6. Agéman

Things couldn’t have been going better for me when the new school year started in April of 2013.[1]

Ever since I got married, that is remarried in 2004, everything from my professional life to my family life had been on the up and up. It was as if I had hit a trajectory sweet spot that had kept me orbiting in the thermosphere.

Listen: when my Eiko and I were dating, she used to assert that she was my agéman, and that if I were to marry her, my luck would only get better and better.

Agéman[2] is show business jargon in the Kansai[3] region and refers to a woman who brings good fortune to the man who sleeps with her. Now, I’m not the superstitious type, but judging by the way things developed after Eiko and I married, it was not difficult to be persuaded that she was indeed my agéman. More importantly, I started to convince myself that my luck would change for the worse if ever I were to sleep with a sagéman, namely, a woman the sex with whom precipitated a reversal of fortune.

And, no, don’t get me wrong here: I am not thinking about you.

 

That spring, you may remember, I was involved in a number of encouraging research projects. I had also recently secured a big increase in funds that was going to allow me to bring more people on board and expand the scope of that research. My class load and committee duties were lighter than usual. But, best of all, the students in my seminar, you included, seemed like a fun bunch. (Let me tell you, Kana, nothing makes a year pass more slowly than when you’ve got a seminar full of wet blankets.)

One of our projects during the year was what I called “Rural Revival”, a word none of the students, except you, were able to pronounce.

“Travel to Europe . . .,” I began my lecture. “Have any of you been? You have? Where?”

“Paris,” one student said.

“And you?” I asked a young man.

“Rondon.”

“Rondon?”

Hai, Rondon.”

“Repeat after me: L-L-L-London.”

“R-R-R-Rondon.”

“Never mind. So, you’ve been to London. Anywhere else?”

“Ribapooru.”

Sigh.

“So, have any of you been to the countryside in Europe?”

As expected, none had. It was at this point that I began to show a short video that included clips from one of my favorite travel programs, NHK’s Sekai Fureai Machi Aruki.[4] First, were scenes from Castle Combe, a small village of about three hundred people that has some beautifully maintained stone houses dating back centuries.

“Fifteenth century, everyone. What does that coincide with in Japan’s history? Anyone . . . ? Anyone . . . ? Anyone . . . No one? It coincides with Japan’s Warring States Period.[5] These houses are older than the Nishi and Higashi Honganji temples in downtown Kyōto. Think about that for a moment.”

I paused the video and asked the students to note how well-preserved the buildings and houses were.

“Also, note the lack of billboards, the lack of structures that stand out and spoil the view . . . Were this Japan, there would be signs everywhere. Old shops would be shuttered up, the houses, if not abandoned, would be covered with plastic siding, there would be rusting billboards advertising Oronamin C . . .”[6]

The students laughed.

“Except for the road running through town, there isn’t anything that looks out of place. ‘But it’s so old,’ you might say. Yes! And that’s where the value comes from. You couldn’t build something like this today. Now, if you were to go inside and you’d find that these houses have all the modern conveniences . . . For the most part. They probably don’t have washlets, but, well, you can’t have everything, can you?”

More laughter.

“But, they are comfortable. They are warm in the winter and cool in the summer, all without having ugly air conditioning units outside and tubes running along the side. You don’t see any telephone wires or electric cables, either. Do these people live by whale oil and candlelight? Of course not! Again, the cables and wires are all buried so as to not spoil the view. Keep these things in mind. Today, this small village has tourists by the thousands on weekends. People who want to walk its streets, sleep at its inns, drink tea at its tea houses, beer at its pubs . . .”

In the next clip, I showed Collonges-la-Rouge, a small medieval village, also of about four hundred people, located in south central France, that was chosen as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

“The buildings of this town are built entirely of red sandstone, hence the name which means ‘The Red Commune’. Some of the structures are six hundred years old, yet, when properly renovated, can sell for over fifty million yen.”[7]

One student whistled.

“That’s four or five times more expensive that what you would have to pay for a used home built a mere twenty years ago in, say, Yufuin.[8] And, unlike a house in Yufuin, which is for all intents and purposes worthless,[9] the house in Collonges-la-Rouge will keep its value. Better yet, the value will continue to increase over time.”

Next, I presented some photos from the American city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“In nineteen twelve. Think about that: nineteen twelve! Before the Second World War! Before the First World War! The municipal government worried that Santa Fe was doomed to look like ‘Anywhere, USA’—one more generic city among hundreds and thousands of humdrum cities in America. So, they put in place a building code, such that buildings had to be constructed with certain elements: rough, exposed beams called vigas—these here, here, and here—rain spouts called canales; and earth-tone stucco walls, or adobe. The city leaders had amazing vision and foresight one hundred years ago. A hundred years! In nineteen fifty-seven, the city passed another rule, an ordinance, requiring new and rebuilt homes to have the Pueblo or Spanish Territorial style. Even motels and hamburger joints are built in the local style. Thanks to that, the city thrives today as a center for tourism and art. Had the city’s leaders let Santa Fe continue down the same old path of ‘development and modernization’, why, the name Santa Fe wouldn’t inspire us the way it does today.”

Moving on, I showed you all a video I had made from a recent trip to McMinnville, Oregon.

“McMinnville, like many villages here in Japan, was small and sleepy farming town. The population was about ten thousand in nineteen-seventy. There was a central ‘downtown’ area with the usual mom-and-pop shops, diners, and so on. It wasn’t the kind of place that people visited, because there really wasn’t anything to do there. Growing up in Oregon myself, McMinnville was little more than a name on the weather map to me. But then something happened to transform the area.

“In the nineteen seventies, winemakers from the Napa Valley in California started migrating to Oregon, attracted by cheap, abundantly available, and fertile farm land. In nineteen-seventy, there were five commercial wineries. Today, there are over three hundred, and McMinnville is the de facto capital of that industry. At about thirty-three thousand people, the population is still small, but it is growing at a steady clip. The town, as you can see from the video, is vibrant. The shops are not shuttered. Imagine that! New money is coming in and renovating old buildings like this one, The Hotel Oregon, which is now owned a local micro-brewing giant. People travel from all over the state and all over the U.S. to McMinnville to eat and drink and drink and drink and drink . . .”

The classroom burst out in laughter.

“Now, the reason I am showing you this is to make a simple point: if fat, lazy, and stupid gaijin[10] are able to do this, what’s stopping the Japanese? Why are small towns here so lifeless? Why have so many of them given up? And of those which haven’t, why do they continue to cling to silly notions that if only we were to build some grand monument—what I like to call ‘Monsterments’—people will want to come to our town?”

It was at this point that I explained what I wanted to you all to do.

We would be focusing on three towns in Kyūshū, towns that had potential but were frittering that potential away either through inaction or ineffective policies. It would be the seminar’s assignment to come up with proposals for marketing, industry, town renovation, product design, and so on. The best proposals would be developed later in teams and then presented to the towns pro bono. Whether they took them up or not depended on how much foresight they had. Experience taught me that they often had none.

“The first town on our hit list is Kitsuki, Ōita. Have any of you been there?”

None of you had.

“Have any of you heard of the place?”

A few hands, including yours, were raised unenthusiastically.

“Well, never fear, you will be getting to know the town very, very well over the next few months. I want you to block off Sunday, May twelfth. Tell your boss at your part-time job, your friends and family that you will be busy that day. Kitsuki is two and a half hours away by train. We will be leaving bright and early in the morning—and, don’t worry, I will be providing your tickets—your grade will suffer if you cancel less than twenty-four hours before our departure. Seriously. No groaning. I don’t want to hear any baloney like ‘I’ve got a headache . . .’ I’m on to you guys.”

You laughed and our eyes met and something sparked deep within me.

“Trust me, this is going to be a lot of fun. We will be making the trip three times between now and the end of the summer break. I want all of you to go at least two times. Got that? Two times.”

And then I assigned all of you your homework: find out what you could about the cities of Kitsuki, Ōita prefecture, Yamé, Fukuoka prefecture, and Ureshino, Saga prefecture.

 

[1] Japan is unique in that its academic year begins in April. Countries in the southern Hemisphere generally start their school years in or around January; in the north, around September. Incidentally, some 70% of the world follows the September to early summer pattern. In Taiwan and China, the school year begins in September; in Korea, from March 2; and in Thailand, in May. The Japanese school year is based upon the fiscal year (April to March), which was adopted from accounting practices in the U.K., Canada, Denmark, India, and so on.

[2] Agéman (上げまん) is show business jargon and refers to a woman who will bring good fortune to a man if he has sex with her. Agé means to raise up and man (Pronounce it like a Jamaican, mahn.) is a diminutive of manko which is Japanese slang for the female genitalia. A woman who brings bad luck to the man with whom she has sex is known as a sagéman (下げまん). The male equivalent of agéman is agéchin with chin (sounds like “cheen”) meaning penis.

              A comic satire film titled “Agéman” (English title: Tales of a Golden Geisha) was released in 1990. Directed by the satirist Itami Jūzō, it tells the story of a “geisha” who brings luck to the men with whom she sleeps. For many Japanese, this was their first introduction to the word agéman.

[3] Kansai (関西) refers to the southern-central region of Japan comprised of Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyōto, Ōsaka, Hyōgo, and Shiga prefectures. Kansai, and particularly Ōsaka, is famous for, among other things, its comedians and entertainers.

[4] Sekai Fureai Machi Aruki (世界ふれあい街歩き), also known as “Somewhere Street” on NHK World is an excellent travel program offering a “close-up look at cities worldwide, as seen by a walking tourist. Viewers visit places off the beaten path, meet ordinary people, and enjoy a travel experience that’s only possible on foot.” It’s must-see TV. And that’s coming from someone who hardly ever watches television.

[5] The Warring States Period, or Sengoku Jidai (戦国時代), is a period of Japanese history marked by political intrigue and constant military conflict. It lasted from about 1467 to 1603, or the start of the Edō Period.

[6] Oronamin C Drink (オロナミンCドリンク, Oronamin Shī Dorinku) is a carbonated beverage produced by Otsuka Chemical Holdings. Its main ingredient is vitamin C. In the Japanese countryside, it is not unusual to find dilapidated houses with old billboards advertising the drink nailed to their walls.

[7] Fifty million yen equates to about 444,000 euro or $480,000.

[8] Yufuin, part of Yufu City in Ōita prefecture, is a small town, famous for its natural hot spring spas.

[9] Houses in Japan are said to lose their value fifteen years after construction. This is one reason why homes are torn down and rebuilt rather than renovated. For more on this, read “Obstacles to Affluence: Thoughts on Japanese Housing”.

[10] Gaijin (外人, lit. “outside person”) is, some would argue, a derogatory term for non-Japanese residents and visitors in Japan. Some foreigners living in Japan even claim that gaijin is the equivalent of the n-word. I disagree. Gaijin is short for gaikokujin (lit. outside country person), a word which was said to be first used by Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), an author, educator, and translator, who founded Japan’s oldest institute of higher education, Keio University. As a translator, it was probably Fukuzawa who introduced and popularized the term gaikokujin in early Meiji Period (1868-1912), a word which was directly translated from the English “foreigner”, which originated from Latin via Old French and meant “outside + person”. For more on this, consult the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (日本国語大辞典) published by Shogakukan.