Monthly Archives: August 2005

Japan Rail Pass Travels

We initiated our Japan Rail Passes 3 weeks ago with a same-day roundtrip by bullet train from Tokyo (東京 ‘east capital’) to Shizuoka (静岡 ‘calm hill’) in a fruitless effort to view Mt. Fuji (富士山 ‘rich gentleman mountain’). Not once did we see any mountaintops–all being obscured by clouds and haze. I don’t know how many times as a kid I strained in vain for a glimpse of Mt. Fuji as we passed Shizuoka on the train. (I have seen it on other trips, but only from afar.)

On Monday, I made a final day trip by rail pass to see one other famously beautiful place, the Matsushima (松島 ‘pine island’) bay and islands near Sendai (仙台 ‘hermit platform’). (My wife was tied up with obtaining her work visa, and my daughter had left on Sunday to return to college in the U.S.) Matsushima was spectacular–as lovely as Miyajima (宮島 ‘shrine island’) in my estimation–even though I didn’t get a chance to see all the best views.

In between, we made a roundtrip from Tokyo to Sapporo (札幌, an Ainu name whose kanji meanings are arbitrary), with a day trip from Sapporo to Asahikawa (旭川 ‘rising-sun river’). We had to pay extra for the sleeping berths going up.

We also made day trips from Ashikaga (足利 ‘foot profit’–the second kanji is never read kaga except in this placename, so perhaps kaga formerly meant something less favorable, like ‘swelling’ or ‘carbuncle’) to Niigata (新潟 ‘new lagoon’, but with a rarer pronunciation for ‘new’), Nikko (日光 ‘sun shine’), Utsunomiya (宇都宮 ‘sky capital shrine’), and twice to Narita airport. I think we got our money’s worth. I’ve got a few travelogues to write up now.

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Earthquake Blogging

A little while ago, at 11:29 Japan time, a magnitude 5.0 (Japanese scale) earthquake shook our building slightly. NHK almost immediately cut to earthquake coverage, repeating over and over that the epicenter was around Nagaoka in Niigata Prefecture, that there is no danger of a tsunami, that there have been no reported injuries, and that the eastern Shinkansen trains had already resumed normal operation. The magnitude in Tochigi Prefecture, where we are, was 2.0.

I’m getting superstitious. We spent yesterday in Niigata. But maybe the crucial factor is that the last time we had a big earthquake was the same day we were scheduled to take the Narita Express to go to the airport. Today, we are again scheduled to take the Narita Express to the airport to send our daughter back to the U.S. for another year of university–and a third year of college Japanese. If this pattern holds, then northern Japan can expect another largish earthquake on September 28, when I’m scheduled to fly back to the U.S.

We may have to rethink our tentative plans for a daytrip to Sendai on Monday, the last day our rail passes remain valid. I’d hate to bring that lovely city another earthquake only a week after their last one.

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How Little Hou Created the Walking Telegraph Code

Day after day we racked our brains, but still couldn’t find an adequate transmission method [to communicate remotely between prison compounds in Korea]. Little Hou was truly a smart fellow and engrossed in the code work most of the time. When he was eating or taking a break, he would mention to us one possibility and another, but none of them would work. Then one morning he hit on a brilliant idea, namely to simplify the Morse code as much as possible, to the degree of letting one dot or one dash stand for a numeral. This would not only speed up the transmission, but also reduce confusion. Based on this conception, he and Mushu created the Walking Telegraphic Method: the sender of the message would stand behind the window of the war criminal’s cell [= the isolated cell in which Commissar Pei, the leader of the Chinese POWs, was held]. If he walked to the left side, it meant a dot; if he walked to the right, it denoted a dash; if he hunkered down below the window, that indicated the beginning of a new group of numerals. One dot meant 1, one dot plus one dash–2, two dots plus one dash–3, two dots–4, three dots–5, three dashes–6, two dashes plus one dot–7, one dash plus one dot–8, two dashes–9, and one dash–0. As a rule, every four numerals represented a word [probably = Chinese character]. After the receiver jotted down the numerals, he passed it on to the code man, who could decipher them with the aid of the codebook Little Hou was making. In reverse order to our cell, the war criminal’s room had a window facing Compound 6, so they could send and receive messages from within the room. This method would definitely resolve the problem of transmission. How excited we were! We wanted to shout for joy, but we didn’t dare. We only lifted Little Hou on our shoulders and walked a few rounds in the cell. Then he returned to working on the code.

When the lead in the pencil was worn down, Mushu would bite the tip sharp. As the main worker, Little Hou didn’t get enough sleep, his eyes bloodshot. We worried about him, but couldn’t do much to help. Without a dictionary, we couldn’t remember all the essential words, but we managed to come up with over eight hundred common characters. This wasn’t bad. The code shouldn’t be too elaborate; otherwise it would be difficult to master. So we aimed at fewer than one thousand characters. Whenever an often-used word came to mind, we would tell Little Hou. The penciled pages looked complicated and incomprehensible to me, but Little Hou could trace what he had done to avoid repetition.

Finally a booklet–loose sheets of toilet paper bound by a shoelace–was completed, which listed all the codes and gave instructions about the Walking Telegraphic Method. We put a title on the cover: The Pei Code.

War Trash, by Ha Jin (Vintage, 2004), pp. 224-225

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Multilingual Japan

One big difference I’ve noted on this, my first extended trip back to Japan in 20 years, is how much more multilingual the nation is. I don’t mean so much that more Japanese seem to speak foreign languages better than at any time since 1945–though I suspect that is also likely to be true.

What has struck me instead, on our attempts to get maximum usage from our rail passes, is the much greater quantity of signage in Chinese and Korean–and some Russian in Niigata–designed to help tourists speaking those languages. Many goods imported from other Asian countries also list instructions or ingredients in both Chinese and Korean.

But another thing that has struck me is that most Japanese now seem to expect foreigners to speak enough of the host country language to conduct simple transactions such as making purchases and asking directions. And I’ve been very impressed by the many people I’ve queried in my limited but sometimes deceptively fluent Japanese who’ve communicated very effectively in simplified and maximally redundant Japanese designed to get through to foreigners with limited proficiency.

Of course, a few bumpkins still just repeat the same thing more loudly when dealing with non-Japanese-speaking foreigners, but many people I’ve met have proven quite adept at effective foreigner talk in Japanese. The flip side of this–the hound that no longer barks–is the near absence of the reaction I used to get so often 20 or 30 years ago: Elaborate praise from strangers on hearing my first few words of Japanese. I’ve only encountered that reaction once or twice in the past 3 weeks. Nor have I encountered the speechless panic that used to overcome so many Japanese when a foreign face approached them to ask for information. Now, when speaking Japanese, the panic is more on my side, as I anticipate the inevitable hurdles of inarticulateness that are sure to trip me up the longer the conversation goes on.

Another reaction that has mercifully become much rarer is the kneejerk shouts of ハロ、ハロ (hah-ro, hah-ro) from groups of Japanese schoolboys. The only such reaction I’ve noticed on this trip has been from a group of uniformed middle-school boys touring a Japanese shrine in Sapporo who greeted us with ヘロ、ヘロ (heh-ro, heh-ro). The girls who followed greeted us instead with a civilized 今日は (kon-nichi-wa).

UPDATE, 23 August, 23 September: Yesterday my wife applied for her alien registration at the Ashikaga city office, where I learned that Japan will conduct a national census on 1 October 2005. The notice was posted in the following languages, in the following order: English (in larger type at the top), Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Tagalog, Indonesian/Malay (“Sensus nasional dilaksanakan”), Farsi/Persian (I think), Vietnamese, Hindi, Burmese, French, German, Russian, Malay/Indonesian (“Sensus Penduduk”), Arabic (if not Persian).

The same office also offered a Tochigi International Association flyer for “Consultation and Information Services” with contact information listed in the following languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Persian, Thai. The local prefectural lending library, however, had nothing substantial in any other language than English, but had many volumes of classic literature translated into Japanese from English, French, German, Russian, Korean, Chinese, German, Spanish, and Italian (roughly in that order, by quantity).

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The Battle Death Blame Game

When a man died, there had to be blame. [1LT] Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame [the dead soldier] Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.

In the field, though, the causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness or bad judgment or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever.

SOURCE: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (Broadway Books, 1998), p. 177

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Hirohito: Mere Collector or Amateur Scientist?

From 1914 to 1919, when Hirohito was in middle school, Professor Hattori Hirotarô became his teacher of natural history and physics. Hattori remained his servant in scientific pursuits for more than thirty years, cultivating Hirohito’s childhood fondness for insects and helping him to develop a keen, lifelong interest in marine biology and taxonomy. Under Hattori’s guidance, Hirohito read Darwin’s theory of evolution as interpreted by the popular writer Oka Asajirô, whose book Shinkaron kôwa (Lessons on evolution) was published in 1904. He may also have read a Japanese translation of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Around 1927 he was given a small bust of Darwin, which thereafter adorned his study alongside busts of Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte.

In September 1925, during the fourth year of his regency, Hirohito had a small, well-equipped biological laboratory established within the Akasaka Palace. Three years later, during the second year of his reign, he built … the Imperial Biological Research Institute, consisting of a greenhouse and two large laboratories, each with specimen rooms and libraries. Hattori became associated with this laboratory …. Years later Hattori edited Sagamiwan sango erarui zufu (Pictorial specimens of marine life in Sagami Bay), while Sanada Hiroo and Katô Shirô did the colored drawings, Baba Kikutarô wrote the accompanying explanations. Because the re-formed Imperial Household Agency held the copyright, the book was ascribed to Hirohito. Nowhere in the book, however, did the emperor’s name appear, which raised the question, How much of its research had actually been done by him?

Hirohito himself was always very modest about his interest in biology. When Sagamiwan sango appeared, Hattori offered an assessment of his former pupil’s scientific bent in a discussion that appeared in the Sande Mainichi on October 2, 1949. Asked whether the emperor’s studies should be viewed as genuine scientific research rather than the work of an amateur, Hattori replied:

Recently Professor Satô Tadao [of Nagoya University] wrote in the Nagoya newspaper that it belonged to the category of an amateur’s research. Indeed, depending on how one looks at the matter, I think that is true. He never published anything under his own name and ended up furnishing raw data to various specialists. Therefore, from one point of view he is, in the final analysis, probably a mere collector. But I don’t think so. He did not just hand them material he had collected. Rather, he first thoroughly investigated that material himself, and on that point he is no amateur.

Hattori’s assessment makes sense … Taught by Hattori, the emperor became a naturalist and a patron of marine biology, pursuing as a hobby the collection of sea plants and animals, such as slugs, starfish, hydrozoa, and jellyfish.

SOURCE: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 60-61

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Quake-Snarled Bullet Trains

As we were about to exit our 11th-floor apartment, we suddenly felt the building sway slightly beneath our feet and heard the rhythmic rattle of an interior door against its metal latchhook. We retreated back into our doorway, nervous but confident that the newly constructed Japanese high-rise could withstand an earthquake that had not even caused us to lose our footing. Nor had it caused any visible panic in the streets of Ashikaga far below.

It was Tuesday, the 16th of August, and we were just setting out on a complex, minutely scheduled multi-train itinerary that would have us reaching Tokyo station in time to transfer to the same Narita airport express train that an old friend coming up from Osaka was booked on, so that both she and we could meet her daughter who was due to overnight in Narita on her way back from Auckland to London for university. We were all scheduled to arrive by train at 16:25, just about the time she would be clearing customs.

We would all have just enough time to eat a traditional Japanese meal together at the airport hotel before dispersing in three different directions to spend that night: our friends staying at the hotel, my wife going back to Ashikaga for school business the next day, and my daughter and I going to our friend’s parents’ house on the west side of Tokyo so we could spend a little more time catching up the next day.

The first leg of the familiar local train ride from Ashikaga to the nearest bullet train (Shinkansen) station at Oyama gave no hint of any major disruption. Nor did the man who booked our seat reservations for the remainder of the trip. But almost as soon as we headed for the Shinkansen platform, they started turning people away, saying the Northeast Shinkansen (through Sendai) had been shut down. We had no idea why until the station announcements began blaming the earthquake. We were forced to hop on a slow local train bound for Ueno station in Tokyo.

Fortunately, we had gotten an early start in order to have time to book seat reservations, so we still had a chance to make the 15:33 Narita Express (N’EX) from Tokyo. But the sprawling Tokyo Shinkansen station was a complete mess, with no reliable timetables, repeated announcements of delays, and stranded passengers all over the place in the peak summer travel season.

At 15:33, the Narita Express platform was still listing the train scheduled for 14:33, with no indication of the actual times for any of the delayed trains. The harried platform officials assured us that seat reservations no longer mattered, that we could climb aboard any N’EX that came by. So we did, and sure enough, no one on board bothered to check our seat assignments.

We got to the airport close to 17:00, wondering how to get in touch with our friends. We went first to the arrival area outside customs, and were shocked almost immediately to run into our friend from Osaka, who had arrived on the same train we had and was waiting for her daughter’s flight to clear customs. It had been delayed, too–but not by an earthquake!

We had a very pleasant dinner, imagining that the world-famous Shinkansen system was quickly getting back on schedule. When we dispatched my wife, who knows hardly any Japanese, back to the Narita Express station, we had no idea what we had condemned her to. The N’EX had canceled most of its runs, so she had to take a series of slower trains all the way back to Ashikaga, arriving home about midnight.

An hour after my wife left, my daughter and I headed for a N’EX that was supposed to go all the way to Kokubunji on the west side of Tokyo, where our hosts for the night expected us to show up pretty late anyway. But that train was canceled, so we were instead put on a bus for Shinjuku, the major west-side transfer station. As it happened, the bus got to Shinjuku early enough to allow us to jump on a commuter express that got us into Kokubunji much faster than either we or our hosts had expected.

The northbound Shinkansen was still snarled the next evening when we headed back to Ashikaga, but all the local trains and buses provided a very effective–if slower–backup system.

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