Entries in Fukuoka (17)


The Month of No Water, Indeed

   Enjoying another beautiful day here in Fukuoka. It’s sunny and about 29℃ outside, which is hot, but not scorching—perfect beach barbecue weather. If this is the rainy season, bring it on!

   On second thought, nix that idea.

   I don’t recall another rainy season with so little rain as this one since the Drought of ’94. I’ll never forget it.

   The summer before had been unseasonably cool and wet causing rice production to fell by 11.5%. Japan was forced to import one million tons of rice, mostly from Thailand. While I didn’t mind the “Tai mai” (Thai rice), most of the Japanese around me grumbled constantly that it smelled funny or was too dry or didn’t go well with miso soup, and so on.[1]

   The summer of 1994 almost sent me packing.

   When the end of the rainy season was announced on the first of July, a full two weeks earlier than normal, the level of water at dams and reservoirs throughout the prefecture started to drop. Five days later on July 6, the local branch of the Ministry of Construction and the prefectural government announced measures to conserve water. For most of the month of July, the water supply was shut off for twelve hours a day from 9pm until 9am. That may not sound bad, but at the time I was working from 9:30 in the morning to about 8:30 in the evening, meaning I had only thirty minutes in the morning and thirty minutes in the evening to shower and shave, do the laundry, cook, wash the dishes, water my plants, and relieve myself. Let me tell you, I hope I never have to go through that again.

   Checking the prefecture’s website, I am heartened to see that in spite of the unseasonably sunny weather, our 17 dams are currently at 74.9% capacity.


[1] I have a theory why rice from Thailand rather than from California was imported. It is because of that very difference in flavor and “stickiness”. If California rice had been allowed in, the average Japanese consumer would have realized that domestically produced rice, while good, isn’t always worth the premium he was paying for it. Importing Thai rice was a way to traumatize the consumer into sticking with the tried-and-true short-grained Japonica rice. (Incidentally, Japan was already importing Thai rice for production of the Okinawan fire water, awamori.)

For more on the Japanese rainy season, go here.


Vamos a la Playa!



Summer of Loathing

   I don’t know of any other country where the destruction of war is as intricately woven into the fabric of the season as it is here in Japan. Throughout the estival months, documentaries and specials are broadcast on television and memorial services are held across the nation, reminding us of one needlessly tragic event in Japan's history after another.

Last photo of Buckner (right) just before he was killed.   The Battle of Okinawa began on April first and ended 82 bloody days later on the 21st of June. It was the largest, slowest, and bloodiest sea-land-air battle in American military history, claiming upwards of 250,000 lives (both military and civilian). My great uncle, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., commanded the 10th Army, the main component of the expeditionary forces landing on Okinawa. On June 18th, just a few days before the end of hostilities on the island, he was struck down by enemy fire, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. military officer killed in World War II.[1] General Mitsuru Ushijima, Buckner's Japanese counterpart in the battle, committed ritual suicide on June 22nd by first disemboweling himself with a tantô (short sword) and having a subordinate behead him.

   One of the more remarkable, and for many Westerners incomprehensible, features of the Battle of Okinawa were the kamikaze suicide attacks by Japanese pilots against Allied ships. Although they had been used in earlier military campaigns, the peak in kamikaze attacks came on the 6th of April, when nearly 1500 pilots took off from bases in Kyûshû never to return.

USS Bunker Hill after being hit twice.   Many Americans, I think, would be surprised to learn that most of the young men piloting these planes were among Japan's best and brightest, college graduates from the nation's top universities. One of these doomed kamikaze pilots was the older brother of an octogenarian student of mine who would himself go on to become a professor of genetics at Kyûshû University, studying at Yale and Princeton in the 50s and 60s. He can still be brought to tears when recalling the senseless death of his brother who, he says, had showed so much promise.

   The ill-fated kamikaze attack coincides, incidentally, with the start of the swimming season at many beaches in Okinawa.

   Months before the Battle of Okinawa had begun, the U.S. Air Force under the command of Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay had been executing a massive bombing campaign against cities in Japan.[2] The most famous of these is the March 9-10th raid on Tôkyô when over three hundred low-flying B-29 Super Fortress bombers dropped cluster bombs armed with napalm on the city. The deadliest air raid of the war, it would destroy 16 square miles or a quarter of the city and kill more than 100,000 people.[3]

   More raids were ordered: Nagoya (March 11/12th and again on the 14th and 16th), Ôsaka (March 13th) Kôbe (March 16/17th). LeMay intended to knock out every major industrial city in Japan in the next ten days, but ran out of bombs. Think about that.

   In Errol Morris’s provocative documentary Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara brings the numbing stats of the raids home:

   “Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay's command.”

   On the 19th of June, the city of Fukuoka, too, was bombed,[4] some 200 tons of incendiary bombs being dropped on the city.[5] The neighboring towns of Tôsu, Kurume, Moji, Shimonoseki, and so on were also attacked. The fact that these relatively minor cities were also bombed to kingdom come makes me wonder if any town was spared LeMay's wrath. If he had had his way, the whole country would have been left in ruins. "We don't pause," LeMay would write later, "to shed any tears for uncounted hordes of Japanese who lie charred in that acrid-smelling rubble. The smell of Pearl Harbor fires is too persistent in our nostrils."

   The bombing of Fukuoka lasted for an hour and 42 minutes, destroying 3.77 square kilometers of the city and 33% of the buildings. 902 people were killed, another 586 seriously wounded, a small number when compared to the wholescale carnage inflicted upon Japan’s larger cities.

Reconnaissance photo of Fukuoka

Bombing of FukuokaDowntown Fukuoka (Tenjin) after the bombing

Damage assessment

   I have found some conflicting accounts online--the numbers don’t quite add up--but apparently on the day after the air raid, eight airmen out of the twelve to twenty Allied POWs being held in Fukuoka at a detention center where the courthouse is located today were taken to the neighboring Fukuoka Municipal Girls' High School[6], where they were hacked with swords and beheaded. They were the lucky ones. Another eight had been trucked a few days earlier to the Kyûshû Imperial University Medical Department (today’s Kyûshû University) where they were used in a total of four vivisection experiments on May 17 (2 men), May 22 (2 men), May 25 (1 man) and June 2 (3 men).[7] There was another incident on Aburayama that involved more torture and beheading of POWs.

   On July 16th, the first nuclear explosion was tested in America, proving that a nuclear bomb would work. Ten days later on July 26th, the US, Britain, and China issued the Potsdam Declaration which concluded with a “call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

   That prompt and utter destruction came on August 6th when Hiroshima became the first city to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. Three days later, Nagasaki was also nuked. Both days are solemn ones of remembrance for the victims of the bombings, which claimed 150,000 to 246,000 lives.

   Putting aside questions of the morality of dropping one, let alone two, atomic bombs on Japan after having already laid waste to most of the country with incendiaries, I have a problem with the bombings in that they allowed the Japanese to shift the focus of the discussion from one of remorse (look at the suffering we caused) to one of self-pity (look at how we suffered).

At noon on August 15th Emperor Hirohito read the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War effectively bringing the war to end. (What took you so long, Hiro?)[8] The date of Japan’s "surrender" happens to coincide with the final day of the Bon Festival of the Dead as it is observed in most of the country. This somber festival tends to signal the psychological end of summer in Japan, as I have written elsewhere

   I've always thought that making the 15th a national holiday--let's call it Heiwa no Hi (Peace Day)--would be an appropriate way to commemorate the end of the war. Most Japanese already have the day off anyways to attend to family business during the Bon holiday.

   So there you have it: the Japanese summer begins in Okinawa at pretty much the same time that the battle for the island commenced and comes to and end with the surrender of Japan.

   With all these gloomy milestones, it almost make me want to head back to the States this summer.


[1] A monument to General Buckner can be found at the place where he died atop a craggy knoll in Itoman City.

[2] American Experience produced an excellent documentary called “Victory in the Pacific” that can be viewed online at

[3] Many dispute the number of casualties, arguing that the population density of the city at the time would have ensured even higher casualty figures.

[4] You can read the Air Objective folder here. Regarding targets in Fukuoka, it says, “The most important industries lie south of Kyushu University—a landmark on the Bay. The most southerly target is Nippon Rubber Co. TARGET 1265 producing footwear and a few tires. Large buildings in thie area which are not considered targets include the Tofu Flour Co., Dai Nippon Beer Co., and Kanegafuchi Spinning Mill. Fukuoka Harbor TARGET 1255 has been enlarged by a filled extension which is capable of taking on ocean-going ships. This made land is now covered with warehouses and has railroad connections with the Kyushu RR network. The new extension is the only known wharf on the Fukuoka side of the bay capable of taking deep-draft vessels . . .Southeast of the wharf is the old town of Hakata containing many small industries. The only large plant is Watanabe Iron Works, Plant No.1 TARGET 1238 which produces ordnance and heavy machinery for the Navy . . . North of the Najima River are the Najima Steam Power Plant TARGET 664 and the Najima Seaplane Base TARGET 1237. The power plant is connected with the same grid as the large Omuta steam plants and must be considered as a potential source of power for both the Omuta Region and the Nagasaki-Sasebo Region, as well as the Fukuoka industries. The seaplane base has declined in importance with the development of the Fukuoka Air Station TARGET 663 across the bay.”

[5] A detailed “War Journal” of the 9th Bombardment Group can be found here.

[6] Today, it is the location of Akasaka Elementary School, just three blocks from my home.

[7] Toshio Tôno, the founder of the OB/GYN where my first son happened to be born, was present during these vivisection experiments and wrote an eyewitness account of it called Ômei: Kyûdai Seitai Kaibô Jiken no Shinsô. Tôno, Toshio, Disgrace: The Truth of the Kyûshû University Vivisection Incident, Tôkyô: Bungei Shunshû, 1979.

   One day when I went with my wife to Dr. Tôno's hospital, I found the book in the waiting room, there among the Japanese equivalent of Good Housekeeping and Parenting. What's this about, I wondered and started to read it. I couldn't put the book down. Dr. Tôno has devoted much of his life helping the families of the victims understand what happened and, hopefully, find closure. He was a good man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

   Other books on this and related topics can be found here. A list of atrocities committed and punishments meted out by the occupying forces can be found here.

[8] About 2.7 million Japanese (servicemen and civilians) were dead by the end of the war, 3-4% of the country’s population of 74 million. One quarter of the country’s wealth had been destroyed, including four fifths of its ships, one-third of all industrial machine tools, and a quarter of its rolling stock and motor vehicles. Living standards fell to 65% of prewar levels. Sixty-six major cities had been heavily bombed, and 30% of the population of those cities were now homeless. Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp. 37 – 46. 


The full transcript of the gyokuon hôsô (Imperial broadcast announcing the end of the war):
   After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.
   We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.
   To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of Our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by Our Imperial Ancestors and which lies close to Our heart.
   Indeed, We declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan's self- preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.
   But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State, and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest. (Understatement of the century.)
   Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
   Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.
   We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to Our Allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.
   The thought of those officers and men as well as others who have fallen in the fields of battle, those who died at their posts of duty, or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains Our heart night and day.
   The welfare of the wounded and the war-sufferers, and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood, are the objects of Our profound solicitude.
   The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.
   Having been able to safeguard and maintain the structure of the Imperial State, We are always with you, Our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity.
   Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strike which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.
   Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its sacred land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibility, and of the long road before it.
   Unite your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, foster nobility of spirit, and work with resolution – so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State and keep pace with the progress of the world.



Sakura, Sakura


Walkabout - Gokusho

   I went to Gokusho (御供所) to see the cherry blossoms yesterday. This old neighborhood located in Fukuoka City's Hakata Ward has some of Japan's oldest temples including the nation's first zen temple (Shofukuji 聖福寺). 

   Pagoda at Tôchôji (東長寺)

   Tôchôji (東長寺)

   Tôchôji (東長寺)

   Jôtenji (承天寺) Completed in 1242, this temple is said to be where udon, soba, manju and yokan originated.

   Jôtenji (承天寺)

   For more on the Gokusho neighborhood and its temples visit yokanavi.



   Although we're in for another cold spell, the Japanese plum blossoms (梅の花, ume no hana) are now in full bloom here in Fukuoka, reminding us that spring is coming. Bundle up and go have a look!

   The city really should force the Lion's Club to tear this eyesore down. What were they thinking?


Winter Wonderland

   I can confidently say without having to look at the news that Fukuoka is enjoying (yes, enjoying) its heaviest snowfall in eighteen years. None of the weather sites had predicted it. None had said that it would not only snow heavily all day Saturday, but would continue snowing throughout the night. Their proclivity to err on caution meant that when I woke up this morning, I was happily surprised to find a Winter Wonderland outside my bedroom window. (Nothing brings out the little boy in me quite like ground covered with several inches of new snow.)

   I’m tempted to hop on a train and ride out to the southern part of the prefecture to see how much snow they got, but unfortunately I’ve got things to do. Ho-hum.




   A friend noted the other day that I hadn’t posted anything in quite a while.

   It’s true.

   I was hoping to post something daily once the spring break started and I would be getting paid for essentially not teaching. (If someone working at a Japanese university tells you he’s busy, be vewy, vewy suspicious.) The thing is, the Muses, Thalia and Calliope, have been very kind to me since I returned from my holidays in the States: I am off to a promising start on two novels (one of which I alluded to in an earlier post, and another you can read here).

   I try to hammer out a chapter or so of each every morning, which usually leaves me with little time or energy for writing anything else. Not that I don’t want to, mind you.

   I have also been asked to put together a series of presentations on e-publishing. (Bit like the blind leading the blind, I’m afraid.)

   Anyways, your patience is requested.


Dazaifu in Winter 2


Dazaifu in Winter



Let it snow

Hasui Kawase's "Zôjôji no Yuki" (1922)   It’s been snowing off and on for the past three days here in Fukuoka and the peaks of the mountains to the south and west of the city are now white. It’s tempting to go hiking up one of them. But, then again, who am I kidding?

   On my way to work the other day, I stopped at what the Japanese call a “scramble intersection” (スクランブル交差点, sukuranburu kôsaten), an intersection where pedestrians are allowed to cross every which way they want when the “WALK” sign comes on.

   Across the street from me was a salaryman in his late fifties, staring blankly ahead. As we waited for the light to change, fluffy white snowflakes started to fall lazily from the sky.[1] The salaryman’s eyes lifted then followed one of the flakes as it slowly descended, down, down, down, down, and landed softly on the asphalt where it stuck. A gentle smile spread across his face, eyes brightened, and, if I am not mistaken, the salaryman’s day had just been made.


[1] These big snowflakes are called botan yuki (牡丹雪, lit. “peony snow”) in Japanese, which is certainly more poetic and evocative than what we call them in English: “humongous snowflakes”.


Almost Famous


Questions for the Mayor

   In November of 2010 Sôichirô Takashima was elected mayor of Fukuoka with a 13-point lead over the incumbent. At only 36 years of age, the former TV presenter became the city's youngest, and perhaps most photogenic, mayor the city has ever had.

   Several months into his first term, the editor-in-chief of Fukuoka Now, a local foreign language monthly magazine, sat down with the mayor for an interview. Prior to the interview, a call for questions was put out, and I came up with the following twelve. Many of these remain unanswered.

1. Far too often, Edô, Meiij, and Taishô era residences and buildings are torn down only to be replaced with parking lots or shabby, prefab buildings. What can the city do to better protect its architectural and cultural heritage?


2. In most western cities, and in many of the better Asian cities as well, the waterfront area is one of the more beautiful parts of a city. In Fukuoka, however, the waterfront is a jumble of ugly warehouses and shipyards. As visitors from China and Korea arrive at the city's ports they are greeted with an eyesore. What can be done to make the "face" of the city more beautiful?


3. Traveling from Tenjin to Dazaifu, a trip of only 20 km, one passes through four different cities. Four different cities with four mayors, four city halls, four different manhole cover designs, four different civic and cultural halls, four assemblies, and so on, all spending money on unnecessary projects, tearing down what should be registered as cultural assests and replacing them with eyesores. How would you feel about merging Fukuoka City with neighboring mini-cities to cut wasteful spending, increase the tax base, and coordinate planning?


4. Several years ago, the Nanakuma Line opened to much fanfare. Ridership, however, never met expectations. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is the inconvenience of both ends of the line: Minami Tenjin Station and Hashimoto Station. If the Nanakuma Line were extended to connect with Meinohama (and later Atagohama/Momochihama) on the western end and Hakata station and the International airport on the eastern end, I am certain that the number of passengers will increase. What are your plans for making the subway system more relevant?


5. Throughout Japan, and in Fukuoka too, many historical spots are indicated by little more than concrete posts stating that this is the location that such and such happened. This is a missed opportunity to make the history live, to build authentic sightseeing spots. How can Fukuoka better highlight its historical heritage?


6. There was talk some years ago of making Tenjin a free wifi area. As far as I can tell, this has not yet happened. With the growth of the smartphone market, having a free wifi area in the busiest parts of the city would help foster an environment that benefits creators of software and content for these devices. What do you think?


7. Daimyô and other areas would benefit greatly by having many of the streets turned into one-way roads, with small parks or green areas throughout. This would smooth traffic flow and enhance the quality of living for residents and visitors alike. What do you think?


8. What is the city doing to protect some of its older trees and green areas?


9. Many of the parks are poorly maintained. Gardeners come in only once every few months, hack at the weeds, trim limbs, and then leave the parks to be overrun with weeds, garbage, and the homeless once again. What can the city do to better maintain these areas, to make them places people would be happy to visit?


10. Nishitestu buses often cause more congestion than they solve. A better system would be to have zones, with a few dedicated bus lines that transect the city and transfer points where passengers could catch their connecting busses. Instead we now have twenty or more different bus lines that all go down, for example, Meij or Showa Dôri. The current system is wasteful, polluting, and inconvenient. What do you think?


11. Fukuoka is the hometown of many of Japan's most popular celebrities and entertainers. How can the city better use their fame to promote the city? Of course, these people should not expect to be paid, but should do it out of love and pride for their hometown.


12. The city, as you surely know, has a lot of debt, much of it caused by poorly planned projects, such as Island City, Super Brand City, and so on. How can those who make bad decisions with public money be held more accountable for their mistakes?



   Ukiha is a small farming town (now designated a cityーうきは市ーthanks to its merger with neighboring Yoshii Machi) in the southern part of Fukuoka Prefecture. While the center of the town itself has a collection of traditional houses and buildings that it is trying to promote as a tourist destination, I'm afraid I haven't been there personally. (You'll have to take the city's HP's word that it's worth visiting.) I have, however, on a number of occasions been into the mountains to an area called Ukiha Machi Shinkawa (浮羽町新川) to see the terraced rice paddies--known as tanada (棚田) or dandan batake (段々畑)--and the higan bana (彼岸花, lycoris radiata or cluster amaryllis) which bloom, appropriately, around o-higan, that is, during the equinoctal week in autumn.

   Although there is a bus that dawdles its way up the winding mountain road, the best way to get there is by car. You take route 210 to route 105 and follow it all the way up, past the dam, and on up into the mountains until you start seeing the terraced rice paddies. Keep going on up as far as you can, then get out and hike up the rest of the way. Trust me, it's worth the trip.

   The best time to go is in early September, just before the rice is harvested or shortly after the rice harvesting has begun as the contrast between fields of rice that have already been cleared and those waiting to be is quite beautiful.

   Along the borders of the rice fields you'll find a curious looking flower called the higan bana. The generally come in two colors: red and white. According to Mr. Wiki:

  "The bulbs of Lycoris radiata are very poisonous. These are mostly used in Japan, and they are used to surround their paddies and houses to keep the pest and mice away. That is why most of them grow close to rivers now. In Japan the Red Spider Lily signals the arrival of fall. Many Buddhist will use it to celebrate the arrival of fall with a ceremony at the tomb of one of their ancestors. They plant them on graves because it shows a tribute to the dead. People believe that since the Red Spider Lily is mostly associated with death that one should never give a bouquet of these flowers."


Fukuoka Castle

   One of the best parts of living where I do is the proximity to Maizuru Park and the Fukuoka Castle ruins. (I'll write more about the castle and its history at a later time. In the meantime you can learn more here)

   I walk or jog around the ruins several times a week and occasionally play tennis on one of the three clay courts that are located at the foot of the ancient ramparts.

   In mid summer, there is a deafening cacophony of cicada, but by late summer the noise is replaced by the song of bell crickets. From late September to early December, you can enjoy changing colors of autumn. First to go are the first to come: the leaves from the cherry blossom trees. The last tend to be the gingko trees, the leaves of which form a thick, mustard yellow carpet on the ground in December. The moon, which appears so much larger and brighter in autumn, can be seen rising above the eastern mountains early in the evening in autumn. One of the best places to get an unobstructed view is from the highest parts of the castle.

   The winter months tend to be bitterly cold as the wind roars in from the sea. There are, nevertheless, quite a lot of flowers to be seen. Narcissus comes to mind. The umé (plum) blossoms in February are an early harbinger of spring. Soon there after the cherry blossoms bloom and the days grow longer and warmer. Before long, summer comes and the cicada start to kick up a racket again.