July 13 - Visiting Siebold House in Leiden
As part of our one-week stay in Holland - July 10 to 17 - we paid a visit to the historic Siebold House, a Japan-themed museum on Rapenburg 19, which from 1832 to 1838 was the residence of Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a German physician and botanist. After serving as ship's surgeon on a Dutch frigate sailing from Rotterdam to Batavia (present Jakarta), in 1823 Siebold was appointed resident physician and scientist at the Dutch trading post of Dejima in the harbour of Nagasaki. There he introduced western science and medicine to Japanese scientists and students. Since Dutch traders and physicians were first stationed on Dejima in 1641, the Dutch language had become the lingua franca in academic and commercial contacts in Japan, and it continued in that role until the
After it was discovered that Siebold had obtained a map of Japan - an act strictly forbidden at the time - he was expelled from Japan in 1829, and moved back to Europe. But in 1858, Japan and the Netherlands concluded a treaty, enabling Siebold to return to Japan in 1859, together with his son.
Back in 2005, I had given a lecture at the Siebold House with the title: "From shibumi to super brands - the lost values of Showa," with shibumi referring to a traditional austere Japanese aesthetic that is both rough and refined, restrained yet elegant.
The purpose of our visit this time was to gauge their interest in another lecture in the near future. Various topics were suggested in our meeting with their office manager, Sandra Bouhuis. Her response was positive, and we agreed to stay in touch, and plan for a lecture during a next visit to Holland
In the 17th century, the Rapenburg canal (left) was Leiden's most fashionable address, and it still largely looks the same today. Near the Siebold House, on Rapenburg No. 25, is the Bibliotheca Thysiana (right), built in 1654 for Johannes Thysius, a wealthy and learned man and avid collector of books, including books published in Leiden that were forbidden to be published in their own countries, such as those of the Italian scientist Galileo and the French philosopher Descartes.
July 17 - Devastating floods and landslides in Kyushu
In our September 2016 edition of Attention! we reported on the participation of your Habri team in a cultural event in the Kyosei-no-sato museum in the town of Asakura, a two hours' drive from Fukuoka, where we live. The event was planned around a Dutch artist-in-residence there, Yvonne Beelen, and attracted very favourable comments.
Sadly, since July 5, devastating floods and landslides have destroyed large parts of Asakura and surrounding areas, and resulted in a death toll of at least 36, with five more people still missing. Fortunately, the owners and staff of the Kyosei-no-sato museum survived the calamity, though we understand that the museum buildings suffered considerable damage, and that there are three fatalities in their neighbourhood.
Fukuoka city also was hit heavily by the torrential rains, though no major damage has been reported.
July 28 - "Premium Friday" attempt has fizzled out
On March 14 we reported on an ill-conceived scheme to give Japan's heavily overworked office workers some relief by allowing them to leave work early - say around 3 p.m. - on the last Friday of each month. We expressed our doubts about the scheme, which depended on the cooperation of employers, and in any case was a very meagre compensation for the structural problem of excessive overwork.
Well, the plan has collapsed already. Employers didn't cooperate, and in any case, the benefit for employees was minimal. In addition, one of the aims of the scheme - which was promoted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Keidanren business lobby - was to stimulate consumption. But to spend money, you need time, and that's clearly not what the government and employers were willing to provide.
So, the culture of overwork - with an official cap of 100 hours a month - will continue unabated, as sadly will the resulting many instances of karoshi, or death from overwork.
August 1 - A Peaceful Explosion - for now
Some countries, such as the Netherlands, hold their annual fireworks at midnight December 31 to ring in the New Year. Many others, including Japan, hold firework festivals at different times in the summer.
Fukuoka's most popular firework festival is the Ohori Hanabi, which is held on August 1 - see photo. It attracted an estimated 450,000 people - a third of its population - including your Habri team.
It was a welcome diversion from the many worrying developments both in Japan and abroad, ranging from scandals involving Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the growing complexities of Britain's exit from the EU, to the erratic behaviour of President Donald Trump and, perhaps most frightening, the escalation of North Korea's nuclear braggadocio.
We will not attempt to add our comments to the many we are all confronted with in the daily news coverage. We just hope that explosions will continue to be limited to those unleashed for our entertainment, not our destruction.
August 3 - Japan's oldest working water wheels restored in Asakura
The clean-up after the destruction caused by torrential rains in the Asakura area in early July is still ongoing.The good news is Japan's oldest working water wheels - which have been distributing water to the rice paddy fields in the Asakura area since the Edo Period (1603-1868) - have resumed operation. (Photo Kyodo/Japan Times). The landslides and torrential rains had cluttered the wheels with twigs and mud, but they now work again, to the relief of local farmers.
We understand the Kyosei-no-sato museum is still closed and in the process of repairing its serious damage.
August 12 - Problem-ridden Tokyo 2020 Olympics
In another three years, Tokyo is scheduled to host the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. Rather than looking forward to the event, Tokyo residents and many other parties are increasingly concerned about the timing of the Olympics - from July 24 to August 9 - in the sweltering summer.
Ever since Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, back in September 2013, there have been concerns about holding the Games in summer, because of the heat factor. The first Summer Olympics in Tokyo, in 1964, were held in the autumn, in October, so no problem then. But with global warming also evident in Japan, and recent July and August temperatures in Tokyo in the 32 to 36°C. range, combined with high humidity, instances of heatstroke have increased significantly, which has raised serious concern about the safety of athletes and spectators in 2020.
Another issue that has attracted criticism is the use of huge amounts of timber for building the new Kengo Kuma-designed stadium for the Tokyo Olympics. Kuma favours "natural architecture" with wood playing a significant role in design, and he has assured the nation that he would use wood from many parts of Japan. But it has been reported that a significant part of the timber used in building the stadium is in fact imported from Malaysia, which is cheaper than timber from domestically-grown trees.
A village in Sarawak, Kalimantan, has petitioned the Japanese government to stop buying wood from its tropical rainforest for use in building the stadium, which it says is being logged illegally, as it is destroying the way of life of the island's indigenous Penan people. Environmental activists around the world have supported the petition, and protest demonstrations have been staged at the Olympic building site in Tokyo.
The 2020 Olympics planning has been plagued by opposition and scandal from the start. The first plan for the new stadium was dropped, after vehement protests against its "bike helmet" design and unacceptable cost. The original logo for the 2020 Olympics turned out to be plagiarised, and was replaced by a new logo. And now the "heat and wood" controversy.
Against this background, it's increasingly hard to think of the coming Olympics as the great, happy sport festival it is meant to be. Or is it only me?
June 2: The Rape of Paris
That new man in the White House has certainly kept us glued to the TV screen ever since he made his unexpected appearance on the world stage. His groundless accusations, impulsive decisions and abrupt changes of course have been fodder for the press and a constant challenge to every straight-thinking human brain.
But nothing he has said or done or failed to do so far quite matches the news we woke up to this morning: his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, signed by 195 countries. Of course, we know that it was one of his bombastic campaign promises, but so were his vows to cancel and replace Obama-care; build a wall to keep out the Mexicans; cut immigration and travel of people from a list of Muslim countries; lock up Hillary Clinton; and many, many more - none of which so far have come to pass, either because he changed his mind or the courts ruled against it, like with the travel ban.
Yet, despite massive warnings from his inner circle and some of America's leading corporations that withdrawing from the Paris accord would not only seriously affect U.S. standing in the world, but also run counter to the ongoing successful, job-creating projects to generate alternative energy, Trump went ahead. His reason: "that's what I promised during my campaign" and "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris." The irony here is that 80% of Pittsburgh's voters cast their ballots for Hillary, not Trump!
Ah well, logic and truth are not among Trump's principles. No wonder the Chinese are laughing behind his back.
June 3: Tackling Johan Cruyff
One of football's greatest players was the Dutchman Johan Cruyff, born in 1947, who in the course of his career played for several teams, mostly the Dutch club Ajax, and the Spanish team Barcelona. He was famous for his development of "total football," a system where a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team. He also was the captain of the Dutch national team in a number of World Cup and European Cup games, and later served as manager of three teams, until he retired in 2013.
He was - strange enough for a sportsman - a heavy smoker, until he quit in 1991, after undergoing an emergency bypass operation. Yet, eventually, in March 2016, aged 68, he died from lung cancer.
Mr. Takeda, the former president of Random House Kodansha, which published Hiromi Mizoguchi's translation of Brinckmann's 2009 book, "Showa Japan," approached us in late April with the request to take care of this transliteration job. We agreed, and delivered the complete series of katakana versions within the tight deadline in early May.
May 3 & 4: The annual Hakata Dontaku festival
In the middle of Japan's annual Golden Week - featuring four national holidays commemorating different historical and
civic events - your Habri team witnessed the traditional Hakata Dontaku parade through the streets of Fukuoka, the
city where we live.
The festival started in the year 1179 as a New Year's performance known as Matsubayashi. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), it evolved into a parade headed by people dressed up as auspicious gods when visits were paid to the Lord of Fukuoka Castle. This parade was called Tôrimon. The Meiji Government (taking power in 1868) banned this parade because it considered it "uncivilized" and "extravagant." It was restarted in 1879 under the new name Dontaku, a word that is derived from the Dutch word Zondag meaning "Sunday" or "a holiday." As one among some 3000 Japanese words of Dutch origin - especially in the areas of medical and scientific vocabulary - it became part of the Japanese language during the two-and-a-half centuries' presence of Dutch traders and scholars on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor, and the branch of Western learning that developed during that period known as rangaku - meaning "Dutch learning."
Here are some Dutch-derived Japanese words among the approx. 160 that remain in use today: bîru (Dutch: bier/meaning beer); buriki (blik/tin); gomu (gom/rubber); karan (kraan/tap or faucet); koppu (kop/cup); madorosu (matroos/sailor); mesu (mes/scalpel); pinto (punt/focus); randoseru (ransel/backpack); sukoppu (schop/trowel).
The Dontaku festival was suspended during World War II, but revived soon after the war to bring back life to the city. In 1949, it was changed from January to May, and it's as popular as ever.
May 21: How Japan deals with the growing scourge of plastic waste
Our lives have become wrapped in plastic. It's not only the key material in packaging, but has also become increasingly used in cars, mobile phones, toys, clothes, medical devices - have I forgotten something? It's everywhere, and it has saddled us with a huge problem: how to dispose of it?
As we don't really know what to do with our plastic bags and containers - the main forms of plastic in our daily lives - we throw them in the rubbish bin, without giving much thought to its final destination. Well, as plastic is not biodegradable, it's become increasingly clear that much, if not most, of the plastic waste ends up polluting the Earth. As Nils Simon and Lili Fuhr point out in a recent article in the Japan Times, "up to 13 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year; by 2050 there may be more plastic in there than fish." They campaign for an international treaty to ban plastic waste and promote recycling.
That's an ambitious but highly necessary goal. Fortunately, some countries have already taken measures to curb the mindless discarding of plastic materials. As the Guardian newspaper reported back in 2011, Japan is "streets ahead" in global plastic recycling. They started passing recycling laws in 1997, when businesses and consumers were obliged to separate plastic waste for the first time. By 2010, 77% of plastic waste was recycled, twice that of the U.K. and almost four times that of the U.S. By 2014 Japan's plastic recycling rate had risen to 83%. Much of the remaining plastic undergoes "thermal recycling" which includes conversion into useful chemicals and burning to generate energy.
In Japan, it's not only plastic waste that is recycled to the extent possible. Most municipalities require household (and industrial) waste to be separated into different categories such as metals, plastics, paper, glass & PET bottles, and food, and each category is treated differently and collected at different times.
Japan's waste treatment policy reflects its admirable care for the environment. There are few outdoor waste bins, yet you will hardly find any discarded rubbish on the streets, not even cigarette butts! Cleanliness is a national trait. May it find many followers!
April 4: It's cherry blossom time in Fukuoka!
These pictures were taken by your Habri team in the Maizuru park, which surrounds the former castle of the Kuroda clan during the Edo period, 1603-1868.
March 14: Overworked Japan - and dubious "Premium Friday" to help tackle it
Japan is known for its long working hours. The normal work week consists of five 8-hour days, but in practice that 40-hour week is often stretched to 60 hours, if not longer. In some case, excessive overwork can be fatal. "Karoshi" meaning death from overwork is a well-known phenomenon. Every year hundreds, even thousands, of Japanese people literally work themselves to death, or commit suicide when they can't cope any more. The number of claims for compensation for karoshi-related cases rose to a record high of 2,310 in fiscal year 2015, ending March 2016, government figures show. An extreme case was that of a 34-year-old worker who killed himself after working crazy hours �" 90 hours a week during the last weeks of his life �" at a company that does maintenance at apartment buildings.
As for annual holidays, most Japanese workers get 20 days leave a year, but few take even half of that because of a working culture in which (1) you shouldn't take days off if your boss doesn't; (2) a worker doesn't want to cause "inconvenience" to his co-workers and superiors by taking holidays; and (3) working long hours and not taking days off means you are "diligent."
Last month the Japanese government and the business lobby Keidanren launched the Premium Friday campaign. It calls for workers to leave the office at around 3 p.m. on the last Friday of the month. The campaign, which requires the cooperation of employers to implement it, started Friday, February 24, but most companies seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. According to a Japan Times survey, only 3.7 percent of Tokyo area employees left work early to mark the Premium Friday launch.
Ostensibly to ease stress for employees by providing them a much-needed, though meagre, once-a-month break, the campaign also aims at boosting consumption. Airlines, railroad companies, hotels, restaurants and retailers all expect to benefit from the Premium Friday initiative, provided the campaign is supported by a majority of employers, which so far seems doubtful.
Meanwhile, the excessive level of overwork continues unabated. On March 13, the Abe administration agreed with Keidanren to strive limiting overwork to 45 hours a month "in principle" but with exceptions being permitted during "busy periods" while observing a cap of 100 hours a month.
Experts warn that 100 hours of overtime in a month can still have serious health consequences, but the agreement is seen as a step toward broader labor reform under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
March 17 - Lost and Found in Japan
I've always been impressed by the honesty displayed by the vast majority of the Japanese people. In a cafe or restaurant or on the train you can safely leave your bag or other personal belongings on the seat or the table while you are "otherwise engaged." Overcharging or short-changing is also virtually unknown and certainly not something one has to worry about.
Yet today's press report that in 2016 people in Tokyo handed over a record of Yen 3.67 billion (or an average of Yen 10 million a day) in "found cash" to the Metropolitan police is truly stunning. That's the equivalent of US$32.5 million in bank notes and coins found in Tokyo in one year (US$ 88,500 a day) reported and handed over to the police! Of that, the police department said that about three-quarters had been returned to its rightful owners.
I've had my own experiences with this Japanese virtue, as previously reported in Habri Diary in 2010 and 2011. In March 2010, after an overnight stay in Miyanoshita, a mountain resort southwest of Tokyo, we were on the packed ZigZag mountain railroad with our overnight bags, on the way to Hakone Yumoto, our transfer point. Halfway the ride, the conductor waded through the throng to our seats and asked if I was Mr. Brinckmann. He said my shoulder bag - which I hadn't missed yet, even though it contained my camera and other valuables! - had been found on the Miyanoshita station bench and identified as mine by the papers inside. He suggested that we discuss the matter further at the terminal station, Hakone Yumoto. Once there the staff agreed to deviate from standard procedure - which would have required me to return to Miyanoshita station - by having my bag sent over on the next train for me to collect at the present station platform. I thanked him profusely and he took off his cap, made a bow and apologised for the "delay."
In February 2011, I left my favourite cap - "made in Italy" - on another train. One phone call the following day and it was quickly located in Osaka station, the terminal of the train. Two days later the postman delivered it to my door in Tokyo against payment of postage.
Still, these experiences pale in comparison to the return of all that found cash in Tokyo. Including the bags and wallets containing that cash, over 3.5 million items were reported to the Met police lost-and-found department. Examples: over 450,000 scarves and items of clothing, 380,000 umbrellas, and 900 pets, including rabbits and parakeets!
Why do people report all those lost items to the police? Besides the belief in honesty, it's also the trust in the police force and the easy access to community police stations known as Koban. And under Japanese law the finder becomes the keeper if the owner of the found object doesn't turn up to claim it within a certain period of time.
As to the huge amount of lost - and found - cash, the Japanese are still relying far more on cash than on credit and debit cards. At the end of December 2016, the amount outstanding of banknotes in circulation was 102.5 trillion yen, close to $1 trillion equivalent, about the same amount as the U.S., which has a population 2.5 times that of Japan.
March 24: The mounting scandal involving Prime Minister Abe and his wife
Prime Minister Abe's right-wing "patriotism" has long been known. For years, he paid visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shinto shrine, which honors military war victims including convicted WW2 war criminals, and though in 2013 he stopped visiting in the face of severe criticism, he still sends ritual gifts. He has been reinterpreting a U.S.-written, postwar pacifist Constitution by allowing the Japanese military to engage foreign enemies "in certain circumstances"; passing a draconian secrets law that could potentially jail journalists; and whitewashing Japan's wartime aggression.
His political career so far has not suffered greatly from these ultra-conservative moves, not because the majority supports them, but because he has been trumpeting his achievements such as bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 2020, encouraging more women to join the work force, and his Abenomics policies, which were supposed to put an end to the "two lost decades" in Japan's economy and bring back healthy growth that would serve all. Sadly, that policy hasn't shown any tangible results.
Now a real scandal has hit the prime minister and his wife. It concerns the Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based private educational entity that teaches prewar ultranationalist values. It requires its kindergarten pupils to recite the much-maligned "Imperial Rescript on Education" issued by Emperor Meiji in 1890 which pledges the loyalty of all "subjects" to the emperor and aims for a state based on common moral principles, not individualism.
Recently it has become known that the prime minister's wife, Akie Abe, was to be the Honorary Principal of the elementary school, and that she had given speeches at the kindergarten. The school's head, Yasunori Kagoike, also alleged, in sworn testimony before the Diet yesterday, that Mrs. Abe had handed him "in private," on September 5, 2015, an envelope containing one million Yen in cash, "a donation from Shinzo Abe." Both Mr. and Mrs. Abe deny that such a gift occurred, and Kagoike cannot produce proof of his allegation.
In addition, Moritomo Gakuen bought a large plot of government-owned land - on which it intended to build a primary school - at a price of Yen 134 million (about US$ 1,180,000), a fraction of its estimated value of Yen 956 million. Kagoike claimed that he had approached Mrs. Abe in 2015 asking her help in getting a favorable deal, but both Mr. and Mrs. Abe have denied any involvement in the matter. How the deal was reached, and who were involved, is still being investigated.
The two scandals are seriously hurting Shinzo Abe's standing with the general public, with approval for his cabinet plunging in the past month by 10% to 56%. Several opposition parties now demand that Mrs. Abe appear before the Diet to be questioned under oath. So far Mr. Abe has blocked this effort.
March 30: Brexit - twenty years in the making?
I just happened to come upon an article I wrote twenty years ago for the Dutch daily de Volkskrant on the state of British feelings about the European Union. In the article, published in the paper's 26th April 1997 edition, I comment on the influence that issues around the EU had on the U.K.'s general election campaign then in full swing. Here are a few paragraphs from the article, translated from the original Dutch:
"It seems the Brits are suddenly waking up to the reality that further steps in the direction of a 'federal' Europe will have serious consequences for the 'independence' of the United Kingdom."
"Why did even an increasing number of Conservative Members of Parliament - including Cabinet members - declare their opposition to joining the Euro and the notion of a Federal Europe? Because they believed to have an understanding of the fundamental aversion against Europe among broad segments of the British people."
"The Continent has always been another world for the insular British. They have never seen the EU as more than a common market, but are now shocked to find that the European Commission and the European High Court are increasingly overruling British decisions."
"According to a MORI/Times survey of 15th April, 60% of the electorate is against the Euro and a federal EU, with 40% even wanting the U.K. to leave the EU."
Well, that's just what's happening now, right? Twenty years later.
Note: For Dutch readers, click below to access the full article.
January 10: All electric trains in the Netherlands now run on renewable energy
Starting January 1, all Dutch electric trains of the national railway company NS, are running exclusively on environment-friendly wind energy. The electricity is generated by giant wind mills built in mostly offshore wind farms.
The new construction of several wind farms helped meet the country's goal to power all of their electric locomotives with the renewable energy by 2018, but the goal was reached last week.
The Netherlands (population 17 million) has been harnessing the power of the wind to pump water, saw timber or grind grain for centuries. Now, the country is also using it to run all its electric trains. The country's electric trains carry some 600,000 people in around 5,500 train trips per day. Those trips use up 1.2 billion kWh of energy per year, which can power all households in Amsterdam for the same time period. So the importance of the switch to wind energy is evident.
To celebrate this important breakthrough, the NS Chief Executive Roger van Boxtel had himself strapped to the sails of a traditional windmill in what was criticised as a "dangerous manoeuvre." To see the brief, Dutch-language video clip, go to: Youtube
January 14: A Unique Dutch-Japanese dish - Cheese Rice
In January 1961, two years after my marriage to Toyoko Yoshida, a Japanese literature graduate from Nagoya, we were interviewed at home by a reporter from the Asahi newspaper, who was curious about this Dutch-Japanese union and how it came about.
Several aspects of our alliance intrigued him. One was how we had met - through introduction by a mutual acquaintance, a traditional Japanese way known as mi-ai, rarely used by foreigners.
Another was Toyoko's invention of a simple dish, cheese rice, to symbolise our Dutch-Japanese conjugal bond. It is a mixture of previously cooked Japanese white rice and chopped-up vegetables such as carrot, onion, broccoli, etc. and aged - say, oneyear old - Dutch Gouda cheese, also cut into small cubes. The mixture is then quickly pan-fried with a combination of olive oil and butter, causing the cheese to become deliciously sticky. Served with a glass of red wine on the side, it is surprisingly tasty.
The resulting article in the Asahi made specific mention of this unusual dish, which is greatly liked by everyone who has tasted it at my home.
So to our readers I suggest: try it yourself!
Asahi Shimbun article dated January 19, 1961