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March 28, 2007


The past is continually coming back to haunt Asia, it seems. In one example, talks between Japan and North Korea fell apart a couple of weeks ago, in part because of each country's refusal to discuss its abduction of the other's peoples. Japan forced thousands of Korean women into slavery as prostitutes during World War II. North Korea stealthily kidnapped Japanese citizens from within Japan for unknown purposes -- in one case, a young couple was nabbed while walking along a beach in the moonlight. The amazing thing is that neither side is willing to even begin negotiation without substantial apology from the other party, yet neither is willing to consider admission of guilt.

Of course, relations with North Korea would be strained at best even without these spectres from the past, but the sexual slavery and other atrocities committed by Japan during the war remain some of the most important stumbling blocks in relations with even its friendly neighbors. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently claimed there was no evidence that the "comfort women" -- as the slaves were called at the time -- were forced into their roles. This has caused international outcry, particularly from important economic rivals South Korea and China.

We recently learned that Prime Minister Abe was one of the leaders of the nationalist backlash against the government's 1993 admission that the war brothels were run by the country's military. The New York Times quotes Yoshiaki Yoshimi[$], a history professor at Chuo University whose discovery of brothel ownership documentation in the Defence Agency's own library forced the initial 1993 satement. According to him, Abe is the force behind some of the revisionist history in government-approved textbooks:

In 1997, all seven government-approved junior high school textbooks contained passages about the former sex slaves. Now, as a result of the nationalists’ campaign, only two out of eight do.

"Mr. Abe and his allies led that campaign," Mr. Yoshimi said, "and now they occupy the center of political power."

This does not bode well for the "new investigation" Abe has announced to examine the historical record on the issue.

March 26, 2007

They're coming...

First Cherry blossoms

Spring is in the air, and that means that "they" are coming. In this case, "they" refers to the little packets of color known as sakura, cherry blossoms. Japanese pay a lot of attention to cherry blossoms, and the Meteorological Agency produces forecasts of "first bloom" for around the country. Since different trees bloom at different times, the "official" bloom date is when a specific, representative sample tree has 5-6 blossoms on it. We discovered all of this when we visited Yasukuni shrine and saw dozens of people standing under this one particular tree, and there were half a dozen TV film crews with cameras trained upwards. Two very official looking people were inspecting the tree, counting blossoms. Today, we were lucky enough to catch these 3 early blossoms, but the official bloom date will have to wait until tomorrow.

March 25, 2007

Earthquake in northern Japan...

We just got a call from a friend in America who saw a news report about an earthquake in Tokyo. That report was not quite correct -- the earthquake was on the other side of Japan and we did not feel it. So, in case you were wondering, we're OK. The picture shows the area over which the earthquake was felt. A few people in our area did feel it, but Tokyo, which is basically in the bottom right corner of the country, is not even colored. The earthquake did, however, have a big presence on the news reports.

As always, you can check our messages on the disaster message board. Just type in our cell phone numbers: Matt's cell phone number is 08034485752, and you can find his entries by clicking here. Loraine's number is 09065699964, or click here. M seems to be more diligent about posting to the board, so check there first.

March 22, 2007

Hinode on CNN

Several news organizations picked up stories from NASA's press conference about L's satellite, including Good Morning America and CNN.

March 15, 2007

Reliving history at the Edo Tokyo museum

Chanko restaurant Sumo baseball photo

Our adventure this weekend was to visit the Edo Tokyo Museum, a museum telling the history of Tokyo. The museum is in the sumo district (near the sumo stadium), so we stopped by to have M's favorite Japanese cuisine for lunch -- chanko. It's the stew sumo wrestlers eat, and there are some restaurants in the area that sell it to less competitive types like us.

Tiny Tokyo Plastic food museum

The museum has lots of great reconstructions of all sizes, from the tiny street scenes of Tokyo from the 1700's to the exhibit of plastic food showing restaurant cuisine from the same period (which was, to our untrained eyes, indistinguishable from the plastic food commonly found outside today's Japanese restaurants).

Carry me home! Old fashioned bike.

The museum does a good painting the lifestyle of the early days of the city up through the time of westernization in the late 1800's. It's amazing how quickly Japan adapted to Western culture. Trade with the outside world was literally illegal in most of Japan until the late 1860's. There was a dramatic shift in what was called the Meiji Restoration when a variety of exciting historical events occured (the US opened up trade with Japan, samurai culture ended as the Shogun relinquished power to the Emperor, and more). By the turn of the century, the transformation of architecture and clothing seemed to be well on their way and Tokyo looked as much like London as anything else. We had always thought that Japan "Americanized" during the occupation after WWII, but the transition happened much earlier in a more voluntary manner. Baseball, for example, was introduced in the 1870's and they were playing regular tournaments by 1915, long before the first American GI stepped up to the plate.

Balloon bombs away

WWII Balloon bombs 2 WWII Balloon bombs

The year is 1944. You are strolling down the street in a small Kansas town when a bomb suddenly drops a few feet away. It's an air raid -- your town is under attack. The Japanese have managed to invade all the way to the middle of the country, but how?

Apparently, this is what sort of happened, we discovered. While walking through a museum exhibit on the dreadful fire bombings of Tokyo, we saw the balloon in the photo at left. We were curious what this crazy contraption was. Well, apparently, Japan developed a system of balloons that rose up high enough to get caught up in the jet stream, and it would take just 3 days for a balloon to travel from Japan to the US. The Wikipedia article about the topic is riveting. I never imagined such a thing was possible, but war drives some impressive innovations.

According to Wikipedia, at first, the US didn't believe that the balloons could have come from Japan. But, geologists were able to analyze sand from sandbags used for ballast and determined that it could not have come from US beaches.

People like us probably didn't hear much about these balloons because the attacks were not terribly successful, and the US government had the press censor all stories about the balloons. If the Japanese never heard any reports of balloon attacks, they would probably give up on the idea. In all, about 285 balloons made contact on American soil, as far east as Michigan. Interestingly, this exhibit had no English translation, despite the fact that the majority of the museum was bilingual...

March 10, 2007

Ah, Mastushima, Ah!

Tiny Matsushima islands Caves and Statues

Matsushima ah, Matsushima!
Ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!

Much like the 7 wonders of the world, Japan has its "3 Most Famous Views." The haiku above, often attributed to Japan's best known poet, Basho, is said to be one of the most famous haiku of all. It describes the author's complete loss of words to describe the beauty of one of these view sites, Matsushima. Click the link below to read about our trip there.

We went to northern Honshu island where M gave a talk at Tohoku University on his research. That trip gave us the perfect excuse to visit Matsushima to see if we, too, found that its beauty defies words. It features a series of scenic islands covered in pine trees and dotting the bay. The same geologic conditions that allowed these islands to form initially (layers of welded volcanic ash) also allowed zen monks to carve out small caves for use as memorials to ancestors and as places for meditation. Bright red bridges connect some of the islands to the mainland, and you can hike around them exploring the Buddhist caves and looking out over the islands.

It's not part of the beaten path for Western tourists, but it was a really great escape. We can definitely see why Japanese people like these islands so much -- they remind us of a really big version of a Japanese garden (which frequently have ponds with tiny landscaped islands).

Like many regions in Japan, Sendai has a famous food dish: beef tongue. We had a four course meal at a restaurant with the words "Beef tongue dining" emblazened on its door. It featured beef tongue soup, beef tongue salad, beef tongue stew, and grilled beef tongue. It was actually pretty good, though it may come as a shock to those of you familiar with our vegetarian past.

See all of our photos of Matsushima and nearby Sendai city (home of Tohoku University).

March 3, 2007

Fuji views and steaming hot springs

M with Fuji Owakudani steaming valley

On Nicky and Sonja's last two days in Japan, we took them out to Hakone. It's an area reknown for its natural beauty and scenic views (though last time we were here, you couldn't see much of a view). It is actually a very active hot spring area, and you can take a tram over a valley that seems to smoke. The weather was clear enough for some fantastic vistas of Fuji.

Torii and Ship Hakone rotemburo

The Hakone experience is traditionally done as a big loop, utilizing no fewer than 8 modes of transit including high speed train, train with switchbacks, cable car, tram, bus, pirate ship (yes, pirate ship), and back again. While cruising across the lake, you can see other pirate ships, scenic views of Fuji, and this famous orange torii perched out in the water to mark the entry to a lakeside shrine. Kai particularly enjoyed the pirate ship, especially after we verified that there were no actual pirates aboard.

After making it around the circuit, we stayed over in a cheap hotel that shared a hot spring bath with a fancy Japanese inn. So, we got to enjoy waking up to a hot spring bath with gorgeous view across the valley for the price of a cheap hotel!

Nicky, Sonja, and their family said that the excursion was the perfect ending to their Japanese adventure.

Sunshine in the garden

Artistic tree Tea Ceremony with Kai

The weather held up incredibly well during Nicky and Sonja's visit. We spent a Saturday visiting one of the parks in the region around our house, Shinjuku gyoen. It features a beautiful Japanese garden with traditional tea house. The ume trees were in full bloom, which made the garden extra beautiful. In the photo on the left, you can even see a bride and groom snapping wedding photos with this quintessential Japanese backdrop. We had heard about the heavenly scent of the plum blossoms, but despite our fascination with seeking out ume blossoms, we had not been able to detect it until today. It was truly wonderful -- a bit like a rose. Despite the beautiful sunshine, we enjoyed the opportunities to warm up inside the botanical greenhouse, and with traditional green tea in the tea house (right photo).

See all the photos of our sunny day in the garden...