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 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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2005年7月28日 (木)

Author believed Edo ways best suited Japan

 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。 参考「こんな感じで英辞郎を使ってます

Author believed Edo ways best suited Japan


By her own account, author Hinako Sugiura, who died last Friday at the age of 46, loved things associated with life during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

She loved kumade (bamboo rakes), yuya (bathhouses), mimikaki (ear picks), shakushi (ladles), kotatsu (foot warmers), kaya (mosquito nets), ohaguro (dyed-black teeth), ohitsu (rice tubs), zukin (hoods), and sugoroku (a Japanese variety of the Parcheesi dice game).

The list is taken from a series of essays Sugiura wrote for a local edition of The Asahi Shimbun under the title of "Inkyo no Hinatabokko" (Basking in the sun after retirement).

It gave readers some ideas about Sugiura's peculiar world-a leisurely, yet sad and potentially dangerous cosmos.

Besides being a manga cartoonist and essayist, she was known for her studies on Edo Period manners and customs.


 くまで ゆや みみかき しゃくし こたつ かや おはぐろ おひつ ずきん すごろく。


Referring to the Edo Period in "Oedo Kanko" (Doing the sights in Edo), a book published by Chikuma Shobo, Sugiura wrote:

"I have no intention of singing the unabashed praises of the modern feudal system (that marked the Edo Period). But it was clearly different from the feudal system that existed in the Japanese medieval period or the European feudal system. I think the modern feudal system in the Edo Period was more open and more orderly. The nation's social structure was better attuned to it.


"I cannot help thinking," she went on to say, "that the lifestyles created during the Edo Period were just the styles that fitted Japan's climate and the characteristics of its people."

Touching on the fact that Japan incessantly waged war after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, she wrote, "The only reason I can think of is that we were overreaching ourselves."

Her belief that overexertion was a universal vice apparently led to her surprise decision to retire as a cartoonist while she was still in her 30s.


In 1988, Sugiura was awarded the Bungei Shunju Cartoon Prize for "Furyu Edo Suzume" (Folks of refined taste in Edo), a series of comic strips dealing with poor but proud men.

She wrote a senryu humorous poem for each segment, and these poems made a sublime combination with the pictures.

I remember two poems, one of which went: "Having nobody to think about/ The person puts up a mosquito net." The other poem read: "Hailed as a hero/ The man can do nothing/ When his wounds smart under falling snow."

As for the pictures, I was captivated by her depictions of life in Edo tenement houses and river snowfall scenes.


Like a native of Edo, her favorite food was buckwheat noodles. More precisely, she liked to visit buckwheat noodle shops. In "Motto Sobaya de Ikou" (More relaxation at buckwheat noodle shops), a Shincho Bunko book, she recommended such shops as a place for people to visit for temporary relaxation.

"If you have something to do today, you can do it tomorrow," Sugiura wrote. "You will have to live until you die." Then a punch line: "Where are you going in such a hurry?"


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 27(IHT/Asahi: July 28,2005)

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2005年7月24日 (日)

Lessons from a movie on Turkish immigrants


Lessons from a movie on Turkish immigrants


Ibrahim, an elderly Turkish immigrant who owns a small grocery store in a working-class district of Paris, is the protagonist of "Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran" (Mr. Ibrahim and the flowers of the Koran), a 2003 film by Francois Dupeyron. The story revolves around Ibrahim's friendship with a lonely young boy.



Egyptian-born actor Omar Sharif, now in his 70s, plays Ibrahim, a devout Muslim living quietly in his adopted country. In addition to his natural and dignified screen presence, the veteran actor gives a superb portrayal of an elderly immigrant who has craftily assimilated into this foreign environment, adopting the necessary facade to survive.


France is certainly not the only country where society places great pressure on immigrants to blend in and not stand out. For first-generation immigrants, it is probably their lingering sense of connection to their home countries that sustains them as they strive to become acclimatized in their new lands.


Most of the suspects in the July 7 London bombings were of Pakistani origin, but were born and raised in Britain by parents who had emigrated from what used to be British-ruled India. In recent years, however, an issue that is being re-examined is, "Do second- and third-generation Britons from immigrant families really feel as though they belong in their adopted country?"


According to a recent survey of Muslims in Britain by the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, only about 40 percent of the respondents said they felt they were "members of British society." But 80 percent said they have been discriminated against. Does this mean there are many young men who feel completely alienated in a land that they don't identify with?


In the film, old Ibrahim adopts the orphaned boy and takes him on a trip to Turkey, where they find peace of mind as well as sorrow. The old man passes away in his native land, while the boy overcomes this loss of his adoptive father and learns to live again. This is a story told with gentle, understated charm about what is apparently a universal human quest for the ultimate mutual bond of acceptance that transcends nationality, race and even a parent-child relationship.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 21(IHT/Asahi: July 22,2005)

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2005年7月14日 (木)

Bid-rigging lexicon speaks loudly about Japan


Bid-rigging lexicon speaks loudly about Japan


A feature of the second edition of the Random House English-Japanese Dictionary, published by Shogakukan, is that it offers a list of words of Japanese origin that are used by English speakers. It puts together about 900 Japanese words that have appeared in authoritative American and British dictionaries of the English language or dictionaries of new words used in English.



The alphabetically arranged list ranges from words like tsunami, kimono and hara-kiri (committing suicide by cutting open the abdomen), which entered the English lexicon in the 19th century, continuing up to 1990s words.

Going over the list, one feels as if reading a history of shifts in interest about Japan. The list may also be taken as mirroring the way Japan has presented itself to the outside world.


Among the words from the 1990s, my eyes were arrested by keiretsu (interlocking business ties) and dango (bid-rigging), because of their close and time-honored association with the way business is done in Japan.

These are words that make one understand why the Japanese economy is robust, why Japanese corporations often shut out outsiders, and why shady business practices persist.


In a bid-rigging scandal over steel bridge projects, a retired director of Japan Highway Public Corp. was arrested Tuesday along with four other men for allegedly playing key roles in fixing bids for orders placed by the state-run company.

A former adviser to one of the companies involved, the suspect is said to have had the cooperation of other former Japan Highway officials who landed cushy post-retirement jobs in the industry.

Operating from an "amity society" of retired Japan Highway officials, members allegedly gathered unannounced information on scheduled orders from Japan Highway branch offices across the country.


The scandal shows how deeply bid-rigging is entrenched in this country. But Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), was unexpectedly tolerant about the dango problem at a news conference. "It's something like a custom you find everywhere in Japan," he said.

Perhaps he was not specifically talking about the bid-rigging scandal over steel bridge projects. Even so, when I heard it, I could not help shaking my head in disbelief.


I fear that a statement by Japan's top business leader, dismissing bid-rigging as if it were something irrelevant, just when a major bid-rigging case is about to be unraveled, could spawn misunderstandings at home and abroad.

My hope is that Okuda will watch his words if only to keep tsutsu uraura (everywhere in Japan) from being added to the list of Japanese words used by English speakers.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 13(IHT/Asahi: July 14,2005)

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2005年7月10日 (日)

Wishes for peace during Tanabata festival


Wishes for peace during Tanabata festival


A fine drizzle fell from the leaden sky. Bamboo leaves rustled, and blue or yellow tanzaku strips of paper fluttered in the breeze.



I was walking along a street lined with Tanabata Star Festival decorations (The traditional festival celebrates the one night of the year when two star lovers meet in the sky). The branches of the bamboo trees were laden with the tanzaku "wish strips."

"Make me a millionaire!" screamed one tanzaku. Another wished for the "elimination of all unscrupulous business practices," while yet another said: "I want power. Grant me power." But most wishes were for the health and safety of one's family and friends.


Fifty years ago, novelist Sakae Tsuboi (1899-1967) contributed an essay titled "Tanabata-sama" to "Shufu-no-Tomo," a magazine for homemakers. Tsuboi wrote, "There is something delectably heart-warming and charming about the modesty of people's wishes on those tanzaku strips, hung here and there on little bamboo trees."


This is a timeless sentiment shared by many people today, but the era when this was written-10 years after Japan's defeat in World War II-was reflected in Tsuboi's following observation: "Ever since I got into the habit of writing my wishes with my children every year, I have always associated this festival with the Lugouqiao Incident (Marco Polo Bridge Incident) of July 7, 1937. It was the beginning of what eventually led to our defeat in that war."


On that night, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed near Marco Polo Bridge outside Beijing, triggering the Sino-Japanese War.

In "Rokokyo Jiken no Kenkyu" (A study of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident) published by the University of Tokyo Press, author Ikuhiko Hata notes, "Rumors were said to be flying among Japanese troops in China that something was going to happen on Tanabata day."


Tsuboi continued in her essay: "The Tanabata tradition gives us hope because even though the legendary lovers were allowed to see each other only once a year, at least they did get together every year. But many people around us are destined never to see their loved ones again. A friend of mine wrote `Peace' on a tanzaku and tied it to a bamboo branch."

Sixty years after the end of that war, "Peace" was written on many tanzaku that fluttered in the breeze.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 7(IHT/Asahi: July 8,2005)

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2005年7月 3日 (日)

Justice comes in the end for slain activists


Justice comes in the end for slain activists


Few cases were too difficult to solve for Sherlock Holmes, the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and arguably the most famous sleuth in fiction. But even Holmes botched the job once in a while. He failed to protect his client from being killed in "The Five Orange Pips," a short story with references to the South after the U.S. Civil War.



People were dying mysteriously after receiving envelopes containing orange pips. This was the doing of the Ku Klux Klan, a real-life secret society notorious for its ultraconservative, white-supremacist beliefs. The Klan still exists today, though its following has diminished somewhat over the years.


After decades of relative obscurity, the KKK recently re-emerged in the news. The coverage concerns a crime that took place 41 years ago, when three civil rights activists trying to improve the status of blacks in Mississippi were killed. Even though the crime was suspected to be the work of the local white supremacists, investigations were thwarted by outright racism in the Deep South.

But finally, after all these years, the trial started, and a former ranking Klansman was found guilty on June 23.


One automatically associates the KKK with their white robes, pointed hoods and burning crosses. But the accused former Klansman who appeared in court was an 80-year-old man in a wheelchair, with a oxygen tube up his nose.


While some locals were vocally opposed to "opening an old wound" from a different era, prosecutors insisted on "clearing the town's name after too many years of having had to bear this terrible burden."

The court sentenced the defendant to 60 years in prison-20 years for each of the three counts of manslaughter. He has since appealed, but I must wonder how many years of his life are left to serve his sentence, if the appellate court upholds this verdict.


In the Sherlock Holmes story, the detective plans an elaborate revenge on the escaped killer, but the man perishes in a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean. The judgment came from an "existence" transcending humankind.


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 26(IHT/Asahi: July 2,2005)

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2005年7月 1日 (金)

'Banzai Cliff' the site of a terrible tragedy


'Banzai Cliff' the site of a terrible tragedy


In July 1944, just after Imperial Japanese Army forces on Saipan were wiped out in heavy fighting, a U.S. newspaper ran a story headlined "Jeanne d'Arc on the island."

Philosopher and critic Shunsuke Tsurumi points this out in his explanatory note to the "Umiyukaba" volume of a series of writings on war produced during the Showa Era (1926-1989) and published by Shueisha. ("Umiyukaba" was a song in the wartime era.)



According to Tsurumi, a war correspondent wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that a surprise awaited U.S. soldiers when they reached the spot where Japanese forces had made their last stand. They found a nurse with abdominal wounds from a grenade she had detonated in a suicide attempt.

The reporter wrote that he admired the woman's Yamato damashii (Japanese fighting spirit).


The heroine, Shizuko Sugano, was just 18. Shortly after her birth in Yamagata Prefecture, her family emigrated to Tinian, a Northern Mariana Island near Saipan. When U.S. forces landed on Saipan in June 1944, she volunteered as a nurse at the Japanese army field hospital there.


Japanese defenders were driven to the wall. Sugano looked after the wounded soldiers, even though she knew that they would commit suicide before long. When U.S. soldiers approached the hospital, she was told to leave.

But she refused to take the advice. She was found unconscious after pulling the pin on the grenade.


Her journal of that horrifying time was later published as "Saipanto no Saigo" (The last day of imperial Japan on Saipan).

The nurse wrote about a horrible scene she witnessed from a truck that passed near a cliff on the way to an internment camp. Below the cliff dozens of bodies of Japanese women lay floating in the waves. They had all jumped.

Especially painful was the sight of the children strapped to their mothers' backs and chests, Sugano wrote.

The dreadful sight caused a U.S. officer to weep, she wrote. They wondered why so many Japanese had killed themselves.


Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have paid their first visit to Saipan. On Tuesday, memorial rites were to be held at the site, now called "Banzai Cliff" because the women who leapt to their deaths 61 years ago cried "banzai" as they jumped.

Much time has passed since the war, but it left us with unforgettable tragedy.


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 28(IHT/Asahi: June 29,2005)

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