hold off private investors demanding as much as 50% in interest on the company's debt.

"We know Toyota City has been hit on the chin, and we feel a responsibility to the community," said Paul Nolasco, a Toyota spokesman in Tokyo. "But here's an indication of how cloudy our situation is: We haven't even come up with a global production and sales plan for this year.

"We usually release that in December, but here it is March and we haven't done it yet. That's the biggest indication that we're still looking for direction."

Hurting just as much are hundreds of smaller companies here that supply the Toyota colossus with the parts to construct its cars, including mufflers, door parts, windshield wipers and headlights.

In a city where one-third of the 1,400 employers are auto-related, many of the firms say Toyota's production cuts will cause bankruptcies unless they too can qualify for government loans.

"We have no way to make the situation better -- we just have to wait and see what happens with Toyota," said a manager in a car window parts company who asked not to be named. "People are afraid to talk because they are afraid of Toyota, but we're all very nervous."

Toyota City's downturn baffles residents. After all, this was the home of Japan's largest company. Financial woes might be a reality in other parts of Japan, but not here.

"This thing took us by surprise," said one former Toyota employee who declined to give her name. "Who would have ever guessed that recession would come home to roost here? This is a car town and the world needs cars, right?"

Toyota City is a somewhat isolated community on the last stop of a subway line based in the nearby bigger city of Nagoya. Most people here support the hometown company and drive Toyotas.

Not far south of downtown sits the automaker's massive complex of factories and research and development centers. It carries an air of big-brother mystery, even among locals.

The main gate is guarded, and a visitor who tried to take pictures from the public street was quickly shooed away.

The city has the typical signs of stress: plummeting property sales, empty storefronts and restaurants. But there is another commodity that the town has lost to the recession: foreigners. The representatives from Toyota suppliers and customers from the U.S. and Europe who used to pack downtown's hotels are gone. Some say occupancy rates have dropped 90%.

For 13 years, Kevin Yuhara has run his tiny restaurant-pub in the heart of downtown, catering to foreigners who did business with Toyota. The U.S. college sports memorabilia, collection of Toyota caps and Polaroids covering the walls capture the atmosphere of drinking and laughter of the mostly American clientele.

Now the place sits empty, except for the occasional Japanese customer.

"For more than a decade, we had some good times here," said Yuhara, standing next to a flying-pig toy hanging from the ceiling. "But now the party's over, the town's major company is hurting, and the foreigners have all gone home."

At city hall, faces are grim as officials look for answers.

Seki, the industrial labor division head, said Toyota City and Detroit have for years been "sister cities" and share several cultural exchange programs.

Though he has never called his counterpart in Detroit for advice, Seki says there are many questions he'd like to ask. The economic malaise has prompted officials to reconsider the city's future as a one-company town, he said.

"I'd like to know how they handle unemployment at this scale," he said of Detroit. "I'd like to know what other industries they are looking into. How can you use the technology used in the auto industry for other kinds of enterprises?"

Seki says the two cities are different in key ways. Unlike most American workers and employers, Toyota City and its citizens have savings they hope will see them through the hardest times.

Toyota City has remade itself before, locals say. During the Depression, the city was a silk production center named Koromo. The stock market crash destroyed the industry, so an ambitious loom maker named Kiichiro Toyoda turned to automobiles instead.

Nobody here expects that another such drastic personality change is in Toyota City's future.

"In the long run, we don't think the auto industry will fail," Seki said.

"Humans drive cars. It's what they do."


Friday, March 20, 2009

Origin of the Japanese Imperial Line

Sometime between the third and seventh centuries, out of several rival clans in Japan, one emerged triumphant. The name by which they are known to history is Yamato, the ancestors of the Japanese imperial line.

Very little is known about the historical processes that took place to give power to the Yamato state, although some information has been learned from archeology. Instead the origins of the imperial line are contained in some very colourful legends written down as a series of creation myths when the emperor system had become well established.

These myths are preserved as Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Events) of 712 and the Nihongi (The Chronicles of Japan) of 720. The best-known myth, and the one that is fundamental to understanding the imperial cult, tells how Amaterasu the sun goddess founded the Japanese imperial line when she sent her grandson down from heaven to rule the 'land of luxuriant rice fields'.

The power of these early rulers is vividly illustrated in Japan to this day by the kofun, huge earthen tombs in which they were buried. They date from between the fourth and seventh centuries. They are often keyhole shaped and occupy a huge area of land. Nowadays the kofun are covered in trees, and some of the largest imperial tombs are islands in the middle of a lake. Armour, harness, weapons, bronze mirrors and jewels were buried along with the deceased and have been recovered from some of the tombs that have been excavated.

The actual origin of the dominant Yamato line is still a matter of some controversy. Based on similarities between the grave goods in the kofun tombs and contemporary Korean burials, a theory has been advanced that the first Japanese emperors came from Korea, and asserted their superiority in Japan through their use of mounted warfare, which had not yet been adopted by Japanese warriors. This is known as the 'horse-rider theory'. The notion calls into question the Japanese imperial line, let alone the first emperors' heavenly ancestors. It has therefore never been popular with Japanese nationalists.

Many challenges were made by rival clans against the dominance of the Yamato rulers. All were unsuccessful and, by the seventh century, the imperial line felt sufficiently secure to introduce far-reaching legislative changes for Japan. The Taika reforms of 646 were an ambitious set of edicts that sought to curtail any remaining power possessed by the other surviving clans by making all of Japan subject to the emperor.

One of the first tasks was creating a permanent capital city. This was achieved at Nara in 710. Buddhism, introduced to Japan two centuries earlier, flourished in the settled conditions of Nara. The government of Japan was modeled on Tang China and provided for a stable society. Any dissatisfied clans or trouble from the northern tribesman were dealt with efficiently. Kyoto succeeded Nara as the imperial capital of Japan in 894, a position it was to keep until 1868.

Source: Samurai - The World of the Warrior

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Buddhism and War

Buddhism is well known as a peace loving religion. But in Japanese history, Buddhism was strongly linked to warfare in Japan. The battlefield was believed to be the realm where the gods and Buddhas mingled with men. Prayers were considered to be lethal weapons, and arms and armor were emblazoned with religious motifs. Some battles were fought in sacred places such as temple grounds and many of the largest and most powerful Buddhist temples had their own standing armies of warrior monks called sohei.

Victory revealed divine favor and the right to rule the realm. Because military prowess indicated otherworldly support, the powerful Ashikaga shoguns cast themselves as Buddhist kings.

Prayers were conceived as potent weapons. From the tenth century onward, the court monopolized prayers of destruction that were offered to five Buddhist deities (Fudo, Gozanze, Gundari, Dai-i-toku-ten, and Kongo), whose function was to protect the state. To pray to them was believed to magnify one's strength when fighting. "evil" and elaborate rituals were conducted to offer prayers.

These rituals were carefully monitored because they were believed to fatally undermine one's opponent. Therefore, it is no surprise that rebels also relied heavily on them. The first great shogun to confront the power of the court, Minamoto Yoritomo, initiated them during his 1180 uprising. Once the Minamoto bakufu was established, its officials attempted to monitor all spiritual activities of their potential enemies to prevent the maledictions that could foment disorder or threaten the rule of the Minamoto.

Buddhist symbols and imagery pervaded nearly every aspect of warfare. Banners of war were emblazoned with Hachiman daibosatsu, a god of war. Some warriors wrote the name of Jizo bosatsu on their armor, while others inserted Buddhist mandalas into their capes in order to provide for safety in this life and salvation in the afterlife.

The founder of the Ashikaga bakufu, Ashikaga Takauji, claimed to be particularly favored by Jizo bosatsu, a Buddhist avatar of compassion. Not only did he carry a small statue of the Jizo as a prized possession, but he communicated with Jizo through dreams which were well known to his enemies. The dreams of Jizo helped further Ashikaga Takauji's political image. He often drew pictures of Jizo and boasted of his ability to sense Jizo while dreaming. Takauji's religious aura was enhanced by his success on the battlefield.

For several hundred years through the middle ages and the warring states period, the warrior monks, called sohei, were a powerful force in Japan. They originally arose during political disputes between powerful temples. Later, they came to be involved in the major political disputes of the country. They would side with various powerful warlords in order to protect their interests. Vast armies of warrior monks played major roles in the rise and fall of shoguns and other warlords. However, it is not certain whether the sohei were actually Buddhist monks or were hired mercenaries. The sohei armies were finally crushed in the late 16th century by Oda Nobunaga.

Source: State of War - The Violent Order of Fourteenth-Century Japan

Monday, March 16, 2009

Origin of the Shogun

The shogun was an eighth-century office, originally designed to quell the northern barbarians such as the inhabitants of Ezo (Hokkaido), hence known as Sei-i-taishogun (Barbarian Subduing Generalissimo). This post became important as the highest authority within the bakufu, which contained delegated powers of military and judicial authority. This power was delegated by the Emperor.

Minamoto Yoritomo was appointed to this post in 1192. Although the post existed previously, Yoritomo is considered the first powerful shogun as the emperor was basically forced to give Yoritomo the title of shogun due to Yoritomo's military power. However, Yoritomo does not appear to have emphasized this office. After his death and the rise of the Hojo regents, this position increased in importance as the symbolic head of the Kamakura bakufu, even though the shogun remained aloof from judicial matters and affairs of the governance.

During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the post of shogun was reserved for court nobles or princes of imperial blood. With the downfall of the Kamakura bakufu in 1333, Ashikaga Takauji started laying claim to the post again, and was appointed shogun in 1338 (the Ashikaga or Muromachi bakufu). Nevertheless, he continued the princely tradition of remaining aloof from the actual governance-save for enacting prayers and granting rewards. He delegated judicial and administrative powers to his brother Tadayoshi.

Takauji's grandson Yoshimitsu resigned from the post of shogun at a young age, and relied on more courtly authority. The last Ashikaga shogun who attempted to rule directly was assassinated in 1441, and for the ensuing one-hundred and thirty years, shoguns of the Ashikaga bakufu came to wield little administrative power. This time period became known as the Warring States Period.

Eventually the Ashikaga were eliminated completely in the late sixteenth-century by Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three great unifiers of Japan. However, Nobunga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi declined to take the title of shogun. It was not until in 1603 that the third unifier of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, took the title of shogun and for the first time in over 160 years did the shogun have supreme power in Japan.

Source: State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth-Century Japan

Friday, March 13, 2009

Taking of the Head

I recently finished reading the book "State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth-Century Japan" by Thomas Donald Conlan. Below is an explanation of an interesting (and gruesome) samurai practice from the 1st chapter of the book.

The act of taking an enemies head in battle has a long history in Japan and was infused with a significant amount of cultural meaning and usually generated praise from authorities. The main purpose of taking a head was to prove one's battle service. Heads were rigorously inspected because they constituted the most tangible proof of battle service. The heads of those killed would be carefully cleaned and dressed, and names attached to those who could be identified, while those determined to be from low-ranking men would be discarded.

Generals sometimes discouraged the custom of head-hunting because warriors so engaged might become vulnerable and place themselves in grave danger. Those who were successful tended to abandon the battlefield, already in possession of the ultimate proof of valor. Some commanders issued standing orders to "cut and toss" these heads. In these circumstances, warriors discarded the heads once their valor had been witnessed.

Those thirsty for some token of achievement decapitated any wounded enemy they could find. For wounded men to spend a night unscathed on the battlefield was described nothing short of miraculous. Prior to the fourteenth century, warriors were praised for securing as many heads as possible. For example, during the Mongol invasion of 1281, a samurai named Kikuchi Jiro advanced among the Mongol dead (or almost dead), collected a large number of heads, and brought them into the castle, thereby making a name for himself for generations.

Although some warriors continued to matter-of-factly pick up discarded heads, a stigma eventually accrued to such scavenging. Rules of etiquette eventually were established regarding the taking of heads. Transgressors of the norms of head-hunting became the objects of laughter in the 1330s and the focus of scorn in the 1390s. The practice of picking up an abandoned head gradually became a shameful act, and so later military manuals devoted considerable detail to distinguishing whether a head was removed from a living man or a corpse.

The book also described how warriors during this time period joined the forces of one side or another based mainly on the anticipation of great reward, generally in the form of land. This as well as the practice of head hunting go to show that the samurai warrior was not always the honorable warrior devoted to and willing to die for their lord. This image of the samurai comes from later time periods. And even then it is still largely a myth. The samurai throughout history are well known to engage in treachery and deceit. They often changed sides in the heat of battle or turned on their lords.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Los Angeles Times - At Japan's famed Tsukiji fish market, some tourists stink

At Japan's famed Tsukiji fish market, some tourists stink

Foreign visitors flock to the Tokyo landmark. When they misbehave, officials want to toss them back overseas.

By John M. Glionna 
March 12, 2009

Reporting from Tokyo -- For workers at the popular Tsukiji fish market, the final indignity may have been when the intoxicated British tourist licked the head of a frozen tuna.

In the now-notorious incident, captured by a Japanese TV crew, an irate market official shouted in English, "Get out! Get out!" as the man patted the tuna's gills.

Every day, hundreds of sightseers gather in the predawn gloom to witness one of the most popular events on the Tokyo tourist agenda: the daily tuna auction. Clogging busy travel arteries, tourists gawk at the sheer size of a market as big as 43 football fields. Each year it handles tens of millions of visitors and 600,000 tons of seafood in 480 varieties -- 1 of every 5 fish caught on the planet.

But some visitors misbehave (one tipsy female tourist stripped naked as her male friends hauled her around on a wooden handcart used by wholesalers), infuriating market officials so much they recently closed Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee) to outsiders for several weeks during the busy New Year's buying season.

Lighting a stubby Hope-brand cigarette, fish cutter Saito Shiro says many foreigners don't respect his profession.

"They get in the way," says the 75-year-old Tokyo resident, who has worked in the market for more than half a century. "They walk around without paying attention to their surroundings."

The market relented in January, but the mood is still a bit frosty in the series of drafty warehouses that make up the market, where tourist Bart Brinkman says he feels like a fish out of water.

"I don't blame them," says the 37-year-old export consultant from the Netherlands, already wide-eyed as he wanders the market at 5 a.m. "These people are very serious about their work. I wouldn't want tourists running around my business."

All around him, sullen men in baseball caps zip about on motorized three-wheeled carts, taking corners like New York cabdrivers. Others in rubber aprons and boots brush past with flashlights and large fishhooks, pointy ends facing outward.

Their message: Stay out of my way or pay the price.

Now that the crowds have returned, the debate has too: Can tourists be trusted in Tsukiji?

The issue symbolizes the culture clash between foreign visitors and residents of a nation that prizes manners and orderliness.

"More than 99.9% of Japanese know how to obey the rules," says Brinkman, who travels here frequently. "They're just not used to dealing with hordes of often drunken Westerners who see this place as some sort of amusement park."

Market officials have learned their lesson. They've asked hotel managers not to send too many tourists their way. They've posted signs in five languages warning visitors to watch their manners during the auctions. Others prohibit cameras with flashes, which can blind buyers from the arcane hand signals used in the purchase process.

As onlookers jam into a narrow aisle roped off from the auction, one man snaps pictures with a high-speed camera, his flash sputtering. Two uniformed guards with rubber batons rush to tap him on the shoulder.

Bystanders frown. They fear another tourist ban that would rob them of the pleasure of walking Tsukiji's 1,700 stalls, which sell giant crabs, bright red octopus and just about every other marketable sea creature.

Many know the place considered the kitchen of Japan probably will be relocated and modernized, thus diminishing the charm of a market that has been in the same spot along the Sumida River since 1935.

City officials plan to move Tsukiji by 2014, replacing the hundreds of colorful hand-pulled fish carts with high-tech conveyor belts and an electronic tagging system.

For now, though, the market still functions much as it did when it was founded in the 16th century, when local fishermen supplied the then-shogun at nearby Edo Castle.

At dawn, workers ring large cowbells to summon the tuna bidding. Fussy brokers are still inspecting rows of hulking frozen bluefin tuna the size of refrigerators, whose tails have been cut off to provide a window to the color and fat content of the flesh.

As spellbound tourists look on, buyers use flashlights to peer inside the gutted fish, rolling samples of meat between their fingers. They wield 3-foot-long hooks to roll the big carcasses. Tags show where and when each tuna was caught and by what method.

The regimen is more than just kicking the tires of a used car. It's a display of kata, the ancient Japanese notion of ideal form, whether it's origami, a martial arts pose or a broker in search of the perfect piece of tuna.

Buyer Osamu Maruyama calls each tuna an individual.

"They're like humans" says the 52-year-old, in a red jumpsuit soiled by blood and fish guts. "Some are tall, some skinny, some are fat. I look for the young fresh ones. The elderly tuna are not so fresh. It's the same with people."

As the auction wraps up for the morning, workers use handcarts to pull the purchased fish to nearby stalls where they will be hacked into pink chunks bound for sushi restaurants worldwide.

Australian Bernard Murphy is a bit disappointed at the show: "We were hoping they'd throw the fish like they do in Seattle."



Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Japanese Shingon Buddhism

This is a picture of the Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.

The Temple serves as the North American regional headquarters of Koyasan Shingon School of Buddhism (Vajrayana Tradition) and its main headquarters is located at Koyasan, Wakayama Prefecture in Japan.

The Koyasan temple in Los Angeles was established by Rev. Shutai Aoyama in 1912. Later, the current temple was constructed at the present site in Little Tokyo on First Street. It was elevated to the Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin in 1940.

Periodically I stop by the temple to look at the Jizo and Kannon statues in the front of the temple. I also read the information on a bulletin board they have near the entrance. A notice on the board said that recently the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe visited this Los Angeles Shingon temple. While I was there, a monk handed me a small brochure describing the temple and Shingon buddhism. Below is from the brochure I received.

The Teaching of Shingon Buddhism

Shingon or True Word Buddhism proclaims as its core teaching the vows:

1. May we realize Buddhahood in this very life.

2. May we dedicate ourselvesto the well-being of all people.

3. May we establish the World of Buddha on this Earth.

Appearing in Northern India in the 4th century, the Vajrayana Tradition traveled through China. Kobo Daishi, a Japanese monk, went to China to study with the great Buddhist masters. He returned to Japan in 806 as the inheritor and propagator of esoteric Buddhism known as Shingon.

Shingon teaching advocates that Buddhahood is attainable by everyone in this life. Kobo Daishi proclaimed that one does not have to be a monk or wait countless lifetimes to realize enlightenment. The freedom can be attained here and now through wisdom if one simply makes the decision to be free. In other words, by intending to make every breath, word, and action a realization of the Truth, one can reach the final goal/freedom and accomplish one's mission.

The goal of Shingon Buddhism is the realization that our own mind is the same as the Buddha mind. In other words, it is the way of knowing self-nature directly. All existence is aspects of the creative nature of the universe symbolized by Dainichi Nyorai in Japanese. Since the human mind is an aspect of this Ultimate Truth, we have the Buddha-mind within our mind. There is no need to seek enlightenment outside our self. We simply need to look into our own mind to realize enlightenment while we are living. This teaching is called "Sokushin Jobutsu" in Japanese or becoming a Buddha in this very life.

Kobo Daishi

Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was born in the town of Zentsuji in Kagawa Prefecture in 774. He became a monk when he was 19 and went to China to study esoteric Buddhism when he was 31. He mastered Esoteric teaching from the Chinese master Hui-kuo, the 7th century patriarch of Esoteric Buddhist tradition. When Kobo Daishi returned to Japan, he established Shingon Buddhism and propagated its teaching throughout his lifetime. The Emperor Saga granted him land at Koyasan (Mt. Koya) as a place to establish a monastic center in 816.

Kobo wrote several influential teachings and commentaries such as, "The Secret Key to the Heart Sutra," "The Difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddism," "Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence," and "The Ten Stages of the Development of the Mind." Twelve hundred years later, these texts continue to enlighten seekers throughout the world.

Kobo Daishi visited many temples throughout Japan. Many of these temples are now part of a Kobo Daishi pilgrimage which I posted about here previously.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Mongol Invasions of Japan and the Kamikaze

The Kamakura Bakufu was the first shogunate in Japanese history. It was ruled by the great Minamoto clan. However, for much of the later Kamakura period, the shogunate was ruled by powerful regents from the Hojo clan. It was during the rule of Tokimune Hojo that the powerful Mongol Hordes attempted to invade Japan.

The Mongols were one of the greatest warrior empires in human history. At their peak, the Mongol empire stretched from Persia to China. In the 13th century, all of eastern Asia, from Sakhalin to Java was under the control of the Mongol warriors. After China, Korea was invaded, starting in 1231, despite the Koreans' heroic resistance that lasted almost half a century.

In 1266, Kublai Khan set his sights on Japan and sent, via the Koreans, official letters requesting the commencement of friendly relations, accompanied by the following threatening statement: "It would displease us to have to use force." But the Hojo leaders in Kamakura did not budge, and Kublai Khan grew impatient.

In 1274, backed by Korean and Chinese auxiliaries, the Mongols landed on the coast of Kyushu to begin their invasion of Japan. Although the combat lasted for only one day, it was unusually brutal. The Mongol invaders used poisoned arrows and all sorts of deafening explosive devices the likes the Japanese samurai warriors had never before witnessed. Surprised by these new weapons, the samurai warriors became disoriented and the Mongols began to gain the advantage. But a storm arose in the evening and the Mongols were forced to retreat to their ships.

Preoccupied with the conquest of Southern China (the Southern Song dynasty fell in 1279), the Mongols delayed their second campaign against Japan until 1281. This time, however, their attack was much larger, consisting of one of the largest invasion fleets in human history. Popular estimates state that the fleet carried as many as 140,000 Mongol, Chinese, and Korean warriors in several thousand ships. However, as military numbers are notoriously exaggerated from the sources of the day, the actual numbers of Mongol forces is probably closer to about 10,000 or so and Japanese forces maybe half that. The Mongol forces included both Chinese and Korean soldiers forced to fight by their Mongol overlords.

The Japanese had fortified the coasts of Kyushu just as they had in 1274. But the Mongols ravaged the Japanese islands off the coast; Tsushima, in particular, paid a heavy toll in human lives. Then they landed on Kyushu, but this time the Japanese warriors knew their enemy.

Thanks to stone walls and battle expertise, the samurai warriors kept the formidable Mongol cavalry from deploying and pinned it to the coast. After several weeks of fierce and bloody combat, the Mongols managed to establish a small beachhead, but they later had to abandon it due fierce samurai resistance and withdraw to the already conquered small islands to regroup. Then, just as in 1274, another storm arose apparently came to help finish off the already hopelessly bloodied Mongol forces. Thousands of Mongol, Chinese, and Korean survivors , trapped on the island, fell to Japanese swords.

This test was a victory for the Shogun and for the warriors in general. But it was also a victory for the Kyoto court and the Emperor who had ordered prayers for the safety of the country. It was also a victory for the Shinto shrines, which twice prevailed on the country's gods to intervene in the form of divine winds (kamikaze) against the enemy. Many historians believe that the Mongol's defeat was the beginning of the end of the Mongol empire.

The Japanese victory over the Mongols strengthened the belief in the Japanese divinity (at least among the Imperial Court). The belief that Japan was blessed by the gods and the gods would always protect Japan, just as they did by helping destroy the Mongol fleet with the Kamikaze. This belief in the Japanese divinity would last for 800 years leading to another belief that the kamikaze would again save Japan. That belief finally came to an end under the obliteration of American bombs in World War II.

This belief in the Japanese national divinity may actually not have been as widespread as believed however, at least among the warriors. Most likely the samurai who fought the Mongols, fought not just personal glory, but for reward as well. Rather than the idea that they fought for a divine nation, their real goal was to defeat the foreign invaders and to be rewarded by the bakufu for their efforts.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Some cool and not-so-cool things from my recent trip to Japan


The Yaki-udon I had at a restaurant in Nikko. It was delicious. Fat, flat udon noodles, cabbage, muchrooms and other stuff on a hot skittle from a restaurant on a side street in Nikko next to the train tracks. The place was empty when we got there at about 11:30 but by 12:15 it was packed with people. They had other delicious hot skittle dishes such as a cheesy rice dish.


A little car stuck in a ditch on the side of the road. I always wondered how the narrow Japanese streets can have ditches right next to the street. In the US, people would be driving into these all the time. I thought that Japanese drivers must be extra careful. But just outside Utsunomiya, there was a lady sitting in her tiny car which was stuck in a ditch on the side of the road.


Revolving sushi. I went to a revolving sushi in Utsunomiya which I had also been to in 2006. Delicious. What was cool is that the plates have transmitters on the bottom and the waitress just had to hold her reader over the plates to add up the price. Cool. At the revolving sushi in Los Anegeles they do it the old fashioned way, they count the plates. Boring.


Seeing the blue tarped homeless tents along the Edogawa on the way to Narita.


The American 80s music they play at all the Flying Garden restaurants.


Cold Japanese houses. But what is cool are the heated toilets seats.

Not really cool but interesting

Two girls dressed as maids coming from the JR Utsunomiya Station. I was surprised to see this in Utsunomiya.


The button at the table at some restaurants that rings a bell to call the waiter or waitress when you need something.


No matter how many times I have been to Japan there are always one or two times I smack my head on a low doorway. I did it again.


The polite welcomes and service at stores and restaurants. The clean streets. The cool small cars like the Nissan Cube. The Jizo statues next to the road near Otawara. And many other things.