Part IV

Change of setting but still the same story. I know I’m no good at drawing fighting scenes, I promise I’ll practice more.

The Heian period was a time of peace. Nobody in the aristocracy would even think about fighting and the only armed danger that was really mentioned were pirates during sea travel. That is probably one reason why the people in power positions changed completely between the Heian period and the following Kamakura period (1185-1333) that introduced the very first Shôgun to Japan, Minamoto no Yoritomo. The Heian period ended with a 5 year war that was the beginning of the famous Samurai age.

One thing that I remember was discussed in class was the emergence of fighting Buddhist monks, gaining influence and using force to invade and plunder villages. Not the kind of Buddhist monks you usually hear about. I am afraid I don’t know much about them, but the thought of actual warrior monks seemed so intriguing that I decided to use that idea anyway.

The sign in the hall says seishin ittô (精神一到), by the way, a shortening of the expression seishin ittô nanigoto ka narazaran (精神一到何事かならざらん) which could be roughly translated as “where there’s a will there’s a way”. The little monk’s name en is written with the character for circle (円) that is nowadays used for the currency (Yen) as well. A lot of monks had that character in their name and I like it for its simplicity.

Chocho Monogatari Part IV

Springtime and Travelling

These last two weeks we were visited by my parents in law and my father, who kept us quite busy. It was their first time in Japan so it was very interesting for us to watch them take things in. They marveled at the IC-card system that gradually substitutes train tickets, at the tiny size of many Japanese shops and restaurants, the crowdedness of some famous tourist spots and the sheer uncountable number of cute mascots and franchise figures being available in all sizes as key and phone chains, magnets, figures or plushies. Of course we used the occasion to travel around Kansai and experience some unique events like the dance of the Seiryû (blue dragon) in the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, a personal tour through the Ise shrine by two priests, with a cleansing and a Kagura dance, and a wedding ceremony my former host parents decided to throw for Ulfdiefee and me. We’re gonna use the next weeks to tell you about all of this and about our parents’ reactions to Japan, that might give you a heads up if you’re planning on visiting it for the first time.

It also happened to be the beginning of spring, undoubtedly the (almost) uncontested best time to visit this country that will very suddenly be covered in translucent white and pink cherry blossoms (Sakura), making for an unforgettable scenery. The air is getting warmer and smells of flowers and sunshine (unless you have pollen allergies, in which case you can buy cotton masks), the sun shines more brightly and there are hundreds of places in Kansai alone where you can go and enjoy the Sakura. (Is it obvious I love spring?) While famous spots such as the Himeji castle (that has just reopened on March 27th after years of reparations), the Osaka castle or some temple in Kyoto are certainly worth a visit, i have actually found the Nara park the most enjoyable. Nara is much smaller than Osaka which makes it a bit more relaxed and the park is so huge that even great masses of people will leave many quiet and laid back spots where you can stroll around and enjoy the Sakura. Then, of course, there are the deer Nara is famous for, tame does that will eat our of your hand and just stand around anywhere making for beautiful snap shots.

 Nara Shika

Now the Sakura is nearing its end already and classes are starting again. It promises to be a busy second term for me but I have signed up for a Kimono class that will begin next Saturday and to that I am looking forward already. Stay tuned for more tales!

Chocho Monogatari Part III

So, let’s talk about what’s up with her face. Why is she so determined to hide it all the time?

Well, Heian women basically always lived behind a wall or a folding screen, hidden from the eyes of men. There is a whole culture built solely around attempts by men to catch a glimpse of a lady’s kimono, hair or face. The men hid behind fences and patiently waited for a moment when she deemed herself all alone and looked out onto the terrace so they could see her face.There is even a word for that behavior, kaimamiru (垣間見る) which means exactly that, to look through a fence (onto a woman).

Even brothers and sister often were not raised together. It’s entirely possible for a man not to meet his own sister until they were both adults. Since they were not raised as siblings this led to some confusion more than once, when the young man discovered a sexual desire that was entirely unsuited for his sister.

Our little lady here has probably not met many men in her life and most certainly no strangers with rough, wild faces instead of the white doughy moon faces of the Heian nobility. It’s no wonder she’s so shocked. Will she keep hiding her face for the rest of the story? Of course not, we will be able to see her face soon enough, don’t worry.

Chocho Monogatari, Part Three

Poop candy I

They’re called “Unchi-kun”, which translates into something like “young mister poop”

Look at what I’ve found in a local sweets shop. There’s a weird fascination with poop in Japan that you can find everywhere in the media and in the shops. A while ago we saw a poop piggy bank and now this.

Poop Candy Turquoise

Available even in turquoise for when you’re digesting something really weird

The poop I like best is the one frequently appearing in Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump, by the way. It’s so cute I almost wanna cuddle it.

We haven’t tried the candy yet. Let’s hope the taste doesn’t resemble the shape 😉

Poop Candy

The Minoh Waterfall

Yesterday we used the warm spring weather to take a hike in Minoh. Minoh (箕面) lies on the outskirts of Osaka within beautiful nature with some amazing wildlife.

Minoh Waterfall

Since it’s only a short train ride from our campus it’s the ideal place for some nature-induced relaxation. Minoh has a waterfall that’s almost impossible to miss since the forest paths will take you there directly. It’s about 3km one-way so the perfect exercise for the average city dweller.

The path to the waterfall will bring you past some souvenir shops that, especially in autumn, specialize in deep-fried maple leaves. They are sweet and crunchy and if that’s your thing you shouldn’t pass on them. You will also come by at least one temple, the Ryûanji (竜安寺), with dragon water basins and Buddha statues.

Ryuanji in Minoh

One of the coolest wild animals you’ll be able to see in Minoh (if you’re lucky) are monkeys that live in the mountains. They have been fed by tourists for so long that now they automatically come closer when they see you holding food and since they sometimes become aggressive you’ll find signs everywhere warning you not to come closer and not to feed the monkeys. If they catch you feeding one anyway they’ll charge you a penalty of 10 000 Yen so don’t even try. Also, rabies.

We were lucky enough to see one sitting in a tree exposing its private parts for everyone to marvel at right next to the waterfall. It came closer when we dug into our lunch and we had to hide the sushi because it would jump down the stones towards us as soon as we let something out of our hands.

The sign doesn't lie.

The sign doesn’t lie.

"You know I read somewhere that every monkey should eat Sushi every day so don't be so stingy"

“You know I read somewhere that every monkey should eat sushi every day so don’t be so stingy”

Minoh also has hot springs and a spa that we have yet to try out. If you’re looking for a relaxing day outside the big city, this place is a pretty good idea.

Part II

Let’s talk about the key metaphorical element in this part: Her sleeves wet from the rain.

Poems were the most important way of communication during the Heian era, they were used to express all kinds of emotion, but also in games for entertainment. One metaphor you will find in many poems are the wet sleeves. They are alluded to in a number of ways (one of which is rain) but they always expressed only one thing: tears. ( I know it’s pretty cheap) There are probably thousands of Japanese poems in which someone is writing about lost love, making their sleeves drip with tears. There is even a gesture in Nô, a form of traditional Japanese theater, where an actor lifts his arms towards his face, indicating catching the tears with his sleeves. It was perfectly acceptable for men to cry just as much as women, by the way. Not only when their hearts were broken, men could also break into tears just because they looked at a cherry blossom and remembered that all things will pass.

The Heian era was a time so sensible that they even had an expression for the feeling of being touched by something: Mono no aware (ものの哀れ). It was the ultimate feeling and every man and every woman of the nobility had to possess it. People during the Heian time had a Baroque-like sense of memento mori without the redeeming carpe diem to accompany it, so basically just depression. Imagine being locked in dark rooms all your life, without much moving but lots of alcohol, it’s not hard to guess where those feelings came from.

Chocho Monogatari, Part Two

Natural Disaster or Man-made?

It’s 3.11 again. Four years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku Japan that have led to the accident in the nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi. Thousands of people are still displaced, unable to return to their homes. However, since they are moving out of the temporary housing they leave back the old and lonely who cannot move. These old people face social isolation. Compensation payment is going slow and is appallingly small, not even enough for the refugees to build a new life and a new home outside of Fukushima Prefecture. Official figures estimate that it will take about 30 years until the polluted regions will become inhabitable again but it seems as if that estimate was too ambitious. Decontamination work is lagging behind while radioactive soil is amassing with no real long term plan where to dispose of it. A temporary storage site might have been found but that won’t be enough. Suggestions have been made to dump the whole dirt into the ocean, secured in casks that “probably won’t break”. Why hasn’t anybody thought of this ever before? They have, which is why between 1946 and 1993 several countries, among them the US, have dumped an estimated sum of 85 quadrillion Becquerel into the ocean, a policy that has been forbidden by the London Convention since 1972. If Japan were to do the same, it’d probably be doing it illegally.

The question that has been asked since the beginning was “How could that accident happen?” At the first gaze, it seems easy. There was a terribly strong earthquake and an unexpectedly high tsunami, both natural phenomena that tend to break things. However, if you look further back at the Japanese nuclear policy and the construction of the Fukushima Daiichi plant you’ll find a number of things that have led up to the accident and that show that if a little more thought had been given and a little more money been spent at the right places instead of the wrong ones, this accident could probably have been avoided.

Since this is a huge part of my master’s thesis I have dedicated the last weeks to reading through books by Japanese researches who have asked the question: “Was the Fukushima Daiichi accident due to natural disaster or was it man-made?”

I can tell you from the beginning that it was man made. Here’s why.

Let’s start at the beginning. The very first nuclear power plant in Japan has been put into operation in 1966. It had been built by a British company, not an American one because at that time the British were more advanced in nuclear technology. This first nuclear plant was an overall bad experience for the Japanese. Because the Japanese government demanded more safety measures against earthquakes the construction plans were changed several times. Construction didn’t begin until 1961 and its cost blew up to ¥10 billion more than estimated. After having gone through that experience, the government wanted a simpler way to get nuclear plants and turned to the US where GE was offering plants with a so-called turnkey agreement. The name is to be taken quite literally. GE built the plant and delivered it ready-made. They handed the key over to TEPCO who had to do nothing but turn the key to fire up the plant. This sounded so nice, simple and cheap that neither the Japanese government nor TEPCO thought for a minute about checking those construction plans to see whether changes should be made.

One of those power plants bought with a turnkey agreement is Fukushima Daiichi. The construction plans, however, were the exact same ones that were used in American nuclear power plants. America is a country of hurricanes which is why it makes sense to put the entire emergency power supply system underground where it was safe from the hurricanes. That is exactly what was done in Fukushima as well. Japan, however, is a country of earthquakes and tsunamis, which is why underground, where water can easily reach it, is the worst place to store the emergency power supply system. But since TEPCO and the government didn’t want to spend more money than necessary they decided not to care.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant is on a plateau that was originally 35m above sea level. Before construction began most of that plateau was taken off so that now it’s about 10m above sea level. If they had left it the original height it’d never have been reached by the tsunami.

Now who could have reckoned with a 14m tsunami, really? The security division of TEPCO, actually, that calculated at the beginning of this century that the likelihood of a tsunami of 10m or higher hitting Fukushima in the next 50 years was about 1%. That’s high enough that the coast levee should have been extended significantly. That, however, would’ve cost money so TEPCO never extended it.

In the US, to make sure that there is always an emergency power supply at hand, power plants are required to store portable devices to use in an emergency. Even though the Japanese government has thought about implementing the same rule in Japan as recent as 2008, they have decided against it.

Due to all those misses and stingy money-saving policies the emergency power supply system of every reactor has broken during the earthquake and the tsunami, leading to core meltdowns and hydrogen explosions. Nobody was prepared for such an accident so nobody really knew how to react.

In addition, Japan has in recent years begun experimenting with using MOX fuel rods in regular reactors. MOX means mixed oxide, so instead of using pure enriched uranium in their fuel rods they used a mixture of uranium and plutonium they had extracted with their reprocessing plant. The problem with plutonium is that even in small dosages it’s lethally poisonous to humans, which is why an accident with MOX rods leads to a much more catastrophic outcome than simple uranium rods. Now guess which Japanese power plant was one of the first in 2010 to experiment with using MOX rods? It sounds like a bad joke but I can promise you all those policies were meant dead serious by the Japanese government.

Now, you say, why haven’t people protested more? Anti-nuclear movements are alive and thriving in Germany, why not Japan, especially with their past in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There’s two reasons for that.

First, there are indeed many protest movements in Japan, even before the accident in 2011. Some date as far back as the 1950s. They have prevented nuclear power plants from being constructed and even when they were struck down by courts they more often than not went as far as the Supreme Court in Tokyo with their claims. It’s just that nobody really talks about it. News agencies don’t dare to, many being subsidized so heavily by the nuclear lobby in Japan (being called 原子力ムラ, nuclear power village, even though empire would be more accurate) that their survival is threatened if they talk too much. Over the years TEPCO, other huge power companies, and the Japanese government have spent huge sums on propaganda convincing the population that power plants are save, vital for a solid energy supply and overall nothing to be worried about. Even in recent years publishers of school books have been ordered to erase sentences like “protest movements happen everywhere where nuclear power plants are being built” and substitute them with sentences such as “no protests against nuclear power whatsoever exist in Japan”.

In February 2010 two new books were published as part of the compulsory curriculum. One, called Wakuwaku genshiryoku rando (わくわく原子力ランド, “The exciting land of nuclear power”), was directed at elementary schools while the other, called Charenji! Genshiryoku waarudo (チャレンジ!原子力ワールド, “Challenge! The world of nuclear power”) was directed at junior high schools. Both claimed that it was impossible for radioactivity to leak from nuclear power plants and that as soon as an earthquake occurred the plant would power down automatically. By the way, Fukushima Daiichi wasn’t the first nuclear power plant in Japan to get damaged during an Earthquake. In 2007 an earthquake in Kashiwazaki Kariwa in Niigata prefecture damaged the plant there so it had to be switched off for two years.

The elementary school book cover. You can actually download the whole book here (Japanese):

The elementary school book cover. You can actually download the whole book here (Japanese)

... and the junior high school version. Downloadable at the same link as the other book.

… and the junior high school version. Downloadable at the same link as the other book.

The second reason is that Japan is actually really good at suppressing anti-nuclear protests. Their tools are three bills that have been implemented in 1956. They are called Genshiryoku sanpô (原子力三法, “Three laws on nuclear power”) and basically say that a region with a nuclear plant will receive a ton of money in subsidies. Not only public institutions but construction companies, hotels, restaurants, etc. Everyone is showered with money until it’s almost impossible for them to live without those subsidies. As a result, many protest movements are suppressed by the citizens of their own regions who don’t want to lose the money.

If all that money had gone into safety measures instead of propaganda and bribery, who knows what could have been avoided? But even now, after all that has happened Prime Minister Abe has decided to take a big dump on plans to phase out nuclear energy and TEPCO shows no remorse either.

Japan, Quo Vadis?

Here’s my beard, ain’t it weird?

Recently I got to think about something that really seemed natural to me, but when I started looking more carefully at the faces of male Japanese passersby while walking the streets of Osaka, I realized it was not: I’m talking about beards.

When we landed in Japan one of the men from customs control asked me how old I was and then added: “That’s a wild beard you’re growing there.” Not sure if that was a compliment.

Apparently it is rather uncommon for Japanese men to wear beards or moustaches. The only bearded celebrity I could spontaneously think of is the famous Anime director Miyazaki Hayao.

Miyazaki Hayao

Bearded Miyazaki Hayao
Photo taken from Wikipedia.

Apparantly one of the reasons why men in Japan abstain from wearing a beard is plainly because the ladies don’t crave it. In a (not necessarily representative) poll on 300 women younger than 30 were asked about their opinion on beards. Only 1% answered that they really liked bearded men and 22% were ok with it. The overwhelming majority of 77% didn’t like bearded men. The comments on this little poll unequivocally agree that beards don’t make a well-groomed impression. They look dirty and hurt when kissing, the comments go on. Although this may be true for beards everywhere, it doesn’t seem to discourage many men in Europe to wear beards, so why in Japan?

When I took a glance at a Japanese men’s fashion magazine, it seemed to me that they try to push beards again, especially this moustache + chin-beard combination displayed in the thread by many other celebrities I didn’t know of. The beard has to look just the right degree of chaotic to make a casual impression. This seems to contradict the results of the poll cited above, but one  commentator on naver says: “It looks ok on actors, but there are just really few people on whom a beard looks good.”

Today it is unimaginable for a Japanese politician to grow a beard as Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, does. It seems that beards came out of fashion in the post-war period. You can oftentimes see pictures of regular men and politicians wearing full beards before the war. I haven’t read anywhere pre-war complaints about beards looking dirty and itch when kissing, but maybe women then just hadn’t the right to voice their disdain for beards…

News Digest: What’s Happening in Japan (Mar 9)

In Hyogo prefecture a 40 year old man has been arrested after he has admitted to stabbing 5 people aged between 60 and 80 years. All five have died in consequence. The man refuses to make any other statement without his lawyer.

Four years after the nuclear accident in Fukushima decontamination works are still going slow. Contaminated soil is amassing and only recently plans for a temporary storage site have been publicized.

Today Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has arrived in Japan. She is expected to urge prime minister Abe to exit nuclear power for good. Today she has already visited the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (日本科学未来館) to inspect the next generation photovoltaic batteries Japan is constructing. She has also been greeted by the robot “Asimo” (probably alluding to Asimov) with the English words “I hear you like soccer”, as the Japanese news agency NHK has proudly proclaimed.

Japanese SMUs that employ 70% of the workforce might face a bad time in this year’s annual spring time wage negotiations. The sudden weakening of the Yen and the decreased consumer’s demand has led to less profit. SMUs are unable to compete with the big company wage-wise. Last year the wage increase rate was near zero and this year isn’t expected to go any better.

In order to protect foreign workers on job training in Japan from human rights violations prime minister Abe has proposed a new supervisory agency that will conduct visits to organizations and companies employing foreigners to make sure that rules are being followed. He also proposed a change of Immigration law to add a new resident status for elderly care. Japan has a deficiency in nurses even though they have the oldest population on earth, followed by Germany on second place.

Part I

Part one, yeah!

Now, what’s going on here? To understand why this lady is so heartbroken about a two-night-stand that didn’t call her back we’ll have to take a peek at the Heian era wedding traditions among nobility.

A marriage was a political move, mostly decided between the parents. The whole procedure then began with the gentleman writing an artful and thought out letter to the lady describing his deep feelings and his unstoppable desire to know her love – even though he’d never met her before. The lady might answer with a similar letter or express her very ladylike shyness by not answering not at all but never mind, time for phase B.

The next step was the gentleman sneaking into the lady’s bedroom at night and sneaking out again before dawn without anybody noticing. This occurred for exactly three nights – preferentially in a row – until on the morning of the third night the gentleman accidentally failed to escape before dawn and was discovered by a maid, much to the surprise of the whole family. Mind you, this all happened in houses with walls of paper or very thin wood and the two were probably doing it like rabbits throughout the whole night, but still it was very important that everybody pretended not to notice anything. Now those two were officially married and a party with sake and rice cakes and often presents took place because nobility during Heian times loved a good party.

Now you understand how devastated the young lady must have felt because her lover, the Shônagon (which is a court rank not a name), broke off their engagement because obviously he found a better party, the Lady Sanjô (which is a street name, both terms were very common to describe a person).

The Heian era was a polygamous time, by the way, with a noble man being obligated to take two or more wives to demonstrate his political power and his wealth. Adultery among men as well as among women was very common, as was raging jealousy. Incest was wide spread as well and tolerated as long as they weren’t directly related such as brother and sister. Even though it is not directly mentioned in the literature and I have yet to read up on it, I’m pretty sure homosexual relations were wide spread as well.

A common conception about these first visits during courtship phase is that they were basically rape. That must have certainly been true for a number of the girls since they were often young, shy and saying no didn’t really impress the man. However, to automatically assume that every single young woman was raped on her first sexual encounter denies, in my opinion, the female sexuality entirely. These women were locked up in their homes 24/7, most of them never stepped outside, their feet never even touched the ground. They were lonely and they were bored to death. Nothing was left to them but to read contemporary love stories that were brimming with love, sex, adultery, desire and jealousy. They were young girls with a blossoming sexuality, dreaming all day about the steamy encounters their heroines experienced. (Women could very well read and write back then and they did so excessively. The Genji monogatari, written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu was basically the Fifty Shades of Grey of Heian times but longer and with more sex.) I can’t imagine that some of them weren’t relieved, when at last some guy turned up, writing them hot letters about his yearning for her, giving them a chance to escape the boredom of their everyday lives. At least, that’s what I with my limitless optimism would like to believe.

Something else that I find noteworthy – due to the courtship rules, that varied greatly from contemporary European courtship, technically the girl had her first sexual experience before her marriage. Sure, it was, like, two days before, but still the whole notion of „waiting patiently until my wedding night“ became somehow blurred. I like that.

Chocho Monogatari, Part One