Category Archives: Religion

Japanese “Western” style weddings are awesome

I recently saw someone tweet this:

The Japanese are brilliant at creating unnecessary rules and rituals for adopted western ceremonies. Particularly weddings. Urgh.

Many apologies, Zee-chan, but your statement has inspired me to say something about Japanese weddings. Essentially, that thing is this – I understand the frustration, but for all the ritual and pomp and circumstance, Japanese wedding ceremonies serve a worthy purpose that deserves respect. In fact, the rigidness and ritualistic aspects are kind of the whole point!

Again, I don’t want to single out Zee-chan. I don’t know her and it’s just one tweet, so I have no idea what she is thinking in detail. She just got me thinking about the topic.

But I will say this – I personally have long had complaints about the typical Japanese “western” style wedding, and I know that many other Westerner expats have them too. They tend to consist of sentiments like:

  • Japanese Western weddings are phony-seeming because they are held in a Christian chapel even though the couples and families are rarely practicing Christians

  • It’s weird that they hire white people to act as fake priests

  • They are unnecessarily expensive

  • The cash gifts requested of guests are too high

  • Rules for how to hand out gifts, greet the bride and groom, etc. are too rigid

Many of those criticisms are all well and good, but in general I want to just tell everyone to give Japanese weddings a break! People all over the world have a need for ceremony, and it isn’t fair for outsiders to be dismissive of the necessary rituals for marriage.

For my wedding to Mrs. Adamu way back in 2007, we went through a very conventional wedding planner, but insisted on doing things very simply and in our own way. We had no “ceremony” to speak of since we are not religious. Instead, we skipped directly to the reception and invited only close family and friends to a restaurant of our choosing. We asked one of our close friends to em-cee, created the invitations and audio-visual content ourselves (an MP3 mix and PowerPoint presentations!)

We did this first and foremost because we wanted things to be more intimate and customized to our style, in order to make it more memorable. But another reason we insisted on doing it this way was because we hated the Japanese “Western” style weddings so much and didn’t want to do full Japanese-style either. We openly thought the Western ones were stupid, especially the fake priest thing, and even tried to convince some of Shoko’s friends of this (unsuccessfully).

Well, we had the ceremony and it was a success beyond our expectations. We dressed in kimonos, Mrs. Adamu’s friends performed for us at the after-party, and we were able to bring the two families together (my immediate family flew into Tokyo for the occasion).

We were so proud of how it turned out, and we look back at that day very fondly. But after everything went down, it dawned on me – in terms of the benefits, our wedding was not that different from other Japanese couples who went the more traditional route. Here are some of the good things about having a “proper” wedding:

  • It lets the people in each circle (family, friends, coworkers, bosses) know in a very public way that the two of you are coming together, and it gives the people a chance to meet the other person as well as the other side’s family members

  • More critically, it is a public meeting of the two families to show (and usually give a speech explicitly stating) that they are in favor of the union

  • It gives everyone a chance to celebrate the union and in a way say goodbye to the single person they knew – the speeches and performances by friends are part of this

  • For the couple, it is their chance to know that they are accepted, see that people are happy and celebrating, and thus feel like a real married couple

  • Doing all this formally and in public makes it all official – this was hard for me to appreciate before having gone through it, but if you’re young and not married this is a bigger deal than you might think. For example, my father died a while after this, and for whatever reason I feel better knowing he was able to see me get married.

  • Oftentimes, the gifts collected exceed the cost of the wedding itself, and thus help fund the couple’s new start together

  • It is the bride’s day to live her dream, dress up nicely, and be the complete center of attention on one very special day.

  • And of course, the proceedings are documented on video and in thousands of pictures, to share with the people who couldn’t attend and to look back on years later.

These will definitely vary for each couple/family (and of course it’s somewhat idealized), but I think it’s a decent approximation.

And for all this, it doesn’t really matter what specific form the ritual takes, as long as people recognize it as an official and real wedding ceremony. So if it takes hiring a random white person, signing a fake contract, or whatever, so be it.

It might go without saying, but a wedding day isn’t all about the couple getting married – it also has to (at least mostly) meet the expectations of the guests, especially the parents. And in the case of many Japanese people, that means checking off all the boxes on the “wedding ceremony” order form. It might be expensive, gaudy, “fake,” etc, but it fulfills a very real social need.

This is mostly my own tale of coming to my senses and growing up about the importance of the wedding ceremony. So I am not sure how much this applies to other people, but at any rate I wanted to get this story off my chest.

Kikuchi Naoko’s sarin, as described by another Aum member

By now everyone knows that Kikuchi Naoko, one of the last members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult wanted for the 1995 sarin gas Tokyo subway attacks, was arrested on Sunday. Although her face had been plastered on posters found in and around pretty much single police and train station in the country, she managed to remain at large for 17 years, until someone reported seeing her in the Tokyo suburb of Sagamihara.

Back in early 2006, Adam and I collaborated on a large job translating material about Aum Shinrikyo into English for some kind of security researcher down in DC doing a report about religious terrorism. The biggest single document in the project was the massive book Aum and I by Ikuo Hayashi, a medical doctor and member of the cult, who participated in the sarin release, which we translated a significant portion of.

I have previously posted a few excerpts from this book, including Hayashi’s description of the actual subway attack itself, the bizarre and stillborn plot to assassinate Ikeda Daisaku, leader of Sokka Gakkai, and a description of the gross practice of how cult members ate their own feces in a weird attempt to emulate the Buddha.

In honor of Kikuchi’s arrest, here is Hayashi’s memoir of his first encounter with sarin, found on pages 271-274 of the tankobon edition of the book.

  •     *     *     *     *

The first sarin dispersal experiment

At the end of April there was a phone call from Nakagawa to me at AHI. “Make the same preparations as when you treated Niimi and come to the Seventh Satyam, in Kamiku,” he said. The only treatment I had given Niimi was when he had been poisoned by sarin gas during the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, so I loaded up the station wagon with drugs, a respirator, an oxygen cylinder, and the other necessary supplies and went to Kamiku. Nakagawa went into the prefab that it was said Tomomi Tsuchiya had been assigned to, and came out carrying a box.

272


He told me that it had sarin inside it.

In the flask was a triangular flask, protected by a buffering agent. When I saw the liquid at that time, it was a faint fluorescent green. Since Nakagawa had said that it was sarin, I always thought of sarin as being that color a liquid afterwards. “So, Aum has sarin after all,” I thought. However, at this time I still had no confirmation that Tsuchiya was making sarin.

At that juncture, I still had no realization of what degree of chemist this Tsuchiya person was. Nakagawa said that because he and Tsuchiya were performing sarin experiments together, if by any chance one of them was poisoned, that I should come and treat them. I had a feeling that I had learned yet another secret. I myself was not receding, not progressing, being shown the true forms of Aum’s “secret work” one by one. I naturally felt the discomfort, the unsettlement of the treatment that came with it,

Those “sarin experiments” were to discover the volatilization volume of airborne sarin. I thought that this sarin was meant to be one means of defense against the American military and the [Japanese] Self Defense Force when the “war” broke out.

A truck was parked in front of the Seventh Satyam. It was loaded with several canisters, large storage batteries and a converter, plastic bottles and a sprayer that seemed to be the type used for the spraying of agricultural chemicals and pest removal. Driving the truck was a Samana in the Truth Science Research Department.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya got in the car together saying to me and the young Samana that we should follow them and set off.

273


I had no idea whatsoever where we were going, but when we arrived it looking like a dry riverbed near the mouth of theFujiRiver. The time was night, just before dawn, and in the vicinity were no other people or vehicles. The riverbed was a broad area, and I got the feeling that they had chosen the location in advance, and we had gone to that place.

They used an ultrasonic nebulizer (sprayer) places on top of an electric balance to spray sarin into the air, measured the wind velocity and force at that instant, and checked the amount of sarin consumed based on the change in mass.

When the experiment was over, he sprayed some neutralizing agent from the nebulizer, but because he had been poisoned I gave him two intravenous injections each of two ampoules of PAM and atropine sulfate. When I examined Nakagawa it looked like there was some mild pupil dilation, but I couldn’t really tell. I treated Nakagawa based on his subjective symptoms.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya didn’t say in what way they were going to use that data. I didn’t ask. The experiment was over, and we went back to Kamiku. Seeing this experiment, I thought that they really were going to use sarin for defense at the time of the “war.”

Thinking about it now, a much greater volume of sarin would be needed for defense and so the question of how they could get such a quantity comes up is raised, but at this time I was not thinking such thoughts very strictly, and only thought loosely about this.

Why was I called at this time? I think that it may be because I was supposed to perform treatment for sarin poisoning later on. At this time I was thinking that it would be fine if Asahara used me to treat sarin poisoning.

274


I supposes that Asahara must have had the intention of making me participate as a member of the medical team in his plans, particularly his plans to use sarin.

Now I think that Asahara had me join the on-site activities with a notion to “acclimate” or “condition” me, and made me participate in that experiment as a first step.

I think that after the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, Asahara stepped up the “fumie” [tests of faith] and “narashi”[habituation, conditioning] that he been giving me to the next level.

 

Evangelicals say no to Islamic finance… in Korea

The Korean Law Blog reports that a group of evangelical Protestants in South Korea have apparently killed a bill which would recognize tax deductions and other legal benefits for Islamic financial structures.

This sort of silliness isn’t unique to Korea, of course. Followers of the English-language media have undoubtedly seen tons of uproar over the Sharia courts in Britain which can make legally binding judgments under English law. The catch is, of course, that the jurisdiction of these courts is consensual, just like commercial arbitrators or The People’s Court—you are only bound by Sharia rulings if you voluntarily agree to go to Sharia court. So for the non-Muslims in Britain, you’d think it would be a non-issue.

The Korean backlash is just as ridiculous, if not moreso. Not only would the proposed law not hurt anyone, but failing to pass it seems to effectively hurt Korean companies, especially financial institutions, by depriving them of potential business in Islamic countries and from Islamic investors.

(Note that The Korean Law Blog is not the same as the late, great Korea Law Blog run by Marmot contributor Brendon Carr. But for all you comparative law geeks in the audience, it’s a reasonably informative substitute.)

Filipino Freethinkers hit Internet meme culture

Readers may remember that during my most recent trip to the Philippines I quite randomly made friends with many of the core members of the Filipino Freethinkers, a new advocacy group working for freedom from religious pressure in society and blogged in detail about our initial meeting. On Saturday some members of the group picketed the Philippines Catholic Bishop Conference to protest the Church’s opposition to a proposed reproductive health (i.e. birth control) bill that is being supported by the new president Benigno Aquino, and a photograph of them was printed in the Philippine Inquirer, and then picked up by Boingboing. Why you ask? Just take a look at the photo in question, as well as the installment of the geek webcomic xkcd referenced in the sign held by Red Tani, one of the founders of Filipino Freethinkers. The comic’s caption is “Wikipedian Protester.”

The part of the article about the protesters is as follows:

A group of pro-RH (Reproductive Health) advocates trooped to the CBCP office in Intramuros, Manila, to condemn the Church for interfering in government-mandated initiatives for reproductive health.

Rhoda Avila of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines told Figura her group was urging the Church to stop spreading “lies” about birth control and allow the government to do its work in providing Filipinos an affordable and accessible reproductive health program.

A slight tension occurred during the 15-minute dialogue while Figura was explaining that the Church was not interfering but “merely issuing guidelines.”

“Based on what? On your non-sexual experience?” protester Marlon Lacsamana snapped.


I’ve mentioned the problem of the Philippine government’s previous disinterest in birth control before on this blog, and hope that they have the backbone to resist the Church’s archaic stance on sexuality and birth control.

The official Filipino Freethinkers website is at www.filipinofreethinkers.org.

Forgiveness vs. permission

A former boss of mine sometimes liked to say that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” He was a lawyer, of course.

In Japanese, the distinction is not quite as clear, as the usual word for both acts is the verb yurusu. Traditionally, though, there are different kanji characters for the two senses of the word. The usual kanji you see in Japanese nowadays, “許す,” originally only referred to permission (i.e., before the fact); by some accounts, the proper kanji to use for forgiveness (i.e., after the fact) is the more archaic “赦す.”

Not many people bother with the distinction nowadays (see this little social media experiment) and Microsoft’s Japanese input method editor helpfully suggests that the latter kanji is not commonly used in this sense (“常用外”); although it is one of the Joyo Kanji learned in compulsory education, schoolchildren generally only learn its usage in Chinese-derived compounds like 赦免 (shamen) and 恩赦 (onsha), both of which are used to refer to “pardons” of particular individuals and “amnesty” regarding a particular offense.

赦, the forgiveness kanji, [unsurprisingly] comes from China. It was imported to Japan in the late 600s AD. Before this time, there was no concept of human-granted amnesty or pardons in Japan (see this Japanese Wikipedia article), and even under the common-law system introduced in Japan around that time, amnesty was at the imperial court’s discretion and limited to lesser offenses. The system was formalized in the 1700s under the Tokugawa shogunate; under this system, various pardons and amnesties were handed down through the court bureaucracy at the order of the shogun, often at seemingly auspicious times such as the enthronement of a new emperor. The emperor regained control over the amnesty/pardon process under the Meiji Constitution of 1889, and still conducts the final seal of approval under the modern constitution, although the actual decision is now made by the cabinet.

Today, the most avid users of the “forgiveness” kanji as a verb are Christians, who are used to the extensive discussion of forgiveness in the Bible, where the old kanji 赦す is used in most common translations. A simple Google search for the term mostly turns up Christian-related web pages.

It was through Christians that I found out about “the other kanji for yurusu.” Before getting married earlier this year, I had been going to weekly “marriage classes” with the future Mrs. Jones at a Catholic church in Tokyo (more on this here), and one of the main points of discussion was the great importance of forgiveness in a marital relationship.

This perspective is by no means limited to Christians: the broader secular Japanese society (as well as most rational human beings) also acknowledges that one has to “forgive and forget” if they want to survive a lifelong marriage with someone. Long-time readers of this blog may even remember that “I’m sorry” is as important as “I love you” in the estimation of the “National Husbands’ Advisory Association.” Forgiveness is a common theme in the Abrahamic religions as well as in Buddhism (English Wikipedia has a pretty good round-up), but the Buddhist perspective seems to place greater emphasis on simply detaching completely from the mundane world, as opposed to taking things seriously but channeling the heart to forgive them anyway. That said, Japanese people are generally not Buddhist until someone dies, which might explain how many marriages here end up absolutely wrecked (even if not quite in a state of divorce).

Anyway, to my predominantly non-Catholic Japanese classmates, most of whom just wanted to get married in the nice church (theology be damned) but were polite enough to humor the clergy, the distinction between 赦す and 許す was harder to understand, let alone justify. One of my more-or-less-atheist Japanese co-workers took a look at the writeups on forgiveness provided to my Marriage 101 class, and said “I could never let my husband think he’ll be forgiven for everything… but otherwise it sounds like a good idea.”

I guess life wouldn’t be interesting if it were so easy.

Japan’s execution chamber opened to the press

Japan’s justice minister has allowed media to come in and look at the gallows where the executions take place:

Here is a video from TBS with more details. Apparently, the whole place smells like burning incense. The reporter has a good description of the room – 無機質 which literally means “inorganic” but I guess would be more naturally conveyed as sterile and banal.

The room is located at Tokyo Detention Center, which is a 20-minute or so walk from my house. It’s always a little disturbing to think this is where it all goes down.

I would strongly encourage people to read the NYT’s article, written by superstar Japan reporter Hiroko Tabuchi who should go down in history as their best ever Japan correspondent.

According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. There are seven such sites across Japan, the Justice Ministry said.

The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one: a chapel with a Buddhist altar where the condemned are read their last rites; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials witness the hanging.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room, officials said. Three prison wardens push separate buttons, only one of which releases the trapdoor — but they never find out which one. Wardens are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

Satoshi Tomiyama, the Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets and others excluded from the tour, said that wardens take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely.

The Buddha statues can be switched with an altar of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross. Inmates are given fruit and snacks before their execution, and sentences are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year.


What amazes me is that this system has been in place for so long even when just about everyone, including death penalty supporters, knows there are serious problems. If nothing else, the government needs to reform the itinerary for carrying out executions. It just seems exceptionally cruel and Kafkaesque to keep the execution date secret for so many years and only tell them at the last minute. I also see no reason why the justice ministry should be allowed to hide their decision-making process on when to execute people.

Why Nausicaa is awesome

Via Roger Ebert, here is Filipino reviewer Michael Mirasol’s take on what’s so great about Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind:

My favorite part (emphasis added):

The film is considered to be the first of Miyazaki’s works to showcase his strong environmental inclinations. In every film since he has made his case for man to grow closer to nature as a return to the olden days. He does so with positive reinforcement, hardly ever resorting to demonizing, moralizing, or sermonizing. Here, the toxic jungle isn’t so much an inhospitable realm as it is a fearsome marvel of nature. It’s huge arthropod denizens never come off as oozing grotesques, but wondrous (though scary) creatures. The film’s largest creations, the ohmus, are wholly original, and are almost proof that the eyes are the window to the soul.

Miyazaki’s refusal to narrow down conflict to two or even three sides is refreshing, and quite admirable considering its target audience. The film’s story does concern good versus evil, but they aren’t manifested in simplistic ways. Each populace has its own motivations. Each conflict has its reason. Wars exist among man and against nature. Several stakes exist. Even death is hardly out of bounds. For much of the film, there is no one problem/solution. But despite this moral complexity for an animated film, it all fits Miyazaki’s big picture, and in the end we see it.


The link has a transcript, so it might be easier to read that instead.

I think it’s a testament to Miyazaki’s subtle storytelling power (or maybe just my own lack of insight) that this point never explicitly dawned on me after watching the movie. It’s just a natural part of the landscape. And it’s surprisingly rare for movies to take this approach, though it seems to be a major feature of Miyazaki films.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I sense a broader point here. One of the refreshing things about living in Japan is that people seem much less dogmatic than in the US. That is, issues are seldom as black and white as they seem in the States, and there seems to be less pressure to adopt the “correct” set of opinions based on political leanings. Could this have something to do with a generation raised on Miyazaki’s pluralistic stories as opposed to Americans growing up with Disney tales of good and evil?

Japan’s second-oldest man actually a 30-year-old “partially mummified” dead body

This is already widely reported, but just thought I would share an amazing, terrifying story that happened pretty close to where I live.

Basically, the headline says it all. Back in June, some local workers visited the home one Sogen Kato to present him with an award - at 111 he had become the oldest resident of Adachi-ku, Tokyo, and the second-oldest man in Japan (on paper at least). However, his 80-year-old daughter wouldn’t let them in – “He’s upstairs but doesn’t want any visitors,” she said.

Undeterred, the officials complained to the police, who eventually got to the bottom of things – according to family members, in 1980 the then-octogenarian Kato declared he wanted to become “enlightened through mummification” (pic possibly NSFW - 即身仏), so would they please leave him alone in his room forever with no food or water, thank you very much.

Apparently, this claim might be a ruse – however Kato died, it’s possible they failed to report it in a ploy to keep receiving his pension. If true, that’s an incredibly stupid way of providing for your family after death. If he had bought a life insurance policy the survivors could have paid for a proper funeral (and therefore “proper” Buddha-fication) and still had enough left over to provide. And the biggest upside would be no skeletal corpse in the house for 30 years! I mean, just think of what you could do with that extra bedroom.

SLAMMING into election season

Somewhat randomly, the Wall Street Journal has recently started up a Japan blog called Japan Real Time (partly, it seems, to provide content to their new Japanese language site). Great stuff, welcome to the party. But being a mainstream media blog, it can’t seem to shake some conventions, like our pet-peeve (or is that favorite?) synonym for sharply criticizing someone:

Party Heads SLAM Tax Plans

Naoto Kan’s proposal to raise taxes, part of a broad fiscal reform package, has hit his popularity ratings and sparked plenty of discussion.

On Tuesday, several party heads made clear that they oppose the tax increase, accusing Mr. Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan of everything from “hocus-pocus economics” to potentially pushing suicide rates higher.

Here’s what they had to say:

Sadakazu Tanigaki, Liberal Democratic Party: The LDP is more or less on the same page as Mr. Kan’s DPJ — it proposed the tax hike to begin with — but Mr. Tanigaki sought to differentiate the two, criticizing Mr. Kan for not being clear on how the tax money will be used. The LDP, Mr. Tanigaki said, made clear in its policy statement that the money would be used for social security spending.


I like the frowny Tanigaki picture they chose (stolen above).

***

In other news, campaigning has heated up around my station. The other day I took a pamphlet from the Happiness Realization Party guy, and this morning the freak actually tried to talk to me on my way to work. If it weren’t so freaking humid a chill would have run down my spine. Those people have a few good ideas (bigger houses, more linear trains) mixed in with the crazy (attack North Korea preemptively, retirement age of 75, do everything to make Japan the world’s top economy by GDP), but zero respect for democracy. Funnily enough, part of their platform is to abolish the upper house of parliament, which just happens to be the very body they want the people to elect them to!

(thanks to Joe for the link)

The crime of “blasphemy”

The Kishin Shinoyama nude-photos-in-Aoyama-Cemetery story which Curzon mentioned earlier this year has finally come to a close, with the photographer ordered to pay “¥300,000 in fines for public indecency and blasphemy.”

Wait a minute… blasphemy? How could that possibly be a crime in such a non-religious country?

Go go gadget Criminal Code!

(礼拝所不敬及び説教等妨害)
第188条 神祠、仏堂、墓所その他の礼拝所に対し、公然と不敬な行為をした者は、6月以下の懲役若しくは禁錮又は10万円以下の罰金に処する。
2 説教、礼拝又は葬式を妨害した者は、1年以下の懲役若しくは禁錮又は10万円以下の罰金に処する。

(Disrespect of Places of Worship and Disturbance of Preaching, Etc.)
Article 188. A person who has committed an open and disrespectful act toward a shrine, temple, graveyard or other place of worship shall be sentenced to imprisonment at labor or confinement for six months or less, or a fine of 100,000 yen or less.
2. A person who has disturbed preaching, worship or a funeral service shall be sentenced to imprisonment at labor or confinement for one year or less, or a fine of 100,000 yen or less.

So there you have it; messing with religion is a crime in Japan. It doesn’t seem to be prosecuted that often, though: the various crimes against religion don’t even merit a line item in the Justice Ministry’s annual prosecution statistics.