Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2004’ Category

The Streets of Tokyo

August 17th, 2004 8 comments

Believe it or not, the street you see at right is a two-way street. Go ahead. Look at it. See if you can figure it out. And for perspective, that white truck parked in the back on the right, it’s a mini-truck, no wider than an American postal jeep. And even two of those would have a hard time passing each other on this street–and yet, I saw a good deal of opposing traffic pass here.

Every twenty or thirty meters, there is an indentation in the street (you can see it at left in this photo, behind the parked scooters; the orange posts mark it). When cars come from opposite directions, the car most conveniently placed to get into the indentation does so, while the car from the other direction squeezes by. I know, but somehow they do it. No wonder you don’t see Winnebagos in this country. Once I rented a truck to move my stuff from one apartment to another–and got stuck on a street wider than this one. When he saw the trouble I was having, the driver of the car going the other way actually got out and volunteered to drive the truck down the street for me while his friend maneuvered his car. Embarrassing, but I couldn’t have made it otherwise–it takes real driving talent.

You might also notice the slight crook in the street in the photo here. Japanese streets are, more often than not, go in all directions; it is less common for them to be laid out in grids. And even those grids are more often than not irregular, with greatly differing block lengths, and tons of T-intersections, one-way streets, and dead-ends. But most streets seem to tilt and angle without any hint of planning or design, like they just grew there. And with no street names (except for large boulevards), no street signs (except for major intersections), and a confusing jumble of block numbers and area names, navigation can be extremely confusing. Take, for example, the sign shown at left. That’s what the intersection looked like, honestly.

Add to that the fact that some neighborhoods are designed with one-way streets and prohibited turns such that it is impossible to exit save by one labyrinthine path; that streets are rarely more than two lanes in one direction, and usually not that; that sidewalks are sparse and properties have six-foot walls along the street, creating blind corners galore; and despite the expenses and difficulties of driving, multitudes seem to have cars, creating traffic jams all over; and top it off with scant parking, some pay parking lots charging a few dollars an hour… I am constantly amazed that people drive cars in Japan.

Oh, and gas runs about $4 per gallon.

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Turning Over a New Cicada

August 6th, 2004 2 comments

Every summer in Japan you get cicadas, or “semi” (蝉) in Japanese. Not the type that come out once every 17 or 18 years, this bunch comes out every summer, and man, do they make a lot of noise. The Japanese characterize this noise as, “meeeee, meeeee, meeeeeeee.” To which I then comically note how selfish they are. That is what Japanese people refer to as an “Oyaji gyagu,” (親父ギャグ) or an “old man’s gag.”

The cicadas, meanwhile, are everywhere, buzzing and mating. And as the mating cycle dies down, you start seeing a lot cicadas on the ground. But just because you see them belly-up, it doesn’t mean they’re done for–these cicadas, it so happens, have a very tough time righting themselves once they’ve got six legs in the air. I’ve seen them do it, but usually they just lay there, immobile and apparently dead.

So the thing to do–unless you really hate cicadas, that is–is to gently nudge them over with a toe, to get them righted. But be prepared to jump away, though: the cicadas will, unless really close to death, immediately start buzzing up and away in the apparent random fashion that bugs are wont to do.

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DAJ Members: The F-9/11 Segment is Airing on CNN Today

July 25th, 2004 Comments off

Mark and Vincentvds alerted me that the CNN story on us is airing today. Atika Schubert said our segment would be on Friday, but it seems to have been kicked back to today. It has aired a few times already, and will probably air more. It is appearing on World News, which will be on again at 4:00, 5:00, 6:00, and 8:00pm. I don’t know if the segment will air each time, some of the times, or not at all again today, but I have the feeling it will.

I will also try to transfer this and what I have of the NTV report to digital video and host them on my site–I’ll let you know when I can do that.

A Scorcher

July 20th, 2004 Comments off

It’s 38 degrees C (100 F) out there, but it feels even hotter. If you’re out in the sun, then just forget about it. A breeze doesn’t help much, it’s just a blast of hot wind.

This is the kind of day I thank goodness we have air conditioners. Sorry if that’s not too environmental, but this heat is downright oppressive…

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This Is What I’m Talking About with Japanese Police

July 20th, 2004 Comments off

A man in Soka City, Saitama Prefecture rushed to a police koban (a mini-police station) for help, but was tackled by three yakuza (gangsters) in front of the police box as the policeman on watch stood by. One of the men said, “This is our own matter. It’s got nothing to do with police.” The policeman was urged to “Do something!” by a rescue worker at the scene to help a different injured person. The officer reportedly walked towards them as the three gangsters dragged the man off, dumped him into a car and drove off. The man was later found severely beaten, with “broken arms and legs.” The policeman’s excuse? “He didn’t enter the police box and didn’t request help.”

I don’t really think anyone can count on Japanese police in a serious situation. Even in minor situations, they are not effective. They consistently stop regular scooter and motorcycle drivers for doing things like making a right turn at an intersection with three lanes as opposed to two lanes, or for crossing lanes over a yellow line even when there is no other traffic on the road–but they do not lift a finger to stop or penalize bosozoku bikers (ill-mannered biker thugs who ignore pretty much all traffic and safety laws, and adjust their bikes so as to make them as noisy as possible) as they brazenly scream through residential areas at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Police in Japan have a good reputation because of high arrest and conviction rates, but that is due more to sleight of hand than real police work. Police here will usually refuse to file reports on crimes that likely cannot be solved; many victims of muggings, assault, robbery and molestation are told to simply forget the whole situation, especially when they cannot describe the attacker. Convictions are high because judges here usually take a prosecutor’s decision to charge someone as evidence of proof of wrongdoing; additionally, police here can hold a suspect for 23 days without a charge or access to an attorney (or for multiples of 23 days, by “releasing” then re-arresting them), and have been known to sometimes apply beatings or other methods of intimidation or torture, in order to force a confession.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love Japan, and it really is a safe place. But not because of the police.

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A Fairly Big One

July 17th, 2004 1 comment

…Or at least a long one. An earthquake just hit, lasting at least a minute, and it was pretty strong. Will update when I know more.

I felt it while laying down in bed for a rest (before going out on a Costco run), and it felt stronger than most I recall. I went out to the kitchen, where I have a hanging lamp that I use as a primitive earthquake meter, and it was going pretty strong–and then noticed that an open door was swinging a bit as well, and the building was creaking.

Update (3:19pm): Okay, reports are coming in that it was a 5.2 off the coast of Chiba (image from HiNet. Apparently, it was felt strongest in Yokohama (from reports on NHK so far).

Update (3:30pm): is now reporting that the quake was 5.5 on the Richter scale. NHK shows that Chiba and south Kanagawa felt it strongest (using the Japanese quake strength scale), and that there is no expectation of tidal waves.

Update (7/18): HiNet has reclassified the quake as being 5.8 on the Richter scale; other reports hold it at 5.5.

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Another Earthquake

July 10th, 2004 Comments off

It just happened a few minutes ago. It was a 4.5 on the Japanese scale, according to Hi-Net, though claimed it was a 4.9. It was located in Ibaraki–but still strong enough to shake the apartment here in West Tokyo. (Update: Hi-net revised their figure upwards to 4.9.)

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Buddhist Kittens

July 5th, 2004 Comments off

On a recent trip up into the local hills, I wandered on to the grounds of a Buddhist temple. That’s where they tend to be, on the outskirts and often on the high ground (though the Shinto shrines then to be on hilltops more often). You can find temples and shrines just about anywhere in Japan, from the pocket shrines set into tiny spaces between buildings in the city to sprawling establishments almost like parks in their own right.

While up in the hills, I found an interesting place–more than just the standard temple building with perhaps a bell outside (the kind they strike 108 times at New Year’s). This place was more of a modern-style temple, a bit flashier than most, perhaps belonging to a newer sect than most (they have quite a few here, some of them even a bit outlandish). This one, as you can see below, had a newish-looking, clean white structure with an alcove housing a rather attractive gold Buddha, with black calligraphic text behind it.

The temple also had cats. I guess they feed the strays or something. As there are few children around and probably just nice, charitable temple staff to feed them, they aren’t too shy or skittish; the one kitten well on its way to becoming a full-fledged cat, pictured below, walked right up to me. In fact, because of the time it takes my camera to power up, I missed by maybe 5 seconds a beautiful photo: one of the many crows in the area happened to land just a foot away from the small cat, and for several seconds, they just stood there, looking at each other, like “what are you gonna do?” Maybe it’s the local version of the lion and the lambs. Man, I wished I could’ve gotten that shot.

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About Japanese Elections

July 1st, 2004 6 comments

Long-time BfAD visitor Pat alerted me to this article in the English-language Asahi, written by Jane Singer, the Western wife of a Japanese politician. The article seeks to explain what politicians are doing and why they do it, at least in part–if not fully–for the purpose of calming the protest by foreigners in Japan about the loudspeaker truck barrage. A very interesting read, though I do have some comments:

A Diet and a local election campaign of course differ vastly in scale and organization, but all campaigns must abide by regulations aimed at curbing fraud and vote-buying. Election management committees and local police keep an eagle eye on a candidate’s activities during the official campaign period (17 days for Upper House elections, 12 days for the Lower House, 9 days for prefectural posts). The rules forbid many of the campaign activities, like television advertising for a particular candidate or, for the most part, ads in print media, that are sine qua non for elections in other major democracies, although advertising a political party is allowed. Campaigning door-to-door is prohibited, campaigns can use only one sound truck and one microphone at a time, and outdoor campaigning is restricted to the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

While Ms. Singer does not necessarily endorse these measures, she does not contest them, either–perhaps because it would not help her husband’s campaign or status as a politician.

But I certainly would disagree with the need for the exact restrictions. For example, television or print ads. Politicians make speeches on NHK Educational–very democratic (as you sometimes see the loonies in there too). And if that’s not enough, then in exchange for licensing, private TV stations should also be made to allow for such statements. Or, if necessary, the government can fund each candidate who receives a certain number of petitions or other prerequisite to a limited amount, forbidding any other funding for advertisements. Singer notes that parties can run ads–I just saw one today for the Jiminto, the ruling party–and it featured Koizumi, a specific candidate–which kind of puts a hole in the anti-corruption net–and the idea that corruption is not rampant in Japanese politics despite these restrictions is, of course, wishful thinking. Despite the freedom-of-speech questions, I fully approve of restrictions on advertising (I do not see money as equalling freedom of speech in any case), but completely banning it, to me, is a far less attractive alternative than banning the loudspeaker trucks. As I noted a year ago, at least you can turn advertisements off.

The door-to-door ban is a fair idea, I’ll admit–especially if it keeps the party reps from doing the business. If it were allowed for candidates only, I’d be OK with it–just a half dozen doorbell rings to fend off, rather than weeks of non-stop noise pollution.

However, the rules on loudspeaker trucks I cannot abide. The trucks are restricted to 8am-to-8pm shifts (I can personally attest that some politicians break this rule), and though she does not detail this, the trucks are “cautioned” from doing their thing in front of schools, hospitals, or nursing homes. Those restrictions are far too lax. First of all, not everyone has the same sleep patterns. One reason many foreign residents may complain is because many of us are teachers, often with late schedules. And we’re not the only ones who sleep later than 8am. As a result, a great many people have their sleep interrupted for weeks on end. But more than that is the disruption for infants–can you imagine what it must be like to get an infant to sleep with those trucks blasting by every few minutes? Limiting the trucks to predominantly public and shopping areas areas (in front of train stations, at shopping streets and so forth) would be best–I mean, whatever happened to the famous Japanese “wa”?

And if that is not possible, then turn the damned volume down! Who says that it has to be up so high? I’m rather high up (equivalent to the 6th floor or so relative to the street, and even if I set my TV to blaring levels, the volume of the sound trucks still competes hardily with the audio right there in my apartment. If it’s that loud, then it’s too loud. I can hear the trucks clearly when they are half a kilometer away and more–and there are two schools closer to me than that (so much for the school zone rule). The obvious solution (which Professor Dolan speaks to) is to limit the vans to a reasonable sound level: enough so you know when they’re out in the street in front of you so you can go look if you want to, but no louder. And I certainly would not be averse to forbidding the trucks from entering parking lots for apartment complexes and driving at 5 kph through every last lane, keeping the high volume in your ears for 5 minutes at a time.

Singer’s article does explain a few things, though:

When voters visit the polling place, they write their candidate’s name directly on the ballot, rather than just check a box or punch out a chad. So the need to ensure name recognition despite the restrictions on promoting the candidate may help explain why the uguisujo (nightingale women), as female campaign van announcers are charmingly called, spend so much of their on-air time repeatedly warbling the candidate’s name.

That explains that. But it also calls into question why they can’t do it another way. Not that it would make the loudspeaker trucks much more bearable if they varied their message.

Singer’s observations are also sometimes amusing:

After an hour or so, the driver received an urgent call from the campaign office. A local resident had called to complain that my hand-waving “lacked sincerity.” For the rest of the drive, I leaned halfway out the van’s side window, endeavoring a full-arm flourish that left my shoulder aching for days. My efforts were praised by the campaign staff.

I have to admit, this sounds quintessentially Japanese, not just that windowsill observers would note and call in a complaint about lackadaisical hand-waving, but that the call would be treated as “urgent,” and–well, I can just visualize the Japanese campaign staff earnestly praising the candidate’s wife on how strenuously she waved. “Good waving!” “Yes, that was an excellent job. Sugoi!” “Yes, I’m impressed, too.”

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Early Sunrise

June 30th, 2004 1 comment

Here in Japan, with no Daylight Savings Time, and living in Tokyo, which is on the west edge of an already overextended time zone, you get early 4 am sunrises–a bit of a problem for late-night-owls like me. But at least I get to see the sunrise sometimes without waking up at an ungodly hour. Nonetheless, it does seem such a waste. I have heard that DST has been suggested in Japan, but that some people reject it because they feel that it would only give their companies another excuse to make them work an hour later each day.

Click on the image for a larger (800 px. wide) version.

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All New Ways to have a Heart Attack

June 23rd, 2004 4 comments

McDonalds just released a new burger over here, the “Mac Grand,” which is essentially a version of the Quarter Pounder, or perhaps more accurately, an attempt to copy the Whopper available at the few Burger Kings here in Japan. The new burger comes as a regular or a double. If you look closely at the picture, the patties look very thick, and the double looks ridiculous–but using the rule of thumb that you can expect half the meat/filling and twice the crust/gristle displayed in any food photograph for fast food, one can get a better image of what the burger really is.

Until now, we had to suffer with the “double burger” at McD’s if we wanted something like this–just a regular burger but with two patties. But now, o glorious day, we now have more meat, a smattering of lettuce, and two sauces. Lo, I can die happy. And obese. I would never go to the place if it were not pretty much the only restaurant near my work, save for a small lunch place across the street that sells an expensive classic-Japanese-style meal which is mostly stuff I don’t like, and a small gyoza place I would love except that the cook is always smoking over his cooking. When I can, I take the 20-minute walk to Subway and get a nice, slightly healthier sandwich.

But Mac is not alone in having a new product; Coke has a new version out as well. They usually have just regular Coke and Diet Coke (called “Coke Light” here).

The new Coke product here is a semi-diet Coke called “C2.” Aside from naming their new product after a plastic explosive, Coke is, I think, trying to fool people into thinking that it’s a diet drink. They make a big deal about having less calories, but they express the calories not by how many are in the bottle, but rather how many are in each 100 grams–and give no calorie amount for regular Coke to compare. As far as I can figure, though, C2 has more than half the calories of regular Coke, but is not as volatile as C4.

By the way, there is no caffeine-free Coke here (I have to order from Foreign Buyer’s Club). I think that removing caffeine from a drink is illegal here in Japan. They have “Vitamin” drinks here that come in little brown bottles which have heavy doses of caffeine and, I kid you not, nicotine. Pretty much a standard fix for the salaryman here. The commercials for these little drug-filled drinks are pretty lacking in subtlety. I recall one had a guy drink the tiny one-gulp, and the be immediately engulfed by a high-powered lightning-emitting aura. Another was accompanied by a now-famous song well-known in Japan, which declared, “Can You Fight 24 Hours a Day, Japanese Businessman?!” Well, after downing several charges of drug-laden vitamins, it would probably be surprising if he didn’t die of karoshi (overwork).

Considering new products like Mac Grand and C2, it should be no surprise that there is concern of kids in Japan being overweight. Of course, this is all relative. Japanese people are thin, endemically so. Yes, there are sumo wrestlers, but they grow with great effort and massive overeating. Here in Japan, at 190 lbs. and 5’11”, I am overweight (my doctor said “obese,” thank you very much). But when I would visit our home campus in Wisconsin, I felt downright slim.

A lot of Japanese slimness might be metabolism, but I think it also has to do with diet. There’s not really much sugar here. Donuts do not taste as much like donuts. Frosting is always whipped cream, not sugar-butter icing. There is less meat and much more fish and vegetables than you would see in the U.S. And there is very little diet food. At least McDonalds does not indulge in the massive irony that would be the inclusion of Diet Coke in their menu.

Oh, and by the way, I tried the new Coke. Too sweet–strange for Japan, where sweet foods are usually not popular. Diet Coke still tastes better to me, at least. And I love sweet foods.

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Oh, Crap

June 21st, 2004 6 comments

Here we go again.

When you see these boards, pictured at right, go up around the neighborhood, it can only mean one thing:

We’re about to get bombarded by day-and-night loudspeaker trucks.

That, and an election is coming. From looking at the sign, it seems that the election will be going on for the next three weeks or so.

When I started this blog about a year and two months ago, one of the first things I blogged about was the noise created by these damned trucks (it’s a miracle that we’ve been free of them since then). It’s like they have no concern about what people feel. They are supposed to avoid schools and hospitals, but there are two schools nearby and they don’t let up. They love to crawl through the neighborhood, blaring out at full blast, but unlike the other trucks that do the same (selling food or collecting secondhand junk), the political trucks keep coming by all day long, every day.

What’s more, they love to park in front of your building, where the politician steps out and gives a 15-minute political 4-loudspeaker harangue right in front of your building. They love big apartment buildings.

To listen to what I’m gonna be in for for the next three weeks, take a listen from the last election’s noise pollution.

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May 29th, 2004 Comments off

In Japan, there are sales trucks all over the place. Most are just plain noisy and annoying–the secondhand shop truck, the kerosene truck, lunch and snack trucks, and so on. Annoying because they drive at 5 kph and wander through all the driveways and small roads in the neighborhood, all the time blaring annoying announcements and mind-numbing repeating electronic tunes at full blast. Their slow and winding path keeps them well within earshot for perhaps half an hour each, and it’s impossible to shut out unless your listening to headphones with the volume way up.

One truck selling stuff that regularly wanders by is a bit less annoying: the sweet potato truck. A traditional standard in Japan, a small truck (in older times, a cart) with a small oven furnace and sweet potatoes (“yaki-imo,” or baked potatoes” in Japanese) hot and ready to eat. Hard to miss when it comes, there is always a musical call, a voice singing, “yakiiiiiiii… imooooooo!”

This is a bit less annoying than the others because it is (a) an organic sound, and (b) not shouted at blaring volumes–they seem to be aware of the annoyance factor and keep it down to a reasonable blast.

Not only that, they even emit a nice smell–a product of the wood-burning stove in the back of the truck, a kind of fireplace/campfire smell.

I’m not a big fan of sweet potatoes, though, so I can’t review the taste. But I’d have to say that if these were the only trucks going around selling stuff in the neighborhood, I wouldn’t mind quite so much. Well, at least the weather is warmer and that blasted kerosene truck no longer comes by Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

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May 26th, 2004 3 comments

On a nice saunter down to the Tama River today–the weather has been beautiful lately, I couldn’t pass up the chance–I found something which is quite rare in Japan: friendly cats.

By “friendly,” I mean ones that you can walk up to and pet. Living in Japan for a while, you tend to get used to the fact that neighborhood cats never let you get near them; they get skittish at anything less than 20 feet at least. I used to wonder why this was, and I think I found the answer some years back. There was a cat once I saw in the street, and was having some success approaching it. But then, about 100 feet down the road, a child darted out into the street. Despite the distance, the cat bolted. Ah. In addition, I’ve seen cats getting treatment not exactly in line with cat protocol, for instance people picking up poor felines by their front legs.

So when I saw two cats lazing in the grass on the banks of the Tama River, I did not expect to be able to get close. Instead, I got out my camera so I could take some pictures. To my surprise, when I looked up, I found that both cats were approaching me. I let them sniff my hand, let them see where I was going to pet and scratch, and both cats were cool to it. As a number of adults walked by, the cats paid no heed. But as I expected, when a group of young boys walked by, both cats ran for cover–not too far though, and they came back. So I snapped my pics and enjoyed some tame, friendly cats for a bit in the warm, late afternoon.

To see some of the photos, I’ve posted them here.

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Japanese Politicians Turn Viciously on Heroes

April 26th, 2004 10 comments

The three Japanese people initially taken hostage in Iraq may have thought that they were having the worst experience of their lives. Apparently, Japanese politicians and right-wing organizations are making it even more unpleasant for them now that they are back home. The way these people have been treated in their home country is cruel, heartless–and highly politically motivated.

Usually these people would not be treated like this. In America, we greet returning victims of kidnapping with yellow ribbons. Japan does not have that custom, but usually it treats with high regard those sons and daughters of Japan who have shown strength overseas, representing Japan well.

These three should have been such heroes of Japan. Nahoko Takato, 34, was helping Iraqi street children, an act of selfless charity at her own great personal risk. Even after her ordeal in Iraq, she did not want to stop helping people in the war-torn country. The kidnappers, she said, “did things to me that I did not like. But I cannot hate the Iraqi people.”

Soichiro Koriyama, 32, is a freelance photographer, and sees it as his job to document what is happening in Iraq. He has photographed people who have suffered from war and disease in developing countries like Thailand; this is no money-seeker, but a man who wants to publicize the suffering of people in an attempt to stir awareness of their plights, to make people aware of what is happening in the world so they can help. Koriyama, a former soldier in Japan’s self-defense forces, labored as a construction worker in Japan to raise the money to go to Iraq.

The third, Noriaki Imai, is a man concerned with depleted uranium shells used in wars; these shells are left behind in war zones, and create a radioactive hazard, contaminating the landscape; Imai planned a picture book about Iraqi children poisoned by the shells.

These were no seekers of fame, they were not there for the money or the glory. All three of them wanted nothing more than to help others who could not fend or speak for themselves. The three are humanitarians all. And two of them, Takato and Koriyama, wanted to keep on doing their work, despite the great risks involved. And that dedication to the welfare of others was their downfall.

Once Koizumi and the right-wing politicians heard that at least two of the three former hostages wanted to stay on, the attacks began. Koizumi said publicly, “It doesn’t matter how good their intentions are. After this ordeal and having had so many officials working without sleep or food to help them, they still talk that way. They should be aware of their actions.” Another politician said, “If they really hate to return to Japan, I want them to defect to Iraq. Since we’ve paid so much from the state coffers, I feel they should compensate us for it.”

Why such icy hatred? Well, the three humanitarian heroes had become inconvenient to a conservative government that is intent on dismantling a vital part of Japan’s constitution, the part that says Japan should militarize only for self-defense, and never for offense. Japan’s participation in Iraq, no matter how small and tenuous, is the first fragile step towards bringing Japan back onto the world stage as a military power. It embarrassed Koizumi and his party, with a bellwether election just a few weeks away to test how the public reacted to the new role of the military. The hostages screwed up that mission for them because Japanese citizens started asking why the troops were really there, and perhaps they should be removed. Japanese friends I have spoken to about this say that they would prefer the troops come home, especially if it puts Japanese into harm’s way.

The government could not stand this. So as soon as the Japanese government (some say by bribing the hostage takers) successfully got the hostages released, they wasted no time in vilifying them. They called the reckless, irresponsible, trouble-makers, self-righteous, nuisances, even “Japan’s shame,” and attacked them for going into harm’s way. They whined about how government workers sacrificed so much, and the government spent so much time and money to help them, and they want to stay in Iraq?! Ultra-right-wingers–a nasty group here in Japan–showed up at the airport to insult and harass them.

Then the real smear campaign began. Takato, the woman who helps street children, was featured in the gossip rags and right-leaning newspaper editorials as a juvenile smoker and drug addict who had connections with terrorist organizations. Noriaki Imai was accused of coming from a Marxist home and was called a “communist sympathizer,” however that could possibly have any relationship to his work to help children in Iraq.

To add insult to injury, the Japanese government plans to bill them at least $6000 for air fare and medical checkups.

Having returned home, they have been so hopelessly smeared by the right-wing establishment in this country that neither they nor their families can show themselves in public. Nahoko Takato had to be calmed with tranquilizers, and doctors have announced that their treatment here in Japan has been far worse in many ways than their captivity in Iraq:

Dr. Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist who examined the three former hostages twice since their return, said the stress they were enduring now was “much heavier” than what they experienced during their captivity in Iraq. Asked to name their three most stressful moments, the former hostages told him, in ascending order: the moment when they were kidnapped on their way to Baghdad, the knife-wielding incident, and the moment they watched a television show the morning after their return here and realized Japan’s anger with them.

“Let’s say the knife incident, which lasted about 10 minutes, ranks 10 on a stress level,” Dr. Saito said in an interview at his clinic on Thursday. “After they came back to Japan and saw the morning news show, their stress level ranked 12.”

Well, Koizumi’s tactics worked. They won the elections.

And three selfless Japanese heroes have been ground into the dirt. Job well done.

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Entrance Ceremony

April 21st, 2004 Comments off

Well, the Winter semester has ended where I teach, and that means another new year at the school. Our attendance has been down a bit since 9/11–our school prepares Japanese youngsters of college age to go to institutions of higher education in the U.S. and elsewhere (though many take our own Associate of the Arts degree program here in Japan before moving on), and since the terrorism scare, and then the build-up to the Iraq war, more people have been a bit more nervous about studying abroad. However, that appears to be turning around, as our numbers are growing again–as you can see a bit in the photo above, about 600 new students entering this Spring.

So we had our annual entrance ceremony, which is always fun–meeting the new students and their parents, getting to know some of the people we’ll be spending a lot of time with in the next year and two. Also, we hold these events at nice hotels (this year at the ANA Hotel, last year at the Century Hyatt), where the halls are nice and the food excellent–see the chef carving the roast beef at right, and one small example of the pastries below.

There was also entertainment; some from the outside, like a marching band, a professional bagpipe player, a magician, and a string quartet–and from students, including a violin duet (two young ladies who styled themselves “The Violin Vixens”), a choir singing an original composition, and a pair of dancers. That along with the requisite speeches and presentations of awards to last year’s students.

All in all, quite a big and impressive bash. If you’d like to see more photographs, you can visit a small gallery of photos from the event.

An elderly woman made an impromptu dance for the Violin Vixens


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Hostages and Mad Cows

April 17th, 2004 Comments off

The first three Japanese hostages are back, but two more (a journalist and a “civic group activist,” whatever that is) have been taken, so I guess it’s back to work for the government. Meanwhile, opinions in Japan remain varied but low-key on the long-term impact of the SDF presence and Japanese hostages in Japan. One young woman commented, “Those three people were doing what they wanted, even though the Japanese government repeatedly warned that Iraq was too dangerous a place to go to. However, Koizumi was the one who sent the SDF in violation of the Constitution. I wonder what he would have done if those three had died. Their release is good news and a lucky break for Koizumi, even though he did not recall the SDF.”

Well, Koizumi is none too happy that two of the three released hostages want to go back to Iraq and continue their work. While the government got fairly good marks for how it handled the crisis, it remains vulnerable on the issue. Not too surprising, since most Japanese people–86%–will blame him for any deaths, whether they’re SDF or civilians. He commented on an advisory by Japan warning Japanese civilians to avoid travel to Iraq, reminding the former hostages how much work they put the government through to get them back. “It doesn’t matter how good their intentions are,” Koizumi complained. “After this ordeal and having had so many officials working without sleep or food to help them, they still talk that way. They should be aware of their actions.” One senior official, apparently on the condition of anonymity, remarked, “If they really hate to return to Japan, I want them to defect to Iraq. Since we’ve paid so much from the state coffers, I feel they should compensate us for it.” Which makes one wonder if indeed there was a payoff. It should be noted that mostly the anger towards these dedicated people comes from the government, which has the most to lose politically.

Meanwhile, Japan is slowly opening the gates for U.S. beef to be imported into Japan. The previous reopening of the market consisted of allowing U.S. beef to enter Japan only if each carcass is tested for Mad Cow disease–pretty fair, considering that all Japanese beef must undergo the same requirement. Even so, this has not mollified the U.S. government completely, as it recently prevented one cattle producer that wanted to test their cattle for export from carrying out those tests.

Yesterday, Japanese government announced that it is loosening the standards a little, allowing cows younger than 20 months to be imported without any testing. Considering that only one case of mad cow disease has been found in America, and that cow was raised in Canada, there is the possibility that Japan is being a bit strict. However, there remains the question why the U.S. government is so strong against testing. If they are taking that stance out of principle, then OK, but if they are trying to hide more possible cases of the disease, then there may be reason to worry.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2004 Tags:

Spring Sunrise

April 12th, 2004 2 comments


One of the benefits of spending a sleepless night because of a bad cold–you get to see the sunrise.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2004 Tags:

Hostage Terror

April 9th, 2004 9 comments

knifeMore details have come out about the three Japanese hostages held in Japan, some of them harrowing:

“The government will do its utmost so that those who have become hostages will be safely released as soon as possible,” he said, adding there is “no reason” for Japan to withdraw troops that are conducting humanitarian reconstruction aid for Iraqi people. …

Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the kidnappers shouted “Allahu akbar” — God is great — in the video and held knives to the throats of the Japanese. …

In the full video, four masked men point knives and swords at the blindfolded captives as they lay on the floor of a room with concrete walls.

At one point, a gunman holds a knife to the throat of one of the men, whose blindfold has been removed; his eyes widen in panic and he struggles to try to get free. The woman screams and weeps.

A Senior SDF (Self-Defense Forces) official said, “We could be laughed at by other countries if we run away.” Perhaps true enough, but it seems to me that this is not really the point. I think that it is a foregone conclusion that Japan will not agree to any sort of pullout in exchange for the hostages. The question is whether the hostage-takers, if they can even be contacted, will agree to anything less than a troop pullout as a reason for not killing the hostages.

And if the hostages are killed, especially if it done in a way that would shock the Japanese people–especially with such personal information, names and faces and families to associate with the victims–what will be the political fallout, not just for the current Koizumi government, but for the whole right-wing-led movement to remilitarize Japan?

Interestingly, the news reports in Japan seem to be emphasizing the fact that this terrorist group, calling themselves the “Mujahedeen Brigades,” is not on the list of known terrorist groups, and seem to be suggesting that this is not truly a political terrorist action, but rather one done for money or other non-political reasons.

I spoke to two Japanese acquaintances about the issue, one who supported sending the SDF forces, the other against. Both mentioned that the three people who went there went of their own volition, and they knew the risks; therefore, although this is a terrible thing, it is not really related to the SDF forces being in Japan. The target–three civilians–didn’t seem to make sense. Japan’s SDF forces, while armed, are only doing reconstruction work, so why target Japan? My friend who supported the SDF being there said that killing these three civilians wouldn’t change their mind on sending people to help reconstruct Iraq, though they did say that if SDF forces became the targets, they might change their opinion because it would clearly be too dangerous.

One factor that plays into this matter laterally is the nature of the SDF forces sent overseas. This is a political hot potato in Japan, though the lines are sometimes blurred. My friend who supported the SDF being in Iraq saw them as purely reconstruction workers, and while armed, armed only for self-defense. That much is of course true, but there are deeper politics involved. If the forces are only there for reconstruction, then why send military troops? My own belief is that this is a gradated political effort to transform Japan’s constitutionally mandated self-defense-only military stance into one that allows Japanese troops to go overseas–right now, just a fledgling step to do reconstruction, but as time goes on, perhaps they will take on more of a military role–one which would naturally evolve as armed Japanese soldiers are sent into combat zones.

So while I agree that the hostage situation is not really connected to the political situation per se, and the hostage takers chose a strange and perhaps even meaningless or powerless manner to effect change, this situation is a direct consequence of changing Japan’s military stance.


Japan Now Tested on Its Military Commitment

April 8th, 2004 1 comment

Three Japanese civilians Japanese civilians have been kidnaped in Iraq, along with seven or eight South Koreans. The three Japanese are being focused on now, as a videotape has been released (and shown on NHK national television) showing their identities, along with a message of extortion forwarded by Al-Jazeera: “Three of your sons have fallen into our hands. We offer you two choices: either pull out your forces, or we will burn them alive. We give you three days starting the day this tape is broadcast.”

The three, two men and one woman, have been identified as Noriaki Imai (18), Soichiro Koriyama (32) and Nahoko Takato (34).

This will be an extremely difficult problem for Prime Minister Koizumi, as the story of these three Japanese citizens will be closely followed, and he and his policy to support the Iraq war and sending Japanese military (Self-Defense Forces, or SDF) to battle zones. If the Japanese people are faced with three of their citizens, with names and faces, being burned alive as sacrifices to Koizumi’s militaristic policies, then Koizumi’s government will be faced with a grave test to justify themselves.

This is significant because Koizumi and others have been pressing for Japan to take a much more militaristic stance, changing the post-war constitution (or sidestepping it) to allow Japan to send armed troops overseas and have more than just defensive forces. The conservatives here have long been pressing hard for this, with the right-wing Yomiuri media corporation especially using its media outlets to popularize the campaign.

But when you do things like that, things like this happen. Until now, the Japanese people have uneasily acquiesced to this campaign–but faced with a terrorist response with such a personal face, it is uncertain how the Japanese people will respond to all of this.

UPDATE: The seven South Koreans, evangelical Christian ministers, have been freed. Two Arab men have also been kidnaped, and at least one had a U.S. driver’s license, and attended school in the U.S. The Japanese government has already stated publicly that it will not withdraw its troops, saying it has “no reason” to do so.

This information on the hostages comes from Japan Today:

Koriyama, 32, is a freelance journalist from Miyazaki Prefecture. The video footage showed his staff identification card from Japanese magazine Weekly Asahi.

The Asahi Shimbun said Koriyama is currently not contracted to the company but has frequented the office due to personal ties with editors there. He had provided photos for the weekly magazine by contract on several occasions.

Takato, 34, is a volunteer worker from Chitose, Hokkaido. Her mother Kyoko said on Thursday night, “That is her in the footage. I believe the Foreign Ministry will contact us later.”

Imai, 18, is also from Hokkaido. His family said he is a friend of Takato’s and that he got to know Koriyama in Amman. His mother confirmed the man in the video is her son, and said he was scheduled to return around April 17-18.

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