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    Some Japan stuff

    Posted by Sean at 11:54, April 18th, 2010

    If the plane-grounding Icelandic ash cloud hasn’t been sufficient reminder of how vulnerable we are to nature’s vagaries (and how fortunate that we have such an extensive technological arsenal to protect ourselves), check out this story about Japan’s vegetable shortages:

    The government is calling on farmers to speed up vegetable deliveries after cold weather and lack of sunlight led to a poor spring crop and spiking vegetable prices.

    “The vegetables prices may remain high for the foreseeable future. We’d like to ask farmers to bring forward their shipments in a bid to stabilize retail prices,” Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told a news conference following a regular Cabinet meeting Friday morning.

    Also on Friday, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry asked the National Federation of Agricultural Co-operative Associations to bring forward vegetable shipments. Consumer organizations as well as the ministry have also asked farmers to ship malformed vegetables that are usually discarded.

    However, noting the measure will have only limited effects, government sources say they fear vegetable prices are unlikely to decline until May or later, and farmers pointed out that complying with demands for early shipment is difficult.

    “We harvested lettuce and other vegetables earlier than usual in response to an increase in demand from the restaurant industry during the spring vacation period. Even if we are asked to bring forward shipments, it’s difficult to comply,” said an official of the Ibaraki Prefecture chapter of the agricultural federation.

    Shredded lettuce and cabbage come with nearly everything in Japan: you walk into a little restaurant, and the waitress plunks down a small bowl of shredded cabbage and carrots with ginger dressing as your o-tooshi-mono. That there would be a shortage of them is really unsettling. Of course, Japan isn’t facing a famine—you’ll notice that one proposal for making up the difference is just not rejecting too many misshapen cabbages, which is a problem the DPRK would have loved to have around a decade ago. Still, the story is a good reminder of how intricate our supply and distribution systems are. (Of course, you could also take the opportunity to bring up Japan’s insane agricultural-subsidy system, but I’m feeling generous today.)


    It’s a few days old, but the Asahi English site had a good rundown of what’s led up to the current confusion—impasse doesn’t seem to be quite the best word—over the relocation of the Futenma facility in Okinawa:

    U.S. officials certainly have no intention of jeopardizing the decades-long alliance with Japan, but there is growing concern and frustration at the lack of a meeting of minds on such important matters of mutual concern.

    Hatoyama broached the issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture during a short meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the U.S. capital on Monday. Neither Japan nor the United States explained how Obama responded.

    What did come across, however, is that the meeting did not change the U.S. government’s position, which is that the best solution to the Futenma issue lies with a 2006 agreement reached by the two nations to relocate the base to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

    Behind this extremely defensive and careful approach of the U.S. government is its resolve not to make the same mistake of 2005, when Washington compromised and accepted current Henoko option.

    During those negotiations, U.S. officials for a long time advocated a plan to construct a replacement facility on a landfill off the south coast of Henoko, Nago city. This plan was commonly known as “Nago Light.” However, during the final stage of the talks, U.S. officials abandoned it and accepted instead the Japanese proposal to build the new facility on the coastline of Camp Schwab at Henoko point.

    Richard Lawless, who negotiated the agreement for the United States as deputy undersecretary of defense, recalled his decision to go along with his Japanese counterparts.

    “They guaranteed that they can implement the proposal,” Lawless said. “I made sure about this point with several people in charge (in the Japanese government) a number of times.”

    Four years after the agreement was reached, the Japanese government has done an about-turn and told Washington the Henoko option cannot be implemented. Japan’s turnaround frustrated not only Lawless, but also current U.S. administration officials. They also share a deep sense of mistrust over Hatoyama’s frequent flip-flops on this issue.

    It’s very difficult to assign blame in this scenario. It’s not possible to indulge the NIMBY-ism of every municipality, but it’s understandable that many towns don’t want the side-effects of a military installation. I’m very much a supporter of the military, but it’s a plain and simple fact that putting a lot of hopped-up kids in their early twenties far from home—in an environment of literal martial discipline in which their violent impulses are deliberately brought to the surface so they can be channeled to useful purposes—nearly guarantees an increase in crime and a tense relationship with the locals, whatever job-creating benefits may come along with the installation. Washington wants the existing agreement to be implemented; Tokyo seems to see the new administrations in both countries as an opportunity to restart negotiations practically from square one. Neither seems likely to have all its expectations met.


    Sugarpie, I have just found the must-have camp accessory of the year:

    Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s first permanent president, has published his first anthology of haiku poems.

    Van Rompuy, a former prime minister of Belgium, said here Thursday that he hopes to compose haiku when he is in Tokyo for the annual EU-Japan Summit, which convenes April 28.

    The book, titled “Haiku,” contains 45 haiku he wrote in Dutch and which have been translated into English, French, German and Latin.

    Can you just…?

    A new commission–
    the joy of its formation
    like freshest spring rains


    Indifference from
    sassy Yank colonials–
    our cries sad, owl-like!


    Dry cicada shell–
    an easy relationship
    would be so empty

    Okay, in all seriousness, van Rompuy could be very good; but haiku is one of those genres that bring out the “I could do that!” dilettantism in people, and the results are nearly always irredeemably precious, in my experience. For some reason, the combination of shortness (not a major time investment!), nature themes (I love Nature—I’m a good person!”), and Japaneseness (aesthete capital of the world!) makes haiku hard to resist, but it also makes them difficult to execute well. Maybe Catherine Ashton will be flogging her first manga this summer?

    Added later: Thanks to Instapundit for the link. I have a half-dozen regular commenters who routinely agree with me, for which I am very grateful; but if you have a dissenting comment to make, I’ll be glad to read it, since I don’t get much dissent around here. (That’s not an aspersion, regular readers.) If you’re wondering where my interest in Japan comes from, I studied Japanese literature in college and grad school, and I lived in Tokyo from the ages of 24 to 36. I am unapologetically American down to the bone, but I love Japan also, and I’m very interested in seeing our alliance not screwed up.


    Posted by Sean at 23:10, April 4th, 2010

    Atsushi sent me this picture of the cherry blossoms in full bloom:

    The top of that hill is where my office was the whole time I lived in Tokyo; there are two gay bars along one of the side streets run by a couple who became dear friends of mine. Atsushi and I were first introduced to each other, a scant ten years ago, at one of them. I spent countless working dinners at several of the little restaurants in the neighborhood, where the proprietors would take care of me as if I were family. So it’s a street that has a great deal of meaning for me. Tokyo is a riotously exciting, adventurous place, and I’m an inquisitive person, so I did a great deal of exploring. But of course the moments that are really meaningful are those off-hand ones when you’re with people you value who make you feel that you, in turn, add value to their lives. Many of those moments were on Sakuragaoka (“Cherry-Tree Hill,” fittingly enough) for me.

    Japanese literature is choked with poems about cherry blossoms, but surprisingly few of them are about the fragrance. When they’re in bloom, the visuals are so painfully lovely that they tend to monopolize the attention. This waka by Ki no Tsurayuki is an exception:


    hana no ka ni/koromo ha fukaku/nari ni keri/ko no shitakage no/kaze no manimani

    The blossoms’ fragrance
    has saturated my robes
    to the very depths
    borne on the breezes stirring
    and stirring beneath the boughs


    Posted by Sean at 21:07, November 29th, 2009

    Gorgeous, gorgeous weekend—I think the entire population of New York that wasn’t away for Thanksgiving until tonight was outside until dark both days. Absolutely lovely.




    momidji-ba wo / nani oshimiken / ko no ma yori / morikuru tsuki ha / koyoi koso mire

    Nakatsuka Kyoutomo Hirashinnou


    For what did I rue
    the passing of maple leaves?
    Tonight the first sight
    of the moonlight filtering
    from between the trees

    The Imperial Prince Kyoutomo Nakatsuka

    A relatively straightforward poem, that: the poet had originally felt sadness, both at the falling of the autumn leaves and because poetic ache is traditionally the proper response to the beauty of the moon in autumn, but now takes pleasure in realizing that their passing has made possible the new and special kind of wintry beauty of the moon visible between close-growing trees.

    Summer night city

    Posted by Sean at 00:04, May 18th, 2009

    Japan has ream upon ream of exquisite poems about spring and autumn; by contrast, there are comparatively few about summer, possibly because the prevailing feeling during that season in most of the archipelago (“how the hell am I going to keep from dying in this heat?!”) does not exactly lend itself to sublimeness of expression. However, one of the early summer tropes–and summer according to the lunar calendar begins during the first week of May–is the return of the cuckoo as certain seasonal flowers begin to bloom.



    natsu kusa ha/shigerinikeredo/hototogisu/nado waga yado ni/hitokoe mo senu

    engi no oon’uta

    The summer grasses
    have come up in abundance,
    but why, O cuckoo,
    do you not favor my home
    with even a single cry?

    Engi no Oon’uta

    Ick. That translation came out very precious. On the bright side, I was able to go pretty much line by line without having to shuffle things around much; the Japanese for “cuckoo” is five syllables in and of itself, so in a 5-7-5-7-7 verse it takes up a lot of real estate and tends to force you to use filler if you want to try to adhere to the original as much as you can when translating.

    The return of the cuckoo when the grasses grow lush and the orange blossoms and deutzia bloom is considered very moving. The poet sees the thickened grass and purports to wonder whether the cuckoo is somehow shunning him. (If it has any sense, it’s probably just decided to summer in Alaska this year.)


    Posted by Sean at 18:35, February 3rd, 2009

    Spring according to the lunar calendar adopted by Japan from China begins in the first week of February.



    haru to ieba/kasumi ni keri na/kinou made/namima ni mieshi/awadjishimayama

    shun’e houshi

    They say spring is here.
    There is a shroud of mist
    where just yesterday
    I saw it between the waves–
    Awaji Island peak

    The Priest Shun’e

    Winter air is cold and clear; with spring comes warmer, moister air, bringing haze and lower visibility. Shun’e the poet draws a pat distinction between yesterday, when Awaji Island was clearly visible some distance from the shoreline, and today, the first day of spring, when mist has risen around it. The poignancy of the poem comes from the unstated recognition, by Shun’e the person and by us, that things don’t actually change quite that cleanly. Today’s mist would have no meaning if yesterday’s clear weather didn’t linger in his mind. And even in literal terms, the cold winter air is probably not gone for the year yet.

    Added later: In completely unrelated news, Inauguration Day may not have changed as many things as it first seemed, either.


    Posted by Sean at 19:56, October 23rd, 2008

    Well, I was all set to post a translation of an autumn poem; then I did a search on a hunch and–naturally–I’d already posted it a few years ago. Darn. Guess I’ll just have to hunt high and low for some other Japanese poem about autumn.

    Okay, I’ve put up a bunch of poems by Saigyō, but I don’t think I’ve gotten around to this one. When I was in grad school and we got to this one, Donald Keene (whose Shinkokin-shu seminar I was fortunate enough to be able to take) broke into a broad, frank grin: “It’s rare and moving to see Saigyō write a poem with such warmth and humor.”



    oyamada no/iho chikaku naku/shika no ne ni/odorokasarete/odorokasu kana

    saigyou houshi

    Just outside my hut
    nestled in a mountain field
    the cry of a deer
    has jolted me right awake
    I think I’ll jolt him right back

    The Priest Saigyō

    “See how he likes it!” the sleepy Saigyō seems to say. The notes from my edition say that his plan is likely to use a clapper or noisemaker, rather than to lean out the door and tell the deer to shut up already so decent folk can get some sleep. Deer make disconsolate noises that are considered fundamental to the lonely, aching beauty of autumn.

    Added on 25 October: I think I’m a moron, but (unusually) it’s not entirely certain. I took 小山田 as a place name and had in some shadowy, inaccessible synapse a memory of having been instructed to render it thus twelve years ago; however, the edition I use almost invariably gives a note for each place referred to that tells where it would be in contemporary Japan, and there’s nothing like that here. Also, 山田 can just mean “mountain paddy,” anyway. So I’m playing Ministry of Truth (真実省? But at this point it probably would have merged with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in the 2001 restructuring, so maybe…okay, focus, Sean) and changing it above.


    Posted by Sean at 12:17, July 14th, 2008

    The picture is from a few weeks ago and thus (major sin in Japan) is no longer really seasonal, but Atsushi and I used to see the irises in bloom every June at the Meiji Shrine, and he was sweet enough to send me a few shots from when he went. Note the woman holding photographic equipment in the background, which is a component of just about every natural scene nowadays:


    I always forget my camera when I go to the park or gardens, so I don’t have any snaps of my own from New York to post; however, it occurs to me that I haven’t posted any poems in a good, long while.

    The one that first came to mind, it turns out, I’d written about a few summers ago. Darn.

    Luckily, there are more where that came from. It’s been something of a hot summer, so even though this isn’t one of Saigyo’s most arresting poems, it seems appropriate:



    yoraretsuru / nomosenokusano / kagerohite / suzushikukumoru / yuudachinosora

    Saigyō Hōshi

    Enervated grass
    over the expanse of field
    is receiving shade
    as clouds slide coolly over
    the sky while dusk approaches

    The Priest Saigyo

    Saigyo seems to sense the grass’s own relief as the glaring sun begins to set and clouds roll in to block its light.


    Posted by Sean at 09:47, July 22nd, 2006

    We’re getting toward the second half of summer, though it’s been rainy and relatively cool in Tokyo over the last week and a half or so. When the sun begins beating down mercilessly again, we’ll all feel like Saigyo:



    michinobe ni / shimidzu nagaruru / yanagi kage / shibashitote koso / tachitomaritsure

    Saigyou houshi

    Just off the pathway,
    spring water flowing through the
    shade of the willows–
    if only for a short while
    I will pause and rest

    The priest Saigyo

    This is one of those poems that people scratch their heads when Japanophiles go ga-ga over. While the Japanese (not unjustifiably) have a reputation for aestheticizing obliqueness, if not downright obscurantism, some of their best art is fearlessly limpid. That’s especially true of the poetry of Saigyo, who favored concrete images with a direct appeal to the senses.

    Part of the impact is in the burbling consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel quality of sentences composed entirely of native Japanese words. (Sinitic compounds tend to break up the flow with rounded, drawn-out syllables.) The sibilant shes and hard-aspirated ts can be harsh in some contexts, but in the final two lines of the above waka, there are so many of them that they have a lulling effect–like a brook being channeled through a pile of rocks, or like those unidentifiable gentle snapping sounds you hear around you in the dry grass in late summer. Saigyo gets in both the heat and the respite from it. More poetic, if less effective, than just scooting indoors and turning on the air conditioner.


    Posted by Sean at 13:39, April 4th, 2006

    The proprietor of this site, clearly a lady of rare discernment, pronounced my blog “beautiful” in the process of linking to a cherry blossom poem I translated last year. (Yes, I’m a sucker for flattery, but her blog is a good read, too, with lots of interesting comments about offbeat Tokyo stuff without that look-how-weird-Japan-is tone that can get tedious. And if she doesn’t have a serious posse of gay friends, she needs to get one pronto. Lines such as “Love shoes made from reptiles [my shoe closet looks like a zoo]” are wasted on any audience that doesn’t include a healthy contingent of uproariously approving fags.)

    Anyway, the poem was here, and now that the cherry blossoms are just beginning to shed their petals, it’s nice to reproduce:



    negawakuba/hana no moto nite/haru shinan/sono kisaragi no/mochidzuki no koro

    Saigyō Hōshi

    If I have my wish,
    I will die beneath the boughs
    laden with blossoms–
    Spring, the night of the full moon,
    second moon of the new year.

    The Priest Saigyo

    See, if you die beneath the boughs while the petals are still on them, looking gorgeous, you don’t have to be disillusioned by the sight, a week later, of them all lying on the ground in a dingy, grey, gutter-choking paste.


    Posted by Sean at 09:25, March 16th, 2006

    The Japan Meteorological Agency has announced that the cherry blossoms are probably going to open early this year–prepare for falling-down-drunkness and inescapable karaoke in t – 6 days:

    The JMA announced the dates that cherry (Prunus serrulata) blossoms are expected to open from Kyushu through the Tohoku region on 15 March. For the first time, this year’s blossoms are predicted to open between 1 and 4 days earlier than the average in Tohoku.

    The projected date for blossoms to open in Tokyo and Yokohama is 22 March.

    There are scores of classic poems about cherry blossoms–in the seasonal-devotion sense. But of course, they’re so woven into Japanese culture in March and April that they can become aesthetic placeholders for poems with other themes.

    The following is the first poem I ever read and understood (at least lexically) in Japanese:





    Lemon Elegy

    You had waited so for the lemon.
    In your sad, white, bright deathbed,
    you took from my hand a single lemon
    and plunged your pretty teeth into it.
    Those few drops of heaven-sent lemon juice
    from which a topaz-colored fragrance rose
    snapped your consciousness back to normal.
    Your blue, unclouded eyes laughed a bit
    Your power so robust as you grasped my hand.
    There was a storm in your throat,
    and just at last possible second,
    Chieko became the old Chieko,
    and the love of a lifetime tipped into a single moment.
    And in the next instant,
    you took a deep breath as you had long ago at the top of a mountain,
    and with that your machinery shut down.
    In the shadow of the cherry sprig standing in front of your photograph,
    I will put a cool, glistening lemon today.

    Kotaro Takamura

    Kotaro Takamura and Chieko Naganuma had one of the most famous artistic marriages in Japan in the last century. Kotaro considered himself a sculptor more than a poet; Chieko was a painter. They had twin studios and shared household duties. Chieko had always been unconventional in dress and demeanor, but decade and a half after their marriage, she began to have delusions. She tried to commit suicide in the early 1930s. Of course, artists are famous for their erratic temperaments, but Chieko’s episodes developed into full-blown schizophrenia. Despite her tendency to break out of the house and harangue the neighbors, Kotaro kept her at home and took care of her for three years until it became too flat-out dangerous. She died another three years after he had her hospitalized.

    智恵子抄 (Chieko-sho: “Winnowings [of poems about] Chieko”), the book of poetry Kotaro published three years after her death, contains the above poem and others about their life together. I wrote my undergrad senior research project about it. That was the time I was coming out, of course–and though it might not seem like the greatest idea to be studying poetry about such an unstable person right about then, it was something of a kooky comfort to think that you could be completely falling apart and still have someone who would remain so tirelessly devoted to you.

    It’s known that many of the poems are idealizations–or rather, that they couldn’t possibly represent what their life was like in day-to-day terms. “Lemon Elegy” was composed in February, weeks before a cherry bough would have had swelling buds, let along blossoms, on it. Kotaro might have put a particularly shapely bare bough in a vase on the Buddhist altar with Chieko’s photograph on it, or he may just have written the poem as a projection into a time later in the spring. (Perhaps there’s some kind of critical consensus on that, but I’ve never seen it in any annotations.)

    Added on 17 March: I remembered last night after posting this that my college language partner, who’d returned with her husband to Japan by the time I was coming here in 1996 and let me stay with them my first week here, had a video tape of a television special about Kotaro Takamura. We watched it the first night I ever spent in Japan.

    Part of it was a dramatization of certain poems as they were read in voice-over. In the segment for “Lemon Elegy,” when the actress playing Chieko Naganuma died, the lemon dropped from her hand, landed on the floor with a meaningful thud, sat there for one dramatically fleeting second, and then wobbled dolorously away.

    I. LAUGHED. SO. HARD. It could hardly have been more campily entertaining if it had been performed in drag.

    While television dramas with naturalistic acting have become more common here, it’s non-mimetic theater, of course, that’s traditional. Scenes of emotional intensity are frequently stylized or exaggerated. (When Chieko returned momentarily to sanity, the look that flashed across the actress’s face was, like, Damn! I think I locked my keys in the car!) It’s a credit to Kotaro’s limpid, direct style that despite having those images in my head, I can still take the poems in question seriously.