“OK Baraka,” I say, “What were the causes of World War II?”
We are reviewing for Baraka’s final history test, and I am sitting there with the teachers’ manual in my lap.
“Resources!” says Baraka.
“What do you mean?”
“Countries like Germany and Japan were invading other countries because they needed resources.”
“And what made the USA get into World War II?” I ask, still reading from the manual.
“Well Baba, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.”
“Yes, and the Philippines, in surprise attacks. These attacks killed people, and pretty much destroyed all the aircraft on the ground, and sank ships. And how did the war end?”
Baraka waves his arms and makes explosion noises.
“ATOMIC BOMBS,” he exclaims.
Just then, I feel the nudges of the backs of the people sitting behind me. I look up and around, and remember where we are. We are in Tokyo Station, in a crowded waiting area. Our Shinkansen, or bullet train, is soon to depart for Okayama.
Like a reflex, I lower my voice. “OK, let’s quiet down a little, and finish this.”
When the bomb detonated about 600 meters above the Shima Surgical Clinic, in the center of Hiroshima, at 8:15 on the beautiful morning of August 6, 1945, about 70,000 people died instantly. The temperature at the center of the fireball exceeded a million degrees Celsius. Within a second, it expanded to a 280-meter radius, and the temperature on the street below at Shima Clinic reached 4,000 degrees Celsius (iron melts at 1,500). The accompanying shockwave traveled at about 440 meters per second (a major typhoon or cyclone is about a tenth of that). Buildings were crushed and people were blown through the air.
The blast and heat rays smashed and burned nearly all buildings within a 2 kilometer radius. People within 1 kilometer, if not killed by that, were killed by radiation either that day or in the weeks following. Of the energy released that morning, 50% was blast, 35% was heat, and 15% was radiation.
By the end of the year, the number of dead reached about 140,000. Remarkably, about a hundred people who were right near the detonation point survived. Even more remarkably, most of these people completed, or are completing, their lives in a normal lifespan. These people had been shielded by concrete walls and other barriers during the explosion. At the time, there were a few buildings in the center of Hiroshima that were made of reinforced concrete.
Akiko Takakura, who is now in her eighties, can tell you about that morning. She was 20. She had just arrived for work at the Hiroshima Bank, just 260 meters from Shima Clinic. As usual, she was dusting desks with her friend. She remembers a flash.
Taeko Teramae can also tell you the story. She was 15, a mobilized student working at the central telephone office, less than 500 meters from Shima Clinic. She too saw a bright light, and received facial wounds. With the help of her teacher, Mr. Wakita, she got out of the collapsed building, and swam across the river.
Not all hypocenter survivors were behind cement. Curiously, there was a streetcar, about 750 meters away from Shima, in which about 10 of the 100 passengers survived.
The closest known hypocenter survivor was Eizo Nomura, then a 47-year-old staff member in the Hiroshima Prefecture Fuel Regulation Association building, only 170 meters from Shima. At 8:15, Eizo was in the basement, looking for some documents. Just think about it! This means that Eizo was only about 625 meters away, 684 yards…less than 7 football fields…away from the that atomic bomb when it exploded in the air above!
The concrete and earth prevented Eizo from much of the shock wave, heat, and ionizing radiation. He emerged as the fires were really starting to smoke and swirl, and fled through what was left of the streets.
The remains of the building that Eizo was in were renovated. It stands today, near the center of the Hiroshima Peace Park and Memorial complex. In fact, this building is now used as a Rest House. The basement and its stairs are still there. You can visit them.
Eizo Nomura suffered the fevers, diarrhea, and bleeding gums of acute radiation sickness, but he recovered and lived on, in Hiroshima. In fact, Eizo lived to be 84 years old. He died in 1982.
Akiko Takakura and Taeko Teramae are still around, can still tell their stories to people first-hand. They are members of the dwindling number of A-bomb survivors, known in Japan as “Hibushka”, or “explosion-affected people”.
A 1968-1970 investigation located and began follow-up on 78 people who were still alive, who had been within 500 meters of the Shima Clinic. At the time of the blast, the ages of these people ranged from children to people in their 60s. They had all been shielded by reinforced concrete buildings, or vaults, or were on streetcars. They each received an average a radiation dose of 2.8 Gy, compared to the 30 Gy they would have gotten out in the open. All had suffered acute radiation sickness in the weeks after the bomb.
By 1997, the study found that 45 of these 78 people had passed away. Their average age of death was 74.4, not significantly different from normal life expectancy.
Isn’t human survival truly amazing?
Physical survival is one thing, psychological survival is another. Akiko and Taeko can tell you that. Both were terribly uncomfortable around fire for years. Akiko cannot forget the fingers...how the fingertips of the dead bodies that she ran past caught fire, and spread, and a light gray liquid dripped down the hands. “Hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just…they just burned away.”
Akiko remembers only three colors: red, black, and brown. She remembers the walls and whirpools of fire, sweeping across the widths of streets.
Taerme, with her face injured, had a harder time seeing, but she could hear. She heard the calls and cries of her fellow students, crying and calling for their mothers. She heard the voice of her teacher, Mr. Wakita, telling them to behave like good students, and stop crying and try to come with him. “It just didn’t stop, I couldn’t see anything. All I could do was listen to their cries...I asked my teacher, I asked him what was going on. Mr. Wakita explained to me how the high school students were burnt, and crouching in pain in the streets.”
If you are Hibushka, you live every day with these memories. You also know, every day, that you are a dwindling breed...one of maybe 125,000 remaining Hibushka, whose voices are steadily disappearing. You know that school children are visiting the Peace Park and Memorial less and less. You hear the strong voices in the government, arguing in favor of Japanese development of nuclear weapons.
And you know that there are currently about 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and, right this minute, about half of them are armed and aimed at somebody. The USA and Russia have about 19 of every 20. The rest are spit between France, China, India, and Pakistan...as far as you know.
But the conviction that humanity cannot coexist with nuclear weapons remains strong in Hiroshima.
The mayor of Hiroshima is president of Mayors for Peace, an organization comprising 2,777 cities in 134 countries. The next international meeting of CANT (Cities Are Not Targets) will be held in neighboring Nagasaki, in August 2009.
Hiroshima citizens are active in the 2020 Vision Campaign, which drafted the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol. This is a concrete, step-by-step plan to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2020. The goal is to get this protocol adopted as a supplement to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), when the NPT Review Conference is held next, in 2010.
Little Boy had that classic bomb shape, with fins. It was about 12 feet long and a little over two feet in diameter. It weighed about 9,000 lbs, but contained only 60 kilograms of uranium. “Only”, if you consider that his had the energy of about 100,000 tons of high-performance explosives.
Little Boy was a “gun” type bomb, containing an internal tube where one piece of uranium-235 was fired into another to effect the critical mass needed for the chain reaction. This type of bomb was never tested. In fact, the very first field test of an atomic bomb had occurred on July 16, only three weeks before Hiroshima, near Alamogordo, New Mexico. There hadn’t been enough uranium to do more than one test. The bomb used for the test, called The Gadget, was a more-complex implosion device of the type used on Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb, called Fat Man, was dropped three days after Hiroshima.
The A-bomb delivery team decided, at the last minute, to take off without arming Little Boy. Commander and pilot Col. Paul Tibbets was concerned about the risk of crash during takeoff from Tinian, the team’s base island in the Marianas. Crashing with an armed A-bomb could eliminate half of Tinian.
Little Boy was loaded into the B-29 Superfortess bomber called Enola Gay, and the crew of twelve took off at about 2:30 AM. Tibbets carried a small box containing enough cyanide pills for everybody. Two other B29s accompanied the Enola Gay, one for instrumentation, another for photography.
The three planes rendezvoused over Iwo Jima, and headed towards Hiroshima and the alternate targets of Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. Shortly after this, Navy Captain William Parsons performed the final bomb assembly inside the bay of the Enola Gay. About 30 minutes before drop time, Assistant 2nd Lieutenant Morris Jeppson removed the safeties. Outside, it was a gorgeous, clear sunny summer morning. Word came back from the other craft that Hiroshima was a go.
As they flew west over Hiroshima at 31,000 feet, they could readily see the target, a T-shaped bridge in the center of the city over the Ota River. Using a bombsight, they corrected for a south wind. At 8:15 AM, they dropped the bomb. Then they made the sharp 155-degree turn planned by Tibbets, and sped off to get at least 80 km away from the detonation.
Forty-three seconds later, Little Boy detonated at 600 meters above the Shima Clinic. It had missed the target by 800 feet, due to a cross wind.
The crew radioed back to Tinian, and made their report. “The primary target has been visually bombed, with good results.”
Paul Tibbets didn’t make it to the test of The Gadget in New Mexico. It was close to the mission date, and he was back on Tinian with his team. Paul also wasn’t flying the Enola Gay at the time the bomb was dropped. About 90 seconds before the drop, Tibbets turned the controls over to Tom Ferebee.
Paul was born in 1915 in Illinois, to a woman named Enola Gay, and her husband, Paul Tibbets (Sr). Enola was given that name by her father, in honor of a heroine from a novel that her father loved.
Paul got interested in aviation when he was 12. They had moved to Miami. One summer morning, when he was working in his Dad’s candy shop, a barnstorming pilot named Doug Davis came in. Doug said that he needed someone to help him drop Baby Ruths on the crowd over at the Hialeah Racetrack in Miami Beach. Paul was allowed to go on the thrilling, life altering ride. Paul dropped the candy bars on the crowd.
By 1944, Paul was a successful pilot in the Army Air Force. In September, 1944, he reported to Colorado Springs for an assignment (“Special Bombing Mission #13”). It was to lead the A-bomb bombardment group. Within a few months, Paul organized his team of 1,800 men, and had 15 B-29 Superfortresses at his disposal.
After World War II, Paul stayed on in the Air Force until 1966, and learned to fly jets. After that, he worked for a couple of decades in the executive air-jet taxi business, becoming president of Executive Jet Aviation Company (now called NetJets). He retired in 1987.
I remember hearing the legends about this guy when I was growing up. The story was that he was a drunkard, in and out of institutions...he had suffered depression, and killed himself. In reality, it wasn’t quite like that.
I don’t remember the 1976 incident at an air show in Harlington, Texas, when a very alive and sober Tibbetts flew a B-29 Superforteress over a cheering crowd. As he passed, a gadget on ground exploded and created a miniature mushroom cloud. Japan was outraged, and the USA government had to issue a formal apology. Tibbets said that the stunt was “not intended to insult anybody”.
Paul Tibbets lived on to the cantankerous old age of 92. He died just recently, in November of 2007. Over the previous 60-odd years, when faced with the “Any regrets?” question, his answer had always been “Hell, no.”
In 1975 he said, “I’m not proud that I killed 80,000 people. But I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it, and have it work as perfectly as it did.” More recently, he appended this statement with, “The guys who appreciated that I saved their asses are mostly dead now.”
In 2005, he gave an interview from his home in Florida, where a weeping Japanese cherry tree stood in the front yard.
“We had feelings, but we had to put them in the background,” he said. “We knew it was going to kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could, so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible.”
“I don’t fear a goddamned thing. I’m not afraid of dying," he said.
“If you give me the same circumstances, I’d do it again.”
“Where’s your boy?” asked the Peace Volunteer.
This smiling, silver haired woman had just spent an hour, personally escorting us through the Hiroshima Peace Museum, explaining to us all kinds of facts and stories.
She brought out three tiny, colorful paper objects. One by one, she opened each and popped it into the shape of a bird. They were origami cranes. She handed one to each of us: to Baraka, to our friend John, and to me.
Folding the intricate origami crane is an old Japanese custom. It is believed that, through the folding of 1,000 cranes, a person can make a wish come true. The crane is a symbol of longevity and happiness.
“I folded these last night,” she said. “Here, please have them.”
In the middle of all this, Baraka graduated from 4th Grade!
We were in Okayama, visiting my old friend John, a former student from 1990 in Navrongo, Ghana. John is getting ready to defend his PhD thesis next month here at Okayama University.
Baraka took his final exams in Okayama, and he did just fine. You can see a copy of Baraka’s report card if you go to the Home page, and click on the “Report Card” button below the 4th-Grade-o-meter. You’ll also find there a list of the field trips we took this year.
Well, it was time for a celebration! While John was in his lab, and Baraka played on the Internet, I climbed on a Chinese bike and rode through Okayama’s maze of narrow streets to the supermarket. There I mostly found the ingredients I needed for the feast I wanted to make. Then, I went home and made it: Ghanaian groundnut soup. I waited until people arrived in the evening to prepare the accompanying fufu.
And so that is how, on June 9, 2009, a USA guy came to cook groundnut soup for Ghanaians, a Kenyan-American boy, and a Serbian girl, in Okayama, Japan.
Groundnut soup is a great party dish, and making it is a breeze. If you’d like to try it yourself, I’ll give you my recipe. Just click here.
The popup window contains the instructions for the spicy soup, which should be served with some type of starch. Traditionally it is served with fufu.
Fufu is a Ghanaian staple of either cassava and plantain or yam, boiled and then smashed with a big blunt stick until it is a gooey ball. This requires a big blunt stick, a strong wooden mortar, understanding neighbors, biceps, and fresh ingredients. If you are lacking any of these, you can still make a fairly passable version using instant potatoes and starch, frantically stirring it into a thick paste (so muscles are still required). I later discovered that groundnut soup is also excellent served with ugali, the semi-solid corn flour porridge of Kenya. You can make an awesome West-Africa-meets-East party dinner of Ghanaian groundnut soup with Kenyan ugali. If you’d like know how to make either the instant fufu or ugali, send us an e-mail and I’ll get the info over to you.
Alternatively and perhaps advisably, you can do just fine by making some steamed rice to serve with your groundnut soup.
Some years back, my friend Nancy was having an international dinner at her church, and she asked me for a Ghana recipe. I did not hesitate to give her groundnut soup with fufu, with the following disclaimer:
“Nance, in addition to making the fufu, you better bring some plain white rice. Americans will poke at the fufu, but they probably won’t eat it. We are just not used to eating food that you swallow without chewing.”
She took my advice, wore out her arms, and worked up a huge sweat, stirring the fufu hot and fresh prior to driving to the function. She also brought a big bowl of fluffy white rice.
She reported back by e-mail. “Boy were you right Pete. I followed your advice. Thanks! Love, Nancy”
Nance later told me what happened. The dinner was a success. The groundnut soup was a big hit, and it was all eaten up. But as Nancy made her rounds, she noticed the pattern I had predicted. The soup and the rice were going, going, gone...but the gleaming white balls of fufu were only pecked at, experimentally.
However, near the end of the evening, Nancy came by again. To her astonishment, the fufu had all been eaten!
As she was happily loading stuff back into her car that evening, in the church parking lot beneath the hills of rural central Pennsylvania, she noticed some boys playing nearby. She stood up and looked more carefully.
They were running and laughing, and lobbing balls of a white, Play-Doh-like substance at each other over the cars.
“HEY!!” Nancy yelled. “GIMMEE BACK MY FUFU!”
While John toiled away on his thesis chapters, Baraka and I took the Shinkansen over to nearby Kyoto, the traditional and cultural capital of Japan.
The main goal was to hit the International Manga Museum in Kyoto. For those of you who don’t know that you know this, Manga is a style of Japanese comic-drawing that has seen huge gains in popularity all over the world in recent years. Baraka grew up on Manga through his Anime cartoon shows, which employ Manga techniques. Back in Kolkata, we bought a how-to-draw Manga book, and Baraka has honed his own skills considerably.
The drawing style called Manga developed in Japan throughout the 20th century. It got a huge spur-forward into its modern form during the USA occupation following World War II. However Manga, which translates to “whimsical pictures”, has a long and complex prehistory. The first comic books appeared in the 1870s, and were based on drawing styles and techniques that were hundreds if not a thousand years old.
Manga really boomed in Japan beginning in 1905, when inspiration from the Russo-Japanese war combined with modernization of the printing industry to create a publishing phenomenon. Renown in the USA and elsewhere would have to wait quite awhile, though.
Although some people in the USA were aware of Manga comic books by the 1960s and 70s, the books were by far overshadowed by Anime cartoons, which made the art far more accessible. Personally, I cannot imagine my childhood without “Speed Racer” on TV after school. This Japanese anime, as well as Poke-mon video and games, dominated the fan experience in the USA right up to the mid-1990s. Then suddenly, this big boom of translation and interest in Manga comic books as graphic novels blossomed in the USA, among both old and young. A similar thing had occurred in Europe some years prior.
One of the first hit Manga books in the USA, translated into English in the 1990s, was Keiji Nakazawa’s “Barefoot Gen”. This is an autobiographical account of the bombing of Hiroshima.
We are pretty lucky to still have the gem of a city that is Kyoto. Kyoto was originally high on list of the Manhattan Project’s Target Committee. Also recommended were Yokohama, Kokura, Hiroshima, Niigata, and Nagasaki. Each met the criteria, which was to be an important military target in a large urban area -- larger than 3 miles in diameter -- where an atomic bomb blast would create serious damage. Early on, the Army Air Force agreed to limit firebombing on these cities, to preserve them for A-bomb effect observation.
But Kyoto came off the list, even though it was considered to have a lot of “highly intelligent” people in it who, if they survived, would appreciate the significance of the weapon. Hiroshima topped the list, with its nearby hills that created a focusing effect to increase blast damage.
I was reading a rumor somewhere (you guessed it, Wikipedia) that the decision to take Kyoto off the list came down to one person. This person was Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War at the time. The Japan expert for the US Army Intelligence Service, Edwin Reischauer, had been given credit for this decision. To refute this belief, Edwin wrote in his autobiography: “The only person deserving credit for saving Kyoto from destruction is Henry L. Stimson...who had known and admired Kyoto ever since his honeymoon there several decades earlier.”
Zen Rocks and Geishas
Well, what do you know. We got to Kyoto on a Wednesday, only to find the International Manga Museum was closed for maintenance until Friday. What a treat that turned out to be! We got to pass two days wandering around the intoxicatingly rich city of Kyoto.
The first afternoon was terribly rainy, which is actually terribly wonderful if you are visiting Zen gardens beneath your big umbrella. We started at the lovely garden called Shosei-en, just down the street from our hotel near the central train station.
Later, we hopped the subway and did another great rainy Kyoto day activity, which is to walk the covered arcade streets of Nishiki Market, Teramachi, and Shinkoyogoku. Dusk came on, and we sauntered down the traditional narrow lane of Ponto-cho, chock-full of wooden houses, restaurants, and warm red lanterns. We were hoping to spot a Geisha on her way to an appointment, but no such luck.
Walking back to the subway station, we immersed ourselves in a hobby shop stuffed to the gills with model kits and supplies. I wondered, when would a Japanese man ever have time for a hobby? Apparently, some do.
The next day was simply delightful, in gentle overcast. It is funny, here we are, one year later, and we still have energy and laughter for sightseeing.
One of our stops was the temple called Ryoan-ji, which is of the Myoshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. I was eager to check out its mysterious and world-famous rock garden. It is said that if you sit and contemplate these 15 rocks, you will experience a hypnotic effect. The longer you gaze at this garden, the more interesting it becomes. Some get a remarkable feeling of serenity. It is up to each visitor to find out for themselves what it signifies...many see islands in a sea, or a tigress leading her cubs across a river, or a branching tree.
No one is sure how long the garden has been here, or who designed it. There was probably something here by the late 1500s; legend is that it was laid out by a painter and gardener named Soami, who died in 1525. There is a document from the 1600s that discusses the garden, which then apparently had only nine rocks. Speculation is that the other six were added in the late 1700s, when the garden could have been rebuilt after a fire. There were definitely 15 rocks here by 1799, as a document from this year shows the garden in its current form.
We walked towards the garden, out past a large pond. There we found a building, where you take your shoes off and walk through to get to the garden viewing platform. And there it was...a walled area of carefully raked gravel, about 10 by 25 meters, containing 15 rocks in various groups. Several dozen people were seated on the platform, gazing at the garden.
No matter where you sit on the platform, you can only see at most 14 of the 15 rocks. It is said that only by attaining spiritual enlightenment as a result of deep Zen meditation can you view the 15th rock. If you don’t have the patience to do that, but really want to see all 15 rocks at once, and you are at least 6 feet tall on tiptoes, you can go to the right side of the platform and stand about 8 feet back. You’ll see ‘em all.
I went to that location and stood there on tiptoes. In front of me was woman dressed in red, seated, who appeared to be in deep contemplation. I began to contemplate as well, eager to find out what this garden was going to mean to me. Baraka came over.
“Wow Baba, just looking at this makes me feel bored.”
I let fly a loud cackle. The lady in red jerked around, and glared at me.
I felt kind of bad, and a tiny bit accomplished, about pissing off a Zen Buddhist. I shyly moved over to the opposite side of the platform, and assumed a seated position. As I contemplated, Baraka sat a ways off and played his Nintendo. I kept on contemplating, for awhile.
Eventually, I went over to where Baraka was sitting. “OK Baraka, I don’t get it. We can go now.”
We took the bus to the Imperial Palace grounds, got a Mo’s Burger, and then took the subway. That afternoon found us in the charming and sight-filled neighborhood of Higashiyama, where we did Lonely Planet’s walking tour in reverse. Boy was it pleasant, especially as the sun poked through more and more during the afternoon. We walked through lovely parks, and got soft-serve green tea ice cream in one. We walked past temple after temple, and then up and down narrow old lanes stuffed with shops and restaurants.
And then, as we were climbing the steps of the lane called Shannen-zaka, what do you know, two real live Geishas approached, walking the opposite way!! I grabbed for my camera and frantically fumbled with it as Baraka said, “You better hurry Baba.” Unapologetically, I managed to reel off a single shot, knowing it would probably come out blurry. But it actually worked pretty good! Less blurry than many of my photos on this site!
I was so, so happy, not only to spot, but to actually photograph the rare and elusive Geisha. What do you want to bet that someone hires those ladies to occasionally saunter down that street once or twice a day, just to keep the legend alive and the tourists coming. If any of you know for a fact that this is true, please don’t ever tell me. I felt such a jubilant satisfaction and accomplishment, as I skipped down Teapot Lane in the splashing evening sun with Baraka, to catch our bus back home.
Down the street from our little hotel near Kyoto Station is a storefront, chock-full of Maneki Nekos for sale.
From your first day in Japan, you just can’t miss those charming ceramic cats with one paw raised! They are everywhere. And they are such a happy and endearing sight, warming up every spot where they are placed…in shops, restaurants, hotels, homes, and shrines.
Maneki Neko, or “Beckoning Cat”, is also called the Welcoming Cat, the Lucky Cat, the Money Cat, and the Fortune Cat. Usually ceramic or porcelain, it always has a paw raised, with the bottom of the paw facing you and the fingers curled down in front. Westerner’s might think this means, “Bye bye!” but in Japan this gesture means, “C’mon in!”
Slightly more than half of all Maneki Nekos hold up the left paw, which is said to attract customers. The rest hold up the right, to attract money. But some say the reverse is true, and anyway, it’s all pretty much the same thing isn’t it. Sometimes a Maneki Neko holds a gold coin (and sometimes it is a piggy bank in itself). Usually the Maneki Neko wears a red collar with a bell, and often a bib, traditional Japanese wealthy cat garb since the Edo period. Often the Maneki Neko is tricolored, a rare gene in real cats, but black and white versions are also popular. Black cats are considered good luck in Japan, to ward off evil and to cure children. These days, black Maneki Nekos are gaining in popularity among women, as a charm to ward off stalkers.
But why exactly are they raising that paw?
Well, have you ever seen a cat wash its face? It look a lot like that beckoning gesture, paw out, as they rub their face with the side of their arm.
Traditional Japanese belief is that a cat washing its face means visitors will soon arrive. This could have evolved from an ancient Chinese belief that a cat washing its face means that it will rain. If it rains, company may come, to get out of the rain. And customers may come too, to spend money.
Where did these groovy things come from? The earliest documented evidence of Maneko Neko is from the early Meiji period of the 1870s, but the history is undoubtedly longer than that.
There are a bunch of legends about the origin. For example, one day, a nobleman was walking along, saw a cat washing its face, thought the cat was gesturing to hime to come over. He did, and this diversion caused him to avoid a trap that lay just ahead. Or:
An old woman in Tokyo was forced to sell her cat, due to poverty. The cat came to her in a dream, and told her to create its image in clay. She did this. Someone saw the statue, liked it, and bought it. She made more, sold more, and became the first Maneki Neko millionaire. Or:
A prostitute named Ugusumo, in 1700s Yoshiwara, had a cat she loved. One night, while she was on her way down the hall to work, the cat inexplicably started to tug on her kimono. The brothel owner, thinking the cat was possessed, smote off the cat's head with a sword. The head went flying at the ceiling, where it struck a snake that was just about to strike. Devastated Ugusumo cried and cried, so one of her artsy customers made a charming likeness of it for her, to try to cheer her up. Or:
One rainy day in the 1600s, a wealthy lord or samurai stopped for rest and shelter under a tree outside what is now the Goutokuji Temple in western Tokyo. He saw a cat beckon to him from the temple, and he followed it. Immediately, the tree was struck by lightning. The relieved man befriended the poor priest, became a patron of the temple, and the temple prospered. When the cat died, the first Maneki Neko was made in its honor. If you go to the Goutokuji Temple these days, you will see lots of Maneki Nekos, and a wall of prayer cards containing Maneki Neko likenesses.
Whatever the origin, Maneki Nekos became hugely popular by the turn of 1900. But with such a long history, why did it take so long for them to become such a big hit?
The answer could go back to the brothel. Traditional Japanese whorehouses of the Edo period always had a lucky charm shelf, and the luckiest of charms was always a large, erect, wooden you-know-what. Indeed, such statues were also popular in mainstream society, symbolic of fertility and prosperity. Some Japanese villages, to this day, continue to hold an annual fertility festival, where a gigantic woodie is paraded through the streets.
But then the Meiji Restoration started. In 1872, the government prohibited the production, sale, and display of penises. This was at the beginning of their lightning-speed drive to transform Japan into the modern nation-state. Western experts were starting to arrive for work as consultants, and the razor-smart Meijis were keen to minimize negative images of Japan among these predominately Christian folks. Coincidentally (or not), this "boner ban" coincided with Maneki Neko’s rise, on brothel shelves and elsewhere.
After too-short of a week, it was time to say so long to Okayama friends, and get back to Tokyo. All of the Ghanaians saw us off to the train station.
We then joined the Shinkansen, and rode into the night alongside exhausted men in dark suits, most of them hunched over and sleeping. We got back to our groovy and gently-teeming neighborhood of Ueno, quite late in the night. As we walked along the street, dark-suited businessmen came out of their offices to head home, some climbing on bikes. We hoofed it past them and onward to the warm and welcoming Ryokan (guest inn) that was waiting there for us. An old lady let us in; she had been waiting up.
Ueno is a great place to hang out. It is a bustling section of the megalopolis, but like so much in Japan, it bustles along quietly. I guess we are just used to places that don’t function quite so smoothly and with the volume set at 'low'. Along the dripping streets, men in dark suits ride bicycles with one hand and hold their umbrellas with the other. If you walk down the glowing, quiet neon lanes late at night, groups of dark-suited men, and some suited women, come out the restaurants, completing their work days/nights together. Down an alleyway, a garbage truck is quietly at work. It is the size of a minivan...one man drives, and one man, wearing latex gloves, picks up small polythene bags from the doorsteps.
Ueno has a huge and pleasant park-zoo-museum complex, which adds to its charm, especially in the drippy drizzly days of June. Interestingly, this park is home to a visible contingent of homeless men, who seem to have some kind of tacit agreement with the authorities. These fairly fit, clean and well-groomed-looking, middle-aging men hang out on benches during the days, keeping their tidy blue-tarped bundles mostly out of sight. I suspect that at night, camp gets set up. Most of these guys are former salarymen, who lost their “lifetime” employment during past economic downturns.
Baraka pauses from his jump rope workout in Ueno Park, and scratches his chin.
“Baba, history is a mystery. I mean, you never know how they did it. All you know is just that they did it,” he says.
We are standing in the most modern city of the world that we have yet experienced, in a park that was the site of the last stand of the Tokugawa shogunate, which for hundreds of years had ruled a feudal Japan. Here, in May of 1868, about 2,000 men loyal to the shogun were gunned down by those loyal to the idea of restoring the emperor to power. These imperial forces were led by a samurai named Saigo Takamori.
Shortly after that battle, the shogun retired, and turned the government over to the Restoration leaders. The 15-year-old emperor moved here, from Kyoto, and renamed it from Edo to “Tokyo”, meaning “eastern capital”. The emperor renamed himself, too…”Meiji”, meaning “enlightened rule”.
And Meiji proceeded to not rule. The guys who were actually in charge were a small number of young, very smart, ambitious men from Satsuma and Choshu provinces, who were of the lower ranks of the samurai (the traditional warrior class). These guys moved quickly, and built up their political, military, and economic control. Emperor Meiji was the symbolic, representative figure of traditional Japanese culture which gave them one thousand years of legitimacy in the eyes of the people, making the revolutionary changes inherent in modernization a much easier sell. Meanwhile, political power simply transferred from the shogunate to this group of young oligarchs, who governed in Meiji’s name. Meiji pretty much followed the Queen Victoria model of the semi-divine-descended monarch who defers to ministers. And he focused on his traditional role as the high priest of Shintoism, and elevated it above Buddhism.
The goal of the Meiji period was to combine western advancements with eastern values. But if you had to pick, the first one was probably the more important.
In 1868, when Meiji came in, Japan was an agricultural society controlled by several hundred feudal lords. The military was comprised of about two million samurais, living in castles, walking around town wearing swords.
Less than 40 years later, Japan had a modern military, an established and growing industrial sector, state-of-art transportation and communications systems, a central bureaucratic government, and an educated population free of class restrictions! Needless to say, there was no more need for samurais. So it is interesting that this all got kicked off with the help of an old-fashioned samurai named Saigo Takamori, who led the forces against the shogun to restore Emperor Meiji.
Earlier on in our trip, Baraka and I were walking through Ueno Park in the drizzle, and we came upon an odd-looking statue. It was of a tall and stout samurai...walking a dog on a leash! I pulled out my Lonely Planet.
“OK Baraka, that’s Saigo Takamori, the samurai who was so key in kicking out the shogun in 1868 and restoring the emperor. This event led to the modernization of Japan.”
I read on: “'Saigo Takamori started out supporting the Meiji Restoration, but ended up ritually disembowelling himself in defeated opposition to it. The turnabout in his loyalties occurred when the Meiji government withdrew the powers of the military class to which he belonged.'”
“What's ‘disembowelling’?” asked Baraka.
I tell him. Lonely Planet is saying here that Saigo committed seppuku, or “stomach cutting”, a form of ritual suicide. This practice was a key part of bushido, the code of the samurai, who believed that to die with honor was better than to fall into the hands of enemies. In practice, it was most frequently used as a form of death penalty, imposed on samurais as punishment for serious offenses.
Seppuku is a painful way to go. First, you plunge your sword into your abdomen, and then move it left to right in a slicing motion. When finished, it is important that you lie down and wait to die. This can take awhile, so you need to stretch out your neck and wait for your assistant to come and cut your head off. This 'second', called a Kaishakunin, is usually your best friend, and you and he have had chat beforehand, and agreed on the timing of his maneuver. Seppuku is supposed to be performed quietly and calmly, without flinching. It wasn’t a big thing in Japan until the advent of Buddhism, when themes of transitory nature of life and the glory of death became prevalent.
Baraka grimaced and stared at the statue of the samurai. Then he looked at the dog. Then he looked at the samurai.
“Baba, I know what happened to his intestines,” said Baraka, eyeing the dog again.
Samurais on Welfare
It didn’t go down quite like that. I mean, he did get disembowelled, but…
For a few years, Saigo was a key player in the new government he helped create. And these were some seriously samurai-troubling times.
Samurais had long enjoyed a privileged status, ever since they became a class in the 900s. Comprising about 8% of the population, they were above the law to some degree. They were the only people allowed to carry weapons. They could readily kill a commoner if, say, they felt insulted. Their lives were defined by fighting and war, and a code of honor of total loyalty towards their feudal masters. Honorable death was preferable to a life of shame.
When the Tokagawa shogunate was established in the 1500s and the emperor deposed, a long period of peace and modest wealth ensued. Peace meant that there was not much for a samurai to do. They walked around with their swords, and some cultivated a bit of land. Very quickly, the shogun introduced reforms, and forbid the samurais from farming. He ordered all samurais to go live in castles, and wait to be called for war. And there was no war, and the samurais were idle (and hungry).
To feed the samurais, a system of rice taxation was levied on the peasants. The rigid four-tiered class system was reinforced: samurais at the top, followed by farmers, then craftsmen, then merchants. Class was defined by birth, and it was impossible to jump class.
When the shogunate was overthrown by the Meijis in the 1860s, fundamental on the path to modernization was abolishment the class system, and establishment of a conscript, modern military. Samurais were no longer necessary...and they were expensive! They ate up tons of resources which were needed for other things. Samurais at this time numbered about 1.9 million, more than 10 times the relative size of the privileged class in France before the French Revolution. Each and every samurai was on a stipend provided by the public. Something had to give.
In 1873, the Meijis announced that the samurais would be taxed on their stipends. In 1874, samurais were given the option of converting their stipends to a one-time payment in government bonds. In 1876, the bond option became a compulsion.
Also in 1873, a nationwide draft for the imperial army began. Every single male was required to serve for four years, beginning at age 21, and stay on a further 3 years in the reserves. Suddenly, the sacred samurai privilege of bearing arms was extended to every single young man in the country!
Many samurais caught a clue, though, and did well. They got government jobs, or became military officers, or manufactured guns, or became teachers. Although their samurai title eventually was abolished, the elitist spirit continued.
Unsurprisingly, the course of events was upsetting for a traditional samurai such as the thick, 6-foot, sword-wielding general Saigo Takamori. Nevertheless, he retained a key role in the government, after he secured the delayed final surrender of the shogun’s forces.
Saigo disagreed with much of modernization plan and commerce with the West, but he carried the torch anyway, since he was so keen to modernize the military. For example, Saigo objected to the construction of the railways, because he thought the money should be spent on military stuff. His cooperation and leadership was essential to abolish the samurais' stipends, and to get the conscript army going. He was such a key guy, in those early Meiji days of 1871-2, that he was given charge of the caretaker government when the oligarchs took off on a lesson-learning trip to the West.
This is when things really began to sour between Saigo and the Feds. No good samurai likes to be idle, and what's more, Korea had refused to recognize Meiji as their King. Saigo was adamant that war with Korea must happen. So he got in touch with the oligarchs in the middle of their tour, and offered to go to Korea and behave so badly that the Koreans would be forced to kill him. Then the war could start.
The oligarchs had other ideas. They hurried back to Japan to ensure continued focus on modernization and complete restructuring of society, economy, and military. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to go to war in Korea! They just wanted to do it when they were good and ready. And they went on to do so, decisively and impressively, in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars of 1894 and 1904, respectively.
The Battle of Shiromaya
When Saigo didn’t get his war in 1872, things really went downhill. He quit his government job and moved home to Kagoshima. There, he began to set up a private military academy / home for disaffected samurais.
The last straw for Saigo was apparently 1876. This was when the government said that samurais could no longer carry swords around town. Riots by disgruntled samurais ensued, and they rallied around Saigo at his academy in Kagoshima. The government watched this, nervously. When the government sent ships to Kagoshima to “observe”, the inevitable revolt was provoked.
The samurai rebellion was quickly put down by the new imperial army, with Western tactics and weapons. Saigo and his men were into modern warfare too, and had some cannons and other weapons at their disposal, but they only had about 30,000 men. This was no match for the 300,000-strong imperial army.
When it came to last-stand time, at the battle of Shiroyama, not far from Saigo’s castle, the numbers had dwindled to a few hundred diehard samurais. It was raining, and their cannons got wet. So, the samurais fell back to classic close-combat, with swords, bows, and arrows.
And these last samurai weren’t dumb. They knew this was hopeless. They were the last true samurais, determined to die with honor.
We're not sure exactly what happened to Saigo. He got wounded, and witnesses claim he uprighted himself and committed seppuku. Others say he requested a comrade to do it for him. Scholars have suggested that he went into shock, and then his comrades did the job to make it look like seppuku. At any rate, when the imperial army found him, he had no head (but his guts were there, and his dog wasn’t in sight, Baraka).
Saigo’s head was later retrieved by the government and put back on his body for burial. And immediately, the legends began, such as:
Saigo didn’t die. And he’s coming back, from India, or China, or Russia...coming back, to overthrow injustice.
The people naturally had a huge affection for Saigo and the traditional samurai and Japanese values he represented. The astute, razor-sharp Meijis knew this, and used it, giving Saigo a full posthumanous pardon in 1889. The statue of Saigo walking his dog was unveiled in Ueno Park in 1898.
The Japanese Dream
If you think the USA is an ageing society, you should see Japan. The birth rate is currently somewhere between 1.25 and 1.4 children per age-appropriate woman. More than 21% of the population is over the age of 65, and only 13% are below the age of 13. Japan’s 127 million-strong population probably started to decrease in 2007. At this rate, it will go down to 100 million by 2050, 67 million by 2100. Something is going to have to give.
Obviously, the long-time strict immigration rules are going to have to relax a bit. The homogeneous society of Japan is going to have to get a bit more colorful, if Japan is going to continue to have one of the world’s largest economies (currently, the world’s second largest). Immigration is a rare case where Japan has, to-date, rejected the American success model.
But if you are a young USA person, thinking about your options, you might consider a bright future in Japan...as an immigrant. It might be smart to take Japanese as your foreign language.
As for me, I couldn’t do it, unless the change in immigration law comes with a change in work ethic. I was thinking about this the other night, as I saw the McDonald’s employee running from the burger shelf over to the french fries place, and up to the counter to deliver my order with a huge smile, bow, and flurry of respectful Japanese salutations.
(By the way, in our opinion, Japan has the world’s hottest and tastiest McDonalds food. Second place goes to China, with cucumber on the Quarter Pounders and a spicy pink mayonnaise. And the award for best -- and cheapest -- Kentucky Fried Chicken goes to.........Hong Kong!)
Getting back to the work ethic though -- it is just insane! I couldn’t do it, no way. For me, this is absolutely no way to live. A Japanese person's work week is usually Monday through Saturday, but many, many people will tell you that they work Monday through Sunday. And we are not talking nine to five. We are talking morning until late at night.
Your boss has no problem scheduling an 11 PM meeting. Vacations? No. There are national holidays here and there, you can take those. Sick? Put on a face mask and come to work. The only people who have any free time at all are the very young children, the retirees, and the non-working wives who totally rule the roosts.
Next time I come to Japan, I’ve got get to one of the hundreds of great ski resorts, most of which get deep and reliable snow. I can't imagine who I might be skiing with there, but I suspect I’ll share my lunch table will be housewives, little children, and glowing retirees.
Back in Okayama, Baraka and I sat with John and his professor in the conference room.
“Sir, Pete was asking me about how, and why, Japan was able to develop so rapidly,” said John.
The Professor explained that after World War II, the USA occupation was conducted in such a way that everyone was equal, and given an equal opportunity to work hard to rebuild the country. No one was put down or excluded. Moreover, Japan had such a sound model and example to follow…to be like the USA.
You may not know this: Japan is a country where a USA person need not be the slightest bit shy about being from USA. The Japanese, on the whole, deeply respect and admire the USA and USA people. Over and over, other foreigners here told me how much the Japanese revere anything that is USA...methods, people, English dialect. This turned out to be my experience, and it felt so counter-intuitive...especially after the Hiroshima visit, where we saw up close what the USA had wrought.
I chimed in. “Yes, but what about before World War II? What is it about Japan, about the Japanese people? How, how can you go from being an ancient, agricultural feudal society in 1860, and within 40 years transform into an industrial, modern-militarized world power?!”
Professor returned to the USA influence and example, which started in 1853, when USA Commodore Matthew Perry sailed the impressive fleet of Black Ships into Edo Bay, a key turning point between ancient and modern Japan.
“The Japanese dreamed of having everything that the USA has,” said Professor. “That was our motivation, our example, our dream. It was this dream that moved and sustained us.”
“But what now?” I asked. “Now, Japan has everything, all of that, and more. In fact, Japan is rather an example for the USA. What will you do now? What is the dream?”
Keeping what you got, in the face of rising China competition, doesn’t sound to me like much of a “dream” for youth born into prosperity.
The Professor looked at me, and his eyes widened. “Exactly,” he said. “That is what many of us worry about. What now, what is the dream? We worry about that...for our young people.”
Tiredness and Satisfaction
Maybe we are a little tired. It's our last full Japan day, an overcast Sunday, and we just don’t have it in us to blitz Tokyo. Our groovy room at the ryokan is the only place we need to be, laying there on our futons, with a bank of windows looking out to the quiet street one level below.
At lunchtime, we get over to our regular hangout, a great cheap little restaurant where you barbeque your own meat at your table. Then we move on, to central Tokyo, to the 5-level book store called Maruzen. We finished reading our last book at lunch. We need one more...only one more.
And that’s it. We make a bee-line back to Ueno. We get off the train and try a short cut through the park and museums, and wander among thousands of people who are indeed really having a day off. But it doesn’t work out, it turns out to be a long cut. And that is no problem. We do it just like we've always done it, always and everywhere: walking and walking, talking and talking...laughing.
It’s been more than a year. School is out. Summer beckons, in the northern hemisphere. We feel satisfaction for the past year...and the calling of long summer days, where there is nowhere else we need to go, nothing else we need to figure out how to do.
Still being on the move is, physically, not a problem. Lately, it’s been more of a mental thing for me, finally beginning to weigh...always thinking about what's next, how to get there. Packing up the blue Samsonite is never a problem, it only takes a few minutes. But it's funny how just the idea of packing it up now makes me feel...kind of tired.
“I’ll meet you downstairs, Baraka. I’m going to make the final pass of the room.”
I sigh. All we need to do is walk over to Ueno Station, and get on the speedy and efficient Skyliner out to the airport. They leave every fifteen minutes. It is absolutely no problem, at all. Even still...this idea just makes me feel...kind of tired.
Now is a good time to take a relaxing cruise down shoreline of Alaska.
Soon we are out on the sidewalk, beneath the cool gray sky. And it is no problem. I roll the Samsonite, Baraka tags along in his black hooded sweater, wearing his backpack.
This is us, for the past one year. Heading on down the road.
A couple of hours later, we are seated on the plane.
“Baba!” exclaims Baraka, suddenly alarmed. “Did we pack our chopsticks?!”
Relieved, he massages the air with face-down palms, takes a couple of deep breaths, looks over to me, and smiles.