Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Akuseki Island: A Sad Story from 1944

Photo 1: the Tsushimamaru

Photo 2: some of the passengers aboard the ill-fated Tsushimamaru

Photo 3: a young girl praying at a memorial for the victims

Photo 4: the Tsushimamaru, located in 1997

Photo 5: the Bowfin at a memorial park of the same name in Honolulu

It was 1944. The tide had turned for the Japanese, and it was increasingly clear that the question was not whether U.S. ground forces would land on Japanese soil, but rather when. Saipan had fallen to the Allies, and an invasion of Okinawa seemed inevitable. During the spring and early summer of that year civilians and military personnel alike worked feverishly to prepare the island's defenses. Their studies suspended, schoolchildren were assigned to work details constructing bunkers and barracks. The Japanese authorities were considering evacuating as many as 1,000,000 women and children from the island: 80% were to be relocated to the mainland, with the remaining 20% to be sent to Taiwan. For a number of reasons the plans never materialized, among them being the belief that Japan could repulse the invaders. However, in July of 1944, rumors began circulating that an evacuation of the schoolchildren would finally take place. The military presence on Okinawa was being increased, and the authorities did not want precious resources to be used to support a civilian population that, in the event of invasion, would be unable to provide armed assistance. Thus it was that on August 21, 1944, the Tsushimamaru, a 6,500 ton cargo ship commissioned for the evacuation, steamed out of the harbor of Naha, Okinawa. On board were 1, 788 passengers and crew. Their destination: Nagasaki. The 5 ship convoy of which the Tsushimamaru was part comprised military vessels as well, and the following day the group was spotted by the U.S. submarine Bowfin. Apparently the sub did not recognize the Tsushimamaru for what it was, though contemporary photos clearly show a ship without armaments of any kind. The passenger ship adopted evasive measures to elude the Bowfin, but to no avail. Between 10:00 and 10:30 pm, August, 1944, the Tsushimamaru was struck by a torpedo fired from the Bowfin. Of the 1,788 passengers on board, 1418, including 767 children, perished in waters some 10k from Akuseki Island, Kagoshima. Only 59 children survived the attack.

Good Eclipse Viewing from Bad Rock Island

Akuseki (Bad Rock) Island has seen its population of 77 more than triple in recent days as astronomy buffs from around the world seek the best location to view the July 22 solar eclipse, which from the vantage of the island will be total. If the weather cooperates, the eclipse will be visible from the island for 6 minutes and 25 seconds (nowhere longer), making Akuseki an ideal eclipse-watching spot . One has to be serious about eclipses, though, to make the journey to the island. It is an 11 hour ferry journey from the port of Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, and service is only twice weekly. There is accomodation for 66 guests at the island's 5 inns, meaning most visitors will have to stay in tents pitched for the celestial event, which falls during Japan's monsoon season. But a total solar eclipse will not be visible from Japan again this century, and indeed it has been 46 years since the previous. Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, sent a camera crew to film the welcome ceremonies for the first arrivals. There was a performance by all 9 students at the island's sole school (K-grade 9) beautifully singing the village song and introducing the visitors to the island and its customs.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Japanese Health Care

One of the things Japan (and 35 other nations, for that matter) does better than the U.S. is health care. I came down with pneumonia several years ago and had to visit the clinic of the family doctor, a kindly general practitioner, twice a day for ten days, an hour and a half each time, for an IV drip. On Sunday, the clinic's day of rest, the doctor himself opened the office and administered the IV. When fully recovered I was presented with a bill for the office visits. Including the prescription medicine I had received during treatment, the total came to less than the equivalent of $200. I pay roughly $100 dollars a month to insure myself, my wife, and my three children. Whenever one of my loved ones feels ill, s/he visits the doctor, and the bill never exceeds $15, prescription medicine included. My children were born in Japanese hospitals, and my wife, like most Japanese mothers, spent a week in the maternity ward- some women stay for as long as two weeks. Our out-of-pocket expense? Nothing. That's right, $0. We were reimbursed by the city for the entire cost. Socialized medicine allows Japanese corporations such as Toyota to be more profitable than their American competitors. Indeed, former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca once quipped that GM spent more on employee health care (because the U.S. has no national health scheme) than it did on steel. As an American expat, I hope that my country can learn something from Japan, my adopted home.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Tale of Two Countries

Earlier this year the major Japanese investment house Nomura Securities announced disastrous quarterly results. As a result, the company said, none of its employees would receive a bonus, and further, those responsible for the massive losses would face significant salary cuts. Contrast the sense of corporate and personal responsibility shown by the Japanese with the shameless, criminal behavior of their American counterparts. Months ago Wall Street's so-called "Masters of the Universe" were awarding themselves and their cronies tens of millions in "performance" bonuses and spending lavishly on office redecoration even as their firms were hurtling towards insolvency and collectively receiving trillions of dollars in taxpayer money (in what should be called The Great American Swindle). At a time when U.S. unemployment is officially near the 10% mark and real joblessness is considerably higher, when lines at food kitchens and other charities have grown dramatically, when poor residents of cash-strapped states are seeing their medical and other benefits slashed, when children are going hungry, one of the biggest recipients of taxpayer money, AIG, a firm at the heart of the global financial meltdown, has the chutzpah to announce it is planning a round of bonus payments for its employees. What? Japan has much to teach those besotted with rugged individualism and drunk on social Darwinism about group responsibility, of the true meaning of society and community. Ironic, isn't it, that Japan, a nation of Buddhists and Shintoists, should have created a society much closer to that envisioned by Christ than the U.S., with its millions of Christians.

Zen Master Ryokan- The "Great Fool"

Taigu Ryokan (1758-1831) is one of Japan's best-loved mendicant Zen monks and poet-calligraphers. The topmost photo shows a memorial erected at his birthplace in Izumozaki, Niigata.
Most of his life was spent far from the madding crowd in Echigo Province, as Niigata Prefecture was known in his day, an area of fertile rice fields and rich fisheries some 350km from the capital, Edo, as Tokyo was then called.
According to Minakami Tsutomu, writing in 1984, "Wordly people call him different things: fool, wise man, idiot, man of the Way. He never flatters the rich and important, nor disdains the poor and humble. He isn't happy when he gets things or sad when he loses them. He just goes along, natural, relaxed, a man who has transcended the dust of the world." Maxims to live by, I think.
The daily Niigata Nippo newspaper publishes on its front page a poem by Ryokan every day. There are "In the Footsteps of Ryokan" tours offered by towns and villages through which he was wont to pass, begging for alms. The hut in which he spent the latter part of his life is preserved and annually receives thousands of visitors from all over Japan.
That the Japanese lavish so much attention on poets and writers is one of the things I love about the country.