Archive for June, 2010

Futenma Update

June 23, 2010

Vol. 3, No. 7.

“What part of muzukashii don’t you understand?” There are many ways of saying “no” in Japan, and “no” is not one of them.

For example, muzukashii, which by itself means “difficult,” but when spoken in response to a request most likely means “no.”  In other words, muzukashii means “Please do not bother to ask me again because circumstances make it too difficult to comply with your request.”

On Friday June 18, US Ambassador to Japan John Roos visited Okinawa and met with its governor, Hirokazu Nakaima.  The latter told Roos that relocating the Futenma Air Base to Henoko in Nago City would be “difficult in the extreme.”  (Uh oh.)  Apparently unfazed by this rejection—perhaps adhering to the “the-sale-begins-when-the-customer-says-no” principle—our Ambassador assured the Governor that the US government plans to continue seeking ways to “reduce the burden on Okinawa…of hosting the bulk of US forces in Japan.”  There is no sign yet, however, that moving Futenma out of Okinawa is one of those ways being sought.

The following day, June 19, marked the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the revised Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in 1960.  It is also the date President Eisenhower was scheduled to visit Tokyo but did not.  Here’s why:  The streets of Tokyo through which his motorcade would have to pass were filled with Japanese citizens protesting both the Security Treaty itself and the undemocratic way in which it had been approved in the Diet.

The Prime Minister at that time was Nobusuke Kishi, member of Tojo’s cabinet during World War II, subsequently imprisoned as a war criminal by the U.S. Occupation.  Kishi was released from prison in 1948 as part of the Occupation’s “reverse course” policy, in which immediate post-war projects designed to foster democratization in Japan were sacrificed to Cold War ideology and the need to build up the economy to keep the country from going communist.  As Prime Minister, he was determined to get the revision through the Diet as quickly as possible and in spite of widespread opposition to Japan’s willing and active participation in the U.S. military enterprise, which the revision represented.

According to the Encyclopedia of Japan, “Kishi finally ‘rammed’ the approval through in a plenary session shortly after midnight on 20 May while the opposition parties were unaware that the majority party was voting for the treaty and without providing an opportunity for counterarguments.” Millions of citizens poured into the streets in protest.  (Numbers from the Encyclopedia article:  4,580,000 at rallies; 4,280,000 in demonstrations; 7,060,000 in labor union strikes.)  They were unable to prevent the signing of the undemocratically “approved” revised treaty on June 19.

It is this same Treaty that makes it possible for the U.S. to maintain its military presence in Japan.  Yet the problems both created at the difficult birth of its revision and inherited from its original version have never been squarely faced and adequately resolved. They still lurk in the background, casting their shadows over any attempts to solve the current Futenma crisis.

It might be a good idea if Washington reminded itself of the terms of the Treaty.  One of the new provisions in the 1960 revision states that “the expiration of the Treaty is no longer dependent on mutual agreement. Beginning ten years after implementation of the Treaty [that would be 1970], either party may give notice to the other of its intention to terminate it, and expiration will become effective a year later.”


Tokyo Style

June 23, 2010

“A Plastic Life.” The other day I got on a Yamanote Line train at Kanda Station. Across the way stood a young woman, her back to me, holding on to an overhead strap.  The first thing I noticed were her boots:  peach pink shiny plastic encasing her legs from knee to toe.  The tops were tightened at the back with pink grosgrain ribbon laced through brass grommets.  The next thing I noticed was the bag on her right shoulder:  shiny plastic in a paisley pattern of red, brown and green, with a matching paisley stuffed bear about the size of a hand, hanging from one strap.  In the hand not holding the overhead strap, she held a plastic carry-all in pale lavender and white check strewn with assorted images of baubles, buckets of popcorn, rabbits, and jingle bells in shades of aqua, yellow and lavender.  From one pocket of the carry-all emerged a cord that connected whatever was in the pocket to her right ear.  Her long, wavy hair, bleached to a rusty reddish-brown, flowed down over a bright fuchsia sweater tucked into a denim skirt, whose hem just reached the tops of those peachy boots.  By the time my eyes had circumnavigated her get-up, the train had passed through Tokyo Station and was now arriving at Yurakucho.  The doors opened and the peachy boots removed the plastic wonder from the train.

Vengeful Ghosts

June 23, 2010

FOUND OBJECT. Near the Nishiogi Branch Library, next to a bridge that crosses the Zenpukuji River, is a small vacant lot still thick with trees and bushes.  Trash is sometimes dumped here, an old futon or a plastic bag full of wrappings and garbage from a take-out convenience store lunch.  It is the home of several stray cats, too, and when I pass by I often see empty cat food tins, indicating that someone in the neighborhood is providing them with meals.

At the edge of the lot I recently noticed this small altar.

The sign warns that “…the revengeful ghosts of abandoned cats will visit those who have abandoned them without fail.” While I stood at the side of the road copying these words into my notebook, my legs began to itch.  I was attacked by fleas.

Nishiogi Noh

June 7, 2010

Vol. 3, no. 6, June 7, 2010.

Kore wa nani?

What could this be?  The answer is revealed below.  Hint:  Something is being recycled here.

NISHIOGI NOH. On Saturday, May 8, I went to the Igusa Hachiman Shrine to see its annual performance of Nishiogi Takigi Noh or “Noh by Firelight.”  Takigi Noh is performed outdoors at night.  While the covered stage at Igusa Hachiman used conventional theatre lighting, the house, being open to the night air, was in darkness, except for two metal baskets of ignited firewood set in front of either side of the stage.  The seats quickly filled while a cool May wind contributed sound effects and atmospherics by sighing through the tops of the tall trees that surrounded the theatre and blowing up gusts of aromatic spark-filled smoke from the fires.  As if on cue, a large crow flew across the house at 7 o’clock, and then the show began.

This year’s drama was “Lady Aoi,” by Zeami, the great Japanese playwright, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Aoi is the wife of Prince Genji, a fictional character in an 11th century novel.  She has been possessed by an apparition and become ill.  Her family has called in a medium to try to identify the apparition.  Throughout the play, Lady Aoi appears only in the form of a kimono laid out on the stage floor.

In the opening scenes, the medium enters with the family and seats herself in the far right corner of the stage.  She wears a white robe with wide sleeves, and while she intones the incantation that will help her identify the apparition, the wind plays with her sleeves, making them billow out and swirl in a way probably not called for in the script.

The apparition appears.  It is Genji’s former mistress, Lady Rokujo, or rather not her, but her vengeful spirit, or “double.”  She tells her tale of woe.  She has not been treated with respect, despite her noble status, because the Prince has lost interest in her; and preference has been shown to Lady Aoi, whom Rokujo now hates as a result.

“People envied me for falling in love with radiantly beautiful Genji.  My days were always full of joy and glamourous.  But once his love toward me faded away and I was in the wane, my fragile life became like living in shadow….I come here all the way to avenge my bitterness….My bitterness will never fade.”*

And she proceeds to beat Lady Aoi.  (This being Noh the beating is expressed by vigorous but stylized movements of the arm up and down in the general direction of the prone kimono.)  As she beats her, the Greek Chorus chants:

“No matter how deep my grudge against you, and no matter how much you scream, you can be with the beautiful Genji or make love with him as long as you live.”*

A priest is sent for to exorcise the apparition from Lady Aoi.  He arrives and starts to pray, shaking his rosary beads violently in the air.  The vengeful spirit reappears, this time in the form of an ogre, wearing a mask with tortured expression and two horns protruding from its forehead.

A battle commences between the praying priest and the attacking ogre.  The ogre menaces and threatens; the priest dodges the blows and keeps up his praying.  Drums beat, flutes shriek.

Greek Chorus:  “One who listens to my preaching will acquire the wisdom of Buddha, and the one who understands my heart will immediately be enlightened and become Buddha.”*

Finally, the priest succeeds in overcoming the vengeful spirit.

Ogre:  “Alas, how horrible the voice of mantra! How horrible! This is it.  I will never come back again.”*

The commotion on stage ends almost as suddenly as it began.  The music and chanting stop, the ogre turns and walks in slow silence down the aisle leading back stage, followed shortly after by the other performers.  One by one the musicians and chorus smooth their garments, pick up their instruments and retire from the stage through a low sliding door at the back.    The play is over.

*translations courtesy of

An Idiot’s Tale

June 7, 2010

PRIME MINISTER HATOYAMA RESIGNS. Last fall during the early days of the Hatoyama Administration, I asked students in one of my reading classes at Keio University to try using the word “incandescent.”  This word had come up in a Paul Auster essay we were reading and had been used to describe Willie Mays.  “Who would you describe as ‘incandescent,'” I asked, and one group of students answered “Yukio Hatoyama.”  At the time, I didn’t quite see his incandescence–other than the gold-colored ties he was in the habit of wearing–as he was already coming across to me (via the media, of course) and just about everyone else as wishy-washy and indecisive, not exactly the sort of qualities one associates with incandescence.

This morning (June 2) I turned on the TV intending to record a suspense drama for later viewing, but there was Mr. Hatoyama, standing pale-faced in gleaming gold-striped tie in front of a microphone and TV cameras announcing his resignation as Prime Minister of Japan.  So I watched his drama instead.

He faced the cameras without flinching and spoke without notes and seemingly without guile.  There was nothing wishy-washy or indecisive in anything he said.  He spoke passionately and powerfully of his hopes for the future of his party and for Japan, and of his deep regret at not being able to fulfill his promises, particularly the one made to Okinawans to rid their island of American bases.  His voice cracked, and he looked on the verge of tears as he called for a Japan that would one day no longer need the American military presence to maintain its peace for them.  For a few moments he burned fiercely, and then when his speech was over, he bowed and quietly left the podium, “his hour upon the stage” ended, his brief candle extinguished.  His term as Prime Minister was over, but on this his last day in office, and in the middle of his ignominious failure, Mr. Hatoyama had finally achieved incandescence.

It was impossible not to think that he was showing his true colors at last, and that after all, he had been sincere in his desire to renegotiate the Futenma agreement with Washington so that Okinawa would no longer have to host the air base.  Why, then, had he not spoken this forcefully before?  I cannot answer that question because all actual political activity takes place behind the scenes here, and I am only a member of the audience watching the play.  The media colludes in this make-believe by reporting only on the play, what is presented to the public, and not on what is going on back stage.  One can therefore only speculate about what is making a particular actor out front speak the lines he does, or behave the way he does.

One possible explanation for Mr. Hatoyama’s ineffectiveness as prime minister is a flaw in his character that prevented him from acting decisively when decisiveness was called for.  In this case, the drama we have been watching would qualify as a tragedy where a leader with noble ideals is brought down in the last act by his own internal shortcomings.

Another possibility is that Mr. Hatoyama, though bearing the title of Prime Minister, was never really in control of his government, but a mere puppet manipulated by other more powerful forces hidden in the shadows behind him.  In this case, one of those forces would be Ichiro Ozawa, until today the Democratic Party of Japan’s Secretary General, whom a recent issue of The Economist (Jan. 23, 2010) calls the DPJ’s “fixer-in-chief.”  If Mr. Hatoyama accomplished anything in his last act, it was to insist on taking Mr. Ozawa down with him when he resigned, so that the Democratic Party of Japan could start all over again with a clean image.

But a third, more troubling (to me as an American) possibility suggests itself:  Mr. Hatoyama could not be effective because Washington, including our Commander in Chief, did nothing at all to help him.  The U.S. position, unlike the muddled Japanese one, is clear:  We have our bases all over the Japanese archipelago (especially concentrated on Okinawa), and we don’t want to give them up.

Other than to maintain inflexibly throughout the Futenma uproar that only the agreement already made in 2006 was acceptable, and then to sit back and watch while Mr. Hatoyama twisted in the wind until he fell, Washington did nothing to contribute to a satisfactory resolution of the issue.  Washington seemed to know that if it simply waited, and did not cooperate with Mr. Hatoyama, his government would fall soon enough and the threat that his campaign promises posed to our Okinawa strongholds would disappear with him.  Apparently nothing is more important than keeping these bases: not the sovereign rights of a supposedly equal partner, not the opinion of the people whose land has been usurped, and most certainly not democracy itself.

What keeps getting shoved aside as if it were of no importance in the media coverage following Mr. Hatoyama’s resignation is that this is not just about the failure of one man, but the failure of what he represented:  a chance for a government elected by the people to wrest power from an intractable, unelected bureaucracy; to stop the spread of concrete that is covering up Japan’s once-beautiful natural environment; to respond to the cries of the Okinawan people for relief from the 65 years of noisy and noisome foreign military presence in their midst.  It is this agenda which has now failed, not the individual Yukio Hatoyama.  And it is this agenda which America, by not working actively to meet Mr. Hatoyama halfway, helped to defeat.

With Hatoyama out of the way, Washington expects smooth sailing into the waters off Henoko in Nago, Okinawa.  Where Naoto Kan, the new Prime Minister, stands on the issue of the Futenma air base relocation is not yet known.  We do know, however, where the Nago mayor stands:  adamantly opposed to the relocation to Henoko.  And unless he can be bought off, an ugly confrontation lies ahead.


Kore wa nani? Answer:  recycled chopsticks.

At the entrance to the Igusa Hachiman shrine, the short drive from the street up to the torii was lined with these small lanterns on the night of the Noh performance.  The lights are battery-operated bulbs, and the shades, each one different, were made by school children from the elementary school next to the shrine.  At lunch they use disposable wooden chopsticks, which are seen as a waste of resources, so the children saved the thrown-away chopsticks and recycled them as lanterns to guide our way in the darkness.

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

[from Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5]