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                         Japan Diary

Welcome to the early days of what I hope will become a long, rambling series of observations

and reminiscences... 

Entry # 3.  October 29th, 2005

               Suizokukan: The Aquaria at Enoshima

Monday, October 10th, was a public holiday, so we took advantage of the long weekend to go and spend a couple of nights in Kamakura, visiting the Daibutsu-sama (Big Buddha), strolling on the beach, and pottering around the antique shops, enjoying a corner of Japan that has not been swathed in reinforced concrete and still retains a little old-fashioned charm.

So where better to go on a rainy Sunday morning than the aquaria at Enoshima? We set off after breakfast, parked in the underground car park nearby, and forked out the equivalent of $50 for the three of us (two adults, one child).

The first few aquaria were interesting recreations of marine environments. As a lay member of the public, I was moderately intrigued. When we came to the main aquarium, though - a monstrous affair, like a house-sized chunk of ocean in concave glass - I admit I was impressed. I'd never seen a giant aquarium like this before, and the sight of a shoal of perhaps a thousand fish a couple of inches long, followed by a monstrous ray, slowly flapping its way across my field of vision, was probably about as close as I'll ever get to experiencing deep-sea diving.

I'll confess to a feeling of disappointment, though, as it looked as if that was it - a decent half-hour's entertainment, but not much more. A lot of Japanese museums, art galleries, etc., are like that.

Not a bit of it! We were swept into a maze of galleries, all specialising in different forms of marine life, and only came to what - for us, at least - was the real high spot fairly close to the end - a collection of some two dozen tanks containing a stunning array of jellyfish.

We were all fascinated, and I swear my daughter went into a kind of trance, standing for minutes on end in front of each tank, watching different varieties of faintly luminous jellyfish pulsate hypnotically around their tanks.

It was educational, too; they had a set of mini-aquaria showing the life-cycle of the jellyfish (fascinating!) and, right at the end, a section dedicated to Edward Sylvester Morse (of whom more later).

Then we were out - not into the street again, but into the delphinarium, taking our seats for the show, which was due to begin in twenty minutes. First they put a performing seal through its paces, then they started on the dolphins. I'm quite proud to say that my daughter, with no prompting from us, walked out half-way through, upset that the animals could smell the sea but would never even get to see it, much less swim in it.

OK, now for the bookish stuff. Naturally, the starting point is E.M. Morse, who was in Kamakura during the Meiji period. Among other things, I learned from the information at Enoshima Suizokukan that Morse introduced Darwin to Meiji Japan, and one of the books that has passed through my hands in the last few months was the 1905 translation (the second). Here are some images of that book.

I love these Meiji period Western-style books. They have a solidness to them that is all their own. The colophon page (far right, above) carries the inkan (seal) of the author (or, in this case, the translator), and there is a sense that each copy is a conveyor of information of intrinsic importance.

Which, in a way, is true. There's a good book on the modernisation process in Japan called New Times in Modern Japan, by Stefan Tanaka, with a sample chapter on the Meiji period here, in which Morse gets a significant mention. For a fairly good run-down on Darwin in China and Japan, see here. The author of this piece makes a significant booboo by missing the first Japanese edition of The Origin of Species (1896), but otherwise this is a useful article.

From Morse and Darwin my thoughts naturally turn to the present, and I reflect on how far Japan has come, building on those stout Meiji foundations. I have two very good examples, illustrated below. One is a bibliographical list of publications on the subject of Japanese butterflies, and the other is a taxonomy of the freshwater biology of Japan.

It's hard to imagine there's so much to say about butterflies! The entries are unnumbered, but the book is 18x26 cm. and 5 cm. thick, with 841 pages of closely-typed entries, plus a 26-page index.

The entries include studies of Japanese butterflies by non-Japanese authors and studies by Japanese authors of non-Japanese butterflies, but the vast majority of titles - at least three quarters - are works by Japanese authors writing about Japanese butterflies.

There is no chronological index, but most of the entries postdate World War II, with a smattering of pre-war publications, occasional entries from the late 19th century (for example, one Tsuto Tsuchida published half a dozen articles on the subject in the 1890s) and little or nothing earlier than that.

This volume (by the same publisher and in the same format as the previous one) gives about as much detail as anyone could ever want, with bibliographical references, Latin nomenclature and black and white line drawings on almost every page.

Together, these two volumes are ample testimony to how far Japan has come since Morse's day. As Stefan Tanaka points out, many so-called "discoveries" about Japan are not new at all; the shell mounds that Morse is credited with discovering were well-known long before he ever went to Japan. "The principal difference is how those objects relate to knowledge", he says, and in pre-Meiji times such objects were given a magical, mythological significance, whereas now they are firmly entrenched in the logos of modern science.

Entry # 2. September 26th, 2005

                        Sekkotsuin: The Physiotherapy Clinic

All of a sudden, the seemingly endless summer has come to an end. Skies are innumerable shades of white and grey and blue-grey cloud, with little patches of light autumnal blue showing through here and there.

My wife has put down the carpet in the living room and got out all the heavy winter curtains in preparation. Soon the kerosene-sellers will be driving up and down, and we will be toasting our toes (and chestnuts and marshmallows) by the fire...

I can feel autumn in my very bones - especially my backbone, which has a way of rubbing my sciatic nerve that makes me wince. Bending down is becoming a chore and my toes seem an impossibly long distance away. Time for a visit to the sekkotsuin.

This is a place where East meets West on its own terms, and acupuncture needles and shiatsu-style massage take their place alongside all the traction and pushing and pulling that go on in a western physiotherapy clinic. Not the least of the attractions is the fact that treatment is covered by the state insurance system, and one can check in freely as often as one pleases and walk out feeling considerably better than when one walked in for around $5-$10.

Japan has a long history of combining eastern and western medical practices. Even before Japan began to be opened up to the West, after the arrival of Commodore Perry's "black ships" in 1853, Japan was absorbing western culture in various ways.

One avenue by which western ideas arrived in Japan was via China, and a little book published in Japan in 1851 illustrates the introduction of western medicine in Japan even while it was formally sakoku (a "closed country", shut off from contact with the West)...

Zentai Shinron (A New Theory of the Whole Body), was written by Benjamin Hobson and published in kanbun (Sino-Japanese) in 1851. The above pictures are from the second edition (1857).

Hobson (1816-73) spent many years in China as a missionary and medical doctor, and was a pioneer in the field of introducing western medical science to China, especially concerning issues relating to pregnancy and childbirth.

One of the copies currently in my possession contains painstaking handwritten transcriptions of the more obscure and technical kanji characters into kana (phonetic script) or into more modern variant kanji readings, indicating that the book continued to be of practical usefulness many years after it was first published.

There are times when one can feel that Japan has gone too far overboard in embracing western allopathy, but a visit to the sekkotsuin gives reassurance that, under the surface, the Japanese traditions are still very much alive.


Entry # 1. September 19th, 2005

                     Tsukimi: Moon-viewing

Last night was the September full moon, an occasion traditionally celebrated in Japan by parties under the stars. In some places, the August full moon is still celebrated in this way, but these days most people celebrate tsukimi in September.

After supper, we went out onto the balcony and sat eating tsukimi dango (little dumplings made from a kind of rice dough filled with anko, sweet adzuki bean paste) from lacquered plates with lacquered forks. According to tradition, we should have been drinking sake, but we didn't feel like it, and drank hatomugi cha (a kind of grain tea) instead.

In olden days, there would be large groups of people sitting among orchards or by riverbanks, and many towns have a district named Tsukimi, where people would gather and sit drinking and talking all night under the stars. These days, though, for most people - including us - it is just a quiet half-hour on a balcony or by an open window, and there are probably many people who do not observe it at all.

Of course, I had to spoil things by jumping downstairs and rummaging around in a trunk for an old book...

The book was Fujo no Gyokushou (Letter-Writing for Ladies), by Ryouzan Kubota, published in a traditional Japanese fukurotoji binding in Meiji 34 (1901).

Kubota was the author of several educational books during the Meiji period, but so far I have not been able to track down any copies of this book in holding libraries in Japan or elsewhere.

The book consists of model letters of the kind society ladies might write on several occasions, one of the occasions being tsukimi (shown in the picture on the left).

The top part of the page is instructions for letter-writing, written in kanbun (Sino-Japanese), a script which has more or less fallen into complete disuse, though some older people can just about decipher it. The rest of the page is a model letter, showing how one might appropriately and politely show appreciation of a tsukimi ceremony.

While turning the pages, a couple of handmade cut-out figures fell out (also shown in the picture), evidently made by a little girl. She had even written what I like to think is her name (Hanako Satou) on the back of one of them (perhaps the other is her sister).

We sat on the balcony in the moonlight and thought about Hanako. I suppose she must be a very old lady now, if indeed she is still alive. It seems curious that her cut-outs are dressed in such a Western fashion, tucked as they are into the leaves of a book that is so profoundly resonant of a Japan steeped in traditions that have vanished.

Even the sky we are looking up at is not the same sky as she would have seen in her childhood...

In the Meiji period there was very little street lighting. Instead, people were required by law to carry a chouchin (lantern) around with them. This means the stars would have shone far more brightly than they do in urban areas today.

The only time that street lighting was used extensively was when there was a festival, when lanterns such as the one pictured here would line the streets. A traveller of the time, Laura B. Starr, describes passing through a town at festival time, and riding "through a stretch of lanterned street that seemed like fairyland" (Cosmopolitan Magazine, 1894). Being in a jinrikisha (rickshaw) in urban areas at night, with each sojourner lit up by a hand-held lantern, she describes as "a new experience, and a wild, weird sensation obtainable nowhere else". And now, I suppose, nowhere at all.

I suppose the closest in my own experience would be Sri Lanka at night, but there there were no lanterns, just low crooning sounds in the darkness as people reassured each other that their intentions were friendly, as they moved around the neighbourhood after dark.


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