Sunday, December 25, 2011

Santa Samurai - Merry Christmas and Happy Seppuku!

Santa Samurai wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy Seppuku! May you find the heads of your enemies gathered underneath your Christmas Bonsai Tree!

With my Candy Cane Katana I deal sweet pepperminty death to my unsavory foes

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering The Great War - WWI (Veterans' Day/Armistice Day)

Remembering the ‘Great War’ 
Nov. 11 marks 90th anniversary of WWI’s end

Trench warfare – static and deadly – became the norm for most of World War I
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”
Wilfred Owen – died 1918
Ninety years ago at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the great guns fell silent and Europe experienced a silence it had not known in years. It was the end of the “Great War,” the War to end all Wars. Today, we know that was a hopeful but futile sentiment as the War to end all Wars is now known as World War I.
Two bullets and a lost driver set off a powder keg whose explosion engulfed Europe. In the summer of 1914, a driver made a wrong turn and ended up in the path of a young assassin who had actually given up trying find his intended target and was just finishing off a sandwich. The young assassin was a Serbian belonging to a radical group known as the Black Hand. Their target was the Arch-Duke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who was touring Sarajevo. They had tried earlier that day to assassinate him but failed. Now Fate through the hands of a lost driver delivered the Arch-Duke into one of the assassin’s hands who took full advantage of his good luck and fired his pistol killing Ferdinand.
The assassination caused the collapse of the house of cards that were the national alliances of the day. Austria-Hungary with German support declared war on Serbia. Russia was allied with Serbia so they entered the war. France was allied with Russia and so they entered the war. Germany in order to swiftly attack France violated Belgium’s borders by crossing it with their troops. Britain had an alliance with Belgium and so they entered the war. Eventually other nations would enter the war as well including the United States.
World War I in many ways was the “War to end all Wars” in that it was every war past and future rolled up into one. There were Napoleonic charges, aerial bombardment, a few misguided cavalry charges with actual horses, tanks, machine guns, artillery barrages, air combat, poison gas attacks, flamethrowers, submarine warfare, and primitive hand-to-hand fighting that came down to knives, sharpened spades, and clubs. The future met the past in a brutal collision.

Soldiers dehumanized by their gas masks
While fighting took place in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Russia, and the borders of Italy and Austria, the bulk of the fighting took place in the area known as the Western Front. The Western Front was a long series of extensive trenches between France and Germany stretching into Belgium where most of the intensive fighting of the war took place. So many men died in such a concentrated place.
While WWII has a far higher casualty rate, this was widespread throughout the globe. The majority of WWI casualties, however, occurred along the several hundred kilometers of the Western Front from the North Sea to the Swiss border. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British lost over 50,000 dead and wounded in the space of a few kilometers.

Stretcher-bearers trudge through the mud with a wounded victim
The trenches were hell on earth – mud, water, snipers, artillery barrages, barbed wire, machine gun fire, and the rotting corpses of those who fell in No-Man’s Land, the deadly area between the opposing armies’ trenches. Plus there was rampant disease, lice, and rats grown fat from feeding off of corpses.
“In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.”
Siegfried Sassoon – 1918
The Second World War often gets more attention in the popular imagination. Countless movies, books, comic books, documentaries, TV shows, magazines and so on focus on the many aspects of the war. Battles, generals, strategies, policies, ideologies get constantly battered about from academic circles to office water coolers. It’s a subject many have some knowledge of whereas World War I only brings to mind to some (particularly Americans) the Red Baron, the imaginary nemesis of the Peanut’s comic strip character, Snoopy.

Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron – Germany’s Flying Ace
And there’s a good reason for that. With World War II there was a clear reason to fight. For the Allies, it was to defeat the conquering Nazis and Imperialist Japanese. For the Germans, it was to revenge their humiliation with the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. For the Japanese, it was believed they were saving Asia (though they didn’t bother to ask the rest of Asia). It is easier for modern day audiences to understand the rationales and motivations of those who fought in that war.
The reasons for fighting the First World War, however, are rather vague. The motivations for the soldiers fighting are also vague. It’s hard to understand the patriotic fever which led to so many men signing up to fight a war that appeared to have been fought for the sheer hell of it and no other reason. In modern academia, the “isms” of nationalism, militarism, imperialism are blamed for causing the war.
For war enthusiasts, World War I is a hard one to get enthusiastic about. Most of the literature and films on the subject have been anti-war save for a few on WWI pilots and Sergeant York which was released when America was entering WWII.
Then there’s strategy. With WWII battles there was often a lot of planning and logistics that went into major battles on both sides. Armchair military historians can easily while away the hours discussing the many stratagems of WWII generals.
The battles of WWI on the other hand appear to have been planned by generals who were either appallingly stupid or monstrously callous to causalities that their battles produced. At the Battle of the Somme, soldiers were ordered to advance at a walking pace. This was to keep the lines orderly and lower the chances of friendly fire – it also made the British soldiers perfect targets for German machine gunners.

Soldiers make their way on catwalks over flooded trenches
The whole war in retrospect seems a comic-tragedy of epic proportions. Men died in the thousands for a few yards of earth. The British comedy series Black Adder brilliantly showed the insanity of WWI strategy in its fourth season – “Black Adder Goes Forth.” In one episode, a general is looking at a scale map of the last battle and asks his aide for the scale. His aid answers “one to one, sir!” and the general shows no surprise but is glad that 17 square feet of mud is no longer in German hands.
The Great War ended over 90 years ago but the consequences still live with us to this day. The war changed the maps, changed class systems, changed the way in which wars are fought, and changed technology. Iraq is one of those changes having been created out of the territory of the old Ottoman Empire.
Ultimately, Nov. 11 is a bittersweet day to remember the end of a terrible war and all those who died in it. Nov. 11 is also a day to reflect on the futile hope of the time that there would be no other wars to follow. If we truly wish to honor veterans, we must pledge to rid ourselves of the thing that took so many of their comrades’ lives.
World War One Airmen 
Heroes of the Skies

Air technology changed drastically throughout the war
The patriotic fever that led so many to enlist to fight in the Great War soon died in the mud of the trenches. The mud tended to swallow up heroes and with men dying in droves in the matter of minutes, the glory of war faded in the wake of grim reality.
However, there was one area in which war romanticism found a new home. The Great War ushered in the age of aerial combat and it was here that heroes could be found or made. Flight was still in its infancy at the beginning of the war but it became caught up in the technological race. Planes went from observation scouts to reconnaissance observers to bombers to fighters. Fighter pilots were a new breed of soldier and they quickly became the apple of the public eye.
The best of the pilots became celebrities and were wined and dined by the rich and famous. Canadian Fighter Ace William “Billy” Bishop had an audience with Britain’s monarch even.
But fame could not ward off the spectre of death and even the best went down in flames. The difference though between the death of the landlocked soldier and the pilot was that the former often died anonymously while the other could reap headlines and a formal funeral. The death of aces, though, could also shock an entire nation as it did with the deaths of the famous Red Baron and the beloved French ace Georges Guynemer.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Halloween 2011 Scenes from Tokyo

Some random scenes of Halloween craziness in Tokyo mainly from that notorious den of sin, Roppongi. Lots of great costumes and fun spirit!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Japanese Ghost Stories - The Demon's Arm (The Ogre of Rashomon)

This story is a version of the Ogre of Rashomon as the story is named in Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales. I however refer to the titular creature as a demon based on the Japanese word “oni” which is demon/devil.

Rashomon is a gate that once stood in Kyoto that lapsed into disrepair and became a place of ill repute. According to legend a demon took up residence there and snatched up passer-bys. Eventually it bit off more than it could chew when it tried to grab a samurai.

The photos were taken by me of the temple gate of Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo, a shot of a float from the Nebuta festival of Aomori showing a samurai fighting a demon (Raiko and Shuten-doji), and a depiction of the story on a float at the Neputa Festival in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. The other images are 19th Century woodblock (ukiyoe) prints.

Ninja vs Samurai at Japanese Festival (Nagoya Matsuri)

The age-old question of "Ninja vs Samurai - who would win?" was tackled recently at Nagoya Matsuri in a fight between a blue-clad ninja (a Smurf ninja?) and an armor-wearing samurai. The results may surprise you; however with Ninja, things are not always as they seem...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Post-Tsunami view of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture

Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture is one of the town that was hit hard by the tsunami which followed the earthquake on March 11, 2011. I was passing thru 5 months afterwards and still the stark grim reminders remain of what happened that day.

Later that evening I went to Sendai the capital of Miyagi which had also gotten hit that day. It was the kick-off of their big Tanabata festival which they do with a big fireworks display. It was good to see the people out and about enjoying themselves - they had cancelled some other festivals in previous months. It showed me that the Tohoku area will pull itself through the disaster with their indomitable spirit. Ganebaremasu!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Kemari - Ancient Japanese Soccer/Football

"Kemari is hardly a stately sport, being quite boisterous and rough, but much depends after all on where it is played and who plays it."
- Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, 11th Century

Kemari is an ancient Japanese sport originally from China which is a mix of soccer/football and hacky sack. Players try to keep the ball in air by using various parts of their body except the hands. The ball called "mari" is made of deer and horse skin.

The players were a type of clothing reminiscent of the style of the Asuka Period or 6th-7th century Japan when Kemari was first introduced to the country. They wear a specially designed leather shoe which they can even wear on wooden floors where usually normal footwear is removed.

Kemari is a unique sport in that there aren't any winners or losers but rather it's a group activity where the individual players' skill and dexterity adds to the ability of the group to keep the ball aloft as long as they can. Thus kemari is a community sport not a competitive one where each player contributes to the group.

Although the sport came from China, kemari is different - not so much in the way of playing but in who plays and the purpose of playing. The Chinese game known as cuju initially was for the warriors to develop their martial skills. It was only sometime later that cuju was adopted by the upper class as a form of entertainment. In Japan, kemari was always the domain of the upper class and was seen as a refined game of skill and grace. It was played by aristocrats known as kuge. Once in the 10th century a group of kuge in the presence of the emperor were able to make 260 passes without the ball hitting the ground.

In later centuries when the samurai became the dominant class, Kemari still retained its place as an elegant non-competitive sport. One samurai lord preferred the gentle arts of poetry and kemari to the martial arts required of the samurai. Unfortunately he lived in the highly competitive age of the Sengoku Period or Warring States Period where numerous warlords vied against one another for power and control. His name was Imagawa Ujizane. His father almost succeeded in uniting Japan under his banner; however, when his father fell in battle, Ujizane's kemari skills did little to save his domain. He eventually was forced to flee and went to Kyoto where apparently he became a renowned kemari player. Although he never regained his old territory, Ujizane and his descendants due to their knowledge of the cultural arts became koke or masters of ceremonies to the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867).

A Chance Meeting at a Kemari Match Changes the Course of Japanese History

"[Nakatomi no Kamatari] happening to be one of a kemari party in which [Imperial Prince] Naka no Ohoye played...he observed the Prince's leather shoe fall off with the ball. Placing it on the palm of his hand, he knelt before the Prince and humbly offered it to him...from this time they became mutual friends."
- Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to 697 AD)

In the mid-7th Century, Japan was dominated by the powerful Soga clan. Although they had strengthened the Imperial presence over the various ancient clans of Japan, the Soga did so for their own benefit. They finally went too far when they began building palaces and tombs that were more kingly than they deserved. They even went so far as to kill one Imperial prince who opposed them. It seemed nothing could stop the Soga from assuming the Imperial title for themselves.

Nakatomi no Kamatari was a chief of the Shinto religion and his clan was hostile to the Soga for introducing Buddhism to the country due to the Nakatomi being a priestly clan charged with certain national rituals of the native Shinto faith. He looked for a member of the Imperial family that he felt could rise up against the power of the Soga. He found such a man in Naka no Ohoye however he found it difficult to meet with him until Kamatari saw his chance at a kemari match. He retrieved the Prince's shoe and from that moment the two became friends. They soon found they had similar views on the Soga. They plotted together until one day they struck and effectively removed the Soga clan forever.

Naka no Ohoye later became Emperor Tenji and Nakatomi no Kamatari was allowed to take on the surname Fujiwara which was to become a powerful family in its own right a few centuries later. Both men worked on a number of laws and reforms known as the Taika Reform that had long lasting influence on Japanese government and culture. All of this due to a chance meeting over a lost shoe at a kemari match.

I caught this kemari event one spring about a year or two ago at a small shrine in Kyoto. Kemari is often held around the New Years particularly in Kyoto.


About Me

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Tokyo, Japan
Vagabond traveler currently hold up in Tokyo. I've done a far bit of traveling and had a few interesting adventures along the way. This blog is a chronicle of adventures past and present and those yet to come. I’ve been to about 30 countries though some no bigger than a kitchen table. I’ve run with the bulls of Pamplona, hiked the Inca Trail, got mugged in Mexico City, floated down the Nile in an old boat, climbed the Great Pyramid of Egypt, got ripped at Oktoberfest, and rode the notorious Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Party Train.