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2005年8月23日 (火)

`Costa Rica' term refers to politics, not nation


`Costa Rica' term refers to politics, not nation


Costa Rica-born Maricelle Futaba, 50, is a Tokyo resident of 23 years. She can read and understand the gist of what Japanese newspapers say.

Recently, she began noticing stories that contained expressions such as "Kosutarika shometsu" (Costa Rica vanishes) and "Kosutarika hokai" (the collapse of Costa Rica). She thought with alarm that something cataclysmic must have happened in her native country.



When she asked her husband, Shinichi, 58, a restaurant owner, she was told that Japan has a unique election system named after Costa Rica.

Specifically, her husband explained, this formula was devised to prevent the cannibalization of votes when a party fields more than one candidate from the same electoral turf. Under this formula, the candidates are allowed to run alternately from a single-seat constituency and a proportional representation district.

The explanation confused her more, as there is no such system in her native Costa Rica.


Costa Rica has a unicameral, 57-seat national assembly. All candidates are elected by proportional representation.

According to Taku Takemura, a Toyama University professor specializing in Latin American politics, no Costa Rican legislator may seek consecutive terms in office. Politicians must wait four years after their term has expired to run again. This system is meant to prevent political corruption.

Takemura went on to note that whenever he explains Japan's Costa Rica formula to Costa Ricans, they look displeased.


When Japan did away with medium-sized constituencies and switched to the current single-seat system in the 1990s, political parties had trouble paring down their candidates to just one per constituency. The Costa Rica formula was introduced to solve this problem.

A newspaper article from that period says this was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, a big shot in a Japan-Costa Rica friendship association formed by Diet members.

Mori hinted then at following the Costa Rican system of barring legislators from seeking consecutive terms in office, but it is now obvious that he had an ulterior motive in pushing this election system.


This summer, the "Costa Rica" system's spirit of "coexistence and co-prosperity" is being ignored. Former Liberal Democratic Party members of the Lower House, who voted against the postal privatization bills, have been denied party endorsement and are being pitted against pro-privatization, party-anointed candidates on their home turfs.


Ominous expressions that suggest turbulent times, such as "assassin," "repression," "mass arrest" and "forced transfer to an undesired region," are being used.

Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco visited Japan recently. One wonders how he viewed the upcoming election here.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 14(IHT/Asahi: August 22,2005)

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Koizumi's twist on the Kabuki double-suicide


Koizumi's twist on the Kabuki double-suicide


In any contest, force of numbers decides the winner. But there is something pathetic about people who scurry around trying to get the numbers up at any price.



The Sept. 11 Lower House election campaign kicks off later this month, and the unfolding political contest is starting to look increasingly like an action-packed drama or a cutthroat power struggle being acted out before the voting public.


I do not mean to be disrespectful to novelist Shotaro Ikenami (1923-1990), but the ongoing "drama" reminds me of the titles of some of his works: "Banken no Heikuro" (Heikuro the watchdog), "Kubi" (The head), "Sakuran" (Derangement), "Abare Okami" (Out-of-control wolf), "Katakiuchi" (Revenge), "Kancho" (Spy), "Butaiura no Otoko" (Backstage man), or "Oni-bozu no Onna" (The fiend-monk's woman).


"Shikaku" (Assassin) is a short story about Toranosuke Kodama, a man who was made to serve the evil head retainer of the lord of the Matsushiro clan in Shinshu (present-day Nagano Prefecture). Toranosuke is ordered to eliminate an emissary, being sent to Edo by another senior retainer, a decent man seeking to reform the clan. Being an assassin is nothing to boast about in public: "Toranosuke smiled wryly, a sad and desolate smile." (From a complete collection of Ikenami's works published by Kodansha.)

Images and words right out of samurai costume dramas, such as "assassin," kunoichi (female ninja) and so on are flying around the political nerve center of Nagatacho as the process of selecting candidates gets under way.

But what is happening there today could not be farther removed from the world depicted by Ikenami, a master at bringing out the pathos and emotional subtleties of ordinary people in feudal Japan.

 刺客とは、表だって胸の張れる存在ではない。「虎之助は苦笑した。淋(さび)しく哀(かな)しい苦笑である」(『完本池波正太郎大成』講談社)。「刺客」のほかに「くノ一」や 「印籠(いんろう)」が飛び交う永田町かいわいは、池波さんが描いた人生の悲哀や機微の世界からは、かなり遠い。

A recent article on the Japanese political situation in the Economist magazine noted that most Kabuki plots look the same to the uninitiated: every story ends with "a double love suicide." But, the article observed, the Kabuki staged by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had a different ending--namely, Koizumi drew the curtain unexpectedly and, out of hatred for legislators who opposed his postal privatization bills, chose the path of "double hate suicide." The article went on to laud the outcome as a rare departure from Japan's political tradition.


Is this situation welcome for Japan? The outcome is to be decided by voters. How this political drama will end--with a "double love suicide" or "double hate suicide"--is really quite irrelevant.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 19(IHT/Asahi: August 20,2005)

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Hoping for strong ceilings in future quakes


Hoping for strong ceilings in future quakes


While I am not pleased that Shinkansen bullet trains were out of service for hours in some areas, I am truly thankful that not a life was lost in Tuesday's earthquake off Miyagi Prefecture.

I imagine this good fortune was due to the preparedness and quick measures taken by people in the regions that have been repeatedly rocked by big temblors.



In contrast, there was no staying power in the ceiling of Spopark Matsumori, a sports facility in Sendai that opened in July. The jolt caused the ceiling panel to crack and fall in chunks on to an indoor swimming pool. A father who grabbed her little girl and jumped in the pool said she was hit on the head and shoulders. Many others there were also injured.


For people who felt exposed and defenseless for being clad only in swimwear, the broken ceiling panel pieces that showered on them relentlessly were just like flying weapons.

How could this have happened at this brand new facility? Obviously, the safety standards for installing the ceiling, the design and how the inspection of the facility was carried out must be closely re-examined.


A building of this style-a cavernous space with practically no pillar to support the vast ceiling-is not uncommon. But when I am in that kind of place, I do sometimes feel a bit nervous. I wonder if the ceiling is attached securely to the roof structure.


In a traditional Japanese house-raising ceremony, a card called munafuda is inscribed with the building's description and the names of its architect and carpenters, and nailed to the ridgepole above the ceiling. In the olden days, munafuda sometimes bore the owners' wishes or prayers, such as "harmony in the world," "transparency and purity always," "calm under the ground," "long life free of calamities" and "peace in the family."

According to "Tenjoura-no Bunkashi" (Cultural history of attic crawl space), a Kodansha book authored by Masahiko Sato, one old munafuda was inscribed with a short poem that read: "Cranes and tortoises do not live forever/ The only things that are permanent/ Are the mountains and the flowing waters."

 建物の棟上げなどで、工事の由緒や建築者、工匠などを記して天井裏の棟木に打ち付ける札を棟札という。古い時代の棟札にはこんな願いが書かれている。「天下和順」「日月清明」「地下安穏」「息災延命」「家族安寧」。歌を記した棟札もある。〈鶴亀は かぎりありけり いつまでも つきぬは 山と水と流れ〉(佐藤正彦『天井裏の文化史』講談社)。

People in charge of public safety must pay special attention to dark and hard-to-see places such as attic crawl spaces.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 18(IHT/Asahi: August 19,2005)

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We're closer to our neighbors than we realize


We're closer to our neighbors than we realize


South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun made no reference to Japan-South Korea relations in a speech he delivered on Liberation Day, the holiday South Koreans celebrated on Monday to mark liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

In China, anti-Japanese demonstrations were canceled.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi refrained from visiting Yasukuni Shrine. He also issued a statement expressing his feelings of "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" toward Asian countries.



Aug. 15 was the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Japan, China and South Korea each marked the anniversary in their own way. The day was observed calmly.

The question is whether the prime minister and members of the Cabinet can embody the idea expressed in Koizumi's statement. The leaders and ministers of the three nations are urged to visit one another to actively advance dialogue.


Two poets from Japan and South Korea exchanged letters and ideas over four years. This correspondence was published in a book titled "Ajia no Nagisa de" (On the shores of Asia) by Fujiwara Shoten.

Ko Un, a prominent South Korean poet, has been devoting himself to the democratization movement even though he was imprisoned and tortured. He accompanied then-President Kim Dae Jung to North Korea when the leaders of the two Koreas met in 2000.

Gozo Yoshimasu, meanwhile, has been creating poems brimming with life and compassionate words.

 日韓のふたりの詩人が、対談や書簡で対話を4年続け、それが『「アジア」の渚で』(藤原書店)としてまとめられた。高銀(コウン)さんは、韓国の代表的詩人で、投獄・拷問を受けながら民主化運動に力を尽くした。00年の南北会談では金大中(キムデジュン)大統領に同行した。対する吉増剛造さんは、言葉へのいとおしさのこもる表現で、豊かな生命力を宿 す詩を紡いできた。

Ko said poets from Northeast Asia should get together and compose poems on a ship while plying the open waters of Northeast Asia.

"We should not only stick to our own land, which is exclusive territory, but also sing the praises of the magnanimous spirit of the ocean, which belongs to everyone," Ko said.


Yoshimasu said: "Let us scoop up every drop of the ocean."


In his statement, Koizumi said Japan is "separated only by a strip of water" from China and South Korea.

Although geographically this is true, the distance between us seems to be increasing these days.

Why not think of the ocean as coastal waters that link countries and peoples, not divide them?


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 17(IHT/Asahi: August 18,2005)

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For war-displaced, the scars never heal


For war-displaced, the scars never heal


Dainari Adachi was a 12-year-old middle school student in occupied Manchuria when World War II ended. His family lived in a small town near the border of the Soviet Union. On the day word arrived that Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, had admitted defeat in the war, he was playing outdoors as usual.

When Dainari returned to his home, his mother told him that Japan had lost the war. He was too young to know what that meant in practical terms.



A few days later, Soviet warplanes appeared over the town. One shot at the boy without warning, and he fled into nearby woods. "Although the war had ended in Japan, you might say the war actually started for me on that day," he recalls.


Soon, Soviet ground troops arrived. Dainari's father, a civil engineer, had died of illness several months before. With his mother and two younger brothers, Dainari was moved through a succession of internment camps. During this period, his youngest brother, a 2-year-old, died while being carried on his mother's back.

Food was scarce. It occurred to young Dainari that if he were not around, his mother and other brother would have more to eat. He left without saying even goodbye.


The boy found work on a frontier farm. Early in his 20s, he met his future wife, a woman named Motoko.

Motoko was the daughter of a Japanese farmer who had settled in the former Manchuria. She had fled with her mother from the invading Soviet forces. After her mother died, she was raised by Chinese foster parents.

It was not until 36 years after the end of World War II that the two war-displaced Japanese who married in China set foot in their mother country.


At the surrender, about 1.5 million Japanese were living in the former Manchuria. In the turmoil that followed, at least 200,000 are estimated to have died in raids by Soviet troops and Chinese residents, group "suicides," illness and other circumstances.

Their stories graphically illustrate how the wheels of fortune turned in different ways for these individuals, according to where they were on Aug. 15, 1945.


Today, Adachi and his wife live in Chiba Prefecture on a 60,000-yen monthly pension. His wife cannot speak Japanese. Being five years her senior, the husband wonders anxiously, "If I die before my wife does, what will become of her?"


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 16(IHT/Asahi: August 17,2005)

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Obsessing blindly over our `assigned duties'


Obsessing blindly over our `assigned duties'


Because I was born two years after the end of World War II, obviously I was not around to experience the day of Japan's defeat 60 years ago on Aug. 15, 1945.

I can say, however, that this date has always been at the back of my consciousness.

Whenever I came across something that was related to this date or the days that preceded it, I was invariably compelled to ponder its meaning.



Various people have noted their thoughts and feelings about Aug. 15, 1945, in their diaries.

Each observation is striking in its own way, but the one I would like to dwell upon anew in this 60th anniversary year is a passage from "Haisen Nikki" (Journal on defeat in war) by novelist Jiro Osaragi, published by Soshisha.


Referring to his loss of sleep over worrying whether Japanese soldiers would be able to bear the indignity of defeat, Osaragi notes in part that the soldiers "had been taught to remain blind to anything other than their assigned duties ... ."

But this was not the lot of soldiers alone. The great majority of Japanese citizens had also been conditioned to focus solely on their "assigned duties."


When the war began, every soldier, politician, parent and child blindly sought to live up to their respective ideal images.

Missing the crucially important overall picture-namely, where the nation was really headed-the Japanese people withdrew into their rigidly defined roles.


There is something painfully pathetic about the intensity of their resolve.

But it was also this collective frenzy that allowed the nation to run amok and sacrifice the lives of a tremendous number of its own people as well as those of neighboring nations.

And I am pained to be reminded, too, of how the media pursued a grossly misguided cause.


Aug. 15 should be a day for each one of us to not only remember and mourn the dead, but also to ask ourselves once again whether we are still obsessing blindly over what we imagine to be our assigned duties.

I pray that our present postwar era will never go down in history some day as another prewar era.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 15(IHT/Asahi: August 16,2005)

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Rent-a-cow system keeps everyone content


Rent-a-cow system keeps everyone content


Four black wagyu Japanese cows graze contentedly on common weeds-kudzu, pigweed and overgrown goldenrod-effectively acting as "live weed eaters" in the fallow rice fields of Yanai city, on the Inland Sea coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The cows are part of the city's "rent-a-cow" system for local farmers. Many of the farmers are elderly and ready to retire but do not want their fields to become overgrown with weeds and infested with pests. They fear those pests could ruin their neighbors' crops.




Hiring people to cut the weeds can be an expensive proposition, even if done through the city's "silver personnel agency," a program for retired people who want to take on odd jobs and make themselves useful to the community.

Even if "silver personnel" would undertake the job, working under the scorching summer sun would be extremely strenuous for them.


A solution to the problem of overgrown rice paddies came four years ago. Yanai Mayor Tetsuro Kouchiyama, 47, suggested during a meeting with farmers that perhaps cows could do the job. At the time, the city's shrinking farmland and declining stockbreeding industry were cause for serious concern in the farming community.

Letting cows graze in the paddies would mean eliminating the costs of labor and as well as feed-a perfectly happy solution for landowners and cattle owners alike. The local agricultural association acted on the mayor's suggestion at once. This summer, seven farming households are taking advantage of the rent-a-cow system.


The system is hassle-free. All the user has to do is corral the grazing area with two electric wires hooked up to solar batteries.

According to the city's estimates, it would take two people working two days to cut all the weeds on a 5,000-square-meter property. The bill would come to 50,000 yen, including transportation and disposal costs.

If the same job is done by two cows, however, they would eat all the weeds in about 50 days. The bill would come to around 24,000 yen, including the cost of equipment.


There is something serene and soothing about the sight of grazing cows. How pleasant it would be if such a scene were common on fallow fields around the nation. Just when I had this thought, my eyes met a cow's innocent stare.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 31(IHT/Asahi: August 15,2005)

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Let there never be another major air disaster


Let there never be another major air disaster


Twenty years have passed since the disastrous crash of a Japan Airlines jumbo jet that killed 520 passengers and crew members.

"So many things have happened in the last 20 years," says Kuniko Miyajima in "Akanegumo Soshuhen" (Scarlet clouds: Complete edition), a collection of essays by bereaved families, published from Honnoizumisha to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

Miyajima's essay is addressed to her 9-year-old son, Ken, who perished in the disaster.


 あれから二〇年、本当に、いろいろなことがありました-。520人が死亡した日航ジャンボ機の墜落事故から、今日で20年になる。それを機に出版された遺族の文集『茜雲(あかねぐも) 総集編』(本の泉社)で、美谷島邦子さんは、9歳だった息子の健君に語りかけるように文をつづっている。

"I still have your pencils and notebooks with me. For your summer holiday project, you grew sponge gourds and observed their growth. You wrote the final words in your diary on the day before the accident: `Aug. 11: The tendrils are getting long, and I saw little buds.' Your father is still unable to look at your handwriting."


Fujiko Ikeda, who lost her younger brother and his wife and a niece, attached a tanka poem to her essay. The tanka goes: "My brother passed away so young/ My heart aches/ Every time I count his age."

Ikeda's brother had two other children who were left behind. Looked after by many people, they have grown into adults and are now happily married, Ikeda notes.

At the end of her essay, she identifies herself as an aunt of Keiko Kawakami-one of the only four survivors of the crash.

 弟夫婦とめいを亡くした池田富士子さんは、文に短歌を添えた。〈あまりにも 早きに逝きし弟の 歳をおりてはまた胸あつくす〉。弟夫婦の遺児ふたりは大勢の人に支えられて成長し、今は結婚してそれぞれ幸せに暮らしていますとあり、末尾には生存者のひとり川上慶子さんの伯母と記されている。

Survivors were found on the day after the crash. I heard the news at the Asahi Shimbun head office, and I can still recall that moment vividly. An emotion, too deep to be said out loud, overtook my colleagues and me. We had been busy filing stories for the evening edition.


The pages had to be remade at once, because we had more or less given up on the possibility of anyone surviving that crash. I understand that a staff member in charge of inputting copy from the city section into the company computer had to fight back tears as he typed.


A major accident like this must never be repeated. Miyajima, who has served as secretary-general of an association of bereaved families, concludes her essay: "Thank you, Ken, for these 29 years.... Together with you, I want to keep tolling the bell of air-travel safety."


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 12(IHT/Asahi: August 13,2005)

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Hurdles overcome, on the track and in space


Hurdles overcome, on the track and in space


Human imagination takes a humorous bent when it creates the rules of sports. This is clearly the case with hurdles. I mean, it's kind of funny that running on flat ground is deliberately made difficult by placing obstacles one after another.



According to "Haadoru" (Hurdles), a book by Ken Miyashita from Baseball Magazine Sha Co., this particular sport originated in Britain. The rise of the Enclosure Movement for pastoral land, which peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries, gave birth to an equestrian race using the enclosures. The first hurdle race as we know it today took place in the mid-19th century as an Oxford-Cambridge collegiate competition event. Sheep enclosures were used as hurdles.


In the wee hours of Wednesday, I awoke from a restless sleep and switched on the TV. The 2005 World Track and Field Championships were on, and Japan's Dai Tamesue was just about to run in the final of the men's 400-meter hurdles. It was raining in Helsinki. While I thought that the weather itself was a hurdle of sorts, the starting gun boomed.


Athletes' legs are beautiful as they leap over each hurdle. One leg is fully stretched while the other is lifted swiftly. The upper body is bent forward, and the eyes are trained on the track ahead. I was reminded of a lithe animal hunting down its prey.


When Tamesue was nearing the finish line, his lips parted slightly as if in a smile. The race became a dead heat just before the end, and Tamesue collapsed across the finishing line to win a bronze medal. For him, this was a triumph that came in the wake of a long slump and other personal misfortunes that included the death of his father. His face was wet with tears, sweat and rain.


Meanwhile, the space shuttle Discovery landed safely Tuesday in the United States. Astronaut Soichi Noguchi's beaming face mirrored his satisfaction with the completion of a tough mission.

Noguchi's performance was in space and Tamesue's was on the ground. But having cleared their respective hurdles, both men gave encouragement to those who watched.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 11(IHT/Asahi: August 12,2005)

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2005年8月12日 (金)

Virgin Mary statue witness to atomic bombing


Virgin Mary statue witness to atomic bombing


In Nagasaki, a monument stands at ground zero of the atomic bomb explosion. Standing there, I looked up into the sky at 11:02 a.m. Tuesday, the dazzling sun causing my eyes to blink. Precisely at that moment 60 years ago, the bomb detonated about 500 meters above the city.



The atomic attack is said to have made the world look as if the sun had come down on it. I tried to imagine the hellish scenes.

I closed my eyes to think, recalling pictures taken just after the attack, eyewitness accounts and exhibits at the local peace memorial museum, a mental exercise I do every time I visit Nagasaki.

As before, what I could imagine fell far short of what really happened. The gulf made me wonder if I had no choice but to repeat what other people have said: An odious act far exceeding the human imagination in its cruelty was committed by man.


On Monday, I met a woman on the premises of Nagasaki University, about 1 kilometer away from ground zero. She was watering flowers in front of a memorial for bomb victims. She said she was turning 70 this year. She was a fifth-grader in elementary school when the bomb was dropped. Though exposed to radiation, she survived because she was at her home, rather removed from ground zero.

Her father died, though. He was working in a now-defunct arms manufacturing factory in Nagasaki. "Even his body was not found," she said.


A statue of the Virgin Mary that was damaged in the blast was unveiled Tuesday at Urakami Cathedral standing on a knoll near ground zero.

Originally, the statue adorned the cathedral's altar. The blast nearly leveled the building, leaving only side walls standing. Later, only the upper part of the wooden statue was found and retrieved.


Up close, I saw that the statue was burned on the face and head. Bereft of eyeballs, the eye sockets were just black hollows.


The pathetic figure let out an unaccountably strong life force, however. It occurred to me that the lost part of the wooden statue symbolized what happened to Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The statue, a witness to the atomic attack, seemed to be trying to convey memories of that 1945 day to future generations.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 10(IHT/Asahi: August 11,2005)

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House dissolution can be called many things


House dissolution can be called many things


Monday's Upper House voting down of the postal privatization bills coincided with my stay in Nagasaki to cover events marking the 60th anniversary of the city's atomic bombing. I watched the proceedings leading to the rejection of the bills on TV at the Nagasaki bureau of The Asahi Shimbun.



The phrase Edo no kataki o Nagasaki de utsu (settling an old score in an unexpected place or over an unrelated matter) came to mind when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dissolved the Lower House.

The impression is strong that Koizumi, defeated in the Upper House, took it out on the lower chamber.

To put a label on it, what he did after the vote may be called Edo no kataki kaisan (a dissolution to get even with his foes anywhere).

From the point of view of Lower House members, it is also a bumeran kaisan (a boomerang dissolution) because the storm they thought had passed over came back.


Some would prefer a third label, sujichigai kaisan (a dissolution that does not make sense). For the moment, there is no way to know if this is the view accepted by most people.

Among the public, there seems to be a trend toward welcoming Koizumi's decision to dissolve the Lower House if it serves as a catalyst for sweeping away the dark clouds on all fronts and setting the stage for a promising future.


The last time the Lower House was dissolved was in 2003. The impact of the announcement was minimal because there had been speculation about the move for months.

The labels used then in this column included sukesuke kaisan (a transparent dissolution) in the sense that the action had been known beforehand and taiginaki kaisan (a dissolution without cause) in the sense that the cause was hard to discern.


This time around, everybody kept looking for signs that Koizumi might have changed his mind about dissolving the Lower House.

Koizumi met over drinks and snacks Saturday with his predecessor, Yoshiro Mori.

Koizumi told him, "I would not complain if I were murdered (for my efforts to privatize the postal services)." He implied that he was entitled to make such efforts as the prime minister of Japan.

For the prime minister himself, this dissolution may be inochigake kaisan (a dissolution on which he staked his life).

After the meeting, Mori complained to reporters about bits of cheese he had been offered by the host, saying, "I did my best to sink my teeth in these, but they were too hard for me."

Mori had met with Koizumi in an eleventh-hour attempt to persuade him not to dissolve the Lower House.

With his plea rejected, the former prime minister called Koizumi "worse than a maverick," referring to the fact that Koizumi had always been known as a political maverick. For Mori, cho-henjin kaisan (dissolution by a super-maverick) may best suit his feelings about Koizumi's decision.


Koizumi also told Mori that the postal privatization bills represented his personal conviction. There is no doubt that he is a man of conviction. The question is what he believes in. Yet another label, ore no shinnen kaisan (a dissolution to pursue my conviction), comes to mind. During the campaign for the Sept. 11 election, I intend to scrutinize the substance of Koizumi's convictions.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 9(IHT/Asahi: August 10,2005)

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2005年8月 9日 (火)

The Akashi stampede must not be forgotten


The Akashi stampede must not be forgotten


In "Yonen Jidai" (Early childhood), novelist Tatsuo Hori (1904-1953) recalls the crowd that turned out for a fireworks display when he was about 4 or 5 years old. Though only a toddler, Hori wrote that he vividly recalled wailing on his mother's back while being pushed and shoved in the sea of teeming humanity. Given his year of birth, this was probably Tokyo's Sumida River fireworks around the 40th year of Meiji (1908).



Sumida River fireworks date back to the era of Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751), the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. According to "Hanabi: Hi no Geijutsu" (Fireworks: Art of pyrotechnics), an Iwanami Shinsho pocketbook by Kyosuke Ogatsu, the common folk of old Edo showed up in such huge numbers for their beloved fireworks that accidents occurred from time to time. Around the middle of the ensuing Meiji Period (1868-1912), too, scores of people plunged to their deaths when the handrails of bridges collapsed.


This year, about 700 fireworks displays are being held around the nation. For the organizers, however, the undertakings are becoming a heavy burden because of difficulties with funding as well as crowd control.

The annual Inbanuma fireworks in Chiba Prefecture, for instance, used to draw 300,000 spectators. But this year, the event is not being held. Since the 2001 disaster in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, the costs of security maintenance have bloated while donations from sponsors are drying out.


"The Akashi tragedy changed the nature of these annual events around the nation," said Yoshimitsu Saito of the Sakura Municipal Tourism Association, organizer of the Inbanuma fireworks. "Everywhere, organizers have been spending more on security and skillful crowd control." Saito said his association hired 299 security guards last year, whereas 50 would have sufficed in the past.


Accidents at such events are certainly not unique to Japan. In 18th century Britain, about 1,000 people fell into the River Thames while watching a fireworks display celebrating a royal wedding. And a decade ago in Cambodia, a stampede on the King Sihanouk's birthday resulted in fatalities.


The Kobe District Court described the Akashi tragedy in its verdict as a "human avalanche of the kind one would see in a pictorial depiction of hell."

A well-meaning crowd could instantaneously transform itself into a violent "machine" that crushes people. That horror in Akashi must not be forgotten. But I would still like to enjoy spectacular, ephemeral beauty of fireworks against the night sky this summer.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 7(IHT/Asahi: August 9,2005)

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2005年8月 8日 (月)

Bittersweet life seasoned top chef's cuisine


Bittersweet life seasoned top chef's cuisine


In hot weather, I like my food saltier than usual, and preferably tart, too. This is merely a matter of personal taste, of course, but cooking itself is also very much about adjusting the seasonings. You not only add and subtract, but also divide and multiply--just like in arithmetic.



A recent article in The Asahi Shimbun said that cooking "strengthens" the brain. By cooking habitually, the story said, you improve the circulation of blood in the forehead, which helps enhance your power of judgment and planning. To create the "perfect dish" by adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying the ingredients is similar to tackling a tough challenge, it seems.


Nobuo Murakami died Tuesday at age 84 after having earned fame as the top chef at Tokyo's Imperial Hotel. He once wrote in his book "Murakami Nobuo no Furansu Ryori" (Nobuo Murakami's French cuisine) from Chuokoron-sha, "Cooking is less a matter of technique than using your head."

Given the life he led, the meaning of his remark is not as simple as it seems.


Murakami was born to a family that ran a no-frills Western-style restaurant in the working-class district of Kanda in Tokyo. His parents died when he was young. He went to elementary school on a regular basis only as far as the second term of the sixth grade, after which he began working at a restaurant and attended school when he could. Although the school let him graduate, he was the only pupil in his class who did not receive a certificate because of his low attendance record.


At 67, Murakami was featured on an NHK program, teaching youngsters at his alma mater how to make curry. When the school principal handed him a graduation certificate as a token of appreciation, Murakami filled in the graduation date: March 24, 1934.

He recalled in an article in the weekly Shukan Asahi magazine, "For more than half a century, I never forgot the date of my elementary school graduation--and how I didn't get a certificate."


Murakami's face, round like a frying pan, often crinkled with a laughter that endeared him to many. The cuisine he created was as rich as his physique, and seasoned to perfection with just the right amount of salt--just like his life, which was not always sweet.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 5(IHT/Asahi: August 6,2005)

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2005年8月 6日 (土)

Airbus crash nothing short of a `miracle'


Airbus crash nothing short of a `miracle'


I was on a business trip and awoke around 6 a.m. Wednesday in my hotel room. Picking up the morning paper, I switched on the television and saw an image of a burning plane.

This was the Air France jetliner that had just landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. The aircraft's tail could be recognized near the ground, but the fuselage was apparently badly damaged and practically invisible behind billowing black smoke.



I automatically assumed a major disaster. Fortunately I was wrong.

The updates that kept coming in reported that all 309 passengers and crew members were evacuated without serious injuries. Given that the Airbus A340 had overrun the runway, crashed and burst into flames, the result must have been an incredible combination of good luck. It was nothing short of a miracle, as the Canadian transport minister put it.


How did this miracle happen? I suppose the flames did not spread until after everyone-or nearly everyone-had gotten out of the aircraft.


Speedy action and cool thinking decided the outcome. The crew members must have given the right instructions to passengers, and the latter must have fully cooperated in dealing with the situation calmly and swiftly.

I don't have all the details yet, but I should think that the miracle was made possible by a combination of factors: the behavior of everyone on board; the timing of the outbreak and intensity of the fire; and the aircraft's speed at the time it crashed.


I rode a Shinkansen bullet train on my way back to Tokyo and gazed at the scenery zipping past the window. I thought anew that the train's speed was close to that of a jumbo jet preparing to touch down on the runway.

If a Shinkansen had wings, it could almost fly. Yet, this mass transit system has remained accident-free for many years. The Shinkansen's safety record is actually a miracle of sorts in itself.


Many people work to keep the trains safe. Even though there is a possibility that natural disasters and situations that are beyond human control will occur, I pray that this miracle will continue forever.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 4(IHT/Asahi: August 5,2005)

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2005年8月 4日 (木)

Collusion sullies the status of nation's roads


Collusion sullies the status of nation's roads


This is the season for many people to travel to hometowns, beaches and mountains. But this year, those traveling by car might be thinking about a nationwide problem.

There are growing suspicions that officials of Japan Highway Public Corp., the builder of the nation's main highways, took the initiative in the bid-rigging now under investigation.



Another kind of collusion has surfaced. Senior officials of Japan Highway and the transport ministry have stopped attending even informal sessions of the Promotion Committee for the Privatization of the Four Highway-related Public Corporations.

One spokesman explained that senior officials will not be able to answer questions from committee members while the bid-rigging scandal at Japan Highway is under investigation.

Another said senior officials are too busy working out measures against bid-rigging to attend the privatization panel.

Nevertheless, I have a gut feeling that Japan Highway and the ministry have agreed to boycott the committee.


The privatization committee was created to conduct a sweeping review of structural problems relating to highway construction and maintenance.

Now that Japan Highway and the ministry have turned their backs on the panel's mandate, many of us feel strongly that we cannot entrust them with the future of the nation's highways.


In fiscal 1945, at the end of World War II, Japan's road network stretched 899,000 kilometers. But only 1.2 percent of the total was paved, according to ``Nihon Doro Kodan Sanjunen-shi'' (The 30-year history of Japan Highway Public Corp). The book was published by the corporation about 20 years ago.

Naturally, many roads turned muddy when it rained.


In 1946, folklorist and poet Shinobu Orikuchi (1887-1953) wrote an essay titled ``Nihon no Doro'' (Roads in Japan). In it, he expressed admiration for ``straight roads, winding roads, zigzag roads, shining roads and rice-field footpaths under cloudy skies.''

He wrote, ``How many times has my soul been allured by distant views of these roads and paths?''


Roads are supposed to be in the public domain. We must not let it be taken over by the government, highway public corporations and the road-building industry.

Sixty years after the end of World War II, it is time to restore the nation's roads to their former status.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 3(IHT/Asahi: August 4,2005)

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Has the planet Pluto lost its claim to fame?


Has the planet Pluto lost its claim to fame?


In Roman mythology, Pluto is the god of the underworld. Pluto is also the English name of the outermost planet in the solar system. In Japanese, we call it Meiosei.

Discovered 75 years ago, Pluto is the ninth planet from the sun. There is controversy over whether this planet really belongs to our solar system.



This controversy may be compounded by last week's announcement from an astronomy team at the California Institute of Technology that it had discovered the solar system's 10th planet.

This planet stokes our interest as inhabitants of Earth, the third planet, in knowing how many planets are really in our solar system.


The existence of the planet was confirmed by the Palomar Observatory in the United States two years ago. It was located too far to discern any details. Astronomers checked its orbit again and learned that it was circling the sun.


The planet is truly a distant one. At the farthest point in its orbit, the distance between it and the sun is nearly 100 times the distance between Earth and the sun.

It makes one revolution around the sun in about 560 years. This means that when it was at the present point the previous time, it was just before Leonardo da Vinci was born.

The International Astronomical Union is going to decide officially whether the planet belongs to our solar system.


The Chinese characters for the word planet literally translate as "vacillating star." A theory has it that the character for "vacillate" is used because planets change their positions in the sky as if vacillating. People have been charmed by their vacillating ways since ancient times.

In 1933, watching a rare celestial phenomenon in which Venus and Saturn successively circled behind the moon, Hakushu Kitahara (1885-1942) composed a poem: "As Venus went behind the moon from underneath/ Saturn made its shining way behind from above."

Another poem by Kitahara goes: "Standing around, a mother and her children/ Watched the western sky/ Where the moon held two stars."


The vacillating movements of Pluto and the new planet cannot be observed with the naked eye.

The word vacillate itself fires our imagination about celestial bodies quietly moving through the darkness of the universe.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 2(IHT/Asahi: August 3,2005)

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2005年8月 2日 (火)

Long, useless meetings still a scourge at work

 僕は英辞郎を使って英語を読みまくり、インターネットラジオのNHKのラジオジャパン英語ニュース< /a>で時事英語を聞きまくってます。(^^;また、VOAでヴォイスレコーダーにDLしたMP3音声とテキストも楽しんでます。

Long, useless meetings still a scourge at work


A little over 400 years ago in midsummer, the army of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) was advancing on Odawara Castle, whose lord was Hojo Ujinao (1562-1591). Ujinao held a council of war with his senior aides, debating whether to make peace or war with Hideyoshi, or hold the castle and engage in combat.

Probably because of Ujinao's indecisiveness, the council dragged on and went nowhere. The castle came under siege, and Ujinao surrendered to Hideyoshi about three months later.



From this episode in history comes the expression "Odawara hyojyo," an idiom for a useless meeting or a conference that drags on seemingly forever. The futility of Ujinao's council of war at Odawara Castle was often exaggerated in pithy senryu poems during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Meetings that are nothing but a waste of time die hard.


Even today, bookstore shelves are crammed with how-to books on improving the efficiency of corporate meetings. Titles include: "Sugoi Kaigi" (Awesome conference), "Kaigi Kakumei" (Conference revolution) and "Nobiru Kaisha wa Kaigi ga Umai!" (Successful companies conduct meetings smartly!).

But the matter is obviously not cut-and-dried, as there are also new books that extol the virtues of traditional, long-winded meetings. I saw one book titled, "Kaigi wa Mometa Hoga Ii" (The more disagreements in a meeting, the better).


A U.S. insurance company executive once told me, "When I took up my post in Tokyo, I was astounded to realize that all meetings were scheduled by hourly slots." The executive recalled a meeting that went smoothly and could have been wrapped up 14 minutes ahead of schedule: "The meeting's moderator insisted that we spend the remaining 14 minutes chitchatting. I just couldn't believe it."

In the case of the U.S. firm Intel Corp., half-hour slots are the norm for meetings. The company even has conference rooms with lights that shut off automatically after one hour.


In retrospect, there was a time when the traditional Japanese-style meeting was touted as an opportunity for management and rank-and-file workers to share their grievances.

Executives visited from overseas to observe at firsthand how the system worked. But that was during Japan's asset-inflated economy of 1980s, and I feel as if we saw things like a vision.


Now that it's August and midsummer, meetings that drag on are not welcome. It might help if the conference room air-conditioning units were set to shut off after an hour.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 1(IHT/Asahi: August 2,2005)

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Politicos resort to sealing vote vows in blood

 僕は英辞郎を使って英語を読みまくり、インターネットラジオのNHKのラジオジャパン英語ニュース< /a>で時事英語を聞きまくってます。(^^;また、VOAでヴォイスレコーダーにDLしたMP3音声とテキストも楽しんでます。

Politicos resort to sealing vote vows in blood


Takasugi Shinsaku (1839-1867), an imperialist who was instrumental in bringing about the Meiji Restoration, apparently liked the idea of sealing vows in blood, and he demanded the same of his comrades.

When he founded Mitate-gumi, an Edo-based imperialist society dedicated to "purging foreign barbarians," he persuaded more than 20 like-minded men to pledge their loyalty in blood.

But Takasugi's idea to assassinate the shogun in Kyoto was shot down by all but one man. As charismatic as Takasugi was, he obviously did not draw support when his plotting and conniving became unrealistic.



Now, Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers opposed to postal privatization are rumored to have put their bloody fingerprints on a document to pledge their allegiance to the cause. If this is true, their anachronistic thinking would be ludicrous at best.


Hisaoki Kamei of the Lower House, who apparently proposed this idea, explained: "It is true that I provided the paper and asked lawmakers who were against the privatization bills to sign it. But I did not ask them to seal it with blood."

About 20 lawmakers complied, and all voted against the postal privatization bills as promised, according to Kamei. The sheet of paper Kamei provided was called a go-o hoin, obtained from the Kumano Shrine.


The shrine teaches that anyone who breaks a promise written on this special paper will cough up blood and die. The "Azumakagami" (Mirror of Eastern Japan), a chronicle of the Kamakura bakufu (the feudal government from 1192-1333), states that Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune, a 12th-century warrior, pledged his loyalty to his older brother, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, on go-o hoin paper. The same paper was also used when the Ako Roshi (the masterless samurai of Ako) vowed to seek revenge for their master's death.

I always thought belief in divine retribution for breaking an oath existed only in the pages of kodan (Japanese traditional historical tales), but apparently such ideas are current among today's political elite.


According to Ryosuke Ishii's book "Han" (Seal, published by Gakuseisha), the practice of signing pledges dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185). But when betrayals became common in the ensuing eras of civil war, signatures alone could no longer be trusted, and oaths came to be sealed with blood. Ishii notes that the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) often required local feudal lords to pledge their loyalty with blood seals.


I hear this blood-seal business is being considered among Upper House LDP members, too. With politicos plotting to sway allegiances and votes, discussions on the postal reform vote are noisier than cicadas in high summer.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 24(IHT/Asahi: August 1,2005)

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Mystery bird's hollow eyes invite stares

 僕は英辞郎を使って英語を読みまくり、インターネットラジオのNHKのラジオジャパン英語ニュース< /a>で時事英語を聞きまくってます。(^^;また、VOAでヴォイスレコーダーにDLしたMP3音声とテキストも楽しんでます。

Mystery bird's hollow eyes invite stares


Looking at a picture of a bird haniwa (ancient clay figurine) excavated from the Iwase-Senzuka Kofun burial mound in the city of Wakayama, I was first drawn to the bird's hollow eyes, which looked like two black holes to me.

A short beak protruded from between the eyes, and a wing stretched from the right shoulder. The image was strangely soothing.



Makoto Sahara, a former director-general of the National Museum of Japanese History, claims in "Nihon no Bijutsu" (Japanese art), a book published by Shibundo, that people are attracted to haniwa faces because of those hollow eyes.

"When looking at a haniwa face, people's eyes soften," he says. "As hollow eyes are without pupils, they cannot stare back at the beholder."


Sahara is referring only to human-shaped haniwa figurines, but I think the same also applies to haniwa that depict animals.

"One can stare at a haniwa without being stared back at," he observes, and concludes this is why people can remain at ease when they face these artifacts.


An exhibition titled "2005 Exhibition of New Archaeological Discoveries" is currently being held at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Among the exhibits from around the nation are some haniwa figurines, including those of three waterfowl unearthed from Suyama Kofun in Nara Prefecture.

These birds, which resemble swans, do not have hollow eyes. The eyes look as if they are trained on something far away.


Some haniwa experts claim that bird haniwa figurines were believed to transport the souls of the deceased to the world beyond. But the Iwase-Senzuka Kofun is said to be the first and only place that has so far yielded a bird haniwa with its wings spread.

Katsuhisa Takahashi, the chief researcher at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara, said, "This haniwa may have been modeled on some migratory bird that could fly with ease."


The mystery bird from ancient times made my imagination take wing and soar.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 23(IHT/Asahi: July 30,2005)

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