Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Memories from World War II

2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II, the year Imperial Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces. The aging generation who survived the war consisted of children growing up during the war (1930 - 1945) wherever they were at the time - Japan proper, neighboring Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. The children in Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria had to return to Japan, the land of their parents. We knew we had to live with a moral obligation to earn redemption on behalf of our parents in dealing with such close neighbors, but lost contact 70 years ago.

My wife was born in Nampo, North Korea, and her family, after a few years under Russian occupation, voluntarily attempted border crossing at the 38th parallel to reach Seoul and Pusan and boated down to Sasebo (See reunion photos of Nampo returnees, mostly from the second generation. They have a motto "Our home is where we meet".) My Fukuoka friend TM (Toastmaster) Oishi was born in Rason, formerly Rajin-Sonbong, northeastern tip of North Korea, bordering Vladiostok. He took the Jirin land route, China, and back to Dandong to cross the Yalu River. He re-entered in North Korea and headed south to Japan. TM Oshiumi residing in Wakamatsu, Kitakyushu was born in Daegu, South Korea. Both Oishi and Oshiumi told me they have attended Korean school reunions. I know they were both studying Korean Hangl.

TM Mitsuko Nishimura, cofounder of Kitakyushu Toastmasters and her two sisters, born in Taiwan, were boated north from Keelung to Kagoshima. I read that Mitsuko tried to talk to local Japanese women farmers in Kagoshima but was baffled with an answer she couldn’t understand. This was the first of many reverse culture shock she experienced. It was the Kagoshima dialect! I remembered TM Oishi similarly was baffled with the Saga dialect.

My Kumamoto friend TM Uemura was born near Taichung. We traveled together to Taichung when we attended the Taiwan Toastmasters Conference. She took time to visit where she was born during the conference. I accompanied my Tokyo workmate Shimada to Taipei on his first-time return to Taipei where he was born. I introduced him to Taiwan Toastmaster Mrs. Quo who had taught at Ximen Elementary School. Shimada’s Nanmen school was close to Ximen Elementary. Mrs. Quo talked to the principal of Nanmen Elementary School and Shimada received a graduation certificate when he visited his mother school. I was very impressed with Mrs. Quo’s arrangements.

I found out that in 2002, Mrs. Quo organized a reunion of Ximen school classmates, Taiwanese and Japanese, to commemorate the 90th year since school opening and published an awesome book titled “Old Dreams-Deep Compassion” with collected essays from some of the participants. Now she is preparing a belated 100th reunion in March 2015.

The following is a quote from this book:

On board the repatriation boat - We were loaded into the vessel hold in a huddle, no free room to move and slept over rush-mat rug. Once out on the open ocean, the rolling of the vessel became intense and most passengers got seasick. They started vomiting and the bad smell filled the hold. They withdrew and grew lethargic, made no conversations and had lost their appetite. There were few semi-invalid passengers who died in such awful circumstances. Only those who could afford it went up to the deck and attended their burial at sea. The voyage took about a week. Upon disembarking, we all went through quarantine, being sprayed DDT from head to the sole of our feet.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Hocus Pocus Medicine from Kitakyushu Folklore

This story dates back to when humans were close to Kappa, mythical water creatures. It takes place in Koyanose, one of the Nagasaki Kaido Stations between Iizuka and Kurosaki. The mighty River Onga flows through Koyanose.

Children Kappa were hanging out at the river all day, bathing, and rollicking with each other. They particularly liked Sumo wrestling and would practice until the top of their saucer-like heads were almost dry and had to jump back into the water.

One day, a Kappa, imitating human children, pulled a hair from a horse tail for a fishing line. He approached the grazing horse from behind and the surprised horse kicked the Kappa with his hind leg.

"Ouch! It hurts!" He cried out in pain and his arm hung limp. An elder Kappa passing by examined the sobbing Kappa. The elder wrote a 'prescription' and told him to take it quickly to a human doctor. The prescription read:

“Half a snail shell, one whisker from a stray cat, two pieces of yam, and three seeds from a Mt. Hobashira cedar tree. Stir until all mixed together and apply it to the affected limb. Last but not least, make sure to place four cucumbers on top of head.”

Lo, the child Kappa was healed from his wounds. All Kappa kin flocked to visit the doctor, claiming it was an old remedy handed down from ancestors. The doctor prospered, and his patients exited the hospital with cucumbers placed on the top of their heads.

The following is why and how the English version of "Kitakyushu Folklore" was created.

1. Bamboo Press started the trend

In the mid 1990s (just about the time I returned from the U.S. and relocated from Tokyo to Kitakyushu), the Newsletter Bamboo Press (now defunct, see photo) published quarterly issues edited by the Kitakyushu International Association (KIA), introduced translations of "Kitakyushu Folklore" stories, originally published by the "Kitakyushu Urban Association". Translators were successive editors, pairs of Japanese and Americans, including my friend Jesse Rude; I found them interesting and a boost to local pride and history. Upon discontinuation, I counted about a dozen stories, not enough material to warrant a book.

2. Kitakyushu Toastmasters (TMs) bridges the gap

In 2013, Kitakyushu City celebrated its 50th anniversary. The city with a population of one million was established in 1963 by the equal-basis amalgamation of five cities: Moji, Kokura, Wakamatsu, Yahata and Tobata. Many celebrations participated in the celebration in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNIDO and OECD. Multiple events took place, such as the International Conference on Future of Cities, Promotion of Eco-Cities Network in South East Asia and Mayors Forum "Urban Green Growth in Dynamic Asia, along with citizen sporting events, a marathon and Nagasaki Kaido Walks.

To commemorate the 15th anniversary, I proposed my Kitakyushu TMs to donate at least 10 translations of Kitakyushu folklore to match up with the dozen translations of the above Bamboo Press Newsletters and the proposal was accepted. The Kitakyushu TMs started working immediately, but finished late. It was March in 2014 that we submitted it in the form of a CD Master to Kitakyushu City Foundation for Promoting Arts and Culture, the NPO body, successor to the Kitakyushu Urban Association.

3. Promotional Endeavors

I felt responsible for Kitakyushu TMs who donated their time to translate. So, I tried my best to advertise the English version "Kitakyushu Folklore" my own way thinking it would be helpful for studying English at the elementary and junior high school levels. I selected three stories and presented each of them as a monologue "story-telling" at TM meetings. The stories were:

  • Sugao Fall - summer 2014, Kitakyushu TM meeting
  • Yakara-sama - summer 2014, Shimonoseki TM meeting
  • Hocus-pocus Medicine - Dec 2014, Joint TM (Fukuoka, Iizuka, Kitakyushu, Shimonoseki) meeting

I favored Yakara-sama, the story of Heike refugees and Genji pursuers - a matter of life or death situation which transcends time. "Imagine that killers have invaded your neighborhood. They're in your house, and you and your neighbors are hiding in the cellar. Your baby starts to cry. If you had to press your hand over the baby’s face until the fighting stopped - if you had to smother the baby to save everyone else - would you do it?"

4. Some thoughts on Copyright

I know folklore would be hard to dispute copyright, because it is too old and is considered communal knowledge. But I have heard UNESCO WIPO pondering exceptions such as Peru's "Condor Passa." I believe Kitakyushu can claim Kitayushu Folklore copyright on the contemporary versions in both Japanese and English. However, it is my understanding that theatrical performance for educational purposes is always free of copyright fees.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 3 – Country Standards

Here in Japan, the year-end snap election brought Prime Minister Abe his victory after touting his “Abenomix” mandate, but the voter turnout was low. It was 52.66%, the lowest rate since the end of World War II. Almost half of the Japanese population did not vote. In Singapore, non-voting is illegal, so you have to pay a fine if you do not vote.

Singapore is notorious as a ‘fine bound’ country, but I find it rather affirming and motivating. They are designed for good causes and help enhance morals of the general public. For instance, smoking is banned (only three locations are designated for smoking in the state). As a non-smoker, I like the strictness of the law. I understand they have come a long way to become acknowledged as a non-smoking country. Their smoking population should be less than that of Japan (one out of six Japanese smokes). Japan Tobacco has advocated that smokers use designated areas only or vapor break rooms to little or no avail. I give a big applause to the Singapore Government, especially for reducing risks from despicable secondhand smoke (SHS). Japanese roads would be much cleaner without cigarette butts.

Regarding other laws, I can appreciate Singapore laws on gum. I heartily agree on Jay walking. I had some trouble with taxi stands. I’m one of the Japanese spoiled with the ease and convenience of hailing or by finger snapping on the street, inviting risks in traffic flow. In Singapore, you definitely need a smartphone and a location map of taxi stands. Singapore traffic flow is greatly controlled by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) with an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme used throughout the entire island. The LTA overhead gantries collect tolls and parking fees from all the cars equipped with electronic tags (IU) on the roads. The pay-when-you-use principle helps make motorist more aware of the true cost of driving. Thus the road usage can be optimized. They are one of the few traffic gridlock-less countries in Asia!

My stay in Singapore was just one week, and my island destinations were limited to areas where I could travel by bus and MRT. But as I previously mentioned, my Singapore host kindly drove me to the old Ford Motor Factory (the historic surrender site of the British to Imperial Japan) and Lim Chukan Jetty, where you view Malaysia across the Johore Strait. This Lim Chukan Jetty seems to be one of the last few surviving wooden jetties used as docks for the offshore kelongs (seafarers' villages built on stilts) and aqua-farms. We drove through an intricate maze and rows of cemeteries to reach the jetty and narrowly exited out of the tangled waterways and the army training camp. I was reminded that Singapore has a draft mandate.

On this trip, I picked up a new word “Kiasu", which I thought was antiquated as in Singlish, if not anachronistic. Kiasu comes from Chinese “Pah Shu” (Mandarin) and “Kia Su (Hokkien), meaning “fear of losing” or "hate to lose." The competitive spirit beyond the fear factor is referred to as one of the top values and behavioral traits of Singaporeans. No wonder economic prosperity and political stability are associated with this national mindset. This philosophy has helped guide them in competition and negotiations, and led to success in getting the most out of every transaction. The per capita GNP exceeded Japan’s long ago. Perhaps it also made them immune to criticism. I would like to see their Kiasu curbed slightly and shift their focus toward altruism for their neighbors.

I started to read Catherine Lim’s novel “Rice Bowl” (first edition "Times London" in 1984), the winner of the first Singapore literature prize. The story is about politics, imperialism and race, set at the time of the Vietnam War. I found her book equally exciting as reading Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography. The names of venues are all very familiar to me now. 'Rice Bowl' per Singlish dictionary is a lifesaver, the source of man’s survival.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Osechi For Sale

A question raised at a recent Toastmasters meeting was “How do you sell Osechi (celebratory New Year's food specialties) if you are an Osechi salesman?"

Hmmm, a very good question. I was out of the country for many years. I felt guilty seeing my wife struggling to prepare Osechi when materials were hard to obtain.

Osechi is very different from everyday Japanese meals. It is not even listed in the restaurant menus. I vaguely know what Osechi is, as my family has always set it up for the New Year’s. I belong to those who might have 'Osechi-phobia'. I picked up a couple of Osechi items, like Tazukuri, which is candied sardines, Namasu, which is sliced Daikon pickle with Ozoni, the rice cake, but I stay away from the rest - all the sweets and goodies.

Osechi should represent UNESCO approved Japanese Washoku dietary culture. If you explore Osechi, you could get the essence and soul of Washoku. However, the weight is more on tradition and rituals, all dishes necessarily devoted to auspicious expectations. In other words, materials and seasonings are selective consisting of kelp, abalone, sea urchin, herring-roe, prawn, fish paste, chestnut, lotus root, burdock, black bean and mixed veggies.

As a Noh song student once, I’m familiar with the word “Sechie” from the famous “Tsuru Kame, Crane & Tortoise” song. Sechi or Setsu taking off honorific O, is seasonal divide days, such as 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 5-5, 9-9. The Imperial Court started “Sechie”, religious rituals during the Nara period, during the 8th Century, for prayers and thanksgiving for the season’s harvest and foods found from the mountains and sea. As time passed, this celebration permeated into the Samurai class in Kamakura and Kyoto and into the Edo period, down to the general public, with particular emphasis on 1-1, the New Year’s celebration.

The recipe and ingredients of Osechi dishes vary a little by district but basically they are the same, handed down for generations. They should feature proactive and forward looking life values, such as happiness and fortune, prosperity and wealth, success and promotion, security of property, health and longevity, perpetuation of descendants, strong family bond and solidarity, all authentically cooked and served in a fancy lacquer Jubako, the multi-layered boxes. The Japanese believe that luck comes in multitude by box layering.

I used to see three layers, but learned that four layers are formal and often five layers (the top often left empty to beckon future happiness), depending on circumstances. Normally, the festive and sake companion dishes are at the bottom, grilled, stewed, or vinegared side dishes in the second, sea or river produce in the third, mountain produce in the fourth. Arrival of these boxes are rather new, right after World War II perhaps with advertising commercials from department stores.

Today, I saw the relevant newspaper survey polls; 52% yes, 48% no, to the question - "Do you prepare Osechi?" Now those who said "no" were questioned "why". 42% of men and 26% of women answered "felt no need to make it special even for the New Year." Hmmm, again! They are from a different generation.

Osechi had a great meaning when shops were all closed for 10 days or so, and when fridges were novelties in most homes. Housewives made everything by hand, making them to last longer; baking and adding vinegar. Now they are nostalgic scenes of the past, because ready-made Osechi is available at nearby convenience stores. I understand the competitions had become keener with the participation of the Post Office sales force.

With the increase of part-time laborers, many stores are open now even during New Year's holidays. There are people who don’t take holidays. It means households need not prepare preserved foods for the New Year celebrations any more.

I hope I have given you some 'food for thought' with New Year's Day approaching quickly.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 2

He who plants a tree, plants hope. (Anonymous)

Upon sending my e-mail inquiry, the Singapore Botanical Garden (SBG) replied almost immediately "Greetings from the Singapore Botanic Gardens and thank you for writing to us. The distance between Bukit Timah Gate and Tanglin Gate is approximately 2.3 km if you follow the blue dotted route marked in the attached map.” I was impressed with the speed and sincerity of the reply. The dotted line is a meandering road inside the garden. If a straight diagonal line is drawn, I figured it was about a 2 km stretch between north and south ends of the park. The Bukit Timah (tin hill in English) Road runs into the north gate and the MRT stop and is the longest road running from north to south of the island.

The Bukit Timah pamphlet I picked up at the old Ford Motor factory, the historic surrender site of the British to Japan (my host drove me there on the 4th day), offers quite a lot of information. The 163 meter Bukit Timah Hill is the highest point in Singapore and it was where the Shonan Shrine was built. Today the area is a nature reserve along with the neighboring Bukit Batok Nature Reserve.

One of my hobbies is to visit old trees. I visited many exceptional trees - redwood, sequoia and Moreton Bay Fig in California and others in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. The Bukit Timah pamphlet read: "The number of plant species growing in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is more than in the whole of North America and at the same time, Singapore's oldest tree, a 400 year-old Seriya Shorea curtisii Tree is also found here. This tree is possibly the Temak tree that gave Bukit Timah its name."

My visit to SBG was through the Nassim Main Gate, mid-point on the east-side right by a taxi stand where the sightseeing bus stops, and near the Visitor Center and National Parks Board Headquarter. Luckily I got the "Tall Tales book" at the visitor center that had the well documented heritage trees trail guide. There are about 30 numbered trees and I just followed the directions. The names were new to me. They are Temak, Kapok (National Tree of Puerto Rico), Saya, Jelaw (47 meters tall, currently the tallest tree at SGB. common in Malaysia) and "Tembusu." Tembusu is a distinctive tree to Singapore, not found in Malaysia. The tree is featured as part of the Garden City on the back of SG 5 dollar note. (See photo). I know the orchid is the national flower of Singapore but decided to forego seeing the flowers for more exploration of trees of palm valley, around the lakes, with fancy names like Swan and Symphony.

There's one more tree I loved at SGB - the Senegal Mahogany. On June 1963, Lee Kuan Yew, the Father of Singapore, launched a national tree planting campaign. It marked the beginning of five decades of greening efforts that have built Singapore's reputation as a city in the garden. To commemorate Tree Planting Day on November 2, 1980, he took a hoe himself and planted a Senegal Mahogany Heritage Tree. I was seeing it 35 years after Mr. Yew's planting. It grew to be a huge tree.

I managed to take a hurried tour of the Chinese and Japanese Gardens in Jurong on the west end of Singapore. Jurong is a man-made island (connected to multiple small islands), based on the Jurong District Master Plan to bring together port, shipyard, chemical plant complex, and light and heavy industries. Two gardens are on Jurong Lake. The first is a Chinese Garden partially completed with pagoda and tortoise / turtle sanctuary and rows of statues of Confucius, Qu Yuan, etc. The neighboring Japanese Garden was closed but I saw many stone lanterns and Bonsais laid out in the distance, probably still in the preparation stages. The flat and open gardens were surrounded by high rise apartments. It was quite a sight. The two gardens will surely become a breathtaking park when completed.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 1

As soon as I was welcomed by a Canadian couple and host whom I befriended in Tokyo and Canada, I started my exploration of Singapore right away. My stay with them was 4 days, excluding arrival and departure dates. They live in a gated condo near the Botanical Garden. My host works in Shenton Way, Singapore's Wall Street, so we took a bus together at 8 AM and I was at Singapore City Hall area by 8:30. Morning rush was about to start but all the stores were closed until 10:00 AM. Church was where I could be alone in the morning.

My first three days were visiting l) St. Andrew's Cathedral; 2) Raffles Hotel (Museum & Arcade), the last bastion of the British colonialism, saved by Lee Kuan Yew, Father and the past Prime Minister of Singapore for over 30 years, almost like the Gate Formosa in Malacca saved by Sir Raffles; and 3) a nearby Starbucks or McDonald's for coffee.

I strolled the deserted park at St. Andrew's on the first and third day, and spent over an hour in a pew in the cathedral the second day, trying to see if the cathedral was lost during World War II (it was an emergency hospital - found a cathedral brochure written in Japanese), Raffles for two hours for the first day for picture taking, souvenir shopping the second day and befriended a Japanese mother and daughter at Thompson's Thai silk store the third day, etc.

One thing I learned was my misconception about Sir Raffles on this trip. I had thought Raffles was knighted after his Singapore accomplishment, which was incorrect. His knighthood was bestowed upon when he returned to England from his assignment as Lieutenant-Governor of Java, ill and crestfallen having lost his first wife Olivia. In 1816 he wrote and published a book entitled "The History of Java" describing the history of the island from ancient times. In 1817 he was knighted by the prince regent. Then he was appointed Governor-General of Bencoolen. Sir Raffles set sail all refreshed to take the post with his new wife Sophia.

In the afternoon, I took hop-on / hop-off sightseeing buses, first visiting the Esplanade, Music and Drama Theatres on the Bay, nicknamed "Durian" for its shape by local Singaporeans. (I learned this theater was chosen as one of the 1001 Buildings you must see before you die by Mark Irving). I'm glad I got to see it. It was amazing!

Then I visited the ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay Sands, breathtaking twin buildings with feng shui motif. The former brought to mind blossoming lotus, and the latter, three monolith towers connected together at the top with an enormous deck. Some people see it as Noah's Ark but I wonder. It is an iconic design that completely transforms the skyline - convention center, hotel, restaurant, casino, all in one. You can tell Las Vegas Sands was involved. The day I visited the ArtScience Museum it featured works by American photographer Annie Leibovitz. There were about 200 photos exhibited including those of John Lennon/Yoko Ono and celebrities like Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt and many others.

The Garden by the Bay on reclaimed land has been raised with what they call SuperTrees - huge artificial structures shaped like palms. I had planned to visit Botanical Garden so I hurried on.

I completed one clockwise circuit on the bus that took about an hour that included a visit to upstream Singapore River, the Botanical Garden and the hotels on Orchard Road. My ticket was valid for 24 hours. I used it for three rounds and stopped to view the Botanical Garden and ate at a fancy restaurant on Orchard Road in the evening. I enjoyed the great bus service and sightseeing.

Encountered during the bus ride were a couple of smile-provoking public art sculptures. I was too slow with my camera so I have no photos of them, but I found one photo from the database of Singapore Public Art. It is called "Momentum" (2007) - about 20 meters tall and 10 meters in diameter. I surmise it is the modern Tower of Babel. The sculptor is David Gerstein of Israel. He might have won the competition for the work. In surveying the above data, I found Singapore is now full of public art. I thought of Taiwan's Ju Ming who struggled with his son to create a private sculpture park near Taipei mountain village. Singapore, as a nation, is planning to fill the island with an abundance of public art.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tribute to TM Ishimatsu

Weep no more my lady
Oh! Weep no more today
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home far away

- Kentucky State Song by Stephen Foster

The third Monday in September is a unique Japanese national holiday which honors and shows respect to the elderly. A few years ago, our neighborhood started inviting me to a special district luncheon with entertainment provided by a local high school music band or drum corp. My wife Tamiko received the same invitation this year. The couple sitting across the table from us were our acquaintances. Tamiko knew they owned a dance studio and asked them, "Are the Ishimatsus going to demonstrate their dancing again soon?" Apparently Tamiko knew that the Ishimatsus came last year as the winner of the All Kyushu ballroom senior pair dance competition. The studio owner's response was, "We heard he passed away." After an awkward silence, Tamiko and I both uttered the same surprise, "But he was so young."

Yasutaka Ishimatsu joined the Kitakyushu Toastmasters before the turn of the century. He was the eighth President serving his term from 2004 to 2005. A mechanical engineer by profession, he worked at a Japanese subsidiary in Louisville, Kentucky for six years and returned to Kitakyushu. Ishimatsu was a breath of fresh air to our club with his serene smile and playful wit and humor. I found in him something our club was missing. We welcomed him and I enjoyed many of his speeches related to Kentucky. He traveled with us to a number of Toastmaster events and contests and was a popular Kitakyushu representative.

Kentucky is one of the states I never stepped foot in. The closest cities I visited were Cincinnati, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; and Indianapolis, Indiana. In late 1980s, Toyota built its Camry plant in Kentucky and soon related companies flocked there and clustered around them. We learned many things from TM Ishimatsu such as the Kentucky Derby, how Kentucky’s Lexington city was named after Lexington, Massachusetts and why Stephen Foster's Kentucky Home became literally the State Song.

One speech that impressed me was about the concert he brought to Lexington through his personal connections. He learned that the Japanese celebrity writer/singer Tokiko Kato was going to be performing at Carnegie Hall in 1988 (see her album cover at top). He knew his boss in New York was the brother to Tokiko and convinced him that that Tokiko's visit to Kentucky could not only boost the friendship between Kentucky and Japan, but also help ease and soften the local anti-Japanese feeling. With the go ahead obtained a year ahead of time, he succeeded in completing all the necessary preparations, getting cooperation from all the Japanese expatriates, including Toyota, who doubted at first if she would ever come.

The day came. Tokiko's song - "Shiretoko Jojo", "One million roses" and of course, Foster's "Home on the range" and state song overwhelmed and charmed the audience gathered at the Transylvanian University Hall. After the concert and reception, Ishimatsu tried to hand her an envelope in appreciation. She did not accept it. She thanked him personally by shaking his hands saying "I hope my concert tonight will help make you all succeed!" He said he became her biggest fan that day.

Transylvania University is a private university in Lexington, Kentucky. It was founded in 1780, making it the first university in Kentucky and among the oldest in the United States.