Daibutsu, Kamakura

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Japan Unveils New Plan for Growth - NYTimes.com

Japan Unveils New Plan for Growth - NYTimes.com

Mr. Hatoyama has some ambitious plans for Japan according to this New York Times article. Some goals seem realistic but others seem to me, as well as various analysts, to be completely unrealistic.

Some of his goals that I think are doable include turning Haneda into a 24-hour international airport and expanding the economy at an average rate of 2% over the next 10 years. The goal for expanding the economy seems doable to me based solely on his meager projection of 2% average per year. Compare that to China's average of 8 to 10% growth per year.

Some of Mr. Hatoyama's other goals seem completely unrealistic pie-in-the-sky goals such as creating an Asian free-trade zone which I assume would include China and tripling the number of foreign visitors to Japan to 25 million. I don't think it will be possible for China and Japan to agree on a free-trade zone, at least by 2020. I also don't see how it's possible to achieve the 25 million foreign visitors goal but maybe since he has given 10 years to accomplish it. Good luck.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Samurai Misconceptions 2

Samurai hated guns, calling them "cowards' weapons"

Hollywood, along with the general public, has come to view the samurai as sword-wielding heroes of an age long gone. Guns just don't fit into our picture of that; therefore, samurai must not have used guns.

In fact, the Japanese were using guns more effectively than their European counterparts by the sixteenth century, as well as producing more accurate, durable varieties. The battle of Nagashino, where guns tore through charging samurai cavalry, is one of the most famous and influential battles in the history of the samurai. The samurai were not stupid; in fact, they were renown for their adaptability. The Mongolian invasion, Chinese royal culture, and enterprising Western powers all influenced medieval Japan at one time or another. In fact, the kimono, one of the most famous symbols of Japan, came from China during the Heian period. It was no different when the Portuguese introduced a devastating new weapon called the arquebuse (or teppo, in Japanese). No matter how much the samurai loved their bow, they weren't oblivious to the fact that the gun obviously outclassed their previous artillery choice. Several forms of guns were used, from the general old-fashioned musket-like gun we tend to think about, to large hand cannons, to even the rare full canon (which were generally taken off of crashed European ships). They were all used with devastating efficiency. One of the greatest daimyo (general/feudal lord) of the Warring States era, Oda Nobunaga, was well renowned for his brilliance with gunnery tactics. Others, such as Takeda Shingen, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Date Masamune were also well known for using snipers, entrenched artillery, and sometimes just mass amounts of gunners, with devastating results..

Some believe that because foot soldiers (ashigaru) were the primary users of guns the samurai must have detested them. Instead, the ashigaru were simply too disposable to teach them anything more complicated. This didn't mean that samurai were not also taught how to use guns; in fact, they were generally taught more in depth. It is also notable that, of the honors granted in battle, the one granted to a gun unit was surpassed only by taking a head in individual combat.

This information comes directly from the Kitsuno, the Forum Shogun at the Samurai Archives. A great source for information about the samurai and other aspects of Japanese history prior to the Meiji Restoration.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice

The first of a classic chanbara trilogy, this cult film introduces outrageous samurai constable Hanzo "the Razor" Itami (Shintaro Katsu), a maverick who lives and plays by his set of rules. In this installment, Hanzo learns that his underhanded boss and a political crook share a lovely temptress' sexual favors. Hanzo uses his razor-edged rapier -- along with his sexual prowess -- to earn a promotion by exposing his superior's peccadilloes.

This masterpiece is in the same category of cheesy samurai flicks such as the Lone Wolf and Cub. However, the Hanzo flicks differ from the Lone Wolf by its decidedly more tawdry sexual aspects. This is definitely not a film for the family or most people with somewhat decent morals. The film is a bit slow in the action department and mainly deals with Hanzo's "unique" interrogation techniques with the ladies and his battles against corrupt officials. One of the funniest aspects of the movie is how Hanzo "toughens" himself up to make himself an even more efficient lady interrogator. His two bumbling assistants also add to the humorous aspect of the movie. It is funny how many of the samurai actors of the day such as Shintaro Katsu are pudgy and slightly overweight. Hanzo has a serious double-chin goin' on in this film but he still pulls off the bad-ass cop in this film really well. You can tell that he is not one that criminals should want to deal with. A good description of Hanzo is part Dirty Hairy and part John Holmes. If you don't mind or if you actually enjoy a samurai film that verges on soft-core porn, than this is a must see.

Friday, December 18, 2009

iPhone blowing up worldwide, big in Japan after all

iPhone blowing up worldwide, big in Japan after all: "iPhone blowing up worldwide, big in Japan after all"

It's about time. My feeling is that the old "flip phone" with the small screen and no keyboard is so outdated. I was wondering why so many people in Japan are still using what I feel are archaic flip phones. While in the United States and elsewhere, most people have moved away from those phone and to devices such as the iPhone and the Android with bigger screens and a functional keyboard. I understand the Japanese phones are pretty advanced with many features such as built in payment features, train transit passes, and sophisticated cameras. But the old flip phone style with the small screen and no keyboard seems so old.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The 47 Loyal Samurai

The 47 Loyal Samurai is one of the most famous stories in all of Japanese history. The story of the 47 are referred to by many names including The Forty-seven Ronin, The Ako Samurai, the Ako Vendetta, and the Genroku Ako Incident. Fictionalized accounts of the incident are known as Chushingura. There have been literally dozens and dozens of books, plays, TV shows, and movies about this event.

Here is the story of the events that led to the famous Ako Vendetta.

In 1701, imperial envoys were being entertained at Edo Castle after their arrival from Kyoto. Supervising the ceremonies was Kira no Suke Yoshinaka (1641-1702). Kira sent a message to a Kajikawa Yoriteru, a keeper of the castle, that the presentation of gifts would take place earlier than scheduled. To confirm these arrangements, Yoriteru proceeded along the main corridor, known as the Corridor of Pines on account of its paintings, in search of Kira. Unable to find him, he asked Asano Naganori (1667-1701), the daimyo lord charged with entertaining the imperial envoys, be summoned. Having exchanged the usual greetings, assuring each other of their cooperation, Asano returned to his seat. Then Kira appeared, and Yoriteru approached him to confirm the timing of the ceremonies. As the men were standing in discussion, Asano suddenly struck Kira with his sword from behind, shouting: "Did you forget my recent grievance?" Taken by surprise, Kira turned around and attempted to flee, but Asano struck him again, causing him to fall. At this point Yoriteru managed to restrain Asano, who was then led away shouting loudly that though the time and place were inappropriate, for some days he nursed a grievance against Kira and thus had to strike him. That same evening Asano was ordered by the authorities to disembowel himself. Because the area had been defiled by the shedding of blood, the ceremonies for the envoys were moved to different room s of the castle.

This is what the contemporaneous records tell us about the event that 18 months later caused forty-seven of Asano Naganori's retainers to attack Kira Yoshinaka's mansion in the dead of night, cut off his head, and place it on Asano's grave at Sengakuji. Forty-six of the retainers gave themselves up to the authorities and were ordered to commit suicide some two months later.

Over time the story transformed and developed. Kira was made the evil villain--the greedy, corrupt government official who had insulted Lord Asano one too many times. The 47 loyal samurai were made to be the perfect examples of samurai loyalty and bushido. They avenged their lord by taking the villainous Kira Yoshinaka's head and placing it on Asano's grave. The 47 samurai brilliantly lulled Kira into complacency by waiting almost 18 months to seek their revenge and by acting like drunks and cowards in order to throw Kira off. They then turned themselves into the authorities and later committed seppuku like honorable samurai.

However, as is usually the case with famous stories from history, events usually happened somewhat different than what the later stories tell. Author Beatrice Bodart-Baily, in the book The Dog Shogun, provides and excellent examination surrounding the famous incident of the Forty-seven Loyal Ronin. The author examines how the incident, rather than glorifying the samurai, speaks much more of the decline of the warrior tradition. Here are some interesting points from the book regarding the 47 Ronin incident. Some of these points may seem pretty obvious and yet the loyalty and honor of the 47 Ronin are glorified even today.

  • Asano Naganori showed concern neither for the reputation of his house nor the fate of his family and retainers when he attacked Kira. Asano should have known that attacking a Shogunal official in the Shogun's castle was a grave offence that likely would result in his death and the destruction of his house and confiscation of his domain thereby destroying the livelihood of his loyal retainers.
  • Asano was a student of Confucian scholar Yamaga Soko, whose principal teaching was that in peacetime the samurai "should set a high example of devotion to duty." However, although apprenticed to Soko in the military arts, Asano showed a marked lack of samurai spirit as well as a lack of sword skill in his attack on Kira. Asano attacked Kira from behind while Kira was engaged in a discussion and Asano did not succeed in killing Kira. This showed neither courage nor ability.
  • There is no evidence in legitimate historical documents that shows that Kira Yoshinaka was the villain so often portrayed that would justify an attack on him in the Shogun's castle. But Kira had to become the villain in order to make the story of the 47 Loyal Ronin what it was. Little is ever mentioned of Kira's 40 year service in a responsible government position, only that he was a greedy official who gravely insulted Asano. Both of which there is a lack of evidence to support.
  • It has been argued by some that since the 47 Ronin knowingly violated the law of the Bakufu when they attacked Kira's mansion, it was absurd for the samurai to notify the authorities on completion of their crime with the message that they were now awaiting their orders rather than immediately committing seppuku. This leads some to suspect that the driving force was NOT the revenge of their dead lord but the hope that praise and admiration for this act of "loyalty" would secure them a pardon and reemployment elsewhere. If they had not expected to live, why did they not disembowel themselves immediately on completion of their revenge?
  • With a year and a half between Asano Naganori's death and the slaying of Kira, some had wondered whether the revenge was really a priority of Oishi Kuranosuke, the chief retainer of Asano Naganori. Of course the story goes that it was all part of Kuranosuke's plan to lull Kira into complacency. Yet the point has been made of the elaborate preparations for the attack in the dead of the night, after Kira's staff was tired out by entertaining guests and when snow muffled the footsteps of the attackers. Some contemporaries such as Sato Naotaka and Dazai Shundai thought such trickery was unworthy of a samurai.
  • Kira, according to his income, was a man of lowly hatamoto status. The fact that 16 of his retainers were killed in the attack, while only 4 attackers received relatively light wounds, indicated that this was an unequal battle. The large loss of life among the Kira retainers and servants could have been avoided in a spirited day-time attack on Kira on the open road by just a few men in traditional samurai fashion. In such an assault the attackers would, however, most likely have been cut down immediately afterwards and the chance of a pardon lost. The Bakufu's charge against the 47 Ronin after the incident explicitly mentions the use of projectile weapons which could mean anything from arrows and catapults to firearms. It may well also refer to spears. This clearly gave the attackers an advantage against the Kira retainers who were probably only armed with swords.
  • Consideration should be also given to the public emphasis on loyalty and filial piety. The 47 Ronin certainly must have been aware that at times Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi would overturn decisions of his officials to heap praise and rewards on people who in his opinion had lived up to these ideals particularly well. The suggestion that the Ako samurai did not commit suicide but gave themselves up to the authorities in the hope of being singled out for such shogunal praise was not altogether unlikely at the time.
  • When the loyalty of the 47 are referred to, it is of course the loyalty to their immediate lord, for Asano's retainers had disobeyed the laws of the bakufu in order to discharge their duties towards their lord.

The picture that emerges from the story of the 47 Loyal Ronin is that of desperate men trying to survive in the maelstrom of change. With an abrupt discrediting of traditional values, the 5th shogun attempted a major paradigm change. This must have produced feelings of helplessness and confusion in the minds of many samurai as they attempted to make their way in this changed environment with its fundamental revision of the traditional value system. The Ako samurai came to symbolize this suffering as men from a nostalgic past, as battlers against the harsh government of the day that was intent on destroying their cherished values. Their summary death ordered by an unpopular shogun permitted quick deification. To complete the process of creating larger-than-life-size images, any human foibles had to be shed. Every part of their action came to be uncritically accepted as serving a greater public good, and those that appealed to an examination of the facts were in turn accused of delusion.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Samurai Misconceptions

All Samurai followed a chivalrous code of ethics known as "Bushido"

With books titled "Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai" and "Budo Shoshinshu: The Code of the Samurai" flooding the market, one generally comes to think that the samurai ALL followed the Bushido, or else they weren't really samurai. This just isn't the case.

Bushi-do is correctly translated as "The Way of the Warrior". However, the Bushido was nothing more of an invention of the Edo Jidai (Edo era) meant to keep samurai subservient to their employing daimyos. The Edo Jidai was the 250 year long peace ruled over by the last shogunate (Tokugawa Shogunate), which directly proceeded the Warring States era (better known as the Sengoku Jidai). The shogunate was very paranoid during this period; it was, after all, the third shogunate, the first two having collapsed into warfare. Several new practices came into play during this time period; for example, daimyo were expected to spend part of their time in Edo (now known as Tokyo), the seat of the shogunate's power. This was to keep unruly daimyo (like Shimazu or Mori daimyo, who would later tear down the shogunal government) in check.

Another practice was a serious enforcement of a samurai's loyalty to his daimyo. During the Sengoku Jidai, there were several instances of samurai turning on their daimyo, most often to disastrous affects. The shogunate made turning on one's daimyo the most serious offense for a samurai.

Also, during this time of peace, the samurai no longer had as much purpose in Japanese society. They became administrators and small time government officials. With this pretty much 'excuse' for existence, a ronin named Yamaga Soko took the Confucian principals that had been governing Japanese life for centuries and gave the samurai a new reason for existence. Soko's codices later became the foundation for the bushido, which received great support from the shogunate. The shogunate was looking for ways to insure that the samurai did not rise up against their daimyo. As one of Soko's rules was a complete, sincere devotion to one's feudal lord, this fit perfectly into the shogunate's paranoid attempts to suppress all possible revolts... and it worked.

Samurai before the Edo Jidai did NOT follow any "Bushi-do", then. In fact, there are so many examples of betrayal, uncouthness, and other acts completely contrary to the bushido in the Sengoku Jidai that it becomes glaringly obvious. This isn't to say however that there weren't noble samurai. In fact, Uesugi Kenshin is renowned for his honor in his battles with Takeda Shingen in the late 16th century.

This information comes directly from the Samurai Archives. A great source for information about the samurai and other aspects of Japanese history prior to the Meiji Restoration.

Friday, December 11, 2009

End your social networking life with Seppukoo

If Facebook is taking over your life, a new website is offering you a way out.
Seppukoo.com offers ritual suicide for Facebook users’ virtual profiles by deactivating their account. If you’re willing to end it all, the site will feature a RIP memorial page on its site and sends the page to all your Facebook friends.

The site is named after the Japanese samurai act of "seppuku” or ritual suicide by plunging a sword into their stomach.

"As the seppuku restores the samurai's honour as a warrior, Seppukoo.com deals with the liberation of the digital body," the site says.

The design and layout of Seppukoo.com is strikingly similar to Facebook – the exception being that Seppukoo is red and gray, while Facebook is blue and white. Another small point of differentiation: Seppukoo features paintings of sword-wielding samurai.

To take the final step, you simply type in the same information you use to log onto your Facebook account including e-mail address and password. (The site says it does not save the information.) Then choose one of six templates for the memorial page and compose your “last words.” After that’s entered: curtains. The profile is deactivated. (If you want back on Facebook, just log in and your account is reactivated.)

Friends can still write on your memorial page. Also, you get points for recruiting others to commit "seppukoo" and follow you into the virtual netherworld. The site keeps score and lists the point leaders.

Reported from the LA Times

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Google Translate

Google's translation feature is pretty cool and it has been getting better. But it's translations are far from perfect of course and often can be pretty funny. Here are some Google translations from the City of Nikko website about suspicious persons. The following are descriptions of various suspicious person's.

1. Male, age late 30 early 40 years old, 165 centimeters tall, thin build build, tanned, lean face, the wind seemingly humble worker wearing pants Dabodabo.

Maybe he moves like the wind but I don't know what Dabodabo looks like.

2. Male, age 50 years old place, 165 centimeters tall, medium build, light blue short-sleeved shirt, black pants, wear glasses with grizzled hair is in short.

At least it didn't say "grizzled hair is in HIS shortS."

3. Man, age about 20 years earlier, slim, white T-shirt, black pants, a white man with a towel covering his head, riding a bike of unknown color.

I was in Nikko last week but at least I didn't have a towel on my head.

4. Male, 165 centimeters tall, plump-type, black-framed glasses, wearing a disposable paper mask, long pants, an unknown color, black umbrella, carrying a plastic bag

Half of Japan wears paper disposable masks. Good luck finding this guy.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Back from Japan

I am back from my short trip to Japan and I had a great time. After arriving at Narita on Friday the 27th, I took the Kanto Maronie bus to Utsunomiya in Tochigi. This was the first time I took the bus by myself from the airport and it was very easy and convenient. I will definitely do it again.

The weather was not as cold as it usually is this time of year, some days were actually quite nice. On Saturday and Sunday in Utsunomiya, I was actually comfortable without a jacket. Plus, a lot of places in Japan blast the heater unbearably. The Mister Donut and Bell Mall in Utsunomiya were extremely warm inside. I would have been comfortable with a short-sleeve shirt and shorts in those places. Here is the Wikipedia article on Bell Mall (which I created). On Sunday I took the JR Train from Nasu/Otawara to Utsunomiya and then went to Nikko to see relatives. The Koyo is still very impressive around Nikko. Before heading to Nikko we had some delicious gyoza at this place in front of the JR Utsunomiya station. There is the hot Mister Donut to the left.

I am still amazed at how nice the trains are in Japan compared to Los Angeles. And how much more polite the people are.

On Tuesday I went on a mini Izakaya run in Otawara and enjoyed some delicious food and an excellent drink called a "Samurai Rock." Anybody ever had this drink? It is sake and lime juice on ice and it is goooood! I also did karaoke for the first time and not very well. Micheal Jackson was probably turning in his grave. :-)

Much of the rest of the short trip was just spent visiting friends and family so there is not much to report. One of the interesting things I was able to do was spend some time at a pre-school in Otawara. I spent about a half an hour with a class of 4 and 5 year-olds which was a lot of fun. I loved playing and interacting with the kids. It was funny so many would start talking to me at the same time in Japanese and asking questions but I did not not know what they were saying. One interesting thing about Japanese school kids of this age that I have read on some English teacher blogs is how some of the children have a strange habit of smacking you in the butt or in your private area. And amazingly I too experienced this as well. At one point I was standing surrounded by several children who were smacking my ass and private area from the front and behind me, even reaching between my legs from behind to smack me in the area. Very odd. But they were great kids and I had a lot fun with them.

The flight back was better than expected with two small children. My boys slept most of the flight which is a blessing and we had a serious tail-wind which got us back to LA in less than 9 hours, about 30 minutes less than normal. But the United flight attendants are kinda rude however. I probably will not fly United again.