Entries in Japan (12)


Head of the Class

   With my wife in the hospital suffering from exhaustion (she's fine now) and Grandma out of town, I was left with two options: take the day off or bring my three-year-old son to work. (If a Member of Congress can do it . . .)

   Anyways, I sent this photo to my family and all everyone wanted to know was why the girls were wearing surgical masks.

   Could be a number of things, I wrote back:

1. They may have a cold and don't want it to spread. (Thoughtful.)

2. They don't want to catch another person's cooties. (Paranoid.)

3. They have hay fever and are trying to keep it from worsening. (Probably too late.)

4. They are trying to avoid breathing in the smog that China exports to us along with other low-cost, high-externality crap. (Understandable, but most likely meaningless.)

5. They have herpes. (Gotcha. Keep the mask on.)

6. Or, they have merely overslept and didn't have time to put their faces on. The girls are too embarrassed to show their face. (Now, you'd think it would be more embarrassing to wear a silly mask like that in public, but what do you know, you silly gaijin?)


   A few days later, I asked the two girls in the photo why they had been wearing masks that day and learned that it was, as I expected, because they hadn't been wearing make-up. "What's the big deal," I said. "I'm not wearing make-up now!"
   This is a fairly new phenomenon: young women in Japan didn't use to do it, say, five years ago. You may read into that what you like.

The Incredibly Shrinking Nation

   In 2004 Japan’s population peaked at 127.8 million people[1]. Because the fertility rate[2] in Japan has remained far below the 2.2 or so needed to maintain a population, the population has been falling steadily. If nothing changes, the population of Japan is predicted to fall to less than 90 million by the year 2055.

   While the nation anxiously wrings its hands, I have to ask what to me seems like an obvious question: is this really a problem?

   Personally, I think there are far too many people in this crowded country and population decline ought to be not only welcomed, but celebrated as one of the successes of a modern society. If you go to and have a look at the birth rates, you’ll find that Japan is fourth from the bottom, down there with Macau and Hong Kong, two of the worlds most densely populated places.[3] The countries with the highest birthrates are, not surprisingly, poor, less developed, and predominately African ones.

   Now, I realize that with population decline comes a number of seemingly knotty issues, such as how the pension system will be funded, and so on.[4] But, on the whole, I think the demographic change provides far more opportunities than it does challenges. (The same can be said about last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami. I’ll write more about this later.)

   While the population of Japan as a whole has been in decline for the past eight years, you might be surprised to learn that cities like Fukuoka have grown steadily.

   When I first moved to Fukuoka in 1993, the city had a population of 1.246 million people. Since then, the population has increased and stands at 1.443 people today. The foreign community has doubled from 12,621 in 1993 to 24,555 in 2011.

   What is the cause of this growth? One theory (my own) ascribes the increase to the comparatively large number of attractive women in the Fukuoka, the so-called Hakata Bijin (博多美人, “Hakata Beauty”), which has eager men flocking to the city in droves.[5] Others point more correctly to kasoka (過疎化), or the depopulation of towns and villages as people pull up stakes and move to the cities where there are better-paying jobs and more opportunities. 

   Out of curiosity, I looked into the demographics of Iizuka, that oft-maligned (mostly by me) city to the northwest of Fukuoka, to see how the population had changed over the years. I was surprised to see that although the city’s population was down from a high of 140,463 people in 1995, it was still higher than in the decades following the end of the war when the mines were still giving up plenty of coal and jobs abounded. I guess having a powerful politician fighting for your cause—in this case former Prime Minister Tarô Aso—does have its benefits, if not plenty of pork barrel. The city is today home to one of the campuses of Kyûkôdai (九工大, Kyûshû Institute of Technology).

   Fukuoka, though, has much more going for it, which might explain why so many people from throughout the Kyûshû-Okinawa region relocate here. That might also explain why for several years running Fukuoka has been chosen by a number of magazines, including Monocle, as one of the world’s best cities. (Personally, I think that’s going a little too far. It is a nice place, but one of the world’s best? C’mon, who ya kiddin’?)[6]


[1] Numbers vary. The Japanese language site gave the above figure. Another English language site had the population at 128.1 million in 2010.

[2] The fertility rate refers to the average number of children born to women throughout their reproductive years. The fertility rate, which was 3.65 in 1950, fell to 1.91 in 1975. It stands around 1.37 today.

[3] Japan is the 38th most densely populated country in the world.

[4] I will discuss this so-called problem in the next post.

[5] Many young women will disagree with this, claiming that the city doesn’t have many men. They’ll even argue that there are eight women for every available man. I don’t know where this statistic comes from, but I’ve heard it again and again over the years. Funny, but the two single women who first told me of this imbalance have moved to Tôkyô where—surprise, surprise—they remain single.

[6] I often joke that “Fukuoka is a nice place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit it”. There just isn’t that much for tourists to do and see. 


Tôka Ebisu Festival


   One of the nice things about living in Japan is that there is always some festival or holiday to look forward to. Unlike America where once the holiday season ends with New Year's or, ho-hum, the feast of the Epiphany on January sixth, there is a long lull in festive events, in Japan something fun is always just around the corner. Once Christmas has passed, the trees come down and up go the kadomatsu and other New Year's decorations.    After the five or six-day drinking, eating, and TV-viewing binge known as O-Shôgatsu, or the Japanese New Year, comes Tôka Ebisu, a festival honoring Ebisu, the patron deity of businesses and fisheries. At around the same time, the Coming-of-Age Day celebration celebrating the entry into adulthood of the nation's twenty-year olds, is held. There is the bean-throwing exorcism known as Setsu-bun in early February, as well as a number of local festivals held in shrines and temples in the meantime.

   On Sunday, I went to Fukuoka's main Ebisu shrine which is located just outside of Higashi Park. While I sometimes miss the New Year's celebrations do to travel, I always manage to get back in time to attend the Tôka Ebisu festival. 

   Like most other festivals held throughout the year in Japan, you'll find the usual demisé food stalls selling o-konomiyaki (below), jumbo yakitori, and so on. What makes Tôka Ebisu different, however, is the number of stalls selling good luck items featuring the seven lucky gods (Shichi Fukujin) of which Ebisu is one, talismansand other trinkets to ward off bad luck, and so on. 

   The festival also attracts a much different class of people. Whereas you can see many young men and women at the harvest festival Hôjoya (also known as Hôjoe), the people attending Tôka Ebisu tend to be older and "tarnished", making it an interesting place to people watch. I never fail to find the middled aged mamas of "snacks", rough-looking men who look as if Ebisu hasn't been very generous to them, and others desperate for an auspicious start to the new business year.

   This year, there seemed to be far more people at the festival than usual. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was that after 2011 everyone is hoping for a bit of luck.

   Corn on the cob.

   Sweet roasted chestnuts.


   If you look closely at the apex of the crowd you can see an upside down red fish, a sea bream. This is a symbol of Ebisu who is often depicted carrying one. In Japanese the sea bream is called tai which rhymes with medetai, meaning “happy”, “auspicious”, or “successful”. Real sea bream are often displayed at a celebratory gatherings, such as New Years, the end of sumô tournaments, engagement ceremonies, and so on.

   Just beyond the red sea bream is a procession of the Hakata Geiki, a troupe of geisha working in Fukuoka City. I’ll write about them in a later post in the coming months. Incidentally, the photo on the cover of my second novel, A Woman’s Nails, was taken at this event several years ago. 

   Chocolate covered bananas. I loved these as a kid but don’t have the courage to try one now. 

   The geisha making their way to the shrine. This procession is held every year at the height of the Tôka Ebisu festival and worth seeing. This year we just happened to be there when it was taking place.

   Another feature of Tôka Ebisu is the drawing that is held at the shrine. On either side of the shinden there are booths selling tickets.

   The first time I attended the festival was over ten years ago and didn’t know what to expect. So, when I pulled out one of the lots from a hexegonal box and the Shintô priest shouted, “Ôatari!” (Jackpot!), my mind filled with delicious possibilities: a new car? A trip to Hawaii? Cash? I had never ever won so much as a cakewalk or bingo game before. Needless to say, I was quite excited.

   As another priest pounded out several beats on a drum and shouted “Ôatari,” the first priest pulled out a huge red fan from a pile of trinkets and talismans behind him and passed it to me. The fan had 商売繁盛 (shôbai hanjô, “prosperity in business”) written on it in large white characters. Prosperous was the last thing I felt.

   That didn’t stop me, however, from going back year after year and trying my luck. In the past, the tickets were only ¥1,500. Today, they go for ¥2,000 each—so much for the deflationary pressure we are told has been pushing prices lower and lower—and where I once bought two or three of the tickets, I now only buy one.

   Over the years I have “won” two of those large red shôbai hanjô fans, a massive wooden paddle as big as a cricket bat that has 一斗二升五合[1] written on it, a plate featuring Ebisu-sama, a wooden piggy bank, a calendar, and a small Ebisu doll.

   A dutiful follower of this cult of Ebisu, I went on the tenth of January last year. The weather was awful—freezing cold and rainy—and I had been forced to wait under a canopy that leaked like a sieve for a good hour and a half until my wife and son showed up.

   When they finally did, I was in a foul mood. My pant legs and shoes soaking wet, the cold was beginning to seep into my bones.

   “Let’s just get the damn thing and head on home, okay?” I grumbled to my wife. “It’s freezing!”

   We hurried into the shrine, which thanks to the lousy weather was not as crowded as it usually can be during the festival. There was only a handful of people in line for the drawing.

   Well, no sooner had we handed over our ¥2000 at the reception desk than the man at the counter said, “Congratulations, you’re our twenty-five-thousandth visitor.” Or something like that. He had us fill out a form and then asked us to follow him to the place where the lots were drawn. After handing the form to the priest with the box containing the lots, I was told to pull one of the sticks out. It didn’t matter which. I did so and gave it to the priest who stood up and, turning on a microphone, said he had a big announcement to make.

   “We have a major prize for our twenty-five-thousandth visitor today!” Another priest started banging away at a drum. The other priests in the shinden stopped what they were doing, stood up, and started clapping in unison. After a number of Banzais, the priest handed over a massive and cumbersome bamboo rake to me. It was adorned with ceramic depictions of the gods Ebisu and Daikoku, a red sea bream, a bale of rice, and other auspicious items.

   Let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more thrilled had I won a trip to Hawaii.

   I don’t know if it is thanks to Ebisu-sama, my son whose arrival in my life signaled the beginning of things finally going my way, or plain dumb luck, but last year ended up being the very best year ever in so many ways.

   When you’ve already won the jackpot, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to continue dropping quarters into the slot machine, and yet that is essentially what we did by returning to the Ebisu festival this year and trying our hand at the drawing again.

   “Don’t get your hopes up,” my wife said.

   “I know, I know,” I replied. “But still, it would be nice to get one of those boats with the seven lucky gods in it. I’ve always wanted one for the collection.”

   Sure enough, Ebisu wasn’t as generous to us this year: we got a simple little wooden abacus. I suppose the message the gods are trying to tell us is that we should be more careful about how we spend money. Duly noted, Ebisu-sama!

[1] Ask your Japanese friends to try reading 一斗二升五合and most of them will be stumped. It is a riddle of sorts employing 斗, 升, 合 all of which are traditional Japanese measures of volume.

   一斗 (itto, about 18 liters) is equal to ten 升 (shô, about 1.8 liters). 一斗, then, can be said to equal 五升の倍 (go shô no bai), which means “five shô doubled”. 五升の倍 (go shô no bai) is synonymous with 御商売 (go shôbai) which means “one’s business or trade”. Got that?

  二升 (nishô). 升 can also be read masu. 二升 here is read “masu masu” which sounds like 益々 (masu masu), meaning “more and more”, “steadily”, and so on.

  五合 (go gô, 5 x 0.18 liters, or 0.9 liters) is one half of a shô or 半升 (hanjô) which sounds the same as 繁盛 (hanjô, prosperity). So, putting it all together 一斗二升五合 can be read “Go-shôbai masu masu hanjô!” (御商売益々繁盛), meaning something to the effect that your business or trade will enjoy increasing prosperity.



   Zakimi Castle (座喜味城 Zakimi Gusuku) is a gusuku, or Okinawan fortress, located in Yomitan, Okinawa Prefecture. Built between 1416 and 1422 by the Ryûkyûan militarist Gosamaru, the castle oversaw the northern portion of the Okinawan mainland, then known as the Hokuzan Kingdom. The gusuku fortress has two inner courts, each with an arched gate. This is Okinawa's first stone arch gate featuring the unique keystone masonry of the Ryûkyûs. 

   During World War II, the castle was used as a gun emplacement by the Japanese army, and after the war it was used as a radar station by the US forces. Some of the walls were destroyed in order to install the radar equipment, but they have since been restored.

   Zakimi Castle, along with Shuri Castle and several other related sites in Okinawa, were desiganted a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2000. They are also designated a National Historical Site.


To the Knackers!

   I had an interesting conversation with a friend last night.

   For the past few years Kei has been importing riding horses to Japan from Germany and early on I helped her out with correspondence, drawing up preliminary contracts, and so on. The reason she came to me is that, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I once lived in Germany and can still understand the language somewhat. Kei only knew a handful of words: ja, nein, danke schön, bitte. In the kingdom of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.

   Fortunately for her and me, most of the Germans we were dealing with spoke damn good English.

   Two years later, her business has expanded with small, yet encouraging steps and has had her traveling to Europe on a monthly basis, shopping for horses, investing in them, and participating in international equestrian events as a judge. Reading this, you might get the impression that Kei is a fabulously wealthy woman, but nothing could be further from the truth: she is, in fact, a modestly working class, single mother who has gotten by on her wits and creativity. I have a lot of respect for the woman.

   Anyways, Kei will be making two trips to Germany again next month to introduce a German breeder/trainer to her Japanese client who’s interested in buying a “high level horse”. Until now, Kei has been buying horses with somewhat humble pedigrees for eventing[1] enthusiasts and riding clubs in Kyûshû and was excited to finally deal in some top level horses.

   Hearing this, I joked that there were four levels of horses: high-level, mid-level horses, low-level, and glue.

   This is where the conversation became interesting.

   Kei laughed then told me about a local company called Kohi Chikusan owned by a Mr. Kohi (sounds like the Japanese pronunciation of coffee). Kohi, she said, takes “compromised” horses off of stables’ hands and “makes arrangements for them”. Some of these horses are put down, some are resold and show up, seemingly miraculously, at rival stables, and a few are sold for horsemeat. (Don’t worry, most of the horsemeat used in the delicacy basashi[2] comes from Australia.)

   “Whenever a horse acts up or doesn’t respond well,” Kei said laughing, “we tell it we’re going to call Kohi-san.”

   I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scene in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm when Boxer is sent to the glue factory.

   I tried to google Kohi Chikusan, but couldn’t find anything.

   “They don’t have a website,” Kei said.

   “No, I don’t suppose they would.” Talk about a niche business!

   Kei explained that they had to use the service because when a horse weighing five hundred kilos dies it’s nearly impossible to move it. Rigor mortis sets in within a few hours after death, freezing the horse in the position that it died in, and the only way to get it out of a stable is to chain it to the back of a tractor and drag it out. Not exactly the kind of thing you want your paying customers to see when they’re practicing their jumps.

   “So, whenever a horse becomes too ill for the veterinarian to treat, we call Kohi-san.”

   “Kohi isn’t a very common name, is it?” I said.

   “That’s because he’s a Buraku-min,” she replied matter-of-factly. “A lot of people involved in that kind of business come from the Buraku-min. Meat handlers, too.”

   This morning when I was looking into the family names of the Buraku, I learned that while the caste system of feudal Japan was abolished in Japan in the early years of the Meiji Period and all Japanese were assigned family names (for more on this go here), the Buraku were given family names that would make them still recognizable from ordinary Japanese a hundred years later. These names apparently include the following Chinese characters: 星 (star); body parts, such as 手 (hand), 足 (foot), 耳 (ear), 頭 (head), 目 (eye); the four points of the compass, 東 (east), 西 (west), 南 (south), 北 (north); 大, 小 (large and small); 松竹梅 (pine, bamboo, plum), 神, 仏 (god and buddha) and so on. Examples include: 星野 (Hoshino), 小松 (Komatsu), 大仏 (Osragi), 神川 (Kamikawa), 猪口 (Inoguchi/Inokuchi)、熊川 (Kumakawa)、神尾 (Kamio), and so on. (Beware of assuming that everyone with these kinds of names are Buraku-min, they are not.)

   I wrote about the Buraku-min in No. 6. The passage from my novel discussing these unlucky people has been included below. 

   In the afternoon, I’m summoned to the interrogation room where Nakata and Ozawa are waiting for me.

   Both of them are in an easy, light-hearted mood today. The desk is free of notebook computers; there are no heavy bags filled with thick folders of evidence on the floor.

   Ozawa is slouched comfortably in his seat, tanned fingers locked behind his head.

   "What was the name of that Korean restaurant you mentioned last week?" he asks.

   "Kanyô," I say, taking my usual seat, still bolted to the floor.

   "Where was that again?"

   "It's in Taihaku Machi, a rough neighborhood near the Chidori Bridge."

   "Taihaku Machi?"

   "Along the Mikasa River, across from Chiyo Machi."

   "Chiyo? Ugh!" he says grimacing. "Why is it that all the good Korean restaurants have to be located in the shittiest part of town?"

   Nakata asks me if I know what Eta is. I shrug.

   Ozawa tries to look it up in his electronic dictionary, but can't find it.

   "Figures," he grumbles.

   "How do you write it," I ask.

   Ozawa scribbles the following two kanji in his notebook: 穢多 The first character, 穢, he says, can be read as kitanai and means filthy. It can also be read as kegare. Finding the entry, Ozawa spins his dictionary around to show me that kegare means impuritystainsin, and disgrace. The other, more common character, 多, pronounced ta, or ôi, means plenty, or many. So, eta, connotes something that is abundantly filthy or impure.

   Then it hits me that the eta Nakata is alluding to is yet another word that editors of Japanese-English dictionaries conveniently omit: buraku-min.

   The Buraku-min (lit. hamlet people) were a class of outcasts in feudal Japan who lived in secluded hamlets outside of populated areas where they engaged in occupations considered to be vitiated with death and impurity such as butchering, leather working, grave-digging, tanning and executions.

   For the Shintô who believed that cleanliness was truly next to godliness, those who habitually killed animals or committed otherwise heinous acts were considered to be contaminated by the spiritual filth of their acts and thereby evil themselves. As this impurity was believed to be hereditary, Buraku-min were restricted from living outside their designated hamlets and not allowed to marry ordinary people. In some cases they were even forced to wear special costumes, footwear, and identifying marks.

   The Emancipation Edict of 1871 intended to eradicate the institutionalized discrimination and the former outcasts were formally recognized as citizens. However, thanks to family registries, known as koseki, which are assiduously kept by officials in every Japanese city, town and village, it was easy to identify who was Buraku-min from their ancestral home, and discrimination against them continued.

   Shortly after coming to Japan, the wife of a company president once confided to me that she and her husband might be willing let his daughter, God forbid, marry an ethnic Korean, but would never countenance her marrying a Buraku-min. He would never hire one, either.

   "Never? Regardless of the person's talent?" I asked.

   "The damage to the image of my husband's company would be far greater than any benefit such an employee could ever bring."

   And that's how it goes in this sophisticated democracy: you can still be discriminated against just because your great-great-great grandfather had a shitty job.

   Today there are some four thousand five hundred Dôwa Chiku, or former Buraku communities that were designated by the government in the late sixties for the so-called assimilation projects. Over the next three decades, housing projects and cultural facilities were constructed, and infrastructure improved in the dowa chiku to raise the standard of living of the residents of those areas.

   There are an estimated two million descendents of Buraku-min in Japan today, most of whom live in the western part of the country, particularly in the Kansai area around Osaka, and in Fukuoka Prefecture.

   "Chiyo’s a Dôwa Chiku," Nakata says. "Crawling with Eta."

   "I know," I say.

   “You do?”

   The fact was first brought to my attention many years ago when I was searching for an apartment. A kindly old woman I had just met was all too eager to help me. She pulled out a map of the city from her handbag and, without elaborating, began crossing out "undesirable places", many of them located along the rivers. When I asked why, she said: "Trust me, you don’t want to live there." And so I did, finding a cheap one-room apartment in one of the tonier areas near Ôhori Park.

   "Those people are nothing but trouble," Nakata says. "Riffraff the lot of them."

   "You’re kidding, right?"

   He leans forward, resting his rotund chest against the desk. "There were a lot of Eta in my hometown when I was young. Nothing, but trouble. If you ever got in a fight with one these Eta bastards, the next thing you know, you're surrounded by a group of them. Sneaky guttersnipes."

   The thought of Nakata as a chubby little kid in glasses getting the snot beaten out of him by a gang of Buraku boys almost causes a laugh to percolate out of me.

   "Surely not all of them?" I say.

   "Yes, all of them," Nakata replies and sits back, brushing his wimpy salt and pepper mustache with his fingers.

   Ozawa asks if I've heard of the Yamaguchi Gumi.

   "The yakuza gang?"

   "Yeah. Biggest crime syndicate in Japan. It's mostly comprised of these Eta scum."

   "Most yakuza gangs are," says Nakata.

   "I had no idea," I say.

   "Nothing but trouble," Nakata says again.

   "Say, what's the deal with the girls working the food stalls at the festivals," I ask. "I've heard they're run by the yakuza."

   "They are. The girls are Eta bitches," Nakata replies.

   "Pretty damn cute bitches," I say.

   Dregs of Japanese society or not, quite a few of the young girls working at festivals are knockouts.

   After fifteen years, Japan can still be an enigmatic country. One thing I've never been quite able to figure out is why the best-born Japanese girls are so homely. The ugly daughters of good families, I call them. And, at the risk of being stabbed by some right wing nut, I must add that at the top of that ignoble list of repellent bluebloods is Princess Nori who only last year managed to find a suitably humdrum partner at the ripe age of thirty-five.

   "Cute they are," says Ozawa snickering. "Cute they are. Every evening in Chiyo you'll see small armies of the chicks all dolled up hopping into taxis. Off to Nakasû. Shoot the breeze with one of them and some yakuza prick will strut on up and start breakin' your balls as if you were hitting on his woman. That's when the badge comes in handy, of course. Hee-hee."

   "I wouldn't go near one of those girls with a barge-pole," Nakata pipes in.

   As if the man has to beat the girls away with a stick.

   "There's something I've been meaning to ask you," I say.

   "Shoot," says 0zawa.

   "A lot of the guys in the joint here, and last week at the jail at the Prefectural Police Headquarters, for that matter, are obviously yakuza."


   "I don't get it."

   "Don't get what?"

   "In the States, there is, among so many crime syndicates, the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, right? You know, The Godfather, and all that. Well, these guys used to bend over backwards to deny that the Mafia even existed. Here in Japan, though, the yakuza practically advertise their criminal activity with missing pinkies, lapel pins, and bodies covered in tattoos."

   It borders on the absurd. If cops were seriously interested in taking a bite out of crime, the first thing they ought to do is clamp down on these shady characters. The police, of course, will counter that they aren't in the business of preventing crime: they can't make any arrests until a crime had been committed. Which begs the question of why someone like me has to molder away in a stinking cell.

   "The ones who strut and swagger," Ozawa says, "are good-for-nothing punks. All bluster and no brawl. They kick up a fuss because they don't have the balls to actually do anything. No, the yakuza you really have to watch out for are the quiet ones, the ones who never raise their voices, or show their tattoos. Those bastards will whack a person at the drop of a hat."

   “Better get a hat with a strap then.”


[1] Eventing is an equestrian event encompassing dressage, show jumping, and so on.

[2] Basashi (馬刺) is thinly sliced raw horse meat, popular in Kumamoto


© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.


All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A complete version of No. 6 is now available for a variety of devices at Amazon's Kindle store.

The first installment of No. 6 can be found here.


Miss Universe Japan

    In a recurring dream, I find myself the Lord of the island of Kyûshû and the inner palace, the Ôoku, is filled with these gorgeous women, the finalist of the Miss Universe Japan, Kyûshû round. Needless to say, I usually wake with "a skip in my step". 

   While all of these beauties are winners in my book, only one of them, to be chosen November 27, will go on to compete in the national contest later next spring. 

   Best of luck to all of you! 


   P.S. In the event that you are not chosen, you always know where you can go for some comforting.