Japan Outpost Extra: Autumn — Undoukai

We have a saying that goes, “暑さ寒さも彼岸まで (Atsusa samusa mo higan made) “, which means that even the most persistent heat or chilly air will subside around Autumn or Spring Equinox. In other words, until around Sept. 20th when the Autumn Equinox comes, the heat of summer lingers on. So imagine, once at last it cools down towards the end of September, how refreshing it feels! We can start sleeping better, and our appetite picks up. We feel like going on a trip, catching up on reading on long nights, or engaging in rigorous exercises.
We have plenty of phrases to describe these changes in Autumn: 食欲の秋 (shokuyoku no aki: Autumn for enjoying food!); スポーツの秋 (supoutsu no aki: Autumn for sports!); 読書の秋(dokusho no aki: Autumn for reading!); 芸術の秋 (geijyutsu no aki: Autumn for appreciating art!), to name a few.
To reflect this, in schools, there is an athletic meeting day (秋の運動会: aki no undoukai). This is a big day when a whole family will come to see their children’s performance. Not only the usual 100m and 200m races and relays, there are many other shows, such as dancing, and other entertainments. For this day, pupils and students practice very hard. As soon as the second term starts on Sept. 1st, many hours will be spent practicing. When I was a child, it was never a fun activity. I remember how hard we had to practice marching. It was just like a military drill! I think I can still march meticulously in five columns!
Another difficult exercise was 組体操 (kumi taisou: coordinated group gymnastics). For this, at each whistle, students climb up on each other like building blocks until the final figure is completed (probably the photos will explain better!). When we managed to complete the last figure, there was huge applause, and we did feel a strong sense of accomplishment. Yes, the hard work had paid off.

Look up!


Can't hold anymore!


But it was not just the hard training I remember about the undokai. I remember very well that I was excited to find my mother’s face in the crowd when we broke for picnic lunch, and how sweet and juicy a 梨 (Nashi: a Japanese pear; it ripens around early September) she peeled for me tasted.
Once an athletic meeting is over, there will be a 文化祭 (bunkasai: Cultural festival) at a later date, usually around mid to late October, mainly for high schools and universities. At universities, it is called 大学祭 (daigakusai: University festival), or 学園祭 (gakuensai) and can be extremely elaborate. Besides many food and shop stalls, which are run by students and various students’ Societies and clubs, there are often concerts and recitals by famous musicians, comedians, and performers. Because of the huge number of visitors, often famous food companies hold stalls at these festivals for promotional purposes. Recently, they have started 学園祭グランプリ(gakuensai grand prix) to decide the best gakuensai among all the universities in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, so it’s a serious business! Many people check the schedule of gakuensai’s and try to do “gakuensai-hopping”. This is one way of enjoying Tokyo’s Autumn. Would you like to try that next time?

NB: Recently, there have been a few serious accidents in kumitaiso, so a number of schools decided to stop doing it altogether, or to limit the number of layers.

A Japanese Zen Monk visit Manchester to teach Zazen

I visited Manchester Zen Dojo in 2012 and created a Youtube video and a blog entry.

This time, I was asked to do an interpretation of a Japanese Zen monk’s lecture at Manchester Zen Dojo. It was very nice to visit there again and see the familiar faces. After the lecture, I had a chance to interview the monk, Kishigami Osho san.

He is a free soul, so he wasn’t hesitant to say whatever he honestly felt. You might disagree with what he says…. Please watch the video and find out!

Japan Outpost Extra: Summer — KoKo Yakyu

Have you ever been to Japan during summer? If you have, I’m sure you’d agree that it is unbearably hot and humid! Someone like me who is not athletic can’t even think about moving in the heat. However, one of the most popular sports events in Japan takes place during this mercilessly hot season. It is高校野球 (Koko Yakyu; the baseball tournament for high schools). The proper name is 全国高等学校野球選手権大会 (zenkoku kotogakkou yakyu senshuken taikai! Wow, that’s a mouthful.) It started in 1915, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of Koko Yakyu. The Koshien stadium (甲子園球場), the only stadium used for this tournament, was completed in 1924, nine years after the tournament started.

There are spring and summer tournaments, but the one in summer is by far the more exciting one, because the participating schools need to win through the Prefectural tournament. Only one school per prefecture is allowed (although, for Tokyo and Hokkaido, 2 schools are allowed due to the large number of schools). The tournament usually starts on August 8th, and continues for 2 weeks. When it starts every summer, it is just like Wimbledon; you cannot help noticing that it has started, as it is always on TV whenever you turn it on! And again, just like Wimbledon, when it finally comes to an end with the excitement of the final game, it feels so sad. From the next day, the TV feels like it’s missing something very important.

In Japan, I think it’s safe to say that the most popular sport of all is baseball, not football. So many boys join a baseball club/team during junior high and high school. For those, the Koshien stadium is a dream; only the best teams who survived the Prefectural tournament can participate in Koko Yakyu at the stadium. During the summer tournament, once you lose, you need to go. So, you will often see the team members of the losing team collecting the soil from the baseball field, crying heavily. It is very moving. The boys at Koko Yakyu, unlike professional baseball players, are so pure, so genuine; no money involved, no greed involved, they just do their very best at each game. That’s the beauty of Koko Yakyu, and that’s the reason people will never stop loving it.

When the tournament is over, it is approaching the end of August, and the long school summer holiday is nearing an end. Although it is still hot for a while in Japan, you will notice a subtle change in the air. Autumn is coming.

Amaterasu: Japanese Ancient God of Sun

It was about 2 years ago that I was contacted by an Iranian lady, Mahboobeh. She asked me to teach her about Japanese folklore and myth. When I first met her, I was surprised to realize that much stuff she found on internet about Japanese folklore was not correct. I told her about Kojiki, Japan’s oldest history book, created around 700AD, and also the story of Amaterasu, the God of the sun, which is probably the most well-known story in Kojiki in Japan. She was saying that she would like to create a stop-motion anime on it. After that, I didn’t hear from her for a long time and I forgot about it.

Then, about one year later, I heard from her. She said she had created a video on Amaterasu, and that she’d like me to check it. So I did, and after some revision, here is the video!

I have to say, I was very impressed at her hard work creating this, and that she really meant what she had told me.

Later on, I interviewed her on her making of the video. Here is the interview:

Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s palanquin revealed!

Recently, I visited Manchester Art Gallery to see “Eastern Exchanges” exhibition, where old Japanese crafts were displayed together with those of Korea and China. Here’s the video on the visit:

As it shows on the video, I saw a palanquin at the Exhibition. Because of the Tokugawa Shogun’s family crest, I was intrigued about the origin of the palanquin. I asked my friend, Steve Smith, a local historian, about its history. Here’s what he said:

“Two years ago (2013) I was asked to identify some things in the Japanese collection of the Manchester Art Gallery and went along to visit the Curator, who showed me several good things which had been in storage for many years. Because this collection had a rather complicated history of ownership no-one had ever properly catalogued them, so most things had never really been correctly identified in their records. They had plans to create an exhibition called ‘Eastern Exchanges’ to illustrate how ideas in style and fashion can leap from one culture to another, and wanted to include some Japanese objects which showed this influence.

I chose several Tsuba which displayed typical Japanese taste in subject matter, and some which were made including outside influences (like China and Europe). Just nine tsuba were picked for the exhibition but there are at least two hundred more in the collection, and I ended up cataloguing all of them in two days of hard work. While I was there I explained a lot of aspects of Japanese art, the legends and stories behind the figures and things used to decorate the tsuba and other objects which came up during my visit. The tsuba I picked were sent for restoration by a specialist restorer friend of mine and, after that, the Curator sometimes sent me pictures and asked for information on other small things that were to be included in the exhibition (Inro, and the Miochin Okimono of a Dragon). I remember that the Curator had mentioned they had a Norimono, a highly decorated Palanquin used rather like a European Sedan Chair, but I never saw it at that stage, and I did not see any of the other things as most were in the Conservation department, or still in storage. On 1st April this year I was invited to the opening of the gallery and my wife and I went along to see how it had all turned out: the director made the speech of welcome and we all went up to the gallery.

When I entered the gallery I saw the Norimono and immediately recognised the well-known Tokugawa Mon all over it. My next thought was that it had to be the same one that was once owned by James Lord Bowes, the first Japanese Consul in Liverpool, and displayed in his private museum back in the 19th century. I had made a particular mention of this Norimono in my book on his life, The Japanese Consul, which was published in 2012 by the Liverpool History Press, so I was already very familiar with its details- though, of course, I had never actually seen it: it was sold together with most of the rest of Bowes’ collection in 1901 following his death in 1899.
The reason I came to this conclusion was really very simple: Norimono are very big, difficult to store and difficult to display, so how many of them could there be in the North West of England? Well, I already knew that there is one in Liverpool museum which was included in the exhibition I worked on in 1996. Although that one fits the general description it bears the Matsudaira Mon, so I could be certain that was not the Bowes’ piece. But even if there were more than two or even three in the North West, how many of those could there be with the Tokugawa Mon on them?

The other thing which made it likely was the fact that Bowes’ Norimono had been in Liverpool when it was sold at auction in 1901, – and Manchester is only 30 miles from Liverpool!
When I returned home I checked the description in Bowes’ sale catalogue with the photograph I had taken of the Norimono in Manchester, and it corresponded in every way, even the measurements were correct. I immediately sent an email to the Curator in Manchester Art Gallery to tell her I believed Bowes’ Norimono and the Manchester Norimono were one and the same, asking if she had any records of how it was acquired, and if there was a description on file. She got back to me very quickly with a description and acquisition record, both dating from 1901, when it was donated to the Gallery: the year of the Bowes auction.

The description matched the auction description, word for word, and VERY significantly, both descriptions contained the same major mistake in the text: here is the sale description.

The crucial mistake is in the first two lines:
“Formerly in the possession of Noriyoshi,…… the last of the Shoguns”
The last of the Tokugawa Shoguns was in fact Yoshinobu, later Prince Keiki, NOT “Noriyoshi”. This is a mistake that is not only extremely odd but it appears in both the sale catalogue AND in the acquisition records of Manchester Art Gallery when the Norimono was donated: it can therefore only be the same object.

We know from annotated sale catalogues that it was bought at the sale for 10 Guineas, but not by whom: Records in Manchester show that Mr Phillip Whyman, the Manchester City Councillor for Harpurhey, donated it to the Queens Park Museum three or four months after it was sold in Liverpool, from which we can surmise that it was Mr Whyman who bought it at the auction in 1901.
Without any surviving proof of provenance from the Bowes collection (all Bowes’ records have been lost) we cannot be certain that this Norimono ever actually belonged personally to the last Shogun, and there is nothing to properly date its construction. But, because it is in a relatively good state of preservation, we can assume that it most likely dates from the 19th century, when five different Shoguns ruled Japan. Each one would have had several of these extravagant Norimono, based in different locations. After the abdication of Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1867 he was held under house arrest at his own estate, the days of Tokugawa power were irreversibly gone, and he was not allowed to travel more than a few miles from his home: it would make sense for the officials of his household to dispose of things like this Norimono which were difficult to store there, and would likely never again see any use. This could explain why it arrived in Bowes’ collection just after 1868.

So, the biggest piece from the ‘lost’ Bowes collection has now been found and identified beyond question. Its history prior to 1867 may not be quite so certain, but after 114 years of being ‘lost’ we now know its story from the time it disappeared from view in 1901.”

So, there you are. I was surprised to learn about the connection to James Lord Bowes! And it was discovered by the very person who researched about and wrote a book on him! I felt that the spirit of James helped him find it.

April: The Season for a New Beginning

The seasons: haru, natsu, aki and fuyuApril is such a special month for Japanese because many things start newly in April. In Japan, clocks do not go forward in spring nor do we have Easter, but April itself is enough to make you feel that new things are starting.

In Japan, the school year starts in April. So if you are in Japan on April 1st or early April, you will see many young children dressed up in a brand-new uniform, often complete with a cap with a school crest, walking proudly with their mother. The mother is also dressed up, sometime in a proper kimono, because they have just attended an entrance ceremony (入学式:nyugakushiki) for their child.

You will also notice that those children are bearing the same big, colourful leather bag on their back, just as big as, or often bigger for the first grader, than their own back. This bag is called ランドセル (ran-do-sel). What does this word mean? It is believed to have come from the Dutch word “randsel”, which means a back pack. The wearing of randsels is believed to have started around the end of 19th century, and they are still widely worn by primary school children ( 小学生 : sho-gaku-sei).

Traditionally, randsels are red for girls and black for boys, but now there are more colour variations.  A ランドセル is one of the favourite presents from grandparents to their grandchild when they are starting school. Department stores start to display a wide range of ランドセル shortly after New Year.

I used one back in my schooldays. I did not enjoy using it, as it was very heavy, and it was too hot on my back during summer. I remember my back was wet with sweat under the ランドセル. For me, April reminds me of cherry blossoms and the smell of new leather of brand-new ランドセル .

Another thing you might see on April 1st is young men and women wearing brand-new suits, looking a bit uncomfortable in them. They are new graduates who have just started working for a company. Many Japanese new graduates, who have graduated from university in March, start working from April 1st (This is true mainly for big companies: 大企業 dai-ki-gyo). There is a big ceremony called 入社式 (nyu-sha-shiki) on April 1st, where a company president will give them a pep-talk. Right out of universities, they are often not “useful” enough from the start, so they attend training sessions ( 研修  : ken-shu) that usually require extreme hard work to go through them. They are a sort of an induction process, and they are tested if they could survive it!

Often hotels are booked up at the beginning of April because companies book a large number of rooms for their new employees (新入社員:shin-nyu-shain) to stay and attend the training sessions. Sessions include practice in 敬語   (keigo: honorific language), as the proper use of 敬語 is crucial for the business world.

Thus, they will be shaped into サラリーマン (salary-man), with a bitter-sweet realization that they are no longer 大学生 (daigakusei: university student).

I hope April will bring an exciting new beginning to you also!