Monday, July 30, 2001

An Itchy Souvenir

From Thursday through the weekend, our family went to the mountains in Northern Yamanashi Prefecture, but I brought home a souvenir we weren't very happy with. I have red swollen insect bites all over my hands and feet--and do they itch! My daughter is in an even worse predicament: She was bitten on her ankles and thighs and is all swollen and puffy. My wife, however, came out of it all unscathed, and she says things like, "I don't have any feelings of wanting to bite at or sting anyone-that's why I wasn't bitten! Hahahahaha?"" The people who live there told us that "You might get bitten by the gnats at first, but you'll be fine once you get used to it." Since we don't stay long enough to get used to things, I guess this "souvenir" is something we can't avoid.

I'm not even sure that gnats are actually the ones that "gave" us this "souvenir." That is, I haven't actually seen them. I did go outdoors, but I was outside of the woods, and it wasn't as if I went into any thick shrubbery, so I really think it's strange. I looked it up in an encyclopedia and found that adult gnats are small--about 1-5 mm.--long, so it's possible that I was bitten by a gnat from the woods nearby without realizing it. The male gnats are particularly active in the morning and evening. They apparently bite and pierce human skin and suck the blood from the cut. But it's not as though the blood comes gushing out of the bite, so it must be an appropriately small amount that the gnat can get with its small mouth.

I think it might have been on the morning of the 29th when I was outside sketching the mountain villa we had been staying at. The garden of this villa was not completed and looked shabby so I filled it in and sketched it as I pictured it. I was just outside the entrance of the forest for about 30 minutes, so I must've been "perfect prey" for the gnats. At our home in Tokyo, we get a large number of mosquitoes in the summer and I get bitten by them a lot. My wife wrote about this in her book, Hana no Tabidachi*, but those mosquito bites go away after about a day. However, the "souvenirs" from our trip to the mountains don't just get swollen, the bites are "weepy", and, even after two days, they are still "making a strong statement". I guess I'm stronger when it comes to the mosquitoes in the city, but not when it comes to the gnats in the mountains. I've learned that I "shouldn't underestimate Nature", so, next time, I think I'll take along some insect repellent.

(*Not yet available in English)

Wednesday, July 25, 2001

A Squall of Blessings

The Tokyo area had a real rain storm today, the first in a while. For a month beginning June 22nd, we'd only had 2% of our annual average. I heard the rumbling sounds of thunder somewhere in the distance as I was sitting in my office at Seicho-No-Ie Headquarters working at my computer. I didn't expect much to happen since the same thing had happened the day before and it had only rained a little. But, I remembered my wife, who had been listening to the weather report, say, "It's supposed to rain today." The sound of the thunder got closer and closer and soon became so loud that it could've startled anyone out of a drowsy afternoon in the intense heat of the season. Eventually, huge droplets of rain began to fall.

Some crows, seeking refuge from the rain, flew from the building. Passersby began to run and the grayish asphalt ground became darker. Knowing that I'd get wet, I leaned out of the open window, and, from the garden spread out below, came the smell of the soil--the earth. "This is the smell," I thought. I hadn't smelled this in a while. There was a certain dusty smell mixed into it at first, but, as the ground turned from a yellowish gold, to a dark earthy tone, it became the rich, moist smell of the rain drenched earth. The sound of the rain against the trunks of the cherry and camphor trees right in front of me resounded pleasantly, much like the sound of a running river. It was drowned out at times by the sharp explosive sound of the thunder. The thunder is sometimes far in the distance, and at other times gives a deafening roar from somewhere surprisingly nearby. This squall went on for about an hour and a half.

The day before, on the 24th, we had a record breaking high of 38.1 degrees Centigrade (100.5 degrees Fahrenheit) in Tokyo and 40.0 degrees Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in Maebashi City. One of the reasons for this was the lack of rain, but I'd like to hope that it'll cool down a bit with this rain. The day before that, on the 23rd, negotiators from 180 countries, including Japan, reached a compromise agreement to salvage the Kyoto Pact, clearing the way for the first treaty to combat global warming. The U.S., by refusing to join the effort, was the only major country to remain "outside the circle", but, for now, we can only begin with those who are in agreement. We can't waste any more time.

The U.S. rejected the Kyoto Protocol as harmful to U.S. business. It may be that, in the short term, global warming does, indeed, contribute to economic development. According to today's Asahi Shimbun, department and convenience store sales, power companies and gas stations are reportedly doing brisk business. This is, however, simply like people who have been "tortured" spending money to protect themselves. Some time ago, people argued that "wars help the economy", but we all know that a world without wars or torture is far superior and desirable to one with.

- MT

Thursday, July 19, 2001

A.I. and Global Warming

On my day off, my wife and I went to see the movie, "A.I." Since it was a movie by Steven Spielberg, I thought it was going to be something deep and new, but, unfortunately, I was very disappointed. Unlike "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.", which had those intense, thought provoking scenes, the plot was very affected and strained, and, as a result, was not very realistic. One thing, though, that does stand out in my mind, was the scene in which the main character, the robotic boy, enters "Manhattan", an area where only humans are allowed, on a spacecraft. Because the movie is supposedly set in the not-too-distant future, I thought we'd see a New York not much different than we know it now, with its skyscrapers and all. However, what we did see come slowly in from the horizon was a post-apocalyptic world. It was, indeed, the high-rise buildings, outlined like geometric cutouts, but most of them were submerged below sea level. In other words, because of global warming melting the earth's ice caps, water had covered most of the earth. This is the world dealt with in this movie.

Presently, the discussions between various countries to salvage the Kyoto Protocol, which deals with global warming, are in an extremely critical situation. If these discussions break down, and mankind does not protect itself against global warming, a submerged New York City becomes less of an unreality. If something like this happens to New York, then it only follows that Hong Kong, New Delhi, Sydney and Tokyo would also be in danger. Not even learning from this situation, we see in scene after scene as this movie develops, that mankind proceeds to use "mechas" (robots/mechanicals) as servants or slaves, uses them for their own pleasure and even revels in watching their demise or destruction. It depressed me somewhat to think that Spielberg is so pessimistic about mankind and the future. Is it that mankind can do nothing but stand idly by and watch New York and Tokyo submerge underwater? I still think that, while these rounds of negotiations may fail, and global warming may well progress even more, mankind will learn and realize that we need to control our own desires, thereby leaving much room for hope of successful implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.

After seeing this movie, I was reminded of "Astro Boy", the cartoon character by Osamu Tezuka. I think the heartfelt exchange between humans and robots was depicted quite naturally here, despite the fact that Astro Boy and the other robots weren't made to look exactly like humans. However, in "A.I." this type of relationship is shown as being very difficult. This is particularly true with the main character of the movie, the young boy robot. Although he was made so human-like as to fool even the experts, this made his human "mother" extremely uncomfortable at the beginning. She next becomes very fascinated by him, and finally must sobbingly give him up. Although the young boy robot is programmed to love his "mother" forever, it takes 2000 years for that love to manifest itself, and, even then, it lasts for only one day. Could it be that on one hand, to Mr. Tezuka, there is no significant line between "things" and "people", while Mr. Spielberg believes that the gap between the two is so very great?

- MT

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Boxed Lunches with California Rice

According to this evening's paper, boxed lunches packed with American-grown rice went on sale today at 26 JR stations throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area. A subsidiary of JR East Group, Nippon Restaurant Enterprise Co., imports the "frozen boxed lunches" which use the California-grown organic rice, "Akita Komachi". Some years ago, when rice crops in Japan suffered due to a particularly cool summer, the government immediately imported rice from other countries. I took advantage of the "importing by individuals is tax free" situation and served as an intermediary for those who wanted California or Thai-grown rice. There are those who probably wonder why a religious leader would do something like this, but it was because I wanted the members of Seicho-No-Ie, at the very least, who were of the "Anything other than Japanese rice just isn't rice" mentality to free themselves of that "A frog in a well does not know the great ocean" mentality. Compared to those days, it seems as though we are in an entirely different world.

When I was in Chiba Prefecture the other day, I went to an American wholesale store and noticed that Thai Jasmine rice was being sold at less than half the price of domestic-grown rice. This was imported by a first class domestic rice wholesaler. This fragrant rice is a long grain variety that has a distinct fragrance, and, even when cooked, is non-sticky. As such, it doesn't go very well with Japanese foods, but it does, however, go quite well with curry or as a pilaf. Basmati rice grown in India is another high grade of rice which is now being sold in import markets throughout the country. I mentioned "Wild Rice" in another journal entry, but this is still very expensive in Japan. While it is of the same rice family, it is different than the Makomo variety, and the taste and texture are also quite different, so I don't think we need to expect any competition with this and rice grown in Japan.

I'm grateful that we in Japan can partake in many different varieties of rice, but I don't think that because of this Japanese will stop eating domestic-grown rice. Incidentally, at our house, we buy pesticide-free rice (3300-3800 yen/5 kg) and usually only have Jasmine or Wild Rice about once a week. The reason we buy the pesticide-free rice is because pesticides are a concern when it comes to something we eat daily and, although it might be a little more expensive, it's a small price to pay for our health. And I'd like to support the efforts of those who grow things free of pesticides. According to the newspaper, Japanese rice growers are protesting the importing of these boxed lunches, but the Japanese people know how delicious domestic-grown rice is, so I don't think the frozen boxed lunches will take over the country. It may catch on within the ranks of the younger generation, but I'd like to think we can forgive and be a little more broadminded when it comes to things like this. I also think that, if we are to be culturally diverse, it's good to eat a special rice from another country every 10 days or so?

- MT

Thursday, July 12, 2001

Choosing a Chair

On my day off, my wife, daughter and I went to a furniture store in Odaiba (Tokyo) to look for chairs for our dining room. In the showroom which prides itself on being "#1 in the World" as far as square footage, there was American, European, Japanese and antique type furniture in a variety of colors, designs and fabrics, attractively displayed. While we were looking around, I was delighted to note that each chair had its own style and characteristic. Although one may think of a chair as an inanimate object, it's interesting to see how the craftsman's idea of how a chair should support the person who sits on it is reflected in the style, fabric/material, and the durability, delicacy and softness of the piece. Each also shows the culture and characteristics of a nation. For example, American sofas are soft and roomy, while the cushions on European sofas, particularly those made in Germany, are firm, and those who sit on them can function effectively.

Our selection of dining room chairs was finally narrowed down to two. I have a tendency to put functionality before design, and that does, at times, conflict with my wife who focuses more on the design. But, the first and foremost function of a chair is only "to seat" and the question of how comfortable it is becomes a problem for only the 30 minutes to an hour it takes for a meal. If I think of it in those terms, I didn't think it would be a problem to choose a chair based primarily on design. Comparing the two based on their design, our three opinions matched perfectly.

The backrest of the chair we selected was delicately curved, but, when we sat in it, it supported us firmly, and the armrest was curved naturally. It might be nice to use it, not only to sit in, but also to place a vase full of beautiful flowers on it. All this, and, at the same time, it was a little less expensive than the other chair we had considered.

I thought about this process after we made our selection. We make so much out of simply choosing something that will hold/support our bodies during meals. We aren't satisfied with nature's own materials, but have to stretch things to the absolute limit in order to create something that suits our image. And there are those who walk around looking and searching for these things. This mentality has shaped our culture, but, at the same time, has led to the endangerment of Nature itself. Are we (and am I) a friend of nature, or, in actuality, an enemy?

- MT

Friday, July 06, 2001

Being Cognizant of History

While there are clamorous discussions and debates surrounding the history textbooks used in middle schools throughout Japan, it seems that the problem of citizens not understanding their country's history is not a phenomenon unique only to Japan. According to a survey published to celebrate the 225th July 4th Independence Day, more than 1/5 of American teenagers asked didn't know which country the U.S. declared independence from, including 14% who thought it was France. My 16-year-old old daughter was amazed to hear this. I wonder what the figures would be if Japanese teenagers were given the same survey?

The fact that, following World War II, the Japanese have lived their lives following the United States is undeniable. This may be for security reasons, but, even so, it's unbelievable that an important fact such as this that happened 220-some-odd years ago, could be so incorrectly answered. If we were to compare it to Japanese history, perhaps it would be like saying that the Muromachi Shogunate perished with the Meiji Restoration.

Ignorance about the history of your own country is serious, but being ignorant about neighboring countries may give rise to other problems. There was an article in today's International Herald Tribune--The Asahi Shimbun about how little Americans actually know about Canada. For example, although students studying political science at a college in Boston were asked, "There are discussions about whether or not Canada should become a part of North America. What do you think?", they answered, "I don't know." And, when asked, "Should the killing of polar bears be outlawed in Toronto?", they answered, "Of course, it should definitely be outlawed." (You know what the correct answer is, right?) However, what would happen if we were to ask Japanese people about South Korea or China? "What did South Korea do during the Viet Nam War?" "Who fought against Japan during World War II? Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse-tung, or Sun Yat-sen?" "Who is the most popular singer in South Korea?"

In other words, even in a day and age when globalization has come this far, very few people know much about countries other than their own. People who concern themselves about the history of other countries are even fewer in number. This can easily give rise to discrimination and misunderstandings. There is a need to know the history of your own country, and, at the same time, try to study the history of other countries as well.

- MT

Sunday, July 01, 2001

The Death of the Mother Cat

I wrote about the cat and kiwi incident in my June 27th column, but it seems that the pregnant cat referred to in that entry has had her litter. I say "seems" because I haven't actually seen the newborn kittens.

The other day, before leaving for an Seicho-No-Ie Public Lecture meeting in Hokkaido, I stepped out onto the wooden deck outside of our living room and saw the Mother Cat quietly drinking some water. I noticed then that her stomach, which had once been so swollen that it touched the ground, was now small and back to its normal size. However, I also saw that she had a large red something protruding from her birth canal. My wife was actually the first one to notice this and shouted for me to come. Since I've never been through childbirth myself, I'm not sure, but she must have known instinctively that something was very wrong. The Mother Cat, while drinking the water, would lift its head up at times and look far into the distance, but it didn't appear to be suffering or in any pain.

Returning from the seminar, my wife told me that they'd found the Mother Cat dead by the well near the side of the pond. The first thing I thought about were the kittens. I even wondered whether all the kittens had actually been born. In the "Human World", if the mother dies, it's only natural that the father tries his best to bring up the children. But, in the "Cat World", the male cat is far from being a "father." He simply impregnates the female and takes no further responsibility for anything. He doesn't even come to see the newborns. This particular male cat may not even be anywhere near the house anymore.

The Mother Cat has had two litters within a four-month period. Cats usually have about five kittens per litter. Of the ones born in April, two have grown and are running around our yard. However, they aren't "full adults" yet, and still this Mother Cat had another litter. According to some books, female cats go into heat twice a year, once between January and March and again between May and June, with pregnancy lasting anywhere from 63-65 days. So, in other words, this Mother Cat looked after her first litter for about a month after giving birth in April, and became pregnant with her next litter at the beginning of May.

On the morning of the second, my daughter heard what she thought was the sound of kittens crying. The weak mewing was coming from somewhere beneath the floor of the "Western Style Room" of a vacant house next to ours. Cutting away at the weeds, we peered inside, but, although we could hear them crying, we didn't see anything. There was a rather wide opening in a squarish vent under the floor. This was probably how the Mother Cat went underneath the floor and had her kittens. The average cat usually has 4-six kittens per litter, but, after we pulled up the flooring, we saw that, this time, she had given birth to seven. It's all too horrible if this was the cause of her death. I wanted to go and find the male cat and bring him here. "These are your children. Take care of them!"

- MT