…your thoughts can turn funereal
An ad, burned still more soot-blackened by a recent fire than when I first encountered it, for butsudan family altars and funerary services, the now desperately faded late 1950s to early 1960s Cadillac hearse straight from a scene in Harold and Maude, decked out with elaborately customized bodywork inspired by the gaudiest of Shinto shrines; these miya-gata reikyusha (宮型霊柩車, shrine-style spirit-coffin-vehicle) hearses are falling out of favor, perhaps because of their perceived vulgarity—some crematoria refuse to let them in—and perhaps because of their expense—around $250,000—and are being supplanted by plainer, duller and Western-inspired landau “funeral coaches”.
…you take on a faded, dusty air
A cornucopia of departing words and defunct characters adorn this sign for Mayamaya Shoten (馬山屋商店, Mayamaya Store, lower center): reading right to left across the top, 小間物 (komabutsu, sundries), 化粧品, (keshohin, cosmetics), 日用品 (nichiyohin, daily goods), 雑貨ゑ (zakka e, sundries, etc.) The first word for sundries, komabutsu, is being gently pushed aside by the second, zakka, while the mysterious ゑ (“e”) is a made-in-Japan hiragana character with a history of close to a millennium, variously pronounced as “we”, “e”, and “ye” in its long life, and which has officially been discarded since 1946, supplanted by え (“e”), although it must have lingered longer in the countryside, as this signboard is unlikely to be more than half-a-century old. The question of what it was doing there had me perplexed—it should have no intrinsic meaning, as hiragana is a syllabary—and the only conjecture I could manage to come up with, given its location, was that it is serving as an “etcetera”, a conjecture supported, although without complete conviction, by the literate native-speaker colleague to whom I showed it. Lovely character, though—looks just like a る (“ru”) being roasted on an open fire.
On the right we have 良品 (ryohin, good-quality items), which presents no difficulties, as it’s half of the name behind the Muji brand of furniture and sundries—I refuse to call them lifestyle goods—whose full and (indigestible to Western palates) name is Mujirushi Ryohin (無印良品, no-label good things, to be doggedly literal). But below it is what proved to be a real puzzler, 康賣 (yasu’uri, low prices). First, the simple part: 賣, I knew anyway, is the now dead-in-Japan character for 売, (“sell”), so dead that my made-in-Japan PC refuses to conjure it forth and I had to hand-draw it at a special website for obsessives to bring it to you. The much harder part was 康, now most commonly encountered as the “kō” of “kenkō” (健康, “health”). Context strongly suggests that it should be read “yasu[i]” (cheap), but Henshall’s 700-odd page guide to the kanji doesn’t offer that as an option, nor does Spahn and Hadamitzky’s 1,750-page kanji dictionary, although it does helpfully offer 安 (which is common), 廉 (which is uncommon), 靖 (only really found in the name of the shrine we all love to hate, Yasukuni), and 易 (here it means “easy”) as other ways of writing “yasu” (as well as a variant of 靖 so arcane I can’t even draw it). The mighty Canon Wordtank of a colleague, however, proclaimed that 康 for “yasu” was acceptable, even though it garners almost no hits. So confirmation came, after about two hours of investigation, that 良品康賣 (“quality goods sold cheaply”) in essence means little more than Wal-Mart’s slogan, “Everyday low prices”. Sometimes, I swear, decoding even moderately antique Nihongo feels like being a British archaeologist trying to decipher Linear B or a Japanese cryptographer trying to break the Navajo codetalkers.
Rolled firehoses in the warehouse district.
Tabako Arahiko, and another sobering lesson in the hardships apprentices like me in the language must endure. It’s clear that the store name, unusually, is the given name of the male proprietor, as the lower character, 彦 (hiko, “fine young man”), is almost exclusively reserved for boys’ names, but in combination with the upper character, 新 (shin, atara[shii], ara[ta], nii, “new”), how was it all read? As a given name, it’s vanishingly rare, not to be found for instance in an online dictionary of half-a-million names, and it took half-an-hour of hunting before I had an answer.
Weather-worn dragons at Ryuseiji (龍栖寺, “the temple where dragons abide”), in the center of Shimo Nita.
…you may prove resistant to the latest technology
Being a professional photographer, Juergen has an observant eye for the photographic past in the present. Fuji is still in the silver-halide film business, but this brand, Super HG, has long been pensioned off and seems to have reached its apogee around the height of the Bubble, if this screechy 1990 TV ad starring then-idol Miyuki Imori and its cartoonishly supersaturated colors is any clue.
Konica’s Sakura Color lost out to the might of Fuji in the 1970s film wars and Konica Minolta had withdrawn from film cameras and film by early 2007. Shilling here for Konica is comedian Kin’ichi Hagimoto, (萩本欽一), universally known as Kin chan (欽ちゃん), whose greatest contribution to the lexicon is the expression “ten’nen boke” (天然ボケ, “a natural simpleton”), an undesirable trait for a comic, who should be the sophisticate playing the fool. He is shown here, chest turned hairy by rust, in the long hair he wore at the start of his career, which dates the ad to the late 1970s. He reminds me that “ronge” (ロン毛, “long hair”) is one of my favorite expressions, being an unholy collision between the English “long” and the Japanese “ke”, (“hair”, “coat”, or “fur”), one that will forever be partnered in my mind with another fashion statement beloved of the high-schoolers I once taught, “koshipan” (腰パン), another unholy collision, this time between the Japanese 腰 (koshi, “hips”) and an abbreviation of the English “pants” (パンツ), referring to the wearing of hideous nylon regulation-issue blue uniform trousers in as low-slung and slovenly a manner as possible on the hips rather than the waist.
A vintage rice-cooker, AM/FM radio and cassette deck, and a CD beatbox of the now dormant Sony-owned Aiwa brand in the window of Sonobe Denki, center of Shimo Nita.
…the temptation to just let things go can prove irresistible
…your young ones grow up so fast
On this faltering gateway to a house no longer there, we came across a campaign sticker for a then aspiring Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician, Hirofumi Nakasone, and the committee to nurture his political career. The sticker I would guess dates back to around 1986, when he first—and successfully—ran for election to the House of Councillors (the upper house of the bicameral legislature), a victory he followed up with four more straight electoral trounces of the opposition, most recently in June 2010, when he routed the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) candidate, winning 61% of the vote to the DPJ’s 31%. (The Communists, in their quaint never-say-die way, insist on contesting the incontestable, and picked up 8% of the vote.)
In the hallowed cloisters of the unlovely, now demolished, and unlamented Acton Crown Court in one of London’s grimier western neighborhoods, The Right Honorable “today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto” the Lord Boateng, once quipped to me about the routine election landslides of the Labour Party in the Welsh valleys, saying, “they don’t count the Labour votes down there, they weigh ’em”. So it so nearly is with Gunma Prefecture—which is where we are—and the LDP. In the five House of Representatives lower house elections since the modern single-seat constituencies were introduced, the LDP won four of the five seats in 1996, all five in 2000, all five in 2003, and all five in 2005, only to surrender three of the five in the unprecedented and crushing DPJ victory of 2009—but in keeping 40% of the seats (and running the DPJ reasonably close in the other three) the LDP still fared better than it did in the nation at large, when it was reduced to a rump of 119 seats out of 480, or 25%, and rest assured it will return sooner or later in customary style. Back in the LDP glory days of the old multi-member constituencies, the victories were even more stable and assured:
In Gunma No. 1, the LDP won two of the three seats in all 12 general elections between 1960 and 1993 except one (when a conservative independent snuck in but soon hooked up with the LDP);
In Gunma No. 2, the LDP won two or all three of the three seats in all seven general elections between 1979 and 1993;
And in Gunma No. 3, the LDP won three of the four seats in all 11 general elections between 1963 and 1993 except one (when Yasuhiro Nakasone perversely shed his LDP allegiance and stood as independent).
What accounts for the perennial Gunma dominance of the center-right to ultra-right LDP (which largely remains, as the hackneyed but still mostly accurate aside has it, “neither liberal, nor democratic, nor a party”)? Well, this is heartland Japan, a place with no city of even close to half-a-million people, a more than averagely prosperous place that did very well for itself in the long boom from 1950 to 1990, a place where the ties of loyalty, patronage, and obligation bind tight.
Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the recurrence of the surname Nakasone above, and that’s no coincidence, for Hirofumi is a political chip off the old block of his father Yasuhiro, who served as prime minister for what seems in these days of revolving-door PMs an implausible five years between 1982 and 1987 (he remains the third longest-serving post-war PM), who was the “Yasu” in the much-ballyhooed “Ron-Yasu” relationship with US President Ronald Regan, and who remains chipper at a sprightly 93.
Shimo Nita is part of the legendary (well, in my mind at least—you won’t find another reference to it on the English-language Internet) Gunma No. 3 multimember constituency, a fortress redoubt of the LDP even in its Gunma bastions, and its psephological records are simply astounding: at the last multimember election in July 1993, the three LDP returnees were former PM Nakasone, who had been elected and reelected a staggering 18 straight times since 1947; future PM Yasuo Fukuda, whose hapless reign lasted 365 days, one shy of a full (leap) year, in 2007 and 2008, and who was only on his second outing, having inherited the seat on the retirement of his father, Takeo Fukuda, who himself had been prime minister, this time for a fortnight or so shy of two years between 1976 and 1978 and who romped home on 14 consecutive occasions from 1952 until 1986, when he was 81; and future PM Keizo Obuchi, who served for nigh on two years between 1998 and 2000 before being felled by a fatal stroke, who notched up 11 straight wins between 1963 and 1993, and who inherited the seat from his father, Mitsuhei Obuchi, who had won it only twice, in 1948 and again in 1959.
No other constituency in the postwar multimember era comes close to the Gunma No. 3 record of having four former, incumbent, or future prime ministers represent it, as it did for three decades from 1963 to 1993; only one other constituency has produced more than one prime minister since the “1955 solution” of unending LDP rule, that being Yamaguchi No. 1, home turf to class A war crimes suspect Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister from 1957 to 1960, and his nephew Shinzo Abe, prime minister for 365 ill-starred days in 2006 and 2007.
Gimlet-eyed readers will have spotted a certain nepotism afoot, and Gunma No. 3, with its Fukudas, father and son both prime ministers, Nakasones, père prime minister and fils rising to become (briefly) foreign minister, and Obuchis, pater still a backwoods politico but filius reaching the highest elective office in the land, exemplifies this nepotism better than any other constituency in Japan.
I’m far from the first, of course, to draw attention to the issues of hereditary politics (世襲政治), and the second-generation lawmakers (二世議員) and third-generation ones (三世議員) that it spawns. This is an issue that first surfaced in the 1970s and has been simmering ever since, although it has intensified in recent decades, with an interesting fault-line to be found in 1991 with the ascension of Kiichi Miyazawa to the office of prime minister; between May 1947, when the current constitution came into effect and that point, there had only been one hereditary prime minister, Ichiro Hatoyama (1954-1956), whose father was the leader of the lower house (1896-1897) and whose grandson, Yukio, was the last prime minister (2009-2010). Since 1991, hereditary prime ministers have become the rule, rather than the exception:
Kiichi Miyazawa (1991-1993): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Hiroshima No. 3 constituency of his father, who first won it in 1928
Morohiro Hosokawa (1993-1994): Not strictly hereditary, but one of the last true bluebloods in politics, who would be the 18th Baron Hosokawa of Higo if the aristocracy still existed. Father was secretary to wartime prime minister Fumimaro Konoe (1940-1941)
Tsutomu Hata (1994): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Nagano No. 2 constituency of his father, who first won it in 1937
Tomiichi Murayama (1994-1996): Born one of the 11 offspring of a fishing family. Definitely not hereditary and not coincidentally a socialist
Ryutaro Hashimoto (1996-1998): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Okayama No. 2 constituency from his father, who first won it in 1949
Keizo Obuchi (1998-2000): HEREDITARY, see above
Yoshiro Mori (2000-2001): Not strictly hereditary, but his father and grandfather were the mayors of the Ishikawa Prefecture town, Neagari, where he was born, and which formed part of the Ishikawa No. 1 multimember constituency he represented from 1969 to 1993 and forms part of the Ishikawa No. 2 single-seat constituency he has represented since 1996
Jun’ichiro Koizumi (2001-2006): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Kanagawa No. 2 constituency from his father, who had represented it from 1952 until his death in 1969, and bequeathed it to his son in 2009
Shinzo Abe (2006-2007): HEREDITARY, see above
Yasuo Fukuda (2007-2008): HEREDITARY, see above
Taro Aso (2008-2009): HEREDITARY. Inherited the Fukuoka No. 2 constituency from his father, who won it on three occasions, the first in 1949. While there was a long interval without an Aso representing the constituency, the Aso family—coal and cement magnates—were so well known that the younger Aso had no trouble romping home on his first outing in 1979
Yukio Hatoyama (2009-2010): Not strictly hereditary, but the Hatoyama family have deep ties to the Hokkaido No. 4 multimember constituency from which he was first elected, about which I wrote here
Naoto Kan (2010-): Not hereditary. His father was an executive director and auditor of a mid-sized glassmaker, Central Glass. His lack of a hereditary gene may help to explain his recent unwillingness to commit political seppuku, samurai style, in the way that Hatoyama, Abe, and Fukuda did when the going got tough.
The hereditary phenomenon reached its zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) with the last LDP cabinet of Taro Aso, when at one stage 11 of the 17 cabinet members were hereditary politicians, a factlet to which I am indebted (as I am to a little of the above and some of the below) to an essay by political scientist Sota Kato, Hereditary lawmakers in an era of politically led policymaking, but the issue has again faded from the headlines, perhaps in part because of the lamentable inability of the DPJ, like many a center-left party that lacks the ruthless will-to-power of those on the right, to press home the momentum handed to it by a landslide victory, but perhaps mostly because former PM Hatoyama, who bankrolls the party with his Bridgestone tire fortune, is not entirely undefiled by the hereditary taint himself and because éminence grise Ichiro Ozawa is unambiguously a hereditary politician, having slipped seamlessly into Iwate No. 2 in 1969, aged 27, on the death of his father.
Dynastic politics and political dynasties are not the exclusive province of Japan, of course—think of the Kennedys and Bushes in the US or the Nehrus and Gandhis in India—but their manifestation here is particularly acute. Search the Internet for “hereditary politicians” and almost all references are to Japan. I’d put this down to a combination of two developments: the professionalization of politics across the developed world in the last half-century, which has resulted in the emergence of a professional political class with few achievements outside of politics, and the infection of politics in Japan with the ideology of the shokunin artisan, which is perhaps taken to its most extreme degree in kabuki, where most leading actors can trace their blood-roots in the art (aside from the occasional adoptee intervention) back to the seventeenth century. Politics as kabuki indeed…
It’s a slightly misleading synecdoche to talk about the inheritance of “seats”, for what the sons (and a very few daughters) inherit are not the seats themselves but rather the three “ban” of politics, the kaban (鞄, “bag” [stuffed with cash], the fundraising apparatus), the kanban (看板, “signboard”, the name recognition), and the jiban (地盤 “turf”, the constituency itself), which make victory such a cakewalk. The political scions naturally have to be put through the electoral sieve and defenders of the status quo would—and do—argue that any attempt to interfere with their rightful inheritance would infringe on their constitutional rights:
All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.
Article 14, Constitution of Japan
Although we could easily enough turn that argument on its head and say that the selection of these scions as candidates, a process largely free from democratic niceties, especially in the LDP, is tantamount to discrimination against those with an equal right to run, as democratic legitimacy must surely involve not only the right to elect but also the right to be elected, as Kato points out.
What does the future hold for the hereditary caste? Roughly half of the rump LDP left in the lower house after the drubbing of 2009 are hereditarians, with party leader Sadakazu Tanigaki a consummate hereditary politician, having taken over in Kyoto No. 2 (1983-1993) on the death of his father Sen’ichi, who represented it from 1960 to 1983. Were Tanigaki to lead the LDP back to the reins of government in the next general election, a new influx of hereditarian lawmakers would be all but bound to ensue. The only hope for a withering away of the hereditarians would seem to lie in a period of extended rule by the DPJ, an implausible scenario to be sure, and the emergence and persistence of this priestly political clique is one of many reasons I fear that the roots of democracy in Japan, while deep, are brittle.
But we have strayed a long way from the campaign sticker for Hirofumi Nakasone, who has aged and grayed to look like this and of whose year-long stint as Minister for Foreign Affairs (September 2008 to September 2009) I regret to say I recall nothing, not being the most assiduous follower of the ins and outs of Nagatacho, the Tokyo district where the Diet is located.
…it’s not always easy to hold everything together
…you want a broom to sweep all your troubles away
…at times you feel like you’ve reached the end of the line
The 34km Joshin line runs out of rail in Shimo Nita, although there were once plans, derailed by the Great Depression, to push it through to neighboring Nagano Prefecture. It is owned and operated by Joshin Dentetsu, a tiny and nominally private-sector firm that aside from this line, runs a few buses and dabbles in real estate. Like almost all provincial railway lines, its statistics are sobering: passenger numbers down from 8.2mn in 1966 to 2.2mn in 2006, freight operations ceased in 1994, and revenue down from Y1.17bn (about $14.5mn at the current exchange rate) in 1983 to Y655mn ($8mn) in 2006. It is being kept on life-support by dollops of subsidies split between the state, the prefecture and the municipalities along the line: Y2.0bn ($25mn) from 2000-2009 and Y920mn ($11.5mn) from 2009-2014. Not huge sums, to be sure, but a time may come, perhaps a couple of decades hence, when patience wears thin as budgets grow threadbare, although the Joshin line has one ace in its deck—it’s politically very well connected, as former PM Nakasone’s father, Matsugoro (1889-1969), a leading lumber merchant, served as its president in the 1950s…
…the lights are not as bright as they once were
In what was once the main shopping drag leading off the station, too narrow for much more than a moped, stands a pachinko parlor, Fuji Hall, whose lolly-licking candy girls date its demise to the early 1970s. “Ach, wonderful, wonderful,” exclaimed Juergen to no one in particular and a woman with wispy ash-gray hair, hearing a commotion in a foreign tongue, leaned out of her window opposite to investigate. “When did it close?” I asked, thumbing the parlor. “Ooh, when I was a little girl, it must have been. With the coming of the car. Not much left here now.” She shrank back inside with a stifled sigh.
…you feel like eating pufferfish just to flirt with death
The fugu pufferfish are merely a promotional in-joke: konnyaku devil’s tongue sliced thin and served as if it were sashimi is known as “mountain pufferfish” (“yamafugu”, 山フグ, 山河豚, or even やまふぐ, as here) for its resemblance to chalky-white and chewy pufferfish sashimi. While it offers two advantages over its pelagic cousin—it’s far cheaper and it won’t kill you should the chef have been negligent in its preparation—it has one fatal drawback for the gourmand—it tastes of nothing at all.
We motored on, up into the forbidding mountains.