Posts Tagged ‘trees’

Some Progress

March 28, 2012

One hundred years ago today, on March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Washington, went down to the Tidal Basin, hoisted their spades, and planted the first two of 3020 cherry trees presented to the District of Columbia by the city of Tokyo.  This low-key but ground-breaking event not only established a  tradition of flower-viewing à la japonaise in America, but also implanted in the collective minds of both Japanese and American people the awareness that a special relationship might exist between their two countries.

One manifestation of this awareness is the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival held at this time of year at the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC.  This year, to celebrate the centennial of the trees’ arrival, a special extended edition is being held from March 20 through April 27.    According to the festival sponsor, “The gift and annual celebration honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan and the continued close relationship between the two countries.”


The original gift came about not through official government channels, but through the efforts of one man in particular, Yukio Ozaki, who at that time was serving as Mayor of Tokyo, and was in fact intended to honor something more specific and controversial than “lasting friendship.” According to the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation, the Mayor arranged for the gift of cherry trees in order “to express the appreciation of the Japanese people for America’s role in assisting Japan” in the Russo-Japanese War.


This appreciation, however, was not universally shared among the Japanese, many of whom resented the American-brokered outcome of that war, which deprived Japan of war indemnities and the northern half of Sakhalin.

Known in Japan as “the father of constitutional government,” Mr. Ozaki was a liberal politician who was instrumental in the establishment of parliamentary democracy.  In 1912 Japan, liberalism and a love of democracy were enjoying a brief and fragile flowering that was soon to be swept away by the winds of militarism, which Mr. Ozaki opposed.

In the same year as the gift of the trees, a daughter Yukika was born to the Mr. and Mrs. Ozaki.  When Yukika died in 2008 at the age of 96, an op ed piece about her appeared in the Daily Yomiuri.  The essay mentions the prejudice she endured as a schoolgirl because of her father’s liberalism.  “Cherry trees symbolize the soul of the Japanese people.  A traitor sold our soul,” her teacher told her class, referring to her father and the same blossoms currently being enjoyed at the Tidal Basin.  Yukika grew up to become president of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, devoting her own life to helping those who suffer from war.  (The AARJ is active in various war-torn areas of the world including Afghanistan, where it helps people injured by land mines.)

Thus, the original intention of this gift was not just to foster some sort of vague and flowery friendship to which governments could easily pay lip service, but to commit a relationship between two powerful, potentially rival countries to the nurturance and propagation of world peace.  Needless to say, the course of this friendship from that March day in 1912 to today has been anything but smooth and straightforward.  It has endured imperialistic joustings in the early years of the 20th century, open hostilities and mutual bombing raids in World War II, the post-war American Occupation, trade frictions, and tensions over the continuing presence of US air bases and attendant troops on Okinawa even now in the 21st.

Somehow this so-called friendship has survived, just as the two original trees planted 100 years ago today still stand their ground, ancient now and gnarled, testimonies perhaps to the enduring possibility of a “world peace” which seems more elusive now than ever.  Meanwhile, the United States still fights in Afghanistan, and Japan readies itself to shoot down another one of those unidentified flying objects North Korea threatens to launch in their direction some day soon.  No one, it seems, is busier preparing for peace today than anyone was a hundred years ago.  Some progress.


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.

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]

Nikko Tour

May 16, 2010

We decided to reprint the entire account of the Nikko tour [originally published in V. 2, n. 9/2], of which the honorably mentioned haibun [see v. 3, no. 4 below] forms the second part.  Our haiku poet-in-residence had reworked the original haibun, improving on them we hope, so what is below will be slightly different.   We also discovered after publishing the original account that November 25, the day the Grand Tour set out on its journey to Nikko, is the anniversary of Basho’s death, which in haiku circles is associated with the seasonal phenomenon of wintry rain.

* * * * * *

[The following article originally appeared in slightly different form in Tokyo Tree, Vol. 2, No. 9/2, June 13, 2009.]   Travel Diary:  Nikko. We’ve mentioned in a previous issue the 17th century haiku poet Basho.  He is also famous for his travelogues, in which poetic essays describing his experiences on the road, called haibun, are interspersed with haiku expressing the same or related experience in pithier terms.  Here is an example, excerpted from Basho’s The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Harmondsworth, England:  Penguin Books, 1966, p. 81).

I threw away quite a number of things, for I believed in travelling light.  There were certain things, however, I had to carry on my back–such as a raincoat, an overcoat, an inkstone, a brush, writing paper, medicine, a lunch basket–and these constituted quite a load for me.  I made such slow progress that I felt deeply depressed as I walked along with faltering steps, giving as much power as I could to my trembling knees.

Tired of walking

I put up at an inn,

Embraced comfortably

By wisteria flowers.

Inspired by Basho, we have written (or, to put it more accurately, attempted to write) the Nikko segment of the Grand Tour Diary in haibun form.

Nikko Tour 1:  “Following in the Master’s Footsteps…”

November 25:  Departing Asakusa Station under cloudy skies, our train sweeps northward to the Prefecture of Tochigi, passing snow-capped Tsukuba to our east, and after an easy transfer at Shimoimaichi Station, brings us to our destination, Nikko.  We expect to find it full of fellow travelers.  Is it because the threat of rain hangs in the clouds above us, and a nip is in the air, or had perchance the latest travel magazine recommended somewhere else?  For on this day, there seems to be no one here but us.

We leave the station and head up Rte. 119 toward the Kanaya Hotel, dragging our luggage behind us.  Had not the guidebooks said the hotel was but a 15-minute walk from here?

Up the hill we trudge

and trudge, taking not fifteen

but forty minutes.


Tired of walking, we come at last to the entrance to our hotel.  Before us rises a steep cobbled drive.  Encouraging each other, we struggle onward and upward to the courtyard of the grand old hotel.  A kindly concierge rushes out to welcome us, despite our bedraggled appearance, and shows us to our room in the Annex.  Its view of the garden scattered with red maple leaves, its nostalgic decor, its up-to-date bathroom with high-tech toilet seat, all embrace us comfortably.

But outside beckons, so we set out to explore.  Behind the hotel we find the entrance to a trail up Daikoku Mountain.  To aid our trembling knees, we help ourselves to bamboo walking sticks decorated with bells, and thus equipped for the steep climb, ascend the wooded hill.   We pause to rest and worship in front of a small shrine, and descend the other side, where we come upon an outdoor swimming pool and skating rink, neither one in use.

On the surface

of a deserted pool only

a tree’s reflection


We return to the hotel, having met no one on our walk but the various gods and spirits of Daikoku Mountain.

Nikko Tour 2:  “After a Night of Cold Rain”

A cold rain falls all night in Nikko, but we are fast asleep in our enveloping room at the Kanaya Hotel, oblivious to the outside world.  The date is November 25.

In the morning the clouds begin to disperse, and the sun to come out.  Unable to afford the hotel dining room, we go out in search of breakfast elsewhere.  Finding none, we turn our steps toward Toshogu.   The air is misty and crisp at the same time, the ground damp beneath our feet.

We come to the Sacred Bridge across the Daiya River.  It costs ¥300 to cross it, but there is no exit on the other side.  We choose instead the profane bridge next to it because it costs nothing and goes somewhere.  When we reach the entrance to the shrine grounds, we feel in the presence of something old and vast.  Above us soar ancient trees, whose rain-sodden branches the sun is just beginning to penetrate.

No coffee yet but

sunlight pours instead through cedar trees,

and mists arise


A shrine maiden in vermilion hakama is sweeping the wide stone steps that lead up into the inner precincts.  We are among the first visitors of the day, soon followed by a group of schoolchildren in yellow hats.  They cluster near the torii and listen to their teacher’s history lesson.

Without a guide

our boy races through the gate

to sacred ground


The steps take us past prayer halls and washing troughs, treasure houses and souvenir stands, all decorated with gold leaf or elaborate, colorful carvings of fantastic dragons and guardian gods, flowers, cats, monkeys and imaginary elephants.

The wooden clappers

crack–and then from somewhere comes

the dragon’s answer.


Nikko Tour 3:  “Absence and Presence”

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag up the road to what

we don’t yet know

The bus stops and lets us out into cold fresh air, sunlight reflecting off new-fallen snow, and a wide blue sky.  We pad through the snow to the lake.  Deer have been here before us, perhaps at dawn, to drink at the water’s edge and return to the mountain.

Here on this still shore

footprints and droppings of deer

left in pristine snow



If Toshogu is rising mists and ornate mysteries, Chuzenji is simple clarity at its illuminated best.  The water of the lake shines blue and clear, the mountainsides around the lake etched sharply against the sky.  We pass two young women making a tiny snowman.  Later they find us again and give the snowman to our boys.  We give up all our plans, surrendering to the scenery and the moment.

If only things could

always be so crystal clear:

Lake Chuzenji!


The boys want to find monkeys, so we leave the shore and walk behind the shops in search of them.  We come upon a parking lot as big as a football field.  Not a single car is parked in it today.  We tramp through a wooded hillside above the lot, looking for monkeys.

Beside a blue lake

an empty parking lot

no monkeys either


It’s time to catch our train back to Tokyo.

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag back down the hill to

what we used to know




Ono Chikkyo: Artist of the Non-Spectacular

May 12, 2010

ART SEEN. At one end of the ticket is printed a copy of a painting.  In the right foreground is a luminous green willow tree, and beyond it stretch rows of evenly spaced rice seedlings.  The water in the paddy reflects white cumuli floating upside down in a calm blue heaven.  There is no human figure in the picture.

The artist is Ono Chikkyo (1889-1979), whose works, more than 170 of them, were on display this past March and April at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.  The picture on the ticket is an illustration of a poem by the haiku poet Basho, which reads in English:  “They planted/an entire paddy/ere I moved from the willow tree.”

I could say the same about this exhibit.  Usually when I visit an art museum, I wander around looking for three or four works that I find especially appealing and focus on them alone rather than trying to take in everything.  But the Ono works seemed to demand that you look at all of them in order to understand just one of them even better.  Many of them held me at the spot in front of them, exerting a quiet magnetic force from which it was hard to break away.

Ono Chikkyo was a nihonga artist, which means he painted in the traditional Japanese style, using special techniques, materials and subject matter.  I am not an expert on the techniques or how they differ from those used in so-called “western art,” but it is clear that the subject matter is the natural world and the daily living of humans that is woven into and part of that natural world.  In Ono’s paintings trees and mountains and water abound, as well as light and color, which shift, deepen, or fade with the changing seasons.  The human presence is small, and sometimes hard to detect at first, a tiny figure in a vast rural  landscape:  a man bent over tilling his vegetable patch with a hoe, a woman standing and gazing at a view, someone tending to farm animals.  It is not the individual features of the people which are important but their stances and locations within the wider natural scene.

“The nature which I take as my subject is not that of a special place, but an innocent-looking water surface or field, and the clouds and trees that one looks up to,” Ono wrote.  He found much of his subject matter in his native Okayama Prefecture, located in western Japan on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea.  The prefecture is heavily forested, mountainous in the north, with rivers running to the sea, all providing suitable material for Ono’s concentration on the “non-special.”  (He was born in the city of Kasaoka, which maintains the Kasaoka Ono Chikkyo Art Museum, where most of the works on display at the Tokyo venue can be seen when not on tour.)

In an early work, “A Day in Late Winter” (1910), a path winds through a field surrounded by soft hills scattered here and there with trees.  On each side of the path an evergreen tree rises up over everything else.  In the distance the hills culminate in a snow-capped peak.  Blending into the landscape like one of the smaller trees, and making its way toward you between the two taller trees, is a human figure carrying a heavy load on his back.  The entire scene is rendered in dark shades of brown and green, with the exception of the white snow on the distant mountain and the splash of yellow on the human figure’s back.  The human is dwarfed by the height of the trees and the distant peak, yet is very much of the scene, not walking through it but in it.

In another work, “Winter Day Album” (1928), a white hut sits in the middle of withered fields under a gray sky.  Greenish blue evergreens form a shelter behind it, and the fields themselves are a jumble of soft, undulating shapes and colors:  green, pink, brown, gray.  A small white path winds in and out of the fields and past the hut.  A woman in an orange coat stands on this path, with one hand in a pocket of the coat and the other held at her mouth.  She is too small to see what she is doing.  Is she eating something?  Did she set out on a walk to the village and then suddenly realize she had forgotten to bring her wallet?  Possibly she just has a bag slung over one shoulder.  She looks lost in thought, unaware of the important role she plays in bringing a spark of warmth to the landscape that is just beginning to stir and stretch itself out of its winter sleep.

Nihonga uses different paints from western-style oil-painting or even watercolor, though nihonga paints are water-based.  The pigments are for the most part made from natural ingredients like rocks, shells, coral and semi-precious stones, which are ground into powders.  The resulting palette is different from that found in western paintings.  In Ono’s works the colors are muted and matte, yet rich in depth and variation. [See this issue’s Found Object section.]

Ono also wrote that “if you become open-minded, nature comes closer.”  His later works seem to reflect this idea as his palette becomes deeper, more vibrant, and he begins to focus on smaller things, framing a more limited and close-up view:  the vertical lines of tree trunks standing in snow, the pattern of white-capped waves rolling into an inlet, the reflection of sunset light on water surfaces.

My favorites are a series of trees which Ono began in the mid-60s and continued into the last decade of his life; views of a field, a river, clouds or sky at sunset, or so you think at first until you realize you are looking at the field or sky through the branches of a foregrounded tree.  These trees are painted with intricate care and detail, as if the artist were determined not to leave out even the most minute ramification of a branch.  The background is no less important now—-indeed, many of them are rendered in vivid pinks and oranges—-but you begin to wonder about all the other scenes in your life that you may have looked at, while failing to see what was immediately in front of you, framing them.

Ono Chikkyo teaches you to look at the “non-spectacular” natural world around you with new eyes.  And then, when you pause on the way home from work or in the middle of an arduous outdoor task to take a closer look at your surroundings, you might be startled to find yourself standing in the middle of one of his paintings.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FOUND OBJECTS: Earlier this year I went with some friends to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s financial district, where we visited a small art gallery.  Wandering through the side streets, we came upon a shop selling nihonga supplies.  Nearly one whole wall consisted of glass cabinets full of paint powders.

Yubendo sells not only nihonga paints, but also brushes (including a natural bristle cosmetic brush for $60) and attractive little souvenirs made from Japanese paper, as well as the paper itself.  For 400 yen you can also buy a “dream bag” full of colorful remnants of paper used to make the souvenirs. [Yubendo, 1-6-6 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo]

PHOTO GALLERY: Our Tree photographer was so impressed with the postcard reproductions I brought home with me from the Ono exhibit that she tried paying more attention to tree branches in the foreground as well as the small-scale presence of humans in the midst of nature in the photos she took of the recent cherry blossom bash at Zenpukuji Pond.

Totoro’s Tree

April 25, 2010

Feature Story:  A Tree Grows in Nishiogi! One cold day late last year I was out riding around Nishiogi on my bike.  I came upon a recently created vacant lot, surrounded by a fence made of vinyl sheeting.  I had forgotten the building that used to occupy this space but not the tree, which still stood in the middle of the lot, spreading its now bare branches skyward.  I took a picture of it because I felt sure it was doomed to be cut down, as all trees are cut down sooner or later in our town if they stand in the way of an ambitious development project.

This is a keyaki or zelkova tree.

Zelkovas are members of the Elm Family.  For those Tree readers who have never seen one, here’s a few words about them from Kevin Short, who writes a wonderful nature and folklore column for the Daily Yomiuri:  “The keyaki is an Asian tree, growing from Honshu Island south and west to Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and mainland China….Keyaki wood is hard and true, with beautiful grain.  Many of the spectacular bowls and trays covered with urushi lacquer are carved from keyaki. Temples and shrines use the wood in beams and supports, and also in the intricate carvings on the walls and pillars.”  If you visit the grounds of a shrine, you are almost sure to find a keyaki towering above you.

The other day I opened up one of my bookmarked websites (called “Nishiogi Navi”) which covers local news, and there on the home page was a picture of this same tree.  Only now it had a name:  Totoro’s Tree.  It had not been cut down after all, but instead had become a local celebrity.  And the following morning, Sunday, April 18, a dedication ceremony would be held at the site of the tree to celebrate its rescue from the bulldozer and to open officially the new park that had been built around it.

According to this and other linked up websites, this zelkova had once held the status of “Valuable Tree” under the protection of Suginami Ward.  In March 2008, however, the heir to the landowner of the lot on which the Valuable Tree stood filed a request to have the protection status rescinded so that the tree could be removed to make room for a residential building.  Apparently permission was immediately granted.  (So much for “Valuable Tree” status!)  But the local residents “rose up against the planned felling of the tree” and started a “Save Totoro’s Tree” movement.  By June of the same year, they had collected 8,000 signatures calling for the tree’s preservation.  The ward caved in, bought the land from the owner, and turned it into a park.

So last Sunday morning I actually got up early and took on the assignment of attending the ceremony.  (I asked other staff members to come with me, but they all grumbled about it being Sunday morning and so on, so I ended up going alone.)

Totoro’s Tree

The barrier around the lot had been removed, and in its place was a garden plot of straggly flowering shrubs set out in terraced rows.  The park itself consisted of bare earth, still muddy from the recent rain spell, and a couple of benches scattered around the edges.  The tree had changed too.  Its branches were now adorned with pale green fuzzy-looking leaves and flowers.  I kept looking up into those branches and wondering what the tree was making of all the fuss going on down below on its behalf.

I was not the only member of the press there.  All the “front row” spots were already filled with cameramen and their crews.  We neighborhood people had to make do with less advantageous positions around the edges.  (So no complaints please about the poor quality of the photographs.)  The ward had brought out all the requisite paraphernalia for this sort of ceremony in Japan:  a red and white striped awning for VIPs to sit behind, a red and white ribbon stretched in front of the tree for the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a time capsule (in which I later learned were placed newspaper cuttings about the movement to save the tree so that later generations will realize the “valuableness” of trees), and a display of 250 potted geraniums to be given out to the first 250 people to arrive at the park.  (I was no. 235.  And yes, I did go home with a new geranium for the Tree office.)

Press Section

The ceremony consisted of several speeches by local politicians and big wigs, the burying of the time capsule, and the cutting of the ribbon.  We heard first from the Vice Mayor of Suginami Ward, who told us that this tree was now the symbol of Suginami, and he considered it the finest example of a zelkova in the whole ward.  I was reminded of a scene in the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Ikiru (To Live).  In that film, a civil servant who works at the local ward office fights on behalf of local housewives who want to get a vacant lot turned into a playground for their children.  They run into opposition at every turn, from bureaucratic red tape to big money interests and gangsters, but the lowly civil servant fights on unflinchingly and the park finally comes into being.  At its dedication, however, all the speeches are made by the politicians, who also take all the credit for the park’s existence.  Not that the vice mayor was taking all the credit for Totoro’s tree:  he was not. But not only did we not hear from any of the “non-important” people who had actually done the  hard work to make this park happen, but the vice mayor bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played the part of the mayor in the film.

Vice Mayor’s Speech

A member of the ward assembly spoke next, in the glib and flowing tones of a typical politician.  All these politicians speak the same way, very fast and all seemingly impromptu, full of high-sounding polite expressions, so reassuring on the surface if you don’t try too hard to understand what they are saying but which if you could slow down the flow long enough to hear what is actually being said would evaporate into meaningless and empty sounds.  “It’s so wonderful to have this tree here blah blah blah and thanks to all the hard work and cooperation of everyone involved we could have this tree here blah blah blah and we must do all we can to save nature which is a treasure for our children blah blah blah and something everyone wants and needs blah blah blah and I myself will do all I can for nature and will appreciate this tree in my heart forever blah blah blah.”

Meanwhile, all over the ward, as well as the entire city of Tokyo, trees are being felled and flowering bushes uprooted at an ever-faster rate. We here at the Tree are of course happy that this one particular example of a zelkova was saved, and we think that the successful efforts of the residents who led the signature campaign are an encouraging sign. But we also fear that this “symbol” of Suginami means just that:   a token payment to the natural world which can be used as a sign of  good “tree-saving” intentions, thus sparing bureaucrats and politicians the more difficult and demanding task of revising and revoking policies and regulations that hasten and encourage destruction of Tokyo’s natural environment.

[Totoro’s Tree is located in 38 Nishiogikita 4-chome.  To walk there from Nishiogi Station, go out the north exit and go left on the shopping street known as Ichibangaijoshidaidori 「一番街女子大通り」.  Walk about five minutes until you come to a cross street with a furniture store on the right corner.  Turn here and walk straight about four blocks to the park.  You’ll pass the Newbury Cafe on your right, a nice place to stop for a drink or light meal on your way back to the station.]


THIS JUST IN: Tokyo Tree resident poet wins Honorable Mention in 2010 Kikakuza Haibun Contest. We are pleased to announce that our poet-in-residence was recently among those honorably mentioned in a haibun contest held by Kikakuza, a linked verse association here in Japan.  She will receive this award for “After a Night of Cold Rain,” a modified version of a haibun first seen in the pages of the Tree, in which she described the Grand Tour cohort’s excursion to Nikko in essay form with a few haiku thrown in.


Found Object: I walked out of the Tree office the other day and found a gargoyle attached to my next door neighbor’s balcony.   On closer inspection, it was the household pooch, catching a few rays.

Gargoyle Sighting

“Shoulda brought my shades…”


March 8, 2010

Train Stories. February 10, 2010.  On the Chuo line between Yotsuya and Ochanomizu  Stations.  I was standing up, looking out the window at the passing scenery.  On this stretch of the Chuo line, the tracks run beside the outer moat of the Imperial Palace, a tributary of the Kanda River.  On the opposite bank a cluster of plum trees in various shades of pink were doing their best to imitate an impressionist painting, their budding branches all gradually shading into one another like feathery fans.

As the train pulled into Ochanomizu Station, an elderly woman sitting in front of where I was standing made moves as if she were about to get off, so I stood back to give her room.  As she passed me I just caught her English “Thank you,” whispered like a code word it would be wrong for others to overhear.  As I sat down in her vacated seat, I realized her pronunciation had been perfect.

For a native Japanese speaker, many English sounds are hard to make because they do not exist in the Japanese language.  Two of these troublesome sounds are present in the word thank: th and a The nearest approximation to tha one can make, without retraining the tongue, is the Japanese sa with a pronounced like the a in father. It is hard for Japanese mouths to form the a in thank  (pronounced as the sound ash and written as æ in the International Phonetic Alphabet).  For this reason, many people find it easier to say “thank you” in English by saying “3-9” instead.  The word for 3 is san and the word for 9 is kyu, thus san-kyu.

But this woman had not said “3-9.”  Even though she had whispered, what resonated in my ears afterwards clearly began with th and proceeded to nk via æ.  I experienced this tiny variation in the usual Japanese pronunciation of “thank you” as a kind of secret greeting.  It was as if she were telling me that hidden inside her thoroughly Japanese exterior was a history of intimate experience with the English language.  Perhaps she had once taught English to junior high school kids, or had lived abroad as the wife of a diplomat, or had traveled extensively on her own.  Or maybe she had just listened every morning to the NHK radio English lessons, repeating after the announcer, “thank you thank you thank you” until she got it perfect.

However she reached mastery of these troublesome sounds, the accomplishment admitted her to a secret unacknowledged society of Japanese people who speak English fluently.  Few of them advertise themselves.  While the English language is studied assiduously here, especially its grammatical and lexical aspects, there is great resistance to actually speaking it and making practical use of it as a tool of communication or an instrument of creative expression.  And one way to maintain and strengthen that resistance is to make those who can speak it well feel they are somehow odd or “un-Japanese,” effectively silencing them.   Thus,  I only learn from an essay written in the last class of a university English course that a student who has kept her mouth shut all year actually spent the first ten years of her life living in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Or, when I finally speak on the phone to a man for whom I do proofreading work and who always corresponds with me in Japanese, only then do I discover that his English is impeccable and far superior to the hesitant Japanese I’ve been using to explain an English point of grammar to him.

The other day I heard the plaintive call of a tofu-seller’s horn making its way around the neighborhood.  I hurried downstairs and found the young tofu-seller parked with his wagon on the corner.  Another woman was loading up on tofu, soy milk bread, and curried “bean curd refuse” croquettes.  When she was done shopping, she turned to me and asked if I were German, and when I replied no, she excused herself and hurried away.  “Where are you from then?” the young man asked in Japanese, and when I replied “America,” he switched to English.  “I used to live-a there!” he grinned.  “But I was-a born-a in-a Italy!” he added proudly.  I had found another member of the secret society, one who spoke not only fluent English, but fluent English with an Italian accent.

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Hai-pho Gallery

Shadows lengthen as

sunlight withdraws to the west

the moss grows greener