Higuma, King of the Forest (Dec., 2001)
by Carey Paterson

It was December 1915, and Hokkaido was bracing for another brutal winter. Chipmunk and deer were busy preparing for the coming freeze, and so were the people of Sankebetsu, a settlement of 15 households nestled in the wilderness between Asahikawa and the Sea of Japan.
Bears were particularly busy, foraging with the special hunger of an animal anticipating months in bed. On December 19, just such a bear appeared in Sankebetsu. It approached a dwelling, burst in on a woman and child, and killed them both.

The grieving villagers arranged a funeral for the next day. At the service, they trembled with more than grief. They knew a man-eater lurked near their tiny outpost. Their fears were realized when the bear reappeared mid-ceremony. Although the attendees escaped, other villagers did not. By the time the beast had returned to the forest, five more funerals were needed.
It was clear that this was no ordinary bear. It had lost all fear of humans and, more important, it had gained a taste for them. The settlers formed a hunting party. Recruiting a leathery mountain man from another village, the group set out on a fine day, armed for bear, as the expression goes.
They tracked the animal through the wilds and finally closed with it. The mountain man took aim, fired, and hit his mark. The bear fell dead from the rifle shot.
As they went to drag the carcass back to the village, a storm blew up and continued to rage for seven hours. Believing the storm to be a result of the bear's death, the villagers dubbed it kuma arashi (bear storm).

With its generous helpings of gore and drama, seasoned with a dash of folklore, it is not surprising that the Sankebetsu Bear Attack, as it came to be known, captured the imagination of Japan. Go to the library and you can read a book about it, or see the movie if you prefer. Better yet, visit the Tomamae Town Museum, which commemorates the incident in reconstructions of the village, complete with life-size figures of rampaging beast and startled settler.
A visitor to the museum can only wonder: If bears scared the mochi out of Hokkaido's hardy pioneers, what hope is there for the Nintendo-softened, McDonalds-fattened hiker of today?
A good hope, says Kuniko Yokosuka of Earth Wind, an environmental NPO based in Sapporo. Ms. Yokosuka, a mountain guide, came to Hokkaido after trading her stifling job at a publishing company in Tokyo for the breathing room of this prefecture's wilderness. She now treks 180 days a year and lectures on hiking and bear safety.
"It is right to fear bears," she says, "but it is more important that you respect them and understand them." Although fearsome, they generally avoid close contact with people, she notes, adding that Hokkaido sees fewer than one fatal bear attack a year, versus eight wasp sting deaths.
This statistic is somewhat misleading, however. The wasp figure covers all areas, from mid-forest to mid-city. Bears, unlike wasps, will not come into town and kill you. (Unless you happened to live in 1915 Sankebetsu.) This means that if you go hiking, your odds of a bear attack increase much more than your odds of a wasp attack.
The Hokkaido Government has firmer numbers, and these are more reassuring. They show 86 bear attacks since scorekeeping started in 1962, with 33 resulting in death. There have been fewer attacks in the past twenty years, although the years since 1998 have been unusually bloody, with seven fatalities. This still works out to fewer than one death per year, and considering the number of hikers tempted by Hokkaido's sublime trails, the odds look good.
Good, that is, unless you become the unlucky statistic, and Ms. Yokosuka has some advice to keep that from happening.


If there is anything the experts agree on, she says, it is the importance of avoiding bears in the first place, hence the bells many hikers attach to their gear. Shouting or clapping also can alert a bear to your presence and give it time to retreat. Brown bears are rarely looking for trouble, but with eight-centimeter-long claws and running speeds much faster than any human, they are more than able to dish it out.
Campers should stow food in trees and leave waste well away from where they will be sleeping. A bear safety video from the Forest Service of British Columbia, Canada, also recommends that campers orient tents to provide a line of sight to the trash and cooking areas and arrange the tents in a line, to allow the animal an easy retreat. Leave your pets at home.
If you do encounter a bear, remember these "don'ts."
Don't run. Bears have a chase response and they clock in at 50 kph. This is much faster than you. And contrary to popular belief, bears run downhill very well.
Don't stare down a bear. This could be interpreted as a challenge, and the bear just might take you up on it. At the same time, don't give the bear the impression that you are unaware of it.
Don't play dead. (More about that later.)
Now for the "do's." The British Columbia video describes the proper behavior for each of three situations: pre-encounter, encounter, and attack.
It recommends avoiding an encounter by making noise, being aware of your surroundings and being on the lookout for signs of bear foraging, such as dug up earth or ripped up logs.
If you do encounter a bear, you should stay calm and not run. If you think you can leave without being noticed, you should do so. Otherwise, alert the bear to your presence by talking and waving your arms as you retreat -- preferably upwind, to give the bear your scent. If the animal follows, leave gear behind to distract it, but leave food only as a last resort. A bear that has learned to scare the living Pocky out of people is a short step away from learning that people taste even better than Pocky.
If an attack is imminent, you should try to determine the bear's intent: predatory or defensive. Does the bear see you as a threat to be chased away, or as a meal to be chased down? The correct answer to this question can mean the difference between a great campfire yarn and an obit in the Hokkaido Shimbun.
Here's the rule of thumb: If the bear has been stalking you, it's a fair bet that the animal sees you as an easy meal. You must disabuse it of this notion immediately. Act aggressively. Shout. Wave your arms to make yourself look bigger. Jump up and down.
In contrast, a bear that has been startled into attacking is likely to be acting defensively. Even if it is charging, it may be bluffing. Back away slowly, waving your arms. If it reaches you, roll into a ball with your hands clasped behind your neck. Shy as bears normally are, they do know your vital points: neck and belly. If the bear tries to flip you over, flip back onto your side. Some people consider this "playing dead." Ms. Yokosuka says it is more like playing hard to get. Remember that when a bear rears up on its hind legs, it is not attacking. It is trying to get your scent.
It may sound impossible not to turn tail when 300 kilograms of death is closing at 50 kph. Ms. Yokosuka says it is easier than you might expect.
"I was at Mashike, Hokkaido, when a brown bear charged me," she recalls. "I instinctively froze." Seeing her stand her ground and not act threateningly, the bear retreated. Ms. Yokosuka says she sights bears about four times a year.


Hokkaido's higuma, or brown bear, belongs to the world's most widely distributed bear species: Ursus arctos, known in North America as the grizzly. It is found from the arctic seas of North America, Europe, and Asia, to the forests of Canada and Russia, even as far south as Mexico, Spain and Iran.
In North America, bears are mainly of two species: brown, and black (Ursus americanus). In Japan, only brown bears live in Hokkaido, and only black bears live on Honshu and Kyushu. The two species arrived from the Asian continent via different land bridges but were kept apart by the Tsugaru Straits.
It is difficult to know how many higuma remain in Hokkaido. Estimates have them holding steady between two- and three-thousand animals, mostly on the Shiretoko Peninsula of Eastern Hokkaido, at the mountains in the center of the prefecture and in many areas of southern Hokkaido, including the wilderness south and west of Sapporo. This is four times as many brown bears as in continental U.S.
If these numbers alarm you, it might help to remember that higuma are omnivores. Some three-fourths of their diet is plants, with most of the rest being fish, carrion and insects.
"They love ants," Ms. Yokosuka says. "They can eat five kilograms of them a day."
As you read this, higuma are slumbering away in caves or hollows dug under large trees or into hillsides. But they do not hibernate in the true sense. Their body temperature drops only about six degrees Celsius and they are easily awakened. If left to their dreams, however, they can sleep for several months without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating. Their unique metabolism allows their to rehydrate by converting fat into water, and their amazing kidneys break down waste products to prevent a buildup of toxic urea. The winter slumber is also when females bear their young, usually in a litter of two or three cubs.


The higuma owes much of its renown to the Ainu, whose most important religious ceremony recalls Paleolithic bear cults, according to the anthropologist K. Kindaichi, who described it in a 1949 paper.

The Ainu would capture a bear cub, nurture it for months and then sacrifice it during an elaborate ritualcThis Ainu bear is the earthly manifestation of the head of the mountain gods, Chira-Mante-Kamui; his bear form is his disguise when visiting the earth. The Ainu gods view humankind as equal to them. They wish to be on the best of terms with human beings because the offerings made during rituals reach the kingdom of the gods where they become the banquet items when the gods themselves hold festivalscThe ritual surrounding the bear frees the god to return to his kingdom where the deities can enjoy the fruits of the ritual.

Ainu wisdom even explains why some bears begin to prey on people. Ms. Yokosuka says that the Ainu believed a bear must follow rules of conduct. If it misbehaved, such as by eating a human, it would be condemned to continue this wrongdoing. This neatly explains the Sankebetsu man-eater.
While human killings get the most attention, bears also are responsible for agricultural damage. Annual crop losses in Hokkaido average some 90 million yen, not including livestock casualties. Environmentalists, farmers, and the prefectural government are seeking a balance between the conservation of bear populations and the protection of human life and livelihood.
Under the Wildlife Protection and Hunting Law, the higuma is nominally protected. But if you are wondering how one protects wildlife by hunting it, you might also wonder how a government body in charge of culling bears can call itself the Wildlife Protection Division. Or how it cannot recall anyone being punished for violating the protection law.
In fact, the Hokkaido Government promoted bear hunting until 1990, under its "Spring Bear Extermination" program, and it is reintroducing a cull from the spring of 2002, under the sanitized name of "Supervision and Protection." This misnomer does not mean protection and supervision of bears, but protection of people and farms and supervision of killing.
The government says it will be more careful about tracking the number of killings and it will consult with experts about how to keep the higuma from extinction. The program also calls for preventive measures including the installation of fences for crops and more careful garbage management.
Ms. Yokosuka says that bears who repeatedly enter populated areas should be killed, because the higuma's extraordinary homing instinct makes relocation impractical.
One can only hope a balance is found. It would be a shame if the higuma remained only as sideshow attraction in Hokkaido's touristy bear parks. How much more wonderful it is to visit the bear's wilderness domain with the knowledge that somewhere out there, the king of the forest is reigning free.

Making Friends with the Natives (Oct., 2001)
by Danny Lamont

I bet you're one of the following people:
A) You've lived in a foreign country for a year or two.
B) You're living in a foreign country now.
C) You're planning at some point to live abroad for a year or so.
If you're a C, you're probably full of expectation. You'll make good friends with the natives and other nationalities, learn the language, and have a great experience. But before you go abroad, ask an A or a B how easy they found making friends with the natives. It might save you some disappointment.

Wading through a sea of cafe tables in London's trendy Soho are two B's, Megumi and Rika. Both in their early twenties, they've been living in London for five months, studying English.
"Making friends with English people here is much more difficult than we expected," Rika says. "We haven't made any English friends so far. We have made lots of friends from other countries, like Spain, Italy, China and Greece who we've met at language school and at parties. That is a great thing about being here - you can make friends from all over the world. But it's a disappointment not to have made English friends so far."
I come across Hiro, Akiko, and Yuki outside Camden Market just as they are saying goodbye to some French friends.
"We haven't managed to make any English friends yet. We just don't get the chance to meet them. When we improve our English, things will get easier," reckons Akiko.
People often cite the language barrier as the reason Japanese don't make friends with many native speakers abroad. But that is only one factor, according to Masa, 23, who has just come back to Sapporo after 14 months in Sydney. His English is just about perfect.
"Until the middle of my stay, I felt that I didn't know how to make friends with the Australians. You have to be proactive, otherwise they assume you can't speak much English. I was shy over there, as many Japanese people are. I think I didn't use the opportunities that I had to talk to people as much as I could have done."
Squandering chances to make friends was something that Akiko, a 26-year-old from Sapporo, attributes to her lack of confidence in English.
"During my two-year stay in Sydney, I did a course in jewelry making, and my teacher, who was Australian, introduced me to his friends. Though they invited me out with them, I didn't go, because I didn't feel my English was good enough."
What Japanese people abroad so often forget is that communication skills count far more than actual language ability when it comes to making friends. According to social psychologist Alan Pease in his book "Body Language," what people actually say is the least important thing in face-to-face interaction. When somebody speaks, body language makes up 70% of the received message, tone of voice 22% and actual words a measly 8%.
There are many reasons why people living abroad have trouble making friends with the natives there. People living in their own country have less of a need for new friends. Friendship follows the path of least resistance - people naturally gravitate towards those from similar backgrounds and towards those who will mix with their existing friends with the least awkwardness. And people can be reluctant to put the effort into becoming friends with someone who may be leaving.
When the shoe is on the other foot, how easy is it for foreigners to make friends with Japanese in Hokkaido? Japan's fascination with Western culture seems insatiable, and according to the Management and Coordination Agency there are only 625,000 registered foreigners in Japan (excluding ethnic Chinese and Koreans, most of whom grew up here), which makes non-Japanese something of a rarity. Making friends must be a doddle!
So imagine you're on a plane to Japan for the first time, looking forward to making Japanese friends. You pick up the helpful guidebook "Live and Work in Japan" by David and Elizabeth Roberts, and check the section called "Social Life".

"Most Japanese are still fascinated by gaijin and are usually keen to be hospitable. Nonetheless, you may find it difficult to develop friendships with the Japanese people at the kind of level to which you may be accustomed. Tomodachi are friends who go back to school days. This type of friendship equates most closely to our own idea of friendship, but by definition excludes the newcomer to Japan. Many foreigners find it easiest to make real friendships amongst the expatriate community, where it exists (and that is in all but the most remote areas)."

Does your heart sink? Sure, it's great to make friends with other foreigners, but making friends with the Japanese was a big part of the game plan. Sobbing quietly into the shoulder of the unfortunate person next to you, you are about to ask a flight attendant if the pilot can turn the plane around, when you think, "Hang on, how can a guidebook generalize on something as subjective, as personal, as friendship?"
Perhaps the Roberts's section on social life should have had a blank page with the words "SEE FOR YOURSELF." Whether you judge the book's advice to be accurate or just plain negative is not the point. It's not your reaction, but your action that counts.
We get opinions and advice from each other every day, bundled up in the form of well-meaning generalizations. These are eagerly consumed by listeners with little more than an "Oh, really?" as a validity check. But ask the speaker a couple of questions about what exactly they based their opinion on, and you may find out whether their judgement is valid.
Person A: "People at that gym aren't friendly."
Person B: "How many times have you been?"
Person A: "Once."
The more that Japanese and foreigners understand each other's experience of trying to make friends, the better. Foreigners, when they first arrive in Hokkaido, are struck by how friendly everyone is to them.
"At first, it's great when you get all the attention because you're a foreigner. You feel a bit like a king, even though really it's a false dynasty," says Graham (not his real name), 31, who's been teaching in Hokkaido for three years.
When the honeymoon is over, foreigners often find that making friends is more difficult than they imagined.
"To find a group of Japanese friends that you can really do things with, like call up and go camping is really difficult," reckons Steve, 26, who has been teaching English in Sapporo for more than three years. "Friendships feel very superficial here. I think many Japanese people aren't looking to have a long-term foreigner friend, just a short-term 'fling.'"
Lots of foreigners feel the effort is one-way traffic. Paul, a 26-year-old who has been in Sapporo almost two years, says: "I know some lovely Japanese people here who I really enjoy hanging out with. I often invite them out with my friends, and though they come and we have a great time, they rarely return the compliment and invite me out with their own friends. I don't really understand why. I can speak Japanese quite well. Perhaps they don't think I would fit in to their other friendship groups and it would be awkward."
David, 30, who has taught English in Sapporo for six years, has also been surprised that the Japanese aren't more proactive in their friendships with foreigners.
"Japanese seem to have less of a tendency to follow up on that friendship, to call you up and invite you out. I've made some very good friendships, but it takes a lot of hard work." He wonders whether it's shyness rather than lack of will on the part of the Japanese. Paradoxically, there more than 300 messages a year put on the message board at Sapporo International Communication Plaza by Japanese people looking for foreign friends, according to a rough count.
Being proactive does pay off though. Karen, who has been teaching in Sapporo for four years, has three very close girlfriends, and they all make an effort to meet regularly.
"I'd say that the friendships are as strong as friendships I have back home in Canada."
Sometimes, the actual interaction can be quite different from what people are used to, a difference that surprised Paul when he went camping recently.
"I realized that I hardly know my Japanese friends, and they hardly know me! Compared to foreigners, Japanese people rarely seem to ask each other personal questions, give forthright opinions or talk about personal experience, so it's harder to get to know them. Foreigners want to get to know people that way. In a way, I wish we had found out more about each other and talked less about how good the yakisoba was!"
Compared with abroad, Hokkaido's nightlife offers limited opportunity to meet new people. With izakayas, everyone is fixed in allocated seats, which makes it difficult to mingle. Some of the few bars that do offer the go-where-you-want freedom of bars abroad are Locotonte, Rad Brothers, Gaijin Bar and Salsita.
There are also international parties. The recipe: Take a cafe or bar, add 30 to 60 foreigners and Japanese, marinate in a nomihodai, and sprinkle with snacks. These parties typically cost less for foreigners than for Japanese, so in return there's a mild obligation for foreigners to chat in English, which many of the Japanese attendees want to practice.
A new social dish, however, is about to be served.
How many times have you woken up one morning and fancied doing a new sport or activity, but not had the friends to do it with? Or wanted to meet some new people through an activity that doesn't necessarily involve lifting glasses of alcohol off a table? Great news! Several foreigners have started a voluntary organisation, Sapporo International Friendship Society (SIFS), which will run events open to anyone.
"SIFS wants to offer people lots of different activities and opportunities for people to interact," says Ian Buchanan, 32, an English teacher who is one of the founders. "It could be anything: a snowball fight, an onsen trip, a barbecue, a beach trip, a volleyball game, or a skiing or snowboarding trip."
Ian is running SIFS (s_i_f_s@yahoo.com) along with Ryan Zeigler, 26, who is in the Masters program at Hokkaido University.
"The idea is so simple," explains Ryan. "People give us their e-mail address, and when there's an event coming up we mail them the details. We're planning to have a Web site and bulletin board, so that if someone wants to find a tennis partner for example, they post a message."
The inspiration came when Ian and some other foreigners realized that they had "missed a lot of opportunities to make friends with Japanese and even with other foreigners, because the opportunities to meet them hadn't been there," as Ian says.
"I've noticed that if you just say to a Japanese person, "Hey, I'm having a party with my friends, come and join us,' they often worry about who else is coming and whether they will fit in," says Ryan. "Foreigners throw all the cards into the wind. If they know one person out of twenty at the start, that's fine for them. The grouping element limits the opportunities that Japanese and foreigners have to meet each other. With an organisation like SIFS, Japanese people won't feel so hesitant about coming along."
July marked their first event: a barbecue at Toyohira River attended by more than 100 people.
As Ian says, "You don't even realise the demand for this kind of thing until you start doing it."

Alex Cafe,
Fortnightly on Fridays, 7:30 - 11:30 p.m.
(Halloween party: Friday, 26 October)
Nomihodai and food. Foreigners \1000, Japanese \2000
5F, President Sapporo, 2-chome, Odori Higashi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Tel: 011-233-0154

Club Latino
Latin Dance Party, (just talking is fine, too): 3rd Sunday of the month.
2:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. (not October)
Ebetsu International Center (3 minutes from JR Nopporo Station)
Tel: 011-381-1111

May's Party
Fortnightly (usually 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month), 8:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
(Halloween party: Saturday, 27 October)
Nomihodai and food. Foreigners \1000, Japanese \2000
1F, Devex Building, N1 W20, Chuo-ku Sapporo
Tel: 011-621-3263
Email: may@ha.bekkoame.ne.jp

Whitewater Terror:
Niseko's Terrific Whitewater Rafting

by Bill Andrechek

You're going to the river today to ride in a raft with a group of people you hardly know, but everyone on the bus seems to be in good spirits as you wind through the mountains. Some are singing popular songs, some are snoozing peacefully and many are eating from bentos or munching the onigiri they prepared that morning.
"Is this your first time?" a young girl in a pink New York Yankees baseball cap casually asks. You reply that it is, and she responds that it is hers too. The atmosphere in the bus is calm and no-one has a care in the world about what they are about to do. You, however, are starting to feel an uneasiness in the pit of your stomach as you become more acutely aware of your surroundings. That's when your eye suddenly catches something on the shoulder of the highway. A dead gull is lying awkwardly in the dirt with a wing reaching to the heavens, and you know it must have been hit by a vehicle. You remember hearing somewhere that a dead bird is a strong omen but you laugh it off, never really having been a superstitious person.
"Did you see that bird?" you ask the girl beside you.
"What bird? no... was there a bird?" she distantly replies.
Now you're getting into your raft and you look around at the other riders and feel a bit perturbed that everyone else is delighted with the prospect of taking a trip down this unknown river with these complete strangers. It's a bright day but the water is black and the vague uneasiness in your gut has grown into a distinct fear. Nobody notices you at all and you tell yourself it's all in your head and that if these frail little girls you're with don't mind what's happening, then why should you?
You're in the middle of the river now and the fear remains. The guide is telling you to sit nearer to the edge of the raft to paddle correctly but you cannot feel comfortable there and he finally comes back to where you're sitting and yells at you to do it because, "Everyone has to pitch in!" You'd like to cooperate but it feels like you are sitting on a beach ball.
You lose your balance. You look around for something to grab. You fall. Under the water you can't tell which way is up as you flail and fight to find the sunlight that will tell you which way to swim and your life flashes, a little too quickly, in front of your eyes and stops on a story in the newspaper.

One feared drowned in whitewater rafting accident

Niseko - A Canadian man was reported missing after he fell out of an eight-man raft in fast water, hit his head and was carried down river. After spinning sideways and hitting a rock, the raft partially capsized and flipped the man overboard, according to co-riders.
"It was freaky, mate. I mean it seemed as if he was yanked out of the boat by a rope or a bloody big bird or something...oh God! No one could help him and he was a goner. He wasn't wearing his life-jacket and down he went," the rafter stated. The search for the man continues, but hopes of finding him alive are not good, according to a diver on the scene. "People who smack their heads on rocks and go under are usually found, but not alive."

And then I woke up.
Oh, perfect! Why did I have to have this dream the night before I was to go rafting for the first time? This is a true account of the nightmare I really had. It is still clear in my mind as I write this, and I will probably remember it for a long time. I had, in fact, seen a dead bird on the side of the road near my home about a week earlier. At that time, too, I felt it was far from auspicious but put it in the back of my mind where it would later reappear as "the gull," pointing at me with its little feathered wing like a miniature grim reaper.
So, the day of the trip came and where I should have been looking forward to a fun-filled jaunt down a river, I was mentally stressed.
Whitewater rafting had always seemed the mildest of all adventure sports. I mean, compared to jumping off a tower or bridge with an elastic band around your feet or hurling yourself out of an airplane or climbing up a sheer rock-face, rafting with a group of novices has to top the list for "least extreme," does it not? My mind was telling me that it might turn out to be boring, but my stomach wouldn't have any of that. Why was I nervous? It was making me angry. But I would soon find out.
Arriving at the base and prep-centre of the rafting company, we got off the bus and heard a lot of strange noises coming from a bunch of sun-ripened Aussies and Kiwis. "Grab-bu a paddle-lu from the pile-lu!" was what one of the guides was saying. He was obviously trying to communicate the instructions to us, a group of mostly Japanese, after reading a book on how to Japanize Your English in One Day, or something along those lines.
But the guides were ridiculously energetic and after they toseed the rafts onto a trailer and assembling us into rafting teams, we got on another bus and away we went to the starting point.
In the water, we practiced responding to a few commands because, as we were told, timing was crucial in avoiding a disaster. In unison, we moved about the raft and were choreographed in paddling and positioning.
"How ya going, mate?" was what my ever-smiling guide asked as I was retaking my position in the back. "Yar looking a bit crook."
Not wanting to admit fear to this macho type, I blurted something about being hung over or binging the night before, thinking this to be what was needed to stop any further questions aimed at me and still not totally buying the fact that what was bothering me was fear.
"Oh, you and me both, mate. I haven't had any sleep at all and in fact I've only had about an hour's sleep in the past three days."
"Hmmm, jolly good," I thought to myself as we set out.
About a hundred metres down, our guide barked at us to pull into a small inlet. Then he jumped out, reached into the water and pulled up a fistful of black mud. He then proceeded to smear the mud on his face! Then this Rambo challenged me to jump in and do the same, which I did.
We were waiting for the other rafts to catch up with us before we could continue on and since it was getting hot, we decided to go to a deep spot and have a swim. And here is where I genuinely understood the fear that had been trying to reveal itself to me all along.

hy"dro.pho'bi.a n. 1, rabies. 2, morbid fear of water.
Well, I don't have rabies, so...
The water was deep and moving quite quickly, which triggered a vision from my childhood as clearly as the day it happened. At summer camp in Canada, our group of about 10 eight-year-olds were led to a small river where we could swim with our group leader. I hesitated to jump in because there was a bit of a current and I had always been afraid of swimming. All of the other kids were having a good time playing in the stream, but I just couldn't bring myself to make the leap. My leader finally pushed me in, with good intentions, I suppose, and I frantically thrashed at the water trying to get back up on shore, screaming for my leader to give me his hand to grab onto. He didn't, and under I went. That's all I remember about it.
So now I had put a name to my fear and was headed down river to face white water with an exhausted, mud-faced guide with a ghoulish grin on his face.
"How ya feeling now, mate?"
There was only one incident, however, on our tour down the river. I was listening to our guide describing how rafts and kayaks can buckle and maim their riders if they hit rocks dead-on when -- Smash! Didn't we hit our own rock dead-on? I was holding on pretty tightly -- had been from the outset -- but a young girl, the pink Yankee, sitting behind me flipped backwards and just missed the rock that we had plowed into. Luckily, up she popped like a cork in the ocean. She was hauled in before you could say, Law Suit! And just when I realized I probably wouldn't meet my maker on that particular afternoon and was beginning to really enjoy myself, it was over.
The trip was about two hours from starting point to end, on about seven or eight kilometres of the beautiful, winding Shiribetsu River, in Niseko, Hokkaido.
Hydrophobia? Ha! I think I'll go again next spring.

Rafting Info

Niseko & Mukawa
NAC (Niseko Adventure Centre)
Rafting \5,000/ adult.
For details: http://www.nac-web.com/e_index2.htm or call 0136-23-2093

Niseko & Furano
SAS (Scott Adventure Sports)
Rafting \5,000/ adult.
For details: http://www.sas-net.com/ or call 0136-22-3599

HOA (Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures)
Rafting \6,000/ adult.
http://www.rafting-hoa.co.jp or call 01457-6-2668

Taking Steps Against Abuse
by William Kennedy

At first, they don't seem related: undertaking a unique journey and fighting the serious and insidious social problem of domestic abuse in Japan. However, this May, two women will set out from the northern tip of Hokkaido on a yearlong odyssey to walk the length of Japan. Every step of the way, they will be attempting to raise awareness of domestic violence and funds for services to help victims.
The project, called Japan On Foot (Nihon Toho Taiken in Japanese), is the brainchild of Mary King, a Tokyo-based British journalist, and Etsuko Shimabukuro, an IT systems analyst who has worked with King around the world. The pair will start at Cape Soya at the northern tip of Hokkaido this month and hope to arrive on Okinawa's Yonaguni Island in May 2002. Along the way, they will zigzag through each of Japan's 47 prefectures.
"There were a number of reasons for doing this, most of them pretty flaky," King told Xene. It began, she says, as way to commemorate her fortieth birthday this year. "It's a milestone, a landmark, and I wanted to do something to recognize it."
She said she first considered walking the length of Britain, but instead chose Japan, where she has lived off and on since 1988.
The "what" of the trip itself was decided upon; the "why" of raising awareness about domestic violence came later. King got the idea after reading in the local English media about Japan's domestic violence problem and the struggles of those staffing the country's few shelters.
"It struck a chord and I just thought, ÔMy God, this is something that needs to be done.' It's a cause worth walking for."
Though only recently interested in this particular issue, King has experience lending help where it is needed. In 1986, while based as a reporter in Cairo, she took time out to work as a volunteer at the Wad Sharif Refugee Camp in neighboring Sudan. It was the height of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and Wad Sharif was the largest refugee camp in Africa.
King and Shimabukuro will be raising funds mainly for HELP, a shelter in Tokyo for the victims of domestic violence, but they also are hoping to raise awareness across Japan and stimulate discussion about a topic that many still choose to ignore and which still carries a stigma. HELP is one of only 20 shelters in the entire country and needs such basics as blankets and baby formula.
"I don't think this is something a lot of people have thought about," says Shimabukuro.
Attitudes seem to be changing, however, and the timing of the Japan On Foot campaign is ideal. On April 6, the Upper House of the Diet, unanimously passed an anti-domestic violence bill. One of the sponsors of the bill, Yoko Komiyama of the opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party), spoke at the Japan On Foot launch party in Tokyo last month.
The new law will take effect this year. Under the law, an abusive spouse can be made to leave home for up to two weeks and be banned from approaching a victim's home or workplace for up to six months.
These are only faltering steps in resolving the problem, however. King applauds the action, but remains skeptical. It still remains to be known whether the law will have teeth. She is afraid that it may wind up as another of what she calls Japan's "tatemae laws": well-intentioned yet ineffectual measures that are rarely enforced or even observed.
A major hurdle for the law's enforcement, she says, comes in the form of the oji-chans, middle-aged lawmakers and officials who don't appreciate the seriousness of the issue.
"The attitude is that Japanese men aren't violent. Japanese men don't do things like that," she says.
At least that's what male politicos think. A half hour in front of the television or a weekend afternoon watching couples in downtown Sapporo offers plenty of examples of playful slaps and bops on the head - most done by men to women and the large to the small. The head shots are usually intended as joking punishment for various minor offenses.
There was no joking, however, in 1999, when domestic violence in Japan became an international issue. Japan's Consul General in Vancouver, Canada, was arrested for assault after he punched his wife in the face. What bothered police and the public most, was the diplomat's attitude. When confronted by police at his home, he told them the whole thing was a matter of cultural differences and such behavior was common in Japan. He later described it as private affair and said that his wife had "asked for it."
After the arrest, a several-week standoff followed between the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Vancouver Police Department. The envoy finally pleaded guilty and returned home in disgrace after being relieved of his post. In an editorial at the time, The Japan Times lamented "the prolonged conspiracy of silence" regarding domestic violence and called for laws to protect victims.
That year also saw the first major survey of domestic violence in Japan. According to the survey, five percent of women said they had been abused to the point they thought their lives were in danger.
This was followed by a more detailed survey conducted last year by the City of Osaka. Based on a list of 18 types of abuse, 67 percent of the women surveyed said they had experienced abuse of some kind. Of the victims, 16 percent had been kicked or beaten and five percent said they had actually feared for their lives. Keeping with the cloak of secrecy that shrouds the issue, 14 percent of victims did not receive medical treatment.
The Osaka survey also included men's views. Of the men surveyed, a whopping 70 percent admitted they were guilty of at least one kind of abuse.
It is not only women who are victims, says King. Child abuse rates, she says, are "staggering", and the graying of Japan's population has led to a macabre new vein of domestic violence: the abuse of elderly parents at the hands of their adult children.
Though people may write it off as a private matter, the effects of domestic abuse spread through society, affecting the way people deal with each other.
"All this spills out into the street and into the playground," says King.
Both women have been surprised by the response the campaign has received. King says they have been overwhelmed with e-mails - most of them supportive - offering assistance, kind words and accommodation. They have also received e-mails from overseas, including Australia, the U.S., Great Britain, Canada and one from Turkey which, King says, they have not been able to figure out was supportive or critical.
"It said, 'You should come and see how it is for women here,' but I don't know exactly what they meant by that," she says.
There have been requests for appearances during their trip, and one supporter even asked the pair to present a slideshow of their voyage.
"I can't carry a bloody projector and load of slides while I trundle through Japan," says King with a laugh.
As she did in the Sudan, King will write during her trip. She will write for - among others - the International Herald Tribune, Look Japan and her own website.
Most of the writing will be travel pieces, she says, not stories about domestic violence. Similarly, while King and Shimabukuro will stop at shelters where they find them, they will do so only as interested visitors, not as any sort of authorities in the field. The best thing they can do, says Shimabukuro, is encourage people to consider something they might not have previously.
"We just want to say that, whatever you do, think about the consequences," she says.
To learn more about Japan On Foot, access the website at japanonfoot.tripod.co.jp . E-mail to Mary King and Etsuko Shimabukuro can be sent to japanonfoot@hotmail.com.

A Plucky Northern Craftsman: Young Samisen maker keeps tradition alive By Carey Paterson, with Lynn Onozuka

Flexible hours. No uniform. No necktie. To many young Japanese, this sounds like a dream job. Tomoyuki Tazawa thinks so. While his peers are at work in offices or convenience stores, the 27-year-old is in his studio honing his craft of samisen-making.
Tazawa was hooked from the minute he heard live Tsugaru samisen playing. "It just grabbed me in the gut," he recalls. He apprenticed with the player who had inspired him. As the son of a music shop owner who makes Japanese drums, Tazawa gravitated from playing samisen to making them.
The samisen (shamisen in Japanese) is a three-stringed lute that arrived from China in the 16th century by way of the Ryukyu Islands. The plucked instrument has spent the centuries since then accompanying narrative songs and puppet theater, and playing folksongs. Tazawa's specialty is the Tsugaru samisen, a variation developed on northern Honshu. Although the samisen first arrived at the opposite end of Japan, Tazawa says the scene in Hokkaido is booming, particularly for Tsugaru samisen.
"You can find the most high-level professional makers in Hokkaido," he says, "and many Tsugaru-samisen players are based here: the Yoshida brothers, Nitta Oyako, Hajime Ishikawa, Tatsuya Kinjo...There are actually quite a few. Some of them from, like Hakodate, have gone to Tokyo and become masters."
Many of the younger musicians have substantial followings, doubtless a result of their sex appeal. Tazawa himself, although not a player, has a charm and prettiness that women definitely notice.


Tazawa says the Tsugaru style of playing showcases jyoppari, the stubbornness that characterizes the people of northern Honshu.
"My teacher went to a public bath in Tsugaru," Tazawa recounts. "The sign read 'Tsugaru Hot Spring.' He objected that it was a public bath and not a real natural hot spring. The mule-headed woman who managed the place told him, 'This is a real hot spring! Can't you see that boiling water?' And the whole time, my teacher's hearing the boiler going in the back!"
The second feature of the Tsugaru style is efurikogi, or showiness. "Tsugaru samisen players often think, 'I'm gonna pluck faster than anyone,'" Tazawa says, "or 'I can keep it up even though I should've run out of steam by now.'"
A Tsugaru samisen is not just played differently from a standard samisen. It also is made differently. Crafting the body involves stretching dog (not cat) hide over the soundbox, pasting it in place and giving it a final tuning. Because the plucking is so hard and fast, the skin must be pulled as taught as a possible without splitting it. Tazawa says it is difficult for a maker of traditional samisen to produce a Tsugaru samisen.
Tazawa, who grew up watching his father make taiko drums, apprenticed with a samisen maker on Honshu. But he learned mostly by feel, developing his own methods and tools.
"My father is lousy at making samisen," he says. "He's handled Tsugaru samisen but, just like in the koto shops, all he can make are ones that are stretched slackly. His expertise is in Japanese drums, so there's not much I learned from him about samisen.
"There are about three professional makers in Hokkaido, I guess. But there's only one person, other than me, who can actually make Tsugaru samisen good enough for professional use. This other man is 78 years old. I use his work as a model. You know, we don't have a teacher for our kind of job, so you have to learn from experienced people's work." Ironically, the Tsugaru district is not very good for samisen making, according to Tazawa: "The technical level there is not very high."
His tools, too, are different from those of a standard samisen maker.
"My kisen, the pincers used for stretching the skin, are all custom-made," he explains. "Mass-market ones don't grip hard enough. My chisels are custom-made, too. Stretching the skin is the most important thing for samisen. If it's not stretched taught enough, the tone is really dull."
Each skin takes six hours to prepare, humidify, stretch, paste, dry and finish. He sells to Hokkaido players directly and to Tokyo players through agents. His samisen can fetch as much as 300,000 yen apiece.
Before settling into this trade, Tazawa tried his hand at less refined ones. He painted buildings, solicited newspaper subscribers, delivered kerosene and worked in a Susukino bar. It was there that he met Hiroshi Nitta, his samisen mentor.
"I started to think about becoming a professional. I apprenticed to him, as a player first. After a while, he told me to stretch his samisen. Then I felt I needed more intensive training as a stretcher. I wanted to get serious, to make one even a professional artist would want to play. I had to start all over, to change all the skills I had been using in stretching standard samisen. I didn't have any of the good equipment I have now.
"In the past, a player apprenticed with a master, getting his kimono ready at concerts and just watching his work. After a couple of years, he could finally go up on stage and play. Well, that's not gonna happen now. If you apprentice with someone, you can go straight up on stage but only if you're good."
Another way to get a break is to shine at one of three main competitions in Japan, which are held in springtime.


Centuries of tradition have given the samisen a stodgy image among foreigners, but Tazawa likens the music to jazz in its emphasis on improvisation and individuality.
"You don't use sheet music or the same old rhythm when you play Tsugaru samisen...It's all ad lib. It's really important for you to improvise on stage. When you play with a singer, you have to change the rhythm, or sometimes cut it short to adjust."
But Tazawa is happier crafting instruments than playing them.
"I used to appear on stage every now and then, until a couple of years ago," he says. "Now, a younger generation of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds is coming, and my work as a skin stretcher is getting really busy. I haven't been playing much recently, except when a friend's band needs someone to sit in. You can't really play unless you play every day. Otherwise your fingers just don't work right."
Because of his youth, Tazawa often surprises people when he explains his profession.
"Well, you know, you meet a girl at a nightclub, she asks you your job, right? I tell her, 'I'll give you a million yen if you can guess it.' I can say that, right, because there's no way someone's gonna guess. When I tell them, most of them go, like, 'What?' Some say 'Why?' There was one girl who asked me to marry her on the spot. Her sister happened to play, so she knew about it. But most people just go blank when I tell them."
The samisen tradition may be thriving, but it is in danger - actually, endangered.
"Most of the materials for samisen are prohibited by the CITES treaty," Tazawa says, referring to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Treaty. "The pick is tortoiseshell, and barwood (koki), which is used for the soundbox, has recently been added to the CITES list. This is a very special tree you can find only in India. And a traditional samisen uses ivory. Everything is banned, except the dog skin, and even this doesn't make some animal rights activists too happy...
"I personally think the treaty is about American ego. Every time we find something good, they try to ban it. Like whales. Something is wrong. But I hear tortoises have started to be raised in Cuba. What really worries me is the barwood, though. I hear the mountains in India are getting bald. Japanese should've thought about the future before we cut all the trees. We should've started planting trees when we started cutting them."


As a Japanese who is in touch with the younger generation and older traditions, Tazawa is in a unique position to reply to people who call today's youth lazy and undisciplined.
"I really think people who feel this way don't know the younger generation. I don't think it's right to be so obsessed with tradition. If it's gone, it's gone. I do what I do simply because it's interesting for me, and the jobs keep coming in...
"The younger generation does have guts. I know a high-school student who is trying to spread the samisen all over the world, and lots of other young people are really motivated."
Negative thinking about youth "is common to every age. It must've been the same in the Showa era. Yesterday, a high-school kid I know told me that he wanted to join Kodo, the famous taiko drumming troupe on Sado Island [in Niigata Prefecture]. You know, you have to be self-sufficient for two years to join them. You work the farms and practice drums...If there's a concert somewhere, you can't go there by car. You have to run there if you're young. I told him that's a real challenge, but he just won't give up. Many of the people drop out before their two years is up. This guy says he knows he'll make it. He even promised me that he'll spread the word about my samisen. You know, they think they can do anything, the young generation...Actually, I think they're right!"
Tazawa hopes more foreigners will start listening to Tsugaru samisen.
"I think non-Japanese people can really have fun listening. Tsugaru samisen is not like regular samisen, the one that makes you sleepy. There are lots of concerts out there, but I haven't seen any foreigners in the audience. I'd like them to come and just have fun."

Experience the Tsugaru Samisen

¥Tsugaru samisen live bar: Gen
Tsugaru samisen played live by professional, Hiroshi Nitta. Cover charge \2,000. 5¥6Bldg. 2F, S5 W6, Chuo-ku, Sapporo/ 011-563-9828

¥Hiroshi & Masahiro Nitta Concert
Adult/ \3,000, High-school student and younger/ \1,500 (including one drink). Free seating. April 29 (Sun). 15:00- and 19:00-. Zepp Sapporo. S9 W4 532-6969. One-minute walk from Nakajima-koen Subway Station (exit 2). Tickets: 784-3860. Shinei-geinou kikaku.

¥CD's on sale.
Shamisen Kid \2,500
Tsugaru Samisen Oyako \2,000
Contact: 011-784-3860

Fission for Trouble: Is MITI Planning a Northern Nuke Dumpsite?
(Dec, 2000)
By William Kennedy

-- From Hokuden

To meet the steadily increasing demand for electricity in Hokkaido, it is necessary for us to stabilize long-term electricity, supply while taking care to "maintain energy security" and "be aware of the global environment." We chose nuclear power as a main source of electricity for the first half of the 21st century because it is considered efficient to "meet supply," "stabilize long-term cost," and "be environmentally friendly".
Natural energy such as wind power and solar power is not stable for electricity due to its dependence on weather conditions, and also has been suffering technical difficulties and problems of ecocnomy.
We have been developing research on technology based on natural energy and working on its promotion by actively purchasing electricity generated by solar power and wind power.
Horonobe is not a special place. It is a small town in a remote part of northern Hokkaido, not far south of Wakkanai and six hours by train from Sapporo. Its claim to fame is as a stopping point for visitors to the Sarobetsu Wilderness, Japan's northernmost wetlands.
But Horonobe's administrators, the Hokkaido government and Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry are hoping that the town may one day be known more for what's underneath the ground than on top. They are offering a way to bring a little prosperity to a region that is desperately in need of some good news.
It's only the people of Horonobe who are somewhat uncertain about the possibility of radioactive waste being buried in their town.
"Local people are afraid," says energy activist Toru Suzuki.
Suzuki is the secretary general of the year-old Hokkaido Green Fund, a Sapporo-based group dedicated to investigating alternative energy sources. He is talking about government plans to establish an underground research facility for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste (HLW).
No one seems able to figure out the facility's purpose, which the government has yet to clearly state. Despite promises that no actual waste will be stored in Horonobe, Suzuki is skeptical.
"They say it's not a waste dump. The government says it's for study," he notes. "But the government always keeps changing its mind, so people don't know."
Hokkaido Governor Tatsuya Hori announced plans this September to establish the facility. The announcement capped a busy month in which he also gave the go-ahead for a third reactor at Hokkaido's only nuclear power plant, in Iwanai.
Hori's press release spoke of the need to study the storage of HLW "for long periods of time," without defining just how long. When dealing with HLW, says Suzuki, that can mean thousands of years.
Nuclear waste comes in various forms. Low-level waste refers to irradiated items such as used radiation suits. HLW, however, is the spent fuel itself, plutonium that has been removed or the waste water used in nuclear power generation. The half-life of such waste- the time it takes for half the radioactive atoms to decay - is approximately 10,000 years.
The announcement comes in the face of overwhelming local opposition. According to the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), a survey in the area showed that 76 percent of residents in Horonobe and seven neighboring municipalities opposed the planned facility. The survey results were presented to Governor Mori on September 20 after a two-day protest motorcade running from Wakkanai to Sapporo.
This was Tokyo's second attempt to set up a facility in Horonobe. A facility for temporary waste storage - 30 to 50 years - was on the table through most of the '80s and early '90s until it was finally rejected by the Hokkaido legislature.
Suzuki does not know what changed the legislature's mind this time, but the timing of the announcement couldn't be better for the nuclear power industry. The industry's image is at an all-time low after a series of scandals and cover-ups, culminating in 1999's accident at the Tokai plant on Honshu.
In the wake of the "criticality" accident, as it came to be known, stories emerged of corners cut in the name of economics, with inexperienced workers lugging radioactive material in steel buckets. The plant was run by a subsidiary of industrial giant Sumitomo Metal Mining, which has so far paid out 14.5 billion in compensation.
The industry has no shortage of other black eyes. CNIC, which Suzuki calls the fairest, most-informed group of its kind in the country, runs a Web site tracing the latest developments in the industry. The Web site, at http://cnic.jca.apc.org/, includes stories such as the Y2K snafu at a plant in Fukushima, where confusion over clock settings left workers unable to monitor the positions of the fuel rods in the reactor. CNIC also charges that the industry is plagued by an attitude which puts schedules ahead of research, with money-conscious utilities shortening inspection times.
Despite concerns about nuclear power and the way it is handled, local governments have their reasons for doing business with MITI's Office of National Resources and Energy - about 200 to 300 billion worth of reasons.
Suzuki says the government spends that much annually on purchasing local goodwill among the remote, often cash-strapped regions across the country that host power facilities, including Japan's 51 nuclear power plants. A lot of the money, he says, goes into public structures like new city halls and local pet projects.
The money comes from the public in the form of a two-percent surcharge added to all electric bills. If you have paid an electric bill in Japan, you have subsidized the fund.
"They don't show it on the bill," says Suzuki. "Nine out of 10 people who are not involved in the nuclear industry have no idea this is happening."
When contacted, representatives of the Hokkaido Electric Power Co. (Hokuden) declined to comment or to be interviewed for this story, claiming fears of potential misunderstanding.
Although governments at every level in Japan are becoming more sensitive to public opinion on a variety of issues, MITI's track record concerning nuclear power is bleak. This July, the Hakodate District Court rejected the claims of a local group that had sought to speak at public hearings in Aomori in 1998. The hearings were for a plant proposed in Aomori, across the Tsugaru Strait from Hakodate. MITI representatives claimed the Hakodate group, being from out of town, had no right to speak. Public hearings, they added, were intended to provide information and drum up support, not solicit opinions.
"A public hearing aims to promote local residents' understanding and seek their cooperation, and it is not an arena for listening to their views," a ministry spokesman told the court.
One of the government's most effective tactics in dealing with anti-nuclear protestors has been to paint nuclear power and the waste it generates as necessary evils. For its part, Hokuden believes nuclear power is a stable, affordable, environmentally friendly power source. Opponents have been challenged to suggest alternatives or simply turn off their lights and keep their opinions to themselves.
"The people at Hokuden say, 'Oh, so you don't need electricity,'" says Suzuki.
This argument has encouraged activists to be more proactive, and Suzuki says that while the anti-nuclear movement was more vocal 10 years ago, today people are actively seeking feasible alternatives to nuclear power.
It was this attitude that led him to set up the Hokkaido Green Fund. Taking a page from the power company, the fund collects the money owed by its members to Hokuden, with an additional five percent added on. After the electric bills are paid, the extra money goes toward investigating and promoting alternative, renewable energy resources such as wind power or biomass, which is plant and animal waste used as fuel. Hokuden is even willing to purchase power from alternative sources.
Suzuki thinks there may be some local benefits for the region's hard-pressed economy.
"It's important that we rely less on big plants and more on natural resources," says Suzuki. "Hokkaido is rich with natural resources. We can make this an industry in Hokkaido."
In the meantime, opponents of the Horonobe plan -and of Japan's nuclear status quo - should make themselves heard.
"The most important thing to do is to raise your voice in any way. Send a letter to a newspaper. The government is becoming more sensitive. It's good right now to say something, anything," says Suzuki.
He adds that Japan's shifting political scene has left politicians suddenly conscious of their vulnerability, and the next general election may offer a chance for disgruntled voters. "It doesn't often work, but it's important to hear what politicians have to say about nuclear issues. It's time for us to do this," he says.
Until then, however, the people of Horonobe can only wait.

by Carey Paterson

K aoru and Naoki Yamaguchi are the perfect couple. Both hold law degrees from prestigious Waseda University. He works for a top-tier bank in metro Tokyo. She has a proud history of volunteerism. The two enjoy a loving, trusting relationship, and when they hit the ski slopes they blow away snowboarders half their age. Still, by traditional Japanese standards their marriage could be considered a failure: The Yamaguchis have chosen not to have children.
They are not alone. Although "ichi hime ni taro" ("first child a girl, second a boy") describes the ideal Japanese family, more Japanese marrieds are choosing a lifestyle of "zero hime, zero taro" (no girlchild, no boychild), the latest in lifestyle changes that include the decline in the marriage rate and the rise in women who opt to have children while remaining single.
Although Kaoru does not feel she has to justify what she considers a private decision, she believes her choice makes sense. She says she has enough blood relatives and adds, "I do not like children so I felt it would be a waste of time to raise my own children."
The couple's decision has given them a rare degree of freedom. In addition to snowboarding, they golf together and have scuba dived among sharks in the Maldives. "I can do anything I like at any time without consideration for other family members except my husband," Kaoru says.


Despite Japan's declining birthrate, older Japanese consider Kaoru's attitude selfish. Centuries-old cultural influences still encourage couples to have children: Shinto is an agrarian religion at heart, where fertility rites are central, and Confucian thinking invests great importance in the family and its continuance.
One women in Osaka Prefecture who married and remained childless for a few years was menaced by middle-aged women in the neighborhood supermarket. They circled their shopping carts and demanded an explanation. Kaoru says she is fortunate not to have experienced pressure from friends. Relatives, however, are a different story.
"My in-laws were meddlesome, asking me when I was going to have a baby when we were a newly married couple. I did not find any support from anyone, but I did not need any support, because it is a purely private matter to have children or not. Everybody insensitively and directly asked me when I was going to have baby. Recently, I seldom have these kinds of questions, maybe due to my age." (The Yamaguchis are in their forties.)
She says she is also lucky that her husband's elder brother has children, which frees her from responsibility for continuing the bloodline. Not all women are as fortunate or determined, and many who yield to the pressure later regret it.
"Sometimes I feel only hate for my children," one reluctant mother confided.
Another couple was more ambivalent about their choice not to have children. Although Jeff and Emi Seward both love kids, they are daunted by the prospect of being parents and are childless by choice. (Their names in this article have been changed.)


"Once you have a child, you want to love it," says Jeff, an English teacher in Sapporo. "It's 20 years of slavery, a full-time job. It just doesn't fit my indolent lifestyle. With a dog or cat, you can put food in the bowl for two or three days and leave," he jokes.
Emi earned a degree in economics from a two-year college before launching her career in advertising. She says she is happy without kids.
"My friend who have children say it's nice to have kids, that I should have a child. When I hear this I feel, maybe I want a child. But it's much easier to bear one than to raise one." Besides, Emi says, she is enjoying life in her thirties more than ever: "I'm satisfied with my life."
In addition to the normal responsibilities of raising children, the Sewards think it is harder than ever to bring up kids in a Japan of high prices and social dislocation.
"Children are becoming dangerous," Emi says. "There have been several incidents recently involving children. People blame the family, but the cause is not just the family, it's society. The environment now is different from when we grew up. Children are exposed to many influences. They can choose from many recreations. This great choice has led them to confusion. There is not enough guidance."
Jeff agrees: "You leave them in school where the bullies would take care of them - or they'd become the bullies. I don't see the environment as worse than America, but it seems that, here, people turn a blind eye when they see people doing wrong. People blame the parents without confronting them."
Another reason they have remained childless is age. Jeff is in his mid forties. Emi, who married him a year ago after her first husband died, is in her late thirties.
"Women who have children in their forties are fooling themselves," Jeff says. "They don't want to feel cheated in life," so they have a child to prove they can have it all. "But they're setting themselves up for disappointment."


Social commentators also attribute the "zero hime, zero taro" phenomenon to the ongoing reevaluation of priorities. Many men and women in Japan feel cheated by having devoted their whole lives to their families or company, the thinking goes. Their children recognize this and wish to avoid the same mistake.
Jeff believes this is true in the U.S., too: "I did all the relaxing my parents didn't do," he says. Only one of his siblings has children, although he insists they had a happy family life as children.
Many cultures have regarded children as an insurance policy for one's later years. Jeff thinks this attitude no longer makes sense in Japan.
"Even now, kids don't take care of their parents. Usually the parents have more money anyway. I might worry about getting old, but not because I have no children." The time when children were seen as providing security "seems like a different era."
An additional worry for older Japanese is having no-one to visit their grave at memorial anniversaries and the Obon holiday.
"It's not a concern for me," Emi says. "Maybe this is because I'm the middle child. My brother is taking care of my parents and the bloodline will continue through my brother's family. My parents' name will continue. That's one reason I don't get any pressure to have children."
Nosy neighbors and the elderly are not the only ones alarmed by the spate of childless couples. The Japanese government has been struggling to increase the birthrate to soften the brunt of the aging demographic, and companies like Naoki's offer a special bonus for childbirth. Childless marrieds are in a unique position to evaluate efforts to boost the birthrate.
"I think improving women's working conditions is the best way to increase the rate," Kaoru says. "Women don't want to see their working conditions deteriorate after having baby. If the government introduces such a policy as a means of pushing up the rate, I think it will be good for not only the birthrate but also the welfare of women."
Emi agrees: "There were lots of women with kids at my first ad agency job. Seeing them, I thought I could have a child and work. But it depends on the company and its culture."
No-one knows what the future holds for Japan or for couples who forego children, but Kaoru says she is comfortable with her choice.
"So far, I haven't had any trouble living with my decision. I have no regrets."

Internationalization: No Pain, No Gain (June, 2000)

Internationalization in Japan used to be about sister-city affiliations, student ex-changes and other feel-good activities. Today it is moving to more anxious grounds.
Earlier this year a Brazilian woman won an anti-discrimination suit against a shop that refused her entry. Here in Hokkaido, activists have criticized the exclusion of foreigners from hot springs in Otaru. Some municipalities have started allowing foreign residents to work in government. The TV program "Soko ga Hendayo Nihon-jin" (Weird Things about Japanese People) is showing that people from around the world not only can speak Japanese but can articulate issues better than many natives do. These changes show that the focus is shifting from feeling good to doing right.
To these actions, there have been reactions that are opposite if not equal. Tokyo's populist governor Shintaro Ishihara in April criticized visa overstayers by suggesting they might riot in an emergency. His words angered many Koreans and Chinese who believed the governor was turning history on its head: It was Japanese citizens who rioted against non-Japanese in the Kanto Earthquake of 1922. A lock manufacturer in March ran advertisements that played on fears of burglary by foreigners, even though foreigners commit fewer crimes per capita than do Japanese.
The expression "no pain, no gain" sums up internationalization in Japan today. The essays that follow are a contribution to this dialogue.

Questionable Questions
By Melissa Reiber

The TV host isn't asking me anything momentous and I'm certainly not saying anything profound as the video camera whirs. But she doesn't mind, since the questions are not about her viewers learning anything - except how I am not like them. Like so many interviews, this one is really an exercise in highlighting the distinctiveness of Japanese culture.
The sad irony is that such interviews masquerade for kokusai-ka, or "internationalization," when they serve the opposite purpose. When one hears the classic distancing question "Do you like sushi?", the proper answer is a foregone conclusion: Because you are not Japanese, you can't like sushi; because we are Japanese, we love it. Not convinced that there is an ongoing quest to create a gulf between this land and elsewhere? Try to recall the last time you heard a native ask a foreigner how that person's country is similar to - not different from - Japan. Or watch the disappointment when you downplay the differences.
Because so many questions are asked with suspicious motive, there is the danger of overreacting and treating any unwelcome inquiry as suspect. But even the most annoying of questions can still adhere to the spirit of genuine communication.
Take the typical cookie-cutter question, "How long have you been in Hokkaido?" or "Why did you come to Japan?" As clichŽd as it may be, it aims for interaction. And if spoken in a second language it shows a desire to improve communication ability. It can be tedious to suffer these scripted conversations in succession. But when one realizes the subtext - true desire for intercultural exchange - it's unfair not to welcome the effort. English speakers, in particular, complain of being treated as foreign language speaking machines. However, short of exceptional demands on one's time, it is unrealistic and uncharitable to shrug off someone from another culture looking to have a few words.
The ignorant question may seem worse than the sushi inquisition, but this too can be a genuine kokusai-ka inquiry. "Do they eat tofu in China?", an unworldly Japanese friend asks. "Do you eat sushi every day?", my less informed acquaintances back home want to know. Although the answers should be obvious, the questions are still welcome "quest"-ions, admirable as legitimate searches for knowledge.
With the rude question, the motive is important. When someone asks how much money I make, it's hard to know whether this person is just plain rude to natives and foreigners alike, or is assuming that manners do not exist beyond Japan's national borders. Only the latter case is distancing. When the rude question comes simply from narrow-mindedness, there is a chance to educate the inquirer.
Ah, the ordinary question, sublime in its unremarkableness, indeed, for its sheer ordinariness. It is kokusai-ka achieved. Directions to the post office, you ask? What's the time? What nice weather we're having? This is pure communication that transcends differences in a wonderful banality of normal human interaction.
Unfortunately, we must return to TV-land, where thrives the dreaded pseudoquestion. "What Japanese food can't you eat?" beams Ms. TV host, video camera awaiting signs of revulsion. But I will not play this game. I - and millions of other people throughout the world - happen to like sushi. "Mayonnaise," I tell her. "I can't stand it, and it's slathered on everything here!" Next time, please just ask for directions.

Evaluating Cultures
By Melissa Reiber

You can't miss the curious shop several yards down the street, with its gaudy yellow sign: Sunakku Katoriinu (Catherine's Bar). By day, the severe middle-aged proprietress religiously waters the jungle of potted plants out front. But night is when the action really starts. By 8 PM Madame Catherine has donned the elegant garb of the nightlife worker, primed the karaoke machine and positioned herself to welcome the evening's customers. She closes on Sunday, the traditional day off for sunakku.
This in itself would not be curious, except for two facts. I do not live in a nightlife district. My apartment is in a quiet residential neighborhood where clunky shopping bikes are more the norm than the roaring motorbikes seen downtown. Nightlife here means popping out to the convenience store for instant ramen and a comic book or a less wholesome read.
Hence the second odd aspect of chez Catherine. There are no customers. Absolutely none. In my several years at this apartment, I have seen no signs of life at Sunakku Katoriinu other than the above-mentioned vegetation, three cats and the Japanese matron herself.
At first I wrote it off as one of those things I, as an outsider, couldn't hope to fathom. After all, I'd never noticed the apartment nearby with all those video surveillance cameras, three-car underground garage and protective fencing. It wasn't until my Japanese friend called attention to the bristling security features that I realized it was an underworld stronghold. Sure I knew that my neighborhood is notoriously gangster-infested. But I hadn't given much thought to that apartment or the fact that only the fanciest imported autos parked in front.
This is why I thought I might be missing something obvious with Kate's place that an insider might pick up on. I tried a few theories that took into account cultural aspects. Mama exemplified Japanese dedication to work, the ganbaru kokoro (fighting spirit). She was the embodiment of gaman (perseverance) in the face of total indifference by would-be patrons and any absence of business success. This got me nowhere.
The foreigner prone to conspiracy theories imagines something more sociologically sinister, that the shop is really a front for the nefarious activities rife in Japan. Seen through this Crichtonesque mindset, it's obvious that she's running a gambling den or money laundering operation - or maybe even sequestering those NHK-TV money collectors who come calling. It's just that no-one except her enters or leaves by the front, back or windows, thus ruling out these possibilities. Besides, the real gambling den, a mahjong parlor just around the corner, operates in complete openness. No need for subterfuge.
My Japanese friends advance a few theories of their own: That mama has been set up in business by a former lover. (Mama is staying open to show her sweetheart her devotion when he returns.) That she's just a lonely soul making busy work for herself in a novel way that perhaps fulfills some longstanding fantasy. That she's running a bouri baa (clip joint), although the only things to clip are her cats' claws. That she's some kind of chukai (intermediary) for drugs or prostitution or phone sex, although again, the absence of customers and the fact that she's never on the phone and never absent from her duties undermines that theory. "Anyway, she's waiting for someone," a friend insisted. "Who, I don't know."
At first mama's perpetually nasty stare made me want to retaliate. I thought of asking her about her business: "Slow night tonight, huh Kate?" I even considered patronizing her establishment just to get to the bottom of things. With me as her best customer - her only customer - she'd have to tell me. But I worried she'd try to make up for years of zero income by sticking me with a ridiculous bill.
I asked my garrulous neighbor for her take. "Strange, isn't it?", were her only thoughts. The fact is, I have no better or worse idea what mama's story is than my native friends do.
My best guess now is that it would be better not to see mama through the prism of some exotic Japanese value system. The leading theory is that she represents a more universal type: the nutty eccentric. Mama then becomes a Far Eastern femme fatale, a figure of pathos straight out of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," an aging Gloria Swanson unable to face the fact that her fans are gone, her looks are gone and her life is the theatrical production of a mind out of touch. Listen closely and you may hear her say, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Kurosawa."