Monthly Archives: July 2010

Another Holiday Hiatus

We’re off to Japan until the end of the month.

UPDATE: I’ve been very busy since I got back, but I have managed to upload, in small batches of a half dozen or so at a time, several score of the hundreds of photos from our trip, many of them with captions that contain tiny Wordcatcher Tales in their own right. Just click on the images from my Flickr account that display on this blog.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Akasuri

At the end of a long day’s excursion last summer that included being caught in a downpour in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, my friend and host suggested we visit her favorite local bathhouse back in Osaka. I hadn’t been to a Japanese public bathhouse in many years, and this was the fanciest one I have ever been to.

It had a noisy game room below but a large expanse of many different indoor and outdoor pools on the top floor. I sampled most of them during the hour I had until my appointment for a massage: the hot tub, the cold tub, the large outdoor pool under the dark sky, and the line of individual tubs, quickly retreating from the first one I tried, which greeted my entering leg with a mild but unexpected electrical charge. There weren’t many of us in the men’s side; I often had the tubs to myself. Finally, worried about missing my appointment, I sat marinating in the rosemary herbal pool, which had a clock on the wall big enough for me to read without my glasses.

垢擦り akasuri ‘cloth/pumice/loofah for rubbing body’ (lit. ‘scurf-chafing’) – My friend, who went in the women’s side, had chosen the basic akasuri exfoliating rubdown, rather than the Swedish or shiatsu or other massage. I had never tried that one, so I chose the same. She had told me that the masseuses on the women’s side were middle-aged ethnic Koreans. In fact, I would guess the bathhouse complex itself was owned by members of Osaka’s huge ethnic Korean population.

The masseuses on the men’s side were also sturdy middle-aged ladies. I didn’t ask their age or ethnicity. In fact, I was far too relaxed to be as inquisitive as I often am in Japanese restaurants. There was only one other man on a massage table when I showed up, and a different one on another table by the time I finished. In the meantime, the masseuse abraded every inch of my skin—apart from face and genitals (always carefully covered by a washcloth)—first with an astringent, then with a light oil.

By the end my skin felt as smooth as it ever has in my adult life. Although I was a little bit too raw in a few places, I felt ‘grime-free’, that is, 垢抜け akanuke ‘elegant, urbane’. A proper chafing leaves one more refined, as in 人擦れ hitozure ‘(person-abrasion =) sophistication’, even too refined, as in 悪擦れ waruzure ‘(bad-abrasion =) oversophistication’. But improper chafing can leave a 擦り傷 surikizu ‘(scrape-wound =) abrasion, scratch’ or a 床擦れ tokozure ‘bedsore’.

The more generic term for traditional ‘massage’ or ‘masseuse, masseur’ in Japanese is 按摩 anma lit. ‘press-rub’. The two kanji for ‘rub’ and ‘scrape’ combine in the Sino-Japanese compound 摩擦 masatsu ‘friction’, as in 摩擦音 masatsuon ‘fricative sound’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Noukanshi, Encoffiner

納棺師 noukanshi ‘encoffiner’ (lit. ‘closing-coffin-master’) – I learned both a new Japanese word and a new English gloss from watching the Japanese movie, Departures (おくりびと Okuribito lit. ‘sender, dispatcher’, 2008), about a cellist who became an encoffiner. I initially scoffed at its premise and was not overly impressed by its Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, but decided to give it a try, as much for its potential musicality as its morbidity.

It far exceeded my expectations on both counts. Although quintessentially Japanese in so many ways, it could be adapted to every other human culture on earth—even Neanderthals, who buried their dead with some indications of ritual. The original cello score by “Joe Hisaishi” (久石 譲 = Kuishi Joe < “Quincy Jones”) was an added bonus, as was the interview with the director, so full of surprises. Highly recommended, despite being recent and award-winning!

In Japan, the 納棺師 noukanshi ‘encoffiner’ is hired by the 葬儀屋 sougiyafuneral director’. Not so long ago (perhaps even nowadays), anyone who was hired to handle dead bodies, or even leather, would have been of outcast status, although until recently the family of the deceased would more likely have been responsible for preparing the body.

In fact, a more traditional, less exalted, and more sexist term for the same role appears in the 1996 novel by Aoki Shinmon that inspired the film, 納棺夫日記 Noukanfu nikki (‘encoffiner diary’). The 夫 fu on the end of 納棺夫 noukanfu literally means ‘man, husband’ (in the latter meaning usually pronounced otto or fuu) but implies a manual laborer, as in 田夫 denpu ‘peasant (field hand)’, 農夫 noufu ‘farmer (farm hand)’, 牧夫 bokufu ‘herder (ranch hand)’, 漁夫 gyofu ‘fisherman’, 工夫 koufu ‘coolie, workman’, or 車夫 shafu ‘rickshaw man’. As one might expect, the role of encoffiner is often performed by women.

In the film, the encoffiner—in full view of the assembled family—carefully exchanges the deceased’s bedclothes for a typical sleeping yukata without ever showing more than the corpse’s head, feet, and forearms; then reaches under the yukata to wipe down the body and plug its orifices; then carefully dresses the body in funeral garb, applies cosmetics, arranges the hair, crosses the feet, and clasps the hands to make it ready for placement and viewing in the coffin. After the wake and religious funeral, the body is cremated inside its wooden coffin.

The job title of the noukanshi is not easy to translate into English. Although he prepares the body for public viewing, he doesn’t embalm it (out of public view in a morgue), so ’embalmer’ is not a good gloss. Although he performs a comforting ritual in the family’s presence, he handles only one phase of the death ritual, unlike today’s multitasking morticians, undertakers, or funeral directors. Nor does he add any religious message, as would an imam, pastor, priest, or rabbi. So encoffiner seems as good a gloss as any. Even though most of its attestations in cyberspace seem to postdate this film—as does 納棺師 in Japanese Wikipedia—the related term encoffinment (especially premature encoffinment!) has a longer pedigree.

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The Making of “Uncle Goat”

From: Comfort All Who Mourn: The Life Story of Herbert and Madeline Nicholson, by Herbert V. Nicholson and Margaret Wilke (Bookmates International, 1982), pp. 137-140:

We sailed for Japan on the Flying Scud with two hundred fifty goats. Dick Clark, an expert photographer, was on board with color movie film to record the trip. When it was over he edited some two thousand feet of film into “Ambaassadors of Peace,” the record of our trip with the emphasis on “baa.” Besides Dick and his camera there was Al Brower, a ventriloquist with his doll Bill, Les Yoder, a Mennonite young man who came along to help, and Ty Nagano, a Nisei.

We arrived in May, which happened to be kidding time. We started with two hundred fifty goats and landed with two hundred sixty five! Just before we reached Yokohama, I was called from bed in the middle of the night. There was trouble in the maternity ward. I found “Temperance,” given by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, in agony. She was having a breech delivery. Everyone was standing around not knowing what to do, so I rolled up my sleeves to help. I managed to get hold of the kid’s legs and pulled while Temperance pushed, and out came a beautiful large doe. We named her Kiyoko, which means “pure.”

When we landed in Yokohama, there was a welcome meeting for us. On that occasion, I told the story of a young Nisei girl, Satomi Yasui, and her family in America who had raised four goats for our project. The Japanese Vice-Minister for Agriculture who was present at the meeting told me afterward that I should tell the story over the radio for the children’s hour. So I went to the NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Company) office in Tokyo, but I was told that getting clearance for me to speak on the air would take six months.

Instead, I told the story to a newsman, a reporter for the women’s hour, and to a young man for the children’s hour. The young man elaborated on my story in his talk over the air. Another man heard the program and wrote it down for a large children’s magazine, adding even more changes. Finally, with more additions, the story was put into a fifth grade reader, and I became known as “Uncle Goat.”

In the reader, the story was no longer about Satomi, but about a boy named Harry whose father had been killed in the war with Japan. It was a very touching story about the sympathetic love of a lad who sacrificed to send a goat to the children of the man who had killed his father. In later years the printing of that story in the reader opened the way for me to speak in many schools all over Japan where I might otherwise never have had the opportunity….

At Honolulu [on the way back home to the States] I was “bumped off” the flight for someone of higher priority. It was four days before I could get another flight, so I used the time to tell the people in Hawaii about the goat project. The Okinawans living in Hawaii sent me a total of $35,000 for goats as a result of that visit. With the money, Heifers for Relief was able to send over five thousand goats to both Japan and Okinawa. After four wonderful days I made it back to San Francisco just in time to help send off the next load of goats.

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The Heifer Project’s First Goats for Okinawa

From: Comfort All Who Mourn: The Life Story of Herbert and Madeline Nicholson, by Herbert V. Nicholson and Margaret Wilke (Bookmates International, 1982), pp. 127-129:

An organization called Heifers for Relief, sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, decided to accept my offer to raise money and take goats to war-torn Japan.

Milk was in desperately short supply overseas and the Japanese children were being severely affected by the shortage. Ordinarily the Heifer project sent only bred heifers to ravaged areas. In this case, goats answered the need more readily, so goats were sent for the first time in its history. Later they sent all sorts of farm animals to many countries and aided poor farmers in the United States as well.*

When I received approval of the goat project I went to work. I raised a good part of the money and bought most of the goats myself. Then I gathered a little group of men to accompany me on the first trip. Sim Togasaki, a Nisei from San Francisco, wanted to come because he needed to make contacts in Japan for his importing business. Although he knew nothing about goats, he was a hard worker and a great help because he spoke fluent Japanese. Ted Roberts, a dairyman who had always been interested in the Japanese, and Paul McCracken, a goat expert, also came with us. Paul was a Quaker, too, so I was glad to have him along. My son Samuel also came. He took color slides everywhere which later were a great help in raising money for more goats.

In October, 1947, we arrived in San Francisco ready to load up for a trip when we found, to our great disappointment, that the Army had decided to send us to Okinawa rather than Japan! The following load would be scheduled for Japan. That disappointment was to become God’s surprise for us. What lay ahead was a wonderful adventure.

The Army had built pens for our two hundred goats on the rear deck of the Simon Benson, a small liberty ship which was not in good shape. We had a rough trip across the Pacific and were very relieved when we reached Okinawa safely. Later we learned that on its next trip the ship had split open! It was easy to believe.

Our arrival in Okinawa was an unforgettable experience. The harbor at Naha was full of sunken ships. The city had been completely destroyed. We could only stare in shock and pity.

We received a warm welcome and were greeted by the governor and other dignitaries. It was a delight to discover that Mr. Shikiya, the governor, was a Christian. After the ceremonies, in which we presented a goat to the community, we milked the remainder of our goats and took the milk to an orphanage.

We discovered that we were to be housed at the Military Government Headquarters across the island from Naha. Our escort there was a former missionary to Japan, Everett Thompson, who was in charge of LARA (Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia). The occupation forces did not want to work with a lot of separate relief organizations, so they formed this agency to coordinate all relief efforts. The Heifer project joined LARA, as did the Church World Service, the Friends’ Service Committee, and many others.

At the Military Government Headquarters we were taken to the officers’ quarters. What a surprise to discover that we goatherds were classed as colonels.

* Nicholson seems to have been unaware that the Heifer project had already been sending horses and chickens as well as cattle to war-torn Europe in 1946.

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Sumo: Another Basho, Another Scandal

I was hoping to watch some TV coverage of the upcoming sumo basho while on vacation in Japan later this month, but yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor explains why that may not be possible. Japanese sumo scandals threaten to topple Nagoya tournament.

Japanese sumo scandals involving gambling and mob ties could upend an upcoming Nagoya tournament. Friday, public broadcaster NHK made the unprecedented threat to pull coverage of the tournament.

The uncovering of an illegal mob-run gambling ring in sumo has further tarnished Japan’s centuries-old national sport after a string of recent scandals and may lead to the first cancellation of a tournament in the postwar era. Sponsors have pulled out of the Nagoya Basho (tournament) – due to start July 11 – after dozens of wrestlers, senior officials, and others involved in the sport admitted gambling on baseball through a syndicate run by yakuza, or mafia.

Japan’s public broadcasting network, NHK, added to the sport’s woes Friday by announcing it might drop coverage of the event. The network said it had received 8,200 public comments, only about 10 percent of which supported going ahead with airing the Nagoya Basho….

Legal gambling in Japan is restricted to on-site betting on horses, speedboats, and cycling – all government-controlled. In addition there is the huge gray area of pachinko, a kind of vertical pinball game….

Many previous scandals of recent years have been centered round foreign wrestlers, much to Japanese relief. In 2008, three Russian grapplers were expelled for drug use, though a Japanese national also later tested positive. This year, grand champion Asashoryu – the third-most successful wrestler in sumo history and a Mongolian – had to retire after allegedly beating someone while on a drunken night out during the Tokyo Basho (which he went on to win).

But foreigners can’t always be blamed: In May, as the betting scandal unfolded, it emerged that stable-masters had given ringside seats to yakuza bosses at tournaments. The mobsters allegedly wanted to be seen by incarcerated gang members on the NHK broadcasts. The JSA took the unprecedented step of disbanding one of the sumo stables involved.

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Drosophila spp.: Guinea Pigs with Wings

From Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, by Alan Burdick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), pp. 127-128:

Sun filtered down through the trees, rustling in a steady wind: wonderful weather for humans, [David] Foote said, but terrible for flies. “These are the worst possible conditions—I just want to warn you.” Of all the Hawaiian insects, the dearest to Foote is the family Drosophilidae, the pomace flies, better known, not entirely correctly, as fruit flies. Included in the family Drosophilidae is the genus Drosophila. Among genetics researchers, Drosophila is the organism of choice. Its chromosomes are few and big and easily extracted from its salivary glands; it reproduces at ten days of age, so genetic changes unfold observably from generation to generation, which means you can wrap up an experiment in a matter of weeks. Also, flies don’t eat much—not like mice or lab rats, which will quickly chew a hole in one’s departmental budget. Over the past century, the science of genetics has grown up around one drosophila species in particular, Drosophila melanogaster, a tiny red-eyed orange fly so ubiquitous that scientists simply shrug and call it “cosmopolitan.” Drosophila melanogaster is a guinea pig with wings. It has been scrutinized and forcibly mutated, crossbred, back-bred, inbred. Scientists have created drosophilas with extra-long life spans (sixty days, instead of thirty), drosophilas with superior maze-navigating abilities, drosophilas dumb as posts; drosophilas with no legs, with legs sprouting from their heads, even—I saw their photograph a few years ago on the front page of The New York Times—with extra, ectopic eyes peering out from where their knees should be. A great deal of what we know about ourselves has been gleaned from monkeying with this pale orange fly.

In contrast, the drosophilas of Hawaii owe their oddity entirely to the whims of natural selection. They are a tribe unto themselves: oversize, with elaborate stripes and colorations and strange and intricate mating rituals. To prove their sexual worth, males of the species Drosophila heteroneura butt heads, which are elongated like those of hammerhead sharks. Males of the closely related Drosophila silvestris stand on their hind legs and grapple like boxers in the clinch. If you want to understand the genetics of colonization, isolation, and speciation in a nonlaboratory setting, the Hawaiian drosophilas are your subject; they are honeycreepers for entomologists. There are some six hundred species of Drosophila in Hawaii, one-fifth of all the Drosophila species in the world—the progeny of flies that tumbled from earlier Hawaiian islands and have been doing so for forty-two million years, ever since the one fly from which they are all descended blew in from somewhere else, to an island that long ago submerged. From one strange and alluring species to the next, drosophila are themselves a sort of archipelago of biodiversity.

And as surely as the honeycreepers are indicators of environmental change in Hawaii, so too are the drosophilas, perhaps more so. Ecologists sometimes describe an ecosystem as a sort of pyramidal hotel of energy consumers, built up of successive trophic layers of feeders and fed-upons: plants, which draw their energy from light; grazers, which draw their energy from plants and span a range of organisms from leaf-mining insects to fruit-eating bats to Jersey cows; and predators, like tigers, feral cats, Tyrannosaurus rex, and bird-eating brown tree snakes. It is a loose schema, with numerous exceptions and outstanding questions. (Which story, for example, do carnivorous army ants inhabit in the Amazonian rain forest pyramid?) The drosophilas occupy a janitoral closet near the base of this building. They subsist largely on decaying plant material-bark, branches, leaf litter. They are composters, thriving on the senescence and misfortune of their fellow hotel guests. Most everything ends with them. The drosophilas are so ubiquitous in Hawaiian rain forests and their microhabitats so varied that their seemingly minor fates in fact closely reflect the spectrum of disruptions and alterations unfolding above and around them-including but not limited to the damage caused, or said to be caused, by feral pigs. If your quarry is the pig, it pays to follow the flies.

“The drosophilas are decomposers in this ecosystem,” Foote explained to me one afternoon on the Big Island. “They’re responsible for breaking down the organic matter in plants and allowing the nutrients to be cycled up into the forest again. These particular species breed on plants that are some of the most sensitive to disturbance by pigs, cattle, and rats. So we’re very concerned about their status.”

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