Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2011’ Category


March 11th, 2015 Comments off

It has been four years now.

New Year’s Quake

January 1st, 2012 1 comment

Sachi and I just felt a really strong tremor. Looks like it might have been a 5 or so in the Pacific to the south. Really shook us strongly here.

Update: now they’re saying it’s a 6.8.

Update: Now it’s upgraded to a 7.0, 300 miles to our SSW. Despite that, it registers as being strongest from Tokyo northward to Fukushima.


This one may have been distant, but it registered strong here. It had Sachi and me getting ready to look for cover.

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Year of the Dragon

January 1st, 2012 Comments off

This is my year, my fifth time around, so I’m turning 48 in June. Holy cow, I’ll be 50 soon. Just after midnight, Sachi and I celebrated with a snack of ham, cheese, and nuts with red wine (a gift from a friend), not the healthiest of late-night snacks, but it’s not like we do this every night. Even Ponta got a nice snack of rice and a little bit of cheese.

2011 was, well, a full year. I started out with a case of the flu in January. Since I got permanent residency in late 2010, we were in full house-hunting mode throughout the first four months of the year. We got scammed by our realtor who faked us into signing for our house (which, fortunately, turned out to be a house we’re happy with, which does not excuse the scumball realtor). Between that and actually finalizing the deal, a 9.0 earthquake shook the whole of eastern Japan, causing a tsunami which killed as many as 19,000 people, and setting off a nuclear disaster which seemed to go on forever. Stores were low on supplies for weeks while the whole nation sat on the edge of their collective seats waiting to see how bad bad could get in Fukushima. My school closed for the remainder of the semester. Then we moved into our new house, with all the work and technicalities involved with all that. We bought a bunch of new furniture and settled in. In May, we landscaped our small garden and learned that bin Laden had been killed. Judgment Day came and passed, and then came and passed again. Sachi and I planned a housewarming party, but then her father, Junzo, passed away. We went to Nagano for the funeral. I fractured a bone in my right foot which I had broken some years back, which kept me on crutches for more than a month, foiling our plan to buy a puppy in late July. Then I fell and sprained my left wrist which made it hard to use crutches. I made a DIY PC. I stopped blogging on a regular basis just as the right wing went nuclear and the Occupy movement started gaining steam. After my foot got better, we got Ponta, for whom I started a blog. A typhoon hit, prompting my school to close early that day. Steve Jobs passed away. Sachi and I planned another housewarming party and had to cancel it as my mother fell ill and I had to take an emergency trip back to America. My mother passed away while I was there. I came back to Japan, finished my semester here, and bought a used car (having a car is a fairly big deal if you live in Japan). Then I went back to America for a two-week visit, and came back to Japan to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with Sachi and Ponta.

It’s hard to think back to a year as event-filled as this one, and brings to mind the Chinese curse about living in interesting times. But there’s been good along with the bad, the most significant of which was getting Ponta, who has been a particularly bright spot in our lives.

Let’s hope this year will be a better one, Mayan calendars notwithstanding.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Main Tags:

Merry Christmas!

December 25th, 2011 5 comments

2011 has been a long year for us, with unusually extreme ups and downs. This was the year of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. It was also the year we lost Sachi’s father and my mother.

On the other end of things, however, we bought a car, got our brilliant little puppy Ponta, and bought a new house. I was even supposed to get Spanish citizenship, though that was thwarted at the last moment by Spanish bureaucracy (I’ll almost certainly get it later, though). Things have changed fast, making life today almost unrecognizable from what it was a year ago.

So here’s looking towards a bright future, with greetings from us here in the Poza household.

Here is our Christmas Card (enlarge on click) for this year:


And yes, I photoshopped the license plate, we don’t really have all fives. If you would like to see Sachi’s souped-up and doggie-fied version of this, go check out the post at Shiba Me.

Merry Christmas!

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Ikebukuro Tags:

The Number Four

December 4th, 2011 Comments off

This feature of a parking lot around the corner from our house kind of stands out when you pass it:



It caught me by surprise at first, and then I realized: Japanese have a superstition about the number four, as it is phonetically similar to the Japanese word for “death.”

The strange thing is, this is not typical. Hospitals are famous for omitting the number four for rooms, the same way we leave out the 13th floor in buildings. But outside of hospitals, the number four is not usually left out. I’ve never seen a parking lot with the same gap.

Stranger still, in the same parking lot, they begin at “one” again a few rows in–and the number four is present there. As is the number “42,” even closer to the sound for the word “death” in Japanese.


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December 4th, 2011 1 comment

This is a prominent feature of a building in the neighborhood:


At first I thought it was a cool feature in a facility for kids. What kid wouldn’t love to have this around instead of a staircase? I went around the side of the building to see what kind of place would have this.

Turns out it’s an old folk’s home. Huh?

That puzzled me for a while, then I figured it out: if there’s a fire, many would have trouble going down stairs. It is, in all likelihood, an emergency slide.

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Will the iPhone Succeed in Japan?

October 26th, 2011 5 comments

When the iPhone 4S was released, the iPhone was divided into eight different listings in Japan’s smartphone sales figures; no other phones were so divided. Despite this, the iPhone 4S dominated the top six spots, with the old iPhone 4 taking two of the following five spots for a total of 8 of the top 11 best-sellers.

How’s it doing in the second week? It now holds the top seven spots, and eight of the top ten.

In other words, every single variation (in capacity and carrier) of the 4S outsells the total number sold for any other smartphone–but even if you subtract all of those, the year-old iPhone 4 still tops the charts. Even just one of the the capacity versions (the 32GB) all by itself outsells the latest of any other brand.

Remember when the iPhone was supposed to fail spectacularly in Japan? From Businessweek, December 2007:

[C]onsumers here won’t be as starstruck by the iPhone’s high-tech gadgetry as users elsewhere. Japan’s 10 handset makers, which dominate the domestic market, already offer dozens of models typically costing several hundred dollars that send e-mail, browse the Internet, shoot photos and videos, and even pick up live TV broadcasts. Most come with a built-in global positioning system, and some even double as credit cards and commuter passes or safeguard personal data using fingerprint or face-recognition technology. … In its current form, the iPhone’s 3.5-inch touchscreen and its access to online applications such as YouTube and Google (GOOG) Maps are about all that set it apart from other handsets in Japan.

Ha. A few months later, when the iPhone was still seen as an unsure thing in Japan, I wrote about how these “features” in Japanese cell phones were virtually useless:

I tried using some of those feature-rich ones a few times when I passed a cell phone shop and had some time to look. It was painfully hard. I had a tough time understanding what the heck to do even when I got the salesperson to switch the phone to English (it took them a minute or two to figure even that out themselves). After ten minutes with a nice-looking phone, I decided that I did not want to use the damned thing, as attractive as all its touted features were. Not to mention that some of the “great” features are in fact dogs.

I pointed out that while the iPhone had no TV reception, digital wallet, or even the all-important hook to let little plastic toys dangle from a strap, the magic of the iPhone was in its ease of use–that, seeing as Japanese phones were impossible to figure out how to use, any one feature on the iPhone was worth ten on any other keitai. Not to mention that with the App Store, the iPhone had far greater potential to multiply its utility. I had a hard time understanding why so few people could see this, but it has always been true–many people pay attention to little else but the list of tech specs, and completely ignore the user experience. That’s why tablet computers failed before the iPad came along. That’s what Jobs was great at–making things a joy to use, instead of simply having a something with tech specs you could brag about but not really put to much use.

And yet, years later, many people still don’t get it–ergo the number of people believing that removable media, USB ports, or faster CPUs are all that a tablet needs to dethrone the iPad. Sadly, competitors seem to be unable to think independently–or, to think different–as is evidenced by the fact that virtually all iPhone and iPad competitors look virtually identical to the Apple products they seek to outclass.

They won’t be successful until they do what Jobs did: come up with something new and better.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, iPhone Tags:

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

September 24th, 2011 3 comments

I’ve seen these over time, and thought I blogged on it years ago, but apparently not. There is an insect which appears all the way from Western Europe to Japan which is large (about an inch and a half long by maybe just less than half an inch wide), brightly colored, and might fool you at first into thinking it’s a hummingbird. The insect hovers over flowering plants, moving just like a hummingbird might–stopping and even backing up in mid-air, and even making a humming sound as it does so. There are no hummingbirds in Japan, though, so it is a simple step from there to identify it as an insect. That plus the antennae.

Meet the Hummingbird Hawk Moth:



This one has been visiting our garden for the past couple of days.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Nature Tags:

Typhoon Roke

September 21st, 2011 1 comment

The typhoon is over Yamanashi, passing just to the north of Fuji soon, and will pass just north of Tokyo in a few hours. We have strong rain and high winds; the house sometimes shakes as gales pass, and the heavy rain is pretty much constant now. Landslides and flooding from overflowing rivers is being reported all over.

Usually, I work until about 7:30 and get home as late as 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, but today my school (very wisely) cancelled all classes after three in the afternoon. The Odakyu train line closed early, and lines have been closing steadily all afternoon–the Yamanote was just reported closed (though a few counter-clockwise trains are still going). The Sobu is closed, as well as the Chuo beyond Hachioji. Some parts of the Saikyo Line are also out of service. Bullet trains are pretty much shut down.

After it passes over the Kanto area, it should hit Fukushima head-on at about 9 p.m. As if they didn’t have enough problems.

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August 19th, 2011 3 comments

Less than an hour ago, a 6.5 quake (some reports put it at 6.8, but the USGS has 6.5) struck off of Fukushima, causing a 1.5-foot-tall tsunami in areas. The quake shook us fairly well here in Tokyo; Sachi and I felt it strongly, and it shook the TV as we were watching it. (Ponta didn’t budge, but this one had an epicenter pretty far away, if that makes any difference.) But we took it in stride, waiting to see how big it got and then going on with our business.

Now, normally, a 6.8 is a big deal. The Loma Prieta quake of ’89 was a 6.9, killing over 60 people. The 2003 quake in Bam, Iran, was a 6.6 and killed more than 40,000. There are at least 16 quakes in the past hundred years that killed 2000 or more people.

Today’s quake was one of the largest aftershocks of the 3/11 quake; there have been 71 aftershocks greater than 6.0, and 16 at 6.5 or greater. (This site has the best data.)

Now, I know it was a 9.0–but it’s been five months now. Exactly when do we see these things end?

Support Whom?

August 16th, 2011 1 comment

I was behind a truck in traffic for a bit today. On the back of the truck, there was a ribbon decal. Wondering what cause the trucker was supporting, I read carefully at the next stop. It said, “Support Our Troops.”

Now, in an American context, there’s simply nothing strange about that. But this is Japan. And the decal was in English. So, WTF? It could be just another decoration where a Japanese person chose a random English-language design without understanding what it meant. Still, it strikes me as odd.

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Well, Finally

August 11th, 2011 7 comments

Hulu plans on a launch in Japan later this year. There is also mention of Netflix planning a launch in 43 countries at some indeterminate time, which echoes this report from March about it hiring someone to set things up in Japan and Korea.

Currently, there are postal rental services in Japan, but they are more expensive than shop rentals and only offer set numbers of rentals per month (usually 4 or 8). Nothing streaming, or even rotating rental schemes like Netflix’s original postal setup. Certainly nothing reasonable in terms of cost.

So, Hulu and/or Netflix in Japan sounds great–if it’s done well. Which is the sticking point. I expect it may be crippled in some way, either by the existing businesses or license holders in Japan lobbying to restrict them in some vital way, or the imports getting greedy and making it expensive simply because they can. Best-case scenario: the newcomers mirror the American service, do well, and get even better copycats here. We’ll see.

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Meet Ponta

August 8th, 2011 6 comments

Meet Montgomery Pontevedra Samadi Poza, doing his best Mister Sleepyhead act here.

We don’t have him with us yet; we’ll be picking him up on August 16th. But he’s ours now.

Read all about Ponta and his continuing adventures at Shiba Me ( ). He’s also now on Twitter.

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Anniversary Dinner

August 5th, 2011 1 comment

I spent 11 hours today at hospitals (checkups and follow-up on the leg) and then working non-stop at school, so I didn’t have a moment to do the day justice. Sachi and I first met on August 5, 2006, so this was the 5th anniversary of that day.

When I got home at 8:45 pm, though, Sachi was prepared. She made a spectacular dinner (more so than her usual great dinners). First, an anise-flavored potage soup, with garlic bread and salad on the side, with a dish of pineapple and cream cheese wrapped in prosciutto.


Then a meat course with dark chicken meat and a nice marbled steak, flavored with a new ruby-colored rock salt that has just a touch of Indian Kala Namak seasoning–a volcanic salt with enough sulfur to give it a egg taste, but tastes really good on lots of stuff–especially steak.


All washed down with some Californian red wine. Really good. Gochisou sama.

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Neighbors and Noise, More and Less and More

August 3rd, 2011 4 comments

About a month or so ago, the immediate neighborhood changed: we got next-door neighbors.

When we first saw the land our house is built on, it was just a foundation, one of two which were being built on land vacated by an older, larger house. The one next to ours had been spoken for from much earlier on. Ours was finished first, however, and we moved in in mid-April.

For the following few months, the noise was pretty bad. On the one hand, the house next to ours was under construction, which meant buzz-saw and hammering wake-up alarms at 8 a.m. daily, including weekends. On the other hand, there was the incessant buzzing from the parking lot for the fitness center next door. It’s a member’s-only lot controlled by a ticket machine like in a pay lot, and every time someone left (which was constantly) a loud buzzer would sound. I noticed it when we first saw the finished house, but accepted it when it was suggested that it wasn’t that bad. Well, it was, and annoyed me quite a bit for some time.

When the new family moved in, the construction sounds died down, eventually. They were replaced by squealing kids sounds–they have three young children–but those are usually later in the day, and not too frequent. Besides, especially in this area of Tokyo, you’re going to hear kids whether you like it or not.

Something I noticed a few days ago, however, was that I had, at some point, stopped noticing the parking lot buzzer. That pleased me, as I had thought I would not be able to get used to it. Well, it turns out I hadn’t: the buzzer is no longer used. I simply hadn’t noticed when it stopped. My guess is that it happened when Sachi and I were in Nagano for her father’s funeral.

It then struck me as to why the buzzer stopped–it happened very soon after the new family moved in. Which makes sense: the buzzer was much closer to their place, and must have bugged them even more. Their family room was practically just ten or fifteen feet away from the machine; if it bothered me with double-paned glass windows shut from about four times the distance, it must have been driven them nuts over there. I haven’t asked, but would bet good money on the idea that they complained to the fitness center. I had thought of doing that myself, but had figured that it was required, some safety regulation or something, and they would likely not turn off an annoyance to me in the face of possible liability should there be an accident. Turns out I was wrong.

However, it seems that there cannot be a period without some neighborhood fixture causing noise. Just a week or so ago, starting at 7:00 am, we started hearing a frequent low-frequency noise–something like a cell phone set to vibrate, on a hard surface nearby. But it kept going, and going, and going–for hours. Turns out there’s a dry-cleaner’s about 50m away, and they have some new machine inside which makes that sound. Or, that is, an industrial-level steam-pressing-like sound which, from 50 meters away with windows shut tight, sounds like a cell phone vibrating.

Japan has very different zoning laws than the U.S., and most places you can see a much wider variety of buildings. That’s why, when walking down a single block, you could see a medium-sized apartment building, an old, run-down house, a small shop, a large residence, a small-business factory, a parking lot, and a convenience store, all in a line. Oh, there is zoning, and there are rules, but many areas are much more an eclectic mix than you might expect.

You might also have heard of the concept of wa, explained as the neighborhood peace where everyone is sensitive to any disturbance or noise that might disrupt things. Well, if it exists, it sure doesn’t seem to be set on “automatic,” at least not around here. We’ll have to talk to them–at the very least ask them not to start at 7:00 in the morning.

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August 3rd, 2011 1 comment

About five and a half years ago, I was leaving my apartment, rounding the corner leading to the stairwell when I slipped. I fell, but my foot remained level, wrenching it so that extreme pressure was put on my fifth metatarsal, which snapped cleanly. It took almost 9 months to completely recover, and for about three months, I lived on crutches–a pain even if you have a decent set.

Well, three and a half weeks ago, I slipped and fell at work, placing stress on the same bone. I thought I heard something, though not the definite crack I heard when I broke the bone cleanly. The foot hurt like heck, but was not ballooning up like the break had, so I prayed it was a sprain and went off to class. After an hour, the pain and swelling was enough to convince me that a hospital visit was definitely better sooner than later, so I cut the class short (it was the last class on Friday, so a tiny bit of luck there) and took a taxi to the closest emergency room.

Sure enough, this one was a hairline fracture. I didn’t need a full cast, but they made one of those half-cast things that they activate with warm water so the material hardens and makes something that can be bandaged onto your foot to keep it immobile. So it was back to crutches, and I switched back to riding my scooter to work.

The scooter was a godsend, as it was years ago. The crutches I got this time were terrible, the handles hard bare wood with no padding, just murder on my hands. Now, imagine going to the station–the south side, as the side closest to me has no escalator or stairs–a 15-minute walk even when healthy, on crutches the whole way. Then a similar walk from the station to work at the other end. Then repeat that on the way home. No. Fracking. Way.

Hell, when the typhoon hit recently, I had to abandon the scooter for one day, and that was bad enough. Even taking a taxi from and to stations, I still had to navigate the stations, and nearly fell several times because of the effect of the slippery floors on the rubber pads on the crutches. In one station, I had to ask a guy working there where the elevator to the street was–and he sent me to the wrong one, which was a long, painful crutch ride to an elevator that deposited me to a place I knew–smack between a very lengthy hallway between stations. I could have killed the guy. The pain was excruciating by the time I got to the street.

On the scooter, I just hop out my door, ride the thing to work, and hop in the door. No problem.

Things got worse, however; my first day back to work, I tried to navigate a small space, lost my balance, and fell over backwards–spraining my left wrist. The one I needed to use the crutches. Well, that was fun. Back to the emergency room, nice to find I had no breaks, but still, I now had a fractured foot and a sprained wrist, and had to get around on one crutch.

It was not a fun few weeks.

Worse, it put off the puppy search Sachi and I had planned for so long. I wanted very badly to get the puppy at the very start of a vacation period so I could be there full-time for as long as possible while the pup was small. But a fractured metatarsal means no driving, and we’re not getting the puppy from a pet store–we are set on checking out breeders and finding a puppy from a good one.

Just this week, I was able to mostly abandon the crutch, which was an improvement. Previously, I had to use my ass to go up and down the stairs–sit down and push myself up or down one step at a time, whilst moving the crutches up or down every three or four steps. Now, I am using the heel of my right foot instead and so can get around without crutches most of the time, and hopefully can start using the full foot soon. I should be good enough to drive by this weekend, and we’ll check out a few breeders with a rental before we go to Sachi’s hometown for O-Bon.

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Never Buy from Dospara

July 10th, 2011 11 comments

For the past week, I have been ordering parts of a DIY computer kit. In order to get it made this weekend, I have been ordering parts online for a while, and on parts that would have taken longer, I paid special expedited fees to get them “within 24 hours”) though some of those took two days). The CPU cooler is an integral part, and Dospara is the only established chain that claims it is both in stock and can be express-delivered. So I pay the extra fee. It takes more than the 24 hours they promised, but only by about 8 hours.

So finally, by late Sunday afternoon, the parts are here. I am ready to go. I open the CPU cooler, knowing that the back-plate is the first thing I have to install. I am all set to go–maker’s video page is open with a tutorial, parts laid out, all ready. I open the box… and immediately something is screwy. The seal is broken. I take the parts bag out, and it’s open, and bits are falling out. Apparently it is a used item, though it was sold to me as new. And then I notice that one of the parts is screwy. This is what it should look like:


And this is what it does look like:


Note the two screws/pins on the one arm. they are upside down. The central pin can be removed and the arm turned upside-down, but then it does not function correctly. I tried various ways of fitting them together, it could not be done. The screws/pins at the ends cannot be removed by the user and turned upside down. Apparently, this was a mismade item.

Right out of the gate, I am stymied. So I try calling the closest retail store. Despite being listed as open, there is no answer. I call the next-closest shop. He lets me explain for five minutes before telling me that the online shop has a number (it was not listed on the contact page in a way I could easily find), and he tells it to me. I call it up, and, in a recording so low in volume I have to strain to hear it, I hear a recording saying their hours are up, so too bad. Dial tone.

I call up the same guy and he tells me there’s nothing I can do–call up tomorrow. I hung up. I was pissed. I know, don’t sweat the small stuff–but so much has been going wrong for me, including a deep cut to my finger, an imminent cold, and a fractured metatarsal in my foot that is making my life hell, I am in no mood for being treated like crap. I took the photos above, set them up in a temp folder on one of my sites so I could show them the problem, and I called their main store in Akihabara. Again, no answer. I tried a different shop. That guy, after another 2-3 minutes tells me to call their online number, and when I tell him they’re not open, he says that the first guy gave me a wrong number. Sure enough, I call, and the number is operating., So, thanks, Mr. Shinjuku Idiot.

Then I get the bad news: I’m screwed, at least for the next several days. Their “system” won’t “allow” them to help me the way it should–namely, express-ship a replacement and have the delivery guy take the old one in exchange. Nope. I have to wait until their repair center calls me up tomorrow (“sometime after noon”), then they arrange for someone to pick up the part, then I wait for them to confirm what they can clearly see in the photos I sent, and then they’ll send me a replacement. I say, screw that, give me my money back and I’ll express-order from someplace else. Nope–no refunds! We have your money, so screw you. That’s the Reader’s Digest account–the call took about ten minutes while this guy gives me the teineigo “by my actions I will ritually demonstrate that you’re not really important to us” speech, in which he tells me that I will have to jump through hoops to get what I paid good money for a few days ago.

Essentially, they don’t give a crap about customer service–they sold me a bad unit, probably a returned item they falsely sold as new, for which I paid to have express-delivered, and then they tell me I have to sit on my hands and wait–after having set this up carefully–until next weekend before I can even get started.

Short version: never buy anything from Dospara–they are, apparently, incompetent jerks who don’t give a damn about you once they have your money.

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A Japanese Funeral

June 29th, 2011 8 comments

Last week, my wife’s father, Junzo, passed away after a long illness. We got the call late Thursday, and so headed up to Nagano on the weekend. We decided to rent a car, as there would be driving around to do, and family members would not likely be available often to cart us around. We drove up Saturday morning, hoping to get there by 1:00 pm so Sachi could spend time preparing for what her role would be. However, as soon as we got on the expressway, we discovered that the last three segments of the road to Saku, Sachi’s hometown, were jammed to a standstill because of at least one accident in the tunnels which make up most of the way at that section of the expressway.

As a result, we got off the expressway early, at an interchange called Shimo-Nita (known for its konnyaku and negi), and took the local roads through the mountains and into the Saku valley. We wound up not losing much time after all, arriving at just past 1:30. We even decided to take this way next time as it is somewhat more pleasant.

For funerals and the time leading up to them, everyone dresses according to custom–all in black. Women wear simple black dresses (or, for the ceremony later, black kimono), with basic pearl strands; girls of high school age or younger wear their school uniforms, as Junzo’s youngest granddaughter did. Men wear black suits with white shirts and plain black ties. At the entrance of the home, two large white lanterns are hung on either side; by coincidence, we noted another house just a short way down the street also had these lanterns, indicating that they too had lost someone.

By this time, Junzo’s body was laid out in Sachi’s brother’s living room. (The eldest son is usually the one to take on family responsibilities, and is supposed to stay with the body until it is cremated.) Dressed in a plain kimono, Junzo was laid out on a futon, covered with a white blanket with iridescent white patterning, with a white handkerchief covering his face. A knife in a purple cloth scabbard rested on his chest. Squarish pillows were on either side of his head to keep it straight. As is usual in Japan, the body was not embalmed; the body is preserved with dry ice, though one never sees it or the mist one might expect. To one side, there was a large photo of Junzo in health, with white and black bunting.

Visitors would come to a floor pillow next to the body and pray for a moment. Behind Junzo’s head was a small table with food offerings (including the traditional bowl full of rice with the chopsticks standing straight up), a candle, and a pot of incense. The visitor would take a stick of incense, light it with the candle, and then place the incense stick in the pot. Each visitor could, if they chose, remove the handkerchief and see his face.

The body stayed there throughout that day and into the next, while the family held meals and went about other activities. Family members, neighbors, friends and others would come to pay respects. I found it a little odd at times to be, for example, eating dinner, with everyone chatting away, and–oh yeah, there’s Junzo’s body on the other side of the room.

That evening, a vigil (otsuya) was held. A Buddhist priest came, and with most family members in attendance, sitting behind him, he knelt before the body and chanted–what Sachi referred to as “Namu namu namu,” denoting the specialized speech used, called o-kyou, which many Japanese themselves mostly cannot understand. As this was taking place, a special incense box was passed around; it contained a burning coal and a side tray of incense crumbs; you were to take a pinch of incense, hold it to your forehead, and then drop it on the coals. This is called o-shoukou. After he finished, everyone visited the body again, praying and burning more incense.

Afterwards, we had dinner, with the priest staying to join us. There were no special ceremonies, we just ate and talked. Afterwards, Sachi and I returned to our inn (ryoukan), and slept.

We woke up the next day, and everyone arrived for moving the body to the casket. A man who I figured was the coordinator for the funeral brought a straight (rectangular), narrow wooden casket lined with white silk; it was placed on the floor, sitting on small footstools, beyond Junzo’s now uncovered body. The coordinator waited for everyone to get arranged, and to tie rice-reed ropes (not too dissimilar to what is used at Shinto shrines) around their waists, the stiff strands pointing up and down to indicated heaven and earth.

Then the coordinator brought out a green and purple silk kimono (colors chosen due to Junzo’s preferences), and proceeded to dress Junzo in it. He then placed white cloth coverings over Junzo’s hands and ankles, and slippers on his feet, leaving at least eight cloth strings for family members to then come forward and tie closed. Male family members, myself included, were then asked to come forward and take part of the edge of the top two sheets Junzo rested upon, lift the body up, and place it in the casket. This whole step is called the noukan. The coordinator then covered the body with the blanket used previously, made sure everything was in place, and asked family members to add straw zori sandals and a walking stick to the casket. A box of flowers and petals was then unwrapped, and we were called upon to place these around Junzo’s head until it seemed to float in a pool of color.

The casket was then covered; the top was not on hinges, but was a separate piece, rounded, with small hinged doors above the head. The coordinator hammered four nails almost all the way in at each corner; two rectangular green stones were then given to family members, each of whom used their left hand to tap one of the nails twice. After this, the eldest son was asked to finish hammering in the nails. A white netting was fitted around the casket, and a silk covering around that, both with openings for the doors above Junzo’s head.

JhearseAt this point, male family members were asked to help move the casket to the hearse. The one used for this funeral was western in style, though often a Japanese hearse will have an ornate golden top (see Wikipedia image at right); I saw one as we returned from the crematorium. We all then removed the rope belts and got into cars for the procession. Family members carried items such as the oversized photo with us. When we were ready, the hearse let out a loud, long blow of its horn (not a standard car horn), and took off for the crematorium, all of us following.

The crematorium was in the hills not too far to the south. A beautiful place, I hope to go back there some day to do birdwatching. We collected in a room with two doors leading to ovens, where a metal cart on hydraulics (still radiating heat from the previous cremation) sat waiting. On the other side of the room, Junzo’s photo was placed, and again, incense was lit by all. We were asked to carry in the casket and place it on the cart. The doors above Junzo’s head were opened, so everyone could pay final respects. The casket’s coverings were removed, and the cart was moved into the cremation furnace. The doors were closed and the furnace lit.

The family was then told to wait in one of the buildings nearby, equipped with kitchens and toilets, but mostly common tatami rooms with low tables to sit around. It would be an hour and a half before things would be ready, we were told. We ate snacks and drank juice (saké for those not driving and who wished it), and some of us took walks. I almost wished I had brought my camera with the zoom lens–I know there were some birds I had never seen before.

After the time was up, we were called back in. The cart had already been pulled out, and most of the matter was gone–but a fair number of bone fragments remained, including ribs, vertebrae, recognizable ends of femurs and other parts. They were burned dry, light, and brittle, fragmented but some as much as six inches long. As the family stood and watched, an attendant used a large metal dustpan to collect the bone fragments with a brush, leaving behind remains of the casket. He deposited what he found on a larger metal tray, with the bones from the head in a special part of the tray.

The tray was moved to a part of the room near the shrine with Junzo’s picture, and several sets of rough, oversized bamboo ‘chopsticks’ were handed out. Each family member was called upon to use these to place pieces of bone (not pieces from the head) into a plain white urn. At first, primary family members were asked to do so left-handed; then we came in pairs, using our right hands, two people working together to move individual pieces into the urn. Then primary family members worked to move most of the remaining pieces in, including the dust, which was sifted out by the attendant. This left the pieces of bone from Junzo’s head, which were saved for last–you don’t want them to be in the urn the wrong way up.

The attendant used a stick to compact the bones already in the urn (making slightly uncomfortable crunching sounds), and then the bone fragments from the skull and jaw were added, and the urn closed. The urn was placed in a decorated box. Sachi’s brother was outfitted with a sling which wrapped around his neck, in which the box with the urn was fitted. It was at this point that I teared up more than any other–not just remembering Junzo, but realizing that, if Sachi gets her wish and passes before I do, then I would be doing this for her someday.

Sachi’s brother then walked to the head car with his mother and his wife, as we took the photograph and other mementos with us in the motorcade back home. The urn was placed in the living room where the body had been kept, and we had a light lunch.

Afterwards, we all got in cars again and went to a temple for the actual funeral ceremony. We arrived at the temple and waited for everything to be arranged. Junzo’s remains, along with his photo, were placed upon a dais with other accoutrements, and eventually, we all sat arrayed to one side on strips of thick, bright-red felt carpet while visitors were received. Up until this point, it was a purely family affair. But now, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and other people related to Junzo and/or the family came to pay respects. Each of them made an offering of incense, of the type in the box with the burning coal.

After they had all left, chairs made for tatami rooms were brought out, and we sat through the formal ceremony. The chief priest came out, with his assistant–the same one who had visited the house the night before–sitting on the side at a low desk with metal bowls and a drum along with other devices. The chief priest sat on a low chair atop a floor cushion before the altar with Junzo’s remains, and began chanting. He did so alone at first, but eventually was echoed by or chanted in unison with his assistant. The assistant also made use of the instruments–sometimes the drum, sometimes banging one of two metal pots for a bell sound (one low, the other high), and a hand-held bell on a handle which he would tap slowly and then quickly in three sets of ringing.


As the chanting went on, at two different points we were asked by the coordinator to stand, and come forth in line to offer the coal-top incense behind the main priest. Finally, after about a half hour, the chanting ended, as did the ceremony.

After this, we moved to a dining room with an altar and two rows of low tables. All the meals, previously prepared, lay under white sheets with names written on paper strips atop them. They mixed up my given and family names, so that Sachi’s name was given as “Luis Sachiko.” All but the primary family members were given gift bags, similar to a wedding; the bags, I discovered later, held a small bottle of saké, a rice dish, bean-paste snacks, and a set of towels, along with a card with a small package of tea.

The meals were quite elaborate–grilled fish, meat pâté, sushi and sashimi, tempura, various soups and egg pudding, fruits and so on–maybe as many as two dozen small dishes, common in style but much better quality than fancy inn-style dinners in Japan. There were a few speeches, including one by the head priest, and we all sat down to eat.

After this, I had to get back to Tokyo to catch up on long-delayed work, but after I left, the family took the remains up to the family grave site and placed his remains with all that had gone before him. Before I came home, Sachi called and made sure that, upon entering, I would take a pinch of salt from one of the bowls she had prepared on either side of the door, and throw some on each shoulder and then the top of my head before brushing it off–what you must do before returning to any home after you have attended a funeral.

Thankfully, these two days happened to give a break in the oppressive summer heat; no rain fell during the day, and it was sometimes cloudy, but otherwise relatively cool.

It was quite an experience, and more than most non-Japanese experience unless they are members of Japanese families. While some parts of it were strange to a westerner (like having the body laid out in the living room, or picking out bones of a person I not only knew but to whose body I had shortly before said goodbye), I thought that it was a fairly good way of doing things. In the west, we tend to distance ourselves from death too much, and so fear it perhaps disproportionately. In Japan, from a young age, people are not shielded from this; proximity and contact with the body and its remains seems a sensible thing to expose young people to–though that might just be me.

Categories: Focus on Japan, Focus on Japan 2011 Tags:

The Skilled Veterans Corps

June 1st, 2011 Comments off

Noble, inspiring, logical, and yet sad:

A group of more than 200 Japanese pensioners are volunteering to tackle the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power station. The Skilled Veterans Corps, as they call themselves, is made up of retired engineers and other professionals, all over the age of 60.

They say they should be facing the dangers of radiation, not the young.

It was while watching the television news that Yasuteru Yamada decided it was time for his generation to stand up. No longer could he be just an observer of the struggle to stabilise the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The retired engineer is reporting back for duty at the age of 72, and he is organising a team of pensioners to go with him. For weeks now Mr Yamada has been getting back in touch with old friends, sending out e-mails and even messages on Twitter.

Volunteering to take the place of younger workers at the power station is not brave, Mr Yamada says, but logical. “I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live,” he says. “Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore us older ones have less chance of getting cancer.”

And quite Japanese.

(Mostly) Moved In

April 17th, 2011 5 comments

This kind of time is always pretty hectic. Previous to the 15th, Sachi and I were packing everything we owned into boxes, not a trivial task. Whenever I had to make a run to the new house, I would load up two backpacks and sometimes another carry bag with stuff to bring, and cart it over on my scooter, as a way to get things done just a bit more quickly. We had to stop electricity, water, gas, Internet, cable TV, and probably another service or two I am forgetting. Inform the post office and file all kinds of forms.

Two days before moving day, we had construction crews at the new place installing hanger poles in the closets, curtain rods on every window, and a shelf above the door in the bath anteroom (there is almost no storage there). In the meantime, the moving crew’s electrical team came to take down the air conditioners and remove the washlet on the toilet.

On moving day, there was the predictable task of disconnecting and pre-packing the final bits, the stuff we wanted to use until the last day, and then help the movers and clean up after. In the meantime, the cable guy came to take away the old tuner. As they finished loading up the truck for the first of two trips, Sachi stayed at the old place to organize and clean, while I went to the new place to receive them and tell them where to put everything.

However, between the two trips, the cable TV guys came too early and the movers were late; while we had the TV at the new place, the power cords were in a box waiting to be brought on the second trip. So the cable guys instead did everything short of connecting the tuner–they hung cable from the street, added a booster in the space above the bath where the cables split, and brought in all the stuff. Then they had to wait, as the movers were late coming–a team of four or five guys just sitting in their vans.

When the movers finally came, they claimed that the boxes were not too far back, and they would get to them as fast as they could. But as the cable team waited, the movers not only went at a normal pace, they cleared out every other item aside from the boxes–which were crammed into the very back of the truck–and when they got to the boxes, made no effort to uncover enough so I could find the box in question. So I had to keep the cable guys waiting more than an hour before they could come in and install the tuner box.

While all that was happening, the gas guy came to get that started, and the guy who installs the screen doors came two days early. So we had, at one point, four different teams coming in and out at the same time.

After that, we faced un-boxing everything. Still maybe a quarter or a fifth of the boxes are not unpacked, but we’ve done enough over the past two days to make it look like we’re not drowning in them.

Today, the guys came to install the air conditioners–not an easy task as the house has nothing but electrical sockets for the machines. So they had to install the frames, hang the units, set up the piping–but most of all, they had to drill through the walls. We opted for covers for the outside so the piping didn’t look horrendous and the elements don’t wear down the pipes too quickly; I have to say, it looks a lot nicer than it otherwise would have.

The hole-drilling, however, left a find residue of plaster dust, like chalk dust, everywhere in the rooms they did the drilling–nearly everywhere, that is. As they were doing this, we discovered that a dresser was misplaced on the first floor–it should have been on the second floor–and the dresser was damned heavy, had drawers you can’t remove, and had no handles or bevels for getting a purchase. Nevertheless, we managed to get it up the stairs one step at a time.

We still have to unpack a few dozen boxes. Internet, as I mentioned, comes mid-week. A whole set of furniture we ordered–a reclining chair, reclining sofa, bedroom dresser, and three kitchen pieces–won’t come until the 25th, at which time I will have to assemble most of it. And we’ll have to go to the local police station to have ID cards amended. And, of course, a whole bunch of smaller projects–for example, I want to try to install carpet on all the stairs to improve purchase on them, but it will involve a lot of sizing and precise cutting and laying. Lots of little stuff like that.

So it’s a bit too early to call it a complete home yet, but at least it’s taking shape. Maybe by the end of the month, it’ll be ready.

Even as such, having your own home feels good. Park in your own driveway, do whatever you want to the walls without involving a landlord, and generally you just have your own house.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2011, Hibarigaoka Tags: