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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Smashing in Pink: Japan's Artful, Rebellious Film Genre

Actress Kaori Okamoto bares (almost) all in Top Stripper. © 1982 Nikkatsu Corporation.

Adult film is a genre often avoided by film critics, and for obvious reasons: stories tend to be nonexistent, plots are often anemic and loaded with clichés, and the acting is more happenstance than skillful.

But there are some films that don’t quite line up with the traditional types of adult film often seen in the West, such as Japan's unique mid-20th century soft-core pinku eiga, or Pink Film,  a genre all to itself.

As John Zorn, curator of Japan Society's ongoing Dark Side of the Sun series of outré films told the New York Times, the genre has “no relation at all to erotica in the rest of the world… They are fully realized films, often done with great artistry and a fabulous imagination. They proved to be testing grounds of many young visionary directors who later went on to more mainstream projects.” (The series continues Dec. 11 with the "comic-erotic coming-of-age story" Top Stripper.)

Scholar Joel Neville Anderson, who curated Japan Society's 2014 JAPAN CUTS festival says Pink Film is "a parallel industry which became a fertile creative training ground for young, politically-minded filmmakers of the 1970s following the collapse of the studio system. The genre sustained generations of filmmakers that often broke into the mainstream, as well as a filmgoing public attending devoted Pink theaters. Critical reception of the films always negotiates the political potential of this counterpublic, and their portrayal of misogynistic, conventional sexual violence."

Pink Films can belong to almost any standard genre, but do have some fundamental elements, according to Donald Richie in The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts:
Since each [film] is intended to be shown with two others, the ideal length decided upon is 6,500 feet, or 70 minutes… In theory, directors are instructed to aim at some kind of sex scene every five minutes; in practice, however, it has proved almost impossible to construct a story-line which allows this, with the results that sex scenes are sometimes fewer but longer.
Those required sex scenes are markedly different from what one might expect of an adult film. In accordance with Japanese law, filmmakers can't show pubic hair, let alone genitalia. This leads to some strategic placement of props, blurring, or even just leaving the act out of the frame entirely.

Other defining characteristics of Pink Films include the 35mm film typically used to record them, as well as their low budgets, as Richie explains: “Actresses receive about $60 a day, actors as low as $30. The cost for such a film can be as low as $2,000, though many cost more, particularly those in part-color.”

As for the intercourse itself, it’s entirely simulated; actors use pads called maebari to cover their genitals, which can’t be shown anyway. Without the potential to show the scenes uncensored, an innovative, often artistic approach becomes necessary. It is the ability to appeal to the curiosity of the viewer that made Pink Films so successful.

It all started in 1962 with Flesh Market, which caused controversy in Japan upon its release due to six sexually violent scenes that were deemed by police to be “indecent”, as described by Roland Domenig in The Pink Book. A mere two days after the film’s release, the police had stopped all showings of the film and confiscated all of the prints and negatives. When the film was re-released with the objectionable scenes removed, it proved immensely profitable – while it was only made for 8 million yen, it ended up bringing in 100 million.

Flesh Market was only the beginning. Because producers of these films only cared that their guidelines, much like the ones listed above, were met, directors had incredible freedom to pursue their own creative interests. This meant that Pink Films and their directors were very independent; they stood in stark contrast to the failing, mainstream studios of the time, luring audiences in with a product that had never been available before.

One of these independent directors was Koji Wakamatsu. Known as “the most genuinely controversial figure of the period” of Pink Film, Wakamatsu founded his studio, Wakamatsu Productions, in 1965. He was known for his political, often sexually violent films, such as Go, Go Second Time Virgin, The Embryo Hunts in Secret, and Violated Angels, which was based on the 1966 Richard Speck murders.

According to Japanese-culture author Patrick Macias in his 2001 book TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, "No one had up to that point, or since, filmed porn with as overtly politically radical and aesthetically avant-garde an agenda as Wakamatsu had."

In an interview with American actor Christian Storms, Wakamatsu said, “the people who make things, who create in this world, have to remain on the outside, have to look at the world sometimes from a different perspective, saying: ‘Hold on!’ Somebody taking a different view.”

It was this perspective that allowed Wakamatsu to make such shocking films - films that received not only attention, but critical acclaim. Wakamatsu was able to see both the rise and fall of the Pink Film, going on to direct over 40 films throughout his lifetime before his passing in 2012.

Japan Society commemorated Wakamatsu’s work with a screening of Atsushi Yamatoya’s Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands, which launched the Dark Side of the Sun film series. Yamatoya was one of Wakamatsu’s close collaborators and worked for Wakamatsu Productions as an anonymous writer. The film is about a hitman who is hired to rescue a wealthy real-estate agent’s girlfriend from a gang of men who are holding her hostage, though the film’s idiosyncratic, hallucinatory nature makes it a bit more complex than that.

Today there may not be many chances left to see Pink Films the way they were intended to be shown–in theaters. Even in Japan, Pink Films have all but vanished, with only a few theaters still standing. While Pink Films enjoyed impressive popularity in the 60s and 70s, by 1980, adult videos began to capture the Pink Film market, and by the end of the decade, adult video had far surpassed Pink film in popularity.

While many other Pink Film directors might lament this loss of popularity, Wakamatsu, as was often the case, had a different perspective.

“Movies can't really be called ‘Pink’ if they are being accepted by the general public. They've always got to be guerilla. Pink Films are about putting it out there in the public’s face and smashing people’s minds.”

--Mark Gallucci

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Bases Covered: MLB Player's Long-Term Support of Japan Earthquake Recovery

Presenters at the Nov. 15 MLB press conference to spotlight earthquake recovery.

It’s the Japan All-Star Series, an annual goodwill competition between America’s and Japan’s best baseball players, and the Americans are down 2-0. Game 3 at the Tokyo Dome is a must-win for the MLB All-Stars, who will need to win three in a row to emerge victorious in the best-of-five series.

Yet on November 15, the day of the game, twelve of the MLB players were not on the field warming up, but packed into a small room with representatives from Japan Society and the Major League Baseball Players Trust. Among the players present were Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, and Astros outfielder Dexter Fowler.

Also present were the people they were there to meet: representatives from organizations that the Players Trust supports through Japan Society’s Japan Earthquake Recovery Fund (JERF), created to aid victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which devastated Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

The Players Trust, which allocated $1 million in support following the earthquake, began a multi-year partnership with Japan Society in 2012, working with JERF on five recovery projects.

"We as players are very fortunate, and always very excited, to use the help of the Players Trust to make an impact on the world," Guthrie said at the press conference. "The slogan that we have is, 'Care. Act. Inspire.' Working with Japan Society has allowed us to be able to do this on an international level."

Chris Capuano and his wife enjoy a meal at Organ Dou. Via

Prior to the event, Guthrie, Pirates pitcher Mark Melancon, and free agent Chris Capuano, who is considering a move to Japan, visited Fukushima Organ Dou, a store set up by the Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network, to enjoy some of the farmers’ produce. Thanks to the support they received through JERF, the farmers were able to afford machines that thoroughly test their produce for significant levels of radiation, ensuring their customers that their food is safe to eat. Capuano said:
We're here today because as players, we're very happy to be able to support Fukushima. The area was hard hit by a tsunami back on March 11 of 2011, and there’s still a great need of recovery. A lot of these farmers in Fukushima need our help today. They need our support in showing that they've come a long way. The produce is safe and delicious to eat, and we're happy to be able to still support them.
As of September 3, 2014, JERF has received $13.89 million from over 23,600 individuals, companies and foundations from all 50 states and nearly 60 countries around the world. To date, it has distributed $13.6 million to 43 organizations in support of 64 projects

In addition to the Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network, the Players Trust through JERF also supports Ashoka Japan’s Tohoku Youth Venture program, which grants seed money to high-school and college students who devise viable creative and innovative ideas for revitalizing the Tohoku region; two mental-health care projects with the Japanese Medical Society that provide services and training in Fukushima and Iwate Prefectures; and a leadership development project led by Japan Society and ETIC that promotes entrepreneurship towards self-sustaining economic and community revitalization in Tohoku.

These and all  projects supported by JERF give a much-needed boost to Japan’s recovery in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, which, according to the National Police Agency of Japan, left nearly 16,000 dead, more than 6,000 injured, and thousands still considered missing.  It also took a massive toll on buildings, with more than 120,000 totally destroyed. Today, nearly four years after the tragic events, more than 93,000 people are living in temporary housing, with construction plans facing delays.

The immediate concern has shifted from cleanup to reconstruction, as reviving the economies of the small towns hit hardest by the earthquake is a major priority. Since farming is a major part of Japan’s small-town economies, that means bringing in soil from other areas to cover ground rendered infertile by seawater– a process costing upwards of $90 million.

Though debris has been cleared, seawalls are being constructed, and in many highly populated areas a sense of normalcy has returned, the recovery process is far from over. In an interview with Reuters , Japan Society president Motoatsu Sakurai said, "it is very, very evident in Japan this recovery process will continue for more than 10 years."

And because it’s such a lengthy process, it needs all the attention it can get, as Players Trust director Melissa Persaud alluded to at the press conference.

"The players take a long-term approach to their disaster-relief support," Persaud said. "They have learned that too often, after the initial media spotlight fades on a region or people devastated by a disaster, the support fades as well. Yet the needs remain for quite some time."

--Mark Gallucci

Top photo courtesy of MLB. First Row (left to right): Akihiro Asami, Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network; Yoshiaki Ishikawa, ETIC; Shinichi Niwa, Kokoro no Care, Nagomi; Hiroshi Yamanaka, Kokorogake; Akiko Ito, Kokorogake; Toshikazu Abe; Mina Sato, Tohoku Youth Venturer; Nana Watanabe, Ashoka Japan. Second Row: Drew Butera, LA Dodgers; Jeremy Gutherie, KC Royals; Rob Wooten, Brewers; Chris Capuano, NY Yankees; Dexter Fowler, Houston Astros; Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners; Salvador Perez, KC Royals; Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays; Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates; Tsuyoshi Wada, Chicago Cubs; Jerry Blevins, Washington Nationals; Jeff Beliveau, Tampa Bay Rays; Shoko Takamatsu, Fukushima Organic Agriculture Network; Koji Yamauchi, ETIC.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Three String Theory: Japan's Shamisen Threads Culture and History

Shamisen building circa 1909. Via

The warmth of a calming resonance slowly spreads to each corner of the room. A shrill tapping quickens and that warmth turns to fire – a frenzied, wailing blaze, starting and stopping of its own accord. In an instant, as if all the oxygen in the room suddenly ran out, it is extinguished, though the reverberance remains. Reduced to cinders, the soothing warmth returns.

Such is the burning power of the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that has played an integral role in Japan’s historic entertainment culture.

The shamisen (literally “three strings”) originated from a Chinese instrument called the sanxian, which was exported to Okinawa in the late 14th century. It eventually became the Okinawan sanshin, which entered mainland Japan in the 16th century, when Japanese biwa players began using it for short songs. As the sanshin grew more popular, it was adapted to suit various Japanese performing arts and eventually became the shamisen we know today.

Those unfamiliar with the shamisen by name have likely heard its distinctive sound at some point. In the States, it normally accompanies popular American ideas of Japanese culture—think of samurai, geisha or cherry blossoms and you will probably hear the shamisen (perhaps with the koto or shakuhachi running counterpoint). While it may sound similar to a banjo, and is sometimes even called "Japan's banjo", it has fewer strings and a deep twang that differentiates it from the American instrument.

The shamisen has been used in performance arts such as kabuki theater, bunraku puppet theater, and salon music concerts for hundreds of years, and there are many different shamisen styles to accompany them. Nagauta (literally “long song”) typically accompanies kabuki, featuring singers and shamisen players performing behind dancers. Gidayu, named after its creator, Takemoto Gidayu, includes chanting alongside shamisen playing and is used in both kabuki and bunrakuJiuta is a style that was popular among blind musicians of the Edo period. It is a pure instrumental form of music that is relatively separate from the world of performing arts. In jiuta, the performer chants while playing the shamisen.

These three styles are featured as part of Japan Society’s Shamisen Series Vol. 3: A Salute to Tradition on November 20. Eight of Japan’s most respected traditional artists will appear, including Takemoto Komanosuke, one of Japan’s Living National Treasures – a group of people deemed by the Japanese government to be preservers of important cultural properties. Komanosuke, a gidayu chanter, makes her North American debut t alongside musicians such as Tsuruzawa Yumi (aka Yumiko Tanaka), an avant-garde shamisen expert who also performed in Volume 2 of the series.

With only three strings, the shamisen may seem simple – a relic of Japan’s past. But it’s still very much alive. Nowadays, it’s used in a wide variety of musical genres by contemporary artists such as Hiromitsu Agatsuma, who incorporates aspects of jazz, funk, and electro music into his songs. There’s also the electric shamisen and instruments such as the shaminome, a cross between a shamisen and Monome controller, invented in part by Yumiko Tanaka.

From its origins to its modern remodeling, the shamisen hasn’t merely survived – it’s undergone a rebirth.

--Mark Gallucci

World renowned contemporary shamisen-ist Agatsuma. Image courtesy of the artist.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

To Be Continued: The Second Life of Japan's Silent Films

A scene from Kinugasa's hallucinatory masterpiece Crossroads, one of the few existing films from Japan's silent era.  

It’s often said that the classics will never be forgotten. Be it literature, art, or more recently, film, museums and archives exist to preserve these treasures for future generations to appreciate.

For Japan’s silent films of the early 20th century, it’s not quite that simple.

According to Midnight Eye, there are only about 70 pre-1930 Japanese films in the National Film Center’s database – a mere fraction of the estimated 7,000 produced in the 1920s alone.

Many factors contributed to this incredible loss, the earliest being the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1926. The quake measured 8.2 on the Richter scale and was responsible for massive fires that destroyed thousands of buildings, leaving 60 percent of Tokyo’s population homeless and killing nearly 130,000 people. Additionally, many films were destroyed in bombings during World War II, and still others were banned and later burned in accordance with censors put into place under the Allied occupation of Japan.

Another major problem can be attributed to the type of film stock used for these movies – nitrate film. The primary media used in motion pictures until 1951, nitrate film had two major drawbacks. First, it was highly flammable and could produce fires that could burn even while immersed in water. This led to many vault fires, in which studios lost most, if not all, of their film prints.

Second, nitrate film decays over time into a powder, a process that can be slowed greatly by proper storage. However, this was not known at the time, leading to less-than-ideal storage conditions which only accelerated decay.

Because nitrate film was a worldwide standard, Japan was not the only country affected. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that over 90 percent of American films made before 1929 have been lost to history. Many of these films’ titles are unknown, making the growing list of lost films far from complete.

Not all lost films stay lost forever, though. Prominent silent-film director Teinosuke Kinugasa’s avant-garde masterpiece A Page of Madness was believed to be lost for 45 years before Kinugasa found the film in his shed in 1971. The critically-acclaimed film was not commercially successful immediately following its 1926 release, but now enjoys regular international appearances at film festivals across the globe.

Kinugasa was active for over 46 years, directing more than a hundred movies, very few of which exist today. His 1928 silent film Crossroads will be shown this Saturday with live music accompaniment by avant-garde shamisen master Yumiko Tanaka, as part of Japan Society’s film series The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema.

Though impossible to ignore in their day, silent films have been, for the most part, left behind by modern Japanese society. Much like their American equivalents, they are occasionally televised, but remain largely unknown outside of film circles. When one of these films is found, it brings some much-needed attention to the genre, getting some press, recognition, and perhaps even a few new fans.

These recovered films’ lifespans will likely increase significantly thanks to improved methods of film preservation, such as copying films on nitrate to more secure media to ensure their futures.

For the rest of the films, though, it’s a constant struggle for survival, as the endless search for these lost treasures continues.

--Mark Gallucci

A sample of Yumiko Tanaka improvising to scenes from Crossroads (scene starts at 0:22). 

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Learning Japanese: The Classroom Experience & The Ultimate Goal

From Japan Society Language Center's "Uki Uki NihonGO!" series.

In Part 1 of our interview with Japan Society Language Center director Tomoyo Kamimura, she discussed her experience teaching the Japanese language and the importance of seeding Japanese culture and humor into the classroom. In Part 2, Kamimura-sensei talks about at the classroom experience, differences between learning English and Japanese, the importance of learning a foreign language and the future of the Language Center.

You recently began offering free trial classes for beginners. How has the experience been?

I finished the first of three free trial Japanese lessons the other day. It went well. Since it was held at Noon, there were many retirees. I may have been a bit too ambitious so it went over the scheduled time, yet there were still some materials that I wasn't able to cover. 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. I am excited about the second and third sessions on Nov. 3rd.

Where do you think students struggle the most when learning Japanese?

One thing that springs to mind immediately, of course, is kanji, the Chinese characters that are used in Japanese. Each kanji can be read in a Japanese way or a Chinese way. For example, the kanji meaning “middle” can be read as “naka,” the Japanese way, or as “chu,” the Chinese way—it depends, for example, on whether the kanji is combined with other kanji or used by itself. So learning which way to read the kanji is particularly challenging for students of Japanese since there is no such concept in other languages. We start kanji from Level 4 here.

Another aspect of Japanese that students often struggle with is a sentence structure that is very different from other languages. There are many examples, but one which we tackle on the very first day of Level 1 is what we teachers call the noun-predicate construction. A simple example is the sentence, “Tom is an American,” which translates into Japanese as “Tom wa Amerikajin desu.” In Japanese, we mark the subject/topic (Tom) with a special particle, “wa.” And we use the word “desu” to mean “is/are/am,” which we place at the end of the sentence. The challenge for students is, however unusual or strange this may seem, can you simply accept it? I tell students not to over-analyze or fight it, and not to get hung up on the literal translation, just accept it as the way it is. If you have that mentality of acceptance and can simply plug in “wa” and “desu” like parts of a mathematical formula, you’ll be off to the races!

Are there ways to encourage a student who cannot accept this concept into new ways of thinking?

I try to tell students that approaching their study of Japanese with an open mind and a willingness to take on challenges will help them enormously. To students who are resistant to this frame of mind, I encourage them to think about the many inconsistencies and oddities of English which they take for granted, but which can be particularly challenging for students of English—I certainly remember struggling, and still do struggle, with its crazy spelling, complicated tenses, subject-verb agreement, and so on. Without getting too pedantic, I also encourage students to try to become more conscious of English grammar and sentence construction. Hopefully this enables them to compare and embrace the differences between Japanese and English, and in spite of these differences, to marvel at how they can somehow manage to convey their intended meaning! Finally I tell students about an aspect of Japanese culture that is inculcated in every Japanese student, the Samurai spirit of persistence, and implore them to give it their best—“gambatte!”

Do you also recommend self-study outside of class, and, if so, what particular methods do you think are most useful?

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.

What do you see as the different strengths and weaknesses of Japanese and American methodology for language instruction?

I taught English in Japan for ten years or so. Americans generally do not have a very hard time pronouncing Japanese, perhaps with the exception of knowing which syllables are accented and distinguishing single and double consonants and vowels. But these are minor challenges compared to those faced by Japanese people learning English. Japanese speakers’ difficulty with distinguishing “r” and “l” is of course legendary. There are many other pronunciation challenges as well, such as the difference in the vowel sound in law and low, as well as in the consonant sound in year and ear. As a linguistics major, I learned in English you have nine vowels, whereas in Japanese we have only five, so of course we are not used to hearing those four extra vowels! In Japan we do place a lot of emphasis on grammar when we teach English, probably because most English teachers are native Japanese speakers who are frankly not very well versed in English grammar and often struggle to speak English! But here at Japan Society, all of our Japanese teachers are native speakers of Japanese. And our English teachers—yes we do offer English to Japanese speakers as well!—are all native English speakers.

I imagine that would be one of the big advantages of having an ALT [Assistant Language Teacher, as in the case of the JET Programme] in the classroom.

It’s wonderful. I have talked to several people, and it does make a big difference, because kids try to speak to the ALT, and they really learn how to hold a conversation. We have a few teaching assistants in our language center. However, unlike the ALT in the JET Programme, the role of the assistants at Japan Society tends to help the instructor to prepare for the class such as photocopying the handouts and preparing the props, etc. They also help the students who are behind in class so the instructor can keep the pace.

Despite the fact that Japan Society's Language Center provides different levels of classes based on ability, I imagine that within any given class, there will always be some variation in terms of skill level. How do you address these kinds of challenges?

That’s always a challenge, but we have found that knowing our students’ ability and placing them accordingly is the key to overcoming this challenge. If students start from zero knowledge, then that’s Level 1 here. For students who want to progress to the upper levels, I personally interview them and place them into the appropriate level. I draw upon my many years of teaching experience and have a developed a very good sense of what level a student belongs in. I prefer they visit my office in person for an assessment, but I can also do it over the phone.

What sort of questions do you ask? Should people prepare for the assessment? If so, what is the best way to prepare?

We start introducing the te-form in Level 3, the ta-form in Level 5, the honorific in Level 7. So those are some guidelines. If they say they have lived in Japan, I usually switch the conversation into Japanese and see how they get along. Many say that they have studied Japanese by themselves and that they want to skip Level 1. I usually quiz them to say a simple sentence in Japanese like, “I am going to eat a hamburger in a restaurant with my friend at 2:00 today.” Sentences with that level of complexity are covered in the last chapter of Level 1, so if they can pass this and other short quizzes, they're probably ready for Level 2. These quiz questions really help students realize that they need a solid grammatical base before they take Level 2. I guess I’ll have to switch my quiz sentence now that I've divulged it publicly!

Do you place more emphasis on one aspect of language acquisition, such as listening or reading, than on others, such as speaking and writing? Are all equally important?

English, except for some unusual spellings, is generally not that hard for Japanese people to read. You only have twenty-six letters in the alphabet. But Japanese has hiragana, katakana, and kanji. So for the lower levels, I don't place too much emphasis on reading and writing. More on grammar, and then based on grammar, speaking. But eventually you cannot live in Japan without being able to read hiragana or kanji. You just cannot escape it—that’s why we Japanese spend the first 10 years of our education learning to read and write! So at Japan Society too, we do try to teach all aspects of the language.

Would you say then that your ultimate goal for every student is to bring everyone to a level where they can function in Japanese society?

Right. I come back to this many times—I want our students to learn Japanese that they can actually use in real life, rather than learning abstract or theoretical concepts. That’s what I'm trying to get at.

A lot of students feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the grammar when they start out learning a language. Do you think this initial struggle with grammar is something that students simply need to get through, or that teachers need to do more to encourage students with other methods?

I think it really depends on the instructor. The instructor has to be really motivated. And when the students are very enthusiastic—it goes both ways. You can’t escape grammar, but there is a certain way to make grammar more fun than just telling you what’s on the blackboard. If the instructor is highly motivated, then the students will be able to learn. And believe me, all of our instructors at Japan Societyare just that! You don't have to know all grammar in detail, but you need to get the framework so that you can build upon it later.

How about those who already have a strong grammar base and feel the only obstacle to fluency is lack of vocabulary? Do you think a person ever really “graduates” from the classroom, or do you think that even people at the advanced level can benefit from a more structured environment?

I think when you reach that level, where you covered basically all grammar, but you lack vocabulary, the next thing you have to do is immerse yourself among Japanese people. Any exposure will help. Maybe you’re reviewing or discovering something new, but exposure is very important.

Definitely. I think that’s something that’s difficult for many Americans, to create that immersion environment, even with all the Japanese media available.

From my experience learning how to speak English, I could speak English from just learning grammar. But I stayed with a host family for one or two months when I was an exchange student from Waseda University to Kalamazoo College in Michigan. My English just did not get better, because the conversation was always easy: “Are you hungry?” “Yes I am.” “Do you want to eat this?” “Yes I do.” But as soon as I moved to a dormitory, living with all those freshman girls just out of high school, where they chat about all manner of things, my English became nearly fluent within one month. I really think you have to immerse yourself. And maybe with people of the same age—ideally not a host family, but friends. With people of your generation, you can just explore a lot of things.

You spoke earlier about the importance of enthusiasm when teaching grammar. What kinds of techniques do you or other instructors use in the classroom to maintain enthusiasm among students?

Most students want to have a conversation. Conversations are comprised of sentences which are built upon the grammar. So learning grammar leads to a good conversation. I introduce a new grammar concept in every session. I first explain the grammar with lots of examples, for which I create tailor-made handout. As soon as I finish the explanation, I have students hold a simple conversation based on the grammar they've just learned. They seem to enjoy these pair exercises.

Speaking of technology, what are your thoughts on its necessity in the classroom? Is it just a gimmick, or can it form an essential part of your teaching?

I don’t think it’s a gimmick. It’s not everything, but it can play an important part of our curriculum, because we’re living in this era with young people who were born with computers. We have to take advantage of this powerful tool. Instead of using traditional paper flashcards: a i u e o [basic Japanese syllabary], most everyone has an iPhone, and can download animated flashcards, hiragana and things like that. So I do encourage my students to download free apps. For example, the apps like "Hiragana," "Kana Lite," and "Kana" are all helpful. Most everybody has to take a train, so I ask them to do that on the train.

We are working here at Japan Society on getting computer stations set up. We don't need them in every classroom, but some instructors are very good with them and we want to take advantage of that skill set. I remember one instructor was using an old picture for kikimasu [to hear/listen]. The picture had an old-school record player on it, and he was saying kikimasu, kikimasu. The students had no idea what was going on in the picture, but for him, kikimasu was associated with a record. I had to ask him to change the picture (laughs).

The Language Center recently launched the YouTube series Uki Uki NihonGO!, featuring instruction videos that are more colloquial or culture based than the standard Japanese lessons available. What has the response been? Will there be more videos in the future?

The response has been amazing, extremely positive. We are planning a lot more videos.

Many educational institutions are increasingly focusing their resources on Chinese to the detriment of other languages, including Japanese. What would you say to leaders of those institutions regarding the continued importance of Japanese language instruction?

Economic power is not everything. Leaders should know that the pursuit of language and understanding is a noble pursuit. I’m not very worried about Chinese power. When you think about French or Italian, neither country is in the same league as China or the U.S. in terms of economic power, but people love to study French and Italian, so clearly there’s some attraction to learning these languages that goes beyond business or economic reasons. Studying a foreign language somehow provides a glimpse into the essence of a country. If people like what they see, maybe they'll be excited to continue their studies. So I feel good that maybe this is why people want to learn Japanese. I hope they’re motivated more by their hearts more than their wallets—to me this would indicate a stronger and more noble dedication to learning the language.

Especially because economic power is something that fluctuates, whereas love of language is a constant.

It is. And the cultural insights that learning a language, which is something we can certainly offer at Japan Society is also constant, so we don't really have to worry about that at all.

Recent reports suggest that learning a foreign language can make a person "smarter, more decisive and better at English" or even slow brain ageing. Do you agree with this? What other important benefits are there to learning Japanese, or any foreign language?

When one learns a foreign language, s/he must focus. There is no doubt that this stimulates the aging brain. As I mentioned, the Japanese language is a window into our culture. For instance, through learning how to use the honorific form in Japanese, students also discover how important the social hierarchy is in Japanese society as well as our respect for the elderly.

On a closing note, are there any other students or experiences that stand out from your esteemed career?

I have so many. I've been here for nine years, so those young students who were so excited about learning Japanese many years ago, many of them are married now, some with kids. Quite a few of them have come to visit me when I’m staying in Japan. We have this phrase in Japanese: sensei myouri ni tsukiru, which means “the happiest moment as a teacher,” and when the students I used to teach stay in touch and visit me, often with their families, I truly experience the feeling of sensei myouri ni tsukiru.

--Andres Oliver

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