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.”

Foreign reporting takes of Japan as Japanese cuisine

Here’s a fun game for long term gaijin residents of Japan. We all know the Japan portrayed in foreign news reportage and stink tank ‘Japanese expert’ analysts, rarely, if ever, matches the Japan we live in. We also know that ‘Japanese food’ in restaurants outside of Japan rarely matches what you actually eat here. What if we reposition foreign news outlet Japan coverage as Japanese cuisine? It might look something like…

CNN: American McDonalds’s is Japanese food, end of story.
NYT: 24/7 Benihana flying cutlery delusional paranoia, every paring knife a deadly Samurai sword ready to harm Korea and China, a world menace that must be contained.
WAPO: There is no such thing as Japanese food, everything originated in Korea.
Guardian: The UK freed Japanese food from its oppressive anti-foreign Japanese origins by fusing it with forward thinking Asian food cultures, and now owns the copyrights.

All entry suggestions welcome😁

無敵な人

There is a internet slang Japanese expression “無敵な人” loosely explained as “a person who has no hesitation in committing crimes because they have nothing to lose socially”. There is also another very convenient expression “当たり屋” which refers to a person who causes an accident or incident for personal gain. Most people might think ‘trouble maker’ would do here, but trouble maker doesn’t capture the coldly calculated premeditation aspect of the Japanese expressions.

Both of these were on display during a recent platform incident at JR Shibuya station Yamanote line during the evening rush when trains arrive every 4 minutes. For reference Shibuya has over 700,000 people using it every day and does not yet have platform doors as the station is being slowly rebuilt in sections.

The ‘victim’ in this case was a man who dropped his wallet (which he claimed contained ¥40,000 that might ‘blow away’) and asked the station attendants to retrieve it with the magic hands that stations have on hand for such incidents. As transit YouTuber, and former station attendant, Wataru Watanuki explains in his video about the incident, a station attendant would have less than 3 minutes for a retrieval attempt before having to clear out before the next train. Attendants also have a rush hour to take care of. So after waiting for a while with the station attendants standing next to him, the ‘victim’ reached over and pushed the emergency button.

The emergency button is for emergencies, like when somebody falls on the tracks or the tracks are obstructed, basically any condition that might cause an accident. This was clearly not the case. Pressing the station platform emergency button also stops all trains on the Yamanote line. Clearly the ‘victim’ thought doing this would get him his wallet back without having to wait. He also hit video record on his smartphone to cleanly capture the astonished and now irate station attendants who tasked him about pressing the emergency button. Naturally the encounter was posted on social media and created a news event, I guess because the media thinks everybody needs the distraction.

As this things die quickly and tend to disappear from the web unexpectedly, the encounter clearly sounds premeditated as if the poster knew exactly how to goad the station attendant all while obnoxiously playing innocent victim. As Wataru Watanuki explains from personal experience, station attendants are there to ensure that train operation is safe and smooth, that is their job, not babysitting trouble makers. Stations like Shibuya are also notoriously difficult jobs because of ‘無敵な人’. A station attendant who posts anonymously as ‘On the job truths from a working station attendant’ added that JR East isn’t helping anybody when they don’t support front line employees who keep things safe.

But there is an aspect people might not be aware of, a transit user witnessed the poster dangerously attempting to retrieve his wallet on his own several times before pressing the emergency button, all while being warned by the station attendants to stand clear. The tweet said: “Completely understand why the station attendant yelled…poor thing, he ended up looking the bad one.”

That’s the problem with social media, it’s a virtual paradise for all kinds of hit and run 無敵な人. Unfortunately I think we’re going to experience a lot more of them in the years to come.

The karinto lesson: a good nature makes all the difference

My partner was born and raised on Sado and is always telling me stories of growing up there. I’ll try to write some of them down.

This is a tale of two classmates from his elementary school. Both of whom were not smart. the kind of kids other kids like to prank. Like the old ‘hey do you want to eat karinto’ prank. Karinto is delicious but looks, exactly, like dried dog poo. So kids being kids, somebody gets tricked into doing a Pink Flamingos reenactment, eating dried dog poo instead of real karinto. If they’re stupid enough to fall for it they deserve it, lesson learned they’ll never fall for it again.

But there was a crucial difference between the two boys. One was arrogant and thought he was smart, which he decidedly was not. The other was humble and openly good natured about his lack of smarts, ‘”I’m not smart so I should listen to the advice of my friends and family.” Which one do you think got the karinto lesson?

As time went on the two led very different adult lives. The arrogant one refused to listen to anyone, never held a good job for long, never got married and took to drinking, blaming everybody for his problems. A life of endless karinto lessons but never learning. The humble one listened to the advice of those who cared about him, made a lot of friends, got a good steady job, got married and raised a family.

His whole life he’s never had the karinto lesson, in many ways.

Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun examining how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.

I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?

The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is they are like micro bank accounts coupled with the backend recharge flexibility of mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to put money into different eMoney micro bank accounts and get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.

And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.

Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?

It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.

In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.

UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage
That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.

It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.

Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.