Daibutsu, Kamakura

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

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Japan, little towns fall off the map

Below is an interesting but somewhat depressing article from the Los Angeles Times about the thousands of dying towns throughout Japan. Shockingly, the Japanese government designates about 62,000 towns as "government-designated dying villages." The small town of Kanna below is one of them. The reason there are so many dying towns in Japan is due to the rapidly aging and shrinking population. There are towns like this in the United States but the problem is not nearly as acute in the US, partly due to America's growing population.

The city of Kanna, once a busy lumber and agricultural center, has seen its leading businesses close and its population plummet from 20,000 in the late 1970s to 2,600 today

In the last decade, about 200 small Japanese communities have fallen into oblivion, and on Hokkaido island, almost 10% are headed there. Economics and a declining population are to blame.

By Catherine Makino

September 30, 2009

Reporting from Kanna, Japan

Shop owner Hideo Sakamoto knows this sad truth about his dying town: When he retires, no one will be left to take the reins of his tiny business selling eyeglasses and clocks.

His two children have fled to big cities and his mother is bedridden. "It's a sad story," says the 57-year-old, "because I will not be passing down my business to my children."

And not just that, he says. He and his wife, Mariko, are "so lonely."

Almost every day, this Japanese town surrounded by streams and mountains is eerily quiet, with only a few elderly people walking down its narrow streets.

Once a busy lumber and agricultural center, Kanna has seen its leading businesses close and its population plummet from 20,000 in the late 1970s to 2,600 today.

More than 60% of its residents are older than 65. Only about 80 children attend the two elementary and two junior high schools. For high school, most youngsters are sent to larger communities, and don't come back to live here.

Six years ago, the towns of Manba and Nakasato merged to form Kanna in an effort to save the traditions and rich cultural heritage of the area. The town is about three hours northwest of Tokyo, and one of 62,000 government-designated dying villages.

In the last decade, about 200 communities in Japan have indeed vanished. And on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost large island, almost 10% of the towns are endangered, with half of those expected to disappear in the next 10 years.

With few jobs or social opportunities, towns like Kanna have little to offer the younger generation. Meanwhile, throughout Japan, women are marrying at a later age and fewer are choosing to have children. If the current fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman continues, the International Organization for Migration says, Japan's population will fall to 100 million from more than 125 million by 2050.

Japan now has one of the world's biggest populations of people older than 65 -- 22%, compared with 13% younger than 15. More than two in five people living in rural villages are older than 65, and older people make up more than half the populations of about 8,000 towns and villages.

In Kanna, the older adults are left to take care of the very old. For example, Kiyoshi Arai, 66, who along with his wife owns one of the few remaining restaurants in the village, watches over his 88-year-old mother, Kaoru.

And, he says, "my daughter has already left and doesn't want to come back."

The only jobs now are in schools, the town hall or public services, says former Mayor Motoo Kuroda, 78.

"We used to have a successful lumber and farming industry, and our children followed what we did," Kuroda says. "But the price of lumber dropped when timber became available from overseas. The huge farming enterprises undersell us."

The town, he says, has changed a great deal. "There used to be so many people here. They would come for the lumber. But today the government for environmental reasons protects the forest. But even if we did cut the trees down, we couldn't make enough profit."

There are no clubs, cinemas, cafes or video shops to entice young people to stay, Kuroda says.

His four children have left. His eldest son, who just retired at 60, promised to come back and take care of him and his wife when they need him to.

"But we don't wish to give him any trouble," Kuroda says.

The elderly, who are holding the town together, spend their days playing gate ball, a Japanese form of croquet, and participating in the few other community activities.

Residents say the national government isn't doing enough to prevent Kanna from disappearing. The government gives towns low-interest loans to maintain the infrastructure, but that's it.

Kanna's 69-year-old mayor, Tetsujuro Miyamae, believes there's still hope for the town.

In a scheme to attract more tourists, Kanna is expanding its dinosaur museum. Opened a decade ago, it holds bones from Utah and Mongolia, as well as a newly purchased Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana. At the museum's theater, children and their parents watch man-made dinosaurs roar across the stage.

Visitors can also hike up the mountain behind the museum and dig for fossils, though none have been found in Kanna. More than 50 footprints believed to be of dinosaurs have been discovered over the years, however.

The town is also hoping to attract manufacturers.

On Hokkaido, one town tried, with little success, giving away plots of land to people who agreed to move there and register as official residents. Another Hokkaido town was pressed this year to advertise several of its schools on Yahoo's auction site owing to the drastic decline in enrollment. One school was converted into a nursing home for the elderly.

Kanna hopes to avoid such a fate, and some residents say they'll stay put. Yushi Kanbara, in his 20s, was born nearby and works at the town hall.

"I love it here," he says. "The nature, the clean air and the fishing."

Makino is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2009,
The Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub 1: Sword of Vengeance

This 1972 release is the first film in the series of six Lone Wolf and Cub movies starring Wakayama Tomisaburo as the assassin Ogami Itto.

Framed for treason, the executioner for the Shogun Ogami Itto is stripped of his office and declared an outlaw. Together, with his infant son, he sets out as a mercenary on a blood-soaked journey to revenge against the secret society that murdered his wife and robbed him of his good name. With his life in ruins, and literally believing that he in hell, he and his baby son have become the Lone Wolf and Cub.

The LW & C movies are extremely violent and graphic. For anyone not comfortable with some very graphic violence this movie is not for you. But for those interested in some kick butt sick samurai sword action, then this movie and the other LW & C films are exactly what you are looking for. Itto uses the "Suiouryu Wave-Slashing" sword stroke to kill one of the attackers from the evil Yagyu clan who framed him. Itto also demonstrates his skill when he fights off several attackers with one hand while holding his baby in the other.

In the movie, Itto confronts his targets on the Otawara Road near Nikko. When I heard that my ears perked. My wife's family lives in Otawara in Tochigi-ken.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Gojunoto - The five story Nikko pagoda

The Gojunoto is an 1818 reconstruction of the original five-storied pagoda, which was erected in 1650, but which was lost in a fire in 1815. In order to make the tower stable enough to resist wind and earthquake forces, the center pillar is suspended on the fourth story and held 10 cm above the ground -- not resting on a foundation stone -- thereby functioning as a dynamic counterweight which maintains the center of gravity.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tenchijin episode 32

Tenchijin is rapidly coming closer to its culmination. The young Hideyori has been born and the Toyotomi heir crisis is now coming to boil with Mitsunari confronting Hidetsugu with the charge that he is suspected of treason. Mitsunari's evil smile at the end of the episode after Hidetsugu accused him of causing his downfall shows that Mitsunari is now rapidly sliding into his manipulative and destructive ways and making many enemies.

Earlier, Mitsunari was confronted by several of the other great Daimyo, mainly Tokugawa Ieyasu and Mori Terumoto, who have accused Mitsunari of manipulating Hideyoshi and causing great hardship for the daimyo. Below is Ieyasu confronting Mitsunari. Ultimately it is Ieyasu versus Mitsunari in the epic confrontation at Sekigahara.

One of the enemies that Mitsunari makes that he will later truly regret is one of Hideyoshi's adopted sons, Hidetoshi. Mitsunari has Hidetoshi removed from any influence or power in the Toyotomi family by forcing the Mori clan to adopt Hidetoshi. This causes Hidetoshi great anger and hatred towards Mitsunari and he will eventually have his revenge against Mitsunari at the battle of Sekigahara. Below is Hidetoshi begging the Uesugi for assistance with his plight.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Museum of Fine Art, Boston

Tsuba are the round or squarish guard at the end of the grip of bladed weapons such as the samurai katana sword. The main purpose of the tsuba is to prevent the hand from sliding down from the grip onto the sword blade such as during thrusts. During medieval times, the tsuba were more functional rather than for decoration and were made from stronger metals. During the Edo period, tsuba were more often designed for ornamentation. Many tsuba were finely decorated and today are popular collectors items.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tsuba at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yukio Hatoyama

Yukio Hatoyama is attending the Climate Summit in New York. Today he made a pretty amazing announcement that I think upstaged all other developed nations including the United States. Hatoyama announced at the summit, in very good English, that Japan will cut emissions by a wopping 25% by 2020.

No other nation made as big a commitment. China did announce major goals of using clean energy such solar, wind and nuclear power, but they did not commit to a specific target for reduction.

Hatoyama's announcement of 25% is pretty ambitious and I am not sure they will be able to meet it. But I think Japan has a good chance of meeting that goal. But not just because of a strong push by Japan and Japanese to be more efficient and produce more clean energy. But because of Japan's rapidly shrinking population and relatively stagnant economy.

A country with a shrinking population will generally produce less waste and less emissions. So his announcement of reducing emissions by 25% by 2020, although impressive, is not as amazing as it would seem.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shugyo Daishi

In Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles there is a Shingon Buddhist temple on First Street called the Koyasan Buddhist Temple. Recently a statue was installed in front of the temple which is apparently in commemoration of the temples's 100th anniversary. The base of the statue says Shugyo Daishi.

I was curious if this was an alternative name for the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, Kobo Daishi or Kukai. But my Google searches did not clearly tell me who Shugyo Daishi was. With the help of several people from the Samurai Archives, I learned that it appears the term Shugyo refers to some sort of pilgrimage or person who is on a path towards knowledge or enlightenment. It also appears that the Shugyo Daishi statue in front of the temple is Kobo Daishi while he was on a pilgrimage according to this website. If anybody out there has more knowledge regarding Shugyo or Shugyo Daishi, please share.

Below is what someone from the Samurai Archives provided. Very interesting.

北米開教 百年記念

hokubei kaikyô hyakunen kinen

Hundred-Year Anniversary of the Opening of the Teaching in North America.

The left side refers to the 4th (第4) completion (成満) of the Shikoku pigrimage (四国通路), and then lists two names: Kurata Yasuo and Tomoko (倉田康男、智子), as donors or benefactors (施主).

The last line names the head of the temple (I guess):

Leader (先達) of this branch temple (別院), 7th generation (第七世) Abbot (大僧正)... and then it gives the abbot's name 諦詮。

The right side names the temple: Koya-san (高野山) US (米国) Branch Temple (別院), followed by what I assume is another name:

Eighth Generation (大八世) Asahi (旭)Kiyosumidai (清澄代).

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Kill (Kiru) is a 1968 black and white film from director Kihachi Okamoto.

This is an action comedy. A pair of down-on-their-luck swordsman arrive in dusty, windblown town, where they become involved in a local clan dispute. One, previously a farmer, desires to become a samurai. The other, a former samurai haunted by his past, prefers living anonymously with yakuza. But when both men discover the wrongdoings of the nefarious clan leader, they side with a band of rebels who are under siege at a remote mountain hideout. This film mixes elements from chanbara classics and a dash of an old western movie.

This was a really good movie. A little hard to follow at first but later the story and characters became clear. There were some really good sword fighting scenes as well as some really funny scenes such as the flying women who smells like dirt and the sandal stuck under the post.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cheesy Samurai flick

1981 film starring Hiroyuki and Sonny Chiba.

Big time cheesefest. If you want some good laughs then you might like this. It's two hours of disco ninja action. Pretty bad, actually, really bad. There is a good disco dance scene at the execution grounds but you have to endure a lot of this movie before you get to this scene. There is also some really good (and hilarious) Olympic gymnastics swinging scenes near the end as well. Olympic gymnastic swinging you ask? You'll just have to watch it to see what I mean

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Warlords and Tea Ceremonies

The art of the tea ceremony has a long history in Japan going back many hundreds of years and practiced among the cultured nobility and the imperial family. But did you know that the tea ceremony was extremely popular among some of the most feared warlords in Japanese history.

Probably the most feared warlord of them all was Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) who had a great passion for the tea ceremony. Nobunaga did not just simply participate in the ceremonies but also had a great desire to collect the most incredible tea utensils, meibutsu, as well as how to use them expertly. Nobunaga received instruction in the art of tea from the greatest masters including Imai Sokyu, Tsuda Sogyu, and Sen no Rikyu.

For Rikyu, this association meant fame and fortune, and for Nobunaga it brought qualification as a man of culture. Each used the other to increase his own prestige.

Nobunaga valued he's tea utensils immensely. A sign of how much Nobunaga valued his great general Toyotomi Hideyoshi is revealed after Nobunaga rewarded him with twelve of his famed tea pieces. On the first day of the sixth month of 1582, Oda Nobunaga held a grand tea party at the Honnoji temple in Kyoto, having brought with him several dozen of his most precious tea implements to show an assembly of leading nobles and lords of the land. But before the next day had dawned, Nobunaga was dead, the victim of one of his general's, Akechi Mitsuhide. Both Nobunaga and his meibutsu were devoured by the flames that destroyed the temple in which he was staying.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Twilight Samurai

2002 film by Yoji Yamada and starring Hiroyuki Sanada. This movie has an almost identical plot to Yamada's 2004 movie The Hidden Blade. I liked both movies but preferred Twilight Samurai a bit more. It was a little more emotional with a sadder ending.

Like The Hidden Blade, this film was set in the late 19th century as the shogun period was coming to an end. Seibei was a low-ranking samurai of the Unasaka clan. Just as Seibei begins to dream he might win the hand of his childhood sweetheart Tomoe, he is caught in the turmoil of the times. Seibei is assigned the unwanted task to confront and kill a renowned warrior on the wrong side of a clan power struggle.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Excellent movie. This movie is about Japan's most famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu. Rikyu lived at the end of the 16th century and the end of the turbulent period of war, sengoku jidai. Rikyu became the tea master to the powerful national unifiers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. But Rikyu was not just a tea master, he also gained political influence as the confidant and cultural mentor to Hideyoshi.

Rikyu's relationship with Hideyoshi is one of the epic stories in Japanese history with a tragic ending. If you are not familiar with this historical time period or Sen no Rikyu then the movie may not interest you. But if you do, then it is a good movie to watch.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Farmers wage turf battle with Japan air force

Interesting article in the Los Angeles times about some Japanese farmers waging an anti-war, anti-military base campaign at a base north of Tokyo.

Farmers wage turf battle with Japan air force

Antiwar farmers near an air base northeast of Tokyo have infiltrated the base by working plots of land and have surrounded it with 'peace parks.' The government seeks to buy them out, but in vain.

By John M. Glionna

September 10, 2009

Reporting from Hyakuri, Japan

Crouched in his lush green rice fields on this agricultural plain northeast of Tokyo, Masaru Umezawa works the land as his father and grandfather did before him.

On a humid late-summer afternoon, the only sound is the buzzing of the cicadas from a nearby thicket of trees. Then it starts -- slowly at first and building in intensity until it reaches a deafening pitch: the roar of a shiny supersonic jet lifting off the runway at the Japanese military's Hyakuri Airfield.

Nearly 100 times a day, the jets take off and land, performing training maneuvers overhead and creating a racket that makes it impossible for the stocky farmer and his family to watch television or talk on the telephone, let alone hear themselves think.

"It's probably why my wife and I have stayed married so long," he said. "When we fight, we can't hear what the other is yelling."

Umezawa doesn't just live near the air base. He lives inside it -- only a few feet from where the planes take off.

The 60-year-old farmer is one of several local antiwar activists who over the last half a century have waged an often-tense turf battle with the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan's military is known.

Residents here say the military co-opted much of the area's farmland to build the air base in the 1950s, casually pushing aside hardworking farmers like so many pawns on a chessboard. Many argue that the base itself is illegal. Controversial Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits the nation from maintaining armed forces with war potential, they insist.

And so in a bold defensive maneuver, they have surrounded the base and inhabit its confines. While Umezawa's family and another hold on to land within the base, other families operate farms around its borders.

In the face of stiff resistance from the landowners, the government has followed a less-controversial policy of trying to buy land rather than seizing it by eminent domain. But the activists have refused to sell -- even when offered double the market value.

The farmers who continue to till the soil on the outskirts of the airfield block official plans for expansion. Umezawa's family and the other one working small plots inside the base's barbed-wire fences gain access to their land via court-protected farm roads settlers have used for generations.

Still others have used their property to create "peace parks" within the air base, a patchwork of well-manicured oases from which they watch the young jet jockeys in the cockpits of their multimillion-dollar military hardware.

"We're a small army of people," Umezawa said, "but we've much more willpower than they do."

Umezawa believes he has to make a stand. "Armed forces just aren't good for the human race," he said.

Hyakuri Airfield officials declined to discuss the standoff.

The Imperial Japanese Navy first developed the airfield in 1937, the emperor ordering many farmers in the area to sacrifice their land for the nation. After the war, locals used sledgehammers to break up the single runway and feeder roads. They repossessed the land and began farming again.

In 1956, the Self-Defense Forces reopened the air base, to the disgust of farmers. "We'd all had enough of war," Umezawa said of the activists.

Many farmers were again pushed aside, their land taken a second time. Others were allowed to continue farming.

About 130 farmers held protests that often turned into violent battles with police. Over the years, some farmers sold out, reasoning that the land was too arid to be profitable.

Then, in 1966, locals tapped into a well system to better irrigate the land for a wider variety of crops. The farms suddenly flourished, to the dismay of base officials.

The owners of the peace parks had their own survival plan: They sold tiny, 6-foot-by-6-foot swaths of land to other anti-military activists -- further complicating the government's effort to buy the land.

Over the years, the Hyakuri activists have repeatedly embarrassed the military, especially the outspoken Toshio Tamogami, former chief of staff of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force, one of the branches of the military established after World War II to defend the nation.

"He said it was shameful that the Air Self-Defense Force couldn't even prevail over a group of farmers," said Goemon Date, spokesman for an antiwar group supporting Hyakuri residents.

Base officers once used binoculars to keep tabs on their neighbors. But the passing years led to an uneasy truce. "It's not exactly friendly," Date said. "We see officers and recognize each other's faces. We might smile, but we never say hello."

One by one, many original stalwarts have died, leaving only the two families to continue farming within the base. Activists running the peace parks are also getting older.

Until he suffered a stroke, 73-year-old Koki Kawai served as a loyal groundskeeper, allowing visitors into his peace park for a small fee. Now his body is partially paralyzed.

His wife carries on his work at the park, a leafy area of cherry and maple trees. The mighty Japanese Self-Defense Forces have met their match in the diminutive Mitsue Kawai. Standing barely 4-foot-7, her will is unbending.

"My husband feels bad that he can't be here," she said softly. "So I come here for him."

On a recent day, she wore a pink towel beneath her straw hat to block the sun. She bent low to pick weeds from her beloved park as uniformed men raced about to refuel a plane at a military hangar not far away.

"I know we're a sore point to those military men," she said. "We must annoy them. If we weren't here, they could use this entire area any way they wished."

From a viewing platform, she often watches the passing pilots, many young enough to be her grandsons. Some smile, others flex their muscles or offer a macho frown. "They know we're watching them," Kawai said sweetly.

On an afternoon of unusually heavy military maneuvers overhead, Umezawa sipped tea at the homestead he shares with his mother, wife and eldest son. The couple have another home nearby.

The tiny one-story structure is surrounded by the family's rice fields. Lifting his head from fixing a car motor, Umezawa's son shrugged at the noise from the base. "I've heard it all my life," he said. "All my life."

Umezawa inherited his farmstead when his father died last year. He knows that he too will go one day. But he has a plan.

"We're raising our children to continue the fight," he said. "We're not just thinking about today, but the next 100 years."

The government recently offered Umezawa $5 million for his homestead and farmland. He turned them down flat.

And those jets that go screaming overhead for 10 hours a day? Umezawa doesn't hear them at all.

"The mind has an innate ability to tune out noise," he said. "If you listened to those planes every day, you'd go crazy."

He watched an F-4 slowly lift off with a racket that would send most people reaching for their ears. But Umezawa didn't move.

"Human beings," he shouted, "can live in any environment!"


Monday, September 07, 2009

The Soul of the Samurai

The samurai sword is the classic symbol of the samurai.

However, while the samurai of the Tokugawa era (1603-1868) revered the sword as "the soul of the samurai," the weapon that defined the samurai throughout the early medieval period was the horse and the long bow. During early medieval times, the bow was the soul of the samurai.

These samurai carried a sword but it was not their primary weapon. The sword was the equivalent to the modern soldier's sidearm. The long bow was the medieval samurai's "assault rifle."

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Samurai Cavalry

This poster from the Akira Kurosawa film Kagemusha illustrates the classic view of early samurai cavalry. Great cavalry charges of thoroughbred looking horses.

But as Karl Friday in his book Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan reveals, the mounted samurai of the movies bare little resemblance to the actual mounted warriors from medieval Japan. Early medieval Japanese war-horses were actually much smaller and slower than the horses seen in classic samurai movies.

According to Friday, the mounts favored by early medieval samurai were stallions raised in eastern Japan and selected for their size and fierce temperament. They were stout, short-legged, shaggy, short-nosed beasts, tough, unruly and difficult to control.

In 1953, a mass grave at Zaimokuza near Kamakura was unearthed that is believed to contain the remains of men and horses killed during Nitta Yoshisada's attack on the city in 1333. The skeletons show the horses of the period ranged in height from 109 to 140 cm at the shoulder. Modern thoroughbreds by comparison range in height around 160 to 165 cm.

Also, these medieval horses could not sustain high speeds for long distance due to their size and the weight they were carrying, mounted samurai with full armor. Even modern racing horses can only go full out for 200 or 300 meters. Early medieval Japanese horses gave the samurai a rugged, stable, and comfortable platform from which to shoot their arrows, but it was a heavy beast not well designed for high speeds or long distance riding.

So the scenes in the movies with the cavalry charges that seem to go on forever are of course greatly embellished. But they make for an exciting movie.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Taiyuin Mausoleum - Nikko

Taiyuin was the title given to the third Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu after his death. Emperor Gokoumyou awarded this title to Iemitsu's mausoleum at Nikko in present day Tochigi Prefecture. Below is the gate of the mausoleum.

Tokugawa Iemitsu left the following message when he died in 1651, "I will serve for Ieyasu even after death." The forth Tokugawa Shogun Ietsuna understood Iemitsu's will and therefore began construction of Taiyuin in 1652. The mausoleum was completed in 1653.

The buildings of Taiyuin face Ieyasu's Toshogu shrine which indicates Iemitsu's deep respect for Ieyasu.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Japan's next first lady has been to Venus

Can we say wacko.

"While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus," Miyuki Hatoyama, the wife of premier-in-waiting Yukio Hatoyama wrote in a book published last year.

When she awoke, Japan's next first lady wrote, she told her now ex-husband that she had just been to Venus. He advised her that it was probably just a dream.

She also says she met U.S. actor Tom Cruise — in a previous life.

"I have a dream that I still believe will come true, which is to make a film in Hollywood," she told a TV talk show in May. "The lead actor is Tom Cruise, of course. Why? Because I know he was Japanese in a previous life.

"I also eat the sun," Hatoyama said on the program, looking up with her eyes closed, raising her arms high as if she was tearing pieces off an imaginary sun. "Like this, hum, hum, hum. It gives me enormous energy."

September Metro Poster

I don't see a problem with this. He's clearly practicing for the gymnastic competition for the 2016 Tokyo Olympics. I think they should have entire train cars set aside for this activity. They should probably not let those two zombies in the cars however. Too distracting for the potential Olympians.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Female history geeks

Samurai and Sengoku warlords have become popular again in Japan. Check out the post at cartoonleap.com that describes the phenomenon.

For some reason the samurai warlords from over 400 years ago are especially popular among women in Japan. These women are called rekijo or female history geeks. Maybe it is due to the samurai period dramas on TV such as the NHK Taiaga dramas. Maybe the women are more enamored with the actors that play the warlords.