April 27, 2017

Cleanliness is next to Japaneseness

Cleanliness is deeply embedded in the culture and religions of Japan. After all if "baptism" can wash away your sins, then rinse and repeat! Westerners have also noted this fact for as long as westerners have visited Japan.

In Shogun, James Clavell has his 16th century protagonist John Blackthorne (based on the real Will Adams) point it out. A few centuries later, in the mid-19th century, U.S. Consul Townsend Harris observed that "Everyone bathes every day."

Though that they did it all together in a public bath (sentou) alarmed him.

The sentou goes back a millennia. The hot spring resort (onsen) has been around for even longer. Not a few can claim that a "famous person bathed here." A private bath (o-furo) for the working man is more recent. When families could afford a gas-fired one after the war, it was a big deal.

The shower, by contrast, is a modern import. In the sentou, you soap up and rinse off with buckets of water. Outside the tub! Because you wash yourself first before getting into the tub! This is important! The tub water is for soaking, not for washing.

The bathing-at-night thing (anime and manga fans will have noted this) developed because that's when you went to the sentou. Cleaning the baths and firing up the boilers once took all day. You could spot a sentou a mile away because of the smokestacks (in a residential neighborhood).

The old-school home o-furo was a square tub with a water heater directly attached. The tub was the tank. Even today, apartments with western-style (tank) water heaters are rare. Fill the o-furo (with cold tap water), turn it on, and come back in thirty minutes.

When I lived in Osaka, the hot running water in the kitchen ran off the o-furo heater, but you couldn't shower and run the hot water at the same time. Point-of-use tankless water heaters remain ubiquitous.

Again, the bath itself is not for washing (well, except in Spirited Away, when it's required to purify a polluted river spirit) but for soaking and relaxing.

Showers are more popular now, and have taken over the wash & rinse duties. Budget o-furo are still made out of molded plastic, but as Japan has gotten wealthier, they are more and more resembling western bathtubs.

More home baths means fewer public baths. The number of sentou in Tokyo has declined from 2000 to 600 in the past 30 years. And yet ryokan and hot springs resorts have never been more popular.

Even the staid NHK doesn't shy from onsen travelogues featuring naked kids and naked butts (male only, sumo having made the male butt an inconsequential sight; on camera, women sport white bath towels).

Related posts

The public bath
When in Rome (or Japan)

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April 20, 2017

Peater Pan

The clever name for a chain of bakeries in Japan brings up the etymology of perhaps the oldest non-Chinese "loan word" in Japanese.

Wikipedia states that though seemingly derived from the Spanish pan or the French pain, the Japanese word for "bread" was introduced into Japan by Portuguese traders and missionaries in the mid-16th century.

The mistaken etymology is understandable, as the word is pronounced the same in Spanish and Japanese, while it takes a bit of phonetic drift to get from pão to pan.

On the other hand, the Jesuit Francis Xavier hailed from Navarre. Later known as the "Apostle of Japan," he was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. He too might have hurried along the adoption of pan.

In a very roundabout way, the word has now made it from the West to the East and back to the West as panko (パン粉), which combines pan with the kanji for flour.

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April 13, 2017

The evolution of the missionary program

Going back half a century or so, here's how how I interpret the convoluted and often incoherent evolution of the Mormon Church's missionary program.

Stage I. Mine was one of last cohorts of the legacy system. This was the "Every Young Man Should Serve a Mission" era. (As for the young women, well, if you still hadn't gotten hitched by twenty-one, then sure. But why haven't you gotten hitched?)

In the late 1970s, the church's PR efforts hit Madison Avenue and sociologists started paying serious attention to the church's growth numbers. These studies famously culminated in Rodney Stark's 1984 calculation of a 64 million to 267 million growth in membership over the next century.

Ah, here was "independent" confirmation of the inevitable Mormon hegemony, cementing Mormonism's "fastest growing religion" status (an error that continues to this day). Buoyed by these dubious statistical projections, church leaders convinced themselves they were going to convert the world.

Except the numbers Stark and others were using in their models came from the church itself. The public membership numbers the church publishes each year don't count butts in pews. They're derived from open-ended accounting methods based the accumulation of unexpired membership records.

The truth is way out there.
In other words, if you got baptized and never attend church again, you would still contribute to the membership totals until you reached a hypothetical life expectancy and were deemed statistically dead.

In fact, the church does count how many butts are in the pews every Sunday. Otherwise it'd end up building chapels that sat empty and unused. But like Fox Mulder, they want to believe. And like the Cigarette Smoking Man, they keep the numbers that matter close to the vest.

In any case, wishful thinking eventually ran into the brick wall of reality. To start with, consider the workforce. The more they stressed the hard sell, the more missionaries figured out how to game the system.

Stage II. As these get-big-quick schemes began imploding in missions like Tokyo South, the church decided that not enough young men were serving missions. And it cost too much. The answer was to match mission lengths for men and women at eighteen months.

Mission financing was taken over by the church and quasi-socialized (and then tweaked to preserve the tax incentives) so everybody faced the same up-front costs.

Sounds good in theory. Except a whole lot of twenty-year-olds were more than happy to take a six-month discount on "the two best years." The church was suddenly faced with the challenge of keeping the spiritual sales force intact during its most productive period (the last six months).

That idea was deep-sixed. The cost-sharing measures were preserved.

Stage III. Instead of greasing the skids, maybe it was time to borrow from those Marines Corps ads: "The few, the proud." Raise standards. Toughen requirements. Quality over quantity. Missionaries were an elite group, not the hoi polloi.

But once again, too many kids decided that this was good excuse to give the whole ordeal a pass. Especially when dealing with theological cannon fodder, there's strength in numbers. Quantity matters more than quality (because you're never going to have that much quality).

Stage IV. In the meantime, the cruel world was intruding all over the place. Years of cultural diplomacy with China never paid off, delivering a blow to the multi-level marketing strategy I was taught in the MTC. (Seriously, with a few script changes, it could have been turned into any sales pitch.)

The convert-the-world true believers no longer believed quite so much, accepting the stark reality that, in real terms, church membership growth tracks closely to the natural rate. By "natural" I mean the birds and the bees. Mormon boy meets Mormon girl and a bunch of Mormon kids result.

Behind the scenes, the number crunchers at church headquarters were doing (more accurate) butts-in-pews analyses that pointed to a strong correlation between "served a mission" and "shows up to church on Sunday."

That meant maximizing the number of Mormon kids going on missions, which had the best odds of turning them into Mormon adults. It didn't matter if they converted anybody on their mission as long as they converted themselves. Think of it as an institutionalized sunk cost fallacy in action.

It was time to grease the skids again, but with a different set of variables. Knock one year off the start date for men, two years for women. Guys wouldn't have to red-shirt their freshman year and women wouldn't be taking themselves out of the college (BYU) dating market.

Plus, an eighteen-year-old is that much more susceptible to peer group pressure. What are you gonna do straight out of high school? Answer: go on a mission. What joining the military used to be.

This time it looks like they got it right. So far, the new program has been hugely successful. Pay no attention to the slumping conversion rates. Missionaries now spend less time proselytizing and more time trying to be useful. It's turned into the Mormon Peace Corps.

Frankly, that's what the missionary program should have been all along.

Related posts

How it began
The truth is worse
Tokyo South is alive
The weirdest two years
The problem with projections

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April 06, 2017

Disappearing acts

At the beginning of Singing in the Rain, Debbie Reynolds gets "discovered" by Gene Kelly. By the end of the movie, we're assured they're going to be a star-biz romance thing on and off the screen. The perfect Hollywood happily-ever-after story.

In Japan, the opposite thing happens on a fairly regular basis.

I'm not talking about the A Star is Born paradigm, where half of the couple crashes and burns as the other rises to fame and fortune. Rather, I'm referring to Japanese actresses (usually but not always actresses) who retire at the height of their box office appeal.

The latest entry in this category is Maki Horikita. She's cute as a button and has built an impressive resume, with two-dozen television series under her belt and that many film credits.

She did an excellent job in Ume-chan Sensei and the Always: Sunset on Third Street trilogy. Her most recent starring role was as a psychic detective in Whispers from a Crime Scene (2016). And at all of 28, married and with her first child, she's bowing out. Not simply taking a breather but formally retiring (for now, at least).

"I have become a mother and am now living a happy life with my loving family," the 28-year-old said in a message on her website. "I will do my utmost to preserve this warm and irreplaceable happiness."

This is not a new trend.

In 1967, Mie Hama appeared aside Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice. She had been in almost 70 movies before getting her big international break. At five-foot five, she was taller than many of her co-stars, but was a good match for the six-foot two Connery.

But that was her last big box office role (and not because of the leading man; she says that, off screen, Connery was the consummate gentleman). As the New York Times recently recounted,

A few years later, she walked out of her contract with the Japanese studio Toho to marry and raise a family, telling dumbfounded executives that she wanted "a normal life." She remained a celebrity in Japan but completely revamped her public image, becoming a television and radio host, an advocate for preserving old farms and farming techniques, a connoisseur of folk art and the author of 14 books--on child-rearing, manners and self-discovery--that have proven enormously popular among women.

Like Mie Hama, in a few years or ten, I expect that Maki Horikita will remake her career in a similarly lower key and productive manner. Which strikes me as a completely rational thing to do, though a great many simply can't cognitively process the concept.

Now, quitting show biz to climb up the social ladder--like Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan--is seen as a smart career move, a Hollywood happily-ever-after with a second act. But abandoning the public eye has come to be portrayed as borderline crazy.

Greta Garbo is better remembered for telling the world, "I want to be alone," than for any of the movies she made prior to retiring at the age of 35, after acting in twenty-eight films.

(The famous quote attributed to her is actually a line from Grand Hotel, but she had earlier stated in a Photoplay interview, "I have wanted to be alone. I detest crowds, don't like many people.")

The latest case in point concerns fitness guru Richard Simmons, who apparently decided he was tired of being famous (and fit). This decision is seen as so perverse that it took three hours of reportage to conclude that, naw, he just wants to be left alone. As Ann Althouse concludes,

I think Richard Simmons put immense energy and emotion into playing the character he inhabited in public. He decided the show was over for whatever personal reasons he had, and he's gone private. That's his point: He's private now, and his reasons are private. Accept it!

The prize for "accepting it" certainly goes to Victor Mature (1913-1999).

(Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.)
Mature was a top Hollywood talent for two decades, only taking time off during WWII to do a stint in the Coast Guard (after being turned down by the Navy). But then he abruptly retired in 1961, declaring, "I'm not an actor and I've got sixty-four films to prove it!"

He appeared in a handful of movies during the four decades that followed, often in roles that parodied his own reputation, such as playing "The Big Victor" in a compilation movie about the Monkees.

I was never that crazy about acting. I had a compulsion to earn money, not to act. So I worked as an actor until I could afford to retire. I wanted to quit while I could still enjoy life. I like to loaf. Everyone told me I would go crazy or die if I quit working. Yeah? Well what a lovely way to die.

Ah, finally a Hollywood star whose example I can one day hope to emulate.

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