Saturday, February 16, 2002

"Gold, Silver, Bronze" and "Pine, Bamboo, Plum"

For the first time in the history of the Olympics, a final decision in the awarding of medals was overturned at the Figure Skating competition of the Winter Olympics being held in Salt Lake City. Because there were some serious controversies regarding the Gold Medal which was awarded to the Russian pair, it was decided that the Canadian pair, who had been previously awarded the Silver Medal, would share the Olympic gold with the Russians. In other words, there are two gold medals and no silver. In the initial decision, out of the nine judges, five, Russia, China, Ukraine, Poland and France, placed the Russian skaters in first place, and four, Canada, U.S., Germany and Japan, placed the Canadian skaters first. Controversy arose from the actions of the French judge. Looking at the judging, there appears to be a "pattern/scheme", with the former Eastern Powers voting for Russia and the former Western Powers choosing Canada. Moreover, it's somewhat like the Aesop fable, "The Bat, the Birds, and the Beasts", with France, which, during the Cold War, emphasized its relationship with the Eastern Powers.

The true spirit of the Olympics is actually devoid of political relationships, emphasizing only true ability. However, in many instances, it may be that this very spirit is all too often clouded over. Incidentally, dividing the medals into gold, silver and bronze, based on socio-economic value, clearly defines ranking. Gold is better than silver, silver is better than bronze, and bronze is better than 4th place--This is the thinking behind it all, and, no matter how narrow the margin is between first and second, there is a clear distinction of which is superior. That's probably why, in the 500 meter speed skating, Hiroyasu Shimizu, whose time was only 3/100th's off of the person who came in first, looked so very disappointed. We in Japan also focused on the "gold" and "silver" more than the difference of "3/100th's." The headlines in the papers was "Shimizu--Silver""

In Japan, however, there seems to be some resistance against such clear, cut-and-dried, definition of rank. I think that's when the categories "pine, bamboo, plum" are used. Isn't there a "kind sense of caring" in the names "pine, bamboo, plum"? It's like saying, "First, second third all have good points, everyone tried their best, let's not put clear ranking labels on everyone." I'm in Kyoto today for a Seicho-No-Ie Grand Lecture, and that's exactly what Takamasa Kusakada, a writer for the Kyoto Shimbun local news desk wrote.

According to this article, in sushi restaurants, one of the terms "pine, bamboo, plum" is used to name the types of sushi, from the most to the least expensive. The President of The Association of National Sushi Guild for Sanitation in Tokyo says that, around 1952, these terms replaced the "jyou (best), chu (medium), nami (ordinary)" that had been used previously. There was too much of a distinction in the terms "jyou, chu, nami"--so much so that one ordering "nami" might be embarrassed and say apologetically, "Uh, excuse me, I'd like an order of the "ordinary" sushi, please." So that's when they began using "pine, bamboo, plum" which are considered lucky. These "rankings", however, are not used consistently throughout the nation. The finest Japanese meal in a restaurant in Higashiyama Ward of Kyoto City that specializes in Kyoto cuisine is called "plum."

The idea that the terms "pine, bamboo, plum" are propitious apparently came from China. The reason for this is that none of these three plants die even in the coldest of winters. "Pine" is a must when it comes to New Year decorations. "Bamboo" remains a luscious green even in the thick of winter and is also used for New Year decorations. In order to retain that luscious green, they just redid the entire old bamboo fence in my father's yard next door. But, in contrast to the pine and bamboo which do not flower in the winter, the plum tree blossoms brilliantly and fully in the cold wind. So, it's not at all surprising that the plum be considered the best amongst the three. In other words, it's really difficult to distinguish these three plants in ranking.

The mislabeling of the place of origin of beef has surfaced recently and become quite an issue. This type of falsifying information on items sold for consumer consumption is a very serious matter. If they're going to write a bunch of lies on the food, it's better not to write anything at all. How about throwing away the "Japanese beef", "Made in the U.S"", or "Made in Australia" labels, and just use "Pine", "Bamboo" and "Plum"? No matter where the cow is from, its life is valuable and precious. The problem is that humans go around and, arbitrarily and willfully and put labels on things, calling them superior or inferior. From that perspective, it does seem that the Olympics are a very "human" event.

- MT

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