Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: February 2012

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Never mind an extra day: Japan had an extra MONTH

The rabbit in the moon
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 called intercalation. The Gregorian (or Western) calendar adds an extra day; the lunar calendar added an extra month which was called uru-u-zuki () 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; and if it fell in summer, it would be a scorcher.

Enjoy the 29th of February, ladies. Propose, demand and indulge.

PS: I've always been fascinated by astronomy. No idea whence, but suffice it to say I'm a regular (that's a polite way of saying compulsive-obsessive) visitor at the Hubble site. I've discovered this great English site about astronomy in Japan. Enjoy.

Monday, 27 February 2012

A conversation with Bakatono

Friday night. Freezing cold. The Hero has imploded on the sofa and is reading this blog and various comments on his phone.

"You can't call me The Hero," he announces.
"Why not?"
"You make me sound too good to be true. I'm not. I'm poisonous."
"You're not poisonous. Maybe dangerous, like Cassius."
"Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much; such men are dangerous."

"What's that?"
"Uhn. Don't call me The Hero. Call me … The King."
"The King."
"What's the difference between The Hero and The King?"
"The King rules."
"I'm not calling you The King."
"Then call me Doraemon."
"No. Maybe I can call you Chōnan." (Oldest son.)
"Don't be stupid. You can't call me Chōnan. That's not a name. If you call me Chōnan, StarBrooke will know your Japanese is very bad." (He admires her Japanese ability.)
"I never said it's not very bad!"
"Uhn. Call me … Bakatono."
"You're not baka!" (Baka means mad.)
"It has nothing to do with that. Bakatono was a television character. He was played by Ken Shimura."
"What kind of character?"
"He was a stupid feudal lord."
"Everybody knows Bakatono."
"I don't."
"Stop going to shrines and start watching TV."
"Can I watch you instead?"
"Don't be stupid."
"If you can be a stupid feudal lord, why can't I be a stupid foreigner?"
"OK. Do you want coffee?" *

Such is life in an intercultural relationship. Even a casual Friday evening conversation** teaches you more about your adopted country than you'd learn in ten books.

* This was a subversive diversion. He's still The Hero.

** It's an ongoing conversation. You can read another dialogue, when he decided he should be called Right-winger, here. The other nomad, Sarah, has the same problem with her man. Read about it here.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

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 stored, he had a bad habit of snoozing on duty. One day the devil broke into the temple while Idaten was napping and stole the holy relics. When Idaten woke up, the devil was already many miles away, but Idaten realized that he had failed dismally in his duties and started running after the robber. He was so determined to recover the stolen relics that he caught up with the devil, and was able to maintain his honour and fulfill Buddha's trust.

That's one runner's story for tomorrow. I tried my best to find a shrine in Tokyo where runners can pray, but I haven't been successful yet. What I did find was a shrine in Kyoto where you can pray for strong legs. I shrieked when I realized where this shrine is, because it's within spitting distance of the hotel where I always stay when I go to Kyoto … and I never realized this gem was so near. 

Yes, I've been to Kyoto several times, but I haven't written many posts about it. I can barely keep up with all my shitamachi stories; I haven't had time for a Kyoto series. Anyway, I always stay at the Palace Side Hotel near Marutamachi Station, and the shrine is a 5-minute walk from the hotel.

Goō Jinja amulet
The shrine is called Goō Jinja (護王神社). Let me reduce a very long legend to a few Tweets. Goō Jinja enshrines Wake no Kiyomaro, who tried to prevent an evil Buddhist priest called Yuge no Dōkyō from usurping the throne in 769. Dōkyō exiled Kiyomaro, ambushed him and wounded him in the leg. Then – if only real life were like this – three hundred wild boars carried Kiyomaro to Usa Hachiman-gū, where he was miraculously cured.

Goō Jinja displays many boar images and has a stone block with footprints that can supposedly cure leg problems. I know it's a Tokyo marathon and a Kyoto shrine, but it can't hurt to go there to ask for strength, can it?

The shrine's website is here.

Lina, my fee is payable in chocolate.

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.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

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 Kyoto in 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.

Ema at Yushima Tenman-gū with a drawing of Sugawara no Michizane

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 acquire wisdom if you touch the animal's head and then your own.

Arbitrary linguistic interlude: I don't know whether it was a bull or a cow that pulled his cart. Japanese has a word ushi  that can refer to a cow or a bull, single or plural. Cow is me-ushi 牛 and bull is o-ushi . English has cattle but that's only plural. Stupid English: it's a language that has clearly never touched a cattle's head.

Bull statue at Yushima Tenman-gū

Bull statue at Kameido Tenman-gū

Right, up next, blossoms. Since Sugawara loved plum blossoms, plum trees are always planted at his shrines. He wrote this famous poem about his favourite plum tree:

東風吹かば kochi fukaba (when the east wind blows)
匂ひおこせよ nioi okoseyo (let it send your fragrance)
梅の花 ume no hana (oh plum blossoms)
主なしとて aruji na shitote (although your master is gone)
春な忘れそ haruna wasure so (do not forget the spring)

I started grinning when I copied that poem, because I remembered StarBrooke's phrase "a real plum blossom post, profuse with poetry celebrating the delicate trees".

I'm cheating. I took this photo at Kameido Tenman-gū last year.

Have we covered all topics now? God, bull, blossoms. OK. We move on.

The biggest Tenjin shrine in Tokyo is Yushima Tenman-gū (湯島天満宮). It's located near Tokyo University and is very popular amongst students hoping to pass their entrance exams. Since these exams are held in January and February, the shrine is packed in these two months. It gets extra busy in February, when the shrine has a plum blossom festival.

The shrine was originally established in 458 AD for Ameno-tajikarao (天之手力雄命), a deity who's associated with strength and power, but Sugawara was also enshrined here in 1355, in honour of his brilliance as scholar. The current shrine was rebuilt entirely from Japanese cypress trees in 1995.

I went To Yushima Tenman-gū this week to attend the plum blossom festival, but it was a total anti-climax. There are no blossoms yet. Zenzen nothing. Perhaps because we've had such a cold winter? (Petal prediction: I suspect the cherry blossoms might also be a bit late this year.) The lack of blossoms didn't deter the visitors, who mostly go to these events to stuff their faces, and it wasn't a wasted journey for me either because I discovered another sexy daikon shrine and another tiny hidden shrine that's built around a tree. More about both later.

Yushima Tenman-gū

Now, a short paragraph about ema, the wooden tablets on which you write your wishes to the gods. When I recently did a post about Imado Jinja and remarked that I'd never seen so many ema at one shrine, commenter csmege responded that "Yushima Tenjin during the exam season might come close". Csmege, you're right. Yushima's ema are distributed on several frames around the main shrine, but if you count them one by one, I'm convinced the total would be more than Imado's.

Here’s a special good luck wish for Cecilia, who's currently finalising her master's degree; Sixmats, who's studying for his JLPT1; and all other students. I sent a silent wish your way when I was at the shrine. がんばってくださ!

I've included more photos. Sorry. They jump fairly randomly between Yushima Tenman-gū and the other famous Tenjin shrine in the shitamachi, Kameido Tenman-gū.

PS: The Hero says I should rename this blog The Shrine Blog. He might be right, as per usual ...

Sugawara no Michizane

A statue of Sugawara no Michizane at Kameido Tenman-gū

Yushima Tenman-gū

The only blossoms at Yushima Tenman-gū were on a beautiful bonsai.

Bonsai at Kameido Tenman-gū

Ema at Yushima Tenman-gū

This ema asks for entry into Chūō University (中央大学), which is famous for its law faculty.

I noticed this one tucked away beneath many others. I would, wouldn't I? It's a request for entry into Japan's top university, Tokyo University (東京大学). I'll keep 'em crossed for you, 愛-ちゃん!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

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.

This photo was taken at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Click to see a bigger version.

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:

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

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.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

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.

Bolts of fabric above Myoshoji River. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

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 (禅), which is a kind of resist dyeingYuzen was created by Miyazaki Yuzensai (1650-1736), a fan painter who invented a technique that keeps colours separate. First a design is drawn onto white cloth, using a water-soluble extract from dayflowers (Commelina communis in Latin; 露草 or tsuyukusa in Japanese). Next, the design is outlined with a kind of rice paste that prevents the colours from bleeding into each other. Then a dye is applied, dried and covered with rice paste; the next dye is applied, dried and covered with rice paste; the next dye is applied …

It takes a long time.

Finally the cloth is washed in running water to get rid of the rice paste, and it's this final step that provides such a spectacular sight in areas like Kyoto, Kaga and Tokyo. Traditional Kyoto fabrics are luxurious, Kaga fabrics focus on five specific colours and flower designs, and Tokyo fabrics are more restrained because the Edo shogunate forbid ostentatious decoration and only allowed subdued colours. However, the Edo townsfolk – being rebels at heart – circumvented their overlords' rules by wearing extremely flamboyant linings.

Yuzen crafts were introduced in Tokyo about 200 years ago. The craftsmen originally plied their trade next to the Sumida River, but eventually moved to the cleaner water of the Kanda River and the Myoshoji River in Shinjuku. Today, 268 experienced artisans remain in the area, of whom 38 are government-designated master craftsmen.

You can read more at this website, a great resource for traditional Japanese handicraft.

Here’s another excellent website about yuzen fabrics that explains it much better than I can. I'm a complete klutz with my hands, and even sewing on a button defeats me. I can, however, touch type at a vicious speed. Does that count?

I've included more photos of the bolts of fabric above the river, as well as the noren which you can see in front of every commercial establishment in Nakai, ranging from traditional to funky. 

This design reminds me of Africa.

Cute: noren at a bicycle shop

Friday, 17 February 2012

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.

This is the leader of the five thieves, Nippon Daemon.

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 names for a few paragraphs, but I won’t use too many kanji.

The real thieves were Karigane Bunshichi, An no Heibei, Gokuin Sen'emon, Kaminari Shōkurō and Hotei Ichiemon. Playwright Kawatake Mokuami (1816-1893) turned their exploits into a kabuki play which eventually became more famous than the original characters. He replaced the real Osaka thieves with fictional Kamakura characters called Nippon Daemon (based on the real thief Nippon Saemon, who was executed in March 1747), Benten Kozō Kikunosuke, Nangō Rikimaru, Tadanobu Rihei and Akaboshi Jūzaburō.

The play's full name is Aoto zōshi hana no nishiki-e (青砥稿花紅彩画, The glorious picture book of Aoto's exploits), but it's more commonly known as Shiranami gonin otoko (白浪五人, Five men of the white waves) or Benten Kozō (弁天小僧). The latter is the main character in the play.

(Shiranami, white wave, used to be a euphemism for thieves. I don't know why. Anybody?)

A woodblock print of the five thieves, by Toyohara Kunichika

Benten Kozō is an interesting character. He was so beautiful – or such a good actor – that he could disguise himself as a woman and get away with it. It's also a particularly challenging part for kabuki actors: most specialize in either male or female roles, but in this particular play they have to morph from macho peasant thief to refined high-ranking lady.

The play was turned into a 1958 movie called Benten Kozō (title translated as The Gay Masquerade or The Jovial Rascals of Edo). It was directed by Daisuke Itō.

Here's a scene from the kabuki play, but be warned: kabuki is emphatically not everybody's cup of green tea. I couldn't find anything on YouTube about the movie.

If you're wondering how I found out about the five thieves, I wish I could claim wild rikisha rides, a secret rendezvous with an eccentric historian and daring midnight escapades through Asakusa's back alleys. The truth, I fear, is more mundane, as the truth is wont to be. I simply found a statue that politely included a written description, and that was followed up by some Googling. Elementary, my dear Watson. (You do know Sherlock Holmes never really said that, don't you? See here.)

I've included the description below. It says that these five thieves have become the guardians of Asakusa, but you should be careful as you walk through the streets, for they are clever and cunning. See why I love the shitamachi?

I've also included photos of the thieves' statues. The only one which I don't have myself is Nangō Rikimaru, but you can see him here on Lina's blog. He's the second photo in her post.

PS: Why is the plural roofs and not rooves?

If you click on the photo to see the bigger version, you might be able to read it.

Benten Kozō

Tadanobu Rihei

Akaboshi Jūzaburō

A woodblock print of Benten Kozō disguised as a woman, by Utagawa Kunisada

Rat Boy, the guy who started my quest. (He was not a member of the gang of five.)

That's Rat Boy on the roof, opposite the Asakusa Public Hall.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

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 three other odd individuals who might be interested in it too, and I could share what I unearthed with them.

Thirdly, I was tired to death of Japan-bashing and "Japan is wacky" blogs. There is one question that no foreign Japan-basher has ever been able to answer to my satisfaction: if Japan is so awful, why don't you go home? I enjoy balanced blogs that write about the good and the bad, but one year ago, so many had gone private or inactive. To mention only one: Mutant Frog Travelogue. (They might be back in business. Yay!) So I started writing a blog for myself.

A wider audience

I continued writing for an audience of one for several months. The Hero was generous in his criticism: you should find a specific topic, you're not sarcastic enough, you should write about everyday stuff.

Initially I made no attempt to promote my blog. Then I took a small step that changed things in a big way: I participated in Show Me Japan. It closed shortly afterwards, but it introduced me to bloggers like Lina of Urutora No Hi. She commented on my blog. I replied. I started commenting on other blogs where I'd been a lurker for a long time. I realized a) that it's fun to chat to other bloggers, and b) that if I checked out the followers/commenters on blogs I liked, I would often discover other bloggers who love Japan, books, words, travelling, gardens, museums, history. Nerds. Nomads. Poets. Bookworms. Eccentrics. Philosophers. Photographers. Parents. Loners. Marathon runners. Darn dinkum interesting folk. That's the best thing about blogging: it helps you to meet, virtually speaking, fascinating people all over the world.

I'm still shocked whenever a new person comments or starts following my blog. It makes me nervous, too, especially when that person is Japanese: now I have to research extra carefully and make absolutely sure I'm not writing rubbish.


It's difficult to do a post every day, especially if it includes facts and photos. I try to do at least fifteen new stories every month. I suspect I won't be able to maintain this tempo. I wonder when I will run out of stories, but on the other hand, could you ever tell all there is to tell about Japan? Or just Tokyo? Or only my shitamachi? No.

Posts I think will be popular seldom are. I don't try to predict anymore.

I believe you either have to acknowledge comments on your blog, or you have to pay a courtesy call to that person's blog. The courtesy call often turns into a regular date.

Blogging is more fun but harder work than I thought it would be. I research my stories and check my facts, and that takes time.

Other Japan blogs

There is one type of blog I've started ignoring: bitterbekkers. "Bitterbek" is an Afrikaans word that means "bitter mouth" or more precisely "bitter maw". I love rants, especially about cyclists!, but neverending sarcasm is tedious. Such bloggers allege that they're portraying the "real" Japan, and I often get the impression that they're trying to outdo each other in cynicism, four-letter words and clever cutting comments. To them, life seems to be a neverending pissing contest.

Sorry that you got yourself a raw deal, Gaikokujin-sama, but that isn't my reality. It's not all Hello Kitty and cherry blossoms, but it isn't just racism, radiation and non-stop/weird/no sex either.

Quo vadis with this blog?

I don't know. I will continue writing about my beloved shitamachi, old stuff and books. I hope I can continue my conversations with individuals from all over. I look forward to meeting many more.

Thanks for our chats! Don't stop!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

When sex between white and Japanese was forbidden

I'm a white South African woman who loves a Japanese man. There was a time when this would've landed me in jail for breaking a law that forbid sex between whites and any other race. It was called the Immorality Act, and of all the horrors that South Africa inflicted upon its people, this one is of special significance to me.

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 as honorary whites. That is, they were white according to the Group Areas Act that determined where you could live, but non-white when it came to the Immorality Act. You could live together, but kerfuffling under blankets was not allowed.

Why this special status? Because money is more important than the virtue of virgins. When Yawata Iron & Steel Co purchased 5 million tons of iron from South Africa in the 1960s, worth more than $250 million, the South African government realized that it might not be a good idea to ban Japanese trade delegates to black townships. All Japanese people would henceforth be regarded as white, and they had almost the same rights as whites, except that they couldn't vote and were exempt from conscription. If you'd like to read a complete report, I recommend this paper called The Policy of Apartheid and the Japanese in the Republic of South Africa by Seiro Kawasaki.

It should be added that only a tiny handful of Japanese – about fifty – lived in South Africa in the 1960s, and only one had permanent residency.

This special status was insane, and liberal South African newspapers said as much. There was a cartoon in The Star of 5 May 1962 in which one Japanese says to another: "Honourable paper say Japanese government reciprocating by declaring all Honourable Europeans in Tokyo yellow."

It gets even crazier. There were roughly 6 000 Chinese in South Africa at that time, but they were not regarded as white. This caused fury in their community. They finally obtained the same official rights as the Japanese in South Africa in 1984, when their number had increased to 10 000.

Now for the cherry on the top. Fast forward to June 2008, when the Chinese in South Africa, now numbering 200 000, won the right to be reclassified as black so that they could benefit from the black government's affirmative action policies. "The [Chinese] association said their members often failed to qualify for business contracts and job promotions because they were regarded as whites."

I met The Hero long after the Immorality Act was killed, but I'm friends with an older couple, a South African man and a Japanese woman, who had to live in Japan in the 1970s to escape persecution. I don't know if South Africa will ever have normal racial relationships, but I do believe that you can't dwell on past injustices and bear a grudge for generations: always remember, but always move on. Happiness is the best revenge.

I know of four South African women who are currently living in Japan with Japanese men: two are middle-aged, two are young. Perhaps my younger compatriots don't know about the days when they would've had to submit themselves to midnight raids; police confiscating bed sheets for evidence of semen; and ostracism by church, school and community. Perhaps they do, and they're quietly raising a middle finger to Verwoerd & Co.


Saturday, 11 February 2012

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, songs from home. I mean my first home. Japan is now my home. It gets confusing, but you know what I mean, don't you?

Halala Afrika, by Johannes Kerkorrel

Halala Afrika is a beautiful song by a brilliant songwriter whose stage name was Johannes Kerkorrel ("kerkorrel" is an Afrikaans word for "church organ"). He caused a music revolution in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, since he openly defied the white government and the Dutch Reformed Church in his songs. He was fired from the Afrikaans newspaper where he worked and banned from the national broadcaster, but his songs were hits in South Africa, Belgium and the Netherlands. He committed suicide in 2002.

Halala is a Zulu word that means "welcome". Afrika is the Afrikaans spelling of Africa. 


When this land was young and the horizon wide open
It was green in this hemisphere south of the equator
And at dusk when the sun set and the cattle walked home
You could hear the call of the women across the hills:
Halala, we are Africa, forever. (The Afrikaans is ambiguous. It could also mean "our Africa is eternal".)

Tula tula mtanami, tula tula sanaboni, tula tula mtanami,
Ubab' uzobuya sihlale naye, ubab' uzobuya sihlale sonke.

Then the ships arrived from the west, white sails across the sea
To ask for food and water, but to stay for so much more
And this land that was so open, this land we abandoned
For the ghettos of cities we were given copper wires:
Halala, we are Africa, forever.

Tula tula mtanami, tula tula sanaboni, tula tula mtanami,
Ubab' uzobuya sihlale naye, ubab' uzobuya sihlale sonke.

Our mother's womb hid many treasures
Diamonds and coal, gold, noble metals
And the people turned into slaves, paid to tunnel
Into the earth to remove every shred of wealth
And the wide open savanna was strangled with barbed wire
And all the animals – from elephant to gemsbok – had to bow
Before the power of the big game hunter and his massive guns
Until nothing remained but silence, only silence ruled:
Halala, we are Africa, forever.

(The song includes a chorus in Zulu, one of South Africa's black languages. Translated into English: Hush, my child; hush, little baby; hush, my child. Father will return, we shall stay with him. We were living happily; return this land we enjoyed to us.)


Toe die wêreld hier nog jonk was en die horison wyd en oop
Was dit groen hier in die halfrond, suid van die ewenaar
En in die skemer as die son sak en die beeste huis toe loop
Klink die roepstem van die vroue oor die heuwels van die land:
Halala, ewig is ons Afrika.

Tula tula mtanami, tula tula sanaboni, tula tula mtanami,
Ubab' uzobuya sihlale naye, ubab' uzobuya sihlale sonke.

Toe kom die skepe uit die weste, wit seile oor die see
Om te vra vir kos en water en te bly vir soveel meer
En die land wat een tyd oop was, die land het ons verruil
Vir die ghetto’s van die stede is ons koperdraad gegee:
Halala, ewig is ons Afrika

Tula tula mtanami, tula tula sanaboni, tula tula mtanami,
Ubab' uzobuya sihlale naye, ubab' uzobuya sihlale sonke.

Daar was rykdom in die maag van ons moeder Afrika
Diamante en ook steenkool, goud, edel metaal
En die mense word die slawe hier want die mense word betaal
Om te tonnel in die aarde, elke greintjie uit te haal
En die groot en oop grasvlaktes, span dit toe met doringdraad
En van die olifant tot die gemsbok, al die diere moes kom buig
Voor die mag van die grootwildjagter, voor die mag van sy groot geweer
Totdat net die stilte oorbly, totdat net die stilte heers:
Halala, ewig is ons Afrika.

Kinders van die wind, by Laurika Rauch

I know an age-old song
about life’s joys and sorrows,
about shipwrecks long gone
to the depths of the sea.
The words are lost forever
but still the tune lingers on —
like a dimly recalled image
from a very old story.
Visions, dreams, and names
have been scattered by the wind,
and where all the words have gone
only a child could guess.
Nomads without direction, 

seekers that never find…
Ultimately, we are all just
children of the wind.

Friday, 10 February 2012

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.

A statue of Jirokichi in a shopping street near Sensō-ji in Asakusa

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 overlords.

After his second arrest, his punishment was death: he was put on a saddle-less horse, paraded through Edo and executed in August 1831.

He was buried at Ekōin (回向院) in Ryōgoku (両国), and you can still visit his grave. His original tombstone has disappeared because so many people took chips from it, believing that it would ensure good luck in gambling or in financial matters. A new tombstone was made, and nowadays visitors scratch a special rock with a pebble and put the dust in their wallet. This, it is said, will give you a share of the luck that Rat Boy enjoyed for many years, and will make your wishes come true.

Jirokichi's grave at Ekōin in Ryōgoku

If you're wondering about his nickname, it isn't clear why he got it, but I'll summarize the most popular theories:
  • He was a small man with rat-like features.
  • He broke into mansions through the roof, like a rat.
  • He was quick and smart, like a rat.
  • He carried a bag of rats with him. When he entered a wealthy mansion, he released them. If the residents awoke and heard a noise, they thought it was a rat and went back to sleep.

Jirokichi was immortalized in a kabuki play called Nezumi komon haruno shingata (鼠小紋東君新形). It was first performed in 1857 with Ichikawa Kodanji IV (四代目市川小團次) in the lead role.

Ekōin is an interesting place that includes a special cemetery for pets, but more about that in my next post!

This rock at Jirokichi's grave is believed to bring good luck. You should scratch it with a pebble, and then put the dust in your wallet. (It's a replacement. The original tombstone was chipped away into nonbeing.)

Good luck dust

Side view of the grave

A print of Ichikawa Kodanji IV as the Rat Boy

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