Adorning the cover of the latest issue of Rekishi Kaido (April), a monthly magazine for history buffs, are drawings of army general and wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and Iwo Jima defender Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Titled “Light and shadow of the army of Showa,” the cover story seeks to demonstrate how the military influenced other Japanese organizations.

Further inside, in a section titled “It looks like you know it, but you don’t,” is a history of flower viewing in Japan.

According to Yuichiro Ando, who holds a doctorate in literature, up to the middle part of the Edo Period (1603-1868), the term hanami (flower viewing) originally referred not to cherry blossoms, but to plum blossoms. Japanese first began going out to view ume (plum) blossoms during the Nara Period (710-794), an era that partially overlapped with China’s Tang Dynasty (618-906).

One of the earliest recorded cases of viewing cherry blossoms was in 812, when Emperor Saga — namesake of the Saga Goryu school of ikebana — held a festival at the Shinsen-en garden close to his palace. Subsequently, the association of cherry blossoms with Japan’s emperors became established.

The annual custom of blossom-viewing gradually spread from the aristocracy to the samurai warrior class. Warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), who designed the garden at Sanho-in within the precincts of Daigo-ji temple in Kyoto, ordered the planting of 700 cherry trees.

As mentioned earlier, flower viewing was by no means limited to cherry blossoms as the custom gradually trickled down to the common folk. According to Ando, seasonal viewing began with plum blossoms, followed by cherry, then azalea from late spring and finally chrysanthemum during autumn. This inspired the phrase, “Ume ni hajimari, kiku ni owari” (“[A year] beginning with plums and ending with chrysanthemums”).

It was not until the waning years of the Edo Period that the hardy hybrid tree now called Somei-Yoshino was planted in many parts of the country. This tree was first cultivated in the village of Somei, in what is now Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. Those wishing to see the tree’s reputed place of origin can visit the Someiyoshino Sakura Memorial Park, located immediately adjacent to the north side of Komagome Station on Tokyo’s Yamanote loop line.

Takamiyama’s legacy threatened

From the late 1960s, one of the most popular Americans in Japan was a sumo wrestler from Hawaii named Takamiyama. A hulking high-school football player from the island of Maui, Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua entered the Takasago stable in 1964. He advanced in rank as high as sekiwake (junior champion) and, in addition to winning the Nagoya grand sumo tournament in 1972, scored many upset victories. He still holds the all-time record for the most consecutive bouts in sumo’s top division (1,231).

Takamiyama became a naturalized Japanese and in 1986 opened the Azumazeki stable. He recruited and trained Hawaii native Akebono, who was to become the first foreign-born grand champion.

Takamiyama retired in 2009, and the stable he founded was taken over by a wrestler named Shiomaru. Two years ago, Shiomaru died at age 41, and former stable member Takamisakari was requested to take over the Azumazeki stable, which was down to six apprentice wrestlers.

While never reaching the top ranks, Takamisakari had been popular with fans for his distinctive, stiff-jointed demeanor in the straw ring, which earned him the nickname “Robocop.”

Unfortunately, Robocop does not seem inclined to protect his troops. Shukan Bunshun (March 25) reported that on March 14, the first day of the current Grand Sumo Tournament, rumors began surfacing that the Azumazeki stable would close for good.

According to a sports media source, rather than moving into the stable, located in Shibamata, Katsushika Ward, the 44-year-old Takamisakari had been commuting there daily by bicycle from his bachelor digs a good distance away in Asakusa. He is also said to have looked on passively as his apprentice wrestlers trained, without making efforts to coach them. Instead of joining them after practice for a midday meal of calorie-filled chanko nabe (wrestler’s stew), he would leave for home.

Shukan Jitsuwa (April 1) added that the cost of keeping each wrestler fed and clothed runs about ¥1.8 million per year, and small stables that lack income generated by high-ranking wrestlers often struggle financially. Unless professional sumo implements a well-considered distribution of income and other reforms, Azumazeki might just be the first of who knows how many small stables that will be forced to close.

Watch where you step

Shukan Asahi (March 26) wants to know why books about poop have been selling like hotcakes. Since publisher Bunkyosha released its “Unko Doriru” (“Poop Drill”) series from 2017, it has sold 8 million copies of poop-themed books. Even NHK has dived in; its publishing arm is marketing a Japanese translation of “The Clue is in the Poo,” by British author Andy Seed and illustrated by Claire Almon.

The popularity of poop is by no means limited to reading matter. Four years ago, a Yokohama-based businessman named Akihiko Nobata changed the name of his company, a producer of work garments, to Unco Inc. It now offers a line of poop-themed items that include articles of clothing, shoes, wristwatches, towels, keychains and others.

For those who really want to flaunt their exhibitionistic proclivities, Nobata even offers customized cars with various poop-themed motifs, including a black-and-white minicar resembling a police car, except instead of an emergency light on its roof flaunts a large golden turd. It retails for ¥1.5 million.

Business has been good, says Nobata, whose slogan is “Let’s make the world happy with poop!”

“With people cloistered at home due to the pandemic, it’s important to laugh,” he tells the magazine. “Our website also posts illustrations from all over the world. With poop, isn’t this the right time to widen our ring of friendships?”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.