Daibutsu, Kamakura

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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu

The great warlords Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu had a long and complicated alliance with each other until Nobunaga's assassination in 1582. Although Nobunaga was the senior and more powerful warlord during that time, their relationship was unique in that Ieyasu did not appear to act as a subordinate vassal to Nobunaga.

Nobunaga made peace with Ieyasu who was the new power in Mikawa province. It was a far-sighted alliance that secured Nobunaga's eastern flank which allowed him to concentrate on his conquests Mino, Nagashima, and Ise provinces and eventually his march on Kyoto. The alliance between Nobunaga and Ieyasu helped them in their efforts against other powerful warlords during that time such as Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin.

Although they both benefited from their relationship of cooperation, there was a dark side to the coalition between Nobunaga and Ieyasu. The most famous and shocking is that of the forced suicide of Ieyasu's first and formal wife, Lady Tsukiyama, together with their oldest son, Matsudaira Nobuyasu. Nobuyasu had married Nobunaga's eldest daughter Tokuhime in 1567. Initially, the marriage appears to have been a happy one, and the couple had two daughters.

However, tension between Nobuyasu and Tokuhime slowly mounted as years went by, apparently due to the intrigues of Nobuyasu's mother, Tsukiyama. The couple eventually ended up living in complete disharmony. In 1579, Tokuhime sent her father a letter accusing her husband and his mother of conspiring with the Takeda against the interests of the house of Oda. Nobunaga took the accusation very seriously, and drew a drastic but logical conclusion:

Ieyasu had to restore order to the house--which meant that Nobuyasu and Lady Tsukiyama had to die.

Ieyasu now faced an agonizing dilemma: either he sacrificed his wife and son, or, if he was not prepared to do so, put his partnership with Nobunaga on the line. The first option would be a great personal tragedy, but to take the latter course would jeopardize the further existence of the entire house of Tokugawa, and might undo everything he had achieved over the past two decades.

At the end of what must have been long and painful deliberations, Ieyasu condemned his eldest son and his first wife to death. Ieyasu, it seems, was prepared to pay a high price for his alliance with Nobunaga.

Japonius Tyrannus by Jeroen Lamers

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Oda Nobunaga

I have just started reading a book about Oda Nobunaga. The book is called Japonius Tyrannus and is by Jeroen Lamers. So far through the first 40 pages, the book is pretty interesting. If you are not familiar with Oda Nobunaga, he was one of the most powerful warlords in Japanese history. He lived near the end of the sengoku era, the Warring States period (1467-1568) in Japan. Nobunaga is often called the first of the three great unifiers of Japan, the other two being Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu.


Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), one of the best-known figures in Japanese history, dominated the political scene in Japan between 1568 and 1582 as he gradually conquered the country's central region and initiated a process of military and political unification. The book is a chronological narrative and provides a thorough analysis of his political and military career. Nobunaga is often considered to be a tyrant and a dictator. It appears that the book is attempting to reveal Nobunaga in a different light. However, there is little doubt that Nobunaga was a ruthless warlord.

Nobunaga laid the groundwork for national unification by conquering much of central Japan and by overthrowing the Ashikaga Shogun after Nobunaga marched his large army into Kyoto. Nobunaga was murdered by one of his generals in 1582 before he could complete his dream of unifying the nation. One of Nobunaga's other generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, avenged his lord by hunting down and killing his assassin. Hideyoshi then proceeded to take control and eventually achieved Nobunaga's goal of unifying all of Japan under his rule. Upon Hideyoshi's death, Ieyasu assumed power by defeating all other rivals and declaring himself shogun in 1603.

The end of the sengoku period is a very interesting time in Japanese history, maybe one of the most significant time periods. The end of over 100 years of civil wars led to 250 years of peace under the Tokugawa shoguns. Much of Japanese culture and ideas we see today were shaped by these events and the ensuing years of peace. Unfortunately I have not found many books on the three great unifiers, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi of Ieyasu. There are a few books and I plan on reading them next.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shodo Shonin: Founder of the Temples of Nikko

Statue of Shodo Shonin in Nikko

Shodo Shonin, a Buddhist monk, is the founder of the temples of Nikko. Legend has it that Shonin was unable to cross the raging Daiya river in Nikko. So Shonin prayed to the gods and and gods answered by throwing two snakes across the river. The snakes turned into a bridge, what is now the famous Shinkyo (snake) bridge.

Shinkyo bridge over the Daiya River in Nikko

Shodo Shonin crossed the Daiya river in 766. He founded the Shihon-ryu-ji Temple (the former name of Rinno-ji Temple). Later he exoplored the summit of the sacred Mount Nantai above Nikko and Lake Chuzenji. Shonin founded Chuzenji Temple in 782.

Shodo Shonin passed away in the year 817 and was buried in Kaizan-do Temple.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Japanese GDP falls at biggest rate since 1955

This is not good. This is not good at all.


Annual drop of 15.2 in first quarter as exports plunged, companies pull back
The Associated Press
updated 5:16 p.m. PT, Tues., May 19, 2009

TOKYO - Japan's economy contracted at the fastest pace since 1955 as exports plunged and companies slashed production.

Japan's real gross domestic product, or the total value of the nation's goods and services, shrank at an annual pace of 15.2 percent in the January-March period, the government said Wednesday.

The result represents the steepest decline since Japan began compiling GDP statistics more than five decades ago. It also marks the fourth straight quarter of decline after the GDP fell 12.1 percent in the October-December period.

On a quarterly basis, GDP fell 4.0 percent from the previous three-month period, according to the Cabinet Office's preliminary data.

Japan's first quarter results were markedly worse than other major economies, outpacing the euro zone's 2.5 percent quarterly decline and a 1.6 percent contraction in the U.S.

The world's second-biggest economy relied heavily on the rest of the world to buy its cars and gadgets to drive economic growth. Like the rest of Asia, it has been pummeled by the unprecedented collapse in global demand triggered last year by the U.S. financial crisis.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30833967/

Friday, May 15, 2009

Japan's special melons 'only' $5,200 a pair

Now it's official, the global recession has really hit Japan. The famous Yubari melons sold for 'only' $5,200 in the first auction of the year. MSNBC.com reports that last year, the seasons first Yubari melons sold for $26,000 and for $20,000 the year before.

The melons are grown in Yubari, Hokkaido and are known for their taste and proportions and are often given as gifts. The pricy melons were sold at the initial harvest auction at the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market.

Although the price is substantially lower then previous years, a Yubari official was actually pleased that they sold for less. "I think last year was unusual," the official said. "Such a high price gave the melons a bit of an image problem."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Japanese Bra Counts Down to Wedding Day

May 13 from MSNBC: A Japanese bra maker has created a new garment that runs a digital timer, literally putting women seeking spouses on the clock.

I think this will have completely the opposite effect. Once a Japanese guy sees this bra, he will probably run the other way.

Zen advice

Here is some good advice for myself. It comes from Zen master Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki. Dogen is the founder of the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism in Japan.

Once, after a discussion of the doctrine, Dogen instructed: It is not good to overwhelm another person with argument even when he is wrong and you are right. Yet it is also not right to give up too easily, saying, "I am wrong," when you have every reason to believe that you yourself are right. The best way is to drop the argument naturally, without pressing the other person or falsely admitting that you yourself are wrong. If you don't listen to his arguments and don't let them bother you, he will do the same and not become angry. This is something to watch carefully.

I am pretty sure that Dogen is not saying that if you think you are right, then you should ignore what the other person is saying and not listen to them. My belief is that when you feel strongly about something, you should not continue to argue with another person who may also feel strongly. But Dogen says you should not lie to yourself or to them by simply giving in and saying, "I was wrong". Rather, you should just let those types of arguments go away naturally.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Japanese War Fan

I am not talking about a Japanese person who is a fan of war. I am talking about the classic Japanese Fan that is designed for war. You may be wondering "that simple folding, delicate Japanese fan?" Yes.

During the feudal times of Japan, a lethal version of the Japanese folding fan, a tessen, was carried by the samurai in armor. Rather then made with wood ribs and frame, these folding fans were made with iron and usually had eight to ten ribs and were a handy weapon of attack or defense. Under the direction of many clans, in fact, schools were established where various styles of combat using the tessen were devised, tested and continually improved similar to the study and training of swordsmanship.

Delicate folding fan made of wood

Experts in the use of the tessen were able to parry the blows of spear thrusts using their iron fan according to many Japanese sagas. Also famous for their use of the iron fan were the swordsman who were instructors to the Tokugawa Shoguns. In the literature of the martial arts of that time, there are many instances of victories won with a war fan against a sword, and many examples of men killed by a blow from it. Tessen were also popular with many non-samurai who were forbidden to carry a sword.

Tessen with iron ribs.

Folded tessen

The adaptability of these fans is underscored by the famous story involving Araki Murashige, an important figure of the late Warring States period. Summoned to appear before Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three great unifiers of Japan, Murashige knew that his life hung in the balance and that only his tessen stood between him and a most unpleasant demise (all swords being confiscated before entrance to every private mansion). It was known that a method of Nobunaga's retainers for disposing of enemies was to snap their neck between the heavy wooden door panels that separated the antechamber from the reception hall when the visitor performed the ritual bow greeting across the threshold.

When he bowed, however, Murashige instinctively placed his tessen in the groove which the door panels slid, and there was a loud bang as the doors suddenly bounced against the steel rods of the fan, but no blood flowed. It is said that Murashige acted as if nothing had happened, and that his composure was immediately acknowledged by the hasty-tempered Nobunaga with reconciliation and further favors.

Although this legend may or may not be true, it does demonstrate the respect that the war fan had among the feudal samurai of Japan.

Secrets of the Samurai

Monday, May 04, 2009

Japan: A Debtor's Nation

The current economic crisis in America has raised the issue of American's personal debt and the drive to consume. American's have a massive amount of debt in the form of credit cards, car loans, and home mortgages. The recent economic collapse is basically the economic nature's way of correcting itself, a "deleveraging".

Japanese have long been known as relatively miserly savers. Although Japan is the second largest economy behind the United States and Japanese people love their fancy cell phones and Gucci bags, they cannot really be compared to American's when it comes to consumerism. The average Japanese citizen saves a much larger percentage of their income. American's love to buy big fancy cars merely to "show off". How else do you explain the legions of single people with a dog driving around in huge SUVs?

However, I recently thought of something regarding Japanese debt. The idea that the Japanese are great savers is really somewhat of a myth. The reason. The Japanese people have merely transferred their spending and consumerism to the Japanese Government. The Japanese Government currently has one of the largest per capita national debts of any nation on Earth, including the United States.

Japan's national debt is a mind boggling 170% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Only Zimbabwe has a higher percentage. The percentage of national debt to GDP for the United States is 60%, number 22 on the list. Japan's economic future and the standard of living for its citizens will be severely constrained if the national debt is not drastically reduced.

National debt information source: CIA Factbook

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Warrior Code of the Samurai

The samurai throughout Japanese history was trained to follow the will of their lord without thought. This was clearly demonstrated from a written commentary in the Hagakure, a written record of a military retainer from the 18th century. It warned the warrior to carry out every thought immediately, lest reasoning about it should make a coward of him.

When the third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu consulted military retainers in charge of the warriors' formation in the Kii clan concerning the essence of successful strategy, their answer was one of pragmattic simplicity: "One should never ponder!" The decision, after all, had already been made elsewhere by others. Their task was to obey.

In order to enable the warrior to overcome any mental impasse due to man's natural fear of death, he had to be trained to think of himself as a man whose life was not his own. The samurai were often protrayed as a tragic figure caught in the web of a blind cult of death to which he adhered to faithfully. The Bushido, the famous code of the warrior, was indeed a code of death. Hence, the warrior was always prepared for a sudden and violent end. His whole life as a warrior in the service of a military leader was a constant reminder of this. A European visitor in the 16th century wrote "There is no nation in the world which fears death less."

This conditioning towards death began in childhood for the young samurai. They were exposed to harsh extremes and sent on difficult and dangerous errands. His fear of death and the supernatural was reduced by sending him to cemetaries and places of execution at night, even while very young. Physical pain had to be endured without betraying any emotion, and the young warrior's conditioning even included careful training to prepare him for the ceremony of suicide known as hara-kiri (abdomen cutting) or seppuku (a more refined term).