Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2017

Periodically, people revive an alternative history narrative, where Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor, where they followed their, and the US, original warplans and invaded the Philippines instead. This was the old-fashioned style of warfare: invasion of nearby territories, clashes between rival fleets, extended land campaigns.

The Japanese were particularly enamoured of these ideas because of their strategic doctrine of the big, decisive, naval battle. Their concept was to induce, entice, or invite the enemy to send its fleet out for a major clash, one-throw-of-the-dice to see who won. Of course, based on their disastrous victory at Tsushima, they were sure it would be them. I say disastrous because if it had been harder and more painful, they might have drawn better lessons from it.

What Admiral Yamamoto did was shift the decisive battle from the waters of the Western Pacific to Pearl Harbor. The decisive strike would be from the air, not from opposing line-of-battle ships. This succeeded, partially, but left some…issues…unresolved. The rest, as they say, is history.

But let’s step back one more step. What if the Japanese hadn’t attacked the US at all?

You see, attacking the US was never the primary goal. The Japanese looked on us as an enemy because of our embargoes, our support for China, and our alliance with their local opposition, the Dutch and the British. But we were not a foe in the same way as the Dutch and the British, or as Russia. We were an adversary who they might or might not have to fight.

By cutting off their oil and steel (and remember, the US was the world’s major oil exporter, so this was the equivalent of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, only more effective), the US forced the Japanese to look for other sources of supply: British Borneo and Dutch Indonesia. So, the main thrust of the Japanese expansion was to be south, to the oil and rubber supplies.

The Japanese logic on how this would work out was plausible but incomplete, possibly because the Japanese Army, who by the late 1930’s was running Japan’s foreign policy, didn’t really understand international relations. Their logic chain said go to war with the Dutch, and the British will/must join them. Go to war with the British and the US will/must join them. Therefore, we have to go to war with the US. But they seriously miscalculated the US willingness to go to war.

Remember, this was 1941, and Britain had been fighting in Europe for almost two years. They had been defeated on the Continent, and were in serious danger of invasion, and the US still hadn’t gone to their aid. This was because the US Congress and the US people were strongly against war, and President Roosevelt was desperate enough to get us in to one to spawn shoals of conspiracy theories about what he knew and when he knew it, and how much of the action had been at his behest. (My take is, not as much as people think, later than most people think, and very little of import).

So, suppose the Japanese had concentrated on a strike to the south, and had actively avoided involving the US. What might have happened then?

Well, the southern thrust likely would have played out as it did in real life, except there would have been no ABDA Command and no US participation in battles like Java Sea. The US would have increased supplies to Australia, but could have done little west of Manila, given that, politically, we did not wish to take any overtly hostile actions. Increased reconnaissance and intelligence sharing is about all that could have been done until some suitable causus belli had occurred.

We would still occupy Wake and Guam and the Philippines, with troop buildups on all three.

More importantly, Midway would not have happened, and US troops would not have landed on Guadalcanal.

Having avoided a Pearl Harbor, what might have caused the US to enter WWII at this point? Perhaps some naval incident, either in the Atlantic or the Pacific. German u-boat attacks on tankers, perhaps, or Japanese attacks on US resupply shipments to Australia. Maybe a Japanese attack on US assets in China. It would have to be something blatant enough to tip US public opinion.

And then, Plan Orange would be executed, and the US participation in the war would begin. Six months or a year late, against an enemy that was more deeply entrenched, had seized key geography, like Guadalcanal, and New Guinea, and still had the majority of its fleet intact.

History would have been different.



World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

September 2, 2015


So, now it’s late Summer, 1945, and the Japanese Empire is on its last legs. The Navy has been destroyed, the Army is mostly trapped in China and Burma, their merchant marine has been sunk. The American B-29’s have been fire-bombing almost every city in the country, against almost no resistance from the Japanese Air Force. The time had come to invade the Home Islands.

Invasion was a costly alternative, but we didn’t have any particular reason to believe other options were workable. A blockade might starve them out, but there was no assurance of that. Besides, the result would be to have the Japanese grudgingly admit that they’d lost, to bargain for a less than unconditional surrender, and to leave future generations open to a “stabbed in the back” theory, like Germany after WWI. An invasion was the only way to convince the Japanese that they really had lost the war.

The cost was going to be horrific, on both sides. We estimated there’d be a million Allied casualties, and upwards of five million Japanese casualties. Japanese plans were to defend the Home Islands the way they did Okinawa and Iwo Jima — a defense in depth by soldiers who would have to be dug out and killed one by one. What we didn’t know was the extent to which the civilian population would be involved. Males were inducted into home defense units. Women and school children were shown how to tie a knife to a broomstick and attack allied infantry. Another thing that we didn’t know was Japanese preparations for kamikaze operations.

At the start of the US bombing campaign, the Japanese high command had decided to hide their remaining aircraft in protected shelters and rail tunnels, and to reserve enough aviation gasoline to fly 6000 one-way sorties. What Curtis LeMay thought of as a weakness that allowed him to bomb from low altitude was actually an iron determination to strike as hard a blow at the invasion fleet as possible. And it would be a hard blow. Although we looked on the kamikaze pilots as fanatics, they were actually patriots, doing their final duty. Using kamikaze tactics during the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Japanese put more US ships out of the war, with fewer losses to themselves, per ship sunk or damaged, than they did with any of their more conventional campaigns.

In addition, southern Japan does not have that much coastland and hinterland suitable for an amphibious invasion. The Japanese High Command predicted almost exactly when and where we would invade, and had distributed their forces accordingly — an initial foothold on Kyushu Island, followed by an invasion of Honshu, with landings on either side of Tokyo Bay. Much of the land behind the beaches is shown as agricultural (rice paddies), but that doesn’t mean it is level. The paddies are enclosed in dikes, and in many cases are stepped in terraces. From a tactical standpoint, this means that tanks crossing the dikes and terraces will have their vulnerable undersides exposed to the defenders.

But, we had The Bomb. We had choices on how to use it, but little assurance that anything short of destroying a city would convince the holdouts in the Japanese military and government. Using it would be horrific (I know, that’s the third time I’ve used that phrase), but consider that we had already destroyed a greater area of the three largest cities in Japan than we did in all of the cities of Germany. The only difference here would be that we were doing it with one bomb in one instant, rather than waves of bombers over several days. It was a terrible weapon, and we had to demonstrate to the world what a terrible weapon it was. Even then, it still took over a week, and a second bomb, for the Japanese government to actually admit to defeat.  They signed the articles of surrender seventy years ago today.

In The Prisoner and the Bomb, Laurens van der Post, an Afrikaner officer imprisoned in Indonesia, said that the prison camp guards seemed to be working themselves up to something at the end of July and the beginning of August. The prisoners believed there was going to be a massacre. But after the bombs had dropped, the guards attitude changed, becoming almost resigned. The use of the atomic bomb, and the way it was used, finally convinced even the most fanatical holdouts that Japan had been well and truly defeated. And it convinced the world that we had to do something to limit their use.

World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

September 1, 2015


And so now we come to the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the Pacific War. As I’ve discussed in previous essays on the topic, much of the action was driven by the needs and blunders of the Japanese Army. The Japanese Navy was much less enthusiastic about the project, although they did not try very hard to stop it.

The Japanese logic was straightforward, though misinformed. The US (the world’s largest oil producer) had just cut off their total supply of oil. There was only about two years supply left in-country — two years for the Navy, if everyone else was starved of it. The US demand was simple, total withdrawal from China. The implications, which the US did not consider, were that Japan would become a client state of the US, and give up its aspirations to become a world-class nation. Better to go down fighting than acquiesce to that kind of abject surrender.

If Japan was to become independent in oil (does this have a modern ring to it? has the irony sunk in?), they would have to take it from someone, and the Dutch and British possessions were closest. So it was war with the UK and Holland.

But the UK was a close ally of the US, particularly in the Pacific. If Japan attacked the UK possessions there, the US would surely come into the war to support their ally. So it was war with the US. The Japanese (or at least those Army officers with the most clout) didn’t know that isolationist opinion in the US would have made it difficult to declare war without an overt attack on US forces, so they decided to make one.

Surprise attacks are a long-honored samurai tradition, retained into the modern age. The Russo-Japanese war started with a surprise bombardment of Port Arthur. The Japanese wanted to knock the US back on its heels for a year, while they ran wild across the Western and Central Pacific. Then they’d be able to negotiate from a position of strength. In fact, it was the one thing that would ensure a unified American response.

The combat portion of the Pacific War is shortly told. The IJN carrier strike forces ran roughshod over their enemies for six months, sailing one-third of the way around the globe, destroying ships and facilities from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Colombo, Ceylon. Probably the single greatest naval campaign in history. Their run came to an end at the Battle of Midway, and they never recovered from the loss of ships and aircrews. The first nine months combat used up most of the aircraft carriers on both sides, and there was an eighteen month lull in carrier warfare while both sides rebuilt.

The Army, meanwhile, either retained most of it’s combat troops in China (to defend their gains or protect against a Russian invasion), or committed them to the campaign in Burma, in an attempt to split India off from the Allies. Fewer than twenty army divisions defended the islands between the US and the Home Islands. Because of this, the Army lost what was essentially a slow-motion meeting engagement on Guadalcanal, and was forced back and back by US ground forces, supported by superior naval and air firepower. One of the reasons for their losses was the fact that they had only fought the Chinese for the last quarter century, and had no idea what a modern Western army could do.

Through defeat after defeat, however, they were able to hone an effective, though not successful, defensive strategy. Rather than attempting to stop an invasion at the water’s edge, they opted for a defense in depth, relying on the stubborn determination of the Japanese infantryman to hold every position until the end, and in doing so, bleed the invading force with horrific casualties. They refined this approach at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and their preparations for an archipelago-wide battle to the death was one of the considerations in our decision to drop the atomic bomb.

World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

August 31, 2015


Imagine if England had retained the tradition of knights in shining armour into the mid-1800’s. Imagine if the UK had remained as it was in the mid-1400’s, with a weak king and strong barons. Imagine if Queen Victoria was the first English monarch in seven hundred years to actually rule the United Kingdom. Now, jump ahead fifty years, and imagine what British society might be like half a century later. You now have an idea of what Japan was like at the beginning of the last Century.

Japan was always a militaristic society, in a knights in shining armour way. For almost their entire history this militarism was aimed inwards, with more or less continuous Wars of the Roses style fighting between rival clans and warlords using small armies of samurai, or with indian wars in the north, to pacify the Ainu. Unification of the country in the 1600’s under one chief warlord (Shogun) suppressed the fighting, and converted the samurai to a governing civil service (while not decreasing their militaristic ethos). The rise of a national army, in post-Meiji Japan, gave an outlet for those who yearned for more than trusted places in the bureaucracy. By the start of the 20th Century, Japanese society could still be classified as militaristic, but not in a nostalgic way. Large parts of it embraced the militarism that would later lead Europe into two World Wars.

And now we come to the place where hubris evokes nemesis. In the first essay in this series, the Japanese had gained control of agricultural Taiwan and Korea, and had established a sphere of influence in the Liaodong Peninsula. Occupation of resource-rich Manchuria had earned them the censure of the League of Nations, but no economically important countermeasures. It did, however, kick off continuing clashes with Chinese forces, which the Japanese generally won. If they had stopped there, they might have consolidated, grown, and prospered. They didn’t.

In 1937 the Japanese army in China, which by now was pretty much out of control, exploited, or manufactured, several incidents, that lead to an all out war with the Kuomintang (KMT) government, and a parallel guerrilla war coordinated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the start of the war, the Japanese army totaled 17 divisions. By the time of Pearl Harbor, approximately 35 out of 51 divisions, and 38 out of 39 independent brigades were committed in China. Japan managed to occupy a number of the major cities — Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan — but had less luck pacifying the country in between.

The start of the Second Sino-Japanese War threatened Western business interests in China. That, combined with the associated Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians, well reported by the US Christian missionaries in-country, provided the basis for US support for the KMT. Initially, there were no overt actions against Japan directly. Diplomatic objections were raised. Loans were made available to buy military equipment and supplies for the Chinese army, much of which was delivered through Haiphong, in French Indochina, and thence via rail to Yunnan. So far, the Japanese were still ahead in the game. This lasted for three years.

We now begin a series of escalatory tit-for-tats, each of which, on its own and viewed narrowly, was perfectly logical. The problem was, the Japanese army was bogged down in China. They were looking at a scaled up version of what the US faced in VietNam — a patriotic people, fighting on their own ground, with continuing resupply from an untouchable sanctuary. Ultimately, it would lose somewhere between one and two million casualties there. Probably half of those were suffered by late 1940. The solution was, of course, to close off the resupply. By September of that year French Indochina was in the hands of the neutral Vichy government, and the Japanese tried to get them to close the rail line through diplomatic pressure. They refused, and the Japanese staged an amphibious landing south of Haiphong, as well as moving ground troops across the border at Lang Son, closing the railway. The US reaction was to halt all sales of scrap iron (75% of Japan’s supply), machine tools, and aviation gasoline, one step short of a total trade embargo. This lead the Japanese to make plans to obtain their own oil, by seizing the British oil fields in Borneo, and the Dutch oil fields in Indonesia. They took the next step in July of 1941, by occupying the southern half of French Indochina, putting their aircraft in range of Dutch and UK targets. The US froze all Japanese assets, and instituted a complete trade embargo, including all exports of oil to Japan. The final stage was set.

Throughout all of this, the US demonstrated an almost complete lack of understanding of the Japanese goals and values. In fact, US actions continuously confirmed the Japanese understanding of the West. Immigration restrictions were informally imposed on the Japanese in 1907, and formalized in the Immigration Act of 1924. As early as 1895 the European powers had ganged up on Japan to roll back major provisions of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited Japan to the short end of a 5:5:3 ratio in battleships. And now the US was adopting a hard line withdraw from China and then we’ll talk approach. The Japanese were faced with unconditional surrender and acceptance of a second class existence as a client state of a nation that despised them, or a war that might allow them to achieve at least some of their goals, or that might end in ruin for the nation. What’s a proud samurai to do?

World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

August 25, 2015


“World War II” is a collective term, encompassing a number of different conflicts that took place just prior to the mid-20th Century, in a number of different places, involving a number of different combatants, over a number of different durations.

For the US, the war started, with Japan, in 1941. For the UK, the war started in 1939, against Germany. For the USSR, the Great Patriotic War started in 1940, against Germany, with the follow-on Soviet-Japanese War limited to August, 1945. And for the Japanese, the Greater East Asia War began with the Second Sino-Japanese war, between Japan and China, in 1937 and later spread to the Pacific War, between Japan and the US and its allies, from 1941 to 1945.

I’m not going to talk about WWII in Europe. The European War is much more straightforward, one might even say traditional. The ruler of a country (Hitler) embarked upon a program of conquest through a war of choice. With a different ruler, one can argue, Germany would most likely not have gone to war. From that standpoint the European War serves to validate the Great Man theory of history. On the other hand, the Pacific War is fascinating because it can be attributed to the inevitable clash of cultures and national objectives, the Blind Forces of History. No one man pushed the Japanese into what one author calls the war they could never win. It was the Japanese (and American) view of themselves (and the world), that caused it.

As I said in an earlier essay, most Americans have this vague  notion that Japan woke up one morning and decided to attack Pearl Harbor.  I mean, it was a dull Sunday, and they still didn’t have cable TV, right? Of course it was more complex than that.

Around the world, the late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw a burst of New Imperialism, mostly on the part of European nations and the US. In the Scramble for Africa, the UK, France, Germany and Italy carved up those parts of the continent not already colonized. At the same time, the defeat of China in the Opium Wars allowed the UK, France, Germany, and Russia to establish spheres of influence there. Japan got some concessions out of it, but was treated as a decidedly minor partner. The US was not as imperialist as the other countries, possibly because it was still busy colonizing the lands between St Louis and San Francisco, but it still managed to come into possession of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and of course earlier it had used the armed might of its Black Ships to force Japan to open up to the West.

The lesson was clear:  If you didn’t want to be a colony, you had to be a modern, industrialized nation.  And to become an industrialized nation, you had to have resources, either your own or from your colonies. 

Japan, a backward and resource-poor nation, learned that lesson well, at the hands of Oliver Hazard Perry. As soon as they felt up to it, they set about becoming both modern and industrialized, which meant acquiring colonies.

Between 1894 and 1910 they fought one war with China and another with Russia, as well as engineering several short-of-war incidents*, in order to transform Korea from a Chinese vassal state to a Japanese colony. Along the way they succeeded in getting China to grant them control of the Liaodong peninsula but the major European powers ganged up on them and forced them to give it back. This was one more example, if they needed one, that European nations still looked down on all Asians, and that Japan would not get any respect from Europeans unless they forced it out of them.

The Russo-Japanese war was a disaster for Japan. They won every battle. They drove the Russian field armies back and back, from one well-prepared defensive position to another. They bottled the Russian Pacific Fleet and another Russian army into the area around Port Arthur, at the end of the Liaodong peninsula, and forced a surrender after a year-long siege. Five months later the final disaster occurred — the Battle of Tsushima. There, the Japanese fleet utterly destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet, and brought an end to the war.

Why was this highly successful war an ultimate disaster? Because the Japanese military came to believe they were the equal of any of the Western powers, that the army that destroyed the Tsarist  armies, 4,000 rail miles from their home bases, and the navy that destroyed the Tsarist navy, 18,000 nautical miles from its home ports, in 1905, could prevail against Britain and the US in the 1940’s.

The Japanese came to believe that they were destined to become the dominant power in Asia, superseding both China and the West. No-one believed this more than the Japanese Army. They, more than any other group came to see this as what Americans would call their Manifest Destiny. Not only was Japan now technically and industrially equivalent to the West, they felt they were also morally superior as well.

At home, the Army terrorized all who stood in their way. Assassination was a time-honored solution to problems of opposition**, and they, or their supporters, murdered recalcitrant generals, admirals, and politicians, even Prime Ministers. Abroad, with Russia cowed, the Army-dominated government continued their efforts to subdue China. As Allied participants in WWI they gained control of former German colonies across the Pacific, and in China they unsuccessfully attempted to push out their Western allies as part of their 21 Demands.

In 1931 the Japanese army engineered the Mukden incident, and used it to justify seizing all of Manchuria and establishing the vassal state of Manchukuo, a 100% Japanese creation, three times the size of the Japanese home islands (with over ten times the arable land), known today primarily for its exports of postage stamps.

But in 1937 the Japanese Army committed a fatal error, one that lead ultimately to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They started a land war in Asia.


*As with the US over the last fifty years, the Japanese used at least 17 incidents — violent events in China, some staged, some false flag operations — as excuses to increase military intervention there.

**In the clan conflicts of the late 1500s, which lead up to the unification of Japan, eight major figures fell to assassination, including Oda Nobunaga, and his brother, and the father, and grandfather of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

My Trip To Japan

January 10, 2013

I have scrubbed and expanded my description and have now enshrined it as a permanent page. You can find it in the column on the right.

Trip To Japan: Japanese Toilets

December 15, 2012

Not the traditional style,

Watch where you put your feet

Watch where you put your feet

but the more modern ones. That is, more modern than they have in countries like, say, the U.S.

Not the rocket science version

Not the rocket science version

My limited experience is with the simple toilets you will find in an economy-class Japanese hotel that caters to travelers more than tourists. This one had three knobs on the side. One to start the hot water (otherwise you get quite a shock), one for the bidet function, and one for the …er…standard…cleansing.

Right is warm, Center is stream, Left is bidet

Right is warm, Center is stream, Left is bidet

Here is what the setup looks like inside.

Do not operate in this position.

Do not operate in this position.

If you bend down and turn one of the dispenser knobs, a funny little arm pops out from the square extension at the back of the bowl and sprays hot water in your face.

When used as directed, it has a surprisingly good aim. The difference between the stream and the bidet settings is that the bidet produces a softer spray, not a high pressure needle sharp stream. Consider yourself warned.

Does it work? Not particularly well. Maybe for … um … post-wipe cleanup, but if you do that, you find the cheap hotel toilet paper dissolves on contact when it comes time to dry. I think I’d rather use the old-fashioned kind. And maybe the U.S. isn’t missing out on that much after all.

Japan Trip Day 7

November 26, 2012

Final day and so home. Got up early, went out for one final walk, and stumbled onto the start of the Kobe 2012 Marathon.

Kobe Marathon

Kobe Marathon

More marathoners

More marathoners

Hundreds of people running past, helicopters overhead, dozens of semi-uniformed crowd control workers with batons and traffic cones and bullhorns. wonder it was hard to get a room this weekend

…no wonder it was hard to get a room this weekend

Also found a complete shopping mall — two parallel streets that had arched roofs installed on top, and pedestrian pavers laid down underneath — that I hadn’t seen before. It being a Sunday and 9AM, nothing was open. Another missed opportunity

Checked out of the hotel at 10AM, caught the Portliner to Kobe airport (a small regional field, similar to Tri-Cities, WA, or Santa Maria, CA), and transferred to the high-speed ferry trimaran.

Kobe Airport

Kobe Airport

Travel time from the hotel to Kansai Airport was about an hour (including half an hour on the boat).

Kobe to Kansai, half an hour

Kobe to Kansai, half an hour

They didn’t allow us up on deck, so it wasn’t as much fun as it might have been.

Kansai is a huge barn of a building, like being inside an unfinished transport aircraft. It’s all metal, with lots of exciting industrial art — mostly flat surfaces that reflect sound efficiently, and garble announcements beyond recognition. I packaged up the phone and WiFi and sent them back. The WiFi package was so thick it almost didn’t fit through the slot in the Japan Post mailbox.

I wanted something in the way of a Kansai regional dish for lunch, so I went to a restaurant that specialized in okonomiyaki – (whatever you want) + (grilled food). It’s a savory pancake in which (to extract from Wikipedia) “the batter is made of flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs, shredded cabbage, and lots of green onion, topped with okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker and sweeter)”. The place was crowded, so I left my big bag out front, with all the others left there by diners. The Japanese have a less hysterical approach to airport security than does the US.

The flights home were uneventful. I rode in a Dreamliner again and was very comfortable. Flying west we had head winds and took 12 hours. Flying east we had tailwinds and took 9 hours. At SFO, the TSA helpfully found and confiscated the juice box I had bought in Osaka airport to drink on the plane and which had slid down inside my backpack. They also presumably saw the tag on my checked baggage, showing it had originated at KIX, and decided to do an inspection to see if there were any dangerous lootables. I found their greeting card inside when I got home.

But that’s OK. My dogs were happy to see me

.This was your chair
“This was your chair”

So that was the trip. I’ll backfill on the multipart entries, and load up some photos as I get the time. When I’m done, I’ll move all the entries over to page status, where they can be archived for all time.

Japan Trip Day 6 Part 2

November 24, 2012

2012-11-24 15.00.57_1So after one final look at the panorama, I started downhill, through the herb garden.

2012-11-24 15.27.53_1Past the gardener

2012-11-24 15.27.44_1and lots of flowers I don’t know the names of

2012-11-24 15.21.45_1

2012-11-24 15.20.55_1

2012-11-24 15.19.44_1 and lavender beds

2012-11-24 15.18.02_1

2012-11-24 15.15.42_1and the kitchen garden, with really big asparagus

…and a melon you can almost see

2012-11-24 15.14.27_1…and some squash

2012-11-24 15.13.11_1

2012-11-24 15.09.40_1…and I think Rosemary

2012-11-24 15.09.31_1

2012-11-24 14.49.26_1…missing the turnoff to the greenhouse

2012-11-24 14.37.04_1but finally making it to the awaiting mid-mountain cable car stop, and so home.

Japan Trip Day 6 Part 1

November 24, 2012

My last full day in Japan, and I was still worn out from Kyoto. I went out at eight, and it was raw and windy and no fun at all. Back inside, to hang out in the room until the stores opened at 10. Bought gifts for almost everyone.

Manga, as far as the eye can see

Manga, as far as the eye can see

They had lots of manga, but very little anime.

and candy

and candy

They did have a whole section of the store devoted to candy. More floorspace than the books.

For lunch, I decided to do something that the average Japanese would consider out of the ordinary, so I went up to the hotel restaurant cluster for lunch. I found that about a thousand Japanese had the same idea, and all the venues were packed. All except the maid cafe. Well, not a real ‘Welcome Back, Master’ Kaichō wa Maid-sama-style maid cafe. This was a tea-and-cakes shop, with real English tea-shop style maids. With the help of a nice Japanese lady, the first one I’ve met who could speak English better than I speak Japanese, I ordered a Japanese pasta plate. It was one of several similar, and the alternative was pizza. It turned out to be tuna casserole, with broccolirab-like greens. Not bad at all, for what it was.

Then off up the hill to Kobe’s main claim to historical fame, the foreign quarter, with homes built by the various commercial counsels back when the city was just opening up to international trade. Did I say up the hill? 2012-11-24 14.14.27_1I meant UP,

2012-11-24 14.09.21_1and UP!

The Weathercock House

The Weathercock House

Each counsel built their home in the then-current style of the home country. So you have a multi-gabled German home of the mid 19th Century,

The Italian Consulate

The Italian Consulate

and a more modern-looking Italianate one from half a century later.

Nice view on the way up

Nice view on the way up

I had some matcha soft ice cream (an acquired taste, and not at all sweet), and climbed further still, to the Mt. Maya cablecar.

They call it a ropeway, but it's cables

They call it a ropeway, but it’s cables

The view from the top was sweeping, if a little misty,
2012-11-24 14.49.34_1

and the biergarten played stein-clunking German music, mein Schatz.


Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, Der Gemuetlichkeit!
Eins, Zwei, Zuffa!

A brief stop to play German drinking songs into MJ’s voicemail, and to take some pictures, and I was off down the hill through the herb garden. But that’s for Part 2.

Japan Trip Day 5 Part 2

November 23, 2012

At the Kyoto Station I was met by my friend and former student Ayu-chan, and we went on a walking tour of the city.



Now, I’ve read a fair amount of Japanese history, about how Kyoto was the national capital for a long long time, and how it had many historic buildings that were spared the bombings of WWII. I had a picture of Kyoto as a quiet, tree-lined, almost university-town-like atmosphere. Not at all.

Kyoto is bigger than you think

Kyoto is bigger than you think

It’s a bustling city that just happens to have a bunch of shrines and temples, and those are so scattered that it takes days to see them all on foot. We had an afternoon, so we saw two. The Higashi Hongaji, near the station, and the Kiyomizu-dena, on a tall hill complex in the center of the city.

The Higashi Hogaji was mostly closed for renovation. Covered with a large metal shed, it looked more like a light industrial complex. There were a couple of sub-temples that were worth photographing. One with me in the frame, somehow.

Higashi Hongaji and Me

Higashi Hongaji and Me

Another subtemple, this one without me

Another subtemple, this one without me

The Kiyomizu-dera was a goodly walk, across the Kaomagma River and up a fairly steep hill.

Kaoimagama River

Kaoimagama River

It being a national holiday — Labor Thanksgiving Day, killing two with one weekend — there were thousands of locals and tourists who took the trek with us. At the top were more temples,



autumn leaves,

Autumn in Kyoto

Autumn in Kyoto

and a beautiful view of the city.

See that tower? We walked from there.

See that tower? We walked from there.

A view which many others appreciated as well.

Leaf-peepers of Kyoto

Leaf-peepers of Kyoto

Japan Trip Day 5 Part 1

November 23, 2012

This is as multi-parter, because so much went on. I took the Shinkasen from Kobe to Kyoto and spent the day being shown around by one of my former students — sometimes perfesserin’ really pays off.

The Shinkasen is everything they said it was. The train was more like an airplane inside, with comfortable 3+3 seating (and little rubber bedknobs on the aisle side of the seatbacks for the standees to hold on to). The trip up was extra-crowded, because it was the start of a three-day weekend. I was the last person on, and ended up standing next to the door in the connecting compartment for the first part of the trip. This was no problem, because the train is fast.

The front end looks like a fast racing car

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It spends two or three minutes in the station

Quick turnaround

Before accelerating away

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And the back end looks like a racecar as well

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Hey, did I just miss my train?

Round-trip cost was ¥5,400, or about $66. Road distance and travel time direct from Kobe to Kyoto is 73km / 1hr 17min, Kobe to Kyoto via Osaka is 90km / 1hr 45min. Coming back on the train, it was 10min to Osaka, and another 20min to Kobe. We left at exactly 5:30PM and got in at exactly 6PM, so our average speed was 180km/hr. Stops for trains passing through Kyoto were about 2min each. I got home and called my student to let her know I’d made it OK. She was still shopping in ShinKyoto Station.

While ShinKobe was simply a train station,
ShinKyoto was quite a bit bigger

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With Christmas decorations

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and lots of people

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My only complaint is that between standing jammed into the connecting compartment on the way up, and coming home after dark, I never got to see the countryside whiz by at 180kph.

Trip To Japan Day 4

November 23, 2012

All of Day 4 was spent at the con, the poster session, and the stand-up banquet.

Bell tower, Kobe Portopia Conference Center

Bell tower, Kobe Portopia Conference Center

I did get to surprise MJ by calling her just as the clock at the con site let out a peal of bells.

Not only did they have a bell tower, but they also had a collection of figures that marched around in a little house at the base of it

World+Dog at the bell tower

World+Dog at the bell tower

I wanted an authentic Japanese lunch, so I went to the nearest Lawson’s kombini and bought a collection of bento items, including three different kinds of rice balls (really triangles), and a small loaf of curry bread. The rice balls were about as I expected, except that one of them had a tomagoyaki roll inside. The curry bread was a flat loaf, curry-flavored, stuffed with a small hot dog and curry paste. Sadly, there were no photos.

At the banquet I found out that Kobe is also famous for sake and for Japanese wine. Their red is a not-very-full-bodied Cabernet; the sake was mild-tasting and inoffensive, certainly better than the brands they carry at Safeway, but nothing to write the world about….um.

A drum-shaped sake container, with dipping cups

A drum-shaped sake container, with dipping cups

As the banquet was in the final stages of preparation, I noticed a kimono display.

Kimono at the Kobe Portlandia Hotel

Kimono at the Kobe Portlandia Hotel

That reminded me that I had promised to buy my grand-niece-in-law one. Well, I’m not prepared to shell out what’s needed for a kimono, but I can afford the lightweight summer version, the yukata. There was a nice hotel lady seeing to the preparations. I asked her if she knew of any places I could find yukatas, and she said she’d see what she could do. Half an hour later, she dug me out of the banquet. She didn’t have a list of places. She had a couple of samples and wanted to know if this was what I wanted. We then slipped up to the hotel shop that sold them, and I made my GNiL happy, along with the shop staff. That’s the highly helpful Nishio san on the right.
Nishio Tomoko and shop staff

Nishio Tomoko and shop staff

Japan Trip Day 3

November 22, 2012

Proof of Attendance

Proof of Attendance

After the opening of the conference, which I will report on separately, I skipped out, caught the train back to downtown, and wandered around some more.

The arrival times are all digital but the actual times are analog

The arrival times are all digital but the actual times are analog

I wanted an authentic Japanese lunch experience, so I stopped at a noodle bar, the kind where you stick coins in a machine and it gives you a ticket that you give to the heavily made-up counter lady, who gives you your udon. For 280yen I had something called ‘kitsune’. kitsune means ‘fox’, but I think it was really beef. I later learned that it’s a Kobe region specialty. It was very good.

The Udon Lady

The Udon Lady

My main target was ShinKobe, the Shinkasen station for Kobe.

ShinKobe Station, home of the bullet train

ShinKobe Station, home of the bullet train

It’s about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. One of the interesting things about Kobe is that they have lots of pedestrian walkways,

Pedestrian crossovers, behind the hat

Pedestrian crossovers, behind the hat

so that you don’t have to wait at the intersection, and some of them are quite complex because if you have 6 streets meeting, you need a bunch of different walkovers.

Walking up, I took the main street, Flower Street.

Flower Street

Flower Street

It’s a typical Japanese thoroughfare (he said, based on 36hrs of observation), with typical stores and shops and public art.

Children may play here

Children may play here

Japanese stores remind me of old junk stores, only much cleaner and brighter. Narrow aisles stacked ceiling-high with an incredible array of goods,with everything marked bright signs with big block letters. Most of the places I went into were in narrow narrow buildings, and the shop went up four or five stories of 15×15′ display rooms. I bought a couple of kids manga, nothing ecchi, to practice my translating on.

Other buildings are not what they seem. According to other blogs, many of the buildings that look to be Christian churches are really just commercial shells, available for rent by couples who want a Western Style wedding, presided over by whichever of their foreign friends owns a black suit. Here is a fake Greek building. You’d think it might be a bank or something. It’s not. It’s another wedding center.

The Marriage Center

The Marriage Center

The Shinkasen station backs right up against the hills. From that aspect, Kobe reminded me a little of downtown Portland. The building to the left is the start of the Mt. Maya ropeway, of which more tomorrow.

ShinKobe Station and Portland-style hills

ShinKobe Station and Portland-style hills

The station was a little confusing because nowhere could I find a map of the system to tell me what train to take to Kyoto. It turns out it was the Tokyo train, I think. I figured I would find out on Friday. Returning to the hotel, I wandered the back streets and residential districts. You can get a car in here, but from one direction only.

Hillside homes

Hillside homes

Japan Trip Day 2

November 21, 2012

Day two started with a comedy of errors. I took the Portliner train out to the conference center about 9 o’clock, but I could not find any sign of the conference. Well, I found one sign.After fighting with my MiFi and my mobile phone I discovered that the con didn’t start until 6 o’clock that night.

SCIS-2012 Big sign, no people

SCIS-2012 Big sign, no people

So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Kobe. Kobe is an interesting city. You have the usual wide thoroughfares

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Here we are on Northfield Hill Street

but instead of medium sized side streets you have a collection of very small 1 way streets designed for tiny Japanese vehicles. In between those is a maze of twisty passages, all alike. The only vehicle you can get down them is a motor scooter.

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There are narrower streets than this

They are home to hundreds of small bars and restaurants. I wanted an authentic Japanese experience for lunch so I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The highlight of the afternoon was the visit to the Ikuta Shrine. It’s right in downtown Kobe and is one of the oldest in Japan, almost two thousand years old. It is dedicated to Wakahirume, younger sister of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.

Ikuta Shrine, main entrance

The sign out front said something about a 753 Pilgrimage, and their website talks about a 753 ceremony, blessing the children. That might be what this was about:

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Shinto baptismal? ceremony

There are other shrines on the grounds of the main one. This one is dedicated to Inari, a gender-neutral god of rice and good fortune. The gods messengers are kitsune, foxes, and they are often shown holding scrolls.

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Well trained fox guardian of the Inari Shrine

I ended my visit at a little gift stand run by this shrine maiden. She convinced me to buy a number of charms for luck and health and protection for children, to send to various relatives, but I drew the line at the one that ensures successful pregnancy.

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Ikuta Shrine Maiden

On the way home, I saw my first Japanese high school students in uniform. The boys were wearing very severe Navy Blue uniforms that make them look like junior versions of Admiral Yamamoto standing on the bridge of his battleship. Of course some of them are wearing them in the most slovenly way possible, with their jacket sleeves pulled up so they can show their shirt sleeves rolled up, shirt-tails out, and trousers pulled down far enough to be baggy and draggy. The girls were more Catholic school girl look than sailor suit. Knee-high socks or hose with short plaid or navy skirts and dark navy blazers. The layered look was in for women in general — high-heeled boots, long socks , leggings , hose with short skirts that could be anything from frilly to denim, topped with jacket over sweater over sweater vest. The men wore guy-stuff and suits that looked like the business suit version of the student Navy uniform.

Japan Trip Day 1

November 20, 2012

Off to Japan!

I have had two papers accepted for the SCIS-2012 Conference in Kobe. This will be the first in a series describing my trip and observations. I’ll post it as I go, using the totally inadequate keyboards of my Nexus 7 and Inspiron 10. In some places I’ll stick a placeholder for a photo to be filled in later — my phone takes 2MB pix, and I don’t intend to use up my WP allotment in one go.

As with any trip, getting there is half the fun. My plane left GEG for SFO at 5AM. To make things more fun, MJ wasn’t getting back from an AKC trip ’till 11PM. I parked the car at the airport and left it with a white towel tied to the bike rack.

The flight out was a typical 21st Century flight. TSA was no more intrusive than they usually are. SFO to KIX (Kansai International, built on an island off Osaka), was on a B-777 Dreamliner. Comfortable, with a surprising amount of leg room. Food was just like Mother used to make — when she was in a hurry and there was nothing fresh in the house.

Got in at 4PM, and it was 5PM and dark by the time I’d cleared everything. The most direct route KIX to Kobe is to take the high speed ferry, but they said I’d have to wait an hour and suggested I take the bus. I was surprised at the length of the trip — 90min — but then I realized this wasn’t just a jaunt around Osaka Bay, this was a run down the coast of the Inland Sea.

My room in the Sannomiya Terminal Hotel

My room in the Sannomiya Terminal Hotel

The hotel isn’t the con hotel, which is a big, modern, expensive place out on the port island. Sannomiya Terminal Hotel is run by Japan Rail and sits right on top of the railroad station. The room is small – think cruise ship cabin – but cheap, and convenient.

A while back I did a post on The Smell of the Country, talking about what smells hit you when you first arrived. Japan…doesn’t smell. KIX is clean, modern, antiseptic. The bus had a faint air of fresheners about it. The hotel doesn’t have the typical hotel smell, the city streets don’t smell of diesel, and there’s not as much smoking as I thought there’d be. UPDATE:Finally, a smell. My room is non-smoking, but someone who just moved in on this floor is a smoker.

The view out my hotel window is interesting, be it day

Downtown Kobe on a cool Autumn day

Downtown Kobe on a cool Autumn day

Or night

Downtown Kobe on a crisp Autumn night

Downtown Kobe on a crisp Autumn night

And if you stand across the street by the big office building, this is what the hotel looks like:

Sannomiya Terminal Hotel, Kobe

Sannomiya Terminal Hotel, Kobe

My room is in the bottom row of windows, about sixth from the left.

Picture Stories from Earth: Tohoku Earthquake

March 11, 2012

Tohoku (東北) is the name of the six prefectures that make up the northern end of Honshu, the main island of the Japanese archipelago. The name is made up of two kanji: 東 (ひがし, meaning East, and 北 (きた ki.ta), meaning North. In typical Japanese fashion, the symbols are pronounced one way when alone (kun pronunciation), and a different way (on pronunciation) in a compound word (とうほく to.u.ho.ku). Today is the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It seems a lot longer.

The land is torn
but cherry trees still bloom
in Tsutsujigaoka Park

Here is a discussion of what it’s like, living in coastal Tohoku today.

Here is a set of satellite images (before, after, and now — reading up) of the damage to the city of Nagatsura, and the Kitakami River. The city is permanently changed because of changes in the level of the land.

This is a photo-essay of the region in the immediate aftermath.

And here is a set of interactive photos, showing how the debris clearance is going.

Meanwhile, the local Toyota plant (inland, but still impacted by supplier outages), is just hitting its stride again.

In another month, there will be cherry blossoms.

Pearl Harbor Part 3

December 7, 2011

Indications And Warning (I&W) is an obscure corner of an otherwise esoteric Intelligence discipline. It specifically deals with predicting a country’s intention to go to war through observations of their preparations. It was born of the Intelligence failures of the first half of the last century — Pearl Harbor and Korea (and the Chinese intervention there). It grew of age in the second half, watching the Soviet Union and North Korea. It was then subject to a major identity crisis when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the problem became one of predicting the terrorist actions of non-state organizations. Most of that is fodder for a different post.

I want to wrap up my Pearl Harbor coverage by looking at the I&W aspects of the problem. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 2

December 6, 2011

Earlier, we talked about the Japanese decision to go to war. Actually, it was a chain of totally logical decisions (aren’t they always?):

Phase 1
1. Japan has the capability to be a major world power, but in order to be a major world power, Japan must acquire overseas colonies

2. Korea and China stand in the same relation to Japan that Africa does to Europe, so that’s where the empire building should occur

Result: Japan starts a land war in Asia September, 1931. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 1

December 5, 2011

Iguchi Takeo was the young son of a Japanese embassy functionary, living in Washington, DC, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He went on to a distinguished career of his own in the Japanese Foreign Office, serving as ambassador to several countries and teaching at universities both in Japan and the US. As a serving diplomat, Iguchi had access to the Foreign Office files concerning the days prior to Pearl Harbor, and he writes a very interesting book on the topic, titled Demystifying Pearl Harbor. This essay is based on much that is in the book, plus many of my own speculations and opinions. It’s not really a review.

As is well-known, the Japanese embassy delivered their diplomatic note breaking off negotiations well after the attack had started. The traditional explanation was that the embassy did not get the last part of the message translated in time, due to lax administrative procedures. Iguchi is not a disinterested observer, nevertheless, his new evaluation makes a compelling argument that the delay occurred on the Tokyo end, and that it was deliberate.

The general impression one gets from popular US culture on the subject is that the Japanese got up one morning and decided to conquer Asia, and what better way than to attack Hawaii? What comes out in this book is a clash of cultures between the US and Japan, and of priorities between the Japanese military and the Japanese Foreign Office (JFO). The US was woefully wrong in its estimate of Japanese reactions to US actions, while the Japanese military was manipulative and duplicitous, and the JFO was spineless. (more…)

Golden Curry Oatmeal

August 15, 2011

In honor of my 200th post, let me revisit the curried oatmeal meme. I started the oatmeal series by adding plain old curry powder to oatmeal. That didn’t work very well, because the two flavors never blended. You had the curry/onion/garlic flavor (mostly curry), and the oatmeal flavor (needs salt). Part of that might have been that I used instant oatmeal, and part of it might be that curry powder wasn’t the right approach. Adding more jam helped.

The night before this experiment, I used up some leftover pork by frying it up with onions and adding a block of Golden Curry to the mix. It needed a little more liquid to make it work, but it was OK, and it got me thinking on the curried oatmeal track again. (more…)

Moon Viewing

August 12, 2011

…is the literal translation of Tsukimi (月見). I originally thought it was also the basis for one of the character names in Kanon — Tsukimiya Ayu — but her name (月宮) translates as ‘Moon Palace‘. Moon viewing is the autumnal equvalent of the springtime Hanami ceremony, the viewing of cherry blossoms by moonlight, only there are no special floral arrangements, other than pampas grass (and no, pumpkins don’t count). The full moon is celebrated on the 15th of August (actually, this year it is full on the 13th), people wear Yukatas, and special moon-shaped foods, like dango are served. There are many varieties of dango.

Picture Stories from Earth: Tsunami Destruction

July 18, 2011

This one’s not as much fun as the first Picture Story from Earth. Google updates its imagery as new sources become available, and it runs its street view vehicles when and as it can. The street view is rarely the same day as the overhead.

In Japan, Google ran its street view cars through parts of the area destroyed by the tsunami, but not all of them. In some cases, you can look at the current overhead, and then at the same view from street level, pre-tsunami. It makes the tragedy more personal. The two photos below are from Ishinomaki, one of the harder-hit cities.

First, we have the street view, taken just after the camera car has turned a corner.

Ishinomaki Before the Tsunami.

The car is parked next to a building with a blue roof (out of the frame on the right), and the second building on the left has a false front on the roof.

Here is the same location, post-tsunami. You can see the two buildings on the left but most of the rest have been destroyed. The location is 38d 25m 09.46s N / 141d 19m 16.88s E

Ishinomaki After the Tsunami.

Of course, through the History feature, you can toggle the overhead to before and after the tsunami, but, to me, the ground view is more immediate.

12 August UPDATE:
Culture Japan has a much better set of image pairs.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the anime

February 21, 2010

Unlike previous review subjects, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an anime movie – 98 minutes instead of 300-600. The visual style is similar to Whisper of the Heart, with realistic backgrounds and real-looking people, but with a slightly lower budget. It’s a girls movie – shoujo – but there are enough boys in it to keep the shonen happy (plus the one obligatory boy’s joke, the same one they used in Windup). Interestingly, the subtitles didn’t work on my older player, but worked fine on a new one.

I liked this movie. A lot. It’s a little lighter than Whisper, and a little heavier. That statement will become clearer in the Summary section. The pacing gets a little slow in spots, but that seems to be a common feature of anime movies — I have seen very few that wouldn’t be better if they were five minutes shorter. I’d recommend this for mid-upper teens, because the younger ones might not have the attention span.

Plot Summary, with spoilers
Konno Makoto is your average HS student — not the brightest girl in the class, but not dumb, either. Hangs out with a couple of guys (Kōsuke and Chiaki), mostly playing bat-the-ball, but is not very good at social relations. Starts the movie with a really bad day. She’s late, she flunks a math quiz, she sets fire to the oil in home ec class, she gets crushed during some other students rough-housing. Later, she carries some notebooks up for storage, and has a strange episode in the physics lab, where she unknowingly picks up an object that lets her travel backwards in time. After school she heads to the museum to give her aunt some peaches, when the brakes fail on her bike and she catapults in front of a train. Or does she?

Well, no. Instead, she finds herself crashed on her bike two minutes and a hundred meters short of the crossing. After a to-be-expected period of befuddlement and experimentation, she figures out how to use a running leap to activate her new power. That’s when the fun begins (some of it due to the fact that her leaps are more controlled than her landings). She reruns the entire day – sleeping in, then getting to school early and acing the quiz, trading places in Home Ec class and letting someone else start the fire, stopping on the sidewalk and doing a backbend while the rough-housing student sails over her. Sometimes things work too well (like singing karaoke for hours while still getting home in time for dinner, but hoarse), and sometimes they don’t quite work (like trying to hook up Kōsuke with a cute girl), and require multiple dashes through time. This is the zany part of the movie, and the time travel logic will tie your head in knots.

Then things take a darker turn. Her relationship with Chiaki goes sour. The student who set the home ec fire gets ostracized and becomes mentally unstable, the student who sails over Makoto, ends up landing on the cute girl instead, and hurting her shoulder. This leads to Kōsuke borrowing Makoto’s bike, with the bad brakes, and ending up right where she did, catapulting into the path of a train, only now it’s both him and his new girlfriend.

The ending is somewhat unexpected, with a certain deus ex tempus machina feel to it. Time stops. Makoto finds out what’s happening in a long expository scene made interesting by the fact that she’s playing hide and seek with her informant amongst a frozen crowd. The situation is saved, but at tragic cost. Or not.

You see, later, she finds a way to unwish most of her wishes, manages to save all of the days, plus find her one true love, who promises to wait for her at the end of time. She promises to come running. Cut to the sky. With a cloud. The same cloud that’s been hanging around in every scene — an example of the low graphics budget or maybe that’s where time travelers live. Afterwards, we see how things work out at home.

Whisper is a somewhat saccharine, linear story, with no great drama. Girl meets annoying boy. Girl falls for annoying boy. Girl almost loses boy through no fault of her own. Girl proves herself in activities not having anything to do with boy. Girl gets boy back due to circumstances not having anything to do with her. GWLTT is different. Actions have consequences, sometimes dire. Goals clash. Attempts to fix things, don’t. People get hurt, in various ways. We find that the future doesn’t have baseball. Altogether a much more complex story, and if Miyazaki had directed it, it would be even more famous than it is. As usual with time travel stories, there are a lot of logical lose ends – like why Makoto can remember prior time, but no one else can, and who did she really see in the physics lab the first time. Of course, the woman shopping with the kid wouldn’t appreciate the memories.

As I said earlier, many anime films run longer than they should. This one does so by having three different end points. It’s like listening to the end of a Beethoven symphony — final chord…more music…final chord…more music…final… It could have ended in tragedy, at the second bicycle accident. It could have had a bittersweet ending, when the time traveler disappears, or a more fun-but-still-bittersweet ending when he disappears…again. Instead, it settles for a ‘happily ever after’ ending with some expostoriness on how things are working out. Candy-box sweet, not dark-chocolate-and-wine.

Finally, there are some interesting social vibes going on in this movie. From this, and a number of other anime, I get the impression that first dates, and boy/girl friends are a much more serious and formal endeavour in Japan than in the US. Girls, and boys, agonize over whether or not to ‘declare’ themselves to someone, and when to do so and how to do so. Friends plot behind their backs to create suitable situations. This apparently uses up a whole bunch of mental and emotional energy in MS and HS. If this is your first anime, you might not quite understand what all the to-ing and fro-ing are about.

More Tales of the Heike

July 3, 2009

The 12th Century in Japan was one of civil war and great deeds by warriors. Writers were as fascinated by the appearance of the individual warrior as we are of celebrities today. You can just hear the color commentator whispering into his ink-stone:

“Ashikaga no Matataro is attired in a coral damask undersuit, a suit of armor with dark-red lacing, and a high-horned helmet. At his waist, he is wearing a sword with gilt bronze fittings; on his back, is a quiver containing arrows fledged with black-banded white eagle feathers. He is holding a rattan-wrapped bow and riding a white-dappled reddish horse, whose saddle is edged in gold and decorated with a golden owl in an oak tree. Let’s listen while he announces his name…”

The Tale of the Heike

June 24, 2009

Reading a translation of the 12th Century Japanese epic “Tale of the Heike”, about the fall of one of the great houses. Some parts are unintentionally funny. At one point, an army of militant monks is approaching the palace to demand justice for wrongs done their members. Troops are stationed at all entry gates to defend them. The North gate has a renowned military leader, but few forces, so that’s where the monks go. They stop at the gate, and the leader’s deputy comes out.

“Look,” he says (I paraphrase), “we agree with you, but the Emperor says you can’t come in. If we let you in, we fail our Lord. If you fight your way in, against such a small force, you’ll win, but you’ll be embarrassed, and everybody will be looking at the ground. Our commander has never lost a battle, and it would be embarrassing all the way around. Why don’t you go to the East gate, where they have a force worthy of your attention.”

The monks thought a bit, and some said “You know, he’s right, there’s no glory in it. And the commander is from a good family. Besides, he not only is a good commander, he writes excellent poetry. Remember that one about the cherry trees?”

So, the monks went to the East gate, where they were defeated, abandoned their petition, and went back to their mountain, crying.