Friday, February 18, 2011

The Greatest Samurai Film You've Never Seen

Geoffry O’Brien in his Criterion Film Essay notes:
In an era of Japanese filmmaking marked by such masterpieces as Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, and when even the most routine samurai pictures tended to look very stylish indeed, The Sword of Doom stands out for the rigor and calligraphic pictorialism of its widescreen compositions.
The Guardian in 2005 published an obituary in honor of Director Kihachi Okamoto recalling him as “one of the least known of [Japanese] postwar directors in the west” despite being one of the “leading exponents” of the “most celebrated genre [of films] to come out of Japan.” Calling the neglect as “unwarranted”, the obituary highlighted the The Sword of Doom (1966) as one such movie that “gained a following” and “is still highly regarded.”

Incidentally, Wendell Jamieson of The New York Times recently recounted his long time fascination with Japanese movies depicting swordfights. Sword of Doom not only happens to be Jamieson’s favorite but one that his Kendo teacher Noboru Kataoka holds in high regards “as the greatest sword fight film of them all.” Jamieson portrays the action in the movie as follows:
Nakadai’s fluid and catlike movements seem hardly human — his maniacal grin adds another level of malevolence — but are almost balletic in their elegance. He completes his strokes with graceful upward arcs even after they have done their damage.
If the beautifully captured art of sword fighting have profoundly captivated many, the Zen-like portrayal of the human condition depicted through the protagonist of the film, Ryunosuke, remains yet another source of fascination. O’Brien, brings to our attention the juxtaposition of opposites in Ryunosuke:
Ryunosuke is at once hero and villain, demon and potential bodhisattva, and Tatsuya Nakadai’s stunning performance incarnates perfectly the paradox at the heart of the character: Does he act or is he acted upon? In what sense does he choose his destiny? He seems at times the spectator of his own destructive course, alternately anguished or blackly amused but essentially powerless to change what happens.
Similarly, Bruce Edgar’s take on Sword of Doom encapsulates wonderfully the portrayal of contradictions and Zen-ness in the film:
His Ryunosuke (“a man from hell,” as one character puts it) is one of the screen’s more memorable psychopaths, a passive-aggressive whose bloodlust is portrayed with dead calm, revealed by the tiniest motion of an eye, the trace of a smile, or the tense position of his body as he ponders killing.
Tonight, Japan Society concludes its Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House film series with the [sold-out] screening of Sword of Doom at 7:30pm. The movie illustrates the Realm of the Asuras or the realm of anger, jealousy, and constant war in the “Six Planes of Existence”- a Buddhist concept commonly referred as “Six Paths” or (Rokudō or Rokudō-rinne) in Japan—within “the realm of Birth and Death” (Samsara).

Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, Sword of Doom is based on the novel Daibosatsu Toge or The Pass of the Great Buddha by Kaizan Nakazato which first appeared as a newspaper serial in 1913. After being published for forty-one volumes spanning three decades, the novel was left incomplete due to author’s death. Okamoto, on the other hand, has had direct experience of war being drafted at the age of 19 as a student at Meiji University. His encounter with war and violence is said to have influenced his film making career deeply. After coming back from the war in 1947, Okamoto joined the Toho studios and worked with several directors until his directorial debut came in 1958 working on melodramas. Later, he specialized in action films and joined Toei to become the “undisputed star of Toei’s ninkyo eiga yakuza films.”


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Social Entrepreneurs And Youth in Japan: Agents Against A Return To Isolation

When Ashoka, a leading American nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs, opened an office in Japan recently, founder Bill Drayton noted at the press conference that Japan was the first country in over 80 countries where Ashoka is active, “where someone from that country came to us first.” [Full video here.]

That someone was Nana Watanabe, the author of two Japanese bestselling books (in Japanese only) on social entrepreneurship, Changemakers: Social Entrepreneurs are Changing the World (2005) and Changemakers II: Working as a Social Entrepreneur (2007).

Active with the Japan Society’s Innovators Network, Nana’s commitment to nurturing the next generation of social entrepreneurs and serving as a Leadership Group Member to Ashoka in Japan comes as no surprise to us. This past summer, Nana and her colleagues organized the first Youth Venture project in Japan, where approximately 80 youth, ages 12-20, from all over Japan, including those whose families are originally from Mongolia, China and Korea, gathered and presented their ideas [PDF download] for positive change in Japan.

The Ashoka Japan office is headed by Kashiwa Maki, a former Bridgestone executive and the founder of a social business in Southern California that worked with Japanese children with disabilities and their families.

Given the current national concern that young Japanese are more and more inward looking, studying abroad in smaller numbers, and less interested in working overseas for their employers, could Ashoka’s efforts in Japan contribute to reversing this trend among young Japanese? Will it help them think differently about how they approach their work and careers? Can it influence the way they relate to the outside world and how they might contribute to its betterment?

These questions and more will be address at Japan Society’s upcoming March 23 panel, Is Japan Returning to Isolation?, with Peggy Blumenthal, Senior Counselor, Institute of International Education (IIE); Robert Dujarric, Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan; George Packard, President, The United States-Japan Foundation; and Masaaki Tanaka, EO for the Americas, The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Ltd; Director, Japan Society. We hope to see you!


Monday, February 14, 2011

East Asia 2011: Measuring Perils, Managing Risk

Perils as persistent as time. Via.

A spotlight shone brightly on tensions in the East Asian region last year with the sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, in March followed by collision of a Chinese trawler with Japanese coastguard vessels in the disputed waters of East China Sea in September, and shelling of South Korea controlled Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in November. More recently, revelation of a new nuclear enrichment facility at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear plant, has only added fuel to the growing tension in the region and beyond.

The collision of a Chinese trawler and two Japanese coastguard vessels in 2010 around uninhabited Senkaku islands disputed between Japan and China (called Diaoyu Islands in China) propelled actions such as Beijing banning exports to Japan of rare earth minerals that are crucial for electronics and auto parts manufacturing and others including suspension of high-level contacts, Chinese travel agencies canceling package tours to Japan and withdrawal of invitation from 1000 Japanese youngsters who were going to attend the World Expo in Shanghai. While tensions continue, further damage was halted with Japan’s release of the trawler captain amidst growing pressure from China.

Within Japan, recent developments hint toward a shift in focus with regards to defense in face of changing geopolitical risks. In December 2010, Japan’s cabinet approved new guidelines that refocus its defense strategy on the rise of China rather than the “cold war threat of Russia”. The guidelines “also call for a stronger alliance with the US – Japan's biggest ally – and expanded security networks with partners such as South Korea and Australia.” The news report also states that “Japan will acquire new submarines and fighter jets, upgrade its missile defence capabilities and make its ground forces more mobile so that they can quickly respond to emergencies in south-west Japan.”

Military might is also on the rise in China. The Economist notes that “China’s army is planning to add impressive new capabilities—an aircraft-carrier, a “carrier-killing” anti-ship ballistic missile, and a “stealth” jet fighter—without offering much clarity about its strategic intentions”. China reportedly tested the J-20 stealth plane during Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit to China earlier this year in January.

Gideon Rachman notes in Foreign Policy that Fortune's latest ranking of the world's largest companies has “only two American firms in the top 10 -- Walmart at No. 1 and ExxonMobil at No. 3 while there are already three Chinese firms in the top 10: Sinopec, State Grid, and China National”. With unfaltering economic prowess and resulting power, China’s stance in the matters of regional security and stability has become as critical as in the matters of economics and trade. As South Korea, U.S. and Japan condemned incidents thought to be provocations by North Korea, i.e., the sinking of Chonan and the shelling of Yonpyong Island, China held a much softer stance on North Korea. It was only during President Hu Jintao’s visit to the U.S. last month that he agreed to a joint statement that emphasized the importance of North-South dialogue and expressed concern for the first time regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) uranium enrichment program.

In a report titled "China and Inter-Korean Clashes in the Yellow Sea", The Crisis Group notes the “growing power and foreign policy confidence” as being important factors influencing China’s stance and underscores one of the complexities as follows:
In the past, Beijing’s willingness to at least calibrate its responses to North Korean provocations was seen by the West as essential for moderating Pyongyang’s behaviour. Over the past year, however, Beijing has not only escalated its claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, but also increasingly resisted external pressure over Iran as well as North Korea. It feels under less pressure to yield to external demands and increasingly expects quid pro quos from the West in return for cooperation on sensitive third-country issues.
In cooperation with the National Committee on United States-China Relations and in honor of the launch of a new book on China-Japan tensions, Japan Society presents Perils of Proximity: Managing Risk in East Asia, a panel of three regional experts featuring President, Eurasia Group Ian Bremmer, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies Director Richard C. Bush, III, and Johns Hopkins Center for East Asian Studies Director Kent Kaldor. Moderated by Jan Berris, Vice President, National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the [sold out] panel takes place at Japan Society on Monday, Feb 14, at 5:30pm.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

'Design Difference' in Review

In November 2010, Japan Society’s Innovators Network convened 20 designers, architects, nonprofit leaders and the media from Japan, the U.S., Vietnam and Thailand. The three-day program, The Design Difference, looked at design as a tool for social change. For this project, we partnered with three incredible organizations: Common Ground, The Designers Accord and GOOD.

The program began with a visit to Brooklyn's Brownsville, which has the highest concentration of public housing in the U.S., and where more than half of the residents live under the official poverty line. What we saw and learned is described by Alissa Walker in the first of a three-part series she wrote for GOOD. The article, “The Design Difference: In Brownsville, Enormous Urban Challenges, and Hope” highlights the challenges facing Brownsville, some of the incredible work already underway, and why Japan Society organized the project. Walker notes in her conclusion:
Solutions tested in this community could be replicated anywhere if they work. The question now became, how could design make a difference? And how could we—outsiders, with only a tenuous connection to the neighborhood—help in a way that was meaningful?
This was followed by “The Design Difference: Using Design to Conduct a Problem-solving Workshop”, which explains the process and tools developed by designer Valerie Casey for the workshop. Material is available for anyone to use for their own brainstorming sessions through links in the article. Rich Streimatter-Tran, an artist who teaches RMIT Vietnam and a participant in the project, has already put the materials to good use in his design class in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The final article in the series, “The Design Difference, How You Can Propose Ideas for Brownsville”, focuses on five priority areas and solutions that came out of the project. Designers, architects, and others who want to volunteer or have resources to donate, were asked to take up the challenge and contribute pro bono work for the proposed solutions. (How to go about this post project is all laid out in the article.)[UPDATE: Added volunteer details below.]

In addition to a thorough recap of the project, Walker touched on the evolution of design making a difference:
In many ways, the charrette highlighted the way that designers have shifted from creating things to creating ideas, which Casey has also seen through the Designers Accord's work. "Three years ago we focused on evolving our design practices by applying the principles of sustainability to the objects we were creating," says Casey. "Now we are applying our craft to create the kind of content and change in a way that supersedes 'design,' and is utterly more connected with society at large."


Here's how to help: If you're a design firm and want to contribute pro bono work for Brownsville, register with The 1% and send an email to designdifference [at] japansociety [dot] org with the subject line "Design Firm" alerting our team that you're ready to be matched with a Brownsville client.

If you're a designer or architect and you want to submit a design proposal for one of the five priority areas, send an email to designdifference [at] japansociety [dot] org with the subject "Design Proposal" and include a brief summary of your idea for Brownsville, as well as a link to your work.

If you'd like to volunteer or if you have resources to donate for an upcoming workday to help implement one of the ideas, send an email to designdifference [at] japansociety [dot] org with the subject "Volunteer" and you'll be added to a future email list with more information about how you can get involved.

For more great photos from this event:

Photos by Ayumi Sakamoto.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rockin’ Ramen

10% noodles; 90% love. Via.

To compliment today's SOLD OUT ramen discussion and tasting (featuring Masahiro Nakano from the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum and Serious Eats' J. Kenji Lopez-Alt), Japan Society staff put their hungry heads together to highlight a caboodle of the best noodles in NYC. Spoon, sip and slurp away!

Donburiya: 137 East 47th Street (212-980-7909)
Go for the tonkotsu ramen—a solid, simple rendition of the style, and all ingredients are cooked to perfection.

Hide-Chan Ramen: 248 East 52nd Street (212-813-1800)
Hide-Chan’s floating globules of glistening fat overwhelm even the most hardened rameniac; authentic, native-approved fare.

Ippudo NY: 65 4th Avenue (212-388-0088)
One of the best executions of tonkotsu style ramen in NYC. Warning: the restaurant’s popularity makes getting a bowl quite an ordeal.

Ise: 151 East 49th Street (212-319-6876)
Delicious standard Japanese dishes fill this restaurant with expats. Try their niboshi (dried fish based) ramen, but call ahead because it’s not always on the menu.

Izakaya Riki: 141 East 45th Street (212-986-5604)
The 45th St. restaurant has a wealth of great noodle dishes. Try the su-ra-tanmen (noodle in Chinese style hot & sour broth.)

Kambi Ramen House: 351 East 14th Street (212-228-1366)
At least one JS staffer says their soy tonkotsu is the best anywhere.

Menchanko-Tei Midtown East: 131 E 45th St # 2 (212-986-6805)
Great ramen, but guests can expand their noodle horizons by trying the sumo-wrestler-in-training specialty, menchanko—giant cast-iron bowls of noodles with a wide selection of add-ins.

Menkui Tei: 60 West 56th Street (212-757-1642)
A tiny, cozy restaurant with hearty, filling ramen. Great stop after a visit to nearby MoMA or the American Folk Art Museum .

Naruto Ramen: 1596 3rd Avenue (212-289-7803)
A small, bar style ramen shop like you see everywhere in Japan, with good gyoza and solid miso and tantanmen. The service is fast and presentation is simple.

Rockmeisha: 11 Barrow Street (212-675-7775)
A late-night rockabilly izakaya haunt offering much more than Chinese noodles—including a jukebox, friendly staff and a host of creative appetizers.

Ramen Sanshiro: 249 East 49th Street (212-355-7722)
Japanese businessmen, nightowls and ramen enthusiasts know that after 11pm, the upscale restaurant SEO transforms into Ramen Sanshiro. The late-night limited menu includes two ramen choices - shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce). Cash only.

Souen (East Village): 326 East 6th Street (212-388-1155)
Vegetarian ramen with extras like kale and yuba that win over meat-eaters. The black sesame ramen is the best, but all worth trying, including seasonal offerings such as seafood ramen.

A.M., C.J., D.S., J.N.A, R.Y.
, S.J.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The East Asia Equation in American Monetary Policy

As developed economies including the United States try to crawl out of the effects of the financial crisis, China’s increasing influence on the global sphere has become a critical consideration in the equations of trade and finance. Daniel Franklin, Editor of The Economist’s World in 2011 opens his editorial with the following:
In a year that will delight numerologists (especially on November 11th, or 11:11:11), the most notable number will in fact be two. It will be a tale of two economies: a rich world struggling with a weak and jobless recovery, and an emerging world growing four times as fast. 
At home in the U.S., the Federal Reserve introduced a monetary policy called QE or quantitative easing in 2008 in an effort to revive the ailing U.S. economy. QE involves the government buying bonds to increase the money supply in the economy in order to stimulate lending and spur economic activity. A second round of pumping money into the U.S. economy ($600 billion), commonly known as QE2, was announced in November 2011. More recently, on January26th of this year, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) reaffirmed its position to continue with the QE2.

While critics of QE2 point toward, among other things, Japan’s experience of implementing quantitative easing from 2001 to 2006 and whether or not it had any impact on the economy, there has also been a build-up of voices from abroad expressing concerns against the policy. Central to the concerns of China and the emerging world is the notion that a policy such as QE2 is an attempt to drive the dollar down.

Depreciation of dollar with respect to floating-rate currencies as a result of increased supply of dollars is a predictable result as the “rise in the volume of dollars [causes] the value of each dollar to fall relative to the floating currencies, whose volume has remained constant or risen more slowly”. Such an outcome worries China which has so far allowed only a slight appreciation of its currency (Renminbi, unit=Yuan) keeping its exports cheaper. The Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao explicitly mentioned that China does not want more rapid appreciation of the Renminbi keeping in mind the potential adverse impact on Chinese exporters.

While the centrality of economic concerns in policy making is of the utmost importance, countries in Asia including Japan face an equally dominant concern. A special report on China’s place in the world published by The Economist links the twin concerns of Asian countries, namely economics and security, to the dual need that many Asian countries face, noting “naturally, Asian countries want to have it both ways: to resist China’s power but to continue trading with it; to benefit from American security but without sacrificing Chinese commerce.” The report also says China has risen as a chief trading partner for most of Asia and in the eyes of the economists and businesspeople, China getting richer means gain for everyone – the rest of Asia finding a bigger market in China and vice versa. However, from a security standpoint, the report states, “In a troubled continent like Asia, countries therefore look to America to save them from an increasingly powerful China—to ‘the water far away’ for protection from ‘the fire nearby’”.

In the specific case of the relations between Japan, China and arguably, the U.S., Professor Hugh Patrick, Director of Columbia’s Center on Japanese Economy and Business, notes that rapid growth in export has played a key role in Japan recovering from recession and that the increase in exports, for the most part, come significantly from “renewed growth and increase in demand of East Asian economies, especially China”. Patrick also notes that one of the major challenges Japan faces is how to deal with China. He states that the “two pressing issues that will define the relationship [between Japan and China] will be “[t]o what extent do Japan’s economic interests align with those of China?” and “[w]ill the two countries be able to agree on a common set of East Asian regional rules for trade, [Federal Direct Investment], or exchange rates?” The above questions, he argues, “raise issues that extend beyond economics, and, inevitably, the United States will be involved in trying to answer them”. On a much broader international level, the interconnectedness and interdependence between currency exchange rate, export and monetary policies such as quantitative easing are now culminating into a fear that a currency war may be imminent.

Akira Kojima, a Senior Fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research (JCER) and Visiting Professor of National Graduate Institute For Policy Studies (GRIPS) articulates the current tensions and the resulting sentiment in Japan as follows:
In 2010, China overtook Japan as the second largest in the world in terms of total GDP, a position that Japan has held since 1968. How to come to terms with a rising and more demanding China will be an issue of increasing importance in Japan in 2011. Tension on the Korean peninsula is another of Japan’s worries, which, together with the China issue, is forcing Japan to reconsider the nature of its alliance with the United States. 
Echoing the changing dynamics of U.S.-East Asia relations in Davos at the World Economic Forum on 29 January was Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan. In his speech, Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan welcomed China overtaking Japan as the world’s largest economy and said, “the world faces major changes that can be likened to a tectonic shift both in the national security and economic fields”. Recognizing the importance of Japan’s relationship with China, he also noted that Asia is “the centre of major tectonic changes” and against this background the Japan-U.S. alliance “is becoming even more important” and should continue to play a key role in the Asia-Pacific region.

This Thursday, February 3, Japan Society presents the expert panel What Impact Will Monetary Easing Have on U.S. & Global Economies, featuring Nomura Securities’ top bank researcher Brian Foran and chief U.S. Economist David Resler, Columbia Business School’s Alicia Ogawa, and Financial Times’ U.S. managing editor Gillian Tett, the award-winning author of Fool’s Gold and Saving the Sun. Moderated by Bloomberg News anchor and reporter Kathleen Hays, the event is free to the public with pre-registration required.