| 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
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
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
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, 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
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
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,
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
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
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.
GRIZZLIES IN HOKKAIDO?
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
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 MAGICAL BEAR
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 ritualcThis 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 festivalscThe 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
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
Making Friends with the Natives
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
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
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
"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 (email@example.com)
along with Ryan Zeigler, 26, who is in the Masters program at Hokkaido
"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
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."
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
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)
Fortnightly (usually 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month), 8:00 p.m. - 11:00
(Halloween party: Saturday, 27 October)
Nomihodai and food. Foreigners \1000, Japanese \2000
1F, Devex Building, N1 W20, Chuo-ku Sapporo
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
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
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,
Hydrophobia? Ha! I think I'll go again next spring.
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.
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,"
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
"All this spills out into the street and into the playground,"
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,"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
STUBBORN AND SHOWY
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
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
"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
"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
The samisen tradition may be thriving, but it is in danger - actually,
"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."
KIDS HAVE GUTS
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
Fission for Trouble: Is MITI Planning a Northern Nuke
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
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,
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
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
"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
"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
"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.
ZERO HIME, ZERO TARO - CHILDLESS AND LOVING
IT! (Oct., 2000)
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.)
20 YEARS OF SLAVERY
"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
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
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
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,
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.
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 clichd
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.
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.
By Melissa Reiber
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."