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Archive for March, 2007

The fact that Hello Kitty is actually an English cat (say what?), explains a great deal about Japanese people. The creator of this cat-icon realized how the image of foreign countries, particularly America and Europe, would sell well in Japan. This is why the creator decided that Hello Kitty was born in England (read: Japan’s Gross National Cool).

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And apparently, being able to import foreign images to so many things, yet still keep the Japan’s originality, makes HelloKitty also sells so well outside of Japan. This applies for so many other things in Japan.

Last weekend, we spent a night in Nagoya. After a tour around Nagoya Castle, the girls were saying “let’s go to Italian village”. I thought I misunderstood their language, but I was really shocked that we were really going to “Italy” (Venice to be specific) in the middle of Nagoya, near the famous port of Nagoya. The minute you walked into the gate, the guards were greeting : “Buongiorno!!” and you’ll see tall-colorful European buildings, with narrow stone streets, canals with gondolas, pizzerias, statue of David, Italian ice cream, Italian people, Italian football shops, Venice mask parade, etc. It is obviously a commercial thing, but still, it was amazingly fun.

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I must say, I was a bit worried of how excited some Japanese got that they walked around the park with Italian dresses. But, I was impressed. They constructed everything so nicely and I suddenly missed Europe so bad. But still, aside from the fact that I know I am actually in Japan, something else was not right. This “Italy” is too clean. ūüėÄ

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For lunch, we went to the famous Nagoya’s tonkatsu restaurant. As many of us avoid long lines on restaurants, this is not the case for Japanese. For them, it is obviously a restaurant worth queuing for. And they were right. Yummy yummy tonkatsu.

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Equinox

Equinox is the day when daylight and nighttime become exactly equal. The spring equinox falls around the 21st of March, where the weather is getting warmer, although due to global warming effect, it is not actually the case this year.

The old Japanese folklore belief of worshiping the souls of ancestors was combined with the Buddhist belief that Heaven lies due west. People started to visit their family graves, so they say, on the Equinox, when the sun sets due west.

source: “Moons, Months and Seasons” – Kyobundo 1992

Talking about religion in Japan, the Japanese are usually born and grow up as a Shinto or Buddhist but get married as a Christian, either Protestant or Catholic. They would go to temples or shrines to ask for luck with love, studies or careers. But they would also attend churches, especially on Christmas. This might seem weird or unacceptable to some of us, but most probably, it is because these Japanese understand that when it comes to faith, it is not about the institution.

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Sumo

There are not many countries who manage to create an identity as strong as Japan. Sakura means Japan, comics means Japan, sushi means Japan, not even mentioning all their famous brands.

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Sumo – a tactical game of strength and concentration- is one of their strongest identity. Although currently almost half of the sumo wrestlers are foreigners and 3 of the 5 best sumo wrestlers are Mongolians, sumo is still Japan and Japan is still sumo.

There are 6 major sumo tournaments every year, and this time the host is Osaka, only an hour trip from where I live. So last Sunday I woke up really early and went to Osaka to watch almost-naked, overweight men did full body to body contact to each other. The ticket price is from 2000 yen- no seats-, up to 50,000 yen -where drinks, lunch, souvenirs and other services included, and your seat is as close to the arena that you actually got the chance of a sumo wrestler fell on you.

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Sumo wrestlers are called Rikishi. A tournament lasts for 15 days where everyday a rikishi fights against other rikishi in their own rank. And basically the rikishi with the best wins over losses (out of those 15 matches) is awarded the Emperor’s cup.

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There are 6 ranks in sumo, each rikishi‘s ranks are determined by their past records:

  1. Makuuchi
  2. Juryo
  3. Makushita
  4. Sandanme
  5. Jonidan
  6. Jonokuchi

All professional athletes have a strict way of living, however, most probably, sumo has the most controlled regulations. Here, the Japanese way of discipline and their respect to seniority is obviously showed.

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Rikishi have to wear the traditional Japanese clothing in public, complete with the wooden Japanese sandals (geta), their hairs must be long enough to be made into a knot, they are not allowed to drive, they practice everyday from early morning – yes, it’s not easy to be overweight, fast and flexible at the same time- and they have chores to do inside the common house, and, believe it or not, their diets are watched*.

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Life is even tougher for the lower ranks; While the first two ranks (Makuuchi and Juryo) receive salary of 1 – 3 million Yen -plus bonuses – a month, the lower ranks only receive allowances, wear thinner clothes (yukata) even on winter (!), and have to live together in a common house, waking up even earlier and serve the upper ranks.

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Other things about sumo represents religion and ritual honorary. The ceremonies have barely changed for thousands of years, rikishi must start at the west and east positions, and salt and water are used to purify the arena.

The fighting arena is called dohyo. It is made out of special clay and sands, with a long religious ritual to build it, and apparently a special technique of keeping them intact and strong enough to hold two 130kg wrestlers on top of it. Above the arena, a rooftop resembling the rooftops of a Shinto shrine is hung.

The match starts at 9 am with the higher ranks performing on the afternoon. As the sun is setting and the best wrestlers are on stage, you can feel the tense and excitement increasing. Spectators are screaming out the name of their favorite rikishi and by the end of the match, when the yokozuna (last year’s champion) lost, seat cushions are being thrown into the ring, as if by command. I asked if they were angry of the result or anything (which is weird since it is only the first day), but they said it is just an expression of surprise.

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Sadly, beyond all greatness of sumo, the sanctity of Sumo is being challenged by stories of corruption, the involvement of yakuza and even cheating (read: freakonomics).

Even tons of salt can not handle that.

 

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SumoSponsors On particular matches, these flags are shown to the audiences. Each flag is a sponsor and it represents a gift of money (around 50,000 yen each flag) for the winner of that match. The match with a rikishi with lots of fans usually get more sponsors than other matches.

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*The heavier the rikishi, the lower his center of gravity, thus more difficult to push him out of the ring. Yet, their bodies have been studied to contain the so called healthy-fat.

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As weather is getting warmer and plum trees are about to blossom, the month of March is started with a¬†colorful festival of¬†Hinamatsuri (dolls’s festival). Hinamatsuri fell on the 3rd of March, a special day¬†for the girls in the family.¬†

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Japanese families visit the temples to pray for the growth and happiness of their daughters. A set of hina dolls and arrangements of peach-blossoms and rape-blossoms are displayed. The most complete and expensive hina-doll set comprised of:

  • the Emperor and Empress,
  • three ladies in waiting,
  • five musicians,
  • two retainers and three guards,
  • two bonbori lanterns,
  • a miniature cherry blossom tree and an orange tree, and
  • special hinamatsuri goodies, like colourful hishimochi (diamond-shaped rice cakes), etc.

As most of other festivals in Japan, hina festival is originally carried out to protect people from evil. A thousand years ago, Japanese would made their own version of doll, wrote their name on it and floated it down a stream, hoped that evil fortune would float away with it.

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