93-year-old Japanese woman gifts ambulance worth 2.7 million yen to local fire station


RocketNews 24:

When you’re ill or your life is in danger, it’s natural to feel gratitude towards those who aided your recovery or saved your life. But what do you do to show your gratitude?

One elderly woman from Nara Prefecture, Japan, felt so grateful to the ambulances who often help her, that she decided to donate a brand new ambulance to her local fire station. And it wasn’t just any ambulance – this was a top-of-the-line model worth 2.7 million yen (over US$22,000)!

93-year-old Fukuko Kitamuro donated the state-of-the-art ambulance to the Yoshino Town fire department as a way of saying thanks for helping her in times she was sick or injured.

What makes this ambulance special is that it has a 2,600cc engine, four-wheel-drive capabilities, a larger interior than normal ambulances, and is equipped with ventilators and other devices which would allow paramedics to perform life-saving procedures while en route to the hospital.

The local fire department already had four ambulances, but was able to replace one of its older models with the new one Ms. Kitamuro donated. The vice superintendent of the prefectural fire fighting association and the Yoshino Town mayor expressed their gratitude for the generous gift, and Japanese net users had lots of good things to say about her as well:

“Such a cool old woman!”

“I want to be like her.”

“That’s such a great way to put her assets to use.”

“What a nice old woman. I hope she lives a long life.”

Many of Japan’s 16 UNESCO World Heritage sites fly under the radar

RocketNews 24:

Did you know that Japan has 16 locations on the list of UNESCO World Heritages? Could you name them all with any sum of money on the line?

Survey Research Center, Co. Ltd. conducted a survey that showed that most people could not. When asked whether they were interested in Japan’s world heritages, 67.8% of those surveyed responded affirmatively. However, only 4% of respondents knew all 16 Japanese sites.

See how many you can name before looking at the list below:

1. Yakushima [Kagoshima Prefecture]

2. Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) [Hiroshima Prefecture]

3. Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Ryukyu Islands [Okinawa Prefecture]

4. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine [Hiroshima Prefecture]

5. Shiretoko [Hokkaido Prefecture]

6. Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land [Iwate Prefecture]

7. Ogasawara Islands [Tokyo Metropolis]

8. Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama [Gifu Prefecture]

9. Himeji-jo [Hyogo Prefecture]

10. Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape [Shimane Prefecture]

11. Shirakami-Sanchi [Akita and Aomori Prefectures]

12. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area [Nara Prefecture]

13. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) [Kyoto Prefecture]

14. Shrines and Temples of Nikko [Tochigi Prefecture]

15. Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara [Nara Prefecture]

16. Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range [Nara, Wakayama and Mie Prefectures]

How did you do? You might have noticed that both natural locations and manmade structures can qualify as world heritages.

The survey also showed that over half of Japanese tourists add the option of visiting a world heritage site when they take a tour on vacation.

Find out more about world heritage sites by watching “The World Heritage” on TBS at 6 a.m. on Sunday, November 27. The first program will focus on natural heritages, and the program that airs on Sunday, December 4 will deal with cultural assets.

Watching these shows and learning more about world heritages will surely enrich your mind and deepen your appreciation of Japanese history, and they may even give you some ideas for your next trip within Japan.

Source: TBS “The World Heritage”

Profile: Essayist Masako Shirasu helped define the tastes of postwar Japan in almost every aspect of aesthetics and design

Japan Times:

If you use beautiful things every day, you will naturally cultivate an eye for beautiful things without giving it a second thought. In the end, you will be repelled when you encounter the ugly and the fake. If only all Japan would come to see this, how much more joyous our lives would be and how genial and gentle people would be!”

Few Japanese lived a life in closer contact with everyday beauty than the woman who penned these words, Masako Shirasu, and I suspect that no Japanese has as much to tell us today about how to revitalize a culture caught in the cul-de-sac of value stagnation.

She published more than 50 books during her lifetime, although she did not start writing in earnest until she was in her early 30s. Her complete collected works, published by Shinchosha in 2001-02, include more than 60 books, not counting those she co-authored.

She defined the tastes of postwar Japan in almost every aspect of aesthetics and design. Yet despite the immense erudition underpinning her principles and the uncommon elegance of her style, she was totally lacking in pretense and affectation.

I believe, without a doubt, culture to be something that exists in the life of every single person as a part of their life from one day to another,” she wrote in a notebook in 1947. “Being faithful to yourself and becoming engrossed in your work, that’s culture.”

The evolution of this iconic figure from pampered little princess to Japan’s premier advocate of the simple, the austere and the unadorned in Japanese art brings to light a remarkable story.

Masako was born on Jan. 7, 1910, in a mansion at Nagatacho, Tokyo. Both of her grandfathers were admirals in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Just 2½ years before the death of Emperor Meiji, Japan was on the cusp of monumental change both domestically and internationally. Cultural and political democratization were to be the hallmarks of the new Taisho Era (1912-26), and the Japanese people aspired to be the equals, on the world stage, of the dominant European powers. And yet the society itself had only half-emerged out of the hard shell of the feudalism that had confined its progressive growth for centuries.

Masako had a foot in both camps from a very early age. At the age of 4, she began taking lessons in noh theater, the ritualistic performance art that had come to be the symbol of staid refinement during the Edo Period (1603-1867). When she was 14, she became the first female to perform on a noh stage. At the same age, she left Japan to enter school in the United States.

She studied at Hartridge School (now Wardlaw-Hartridge School) in New Jersey. Hartridge was known as a girls’ prep school for the exclusive Vassar College. Her experiences there, and at summer camp in Massachusetts among the privileged classes, turned her into a cultivated native speaker of English. But they weren’t to last long.

Her father, a man of stalwart morality and, apparently, unending generosity, lost his money in business, and Masako was forced to sail back to Japan in 1928. As fate would have it, another bankruptcy — that of the father of Jiro Shirasu — also saw the young son returning to Japan from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom the same year. Once back home in Japan, Masako and Jiro met and were married the next year, when she was 19.

Jiro, born on Feb. 17, 1902, was more than 6 feet (183 cm) tall, devastatingly handsome and a man of highly sophisticated westernized tastes. He had been sent to the United Kingdom after graduating middle school and had immediately taken to the lifestyle of the country gentleman, driving a Bentley around town and racing a Bugatti on weekends. Up to the end of his life in 1985, he drove a Porsche about the Japanese countryside.

When, shortly after the war, he was appointed by Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida as councillor of the Central Liaison Office and given the task of being go-between for Yoshida with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers, Masako called him “a straightforward obstinate samurai,” a fitting adversary to the pontifical general. A little later, Jiro played an instrumental role in laying the groundwork for Japan’s postwar economic recovery as deputy head of the Economic Stabilization Agency. (Incidentally, Jiro worked, for a time, for The Japan Advertiser, an English-language newspaper that was absorbed by The Japan Times in 1940.)

But Masako and her obstinate samurai both realized as early as 1940 that Japan was destined to lose the war in Asia. Concluding in 1942 that Tokyo was bound to suffer mass destruction, they purchased a dilapidated thatched-roof farmhouse in what is now Machida, then a village located away from potential targets. There, at least, they could grow their own food while they waited for the war to end. They collected butterbur sprouts, myōga (Japanese ginger) and seri (Japanese parsley) from nearby fields, ate bamboo shoots from their backyard garden and baked bread from homemade flour. (This house, called Buaiso, is now a museum that is open to the public.)

Masako’s sharp eye on the mores of her people can be seen clearly in something she wrote in “Shirasu Masako Jiden” (“The Autobiography of Masako Shirasu”):

During the war there was a thing called the tonarigumi (neighborhood association). They would come to the aid of people in need. I didn’t take to this institution. The Japanese may be an honest people, but when they start helping you they also begin to tell you what to do. That’s fine up to a point, but it gradually escalates and they are soon telling you what you have to like and dislike and what you have to do in your daily life. All of a sudden, your clothes are too loud or your manicure too conspicuous. We are still a people like this even though the era has changed.

“The government and the military were overly optimistic and thought you could protect yourself against bombing by passing around buckets and waving broomsticks in the air. When we left the city, the word sokai (evacuation) was not yet in use, and anyone who escaped from Tokyo was labelled a traitor.”

It was the experience of living in the farmhouse, I believe, that transformed Masako, instilling in her the sense of what is absolutely necessary to survive in body and spirit. After all, the Japanese aesthetic is founded on the essence of all things.

Not long after the war she met brilliant men such as Hideo Kobayashi, Japan’s foremost literary critic; antiques’ guru Jiro Aoyama, about whom she subsequently wrote a book; and Hidemi Kon, author and, from 1968, the first director of the newly-created Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Masako blossomed as a fiercely original essayist on all subjects relating to culture. Late in life, Jiro wrote of her, “My old lady is amazing. Everyone else just reads about a place without going there, but she always sets out to wherever it is even just to write a few pages about the place. No one does that anymore.”

When Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, she left the capital for Shikoku to walk the island on a pilgrimage to its many temples. She visited scores of out-of-the-way places in Japan to view old noh masks. These masks are primarily held in private collections, and owners are reluctant to send them away for display. In preparation for a ground-breaking study of the old temples and stone art in rural Nara described in a book titled “Kakurezato” (“Hidden Village”), she made monthly trips to the area over a period of years and trod every path there.

The key to understanding her passion for Japanese art can be found here, in the rough beaten paths leading to it.

As noh theater has its hashigakari (bridge to the stage) and kabuki its hanamichi (runway from the stage through the auditorium),” she wrote, “life’s charm is not a result but rather the journey toward a result.”

She saw Japanese art, in all its spare simplicity, as an unending process leading to natural imperfection.

He hates being called an auteur or a ceramic artist and never uses the word ‘a work of art’ when talking about his pots,” she wrote of the renowned Iga-ware potter Masatake Fukumori in her book “Nihon no Takumi” (“The Ingeniousness of Japan”). “The reason why he became so interested in food is because he wanted to create the plates to put it on.

Her entire life she was attracted to the act of creativity, focusing on the creators and their pure relationship to their materials. “What we need is not artists but artisans,” she wrote in 1947, referring to the craft of dyeing, but applying the statement to all the arts. “People attempt to create art and fail. If you create something with great skill, it may very well result in art.”

She went so far as to view nature through the lens of its fashioning at the hands of those artisans. She professed a love for things that displayed an ubuna (artless) art. She loved the phrase hana o ikeru (arrange flowers) because of its connotation of “bringing flowers to life.”

The fleeting nature of the flower,” she wrote, “is brought to life for the first time as the perfect harmony of stillness and movement, immutability and fluidity, thanks to the vase it’s in.”

And there you have it: It is the artificial container that gives life to nature as a medium to experience something spiritual and profound. The vessel is the message. Nature gives rise to art, and art illuminates it in return.

She spent more than half a century after the war probing the relationship between nature and art, concluding that “there is nothing in the world as all-encompassing as Japanese nature. Religion, art, history and literature are latent within it.”

She was a superb dresser drawn to the craft of fabric making, in her later years favoring clothes designed by Missoni. She traveled extensively around Iran, France, Spain and Hungary.

She was a lover of Japanese cuisine who said, “Eat what you feel like eating all the time. Those food connoisseurs and gourmets who glow with self-satisfaction give me the creeps.”

At Katsuragi, Nara Prefecture, she went straight back to the very roots of Japan’s culture, from the time before influences from China and Korea swayed it.

Nothing stirs the human imagination as the primeval natural landscape and faith as found in Katsuragi,” she wrote in “Kakurezato.” And yet her library of some 10,000 items — a collection that is still preserved at Buaiso — has a great many books relating to world culture, from texts in Latin to Proust and Gide, from Dostoevsky to Elle.

Masako died on Dec. 26, 1998, and is buried at Shingetsuin Temple in Mita City, Hyogo Prefecture, beside her husband, Jiro, who predeceased her by 13 years.

She stands as a prime and perfect symbol — I would even go as far as to say, a beacon of light — for the coming decades in Japan, where a renewal of the spirit is the sine qua non of social and economic regeneration. I think she should appeal to young Japanese, this fascinating and free-spirited woman who wrote:

Looking back, it seems that I’ve spent my whole life dawdling by the wayside, from one road to another. . . . I may have lost something on the way, but I think I have gained more.”

4 Things women are banned from doing in Japan

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Women have been prohibited from doing certain things (entering places, using facilities, etc.) for as long as civilization has existed. Restrictions are still common, albeit usually in religious contexts only. While religions themselves evolve and change with the times and bans are lifted, it doesn’t mean all of them get an update.

As women, we all know the purported reasons behind these bans: women are “impure” because we menstruate (the same impure biological process that allows us to give life to men), we are the physically weaker sex, and we distract men with our beauty. Yada, yada, yada.

Today, in our Women in Japan Series, we take a look at four things women are still not allowed to do in Japan. I’ve divided them into bans and semi-bans. Bans allow no women; semi-bans allow women–but only sometimes.

Of course, it’s high time these restrictions were lifted. While much headway has been made in the past, such as the lifting of the rule preventing women from climbing Mount Fuji, other bans are proving more stubborn despite protests by Japanese women’s groups. Will these restrictions be lifted anytime soon? Only the Japanese people can decide.

1. Ban: Climbing to the top of Mount Omine

Mt. Omine

Reason: Women are a “distraction”

If you’ve ever dreamed of climbing Mount Omine in Nara Prefecture (officially known as Mt. Sanjo)–a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the 100 most famous mountains in Japan–we hope you’re not a woman. You might be surprised to learn that UNESCO doesn’t take gender into consideration when awarding World Heritage status, but heritage sites that ban the entire female race can be found in Burma, India, and Greece as well as Japan.

Mt. Omine won World Heritage status as part of a larger category of Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. In fact, the popular Kumano Pilgrimage route goes through the sacred area but makes allowances for women hiking through this part. They are still prohibited, however, from climbing up to Ominesanji Temple at the top of the mountain.

This interdiction is carried over from the old days when, according to Shinto tradition, it was felt that women’s alluring nature would distract male pilgrims from their ascetic duties. Well, perhaps all women were drop-dead gorgeous then, or maybe during those days it was de rigueur for women to hike around naked. But that’s certainly not the case today. Besides, you’d think the real test of a pilgrim seeking religious purity via the strict denial of worldly pleasures, would be to insist that he strictly deny himself worldly pleasures!

▼This sign says: nyonin kekkai (女人結界), or “Women Banned”

women banned

 ▼Just in case you don’t believe us, here’s a sign straight from the temple, complete with translation especially for foreign enchantresses.

Women banned sign

For information on updates to this rule, I made a quick call to Oku Japan, who runs off-the-beaten-track tours to places such as the Kumano Pilgrimage. One of their female guides confirmed the exclusion and said that in recent years they have started taking steps to soften it. She says that while it’s unlikely anyone would try to stop you from entering the mountain path, the local people still take pride in the rule and there may be friction if you enter. She doesn’t recommend pushing the limits.

At any rate, despite the edict seeming inimical to tourism, who are we to decide what local people should allow and not allow within their heritage sites? And one should never disrespectfully trample upon religious traditions. But we can still hope that more softening will take place to the degree of baby softness, and that women will be able to hike up the mountain some day, even while menstruating.

There is one part of the mountain, called Mount Inamura (稲村ヶ岳) that is sometimes referred to as Nyonin Omine (女人大峯), or “Women’s Ōmine,” reserved for ladies. Let’s hope there’s a bar set up there with sake and hors d’oeuvres.


2. Ban: Entering the sumo ring, taking part in sumo competitions and rituals


Reason: women violate the purity of the sumo ring

The Sumo Association claims that since women have traditionally not been allowed to take part in sumo activities through the centuries, that it would be a dishonor to all of their ancestors to change it. Well, that pretty much seals the case since we can’t get permission from the ancestors. Or can we? Why not get in touch with the Itako fortunetellers of Aomori Prefecture, known for their ability to talk with the dead? Surely this is just a formality and all she has to do is run the idea past the sumo ancestors. With the impressive Japanese women in martial arts these days, and the recent ignominy from a decade of scandals, you’d think women would get tacit approval from the ancestors as well. Besides, there have been suggestions that women’s sumo did play a role in some Shinto rituals in the past, so we could clear that up at the same time. Hey, it’s worth a try because as it stands now, women are not allowed to enter the sumo ring even to present prizes to the wrestlers (and yes, women are chosen to give prizes).

And, as with most things that claim women are impure, we’re not that impure since we’re expected to assist our sumo wrestler spouses in their duties, and, should we be married to a stable master, to dedicate our time to helping out those training under him. So there you go: “Behind every successful man is a supportive (impure) woman.”

I might even be fine with excluding women from the sumo ring if the law were a bit more fungible and allowed women to create their own professional league. This is truly long overdue since women’s sumo, called onnazumo, has been around as an amateur sport since the early 18th century. It is now a modern female sport in Japan that includes women of all ages. Yet it is still forbidden from having professional status.


3. Semi-Ban: Staying in capsule hotels

capsule hotel

Reason: Targeted towards businessmen

You may have heard that many of Japan’s capsule hotels are men-only. That’s not true; almost all are men-only. To most people it’s enough to say that the rule doesn’t exist anymore because there are now capsule hotels that allow women. But if a woman just randomly rocks up to a capsule hotel, she’s going to be turned away 99 times out of 100. So it’s more correct to say that women are still not permitted at most capsule hotels.

This budget accommodation, where you stay inside a capsule-like tube, used to be the exclusively for males because such it targeted business men and those who drank until late enough at night to have missed the last train home to the suburbs (the occasional drunk business woman presumably had to either sleep in the gutter or hope she had enough money left over to stay at a higher priced hotel). Some capsule hotels are recognizing that women also work long hours and tend to drink and miss the last train home, and thus have added women’s floors. But not many. Don’t expect to find any that accept females in the countryside. I know–I slept outside once while on the Shikoku Pilgrimage because all the local hotels were full and the one nearby capsule hotel didn’t accept women.

Here are a few female-friendly capsule hotels with English websites: Asahi Plaza in Osaka. Green Plaza in Tokyo and Nine Hours which has long been one of our favorites and has two locations: Narita Airport and Kyoto.

4. Semi-Ban: Becoming sushi chefs

sushi chef

Reason: Women’s hands are too warm, so could ruin the flavor of the sushi.

This subject has been discussed in much detail in several English media outlets, and it was declared an urban myth by National Public Radio in the U.S.. But the fact remains that many Japanese people still believe women shouldn’t be sushi chefs. And while men are happy to have their wives make sushi at home, the denizens of the kitchen are rarely seen preparing it at restaurants, considered to be the domain of male chefs.

Jiro Ono, owner of the Michelin 3-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, has a son who told Speakeasy (the Wall Street Journal blog) that women shouldn’t become sushi chefs because they menstruate. In the interview he said, “To be a professional means to have a steady taste in your food, but because of the menstrual cycle women have an imbalance in their taste, and that’s why women can’t be sushi chefs.” He didn’t elaborate on their chances of becoming sushi chefs after menopause.

Of course this is just pabulum to appease the restaurant elites. We know the truth–put a beautiful woman behind the sushi bar and you’ll sell a lot more sushi!

Well, with all the ballyhoo about menstruation and impurity, it’s a wonder women can succeed in anything at all. Yet we do, all by our little menstrual selves. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a busy schedule today distracting ascetics and pandering my feminine charm to any male passerby–it’s all in a typical day of a pre-menopausal woman!