Wednesday, January 26, 2005


General Douglas McCarthy, Supreme Commander of the American forces controlling Japan after the Second World War, took up residence in one of the first tall buildings to be completed in Tokyo after the war. It gave him an excellent view of the Royal Palace and grounds, and even to the naked eye he could see all the comings and goings. The Americans had kept Emperor Hirohito on, though forcing him to renounce his divinity, as a way of coercing the Japanese people, who still greatly admired him.

McCarthy’s worries were unfounded, however. After the surrender public opinion abruptly turned against the General Tojo and the military, under whose power the Hirohito was seen to have been. Soldiers who had been revered were now reviled. Young men grew their long so as not to appear soldiers. And just a few days after the surrender newspaper leaders looked forward to a new peace-loving and prosperous Japan that would forget its bellicose past, when up to 60% of its GNP was spent on defence.

Losing the War had great advantages. Big Brother would look after us. True, he had certain demands. Japan must be firmly anti-communist. In the small port of Nago, two thirds of the way up the island of Okinawa, I saw a plaque to Kyuichi Tokacho, the most prominent citizen to have been born in this small port of Nago, an opponent of the military pre-war Japanese government, but who, as Secretary General of the Japanese Communist Party, was forced to leave Japan for China in 1950.

So Japan became an exemplary pupil of the USA. The huge oligopolies such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi were partially dismantled in order to open up competition; Japan was initially given aid, then procurement contracts in the Korean War, and was now unhampered by military spending, maintaining only a small self-defence force. Japanese industriousness did the rest. Many commentators say the Samurai warrior-like instinct was now turned to business. First steel and chemicals, then toys and radios and household electrical goods; after cars and electronics; now high-tech goods: Sony, Sanyo, Toyota, Nissan, Honda.

The US still defends Japan, or rather, uses Japan as a strategic base for South East Asia and the Pacific. Mostly on Okinawa, some 300 km south west of the main islands, where some 30,000 troops are stationed, and 20% of the island is, to all intensive purposes, part of the US. And, despite rumblings from the Pentagon that it should pay its way and provide a NATO force, such a proposal has limited support and would be electoral dynamite. Deep scars are still there.

Sporadically there is anti-American protest in Okinawa, which was under US jurisdiction till 1972. On Sunday some forty young men gathered in a central square in Naha, the capital of Okinawa to protest against continued American involvement in Iraq. But nothing like the enormous anti-American protests when an Okinawan 12-year-old was raped by American soldiers in 1995.

But they seem to have died down. The pro-Tokyo and therefore pro-American governor, Keiichi Inamine, is now in his second term of office. The bases bring in a lot of money. An Okinawa is one of the poorest parts of Japan.

11 a.m.on a Monday morning in Okinawa City, next to the huge Kadena air base, which the Americans first took in 1945. I seem to be in the seedy district of some small town in the Midwest. Manila Bay, Amazonesu and Moonlight are sweeping up the weekend’s stale beer, cigarettes butts and maybe a used condom or two. A trolley woman asks me for money. Rap, house and hip-hop blare from the cheap clothes shops and army surplus stores. I eat at the Filipino café with the GIs. I pass China Pete’s, surely the toughest of saloons, but no, Pete sells delicate up-market china pottery.

Living in Tokyo, I never sensed that Japan was in many ways just another American state. I experienced little of the American Way of Life. The scale of most things was so small and un-American. I travelled by car once in three months. Everybody came by train to Tokyo University. Many students were completing their PhDs without ever considering how to learn how to drive.

But Okinawa City, like nearly all the island, and much of Japan, is truly American. The drab downtown caters for the old and infirm. The pavements, or rather, sidewalks, are empty but for me, the elderly, and an occasional school student. Economic life is on the strips and in the malls and the fast-food joints, bowling alleys and theme parks. There are no trains, and everyone goes just about everywhere by car.

The local lads go around in rappers’ uniforms. And the tourist shops in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, sell Hawaiian-looking shirts. Maybe Okinawa is another Hawaii or Honolulu? But is has never really been Japanese. The ancient kingdom of the Ryukus was an independent kingdom with allegiance to China until it was conquered in 1609 by the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. But it was left to itself and only in 1879 was it formally made a Japanese prefecture and pressurized to become more Japanese, to use standard Japanese dialect and to pay allegiance to Emperor Meiji. And in the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s many Okinawans emigrated to the Japanese controlled Melanesian islands and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

From my hotel room in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, I look down on what I think are ex-army bunkers. But I am wrong: they are the large Okinawan burial vaults. But I am also right. In the Battle of Okinawa, which raged for some 90 days from 23 March 1945, when Japanese solders were ordered to fight a war of attrition in order to weaken the American forces before their assault on the Japanese mainland, the people of Okinawa were caught in the crossfire. Many took refuge in the ancestral tombs.

The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Park shows revulsion at the behaviour of the Japanese soldiers, who often considered Okinawans to be second-class Japanese citizens. Okinawan people were tricked into the war by “Emperor-oriented militaristic beliefs”. Soldiers threw civilians out of their shelters and stole their food when they should have been protecting them, coerced them into killing each other, and shot those who spoke in the forbidden Okinawan dialect as traitors. 120,000 civilians, a third of the total population, died in crossfire, forced suicide in the name of the Emperor, shelling, malnutrition and disease.

Conscripted schoolgirls worked as nurses, fetching and carrying, looking after the wounded, holding limbs being amputated, burying and burning corpses in the caves that were used as hospitals. At then end of May 1945 the Japanese defence collapsed. Dispensable, the girls were ordered out of the caves but forbidden to surrender. Commanding Officer General Ushijima committed suicide but did not negotiate the surrender of civilians. Japan would fight on to the last man, woman, and child for the eternal cause of the Emperor: Goyoksai – to die gracefully for honour and a noble cause. Many were killed as the US forces mopped up. Some of those schoolgirls that survived, now old ladies, of course, take visitors around the Himeyuri Museum, dedicated to these schoolgirls.

But after all, nowadays Okinawa is not such a bad place to live. The island tourist brochure proudly announces that it has a greater proportion of 100-year-old people than anywhere else in the world!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


One of the things I shall miss most about Japan is the muzak. When the university canteen closes down at three o’clock we hear For Auld Lang Syne. The Shakespeare Park in Marayama closes with the Beatles’ Yesterday. This evening I passed Ueno Zoo at twenty to five and heard Brahms’ Lullaby. Shopping streets normally play quiet jazz or pop classics to get you in the right mood to do a bit of spending. And of course at Xmas time we heard all the old favourites. Spanish restaurants are supplied with flamenco soundtracks; French restaurants play Edith Piaf non-stop; and my hotel in Kyoto had a permanent background of traditional Japanese music, and I had to listen to the same tape for six days non-stop.

On buses and trains the microphone is an essential part of the driver’s equipment. We are informed by the shrill taped female voice in Japanese about the next stop and warned to take care, then a rather deeper female voice will give the English version. Just for good measure the driver will also tell us about the next stop and also warn us about the hazards of stepping off the train or bus and tell us to “Mind the Gap”. This will all be preceded by the suitable jingles. And just as I was writing this on the bullet train the tinkling ice cream trolley passed.

In Shibuya and other station hubs we are bombarded by video screens and pop music, high-pitched screams advertising this and that, megaphones at every second shop, and the tinny electronic effects coming from the pachinko gambling parlours. Over Christmas and the New Year the right-wing party loyal wishing to restore greater powers to the Emperor kept up a monotonous commentary of “Banzai Heka Tenno”, “Long live the Emperor!’.

In the Nagasaki A-Bomb Museum there was a suitably sober background music, and the in Glover Garden, a park in the area which was the centre of European residence after Japanese ports were opened up in 1859, church music provided a suitably Christian flavour. For Nagasaki, the westernmost port of Japan, was a thriving centre of Christianity after the Jesuits, including St. Francis Xavier, went there in the middle of the 16th century, and though Christianity was officially banned from 1614 for some 250 years by the Shogunate, it survived underground and is still very active, and indeed is one of the ways in which Nagasaki is selling itself as a tourist centre.

I visit the cathedral in Urakami, to the north of Nagasaki, very near the epicentre of the A-bomb blast, which killed 75,000, and which of course completely destroyed the cathedral. I see Japanese nuns in the street. I visit the museum of Dr Nagai Takashi, who treated A-Bomb victims and studied the effects of the A-Bomb while he himself was dying of leukaemia, caused by excessive doses of radiation while screening for tuberculosis as insufficient X-ray film was available due to the war. In the five years before his death, while bedridden, he wrote a number of bestsellers, for example, Leaving These Children Behind and The Bells of Nagasaki. Like many of Nagasaki’s most prominent citizens, Nagai was also a Catholic.

When the bomb fell on 9 August 1945 he was injured but still continued working in his hospital. Three days later he returned to his destroyed home to find his wife and describes the moment in The Rosary Chain: “It was an expanse of ashes but I found her immediately. A black lump lay on the spot where the kitchen had been, the charred remains of a pelvis and spine left by the all consuming fire. A rosary with a cross was lying nearby. I scooped my wife into a scorched bucket. Her remains were still warm”.

A number of schools in Urakami were also near the epicentre. The Yamazoto Primary School is now a spruce new building with a number of memorials, including an air raid shelter, which a few of the 300 survivors out of a total of 1,500 children and staff, managed to reach.

The monument to the twenty-six Christian martyrs, crucified in 1597 by Shogun Totoyomi Hideyoshi is next to a church with two Gaudiesque towers. Nearby one can see the Fukusai-ji Temple, where the huge goddess of mercy, Kannon, is riding a giant turtle, whose belly is a temple, while children look up at her admiringly. Inside the temple I examine the offerings: the Hiroshima and Nagasaki symbol of peace, a chain of origami paper cranes; some cakes; a small bottle of sake; and some children’s toys.

But I’m told that Buddhism and its offshoot. Shinto, have no tradition of Christian charity. In Ueno Park, a kind of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, the home to Tokyo’s most important museums, many of the homeless camp in their blue canvas tents. Their number seems to be increasing. There are jobs available, but who wants to employ a middle-aged no-hoper who may have a drink problem. But today is a pleasant sunny day: clothes can be washed and dried. And there is a free lunch. A soup kitchen. And a pleasant upbeat female vocalist. And I see a large red cross.

Huis ten Bosch

Never having been to Utrecht, I welcomed the chance to climb the Dom Toren, the cathedral tower, the highest in Holland. From the top on a dull January day I saw the narrow Dutch houses with their pointed roofs grouped around a number of town squares, separated by canals, the harbour, marina and luxury housing project; the posh 200 dollar a night hotels; the two recreated galleons, De Liefde, which capsized in the Far East in 1600, and Kanko Maru; and the fjord-like estuary and the hills beyond. I descended and in the adjacent Utrecht Plaza theatre caught the end of a performance of a Chinese acrobatic group.

It was chill Dutch weather on the canals. Despite the lack of wind, the windmills kept up their regular rotation. Mauritsplein was quiet today. Most people there were tourists, the majority Oriental. They hunted the souvenir shops for clogs, cheese, sponge cakes, drank beer at the Brauerei and sent tulip-shaped postcards home. Little traffic, apart from bicycles, buses and smoothly-running vintage cars.

At Langedijk Auction Rooms in Spakenburg Harbour there was a flower shortage, and in the traditional Dutch flower auction system of going down from the highest price, with the first bidder getting the goods, flowers had been replaced by chocolates, cakes and biscuits.

Many things had changed since my previous visit to Holland, less than two years ago. The marijuana selling coffee houses were no longer there. Neither were the whores exhibiting their goods in the shop windows of the red-light districts. In fact, a complete clean-up operation seemed to have been carried out. No punks, no drug addicts, no graffiti. I saw none of the recent racial tension in Holland we are now reading about. The cultural ebullience was also missing. Yes, there was a small Von Siebold Museum, and a 3-D show of Escher’s puzzles, but not a sign of the Flemish masters, or even the more popular van Gogh. And I was often confused when I entered a number of so-called “museums” only to find them to be up-market shops.

Yes, there is Teddy Bear World, and I learnt that teddy bears originated with a hunting expedition of American President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, who refused to shoot a small bear cub. News of the incident spread, and the teddy bear became his symbol. Of course, the Roosevelt family had Dutch origins.

I was surprised to see that the Stadhuis, Trouw Zaal, was now longer functioning as an administrative centre and had been turned into a museum for luxury glassware. And you even rent the upper floor for a wedding ceremony.

And piped music everywhere, but who knows any Dutch music? So we hear Strauss waltzes and even Irish republican protest songs on the ever-present speakers. There is even a lovely Parisian carousel for the kids on Nassauplein. And Dutch food is none too famous, so lots of Italian, French, Chinese and even a few Japanese restaurants and karaoke bars.

Queen Beatrix’s Palace, Huis ten Bosch itself, is impressive from the outside, and lit up every night, but surprisingly eclectic inside. The central hall is completely covered by a recent lurid pop-art style mural protesting against the ravages of nuclear war. Other rooms are in period style, others modern, but Queen Beatrix, apparently going through hard times, has rented large spaces to stores selling trinkets and porcelain and chocolate, and one wing of the palace can even be hired for weddings. Such are the bicycle monarchies!


You are a scholar or an intellectual, or at least want to be. Your country has closed all its borders. There is no Internet, television, radio, newspapers or even post. All government information is censored. Books from abroad are almost impossible to come by. You know that your country is a long way behind other countries in scientific discoveries, and you are desperate to find out about these developments. Your government permits a tiny trading post at the extreme western tip of your island country, where one foreign power is allowed to set up a depot, and this is the only contact possible with anything or anyone foreign. You manage to find a primer and learn the rudiments of the language of the country which runs this trading post. Desperate for knowledge about the latest scientific discoveries, you make your way to this port. You meet other young men there who are equally desperate to acquire knowledge. You meet one of the official interpreters, who has opened up his house and set up a study group to discuss and spread the scientific ideas which he has learnt from the doctor in the settlement. Your knowledge of the foreign language enables you to get a job as an apprentice interpreter.

Such was the position of Japan and Japanese intellectuals from 1641 right to 1859, when the Dutch enjoyed exclusive trading rights with Japan, and Japan’s mirror on the world was Dejima, a fan-shaped man-made island, some 70 by 200 metres, in Nagasaki harbour.

The Dutch had replaced the Portuguese as the favoured trading nation. For seven years from 1580 the Portuguese Society of Jesus controlled the area around Nagasaki, and the town became very Christian, with some 760,000 Christians in the west of Japan. Worried about the spread of Christianity, in 1587 Shogun Totoyomi Hideyoshi, who in effect controlled all of Japan, banned all missionaries and placed Nagasaki under his direct control. However, trade with Portugal was continued. In 1597 26 Christians, including a number of priests, were crucified at Nishizaka Hill in Nagazaki. They were later sanctified. In 1612 Christianity was officially banned, and all churches in Nagazaki razed. In 1622, the next Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, executed a further 55 missionaries. In 1635 the Shogunate banned Japanese citizens from travelling abroad, and after the 1637 Christian rebellion against the Shogunate, the Portuguese were confined to Dejima, only to be expelled after growing antagonism in 1639.

They were replaced by the Dutch East India Company, already powerful in the Far East, on certain conditions, including their promise to provide information about Catholic priests hiding in the area. 700 Dutch ships were to come to Dejima in the next 218 years, bringing luxury products such as silk, textiles, dyes, skins, medicines and glassware to Japan, which in turn exported silver and copper and ceramics.

There were severe conditions imposed on visits from Japanese to Dejima. Only authorized officials, traders, porters, interpreters and courtesans were allowed on the island. In 1720 there was a slight relaxation: foreign books could be brought into Japan, and the doctors were allowed to take Japanese students. In fact, the key people in terms of cultural contact were the Dutch doctors, who, like the Japanese interpreters they met, were fascinated by what they had heard about the other culture.

Not all the doctors were Dutch but as they had blue eyes and big noses could pass as Dutch. Engelbert Kaempfer, a German, arrived on Dejima, in 1690. He gave medical lectures to two of the Dejima interpreters, Narabayashi Chinzan and Motoki Ryoi. Narabayashi later compiled information from the European texts he acquired from Kaempfer to complete the book, Koi Geka Soden, (The Origins of European Surgery), which became known all over Japan, and launched the Narabayashi school of surgery. Motoki wrote a pictorial encyclopaedia of anatomy, also based on these European sources. He also introduced Japanese people to the idea that the ideas of Copernicus, that the earth was moving through space, translating a number of works on astronomy and geography. Newton’s theories of physics and astronomy were introduced by Shiduki Tadao in Rekischo Shinsho (New Impressions of History). Shiduki also wrote a comprehensive study of Dutch grammar. Motoki’s son, Motoki Shoei, carried on in his father’s footsteps and was part of an English language research project ordered by the Shogunate that resulted in the completion of the first English – Japanese dictionary in 1814. Kaempfer, in turn, published his Japan Diary, an account of his travels to the Edo court.

Born in Sweden, botanist Carl Peter Thunberg studied botany and medicine under Carl von Linne, the father of taxonomy. During his one year stay he collected some 800 plants to take to Europe and taught a number of influential pupils. Yoshio Kogyu introduced European surgical techniques into Japan, and developed a following across Japan. His house in Nagasaki was a stopping point for all those who came to Nagasaki in pursuit of knowledge. And Hakagawa Junnan and Katsuragawa Hosho, authors of The New Book of Anatomy, were instructed by Thunberg when he visited Edo.

Philip Franz von Siebold, also German, arrived in Japan in 1823, devoted much time to studying Japanese history, geography, customs and culture, wrote three books on Japanese flora and fauna, treated Japanese patients and lectured on botany and science. He received permission to purchase a house on the outskirts of Nagasaki, which was used by his students as a private academy, something of a Dutch medical school. Its students became doctors to the Shogunate and clan leaders and also translated Dutch academic books on a number of subjects. In autumn 1828 a typhoon struck Nagasaki Harbour and damaged the Dutch ship Cornelius Houtman. Amongst the cargo maps of Japan elite crests only to be worn by elite families were discovered. Despite having applied for Japanese citizenship to show his loyalty to the Shogunate, Siebold was banned from returning to Japan and forced to leave his wife, Taki, and daughter, Ine. Another version of Madame Butterfly. The Shogunate cartographer, Kegeyasu Takahashi, died in prison.

Every year a 90-day to Edo, the capital, now Tokyo, was made, to pay respects to the Shogun, and the visitors also met with scholars and physicians. They were not always accompanied by the doctors. Pity the poor merchants and traders who tried their best to reply to questions on astronomy and anatomy. Sake was then served to deflect questions.

With the signing of Japanese trade treaties in 1854 and 1855, and the opening up of Japanese ports to foreign trade, Dejima lost its reason for existence, and was closed down for good in 1859, becoming part of the growing settlement area for European residents in 1866. The surrounding land was all filled in, so Dejima no longer looks like an island. It is now being restored rebuilt as a museum.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Approach Hiroshima with care and reverence, I thought, as I had done Salem, Massachusetts, only to find witches decorating every second house. But that was a relatively small scale incident nearly four hundred years ago. When I went to Auschwitz I found the locals taking their dogs for walks around the camp, and the Arbeit Macht Frei gate was a favourite stopping-place for to dogs to take sniff and a piss. Life must be lived, and we cannot disconnect a whole city from the daily affairs of human life.

And so it is with Hiroshima, which reminded me a little of Coventry, the city in the UK which proportionately suffered the most bomb damage in World War II. Hiroshima, like all cities in Japan, is rich and vibrant: Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Armani, a large pink-light entertainment district, smartly dressed people exuding prosperity.

As in all of Japan on this public holiday, Coming of Age Day, all who reach the age of 20, must register at the Town Hall. It is custom for girls to do so in kimono, and for many this is the first time they will ever have worn one. Unaccustomed to making short and dainty steps, they stumble, trip and fall. Many just call a taxi.

The Hiroshima Swimming Club is holding a dip in the chilly waters of the Motoyasugawa River, just next to Peace Park. They enter the icy water silently, do not complain about the cold, then a quick 50 metre dash. Some synchronized swimming, then two swimmers open out parasols and fans. We are told the next swimmer will draw the kanji for peace while in the water to provide a nice shot for the press with Genbaku Dome, the building that survived more or less intact and which has become a symbol of Hiroshima, in the background. But no, the kanji he draws demand that the city council provide his baseball club with a ground. Life in Hiroshima is certainly normal!

Hiroshima is at the forefront of Japan’s official pacifist policy. The Mayor, of whatever political affiliation, will write a protest letter to any country that carries out a nuclear test.

And this is the theme that runs through the Peace Memorial Museum, which meticulously describes the history of pre-war Japan, the build-up of the military barracks in the city, from where forces were despatched to Korea and China, the blast itself, the immediate tragedy, the reconstruction, and the consequent illnesses such as microcephaly, cancer and leukaemia, which many later suffered from, and the problems which many of these hibakusha still have to cope with. Blasted household items and burnt clothes are exhibited; I remember a toddler’s tricycle, a tin helmet, and various handkerchiefs. We see photos of the charred victims and the desolation of the city. Particularly poignant was a shadow etched on some stone steps where the victim took the force of the blast and prevented the step from darkening.

At the exit we see drawings by the survivors: a man taking his very last swig of water; blackened corpses; bloated corpses in a backwater; a son with his sister on his back looking for his father amidst more corpses in a river.

Of particular interest are the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt early in the war outlining the advantages of the bomb and excerpts from the diaries of the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Japan’s growing militarization is not spared, but neither is the American desire to prevent the Russians from getting a foothold in Japan, and Truman’s need to prove that the US$2 billion invested in research for the A-bomb was worthwhile.

In the adjacent Peace Memorial Hall we are surrounded by a 360 degree photo of the charred and desolate city and can look up records and pictures of those who were killed and enter a huge computerized file of personal memoirs of the survivors.

My hotel overlooks the Yanagi-bashi Bridge over the Kyobashi River, some two kilometres from the epicentre of the blast. Now it is flanked by offices, flats and tree-lined walkways. But I imagine that on the 6 August 1945 some of the 150,000 victims of the A-bomb were desperately seeking water and some relief in this now tranquil river.


New Year in Japan. One visits the local Shinto shrine to ward away the evil spirits and make a wish for the next year. At Meiji-Jingi Shrine in Tokyo I join three million others to throw my coin in the box, clap my hands to call the gods, ring the bell just in case they haven’t heard, make a quick wish and prayer, tie my wish written on a piece of paper or a wooden votive tablet to a tree. Then go and buy amulets, souvenirs, food and drink at the nearby stalls. Some of the shrines even provide buckets of sake, the holy Japanese drink. Many girls put on their kimono, and some of their partners even wear Samurai dress. The shrines are decked out in lanterns and flags. Each shrine will be dedicated to its own particular deity. At many of the Shinto shrines one sees the effigies of the chubby badger god, Takuni, and the fox god of money and business, Kitsune, whose shrines are popular in the New Year as many companies bring their staff to pray for a prosperous year.

Shinto has grown out of an awe for natural manifestations, each of which has their god, and many shrines have been erected in places where these manifestations took place, often on mountains and hillsides. These myths have been given a peculiarly Japanese character. No religious texts exist, and one cannot convert to Shinto. When Izanagi-no-Mikito and Izanami-no-Mikito stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, they dipped the Heavenly Jewelled Spear into the ocean. Brine dipped from the spear and created the island of Onogoro-jima, where the two were married. Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan and its deities. When Izanagi died he purified himself into a stream and created the deity of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from who the Imperial family was supposed to descend.

The vagueness and flexibility of Shinto was used to create the myth of the racial superiority of the Japanese amidst the growing industrialization and militarization of Japan from the late 19th century to the Second World War, and the deification of the Emperor added on to Shinto and used to produce obedient and patriotic subjects. Only in this period did Buddhism, which has peacefully co-existed in Japan since early times, suffer a certain repression. Since Shinto was disestablished after the war it has taken a back seat. Many Japanese pay no more than lip service to Shinto and do no more than attend important festivals. At a local shrine in Tokyo Kussun called the friendly priest, the owner of the shrine, to have his photo taken with me. When the priest dies, his son will inherit the shrine.

Butt I must leave Tokyo, and I catch the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. No big deal here in Japan. Buy your 100 dollar ticket at the machine as if it were a one dollar metro ticket, and stand up in the unreserved class if there’s no room. On board the smell of rice and soy sauce as families picnic on their return from Tokyo or visit relations in Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. Families in Japan are small, 1.29 children per couple, and New Year is one of the few visiting times.

We eat posh boxed lunches, like the rest of the carriage. Mt Fuji, now topped with snow, is on my left, a girl in kimono, maybe an apprentice geisha returning to Gion, opposite. But no, she gets off at Nagoya.

In Kyoto we climb up the Path of Enlightenment at the Choinin Shrine. The sky clouds over. A muggy January day suddenly chills. We enter a cemetery, tombs, slim wooden memorial tablets. The city is below us.

Crows hover above,
Bamboo sways in the graveyard,
Winter snow returns.

The first snowflake falls,
Crows circle, the sky darkens,
Forty-nine winters.

We descend into the city to see how Kyoto trades on Japaneseness. It was the home to the Japanese Imperial family from 794 to 1868, though, from 1600 to 1867, power was exercised by the shoguns in Tokyo. A city which exudes and trades on refinement. Shop windows are streamlined and delicate, with one lone item, a small dish, or a sweet. A closed door with paper shojo windows tells us those goods are not for all. But this sense of tradition accommodates the modern, as Japan always does: the girls in kimono are dependent on their mobile phones; the waiter wearing traditional serving dress in the restaurant communicates to the kitchen by cordless headset radio; and the insurance office clerk sitting on his heels is working at the latest Sony Vaio.

The gold-covered Kinkuji Temple glistens in the weak morning sun; it was burnt down in 1950 by a trainee Buddhist monk, and like so many “ancient” buildings in Japan, what we have is a reconstruction. Yukio Mishima used the incident for his famous novel, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Its Cinderella sister, two-tier wooden Ginkuji Silver Pavilion (but there is no silver) looks over a famous Zen garden. A five-foot cone of sand with the point sliced off, a garden of raked sand, surrounded by the larger garden of trees, stones, moss and water. Sit in the tea pavilion and contemplate the shapes into which the sand is raked, the dark wooden two-tier pavilion, the miniature pine trees and the bare cherry blossom trees, listen to the water running, see the garden blends into Mount Daimonjiyama beyond.

I leave the Ginkiji and pass through the tacky tourist shops, turn into the Philosophers’ path, following a stream which brings fresh water from the hills. I stop for coffee and cake, admire the bare cherry trees and think of spring and the blossom. I watch the locals walking their collies and Japanese akitas and listen to the songs of Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet, for even in the most Japanese city of all the foreign is easily accommodated.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


The first time I came to Tokyo I expected London or Paris and found a city straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a city of train lines, neon, department stores, flyovers. An ugly and impersonal city of shapeless office blocks, prefabricated houses and jerry-built apartments, made even uglier by the unburied electricity cables. No thought of visual harmony; no attempt to find a distinctive modern Japanese style. Or even recreate the castellated and turreted Meiji early 20th century style. Or do as Warsaw and Frankfurt did and recreate the old town as they had been before the War.

But buildings in Japan are not built to last. A house in Tokyo will stand for an average of 25 years. The ravage of earthquakes and fires of course, but also extremely high inheritance taxes, which put off families investing in a solid building meant to last for generations, and the traditional use of wood, which must be renewed from time to time.

In short, only a very few houses from Edo, old Tokyo, have survived earthquakes, fires and bombings. Tokyo is city with apparently no past. But it is not in the aesthetics of architecture that we must look to discover old Japan but rather in the conservation of arts such as shodo, calligraphy, pottery, kabuki theatre, and sports such as kendo, kyodo, archery, and sumo.

I arrive at the Hakkuka stable at 8 a.m., and a bleary-eyed rikishi, a sumo wrestler, resplendent in a flowery yukata gown, opens the door and guides me into the training area. I sit on the raised platform. The training session of the juniors is in full swing. They have completed their apprentice course at the sumo association in the basic moves and rules of sumo, its history and Shinto rituals, and associated arts such as calligraphy, where they have to master the special thick script in which the Banzuke, the sumo rankings, is published. They are fighting practice bouts. The winner stays in the ring to fight the next. A stocky and powerful 20 year-old, a rugby prop forward, is defeating all-comers. His shoulders are bruised. His top-knot is undone. He pushes weaker opponents out of the five metre diameter ring, neatly slips out of the way when larger wrestlers charge at him so their momentum will carry them out, and lifts those smaller than he out of the ring by their belts.

The seniors appear to carry out their exercises. They crouch and lift each leg 135 degrees outwards, for strong and supple thighs and thigh and groin muscles are the secret to sumo success. They walk in a frog and crab-like dance. They push each other out of the ring. They practice falls. They come in all shapes and sizes. One is short and flabby, sagging breasts, belly overhanging genitals, drooping inner thighs. Another is square like a brick. Another has narrow shoulders, an enormous paunch and elephant legs. Others have gorilla-like arms. Some are even quite lithe and have relatively flat bellies. And I wonder about one junior, thin and bony, 60 kilos at the most. Of course he is always carried out of the ring, for there is no weight division in sumo. Sometimes the nippier smaller guys defeat the heavies, and the crowd roars.

Everything is carried out in silence. The trainers hardly say a word. When they do, the rikishi just nod, say "Hai, Hai", or the more formal "Oos". Like all other traditional Japanese sports, repetition of the basic forms will lead to mastery and a state of perfection, where a state of calm and enlightenment can be achieved.

I smell food from the kitchen. The juniors are making the chanco nabe, the hot-pot, for lunch. Fish, chicken, vegetables, and plenty of rice.

The life of the sumo wrestler is heavily regimented and follows many of the Samurai norms from the early 19th century and before. Apprentices live in the stables with fixed duties and early curfews, for they must get lots of sleep. There are strict codes of dress, and outside the ring the wrestler will wear traditional kimono, and use the old Samurai hairstyle, with more elaborate top-knots for the higher-ranking wrestlers, which will be fashioned by one of the official Sumo Association barbers. Salaries for the different grades are fixed. And as in other sports, the Dan system of official promotion to a higher level after winning a tournament or a specific number of bouts, operates.

But there is a subtle mingling of the modern and the traditional. The wrestlers’ tournament kimono carry the names of the official sponsors, in traditional sumo calligraphy, of course. Official eyeing-up and glaring time has been gradually cut due to television requirements. Sumo wrestlers don’t seem to get involved in night-club brawls, but in the corner of the gym I see several bags of golf clubs. In Japan there are few who have they time or money to play golf on a Tuesday afternoon. Except successful sumo wrestlers.