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)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)

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)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)

2005年7月17日 (日)

Believing in the future of our mother tongue


Believing in the future of our mother tongue


Language is like one's beloved life companion. This thought occurred when I saw the results of a recent survey on the Japanese language conducted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.



According to the survey, the expression seken-zure (sophistication) is misunderstood by a large number of Japanese.

Among teenagers, six out of 10 answered incorrectly that seken-zure describes an attitude, thought or behavior that "does not fit the social norm."

Only a little over 10 percent in this age group knew the right answer: "To be sophisticated and wise in the ways of the world through experience."


The older the group, the more the respondents knew the correct meaning, with more than 60 percent of those in their 60s comprehending the phrase. As people grow older and more experienced, I reckon they begin to personally identify with seken-zure in the fullest sense.

However, even among people in their 60s, nearly 20 percent were as ignorant of the meaning of this expression.


Another interesting finding from this survey concerned recent language usage. More than half the teenagers and people in their 20s say yabai (dangerous or bad) when they mean "fabulous," "tasty" or "cool." These young people also led all other age groups by far in the frequency with which they use expressions such as watashi-tekiniwa and uzai-the former a contrived way of saying "I," and the latter a slang word that means "annoying."

If language is one's companion for life, I suppose we can expect twists and turns along the way.


More than 60 years ago, folklorist Kunio Yanagita wrote in "Kokugo no Shorai" (The future of the Japanese language), published by Sogensha: "My overall view is that the Japanese language is growing every day. The vocabulary is expanding, with new usage and expressions appearing, coming into fashion and being copied."


Yanagita went on, "If you genuinely love the Japanese language and want to preserve it, you should use it to say anything you want to say and to write anything you want to write, expressing yourself completely, clearly and moving a person to deeply understand your meaning."

I think these words were those of a man who believed in the future of his beloved mother tongue, who understood the difficulty of maintaining beautiful Japanese.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 14(IHT/Asahi: July 15,2005)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)

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)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)

2005年7月12日 (火)

Train announcements can't please everyone


Train announcements can't please everyone


Noticing a passenger force open a closing door and squeeze himself onto a departing train, the conductor immediately chided him over the public address system: "Please don't rush into the train when the doors are closing! If you get hurt, you alone are to blame."



This happened early last month on a Chuo Line train that was just pulling out of Kokubunji Station in western Tokyo. Another passenger filed a complaint with East Japan Railways Co. (JR East) about the conductor's "rude speech." After checking into the claim, JR East admonished the conductor-a veteran with nearly 30 years-for his "inappropriate announcement."


When this incident was reported by the media, JR East received as many as 420 comments from the public, 90 percent of which came to the conductor's defense.

Hackles are bound to be raised if people are told bluntly that if they get hurt, it's all their fault. Still I also empathize with the conductor's sense of duty that made him furious with a reckless passenger.


"What a conductor says on the PA system when he or she is deeply upset is a test of his or her professionalism," noted former train conductor Katsuo Koda, 60. For many years, Koda worked for the state-owned Japanese National Railways and afterward on JR-operated commuters and sleepers: he was famous for his dry and witty announcements. "You have to think on your feet and be able to ad lib. It all comes down to that," he said.


Keiichi Ubukata, 72, a former NHK announcer, said it was unfortunate that the JR conductor was unable to defuse the situation with a little joke, such as by telling the offender: "I'm afraid our doors are a bit flimsy. They can break if you try to force them open."

Twenty years ago, Ubukata made a major professional blunder and paid for it: Emceeing the New Year's eve "Kohaku Utagassen" (red vs. white song contest), he mistakenly called singer Harumi Miyako by someone else's name-Hibari Misora. Having taken flak for his gaffe, Ubukata emphasized the importance of being able to deal with such sticky situations with humor.


I used to hear conductors make comments such as, "The hydrangeas are in full bloom now," or "Have a nice day, everyone." Not anymore.

According to a JR East spokesman, it is impossible to please everyone these days because, while some passengers prefer a completely announcement-free silent ride, others still like to hear a kindly voice over the PA system.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 10(IHT/Asahi: July 12,2005)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)

2005年7月10日 (日)

Tokyoites lose in `steppingstone election'


Tokyoites lose in `steppingstone election'


Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did not make a campaign speech for Sunday's Tokyo assembly election. This was in sharp contrast to four years ago when his help was sought by many candidates vying for seats.

An aide explained that Koizumi preferred to stay at home ``because of the current political situation.''



As it turned out, the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest party in the assembly, suffered a setback, while main opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) sharply increased its seats.

It is tempting to ponder whether the LDP lost seats because Koizumi stayed home. Or was the LDP setback minimized because of his absence from street campaigning?


The voting rate was about 44 percent, the second lowest turnout for a Tokyo assembly election.

There was little debate on how to improve the lives of Tokyo citizens. This was because the parties viewed the election as a contest to gather momentum for winning the next national election. They should have used it as an opportunity to present their visions on the future shape of the capital.


Novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), who was born in Tokyo's Nihonbashi district, angrily wrote in his novel, ``Futen Rojin Nikki'' (The diary of an old man): ``Who has turned Tokyo into a wretched and disorderly city like this?''

The novel came out shortly before the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Pinning the blame on ``yatsura'' (those guys), Tanizaki went on to say, ``Because of `yatsura,' the rivers that were so clean have become dirty and polluted like stinking ditches.''

The novelist defined yatsura as the politicians ``who did not know how nice it was to live in Tokyo in the old days.''


After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Tanizaki moved to the Kansai region. About 10 years later, he wrote the essay ``Tokyo o Omou'' (Thoughts about Tokyo).

``These days,'' he observed, ``Tokyo is so full of solidly built bridges and roads that people almost seem like scraps of paper dancing in the wind.''


This month marks the 40th anniversary of Tanizaki's death, but his aphorism is still valid. Its lesson applies not only to just Tokyo but other municipalities. After all, the politicians who decide the future of a certain municipality are elected by its local residents.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 5(IHT/Asahi: July 6,2005)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)

Baseball mega-hero comes back to ballpark


Baseball mega-hero comes back to ballpark


Thunderous applause erupted from a crowd of more than 40,000 at the Tokyo Dome as Shigeo Nagashima, 69, raised his left hand. The former Yomiuri Giants slugger, affectionately called "Mister," flashed his characteristic big smile at fans Sunday. It was his first public appearance since he suffered a stroke in spring 2004.



Giants haters are legion, but I have yet to come across anyone who doesn't like Nagashima. His achievements are the stuff of sports legend, and, coupled with his funny manner of speech, are endlessly talked about. Who can forget his dramatic sayonara home run while Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, was watching the game? Or, that unforgettable tautology he shouted during his retirement ceremony? "The Giants are forever immortal." His No. 3 jersey is ingrained in the memories of many fans, just as his moments of glory resonate with certain episodes in their own lives.


Japan was experiencing its postwar economic miracle when Nagashima was in his prime. Most Japanese were genuinely taken by any strong, cool "hero."

Children's top three favorite things were said to be "The Giants, sumo grand champion Taiho and tamagoyaki (sweet egg loaf)." Those were relatively simple, innocent days.


Yu Aku, a writer of pop lyrics, once wrote in The Asahi Shimbun that those three favorites were originally "Nagashima, Taiho and egg loaf." According to Aku, Nagashima was replaced with the team name in 1963, when fans began referring to him and his equally awesome teammate, Sadaharu Oh, as the "ON Guns."


What would be today's equivalents of "Nagashima, Taiho and egg loaf?"

There are more sports and forms of entertainment now, and people's tastes have diversified. There isn't any one team or individual monopolizing victory and the public's adoration. If I must think of some icons, perhaps Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees and pro golfer Ai Miyazato fit the bill. So, shall I say today's three favorites could be "Matsui, Ai-chan and ice cream?"


But Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and the national soccer team led by Zico have many devoted fans, too. And youngsters love kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) and fried chicken as much as they love ice cream.

The more I wracked my brains, the more I was reminded of Nagashima's greatness. I suddenly recalled the words I used to say to myself on the batter's box in sandlot baseball: "No. 4 (in the batting order), third baseman, Nagashima."


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 4(IHT/Asahi: July 5,2005)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)

What to make of teens slaying family members?


What to make of teens slaying family members?


After killing his parents at their home in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward, a 15-year-old boy went to a movie theater in the Ikebukuro district, where he watched "Batman Begins." He then took a Shinkansen bullet train to the resort town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, according to statements he gave to the police after his arrest.


 東京・板橋の自宅で両親を殺したあと、15歳の少年は池袋に出た。映画館に入り「バットマン ビギンズ」を見る。そして新幹線に乗って、長野県の軽井沢へと向かった。

The youth is a first-year senior high school student and the eldest son of the slain couple, who were live-in superintendents of a company dormitory.

In the Batman movie, the hero's parents are murdered when he is still a small boy. I wonder what thoughts crossed the teen's mind as he watched this scene.


In the city of Fukuoka, another 15-year-old-a third-year junior high school student-was arrested on suspicion of fatally stabbing his 17-year-old brother with a kitchen knife in their family apartment.

The boy had previously complained to friends that he was bullied and treated like a servant by his older brother, who often woke him at night and demanded a back rub.


The Tokyo teen told investigators that he had been ridiculed and insulted by his father. The motives of the two boys have yet to be determined, but I believe each held a deep-seated grudge or hatred toward his own family members.


After the postwar chaos and ensuing years of economic growth, the number of homicide arrests made in Japan declined. It has hovered between 1,300 and 1,400 each year since 2000.

For minors, the numbers remained in the range of 300 to 400 until the 1960s, but dropped to around 100 in the early 1970s. Since 2000, around 100 minors have been arrested for such crimes each year.


From these statistics, one can hardly say that homicides committed by minors are on the rise.

Still, the act of killing one's family members in their own home is jarring to society.

City landscapes have changed immeasurably in the six decades since the end of World War II. For example, gardens have disappeared from many homes. But even then, I wish each home would have a "symbolic" garden that exists in the hearts of family members.


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 25(IHT/Asahi: July 4,2005)

| | コメント (0) | トラックバック (0)