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Showing posts from February, 2012

Never mind an extra day: Japan had an extra MONTH

Never mind the 29th of February. Japan used to have a leap MONTH when it still followed the old lunar calendar: an extra month added to a year so that everything could be in sync with the seasons.

This process of inserting a day, week or month so that the year can correspond to the seasons is calledintercalation. The Gregorian (or Western) calendar adds an extra day; the lunar calendar added an extra month which was called uru-u-zuki (閏月) in Japanese.
Why was this necessary? Let's keep this very short, sweet and simple. According to the old lunar calendar, a month is the period from one full moon to another, i.e. 29 and a half days. This only adds up to 354 days, or 11 days fewer than in the solar calendar. That means the lunar calendar gradually fell behind the seasons, and that's why an extra uru-u month was added roughly every third year.
The thirteenth month could be added at any time, but if it happened to fall in winter, it was believed that the winter would be very severe…

A deity and a shrine to help marathon runners

Sunday 26 February is the 6th Tokyo Marathon, when 30 000 runners will run from Shinjuku via Asakusa to Odaiba. I will hide at home until the madness is over, but I will keep my fingers crossed that all the participants will run with the swiftness of Idaten.
Idaten (韋駄天) is a deva (non-human beings who have longer, more powerful and more contented lives than humans) who is based on Skanda. He's regarded as a protector of monasteries and monks, and in Japan he's also enshrined in Zen living quarters and kitchens.
Kitchens? So what's he got to do with runners? Patience, people, patience. We're running a marathon, not a sprint.
Idaten is famous as a runner; as a matter of fact, a running shoe was named after him: the Mizuno Wave Idaten. As far as I know – and I know very little about sport – this shoe has been replaced by later models.
Here's his story. Although Idaten was trusted by Buddha and was given the task of protecting the temple where Buddha's holy ash was st…

Woe betide women writers

"As far as I have had the opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars."

"And what are they?"
"A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar."
-- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

PS: The first speaker is a man. Obviously. Austen is wicked. I adore her.

The scholarly god, the bull and the blossoms

This is a story about a scholarly god, a bull and blossoms. I assure you, there's a connection that makes perfect sense.
Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真)was a scholar, poet and politician in Kyotoin the Heian era. He was betrayed by a rival, Fujiwara no Tokihira, and exiled to a minor post in Dazaifu in Kyushu. After Sugawara's death in 903 at the age of 58, Kyoto was hit by various calamities, from droughts to floods, all attributed to his angry spirit. The imperial court, in an attempt to calm him down, deified him as Tenjin (天神), the god of scholarship. Today there are roughly 14 000 Tenjin shrines, or Tenman-gū, in Japan.

So what's the story with the bull? Aha. It all started at Sugawara's funeral procession, when the animal that was pulling the cart with his remains refused to go any further than a certain point. So the procession stopped, and his grave was dug on that spot. Today you still see statues of bulls at all Tenjin shrines. It's believed that you'll ac…

22/2 is cat day (=^・^=)

The 22nd of February is known as "cat day" in Japan. That's because 22/2 can be read as ni ni ni (the Japanese word for 2) and that's supposed to resemble nyan nyan nyan and that's supposed to be the sound of a (Japanese) mewing cat. Hence, cat day.


It's also a good day to introduce you to Japan's three feline superstars: White Basket Cat, better known as Shiro; Hatchan and Maru. Here's my favourite, the amazing Zen-calm Shiro and friends:

Properly weathered

Pastoral (II) by William Carlos Williams is as good a poem as any to describe why I love the shitamachi. Properly weathered is good. (The two photos were taken in Taitō. You still see copper shingles on old houses in the shitamachi. It's an old form of fire protection.)
When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
Older now
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel-staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best
of all colors.

No one
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.

A river of colourful fabric in Nakai

I don't always huddle in my beloved shitamachi. Sometimes I brave the great unknown and travel to a river where colourful bolts of fabric flutter merrily …
I wish I could've said gaily, but that word has been hijacked. Merrily will have to do. We continue.
… where colourful bolts of fabric flutter merrily in Nakai's annual Some no komichi festival. Nakai, a town in Shinjuku ward, is famous for its fabric dyers and kimono shops, and they celebrate this old craft in February by hanging 50 tanmono (a measure of kimono cloth 40 cm wide and 12 m long) above the local Myoshoji River.


I first read about this event on Kaori's blog, Shinjuku Daily Photo, last year. I made a note in my diary, actually managed to remember (a major feat!) and finally attended the event this weekend.
Some no komichi is written 染の小道 in Japanese, and it means, translated directly, dye street or dye district. Nakai specializes in a specific way of dyeing fabrics called yuzen (友禅), which is a kind of resis…

The five scoundrels on Asakusa's roofs

I've done it! Mystery solved! Am I good or am I good?
It started with a thief called Rat Boy, whose statue appears on a roof in an Asakusa shopping street near Sensō-ji. I'd barely published that story or fellow blogger Lina demanded to know: "There are other statues too, you know, what about those other statues?"
Your wish is my command. I sniffed around and discovered that all those statues are thieves from the 1700s! The fact that one of them was so beautiful that he could disguise himself as a woman only makes the story even better.

As I mentioned in a comment on Lina's blog, these statues give me yet another reason to love the shitamachi. Do we honour the high and mighty? No. We admire clever robbers who thumbed their noses at their feudal overlords. Our heroes actually plied their trade in Osaka, and the kabuki play based on their antics is set in Kamakura, but what's a little geography between friends?
Bear with me. I have to bombard you with Japanese name…

Obligatory blog birthday post

I wrote my first post on Valentine's Day 2011. (I didn't do this birthday post on Valentine's Day, because I wrote about illegal sex instead. That means my birthday post is two days late, but never mind, let's pretend I'm on Africa time.)

I started my blog for three reasons. Firstly, I realized that various recipients weren't reading my emails about Japan. I don't blame them: they have zero interest in this country, and they probably got bored with my relentlessly cheerful missives. I suspect modern mankind regards happiness as naive, boring and irritating. We're supposed to be cynical, disillusioned and depressed. I'm not. Tough titties.
Secondly, I couldn't find much information about things that interest me: quirky shitamachi shrines, old forgotten traditions, mythology. You can find information on Japanese websites and in old out-of-print English books, but there isn't much on contemporary English websites. I thought maybe there might be t…

When sex between white and Japanese was forbidden

Once upon a time sex between whites and any other race was forbidden in South Africa. It was called the Immorality Act, and of all the horrors that South Africa inflicted upon its people, this was one of the worst.

I don't want to retell a complex history of a complex country. You know about apartheid, a government policy that segregated people according to their race. We lived in different areas, had to go to different beaches, worshipped the same god in different churches. Apartheid laws started crumbling in the 1980s thanks to increasing pressure not only by the African National Congress (who was then regarded as terrorists), but also by leaders in the white, coloured and Indian communities. The Immorality Act (English here, Japanese here) was lifted in 1985 and apartheid was finally abolished in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa 's first black president.
Throughout those apartheid years, Japanese people enjoyed a unique status in South Africa: they were counted a…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Rat Boy, the Robin Hood of Japan

He was the greatest robber in old Edo. His real name was Nakamura Jirokichi (仲村次郎吉); his nickname was Nezumi Kozō (鼠小僧), which can be translated as Rat Boy.
Jirokichi was born in 1797. He was a cabinet maker's apprentice when he was a young man, but he led such a wild life that his father disowned him. That's when he started his famous career as a burglar. He was first caught in 1822 and banished from Edo, then captured again in 1831.


He confessed that he had broken into more than 100 samurai estates and had stolen over 30 000 ryō (cold coins) in his 15 years as a cat burglar. His exploits turned him into a folk hero. He had very little money in his possession when he was caught, which strengthened the popular belief that he had robbed the rich to give to the poor. (It's very possible that he wasted all his money on booze and babes, but let's not spoil a good story with conjecture.) Commoners were delighted to hear that the daring thief had fooled their despotic overlo…