My Mother is a Tractor - Chapter 37

The Big Issues in Japan

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Toilets, Smokers and Cults

You don’t have to die; heaven and hell are in this world too - Japanese Proverb

I thought I might take some time here to reflect on some of the big issues in Japan. Did you know that the Japanese have the longest life span in the world? Yet at the same time they use up one third of the world’s blood supplies and have one of the highest smoking rates in the world, particularly for males. Of course there’s also the problem of alcohol abuse. But let’s not go there shall we?

According to the New York Times, Japan is the world’s largest importer of cigarettes – totaling roughly eight-three billion in 2001. Japanese smokers also pay some of the lowest taxes in the developed world at only ¥100 a pack. With 600,000 cigarette vending machines operating nationwide in the late 1990’s, a ¥250 pack costs the equivalent of eight minutes of work in Tokyo, as compared with twenty minutes in Los Angeles and forty minutes in London. The government earns US$17 billion in taxes from cigarette sales, and what is referred to as a ‘tobacco tribe’ of lawmakers in the Diet makes sure that there is no serious financing for antismoking campaigns.

Recently in Tokyo they have begun to institute some ‘no-smoking zones’. Yet everywhere one goes, lurking furtively deep amongst the shadows, even a few short steps from the no-smoking zone, you can find the glowing ash tips of the hotaru-zoku (firefly tribe), as Japanese smokers are often known. This can lead one to ponder - how can the battle against smokers be won? One of these is quietly unfolding at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo. This government agency, which serves as the ‘standard bearer’ for Japan’s antismoking campaign, is discussing whether it should remove automated cigarette vending machines from its premises. The conundrum was apparently set off by a complaint from the ministry’s Health Sciences Council, where one council member found it “strange” that a ministry responsible for educating the public on the hazards of smoking should have cigarette vending machines on its site.

From one poison to another, let’s discuss cults in Japan – the good, the strange and the ugly.

The separation of church and state is an argument that has been around for centuries in the West since the Protestant Reformation, but has recently raged anew in Japan. Thousands of religious groups in Japan had broad freedoms under the Religious Corporations Law of 1951, probably as a result of the influence of the American post-war occupation. Part of the tension stemmed from the growing power of the Buddhist sect, Soka Gakkai, and Komeito (Clean Government Party) – its political offshoot. Its new found status even put it on the cover of TIME in November, 1995. Komeito now serves as a small part of the ruling coalition of parties, proclaiming that it seeks to influence cabinet decisions in a positive manner.

And isn’t that just needed in Japanese politics, although government in Japan is now moving much closer to a transparent two-party system. One recent example of how politicians may get ‘confused’ with the truth, apart from weapons of mass destruction, is the charismatic and youthful Junichiro Koga. Before his election to a seat in the Diet representing his local Fukuoka district he proudly displayed his resume on the internet, claiming that he had graduated from UCLA in the 1980’s. However someone with a keen eye at UCLA pointed out to him that he didn’t even attend any classes there. So he jumped on a plane to America to “consult” with the university and clear up any “misunderstanding”. Upon his return to Japan he confessed to being “confused” over what were ‘extension courses’, that anyone could walk in off the street and view, and what were college courses earning credits. He apparently had attended three different universities in California, none of them actually being UCLA, and graduated from none of them – still being collectively nineteen units short of any type of degree. Koga could at least produce a photo of himself on the tennis team at Pepperdine University. He also stated that, “I was convinced that I had graduated, and I am very surprised about these results.” Sacked from his party, he intends to continue on as an independent, and in all likelihood this imbroglio will be forgotten by the next election.

Nevertheless, it appears in these troubling times that religion in any country can either be a servant or master when it comes to political processes. It can also be a very convenient vehicle when needing to win some extra votes, or alternatively, just to practice some good old demagoguery.

On the quirkier side of cults in Japan is the ‘Pana Wave Laboratory’ cult founded by Hiroko Chino, a 69-year-old female guru. Since the 1970’s her followers have moved with her from one place to another across the nation in caravans. They were last seen occupying a 200-metre stretch of a mountain road in Gifu, some 300 kilometres west of Tokyo, with an entourage of fifteen white-shrouded cars and vans. Wearing surgical-style white robes, headgear and facemasks, the Pana Wave members erected white fabric screens along the roadside, and wrapped nearby guardrails and tree trunks in white, claiming that white cloth can help them avoid being exposed to harmful electromagnetic waves. The doomsday sect, whose membership is believed to top 1200, claims the earth is in danger because of electromagnetic waves used with evil intent by communists. Perhaps they would be major proponents of the American ‘Star Wars’ missile program. All of their vans are also white and covered with numerous pieces of white paper printed with mysterious whirlpool pattern. Television footage showed the inside of the vehicles as also white with the steering wheels bandaged. As the police kept trying to move them on it became the first major confrontation between a cult and local government in Japan since the ugly Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth).

Aum Shinrikyo are the lovely cult people responsible in 1995 for the release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system that killed twelve and injured thousands of commuters. This was after they had a June 1994 trial run in Matsumoto City in Nagano where they managed to bump off seven innocent souls and harm countless others. Apparently one of the victims was singled out by the police as the main suspect. At the same time his wife was laying in a coma, the media hounds dubbed him “The Poison Gas Man”, leading to hate mail and threats against his life. Eventually the blame shifted to Aum Shinrikyo, thereby prompting an outpouring of apologies from officials and the media. Sarin is a poison nerve gas, twenty-six times more deadly than cyanide, invented by Nazi scientists prior to WWII. One drop of this substance, no bigger than a pinhead, is enough to kill a person. Saddam Hussein also used it to good effect during the 1980’s against both Iranians and rebellious Kurds. The trial of their leader Shoko Asahara (a.k.a. Chizuo Matsumoto), who denies any guilt, dragged on for years with little to show for the efforts of the prosecuting team, although by 2002, nine Aum cadres have already been sentenced to hang for their crimes.

Apart from murmuring incoherently, Asahara made virtually no statement at his trial – which opened in April 1996 – since January 1998 when he denied masterminding the gas attack and often appeared to doze during proceedings. Some sort of verdict was expected for him by mid-2003 but it was not until February 2004 when it took more than four hours for the presiding judge in Tokyo District Court to recite guilty verdicts on the thirteen charges against him and finally sentence him to death. It was reported that as the judge spoke, “Mr. Asahara, his trademark flowing black hair and beard now graying and trimmed short, reportedly crossed his arms, smiled, openly yawned, snorted, scratched his head, smelled his fingers, mumbled incoherently and muttered as if reciting mantras.” Why did they actually do this? Apparently the group has some apocalyptic type belief that “all souls should be liberated from evil habits” by killing them as an act of charity. This is one charity I would not want to support. Apparently Asahara also nurtured some deep desire to be king. Could you imagine the kind of parties at the Imperial Palace when other heads of states visited?

Before the subway attack, Mr. Asahara appeared regularly on television and in 1990 he and other members ran for Parliament. After none won, Aum built a commune at the foot of Mount Fuji, and factories to produce weapons and sarin. Members of the cult went to Australia in 1993 and 1994 to test this sarin nerve gas on sheep. They didn’t want to appear conspicuous, so they evidently turned up at Perth Airport wearing safari suits and wide brimmed hats with corks dangling from them. The upshot of their quest was that the group successfully exterminated a large number of the sheep with the gas that was eventually to be used in Tokyo and Matsumoto.

There was also a rumour flying around that they had been mining uranium on the property they owned in remote Western Australia in a primitive attempt to manufacture an atomic weapon and in 1993 a large unexplainable tremor was felt in the area. The Australian government of the time didn’t act on any of this information. I suppose because Australia is a very big country and is used to the unexplainable (see: John Howard and Steve Irwin), as well as its inhabitants and the occasional Asiatic visitor, acting strangely. The Japanese government must have also been blithely unaware. Not that much would have been done much anyway. Some of the punishments handed out are akin to being flogged with a piece of wet spaghetti.

Some people were aware of the danger and were speaking up. At one stage the cult were shown videotape of a lawyer making accusations against them by a local television network seeking comment. Shortly afterwards the lawyer and his family strangely vanished. They later turned up in shallow graves about thirty kilometres north of Omi. Punishment was nonetheless meted out in due course to the network for its indiscretion. The Daily Yomiuri stated after the ruling was handed down that,
“....the Post and Telecommunications Ministry decided Thursday to issue a “stern warning” to the television station for allowing the Aum Supreme Truth to view a videotape interview with Tsutsumi Sakamoto before he was slain. Minister Ichiro Hino is expected to announce the decision to give TBS a written warning on Friday...”
Wow, what justice. Bet that had the network shaking in their boots.

Speaking of boots, there is an old Australian saying about ‘splashing the boots’. This is from the usual literal sense of what happens when a man goes to the urinal and doesn’t bother to watch what he’s doing. And even sometimes when he does I presume the non-male readers will cry. One cold night back home in Australia my friend Rod and I were caught a bit short and decided to nip into the new public toilets built in one of Adelaide’s many fine city squares. However we were dismayed to find that it was so new a toilet attendant was in situ and collecting money for the privilege of use.
“How much mate?” asked Rod, as he bobbed up and down ever so slightly.
“Ten cents” was the reply
Never afraid of being up front Rod simply stated, “How about you just let me in? Because if you don’t I’m actually gonna flop it out here and you’ll be the one to clean up the mess.”
Rod has a way with words as you see.
“Okay” the attendant reluctantly agreed as he opened the gate, “but next time you’ll have to pay.”

Of course if we had been in Japan Rod could have “flopped it out” just about anywhere he wanted to, apart from the female toilets. If one does that in Australia you can be arrested, as was a certain high profile AFL footballer some years ago. The act of relieving oneself is much more public in Japan. Which is why toilet doors on the bullet trains contain windows. I guess it’s useful if you want to wave to passerby’s. Also because the same doors don’t have locks it means anyone wanting to come in can see you and not come in – therefore saving you the embarrassment of being seen. Huh? Even though the Japanese are not afraid to use the great outdoors it’s inside the home where toileting really comes to the fore.

The Japanese have moved on somewhat from the hole in the ground and/or squat toilet. Gaijin have generally found these kinds of toilets difficult, unless they liked working out on their calf muscles and voluntary sphincter. Even the Japanese seem to have become more used to the idea of sitting down and the attendant comfort it brings. One company recently unveiled a toilet seat that contained “electrodes that send a mild electric charge through the user’s buttocks, yielding a digital measurement of body-fat ratio.” Not to be outdone another competitor retaliated with a toilet that “…glows in the dark and whirs up its lid after an infrared sensor detects a human being.” On the horizon are ‘talking toilets’ that will be equipped with microchips. These would go beyond music, greeting each new user with a personal message, perhaps a recorded word of encouragement from their mother, boss or teacher

The New York Times reported that the giant Toto Corporation had come out with their new ‘WellyouII’ model which “…automatically measures the user’s urine sugar levels by making a collection with a little spoon held by a retractable, mechanical arm.” These results would be sent from the toilet to a doctor by an Internet-capable cellular phone built into the toilet. Naturally a competitor upped the ante by declaring that they would install devices in toilets that would measure weight, fat, blood pressure, heart beat, urine sugar, albumin and blood in the user’s urine.

However some civil libertarians in Japan began having nightmares about these ‘smart toilets’ getting out of control and e-mailing all sorts highly personal information that could up in the hands of terrorists. Or even worse, the government. In an Orwellian 1984 scenario ‘Big Brother’ could have master computers monitoring millions of bowel movements, checking around the clock to see who has diarrhea, who is not eating their vegetables and who, God forbid, is using illegal substances. Like the JET participant who leased a plot in his town’s community garden – then used it to grow marijuana. He was on a plane back home very shortly after that. So was I. But the important difference was that I was actually coming back. For a few months anyway.

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A "life in Japan" on the "JET Program" book. Find us at Niigata JET website

Tags: Japanese toilets, Smokers, Cults, Japan, Subway gas Attack, Aum Shinrikyo, Shoko Asahara, Sarin gas, Chizuo Matsumoto, Pana Wave, Junichiro Koga, Japanese politics, Komeito, vending machines, blood supplies, smart toilets

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