The news shook the world of Tokyo’s French cuisine, but the iconic Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Ebisu, was open for business. Diners clinked their glasses in honor of the late Joel Robuchon, the world famous chef who took “nihonno furenchi (French food in Japan)’ to a new level. In early August, Joel Robuchon succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was 73 years old – young by Japanese standards and way too young for people like Kazunari Mizuki, who had studied under the great master for 2 years before working as an entree chef at the Hotel Okura. “I never got a chance to say goodbye,” he said, his eyes getting moist. “Many of us in this business revered him so much. Without Joel-san, the French restaurant scene in Tokyo would never have gotten to this point.”
Indeed, Robuchon’s famed Chateau Restaurant (opened in 1994) was one of the first establishments in Tokyo to earn Michelin’s 3-star rating and the Chateau building itself has come to represent the wealth and glamour of Japan’s capital city. It’s also a pilgrimage site for Japanese couples. In a city notorious for workaholic singles and a rapidly aging population, the Chateau is the one place where men confer with the restaurant staff weeks in advance to orchestrate the perfect marriage proposal and the presenting of the ring. No woman can possibly say ‘no’ to a Robuchon proposal. The very fact that the occasion happened HERE of all places, makes her that much more precious, or at least worthy of a 80,000 yen dinner course and a sizable bling.
The food – though formidable, is almost beside the point. Joel Robuchon taught the Japanese that French cuisine wasn’t about food per se, but the experience as a whole. Everything from the decor to the lighting and wine selection to the impeccable service, should be a reflection of Robuchon’s personal philosophy: never settle for anything less than state of the art.
He also had a deep respect for Japan and Japanese cuisine. He lauded the soy sauce as “one of the greatest culinary miracles” according to an interview he gave on Fuji Television, and even developed a special shoyu to accompany western dishes. Four months before his death, he had collaborated with sake maker “Dassai” to open a Japanese/French restaurant in Paris. One of his best friends was Jiro Ono, sushi master extraordinaire and owner of “Sukiyabashi Jiro’ in Yurakucho.
Before Joel Robuchon arrived on the scene, the Japanese and French cuisine had an amicable if overly polite, relationship. In prewar days, it was customary for master chefs of the Imperial Household to train in Paris, working their way up from scullery boy to line chef at various establishments. The young Emperor Hirohito was said to have treasured his chef, and counted on him to produce French dinners that would melt the hearts of visiting western dignitaries, even in the midst of rising political tension that preceded WWII.
Back then, only the top tier of the elite could hope to sit down to a full course French dinner and many Japanese had no idea what a fork and knife even looked like. It wasn’t until after the Japanese surrender and the late 1950s, that well-to-do families began dining in Tokyo restaurants, cautiously tasting dishes that vaguely resembled French cuisine.
In 1978, 33 years after the Japanese surrender, Joel Robuchon was appointed master chef at the Hotel Nikko de Paris (now the Novotel Paris Centre Tour Eiffel) Coincidentally, Robuchon himself was 33 years old, a still-young chef on the brink of success. That he chose a Japanese hotel to work his magic before opening his own restaurant (the legendary Jamain) three years later, speaks of his enduring love for this country. Robuchon opened restaurants all over the world but has said in numerous interviews that he genuinely enjoyed working with the Japanese, because “we share an innate respect for food and nature.”
Merci, chef. We shall miss you.
“We don’t need Parliamentarians who ignore human rights” (人権無視する議員はいらない)
“Mio Sugita, resign now” （杉田水脈は今すぐ辞めろ）
“Silence is death” ˆ(沈黙は死）
These were just some of the statements protesters were chanting in unity, in front of the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters on July 27th, demanding for the resignation of the parliamentarian, Mio Sugita. On July 24th, in the monthly magazine, Shukan Shincho, Sugita published an essay in which she said, among many other offensive things, that no tax money should be spent on lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) individuals because “they can’t reproduce and are therefore not valuable to society.” At first, the protests were confined to the internet, but in a short time, they spilt out into real life–an actual protest, and that was pivotal in getting the Japanese media to pay attention and finally force the LDP to address the issue.
Individuals- active citizens, representatives of NGOs as well as some politicians all gathered together in front of the LDP, angered by Mio Sugita’s comments clearly dissing the LGBTQ+ community.
It seems to be that an eclectic variety of individuals gathered. Those who identify to be LGBTQ+, those who do not, students and surprisingly (in the context of Japan,) a few people seemingly salarymen who came after work in their suits. To me, it seemed like there was an equal ratio of women to men. The crowd was mostly Japanese but there were a handful of foreigners who came to show support too. There were young women angered, who came alone, university students who came with their friends including myself. I believe there were a lot of men who seemed to be in their thirties to forties too. The crowd was very diverse.
There were all kinds of posters and signs held. There were many posters available online and they spread through social platforms such as Twitter. There was an identification number for the posters one could then input in a machine at a convenience store and get printed out. There were rainbow flags held up and most of the posters advocated for acceptance of diversity, lgbtq+. Some of these signs had statements like 生産性で価値を図るな which translates to something like Don’t measure our worth by “productivity.” Many of them criticised Sugita’s comment un “unproductiveness” and how it discriminates against many other groups of people in society. One thing which came a little of a shock to me were some other posters which came off as more aggressive. It wasn’t a majority but there were a handful of people with posters with Sugita’s face on it, however with a little twist. Some of them had a target on her face or one which made her look like a zombie, strongly demonizing her. I personally think this is going a little far and it’s better to argue against her comments and advocating for diversity but various perspectives were apparent.
There were countless numbers of policemen trying to control the people so that the participants were not standing over the studded part of the pedestrian road which is an aid for the blind. The police were trying to control the number of people in the main street and restricted participants from going onto the main street. The police were making some people stand against streets going around other blocks to limit the demonstration, but eventually, people overflowed onto the main street.
This issue may have caught a lot of people’s attention because many individuals saw this not only as an attack on the LGBTQ+ community but as one to all citizens, one to women, men, disabled people or the elderly. Sugita’s comments about how LGBTQ+ individuals are “unproductive” (生産性がない) as “they cannot have children” is inaccurate and extremely discriminatory to everyone as childbearing is an autonomous choice of an individual, not an obligation a citizen has to its government.
So, what exactly happened at the demonstration?
Apart from trying to get the attention of the LDP, the media and the rest of the public by simply being there and protesting, some participants, such as LGBTQ+ individuals, a few university professors, and some politicians delivered speeches explaining how hurtful Sugita’s comments were personally, how they could not sleep for days, illuminating how backwards Japan still is. Some participants also went up to the LDP to hand in a sort of a request for the resignation of Mio Sugita. Even though the few individuals who went up to the LDP headquarters seemed to contain their composure, they were denied a chance to even simply hand in the documents.
This demonstration was certainly not one the LDP could simply dismiss and move on with as they often do. There has been a lot of backlash to Sugita’s discriminatory comments on various social platforms and many other demonstrations have popped up in other parts of Japan. Recently, there was one on August 5th in Shibuya, Osaka and Fukuoka. There was also one on August 6th in Mie prefecture.
The LDP did acknowledge Sugita’s comments but have not condemned her, except for Shigeta Ishiba, who is running against Abe in the LDP internal party elections. Although modern Japanese governments prior to the current one have certainly not been the most transparent and democratic, the current one under Prime Minister Abe has continuously been moving far and far away from democracy, with its powerful members pulling strings in their favour, ultimately guiding the government away from democratic rule. It is does not bode well that since Abe took office Japan has dropped to 67 in World Press Freedom (it was ranked 11 in 2011) and not surprisingly Japan ranks lower than ever in the annual gender equality rankings, 114 out of 144 countries.
Erika Bulach is a university student in Tokyo majoring in social sciences.
What causes a 5-year old girl to write in her notebook, “Please forgive me,” just a few days prior to her death from abuse? “Please forgive me” is ‘onegai, yurushite,’ in Japanese, and the phrase made headlines after 5-year old Yua Funato was found dead in her apartment home in March. According to news reports, Yua had been beaten by her father and starved by her mother. The direct cause of her death was sepsis, brought on my poor nutrition and untreated pneumonia. Asahi Shimbun reported that Yua was ordered (by her mother) to practice writing Japanese at 4 in the morning everyday and was punished when she made mistakes, usually by being forced to sit for hours on the concrete veranda of their apartment, in the dead of winter.
According to Nippon.com, Yua’s treatment is pretty much standard among the growing number of child abuse cases in Japan. The father beats the child in places were bruises can’t be seen (in her case, injuries were confirmed on her upper thighs and back) and the mother stops feeding them. Verbal abuse, beating s and starvation form the unholy trinity of Japanese abuse cases and Yua, apart from everything else, was told by her mother Yuri that she shouldn’t have been born into the world, and that she was hated by everyone. Yua had to sleep in a tiny room with no heating, away from her parents and younger brother who occupied a bigger room with an air conditioner. At the time of her death, she was 8 kilos lighter than the average 5-year old and her digestive tract was clotted with vomit.
Now three months later, neighbors and sympathizers continue to place incense, candy and flowers outside the Funato family’s apartment in Tokyo’s Meguro ward. Social commentators have sighed and shook their heads with pity. Even Prime Minister Abe has been moved to comment that child abuse “cannot be overlooked.” But all that sympathy came too late for the 5-year old. The whistle had been blown on Yua’s parents several times over two years before the tragedy but the authorities had done nothing to help. Japan’s infamous child consultation centers (notice it’s consultation and not welfare) are hindered by an antiquated rule that favors parents’ rights over children’s, parents’ testimonials over children who, like Yua, had cried to a social worker that she didn’t want to live at home because her father beat her. Japan’s social workers mainly consult with the adults, and the first thing they ask the parents of a child perceived to have been beaten, is: “Are you abusing your child?” Yeah, right, like the parents are going to come clean and admit it. In the case of Yua, the parents had been “cautioned” and invited to attend a parents seminar, designed to help adults become better carers of offspring. The Funatos never showed up.
The damning, daunting fact is this: As of 2016, there were well over 100,000 cases of child abuse reported in Japan, up 100 times since 1990. In the US, that number is something like 67,000. And before Yua, there was Riku and Takumu and many other children of pre-school age who had been beaten, abused, starved or outrightly murdered by their parents. In spite of the government’s pledge to build more day care facilities and put families first, Japan is a place that’s not very nice to kids. Daycare is one thing, but public schools – once the bastion of a legendary educational system, is rife with problems from bullying to underpaid, overworked teachers who are mostly too tired to notice that a kid is showing up to school with bruises, or haven’t had a square meal in days. As the media keeps reminding us, one out of six Japanese children live in poverty, and go to school (if they are able) on empty stomachs.
As for children blessed with a stable home life, they often feel crushed by a tremendous pressure to succeed, i.e., get into a good university that will ensure a well-paying job 15 years down the line. Many kids start going to cram school as early as second grade, studying for entrance exams that will ensure at least a partial foot in the door of a prestigious university.
The experience of being born a Japanese national used to be described as following the ‘Bathtub Curve,’ meaning the best years of a Japanese life came at the beginning, between 0 and 12 years old, and in the end, between 65 and 75. My high school politics teacher taught us that, and I still remember the shock of seeing the long, flat line that supposedly represented the years between adolescence and retirement. Equally shocking was that upward curve representing babyhood and primary school. Were those years really so glorious? In primary school, summer vacation lasts just over a measly month and even that was tempered with shitloads of homework that had to be completed and submitted on September 1st. School lunches were for the most part, awful rations laid on prison-like tin trays. At home, dads returned on the last train, stressed to the very core of their beings and moms were equally tired from chores and childcare.
Dismal as it often is, there’s no comparing a normal Japanese childhood to what Yua, and tens of thousands of children like her, are going through on a daily basis. Some commentators have lamented that there are simply not enough social workers to go around. True, every time a child dies from abuse, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor (Koseirodousho) issues a statement about labor shortage being the definitive problem in the service industry. There are just not enough Japanese to do the work of caring for children, the elderly or the sick and diseased. When a staff member of a senior home was arrested last year after killing one of his charges, the reason given was fatigue. He was fed up with having to care for helpless people, and his work chart showed he had been pulling 12-hour shifts with almost no days off.
With Yua, the social workers who had been in charge of her case had also been understaffed, which led to carelessness and cutting corners. Yua’s parents moved the family from Kagawa prefecture to Tokyo, after a neighbor blew the whistle on Yua’s father. The child consultation workers in Kagawa then neglected to pass the full bulk of the paperwork from Kagawa to Tokyo, and Yua’s case was never reviewed in her new locale. Add to that the fact that child abuse facilities are notoriously crowded. Barring extreme circumstances, abuse victims are often returned to their parents, and the cycle of violence begins all over again. This was certainly true of Yua, who spent 3 months in a child care center in Kagawa but was not allowed to stay.
Sometimes, family is the most horrendous aspect of a child’s life. If Yua had been separated from her parents, chances are she would have lived. But Japanese tradition dictates that families must stick together, and what goes on within that circle is sacrosanct. More than the labor shortage, or parents seminars, we need to rethink the Japanese family, and take a long, hard look at its dysfunctions.
“A 2016 revision to the child abuse prevention law simplified the procedure for officials of such centers to carry out on-site inspection of homes where child abuse is suspected without the parents’ consent. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says that protection of children should be prioritized and that officials should not hesitate in the face of parents’ objections to take abused children under protective custody. However, it is believed that many welfare officials balk at resorting to such action out of concern that support for the family may not proceed smoothly if the action is taken over the parents’ opposition.
Japan’s efforts to stop child abuse are weak when compared with the systems in many Western countries. For example, in the United States, where efforts to prevent abuse of children started much earlier than in Japan, far greater numbers of child abuse cases are reported to and handled by child protection service agencies. Such agencies are staffed by far larger numbers of experts per capita than in Japan, and the police and the judiciary are more deeply involved in the effort against child abuse. What’s lacking in our system to stop child abuse should be explored so that similar tragedies will not be repeated.”
Shiori Ito is a brave journalist who has taken on Japan’s rape culture and has pursued justice in her own case. The BBC released a documentary “Japan’s Secret Shame” about Japan’s lack of ability to deal with sexual assault in the country and why her accused assailant was allowed to walk away, even after an arrest warrant on charges of rape were issued by the police. The documentary is hard to view outside of the UK, so if you’d like to know mere, here’s everything you should know until it’s released here. Many of these articles were written for The Daily Beast, which has been supportive of the investigative journalism behind these stories.
Also, it should be noted that weekly magazine, Shukan Shincho (週刊新潮), was the first periodical to write about this story and pulled no punches in accused the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of blocking a rape investigation.
Below is a list of articles that we’ve written on the case, some at a time, when no other major news media outlet would touch the story.
The stories are in chronological order here and the final entry is being updated when possible.
Welcome to our semi-annual pledge drive. Japan Subculture Research Center (@japankenkyu) was founded in 2007 by Jake Adelstein and many contributors to expose the hidden side of Japan – its underground economy, its transient and strange trends, its robust sex trade, wacky politics, corruption, social issues, many subcultures, yakuza, host clubs and hosts, Japanese cinema and all the other intriguing and seedy aspects that keep the country running. Balancing commentary, reporting and dark humor–we’re the kakekomitera (駆け込み寺) aka “last resort” of some news stories that no one else will touch. We’ve covered rebel graffiti artists, crusading lawyers, and some real heroes.
We would like this summer to support two interns so that we can post more original material and also revamp the layout. We’d like to add a current events section, more book reviews, more informative and provocative essays about Japan, and fund some investigative journalism. Ambitious yes, but we have lofty goals here at JSRC. Please read our manifesto: If you love Japan, make it better. Our mission statement.
Meanwhile, as part of this year’s pledge drive, we are giving away to the lucky two readers who donates before Thursday (drawing by lottery) free tickets to to see Shoplifters with English subtitles and a Q & A, by the director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Your contributions are greatly appreciated, however small or large.
If your motto in life is “one good deed a day” (一日一善）, here’s your chance to get those good karma points.
She’s old, really old. You could describe her as an ancient relic. But at 103 years old, Brunhilde Pomsel seems strong, confident, even blase. Pomsel is the centerpiece of the stunning documentary, A German Life (released in Japan as Goebbels to Watashi ) in which she recounts the years she spent in the employ of the Third Reich, as a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels. Shot in a gradations of black and gray, A German Life, highlights her still soft hair and the brightness of her eyes. What you’ll notice however, are the deep crevices crisscrossing her face, an incredibly creasy visage that make her look like some kind of exotic deepwater fish. Only once does her confidence falter, and that’s when she’s asked to recall whether she was aware of the existence of the concentration camps. “I didn’t know it,” she says but her voice lacks conviction. “I wasn’t guilty of that, but if I was, then the whole of Germany during the reign of the Third Reich – was guilty.”
The film will resonate with many viewers in Japan, not least because Germany was an Axis partner in WWII, but for the radical difference in the way the two nations have dealt with their wartime legacies of shame and humiliation. For many Japanese, the war years are a receding memory, most often romanticized and tinged with sentiment, as in The Eternal Zero. The stories told in the media or retold by our elders, have always varied little, summed up in a singular theme that combines victimization and valor. In this theme, the atrocities committed by the military in Asia, are glossed over. After all, the Japanese starved, Japan went through unspeakable deprivation, was relentlessly firebombed and then the Japanese people had two nuclear bombs dropped right on their heads for good measure. Whatever terrible things the Japanese military did in China and Southeast Asia, was paid for with our own suffering. We’ve checked off the items on our rap sheet of atonement. So let’s agree to sweep all that stuff under the futon and get on with the business at hand, shall we?
This particular logic (or lack thereof) has come to define the collective memory in the 7-plus decades after the Japanese surrender. It wasn’t really our fault, but the fault of the entire era, and the unstoppable war machine! Compare this mind-set to Germany. They also suffered from the air raids and bombings and went through hell. But they are also a people unafraid to rub their faces in the shit pile of defeat. To this day, they are still examining what exactly happened, and why. New revelations of Nazi atrocities are being unearthed all the time, to be dissected and discussed. The Germans have not averted their gaze from the past, rather they’ve been pretty relentless in their cause to track down and then lay bare the gruesome details of their own crimes. Consider the meticulously categorized displays at the Auschwitz Memorials. The unforgiving precision that characterize the guided tour of those Memorials. The sheer number of movies and documentaries that have come out about the camps and the Third Reich. Or the revived public interest in Sophie Scholl, the young political activist who was guillotined for her fierce anti-Nazism.
“For all that, I believe that Germany is experiencing an eerie deja vu of the Nazi years,” said Florian Weigensamer, one of the four-man directorial team behind A German Life. Weigensamer was in Tokyo to promote the film, along with another director Christian Krones, who is also the founder of Blackbox Films and Media Productions. Blackbox engineered the whole endeavor that is this movie and other award winning documentaries. Krones and Weigensamer have been colleagues and friends for over 20 years and they’ve dedicated a good chunk of their professional lives to the excavation of some of humanity’s most complex problems. (One of their recent projects is a documentary called Welcome to Sodom that examines Ghana’s burgeoning waste problem, born of discarded home appliances.)
Krones is the oldest and most experienced member of Blackbox but he stresses that there’s no corporate hierarchy at work. “I like to take a democratic approach to filmmaking. No orders are issued top-down. There are no one-man decisions. We hold extensive meetings and discuss the film process every step of the way, like a real democracy.” And he added with a chuckle, “We do this because the film industry tends to be very dictatorial and we are very sensitive to anything that smacks of dictatorship!”
Blackbox is an Austrian company as are Krones and Weigensamer. Because they don’t carry German passports, the pair say that their gaze on WWII and the Nazi atrocities are a little distanced. “We were both born many years after the war,” said Weigensamer. “And growing up, I remember my own family didn’t really talk about the war unless it was to say that we were victimized. In this way, I guess we are a lot like the Japanese.” In 1938, Austria was forcibly annexed to Germany in what was known as the Anschluss, and according to Krones, it “laid the groundwork for turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. The Nazis held Austria in a grip of terror and the Austrians felt powerless. They descended into denial, and most people just tried to make it through the war years without getting killed.” Weigensamer nodded in assent, but said, “And now we are seeing the rise of neo-Nazis, and the end of tolerance for refugees and outsiders.” Indeed, Krones said, “When we first started filming ‘A German Life,’ I thought, we would be talking about something that was past and over with. Now I feel like I’ve gone back in time, and traveled to a future where the nightmare is beginning all over again.”
As for Brunhilde Pomsel, she comes off as neither a tragic heroine or an evil monster but a woman with exceptional secretarial skills and a breathtakingly banal personality. Astonishingly, before taking up her duties for the Third Reich, Pomsel had worked in a Jewish insurance company in Berlin while having a side gig in the afternoons working for an official in the Nazi Party. Her lover and fiance was half Jewish. (In the film, she has a silver band around her ring finger.) He was killed in Amsterdam in 1942. Her best friend was a young Jewish woman named Ava, who died in one of the camps. All around her, Jewish people were being taken away, ostensibly to a place of “re-education,” and she didn’t think to question what this may really mean. Her take on Joseph Goebbels is that he was “so dapper, so dashing! The cut of his suits was perfect.” Pomsel even remembered how Goebbels’s children would come to pick him up at lunchtime so that they could all walk home together for the midday meal.
Pomsel apparently compartmentalized all that into her life, and shut out whatever she deemed unworthy of attention. She never stopped to examine the contradictions of her thoughts or her actions. She simply wanted to perform her duties well, and then go home.
“The thing is, she was very likable,” described Weigenhamer. “She was articulate, self-sufficient and loved going to the theatre. She took very good care of herself and liked to have a good time. At first I thought I liked this woman but the more time I spent with her, the more I got to hate her.” Krones said: “What struck me was her incredible selfishness. I honestly got the feeling that she was alone because she didn’t want to share her life with anybody. She enjoyed living. But as in the war years, she wanted her life to be hers alone. And this mentality, this wish to shut out others – is part of what made Hitler successful.”
Brunhilde Pomsel died last year, at the age of 106.
Ever since the #Me Too movement landed in Japan late last year, there’s been a greater awareness of women’s rights and sexual harassment. In Tokyo subways cars, there’s a video ad exhorting female teens to refuse to work inside Japan’s infamous underage sex industry. Some train station kiosks sell pin badges for young women, printed with an anti-groping slogan. All this marks quite a progress from the days (only 5 years ago) when sexual abuse and discrimination were so much a part of the daily fabric that many victims didn’t think it worthwhile to raise their voices.
Recently however, Japanese women were given a rap over the knuckles, jolted back to reality and reminded that we were second-class citizens in a male-dominated society. The incident happened during a sumo exhibition match in Kyoto earlier this month. After the match, the mayor of Maizuru City, Kyoto, got up on the arena to make an award-giving speech when he suddenly had a stroke and crumpled to the ground. In a flash, two women in the audience went up, massaging his heart while calling an ambulance. These women were professional nurses and knew what they were doing. In other circumstances, they would be applauded, lauded, maybe even paid for their heroism. Instead, they were told – a total of three times – to get off the arena. Over a loud speaker, no less.
In the world of sumo, the arena is sacred – and females are not allowed to even touch its holy rim. Why’s that? Traditionally, women have been deemed impure, and feared to contaminate the match if they got too close to the arena. A century ago, women weren’t even allowed to watch sumo bouts, as their poisonous gaze may harm the godly flesh of the sumo wrestlers. Tides will turn and times may change, but sumo has, and will always hold women unworthy. Two days after that Maizuru City mayor was carried away on a stretcher, another exhibition match was held. This time, the mayor was a woman and her request to give out the award ON TOP of the arena, was adamantly refused. She had to make her speech from under the arena, stretching her arms above her head, to the winning sumo wrestler.
This incident is by no means the first of its kind. Women mayors, and even a Cabinet Minister acting on behalf of the prime minister, were banned from mounting the steps to the arena for no other reason than that they were women. Women were dirty – after all, they menstruated, had babies and grew old. How despicable. Sumo wrestlers on the other hand, were glorious creatures whose dense muscles and shining flesh were a testament to male power and the incarnation of ancient deity. Never mind that these wrestlers were born from women like everyone else. Never mind that some of sumo’s staunchest supporters are women. Never mind that the sacred arenas are made from packed dirt, and taken apart and shoveled away after each tournament, so what’s the big deal?
After the Kyoto fiasco, the head of the Sumo Association issued an apology to the nurses. But the rules have not been radically changed and will likely stay the same forever. On April 28, the association did announce that it was acceptable for women to enter the arena if a man’s life was in imminent danger or in other dire emergencies. But for the time being, if Japan were ever to have a woman in the Prime Minister’s seat, she too will be told to get the hell off the holy arena during the award ceremonies.
Sumo and tradition have been air-tight for over two millennia, though unlike Judo or Kendo with their forbidding, too-solemn public image, this particular sport is extremely accessible. The spectators gather around the arena in a circle, often taking off their shoes to sit cross legged on mats. They’re free to drink beer, sake and munch boxed meals sold in the numerous lobby stalls. And though it’s closed to women, the sumo world is open to foreigners. Two out of the three current “Yokozuna” or highest ranking wrestler, are Mongolian. There have been wrestlers from Russia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Brazil, respectively. Taiho – one of the greatest and most popular sumo wrestlers of all time, was half Ukranian and raised by a single (Japanese) mother.
There are, of course, no female sumo wrestlers recognized by the Sumo Association. That happening is as likely as Japan’s other bastion of misogyny and tradition, the Yakuza, letting a woman sip the sake cap of fraternization. There are no sexy female yakuza. Whether there are sexy yakuza or not, is a matter of taste.
On or off the arena, sumo wrestlers are admittedly sexy. They are a splendid sight: enormous men with protruding stomachs, naked save for the “mawashi” or sash elaborately wound around their middles, leaving backsides exposed. They seem cuddly and friendly – like giant teddy bears that bow politely to the stable masters before going at each other with the full force of their mighty weight. In terms of celebrity status, sumo wrestlers are on par with kabuki actors, also entrenched in anti-woman tradition. In spite of this (or maybe because of it) there’s never a shortage of women who want to marry into those worlds, though both may be riddled with scandal and rife with discrimination. Adversity acting as an aphrodisiac, maybe.
While condemning the discrimination, I have a tiny, grudging sliver of respect for sumo. As the world continues its relentless march toward total globalism, sumo still prefers to be weird and backward, mired in a logic that’s 2000 years too old. At the same time, the wrestlers are for the most part, smartphone-wielding college graduates that pal around with pop idol groups. The combination is fascinating, even alluring. True, I will never be allowed to touch the sacred arena but I’m free to ponder, (and be frustrated by) its unfathomable mystery.
Rich Nation, Strong Army: Japanese Militarism Redux
War clouds threaten northeast Asia. One state within the region continues to raise its military spending to record levels over five consecutive years. It increases solid-fuel rocket testing under the guise of launching satellites into orbit and continues stockpiling vast reserves of plutonium that could potentially nuclear arm the nation. New domestic laws severely limit the media, and active discussion persists on bills that would crack down on socially unacceptable or controversial thinking—i.e., “thoughtcrime.” These ever-belligerent, destabilizing actions are not the actions of a rogue state. No, this isn’t about North Korea, Iran, or Russia for that matter, but the remilitarization of Japan.
The nationalist administration, led by the grandson of a war criminal, Shinzo Abe* (Liberal Democratic Party), uses recent activities in North Korea to its benefit, pounding war drums alongside most established media organizations, both on the left and the right, such as the Asahi, Mainichi, and Yomiuri Shimbun newspapers. This “threat” from its mainland neighbor is forced down the throats of Japanese citizens daily. Tokyo rehashes wartime imperialist ideologies, senior cabinet ministers stating support for using the Imperial Rescript of Education by schools—a text promulgated in 1890 in the name of Emperor Meiji that placed utmost importance in reverence and loyalty to the crown—as a means to foster the administration’s values in today’s youth. (It was also to justify the use of kamikaze, suicide missions in mini-submarines, and the forced suicide of thousands of Okinawans.)
In May 2017, the Abe administration made its position known regarding the ban of wartime imperialist military flags in international soccer matches, expressing that imperial regalia does not necessarily connote imperialism and discriminatory opinions against neighboring nations—something akin to if Angela Merkel condoned the use of the Nazi Hakenkreuz for supporting the German national sports team as completely acceptable and lacking negative effect on spectators.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has produced manga booklets to promote constitutional revisionism—for Japan to become a “normal country” as party members call it. Proponents of wholehearted constitutional revisionism claim that Japan is not a “normal country” due to the postwar U.S. occupation forcing the current national constitution upon the Japan. The Japanese establishment wields this tried-and-true tactic of using pop culture to foster understanding of its agenda among the public across many domains. The civilian nuclear energy programs of the 1950s were promoted through pop culture icons utilized by the then head of the Yomiuri Shimbun—and known CIA operative—Shoriki Matsutaro. This tactic continues to prop up the myth of nuclear safety in Japan, which played a disastrous role leading up to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011.
The combination of propaganda and the incessant war drumming appears to be working. Recent survey data from late April collected by the nonpartisan Mainichi Shimbun newspaper showed that 48% of respondents agree to the proposed constitutional revisionism, whereas those against it consisted of only 33%. The numbers have steadily risen since the ruling party began openly discussing constitutional revision.
Abe’s party and the Cabinet Legislative Bureau reinterpreted Article 9—the peace clause of Japan’s constitution that renounces war—to allow for collective self-defense in 2015. This move was a sharp reversal from the policy of individual self-defense and the constitutional interpretation that all previous administrations used to justify a reliance on the U.S. military as their defense policy and their relative reluctance toward international military cooperation.
Whereas the aforementioned survey data claimed that 46% of respondents were against amending Article 9, one can but wonder whether the respondents based their responses on the current interpretation of the article, which justifies a self-defense force with tanks, aircraft carriers, and other offensive weaponry along with participating in foreign wars with the United States. The nationalists in the Japanese government had claimed for the last seventy-odd years that they needed to revise the constitution, as it did not allow them to have a full-fledged military. And yet ironically in the last two years, the government and media have promulgated a new claim that the renunciation of war in Article 9 does not prohibit the use of military force by Japan. If political actors can reinterpret long-standing constitutional interpretation on a whim like this, then wouldn’t it affect the perception of formally revising Article 9?
“Rich nation, strong army” (fukoku-kyohei) was the nineteenth-century slogan the ruling elite used to rapidly industrialize in the advent of the Meiji period to protect national interests against Western colonial powers. It was also the slogan that led Japan to bolster its military and eventually steer the nation toward colonial expansion into Korea, China, and other neighboring nations. Fomented by both the international and domestic media, we are too often conditioned to pay attention to the most fashionable international threat of the week and yet are blind to actions occurring right before our eyes. Recent developments led by Abe’s administration eerily echo the prewar slogan, and we as members of the international community should view these events with extreme caution, as for all we know history may repeat itself.
*Editor’s note: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2012-) had a grandfather was a war criminal, and served as Minister of Munitions during World War II–Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi raised Abe like his own son, and Abe’s stated desire to fulfil his grandfather’s dreams of dismantling the post-war constitution and restoring a State Shinto controlled Imperial government probably owes much to his childhood. But his childhood dreams could be a nightmare for a democratic Japan.
Douglas Miller is a PhD Candidate at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. His primary focuses are political theory and Japanese history.
His grandfather, whom Abe greatly admires, the yakuza linked and ‘incredibly corrupt’ former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, was arrested as a war criminal after the war, but never put on trial. Kishi was Japan’s Minister of Munitions during the Second World War. Abe has allowed Japan to make and export arms again under his regime as well.
For reference here is the English text of Article 9:
RENUNCIATION OF WAR
Article 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.