How many more mass shootings will it take for the US to act?


You'd think it would only take one, but the NRA, and other gun-rights advocatesーread shills for the gun industryーhave got politicians by the balls. I mean, the things the guys say defending the indefensible.

"More guns make us safe."

 "More laws will only affect the law-abiding people."

"This is a mental health issue."

"Don't politicize this!"

"Guns don't kill people . . ."


I've thought a lot about this, and the only way I see the US moving forward on it is by first getting money out of politics. Public financing of all elections, period, and overturning rulings such as Citizens United that have warped the election process.

The public at large is for sweeping gun control. Even members of the NRA support many of the proposals put forth after Newtown, but politicians from both parties, yes, but more significantly among "right-to-life/right-to-kill" Republicans, were, and still are, afraid to touch it.

Profiles in Cowardice


Voice of America


  A friend asked me, "How could anyone vote for a guy with an accent like that? He sounds like Rodney Dangerfield under the influence..."

  The guy in question is Bernie Sanders.

  To be honest, I don't mind the way Bernie sounds. I think a populist needs to have a unique voice like his, one that lends the speaker the air of a back alley pugilist. The voice of Democratice Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio fits the role perfectly.          

  I may have mentioned this before, but I usually "listen" to the news via podcasts, rather than "watch" it, and I often find myself asking, "Do I really want to listen to that voice for the next four years?"

  No disrepect to Democratic favorite, Hillary Clinton, but her voice grates on my nerves. And the woman couldn't deliver a punchline even if her life depended on it. (David Brooks made a funny comment last week that Hillary will be coming out with a plan in a week's time to be more spontaneous.)

  Jindal sounds like he has his mouth full o' grits whenever he talks. How could the Chinese ever negotiate with him? "Mr. President?" Mumble, mumble. "Mr. President?" Munch, munch. "Mr. President?" Yes? "Are you finished eating?"

  Rubio sounds like the student body president of an all-boy Christian high school who mistakenly put his chastity ring on his tiny weenie.

  Cruz's voice has all the appeal of a table saw stuck grinding away on a rusty nail.

  Donald Trump's voice is both annoying and entertaining at the same time. It's your fiftieth hit of meth when you know deep in your heart that you should just put the pipe down and get some goddamn sleep for once.

  Perry sounds too much like W. Thank God the Lord spoke to this Christian soldier loud enough that he finally got the hint and stepped out of the race. "Guess I shouldn' a tried runnin' again. Oops."

  Lindsey Graham? Oh, dear, no.

  Santorum sounds like he was just shown a photo of three adults have inappropriate sexual contact with each other and doesn't know whether to be titilated or disgusted by it all.

  Christie should be at the end of a counter at a sports bar in Jersey, wearing a Joe Namath jersey, a Bud Lite in his meaty hand, rather than on a debate stage.

  Rand Paul has a dry whiny voice; he sounds like he'd scream "Uncle" even before the titty-twister commenced. And you expect him to look into Putin's eyes and . . . "Uncle!"


  I could go on and on and on. 



Average Annual Salary

   More depressing stats from one of my favorite websites of late, Heikin Nenshū Labo. This shows the trend in average salaries in Japan between the years 1995 and 2013. 

   In 1995, the average yearly salary for a "salaryman" in Japan was ¥4,570,000. The average salary peaked in 1997 at ¥4.67 million, but has fallen ever since. In 2009, the average salary was only ¥4.06 million, due to the recession that followed the "Lehman Brothers Shock" and stock market crash of 2008. Growth in salaries has been anemic in the years since. 

   Looking at this chart, I am curious to know, one, what the average salary was during the bubble years of the late 1980s, and, two, whether salaries have increased in 2014 and 2015. I would also like to know how "salaryman" is defined.

   In 2013, the average male salaryman earned ¥5,110,000, compared to an average of only ¥2,720,000 for women.

   This graph shows the average salary for men (blue) and women (red) according to age. 

   Doda has a pretty good breakdown of income according to age. The average fortynine-year-old man in Japan earns ¥6,830,000. 46% of those men earn more than seven million yen. Only 13% of men and 5% of women in their late forties earn more than a ten million yen a year. 

   At Career Connection, you can get information on the average salary paid by a particular company and read reviews by people who are working or have worked for the company. Nomura Securities, for example, pays workers in their forties an average of ¥16,240,000 a year. Not bad. TEPCO pays its forty-year-old employees an average of ¥12,170,000.


Four Burners

Pat was driving, and as we passed the turnoff for a shopping center she invited us to picture a four-burner stove. 

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter. 

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Pat has her own business, a good one that’s allowing her to retire at fifty-five. She owns three houses, and two cars, but, even without the stuff, she seems like a genuinely happy person. And that alone constitutes success.

I asked which two burners she had cut off, and she said that the first to go had been family. After that, she switched off her health. “How about you?”

I thought for a moment, and said that I’d cut off my friends. “It’s nothing to be proud of, but after meeting Hugh I quit making an effort.” 

“And what else?” she asked.

“Health, I guess.”

Hugh’s answer was work.


“Just work,” he said.


From "Laugh, Kookaburra" by David Sedaris, printed in The New Yorker


   I normally don’t read Sederis for mind-bending existential content, but his short story “Laugh, Kookaburra” had me thinking about life changes I have made over the past ten years and the “burners” I have turned off or down.

   Shortly before I remarried, my fiancée would take me over to her parents’ home in the suburbs on Sundays and lock me up in their washitsu, forcing me to write for five or six hours straight. I had a good idea for a book that just needed to be written down, but I was having a devil of a time making any progress on it.

   Being locked up in that Japanese room for hours on end was torture at first. Whenever I would try to venture out of the room, my girlfriend, who kept guard over me in the adjacent room, would turn me around, shove me back in and say, “Two more hours!”

   “Two more? Can’t I have a drink of something or a smoke?”


   So back in I would go, and kneel down on the tatami only to stare for minutes on end at the empty white page on my MacBook, the cursor flash-flash-flashing as if to taunt me: “You got nothing. And you used to think you had what it took to be a writer! Hah! You got nothing!"

   But it worked. After a few weeks, I started to get into the groove and before I knew it I was writing almost every day, usually in the morning, but sometimes at night until I had finished Rokuban. And when I finished Rokuban, I did a major overhaul of A Woman’s Nails and finished that. Then went on to the next work, and the next.

   Where just completing a novel had once seemed like an insurmountable task, now I was faced with a new challenge: how to sell the novels I was now finishing.

   The improved productivity came partially from turning down one of those four burners: friends. I seldom go out for drinks or dinner anymore. If I do, it’s usually by myself. I used to hate being alone, but nowadays it doesn’t bother me in the least. Sometimes I prefer it as I can get stuff done while I’m eating.



   More later . . . 




Where it all goes

   I had the girls in one of my classes make mini presentations today, the purpose of which was to learn how to present data. One student gave a short presentation on how the typical Japanese student spent her money. It contained some surprises.

   As you can see from the chart, the two largest expenses are social (drinking, dating, hanging out with friends) and food. The third largest expense was clothing and beauty products. 

   What struck me as somewhat odd was that rent accounted for only 4% of their expenses the same as the phone bill.

   I'm not sure how the data was collected or who was asked, but I assume that the reason rent does not amount to much is because the average student even if he is living alone does not pay for his own rent. His parents do. Such is the rough life of the typical student in Japan.

   My own experience couldn't have been more different. 

   In my second year of college, three of my friends and I shared a two-bedroom two-bath apartment in La Jolla just north of San Diego. The rent was $800, which came to $200 each. At the time I had a "part-time" job, working 32-plus hours a week (M-Th, swing shift) at the La Jolla Cove Hotel, a real dive, that paid about four bucks an hour. I took home about a hundred dollars a week, half of which went for rent and the remaining half I had to somehow feed and clothe myself with. It was no day at the beach, let me tell you. 


   According to the Department of Industrial Relations, the minimum wage in California in the early 80s was $3.35 an hour. In 1988, it was raised to $4.25.

   I remember taking the job, one, because of the location--it was just a few blocks down the street from the apartment--and, two, because I thought the pay and work schedule were pretty good.

   One of the interesting things about the job was that in an age when computers were starting to take off, the hotel continued to do everything in completely analog fashion.

   We had several large boards measuring about a two and a half feet by two feet on which all the bookings were recorded. If someone called to reserve a room we would first have to ask when and how long the guest intended to stay and in what kind of room. The usual questions? But, then we would have to go over these boards and see if there was an availabilty. It would sometimes take five minutes just to confirm whether a room was available or not. If we had a room and the price was right, the guest would reserve it which consisted of my physically writing down the guest's name on the board. Surprisingly, there weren't many mistakes. Guests weren't always happy with the room they got, but we seldom forgot a reservation.


Child Soldiers

Dad giving the one-finger salutThere was an awful report on the BBC this morning about child soldiers fighting in Syria's civil war. Unimaginable the horror these young boys are experiencing.

But then, . . .

It occurred to me that my own grandfather was sent to the front in WWI at the tender age of 16 where he would fire a massive cannon, making minced meat of the enemy.

His son, my father, joined the Navy at the age of 17, just a few years after WWII. He would later re-enlist in the Marines and get sent off to Korea. (Obviously, I wouldn't be around today if he had been one of the more than thirty-three thousand Americans who died there.)

One of the themes of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 is that WWII was fought by boys. The oft-forgot subtitle of that novel was The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

Seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


The Joy of Writing

So, the lecture went sumfin like this:

I've been asked to speak about the "Joy of Writing" but, to be honest, it ain't fun. It's work. It can be satisfying at times, but for the most part it's not.

So, instead of that, I'm going to teach you How to Write. Or at least I'm going to try.

There's a saying in English: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. Sadly, it's often the truth. There are professors of English who couldn't string a proper sentence together in English. There are teachers of business who have never run a successful business. (If they could, they probably wouldn't be teaching, would they?)

Most of your writing teachers will show you how to put a paragraph together. They'll make you draw these silly diagrams like Amway marketing schemes. I don't know who taught them to teach like that. Well, you can forget about all that.

First off, on the piece of paper you've been given I want you to write about something we all have: family. Tell me about your family.

(I give them a few minutes to write and then tell them to stop writing.)

How many of you began with the sentence "My family is . . ."?

(Out of the twenty or so girls in the class 16 of them raise their hand. The remaining four or five, have written a variation of "There are . . . people in my family.")

I understand why you do this. It's the first thing that pops in your head. You're thinking "Watashi-no kazoku-wa . . ."

Well, stop that. It's boring. Nobody wants to read what you've just written.

So, Rule One: Don't just give facts or makes lists. Be creative. Be different!

Rule Two: Tell me a story and through that story, include the information you want to convey. 

For example, I just wrote this before coming here:


"One day when I came home from kindergarten, there was a newborn baby in my mother’s arms. 

“'Say hello to your new sister,'" my mother said.

I was only five at the time and wouldn't know where babies came from for at least another ten years. By coincidence, our new living room furniture arrived from Ethan Allen on the same day as my mother’s return from the hospital. She was sitting on the new sofa holding the baby. I looked at the baby. I looked at the furniture--the sofa, the recliner, the ottomans, the coffee tables, the side tables, the . . . For all I knew, my eighth sister had come with the furniture."

Now, that's not the best writing in the world, but, one, it tells a story that you (hopefully) want to hear more of, and, two, it includes information: I have eight sisters, the eighth sister is five years younger than me, and so on. (For the record, I have nine sisters, and three brothers.)

Now start writing again.

(Ten minutes later, I tell them to stop writing.On the white board, I have written 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person; past, present, and future tenses.)

How many of you wrote in the 1st person, present tense?

(Most of them.)

How many of you wrote in the 1st person, past tense?

(The rest.)

Just because you are writing about yourself, doesn't mean you have to write in the first person. 

Rule Three: Break the rules. 

Rule Four: Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Read what you have written, find the mistakes, correct them, change the sentences, make them better, make them funnier or more interesting. Even famous writers such as Murakami Haruki spend more time rewriting their novels than they do writing them. You should, too.

I give them a few minutes to read what they have read to their partner.

One last point I'd like to make is that if you really want to write well, you'll have to do it a lot. And I mean A LOT. Practice really does make perfect. It's the same with sports, or a musical instrument. No one sits down at the piano for the first time and plays Chopin.

Also, read A LOT. Learn from the masters.

I gotta run. 


The Kindy Bus

I took my son, Yu-kun to kindergarten this morning and managed to arrive at the very same time as one of the school busses.

The kids all clamored out of the bus and were herded by two teacher to the main gate of the school where they put their hands together, bowed deeply, and shouted in unison: "Hotoke-sama, ohayō-gozaimasu! Enchō-sensei, hayō-gozaimasu!" (Good morning, Buddha! Good morning, Mr. Principal!)

It was my first time to see this, and I must say it was adorable.

Yu-kun also takes the school bus from time to time depending on the weather and my wife's energy level. (He rode it yesterday but ended up vomiting all over himself and had to be sent back home.)

The “pink bus”[1] usually doesn’t come rolling into our neighborhood until a few minutes after nine in the morning.

When the bus comes to a full stop, one of the teacher hops out, grabs the kids and throws them in like sacks of recyclables. Once on board, the kid is then free to sit wherever he or she likes. Yu-kun sometimes sits in the very front next to the driver, sometimes in the middle near a girl he likes, and sometimes in the very back like yesterday (which may be the reason why he threw up).

The kids are usually dressed in a variety of uniforms. Some wear the whole get-up with the silly Good Ship Lollypop hats and all, while others wear their colored class caps. Some are in their play clothes, a few in smocks, and fewer still wear their school blazers. Anything goes really and that’s fine by us.

A year and a half ago, my wife and I were considering four different kindergartens. Two were Christian, one Buddhist, and a fourth was run by what appeared to be remnants of the Japanese Imperial Army’s South Pacific Division.

It was this fourth kindergarten that initially appealed to us. The kids were said to be drilled daily and given lots of chances to exercise and play sports outside, something that offered us the possibility that our son would come home every afternoon dead tired.

Well, in the end, that school didn’t want us. (So, to the hell with them!) We went for the free-for-all Buddhist kindy, instead.

I think we made the right choice.

The other morning, I happened to see the bus for the Fascist kindergarten. Although it pulls up at the very same place where Yu-kun usually catches his own bus, the similarity stopped there. For one, all the kids were wearing the same outfit with the same hats, the same thermoses hanging from their left side. When they got in the bus, they did so in an orderly fashion, the first child going all the way to the back, the second child following after and sitting in the next seat. The bus was filled from the back to the front and I wouldn’t be surprised if the children filed out of the bus in the same orderly manner. Once seated, the kids sat quietly. It was at the same time both impressive and horrifying.


[1] I still have no idea why it is called the “pink bus” because nothing on it is pink. Every time Yu-kun says, “Oh, the pink bus!” I scan it from bumper to bumper to try and figure out how on earth he can tell it’s the pink bus and not the “yellow bus” which is actually yellow.



Spoiler Alert: Boz don' look like this anymore.

  Boz Scaggs will be in town again this June. Every time one of these stars from yesteryear comes to tour Japan, my first thought is: Is he short of cash?


Fart of mine~♪
Can't keep this gas from passing
Stop flatulating!

Who's done the cutting?
Fart of mine~♪
Oh what's the use in trying?
No one can stop you now (Toot!)

   Sorry, I couldn't help myself.


Hikawa Maru

   The other day when I was writing about the value of ¥100 in 1946, I remembered visiting the Hikawa Maru which is permanently berthed at Yamashita Park in Yokohama. One of the things that struck me was the cost of a transpacific voyage at the time of the ship’s completion:

   “Leaving Kōbe,” a sign on the ship reads, “Hikawa Maru picked up passengers and cargoes at a number of other Japanese ports, and entered the Port of Yokohama. From Yokohama, the ship began the 13-day transpacific trip directly to Seattle. At the time of Hikawa Maru’s completion, the one-way first-class fare from Yokohama to Seattle was about ¥500. In 1930, a new recruit joining NYK Line directly from college would have earned ¥70 a month, and could have buil[t] a house for ¥1,000. Thus, we can see that luxurious first-class travel by sea was special, available to only a handful of privileged individuals.”

   The Hikawa Maru had 35 First Class cabins, with a capacity of 76 people. The price, as indicated above, was about five hundred yen, or US$250. There were also 23 “Tourist Class” cabins, accommodating 69 passengers--tickets for the one-way voyage were $125 (about ¥250)--and 25 Third Class cabins that had a capacity of 138. Third Class tickets sold for $55~75 (¥110~140).




Cobwebs, Again

Japan, you are one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Surely, you can come up with a better way of wiring your nation than this.


Vacation pay, then and now

When looking into the value of a hundred yen at the end of the Pacific War, I came across a number of interesting comments and anecdotes. One person claimed—and I have yet to fact check this—that a junior high school graduate’s starting salary in 1945 was about 100 yen. An employee in those days would be expected to work ten hours a day, and would be given only two days off a month. Paid vacation did not exist seventy years ago. By 1946, starting salaries rose to four or five hundred yen due to the effects of the post-war inflation and shortages. 100 yen in 1946, could be said to be equivalent to about fifty thousand yen today. 

A week ago, I was talking with a woman who worked for a company that runs a number of fashionable hotels and restaurants throughout Japan and in Manhattan. She was on holiday at the time, explaining that she was entitled to take a total of twenty-two days paid vacation every year. Many companies in Japan give lip service to paid-holidays, but few actually let them take so many days off. The woman had taken off eleven days in order to travel to Kansai. She said she was going take another eleven days off in the summer and travel to America.

When I first came to Japan, most people, including me, worked six days a week. The Prime Minister at the time, Kiichi Miyazawa, declared that he wanted to make Japan the world’s leading country regarding lifestyle and leisure. It made me laugh at the time. Even if companies offered their employees paid vacations, none of them could take time off. If you wanted to use the benefit, you normally had to resign from your job first. Masao Miyamoto wrote of this in his highly-recommended Straightjacket Society.

Things, I'm happy to say, really have improved for many workers in Japan over the past two decades. There have, no question about it, been a lot of losers, too—part-timers, contract workers, and the like—but that’ll have to wait until another post.


A 100-Yen Distraction

One reason I am such a slow reader is that I get easily distracted by questions which come up while I am reading. The other day, for instance, I read the following passage in Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun:


“When I had finished disposing of the wood, I asked Mother for some money, which I wrapped in little packets of 100 yen each. On the outside I wrote the words ‘With apologies.’”

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, translated by Donald Keene, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1956, p.34.


The story takes place in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Kazuko, the narrator of the story, and her mother have recently moved from Tokyo to a Chinese-style villa in Izu.


“After my father died, it was Uncle Wada—Mother’s younger brother and now her only surviving blood relation—who had taken care of our household expenses. But with the end of the war everything changed, and Uncle Wada informed Mother that we couldn’t go on as we were, that we had no choice but to sell the house and dismiss all the servants, and that the best thing for us would be to buy a nice little place somewhere in the country . . .” 

Dazai, Osamu, The Setting Sun, p.17.


The changes, Uncle Wada speaks of, are the societal upheaval brought about by the end of the war and the new constitution, which became law on 3 November 1946 (Emperor Meiji’s birthday) and went into effect six months later on 3 May 1947 (Constitution Memorial Day). Article 14 of the Constitution states:


“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin. Peers (華族, kazoku) and peerage (貴族, kizoku) shall not be recognized. No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.”


Kazuko and her mother are members of the soon-to-be abolished Japanese aristocracy, known as the Kazoku (華族, lit. “exalted lineage”). The Kazoku, or hereditary peerage of the Empire of Japan, was created after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 by merging the Kuge (公家, royal family), which had lost much of its status with the rise of the Shogunate in the 12th century, with the former Daimyō (大名, feudal lords) of the Edo Period (1603-1868). (More here.)

Although the number of families in the Kazoku peaked at 1016 families in 1944, the Constitution of Japan effectively did away with the use of noble titles outside the immediate Imperial Family. Nevertheless, many descendants of the former Kazoku occupy positions of influence in society today. One such person who comes to mind is Morihiro Hosokawa, the 79th Prime Minister of Japan (August 1993 to April 1994). Hosokawa was the eldest grandson of Moritatsu, 3rd Marquess Hosokawa, and the 14th Head of the Hosokawa clan. His maternal grandfather was the pre-war Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe. I have heard that Hosokawa never had to touch money, relying instead upon an assistant to handle such matters. I have heard the same about Tarō Asō from his own kabanmochi (鞄持ち, lit. “bag holder”), or assistant.


So that answered one of my questions. The second question concerned the value of 100 yen at the end of the war.


I found some interesting data on this. According to the bank of Japan, 100 yen in the following years is worth (in 2005 yen):



1931       ¥888,903

1932       ¥801,084

1933      ¥699,895

1934       ¥686171

1935       ¥668,913

1936       ¥641,795

1937       ¥528,537

1938       ¥501,055

1939       ¥453,547

1940       ¥405,180

1941       ¥378,214

1942       ¥347,751

1943       ¥324,976

1944       ¥286,718

1945       ¥189,809


After the end of the war, Japan experienced runaway inflation which would last for over four years. Wholesale prices doubled by the end of 1945 and continued to rise. In the first year of the occupation, prices rose by 539 percent. 1.4 kilograms of rice, which had cost 2.7 yen in June of 1946, would end up costing 62.3 yen by early 1950.

In his National Book Award-winning Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower provides the following example of what life immediately after the war was like:


“Okano Akiko, a middle-class Osaka housewife writing for a women’s magazine in 1950, offered an intimate picture of what ‘enduring the unendurable’ had been like for her family. Her husband, a teacher at a military-affiliated school, became unemployed after the surrender but soon found a low-level job as a clerk at a salary of 300 yen a month. At that time, about a quart and a half of rice cost 80 yen, so to make ends meet, they began selling off their belongs.

“In the confusion of early 1946—when a ‘new yen’ was introduced in a futile attempt to curb inflation—the company employing Okano’s husband went out of business, leaving him with a mere 900 yen in severance pay . . . The price of rationed riced tripled in 1946, but, out of principle as well as poverty, the family tried to use the black market as little as possible.

“Eventually, her husband found a job as schoolteacher at a salary of 360 yen per month. They had little choice but to continue to sell their possessions, purchasing black-market goods about eight times monthly, at a cost of roughly 400 yen per month . . . Her husband lost his job again when the school ran into financial difficulties, this time receiving only 50 yen as severance pay. He, too, began to suffer noticeably from malnutrition, his entire body beginning to swell up . . .

“In 1948, the food situation improved somewhat, although potatoes remained the mainstay of the family diet. Both wife an husband fell seriously ill that year and went deeply into debt. In 1949, another child was born, and meat and fish finally became plentiful again, although it was still a struggle to make ends meet, as rent and food prices continued to climb. As 1950 began, her husband found a teaching position at a college. For the first time since the war ended, they could live on his income; and so, Okano wrote, she was finally able to think about the quality of family life, not mere survival.”

Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp. 101-102.


In 1945, the value of 100 yen, according to the Bank of Japan, was equivalent to \19,200 in 2012. One must keep in mind, however, this is the value of the yen based on the prices companies used when conducting business among themselves. Some, looking into wages paid or prices in the market in the postwar years put the value of 100 yen in 1945 at anywhere from four thousand to fifty thousand yen.

Whether one hundred yen in those days was four thousand yen, twenty-thousand yen or even fifty thousand today was all rather academic to Kazuko and her mother, we will learn in the third chapter, because they recieve a letter from their Uncle Wada that informs them that:


“. . . our money is all gone, and what with the blocking of savings and the capital levy, [Uncle Wada] won’t be able to send us as much as he has before. It will be extremely difficult for him to manage our living expenses, especially when Naoji arrives [from the South Pacific] and there are three of us to take care of.”


Now back to reading Dazai's The Setting Sun.


Beauty, Looking Back

Several years ago, a friend of mine expressed his admiration of the Japanese language: “They even have a word for a woman who looks beautiful from behind, but when she turns around is actually ugly.”

The word he was referring to was mikaeri-bijin (見返り美人). The phrase originally comes from the ukiyoe woodblock print “Beauty Looking Back” by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). If I am not mistaken, the phrase didn’t originally contain the connotation of being disappointed when being able to squarely look at a woman which is now often associated with the word.

Even after studying Japanese for over two decades, I continue to be fascinated by the language. Just this morning, when I was looking up “fall from grace”, I came upon a kanji I had never seen before: 寵 (chō).

“Fall from grace” in Japanese, by the way, is kami no onchō-o ushinau (神の恩寵を失う). Bet you won’t be using that phrase anytime soon.

The on (恩) in onchō (恩寵) is a fairly common kanji meaning “obligation, indebtedness, a debt of gratitude”. An “ungrateful” person is someone who literally “doesn’t know the debt of gratitude”: on-o shirazu (恩を知らず).

Chō (寵), on the other hand, doesn’t quite translate neatly into English. It can mean “being particularly loved or doted upon”, “blessed or favored” and so on.

Words containing (寵), include:

            寵愛 (chōai), the favor of (a king)

            寵姫 (chōki), the most loved woman of the monarch

                        This is a word I use daily, as is the next one.

            寵妾 (chōshō), the favorite concubine.

            寵児 (chōji), a darling or star (of the media or literary world)

                        Ah to be a bundan no chōji (分団の寵児)!

            寵臣 (chōshin), the favorite vassal or retainer of the lord


Funny thing about my friend, his initial interest in the Japanese language didn't developed beyond a handful of expressions, which begs the question: why is it that so many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful Westerners who have lived years, if not decades, in Japan still suck at the language?



Japan, the Beautiful, and Concrete

Reading Henry Scott Stokes's The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima I came upon the following passage:

“As we left Odawara and reached the coastal expressway beyond, the car passed the first of the succession of big industrial plants which we would see on our return to the capital, still an hour away at least. There was no beach below us, only a dreary series of massive reinforced-concrete tetrapods, intended to break the force of the sea as it hit the might wall below us. ‘I believe in culture as form and not as spirit,’ said Mishima, referring to the leprous Khmer monarch Jayavarman III and his building of one of the temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon. He seemed very tired as he talked. ‘I want to keep the Japanese spirit alive,’ he added, as if unaware that he was contradicting himself . . . A few minutes later, he cradled his head in his left arm, leaning back in his seat, and fell fast asleep. The car sped swiftly on toward Tokyo, which we would reach in another half hour . . . From time to time I caught the sight of buildings, new factories, other expressways. As we passed Chigasaki, there was an occasional pine tree to be seen by the road, still standing on what had once been the historic Old Tōkaidō Road to Osaka, three hundred miles to the west. That was all that was left of old Japan, perhaps—a few pine trees.”[1]


It occurred to me that if in the late 60s Japan’s landscape had already become a scorched earth of industry and “modernism”, then it was stupidly naïve of me to embrace the romantic image I’d had of Japan before I actually came almost a quarter of a century ago—the sensitivity devoted to the most mundane of daily items, the beauty of manicured gardens changing with the seasons, quaint Japanese houses with tiled roofs and a zen-like simplicity inside, young pearl drivers lowering their lithe bodies deep into the pristine sea, a respect for nature that exceeded worship . . .


Thirty years after Stokes biography was written, humorist David Sedaris had this to say about Japan:


“Riding the high-speed train—the Shin-kansen—to Hiroshima, I supposed that to the untrained eye, all French cities might look alike, as might all German and American ones. To a Japanese person, Kobe and Osaka might be as different as Santa Fe and Chicago, but I sure don’t see it. To me it’s just concrete, some gray and some bleached a headachy white. Occasionally you’ll pass a tree, but rarely a crowd of them. The Shin-kansen moves so fast you can’t really concentrate on much. It’s all a whoosh, and before you know it one city is behind you and another is coming up.”[2]


Out of fairness to my adopted country, I should note that Japan is seventeenth among nations in the world (and the third industrialized nation, after Finland, 72.9%, and Sweden, 69.2%) for forested area. 68.6% of the land in Japan is covered by forests. It is also one of the few countries in the world where the percentage of forested land is increasing.


The title of this post might not ring any bells for most readers, but this was a play on the title of Yasunari Kawabata's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature: "Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. Kawabata won the prize in 1968, and, four years later, killed himself.



[1] Stokes, Henry Scott, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1974, pp.234-35. 

[2] Sedaris, David, When you are Engulphed in Flames, London: Little, Brown, 2008, p.295

Page 1 ... 3 4 5 6 7 ... 30 Next 15 Entries »