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Photo: Guenter Schneider/Kaoru Akagawa
An artist rediscovers kana script, used in medieval Japan by women for secret communications. “I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA,” Kaoru Akagawa says.

In childhood, I loved the idea of secret languages, mainly for hiding thoughts from grownups, I believe. I never learned Pig Latin, but when I was about 10, my friends and I spoke almost nothing but Goose Latin, which involved throwing a lot of f’s into words.

In medieval Japan, women developed a secret script to hide their thoughts from other authority figures — men. Today the artist Kaoru Akagawa, among others, is giving the mostly forgotten kana calligraphy new life.

Elizabeth Dearnley writes at the Guardian, “Anyone who has ever fired off a text in haste will sympathise with the first point on 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s list of ‘infuriating things’: ‘Thinking of one or two changes in the wording after you’ve sent off a reply to someone’s message.’

“This list, her messages, and her Pillow Book in which they’re recorded – a sparklingly acerbic, blog-style frolic through the lives of Heian-era aristocrats – were written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life.

“Women in medieval Japan were discouraged from studying kanji – characters modelled on written Chinese which represent individual words – and began using kana, which transcribe words phonetically. A standardisation programme at the beginning of the 20th century saw 90% of the 550 characters used in kana die out. But these forgotten characters are now being kept alive by the artist and master of Japanese calligraphy Kaoru Akagawa, who became fascinated with them after deciphering letters from her grandmother.

“ ‘Reading my grandmother’s letters was always difficult for me as a teenage girl,’ recalls Akagawa. ‘Her handwriting looked like scribbling, and I used to ask her to write properly.’ But years later, during Akagawa’s calligraphy training, she had a revelation while taking a journey along Himekaido, a historic trading route favoured by women travellers. Reading documents written in kana housed in castles and temples, Akagawa says: ‘I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA.’ Far from being scribbles, she realised, her grandmother had been writing to her using the same script.

“Akagawa uses the forgotten kana in a style of calligraphy called kana shodo, and also fuses traditional calligraphy with new techniques in a style she’s named kana art, where thousands of minutely painted kana form larger images and paper sculptures

“ ‘When people talk about Japanese calligraphy, they normally mean kanji shodo,’ Akagawa explains, ‘a style imported from China, practiced by samurais and monks.’ Kana shodo uses a script which was known by the 10th century as onnade, or ‘woman hand’, she continues, which became ‘the backbone of a female-dominated literary culture’.

“Sei Shōnagon’s contemporary Murasaki Shikibu wrote her masterpiece The Tale of Genji – often called the world’s first novel – using kana, which were often associated with private and emotional life. Men who wanted to reply to love letters sent by noblewomen used kana themselves to reply. And the tradition lasted for hundreds of years; the 19th-century novelist Ichiyō Higuchi used kana script for her sympathetic portrait of the life of a geisha, Nigorie (Troubled Waters).

“Japan’s government standardised writing in 1900, establishing the system of kanji, hiragana and katakana characters used side-by-side in modern written Japanese. … By the second world war, knowledge of the older kana had almost vanished. One of the last generation to use the script in daily life was Akagawa’s grandmother, born in 1921: ‘When I told her I was learning kana shodo, she was very pleased.’ …

“Whether writing Japanese classics, love letters or embroidered messages, women have circumvented official communication channels in creative ways throughout history. As Akagawa remarks, such handwritten texts frequently feel very personal: ‘I’m always surprised how such a simple action as handwriting can affect audiences’ emotions so deeply.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: All Nippon Airways
In addition to the male Kabuki performers, there’s an onnagata (man in female role) in the in-flight safety video of a Japanese airline.

After seeing one too many airline safety videos about how to buckle a seat belt, passengers tend to tune out. That is, unless the video is really entertaining. Consider this safety video using Kabuki dancers. I know that would make me pay attention.

Andrew Bender wrote about it at Forbes. “Let’s call it like it is: those airline safety presentations have always felt a little like a kabuki dance, no? Now Japan’s largest airline, All Nippon Airways, has taken that literally, with actual kabuki performers in its newest in-flight safety video. I, for one, can’t stop watching it. …

“Supervised by a kabuki performer, the four-minute-plus production opens with an ANA flight attendant wearing a red-and-white striped kabuki mask, before the striped curtain behind her (in the traditional kabuki colors of black, deep-green and the orange-red the Japanese call persimmon) slides to reveal an airplane cabin set.

“Kabuki actors stow their elegantly lacquered bamboo boxes in the overhead bins and under the seats (not in the aisles, thank you), fasten seat belts over their elaborate kimono and dutifully turn off electronic devices displaying scenes from classic ukiyo-e woodblock prints on their screens. The same style is used to show how high heels, in this case chunky wooden geta sandals, can tear the evacuation slide.

“In another section, an actor wearing an oversized wig and robe and fearsome makeup tries on the oxygen mask, and a child in the classic pure white face makeup demonstrates the ‘brace for impact’ position. And it’s quite a sight to see an onnagata (male performer in a female role, a longstanding kabuki tradition) perform the life vest demonstration.

“Kabuki theater traces its roots to 1603, the early Edo Period, and is on the UNESCO list of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Among its unique features are stunning costumes, stylized dialogue and poses (immortalized in ukiyoe woodblock prints, kind of like iconic modern-day movie posters; see 1:38 in the video), a revolving stage and musicians who sit onstage and animate the action with music and narration. Many of the leading performers have family lineage in kabuki going back more than a dozen generations.

“At various times the safety video shows another feature of kabuki, on-stage assistants covered head to toe like ninjas. Called kurogo, they’re typically dressed in black implying that they’re not visible onstage, but in this video they’re instead in ANA’s signature blue and white. …

“ANA’s safety video debuted late last year and went worldwide on flights this January. As a bonus, a behind-the-scenes video of the production plays during deplaning.”

More at Forbes.

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021619-grandson-tries-suminigashi-painting

The result of my grandson’s class in Japanese marbling technique. Suminagashi, or “ink-floating” on paper, has been around since the 12th century.

Not long ago, my older grandson’s class, which is studying Japan, went to the Boston Children’s Museum. The museum features an entire traditional home that was shipped from Japan years ago and rebuilt indoors.

While there, the 8-year-olds practiced an ancient painting technique, Japanese Suminagashi, which uses the unpredictable swirling of water to create one-of-a-kind images.

I love the idea of one-of-a-kind. Children are one-of-a-kind, too, all wonderful in their own way, and I like to hear about them getting a break from standardized-testing molds.

According to the website Beyond the Chalkboard, in which the Boston Children’s Museum helps teachers with enrichment activities, “Suminagashi, Japanese for ‘ink-floating,’ is a paper marbling technique that was practiced in Japan as early as the 12th century.  Creating these beautifully marbled pieces of paper encourages children to relax, focus and observe the changing swirls in front of them. …

“It is very important that everything used in this activity (the brushes, trays and jars) be as clean as possible. The trays or tubs you use should be at least 2 1/2” deep. Tupperware containers and some aluminum pie tins will work. Make sure that the paper you are using is smaller than the width and length of the trays.

“Fill each tray with 2 inches of room-temperature water, making sure to keep the water free of dust, oil or soap. Pour a small amount of sumi ink into each empty baby food jar, and have pairs of students share a jar.”

The instructions include advice on first discussing what swirls are and also what children already know about Japan.

Here are the instructions, in part.

“1. Make sure your hands and the water tray are CLEAN while you fill it with water. Keep the water and the papers free of dust, oil and soap.
“2. Find a steady place to lay your two brushes, wooden skewers or toothpicks.  Place one brush or skewer on the left side of the water tray and one on the right side.  Dip the left side brush or skewer into the ink.  If using a brush, you only need a little bit of ink!  The surface of the water will pull ink from the brush.  …
“3. Carefully touch the very tip of the inked brush or skewer just to the surface of the water in the middle of the tray.  …
“4. Lay down the inked brush and pick up the other brush (the un-inked one on the right side of the tray).  Touch the end of this brush or skewer either to the side of your nose (your nose has lots of oil on it), to a bar of soap, or (just barely) to the top of a detergent bottle.  Touch the tip of this oily or soapy brush/skewer to the water INSIDE THE DOT of ink (or the center of the tray, if you can’t see the ink yet).  You might see the ink that is floating on the surface of the water move away from where you touched. …
“5. Repeat, alternating between brushes, and always touch the brush tips in the middle of the ink circle on the surface of the water. You should soon see many concentric circles. Once you feel you have enough, you can gently blow across the surface of the water to start creating swirls. …
“6. When you like what you see on the water, pick up a piece of paper, holding it from the sides.  Bring the ends together a bit so the middle of the paper bends down toward the water — now you can lay the paper on the water, starting from the center and quickly laying down the sides and letting go. It may take some practice to get this to be a quick, smooth motion. …
“7. Now lift the paper off the water (if there seems to be a wash of ‘loose’ ink on the surface of the paper, try gently, quickly rinsing the paper under the faucet). The ink that actually printed will stay on the paper.
“8. Lay the your print on the newspaper to dry.”

More here and at Suminagashi.com. My grandson also alerted me to a Japanese anime called My Neighbor Totoro that he saw in school, and my husband and I got it from Netflix. We like Japanese animations.

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Photos: Sonia Narang for WHYY
Kamikatsu has become a hub for workshops on recycling. Employees from the Osaka branch of the Patagonia clothing store traveled here to learn waste-reduction techniques. Recyclables are sorted into 45 bins.

The other day I was reminiscing with my husband about the first time we took our recyclables to a voluntary recycling station outside Philadelphia. It stands out in my mind because John was a brand new baby in the car seat and the young man who assisted us said, “Oh, what a tiny baby,” and I was indignant because I thought John had gotten really big in his first three weeks!

Today most municipalities offer or demand curbside recycling, but if you think we are advanced in this department, consider Kamikatsu, Japan.

Sonia Narang reports at Philadelphia’s WHYY, “It’s not yet 8 a.m., and the recycling center in the town of Kamikatsu is already bustling. Locals arrive in a steady stream, unloading bags full of bottles, cans, and paper into dozens of clearly-labeled bins — all neatly lined up in rows.

“Kamikatsu is a rural town of about 2,000 people in the forested mountains of Japan’s Shikoku island.

“The town’s waste collection center runs a tight ship. Each resident gets a thick booklet of recycling guidelines.

“At the collection center, everything is carefully sorted and arranged with the help of staff. There are a whopping 45 different categories of recyclables, and the town recycles 80 percent of its trash.

“Akira Sakano heads up the town’s Zero Waste Academy, a non-profit organization that manages the recycling program. …

“ ‘We have newspapers, cardboard, scrap papers, shredded papers, paper containers, paper containers with aluminum packaging on back, paper cups, hard paper tubes, other papers,’ she says. …

“The town of Kamikatsu adopted a ‘zero waste’ policy in 2003. Before that, the town used to burn all its trash in incinerators. …

“When waste decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. A large amount of that methane leaks into the atmosphere, heating up the planet. …

“Zero waste has become a buzzword, and cities around the world are pledging to drastically reduce waste. But, in Japan — where land is scarce and there’s limited space for landfills — aggressive recycling has been a way of life for years.

“In addition to helping the environment, Sakano says recycling also has an economic benefit for the town. Incinerating trash can be expensive. …

“There’s no garbage truck service here. Almost everyone has to bring their trash into the waste collection center, and only about 20 percent ends up in the dumpster.

“For older residents who can’t drive themselves to the recycling center, the town does send a pick-up truck. Kazuyuki Kiyohara, who works for the town, also drives the truck around. He’s really concerned about using the earth’s resources wisely, and super enthusiastic in his personal life about recycling. He’s got 14 separate bins at home. …

“Everyone has to wash and dry all their food packaging. Many locals say that’s the most annoying part of the town’s trash policy.

“Back at the recycling center, I catch Daichi Hyakuno as he unloads bags of juice cans, plastics, and … dirty diapers. He moved here from Osaka a few years ago.

“ ‘At first, I was quite confused because the categorization was so detailed,’ he says. ‘It was easier in Osaka, since all I had to do was separate trash into burnables and non-burnables.’ … He’s not a big fan, but understands his social responsibilities. …

“Personally, I got better at recycling when it was practically mandatory. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in rural Japan, all the residents in my town had to write our names in big black letters on clear trash bags.

“It made me feel conscious about what I threw away: If I left even one bottle in there, the town wouldn’t pick up the trash, and everyone would see my bag left out there on the curb. …

“The town is small, but Kamikatsu is gaining international attention. Now outsiders are traveling here to take workshops at the academy.

“On the day I visit, folks from a Japanese branch of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia are here to learn.” More at WHYY, here.

Now who’s going to teach this town about composting so it can burn even less?

Hat tip: @morinotsuma, One More Voice, on twitter.

Once every two months, the town of Kamikatsu in Japan sends a truck to pick up bags of recyclables from elderly residents who are unable to drive to the recycling center.

Photo-8_Recycling-Truck-Pickup-2-e1539891328644

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Photo: Sustainergy
Solar arrays can reduce a farm’s carbon footprint while allowing room for crops and livestock. In Japan, Sustainergy has designed “solar farms at large scale so that farmers could obtain additional stable income.” Above, cloud ear mushrooms.

When a company solves two important problems with one project, I probably shouldn’t call it killing two birds with one stone. Send me a better metaphor, please.

Adele Peters writes at Fast Company about the dual benefits of a Japanese project that provides not only solar power but also a cozy place to grow mushrooms.

“Small farms in Japan are struggling to survive. Rural populations are shrinking, and the average farmer is 67 years old. But two new farms will test a different business model to try to reinvigorate the sector: solar panels with mushrooms growing underneath them.

“The farms, at two locations in northeastern Japan, will produce a combined 4,000 kilowatts of solar power that will be sold to a local utility, while the mushroom farms will yield an annual 40 tons of cloud-ear mushrooms, a crop that is typically imported from China.

“ ‘The environment needs to be dark and humid for mushrooms to spawn,’ says Minami Kikuchi, who leads the ‘solar sharing’ project that combines agriculture and solar power at Sustainergy, a renewable energy startup. ‘We simply created the suitable environment for them by making use of vacant space under the solar panels.’ ”

As Kikuchi explained to Fast Company in an email, ” ‘We designed the project of combination with solar farms at large scale so that farmers could obtain additional stable income. Of course, this renewable energy technology is contributing to the sustainable development of Japan too.’

“Today, an estimated 10% of Japanese farmland is not in use, despite the fact that the majority of food is imported. Government tariffs have discouraged companies from converting farmland to solar power generation, but a partial change in regulations in 2013 meant that solar power was more viable – provided that it was constructed in combination with agriculture. …

“Sustainergy believes that similar farms could potentially grow other crops that need little light, such as potatoes. In the U.S., researchers at the University of Massachusetts are exploring the possibility of growing a much wider range of crops; a farm in South Deerfield has spent the last two years growing plants like kale, broccoli, and Swiss chard under rows of nine-foot-high solar panels. …

“Farmers also have another option: Grazing sheep or cattle on grass grown under solar panels. Sheep can take the place of lawnmowers, and as the grass sucks up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the farm can have a negative carbon footprint.”

More at Fast Company, here.

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Photo: Wycliffe College/PA
English school girl
Gracie Starkey wrote a winning haiku. Here she is at the prize-giving ceremony in Tokyo.

I’ve always liked the standard 17-syllable haiku poem and taught the form to fifth graders years ago. Asakiyume remembers one I wrote for her at a business magazine where we worked. It was about a dream she’d recounted, and it referred to the moon as “trending downward” (business jargon we heard a lot).

Of course, most experts are Japanese. Until now. Here is a story my husband emailed me about a young girl in England who won a haiku contest.

Steven Morris writes at the Guardian, “A British schoolgirl inspired by an autumnal stroll across a newly mown lawn has become the first non-Japanese person to win a prestigious haiku competition.

“Gracie Starkey, 14, from Gloucestershire, beat more than 18,000 entries to take the prize in the English-language section of the contest organised annually by a Japanese tea company. …

“As she and a friend took a walk after [her school’s haiku] workshop, grass cuttings stuck to her footwear and the haiku came to her:

“Freshly mown grass
“clinging to my shoes
“my muddled thoughts

“Her poem – a non-traditional form that does not follow the classic five-seven-five syllable pattern – was entered into the competition organised by the multinational Ito En, first held in 1989. For the first 27 years the English-language section was won by Japanese people. …

“Gracie said she was amazed when she heard she had won and had been invited to Tokyo.

“ ‘I could only tell my mum and dad and sister and my Japanese teacher at Wycliffe College,’ said Gracie. ‘I told my friends that I was going to Wales for a week and that I wouldn’t have any phone reception.’ …

“As well as winning the trip, Gracie’s poem was rendered by a famous calligrapher, and she received a cash prize. Most thrillingly, her poem is being reproduced on thousands of bottles of green tea. …

“Previously she had little interest in poetry. ‘This has certainly made me more interested in poetry and in Japanese culture.’ ”

More at the Guardianhere.

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Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
The World Economic Forum touts research suggesting that “forest bathing,” the act of being among the trees, has health benefits.

We love trees. John, for example, serves on the Arlington tree committee and helps with the town’s efforts to inventory its trees, acquire more sidewalk plantings, and assist researchers studying the role of urban trees in carbon reduction.

A master landscaper I know is also into trees. He shared this story about the health benefits of something the Japanese call “forest bathing.”

Ephrat Livini wrote at the World Economic Forum, “Now there’s scientific evidence supporting eco-therapy. The Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being.

“Forest bathing — basically just being in the presence of trees—became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982 when the forestry ministry coined the phrase shinrin-yoku and promoted topiary as therapy. …

“Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better — inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function. …

“From 2004 to 2012, Japanese officials spent about $4 million dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing, designating 48 therapy trails based on the results. Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, measured the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells provide rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumor formation, and are associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. In a 2009 study Li’s subjects showed significant increases in NK cell activity in the week after a forest visit, and positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods. …

“Experiments on forest bathing conducted by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University measured its physiological effects on 280 subjects in their early 20s. The team measured the subjects’ salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability during a day in the city and compared those to the same biometrics taken during a day with a 30-minute forest visit. …

“Trees soothe the spirit too. A study on forest bathing’s psychological effects surveyed 498 healthy volunteers, twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, coupled with increased liveliness, after exposure to trees. …

“City dwellers can benefit from the effects of trees with just a visit to the park. Brief exposure to greenery in urban environments can relieve stress levels.”

More here. Be sure to watch the video.

Hat tip: Paul Kelly on Facebook.

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