Almost No Crime

Ask any foreigner who has been living in Japan for a few months what is his/her impression of the country, and most likely the first answer will be: safe.

Japan is a very safe place. According to latest figures it is also getting safer. Only one gun murder in 2015. Only 0.3 homicides per 100,000 people (US: 4; Russia: 10). Robberies are almost unheard of. I regularly leave my bag, phone, wallet, etc. in public places (coffee shops, trains) for a short while, not giving it a second thought.

20170520_ASC643_0.png

Does this mean less policing? No. Japan has one of the highest ratios of police per capita. The Economist published an article this week about the inventive ways Japanese police find things to do, because they are bored out of their minds most of the time. Here are some examples:

 

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Trumpet Safety

Japan is one of the safest places on the planet, which is another reason it is the closet place to paradise.

In a recent report by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks in the 4th place, but that is mostly because it is a country prone to natural disasters. Ask any tourist in Japan what they like most about Japan and many of them will say safety.

Safety is ingrained in the culture here, sometimes to what may seem a ridiculous level. Here is a recent example. This 15-second ad, from a soft drinks company, has been pulled off the air after numerous complaints from viewers. Can you guess what the complaints were about?

Check out what happens at 0:08. The trumpet player on the rooftop is surprised by her friends, who rush up and bump into her. For many viewers, this behaviour is considered to be very unsafe. Tragedy is narrowly averted. Her teeth could have been slammed against the trumpet and broken. Or she could have dropped and damaged the trumpet. Or, worst case scenario, she could have tumbled over that fence (reaching to her chest, mind you) and plunged to her death.

We are Japanese; we cannot tolerate such reckless behaviour! Safety first!

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Pointing and Calling

Japan’s rail system is known worldwide for being efficient and punctual, probably the best transportation system on the planet.

Visitors to Japan are sometimes baffled by rail staff standing on the platform and pointing with their fingers in various directions, gestures that are sometimes accompanied also by shouting.

Here’s an example:

This seemingly mysterious ritual is there for a reason. Japan invented a system called shisa kanko (“pointing and calling”) which has been proven to reduce errors by up to 85%. This started more than a century ago, with train drivers calling out signal status, and was later expanded to include all rail staff. Even the Shinkansen (bullet train) cleaning staff – known for the 7-minute miracle – use this system.

Apparently, the physical movement and the vocalization of the task help in raising the worker’s focus and consciousness about the task at hand, thus reducing the possibility of making mistakes

This system is unique to Japan, where the culture permits workers to behave like this in public without feeling self-conscious or silly and without being laughed at by others. I am not aware of other countries where such a system would work (a limited version of it is supposedly used by New York’s subway drivers).

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

 

Lost Property

What happens when you lose something in Japan? Say you drop your wallet, or forget your laptop, or neglect to take the cash from the ATM. In most cases, you get it back.

What you do is call the place you misplaced or lost the item. Chances are someone found it and turned it over to the police. You go to the police station, fill out a report, prove the item is yours – and you get it back. If the item has not been found, you still file the report and wait. In most cases it will be found and handed to the police within a few days.

Yes, that includes lost cash. You don’t believe me? Read this recent article from the Japan Times. Granted, sometimes the bureaucracy of proving the item is yours can be a little irritating, but you do get your property back at the end of the day.

A few personal experiences. Many years ago, my son left his favorite baseball cap in a taxi in Tokyo. We called the taxi company, they located the driver, and he drove to our home and handed us the cap. Around the same time I forgot my coat on the subway. The station called the last station of the line and the coat was put on a train heading back to where I was waiting. A couple of years ago I forgot my mobile phone on the Shinkansen (bullet train). A colleague called Japan Railways, the phone was located at the end stop, hundreds of miles away, and was hand-delivered to my home a couple of days later for a fee of $5.

This works because most Japanese are honest. It also works because there is a reward for those who return property, and the owner must pay out that reward. In most cases the finder declines the reward.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

 

Amona – Something Positive

I have not written much about Amona, the West Bank outpost that was evacuated this week after being proclaimed illegal by the High Court of Justice. The reason is that there isn’t much to add to what has already been written and discussed ad nauseam about this topic.

At the end of the day it’s a simple open-and-shut case that should have been behind us years ago, were it not for a small but loud minority of settlers delaying the process through the right-wing government they hold hostage. Any other person in Israel building illegally on land owned by another person would have swiftly felt the full force of the law falling on his head, but as we know too well, settlers in the West Bank enjoy extra legem privileges not available to ordinary Israelis.

There is however one positive aspect to the sordid affair of Amona. The vast majority of the Israeli public expressed utter indifference to the plight of these law-breaking settlers. A long and very visible struggle against the evacuation, tireless efforts by senior government ministers (including the Prime Minister) to overturn the evacuation order, desperate calls by rabbis and leaders of the settlement movement for the masses to come to Amona and oppose the evacuation – were all met by a collective apathetic shrug. A bunch of bored young hooligans did turn up to occupy the local synagogue and delay the evacuation process, but that was it.

And this is a huge positive. The settlers have proven, once again, what is a well-known but little-spoken-of fact: the Israeli public does not have their back. In the famous words of one of their rabbis many years ago, they may have settled the land but they have failed to settle in the hearts of Israelis. And this is positive because when the day comes that many of the settlements will need to be evacuated, the settlers will not find sympathy in their fellow nationals. They will realize that their decades-long hijacking of Israel’s future in the name of a messianic ideology will end up in the ash heap of history.

VaEra – Weekly Remembrance

לכן אמר לבני ישראל אני ה’, והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלת מצרים, והצלתי אתכם מעבדתם וגאלתי אתכם בזרוע נטויה ובשפטים גדלים. ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם, והייתי לכם לאלהים, וידעתם כי אני ה’ אלהיכם המוציא אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים. (שמות ו, ו-ז)

Jews have a mitsva to remember the time our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt and how God liberated them and brought them to Israel. Every year in Passover, we recite the words from the Mishna: “In each generation, every person is obligated to see oneself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt” (Pesachim 10, 5). We do this in various ways – in our daily prayers, during the festival of Passover – but we also do this every week, perhaps unconsciously.

In this week’s parasha God makes his promise to deliver the Jews out of Egypt using the famous four words of redemption, highlighted in the following passage:

So I say to the children of Israel: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Shemot 6, 6-7)

There are many interpretations of these words of redemption, but one of them provides an interesting comparison with other four words mentioned in the beginning of Shemot. The Slonimer Rebbe (the “Netivot Shalom”) says that when the people of Israel passed from slavery to freedom they uttered four deep sighs that came from their sufferings in Egypt. He identifies these”four words of sighing” in the Torah, again highlighted below:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot 2, 23-24)

These four utterances of sighing, says the Slonimer Rabbe, came from the depth of their heart, not as a prayer but as a sigh. They symbolize the four types of sufferings that they endured in Egypt, those of the body, the soul, the spirit and the neshama. By uttering these sighs, the people of Israel released themselves from these sufferings and thus became prepared for redemption.

The interesting point is that the Slonimer Rebbe says these things in his essay about the Shabbat, explaining how a Jew prepares himself for the start of the Shabbat on Friday afternoon. During the week we undergo various sufferings – of the body, the soul, the spirit and the neshama; but as we approach Shabbat we utter sighs and thus purge them from us, preparing ourselves to enter the holy day devoid of sufferings.

By drawing this comparison we are able not only enter Shabbat peacefully, but at the same time remember the four original sighs and the four words of redemption, thus fulfilling the mitsva of remembering our redemption from Egypt.

Silence, by Shusako Endo

Earlier this week I read the novel “Silence”, by Shusako Endo, and yesterday I watched the eponymous newly-released movie based on this novel.

Endo’s 1966 novel tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, who travels to Japan together with a fellow priest, to find out what happened to their mentor, Father Ferreira, with whom the church had lost contact. This is 17th century Japan, when Christianity is outlawed and Christians are being persecuted by the ruling Shogunate.

Guided by a drunkard and unreliable Japanese Christian, Rodrigues and his partner land on an island off the coast of Kyushu and find refuge in a remote village of hidden Japanese Christians. They witness the hardships these peasants need to endure, suffering torture and death and yet refusing to renounce their faith and apostatize. The Jesuit priests flee from the authorities but are eventually captured and tortured by the local inquisitor. Rodrigues meets Ferreira and finds out what happened to him.

“Silence” here refers to the silence of God. Rodrigues’ faith is tested when he witnesses, again and again, the unbelievable sufferings of these humble Japanese peasants. He cries out for God to intervene but is answered with silence. This silence shakes him to the core and leads to internal struggles and to interesting theological exchanges with his Japanese inquisitors.

The novel is very engaging and the movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a faithful representation of the novel. At almost 3 hours long, and given its content, it is not an easy movie to watch. But reading the novel first helped, because knowing the story ahead of time allowed me to focus on the acting and the filmography. At times I felt as if I was watching a painting rather than a movie.

Earlier this month I visited Kyushu for the first time, and witnessed firsthand the Christian legacy in Japan. I was introduced to this painful time in history through the memorial for the 26 martyrs on Nishizaka hill in Nagasaki, and the artifacts from the Shimabara Rebellion at the local castle (an event which triggered the brutal repression of Japanese Christians depicted in the novel). Endo’s book and Scorsese’s movie both resonated strongly with me after this visit.

Restored Sumo Glory

The big news in Japan today is the promotion of sumo wrestler Kisenosato to Yokozuna, the highest rank in the sport.

kisenosato

Why is this big news? Because Kisenosato is the first Japanese to be awarded this rank in 19 years (the last one was Wakanohana, in 1998). This many sound strange to some, as sumo is a uniquely Japanese sport, but in the past couple of decades foreign wrestlers have dominated the sport. The first foreigner to attain the coveted Yokozuna rank was Akebono, back in 1993. But he was an American-born Japanese from Hawaii, so that was not considered a big disruption.

The real shock came in 1999, when another Hawaiian claimed the title: Musashimaru. He was born in American Samoa and had no Japanese background. Following him, it looked like sumo had become a Mongolian sport, as no less than four Mongolians took the top spot one after the other: Asashoryu, Hakuo, Harumafuji and Kakuryu. The last three are still active.

This is why many Japanese, especially the older generation, are elated by today’s news. For some it seemed like sumo was going down the route of many other Japanese traditions, losing its uniqueness. For many, Kisenosato is a symbol or restored Japanese sumo glory.

By the way, the sumo wrestlers’ names are not their real names. They adopt a “wresting name”, often given to them by their trainers. Kisenosato’s birth name is Yutaka Hagiwara.

Oversized Garbage

I took these photos on one of my morning walks in Kobe last week:

In Japan, garbage that doesn’t fit into the standard 45-liter garbage bags is defined as oversized garbage (sodai gomi).

In most places, to dispose of this garbage you need to call a special number and get a specific pick-up date. In busy times, such as after the new-year cleaning, there can be a 2-3 weeks wait… After the date is fixed, you need to go to a government office or an authorized shop (usually a convenience store) and buy a sticker in the amount appropriate for the garbage you are throwing away. In the photos above, the disposal cost for the piece of furniture is 900 Yen (about $7.5) and for the suitcase 300 Yen (about $2.5). The sticker goes on the garbage, which is taken out on the morning of the appointed date (and not earlier).

Now, while this may seem a little burdensome (and it is), the end result has two main benefits: the streets are free of garbage people just throw away, and most of this garbage gets recycled.

An interesting twist to this policy is that nowadays most prefectures do not allow people to simply take this garbage from the street if they like it, unless they get permission from the person who threw it away. Rest assured that the one of the ever-watchful old ladies of the neighborhood will catch you trying and reprimand you. In the bubble days of the 1980s this policy did not exist, and many people furnished their houses by picking up sodai gomi furniture and appliances from the street…

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Kyushu Trip, Days 4&5 – Beppu & Yufuin

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

On day 4 I crossed the Kyushu island to the eastern side, to visit the hot springs areas of Beppu and Yufuin. Most of the rest of the trip, days 4 and 5, I spent immersed in hot onsen waters 🙂

Suizenji Garden

Before leaving Kumamoto, I took a morning stroll through Suizenji Garden. This oasis of calm in the middle of the city is a medium-sized Japanese landscape garden built in the 17th century by the Hosokawa family, the samurai who ruled Kumamoto at the time.

The route through the garden is a circular one. The features of the garden re-enact milestones on the Tokaido road, the road between Japan’s two historic capitals: Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). This includes a mini Mount Fuji. Inside the garden is Izumi Shrine. This being the 4th of January, the first working day of the year in Japan, there were many groups of Japanese employees at the shrine. Traditional Japanese companies take their employees this week to shrines at the beginning of the year, to get a blessing for a successful business year.

Although Suizenji is not Japan’s most impressive garden (Konrokuen in Kanazawa comes to mind as a leading contender), it is definitely worth a visit. Admission is 400 Yen, and a leisurely stroll through the garden takes less than 1 hour.

 

From Kumamoto I headed eastwards to the other side of Kyushu island. I wanted to take the direct, and slower route, through the center of the island and Mount Aso, but the trains in that area are still not operating due to last year’s earthquake. So I took the Shinkansen to Kokura, and then the Sonic train down to Beppu.

Upon arriving in Beppu, I left my luggage at the train station and headed straight to hell.

Beppu “Hells”

Well, not literally hell, but rather “the Hells”, or Jigoku in Japanese. These are hot springs for viewing, not for soaking in. There are two groups of Hells: 5 in Kannawa and 2 in Shibaseki. I took a bus (no. 5) to the Kannawa district and visited all 5 Hells there. Admission is 400 Yen per Hell, or 2,000 Yen for a combo ticket to all 7.

The Hells (and much of Beppu and Yufuin, as I found out later) are very touristy. There are more shops and food stalls than actual Hells… But the natural phenomena are quite impressive to watch. Some are natural mud pools that constantly bubble; others are big ponds of boiling water, some blue some white; others are huge steam clouds billowing up from the ground. The air is permeated with a strong smell of sulfur. One of the Hells features statues of demons, presiding over the boiling ponds of water. Another is a small zoo, with an impressive collection of crocodiles.

With the bus ride there and back, a visit to the Hells takes 2-3 hours.

 

Takegawara Onsen

Back in Beppu city I checked into my hotel and then headed straight for the nearest onsen: Takegawara. This is one of the oldest onsens in the area, built in 1879, and it looks the part. I guess it’s kept this way in order to provide an authentic experience of the past. The attraction at this onsen is the sand bath. You lie down in dark sand and a lady uses a shovel to cover you in sand. It’s heavy, it’s hot, and frankly, it’s somewhat claustrophobic. I can now understand people who have a fear of being buried alive… After a few minutes, and some self-relaxing mind exercises, one can actually start to enjoy the experiend. Maybe. It’s all over in 10 minutes, after which you spend a while washing all the sand off and heading to the actual hot spring for a long soak.

If you go to any onsen in Beppu, don’t forget to bring a towel with you. Many of them do not supply towels, or do so for a fee.

img_8377

Takegawara Onsen in Beppu

 

Yufuin

On day 5 I headed westwards to Yufuin, another famous hot spring town. The ride there by bus (no. 36) from Beppu station takes 50 minutes, along a winding road up and down a mountain. But it’s well worth the ride, because Yufuin is a real gem.

Unlike Beppu, which has a rundown look to it, Yufuin is much better looking. Yes, it’s very touristy (it seemed like the town was invaded by Koreans overnight, as I saw thousands of them roaming the streets), but it’s not too “pushy-touristy”. It’s a very quaint town, with many shops offering local foods and products. In some parts it looks like a place out of a fairy tale, with small, immaculate houses and small museums. A leisurely walk from the train station westwards through the main street takes about 30-40 minutes, depending on how many shops you stop at to take a look.

 

And then of course, there’s the onsens. I soaked in two of them.

The first was Nurukawa Onsen. Here I decided to take a private bath. They have a big public and a few small private ones, which you can book for 1 hour (cost about 2,000 Yen). I bathed in the Sakura onsen, and almost fell asleep as it was so quiet and peaceful. The second was very different: Shitanyu Onsen. This is a basic, small public bath under a thatched roof, with two small pools (indoor and partially outdoor). Nobody’s there, so you put 200 Yen in a box at the entrance and go in. Apparently this is a mixed-bath, one of the few left in Japan.

 

At the end of the road in Yufuin is a pond-sized lake called Kinrin Lake. It’s very scenic, with a small shrine on the south shore, complete with a small Torii gate in the water. It is a fitting end to a visit to this serene town.

Back to Beppu I bid Kyushu goodbye by taking the bus to Oita Airport and catching a flight back to Osaka. Kyushu certainly is a place I intend to visit again when I get a chance.