Cherry Blossoms

The cherry blossoms are out in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the weather is really not very good. It’s raining this morning, and the forecast is for it to continue doing so for much of the day. Yesterday was grey, and rather cold. Nevertheless, we went out to see the cherry blossoms.

Mayuki squashing my face in front of blossoming cherry trees

Pay attention, Daddy!

We went to our local graveyard. This may sound a little odd, and Yuriko also thought it was a bit strange, but the graveyard is very big, and has a lot of cherry trees. It’s also a bit hidden, in that you have to go up little roads behind houses to get to it, which means that, despite its location, it’s not as popular as you might think. There were still a lot of people there, but it wasn’t heaving, and while part of that could well have been the weather, I think the main locations in Tokyo would have been packed.

We didn’t have time to go round the whole area, but we did see that there are areas where you can have barbecues, and there were a lot of families having picnics. If your family is from this area, it could be a fun day out for the whole family, including the dead members. In any case, now that we know where it is, it’s likely to be our main cherry blossom spot in future years. At the very least, we’re likely to go there once.

After that, we went to Art Fair Tokyo. This is where Yuriko worked before Mayuki was born, and she’s gone back to work there part-time at the moment, so she had those reasons to go. She also wanted to see the art, and has dreams of being able to buy something at the fair. I’d like to save up so that she can, but the budget won’t permit at the moment. Anyway, my main job was looking after Mayuki, so that Yuriko could look around. I took her round the fair, of course, and she was fascinated by one of the exhibits.

It was an animation of a girl walking up a down escalator. She was climbing at the same speed as the escalator was descending, so the image didn’t change much, but Mayuki was fascinated. She watched it for over ten minutes, even complaining when we tried to take her away.

There’s still a lot to do to get ready to move, and that’s putting pressure on the blog. Maybe there’ll be more time for updates once we have moved.

Back to Immigration

I went to the immigration office again today, to submit some more papers. A couple of days ago, the office called me in the morning, to ask about our move. I don’t know whether the ward office tells them automatically, or whether they had asked, but in any case, they had found out before I’d worked down the list of people I needed to tell. (Normally, you don’t need to tell immigration when you move, just the local authority. Obviously, things are different when you’re in the middle of a visa application, which is why they were on my list.) They confirmed that Yuriko and Mayuki were moving with me, because that really matters when applying for permanent residence on the grounds that you are married to a Japanese citizen. They also asked when Yuriko would get home, because she was at work at the time.

Then they called back in the evening, confirming that they’d sent the letter requesting the additional documents, and then asked to speak to Yuriko. As we were eating dinner, I just passed the phone across the table. This was, I suspect, a check on whether I was really living with her, as I said. They confirmed her name and date of birth, which is a fairly rough-and-ready test, but probably enough if you have no reason to be suspicious. There’s been a bit of fuss in the media recently over fake marriages for immigration purposes, so they may be tightening things up a bit.

The letter arrived yesterday, and they needed Yuriko and Mayuki’s JÅ«minhyō (official residence record), the official record of my alien registration, and a letter confirming my contact telephone number. Posting them was OK, but I prefer to go to immigration and hand them over, so I know they’ve actually made it. Of course, this meant going to immigration (which isn’t far), and then waiting more than an hour for something that took about thirty seconds. This is a very busy time at immigration, because the Japanese academic and financial years start in April, so a lot of people are renewing and changing their visas. I normally try to avoid going around now, but there wasn’t really any choice when they wrote to me.

Anyway, when I was talking to them on the phone, they said that it would take another two or three months for my application to be processed. That would make it about a year since I applied. The fact that they are still asking for information suggests that I’ve not been rejected yet, so maybe I’ll get permanent residence this time.

Nature-Asia Publishing Index

Nature Asia-Pacific has just launched the Nature-Asia Publishing Index, which analyses the papers published in all of the Nature group of journals by researchers working at institutions in the Asia-Pacific region, including India and Australasia. The data is interesting, because the Nature journals are very important primary research journals, so they give some idea of the spread of high-quality basic research in the region, both by country and by institution. It’s not surprising that Japan is still top, by a significant margin, but Singapore does very well for its size, and China is moving up rapidly.

The other interesting thing here is the value of this to the Nature group. Because the index undeniably does have value, policy-makers in the region are likely to use it. That means that moving up the index is likely to directly benefit institutions. And that means that, all else being equal, researchers at those institutions are going to submit to a Nature journal, rather than one that isn’t in the index. In other words, it should give the Nature journals a slight edge over journals of comparable Impact Factor in the competition for the best papers from the Asia-Pacific region. I do wonder how much that drove the decision making. The commercial benefit is likely to be minimal; the journals are already important enough that no serious institution could manage without a subscription. However, the prestige benefit could be quite important.

Incidentally, five of the top ten institutions in the region are Japanese. The University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, Osaka University, RIKEN, and Tohoku University. Kyushu and Keio are at eleven and twelve.

The data did immediately make me wonder what a global version of the index would look like. The USA would dominate in much the way that Japan dominates this one, but the lower places would be more interesting. I wonder whether the rest of the Nature group is thinking about doing something similar.

Kanazawa, Day One

So, last weekend we went to Kanazawa, and had a really good time. Mayuki was good, and apparently enjoying herself, for most of it, with only one tantrum, and that on the last day. Kanazawa is a lovely city, well worth a visit. In particular, Yuriko and I both thought that my mother would really enjoy it.

We went there by train, first getting the Joetsu shinkansen, and then changing to a limited express. The transfer station is up in the mountains, so there was a lot of snow around, and some nice scenery. However, there were also a lot of tunnels, so it wasn’t the best train journey Japan has to offer. However, I did get to see the Japan Sea, as the line runs very close to the coast for a substantial distance. I think this fills in the last big gap in my travels around Japan; the Japan Sea coast was the only region I hadn’t been to. Mayuki also fell asleep on the express train, and got a good couple of hours before we got to Kanazawa.

Once we had arrived, we had lunch at the station (which was quite nice, and thus the worst meal we had on the holiday) before going to our ryokan. We were staying at Sumiyoshi-ya, a family-run ryokan right in the centre of Kanazawa. The woman currently in charge is the ninth generation of her family to run it; the ryokan has been in business for 360 years. The current building, however, is only about a hundred years old, although it has been refurbished (obviously…). It felt very much like a family business, as well; very friendly. It only has thirteen rooms, and since we were there on weekdays in the depths of the off-season we were almost the only guests; I think there was one other group each night, although the other groups changed every day. We had dinner there on the first night, which was good, and served in our room, and breakfast every day, which Yuriko described as good home cooking, a description I think is fair. The location is great; it’s within walking distance of just about every attraction, and of the railway station. We did most of our sightseeing on foot, although not quite all. In any case, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Kanazawa, I recommend it, and as they have an English homepage I imagine that they can cope in English. (We spoke Japanese all the time, so I wouldn’t know.)

We didn’t actually do anything on the Sunday; it was a bit too late to do anything but relax, and buy Mayuki some milk. So we stayed at the ryokan, and sorted out our detailed plans for the next three days, including where we wanted to eat lunch and dinner.

The sightseeing started on Monday. First, we went to Kanazawa Castle Park, which is about two minutes’ walk from Sumiyoshi-ya. (You pass the post office on the way, a good place to withdraw money.) Kanazawa was the capital of one of the largest domains in Edo-period Japan, Kaga, and its lords, the Maeda, were extremely wealthy. They also spent most of their money on the arts, because they were, historically, rivals of the ruling Tokugawa, and so were always viewed with some suspicion. Spending money on the arts was a way to assert themselves without drawing the ire of the shogun. As a result, their castle was, originally, quite spectacular. Unfortunately, being a Japanese building, it burned down. A handful of outbuildings survived, but over the last ten years or so the city has been building replicas of part of the castle.

David, Yuriko, and Mayuki in front of an old Japanese building

Us, in front of a storeroom, one of the buildings that survives from the original castle.

We visited the main one of these, a long storeroom connecting two watchtowers, and it was very interesting to see all the details of how the wooden beams were put together, and the castle walls constructed. It’s also quite a nice park, with lots of open space, but it was very cold, so we weren’t very much into playing. We did, however, walk round and look at all the surviving buildings, some of which are Japanese Important Cultural Properties. They were only warehouses, but they were still built with a great attention to detail. It does make you wonder what the residence of the daimyo was like. Japanese castles are very different from English ones (as well as being, on average, several centuries newer), so visiting them is always interesting.

Yuriko and Mayuki sitting at a table, doing Kaga Yuzen dyeing

Practising Kaga Yuzen together

The next stop was the Kaga Yuzen Traditional Industry Hall. Kaga Yuzen is a particular form of cloth dyeing, and it is used in high-quality kimonos, which is why Yuriko wanted to go here. They have an exhibition, but they also offer hands-on experience. Of course, the process is highly simplified, so that people with no experience can produce something good in fifteen minutes, but it’s still worth doing if you have an interest. Yuriko did, so I was to watch Mayuki while Yuriko did her dyeing. Of course, Mayuki wanted to try as well. The attendant kindly gave Mayuki a brush, so I had to watch her like a hawk, so make sure that she only dyed the newspaper on the table, and not her clothes. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t wash out, after all.

Fortunately, Mayuki managed to play without making a mess, and Yuriko completed a nice floral design on a handkerchief.

That brought us to lunch time, which we had at Sakura Jaya, a Japanese-style cafe very close to the Castle Park, the Kaga Yuzen hall, and Kenrokuen, where we were going afterwards. This was advertised in the guidebook with a picture of the green tea parfait, so after we had the main course (I had a box lunch, Yuriko had a duck dish), we naturally had to order that. It looked just like the picture, and tasted great. We ordered one between two…

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of the Kotoji Lantern

Yuriko and Mayuki, and the symbol of Kenrokuen

After lunch, we went to Kenrokuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. It is the garden of the Maeda lords (which is why it’s next to the castle), and was created over 150 years. I’d say it lives up to the hype; I can’t say that it’s definitely one of the three best in Japan, but it certainly could be. It has a lot of ponds and streams, with tea houses and stone lanterns dotted around gentle hills and winding paths, all among great pine trees. There are other trees and plants as well, and the ume (Japanese apricot) trees were in bloom while we were there. This is appropriate, as the house badge (kamon) of the Maeda lords was the ume flower.

The most famous stone lantern in the park is the Kotoji Lantern, the one you can see behind Yuriko and Mayuki in the photograph. It’s famous because it has only two legs, and they are different lengths, as one (the more visible one) rests on a boulder. This apparently makes it unique, and thus instantly recognisable as Kenrokuen, rather than another garden. The image appears in quite a lot of places, such as as the mascot character for NHK Kanazawa.

Even on a cold day in March, Kenrokuen was not exactly quiet, but it wasn’t busy, which meant that we could enjoy it. Mayuki liked picking the gravel up off the path and throwing it into the streams, so she had to be picked up a bit, but then she got into playing letting us walk ahead, then shouting “Waaaaait!” and charging after us. When she reached us, she’d stop and send us ahead again, ready to do it again. We had some tea in one of the tea houses (Shiguretei), and we were the only people there when we arrived, although a few more people arrived before we finished. The screens were closed against the cold, but we were able to go out through them afterwards, and see the beautiful view across the lake.

Right next to Kenrokuen is Seisonkaku, a retirement villa for the mothers of the Maeda daimyo. The current structure was built just before the end of the Edo period, in 1863, and includes some glass imported from Europe. It’s a very elegant building, but it doesn’t seem to have made a great impression on me. I think I may have been keeping an eye on Mayuki; she actually fell asleep while we were looking round here. Photography is not permitted inside the building, which is why there are no photos of it here.

Red torii beyond a purification font

The red torii at Kanazawa shrine, from in front of the purification font

Sandwiched between Kenrokuen and Seisonkaku is Kanazawa Shrine. Yuriko agreed to hold Mayuki while I had a look around, took some photographs, and got the shrine’s red stamp in my book. I’ll probably post about the shrine again later, with a bit more detail, but, as you can see from the picture, the shrine uses a lot of vermillion. That’s another sign of sponsorship by a wealthy family.

We started walking home after the shrine, and Mayuki woke up, so we were able to drop into a Kutani pottery shop. Kutani ware is another famous product of Kanazawa; something else that the Maeda spent their money on. Yuriko bought a souvenir, and Mayuki, while very interested, managed not to break anything.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant (Omicho Kaisendonburiya Hirai) in Kanazawa’s Omi market, which seems to be the main market for the city. It’s also right behind the ryokan, so it was very convenient. Yuriko and I both had Kaisendon, or fresh sea food on a bowl of rice. It was very fresh, and the portions were very generous. Most of the fish was raw, but that just makes it tastier. It was certainly better than you would get for the same price in Tokyo, and included a number of local specialities. Yuriko commented that she’d like to eat there every day, but it was just a little too expensive for that.

And then, we went to bed.

Fresh sea food, completely hiding the rice in the bowl


First Rabbit Festival

Mayuki standing in front of a torii, on which there is a straw snake

Mayuki at Shirahata-san

Today was this year’s First Rabbit Festival at Shirahata-san. Because it is held on the first day of the rabbit in March, I always have to ask when it is. (I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the animals of the Chinese zodiac are used for days as well as years.) Fortunately, I could attend today, and only had to rearrange one lesson. The weather wasn’t great, so at first I was going to go alone, but then I decided to ask Mayuki if she wanted to come. Her response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”, so we went to together. Yuriko stayed home, and apparently got lots done while Mayuki wasn’t here.

When we got to the shrine, we paid our respects as normal, and then Mayuki was ready to go home, as normal. I had to explain to her that there was a special ceremony today, and that we were going to stay to see it. I convinced her, but then the priest started beating the drum to mark the start of the ceremony, and Mayuki was frightened. I picked her up and held her, but she really didn’t want to go anywhere near the shrine building at that point, so I couldn’t see that part of the ceremony very well. Not that I imagine it was very different from last year, or the year before.

After the main part of the ceremony, they had the part where they shoot arrows at the targets. The two small boys who were supposed to play a major role were not desperately interested in doing so, so it was all done by the ujiko, both the ceremonial bamboo bows, and the rather more usable proper bows. By this time, it had started raining properly again, so Mayuki and I decided to go home.

I rather hope that, by taking her to ceremonies at the shrine, I’ll get her used to it, so that she can enjoy her own three-year ceremony in the autumn. We’ll see whether that works.

Becoming a Civil Servant

Yesterday I received a letter from the mayor of Kawasaki, informing me that I had been selected to serve as a representative on the eighth session of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. My term of office starts in April, and runs for two years, until March 2012.

Apparently, while I am a representative, I will be a special local civil servant. I think the “special” part means that I don’t get any of the normal benefits of being a civil servant. You know, pension, secure job, that sort of thing. I do get some money for turning up to meetings, but let’s just say I wouldn’t do this job for the money alone.

The city is holding a meeting to introduce the assembly and the city before the formal first meeting, so I should learn quite a lot about Kawasaki at that point. I also need to work on what I want to discuss at the assembly. I have, as I mentioned, some ideas, but I have held off working on any details until I got the notification. After all, with twice as many applicants as places, there was no guarantee I would get on.

Now I suppose I should point out that when I post on this blog, I am posting in an entirely personal capacity, and my opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the assembly. Sometimes, I might not even believe that they should.

New Immigration System

Japan is changing its immigration system (probably). The law was passed last July, and within three years of that it will be brought into force by cabinet order. There is an article on the Japanese Immigration website about it, which is my source for what I’m writing here. That article is in Japanese, and has a helpful set of questions and answers.

The main change is that instead of the current Alien Registration Cards, or Gaijin Cards, there will be new IC-chip cards, issued directly by the Ministry of Justice. The card will carry basically the same information as the current ARC, although some information has been cut. It looks, for example, as if your region of birth and place of residence in your country of citizenship have gone. In the latter case, that’s very sensible, as long-term resident foreigners don’t have a place of residence in their country of citizenship. It will still have a photograph on it, but apparently the plan is to issue it when you enter the country, so maybe they plan to take your photo for you as soon as you step off the plane. Some or all of the information on the card will be recorded on the IC chip, but maybe not all of it. The web pages are clearly unclear on this; they explicitly say “all or some” of the information.

This has also changed the way you notify changes in details. Main details, like your name and citizenship, have to be notified to the immigration office. Interestingly, the page explicitly lists changes of sex as something you have to report to the immigration office. I have no idea whether the Japanese government recognises transexual Japanese citizens, but apparently they do recognise transexual foreigners. Of course, they also say that you should notify changes in your date of birth to the immigration office. I am truly at a loss to work out how that could happen; discovering an error in the initial registration? (Actually, I suppose that if you were a refugee, you might not, initially, know, and later find out.) Your address still has to be notified to the local municipal office, just as now, but apparently you won’t have to do it in person any more.

They’ve also added a few new situations that can get you chucked out of the country. Lying on your applications, lying about or failing to report your change of address within 90 days, not actually living with your “spouse” for over six months, and so on. It looks like these are basically there to close loopholes in the current law that made it difficult to deport people who had clearly broken the rules. On the other hand, there are quite a few exceptions for “good reasons”, such as fear that your abusive spouse will continue to beat you up, or your employer suddenly went bankrupt, throwing you out on the street. They’ve also added rules allowing them to deport people for helping other people enter the country illegally, which makes sense.

They also say that they are looking into making it possible to report changes to the immigration office by post or over the internet. This is important for people living on, say, Hachijojima, who would be quite a long way from the local immigration office. At the moment, you have to go in person, but the plan is to remove that requirement.

However, you are required to carry your Residence Card at all times, and your passport is not a substitute. That means that, if they do set it up to allow changes by post, they won’t be able to require you to submit your current card with your change notification, and will have to send you a new one first. No doubt this is one of the problems they are working on.

It is worth noting that this addresses the biggest practical problem that occurred to me when I heard about the system; some people live a long way from the nearest immigration office (I don’t), and if they had had to register all changes there it would have been a serious hassle. If you can do address changes locally and the others by post, that basically solves that problem. When I blogged about this in Japanese, I observed that I expected them to solve the issue, because they normally do.

There are also some concrete benefits for resident foreigners. First, the longer visas are all likely to be extended from three years to five years, and the student visa length has been extended to the length of a university course. I imagine the latter is going to be very helpful to students. (They say they are still investigating exactly which visas will be extended, but that basically all the three year ones will be.) Your residence card will have the same duration as your visa, unlike the current ARC, which has a completely independent five year duration, and you will get your new residence card when they put the new visa in your passport. This, incidentally, removes the need to go and tell the municipal office when you get your visa extended. Permanent residents will have seven-year cards. At the moment, it looks as though you will have to apply for a new one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they change that to sending them out automatically. After all, they know they have your latest address, and if they don’t, so you don’t get the card, they can deport you anyway, and it’s less hassle for them to do it automatically. They can just program the computer to spit it out. It will need a way to apply if you don’t get one, but you’d need that anyway.

The visa length extension bit made the news. The other benefit doesn’t seem to have, and I haven’t noticed the expat community being aware of it.

The re-entry permit system is basically being abolished. If you have a valid passport and residence card, you will not need a re-entry permit if you leave Japan for less than a year (less than two years for special permanent residents). If you want to go for longer, you will need to get a re-entry permit, just like now, but it will be good for five years, rather than three (six, for special permanent residents). There may also be special situations in which you still need a permit; those haven’t been decided yet.

Note: this system is not yet in force. You still need a re-entry permit at the moment.

Some people have privacy worries about the IC chip (there are concerns over just how remotely it can be read; maybe you should carry the card wrapped in tin foil), but if the MoJ does its job properly and makes sure that it can only be read by people who are entitled to do so, I don’t see that it adds much to the current rules. Apart from that, it looks like these changes will all make life easier for people who are in Japan legally.

Shrine Shinto Confronts Internationalisation, Part One

Last Sunday (February 21st, just in case this draft takes longer than anticipated and I forget to edit the beginning) I attended a small symposium at Kokugakuin University on the subject “Shrine Shinto Confronts Internationalisation”. I found out about it because Professor Havens, one of the participants, posted about it on the English-language Shinto mailing list I’m on, and since it was free, local, and very relevant to my interests, I got my wife’s permission to disappear for a day, and went along.

It was extremely interesting. Shrine Shinto as a whole has no unified approach to internationalisation, it would seem, which is hardly surprising, as individual shrines are very independent. However, the speakers told us about their experiences, activities, and research, which shed quite a lot of light on the question.

The first two speakers were the chief priests of shrines in Hawaii. These shrines were founded by Japanese immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and both of the priests had been sent out from Japan to lead the shrines. One has since taken US citizenship, which requires him to renounce his Japanese citizenship according to the laws of both countries, so he is now a non-Japanese Shinto priest; an example of internationalisation all by himself.

The first one to speak was Revd Takizawa, the chief priest of Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha – Hawaii Dazaifu Tenmangu. (I know it’s normally “jinja”, but the shrine spells it “jinsha” on their home page, and it’s their name.) He was born in Nagoya, but apparently worked in Hawaii for a while before training as a priest. He was sent back to Hawaii, to lead the shrine, in 1994.

At that time, very few of the third-generation Japanese Americans were attending the shrine, and the surrounding area was not good, with a lot of crime and drug problems. The shrine was holding three events per year, at New Year and the two main festivals, and about a thousand people attended on New Year’s.

He started work right away on raising the shrine’s profile. He got involved in local community activities, trying to address the local problems, so that people knew there was a shrine there. He also increased the number of events that the shrine held, so that people would be less likely to forget about it. A guiding idea behind this was the desire to introduce Japanese culture to people in Hawaii. Thus, they started serving o-zoni, traditional Japanese New Year food, at the New Year festival. They also got some children’s kimonos, and provided free kimono rental to children attending the seven-five-three festival in November. We saw some photographs of that, and some of the children were clearly not of Japanese descent. If I’m reading my notes correctly, about 400 people did 7-5-3 last year.

In August, to go with the start of the American academic year, the shrine holds a Back to School ceremony, which is appropriate for a Tenmangu, as those are shrines dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a kami of scholarship. In June, they hold the summer grand purification, but with a twist: they do purification for pets, as well. That seems to be very popular, judging from the photographs of the people attending.

As a result of this, he said that they now get about 10,000 people on New Year’s, although he also said that the core group of volunteers helping to run the shrine is only ten people. Mind you, that proportion sounds about right to me. He also has a second priest, also sent from Japan, working at the shrine, and training to take over when the Rev Takizawa retires. From the sounds of things, that shrine is thriving.

The second speaker was the chief priest of Hilo Daijingu, Rev Watanabe. He has naturalised as a US citizen, so he is now a non-Japanese Shinto priest. However, he was born in Niigata Prefecture and trained in Japan, and apparently spoke no English when he went over to Hawaii. Apparently, when he applied for his visa, the US immigration department pointed out that the shrine where he was working then and Hilo Daijingu enshrined different kami, and wondered whether he was really the same religion as the shrine he was supposed to work at. He got round that by having two lawyers, one an expert in immigration law and the other an expert on religious law (and one of them the son of the former chief priest of one of the Hawaiian shrines), who convinced immigration that Shinto isn’t divided by kami.

Although the shrine is called Hilo Great Shrine (Daijingu), it’s actually quite a small shrine, the same sort of scale as a neighbourhood shrine in Japan, and that’s the atmosphere that Revd Watanabe says that he aims for. It is, however, the only shrine on Hawaii’s Big Island, which is apparently about half the size of Shikoku, but with a much lower population. He said that, although people are very spread out, there’s a strong community in the sense that everyone knows everyone else, particularly within the Japanese-American community.

Hilo Daijingu gets about 4000 people at New Year’s, and holds Tsukinamisai twice a month, on the first and fifteenth. About 40 families attend on the first, about 10 on the fifteenth. Most of the attendees are older people, but the number hasn’t changed over the ten years he’s been there. Although some people have died, others have retired and started attending. About 90 families come to the Great Purifications, and he does about 20 to 30 petitions per month.

They have a garage sale in the shrine every year, which serves two purposes. First, it’s something for the organising committee to do, meaning that the meetings have more substance, and they get to know each other better. Second, it gives people who do not think of themselves as Shinto a reason to visit the shrine, and the feeling that they can enter the grounds. He also holds ceremonies on the US public holidays that aren’t specifically Christian, like Independence Day.

Revd Watanabe says that he tries to talk to anyone who comes into the shrine grounds, to make them feel welcome. Japanese tourists sometimes come, and it’s apparently often the first time they’ve spoken to a Shinto priest. He says that he wants to make people feel that they want to go back to a shrine, whether Hilo Daijingu or one nearer home back in Japan.

This shrine also seems to be doing quite well. However, it was noticeable from the photographs that most of the people seriously involved with the shrines looked to be of Japanese descent. Revd Watanabe explicitly mentioned that Japanese Americans form most of the attendees at ceremonies. These shrines seem to be good examples of religions that have travelled with immigrants, and while both sound like they are very healthy at the moment, I do wonder whether their appeal will spread beyond the Japanese American community, or even whether they want it to.

This has got quite long, so I’ll break here, and post about the other speakers later.


Today I signed the contract for my mortgage. Apart from well and truly confirming that I am now middle-aged, why is this significant?

Well, I got it from a big Japanese bank (Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ (MUFG), one of the three megabanks), I’m foreign, and I don’t have permanent residence. According to received wisdom in the expat community here, that should have made it impossible. And yet I signed (strictly, stamped my hanko on) all the contracts today. The money will be there when I buy the flat, I have 35 years to pay it back, and the interest rate is barely over 1%; I got a discounted rate because I only borrowed 80% of the value of the property.

That seems to be the only thing that really mattered; it was the condition that the estate agents passed on when talking about the application.

I am married to a Japanese citizen, and she has signed the guarantor papers. However, as far as I can tell, that was only because we are going to jointly own the flat, and thus I can’t secure a mortgage on it without her agreement. They certainly didn’t require any evidence of her income, which is probably just as well; in the most recent year we can provide evidence for, she earned nothing, because she hadn’t gone back to work. And even now, three days a week part-time wouldn’t pay the mortgage. Indeed, we had to fill the application forms in again, because the initial forms were sent out on the assumption that I would be the sole owner of the flat, so only I signed them. The mortgage contract itself is purely in my name.

I’m also not employed on a massive salary by a major company. In fact, I’m self-employed, and earn less than the average Japanese salary. (Not vastly less, mind you, but less.) I do have three years of stable income from self-employment to show, which I imagine was important. Certainly, they asked for evidence of that, and were quite particular about the form of the evidence.

I’m not aware of any personal connection to important executives at MUFG. Of course, my students sometimes turn out to have surprising connections, but I hadn’t mentioned this to any of them, so I think we can rule that out.

On the other hand, the estate agents said that MUFG was the only bank that would give me a mortgage without permanent residence, and as far as I can tell from their flyers they normally work with the Bank of Yokohama, so presumably there was a problem with them. So, speculating, MUFG may have changed their policy so that they offer mortgages to foreign residents who look likely to stay put, regardless of their current visa status (as long as they have one; I had to produce my Alien Registration Card). It could be limited to people married to a Japanese citizen, but my wife’s involvement appears to have depended entirely on that fact that she will be a joint owner of the flat, so maybe not.

The application process was fairly smooth and painless. As I mentioned, it took a couple of attempts to get the application forms right, and I sent some documents they didn’t want, so I had to send the right ones afterwards. The only personal contact was a phone call from the security company backing the mortgage. It went as follows.

“This is the MUFG mortgage guarantee company. Am I talking to David Chart?”


“Did you apply for a mortgage of umptymumble yen over 35 years?”


“Please tell me your address.”

“Here you go: [address]”

“And your date of birth.”

“[Date of birth].”

“Thank you very much. We will take the application forward.”

(My address and date of birth were both, of course, on the application forms; those questions were presumably to confirm that they really were talking to me.)

Obviously, the whole conversation was in Japanese, and the estate agents said that the bank wouldn’t lend money to a foreigner who couldn’t speak Japanese, so maybe that was the most important language exam I’ve ever taken. Fortunately, it was really, really easy. (Thinking about it, no-one at the bank today asked whether I could understand Japanese or read kanji; they just took it for granted. Maybe it’s a formal condition. If so, I don’t know why, nor what their standard for “can speak Japanese” is.)

In any case, the concrete fact is that MUFG has given a standard-terms 35 year 80% mortgage to a self-employed foreigner without permanent residence. If you’re a foreigner trying to get a mortgage in Japan, I suggest giving MUFG a try.

Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine

A torii on a flight of steps sandwiched between a building and a wall

The back entrance to the shrine

Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine is a fairly ordinary urban shrine, its precincts sandwiched between high buildings and lacking in old, impressive trees. “Kamimeguro” is the name of the area, and the “kami” just means “upper”; it is, apparently, not connected to the word for Shinto kami, although quite a lot of people have thought it was. (The evidence relies on technical arguments about sound changes in Japanese in the eighth century; apparently the two “kami”s originally had different “i” sounds. Not everyone is completely convinced.)

The main shrine building at Kamimeguro Hikawa Shrine

The main shrine building, with flags for the first visit of the New Year outside.

The Hikawa shrines are only found around Tokyo, and the overwhelming majority are in Tokyo and Saitama prefectures. There are one or two in the other adjacent prefectures, and none further away. This sort of situation is fairly common in Shinto; particular shrine groups tend to be found in a local area. Indeed, about the only shrine group that is truly national is the Hachiman group; even Inari seems to have a significant bias towards eastern Japan. This does mean that you cannot walk around visiting the shrines in one area to get a sense of which types of shrine are important; that will just tell you what is important near you.

The reason I was talking about shrine groups rather than kami is that the main kami of the Hikawa shrines is Susano-o no mikoto, the younger brother of Amaterasu ÅŒmikami, who is enshrined in many other places as well. For example, he is the main kami of the Gion shrines, which tend to be found in western Japan, and of several shrines in Shimane prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast. Indeed, “Hikawa” is thought to come from the Hi river in Shimane, which is closely associated with Susano-o’s legends. However, traditions and festivals seem to be more often associated with the shrine type than directly with the kami, so it is generally more useful to keep track of the shrine type.

An additional complication is that sometimes the kami is not the same in all shrines of the same type, and even when it is that is sometimes just a result of Meiji period rationalisation. Another result of such rationalisation can be seen at this shrine. As well as Susano-o, the shrine enshrines Amaterasu and Tenjin, Sugawara no Michizane. Now, while Amaterasu is connected to Susano-o, Tenjin is not, and is only here because he was moved from another local shrine, one that was being closed down, in the Meiji period.

The shrine precincts also include an Inari shrine and a Sengen shrine. The Sengen shrines are dedicated to the kami of Mount Fuji, and thus are only common in areas from which Mount Fuji can be seen. The presence of other shrines in the shrine grounds, called sessha (for shrines to kami closely connected to the main kami, in theory) or massha (for other kami), is quite common. The Grand Shrines of Ise cover 125 shrines if you add up all of the sessha and massha, although some have special names in that case. Some sessha and massha are even outside the shrine grounds, sometimes quite a long way away. These days, I think that the key point is that the sessha and massha are not independent religious corporations; they are administered by the corporation of the main shrine.

Because of my route, I entered the shrine through the rear entrance, and left from the front. The stone steps at the front are almost two hundred years old, and lead to and from the ÅŒyama Kaidō, but as soon as you reach the top of the steps, the fact that you are in the heart of Tokyo is inescapable. There’s something about triple-decker roads that destroys any sense of peaceful isolation.

Steps going down next to a tall building,  towards triple layers of roads

Little of the traffic visits the shrine these days.