Love and Radiance:  Sunflowers of the Ryukyus


“The sunflower bathes its flesh in golden oil, languidly craning up so high – oh how small the sun” ~Tanka poem by Yugure Maeda

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

MIyakojima Sunflower Field

Jody and I were out exploring the rustic coast of Miyakojima during a recent island getaway, with no particular destination in mind.  Heading down one of the many detours we took that afternoon, we happened upon a tall, shimmering field of sunflowers begging for attention.  Of course we had to stop… and stop we did!

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27324539151_6bbb25bba7_bThe Sunflower (ヒマワリhimawari) is a popular plant in Japan, cultivated here since the 17th century.  Over time, it has come to represent respect, passionate love, and radiance, not surprisingly.  As a countless mass of yellow and green, they were certainly standing tall that day, busily basking in the glimmering rays of the sun.

Radiance and Sunflowers

Radiance and Sunflowers

27358829101_8b6fd30fcf_bNot only did Jody happened to be wearing just the right dress for the occasion, she also happily obliged my request for an impromptu modeling shoot.  Usually reserved and quite contained, Jody seemed to absorbed some of the flowers’ radiance, then reflected that back to the iris of my waiting camera.  The flowers spoke silently to us, as they do for so many others, an essence of such plants true the world over.  But more so in Japan.  So much so in fact that the Japanese have developed a symbolic language of flowers called hanakotoba.

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26823387523_4c9bdf3e89_bHanakotoba (花言葉) is the Japanese language of flowers, or more correctly, the ancient art of assigning meanings to flowers.  Historically, and in many societies, flowers were given meaningful codes and not-so-secret passwords.  If you wanted some to know you were interested in courtship?  Wear this one.  Want to express condolences for another’s loss or suffering?  Wear that one.  This interpretation of nature takes account of the overall psychological effects and even physiological reactions which can happen under the influences of a flowering plant’s color, texture, and smell.  In other words, flowers can directly convey emotion, and communicate quite clearly without the need or use of more pedestrian words.  More mystically, flowers are often used to express that which cannot be spoken.

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27120015580_47ce4d0a95_bThese pictures are already some of my fondest memories of Okinawa this time around (See Paradise Lost for a less happy memory).  The low afternoon sun and the temperate breeze made our time in the flowering field not just comfortable, but comforting.  There’s just something about sunflowers that is special.  I’m not sure if it’s connected to childhood memories or just their sheer size…or both.  Well, it’s probably because I got to capture my beautiful wife among them and freeze the moment for all time.

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27154089480_6e3e0fe7bc_bIn Japan, flowers are not just given to women.  And when they are given, the act is not taken nearly as lightly as it is in the United States.  The underlying meaning of the flower given determines the message sent – and hopefully received.  Communicating without words can often ease tension and break the ice which is often stifling and thick and permeates many aspects of Japanese socialization.

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For me, the sunflowers speak to Jody, whispering to her of her radiance and beauty.  Things in her case for me that are best expressed through nature as they cannot be fully appreciated through spoken word alone.

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Old Guys Rule: Celebrating “Respect for the Aged” in Japan


A Peaceful Okinawa Centenarian

A Peaceful Okinawa Centenarian

“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The foods that promote longevity, virtue, strength, health, happiness, and joy; are juicy, smooth, substantial, and agreeable to the stomach.” ~Bhagavad Gita quotes

“Mere longevity is a good thing for those who watch Life from the side lines.  For those who play the game, an hour may be a year, a single day’s work an achievement for eternity.” ~Helen Hayes

“Hey, I guess they’re right. Senior citizens, although slow and dangerous behind the wheel, can still serve a purpose. I’ll be right back. Don’t you go dying on me!” ~Lloyd Christmas to an elderly woman, Dumb and Dumber

Floyd Christmas Failed to Respect his Elders

Floyd Christmas Failed to Respect his Elders

funny-yeah-its-monday-said-no-one-ever-picsRespect for the Aged Day (敬老の日 Keirō no Hi) is a Japanese holiday celebrated annually to honor elderly citizens.  Although historically held on September 15, after 2003 its date was moved to the 3rd Monday of September due to the “Happy Monday System” of providing national holidays in conjunction with Sundays.  Remember, much of Japan remains on a 6-day work-week!

101 Years Young

101 Years Young

This national holiday traces its origins to 1947 when the Hyōgo Prefecture of Japan (prefectures are like our states) proclaimed September 15 as “Old Folks’ Day (Toshiyori-no-Hi).”  Originally, it consisted only of a small fishing village town meeting held to honor their seniors and listen to them speak so as to attempt to gain benefit from such words of wisdom.  Its popularity quickly spread nationwide as the Japanese society and culture started to recover from the devastation of World War II, and in 1966 its name was change as it became a national holiday.

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Respect for the Aged Day (Keiro-no-Hi) may signify to many in the west Japan’s rapidly aging population, but here in the East this national holiday emphasizes honor and appreciation for the contributions senior citizens have made and continue to make to society, while wishing them additional longevity.

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Being a relatively new holiday, traditions and customs associated with Respect-for-the-Aged Day remain fairly vague, but smaller communities tend to host some kind of special event in honor of their senior citizens.  On their day, many communities honor the elderly with parties and ceremonies and present them with gifts.  Media becomes centered on senior-related programs, particularly those concerning the (growing) number of elderly in Japan, and the oldest people in the country.  School children often visit facilities for the elderly to entertain them with song and dance.

But how old is old really in Japan? (Statistics provided by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications 2012)

• In Japan, people age 65 and older are considered elderly; people 75 and older are regarded as “late-stage elderly.”

A dilemma applicable only to those "late stagers...."

A dilemma applicable only to those “late stagers….”

• Japan has the highest life expectancy at 83 years (79.9 for men, 86.1 for women) out of 194 surveyed nations, according to the WHO.  The U.S. ranks 40th at age 79 (81 for women, 76 for men).

Longevity; it's all relative

Longevity; it’s all relative

• 24.1 percent of Japan’s population – 30.7 million people (17.5 million women, 13.1 million men) – is age 65 and older.  This number increases by 1.02 million annually.  There are 15.1 million people in Japan age 75 and older.

• There are more than 50,000 centenarians in Japan; the number increases by 3,000 annually.

Detrimental Health Effects of this western-derived burger start with choking hazards....

Detrimental Health Effects of this western-derived burger start with choking hazards….

More importantly though, it seems that more modern Western ways are beginning to trump world-famous Okinawa longevity and life expectancy.  Okinawa was once long recognized for having the highest longevity rate out of all 47 prefectures in Japan, and once held the most centenarians per capita in the world.  But times have changed according to a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare study conducted every five years.  While a 1995 survey showed that overall there were 22 centenarians for every 100,000 persons in Okinawa – 3.8 times the national average at the time – follow-on surveys show longevity has been declining in Okinawa ever since.  By 2005, male Okinawan longevity in Japan had dropped from first to 25th place.

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Most recently, in 2010, Okinawan women dropped to third place in the survey with a life expectancy of 87.02 years, slightly higher than the ministry’s national average of 86.35.  Okinawan men continued to drop, reaching 30th place at 79.4 years, just shy of the national life expectancy for males of 79.59 years.  The results are no surprise to many; the medical community has been predicting such trends for at least the last decade.

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By all accounts, the old island lifestyle on Okinawa, centered to a large extent on diet, has literally been dying out with modern changes in lifestyle.  Such shifts, particularly those in the Okinawan diet,  have opened the door to diseases associated with obesity – once rare on Okinawa – like diabetes, heart failure and strokes, all illnesses that are now becoming all too common.  The chief factor is diet; most finger-pointing calls out now ubiquitous fast-food chains like A&W, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken sprinkled all over the island.  With the continuing loss of the Okinawan culture and tradition, younger Okinawans’ eating habits and levels of physical activity become more and more westernized, ways that are clearly detrimental to longevity.

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In any case, with modernization, especially that of our western ways, not everyone in Japan will be observing these traditional customs and holidays in the ways they should be.  Just as in American, national holidays are more and more being treated as simply “days off,” providing merely a time to relax, visit with friends and family, and make the most of precious time off, rather than being celebrated for the important and worthy notions which such days of observance cry out for.

Which should beg the question of us all:  how should we – as a country, as a society and as individuals – honor our elderly?  A start would be such national and formal recognition, like Respect for the Aged Day in Japan.  But, what our elderly don’t need is simply another “day off” and lip-service to their mere presence.  We, as their children and good stewards of our nation and community, must do better.  As an old Far Eastern proverb goes, “what an elder sees sitting, youth cannot see standing….”

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How will you hold your own Respect for the Aged Day?

Start by calling your Momma!!  I’m as guilty as most everyone else….

...but not to tell her about this....

…but not to tell her about this….