Chocho Monogatari Part IV

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 Three

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 Two

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 One

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.

Hina Matsuri 雛祭り

As yesterday’s doodle on Google Japan beautifully illustraes, was yesterday the Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival.

Google Hina Matsuri Doodle 2015

Google’s Hina Matsuri Doodle 2015

What the doodle actually shows are nagashi hina (流し雛 floating dolls), which are paper dolls who are set afloat on a river on this day. The origins of this ritual are not quite clear but they go at least as far back as to the Heian-Era (794 -1185 CE) and are mentioned in Murasaki Shikibu’s famous novel Genji Monogatari. On this day it is also custom to display elaborate ensambles of dolls and to pray for a healthy growing up of young girls. Here’s a picture of a doll arangement from Wikipedia:

Hina Matsuri Doll ensemble

From top to bottom: Emperor & Empress, Sake Ladies, Musicians, Ministers, Samurai.

It displays a miniature banquet at the Imperial Palace with all kinds of court officials. There is a special terminus for each of the dolls and everything in the ensemble is very strict and ritualized. Even the hairdos of the dolls have to be arranged in a special way. The black hair of the female dolls e.g. has to surround the face from above and from the sides in order to better bring out the paleness of their faces, since pale faces were regarded as a sign of beauty at court. Just like the dolls do, you usually eat sushi and a special kind of diamond-shaped mochi and drink white sweet sake on this day. Also everything is often decorated with peach blossoms, since it’s the time when they begin to blossom (except for northern Japan where it’s too cold in March and the festival thus is often moved to August).

Unvortunately we hopelessly overslept and weren’t really in the mood to go outside yesterday, so we reduced the whole festival to eating sushi and mochi and drinking sake from the konbini.


Shame on us, but we still had fun =)

Samurai and Shûkatsu

Today was a big spending day.

UlfdieFee bought a Kimono in Nanba.He feels like a Samurai now, even though the Kimono could hardly be further away from an actual Samurai armor.

To find the shop we went through a whole shopping district of stores supplying restaurants with kitchen utensils and door signs. After wriggling our way through a small and crowded back alley we arrived at a Kimono shop called Daifuku-ya, with hundreds of beautifully embroidered Kimonos hanging everywhere. Within the shop there was a podium, covered with tatami mats, where the client took off his shoes and got dressed. Which took us a while. Despite having talked for weeks about visiting the shop and UlfdieFee being thrilled at the thought of finally buying a Kimono, he suddenly realized he didn’t know anything about them and what to buy. Which we soon found out wasn’t a problem since the owner had exactly one Kimono in his size. For Japanese proportions, he is huge. So he got this simple black but beautiful Kimono with a Haori (the short coat in the same colour) and an Obi (the belt). Then the owner, realizing that we were beginners in the only clothing style that needs actual lessons to master, began piling stuff in front of us. Two strings, an under-Kimono, an under-under-Kimono, socks, zôri (shoes) and a gem ornament to hold the Haori. A women’s Kimono needs about twice as many items and and takes at least three times longer to put on. We bought everything and left the shop with a lot less money but a gorgeous Kimono (I love Kimonos, especially on men.)

the fierce under-Kimono

the fierce under-Kimono

Trying on the Kimono in the shop...

Trying on the Kimono in the shop…

... and again at home, this time with lots of help from me

… and again at home, this time with lots of help from me

Then it was my turn. Since I’m planning to check out the job market in Japan, I needed a suit, which I bought at one of Japan’s best known suit companies, Aoyama. It took about two hours and I paid more than three times as much as I’d intended. I’m pretty sure the female staff member who was advising me, was a daughter of the devil. She used an intricate method of complimenting me, feeding my insecurities at what was needed on the job market and emphasizing how everyone else bought everything she recommended to make me take more than I wanted and leave more than I ever wanted. “Oh, you’re from Osaka University? How amazing, you must be so good! But you know what’s more important than ability and grades? Appearance. Mess up that first impression and you’ll fail. Here, take this. And this.” Apart from the pantsuit I had come for, the got me a skirt, a bag, shoes, a belt and many more little gadgets. Then she miscalculated everything, so when she named me the price, I turned instantly pale. I literally felt the blood drain from my face and began shaking. I then followed up with a quivering voice: “I seem to remember you saying something different a while ago.” So she recalculated and I paid. It still hurt.

So why’d I do it? First, because even though it hit me unexpectedly it was still a fairly good price for something I will need the next months or years. Being a student and having brought little coupons from my university I got a pretty good deal, especially considering all the accessories she heaved onto me.

Secondly, because I had serious difficulties finding a ladies suit in Germany. Even though there surely must be demand for it, it is nearly impossible to find a proper selection of suits unless you’re male or Angela Merkel. Or maybe there are stores and I’m just unable to find them. But even back in Germany, when looking for some formal wear, I was thinking: “I can’t wait to be in Japan and buy a proper suit for myself.” It’s probably because this whole concept of students, getting out into society, beginning their lives as part of the work force, which has such a strong presence in Japan, is almost nonexistent in Germany. Surely, there are guidebooks and one or two seminars at university, but in Japan there seems to rotate a whole culture around it. It is called shûkatsu, short for shûshoku katsudô (就職活動), the activity of finding a job, and even though this could apply to a middle-aged person looking for new employment just as well, its usually connected to students who are about to graduate.

An entire section in the bookstore at university is dedicated to books teaching you the right manners, from what to wear and how to ace an interview to when to take off your coat as you enter a company. There are job fairs, entry sheets (where you write why you want to become part of that particular company) and job interviews. Suit stores have a whole assembly ready for students beginning their shûkatsu. Which, by the way, begins in the third year for undergraduates, takes several months and means you usually have a job long before you graduate.

While this strict system sounds a bit frightening at first it actually has some great advantages. Since everybody goes through the same process, there are a lot of ways to prepare yourself for it by buying the appropriate wardrobe and reading lots of books. It makes you feel as if you can control part of the process.

The most important thing, though, is that when companies line up to meet those students at the job fairs (which they do enthusiastically), they know exactly whom they’re hiring: young people, well educated, but utterly untrained. They know that the entire job training will be their responsibility and they are prepared to do that. They are rewarded with often loyal employees who still have a high chance of working their whole lives at the same company, earning more and more throughout the years and having a real chance at real promotions. The whole system of “must have at least two years of job experience and five internships in exactly our area of expertise for this entry level position” that seems to have swept over Europe and the US and has left thousands of young students hopeless, has not yet arrived in Japan. Hopefully, it won’t.

I’m not yet sure whether I’ll want to work in Japan. There’s no harm in taking a peek, though.

Wedding Anniversary

On Wednesday Ulfdiefee and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. (Still madly in love)

We booked a room in the Bali Tower Hotel in Tennoji. They really do know how to make you enjoy your stay with comfortable rooms, massage chairs (Pure heaven. Definitely the first thing we’re gonna buy as soon as we become rich) and a jacuzzi bath. Tennoji is a good place in the city to stay as you have the zoo, Abeno and Shinsekai right there and are just a 20min walk or a short train ride away from Nanba with its underground shopping zone, Dôtonbori and Nipponbashi, the Osaka equivalent of Akihabara, around the corner. It’s a place where you can easily spend a few days, which I highly recommend. But more about that another time.

The Hotel room looked something like this:



Look at all those amenities!

Jacuzzi time!

Jacuzzi time!

They had a whole selection of bath salts in the entrance hall that you could use as you liked. Naturally we tried the cool looking black salt and naturally we didn’t read the description so we realized it was sulphurized only after we had put it in the water. So that was the time we bathed in the overwhelming smell of fart and rotten eggs. It’s gonna make a great joke someday. The massage jets were pretty neat, though.

We had ordered a cake to celebrate and since it was our anniversary the hotel threw in a half bottle of sparkling wine for free.

Anniversary Set

Anniversary Cake

Delicious but have you ever tried eating half a cake by yourself?

Anniversary sparkling wine

All in all we had a great first anniversary. We’ve found out that we have both lost our sweet tooth a bit, though. So we already decided to celebrate with burgers next year.

Voyeurism in Japan

When I came to Japan I brought along my Sony smartphone I bought in Germany. After inserting a Japanese SIM-card I tried to take a photo and at first got startled, because suddenly my shutter sound was re-activated. When I checked my camera settings to disable it, I was surprised that the setting to turn off the sound simply had vanished. No more picture-taking without everybody around knowing about it. I’m not sure if this setting also disappears on other smartphone models, but it seems to be true for Japanese manufacturers’ smartphones and iPhones.

The reason for this is that after mobile phones with built-in cameras became popular in 1999, a wave of voyeurism and up-skirt photography swept over Japan. According to the Japan Times cellphone vendors voluntarily decided to remove the option to silence the shutter sound, thus reducing privacy violations. It is actually not forbidden by law to take pictures silently with your smartphone in Japan.

In one of our University’s buildings I took these pictures in front of the ladies’ room with my phone (and it was embarrasingly loud):

DSC_1007 DSC_1008

The sign reads:

“Watch out for vouyeurs and people taking vouyeuristic pictures!

If you catch someone in the act, please report it immediately to the general affairs office. The culprit will face disciplinary measures regardless whether he is a student or staff.

Graduate School of Law”

Also, in all subways and in many trains there are women-only wagons and in the baseball-stadium they have a designated area for women-only toilets with 37 stalls so women can use public transport and public toilets without running risk of being molested:


This may be nice and all, but the fact that it is necessary really doesn’t paint a good picture of Japanese men. It seems that too many men don’t care at all about women’s privacy. There is still a lot of education al work to be done in Japan. But, hey, still better than Texas.

On the Safety of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant

I have finally begun working through the material for my Master’s thesis and I have just found a source with an abundance of information that alone would probably suffice to write the whole thesis. I am speaking of the online library of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum. The JAIF has been in existence since the beginnings of nuclear plants in Japan and they have been publishing a newspaper three times a month every year since the mid-50s.

In November 1966 the JAIF did their security checks on the Fukushima Daichi plant that was put into operation in March 1971. The evaluation of their inspection can still be read in a scan of the original newspaper:

Basically its an appraisal of the undoubted safety of the plant, one of the first light-water reactors in Japan. After the Japanese government had made some bad experiences with having a heavy-water plant built by England, which caused several safety issues and was much more expensive than originally calculated, they welcomed the easy “turnkey agreement” with which GE sold them their plants. In their euphoria everybody was convinced these plants would be safe against everything, earth quakes, tsunami, even a core meltdown would pose no threat to the people and the environment.

I find it fascinating to see the actual newspaper with the actual safety evaluation still accessible. I guess the irony of the whole situation speaks for itself and teaches us that we should pause from time to time to contemplate our old and maybe outdated values.

Journalist Kenji Goto killed by IS

The Islamic State has released a new video showing the execution of Kenji Goto while making threats to the Japanese government.

I am deeply sorry it has come so far.

If you want to know more about Mr Goto and the reactions to his execution, you can read it here and here.