Thursday, June 25, 2009

Happy Birthday!

Cutie Pie
Inside every older person
is a younger person  wondering what the hell happened.
         --Cora Harvey Armstrong

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Clash of Cultures

The Namamugi Incident Revisited

Namamugi ca. 1862
Recently my ten-year-old expressed an interest in learning how to ride a bicycle. He never showed much enthusiasm for bike riding before and the guilt I had about not guiding him through this near-rite-of-passage was always outweighed by thoughts of him riding around the busy city streets, jumping off curbs, racing down hills and over dales as well as other dangerous antics. It was just one less thing I would have to worry about.

Since he wanted to give bike riding a whirl, I got him a really cool collapsible bicycle, weighing only 11 kilograms that you can take anywhere. Plus the wheels are extra small and it only has one speed so it’s impossible to go very fast unless you’re Lance Armstrong. It was perfect for both of us.

He has picked up the knack of riding pretty quickly and he’s got plenty of bruises from falling to show for his efforts. He’s still a little wobbly though and it’s kind of nerve racking watching him pedal around and into walls and more. Still he is super proud of his accomplishment and enjoys riding by other kids he knows. He gives them a wave then goes careening into the nearest bush or whatever (he hasn’t grasped the technique of steering one-handed yet).

The other day we were pedaling near our home in Craneview Ward, Yokohama. Over one hundred years ago this particular place was the scene of a brutal samurai attack on a group of British nationals traveling across what was then the Japanese countryside. The event occurred in the sleepy fishing village of Namamugi located a stones-throw away from the burgeoning cosmopolitan trade port of Yokohama. Known as the Namamugi Incident, the series of events that befell the four unwitting British subjects, Charles Lennox Richardson, Woodthorpe Charles Clark, William Marshall, and Mrs. Margaret Watson Borradaile,on that fateful day in 1862 would be forever etched in the collective consciousness of the foreign community that made Japan its home. 

The foursome were traveling along the famed Tokaido road that served as the main conduit between the emperor’s palace in Kyoto and the real seat of power, the shogun’s castle in Edo (now Tokyo). It was supposed to have been a leisurely excursion to the renowned Kawasaki Daishi temple located in present-day Kawasaki, about a two-hour ride at most from the foreign nationals’ settlement in Yokohama. As the group made their way through the village on that splendid, sun-drenched afternoon they came upon the retinue of Shimazu Hisamitsu, regent and father of Shimazu Tadayoshi, the feudal lord (daimyo) of the powerful southern fiefdom of Satsuma.

The procession included countless courtiers and samurais armed to the teeth who crowded the road. As the local villagers prostrated themselves before the approaching procession, Richardson led his party of riders along side the path of the parade until they were neck and neck with the regent himself. That distance proved to be a little too close for comfort in the eyes of the Satsuma bodyguards who dealt the Briton a deadly blow and left the other two men seriously wounded. The incident culminated in the devastating bombardment of Kagoshima lying at the heart of the Satsuma region over a year later by a British warship in what has been dubbed the Anglo-Satsuma War.

It was at this exact infamous historical intersection that my son accidentally rammed into a gaggle of giggling junior high school girls. Since he wasn’t going very fast (he can’t), nobody got seriously wounded except maybe for a certain ten-year-old’s pride in his ability to ride a bicycle. The worst thing that probably happened was some kid got rubber tire tread marks across her white knee socks, but I’m not exactly sure since the minute it happened I followed my first instinct and rode away like lightning, following in the hoof prints of Clark, Marshall and Borradaille.

Fleeing as fast as I could in order to avoid another possible international incident (if not all out war), I observed the whole affair from a safe distance away. In retrospect I think my actions provided the perfect laboratory conditions for learning how to maintain harmonious human relationships under stressful circumstances. I hadn’t exactly abandoned my son, I was there the whole time, cruising off the shores like  Augustus Leopold Kuper, the vice admiral who stood at the helm of the ironsides that wrecked Kagoshima, ready to save the day if needed. 

Luckily the experiment was a huge success and no intervention was needed. My son figured out how to successfully disentangle himself from a really awkward situation in which nobody resorted to swordplay. When he finished semi-prostrating himself (the kid can really bow) while uttering his apologies to the offended retinue of junior high princesses, we met up again down the road. His pride severely wounded, he was all but ready to give up riding.

Then I reminded him that nobody got hurt and that he also discovered one way, maybe not the best way, to meet girls and to think about running into the nearest florist and buying a bouquet of flowers for the next girl he runs into to seal the apology. Upon which he rolled his eyes and then rolled off on his own as fast as he could in order to get as far away from me as he could.

All in all, in light of what had transpired here over a century ago, I would say it was an excellent afternoon's jaunt.

A Lizard Tale

From my kitchen window I can see a birdhouse hanging from a tree in our garden. A couple of years ago a gecko moved into the birdhouse. At the time it didn’t seem like the best place for a small lizard to set up house, but so far it hasn’t been eaten by any predatory birds and seems to be happy.

The lease on the little house we have been living in will expire comes this May and we’ve been looking for another place to set up house ourselves. I hope we are as lucky as that lizard in my garden.

The other day I heard an interesting story about a guy in Japan who was remodeling his house. He had been thinking about making some changes ever since he bought the place about ten years ago. Finally he decided to do the job himself and one day while taking down one of the interior walls he spied a gecko standing motionless on the interior surface of the exposed outer wall. The man tapped the wall with the hammer but the gecko didn’t move an inch. When he moved in for closer inspection he noticed a nail head protruding from the creature’s foot. The poor animal’s foot had been nailed to the wall. As the man thought about how he would set the trapped gecko free, it dawned on him that neither he nor anyone else had ever done any work on the house since he bought it. Not a single nail had been driven into the walls since the structure was first built a decade ago. “How the heck has it been able to survive trapped here between these walls for so long?” the man asked himself when all of a sudden there appeared a second gecko bearing in its mouth a small insect. The second gecko carried the insect to the impaled gecko before quickly darting away. The man was flabbergasted. He then knew how it managed to live all these years. Everyday for the last decade this little lizard had fed, cared for, and well loved its poor trapped companion. It was the secret to a mystery that had lain right behind his wall, a mystery he never even knew existed until that day. We can learn a lot from lizards.

Friday, June 12, 2009

When Life Goes to the Dogs Get a Cat

The Original Hello Kitty

Walk down any street or alleyway in Japan and you are sure to notice them. They beckon to you from just about every shop window and doorway you pass. Cats, cats, cats, they’re everywhere! Not just any cats, but a particular breed of cat that has earned undying devotion from the inhabitants of this island nation. To describe them as popular is an understatement. They are in a word ubiquitous. They are in fact little ceramic figurines depicting a cat with its paw raised in a come hither pose that have been affectionately dubbed maneki neko, “the beckoning cat.”

No one knows for sure just when maneki nekos first started to grace store fronts and homes in Japan with their presence but newspaper accounts first mention them around the year 1876. That year coincides with a period of history in which Japan attempted to transform itself from a feudal society, where Samurai and ancient lords ruled, to a more Western and industrialized nation. The Japanese government of the period passed sweeping reforms designed to sweep away old ways of thinking and make way for Western modernization. The new forward looking government of the time bought into a whole package of modern science and technology that came bundled with a host of Western concepts and beliefs. Included in that package was an accompanying set of Christian moral values that looked askance at more than a few traditional Japanese practices. One of those practices included the displaying of phallic-shaped icons. Seen by Westerners as offensive, the figurines had long been regarded by locals as symbols of fertility used to beckon rich harvests and good fortune. While the offending figurines were swept away by government fiat, the shelves that displayed them didn’t stay empty for long. Porcelain cat figurines with their paws raised in a “power to the felines” gesture soon filled the empty niches.

Restaurants and other establishments quickly adopted the maneki nekos in the hopes of bringing in a rich harvest of customers. By the turn of the century they had become a permanent fixture in most shop windows as well as many homes. It is a position that they have maintained to this day.

Why a cat? Why not a duck or a dog even? Well in one Tokyo neighborhood where there are more maneki nekos per square kilometer than perhaps anywhere else on earth they will tell you a story that has filled the imagination of anyone who has stopped to listen to locals tell the tale for the last 300 years. The story goes that one day the rich and powerful Lord Ii while out hunting took refuge from a storm beneath a huge tree. While standing there he spied a cat in the doorway of a local temple that seemed to be beckoning him to enter. He moved from his position beneath the tree and upon entering the temple heard a terrible cracking sound. When he turned to see what the noise was he was startled to discover that the tree under which he was standing just moments ago had been struck by lightning and fell to the ground. Had he been standing there he would have been killed and so Lord Ii felt he owed his life to the cat who had beckoned him to the safety of the temple and from that day on the temple known as Gotokuji would become the official place of worship for the powerful Ii clan. Gotokuji temple still stands today where visitors will find it much as it was some three centuries ago. Well that is except for one very noticeable difference, virtually hundreds of maneki nekos fill almost every nook and cranny of this amazing place steeped in history. It’s here you will find the true devotees of the lucky cat who have come to pray in hopes that it will shed some of its good fortune on them.

For many Westerners the maneki neko still sends somewhat of a mixed message today. While its gesture beckons people in Japan it does exactly the opposite in many places around the world. In fact maneki nekos that are produced for export, and there is an apparent growing need for them everywhere, have their paws reversed to portray a more Anglo-American welcoming gesture.

While maneki nekos are traditionally white with their right paws raised to welcome good fortune, today you can find them in all sorts of colors and poses including gold for immense fortune, pink for inviting romance and even sumo size cats for inviting extra calories I guess. Whatever happens to be your heart’s desire, I’m sure there is a maneki neko out there who is beckoning you.

*I went all the way out to Gotokuji temple (which is qutie a trek from my home)and got some really nice maneki neko photos that I was going to post here but I can't find them.

Trying to Get a Little Bit Ahead

When you think of Japanese cuisine you probably automatically think of rice and fish. You’d be surprised to discover the number of full blown boulangeries that dot the contemporary Japanese urban landscape. You might think you were in France if it weren’t for all the Japanese people not speaking French and the lack of French architecture (but they’re working on that).

Buy one of their magnificent looking baguettes hot out of the oven, carry it home (because eating it in public would be a tres beaucoup social faux pas in Japon), sink your teeth into it and it’s like you’ve been transported to the sampling line at the Wonder Bread factory (not that there’s anything wrong with Wonder Bread, they provide good jobs and good food and don’t ever pretend to be even remotely French). It’s a totally deceptive business or maybe it’s just a fusion of Eastern and Western culinary ideals that I haven’t learned to totally appreciate (although I do like the sesame seed rolls smeared with butter and cod fish roe, etc.). Among the baguettes and brioches from time to time you run across a bagel or two. They look exactly like any bagel you’d get in New York, but bite into it and you realize you’re just not in New York. That's the way it was until I stopped in a bakery at the Yokohama branch of the 7-11 owned mega retail outlet, Ito Yokado. When it comes to Bagels in Japan they have the genuine article. My first bite was true serendipity. I’ve been going there like everyday to get my minimum daily intake of onion bagels. That is, until today. I pedaled up to the store on my bicycle as usual and then must have spent a half an hour combing through the rolls and other sundry pastries for my bagels. They were no where to be found in the entire 10 by 15 foot enclosed retail space. So I waited for the crowd to dissipate and asked the cashier where the bagels were. She told me "they were all exported to Hamburg." Which made perfect sense for a second, and then I asked her again by way of repeating exactly what she said to me. They were all “exported to Hamburg?” To which she replied, “we’ve stopped selling them.” In Japanese “exported them to Hamburg” and “stopped selling them” are like identical twins (or at least like bagels and bialys, they’re very close, believe me). I was too much in shock, and a little too embarrassed over the Hamburg thing, to find out what happened to the bagel baker and how he/she learned to make authentic bagels in the first place but I just hope they bring them back soon from wherever they may have been exported or not.

Bagel Boy vs. Anpanman

Bread is firmly encrusted into everyday Japanese life. Demonstrating this fact is a well beloved Japanese storybook super hero dubbed Anpanman. Anpan is a delicious Japanese bread filled with sweet azuki bean paste. It may well be one of the first East/West fusion foods or maybe not. At any rate it’s a classic Japanese treat and the character that shares its name is a classic as well. His head is actually an anpan roll and he spends his days scouring the universe on a mission to stop ne’er do wells like his arch nemesis the evil Baikinman (Bacteria Man). Anpanman packs a mean punch but he has a heart of gold and head full of sweet beans. He uses his head a lot. In fact whenever he finds hungry children he breaks off a piece of his head and feeds them, but not to worry the real power behind the super hero known as Anpanman is a baker who along with his assistant is always ready to bake up a new batch of brains and everything else for the headless hero. I only wish there was a Bagel Boy who was willing to share a piece of his mind as well.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Let's Michael Everyone!

Yokohama - My son’s fifth grade class chose his drawing to represent their class mascot, “Michael.” Michael, or MAIKERU in Japanese, is an acronym. MA stands for majime ni suru, or “do things correctly (Don’t fool around).” I is for ijime o shinai, or “don’t bully others.” KE is for keijime o tsukeru, or “act responsibly.” Keijime o tsukeru might also mean to “draw the line between good and bad.” When yakuza guys commit yubitsume* they can also sometimes refer to it as keijime o tsukeru (I guess it's kind of a rough school). Finally there is RU for ruru o mamoru, or “obey the rules.”

I was surprised by the class’ choice of mascot. I haven’t done a scientific study but after casual observation I’ve noticed that at least 55 percent of all Japanese school mascots are octopuses. The other 45 percent is divided between 40 percent squid and a remaining five percent falling in an ambiguous category made up of characters of questionable biological origin.

Squid and octopus loom large over the Japanese cultural as well as culinary horizon. I’ve seen kids eat up dried squid like it was candy. In fact you can find dried squid on a stick in just about any neighborhood candy store here.

Squid, a popular school mascot and ....

......after school snack!

*A ritual performed to atone for an offense(s) or in order to leave a yakuza gang in which a gang member cuts off a portion(s) of his little finger.

PET Bottles Turned Anti-pet Bottles

Yokohama - Walk down any street here and you are sure to notice them. Old plastic beverage containers filled with water are just about everywhere in sight. Let the eye wander and you’ll find them lined up along the tops of walls, scattered about postage stamp sized gardens, or standing sentry around potted plants. Known to locals as PET bottles (PET is short for Polyethylene terephthalate, the type of plastic used to make most beverage bottles), these glistening, sun pierced crystal-like chambers are often among the first exotic objects to meet the eyes of visitors to this far eastern land. Dividing light into a palette of colors splashed across the concrete foot path, these oversized gems dotting the modern Japanese urban landscape are in a word, “unsightly.” They are another one of those “mysteries of the Orient” that have prompted more than one traveler to ask: “What’s with all the bottles?”

In her Japan Times’ “What the heck is it?” column , Alice Gordenker lifts the shroud of mystery surrounding the ubiquitous bottles. Apparently they are believed to ward off cats. Now, I was under the impression that the natives of Japan had a fondness for cats (witness the Hello Kitty phenomenon) but apparently the love affair has gone to the dogs. I just can’t decide which is more visually disturbing, the sight of a few feline calling cards left behind or old soda pop bottles strewn all over the place.

In her article, Gordenker points out among other things, like potential hazards, that the bottles have no effect in scaring away cats. A simple search on the internet will dig up a number of sites in Japanese that note virtually the same thing which casual observation will easily support. So now my question is: “What’s with all the bottles?”


Here is an animated short by a ten-year-old genius I know.

You can see more (even way cooler ones) on Youtube. Find them under the title: "Magumaro" today! You won't be sorry you did.

My Pet Name

A Lesson in Humility 

When I first arrived on these shores, they called me "John Sensei" (Master John). That was when I used to teach English in a public junior high that sat in the shadow of one of Kanagawa prefecture's tallest snow-capped mountains. Invariably at the end of each first class of the new school year one of the girls would come up to me at the end of the period all a jitter with nervous excitement. The first thing that came to my mind, the first time one of these kid's approached me was, "Oh she wants my autograph," for such is the rock star status of English teachers in Japanese junior high schools (or so they believe). Writing instrument in hand I waited for the trembling adolescent to stutter out her anxious request. 

Then she spoke: "I have a dog named John."
Oh man! If that's not enough to knock any rocker off the stage, I don't know what is. It was at that moment I suddenly realized that I wasn’t exactly a “rock star” in everyone’s eyes. It was a real lesson in humility for me.

Well it's time for me to go for my walk now.

More on John

I’ve been thinking about my name a lot these days. I recently discovered an excellent tome entitled, “Verbatim.” It’s a compilation of some outstanding articles from the magazine of the same name featuring “the best writing on language for word lovers, grammar mavens, and armchair linguists.” While reading the book I stumbled upon a chapter on names. Oh serendipity! This I thought would reveal the true and most glorious meaning behind my appellation extraordinaire. In his article, Onomastica Nervosa, Laurence Urdang notes certain names that “have acquired meanings of their own or that, by association, have acquired special connotations.” Among the names on the list is John as cited below:

  1. prostitute’s customer.
  2. toilet.
  3. Dear John letter, a note to a former lover or spouse.
  4. any male.
Now as if that wasn’t bad enough, there is an entry for John plus my middle moniker, Thomas, that reads:
John Thomas: penis
What the hell were my parents thinking????????

By the way:

Edited by Erin McKean, Verbatim is an excellent romp of a read through the back alleys of English and other languages. Look for it at your local book emporium.
You might even acquire a new meaning for your name. I sure did.

Japanese Baseball Gets Animated

Originally published 5/25/2009

Yokohama - Baseball in Japan just got a lot smaller and that's good news for fans everywhere. Thanks to the folks at Konami Digital Entertainment everyone in Japan can now catch a ball game right in the palm of their hand. The video game maker has just.....

Click here to read more.

New Revolution in Wind Power

Originally posted 4/29/2009

Yokohama - As soaring oil prices and greenhouse gas emissions fuel the search for cheaper and cleaner sources of energy, a Japanese aerospace manufacturer may have found the right stuff for a solution...........

Click here to continue reading.

Konami Puts World Baseball Classic in Palm of Your Hand

Originally publihed 4/23/2009

TOKYO — Do you have a bad case of baseball fever? Konami may have just the right medicine for you..............

Click here to read more.

Enduring US Military Bases

Originally published 4/03/2008

Yokohama - Crime by military personnel in Japan has stirred renewed public resentment towards US bases.

This week a Japanese House of Representatives panel earmarked 140.9 billion yen (about 1.37 billion dollars) to cover a portion of the costs for running U.S. military installations in Japan. The public learned about the decision on the same day the news reported on the arrest of a US sailor for the murder of Masaaki Takahashi, a 61-year-old Tokyo taxi driver.......

Click here to read more.

US Beef Smells Fishy

(Originally published 3/16/2007)

Yokohama - Japanese consumers view eating US beef as a major health risk.

This month US beef got a clean bill of health from the World Organization for Animal Health, the  international body that sets global safety standards for meat, milk and eggs. That’s just not good enough for Japanese consumers though. Japan refused to lift its partial ban on US beef due to continuing fear over Mad Cow Disease (MCD). While it’s been over six months since Japan partially lifted the ban it initially imposed on US beef in December of 2003 after MCD was discovered in Washington State, nobody’s biting. January figures from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries show that imports are about one tenth of what they were before the ban was first imposed. Those numbers coupled with consumer opinion polls reveal that the majority of Japanese see the all-American beef patty as akin to death on the grill.

Fear is everywhere. Shortly after the ban was eased this summer, warning signs began cropping up. In big bold letters posted on walls, restaurant owners assured patrons that the beef they would eat that day came from nowhere near the USA. Over time those warnings have become a permanent fixture of more than a few menus and advertisements that note just where restaurants buy their beef from and most often it’s from Australia.

Before the ban, Japan was the biggest foreign customer of U.S. beef. When MCD reared its head in the U.S., Japan insisted that American beef go through the same rigid testing required for its domestic beef. Japan boasts the world’s tightest safety net guarding against MCD. On top of measures to ensure the safe feeding and raising of livestock, Japan conducts blanket testing for MCD on all cows destined for the dinner plate.
Although it’s been six months since the ban was partially lifted, a trip to any Tokyo area supermarket will leave you asking: Where’s the U.S. beef? With a few notable exceptions, like the handful of Costco's in Japan, most supermarkets won’t touch it. Retailers, including the Wal-Mart owned Seiyu grocery chain, are reluctant to abandon distribution channels they’ve built mainly with Australia over the last few years.

The biggest barrier for U.S. beef is fear. Although Japan has officially confirmed only one case of the human variant of MCD, the public is afraid that lowering the bar for U.S. beef has made them more vulnerable to the disease. Before the first box of American beef was unloaded off the plane this summer, the Consumer Union of Japan’s Hiroko Mizuhara declared that consumers were "not buying food we suspect has U.S. beef in it," and that’s just what they’ve done. Consumers have in effect reinforced the ban at the cash register by choosing not to buy American beef.

American cattle barons could easily get back in the saddle with the Japanese if they gave them the safeguards they want. They’ll pay for it. Japanese consumers readily fork over more than twice as much to buy domestic beef for safety’s sake. Perhaps our beef barons are afraid that customers closer to home might demand equal treatment. Safer livestock raising practices and testing just don’t seem to figure into the budget of major US beef producers. A relatively small US producer of hormone-free and antibiotic-free beef products, Creekstone Farms, wanted to test its cows for MCD in attempt to get back in the Japanese market. Then something (read: big Ag) prodded the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to put a stop to Creekstone’s efforts. The fact that the USDA won’t let Creekstone test for MCD only makes American beef smell kind of fishy to Japanese consumers.

Japan Marches Backwards

Originally posted 2/12/2004

Yokohama - On January 19th a small advance team of Japanese soldiers made tracks to Iraq's southern city of Samawah to begin fulfilling Japan's commitment to help bring peace and stability to that country. It marks the first time... ............

Click here to read more.

Military Emergency? Is Japan changing its mind about war?

Originally published in Commonweal 9/01/2003

Japan rethinks its peace constitution.

Just before midnight on July 25, a major earthquake rocked northern Japan. Hours later the Japanese legislature sent shockwaves of its own...

Click here to read on at Commonweal Magazine.

US Needs Better Angels

Originally published 6/27/2003

Yokohama - On June 23rd the Associated Press reported a story about burned Iraqi children being turned away by US Army doctors. The story revealed a callous attitude of military leaders toward the innocent victims, many of them children, of our war in Iraq................. Click here to read more.

The Sky is Falling

(Originally published May 2003)

Yokohama - A few years ago I heard a story about a farmer in New England who while working in his fields one day saw something fall from the sky. He immediately ran to the spot on the ground where he saw the object drop to discover a rather large bluish ice-like substance..............

(read more on at Common Dreams).


Streets of Tokyo Erupt in Antiwar Fervor

(Originally published March 2003)

As the U.S. began its bombing of Iraq, hundreds of thousands protested around the world and in the U.S. Former Baltimore activist John Cassidy reports on anti-war activism in and around Tokyo, Japan... (read on at Baltimore Indymedia).