Brief update.

So I haven’t posted anything here in well over a month, in fact since before I left home to come once again to Kyoto. In short, here is what has been going on:

Came to Kyoto University as an auditing “research student” on Japanese government scholarship in the History of Education division of the Faculty of Education, with Prof. Komagome Takeshi, who specializes in Japanese colonialism, as advisor. In theory, I should be going into a MA course next year. As an auditing student I participate in a couple of seminars (“zemi”) and am taking one language class for foreign students, on how to read Meiji era Japanese (“bungobun”) but so far nothing else, although I will probably start sitting in on a couple of undergraduate courses just to get better background.

I spent the entire month of April staying in a friend’s spare room at his apartment down in Fushimi, which is about a 20 minute train ride on the Keihan line to Demachiyanagi Station, and then a 10 minute walk to campus before I moved to a place about a 15 minute walk from school. I dislike living in the super-cramped Japanese style one room single person apartment so I am considering trying to share a house with a friend of mine from the Ritsumeikan study abroad days who should be coming back to Kyoto in 3-4 months to do some sort of program at Doshisha, but for the time being I’ve found a very good temporary place, which is somewhat small and decrepit, but very cheap and very close to campus, and has no reikin or anything else to prevent me from moving immediately should I find something better. More about the apartment another day, once I have a way to upload photos again.

Both my friend’s place I stayed at in April and the place I’m staying have no internet, and so I’ve been online very sparingly. I’m the sort who prefers his main computer to be a desktop, so my plan was to just take with me the hard drives and video card from my computer at home and build a new one when I have a place to live and a Net connection, but since a: I still only have the first of those and b: moved in so recently I don’t even have a fridge or desk yet, it’s going to have to wait. I did bring my venerable 7-year old slow, heavy and gigantic Dell laptop, which I bought before my very first stay in Japan, but unfortunately it has now completely died, and so I am reduced to using the public computers at school, which means I have no way whatsoever of doing things like uploading photos, and really can’t be motivated to do much more than the occassional email, much less blogging, until I get a better setup. I did order DSL, but (I think because of NTT’s monopoly over the physical circuits) in Japan it takes an entire month wait from time of order to installation, I won’t get a hookup until the end of May/beginning of June.

And basically, that’s it. Living in Fushimi for a brief period was not particularly interesting, as the region seems to have fairly little of interest aside from the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine and the very attractive Chushojima historical district, which includes some very nice Meiji era architecture, such as the Gekkeikan brewery (Fushimi actually has Nihonshu (sake) breweries everywhere, but most of them are merely ugly modern industrial structures). Now that I’ve moved from down there back into Kyoto proper I feel a little better, but lack of such things as furniture, a computer, a bicycle (which I maybe shouldn’t get until I have my increasingly painful right knee examined) still needs to be remedied before I can really say I’m settled.

I still think they taste like cardboard

Everyone reading this is familiar with the tasteless paper-filled, paper-textured fortune cookie right? Long thought to have originated as a gimmick desert in one of California’s Chinatowns sometimes in the late 19th or early 20th century, new research strongly suggests that, despite being popularized by the Chinese, fortune cookies were actually invented by Japanese immigrants, who had gotten their inspiration from snacks sold at a Kyoto bakery. The New York Times has an excellent article detailing the whole story, which I must say I find surprisingly convincing. I think anyone else familiar with the wide range of tasteless Japanese traditional snacks (八ッ橋 anyone ? ), the Japanese love for fortunes, and of the tasteless fortune-filled “fortune cookies” distributed inevitably in American Chinese restaurants will also, upon reflection, find the resemblance highly suggestive.

Adamu Reports: Alex Kerr Speech at Japan Foundation, Bangkok November 20, 2006

The above link will play a video of the introduction. You can download the speech (in Japanese) in its entirety here (Thanks to Curzon for optimizing the audio quality):
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Slide Show
Part 3: Question-and-answer Session


On Monday, I attended a speech given by author/businessman/historical preservation activist Alex Kerr co-sponsored by the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Language Group of the Thailand National Museum Volunteer Guides. For the modest fee of 250 baht (about 600 yen/US$6), the crowd, a packed house consisting mostly of middle-aged and elderly Japanese women and a few elderly Japanese men — i.e. the type of people who have the free time to attend a seminar on a Monday morning — got to hear the veteran promoter of Japanese traditional arts outline the arguments made in his two popular books, Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons. Though born in Maryland, Kerr spent the majority of his adult life in Japan and therefore had little trouble giving the speech in Japanese.

He started out by reflecting on his first experiences with Japan. He came to the country in 1964 when his father, a career officer in the US Navy, was stationed in Yokohama. He spoke proudly of how his arrival coincided with the historic Tokyo summer Olympics, and reflected on the excitement of that time. He mentioned that the atmosphere of excitement, rising living standards, economic growth, and opportunity closely resembles the national mood of Thailand now. He became enamored of Japanese houses by accompanying his mother on monthly visits to neighborhood houses in her capacity as a member of a Japan wives’ club.

He went on to describe the motivation for him to write Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons, the latter a book that he took 8 years to research. Essentially, he could not bring himself to write nice things about how beautiful Japan was when ugliness stared him in the face. The destruction of Japan’s beautiful landscapes and houses by a development-minded bureaucracy were deplorable and wanted to do something about it.

Alex Kerr PB200006.JPG
Then, to give people an idea of the destruction he was talking about, he spent the rest of his speech presenting a slideshow along with his own running commentary. The slideshow was kind of like a live version of the Dogs and Demons book – half of his presentation was spent introducing scenes of the concretization of Japan in places like the Iya valley that Kerr calls his second home, mostly using photos by famous Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata (some of his works can be found here). He spent a good amount of time railing against the ruining of Kyoto’s historical heritage – destroyed historic buildings, the godawful Kyoto Tower, electric lines outside Sanjusangendo. He had plenty of outrage leftover to decry the massive “monument” museums and event halls that have all but bankrupted small villages, the ugly exposed power lines, the cookie-cutter houses from the Sekisui House company, and all the other supposedly tasteless development in Japan that disrupt Kerr’s beloved Japanese landscapes. These monstrosities are caused in his words by a bureaucracy “on auto-pilot.” This is a well-known and well-traveled argument, and Kerr has not changed his tune a bit since the book was released.. If you are not familiar with the gist of the Dogs and Demons argument, I recommend taking a look at the NY Times review of the book that is available on Kerr’s website. Still, he believes that the Koizumi years, during which the Japan’s management companies were privatized and recognition of the role of non-profit organizations became more widespread, were an era in which “consciousness started changing” with regard to the old system.
Continue reading Adamu Reports: Alex Kerr Speech at Japan Foundation, Bangkok November 20, 2006

What to ask Alex Kerr?

Kerr and InoseOn Nov 20, I’m going to see a lecture by Alex Kerr (pictured, bottom), a businessman in Japan and Thailand and author of Dogs and Demons, one of my favorite books on Japan. He’s giving some kind of talk at the Japan Foundation. Here‘s the promo copy:

Alex Kerr Lecture: “Lost Japan”

Alex Kerr, the East Asia scholar who was praised by Ryotaro Shiba as “a protector of Japanese culture, from America,” continues to express his melancholy at the state of affairs in which Japan’s beautiful scenery is in the process of being destroyed, as well as the need to protect traditional culture. Won’t you lend your ears to the warning bell that Kerr has sounded out of love for Japan and take another look at modern Japan from the perspective of someone who has lived abroad?

As I mentioned, Dogs and Demons is one of my favorites. It’s Kerr’s tale of woe, a follow-up to his previous love letter, Lost Japan, and it criticizes the social, economic, fiscal, and other problems facing Japan. He concludes that a runaway bureaucracy has ravaged Japan’s natural beauty and culture. The metaphor “dogs and demons” comes from this story by Chinese philosopher Han Feizi:

[T]he emperor asked a painter, “What are the hardest and easiest things to depict?” The artist replied, “Dogs and horses are difficult, demons and goblins are easy…. Japan suffers from a severe case of “Dogs and Demons.” In field after field, the bureaucracy dreams up lavish monuments rather than tend to long-term underlying problems. Communications centers sprout antennas from lofty towers, yet television channels and Internet usage lag. Lavish crafts halls dot the landscape while Japan’s traditional crafts are in terminal decline. And local history museums stand proud in every small town and municipal district while a sea of blighted industrial development has all but eradicated real local history.

Kerr goes on to detail initially covered-up river pollution that ended up being so bad they had to name a disease after what it did to people, nuclear reactors clumsily repaired with duct tape, massively wasteful public works spending that robs local areas of the chance to develop a real economy, unconscionable levels of government debt, and countless other examples of Japan’s “policy challenges” circa 1999.

The most effective parts of the book are where he talks about the destruction of Japan’s landscape and city planning, areas that directly affect Kerr personally as an art lover as well as his businesses in dealing artwork and urban restoration. Why are all of Japan’s rivers paved? What is the need for all the noise pollution in public areas? Why was Kyoto’s priceless architecture and urban culture allowed to be put on the chopping block? Why don’t they just tear down Kyoto tower?! OK, that last idea was my own, but he does at least call the tower “garish.”
Continue reading What to ask Alex Kerr?

Kyoto universities

At lunch today my friend Osamu told me these two sayings that were current about twenty years ago in Kyoto.

First, for a woman choosing which of the three famous universities in the city to go to:

If you want a boyfriend, go to Doshisha (because that’s where the kids from rich families go.)

If you want a husband, go to Kyoto University (because they’ll all have good jobs in the future.)

If you want a bodyguard, go to Ritsumeikan (because the kids from working class families that want to study go.)

Second, what people said about Ritsumeikan.

Akai, kurai, dasai.

And in translation: Red(as in communist) , dark/dour, unfashionable.

Fire spinning on Kamogawa [Photos]

The penultimate night of the Gion Matsuri, and on my way home from being swept down Karasuma Dori through the hordes of locals and tourists buying mediocre festival food like a mentally handicapped salmon not sure which way is upstream, I stumbled across this excellent performance just below Sanjo Bridge on my way home.

All photos taken with Canon EOS 300d and EFs 17-85 IS lense. Naturally, these effects come from long exposures.

Spinning fire

Spinning fire

Fire Spinning

Fire Spinning

Spinning fire

Spinning fire

Fire eating

Fire eating

You can visit Nintendo, but don’t expect a tour

I noticed that Kotaku has a post offering very helpful and detailed directions on how to get to Nintendo HQ in Kyoto, Japan.

But before you all book your ticket for a trip to Kyoto, you might want to consider this: Nintendo Japan does NOT offer tours of either its factories or offices. The Q&A section of the company’s website makes this clear:

Q: Can I take a tour of Nintendo’s factories/offices?

A: Since we are entrusted with the business secrets of our various licensee companies, we do not offer factory tours or company tours. Please take note.

Now, one place that does offer tours is the National Diet Building in Tokyo. Perhaps not as exciting as seeing where Mario was born, but hey, you get to see where Japanese policymakers vote to screw their constituents on a regular basis!

JR, Hankyu Smart Tickets Now Mutually Compatible

This is just one more stop on the long, slow road toward mutual compatibility in so-called high-tech Japan. JR East and West still have separate RFID tickets (Suica and Icoca respectively — click links for image character goodness), but at least they at some point became mutually compatible. Now it looks like there is some hot Private train-on-public train action going on (Abstracted from Nikkei):

Icocca, Pitapa Services Mutual Compatibility Begins, Commemorative Ceremony Held at Hankyu Umeda Station

Mutual use of JR West’s Icoca and the PiTaPa service (which despite its wacky name amazingly does NOT seem to have a cutesy image character associated with it! Oh wait, I should have known…) used on private-owned Keihan, Hankyu, and the public Osaka City Subway (Note: JR East, West, and all other regional branches of JR are also technically private but still considered separate from the 私鉄 or “private” train companies, which are in turn separate from city-owned subway lines.) became mutually compatible starting January 21. Yoshimi Taniguchi of the Kinki Transit Bureau (which collects statistics and manages licenses in addition to apparently administering an interpreter exam for tour guides) expressed hopes that such tie-ups would expand to buses and other modes of public transportation.

Customers praised the convenience of no longer having to buy a ticket when switching lines (Note: Of course, the chief benefit to regular users of both lines would simply be to no longer have to carry an extra card in their wallets…)

There are differences in the two systems, however, that complicate matters: Icoca is a pre-paid service (like Washington DC’s SmarTrip), while “post-pay” PiTaPa collects funds from bank accounts. When customers use PiTaPa for JR, they will have to revert to a prepaid system and insert funds at ticket terminals at the station.