New Blind

We had a new blind fitted in the bedroom today. It looks very nice.

I mention this because international media reports seem to be suggesting that Tokyo is caught up in mass panic, teetering on the verge of social breakdown and ever greater catastrophe.

This is very, very far from being the case.

I was teaching in Ochanomizu again today, and it took a bit longer to get there than usual, because only local trains were running, and only about half the normal number. “A bit longer” however, is “half an hour longer”, so an extra third. That’s well within the normal range for disruption caused by a breakdown or an accident. Some reports appear to be suggesting that Tokyo is suffering food shortages. That’s also not the case. I ate lunch at the food court in Mizonokuchi, which was operating normally. You know, people paying for sandwiches and noodles and deep-fried octopus, rather than having rice balls handed out by rescue workers. It is true that there are long queues for petrol. On the way home I saw one petrol station that had sold out, another that was selling, and another where a tanker was refilling it. I’d just like to draw attention to that last one. Our local supermarket was selling fried chicken, sushi, and fresh meat and fish as normal, although they were out of rice, and batteries and torches have vanished. But then, when the power company is promising to cut off your power for three hours every day (and do they? No. Can’t keep promises, these people) you quite naturally buy batteries for your torches.

But panic sweeping the city, as Reuters reported? Absolutely not.

Japan is also rather less obsessed with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant than the rest of the world. Obviously, it is a serious concern, but everyone has been evacuated from the 20km radius (the reactors are on the coast, which partially caused the problem, but also halves the area that needs to be evacuated), and radiation levels everywhere except inside the plant are still safe. It could still develop into a nasty accident, but not into a world-threatening disaster. I think there are two reasons for this obsession. First, it’s nuclear. Let’s all be scared of “nuclear”. A lot of people are saying that this shows that nuclear power isn’t safe, but it’s still possible that the result of this will be “You can hit a forty-year-old power plant with a magnitude 9 earthquake and a 6m tsunami in quick succession, and get nothing more than a highly localised radiation leak”, which sounds pretty safe to me. We won’t know whether it’s safe until it’s over. The thirty-year-old plant 10km along the coast seems to have shut down safely with no leakage, incidentally. Second, it’s the only bit of the disaster that looks like it might get worse, and everyone loves to speculate about how bad it could get. (The prominence given to the collapse of the Japanese stock market rather supports this interpretation.)

Even people who are being supportive of Japan and tweeting their support for the fifty workers risking their lives at the nuclear plant tend to forget the hundreds and thousands of workers risking their lives to rescue people from collapsed houses in towns devastated by tsunamis. There are fires burning, gas tanks exploding, constant aftershocks that could collapse the structures, and the ever-present risk of another tsunami, if there’s a large aftershock in the wrong place. The rescuers are doing a fantastic job, but not just at the nuclear power plant.

It’s often said that if you read news coverage of a subject you know something about, you lose all faith in the media’s accuracy. That’s certainly the case here. Of course, most of them don’t speak Japanese, can’t get out of Tokyo, and need to file a dramatic report. Even if there was a well-organised flow of reliable information, it would be hard for them to use it, and, given the genuine chaos in parts of northeastern Japan, there most certainly isn’t.

So, ignore the picture the international media is painting. Tokyo is fine. I don’t need emergency shipments of supplies. (Yuriko’s parents are sending some more batteries and extra flour, which will cover us perfectly well.) The further north you go, however, the bigger the problems get, so if you want to do something practical, I recommend donating to your local Red Cross, because they will channel funding to the Japanese Red Cross, which is already working on the ground.

The American Red Cross

The British Red Cross

Rolling Blackouts

The Kanto area (around Tokyo) is going to be subject to rolling blackouts until at least the end of April, and possibly beyond that, into summer and winter. At least tomorrow, we are likely to be without power from 13:50 to 19:00 local time; I don’t know whether the same time block will be maintained, or whether they will move it around the day.

This will affect my ability to communicate with the rest of the world, and to work, but it shouldn’t cause any more serious issues. It won’t affect my blog, as the server is in the USA…

Road to Recovery

Tokyo is getting back to normal, with electricity generally restored and trains running again. Supermarkets and convenience stores are still short of fresh goods, suggesting that distribution has not got back to normal yet, and TEPCO, the electricity company, is warning of the possibility of rolling blackouts, as many of its power stations are in Tohoku, and won’t be back online for a week or so in the best case. Things might be a bit inconvenient here for a couple of weeks, but that’s about the worst of it for us.

Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures have, however, been devastated. Most of the emphasis in the news has been on the coastal towns that were all but obliterated by the tsunami, but we also know that very strong earthquakes struck areas further inland. The likely death toll is being revised upwards as contact is re-established with various areas, and now it does look likely to pass 10,000.

The level of calm is remarkable. I saw no evidence of panic while I was walking home with millions of others on Friday, and there have been no reports of looting at all. Everyone seems to be doing what they can to get through and rebuild. I’m just waiting to have a chance to help. Right now, that means waiting for the Japanese Red Cross to start accepting donations.

Earthquake

We’re all fine.

Well, Silver feels the need to make that explicit when writing about crashing her trike, so I’d better say it when reporting on the effects of the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan.

As fate would have it, today I was teaching on the other side of Tokyo. It would have to be today, wouldn’t it… The lesson was just finishing, at about a quarter to three, when the seat in the cafe started to shake. That’s, obviously, normal in Japan, but it didn’t stop, and kept getting stronger. Fairly soon, I started looking around to see whether there was a safer looking location that I could get to quickly. There wasn’t; I was near a wall, well away from windows, with nothing hanging from the ceiling over my head. The tremors still didn’t stop, and were getting even stronger, and my next thought was “I really hope the epicentre isn’t off Tohoku again”. Then my student suggested we get our heads under the table, just as I was coming to the same conclusion. The quake didn’t quite get strong enough to make that necessary, but it was certainly strong enough to prevent you feeling at all stupid for doing it.

Oh, and there’s another aftershock. Lots and lots of those…

Bizarrely, I was not at all afraid. This may indicate a psychological problem, because being in the middle of the largest earthquake in Japanese history probably should be a bit scary, but there you have it. Of course, I wasn’t actually anywhere near the middle, fortunately, and the coffee shop was on a basement level, which minimised the shaking, so it was probably a fairly light experience, all told.

Once the shaking finished, which took a very long time, I tried to send Yuriko a text message to say that I was fine. I couldn’t connect. I wasn’t surprised. I kept trying, while I and my student waited for the situation to calm down a bit, so that we could decide what to do next, and finally one of them announced that it had been sent. There was then a disaster announcement, saying that the earthquake had been centred in the same place as the previous two, and that its peak strength had been 7 on the Japanese scale.

7 is disaster.

That was not a good moment, but there isn’t much I can do about Tohoku yet, so I started looking into whether I could get back to Kawasaki and pick Mayuki up from daycare. I went to the underground station, but, unsurprisingly, there were no trains running. As I was coming out again, there was an aftershock, strong enough to make it a bit difficult to walk, and certainly strong enough to make me find another safe place to stand and wait.

When that finished, I checked the stations again (still no trains), and then found a convenience store to get some water and something to eat. Then I asked for directions to Otemachi station, and started walking.

My plan was to walk along the Hanzomon line, so that if the trains started running again I could hop on one of them. The other side of that plan was that, if the trains didn’t get going again, I reckoned I would be home before ten pm. Having been walking the Oyama Kaido recently, I was confident that I could walk that distance, and also that it would take about that long, and that was very important; a lot of people are stuck at work, and I don’t even have an office to sleep in. It turned out to be a good plan, because the trains didn’t restart until about 11pm, and I was, in fact, home by about 9:30. It did mean that, in the end, I spent a bit over six hours walking across Tokyo, and so got a pretty good impression of the damage.

Massive crowds of people in the bus station outside Shibuya railway station

Tokyo: Not a scene of devastation

Basically, there wasn’t much. The big exception was Kudan Kaikan, which had a lot of ambulances and fire engines when I passed, and where I hear the roof collapsed, with at least one fatality. Otherwise, I saw nothing worse than some tiles fallen from a roof, and goods fallen from shelves. The streets were full of people walking home, because all the trains were out, but everyone was calm and even cheerful, even though it got very cold. The convenience stores were all busy, with long lines of people buying supplies, and by the time I got to Kawasaki they were largely sold out. The roads were full of cars. All the expressways were closed, so everyone was on the ordinary main roads, and the traffic was travelling at substantially less than walking pace for most of the time. Yuriko came to the same conclusion as me, and walked home from work to pick up Mayuki.

Of course, I didn’t actually hear from Yuriko until after 4pm, because getting any sort of communication was very difficult, and it was a relief to get confirmation that she was OK. I didn’t get confirmation that Mayuki was OK until 7pm, when another mail from Yuriko made it through to my phone. I wasn’t worried that Mayuki might be seriously injured — I’d seen a lot of not-damaged Tokyo by that point — but I was worried that she might be getting stressed at day care, if Yuriko hadn’t been able to get there. I didn’t hear anything else from her until I got home.

A couple of books lying on the floor in front of bookcases

This was the extent of the damage.

That raises something for people worried about friends and family in Japan. If they are around Tokyo, don’t worry if you’ve heard nothing. There is very little damage around here, but phones, and, in some areas, internet, are not working well at all. They might not be able to tell you that they’re fine, but they almost certainly are.

When I got home, I found that there was very little damage. The shelves in the washing area outside the bathroom had fallen over, a few books had fallen off the shelves in my office, and one part of the Hina dolls display had fallen onto one of the painted shells, shattering it. That’s a shame, but looking at Tohoku, utterly trivial. Mayuki even seemed to have been quite excited by the earthquake. Certainly, she was soon demanding that we turn off boring earthquake news, and put Thomas the Tank Engine on instead.

That was more or less as I’d expected, so on the way home I kept worrying about Tohoku. One of my students is up there at the moment, and I’ve been able to make contact with her and confirm that she’s OK, so that’s a relief. However, it’s looking really bad.

The Ōyama Kaidō: From Nagatsuta to Atsugi

My most recent stage of walking the ÅŒyama Kaidō was the longest single stage, at something over 20km, plus walking to and from the railway stations at the beginning and end. I did it on February 13th, because I was very tired, and needed a break. Since the tiredness was primarily mental, walking about 30km in a day was, in fact, an excellent way to deal with it; I felt much better afterwards. In fact, my legs weren’t even sore the next day, so my habit of walking to and from the stations on normal days has paid off.

At the end of a road lined by tall buildings, ÅŒyama can be clearly seen

You just head for the mountain. Can't miss it.

This stage was still largely urban, but I was finally getting away from the Tokyo sprawl, so the amount of green space started to increase. In addition, as I was getting closer to ÅŒyama, it became a common sight on the journey. Indeed, there were quite a few stretches where the road was straight, and the mountain was clearly framed between the buildings lining the road. In this case, it’s easy to imagine that the straightness of the road isn’t due to careful planning, but due to people just walking straight towards the mountain so that they didn’t get lost, in the days before GPS-equipped smartphones.

Speaking of those, once again I had to use my smartphone to track down a ten-metre hill. It was hidden behind some buildings, and the indication of its location on the map in the guidebook wasn’t quite right, but the fact that this is the second time I’ve not been able to find a hill is a little frustrating.

This mound also had a small stone shrine on top, and it claimed to be “Mitake Shrine”. It was a bit small for that, but Google maps also recognise it as such, so it presumably played a more important role at some point in the past. The same could be said of a lot of the shrines that I passed. One in particular, a Hie Shrine, had two mikoshi and a small Inari Shrine that someone clearly paid a lot of attention to, because it had offerings of red rice with fried bean curd, hand-made flags, and bamboo stuck in the ground along the approach. However, the shrine had no precincts to speak of, sharing the ground with the store rooms for the local fire-fighting group (not the full-time fire service). In that case, the shrine may well have had a long association with the fire fighters, but, in any case, it was hard to escape the feeling that it had fallen on relatively hard times.

The main worship hall of the shrine visible beyond a sacred tree, with the torii of two sub shrines visible to either side

Shimo Tsuruma Suwa Shrine

Another shrine I visited did not have that problem. This was Shimo Tsuruma Suwa Shrine. It wasn’t actually on the ÅŒyama Kaidō, but I passed a sign indicating that a small side road was a short cut to it, so after debating for a bit whether I had time, I went to have a look.

I’m very glad I did. The shrine had a really good atmosphere, with the main shrine lined up with three sub-shrines (an Inari shrine, a Yasaka shrine, and a Furumine and Akiba shrine sharing the same structure), as well as an area set off as the old site of the shrine. There was a priest present, and I was able to get a goshuin, the only one I managed to get this time round. I also spoke to them a bit, explaining about my plan to walk along the ÅŒyama Kaidō, and they seemed to think that was a good idea. They also said very nice things about my Japanese ability, so I’m clearly not that good yet. In any case, this is a shrine I’d quite like to go back to at some point.

I arrived in Atsugi in early evening, crossing the river into the town as the sun was setting behind ÅŒyama.

The walk is very interesting to me, but there isn’t a great deal to say about it, because the main interest comes from actually seeing more areas of Japan around here, and describing them in a blog just isn’t the same. I do plan to keep writing about it; two more stages should get me to ÅŒyama, and there might be a bit more to say about the shrine at the end of the journey. The journey may be the point, but the destination is likely to be easier to talk about.

End of the Year

The Representative Assembly works by the Japanese fiscal year, which means that, just as our term began in April last year, so the first year ends at the end of March. However, we don’t have a meeting in March, so the meeting on Sunday was the last of the first year.

In the Society and Daily Life subcommittee, we started out by looking at a new document about support for foreign students, describing an opportunity for them to meet Japanese people that had been organised by the city along with one of the schools in Kawasaki. However, there were no further questions or comments on the topic, so we moved on to housing.

Rental housing for foreigners in Japan is a difficult topic. Some landlords refuse to rent to foreigners (which is perfectly legal), and many of those who will require a Japanese guarantor, which is, obviously, rather difficult for a foreigner to find in many cases. Kawasaki has a system, set up after requests from the Assembly some years ago, that will provide a guarantor for people who cannot find one, in return for a relatively small fee. While foreign residents do use the system, most of the people using it are older people, who face much the same problem. In addition, Kanagawa prefecture, which includes Kawasaki, has set up a network to support foreigners looking for accommodation, including a scheme for estate agents. This scheme educates estate agents about the problems facing foreigners, and members are required to be positive in helping them to look. According to the personal experience of one representative, it does seem to work. Finally, the rental accommodation run by the city is all open to foreign residents, although there are no statistics on how many foreigners are currently living in it. That includes the low-rent flats aimed at poor people, as well as city-run accommodation aimed at people of more average income and at older people.

The general opinion was that the systems themselves didn’t have any major problems. However, getting the information that they exist out to foreign residents who might need it seems a bit harder. We can assume that the representatives know more about the city government than most foreign residents, but most of us did not know about these systems. Strictly speaking, information problems are being dealt with by the other subcommittee, but we did canvass some ideas. For example, the secretariat prepared a summary of the systems for us, and it was suggested that something similar could be distributed to all foreign residents. In addition, those foreigners who know about it could distribute the information to their contacts in the foreigner community. (Not that I really have contacts worth speaking of in the foreigner community, but some other representatives do.) Getting information to the people who need it is clearly a major problem, and one that many organisations face. If people don’t know that a system exists, they won’t think to look for it, in most cases, so a truly effective system needs to be proactive. Even then, a lot of people don’t read everything they are given, and most people don’t remember everything they read. I suspect that there’s no perfect solution, and that we just have to make the information available through as many channels as possible, in the hope that someone in the circles around people who need to know it will remember it and pass it on.

After that discussion, we looked at the five topics we’ve discussed so far, and decided that we might take the issues of immigration, support for foreign students, and support for housing to the final proposals, at the end of next year. From next time, we will start discussing the deeper issues, with pensions and labour. We’ll be looking at the pension system, and at the support the city provides for foreign residents who are looking for work.

This is about on schedule. I’d hoped that we’d be able to finish our discussions of the five short topics within the first year, and we have, so I think that there’s a very good chance that we’ll consider seven topics properly before picking the two we want to make concrete proposals about. There’s a fairly severe limit on what we can do with sixteen normal meetings over two years, so I think that will be a pretty good result. I hope next year’s discussions go as well as this year’s.

The Ōyama Kaidō: From Futagotamagawa to Nagatsuta

My scheme to walk the whole length of the ÅŒyama Kaidō, from Akasaka in central Tokyo to ÅŒyama, in Kanagawa, was last covered on this blog about a year ago. It was, in fact, suspended for quite a long time, first because we were moving house, then because we had one of the hottest summers for a long time, and then because people were coming for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san. However, I finally managed to restart it last December, but I wasn’t able to write about it here because of the need to write about Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san, Nara, and the Representative Assembly. I’ve actually done two more stages now, the second two days ago, but I’ll write about the stage I completed in December first.

An ordinary Japanese urban streetscape

The Ōyama Kaidō behind Mizonokuchi Station

That stage took me past Mizonokuchi station, the one we normally use to go into Tokyo, so I passed a lot of very familiar places on the first half. However, it also took me along roads that I don’t normally use. For example, the ÅŒyama Kaidō crosses the road I use to get to Mizonokuchi just by the station, so although I’d been through the junction many times, I’d not been through it that way before.

The walking was very urban for the whole length of this stage, but there was still a lot of evidence that I was following the course of an old road. Some of it was in the prevalence of shrines, temples, and religious statues along the route. In many cases, these were established along the road, but in other cases the road may have diverted a little to go close to them. Another bit of evidence came when the current roads deviated slightly from the route of the old road: some of the older houses along the road were still aligned to face the Ōyama Kaidō, and so were at an angle to the current line.

A mountain visible on the horizon beyond an urban road

ÅŒyama

Another piece of evidence didn’t really come into view until a bit later in the walk, and in December it wasn’t consistently visible. That evidence was ÅŒyama itself, visible on the horizon, straight ahead, at the end of the road.

Because the ÅŒyama Kaidō was a major road in the Edo period (1603–1867), the route was largely followed by major roads after that as well, but because it wasn’t designed for cars (obviously), the major roads don’t follow it exactly. That means that walking along the ÅŒyama Kaidō takes you on and off major roads, so that you walk along a six lane dual carriageway for a while, then disappear up what looks like someone’s drive to go over a ridge and back down to the main road on the other side. As a result, I got a very varied view of this area, and it’s interesting.

For example, I visited all the Shinto shrines that I passed, and got the goshuin from the ones that were staffed (which was only two of them). Mizonokuchi Shrine was busier than I had expected, despite it being an ordinary Sunday, and I also visited a shrine where the tutelary kami of two villages shared one set of precincts, straddling the border, and another where the shrine had replaced a Buddhist temple in the Meiji period (1868–1912), and inherited its graveyard.

The precincts of a shrine, with the sanctuary visible in the background

Shitodomaekawa Shrine

The nicest shrine, however, was Shitodomaekawa Shrine, in Yokohama. The first part of the shrine’s name (“Shitodo”) is written with characters that would normally be read “Kamitori” or “Shincho”, so how they came to be pronounced “Shitodo” is a bit of a mystery to me. Although Yokohama is a big city, the shrine is in the northern part, where there are still a lot of fields, so the hill on which the shrine sits is surrounded by small houses and agricultural land, rather than being utterly hemmed in by tall blocks of flats. The precincts were also very clean, with a nice shelter for sitting in, and with many old trees around the edge. Over all, it just had a good atmosphere.

The whole stage was over twenty kilometres, so I was a bit tired when I got home, and had a nice warm bath to relax. However, my legs weren’t sore the next day, so obviously my habit of walking to the railway station rather than getting the bus is doing me good. That should help me to finish walking the ÅŒyama Kaidō this year.

Nara, Day Three

The pagoda and main Buddha hall at HoryujiThe third day was our last day in Nara, and the main stop was Horyuji, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. It was Japan’s first World Heritage Site, and it is said to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. The temple is slightly older than Nara as a capital city, so it is already more than 1300 years old, which is extremely impressive for something made of wood.

Horyuji is some distance to the west of Nara, and you would have to rush around quite a bit to see both it and the Great Buddha in one day. That was why I hadn’t been to Horyuji before; the trip to Nara I went on from Yamasa was to the Great Buddha end. We took a taxi to get our luggage to the JR station in Nara, and then put the big items in coin lockers while we got the train out to the temple. We wanted to put Mayuki’s inflatable deer in the locker to wait for us, but Mayuki wasn’t having that. So the inflatable deer got to see the World Heritage Site.

Mayuki with her inflatable deer, in front of a wall at HoryujiThe temple is quite big, and the oldest part is only one section. It is, however, extremely impressive, and under constant maintenance, in the hope that it will last another 1300 years. While we were there, the roof of the rear hall, where the monks originally studied, was being redone. You could make a donation, and write your name inside a tile which would be used on the roof. We did, and I managed to mess up the katakana on my name. So, my bad Japanese will be preserved at Horyuji for at least a century. If I manage to get famous, it could well be preserved for ever. Must be careful about that.

Mayuki was very good most of the time we were at the temple, but she isn’t quite old enough to really appreciate historic buildings. She enjoyed being carried around on my shoulders, or standing on bridges to look into ponds, far more. Still, there was plenty for her to enjoy in the visit, and she did seem to have fun. It was only when she got tired that she started complaining, or falling asleep on my shoulder.

Nara, Day Two

On the second day of our visit to Nara, we started by visiting Todaiji, home of the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Todaiji was founded in the mid-eighth century, to get the protection of Buddha for the Japanese state, but it was burned down a couple of times in civil wars, and the head fell off the Buddha, to be finally rebuilt by the Tokugawa Shoguns in its current state. The hall housing the Buddha is, apparently, the largest wooden structure in the world, even though it’s only two-thirds the width of the original version.

Mayuki coming out of the hole at the bottom of the pillar

Here I come!

As you might expect, it’s a major tourist attraction, which is why we planned to go fairly early in the morning, before it got too packed. We didn’t get out quite as early as I’d hoped, but the temple is only a short walk from Edosan, so we still got there quite early. There were, however, a lot of school parties. Todaiji is, unsurprisingly, a popular destination for school trips; as I mentioned, Yuriko went on a school trip last time. Just walking up the main road to the temple gave us the opportunity to see a wide-ranging sample of Japanese school uniforms; quite a lot of schools don’t use the sailor suits you see in anime.

Inside the temple, Mayuki was a bit scared of the big Buddha, and my mother and I agreed that the statue was rather more effective if viewed from off to one side, rather than straight on. Much like an English cathedral, the Buddha hall includes some exhibitions about the history of the temple and a gift shop. The other important site is one of the pillars supporting the roof, which has a hole through the bottom. It’s quite a big pillar, and a substantial hole, and the superstition is that if you can get through it, you will have good fortune. A group of elementary school students were being photographed coming through it by their teacher, and some of the boys found it a bit of a squeeze. Watching them overcame Mayuki’s initial reluctance, and she had no trouble at all. Obviously, the way to be lucky is to go to Todaiji when you’re young.

Mayuki running away from the camera, pulling the deer behind her

Let's go!

As we left Todaiji, Mayuki’s attention was caught by a red inflatable deer on wheels being sold in one of the stalls lining the path through the temple. Yuriko decided to buy one for her, a decision about which I was initially sceptical. However, Mayuki was really taken with the deer, pulling her everywhere for the rest of the day. It was nice to watch her when she reached obstacles that she couldn’t just pull the deer over, because she would stop and think about the best way to get herself and the deer round, and then, when she had succeeded, run off on the other side. It was only when Mayuki got sleepy and needed carrying that the additional item became a problem.

Yuriko, Mayuki, and my mother standing in front of the south gate to the palace complex

The rebuilt Suzakumon, the southern gate into the Imperial Palace

Our next stop, to which we got a taxi, was the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was also the main site for the celebrations of the 1300th anniversary. There is nothing original left at the site, although the outer gate to the palace has been reconstructed, as has the main hall, although one person told us that the main hall was a temporary structure; a very large one, if so. The Imperial Palace in Nara was enormous, as was Nara. It was built to the same pattern as the contemporary capital of Tang China, but on a larger scale. A fairly superficial knowledge of history will inform you that Tang China was the larger state, by a substantial margin, and I believe that Nara was never fully populated before the capital was moved again, to Kyoto.

One particularly interesting point at the palace site was a reconstructed garden. The site had been excavated, and the pattern of paths, ponds, and stones could be inferred from the results. Pollen and the like revealed the plants grown there, and provided hints as to where. Based on this information, the garden has been replanted, so that you can see what an eighth century Japanese garden looked like. It’s rather different from a contemporary one, but you can see where some elements have been continued.

In the evening, we went to the Nara National Museum. The Shosoin, which we visited on the first day, was a store room for items that had been used by, or important to, Emperor Shomu, dedicated by his empress when he died. For centuries it was opened once a year to air the items, and this created almost ideal conditions, so that even fabrics have survived in astonishingly good condition. Quite a few things have gone missing, due to rulers of Japan demanding private viewings and taking souvenirs, but the surviving items are priceless. These days, some of the items are displayed to the public once a year in the Nara National Museum. The exhibition is only on for three weeks, but we were lucky enough to be there during it.

We went in the evening because the staff at Aobajaya (the ryokan where we stayed the second night, which had absolutely nothing wrong with it but lost out in comparison to Edosan) told us that it wouldn’t be so crowded then, and they were right. We didn’t have to queue to get in, although the exhibit hall was still crowded. The central exhibit this year was a biwa, a musical instrument like a lute, decorated with mother-of-pearl, and still in good enough condition to be played, after about 1300 years. They don’t play it much, of course, but there was a recording of the last time it was played, about sixty years ago. I do suspect that the strings needed replacing, but things like that have survived in very good shape, so maybe not.

There are two classes of treasure from the Shosoin. One is the valuable and beautiful items that are displayed in the museum. The other is the bits of paper they were wrapped in, which were used records from the central government, and provide a staggering amount of detail on how that period worked. Obviously, they don’t look like much, but in historical terms they are far more informative. I’ve read quite a bit based on them, so I was about as excited to see them for real as to see the biwa.

Mayuki was getting a bit fractious by this time, so we called it a day after the museum.

Progress Report

There was another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents on Sunday. Because the Open Meeting has a completely different format, this was the first normal meeting for over two months, with the result that most of us had more-or-less forgotten what we had been talking about. Fortunately, the secretariat had a summary for us, which made things a bit easier.

Two members of the assembly moved out of Kawasaki, and so had to resign. There aren’t many absolute requirements on members of the assembly, but being a foreign resident of Kawasaki is one of them. As a result, the first business of Sunday’s meeting was the formal appointment of their replacements. This was followed by three reports on what had happened in the Open Meeting, because the format meant that each representative only attended half of it; we had to be at the sub-meeting for our own subcommittee, and so missed what happened at the other one. This report let everyone catch up.

The next order of business was the progress report from the city. Every year, the Assembly makes concrete proposals, which the city is required to take seriously, and to report back on. The issues that the city has not judged to be dealt with are brought back every year. Some, like trying to persuade the national government to change the pension system, have been unresolved since the Assembly was established. The pension system problems might get solved by accident in the near future, because the government is planning a full-scale reform, but it won’t be anything to do with that recommendation. Others, addressed directly to the city, seem to be making progress. One, in particular, sounded from the report as though it will be completed by the time the city reports next year.

This is obviously a very important part of the process, but it did take quite a bit of time, leaving us without much time for discussion. Nevertheless, we did make progress. We wrapped up our discussion of immigration, agreeing to revisit it when we were deciding on what to make formal proposals. We also finished discussing the library system, and that probably won’t make it to a formal recommendation, because the current situation seems pretty good. We can recommend and donate foreign-language books to boost the holdings, but they aren’t at all bad already.

We then moved on to talk about support for foreign students. It seems that the budget crisis has led to scholarships being cut, but one representative commented that it would actually be more useful to provide support for finding relatively cheap places to live, and part-time work to help pay the tuition fees and living expenses. Another point raised was the importance of pastoral support. Going to university can be isolating at the best of times, even more so when you are going to a foreign country. The provision of somewhere to go and talk about problems, probably outside the university, would be useful, but a more positive approach was also called for. That is, it would be good if it was someone’s job to check up on the foreign students and make sure that they were coping and didn’t have any serious problems. When you are faced with serious problems and get depressed, it’s not uncommon to not think to look for help, so someone actively coming to check on you can be a literal life-saver.

Finally, we had time to quickly look at the documents for the housing support services provided by the city, ask for documents for the next meeting, and make our plans for next time, which include starting our consideration of the deeper problems we listed in our first meetings.

Actually, before our discussions we spent quite a lot of time talking about the process by which our annual reports and recommendations are put together. That didn’t advance our discussions, but it was important, because it means that everyone is now clear on what will happen when, and how these things are decided.

In any case, the assembly is still going well, and I think we will have useful recommendations to make by the end of our term in March 2012.