Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Mystery Of Merii of Hama And The Birth Of 'Yokohama Rosa'

Merii of Hama on the streets of Yokohama. Circa 1990.

"What? What’s my name? I’ve long forgotten my real name. But people call me all sorts of names. Like Merii of Hama, Mary, ‘Merican Li’l or Rosa. But Rosa is my favorite of all." – Yokohama Rosa

Nearly 15 years ago, Japan’s legendary TV/film/stage actress Michiko Godai encountered Merii-san on the streets of Yokohama (Japan’s second largest city just outside of Tokyo), roaming around with her oversized rolling suitcase and face painted as white as fresh snow. On first sight, Godai wanted to learn more about the mysterious woman. Who was she? Where did she come from? What was her story?

Godai began her investigation by searching for the makeup store where Merii-san bought her white face paint. She learned that Merii-san once fancied expensive American brand makeup products, but with her dwindling savings, the shop owner introduced her to a 500 yen stage paint which ended up becoming her signature look, together with thick kabuki-like eyeliner.

Godai then found the dry cleaner that laundered Meri-san’s frilly white dresses and would kindly allow her to change in the store before returning to the streets, the hair salon that styled her hair until their clients requested that she no longer be allowed in, and the café that held a rose cup just for her use so as not to alienate the other customers.

Godai, together with the late playwright Giho Sugiyama, strung these stories carefully together like beads on a chain, and the powerful one-woman play Yokohama Rosa was born. 

“Through Rosa, I want to depict Japan’s postwar history and convey it (to future generations),” Godai told the Asahi Shimbun about why she created the play. Since its premiere in April 1996 at the Mitsukoshi Theatre in Tokyo, the piece has been presented 110 times to more than 51,000 people. Beginning in 2003, the piece has been performed each August in Yokohama’s Red Brick Warehouse in commemoration of the end of WWII.

Having its U.S. premiere this weekend as part of Japan Society's Stories from the War series marking the 70th anniversary of the war's end, Godai said, “A war produces tragedies regardless of whether a country wins or loses it... I want Americans to see 'Yokohama Rosa' as a message to pray for peace.”

Michiko Godai portrays Merii over the decades. Photos by © Hideo Mori.

Details of Merii-san’s early life are vague and inconclusive, as she never let down her guard to tell anyone her true story. Merii-san’s Japanese Wikipedia page states that:
She was born in 1921 in Okayama Prefecture to a farming family. The oldest daughter of eight, she was married just briefly. After the war she worked at a local food joint that catered to foreign soldiers. It was there where she met and fell in love with a U.S. Army Official who whisked her off to Tokyo before getting drafted into the Korean War, never to return. Abandoned and forlorn, she turned towards Yokosuka (home of the Yokosuka naval base) in Yokohama, where she began her life as a pan-pan [the word in occupied Japan for prostitute*]. Some records say this was the early 60s, others the mid-50s. She began garnering real attention in the 80s, then disappeared in the mid-90s. She was said to have died in a nursing home near her hometown in 2005 at the age of 84. Numerous songs, manga, films and even a novel and poem exist, inspired by her story.
In 1995, Michiko Godai visited the GM Building where former pan-pan Merii-san (then in her seventies) dwelled and “worked” as a so-called Elevator Girl, escorting people up and down to the floors they wished to go. The tips that she made were now her only source of income. Godai explained to Merii-san that she would like to do a one-woman play about her life and according to Godai she smiled and said, “Is that so?”

Godai’s Yokohama Rosa is a fictionalized account inspired by the woman who came to be known as Merii-san. The 100 minute play traces the life of a woman known as Yokohama Rosa from the time she arrives in Yokohama, through her journey into prostitution, to her love-affair with a foreign soldier and her fears and insecurities about time moving on and her own aging.

The play depicts an innocent life completely tossed and turned by war (in this play not only is WWII considered, but also the wars in Korea and Vietnam) and is performed with live musicians and a panoramic display of striking images from the times. Part post-war history lesson, part testament to the perseverance of the human spirit, Merri-san's story, and the story of all women she represents, lives on through Michiko Godai's heartrending performance in this poignant production.

--Lara Mones

Merii of Hama on the streets of Yokohama. Circa 1990.

*Pan-pan (pronounced pahn-pahn, unknown origin) n. 1. The word for street walker or prostitute used in Japan at the end of WWII. (Kojien); 2. Prostitutes who catered to the Occupied Troops. At the end of WWII, the terms pan-pan girl and pan-suke emerged to describe the prostitutes who appeared on the streets and who specifically worked for the GI troops in Occupied Japan. While the origins of the word are uncertain, some believe it to have come from the English word “pom-pom” meaning sex, while others, the American pronunciation of the Indonesian word for woman “Perem-paun” (pronounced purom pan). Still others believe that it came from the onomatopoeia “pen-pen” describing the shamisen (aka geishas). Whatever its origin, the word that the GIs used became “pan-pan” when it eventually reached the years of the Japanese. (Zokugo); 3. Today, the word or sound “pan-pan” is a commonly used adjective meaning full or to be stretched tight. Via.


Shiroi Kao no Densetsu wo Motomete: Yokohama kara Yokohama Rosa he no Deshin, Michiko Godai

Yokohama Rosa, Giho Sugiyama and Michiko Godai

Yokohama Merii (film), Takayuki Nakamura

Kojien Dictionary and zokugo-dict.com

Monday, April 20, 2015

Learning Japanese: Enhance Classes With A Listening and Reading Routine

Learning Japanese? Go for 'total immersion' even if not in Japan. Via.

Of all the ways to start studying Japanese, many find taking classes to be one of the most effective. But making the most of class means more than studying. Of course, memorizing vocabulary, reviewing class materials, and participating in lessons are vital, but there are other things you can do to be prepared. It starts with developing a routine that exposes you to Japanese beyond class and textbooks.

Unless you’re living in Japan, you probably won't experience Japanese involuntarily, so you have to seek it out for yourself. This means making Japanese a part of your daily life, such as watching Japanese television shows on sites like Crunchyroll. From hit dramas such as I’m Mita, Your Housekeeper to classic anime such as Bakemonogatari, Crunchyroll gives access to videos more than a week old for free, or you can pay a monthly fee to access videos as soon as they are released, as well as HD video and streaming to almost any device.

As for reading, NHK offers a variety of simplified news articles in Japanese, and you can also buy manga from sites such as YesAsia or in person at stores such as Kinokuniya. There are lists upon lists of recommended manga for beginners out there, but perhaps the most compelling recommendation comes from Khatzumoto of All Japanese All The Time: “Don’t read according to your level, read according to your interest.”

Having Skype conversations with native Japanese speakers is one of the best ways to utilize your Japanese. If you make mistakes, you can simply ask your friend where you went wrong, all while helping them work on their English. Lang-8 is a great place to make friends for tlanguage exchange.

Discussing the Japanese language classroom experience, Tomoyo Kamimura, head of Japan Society’s Language Center tells students “if you can arrange a language exchange with a Japanese student—I have paired up several people here—it works very well. You spend one or one and a half hours speaking only Japanese, then one hour speaking English. You have to get exposure to real Japanese, not just what’s on a screen or in a book.”

Podcasts can be a great way to expose yourself to Japanese even while doing something else. Japan's esteemed news outlet Nikkei offers hours of Japanese podcast programs available online for free. TBS Radio also offers tons of content, and for news on the latest technology and trends, Hotcast is a great choice. In addition to podcasts, there is a decent amount of free audiobooks available for download, some with transcripts in Japanese, and others with translations.

Listening is great practice without having to “do” anything (besides focus, of course). This is especially useful for commuters and anyone who doesn’t have the time to sit in front of their computer watching J-dramas for an hour at a time. And you can still listen to things you enjoy – music, news, sports, reviews of books, video games or movies – only now, you’re getting accustomed to the language you’re learning at the same time.

It’s all a matter of input preceding output – input being reading and listening, and output being writing and speaking. These are the main components of a language, and it’s important as a beginner to prioritize them depending on how you’re primarily using Japanese. Many Japanese learners choose to focus on speaking and listening in order to have conversations in Japanese, while focusing less on writing and reading kanji.

To help with both, it’s a good idea to add every single word you’re interested in that you hear or read to your Anki decks, so that you can review them until you’ve got them memorized. Once you’ve done that, you can try them out in class or when talking to friends to make sure you’re using them correctly. Even just five to ten words a day can make a big difference in improving your vocabulary.

Whatever you choose to focus on, keeping a steady schedule is important. Anki reviews pile up if ignored for a day, so keeping your review count at a relatively low level and adding each day is a good way to stay on top of them. As a general rule, expect to be reviewing for at least an hour if you have more than a hundred reviews due for the day. This is easily managed by setting review limits in the program itself, and it’s also important to note that there are both iPhone and Android apps available, which can help you finish those reviews even when you are not home.

With a daily routine, learning a language becomes much less daunting and much more doable. Even a typical routine, such as listening to an interesting podcast on the train, watching your favorite show at home, and reviewing words you’ve learned before you go to sleep or first thing in the morning will help your Japanese improve outside of class, so you can spend more of your class time learning instead of trying to catch up.

–Mark Gallucci

Gallucci is a Communications intern at Japan Society. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University at Albany and completed a study-abroad program in Kansai Gaidai University, Japan. He has worked as an English-Japanese tutor and is currently enrolled at Japan Society’s Language Center.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Frozen In Time: The Cinematic Legacy Of Japan's 'Eternal Virgin'

Setsuko Hara's iconic career spanned only three decades.

For more than three decades, she dazzled audiences as the ideal Japanese woman. Boys fell in love with her, women wanted to be like her, and everyone respected her incredible talent. Then, in the blink of an eye, her career was over. Japan’s Eternal Virgin, Setsuko Hara, had retired, never again to be seen by the public eye.

Born Masae Aida, Hara began her journey to stardom in 1935, with her big break coming in 1937, when she starred in The New Earth, a German-Japanese collaboration that cemented her role as “the go-to actress” for young female characters.

The film features Hara as an innocent girl who, upon being rejected by her fiancé in favor of a German woman, attempts to jump into a volcano in order to end her suffering. Eventually, her father convinces the fiancé, who had fallen in love with Germany and its culture, to embrace Japanese culture once more and proceed with the wedding. The film, intended to strengthen the alliance between Nazi Germany and Japan while introducing Japan and its culture to the rest of Europe, was a commercial success in Japan, and was well reviewed in Germany, mainly because the government ordered critics to praise it.

The New Earth was one of the rarely screened WWII propaganda films featured in Japan Society’s ongoing series The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara, which shows how the actresses' roles reflected a nation during a time of upheaval and change. Continuing through Saturday with iconic postwar films, the series also juxtaposes the actresses' lives. Yamaguchi was often in the public spotlight (Artforum wrote that "the entire twentieth-century history of the Pacific Rim is reflected" in her life). In stark contrast, Hara was about as fond of interviews as Greta Garbo.

Two Hara films remain to be shown in the series, both of which would eventually define her legacy.

In Akira Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), screening April 3, Hara finds herself trapped in the middle of a love triangle. Her suitors are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with one being a liberal-minded man and the other a militant radical. Her decision brings her great sadness, and serves to reinforce the idea of democracy as a positive change, with women’s rights and anti-militarism being points of emphasis. 

Screening April 4 is Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), the first in a series of films often referred to as the “Noriko Trilogy”, comprised of Late Spring, Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953). All three films featured Setsuko Hara as a character named Noriko, showing her gradual progression from a daughter who fears marriage into an eventual widow, and the conflict between the demands of society and the desires of the individual.

Aiko Masubuchi, Japan Society Film Program Officer, notes that throughout Hara’s entire career, it was as if she were two separate entities – the onscreen Hara, and the private Hara, known to only her close friends. Even now, we can only guess as to what she was like in private. Her onscreen persona was was often representative of an idea, an existence that changed to suit the prevailing ideas of the time, from militarism to democracy. On the silver screen, she was the sweet sisterly figure supporting the future pilots of the Japanese air force, the perfect daughter, and a devoted wife.

Where the cinematic persona of Setsuko Hara was usually a stoic, serious woman, Masae Aida was surprising her fellow actors with her love of beer and her sense of humor, playfully kicking actor Ryo Ikebe for teasing her.

Hara’s collaboration with Ozu would go on for 12 years, lasting until 1961. When Ozu died of cancer two years later, Hara, then 43, announced soon afterward her retirement in a shocking press conference, where she admitted that she enjoyed neither her job nor any of the work she had done. She was merely providing for her family, and now that that was done, she could finally retire and be herself again – not Setsuko Hara, but Masae Aida. 

After her retirement, she retreated to Kamakura, in Kanagawa Prefecture, where she still lives to this day. She has consistently refused all media requests for interviews and photographs, and has not been seen by the public eye since her final press conference, save for a few paparazzi photos taken without her consent. Having never married, she exists to the public as the “Eternal Virgin”, a name given to her at the peak of her career.

And it is at that peak where her image will forever remain, frozen in time.

--Mark Gallucci
Images (from left to right): Setuko Hara stars in The New Earth, 1937; Toward a Decisive Battle in the Sky, 1943 © Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.; Late Spring, 1949 © Shochiku Co., Ltd.; No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946 © Courtesy Toho Co., Ltd.; and Tokyo Story, 1953 © Shochiku Co., Ltd.. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Rebuilding From The Rubble: Three Japanese Architects Construct Amidst Destruction

Tadao Ando's Benesse House Oval on the island of Naoshima. Via.

After years of toxic emissions from refineries built during Japan’s era of modernization, Naoshima, an island in Japan’s Kagawa Prefecture, had become a barren wasteland – a dumping ground for industrial waste. So when philanthropist Soichiro Fukutake approached Pritzker-winning architect Tadao Ando in 1988 to join him in his vision to revitalize the land, Ando’s initial response was, unsurprisingly, “No, that’s impossible.”

Fukutake had purchased the south side of the island two years earlier, aiming to use art as a catalyst for the island’s economic growth. He eventually managed to convince Ando to get on board, and in 1992, work began on Ando’s new building: the Bennesse House, a hotel and museum that provides guests with perhaps the most up-close-and-personal experience with art in the world.

Now, Naoshima has been transformed into a massive art project, and has become a major tourist attraction for art fanatics all over the world, due in no small part to Ando’s work on the many attractions situated on the island. It has since grown to include artists like Shinro Otake, the man responsible for creating a museum where you can bathe in an art environment - even the bath itself was designed by Otake.

Ando introduced his eighth work on Naoshima two years ago: the Ando Museum, a 100-year-old traditional wooden house with an interior that demonstrates his signature style, mixing past and present in a wood-and-concrete building.

But when it comes to rebuilding, the scope of Ando’s work extends far beyond Naoshima. In 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe, killing 6,434 people and destroying countless expressways, buildings, and homes in the process. Many of these buildings held cultural significance, and had just barely survived the bombings of World War II.

In response to this massive loss, Ando proposed an art museum and a waterfront plaza in Kobe that could serve as a shelter for refugees. Few could claim to be more qualified than Ando for the job, as he had designed 35 buildings in the Kobe area, and none of them suffered so much as a crack.

Today, the museum is a big tourist attraction in Kobe, which has since recovered from the disaster, and Ando continues to design buildings, his most recent project being the Visitor, Exhibition and Conference Center at the Clark Art Institute in Massachussetts.

Ando is the third of seven Japanese architects to win the Pritzker Prize (second only to America), the highest honor an architect can receive, since the award’s inception in 1979. Last year’s recipient, Shigeru Ban, is the most recent of the seven award winners.

Shigeru Ban's temporary churches serve as community centers as well as places of worship for disaster ravaged towns. Via. 

Ban, like Ando, is known for his work in helping regions rebuild – he was also in Kobe building shelters for victims of the earthquake, but of a different kind. Ban believes that shelters should be not only reliable, but cheap, easy to disassemble, and portable. Following this philosophy, he developed the “Paper Log House”, a shelter composed of donated beer crates loaded with sandbags and paper tubes. Additionally, he designed “Paper Church”, a community center in Kobe also built with paper tubes. It now stands in Taiwan, having been disassembled and later reconstructed there in 2008.

In an announcement on the official Pritzker Prize website, Ban said that his Japanese upbringing helps account for his wish to waste no materials, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an environmentalist.

“When I started working this way, almost thirty years ago, nobody was talking about the environment. But this way of working came naturally to me. I was always interested in low cost, local, reusable materials,” he said.

And in a New Yorker profile, he went on to say, “I do not know the meaning of ‘Green Architect.’ I have no interest in ‘Green,’ ‘Eco,’ and ‘Environmentally Friendly.’ I just hate wasting things.”

Toyo Ito's "Home-for-All" project in the tsunami-struck city of Rikuzentakata. Via.

Toyo Ito, another like-minded Japanese architect who won the Pritzker Prize , said of Ban, “Many architects in the world today are competing only for the beauty of the architectural form. Ban-san’s attempt is a counter-punch against these architects, and I think he represents a new model of a ‘socially responsible’ architect.”

Ito himself could be called socially responsible – in his book Toyo Ito – Force of Nature, he discusses his work on “Home for All”, a project to build small homes made of wood in communities affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami where everyone can gather and communicate with each other. He writes:
In the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its originality. As a result, the most primal themes—why a building is made and for whom—have been forgotten. A disaster zone, where everything is lost offers the opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is. ‘Home-for-All’ may consist of small buildings, but it calls to the fore the vital question of what form architecture should take in the modern era—even calling into question the most primal themes, the very meaning of architecture.
In an interview with Domus, he talks about his motivation for the project:
After the big earthquake in Japan we had to make a lot of sacrifices, many victims came out of that and so we went back to zero, we went back to the idea of architecture as a place to make people gather, a place that everybody can use. This is what we have done, restarting the city once again as it has happened so many times in our history. It is a way to make architecture that can be applicable all over the world, thinking architecture as a social tool, as a way of creating spaces to make people stay together.
Perhaps it is this sense of social responsibility and deeper thinking as to what architecture is really about and who it is for that has separated these award-winning Japanese architects from the rest of the pack.

While the three may have vastly different styles and approaches to their work, their works will not only be remembered for their ingenuity, but their impact on the communities they were created to support.

--Mark Gallucci

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Recovery's Long Road: Fukushima Four Years After The Great East Japan Earthquake

Seeds of Hope: Fukushima rice recently passed radiation tests for the first time since the disasters. Image via the Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network/JERF.

The 4th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami has arrived, and the effects of the widespread destruction at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant are still being felt today.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the company that owns the now-defunct plant, is still trying to persuade local governments to allow the restart of some of its other reactors, which would significantly improve its financial situation, as it still owes more than ¥5 trillion in damages, in addition to the cost of decommissioning the plants affected by the disaster.

To make matters worse, Tepco president Naomi Hirose announced a month ago that it would not be able to meet its self-imposed deadline to decontaminate water tainted by radioactivity by the end of March, which was then followed by the news that it had found a new source of radiation leakage into the sea.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the public is largely opposed to the restart of the reactors. Back in 2010, Japan had plans to make nuclear power at least 50 percent of its total energy by 2030, but a year ago, according to an Asahi poll, 59 percent of Japanese respondents opposed the restart of nuclear power plants, making it highly unlikely that we’ll be seeing an increase in Japanese nuclear power plant activity anytime soon.

Even now, around 120,000 Fukushima residents remain evacuees, and a government survey of 16,600 households in fiscal 2014 found that 48 percent of these evacuees aren’t planning on coming back. Concerns about radiation and slow reconstruction efforts are keeping them away, and the temporary housing situation isn’t giving them much confidence either.

Another problem that towns in the Tohoku region face is population decline. A majority of the evacuees who do decide to return are senior citizens, and according to surveys, only 3 percent of those in their 30s and 40s plan to go back to the towns they were forced to leave behind in the wake of the disaster.

More than 89,000 of the evacuees live in temporary housing units that were only built to last two years, and plans to create more permanent accommodations are not on track to be completed until fiscal 2017.

But construction is progressing, as more and more projects are reaching completion, such as the Joban Expressway, a highway that opened on March 1 that passes through the towns of Okuma and Futaba in Fukushima, close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Progress is also being made in agriculture, and the food in Fukushima has come a long way since the disaster. While commercial farming is now prohibited in areas that were deemed highly contaminated, a few months ago, rice from Fukushima passed radiation tests for the first time since the tsunami, and South Korea, who had banned imports from Fukushima, is now conducting visits to the power plant in consideration of reopening trade agreements with the region.

Fukushima is even trying to host Olympic baseball in 2020, should it be voted back into the Olympic lineup.

“We are still in the process of recovery from the disaster, and it would be a dream to have world-class athletes play here,” said Fukushima city official Hiroaki Kuwajima, according to Agence France-Presse.
Recovery efforts still have a long way to go, with many problems ahead, but the state of the Tohoku region is steadily improving. While things may never be the same in Fukushima, many of the people affected by the disaster are on a long, but promising, road to recovery.

--Mark Gallucci

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Story of Tokyo Rose

 A multitude of Tokyo Roses in Miwa Yanagi's Zero Hour. (c) Naoshi Hatori 

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Japan Society launches its Stories from the War programming series this week with Miwa Yanagi's Zero Hour, a theatrical retelling of the legend of Tokyo Rose. Hayley Valk, a recent intern for Japan Society's Performing Arts Program, reports from Frederick P. Close's seminal book on the subject, Tokyo Rose / An American Patriot: A Dual Biography (Scarecrow, 2010).

Born on the Fourth of July

An immigrant to Los Angeles from Yamanashi Prefecture, Jun Toguri was overjoyed when his daughter Iva was born on Independence Day, 1916. Iva was American through and through – she loved baseball, had no taste for Japanese music but loved Big Band, and her extroverted personality won her many Caucasian friends but clashed with her father’s conservative Japanese style. Her childhood was spent in various cities in Southern California, as her father moved through the import-export business and eventually came to own grocery stores. Iva graduated with a degree in zoology from UCLA, but without many career prospects due to her gender and Japanese heritage.

In June 1941, Iva’s aunt fell ill in Tokyo. Since Iva’s mother Fumi also suffered from failing health, Iva decided to pay a visit in her place and travel to Japan for the first time. She boarded a ship with her friend Chiyeko Ito, not knowing that she wouldn’t return to the U.S. for another seven years.

An American in Tokyo

Six months after arriving in Tokyo, Iva heard the shocking news: Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. She struggled to book passage on a ship leaving the country but, without the appropriate passport or funds, was stranded. The police regularly came knocking at her door to harass Iva and convince her to renounce her U.S. citizenship, but she refused again and again. Though she lived with her aunt for a time, this unyielding support of the enemy made Iva’s relatives and neighbors uncomfortable and in time resentful, and she ultimately decided to move into a boarding house found with the help of her Japanese language school. Meanwhile, her family back home had been interned.

Realizing that she would have to make her own way in Japan for some time to come, Iva continued learning Japanese, improving on the very little knowledge she possessed before arriving in Japan. She found several small jobs in these years, transcribing English for Domei News Agency, teaching piano to children from wealthy families, and doing office work for the Danish Minister. As Japan struggled in a time of severe rationing, Iva actively traded on the black market and smuggled goods to POWs, saving Allied lives. Finally, she began part-time work as a typist at Radio Tokyo.

Zero Hour

Early in Japan’s propaganda effort, three English-speaking POWs with broadcasting experience were brought to Radio Tokyo to develop programming. Charles Cousens, Ted Ince, and Norman Reyes were forced by the Japanese government to oversee an hour-long radio show called Zero Hour, containing music, skits, censored news, and POW messages. They searched for a female broadcaster to introduce the jazz music segments and deliver short scripted announcements, and came across typist Iva Toguri; fluent in English and with a raspy, unalluring voice, she was exactly what the program needed. Facing government threats, she was given little choice but to accept the position.

As the primary of multiple women broadcasting for Zero Hour, Iva became established under the identity “Orphan Ann.” She could sympathize with the stranded GIs as she greeted them, “my fellow orphans in the Pacific.” Though these comments ostensibly served the Japanese government’s objective of weakening the Allied forces’ morale, the POWs carefully scripted the show to subvert the negativity in favor of cleverly-worded encouragement. The preserved records of Iva’s Zero Hour broadcasts reveal that, in fact, she did little more than entertain GI listeners and announce the upcoming music selections.

Will the Real Tokyo Rose Please Stand Up?

Meanwhile, from very early in the war talk was flying about a radio personality known only as “Tokyo Rose.” According to GIs in the Pacific, Tokyo Rose was famous for demoralizing comments, rumors of unfaithful girlfriends back home, and leaking military secrets. She was described as a seductress with an English accent. Impossible to pin on any one broadcaster, the name was attributed in rumors to other broadcasters such as Radio Manilla’s Myrtle Lipton or even to Amelia Earhart. The popularity of the Tokyo Rose legend became so widespread that she was even common vocabulary back in the U.S., encouraged by movies, cartoons, and articles.

To this day, no records exist of any broadcaster introducing herself as “Tokyo Rose” on the air. Furthermore, no one woman’s voice or broadcast contents perfectly match all the myriad qualities and statements attributed to her. With the information available at this point, it is safe to say that no single Tokyo Rose ever existed. Rather, she existed as an amalgamation of various broadcasters born to fill a void in the GIs lives left by homesickness, hopelessness, and sexual frustration. A figment of collective imagination, she became all too real when successively propagated by GIs and the media.

Suspect Treason

Given these facts, the next mystery is why Iva Toguri ever claimed to be the “one and original ‘Tokyo Rose’” in the confusion that followed the war. Possibly out of a desire for the money to return home or the promise of fame, or perhaps just out of ignorance, Iva quickly dug herself into a hole she couldn’t escape from. After being promised $2,000 for the first interview as “Tokyo Rose,” Iva agreed to give many more, and signed her name over and over as “Iva Toguri/Tokyo Rose," which would cause her trouble for years to come.

On October 17, 1945, Iva entered Sugamo Prison under suspicion of treason against the U.S. Facing entirely false and fabricated accusations, Iva was treated far worse by her home government than by even the Japanese military government during the war. She was alternately confirmed as a U.S. citizen and therefore capable of treason, and denied the benefits of U.S. citizenship under the false accusation that she had renounced it in favor of the Portuguese citizenship she acquired after marrying Phil d’Aquino in her Radio Tokyo years. After a year in jail full of painful investigations, a lack of substantial evidence led the CIC and FBI to drop the case, and Iva walked out of Sugamo on October 25, 1946.

In response to civilian outrage towards Iva’s release spurred by Walter Winchell’s U.S. radio show, the Truman administration sought to save face and not appear too easy on traitors. The FBI reopened the case with an open call for witnesses. The witness testimonies were censored to make the strongest case against Iva, and she was returned to Sugamo and slated to return to the U.S. for further investigation. Because her case would be under the jurisdiction of the location she first set foot on U.S. soil, her destination was set for San Francisco, where she would be likely to encounter the greatest opposition. In 1948, after seven years abroad, Iva was reunited with her father in her home country.

Iva Toguri's Sugamo mugshot. Via

The United States v. Iva Toguri

Thanks to Jun, Iva was grateful to finally have legal representation from Wayne Collins, yet was still forced to spend almost two years in jail before and during the trial without having been convicted. She was charged with eight overt acts of treason, so vague they proved no anti-U.S. crimes in and of themselves. In desperate prosecution, Thomas DeWolfe and the U.S. government went so far as to bribe and coach witnesses, spend exorbitantly to secure testimonies, sabotage the defense, destroy records, and exclude all minorities from the jury.

The deceitful actions of the U.S. government only worked to confirm the verdict of a trial that was doomed at the core. The question was never, “Did Iva Toguri commit treason?” but instead, “Is Iva Toguri truly Tokyo Rose?”, Tokyo Rose automatically assumed a guilty identity. The eight overt acts of treason were ambiguously worded and lacked concrete evidence on either side. The judge eliminated the possibility of duress and, left merely with speculations of Iva’s intention, the jury found her guilty of one overt act: “speaking into the microphone concerning the loss of ships.” After 12 weeks, 800,000 words of testimony, and $500,000 prosecution (if not five or ten times more), Iva Toguri was sentenced on October 6, 1949 to a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison.

“Pardon me, Iva”

Iva stayed busy during her next six years in Alderson Federal Reformatory for Women. She learned and worked in coding, medicine, and dentistry, and spent free time reading and making bags and other crafts to sell. She was well-liked for her poise and generosity, and developed strong relationships with her inmates and guards.

During her time in prison, Collins attempted to appeal the court’s decision and applied to President Eisenhower for a pardon, to no avail. The day before Iva was to be released from prison, she was informed that she would be deported and forcibly expatriated for treason. On January 28, 1956 Iva left Alderson, but, rather than join her family in Chicago, had to stay in California for two and half years before the effort to deport her was dropped.

Iva returned to Chicago and lived quietly until 1973, when unexpectedly a Boston pediatrician named Dr. Clifford Uyeda read a dissertation about her trial and resolved to achieve a pardon. He spearheaded an action committee with the support of the Japanese American Citizens League, scholars, and politicians. Journalists took up the subject anew, finally acquiring truthful statements from the witnesses that had been coerced by the prosecution. GIs and the state of California even supported the effort. Finally, on January 19, 1977, Iva Toguri was overjoyed to receive word that Gerald Ford, on the final day of his presidency, had pardoned her for the charges pressed thirty years earlier.


Iva lived the rest of her life in Chicago, grateful to have finally secured her U.S. citizenship. She managed her father’s business until her final years, and spent time visiting friends across the U.S. and supporting the arts. Though memories of the war influenced the rest of her years, Iva was never bitter about what had passed. She died of a stroke at home on September 26, 2006, at age 90. Still, the legends of Orphan Ann and Tokyo Rose live on.

--Hayley Valk

Hayley Valk is a junior at Barnard College majoring in East Asian Cultures with a focus on Japan. She has also worked as Stage Manager/Producer for numerous student theater productions at Columbia University. Hayley interned at Japan Society in the Performing Arts Department from Fall 2013 through Summer 2014. She is currently studying abroad in Kyoto, Japan under the KCJS: Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies program housed at Doshisha University and recently volunteered for the Kyoto Experiment International Performing Arts Festival.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Memories of Oshogatsu, Japan's New Year's Family Celebration

It’s December 31, and the house is spotless, the food has been prepared, and the celebration is about to begin. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day in America, but in Japan, it’s the beginning of Oshogatsu, Japan’s New Year’s equivalent.

"In the U.S., New Year's is just a single day, but the Japanese New Year’s is celebrated for an extended period of time, usually about three days." says Kazuko Minamoto, Deputy Director of education and family programming at Japan Society. "Most businesses in Japan are even closed for the first three days in January in observance of Oshogatsu"

Oshogatsu focuses on starting from a clean slate, so before the new year begins, everyone makes sure all business and housework from the previous year is completed. More like Christmas in America, Oshogatsu is typically spent with family, who often gather at grandparents’ houses for several nights. Great meals are prepared with each item of food symbolizing something.

"As a child, I enjoyed traditional New Year’s food – ozoni (rice cake in soup) and osechi (various special foods we only eat during Oshogatsu)," says Education Program Officer Yumi Nagasawa. "These days my family eats toshikoshi soba noodle, a meal that represents a wish for a long life."

Even the colors of the food's ingredients are taken into account. Lucky colors such as red and white are prominently featured in Oshogatsu dishes, also known as osechi ryori. The cooking takes days of exhausting work to prepare, so it’s not uncommon for modern Japanese people to buy the food pre-made from a high-end kaiseki restaurant.

Education Program Associate Owen Rojek took part in the full celebration for himself recently. "I spent the last two New Year's in Oita, a rural prefecture on the island of Kyushu, with my friend’s family, and it was a great and touching experience. Her immediate and extended family all gathered at her grandfather’s house and it felt like I was attending a large family reunion. Grandparents held great-grandchildren on their knees, siblings reminisced about their childhood, and everyone enjoyed beautifully prepared osechi ryori and copious amounts of alcohol."

While the adults of the house are busy cooking and cleaning, the children are free to play with their cousins that they may not get to see very often. They also receive otoshidama, money from parents and relatives enclosed in a small envelope.

"As a child, of course, my favorite memory is of otoshidama," says Yumi. "Part of the fun was to visit all my relatives, but it was also exciting to find out how much money I received. I learned how to use or save it wisely."

Learning the value of money is a very important part of receiving otoshidama, notes Kazuko. "I was able to save enough otoshidama that I received from my parents and relatives over many years to buy an audio stereo set when I was a teenager. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and taught me the importance of saving money (and patience that goes with it) when I was a kid."

As for the moment the clock strikes twelve, it’s a bit less climactic than it is in America. Rather than meeting up at, say, Times Square to watch the ball drop, families will head to nearby shrines to pray for success in the new year.

"As the end of the year drew closer, there was no big countdown like in the U.S.," says Owen, "but we all put on our coats and shoes and went to three local shrines to celebrate the New Year in an activity known as sansyamairi. We prayed for a good year and bought slips of paper with our fortunes for the New Year. This last time, I got daikiti, which means 'best luck' and is the best fortune you can get. After returning home, we went to sleep because we would be going to see the first sunrise of the year, another New Year’s tradition in Japan. After watching the sunrise from a nearby mountain, we returned home and ate ozoni, the traditional New Year’s day soup containing rice cakes and vegetables. Dinner was leftover osechi ryori, which was still delicious."

"We enjoyed hearing the sounds of year-end bell, Joya no kane – 108 times, says Yumi. "This is to cleanse the 108 kinds of human egos before welcoming a new year. My family lived close to a famous shrine, and we often went to give prayer on the first day (or very early morning around Midnight) to start the New Year with a good wish and a good new year’s resolution.

Kazuko adds, "On New Year’s Eve, I usually enjoy watching with family members the popular NHK’s Kohaku-uta-gassen, known in English as 'Red & White Year-end Song Festival,' a music program running since 1951 that features hit songs of the year."

Many Oshogatsu traditions have endured through the ages, and several are on display for children to discover and participate in at Japan Society’s annual Oshogatsu Family Festival this Sunday.

Guests can watch taiko drumming, lion dancing, pound their own mochi, write calligraphy, and participate in other fun events.

Having been a part of Japan Society's Oshogatsu event since its inception, Kazuko shared an element of volunteerism that few people may realize occurs:

"One of the most memorable and consistent scenes I have witnessed since we started Oshogatsu is how over fifty high-school student volunteers, including Japanese teens from Keio Academy and American teens from one-to-two local high schools who study the Japanese, work closely together to help children at the game and activity booths. Those students were hardworking, diligent, kind, and thoughtful to our younger guests and our presenters and performers. Keio Academy students looked very proud of their country’s tradition while American students truly enjoyed the festival atmosphere they couldn’t normally experience in their classroom setting. We are grateful for their assistance."

It’s an atmosphere unique to Japan, which makes the event such a unique opportunity for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience it.

"I am still fairly new to Oshogatsu at Japan Society, having only experienced it last year," says Yumi, "but it is a wonderful opportunity especially for young children to experience a Japanese custom and tradition in a fun way. Traditions are acquired through experience, so Oshogatsu is a chance to experience and learn about Japan without being in Japan, and for family to create and share memories."

--Mark Gallucci

Photo by George Hirose.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Taking The First Steps To Learning Japanese

Mark Gallucci is a Japan Society Communications intern. In addition to receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University at Albany, he completed a study-abroad program in Kansai Gaidai University, Japan. As an English-Japanese tutor, Mark talks about his experience learning Japanese and shares some tips for self-study and classroom-based learning.

Coming from an English background, learning Japanese can seem like a daunting endeavor. It’s easy to look at the written language and be intimidated by the complexity of its three writing systems—hiragana, katakana and kanji—when compared to the English alphabet. But Japanese is a language like any other, and learning it is just a matter of taking the first step.

Before I finally decided to learn Japanese, I went back and forth several times. I was a junior in college, and I’d never had the chance to take Japanese classes in high school, which offered only Spanish, French, Italian, and German.

After a bit of research, I decided that self-study would be a great way to start. I found tons of websites and programs that could help, but before I could begin, I noticed that there were several different paths of study to choose from, depending on your priorities.

You can ignore the writing system and focus solely on speaking, you can choose to learn kanji later, or you can start with kanji. If you’re looking to watch Japanese TV or anime, or listen to Japanese music, you can prioritize speaking and listening skills. But if you’re looking to communicate with people in writing, especially online, or if reading manga or classic literature are goals, then a solid knowledge of kanji is vital.

It’s for that reason that I chose to learn kanji first. It may seem counterintuitive, as it involves learning what the characters mean before even learning the words they’re used in. But it also helps when identifying new words. For instance, if you don’t know a certain word but recognize one of the kanji used in it, you can make a reasonable guess as to what that word is.

As for how my choice turned out, two years and one semester of studying abroad in Japan later, I still need English subtitles when I watch Japanese TV, no doubt a result of prioritizing kanji over speaking and listening. On the other hand, I read and reply to messages in Japanese every day, and thanks to speaking practice with friends, can have long conversations with native Japanese speakers without having to resort to English to get my point across. And while I did end up taking several classes along the way, there were two resources that I found invaluable in my studies.

For kanji, vocabulary, and other things I need to memorize, I use Anki, a popular, completely free digital flashcard program that has tons of user-created decks, including ones for hiragana and katakana. This is a great tool for memorizing large amounts of information. For everything else, I use Lang-8, a platform for free language exchange – you write entries in the language you’re learning, and native speakers of that language will correct it for you. You can then return the favor by correcting entries written in your native language. It’s also common for language learners to exchange Skype info. There’s nothing more helpful than having a native speaker correct your Japanese as you talk.

What I love about both of these resources is that whether you’re taking classes or not, they’re both very useful and can adapt to your current skill level. Plus, they provide a nice mix of textbook learning and exposure to “real” Japanese.

The Classroom Path

Self-study alone may not be enough to reach your goals, and this is where classes come in. Having a native Japanese teacher answer questions and having a clear, stable measure of progression is something that only classes can provide. There’s also the routine. It’s a lot easier to skip a day of Anki reviews than it is to skip a day of class. Not to mention that if you’re just starting out and have no idea what to do, a class will have a set curriculum, and you don't have to figure it out on your own.

Should you opt for classes, the spring session at Japan Society's Toyota Language Center starts at the beginning of February, with thirteen levels of Japanese courses available, meeting once or twice weekly. Kanji courses and specialized courses are also offered. For anime fans interested in learning Japanese, they are offering for the first time a weekly beginners class that uses anime to teach basic vocabulary, sentence structure, and conversational skills.

But if you’re still on the fence, you can get a feel for the classroom environment with one of Japan Society’s free trial lessons taught by Language Center Director Tomoyo Kamimura.

In an interview about the classroom experience, Kamimura-sensei said of her students’ trial lesson experience, “They definitely got the sense of what it is like to learn Japanese and seemed to have enjoyed the lesson. Some are interested in signing up for a regular class. I always enjoy teaching and this occasion was no exception. I hope they got a taste of what it’s like to study and learn Japanese in this brief session.”

Part of that experience is working with other students, a point of focus for classes at Japan Society, and one which Kamimura says can be very effective.

“It kind of motivates you to stay in the class, because when you’re alone, it’s hard to have self-discipline.”

It’s this challenge that can cause people to quit learning a language midway, which is why it’s important, even for those who self-study, to talk to other language learners to compare progress.

Because there are several different areas to focus on when learning a language, there’s no “right” way to learn, but no matter how you’re learning, nothing’s quite like having a conversation in the language you’re learning with native speakers, a fact that Kamimura acknowledges.

“I have had several students who taught themselves through self-study. Many of them were not sure if they were doing it right, so they wanted to take lessons. Amazingly, some of them are very nearly fluent! For me, it may be possible to learn grammar from a book if you have a very conceptual, abstract mind-set. But in my experience, if you can arrange a language exchange with a Japanese student—I have paired up several people here—it works very well. You spend one or one and a half hours speaking only Japanese, then one hour speaking English. You have to get exposure to real Japanese, not just what’s on a screen or in a book. So I do believe in self-study to a certain extent.”

For me, the biggest benefit of taking classes was gauging my progress. When you’re studying in a very unstructured way, there’s no real measure of progress other than looking at past essays or entries you wrote and finding all the mistakes you made. After a while of self-studying , it felt good to take a class, learn new things, and see that my process really was showing results.

Additionally, for beginners who still aren’t sure where to start, classes can provide a foundation to build upon while simultaneously giving students an opportunity to meet new people who share a common goal, and learn from them as well.

“One good thing about taking a class with others, at Japan Society or at college, is, let’s say you hear people making mistakes, and you know the answer. The teacher asks a question, and someone answers it completely wrong, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s wrong, I think that’s wrong’ and the teacher explains why it’s wrong… So you learn from other people’s mistakes.”

After all, making mistakes leads to more efficient learning in the long run.

--Mark Gallucci

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Delight in the Details: A Closer Look at Japan Society's ‘Garden'

Manabu Ikeda's Foretoken.

Whether diabolical or divine, details in art capture (and sometimes overwhelm) the imagination, and can transform a single instant into an hours-long adventure of discovery.

A prime example of this is early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch's masterpiece Garden of Earthly Delights. According to Taschen’s recently released Hieronymus Bosch: Complete Works, the piece is "populated with grotesque scenes of fantastical creatures succumbing to all manner of human desire, fantasy, and angst… alongside traditional hybrids of man and beast, such as centaurs, and mythological creatures such as unicorns, devils, dragons, and griffins, we also encounter countless mixed creatures freely invented by the artist."

Bosch's thematic complexity, compositional density and artistic playfulness inspired the title of Japan Society Gallery's current exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights, which showcases three Japanese masters of their craft, or takumi: Manabu Ikeda, Hisashi Tenmyouya, and the collective teamLab, all of whom are creating what the New York Times calls "Japanese art 2.0." 

In the artists' works, "the past, the present, and the future collide creating hallucinatory visions like The Garden of Earthly Delights," writes Director of Japan Society Gallery and exhibition co-curator Miwako Tezuka in the catalogue. "Just as Bosch did, the three Japanese artists allegorically depict urgent cultural and social issues in a manner informed by their contemporary environment—in their case, today’s world of spectacle an information overload."

Spectacle indeed. Though only showing 25 works, Garden of Unearthly Delights encompasses a vast treasure trove of stimulating and subtle wonder, the antithesis to the blaring lights of Times Square or the constant bombardment of advertising from our TVs, mobile devices and almost every surface we encounter on our commutes and travels. 

In honor of the Garden of Unearthly Delights closing today, here are some surprising, thoughtful and/or humorous details visitors may have missed.

Manabu Ikeda is known for the painstaking detail of his work, which often takes more than a year to complete.The exhibition's other co-curator Laura J. Mueller writes, "Ikeda, through the medium of his meticulously executed pen-and-ink drawings, creates dreamlike worlds on his canvas that visually explicate some of the major dilemmas that we face today--such as climate chaos and the resulting natural disasters--questioning mankind's role in both causation and correction."

Meltdown, pictured above, was created in response to Japan's 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. The waste spewing, ice-encrusted industrial plant hovering over an idyllic landscape is a stark commentary of mankind's impact on nature and the potential (or actuality) of cataclysm. To further heighten the tension, pure white silhouettes (a common motif throughout Ikeda's work) of animals appear in and out of their natural habitat, oblivious to the looming man-made disaster.

A giant snake rising in the mist and toadstools buried in the trees dominate Ikeda's Mountain and Clouds, but take a magnifying glass to the bottom right corner to find apparitions haunting the trees. Are these kodama, tree spirits from Japanese folklore, or is this an homage to Japan's tragic Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji, also known as "Suicide Forest"?

Visitors entranced by the electric waves of Ikeda's impressionistic and relatively straightforward Imprint may have missed a barely visible torii, the iconic gateways to Japan's Shinto shrines, submerged in the darkest blue of the center stillness. 

A tiny bee and spider hitch a ride on the back of Ikeda's vegetative Grass Mantis.

Some visitors have said they spent hours scouring every inch of Ikeda's breathtaking 780 square foot Foretoken, pictured in full at the top of this article. In this work Ikeda cleverly reverses the kineticism (and perhaps symbolism) of Hokusai's famous The Great Wave at Kanagawa, an obvious source of inspiration. Hokusai's titular wave not only threatens three fishing boats with its awesome, all-consuming momentum, but dwarves the static and typically dominating Mt. Fuji in the background. In Ikeda's work, Mt. Fuji is nowhere to be seen, and the wave, literally frozen in time, is brimming with life, from birth to playful specters of death, as seen in the details above, as well as countless scenes of humorous, imaginative invention.

In not one but two places, skeletons enjoy the aftermath of a plane crash. Note the silhouetted vultures in the second detail enjoying the show.

Homages to icons of Japanese mythology abound like like this dragon and fisherman landing a giant koi (carp) using koinobori as bait.

And finally (but by no means completely) in terms of Ikeda's detail, Tezuka explains the ubiquitous hovering spirits, above, and their poignant meaning for the artist: "The deity riding the flying animal is chanting a Buddhist sutra, in this case 'Namo Amitābhāya' (in Japanese, 南無阿弥陀仏 or Namu Amida Butsu), literally meaning 'Homage to Infinite Light.' There are several such figures in Foretoken, and Ikeda has said that at least one of them was his grandmother when she passed away."

Hisashi Tenmyouya "appropriates imagery and creative techniques from traditional Japanese art, reinterpreting them in a shockingly contemporary manner with references to subjects such as modern warfare and street violence," writes Mueller. "Taking cues from Buddhist themes and imagery, Tenmyouya imbues his art (whether intentionally or subconsciously) with meditative and religious meaning."

Tenmyouya’s iconoclastic Neo Thousand Armed Kannon, above, painted shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., shows the beloved Buddhist goddess of mercy with her arms splayed behind her, each hand holding a menacing and militaristic gun or knife. Some have seen this piece as purely sacrilegious. But upon closer inspection, two hands at her chest hold something different, almost as an offering: a grenade in her left, and a can of spray paint in her right. Does this represent a possibility for art amidst overwhelming threat of violence? Does it symbolize an imbalance between destructive and creative forces in our world? Is it implying that art is dangerous—for the artist, for the viewer, for the establishment?

Much has been written about the "anti-Zen" garden in Tenmyouya's installation Rhyme, especially how there is no blood spilled in the epic mirrored battle scenes on the wall. The blood, however, has pooled amongst the skull-embossed rocks below, in the form of crimson sand, which was carefully, almost meditatively raked by the artist days before the exhibition opened. Is this anti-Zen? Or has the artist found an ultra-Zen method to process violence in art and life?

Another detail that may have been overlooked: only one of the dozens and dozens of yakuza-like warriors in the painting has eyes, and, to eerie effect, they are the same shimming goldleaf color of the background.

Finally, the most important detail of the exhibition: all of the people who came to Japan Society Gallery to explore and enjoy Garden of Unearthly Delights. Above are 25 of the hundreds of Instagram selfies taken by people in teamLab's immersive and interactive Flowers and People installation created exclusively for the exhibition.

The show may be over, but enjoy it one last time (or in perpetuity) with this video walkthrough brought to you by Japan Society Gallery.

--Shannon Jowett

Images (top-to-bottom): Manabu Ikeda, (b. 1973), Foretoken, 2008; pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on boards; 72 x 132 in; collection of Sustainable Investor Co., Ltd. © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Manabu Ikeda, Meltdown, 2013; acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board, 48 x 48 in.; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colonel Rex W. & Maxine Schuster Radsch Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.24. Manabu Ikeda, Mountains and Clouds, 2012; pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 24 x 27 3/5 in; Private Collection, Tokyo (courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo), © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Photo by Kei Miyajima. Manabu Ikeda, Imprint, 2011; pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 24 x 36 in.; Collection of Mr. Harvey Sawikin and Mrs. Andrea Krantz; © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, photo by Kei Miyajima. Manabu Ikeda, Grass Mantis (Kusakamakiri), 2004; acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 9 1/16 x 11 7/16 in.; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, John H. Van Vleck Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.25. Hisashi Tenmyouya, (b. 1966), Neo Thousand Armed Kannon, 2002; acrylic, wood; 89 ½ x 68 5/16 in.; Takahashi Collection, Tokyo; © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Hisashi Tenmyouya, Rhyme, 2012; acrylic paint, gold leaf on wood; inkjet print on paper, mounted on wood; each 49 7/8 x 118 1/8 in.; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colonel Rex W. & Maxine Schuster Radsch Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.23.1-.2a-b; fiberglass reinforced polyester, calcium carbonate; variable dimensions; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, John H. Van Vleck Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.23.3a-g; installation photograph by Richard P. Goodbody. teamLab (est. 2001), United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World (detail), 2013; interactive digital work, 8 screens; endless, 9:16; sound by Hideaki Takahashi; courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery; images via Instagram. teamLab, Flowers and People—Gold and Dark, 2014; digital work, endless; courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery; surrounding Ever Blossoming Life—Dark, 2014, and Ever Blossoming Life—Gold, 2014, both digital works, endless, courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery; images via Instagram.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Nothing Less Than Perfection: The Dedication of Japan’s Master Craftsmen

Tekumi Manabu Ikeda can take years to finish one of his renowned detailed paintings. Via.

The work is done, but just one small detail seems off. If no one notices, is it worth fixing?

In Japan, the answers to questions like these are what separate an ordinary artisan from takumi – masters of their craft.

Takumi are artists who have honed and perfected their skills over years, perhaps a lifetime, of training. They can be craftsmen, potters, and textile makers, among many other professions, and are a major part of Japanese tradition. Though their numbers have dwindled, there are still many active takumi who remain dedicated to their craft. In contemporary Japan, the term has acquired a more generic adjectival meaning, implying a person with an especially sophisticated skill in any field of creation, including food and fashion.

These masters are known for dedication to their philosophies and methods of art-making, and the artists featured in Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights are no exception. Each artist possesses traits common to all takumi: perfectionism, diligence, and most importantly, discipline.

Manabu Ikeda exemplifies this with his incredibly detailed drawing style that is extremely time-consuming to achieve; one large-scale work can take him two or more years to complete. Using a fine-point pen, Ikeda creates monumental landscapes that can overwhelm the viewer at first glance.

Hisashi Tenmyouya is a different kind of takumi who skillfully blends tradition with modern themes. His works juxtapose traditional symbols and imagery with a brash, contemporary style that he calls Neo Nihonga―a renewed, revitalized version of Japanese-style painting.

TeamLab is a collective of hundreds of takumi working in various areas of art, design and technology. Via

Like Tenmyouya, teamLab blends the old and the new, but follows a more technology-oriented path. As an expansive collective of creators from varying specialties (it now has over 300 members), it’s a far cry from the traditional solitary image of takumi, but when looking at the amazingly high-tech work the members have created, it’s hard to deny that they’re just as deserving of the title.

Discussing takumi in the catalog for Garden of Unearthly Delights,  exhibition co-curator Laura J. Mueller said the works "are imbued with an undeniable spirituality or religiosity that adds great weight to their effectiveness and meaning."

Japan Society has presented many exhibitions featuring takumi in recent years. Contemporary Clay: Japanese Ceramics for the New Century (2006) exhibited some of Japan’s finest potters and celebrated the rich history of Japanese ceramics and those who have made lasting contributions to the art form over the past half century.

The Genius of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin (2008) showcased Japan’s greatest lacquer artist, recognized worldwide for his exquisitely detailed lacquered boxes, panels, sword mounts, and other objects, as well as scrolls painted in both ink and lacquer.

And New Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Masters (2009) was devoted exclusively to Japanese bamboo as a sculptural medium, which featured 90 works from 23 innovators who demonstrate awesome technique, meticulous attention to detail, and extraordinary creativity.

As takumi tend to be innovators, each of them have wildly different and recognizable styles, such as Ikeda’s; once you’ve been mesmerized by one of his massive drawings, you’re not likely to forget it.

However, there’s one thing they all share: an obsession with perfection, the results of which we’ll be able to appreciate for years to come.

--Mark Gallucci

Tenmyouya at work. Via.