Caroline Kennedy at Imperial Palace

On Nov. 19, 2013, I took a friend from Hawaii around Tokyo and when we headed for the Imperial Palace, we saw this large crowd on the streets. Most were middle-aged and older people. The palace was closed off to tourists as well. Couldn’t see the famous Nijubashi Bridge.


I asked a bystander what was going on. She said they were waiting for “Caroline.” No mention of the last name. “Caroline” in Japan automatically means “Kennedy.” Although I always think of Neil Diamond’s song which coincidentally is about the Caroline they were waiting to see.


So I stuck around for about 15 min. and sure enough, at around 4 pm, her horse-drawn carriage appeared after she had shown her credentials to the emperor. I whipped out my camcorder and still camera and started shooting.


There were two horse-drawn carriages and I correctly assumed she was riding in the first one. No one waved Japanese and American flags though.


Fortunately, she was sitting on the right side of the carriage facing my side of the street. You can see her in this photo. Wish she waved to us. As soon as she passed, the crowd dissipated.

We haven’t had such a star ambassador to Japan in a long time, not perhaps since Edwin Reischauer in 1960s or the beloved Mike Mansfield in the 1980s. Welcome to Japan, Sweet Caroline!

Read more about her in Japan here:



Yae no Sakura, NHK Taiga Drama 2013

This year’s year-long, weekly NHK Taiga Drama TV series will start airing tonight on Jan. 6. Titled “Yae no Sakura,” it’s about a woman warrior named Yae Niijima (1845-1932) from Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture. Aizu-Wakamatsu is famous for Tsuruga Castle (photo) and as the site of a Boshin War battle between pro-Emperor forces and pro-shogun forces who lost. Yae was on the latter side. After the war, she fought for equality for women and mastered English well enough to write one of Kyoto’s earliest guidebooks in English. (I wonder if a copy is still available.)

Her husband Joseph Hardy Neesima or Jo Niijima had studied in the US and founded a Christian school which became the prestigious Doshisha University in Kyoto. Yae will be played by actress Haruka Ayase. I remember her in the TV series “JIN,” about a brain surgeon who went back in time to the Edo Period. She was quite good (for a former bikini idol).

Everyone hopes that this Taiga Drama series will help bring back tourists to Fukushima. Aizu-Wakamatsu is one of Japan’s best provincial tourist cities, right up there with Sapporo, Sendai, Kanazawa, Matsue, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kochi, Kagoshima, and Naha. It has many attractions and historical sites within a small area. The tourist infrastructure is well developed and I liked the convenient tourist shuttle bus stopping at the major sights. I highly recommend a visit to Aizu. More about the drama:

More photos of Aizu-Wakamatsu here.

Swiss man walking across Japan

Thomas Köhler's walking route.

I would call it the ultimate travel adventure in Japan. A man from Switzerland, 44-year-old Thomas Köhler, is undertaking a walking trek across Japan, from the northern-most point of Cape Soya in Hokkaido to the southern-most tip of Kyushu at Cape Sata. That’s about 2,500 km (1,550 miles).

He started walking on Aug. 1, 2011 and plans to finish by mid-December 2011. He walks at least 22 km a day. He has a daily blog called Walking Through Japan at:

He posts a short note for each day together with a good number of photos. He’s doing it to bring attention to Japan to the tourists in the Western world who are avoiding Japan after the earthquake and Fukushima accident on March 11, 2011. Thomas is a former travel agent specializing in Japan and felt compelled to help Japan get those tourists back.

His adventure is self-financed, but he’s getting a lot of support such as occasional complimentary hotel rooms. Otherwise, he stays in a tent. He’s meeting a lot of friendly people along the way and he makes time to see the sights as well. Amazing.

Since he’s walking along the Japan Sea Coast, those of us in Tokyo won’t be able to see him. But it was a wise plan to walk along the largely rural Japan Sea coast rather than on the Pacific Ocean side which is much more urban and hazardous.

I wish I had his stamina and gall to do something like this. I would never walk it though. I enjoy bicycling too much. I’ve done long-distance bicycling trips in Japan, but none lasted more than 8 days or so. It was great fun and a great way to see Japan.

Good luck to Thomas!

*Also see The Japan Times article about his trek.

The Toilet Goddess song

The song, Toire no Kamisama (The Toilet God or more accurately, The Toilet Goddess トイレの神様) sung by Uemura Kana (植村花奈) is back at No. 1 on the music charts in Japan (as of Jan. 2011). This song debuted in spring 2010, and no doubt, Uemura’s appearance in the NHK Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest Festival) on Dec. 31, 2010 reboosted the song to the top. Not only that, a special 2-hour TV program dramatizing the song aired on January 5, 2011 (sponsored by toilet makers).

I’m not a music critic, but I can tell you, this song is destined to become one of Japan’s all-time classics, to be remembered for generations to come. It’s one of 2010’s defining songs of Japan. Twenty, thirty, or more years from now, people recalling the events of 2010 will bring up this song. Singer Uemura Kana is now inducted in the annals of Japanese music history.

It is a megahit, but it has gone beyond where most megahits can go. This song hits the hearts and souls of many of us in Japan. I haven’t heard such a poignant and tear-jerking song in a long, long time. The folksy melody is simple, and the story-telling lyrics is instantly-striking and easy to understand in Japanese. When you first hear it, your ears become magnetized to the song and you cannot help but listen to the story and get emotional. Many people in the audience (including the judges) were crying as Uemura performed the song at the Kohaku Utagassen.

The song really blows a fresh wind into the Japanese music scene dominated by ubiquitous bubble-gum songs by large, all-girl groups of marginal talent. It has also restored my faith in the Japanese music market which can apparently still recognize and love real songs amid so many artificial, prepackaged, and prefabricated ones. It also goes to show that down-to-earth songs like Toilet no Kamisama can and will always outclass bubble-gum (what I call junk-food) songs.

It’s rare when a hit song appeals to multiple generations. It has struck a deep chord among not only the younger generation, but also among the elderly (especially grandparents). It’s a song coming at a time when family ties are not as close as before in Japan. It has made grandparents in Japan wonder whether they will be remembered as fondly by their grandchildren. And wonder what they should do to leave such lasting impressions on their grandkids. The song also makes the younger folk wonder if we are being (or were) kind enough or worthy enough to our beloved grandparents. The song really spotlights back-to-basics family values, something which we are prone to forget or neglect while we are caught up with the realities and stresses of daily life. That the family is really the nitty-gritty of what’s important in life. The song is really an anthem for family ties.

Needless to say, if you don’t understand Japanese (especially the Kansai dialect), you won’t be able to appreciate the song. It’s definitely a love song (actually a love story), but not a typical one. It’s about the love between a granddaughter and her grandmother sung from the viewpoint of the granddaughter who is the singer Uemura Kana.

The song starts with Kana in the 3rd grade when she began living with her grandmother in a house next door to her parent’s house in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture in 1990. Kana helped out with household chores, but was not good at cleaning the toilet. So her grandmother (obaachan) told her that the toilet actually had a beautiful goddess (megami). If she cleaned the toilet, she would grow up to become as beautiful as the goddess. From that day on, Kana cleaned the toilet spic-and-span (pika-pika) every day, wishing to become a beautiful woman (beppin).

The song then mentions a few family trials and tribulations. Once Kana went with her obaachan to go shopping and eat out, but obaachan had forgotten to videotape a Yoshimoto comedy TV program which Kana wanted to watch after getting back home. Kana got very upset and chided obaachan. Later when Kana was a teenager, she started having arguments with obaachan and couldn’t get along with her own family (mom and three siblings). She didn’t feel at home anywhere so she hung out with her boyfriend and didn’t come home during holidays. She stopped going out to eat and playing board games with her obaachan and they drifted apart. Kana asks herself why people hurt each other like that and keep losing things precious to them.

Kana eventually leaves obaachan and moves to Tokyo to try and make it as a singer. Two years later, obaachan is hospitalized and Kana comes homes to visit and sees her thin and frail. Kana greets her with, “Tadaima!” (I’m home!) as she did in the good old days, but before they hardly talked, obaachan just scolds her to go back to Tokyo and kicks her out of the hospital room. (Obaachan wanted Kana to concentrate on her singing and didn’t want her to return until she succeeded as a singer.) The next morning, obaachan passed away quietly. Obaachan apparently waited for Kana to return before passing away.

Kana then grieves to herself that although obaachan raised her well, she regrets not being able to pay her back as a filial granddaughter. And even though she was not a good grandchild, obaachan still waited for her to return before passing away.

Toward the end of the song, Kana wonders if she really did become a beppin (yes she did), and she pledges to continue cleaning the toilet spic-and-span. At the end of the song, she thanks her grandmother in the Kansai dialect.

I know that just reading this English summary does not make this song sound as impressive as it really is. The story and emotions can only be conveyed by the singer and the song itself to people who can understand Japanese. The Kansai dialect makes the song sound so homely and earthly, the singer’s voice is sweet and easy to listen to, and the melody is simple and infectious. Right on the button. I just wanted to write about it because I haven’t seen any English articles about this song which does it justice. You might ask how or why would there be a goddess in the toilet of all places? Well, in the Shinto religion, a god (kami or kamisama) can be almost anywhere. A toilet is something essential for all of us, aiding our health and well-being, so why not have a god there too?

Also, for people like me who have had Japanese grandmothers fondly remembered, this song can really bring tears. When I moved to Japan, both my Japanese grandmothers (in the Kansai area) were alive and well. They have since passed away well into their 90s and I have many fond memories of them. I wonder too if I did enough for them before they passed on. All I can say is, Obaachan, obaachan, honmani arigato-o.

Video of “Megumi” kidnap victim

The current visit to Japan by Kim Hyon Hui, a former North Korean agent who planted a bomb which brought down a Korean Air jetliner in 1987, is reminding us again of the ordeal of the kidnapping victims and their families. She is here to meet with the families of victims kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s.

Her visit reminds us of the fact that the kidnapping issue is still unresolved.

An anime film about one of the kidnapped victims, Yokota Megumi, is available for download for free in multiple languages besides Japanese:

It has a few scenes of her father taking her picture. The 25-min. film illustrates the story and circumstances behind the snapshots of Megumi we have seen before. At the end, you hear Paul Stookey (from Peter, Paul & Mary) singing a song about Megumi that he created. Highly recommended film.

News article about Kim’s visit:

Real Geisha Real Women, Kyoto geisha film by Peter MacIntosh

I just saw a screening of my friend Peter MacIntosh’s documentary geisha film called Real Geisha Real Women at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on June 22, 2009.

It’s a well-done 52-min. film by Peter who interviewed several Kyoto maiko and geiko who give an intriguing look at how they became a maiko/geiko and how it has affected their lives in positive ways.

It’s a series of interviews in Japanese with English subtitles mixed with various scenes of them putting on their make-up and wig, getting dressed in kimono (by a male dresser), performing overseas, and mixing with the crowd in Tokyo. (See a Kyoto geiko posing with Cosplayers in Tokyo.)

The film shows how these women are actually just normal people like everyone else. They eat candy, watch movies, like to eat good food, etc. The older geisha, though, went through a different experience when she was sold into the profession. There’s a good mix of interviewees. Young and old, upcoming and soon-to-retire, as well as former geiko now married and happy with married life and her three kids.

Being a maiko/geisha is a way of life, and can be quite restrictive. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see some of them retired (or want to retire) to get married (all maiko/geiko in Kyoto must remian single) or find another occupation while still being young enough. It was also surprising to see how some of them have started side businesses/occupations such as singing (a childhood dream for one geiko) and selling their own cosmetics line.

I think it’s valuable visual/audio record of these women, a valuable oral history reflecting Japanese tradition as well as the current times. Peter was mainly motivated to make this film after seeing so many foreign journalists who could never get it right in portraying the geisha. (I can well understand this.) He plans to make a sequel. The cameraman and film editor was John Wells in Kyoto (another friend of mine).

The film is available on DVD for UD$47.99 including shipping. You can order it here:

You can also see the trailer, but it’s just a music video clip without any talking. Don’t be misled by it. The actual film has no music, only talking. I think this film is ideal for the education market. Universities, high schools, etc., teaching Japanese would or should be interested in acquiring this video.

Supermodel Sayoko Yamaguchi dies

I was shocked and saddened to hear that Japan’s one and only super fashion model, Sayoko Yamaguchi, died of acute pneumonia on Aug. 14, 2007. She was 57.

She was by far, my all-time favorite fashion model, even though I never saw her in person. One of the most photogenic women in the world, she was the epitome of Japanese chic and fashion. It wasn’t just the way she looked or what she wore. It was also her attitude and inner spirit.

She was in a class all by herself, and no Japanese fashion model since the 1970s has ever come close to her looks, fashion, mystique, elegance, class, and attitude. She will be sorely missed by the fashion world and photographers alike.

She sought to promote Japan and Japaneseness. Her okappa short bob hairstyle was a trademark. It was the traditional haircut for little Japanese girls. It’s the hairstyle that looks like someone covered her head with a bowl and just cut the hair along the edge of bowl. Straight bangs are cut straight across the forehead, and the rest of her hair is cut straight all around her head.

Who else can make a major fashion impact with this chawan cut?

Another Japanese legend I missed seeing in person. Crying or Very sad

Read more about Sayoko here:

This guy named ricky liow plagiarized my essay on Sayoko:

Tanaka Kio, Nagasaki bomb survivor dies

One of the most iconic images of the Nagasaki atom bomb was of a young mother breastfeeding her dying child as they wait for emergency treatment on the day after the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1941.
The photo was taken by Imperial Army photographer Yamahata Yosuke who was ordered to visit and photograph Nagasaki the day after the bomb dropped.

The woman in the photo was Tanaka Kio (田中キヲ) who has died of pneumonia on Dec. 9, 2006. She was 91. The child in the photo was her 4-month-old second son who died 11 days later. She also lost her eldest son. She and her two sons were in the rice paddy about 2 km from the epicenter.

She led a low-key life, working as a vegetable grower and seller in Nagasaki. She was a sweet and gentle woman. Her passing has been widely reported on national news in Japan.

We offer our deepest condolences to her family.

More photos here:

In 2005, I did some research about a few people in Yamahata’s photographs. Here is the entry for Tanaka Kio. The information is based on NHK TV’s program titled, “NHK Special: Nagasaki Eizo no Shogen” (Nagasaki–Testimony of Pictures) (first broadcast in 1995) and NHK’s book titled, “Nagasaki Yomigaeru Genbaku Shashin” (Nagasaki–Atomic Bomb Photographs Recalled).

Mother breastfeeding baby

This famous photo shows 30-year-old Kio Tanaka with her four-month-old son Yoshihiro. They were waiting for medical treatment at the first-aid station in front of Michinoo Station. Yamahata took five shots of this mother and child.

She was living 1.8 km north of the hypocenter with her husband and his parents, her three children, and a younger brother. Her husband worked at the Mitsubishi shipyard, but they were a farming family with fields and paddies.
She had a 6-year-old son, 5-year-old daughter, and infant son Yoshihiro.

That morning, her husband and his mother went to a fishing village beyond a mountain while Kio stayed home. After the air raid siren stopped, she and her father-in-law went to weed a paddy 500 meters from the house.

Then there was a yellow flash and they fell to the ground. She ran back to the house to check on the baby. The house was on fire, and she found the baby had been thrown from the entrance foyer to the kitchen. He was badly burned and black.

Her older son, who was catching dragonflies nearby with a friend, suffered burns all over and came home. Her 5-year-old daughter was also playing outside and just arrived home when the bomb exploded. She was also burned badly.

Kio also saw her father-in-law’s shirt burning. He put it out, but he then yelled at her that her back was on fire too. She was so busy taking care of the children that she did not notice her back was on fire. They spent the night in the bomb shelter in front of the house.

Her burnt back was so painful that she could not sleep.

In the morning, they heard that there was a first-aid station at Michinoo Station so she put the children on a cart and the whole family walked to Michinoo Station.

Since all her clothes and shoes were burnt, she was given a kimono from a house that survived the fire and walked barefoot to Michinoo Station 1.8 km away. The ground was hot and her back hurt, but she endured and kept going. Along the road, they had to walk over collapsed homes, headless corpses, and dead horses. They got to Michinoo Station at about noon. The area in front of the station was full of people.

She was put on a straw mat, but people kept coming and crammed in line to wait for treatment. Tanaka mainly wanted her children to be treated rather than her burnt back.

They received riceballs. The baby suckled, but could not drink her milk. He had no strength to suck and drink. And no strength to cry either.

The doctor told her that the baby was half dead. She wondered whether her baby would die soon. That’s when Yamahata took her picture (five shots).

She remembers being photographed. He asked her to be photographed. She thinks that she had a child so that’s why he was photographing her.

The family went back home without any medicine or treatment method. Three children, Kio, and her father-in-law were badly burnt. The five went into the air raid shelter and remained bedridden in terrible pain.

Her first son couldn’t eat or drink and became too weak to eat the fruit her mother-in-law found for him. He died on Aug. 12, three days after the bomb. And baby Yoshihiro only worsened every day and died on Aug. 21.

Her husband and mother-in-law who escaped the bomb, found a board and made a coffin for the two children who were then cremated.

Yamahata’s photo was the only photo ever taken of Yoshihiro. But she cannot bear to look at the photo. The memory is too painful.

After the war, she raised four children. Since her husband’s income was not enough to make ends meet after losing everything, she continued to grow and sell vegetables. She worked on her vegetable field from 8 am to sunset. During harvest time, she would pick the vegetables and load it onto a cart to sell to people. She was still doing this in 1995 at age 80.

In 1976, an anonymous postcard was received by the Nagasaki City Hall saying that the woman in the picture was still living in Nagasaki. Her address was also written. The picture had been displayed at the Nagasaki atomic bomb museum since 1973.


1 2