Category Archives: Japanese Culture & Customs

Japanese Culture & Customs

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting Yasukuni WW2 shrine

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to visit a controversial shrine to World War Two dead, local media report.

The visit later in the day to Tokyo’s Yasukuni memorial comes one year after Mr Abe took office.

The move is likely to further inflame already tense relations with neighbouring China and South Korea.

The shrine honours several convicted Japanese war criminals. Beijing and Seoul see it as a symbol of Tokyo’s war-time aggression.

This will be the first visit to Yasukuni by a serving prime minister since 2006.

Read the rest of the story: Japan PM Abe to visit Yasukuni WW2 shrine.

Before the Festival

there is an expression in Japanese, `ato no matsuri`(after the festival)…but what happens before the festival?

Scene 1

This year I wanted to get to the summer festival early.
I recently found out that the festival is a time when the gods are let out to play and that is why they are paraded about on the o-mikoshi , or portable shrines. I was curious to see how it started, and feel the anticipation of those moments just before the gods are set free…

All the years I saw the summer festivals in the past, I never thought much of that beginning point. I enjoyed watching the elaborate portable shrines that are carried by a team of men in hapi coats with matsuri (festival) motifs or patterns…shouting heave, ho, and other expressive grunts that give the festival its lively air to the sound of taiko drums. It was always fun to hear the vendors along the sidelines shout out Welcome and announce their wares. From tako yaki to ringo ame to all things grilled on skewers or fried, the festival smells, colored streamers and tanabata decorations make it a joyful time.

Why this year did I feel called to watch the `start`? I am not really sure, but it was a new feeling to be there before the festival. I stood in the middle of the shrine grounds while the majority of those around me were busily getting ready . Young men and women in white hapi coats, older men in purple and young men in red, priests in silk robes, and kagura performers holding their masks, all clearly each with a specific `purpose` for the festivities. It was like watching behind the scenes at a grand spectacle as the cast of characters were taking their places and getting ready to perform their roles. I wasn`t thinking about the omikoshi  or when it would be brought out, rather I just felt the energy around me and watched and listened to the anticipation in the air.

I stayed in one place as the movement all around me seemed to take more and more of a `shape`, and at one point I could just feel it… the gods were being let out!

I got so excited, almost like a childlike feeling to see that all the energy mounted into the moment where it was happening, the portable shrine was being taken from the main shrine! I turned to where the `action` was…the omikoshi  being brought forth into the shrine grounds—carried by the team of men who were not yet screaming their shouts, but ceremoniously performing the sacred act of bringing out the gods!

I hope you  enjoy watching the scene in the video below and feel the meditative quality of those moments …the sense of not knowing what was to happen next…in the entrancing energy of the first moments before the festival!

Scene 2

Now that I had seen and felt these first moments, I was ready to dance through the still empty streets while the vendors were setting up their stalls!
Dance? You may ask!
Yes, this is a year for me of dance walking through Japan!

I was sitting in front of a mask-vendor`s stall, thinking about whether to buy an anime mask to get into the matsuri mood.

But the festive price of 1000yen made me stall.  My video collaborator and I sat in a shady spot waiting for the right moment,when a friend passed by and offered me a cape.

That was the signal! I put it on and was ready to dive into the empty streets, to greet the moments before the festival.  To get a hit of intoxication from the gods who were just starting their wild three days of being let loose in these streets!

Please enjoy `Before the Matsuri Dance Walk` video below,

**There is a Japanese expression, `Ato no matsuri` which means `After the festival`, or `too late!`. You can find a related post on BB here
`Mae no matsuri` could be a new expression to describe this feeling of anticipation `before the matsuri`.  We could coin it here.

There`s still time.
Don`t be late!** Zehi (by all means!) get to your summer festival early!

Video credit:
presented by Joanne G. Yoshida
filmed by Utsu-shin
location: Nagahama Shrine, Oita, Japan

Joanne G. Yoshida

Dance Walk Japan!

We rented bicycles to tour the island, stopped in front of the torii...
We rented bicycles to tour the island, stopped in front of the torii…

This year I discovered the pleasures of `dance walk` as a way to travel in Japan. It has become my favorite means of transportation and has taken me to visit one of Japan`s World Heritage sites, as well as to explore the area around where I live in southern Japan, and to see things with a new sense of discovery.

I would like to share a mini-`how to` manual with you so that you might try it too in Japan or wherever you are! I will also show you a few of the sites in Japan I have visited through this combined means of exercise and expression.

For dance walk travel, you don`t need much. I recommend these basics:
1. a backpack with easy-to-move-in light clothes for dancing,
2. an i-pod with music you might like to choose in advance to go with the mood of the site and what you wish to express
3. a video camera so you can share the experience
4. a friend or collaborator who shares your enthusiasm and openness, who is not shy to be with you as you will be dancing through the trip!

camera ready

5. (optional) Yoga Mat for stretches in your room and a small overnight kit if you will be staying overnight

take some time to stretch in your room...
take some time to stretch in your room…

As the idea of dance walk is discovery, it is best to travel with an empty mind and an open heart. Every site has its own special nature, so the first thing to do when you arrive at the site is to `greet it` with your movement. Breathe in the sights, the architecture, the sky, the trees, the flowers. If the moon is out, what luck you are in! Greet the moon with your gestures, connect with the sun…feel into your breath, and whenever you are ready turn on the music, begin to listen and feel your own rhythms, listen to your body, and let yourself move–in all directions— from the heart!

I learned in a dance workshop about `greeting` a site and asking its permission. Just as you would to a dance partner, when you dance walk in a site, it is a beautiful thing to `ask` if it is o.k. for you to enter. This can be done through gesture, breath, a short meditation or a simple offering of something you bring from nature or from your heart.

I recently went to Miyajima, one of Japans National Treasure sites located a ferry ride from Hiroshima, to do a dance walk by the famous orange torii gate and Itsukushima Shrine. You may know of this site famous for the shrine that appears to float in the sea at high tide.

The video of the dance walk became seven segments, starting in the morning hours before sunrise (the ocean tide and tide and travellers had not yet come in) where me and my video collaborator were the only ones in the site; to the sunset hours where we met some travelers who shared a dance with me in front of the Itsukushima Shrine

I also had a chance to dance with deer who roam the island, but as enthusiastic as I was for the chance to meet them through my dance, they showed indifference. Still those moments when I sat on the grass face to face with a deer were amazing memories for me!! They are part of the dance too. You can see the segment that has my `dance` with the deer here:

Part one starts with greeting the famous torii here and continues here as its power and the power of the tides bring me into both backwards and spinning movements that brought me a deep reverence for the site.

Whether it is a famous site, or a backstreets road, allow yourself to connect with the surroundings and be open to new movements and experience. Don`t hold back! Enjoy the movement! People might think you are a little strange, but the beauty is, people might think that anyway so it gives you a little freedom to go the extra step, to add a little shimmy or sway into your walk, and hopefully to connect with people heart to heart on your travels.

Other dance walks I have done this year include a Cherry Blossoms Dance Walk, and most recently a Rainy Season Dance Walk to dance by a pond of lotus flowers but it rained so hard I just got a short scene! My dream is to go to a dance walk on Mt. Fuji! And little by little to have others join with me in the dance through Japan…
Next time won`t you dance with me!

My dance walk in Miyajima begins here:

and you can find an assortment of dance walks here

Joanne G. Yoshida teaches Shake Your Soul/Kripalu Yoga Dance in Oita, Japan, where she has lived with her husband and daughter for fourteen years.
Feel free to share your comments and questions about her Dance Walk Japan or any of your dance walk plans!! Like Joanne`s Yoga Dance Walk on Facebook HERE.

miyajima peace statue

Japan’s Mount Fuji wins Unesco world heritage status

Japan’s cone-shaped, snow-topped volcano, Mount Fuji, has been granted World Heritage status, at a Unesco meeting in Cambodia.

The United Nations body selected the mountain as a “cultural” rather than a “natural” heritage site.

Unesco said Mount Fuji had “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries”.

Mt Fuji, south-west of Tokyo, is Japan’s highest mountain at 3,776m (12,460 ft).

The volcano, which last erupted just over 300 years ago, is visible from the Japanese capital on a clear day.

Read the rest of the story: Japan’s Mount Fuji wins Unesco world heritage status.

Hotaru-bi no Chakai: A Tea Gathering in the Fire of Fireflies

For anyone set to visit Kyoto this weekend, there’s one event Japanese haven’t failed to celebrate at the Shimogamo Shrine. Wondering what this is? Here’s all you need to know about the Hotaru-bi no Chakai.

Shimogamo Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Japan which is located north of Kamo and Takase Rivers of north-central Kyoto. The shrine dates back to the prehistoric periods and the first reference of the Shimogamo was of a fence repair dating back to 2BC.

The shrine has served as a central religious aspect for Kyotoites. It has said that the shrine played a significant role in the Heian period when prayers for the capital where held in that area. In countless tales, of which includes “Tale of Genji”, Shimogamo Shrine has been featured.

Today, this Kyoto shrine has been registered under the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shimogamo contains 52 building all of which are recognized as iconic Cultural Properties. A number of events take place at the Shimogamo Shrine of which include the Hotaru-bi no Chakai

About Hotaru-bi no Chakai:

Hotaru-bi no Chakai is the event held at the beginning of June which is a special tea gathering done amidst the glow of live fireflies. “Hotaru” translates to firefly while “bi” refers to fire. “Chakai” on the other hand means tea gathering. This event shows the true essence of Japanese tradition where one of its aims is the preservation of Tadasu no Mori, “The Forest of Justice,” which surrounds the Shimogamo Shrine.

Hotarubi no Chakai

For the event, around 600 fireflies are released over the stream called Mitarashigawa which serve as invites to the grandiose tea gathering. Usually, a reservation is required for one to attend the ceremony but there are other programs of the Hotaru-bi no Chakai open to the general public.

If you are ever in the area, make sure to check the Shimogamo Shrine. Other than the Hotaru-bi no Chakai, the ancient “Juni-hitoe” where 12 layers of the kimono will be shown and various dance performances are set for the night. Twenty long established stands also sell around the area at 1pm where the popular Kyoto souvenir, yatsuhashi and the common rice dumpling, mitarashi dango is being sold.

Kesennuma, Japan: CITES deal might spell trouble

An international agreement to protect sharks could spell trouble for one tsunami-wrecked port in Japan as it struggles back to its feet two years after being swept away, locals say.

Shinichi Sato said his shark processing business in Kesennuma has only just re-started, but he fears a global vote to regulate trade in several species of the predator could put paid to its recovery.

“We don’t just take fins and dump the fish in the way now criticised by the world,” Sato said on Tuesday as he laid out the boomerang-shape fins to dry in the sun.

“We make very good use of the resources.”

Kesennuma has been Japan’s sharkfin hub since the 19th century, and once dealt with 90 percent of all shark landed in the country.

Read the rest of the story: Japan tsunami town on watch for shark deal.

Japan PM Visits Meiji Shrine

Japan’s prime minister has visited Tokyo’s main Shinto shrine, which has strong imperial connections, in an apparent attempt to appeal to his right-wing supporters.

Shinzo Abe, who recently started his second stint as Japan’s leader, visited the Meiji shrine today, becoming the first premier to do so since his 2007 visit. The shrine commemorates Emperor Meiji, a symbol of Japan’s militarisation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Abe has said he hopes to visit the Yasukuni war shrine, which honours war criminals among others. His visit to the Meiji shrine could be a move to avoid angering China, which has expressed concerns about Abe’s rightist policies.

Japan’s World War II government used Shinto as an official religion to push militarism and waged war in the emperor’s name.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qah__tZhyPs&feature=plcp

Japanese Business: Keeping it in the Family

Andrew Carnegie, a 19th-century tycoon, famously said that inherited wealth “deadens talents and energies”—one reason why he gave most of his fortune to charity. Business research tends to support the Carnegie thesis. Companies controlled by heirs often underperform competitors that have professional managers. Except, apparently, in Japan.

A forthcoming paper* in the Journal of Financial Economics finds not only that inherited family control is still common in Japanese business, but that family firms are “puzzlingly competitive”, outperforming otherwise similar professionally managed companies. “These results are highly robust and…suggest family control ‘causes’ good performance rather than the converse,” say the authors.

Japan boasts some of the world’s oldest family-run businesses, and many family firms—Suzuki, Matsui Securities, Suntory—break the rule of steady dynastic decline. So how do Japanese firms do it? The answer, says the paper, is adoption.

Read the rest of the story: Adult adoption in Japan: Keeping it in the family.

Ushinohi – ‘Eel Day’

The 27th of July this year was the one day of the year where people traditionally ate freshwater eel, Unagi, usually grilled over charcoal, as a “stamina food”, a meal presumed to give one the stamina to last out the hot summer days. This year African eels were imported to Japan for the first time and according to surveys didn’t go over to well. The eels might have still been eaten up, though out of curiosity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK38kFal6Hk&feature=player_embedded

About Unagi
After Tokugawa Ieyasu succeeded in unifying Japan with his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, the capital moved from Kyoto to his base, the provincial town of Edo (now called Tokyo, or ‘East Capital’). Transforming Edo into a modern capital of its day required, among other things, extensive land reclamation projects.

Reclamation projects created temporary lakes and ponds in which unagi quickly invaded and flourished. Land reclamation is low paying work so laborers would simply catch unagi ‘on site’ for free. Physical labor is very hard work and unagi which is high in fat gave laborers the required energy.

In the early Edo period (1603-1868) unagi was considered a low class and unsophisticated food due to the fact that it was caught, chopped, roasted and eaten in the field by laborers and also because of its high fat content.

By the late Edo period though this had changed due to various unagi cooking processes being developed in the capital, namely kabayaki. With kabayaki, fish, generally unagi, is boned, put on metal skewers and grilled over charcoal while being dipped in a thick, sweetened soy sauce several times throughout the grilling process.
Today, unagi kabayaki is usually served on top of rice, as donburi, or unagi-don.

Difference Between Kanto and Kansai Style Unagi
Kanto (eastern Japan/Tokyo) style unagi is first steamed, then grilled kabayaki style. The steaming process causes a good deal of the fat to be removed and the unagi flesh to be soft.
Kansai (western Japan/Osaka, Kyoto) style unagi is not steamed, and therefore it is more fatty and chewy.

Another interesting difference is the way the unagi is cleaned. Edo was the seat of the military (samurai) government of Japan and samurai sometimes had to commit ritual suicide (seppeku 切腹) by cutting their lower abdomen open and slowly bleeding to death in excruciating pain. The purveyors of unagi cuisine were sensitive to this as samurai were among their customers, accordingly they split the eel open from the back, not the stomach; Japanese love this kind of thing. Also, usually the head and tail was removed in the process, though not out of deference to samurai.

In Kansai, in the merchant city of Osaka, there was a saying, ‘talk with your stomach open’; be frank, open and honest. So, in Kansai, the eels were split down the stomach. The head and tail usually remained attached.

About the Ushinohi ‘Eel Day’ Custom
In modern-day Japan, most everyone eats unagi on the Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi (土用の丑の日). This year it was on July 27th, but it occurs one day between mid-July and the beginning of August.

Rice Riots to Revolution to the Status Quo during Japan’s Taisho Era

In the summer of 1918, “rice riots” swept the country. They began in a fishing village on the Sea of Japan in remote Toyama Prefecture. By September, some 2 million people in hundreds of municipalities had taken to the streets. They looted, bombed, demonstrated, struck.

The immediate cause was wartime inflation, especially the soaring price of rice. Rural and urban alike, the poor reeled. In the cities, factory hands toiled long hours for low pay under slave-like conditions. Industrialization comes at a cost and they were paying it. “The most violent strikes in Japanese history occurred in this period,” writes American historian Herbert Bix (in “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,” 2000).

The Russian Revolution was in full swing. Authorities were alarmed. Was Japan going Bolshevik? Some 25,000 “rice rioters” were arrested. Suspected ringleaders were hanged. The liberal newspaper Toyo Keizai Shimpo editorialized in disgust, “Unfortunately the political process in our country works effectively only for the property-owning minority. … In one sense it is possible to say that those without property have no government at all.”

Read the rest of the story: Revolution was in the air during Japan’s Taisho Era, but soon evaporated into the status quo.