BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
OSAKA, Japan – The queen city of the Kansai plain, Osaka – with its 8.7 million citizens (prefecture-wide) – is not a beautiful metropolis on the Tokyo scale, but it is an exciting, vibrant, boisterous city where people enjoy life, food, and business.

Here, everyone is on the go – the train and subway systems are user-friendly. Rain or shine (it’s rainy today), the underground teems with commuters. The hub of everything is the Osaka-eki, or simply Osaka station (not to be confused with the Shin-Osaka station where the Shinkansen bullet trains stop and go).

At Osaka station complex in Umeda, three train lines, i.e. the JR or Japan Rail, Hankyu and Hanshin lines converge to link up with the three main north-south subway lines. Naturally, the trains empty into the entrances of two great department stores – they’re called, what else? depato in Nippongo. The first is the Hanshin department store and the other, now a bit seedy is the grand Hankyu department store. These multi-storied retail leviathans begin on train and subway level with a food section where you can buy any sort of hot meal and eat it, standing up, on the spot. Yeah, there’s a McDonald’s, too, inside the food section where Osakans can stoke up on those mega-calorie burgers and fries. (I saw a small boy consume a Big Mac, a bag of fries, chicken – then get a portion of Okonomiyaki from his papa).

I never miss grabbing an Okonomiyaki, the kansai "omelette-pancake" whenever I happen to get to Osaka, Kobe or Kyoto. The name really means "cook what you like" – and you can do it yourself with a spatula to stir pieces of meat, seafood and vegetables into a cabbage and vegetable batter. But let the cook do it for you. Otherwise you’ll end up with smoke in your face and hair, smelling of smokey cabbage.

The Hanshin department store is awash in Santa Claus and Christmas chocolates and cookies. The store windows are festooned with cute little kids with wings in Santa costumes, and the cheery greeting, "Merry Christmas!" Every floor has white or evergreen Christmas trees, all alight, while X’mas peagants are portrayed at every corner. All bunting, balls, and wreathes of holly. Ho, Ho, Ho, the Osakans love Santa and the Christmas "sale" atmosphere. They think it’s cute, and the Japanese worship cuteness. Women announcers invariably affect cute little-girl voices, to carry this cute-adulation too far. But, by golly, why not?

Not to be outdone, next-door Hankyu depato has "Joyeux Noel" and French Christmas pictures all over the place. There are scenes of bateaux mouche on the Seine with Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower in the background. Other paintings feature the Moulin Rouge, inevitably over the jolly greeting, "Joyeaux Noel!"

Christmas has hit Osaka with a bang and a flourish. Jingle bells resound everywhere. Nobody thinks or talks about North Korea and the nuclear threat, or the missile problem.
* * *
In Japan, the first thing you’ll notice is that people are disciplined. They queue up patiently without question. They wait for the cashier to finish with the customer ahead without a frown, or any pushy aggression on their faces. Going up or down on escalators, they stand on the right side in single fashion, so they can leave the left side clear for anybody who needs to rush up on the left. When getting on trains, they begin queuing up once the melody sounds announcing the impending arrival of the train they’re awaiting. On subway and train coaches nowadays, an announcement of the next stop in Japanese is usually followed by the same announcement in English (Eigo) so Gaijin and other foreigners can understand what’s going on.

I say "Gaijin and others, because "Gaijin" generally connotes Caucasian white foreigners, as in foreign devils.

There’s a flip side to all this discipline and courtesy stuff, as you’ll also discover if you begin to understand the Japanese. The Japanese are racist – especially since 99 percent of all who live in their islands belong to their race, the Yamato race. (Descended, legend goes, from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami). For instance, about all the Panchinko parlors – those ever-popular pinball games which ring night and day, at night in neon-bathed glory – are ethnic Koreans. Whether these are Koreans born and raised in Japan, either nisei (second generation) or sansei (third generation), the Japanese refer to Koreans in the derogatory tone, Chosun-jin. Many of the footsoldiers of the Yakuza, the criminal syndicates, are Chosun-jin and are referred to in slang as chimpira or "pricks." They’re the guys with the occasional missing finger. The Oyabun or Bosses (Godfathers) never miss a finger, are attired in Savile-row type suits, and send their sons to Harvard, Princeton and perhaps Oxford.

Cheery Osaka is the hometown of the most powerful Yakuza gangs the Yamaguchi-gumi which was founded in the 1920s. One guidebook says that the police estimates over 150,00 Yakuza members in 2,000 gangs are affiliated with Yakuza conglomerate groups. The Yakuza now has alliances and ties with Chinese triads, the Sicilian and US Mafiosi, drug cartels, and other racketeering syndicates abroad. They have accumulated immense wealth and allegedly funelled over $10 billion in legitimate investments in Europe and the United States.

The Yakuza’s origins, it’s said, really date back to the 1600s, when unemployed Samurai or ronin went about terrorizing local folk with their long katana or swords, and extorting tribute and other "favors" from them. Subsequently, the military rulers of Japan, the Shoguns hired some of them, called bakuto to do odd jobs, such as gambling with laborers so as to cheat them of their wages and give the Shoguns an extra cash windfall. It was these bakuto who initiated the sordid practice of finger-cutting, called yubitsume as an act of penitence for error or an apology to the Boss. They also introduced tattooing. Many Yakuza gangsters contract hepatitis from this rampant tattooing all over their bodies, one doctor, who handled many such patients, confided to me.

I arrived in Kobe in January 1995, a week after a terrible earthquake had devastated that great port city (half an hour by train from Osaka) and the firestorm generated killed 6,000 persons. The Yakuza, quick to spot a public relations opportunity (and being charitable-minded as is their custom) were the first on the scene of the disaster to underwrite medical aid. They established clinics in their local headquarters, and aid stations, passing out food, water, blankets and other relief supplies to the quake-hit population. Robin Hoods they were – just as on most other occasions they’re robbing hoods.
* * *
Other contradictions in Japanese society are seen with children. As I mentioned in yesterday’s column, Japanese kids appear to be the best-behaved in the world – a trait they obviously picked up from their parents. In contrast, however, in the schoolyard, some of them – girls, not only boys become bullies. Bullying is so prevalent that school boys and school girls frequently hang themselves, i.e. commit suicide in desperation and despair. Last Friday, two 14-year old junior high school boys were found hanged in separate and apparent suicide cases in Fukuoka Prefecture – a city which is the final stop on the Shinkansen line.

In the same prefecture, a 10-year old schoolgirl was victimized by some of her elementary school classmates who demanded 100,000 yen – the equivalent of about $1,000. In her desperation she also took her own life.

I believe a letter written to The Japan Times and published yesterday says it all.

It was written from Honolulu by Harvey Hakoda, and the editors entitled it: "Japanese Spirit has Emigrated."’

Hakoda complained: "Although I am a third-generation Japanese American who has lived in Japan and traveled there more than 20 times, I cannot comprehend how bullying has become so institutionalized."

"How can teachers sit and watch bullying take place without dragging the perpetrators to the principal’s office for suspension? I also don’t understand how Japanese teachers can teach a factual subject like history by distorting the events that took place in Asia in the first half of the 20th century. It is also bewildering to see so many adults on commuter trains read comic books." (Manga, he means).

"Could the root of this affliction be related to the abundance of deviant motorcycle gangs among school dropouts? Finally, I am shocked to read that Japanese students of Korean ancestry are prohibited from competing in Japanese regional and national sports competitions. What is going on?"

"I submit that the Japanese who have emigrated to foreign countries carry on the true Japanese spirit and culture. Many of the departed could not tolerate Japanese militarism, women’s social bondage, the existence of Yakuza in Japanese society and other social deviations. The Japanese who remained in Japan have become overly restrained with un-Japanese social mores."

By golly, Harvey. You’ve put the question – where is the answer?

Anyway, one happy contradiction is the fact that 98 percent of the Osakans are Buddhists, Shintoists and even atheists – but they thoroughly enjoy "Merry Christmas."











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