七夕 Tanabata, the evening of the seventh.

Throughout July and August, the separated lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi can reunite.

Orihime, the daughter of Emperor Tentei, was a skilled weaver and made lovely clothes for her father. On day as she sat alongside the the river of heaven (he milky way), sadness hadn’t had time to fall in love. Tentei, believed to be the ruler of the heavens arranged a marriage for her with Hikoboshi who lived across the river. The couple were happy but, Orihime was neglected her weaving (sixth century mythical princesses couldn’t have it all), angering Tentei so much that he decided to separate the couple putting them back on opposite sides of the river (he really loved clothes).

Tentei decreed that the couple would only be allowed to see each other on one night each year – on the seventh day of the seventh month. On that evening a boatman (the moon) comes to ferry Orihime over the river to her beloved Hikoboshi. But if Orihime has not given her best to her weaving Tentei may make it rain causing the river to flood so the boatman cannot make the trip (seriously Tentei was like obsessed with his wardrobe). In this case the kasasagi (a group of magpies) may still fly to the milky way to make a bridge for Orihime to cross (cuz fuck patriarchy).

Street festivals with food stalls and traditional games are held all over Japan, the biggest being in Sendai (of earthquake fame). Streets and schools everywhere hang huge bamboo branches on which are hung wishes called, tanzaku. At midnight or the next day they are burnt or set off down a river. Every area has its own Tanabata customs.20120706-190046.jpg20120706-190156.jpg


今日の日本語 Today’s Japanese

本音 (honne) and 建前 (tatemae).

Honne is ones true feelings and desires while tatemae is behaviour and opinions one displays in public.

Japan is a small, mountainous island whose population was 15million in 1800. As space was always an issue and living, working and playing quarters were close, the idea of social harmony was key to a successful and easy life
Even today Japanese people go to great lengths to avoid conflict and arguments with each other and social obligations are considered more than personal beliefs.

Tatemae (literally ‘façade’) is a social institution. An example would be going to an acquaintances house for coffee and being asked to stay for dinner, a tatemae response would be “I’m not hungry but thank you very much” (even if you are starving). Tatemae did help society when people lived and farmed together in self-sufficient communities but in today’s interactive and international world the pressures of tatemae can have more dangerous consequences. Social commentators have attributed the violent and fantasy driven nature of Japan’s notorious pornography to the desire to voice the oppressed honne. Another depressing result is the hikikomori who shut themselves away from the world and hide away from any form of social interaction including (but not always) their parents who they still live with.

In 2011 when Japan was crippled by the earthquake and tsunami and the country was on the brink of nuclear meltdown, tatemae was blamed for the shocking cover up of how serious the problem was.

Micro aggressions

Last month an article was posted on The Japan Times. It was written by Debito Arudou (出人有道、a naturalised Japanese citizen who rallies against the “Japanese only” mentality of Japan). The article dealt with the idea of micro aggressions. These were described as;

“the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to (visible minorities) by well-intentioned (members of an ethnic majority in a society) who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

Most first time interactions with Japanese people are the same. “can you use chopsticks?” “can you eat raw fish?” “you speak such good Japanese!” (after all you have said is 2 words). Many non-Japanese (NJ) who have been here for longer than a normal visit will have heard these questions so many times the responses come automatically. First time encounters can be run on autopilot. Finding a real conversation is rare and usually happens with someone who has had experiences outside of Japan.

That is not to say Japan is not welcoming to foreigners. There is not the violent aspect attached to the racism that can be found in other countries, trains, restaurant menus, buses (in Tokyo at least), police stations, museums, and countless other services have English help (and a handful of cases Chinese or Korean).

There is a very strong undercurrent of Us vs. Them, and enjoyment of Japanese institutions such as sake, onsens and sushi is regarded as a cultural phenomenon (what person doesn’t enjoy alcohol, baths and healthy fast food?).

Being asked if you can use chopsticks is a small issue. It gets more depressing and alienating when people would rather stand than take the seat next to you on a crowded train or (a personal experience) seem visibly terrified when sharing the elevator in the building you have lived at for 3 years. Another micro aggression that grates many people is the automatic omission of the suffix -san, foreigners often find themselves relegated to first names only in a country that highly respects social standing, to turn the tables and omit the honorific for a Japanese person would be seen as social faux-pas. If this is ever mentioned or other annoyances over the separate treatment NJ get are voiced, the foreigner is labelled as over-sensitive, or it is remarked “I’ve heard foreigners are difficult to deal with”.

The social commentator and activist Debito has faced harsh criticism on his stance of forcibly entering “Japanese only” establishments (as a holder of a Japanese passport he believes that these signs are not about citizenship but about blood lines) and one time suing an onsen for refusing him service. He calls out for a wider understanding of what it means to be pigeon holed by deep-seated stereotypes. His main critics say that he chose to live in Japan, if you don’t like the status quo, feel free to leave. Debito claims that the fight is not for the NJ who come to Japan but for the growing number of mixed children that are not given the choice of what society they were born into.

Are you going to let Japanese society “microaggress” them into The Other, gaijin category, just because they look more like you than your Japanese spouse?

The underlying problem in Japan is looks. Uniforms and outward appearances are extremely important in every day social interactions. As are black and white judgements that are ingrained into the social fabric.

For a country which only open its doors in 1854 (and only then because it was forced) Japan has come a long way to foster internationalism. It is an extremely easy and comfortable country to live in as a foreigner. I personally have never been refused service anywhere and have only experienced minor confrontations usually with a drunk member of the older generation. Japan’s younger generation is definitely more focused on change than the old establishment. In the summer of 2012 the old seperate system of alien registration will come to an end. For years foreign people who wished to stay in Japan for longer than the tourist allowance of 90 days had to sign up for an alien registration card which was to be carried with you at all times and presented if you were asked without question. This year foreign residents will be offered the standard juminhyo. As big as a change as this is, it has not been unknown for towns and cities to give honorary juminhyo status to animals, characters and statues. In 2002 the Nishi ward of Yokohama gave a bearded seal who has taken residence in the river a juminhyo. This provoked NJ residents to paint whiskers on their faces in protest.

The Tokyo sarin gas attacks


Yesterday evening, as Japan trounced Oman in the 2014 qualifiers, Naoko Kikuchi was apprehended in Kanagawa-Ken.

Naoko was one of the last missing people connected to the 1995 sarin gas attacks carried out by the yoga based cult Aum Shinrikyo. She had been on the lamb for 17 years, the only person left unaccounted for is the get away driver Katsuya Takahashi. Naoko (although not there for the attacks) was wanted in connection with manufacturing the deadly gas and other crimes committed within the cult. When approached by the police she was asked if she was Naoko Kikuchi, to which she supposedly calmly replied “yes”.

Aum Shinrikyo was (is) a controversial cult. They believe in the healing powers of aesthetic yoga and were controlled by their egomaniacal leader Shoko Asahara. The cult was founded in a one room apartment in Shibuya in the mid 1980s and had became an official religious organization by 1989.

The group was accused of the usual cult things, holding disciples against their will, using LSD and other hallucinogenics during rituals and extorting money from their followers. The darker side included murder (a prominent anti-cult lawyer and his family were murdered in 1989), declaring war on the Japanese constitution and manufacturing nerve and sarin gas. In 1993 there was bizarre seismic activity around a huge farm they had purchased in rural Australia (the rumour is the group had tested nuclear weapons).

The 1995 attacks was not the first to come from the group. In 1994 eight people were killed and two hundred injured when sarin was released in Matsumoto city, Nagano-Ken. This attack was only linked to the group after the subway events.

On the morning of March 20th 1995 five high levels members boarded three different train lines heading to the area containing the Japanese government buildings. Each carried around 900ml of sarin liquid (a pinhead amount can kill an adult).

13 people were killed and thousands were injured in that was the worst attack on Tokyo since the second world war. The court cases that followed saw a total of 189 members indicted, thirteen were sentenced to death, five were sentenced to life in prison, eighty were given prison sentences of various lengths, eighty-seven received suspended sentences, two were fined, and one was found not guilty.

The sarin gas attacks were a huge blow to the Japanese which viewed their society as virtually crime free. It questioned the safety of their society. The backlash was explored in Murakami’s book Underground in which he interviewed survivors and members of the cult. Aum has since denounced their leader and changed its name to Aleph. Their image is still terrible in Japan and its followers find it very hard to find employment and housing.

The picture below is taken from this site, the commentary is in Japanese but the pictures speak for themselves.