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