Saturday, April 23, 2011

Less Neon in Tokyo

With rolling blackouts and a more concerted effort to conserve energy since the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis in Japan, Tokyo's neon isn't shining as brightly these days. In this video by YouTube user darwinfish105, you can see how significantly this changes major neighborhoods of Tokyo.

A Month After the Quake and Tsunami, Baseball Begins in Japan

This story originally appeared in Baseball Reflections on April 20, 2011.

In Tokyo and throughout eastern Japan, offices are a little darker, and fewer escalators are running in an attempt to conserve electricity. But cherry blossoms are in full bloom, a sign of spring, rebirth, and renewal. Another sign of spring – and, ultimately, a return to business as usual ­– is the start of Nippon Professional Baseball’s 2011 season. After postponing opening day, which was originally scheduled for March 28, baseball in Japan began on April 12, one month and one day after the horrific earthquake and tsunami destroyed villages and lives in Japan’s Tohoku region northeast of Tokyo.

Cherry Blossoms in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Photo by Ed Peterman

Aftershocks greeted players and fans during the first game, a reminder that the disaster is still fresh. But they played on, and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, the team most directly affected by the events of March 11, won its first game against the defending Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines. The Eagles’ home stadium is located in Sendai, near the quake’s epicenter, and sustained considerable damage: Cracked walls, flooded suites, fallen office ceilings. As a result, the Sendai-based team will play its home games in the Osaka area until further notice.

Rakuten’s opening-day starter was Hisashi Iwakuma, the pitcher who was this close to leaving NPB for the Oakland Athletics. Former major leaguer Kaz Matsui, who joined the Eagles in the offseason, played his first game in Japan since 2003. He and his fellow Eagles visited tsunami-ravaged areas and were impressed by the strength of the survivors. The team has become the darlings of the season, bringing inspiration to a region and a country that has suffered great heartache. As of this writing, the Eagles are 4-2, good for first place in the Pacific League.

Attendance was understandably down in the first week of the new season, but fans did make the effort to watch baseball, some driving fifteen hours to see their favorite teams. A few even made the trek from the United States to see games and show their support. Ed Peterman of San Diego is currently in Japan as part of JapanBall, a group that ushers groups on Japanese baseball trips. Peterman and three others from the States joined JapanBall organizers Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith to experience Japanese baseball for one week. (Two others dropped out before the tour began, presumably due to the recent tragedies.)
As the NPB has asked teams and stadiums to conserve as much energy as possible, Bavasi had to adjust the itinerary to accommodate more day games. The group has felt several significant aftershocks in Tokyo, “Five in the 5.4+ range and two above 7.1,” says Peterman, but they have traveled from Tokyo to points west via bullet train with no issues.

Beer Vendor at Meiji Jingu Stadium, Tokyo. Photo by Ed Peterman

Peterman says, “The mood at the games has been very enthusiastic . . . and things appear to be normal.” After seeing a game at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, Peterman and his fellow Japanese baseball enthusiasts took in a contest between the Orix Buffaloes and the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Koshien Stadium, which the hometown Hanshin Tigers are sharing during this crisis. The group also saw the Tigers and the Chunichi Dragons at the Nagoya Dome, where, according to the website Yakyu Baka, 34,329 fans were in attendance.

Koshien Stadium, temporary home of the Rakuten Golden Eagle. Photo by Ed Peterman

With no NPB games scheduled on Monday, the members of the tour enjoyed a day of sightseeing in Kyoto, the historic city of temples. The weather was pleasant, and the city welcomed the tourists during a time when foreigners are reluctant to travel to Japan.

Cherry blossoms in Kyoto. Photo by Ed Peterman

Is Japan back to normal? Hardly, but cherry blossoms and baseball are helping to make the transition.

What's Baseball's Place in the Crisis in Japan?

This story originally appeared in Baseball Reflections on March 29, 2011.

It’s common knowledge that on March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, and a subsequent tsunami with waves reaching more than 30 feet devoured the island nation’s northeastern coast. Faced with the daunting tasks of finding the thousands still missing, providing shelter for the hundreds of thousands left homeless, and staving off an impending nuclear catastrophe, baseball is probably the last thing on most people’s minds. Or is it?

Most of the teams in Nippon Professional Baseball are located to the south and west of the Tohoku region where the disaster struck, with the exception of the Nippon Ham Fighters of Hokkaido and the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Sendai. Far north of the devastation, the Fighters’ stadium in Sapporo was not in harm’s way. However, the Eagles’ home, Nippon Seishi Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, sustained damage. While cleanup and repairs are done to the charming 22,000-seat stadium, the Eagles will likely play their home games in Kobe, 400 miles away. The earthquake also damaged plumbing at the Chiba Lotte Marines’ stadium and caused liquefaction in the stadium’s parking lot.

In an interview on NPR, Marty Kuehnert, senior advisor to the Rakuten Golden Eagles and vice president of Sendai University, estimates “a month to a month-and-a-half of repairs. And that’s when we can get construction crews there to start the repairs.” Kuehnert, a resident of Sendai, was in his apartment when the earthquake struck, knocking all of the books from their shelves and dishes and glasses from their cabinets. 

The Rakuten Golden Eagles' home stadium in Sendai, which sustained damage in the earthquake

Less than a week after the earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region, Kuehnert relocated to Kyoto with his wife and their seven-year-old daughter due to the precarious situation at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, about 60 miles south of Sendai. “The nuclear reactor problem in Fukushima is huge,” Kuehnert said via e-mail from his father-in-law’s home. “We can’t even consider going back to Sendai until that is resolved.”

The city of Sendai in 2010

Given these issues, NPB’s Pacific League, of which Rakuten and Chiba Lotte are a part, decided to postpone opening day, originally slated for March 25, until April 12. At first the Central League wasn’t cooperative. Since the cities that are home to the six CL teams did not suffer the same hardships as northeastern Japan, officials saw no reason to delay the season. After criticism from both players and the government, the CL relented, agreeing to push opening day back, but by only four days, to March 29. Jason Coskrey, a sports writer for The Japan Times, scolded the CL for not standing “in solidarity with the six PL clubs.” Reaching the reporter on Twitter, I asked him about the NPB situation. In fewer than 140 characters, he replied, “Baseball issue is getting heated, govt stepping in an all. CL is really gung-ho to get going . . .”

The pressure from the government worked; the Central League heeded the government’s request and agreed to start the season on April 12.

Now that the season opener is resolved, just how important is it to play baseball? The US struggled with the same dilemma after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Just as some questioned the place of sports during a national tragedy in the US, some feel baseball is secondary to what Japan is facing right now. Others think that in a baseball-mad country, the sport will unify the Japanese and strengthen their resolve.
“Of course it is important we have a season in Japan,” says Wayne Graczyk, a Japan Times columnist who covers the Yomiuri Giants for Nippon TV. Graczyk remembers how the Orix BlueWave, led by Ichiro Suzuki, inspired the hometown crowd in Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. “Many people have cited the healing baseball will provide, and then there is the economic thing to consider as well.”

So after a brief delay, baseball in Japan will soldier on, but not without taking a few precautions. Since the country’s energy system is overtaxed, the NPB rescheduled night games to be played during the day. “Although lights are needed even for day games in domes,” says Graczyk, “they will do what they can to save power but keep it safe for the players.” In addition, there will be no extra-inning games.

As the situation in Japan remains dire, fans hope baseball will steer them on the road to recovery, even for only three hours a day.

Ema, or prayer boards, for the Eagles at a Shinto shrine in Sendai (2010). The Eagles – as well as all of Japan – need prayers today.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two Shrinecastles and a Good Fortune Island

The name of this blog is "Shrinecastle," which is the literal English translation of Miyagi, my mother's maiden name (I named this blog after her) as well as the name of the Japanese prefecture that continues to suffer from last month's disastrous earthquake and tsunami.

Miyagi is written with two kanji:

Whenever I see the name of a business, town, or person written in kanji, I always try to figure out what the individual characters mean. I've been told by Japanese people that they don't break down words in this fashion, but it's a helpful method for me to remember kanji. 

Another Japanese place that's been in the news lately is Fukushima, home of the beleaguered nuclear power plant. 

Here is how Fukushima is written:

When I first heard that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was enduring a crisis, I found the name of the prefecture almost ironic. Fukushima means "good fortune island," and as we know, the island is experiencing anything but good fortune.

I have always found the kanji for fuku to be particularly lovely. In 2001, during my first trip to mainland Japan, I bought a teapot in Kyoto. Overwhelmed by the number of beautiful pieces from which to choose, I finally settled on this one:

First teapot. Kyoto, 2001.

"This is a good one," the shopkeeper said to me in English after I made my selection. "This is a very special character." She pointed to 福. At that point I hadn't been studying Japanese very long, and while I was proficient with hiragana and katakana, I had only basic kanji in my repertoire. Probably realizing I had no clue what 福 meant, the shopkeeper explained, "It means 'good fortune.' Very special."

It's been almost a decade since I purchased that teapot, and I still look at those characters and  hear the shopkeeper's words. I've also learned a few more kanji, and I recently found this phrase:

"Good comes out of evil."* 

Maybe Fukushima isn't an ironic name after all. Perhaps it's a sign of things to come for the prefecture and all of Japan. I wish them good fortune.

*I've also seen this phrase translated as "Fortune turns to evil," but I prefer the more positive translation.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sending Warmth and Cheer with Socks for Japan

A couple of weeks ago my friend Lisa called. Her voice was filled with breathless excitement. Lisa lived in Japan while teaching for the JET Program, and our shared love for that country has turned into a shared heartache over the devastation of last month's – has it already been a month?! – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear scare.

The reason for her call was to let me know about a project she found online that collected and distributed socks for people living in emergency shelters in northeastern Japan. Socks for Japan, a group started by Jason Kelly, an American living in Tochigi Prefecture, became Lisa's mission. She gave me the link to the website and the Facebook page, and asked if I were willing to donate a few pairs of socks to the cause. 

After reading about Socks for Japan, not only did I want to contribute, but I wanted to write a story. I interviewed Kelly via Skype, found out that one of his first donors – who subsequently became a volunteer translator – lives in Jersey City, and gave Lisa twelve pairs of socks to warm the feet of a few strangers in a place I love so much. You can read the story here.

If you're interested in contributing, here's how easy it is.

I went to my neighborhood Loehmann's and bought a bunch of socks. 

Socks for Japan

Berkley wanted to get in on the act. I didn't let her touch the socks for fear that the person receiving them might be allergic to her.

Berkley wants to help Japan!

I printed out letters of encouragement to accompany each pair of socks. I cheated by using a sample letter on the Socks for Japan website, but I added a couple of personal lines saying that my mom is from Okinawa and my husband and I love Japan.

Letters of encouragement

Since it was cherry blossom season in Japan, I added sakura stickers to each letter. I also labeled each re-sealable bag.

Adding do-dads to the letters and labeling the bags

I happened to have these stickers of Kutsushita Nyanko, a delightful San-X character. Kutsushita means socks, and Kutsushita Nyanko is a black cat with white feet. Deliciously cute and appropriate in this case. 

Kutsushita seals

After removing the tags from the socks, I put individual pairs with the notes in the re-sealable bags. Lisa's company paid for the shipping, which was generous.

The socks are bagged and ready to go!

I hope the few pairs of socks I sent made their way to a shelter in northeastern Japan and brought a smile to the faces of the people who received them. It's a simple gesture, I know, but it makes me feel as if I made a difference.

Logo designed by Takako Otani