December 29, 2011

The public bath

The public bath described here is actually a steam bath (蒸し風呂). During Japan's medieval period, the residents of the "low city" couldn't afford the cost of heating enough water to fill an actual sentô (銭湯). It's cheaper to bake rocks to create steam and dole out the hot water parsimoniously.

The sentô as a public institution reached its high water mark during mid-20th century, before people became wealthy enough to afford their own baths. A sentô's best advertising was the tall chimney rising above it, as they would burn anything they could lay their hands on to heat those massive amounts of water.

Those chimneys are giving way as well to gas-fired boilers.

"Mixed bathing" (混浴) vanished for good from the public sentô during the post-WWII Occupation. During the mid-19th century, though, U.S. Consul Townsend Harris observed that

Everyone bathes every day . . . both sexes, old and young, enter the same [public bath] and there perform their ablutions in a state of perfect nudity. I cannot account for so indelicate a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct.

Shogun (which, like Mr. Baseball, is a more accurate depiction of Japan than is given credit for, though often despite itself) had much fun with the fact that Europeans of the period were a dirty, smelly lot. This is one facet of Japanese culture whose commonsensical superiority remains unquestioned.

Toilets of the era were more advanced in Japan, and still are. The year-end cleaning rituals continue to this day.

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December 26, 2011

Danjiri festival

I got the name of the Danjiri Inn from the Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri. It is the most famous of the danjiri ("cart-pulling") festivals, which feature portable shrines (o-mikoshi) the size of small trucks being pulled pell-mell through the narrow streets of the city.

If you think this sounds rather risky, you're right. We're talking about some serious Shinto shrine roller derby. Here's a compilation of near misses, collisions, and a few wrecks from past danjiri festivals.

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December 19, 2011

Let there be incandescents

Congress has graciously delayed the banning of the 100 watt incandescent bulb (okay, not really "banned," just rendered illegal using the old "efficiency" slight of hand that turned CAFE standards into a gas-wasting exercise in rent-seeking) a whole six months.

When it comes to consumer sovereignty, I'm a full-blooded libertarian. Governments only make things worse trying to control consumer preferences. In this case, it's even a matter of principle. I only use two incandescents: the reading light next to my computer and one ganged with a CFL that runs off the motion sensor in the kitchen (it require a low impedance load).

Though in the spirit of full disclosure, I should also point out that my apartment has electric baseboard heat and an electric water heater, which makes my light bulb choices utterly inconsequential in terms of power savings.

Let's consider the incandescent the government didn't have to regulate out of existence: the television tube. A television tube is a big vacuum tube, and the filament is basically a low voltage incandescent bulb. Vacuum tubes operate according to the "Edison Effect," observed by the inventor of the light bulb (it took another twenty years for Fleming and De Forest to put it to practical use).

To be sure, a vacuum tube only draws as much power as a Christmas tree light, though it pumps out a fair amount of heat. An old-fashioned television tube could severely burn you at one end and electrocute you at the other (the anode is charged to 25,000 volts). All-tube televisions and radios sported hefty transformers and sucked down a fair amount of current. You could heat a room with one.

Junction diodes and transistors replaced vacuum tubes, and were replaced by integrated circuits. The cathode ray tube was the last to go, but has been supplanted by plasma and LCD screens. I noticed a few years ago that tube televisions had disappeared from the shelves of the local Walmart, a good indication that a technology has saturated every economic stratum of the consumer market.

None of these steps had to be "mandated" by law. They occurred when they made technological, economic, and aesthetic sense to both consumers and manufacturers.

Related posts

Lights out
Old wine, new bottles
The last picture tube show
Speaking truth to (gasoline) power

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December 15, 2011

Official seals

Courtesy Jason Michael.
One of Japan's living anachronisms is the use of a seal or hanko (判子) in daily life. There are five categories of seals, including a personal seal or mitome'in (認印) for when the FedEx guy delivers a package. Open a bank account and you'll sign with a ginko'in (銀行印).

There are also hanko for signing legal documents (jitsu'in) and artwork (gago'in).

If you plan on living in Japan for any length of time, you should at least get a mitome'in. Either have one made (the same time you order your business cards, which you should never be without), or buy a generic one at a stationery store for a couple of bucks.

The more formal jitsu'in (実印) has to be registered with the government, though when gaijin are involved, signatures are also accepted

Forging seals happens a lot in murder mysteries, but less often in real life. Like manual typewriters, even generic hanko produce a unique mark. But while ATM fraud is rife in Japan (relatively speaking), perhaps the weight of culture has preserved the sanctity of the hanko.

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December 12, 2011

Symbolic value

What can we learn from the great writers of literature about symbolism? First of all, to quit analyzing literature for symbolic value (the first rule of symbolism: do not talk about symbolism). As Sarah Butler reports in The Paris Review,

In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors. "Did they consciously plant symbols in their work?" he asked. "Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?"

Amazingly, many of the famous authors wrote back. Ray Bradbury delivers a short, to-the-point lecture on the subject:

I never consciously place symbols in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise, and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural . . . .

If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I can't prevent it, can I? They will insist on seeing them anyway, and that is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid's bed. More often than not, he simply isn't there.

Speaking of Bradbury, in the comments, "Kevin" sums up what a lot of us felt in our high school and college English courses (redacted a bit):

I remember reading Something Wicked This Way Comes in high school. The whole lesson was centered on the symbolic meaning of every single person, place, or thing in the book. I knew there was no way the author meant every little thing to be a symbol.

But perhaps Norman Mailer sums it up most succinctly: "Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work."

That actually happened to me writing Serpent of Time. Well into the final draft stage, I started noticing some quite unplanned symbolism in the text. I did my best to ignore it because I didn't want it dictating the plot. But it's still there, and I'm now fully prepared to discuss it at length.

Hey, I've got two degrees in the humanities. I can deconstruct the unintended symbolism in my own stories too.

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December 08, 2011

Escaping from castles

Ryô's escape from Sakai is partly based on The Story of O-An, the autobiographical account of a girl who fled a besieged castle during the Battle of Sekigahara (1600). Quoting from Haruo Shirane's translation (Early Modern Japanese Literature, 1600-1900):

My father came in secret to fetch us from the Keep. He told my mother and me where we were to go and put up a ladder at the far end of the northern ramparts; from there he lowered us with a rope into a tub, and we crossed to the other side of the moat.

During the Warring States period, escaping from besieged castles was a necessary survival skill, though as in the case of O-An, backchannel negotiations and quid pro quos were often involved.

Oda Nobunaga married his sister Oichi to a rival warlord in order to secure access to the territory around Kyôto. When the alliance broke down, Nobunaga sent his top general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to lay siege to the castle. Oichi was eventually allowed to "escape" with her three daughters.

After Nobunaga's assassination, Oichi married the warlord Shibata Katsuie. When a struggle over succession pitted Hideyoshi and Katsuie against each other, Hideyoshi lay siege to Katsuie's castle. Though granted free passage through the lines, this time Oichi chose to die with her husband.

However, she allowed her daughters to be "rescued." Hideyoshi appointed himself their guardian. The oldest, Yodo, later became his mistress and bore him his heir, Toyotomi Hideyori. The youngest, Gô, went on to marry Tokugawa Hidetada, who became the second Tokugawa shogun.

Gô's daughter, Princess Sen, eventually married her cousin, Hideyori, in an futile effort to unite the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans.

When the power struggle between the clans escalated into open hostilities, Gô's in-laws lay siege to Ôsaka Castle. Her sister and son-in-law committed seppuku (the polite word for hara-kiri) while the castle burned. Sen was allowed to escape, but her stepson got the Richard III treatment.

Related posts

Kids these days

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December 05, 2011

Sports car apocalypse

If you're in the mood to indulge in some 99 percenter schadenfreude at the expense of people who can afford to race around in $100,000 sports cars (the base price of a used Ferrari in Japan), well, here's a treat for you.

Though as Japan Today points out, owners of such vehicles in Japan aren't necessarily the "one percent." The sixty-something owner of the lead Ferrari may live in a "rabbit hutch" and spend all his disposable income on cars.

It was the lead Ferrari in a sports car club rally from Kyushu to Hiroshima that spun out changing lanes and triggered the fourteen car pile-up. The "casualties" include eight Ferraris, one Lamborghini and two Mercedes-Benzes.

The Benzes (three in some reports), plus a Prius, were collateral damage. The Wall Street Journal estimates a four million dollar price tag.

If nothing else, it's a credit to the design of modern sports cars that nobody got seriously hurt. Well, except the insurance companies. And all the other fuming travelers stuck behind the resulting six-hour traffic jam.

Hey, don't think of it as a traffic accident. Think of it as a Keynesian stimulus program!

The police suspect that excessive speed for wet conditions, not street racing, led to the accident. Here's the NHK story and footage that seems the basis for the ubiquitous AP feed. And the CNN version based on the above.

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December 01, 2011


Early on, Ryô is actually a lot more condescending than it sounds to western ears.

Namely, she refers to everybody by name alone, while Sen dutifully applies the expected honorifics, -dono (the period equivalent of -san) in the case of Koreya (only the vilest opponent didn't deserve grudging respect) and "Lord" (-sama) with everybody else she regards as her social "better."

Ryô's liberal use of yobisute (呼び捨て), literally "call" + "throw away," is a way for her to assert her superiority (whether deserved or not).

It's still considered rude to address one's superiors by name alone, let alone with a bare pronoun. This includes family members. A scene from the NHK historical drama springs to mind, in which the three amazing nieces of Oda Nobunaga meet after several years apart.

Here's how the dialogue begins:

Hatsu, Gô.
O-ne-sama, Gô.
O-ne-sama, O-ne-sama.

Revealed here is their familial status based on age. Yodo is the oldest, Gô the youngest. These sociolinguistic rules have barely budged in four hundred years. That exchange would be almost the same today (except for a more sparing use of the honorific sama).

In Scrapped Princess, for example (which takes place in a fictional alternate universe, not Japan), Pacifica consistently appends ni-san (big brother) or ne-san (big sister) to the names of her (older) step-siblings.

As Peter Payne puts it, relationships in Japan are vertical. Students address teachers as Sensei, lower classmen address upper classmen as Senpai, never by their first names. In a teen romance, you know things are moving to the next level when yobisute kicks in.

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