Stolen Buddhas

The day after Christmas 2019, a priest noticed a broken temple door. Inside the hall one of the Buddhist altar statues, Many Treasures Buddha, was missing. The temple is deep in the hills of the Boso peninsula, accessed by a single narrow private road with a locked chain at the entrance. “Only the locals know about the temple,” said the caretaker priest Rev. Gensho Baba who tends the temple and the small community of some 20 temple families on a part-time basis in addition to his temple in Tokyo Edogawa ward.

He called the local police who duly recorded the crime scene and started an investigation but to date (July 2022) they have yet to find any trace of the statue or any lead at all. It’s a difficult job you see, searching for an object with only a written description to go by as there was no picture or detailed measurements of the missing statue.

An isolated temple in a remote rural area, with no resident priest, with no regular visitors, and only the most rudimentary of door locks protecting the contents are the perfect conditions for the theft of Buddhist statues and other temple treasures according to Tomoyuki Ohkouchi, associate professor of Culture Property Studies at Nara University.

“The most important thing to remember is that an antique Buddhist statue is like leaving a diamond in the open. A diamond that can be exchanged for money.” Professor Ohkohchi outlined the challenges of protecting the culture property of temples without resident priests, in isolated areas with a shrinking population.

The biggest problem is the time it takes for a theft to be discovered and reported to the police. In remote rural areas is may be days or even weeks before a caretaker visits a temple or shrine for cleaning and discovers the theft. After the police are called there is the challenge of collecting evidence, the most important being what the object looks like. There is very little police can do when they don’t have pictures and measurements of a missing statue. Unfortunately this is often the case.

In 2008 local papers in Shizuoka reported a rash of 18 thefts in remote rural temple and shrines in the upper Oi river valley. There were more. Ohkohchi explains, “Prefectural police are poorly integrated when it comes to cultural theft. In that case there were similar thefts in neighboring prefectures but no coordinated effort to pursue the thieves.” There was a similar but much larger string of temple statue thefts in Wakayama prefecture in 2015, 60 in all. Fortunately the thief was caught and some of the treasures returned.

Because of this event Professor Ohkohchi works tirelessly with local communities in Wakayama promoting simple security measures to protect sacred objects. He explains, “Temple and shrine treasures represent the cultural history of these local communities, theft not only robs the temple of a state, it also robs communities of their history and identity.” The lack of coordination and sharing of information on a national level is a big problem. The Agency for Cultural Affairs made a small step in 2018 by setting up a web site that lists stolen religious items, but there is a long way to go.

Ohkohchi’s program is a simple one: the cataloging of cultural assets by photographing and measuring them, and setting up surveillance cameras of unattended temples. For important cultural objects that are hard to protect in open temples, he promotes creating accurate replicas using 3D printer technology for altar placement while keeping originals in a safe place.

But why is this happening now and why the relatively sudden increase? Ohkohchi thinks it is due to the rise of internet auction sites like Yahoo Japan Auction, “The internet makes it easy for anyone to steal and profit.”

“Basically you have a two year statue of limitations under the law (antique goods sales law of 1949)”, he explained. If returned in the first year the owner does not have to pay anything when recovering a stolen item back from a dealer, in the second year the owner pays some costs to cover dealer losses. After that the only choice is buying it back or taking the shop/dealer to court, which can take years at enormous cost because in a court trail dealers let themselves off the legal hook saying, “I didn’t know it was stolen.”

Even during the first year it’s sometimes faster to simply purchase the item. Indeed a recent high profile case was solved when the stolen statue was offered for sale on Yahoo Auction, quickly recognized and removed. Rev. Daiun Miki of Ryuhonji temple in Kyoto explained the chain of events.

The person who did it knew the area and planned it. The hall where the statue was enshrined was the only building in the temple compound without a surveillance camera, he also knew what time the gate was opened and when nobody would be around.

He seems to have kept it for a while then sold it to a local dealer who had it professionally cleaned. The local dealer in Kyoto then sold it to a dealer in Oita prefecture (Kyushu) who then put it for sale on Yahoo Auction.

Thank goodness we had given pictures of the statue to police. If it wasn’t for that, the police can’t really do much.

Rev. Miki explained that the Kyoto Prefecture police were very cooperative and have a section well versed investigating with stolen antiques. The statue is back in its rightful place with a security camera guarding the entrance.

The Edo era Bodhisattva statue holding the moon stolen from Ryuhonji temple

Professor Ohkouchi continues to work with police, communities, temples and shrines to protect and preserve local religious cultural history for future generations. “Priests and temple members should never feel embarrassed or like it’s some kind of divine punishment when a statue is stolen. It’s all about money, so protect it like you protect your money. It’s that simple.”

THE心霊写真

One of the joys of Japanese summer is ghost stories, a tradition that dates back to the Edo when the official holiday of Tanabata (seventh day of the seventh lunar calendar month) flowed naturally into Obon season (13~15 of the seventh month) immediately following it, with ghost story tellers and ‘house of horror’ festival attractions popular staples of the day. Nothing like a good chilling scarel to cool down on a hot summer evening.

The old Edo tradition is alive and well today with a raft of Japanese ‘Kaidan’ YouTuber ghost~strange~believe it or not story tellers…most of it boring though occasionally interesting enough to keep watching. When I first came to Japan, August was still a fun month for making vacation plans and watching “THE心霊写真” (The Ghost Pictures) special annual broadcast (TBS I think). 

There have been many incarnations of the basic ghost picture program concept. The early versions (said to have started around the 1973 oil crisis) had a host who showed the pictures and a panel of guest stars who provided entertaining commentary. Some 50 years later you still this on Japanese TV which demonstrates how little things have changed, and how unimaginative TV producers are.

People would send in their ghost pictures for free coupons and stuff and resulting ghost picture boom was big enough where magazine and books would feature ‘how to’ instructions how to fake ghost pictures…remember this was film, paper and darkroom age. Fake or not, a smartly edited collection can be great entertainment and I’ve always thought THE心霊写真 was the best of the lot.

First of all, the ‘THE’. THE is an integral, nay essential, part of of the program title, a sly insider nod that this is entertainment product. But the program itself is anything but flashy, it’s almost minimal with calm voice over narration, ken burns pan and zoom effect that slowly focuses on the ghosty part of the picture with unsettling looping ‘dark ambient’ sounds that would comfortably fit on Brian Eno’s On Land.

The producers cleverly divined the inner workings of the greatest special effects machine of all: the human imagination. Suggestion is way more powerful, and scary, than the actual so called horror, of seeing a ghost. Take some well chosen photos, add some dark ambient background sound, and well written low key narration that conveys a story scenario without a hint of guile. I don’t know who the narrator was for the series but he was a perfect fit, gently leading the audience to the point they entertain the possibility of the impossible.

There’s also the matter of factness of the various ghost types that have no English equivalent: “地縛霊” (spirit tied to a certain location), 浮遊霊 (spirit who travels around, unaware they are dead), 先祖霊/守護霊 (ancestor or guardian spirit), and scariest of all 生き霊 (spirit of living person who, unconsciously though jealousy or hate, becomes attached to another person). Any suggested course of action is equally matter of fact, usually getting a Harai (Shinto) or Kito (Shinto or Buddhist).

The coarse English vocab often used for either is the extremely negative ‘exorcism’ which completely misses the mark. Harai is a ritual for removing any unlucky thing or misfortune is in your life, while Kito is a blessing ritual that simply purifies a person or an object, like standing under a cleansing waterfall. People who have seen ghosts, the ones I know anyway, say it’s like seeing and talking to a real person, in other words…boring.

The open loop mobile connectivity challenge

The recent additions of stera transit (Visa-SMBC-Nippon Signal-QUADRAC) open loop test systems in Kyushu covering Fukuoka metro, Kuamamoto city transit and JR Kyushu expand the VISA Touch transit boutique deeper into western Japan territory. Open loop based cloud processing advocates like to portray these developments as proof that local processing based FeliCa systems like Suica et al. are expensive bygones due for replacement.

There’s just one little problem that open loop advocates fail to mention: mobile connectivity, aka the Suica app problem, the QR Code payment problem, the Smart Navigo HCE problem, etc. Wide LTE and 5G deployment doesn’t always mean reliable mobile and internet connectivity mobile payment apps depend on, and carrier outages can bring down the transaction processing side of the equation. This was proven, yet again, on July 2 when major carrier KDDI suffered a massive nationwide outage that lasted for 80 hours. Let’s make a quick reference graph for examining local processing vs cloud processing in the mobile era.

Stera is a mobile based payments platform that does away with the NTT Data Cafis dedicated backbone and replaces it with the internet based GMO Payment Gateway. The weak point of course is that since mobile powers the gate reader side, when mobile service goes down, stera gate readers stop working. As everybody found out during the KDDI network meltdown, Mobile Suica kept right on working on the transit gate and the store checkout reader, while mobile app based code payments and point systems all stopped. Some vital services that depended on KDDI connectivity like ATM networks also stopped working.

Cloud based Suica will face these challenges too when it goes online in March 2023. The only difference being how much local processing stays intact and how much system buffering there is (how much it needs to talk with the cloud server to do the job), we shall see. Which brings me to the point I want to make. The media almost always portrays the open loop/cloud vs closed loop/local match as a winner takes all, one size fits all proposition. As the KDDI meltdown proves, this is stupid, and dangerous. Never put all the eggs in one technology basket. I don’t think the risk will go away, not as long as telecommunication company corporate structures don’t foster and promote their engineering talent (the people who actually make things work) deep into the executive decision making forums.

Open loop in Japan is geared for inbound tourists the supplements, but does not replace, the old reliable Transit IC infrastructure which is evolving and reducing costs too. They compliment each other, address different needs and uses. One size doesn’t fit all. If it did, Oyster card would have died years ago.

MacInTouch and me

I don’t know why but Ric Ford’s MacInTouch site has been on my mind a lot recently. It’s a feeling I’ve learned to trust, a sign that something is about to disappear for good…like a distant old relative. I stopped reading MacInTouch regularly sometime in 2003 when Ric Ford changed the format from a daily web post incarnation of the old Ford/LePage MacInTouch column that ran in the MacWeek print edition (and disappeared shortly after Steve Jobs returned to Apple), to an edited format of the MacInTouch Discussions forum. At the time I found the new generation of Apple bloggers like John Gruber’s Daring Fireball to be much more informative and fun, though JG is morphing into a political grump these days.

At its best MacInTouch was invaluable for keeping the Mac faithful together and warm in the dark cold late Scully~Spindler~Amelio days. It was like hanging out with other Mac users at a local computer store along with the proprietor. There was actually a place like that for me in Shizuoka, Yaizu actually, a little shop by the harbor called Data Planet that only sold Apple hardware. All the local Mac users would go there after work and hang out to chat, trade information and try out the latest software. A happy time. But there was something more in MacInTouch, there was a strong sense of helping other users with timely, detailed, smartly edited information that I just don’t see anymore in this age of opinion blogs and tech news sites.

I used to write for MacInTouch occasionally as a ‘contributing editor’ covering the MacWorld Tokyo conferences when Steve Jobs still gave keynotes (the last one being 2002) along with contributing editor Henry Norr before he moved on to the San Fransisco Chronicle and was famously fired for joining a demonstration opposing George W. Bush’s Invasion of Iraq. How times change n’est pas? MacInTouch had a run-in with Steve Jobs not long after his return when Apple PR closed down access on a story I was working on.

Apple
If you write for Macintouch I think any interview with Harada san <then president of Apple Japan> would not be appropriate. This is a rumor site that prints unsubstantiated stories about Apple.

MacInTouch #1
Thanks…I’m trying to hash it out now with Jobs, but I don’t know if I’ll get anywhere. (He admitted a kind of blacklisting in a subsequent message, and we’re now debating that.)

MacInTouch #2
I had an extended email exchange with Jobs, and he finally admitted the blacklisting after several weasel messages…it really pissed me off, but it’s in keeping with his reputation.

All of those old posts are long gone and inaccessible but here’s the last thing I wrote for MacInTouch:

MacWorld Tokyo 2002

What a difference a month makes. This was the first springtime MacWorld Tokyo ever and instead of the cold ripping winds of Makuhari, there were warmer whipping winds and cherry trees in bloom for expo goers who took time to find them.

Steve Jobs had no big new products to show off and this was his least exciting Tokyo keynote so far. Even so he put his best foot forward and pulled off a decent show-must-go-on performance. First off he listed all the topics for the day, MacOS X, Digital Hub, iMac, Bluetooth, Cinema Display and iPod with the first 2 topics closely following his San Francisco MacWorld keynote script with a few tweaks for the Japanese audience.

MacOS X, which Jobs said is ‘just about done’ headlined new X Japanese versions of Adobe’s InDesign and the forthcoming Photoshop 7 but as the Adobe Japan executive doing the demo said ‘we won’t be showing it on the floor’. Next up was the Japanese developer ErgoSoft who have had a bit of a renaissance of late with their X version of ‘EG Word’, a word processor, and ‘EG Bridge’ a ‘front end processor’ for inputting Japanese text.

Back in the KanjiTalk System 6 days EG Word and EG Bridge were king of the Mac Japanese word processing market. But after System 7 and localized versions of Microsoft Word hit the market Ergo lost its way and most of their market share. Right now they seem to be the only local developer taking advantage of the advanced OpenType/ATSUI MacOS X Japanese character sets announced by Jobs 2 years ago. Ergo president Yoichi Erikawa showed how easy it was to input and choose 24 different character combinations for the name ‘Watanabe’. He also showed how easy it is to import the extended character sets into InDesign and not have it change to garbage text. He paused for a moment and said to the audience ‘you can’t do this with Windows:..only with MacOS X.’ which got more applause than Adobe.

FileMaker president Dominique Goupil showed off another Mac warhorse with the recently released FileMaker Mobile for iMode cell phones, a very popular home grown item. FileMaker is flexible as ever and he showed how easy it is to add fields to a layout even with iMode users connected. This is a product aimed squarely at the Japanese cell phone market and has many exciting possibilities.

Apple’s Mike Evangelist then showed off Final Cut Pro 3.0 exactly as he did at San Francisco, and finally a LucasFilm executive showed how Maya was used for storyboarding the next Star Wars episode. He also showed a sneak preview clip which got applause but I remember how in the first Star Wars George Lucas used to do more with less. Now with digital effect overkill, he seems to use everything and ends up with nothing. Ho-hum, I’ll wait for the video.

The Digital Hub section outlining iMovie, iTunes, iDVD was an exact re-run of the previous keynote and Jobs ran them all through their paces. With the iMac, Jobs had some ‘good news and some bad news’. For the good news he went out of his way to quell rumors that Apple stores were more important than resellers, saying that Apple had shipped 125,000 new iMacs of which ‘less than 10%’ went to Apple Stores. Also he said that Apple was making 5,000 iMacs a day. ‘So we hope to catch up with demand by April’.

And the bad news? Component costs, memory and LCD displays, have risen 25% on average leaving computer manufactures with 2 choices: keep prices and lose features or keep features and raise prices. Jobs choose the latter raising iMac prices $100 across the board effective today, but he pledged to honor previous prices on all previously booked orders.

In the Bluetooth segment Jobs presented a wire/wireless connectivity model: for network connections we have Ethernet vs. AirPort, for peripherals we have FireWire and USB vs. Bluetooth. Bluetooth for the rest of us will be built into the next version of MacOS X with a beta download available shortly, you can purchase the D-Link DWB-120M USB Bluetooth Adapter from the Apple store as of today. On stage Jobs used the USB Bluetooth adapter to sync his Palm desktop and if you are a Palm user this is a real boon, all you have to do is point and click the Sync button. He also showed wireless modem setup with a cell phone.

The new Cinema Display HD was up next. At 23 inches, 1920×1200 pixels and 3,499 USD, the new display is not for the faint of heart but after seeing it at the Apple booth, it will take your breath away.

And last but not least, Jobs announced a 10GB version of iPod for $499. ‘How long is 2,000 tunes?’ Jobs asked. ‘Enough to last 6 trips between Tokyo and San Francisco’. In addition to the new configuration, the Apple Store now offers custom laser engraving on the back of your iPod ‘for only $49’ and a new iPod firmware update that adds a new ‘Contacts’ menu item. Contacts uses the vCard standard which means you should be able to download data from Palm and Entourage and can store up to 1000 contacts. It all looks convenient enough but I wonder if the next step is a keypad instead of the wheel and ‘iPhone’ instead of ‘iPod’.

If there is any shortage of new iMacs in the retail channel it wasn’t evident on the expo floor. They were everywhere in the Apple booth and beyond. The floor didn’t seem as large as the previous venue in Makuhari, but the layout was good with a healthy mix of big guns, special solutions and game vendors. I’ll have more on that with part 2 tomorrow.

Badly dated of course but looking back it’s easy to see how quickly things were changing after iPod appeared as Apple rebuilt itself and the future. The old MacWorld Expo business model was dying. Apple PR sealed off media access to control their own spin by limiting it to a few select superstar personalities. The cozy old Mac user group model of hanging out at the local family owned computer shop quickly gave way to big sleek Apple Stores with Genius Bars.

I doubt many people remember when MacInTouch was great or what it meant back in the day, when personal computers were really personal. For that reason I will be sad when it finally passes on to the great dark memory hole of the internet. It was a good run…thanks for the memories Ric.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block

JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net), along with many other online services that have accounts with credit cards, have been inundated with phishing attacks since the Russia-Ukraine situation erupted in February. It has gotten to the point that JRE POINT announced temporary security limitations on July 6: a temporary suspension of JRE POINT service recharge for Mobile Suica (via Suica App) and a 5,000 JRE POINT app barcode use limit per transaction (plastic JRE POINT card use remains unlimited). All JRE POINT services were later restored with new security enhancements.

There is another security limitation Apple Pay Suica users need to be aware of: credit/debit card recharge security block. This does not apply to cash recharge at station kiosks, convenience stores, 7-11 ATM, etc., but it can happen with multiple credit card recharges in a short period of time, i.e. heavy users. Unfortunately JR East does not reveal what conditions trigger a recharge security block that displays an error message: チャージをご利用できない状態です/ Recharge is not available. The Mobile Suica support page specifically states that JR East “cannot inform you about the conditions and contents of restrictions.” User reports suggest a general daily recharge limit between ¥5,000~¥10,000, however I think it also depends on the credit card issuer. My JR East JCB VIEW card for example has never run into any recharge limits in 5 years of heavy recharge use.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block appears to be somewhat rare, but it is happening more with the recent Mobile Suica phishing attacks. In general Wallet app recharge tends to be more robust than Suica app recharge but security recharge block seems to affect all credit card recharge. The only user recourse appears to be contacting the card issuer or using the Mobile Suica member online Trouble Report Form (Japanese only). No word on Apple Pay PASMO but users should expect the same situation.

Mobile Suica registered account information can only be changed in Suica (iOS) and Mobile Suica (Android) apps by applying for an account update, it cannot be directly changed in the app, it cannot be changed via a web browser. This offers a level of account security but too many people fall for phishing emails. Even my internet savvy partner fell for a Mobile Suica phishing mail and have to get his credit card reissued.

The short term solution for JR East is to implement 2FA across all of their online services with a single login ID credential instead of the multiple service ID account mess we have now…hopefully soon. The longer term solution will be eliminating ID and password login altogether using Passkeys.