March 11, 2011

I had just come back from a dentist appointment in Kanda, taking the Tozai subway line to Nishiogikubo Station.  I dropped in at Seiyu to buy some underwear and was carrying it to the check out counter when I noticed that the clothing hanging up on the walls was swaying back and forth.  I froze in the middle of the large open clothing department.  A salesclerk came running through calling out to everyone to take shelter in a safe place.  Like where?  I wondered.  The standard drill is to take cover under a table or desk, or lacking that a doorframe.  But there was nothing like that around me.  Two other shoppers ran behind the counter and crouched down.  I dropped to the floor next to the outside of the counter and started praying loudly.  I felt exposed and vulnerable.

I’ve been in Tokyo during countless earthquakes, including being on the 38th floor of a skyscraper,  and in a swaying elevator,  and I’ve had a couple of photographs in glass frames fall shattering to the floor at midnight, but nothing was ever like this.  I don’t know how long it lasted.  I did not have the presence of mind to time it.  But it felt abnormally long.  An announcement came repeatedly from the store’s PA system telling us that the building was safe, so not to worry.  But it was a recording and failed to reassure me.

When the worst was over, I found myself standing up and actually paying for the undershirts at the cash register.  I think both I and the salesclerk were in a state of shock and weren’t sure how to proceed.  Was the store still open for business?  Maybe we just wanted to do something normal, carry on as usual.  I walked out of the store through the cosmetics department past aisles cluttered with fallen bottles of shampoo and deodorant.

Outside the store is a narrow alleyway lined with tiny drinking and eating facilities where the clientele are usually sitting on stools at a counter right out in the open.  Now the alleyway was crowded with people standing around talking to each other excitedly about the earthquake.  I passed many with cell phones pressed to their ears.  I arrived back at the train station where people were just standing around as if waiting to see what would happen next, looking lost as their plans for the late afternoon had suddenly fallen apart.  Where to go now?  What to do?  A man came along and asked two young women dressed in waitress uniforms if they were all right.

I turned right and went down another narrow alley to Dante coffee shop.  I had no idea if it would still be open for business, but I was shook up and wanted to be in a comforting place.  A customer was just leaving, and two more were standing at the counter, the cups at their seats sitting in saucers of spilled brown liquid.  I asked the master if he were still open, and he said yes, so I went in and sat down.  He explained that the gas had cut off so it would take a few minutes longer than usual to make the coffee.  I told him where I had been and we talked about the experience.  He said it was the strongest quake he had ever felt in his life, and he looks to be in his 50s.  I ordered the coffee featured for the day, Blue Mountain, and he laughed and apologized.  The sign for the coffee of the day had fallen to the floor, and the Blue Mountain under it was for another day.

I figured out that more than the sign had fallen as the master walked about behind his counter, crunching broken glass underfoot.  The two people at the counter left after paying the master the half price he charged them for the coffee that had spilled.  A woman came in, saying she had intended to go shopping at Seiyu  but they weren’t letting anybody in.  Since I was starting to calm down, I felt foolish for having gone through with my shopping.

Dante is illuminated by pendant lamps, and has a small bell attached to the front door which rings whenever someone opens or closes it.  The bell began to “ting ting ting” though no one had opened the door and the pendant lamps began to swing back and forth.  “After shocks,” the master announced, but these after shocks felt as strong as the usual earthquake, and if you’ve just experienced one much stronger, these after shocks can be terrifying.

He brought me my coffee.  I savored it, and savored the vase of yellow tulips on the counter in a glass vase that had not been thrown to the floor.  Bach played softly in the background.  The master swept up spilled coffee beans from the floor.  If this was the end, then Dante seemed a good place to be, a place of mental if not physical safety.

There was no news of where the earthquake had been centered or what was happening elsewhere.  The other customer said that no one could get through on their cell phones.  About 4 o’clock I decided I’d better get on home and inspect the damage.  I opened my door to broken dishes, broken glass scattered everywhere, windows wide open, refrigerator and bookshelves shoved away from the walls.  I haven’t even begun to make a dent in the mess.

And now, four hours after the quake first hit, I am sitting here at my desk, and as I have been typing this post, and even now the room is shaking back and forth.  As computer and TV are fine, I now know that the quake was centered off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture in northeast Japan, and the tsunami warnings are uppermost on everyone’s mind.  I do not yet know what the magnitude was of Tokyo’s share.   I’ve dug my earthquake kit out of the back of the closet, and now must begin cleaning up the mess.


Bill of Rights Comes Due; Embassy Refuses to Pay

March 9, 2011

Still unresolved since the Tree last reported on it [see “Futenma Update,” June 23, 2010] is the issue of the relocation of Futenma Air Base to Henoko.  Politicians are apparently too busy engaged in power struggles on the Diet floor and in back rooms to deal with this hot potato up front and decisively.  The mainstream media here as well have found other more entertaining diversions, like the sumo bout-rigging scandal or the recent case of a student using his cell phone to copy answers to entrance exam questions, to report as news.  Lost in all this vaudevillian soft-shoe and shuffle is any serious news of what’s happening in Okinawa.


Meanwhile, the eyes of the world’s media outlets are on events in Africa and the Middle East.  I have an email subscription to Global Voices, “an international community of bloggers who report on blogs and citizen media around the world.” <>  In their email notice of Sunday, February 20, 2011, the following stories among others were posted:  “Arab World:  The Uprisings Continue,” “Algeria:  Protesters Hurt as police try to stop demonstration,” “Bahrain:  Protestors continue to camp at Pearl Roundabout,” “Morocco:  Across the Nation, Demonstration.”  A story was filed for Japan, too:  “Japan:  It’s Nursing Time on Twitter!”  You would think that all must be quiet here in Japan, and that all the turmoil is concentrated in other parts of the globe.


But things are not quiet on Okinawa, and the apparent large percentage of the population that is more concerned with personal than political issues represents not general satisfaction with the way things are so much as a sublime indifference to it.  Not treating an event as “news,” however, does not mean it never happened; nor does ignoring it mean that it will quietly go away.  On the same day of the above-mentioned Global Voices posting which gave the impression that all was quiet on the Japan front, a report appeared in the citizen reporter blog JANJAN (Japan Alternative News for Justices and New Cultures) on a demonstration that had taken place that same day near the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.


According to a post by citizen reporter Umigata Masashi, “Two Protesters Arrested near American Embassy” 「米大使館付近で逮捕者2名発生」,  approximately 200 people gathered near Shinbashi Station to march to the Embassy to deliver a formal written notice protesting the construction of helipads in the village of Takae in Okinawa for use by the U.S. military.  The march was sponsored by the “Don’t Tread on Okinawa!” Emergency Action Committee.  Although the march was orderly and protesters kept to the sidewalks, they were accompanied and outnumbered by a sizable force of both uniformed and plainclothes police, who also filmed them with video cameras.


One day last fall I attended an event at the Okura Hotel, located across the street from the American Embassy.  My route from the subway exit to the hotel took me right past the Embassy, and I arrived a few minutes late because I had not allowed time for the detour I was forced to make.  The Embassy is surrounded by Japanese policemen who ensure that nobody who has no business at the Embassy sets foot on the public sidewalk that runs next to it outside its gates.  When I attempted to do so, I was stopped and instructed to take a wide semi-circular rather than direct route to the hotel.  I felt at the time not only put out by the inconvenience but embarrassed at my position.  Here was I, an American citizen, being ordered by a Japanese policeman to keep away not from some secure area belonging to Japan but from the grounds of (what I apparently foolishly think of as) “my own” Embassy, which now resembled more a military stronghold than the diplomatic outpost of a democratic nation.


It was no surprise, then, to read in the JANJAN report that when the protest marchers reached the vicinity of the Embassy, they had to stop because the Embassy does not permit political demonstrations in front of its buildings.  However, several marchers began to call out to the others to move on to the Embassy anyway, and everyone began chanting loudly in chorus.  At this point, the police moved in and arrested two of the protesters for “interference with a government official in the exercise of his duties.”  After the arrest, representatives of the Emergency Action Committee went to the Embassy to deliver their written notice protesting the helipad construction, but the Embassy refused to accept it.


Mr. Umigata appends some commentary to his report that is especially of interest to the Tree.  He notes that while President Obama apparently welcomed the recent citizen revolution in Egypt, it seems to be a different story when it comes to citizens protesting in Japan.


Ironically, “it was America who taught democracy to Japan after the war. And now America is teaching Japanese people again to assert their anger and take action,” he writes.


He suggests that this protest march, and the arrests made, are a sign that the usually well-behaved Japanese people, who are perceived as “obediently listening to whatever their superiors say,” are undergoing change.  They are becoming more excited, and they are getting angry.  The refusal of the Embassy to accept the letter of protest will, he predicts, “up the voltage.”  “The dislike of America will increase, which may be a sign that we will grow into an independent democratic nation.”  He ends his post in English:  “Thank you, America!!”


[For the full article (in Japanese) with photographs of the scene visit <;.  For a video of the event, see <;.  Many thanks to Umigata Masashi for permission to quote extensively from his post, sine qua non.]

When I read Mr. Umigata’s post and learned of the Embassy’s rejection of the protesters’ petition, I could not help being reminded of the scene in ANPO [see previous post, “Film Review:  ANPO“] where the Embassy personage tosses his cigarette butt at the crowd before turning away from them.  Has nothing changed in the 50 years since that event?


Film Review: ANPO

March 9, 2011

It begins with a close-up of a painted image of a dog with an unnatural human-like mouth smeared with bright red lipstick.  The camera moves about the canvas, zooming in and out, revealing a little more.  Above the dog is a dark monster, red tongue hanging out, who holds the dog by the tail in one claw-like hand and by one ear in the other hand.  Tied around the dog’s neck is a white napkin with the words “Yellow Stool” scrawled across it.  The scene then changes abruptly to another painted image, that of Manhattan in flames, encircled by a fleet of Mitsubishi Zeroes.


The film is ANPO:  Art X War (2010), a documentary by the American filmmaker Linda Hoaglund.  The word anpo (a shortened form of anzen hoshou “security”) refers to the Japan-US Security Treaty. The film deals, however, not so much with the Security Treaty per se but with the responses of Japanese visual artists to various issues connected with it, including the 1960 mass protest against the signing of the revised Treaty, the continued presence of US bases on Japanese soil, especially in Okinawa, the ill treatment of Japanese women by GIs stationed at those bases, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war guilt of the Japanese, and the fire bombings of Tokyo.  Because the film explores these issues through the eyes of the artists, it comes across more like an art exhibit than a documentary.  Some of the artists speak on screen so we have their words to mull over as well, but most of what we see is the art works themselves, and it is those works which speak most eloquently and appeal to viewers most forcefully.  Being works of art rather than reason, they do not argue what to do about the Security Treaty itself, but rather pose some troubling questions and leave the drawing of any conclusions up to viewers.


The scene of New York burning is from “Map of an Air Raid of New York” by Aida Makoto (1996).  It shows skyscrapers, many easily identifiable such as the Chrysler and Pan Am Buildings, engulfed in flames.  In the foreground a fleet of Zeroes forms a figure eight, the sign of infinity.  This scene, interspersed with shots of the artist being interviewed, is accompanied by a melancholy instrumental rendition of Takemitsu Toru’s anti-war song “All That the Man Left Behind When He Died.”


Mr. Aida:  “For the Japanese, whether or not we like America is a loaded question that isn’t easy to answer.  Whether or not you like France is a matter of personal taste.  But America is a more searing presence, with love and hate always flip-flopping.”


The rest of the film, and the artists and artworks featured in it, elaborate on this basic theme.  While many of the works depict the horrors of war, and some express anger not so much at the US military presence as at the Japanese politicians who allow it, the impression that comes through loudest and clearest is of a deep wellspring of unresolved and complicated anger toward America hidden beneath the quiet surface of Japanese society.  This unresolved anger and its implications is perhaps best expressed by the two paintings that open the film.


The Zeroes were, of course, designed as fighter jets, not bombers.  They were turned into bombers, however, in the latter years of the war when they were used for kamikaze suicide attacks on American ships.  Thus, “Map of an Air Raid” depicts New York being attacked by airplanes turned into bombs themselves.  The scene would be reminiscent of 9/11 were it not for the fact that it was painted five years before that event.


The “Yellow Stool” makes several reprise appearances, and eventually it becomes clear that the dog represents Japan, and the dark monster who holds it in his grip is the United States.  On another level, the dog represents the women who were hired by the Japanese government in the early days of the Allied Occupation to work as prostitutes serving the American GIs posted to Japan.  A bit of film footage shows a young white soldier with his arm slung casually around the shoulders of a pretty Japanese woman.  They are both smiling and looking happy, but the man keeps stroking the woman’s cheek with the hand that lies on her shoulder, and she keeps reaching up and pushing the hand away, even while she continues to smile, even while he keeps ignoring her signal and returning his hand to her cheek, while she continues to smile, like the dog in “Yellow Stool.”


Another painting:  “And Still They March” by Katsuragawa Hiroshi.  A man wrapped in bandages and barbed wire walks on crutches away from us down a long red-carpeted gray-walled corridor toward a black rectangle of a doorway at the further end.  One leg is in a brace and the other has been removed at the knee.  His bottom is unbandaged but also unclothed.  Around his head the bandages have been wrapped in such a way as to suggest the ziggurat-like dome of the Diet Building.


When I first saw the title, I thought the painting depicted soldiers going to war, again and again and again, despite the futility of war, despite its horrors, despite the damage that it does to everyone and everything.  But listening to the interview with the artist, and looking more closely at the painting, I realized he meant to depict the Japanese parliament.  Despite the widespread protests against the Treaty, in which millions of citizens participated, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Kishi effectively cut off all debate and shut out the opposition from the vote to approve the Treaty. “Parliament wasn’t functioning anymore so I wrapped it twice in bandages, but it’s Parliament hobbling along on crutches,” explains the artist.


“March” may also refer to the protest marches, and the determination of the people not to give up.  Parliament may not have been functioning, but ordinary citizens were filling the streets demanding that their voices be heard.  Artist Ikeda Tatsuo participated in that 1960 demonstration, and tells of a friend who marched with him.  Because he had had polio as a child, this friend walked with a crutch, dragging one leg behind him, “desperately chanting and zigzagging” for three kilometers.


ANPO includes scenes from a film made of that protest [Rage at ANPO (1960), Tomizawa Yukio, dir.], and in one of them, the march has arrived at the U.S. Embassy.  The camera zooms in on a white man standing on a balcony of an Embassy building watching the goings-on and smoking a cigarette. He flips his cigarette butt down at the crowd and exhales a cloud of smoke before turning away.


In the end, the protest failed to stop the signing of the revised Treaty.  One scene shows Mr. Katsuragawa’s painting being taken out of storage, perhaps on its way to be photographed for the film.  It had been stored not in a museum but in the attic of the garage of a kerosene salesman, a friend of the artist.  So too did the protest march end with everybody going home and putting their anger into storage, not to be shown in public.  As Mr. Ikeda asks at the end of the film:  “So what the hell is democracy?”


[To view a trailer of ANPO, visit <;.  For an excellent critique of the film, see Ryan Holmberg, “Know Your Enemy:  ANPO,” Art in America, Jan. 1, 2011, at <;.   Future screenings will be held at the Hong Kong Film Festival on March 24 and 27, at the Association of Asian Studies/ICAS Film Expo 2011 in Honolulu on April 2, and at the Harvard Film Archives in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 11.]


Gallery of Store Fronts: Omotesando Evening

February 4, 2011

Found Object: A Mad Tea Party

February 4, 2011

Here’s a Train Story from many years ago.  Sitting across from me on the Tozai subway line were an elderly couple who, judging from their rustic dress and sun-beaten complexions, were probably visiting Tokyo from the countryside.  The man was peering at a map of the Tokyo subway system.  I had one of those, too.  The complexity of the system for newcomers was bad enough, but even worse, the names of the stations, in tinily printed Chinese characters, even if you could understand them all, were nearly impossible to make out with the naked eye.

It was a warm summer day, and all the windows of the car were open because even though we were now underground, the Tozai line travels above ground at either end, and this must have been in the days before the trains were air-conditioned.  The man turned the map this way and that, mumbled something to his wife and then letting out a loud “humph!” tossed the map out of the window behind him.

So much for maps and directions in Tokyo.  And it’s not only the train system that can be so challenging.  Often while wandering the streets or the underground passageways of the subway stations, I’m reminded of a scene in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice, coming upon a crossroad of sorts, is confronted with a profusion of conflicting arrows, pointing every which way—including up.

There’s a spot in the Shinjuku San-chome subway station that illustrates this analogy well.  Six passageways converge here, and signs point the way not only to the three subway lines that run through the station (the Shinjuku, the Fukutoshin, and the Marunouchi), but also to the numerous exits (30 of them from A1 to E10) and to the entrances to Isetan Department Store, which occupies the space just above this spot.

The other day when I passed through here, I was surprised to find something new:  a mural depicting the Mad Tea Party from (this time) Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Close inspection revealed it to be an artwork by Yoko Yamamoto,  a mosaic constructed of tesserae of what looks like painted pottery.   The posting of the wall art is sponsored by Isetan Department Store, but there is no mention from either sponsor or artist of the relevance of the location to the theme of the art.  Is it possible that they did not notice the connection between the tea party scene and all the arrows around it, pointing every which way including up?

The artist’s message to those who view the mural says that she imagined traveling light years away to another dimension when she made this illustration of Carroll’s tea party, and she hopes we who view the mural imagine this, too.  But I don’t see any need for one’s imagination to go into warp speed; all one need do is turn around.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

"I don't much care where..."

"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go."

" long as I get somewhere."

"Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough."

Photo Essay: Pond in Winter

February 2, 2011

On the last day of January, the sun was shining in a blue sky above Zenpukuji Lower Pond.  It was very cold, and the edges of the pond were laced with thin patches of ice.  The ducks moved slowly or not at all.  More birds than humans were hanging out at the pond that day; the jogging path around the pond was at first deserted, though as I made my way to the other side, a couple of photographers appeared, with high-powered-looking lenses hanging from their necks, and here and there I passed someone sitting alone on a bench contemplating the quiet water.


Except for a distant wailing of a siren, the sounds of Tokyo faded away.  Everything slowed down and grew still, and all I could hear were faint whistles and coos from the ducks huddled together in the middle of the pond.  As I stood beside the water, listening, people hurried by me on the path, in a hurry to get their walk done or perhaps just moving quickly to keep warm.


The ducks had other ideas:  Find a sunny spot and stop there for a while.  When you have to move, do so slowly.  They seemed to be demanding this of the humans, even cooperating in picture-taking as long as you too moved in slow motion.



This duck seemed aware of me, and paused long enough for me to shoot, but then immediately afterwards dove into the cold water with a soft splash.





Three-quarters of the way around the pond, I stopped to watch the lone egret resting on his sunny mound of dried grass.  He was surrounded by paddling ducks.  My eyes on him, I did not see what startled one of the ducks, who suddenly let out a loud quack.  All the other ducks immediately rose up out of the water as one, making a loud WHOOSH and scattering drops like diamonds all around them.  This happened too fast for me to get a picture of it—even the heavy-lensed bird photographers missed it—but I saw it.  It was like a fountain that suddenly turns on without warning.  Jets of water shot up in the air all at the same time.  And then the fountain just as suddenly turned off.

Through all the commotion, the egret did nothing, just kept to his post on the grass, like a meditating old arhat.









Back at the entrance to the park, the water at the edges was still frozen.  Pieces of ice glinted in the sun that was just beginning to reach it.

During the walk around the pond, I looked for signs of spring, but found only some tightly closed buds on a few trees.  But from the path I could see in the garden of a house that looks out on the park a plum tree that had beat them to it.







Slowly but surely/ the suns rays reach the pond and/ penetrate its ice




High-Tech Tokyo

January 18, 2011

One day last December I attended a renku, or linked poetry, session held at a teahouse within the grounds of Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo. Originally the property of a Tokugawa Shogun, the park is now surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers in what is known as the Shiodome area of town.


The park is a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, yet located right in the middle of it. Even within the park itself it is possible to escape the 21st century even further by stepping off its wide gravel avenues and through a small gate into a modest garden. Here is the teahouse known as Hobaitei, a one-story structure with three tatami rooms separated by sliding screens, a kitchen for making tea or coffee and for washing up, and restrooms. The only furniture is a low table and some cushions to sit on. Groups like the one I joined that afternoon can rent the house for a few hours at reasonable rates and write poetry together.


The sun was pouring in through the glass windows of the sliding doors that overlooked the garden, warming the room and deepening the sweet scent of straw emanating from the mats on the floor. We sat there and composed poetry undisturbed for three hours, while the world outside rushed by.


After leaving the park, we headed for Caretta, a new shopping complex where we planned to have an evening meal. I’ll let the PR folks down at Caretta speak for themselves:


Caretta Shiodome, a town for adults looking for a place to dine, become stylish, and enjoy culture in a relaxing atmosphere. This 21st century skyscraper consists of four distinctive zones, each providing large-scale international facilities where people can meet and communicate with each other. Why don’t you indulge in a comfortable space and leisurely pace at Caretta, a world totally secluded from that of business where speed is everything. []


Passing a crowd gathering in the plaza in front of the entrance to Caretta, we stopped to see what was going on, and got swept up in the excitement of waiting for an elaborate Christmas illumination display to be lit up. In the plaza was a tangled-looking arrangement of wires, making it look like a war zone. Above and around us were the walls of towering skyscrapers, and running through them on its elevated track was the Yurikamome (Seagull), an automated train line that operates from nearby Shinbashi Station out to the landfill areas of Tokyo Bay.


The crowd grew thicker and thicker, and young men whose job was apparently to keep us under control, called out through bull-horns, telling us to keep away from the walls and leave room for people to pass. On the dot of 5 PM the show began. The rolls of barbed wire suddenly became dazzling spectacles of pulsing white and blue lights. Music blasted forth—not “Silent Night” or any other recognizable Christmas tune, but the theme music to the most recent NHK television drama. Bubbles were released and floated up into the night. Clouds of steam filled the air. Green laser beams came shooting out of somewhere and bounced in green dots off the surrounding walls. The top of a white plastic-looking cone structure periodically turned red and emitted smoke. A voice excitedly and loudly narrated a story, but all I understood of it was that it had nothing to do with Christmas.


We went inside to the restaurant and had dinner overlooking the show, apparently “enjoying culture in a relaxing atmosphere.” But frankly, if you want “a world totally secluded from that of business where speed is everything,” I’d avoid Caretta. I’d go straight back to the Hobaitei teahouse and its doorway into the previous century.


Christmas Demo

January 15, 2011

On December 18, 2010 I went to Harajuku to attend a Christmas concert at the Tokyo Union Church.  I was a little wary of passing through the station because it was “illumination” time on Omotesando, the long tree-lined avenue that leads from the station up to Aoyama Street.  It is these trees that were decorated with Christmas lights.  Several years ago I had inadvertently planned to meet someone for coffee in Harajuku on the very day that the trees were first lit up.  When we left the coffee shop to go back to the station, we got caught up in a mob of “illumination-seekers,” a crowd around the station so dense that not only could we not move independently within it but, I found out too late, we could not even leave it to go somewhere else less crowded.  Fighting against panic, I was pushed and shoved and jostled and squeezed all the way into the station and onto the train, an experience I do not want to go through again.

It seems I was not the only one fed up with the crowds, for in the following years neighborhood associations in the Harajuku and Omotesando areas decided to put the illumination display on hold.  The illumination seekers created too much trash; the cost of the lights and electricity bill were too high; and the lights were damaging the trees.  This past December, however, they decided to have the display again, this time using more energy-efficient, tree-friendly light bulbs.  So I wondered what lay in store as the train pulled into Harajuku Station on a twilit Saturday afternoon.

It was indeed crowded, but I found everything highly organized.  Men in official-looking gear were barking orders as we got off the train and climbed the stairs to the exit, keeping people who were exiting to the left and people who were coming in to the right.  As long as we kept moving in our appointed line, we could flow smoothly through the ticket gates and out of the station.

Looking toward Harajuku Station

Just one wave in the oncoming tide

I immediately climbed the pedestrian bridge that led to the other side of Omotesando, hoping to avoid the mob on the street level below, but here too were men barking orders through bullhorns:  “Keep moving along!”  Below was a sea of Japanese flags.  This time I had inadvertently run into a protest march.

It was a demonstration organized by the Ganbare Nihon! National Action Committee, or Stick to your guns, Japan! National Action Committee.  (According to our translation staff, this organization has no official English version of their name, but our office dictionary translates ganbare as “Hold out!” or “Stick to it!” or “Show your nerve!”)

This group was formed in February, 2010 for the purpose of “arousing the people to patriotic action,” according to Wikipedia.   Since the incident in September when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard vessel in waters around the Senkaku Isles, they have been holding similar protest marches around town, with several thousand participants, calling for Japan to stand up firmly to China.  I knew about these previous marches only because they had been reported on an on-line alternative news site; there had been not a peep about them on NHK news or in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.  But this was my first real look at them.

For years, right-wing protests have taken the form of ominous-looking black sound trucks speeding through town blaring ultra-nationalist invective interspersed with an ear-splitting rendition of the “Ride of the Valkyries”—or something equally histrionic—through loud-speakers set on their roofs alongside a fluttering national flag.  What I saw below me, apart from the waving flags, was completely different.

Rather than ominous black, the protest was painted in bright cheerful red, white and green.  Participants held not only flags but bunches of blue, white and yellow balloons, creating a festive atmosphere.  There was even one fellow dressed in a Santa Claus suit.  Rather than dour-faced old men hidden inside sound trucks, the marchers looked like they came from all walks of life.  There were families with little kids, housewives, working people, students, men and women of all ages.

“Overthrow the DPJ Cabinet!”

I descended to street level and headed toward the church, pushing my way through the crowds milling about on the sidewalk, and all the while keeping an eye on the passing protest, which kept on coming in waves from the direction of Aoyama Street, heading toward Shibuya.  While I saw a few placards declaiming about the Senkaku Isles, I started to notice other messages as well:  “Overthrow the ‘Ultra-Left’ Kan Administration!” “Denounce desecration of the Imperial Household!” “Dissolve the Lower House at once!” “Crypto-Communist Cabinet!” “Why Doesn’t the Media Report on our Demonstrations?” and even one seemingly English sign: the incongruous “NO WE KAN!”

Wikipedia‘s article on this group describes them as “conservative.” Their slogan is “Grass (common people) Rising Abruptly” (as opposed to describing themselves as a “grass-roots” organization).  They are opposed to voting rights for foreign residents, call for the dissolution of NHK, and want the Japanese government to stand firm against China’s attempts to claim the Senkaku Isles as its own territory.

Although they have taken clear stands against certain things, it is not clear what they favor in a positive way.  I got the impression of a lot of disaffected people finding an outlet for their frustrations in an acceptable and supportive group setting.  While it is true that the mass media ignores them, perhaps this snub is a blessing for them for it allows the movement to operate under the radar, so to speak; to grow and spread while other people are looking the other way.  Yet they do bear watching in the event that their cuddly exterior hides from view a darker purpose, which has yet to coalesce and come boiling to the surface when least expected.

Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to Men

The lights were pretty, but Christmas music beckoned further down the road.  I pushed my way through the crowds and arrived at the concert just in time.  Inside the church, a different kind of festive atmosphere prevailed.  “Silent Night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright,” the choir sang as further waves of protesters passed by its doors.  Outside the moon was keeping watch.










NO WE KAN! What could this mean?  Transformational grammarians might gnash their teeth over this one, but if we look at it not as English or as anything created by grammatical rules, it might begin to make sense.  Think of it more as a collage of images, whose purpose is a political statement.  Begin with a little historical background:  The Obama campaign’s use of the slogan “Yes We Can!” during the 2008 presidential election.  These words caught on and resonated here, giving people a sense of hope and possibility.  Then the Democratic Party of Japan swept away or seemed to the old guard Liberal Democrats and installed Yukio Hatoyama as the new leader of Japan.  But President Obama turned his back on him and his plans for change which did not jibe with the American military agenda.  In comes his replacement, Naoto Kan, whose name coincides somewhat with the last word in the Obama phrase.  So now it’s “Yes We Kan!”  Except Kan can’t either.  So people fed up with both parties get together and start saying “no” to Kan and the DPJ.  In other words, “no” to the whole “Yes We Can!” dream that government cannot really deliver on.  This negation is achieved in a linguistic collage by changing the “yes” to “no,” but keeping the affirmative form of “can” in the image “Kan.”  It’s not meant to make sense grammatically.  Don’t even try.

Off the Beaten Path: Tokyo Aqua Line

January 10, 2011

On a brilliant morning in early December, I joined a leaf-viewing party which went by chartered bus to the Boso Peninsula in Chiba.  After departing Tokyo Station, the bus swooped southward on the elevated Shuto Expressway till it reached Kawasaki, at the edge of Tokyo Bay.  Here it entered a tunnel that took us down under the Bay, emerging about halfway across and about 10 minutes later onto an artificially constructed island called  Umi Hotaru (Firefly of the Sea).  Whether coming or going, whether in a private car or chartered bus, you stop and park here at the “island” to refresh yourself and admire the view.

How to describe this thoroughly functional structure which in every way belies its charming name?  The closest thing I can think of is the South Station bus terminal in Boston, with its curving, rising exit ramps and row after row of parking slots for the buses.
Our bus pulled into its slot, and we got off and made our way across the busy lot to an enormous structure resembling a multi-level parking garage.  Inside this, besides hordes of people including tons of children running around, were enormous public restrooms, the largest I have ever seen in Japan, the long rows of stalls replicating the rows of parking slots for the buses waiting outside.
After using the restrooms, we ascended by escalator five stories to the roof, passing on our way layers and layers of souvenir shops, game centers, Starbucks, and noodle restaurants.  Out on the roof we found the bay busy with ships all around us and the sky busy with air traffic overhead.
In one direction was Chiba, shrouded in haze from the smokestacks of the steel factories that line its Tokyo Bay shore.

In the other direction was the Tokyo from which we had just come, and beyond it Mt. Fuji’s white cone rising above the bank of smog.

On the return trip to Tokyo, we again stopped to rest at Firefly of the Sea, but this time the sun had just set behind Mt. Fuji, and the lights of Tokyo were twinkling like Christmas decorations on the far shore.

Photo Essay

November 13, 2010

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The annual chrysanthemum exhibition is happening down at the Shinjuku Gyoen through Sunday, November 15.  But never mind that, unless you’re a fan of the subdued and regimented.  Instead, wend your way over to the French Formal Garden, where the roses are rioting, flaunting their flamboyant selves to the sun.

French Formal Garden

Rose is a rose... a rose... a rose... a rose... a rose...