Friday, December 27, 2013

Learning Japanese at Japan Society: Laughter, Culture & Connection

In late August, Japan Society appointed Tomoyo Kamimura as the second-ever director of its Language Center, which opened in 1972 with a single class, and has grown into one of the nation's most respected Japanese language learning facilities. Formerly coordinator of The New School's Japanese program, Ms. Kamimura sat down to talk about her experience teaching Japanese and plans for the future of the Center. This is part one of a two-part interview.

Congratulations on your appointment!

Thank you.

Could you walk us through your journey of becoming a Japanese teacher?

My interest in teaching Japanese was sparked while I was an exchange student at Michigan's Kalamazoo College from Waseda University in Tokyo. During that time, I taught various levels of Japanese as a student teacher. When I later became a graduate student in Linguistics at the University of Oregon, I was a teaching assistant to Yoko Matsuoka McClain, who is the granddaughter of famed novelist Natsume Soseki. That experience really had a big impact on me. I discovered the deep pleasure of learning and teaching--just the sheer joy of sharing knowledge and connecting with students. I learned that through her and through teaching at the University. Do you know the literal meaning of “sensei,” which is how you address a teacher in Japanese?

It’s “before, birth,” right?

Right. “Sen” means previous or before, “sei” means to be born. I was born before you, so I have that much more experience and knowledge that I can convey to you. Even though I was not much older than the students I was teaching--I was maybe 23 or 24 and they were in their early 20s--I still felt that sense of responsibility and leadership. I really learned the meaning of sensei from that initial experience.

You took a slight detour from teaching. What happened?

After receiving my MA in Linguistics, I returned to Japan where I continued down the teaching path by becoming an English lecturer at Tokyo University of Science. After three years of teaching English grammar and composition to Japanese undergraduates, I decided to try my hand in the completely different field of finance. I obtained an MBA from Columbia University and, upon graduation, worked at an investment firm. After several years, I realized finance was not my calling, I decided to take a break. In retrospect, I believe working in finance was really just a break from my true calling—teaching. I learned a great deal about finance and business, which benefits me tremendously in running a language program.

Did that have any affect your teaching philosophy?
Although aspects of my teaching have evolved over the years, my core philosophy has remained unchanged. It starts with establishing a personal connection with students based on mutual trust. Once we share that, students are more receptive to learning and I am able to focus on conveying my knowledge to each student.

One effective "hook" to establish this rapport is humour. I find humour tends to put students at ease and lessens feelings of intimidation brought on by the seriousness and rigor of a “difficult” language like Japanese, with its sometimes daunting body of knowledge (for example, Japanese has few western-style cognates or sentence patterns, and two sets of alphabets totaling 92 characters, which must be mastered early on).

You've said that Japanese culture is vital to teaching and learning the Japanese language. How so?

The more I teach Japanese, the more I realize the importance of introducing the culture and customs of Japan into the curriculum. In each lecture I make a conscious effort to weave in various snippets of Japanese daily life and customs. I also find that an offbeat approach is an extremely effective teaching method. Some of the "odd but true" cultural phenomena I cover in classes include slurping noodles, the no “ladies first” custom, the “can’t say no” custom, nose blowing, yakuza tattoos, self-deprecating modesty, “holey” socks, giggling, chopstick and bowing etiquette, and body language, among others.

We've discussed on this blog before that a lot of young people become interested in Japanese through manga or anime. What would you say is the motivation for some of your older students?

If you see men taking Japanese, it's often the case their wives or girlfriends are Japanese. Or they went to Japan as a tourist, loved it there and want to go back. Now they really want to communicate a little bit with people. So that’s their motivation. You don’t see as many American women married to Japanese men, but there are some. And it’s the same reason for them: “I want to communicate with my husband’s family.”

Some of the older students have intellectual curiosity as well, or the kind of thing where they have been very interested in the culture since they were very young.

Japan Society has many cultural offerings in addition to language classes. Do you think that is why the Language Center has the reputation as one of the top in the U.S.?

Definitely. It’s because we have so many varied attractions: cultural lectures and demonstrations, a gallery, a film program, performing arts, business panels--we are constantly doing something tremendously interesting. Even our building is an attraction with its unique Japanese architectural elements. All these things combined really help to differentiate this school from others.

Also Japan Society is located in the middle of New York City, so we have people from all walks of life here. And there are Japanese cultural events all over town, not only at Japan Society. We could not have been number one in a little tiny isolated village in some unpopulated state, with not much going on. Location and activity really have a lot to do with it.

You said the city has people from all walks of life. Do you see that reflected in the classroom in terms of age groups, race, etc.?

Yes, we have students of all different ages. Probably the youngest is around 15, a high school student, to 65 or so. We have New York Times reporters, retired doctors, housewives, businessmen and all that. Last year I had a very interesting mix of people. One high school girl, who was good at Japanese because she taught herself, started partnering with an Indian-American who had his PhD from Cambridge on Einstein’s theory or something. I saw his thesis online. He was the real deal.

At first I wanted to kind of separate them. I thought, “Okay, there’s another high school student, so why doesn't she sit with him?” But the two wanted to be partners and stayed together for the whole semester. And they did very well together. They developed their pair conversation into something different, and she would always give him Hello Kitty candy. Something like that makes me really happy, you know, different people sharing this one purpose, to learn Japanese, but with very different life goals. And yet they achieve something together.

You are planning to try out a suite of unconventional thematic classes during the spring 2014 session, which starts in February. Can you tell us a little bit about these?

The themes are actually hooks to captivate students, but the core class is essentially teaching the fundamentals. Long-time instructor Mami Miyashita-sensei has been preparing a karaoke-based class for several years. When she presented the idea to me, I said, “That’s really catchy, let’s give it a try.” Each student will bring a song they want to sing, and they will explore the song in class--its vocabulary, grammar, structure, even idiomatic meanings. At the end of class they will try to sing the song. Hopefully with a better understanding of its meaning.

Do you think making material fun increases retention?
If you are interested in certain things, you pay more attention. When you are over 20 and try to learn new languages, you have to attach emotion to the learning process. Otherwise it’s very difficult to memorize. If you think about it, much older people, people in their 50s who want to learn Japanese, cannot always remember everything. But if I tell them a funny story about a grammar concept, they are more likely to remember. Emotion has to be involved. Like with songs. The words people learn in songs will stay in their heads if it means something to them.

The other new courses are conversation courses for the higher levels, and an advanced course that will read a complete novel--a kind of intense book club that will try to get through one novel each semester. The Center has traditionally been known to offer 12 levels of Japanese, but with these new courses there are now 13.

As Director, do you intend to do more to bring regular Japan Society programming into your lessons?

Oh yes. We already tried it out with the Japan Society Gallery this most recent session. We took students to see the Mariko Mori exhibition. It was pretty successful. I think students really enjoyed it. It has to be a win-win situation. Our Gallery will gain audience and our language students gain a cultural experience unavailable elsewhere. We took teachers to meet the head of the Gallery, Miwako Tezuka, and she trained them to explain aspects of the art on display. So depending on the level, if you’re taking Level 5 students, Level 10 students, the explanation is going to be a little bit different. We have to do it a few more times to see if it’s really working towards our goals.

Do you see yourself incorporating something like performing arts or even lectures in Japanese?
I would like to. There is so much that goes on here every month. Also one day I would like to offer something like a Cinema Class that coincides with Japanese film events taking place at Japan Society, so that students see the movies and talk about them in class. We have to utilize what we have upstairs in the auditorium and Gallery. We have this tremendous, precious resource, so why not use it to the advantage of our students?

Waku Waku Japanese, the series of short videos that introduce fun Japanese words and phrases, has become very popular with visitors to the Japan Society YouTube page. Do you have plans to continue the videos moving forward?

We are actually creating another version, kind of in between the fun of Waku Waku and Miyashita-sensei’s more grammar-based Japanese language videos. I think it’s going to start in early 2014. I have already chosen the instructor. What I am thinking of is to use it as an introduction to Japan Society as well as a fun way to learn some of the basics of the Japanese language. For that purpose, we may actually shoot the videos in front of the waterfall or in the library, to show this beautiful building to people who want to visit. We won’t of course show everything, because otherwise they won’t come to Japan Society (laughs).

To be Continued!

--Andres Oliver

Start at the very beginning! 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merlin, Madagascar, and Mori: The Mystic Road to Stonehenge

Mystic origins of the cosmically synced Transcircle 1.1

Jacquetta Hawkes, the British archaeologist and writer, once stated, “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves—or desires.”

I don’t know which Stonehenge Mariko Mori deserves, but looking at Transcircle 1.1, the Stonehenge-inspired, LED-powered circle of monoliths at the center of her current Rebirth exhibition, it’s clear which one she desires: one that serves as a channel for our ancestors.

With Transcircle’s combination of ancient British and Japanese spirituality, specifically Druidic and Shinto traditions of ancestor worship, Mori joins a long line of people to associate the monoliths with themes of death and rebirth.

Archaeologists and researchers continue to debate the purpose of the standing stones, with theories ranging from the conventional (Stonehenge is some sort of giant celestial observatory) to the curious (the stones were chosen for their acoustic qualities). Though our temporal separation from the founding of the wonder, dated some 5000 years ago, complicates explanation, that hasn’t stopped many, including Mori herself, from positing their own interpretations.

One of the earliest and most enduring stories surrounding Stonehenge stems from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136), perhaps best known as the source of much of the King Arthur mythos. Strangely enough, one of the main actors in the Arthur drama also plays an important part in Monmouth’s account of the construction of Stonehenge.

Wishing to erect a monument to several hundred British nobles slaughtered at the hands of the treacherous Hengist, Aurelius Ambrosius, King of the Britons, consults Merlin for advice. “Send for the Giants’ Dance that is on Killare,” the wizard says, prompting an expedition of gallant knights to bring back the stones, or Giants’ Dance, in question. After wresting the stones from the Irish king, Ambrosius’s forces convey them back to Britain, where Merlin uses his magic to set them in their current state. No pullies and cranes. No armies of workers. No rafts. Just magic.

Most relevant to Mori’s work is the fact that Monmouth interprets Stonehenge as a place of burial and commemoration, rather than as the astronomical instrument that others later took it to be. While Mori’s Transcircle 1.1 focuses much more on rebirth than on the finality of earthly burial, both this piece and Monmouth’s Stonehenge tie the monoliths to some aspect of death, exemplifying the “creative stream [reaching] right down to the present” that Mori uses to describe her affinity to that other ancient legacy of Japan’s Jōmon period.

Talking about “creative streams” Mori takes her greatest artistic liberties in interpreting the monoliths through the lens of early Druidism, an idea both widely repudiated and enduringly popular. Though the Druids probably did not appear until around 400 BC, several thousand years after the beginning of the construction of Stonehenge, and also conducted the majority of their rites in groves rather than in temples, this knowledge has not deterred Mori and others from echoing the undoubtedly romantic idea of Druidic mysteries.

“Stonehenge as Druidic temple” owes much to the work of John Aubrey, a 17th-century English antiquarian who both excavated the ring of holes now named after him and wrongly attributed the monoliths to the work of Celtic Druids. However erroneous, this connection, strengthened by a generation of Romantics in later centuries, proved enduring enough to influence both Mori and current neo-pagan groups. While Mori celebrates this tradition through her art, neo-pagans do so by descending upon Stonehenge to mark the solstice—prominent among them, a bearded former soldier who goes by the title of Rev King Arthur Uther Pendragon, Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders. [Note: Mori's recent "Sun Pillar" installed on an island in Okinawa prefecture also utilizes the light of the solstice sun (video).]

Arthurian legends and Druidic tie-ins have largely fallen out of favor in today’s Stonehenge research. That being said, an endeavor known as the Stonehenge Riverside Project, responsible for some major excavations of the site in recent years, reflects elements of both traditions, as well as of Mori’s own work.

In his writings on Stonehenge, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes the claim that the stones were transported by giants “from the farthest ends of Africa.” The thought of transporting these monoliths over a distance of a few miles, much less several thousand, seems almost impossibly daunting, placing Geoffrey’s story firmly in the realm of fiction. However, Mike Parker Pearson, the English archaeologist behind the Riverside Project, wouldn’t write Africa out of the story entirely.

Back in 1998, Pearson and Ramilisonina, a Malagasy archaeologist, published a groundbreaking paper in which they drew parallels between Stonehenge and Madagascar’s tradition of ancestor worship, putting forth the idea of a “Stonehenge for the ancestors.” The two drew a comparison between Stonehenge as a home for the dead and Woodhenge, a nearby collection of timber circles they believe to be the remains of a human settlement, as a home for the living. Pearson and Ramilisonina saw the same dynamic at work in Madagascar. Speaking with National Geographic in June of this year, Pearson says,
In Madagascar, they build in stone for the ancestors because it is a permanent medium—permanent like the ancestors—whereas they live in wooden houses because those will perish just like human life will end. I laughed initially and said, "Well, I don't think that's necessarily really going to have anything to do with Britain 5,000 years ago." 
But I realized that actually we did have timber circles very close to the stone circle of Stonehenge. That was quite a bombshell for me.
In light of this research, Mori’s reimagining of Stonehenge in Transcircle 1.1 as a kind of antenna for cosmic and primal energies begins to look far less speculative. Indeed, the immense age and incompleteness of Stonehenge make it open to a variety of interpretations, like all high art and low art.

You can almost imagine the same thing happening in reverse with Transcircle 1.1. Now a centerpiece of an artist’s rebirth, centuries later it falls into disrepair, turning up in some mundane location. What was it for? Who made it? With what purpose? A sun marker. Cemetery. A temple. All of the above. Or none. We can dream, and wonder.

--Andres Oliver

Image: Transcircle 1.1, 2004. Stone, Corian, LED, real-time control system; 132 3/8 inches diam., each stone 43 3/8 × 22 1/4 × 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy of The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Installation photograph by Richard Goodbody.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sword Unconcealed: The Martial Legacy Of The Samurai

Kendo. Via.

It was 1877, and the samurai were in trouble. According to Stephen Burnbull's The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War, Saigo Takamori, the leader of the last great samurai rebellion against the Meiji government and the engines of change, was moving down the slope of Kumamoto Castle under heavy fire. His progress was soon impeded as he took a bullet to the groin, forcing one of his followers to carry him down the mountain. Finally, they reached a secluded gate. Turning in the direction of the imperial palace, Takamori took a knife, plunged it into his belly, and committed seppuku, honorable ritual suicide. The Satsuma Rebellion was over. So was the age of the samurai.

Fast forward to the present, where a visit to any Japanese high school reveals groups of boys and girls clad in black hakama robes, their faces masked so that they look like angry wasps. With a scream and a lunge, they drive their wooden swords against a shoulder. A neck. Searching everywhere for an opening.

This is kendo, the “way of the sword.” As David A. Hall tells us in his Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts, an exhaustive work drawing on decades of study and practice, the kendo tradition almost disappeared after the death of Takamori and disenfranchisement of his samurai brethren. With the Meiji emperor passing a set of laws known as the Haitorei edicts in an effort to outlaw the use of swords, long considered an emblem of samurai status, the romantic way of the sword survived only through the modern art of kendo and the other schools that Hall outlines in his book.

Americans might be familiar with the Haitorei edicts from Japanese media, even if they have never heard the term itself. For example, many will remember the scene in The Last Samurai (not exactly a paragon of historical authenticity, but it does provide some context) where the young samurai Nobutada, played by Shin Koyamada, is stopped in the street by some police officers, who promptly relieve him of sword and topknot to his cry of “Yamero!” “Stop!” As a member of the samurai class, which for centuries enjoyed the right of sword ownership as a status symbol, being deprived of his katana and wakizashi, a smaller sword, would have been especially humiliating for Nobutada. After all, in the words of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the famous Japanese shogun of old, “the sword is the soul of the warrior.”

For all its symbolic importance, the katana was not often the weapon of choice for a samurai on the field of battle. As David Hall tells us in his encyclopedia entry on kyuba no michi, or “way of the bow and horse,” the people of the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods identified warriorship with one’s skill as an archer, especially while on horseback. Later centuries saw the rise of firearms and squads of foot soldiers armed with yari, or long spears. Just as books and movies like The Three Musketeers and The Princess Bride have given rise to the romantic ideal of soldiers meeting each other one on one, exchanging witticisms as much as blows while they dance the dance of swords, modern takes on samurai history give the impression that battles rested on manful thrusts and parries of the katana. In reality, swords did not enjoy widespread use as a primary weapon until Japan’s invasion by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and even afterward, the sword generally played its greatest part off the field of battle in duels or assassinations.

Others might know Haitorei through popular anime series Rurouni Kenshin, which depicts the adventures of the titular Kenshin after he renounces the life of an assassin. Events unfold during the dawn of the Meiji era, with everything from the first steam engine to Western dress exemplifying Japan’s transition to a new age. This being the case, Kenshin’s practice of carrying his sword openly at his side, even if it is a reverse-blade sword made for disabling rather than killing, often brings him trouble while out in public. We also learn another bit of history through the character of Saito Hajime, the Dirty Harry of the Japanese police force. Not that any of the heroes and villains of the series seem to pay much regard for the sword carrying law, but as a member of the police, Saito is one of the few who does so within the boundaries of the law.

This detail accords with the historical record. Even after the passing of the last Haitorei decree, one outlawing carrying of swords for the general public, Tokyo police were allowed to carry swords in the course of their duties. In fact, Kawaji Toshiyoshi, protégé of the illustrious Saigo Takamori and founder of the first modern police force in Tokyo, advocated for including the sword as part of police training in a book called Kendo Saikoron (On the Revitalization of Kendo). David Hall expands on this history in his encyclopedia, where he tells of the 1886 creation of a standardized training curriculum for police that included elements of kendo.

It is important to note that the term kendo did not come into use until the seventeenth century, when a period of peace prompted some practitioners of martial arts to include a spiritual element in their training. In this sense, while modern kendo reflects little of the kinds of stylized katana fights seen in films like Kill Bill, and perhaps only a shadow of the martial legacy of the samurai, it certainly stays true to the spirit those same samurai were expected to represent: one of courage and discipline, and the kind of sacrifice seen on the slopes of Kumamoto.

Note: David Hall appears at Japan Society today for a Japanese martial arts demonstration, featuring several local practicing groups. 

--Andres Oliver

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Destination JS: A Suite Of Japanese Sweets From Katagiri


Destination JS explores the sites, shops, and eateries surrounding Japan Society or specializing in Japanese goods.

Pocky and green tea ice cream are all very well. I’ll even grant you Hi-Chews. But if you’re looking for more traditional Japanese sweets, turn your eyes to the world of gooey rice and red bean paste.

This week at Japan Society, Luane Kohnke, author of Gluten Free Cookies, and Nicole Bermsensolo, founder of Japanese confectionery Kyotofu introduce visitors to the little-known tradition of Japanese sweets (making heavy use of rice, sweetened beans, and fruit ingredients like yuzu, many Japanese desserts are naturally gluten free).

To mark the event, which promises tastes of miso brownies, green tea cupcakes, and yuzu muffins, I stopped by Katagiri on the Upper East Side to pick up some treats. The store claims the distinction of being the oldest Japanese grocery in the U.S., and in the vein of nearby Dainobu, offers everything from fresh fish to bento.

As I stepped gratefully into the warmth of the store, I made straight for a glass cabinet to the side. Inside sat an assortment of the kind of packaged Japanese sweets you find in all the train stations in Japan. Seeing as I didn’t want to buy an entire box, I purchased three individual sweets from store.

Delectable dorayaki. Via

Having enjoyed 7-Eleven dorayaki many times while studying abroad in Japan, I decided to go with this one first. The concept is fairly straightforward: take a round, pancake-like exterior and fill it with anko, or red bean paste. The spongy dough is reminiscent more of castella than of a pancake, resulting in a fairly light snack (though blogger YummyIndulgences attests to the existence of custard dorayaki). I was also pleased to find myself biting into chunks of chestnut, which I imagine are a regional or seasonal variation.

There is some debate regarding the origin of the name of the snack, with Taniguchi Takuya, owner of Usagi-ya, a popular Tokyo sweets maker, proposing two theories. In one, dorayaki takes its name from the shape of bronze Chinese dora gongs. In the other, the name derives from the ancient practice of grilling the confection on top of the gong itself.

Regardless of its linguistic origin, dorayaki is commonly associated with two colorful Japanese characters, Doraemon and Benkei. Much like Garfield has his lasagna, the anko/pancake combination is apparently the favorite snack of beloved Japanese manga and anime character, Doraemon. The other connection ties the snack to Benkei, the warrior monk of legend. According to one story, Benkei was once served dorayaki while being tended to by an elderly couple, who used a gong to grill the snack.

To die for daifuku. Via.

The dorayaki washed down with a fitting glass of green tea, I moved on to the next treat: daifuku. This one will perhaps be more familiar to anyone who has visited a Japanese grocery, as there are usually enough varieties—sesame, strawberry, matcha—to merit an entire shelf. I ended up going with the strawberry flavor.

I’ve heard some people have a phobia of having things stick to the roof of their mouth. Those individuals might want to stay away from daifuku, which requires a good deal of chewing to break down the glutinous (but gluten-free!) exterior. As with dorayaki, love of anko is also a requirement.

Unlike the strawberry daifuku I had purchased before at Dainobu, the selection from Katagiri contained a layer of cream in the center, creating a nice textural balance between the mushy rice dough, the thick red bean paste, and the smooth cream. In fact, it put me in mind of mochi ice cream, which is now available at many supermarkets throughout the country. Apparently, this creation arose through the efforts of Japanese Lotte Co., which released its Yukimi Daifuku mocha ice cream in 1981 to great success. With the company producing familiar varieties like cookies and cream, newcomers to the world of red bean paste and daifuku might want to start their journey here.

Nom-nom-nom monakaVia

At this point in the meal I was holding out for a change from red bean paste. I had picked the last treat at random from the glass display in the hope that the Japanese script-adorned wrapping would fall away to reveal a new flavor. Instead I found… more red bean paste.

The dessert that I later learned is monaka contains anko paste between two mochi wafers. The outside is almost indistinguishable from an ice cream wafer, and, in fact, it seems that some Japanese variations substitute ice cream for the anko. One restaurant has gone against tradition even further by stuffing the wafers with foie gras.

While tasty, the monaka was the least exciting of my three selections, providing neither the soft, pancake-y goodness of dorayaki nor the chewey challenge of daifuku.

With places like Dainobu, Katagiri, and Bermensolo’s own Kyotofu (available at Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, and elsewhere) bringing an entire tradition of Japanese desserts to New York, geographical distance is no longer an obstacle to the average consumer. Just do yourself a favor when tasting and add some of Japan's non-red bean paste delicacies to the mix.

--Andres Oliver

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Mascot Games: 2013 Edition

Sanomaru (right) making alliances before the win. Via.

A ramen-haired samurai beat out some 1500 competitors in this year's Yuru-Kyara Grandprix--Japan's annual mascot battle royale. It what could be a Hunger Games plot twist, the Wall Street Journal wonders how winner Sanomaru, a tribute from Sano City would do against Japan's currently reigning power player:
The popularity of yuru-kyara – literally loose characters in English – has rocketed thanks largely to the promotional activity of Kumamon, a rosy-cheeked black bear character from Kumamoto prefecture in southern Japan. Kumamon may look whimsical but his cash-generating ability is no joke: He generated ¥29 billion ($285 million) for his prefecture last year in sales of related goods."
Whatever the outcome, may the odd be forever in their favor.

Who will win? Via and via.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Play Is Born: 'Our Planet' Emerges From Beyond The Fourth Wall

Japan Society's reflecting pool: garnering primordial oohs since 1971.

An actor steps into the reflecting pool near the back of the lobby of Japan Society’s landmarked building. It’s the kind of thing many a young visitor to the building (and perhaps some of the adult ones) itches to try—just cast off their socks and go splashing in the water. But our actor wets his feet with a purpose: the creation of the world.

It’s the first scene of Alec Duffy’s English adaptation of Yukio Shiba’s Our Planet, opening tomorrow at Japan Society, and the room is near total darkness. The actor, Julian Rozzell, Jr. pulls candles from a backpack and sets them afloat. These are the stars of first creation. After a while, he changes character to become Terri, the Earth personified as an ordinary Tokyo dweller, in a tale juxtaposed with our planet’s birth and death. The dark, now barely broken by the candles’ flames, melts away room by room as he and actress Jenny Seastone Stern guide the audience through transformed public and private spaces.

Shiba's work won him one of Japan’s highest playwriting honors, the Kishida Drama Award, at the age of 27. In converting the entire Japan Society space into a stage for the play, Duffy assumes the role of creator as much as Rozzell with his candles. Where Shiba’s original production stood out for its minimalist staging, with only a white circle painted in the center to represent the edges of the universe, Duffy’s adaptation expands--a big bang of creativity from that first scene, to fill the unseen corners of Japan Society, taking audiences from the lobby to the atrium to the cubicles behind, even pausing to visit the site of Mariko Mori’s Rebirth, an appropriate stop to match this ultimately hopeful tale of life and death.

With its unique mix of bamboo greenery, a waterfall in the lobby, wood paneling throughout, and hidden offices, Japan Society's building is a planet unto itself. The gradual reveal of the interior allows the audience to witness a kind of twin birth, of both Shiba’s brainchild and of Planet 333 East 47, now terraformed by the hands of Duffy and his creative crew.

Duffy talks indepth about his conception of Our Planet.

Already a star in the New York theater scene, Duffy is no stranger to adapting unconventional spaces for a performance. His 2010 revival of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral took place in the Brooklyn-based Church of St. Joseph, and his theater company’s adaptation Shadows from the 1959 John Cassavetes film made use of a garage that opened onto the street.

Viewers of Duffy’s production should anticipate a very different show than the Japanese original. Apart from the reduction of the cast from eight to two, as well as a departure from the rap style of dialogue in the Japanese version, Duffy’s adaptation takes the idea of an imagined planetary boundary, conveyed in the original through the white circle on the floor, much further by expanding that boundary to the roofs and walls of Japan Society.

The freedom to improvise upon Shiba’s core idea, especially as it related to staging, was something that immediately drew Duffy to the script. In his own words:
A lot of plays that I read are pretty much successful only if they’re staged exactly as the playwright intends, and the playwright will often make a lot of notes on the set design, even the blocking and what happens on stage… But this play was so open and flexible that I thought it would be a lot of fun to collaborate with some artists to create a full production.
Among Duffy’s many collaborators helping him push the boundaries of staging and space in this production is Nobuyuki Hanabusa, a Japanese artist known for his innovative live motionographic performances, in which an actor or dancer seems to interact with a CGI visual on the screen behind him. One of his digital creations will unfold atop a long table in the Society's posh Murase room, where the two actors perform in conjunction with the moving pictures. 

Mimi Lien, in charge of scenic design, is known for hyper-realistic sets, with credits including Zero Cost House, inspired in part by Thoreau’s Walden, and Elephant Room, and won an OBIE award for sustained excellence last year. In Our Planet, she is turning this tradition of realism on its head by taking a (literally) concrete stage, the Japan Society building, and putting it to use as an expression of the abstract turns of space and time.

Duffy’s adaptation marks a monumental undertaking, not only on his part as director, but also on that of Japan Society itself. With the building acting simultaneously as both planet and universe, one where productions like Our Planet can be born and thrive (and in fact where well over 600 productions have been produced in 60 years), one need only to attend to witness the building blocks of creative life within these walls.

--Andres Oliver

Jenny Seastone Stern and Julian Rozzell, Jr.rehearse in the bambbo. 
[UPDATED 11/20/13]

Photos by George Hirose (top) and Ben Warren (bottom). 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cosmic Womb With A View: Mariko Mori's 'White Hole'

Video teaser of Mariko Mori's White Hole.

From the absence of light, energy is reborn into the universe, though maybe not this one. So goes the poetic, circular and interdimensional theory of white holes, the astrophysical yang to black holes' yin.

White holes have never been observed and may not even exist (though you can make an Earth-bound approximation in your kitchen sink), but their time-bending, space-expanding conceptual power fueled the imagination of Mariko Mori, giving birth to the star of her survey of recent work at Japan Society Gallery.

Making its North American debut at the Society exhibition, Mori's White Hole is an immersive installation presenting a visual and physical approximation of the white hole phenomenon. A Turrellesque play on space and light, the piece stems from years of thought and is even referenced in a series of meticulous, meditative drawings featured in the exhibition.

According to the exhibition catalog, "Since 2006, Mori's drawings and installations have been inspired by the idea of invisible light as a natural and cosmic energy force that can restore the balance between nature and man." The catalog explains:
In recent years there has been increasing debate concerning white holes—that is, inversions of the space-time phenomena known as black holes—that may suggest solutions to the Einstein field equations. Mori became fascinated by the theoretical existence of white holes as possible reversals of black holes, cosmic entities that, transcending our normal imaginative horizons can swallow up vast quantities of physical matter and even light itself…
Mori envisioned black holes feeding on stars and wondered how that energy would return. "Death is not the end, but a new beginning. It leads to rebirth," she says in the catalog. "I envision white holes as the cosmic womb of the spirits of stars… giving birth to new energies… I hope this work serves as a simulacrum of death and rebirth, promoting us to rethink the multidimensional universe that defies our imagination."

For such a grand vision of the invisible, the resulting work is a sensorial masterpiece. The Daily Beast called it the "pinnacle of the exhibition…completing the circle of life that is a constant theme throughout the show."
Walking through the spiral hallway into the almost pitch black, circular room, the senses become immediately disoriented. A convex lens is fixated on a slanted ceiling emanating a faint amount of soft white light. This light becomes instantaneously hypostasizing as it swirls into different patterns. Looking up at the swirling lights, the body immediately relaxes - everything disappears from consciousness allowing a brief time of personal meditation" 
Time Out thought "it appears for all the world like a UFO ready to beam you aboard, or maybe a moonlit cloud, glowing against a blackened sky. Somehow, it’s no surprise to learn that the artist created the work in collaboration with an astrophysicist."

White Wall called it "the most impressive of all the pieces… It is in this muted and peaceful space that the viewer is able to feel something and transcend."

It is the transcendent genius of Mori's Rebirth that in the same vessel that visitors are carried back several millennia to the cradle of Japan's ancient Jōmon culture, they are catapulted though infinite possibilities of space, time and imagination.

Mariko Mori's White Hole VII (2009). Courtesy of SCAI THE BATHHOUSE, Tokyo and Sean Kelly, New York


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Distributing Cures To The Developing World: Japan's Barrier Breaking Global Health Coalition

You won’t hear of a Walk for Chagas Disease. There is no Leprosy Awareness Month. Malaria is the distant scourge of adventurers and jungle explorers.

While almost relics of a bygone time to many in the first world, these diseases nonetheless continue to wreak havoc in impoverished communities throughout the world. Back in April, the Japanese government took a giant step toward addressing this issue by establishing the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT) in conjunction with various domestic pharmaceutical companies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Global health coalitions are nothing new. What sets the GHIT apart is its merging of the public and private sectors in an effort to bring the theoretical realm of drugs and technologies together with the more practical world of implementation and deployment. In doing so, it aims, in part, to provide a model for pharmaceutical companies seeking to expand their business abroad.

As Kiyoshi Kurokawa, one of the speakers at today’s Japan Society event, GHIT Fund: Unlocking the Secret of Global Health Victories, explains, “Japanese pharmaceutical companies… now see R&D partnerships for global health as another way for them to become more engaged with the world.”

We covered global-minded Japanese entrepreneurs in a previous post. Just as companies like LIXIL and UNIQLO view overseas markets as being necessary not just for growth, but, indeed, for survival in the current economic climate, pharmaceutical companies must see the value in cooperating with organizations like the GHIT in order to remain viable.

Using funding from the government and other sources, including about $60 million dollars over the past five years from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the GHIT stands in a prime position to not only develop new technologies to combat disease, but also to successfully bring these technologies to the people who need them. It is this latter stage of the battle, implementation and deployment, rather than the development of drugs themselves that often poses the greatest challenge.

Take the fight against malaria as an example. Given the changing nature of the disease, efforts toward prevention and treatment have taken a multi-pronged approach, including the development of anti-malarial drugs, insecticidal sprays, and even a mosquito-zapping laser. However, it has been the simple mosquito net more than any other tool that has become the spokesperson for the global health campaign.

First-world nations can be guilty of touting simplistic solutions to complex problems in the developing world. Just a year ago, the long battle to bring Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony to justice became tantalizingly winnable by dint of merely watching and re-posting/blogging/tweeting a video. 3.7 million people suddenly became crusaders against Kony. In the case of malaria, the tagline became Send a Net. Save a Life, as seen on the page of Nothing But Nets, an offshoot of the United Nations Foundation aimed at “ending malaria deaths in this generation.”

While organizations such as Nothing But Nets could be said to be engaging the first world the only way they can, the results of these efforts have proven mixed. The nets themselves are susceptible to wear and tear, and, being treated with the same class of insecticide, they have a limited shelf life as mosquitoes develop resistance. And that’s only the nets that do get used. Many do not, or at least, not for their intended purpose; several news outlets have documented cases of nets being used to catch fish or as wedding veils.

As such, the eradication of diseases, especially those affecting the poor throughout the world, will require more than research funding. Ann M. Veneman, a GHIT Fund Board Member and one of the speakers at today’s event, will discuss what she sees as an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to partner with organizations that might have a better understanding of regional issues with deployment, be they logistics or education.

Global health cannot and should not work in a vacuum wherein drugs developed in one country never leave its shores, or where a promising new drug is developed without regard to its distribution and affordability. Kurokawa himself of the GHIT credits America for providing Japan with the means to combat tuberculosis, which he contracted as a child. With the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the founders of the GHIT, introducing companies in the private sector to a model for product development, one that calls for action on the basis of simple business sense, those diseases that we see as myth could one day become just that.

--Andres Oliver

Monday, November 11, 2013

Once a Thing of the West, These Dishes Are Now As Japanese As Sushi

Mmm: Matcha Marble Castella Cake (plus recipe)! Via.

Few bite into a Taco Bell burrito under the impression they are enjoying an authentic Mexican dish. McDonald’s fries do little to suggest French cuisine. And that California Roll next to the seaweed salad? Need anyone say it: not Japanese.

The U.S. has elevated the Americanization of foreign food to almost an art, with grocery aisles and fast food chains its most enthusiastic exhibitors. Yet many might be surprise that an equally thorough appropriation of Western food has been taking place half a world away.

Japanese versions of Western dishes have been around for over a century, making up a cuisine known as yōshoku, or “Western food.” Arguably the most famous of these adaptations is Japanese curry. This week at Japan Society, culinary writer Harris Salat and Chef Tadashi Ono delve into the history and varieties of the dish with examples from their book, Japanese Soul Cooking.

In addition to curry, yōshoku covers a variety of foods, with everything from Portuguese cakes to Italian pasta. Below we take a look at three standouts from this branch of Japanese cuisine.


Purportedly introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, castella has become a staple of both dessert and omiyage, or gift-giving, culture. One can see why: not overly sweet, unlike many Western confections; packed in a rectangular box, allowing for small bites. The Japanese have even added their own touch to the dessert, which originally called for only a simple mixture of flour, sugar, and eggs. Castella fans can now enjoy varieties in chocolate, cheese, and matcha (green tea), among other ingredients. Especially popular is the castella of Nagasaki, where the Portuguese would have conducted the bulk of their trade several centuries ago.

Oddly enough, “there is no actual cake called castella in Portugal,” writes the Japan Times. In an article on the dessert, they discuss how Paulo Duarte, a Portuguese native who studied how to make castella in Nagasaki, and his wife Tomoko, a Japanese expert on traditional sweets, took it upon themselves to introduce castella into Lisbon. The wheel of history turns once more.


Sometimes a dish is so changed from the original as to appear heretical. Many Italians would surely think so upon hearing that Naporitan, a Japanese take on Italian pasta, uses ketchup as a sauce. As if this weren’t insult enough, the pasta is allowed to sit after cooking and then reheated. In the dichotomy of mortal and venial culinary sins, ketchup and reheated pasta surely fall into the former category.

Believed to have been invented in the postwar era at Yokohama’s Hotel New Grand, Naporitan reflects little of the place from which it takes its name; the pasta is soft and includes no seafood. That being said, the dish has become a staple of Japanese bento boxes and restaurants. As with castella, it took a group of non-natives to introduce the phenomenon to its purported country of origin. In 2012, the Nippon Naporitan Gakkai, or Japan Naporitan academic society, held a tasting in Naples. In a display of either true appreciation or a diplomatic touch, Mayor Luigi de Magistris graced the dish with a simple, “Good.”


In another ironic historical twist, Japanese curry owes more to a British take on the dish than to the original Indian staple. After a British company called C&B began manufacturing the Indian import garam masala, someone had the idea to combine it with Western roux. The result, a thicker curry than that of India, caught on quickly almost 200 years later in Meiji Japan. It even boasts its own political incident, the curry powder scandal of 1931, during which dealers were discovered to be selling low-grade domestic curry at prices comparable to that of the far finer C&B brand. The dish also became a favorite of the armed forces due to its being both nutritious and easy to prepare.

You can find curry rice and its variations at almost any casual dining establishment in Japan, and, increasingly, here in New York, with Curry House CoCo Ichibanya being one of the more famous places to focus on the dish. Customers have complete control over their choice of sides, portion size, and spiciness. With spiciness ranging from 0 to 10, those unable to handle even the slightest hint of heat should stick to amaguchi, something like sweet-mouth, while those with a death wish can try their taste buds at the highest level.

--Andres Oliver

Friday, November 8, 2013

Flirting With Japan, Donald Richie's Mistress Muse

Richie smitten in Tokyo in the 50s. Via.

Donald Richie, the noted critic of Japanese culture and film, compares the experience of the expatriate to a man in an affair. First, infatuation: everything is wonderful and new. Later, disgust: everything is terrible, no different from the place he left. At last, a middle ground: everything is no more wonderful or terrible than anywhere else.

But in Japan, Richie found his most enticing and enduring mistress. He made it his life’s work to chronicle her moods and caprices, but also her refinements—how good she looks on screen! he might have said—and her hidden charms.

On the occasion of Japan Society's ongoing film series tribute to Donald Richie, who passed away earlier this year, we take a look at three of his most well-known works on his chosen muse: The Inland Sea, a not-quite-travel-book; The Japan Journals, a frank record of friendships, lovers, and insights spanning over half a century; and A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Richie’s definitive take on the cinema and its masters that he so loved.

The Inland Sea

Donald Richie takes up the mantle of noted 19th century Japan enthusiast Lafcadio Hearn as he goes in search of a fading Japan in The Inland Sea. Like Hearn, who wrote his Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan while in the "provincial backwater" of Shimane Prefecture, Richie takes his search not to Tokyo, already a glittering hubbub in the late 60s when Richie was composing the book, nor to Osaka, its eccentric Southern cousin. Rather, he turns to the Seto Naikai, the island-dotted "inland sea" that lies between the three main islands of Shikoku, Kyūshū, and Honshū.

If there is one word to describe Richie’s writing in this work, it is unapologetic. He doesn’t hesitate to pass judgment as an interested observer, with lines like: "High places excite the Japanese. Jumping from a height remains a favorite form of suicide," or "I know of no more people lacking the religious sense than [the Japanese].They love the rituals of religion in the same way they love the ritual of the tea ceremony…"

Yet, his is not the voice of a foreigner bemused by quirks. If Richie is sometimes seized by the incongruity between the natural and modern Japan, the former now almost a thing of myth, it is because he recognizes the same within himself.

The Inland Sea of ancient fishermen is fading. The islands pierced through by new bridges, Richie writes in the epilogue, one can no longer cross the sea by boat. Only by the no-stops, look-out-the-window bus, tour bus. But this is only "the prelude, the overture." This leg done, he turns south.
My search is for the real Japanese, the originals. The ur-Nihonjin. In this I am no to be put off by doubts, by fears, nor by such reasoned observations as that private remark by one of the most popular writers on Japan: The soul of the Japanese is like the heart of the onion; you peel off layer after layer, then expectantly, hopefully, you peel more, finally you reach the center, the heart, the core: the onion has none.

Somewhere—somewhere near the sea, I believe—I will find them: the people the Japanese ought to be, the people they once were.
The Japan Journals

In 1970, a year before the publication of The Inland Sea, Richie was asked by the Japan Times to write a piece on the death of Yukio Mishima, a man with whom he had enjoyed a long friendship. In an essay on the subject that would draw on previous entries from his own journal, Richie writes of a conversation with the author:
'Japan,' I remember his [Mishima] saying, last summer, ‘Japan is gone, vanished disappeared.’

‘Is there no way to save it?’ I wondered. ‘No,’ he said, ‘there is nothing left to save.’
Richie never stops saving. In over half a century of not-quite-daily or even yearly entries, faithfully edited by Leza Lowitz from Richie’s journals, we see a man eager to make sense not so much of that place called Japan that he made his home but of himself. Richie writes with wit—de-worming, and its ensuing digestive calamities, becomes a metaphor for the American Occupation—heart, and the occasional doubt.

An outsider to both Japan and America, Richie becomes an in for the giants of both. He goes to the gym with Mishima and takes him to visit "every Saint Sebastian hanging in New York" (read Confessions of a Mask for the reference). Gone to greet Truman Capote at the Tokyo airport, Richie is met with a dour, "All I can say is that you certainly wouldn’t know they’d lost the war."

Most often the observer, Richie grants us a look behind the curtain: liaisons with men, a troubled marriage, a romantic sensibility (crowds in Shinjuku like "Edo street scenes of Hokusai").

In The Japan Journals, Richie stands shoulder to shoulder with giants, and sees keenly.
One of those days. I run off the track. I can see, when I look back, the plodding footprints in the desert behind me. Just where do I think I am going? Here I am a novelist who writes few novels, a critic who usually can’t even criticize himself, a husband who prefers sleeping with men. Yet, somehow all those unwritten novels were supposed to appear; my criticism was to strike every target; and marriage was to save me. But no, not at all—and marriage is killing me.

The reluctance to find oneself—the evasions. And the burden of it. No wonder I wanted someone to share it. But one does not drop one’s history any more than does the plodding turtle drop its shell."
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

Neophytes to the world of Japanese cinema, even those familiar with contemporary masters like Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano, can do no better than Richie’s Hundred Years of Japanese Film. In his sprawling, if selective, analysis, Richie takes us from the era of benshi, or silent film narrators, to the modern days of manga and anime (he even brings up Osamu Tezuka near the end). In the process, he not only introduces a variety of works and cinematic techniques but also provides some historical context behind the masterpieces.

In one section Richie discusses the differing ways in which filmmakers responded to calls for jingoistic propaganda during the war years. On one hand, Yamamoto Kajiro, mentor to Akira Kurosawa, went along wholesale with government policy in films like The War at Sea, which recreated the bombing of Pearl Harbor with such accuracy that Occupation authorities later mistook it for footage from the actual event. On the other, Yasujiro Ozu of Tokyo Story fame managed to please the censors while doing nothing to advance their agenda.

Ozu, as well as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, feature prominently in Richie’s book. As a result, some have noted that "his history is largely the history of the studio A-list, and of the A-list studios," with Richie making no secret of his personal favorites. Then again, those who know him from The Inland Sea and other works will be unsurprised by his straightforward style, which, as always, makes no apologies for taste.
Kurosawa’s lack of accommodation to received ideas has allowed some Japanese critics to call him their ‘least Japanese’ director. The description is understandable in that he is ‘Western’ enough to be openly individual. Completely uninterested in the standard program film, and failing whenever he was forced to make one, he has gone beyond the accepted confines of cinematic language as the Japanese understood them and, in doing so, has broadened them. Consequently, perhaps, his films have been widely accepted in the West itself.
--Andres Oliver

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Swallowing The "Disney Of Japan": Osamu Tezuka's Dark Descent

Tezuka's post-Astro Boy stamp of approval. Via.

The year was 1968. Faced with the end of Astro Boy’s run and declining sales, iconic Japanese animator and manga artist Osamu Tezuka, often called the "Walt Disney of Japan," realized he had to make a change or risk fading into irrelevance.

The result was anything but Disney.

Those who know Tezuka only as the smiling figure behind the likes of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion might be surprised to read some of his work from the late 60s and 70s, a period during which his study of the less savory and infinitely more complex side of humanity took him into a bleak realm of violence, passion, and alienation. 

Credited with establishing manga and anime as popular mediums in Japan, Osamu Tezuka (aka "God of Manga", "Godfather of Anime") established his career upon rich, largely kid-friendly stories like that of the not quite-human, not-quite-robot Astro Boy. In doing so he drew heavily upon Western sources, including Popeye, Betty Boop, and Disney’s own Bambi (Tezuka admitted to watching the film over 80 times in his youth). 

He also brought his own innovations to the medium. In Japanamerica, Roland Kelts, who appears at Japan Society this week to highlight some of Tezuka most influential works, describes Tezuka's frustration with the static nature of earlier comics, which “bore a greater resemblance to the staging of a play: one character enters stage left, exits stage right, and so on.” However, in manga such as Ayako and Swallowing the Earth, both highlights from Tezuka’s later years, we see a new and often disturbing contrast between his comic drawing style and increasingly adult themes.

Study in Black: Tezuka’s Gekiga Period

Today’s fans of Japanese manga and anime are likely to think little of commercialized violence. Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan), one of the most popular titles of 2013, shows no qualms about having its characters squashed, eaten, dismembered, and subjected to any number of physical and emotional torments. In the manga world of 1960s Japan, such graphic violence, even one of a far less extreme nature, was unheard of until artists working in a genre known a gekiga began to cater to darker tastes. Suddenly, manga went from being a childhood diversion to a mature exploration of society.

His once unshakeable base eroded by a generation of younger, edgier artists, Tezuka replied with Swallowing the Earth, a darkly comic tale excoriating the love of money that characterized postwar Japan, as well as the country’s troubled relation with the U.S.

It is telling that Tezuka’s hero in this story is a man who is able to avoid greed and temptation only through a singular pursuit of alcohol. In his essay "Dark Side of the Manga," Rob Vollmar of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma describes the sometimes jarring relationship between Tezuka’s style and subject matter: “Tezuka retained a strange dichotomy in his work throughout his career, characterized by the juxtaposition of round, bouncy-looking figures engaged in progressively disturbing actions.”

A boozy, dizzying panel from Tezuka's SwallowingVia.

While not remotely graphic or disturbing, the panels depicting Zephyrus, the enigmatic temptress out for revenge in Swallowing the Earth, nonetheless exemplify the development of a new sexual element that would grow progressively twisted—ingrown might be more to the point—as Tezuka plumbed the depths of human degeneracy.

Tezuka carried the theme of beautiful, amoral women to what could be called either its creative climax or its lowest point, depending on one’s view of his work, with the inarguably disturbing Ayako.

Ayako is kept in a cellar by her in-laws for over a decade after learning their family secret. While Jiro, the protagonist, provides an early glimmer of hope as the story’s redemptive element, his position as a spy for the Americans and his collusion in Ayako’s torment make him as guilty as any. Jiro and the rest of the cast signal Tezuka’s move away from a “dualistic worldview” of right and wrong. In shifting toward far darker and more adult themes, Tezuka carries the artistic baggage of his earlier years, resulting in an often unwieldy interplay between gags and an oppressive cynicism.

In his Japan Times review of the book, David Cozy uses the word "Naturalism" to describe Tezuka’s examination of moral corruption. The official website of Tezuka Productions calls the work a “social drama.” While these terms capture certain important aspects of the book, they fall short of conveying the full weight of Tezuka’s subject matter, not because Tezuka was the first to deal with family secrets and sexual violence—Fumiko Enchi’s Masks (1958) tackles both with mesmerizing narrative efficiency—or even with the legacy of evil in the postwar era, but because in Ayako and other works of the decade we see the man responsible for creating one of Japan’s most beloved children’s characters scrape the bottom of the barrel of transgression. 

For all the darkness of Tezuka’s works during the late 60s and 70s, many view this era in the artist’s life as a stage in his development, the same way scholars place Picasso’s early 20th-century paintings under the category of the Blue Period. This is not to say that Tezuka’s thematic and stylistic experimentations amount to nothing more than a passing whim. While Kelts makes note of Miyazaki’s opinion that “Tezuka took the themes of death and loss far too lightly,” both Susanne Phillipps and Vollmar argue that Tezuka’s gekiga titles served a key role in his growth as an animator.

“Far from allowing himself to be consumed by his disappointment and disapproval of his nation,” Vollmar writes, “Tezuka’s scope expanded to a more global perspective that allowed him to conceive of these shortcomings as human rather than specifically Japanese.” Meanwhile, Phillipps cites Tezuka’s transition toward a more realistic, anatomically correct drawing style as evidence of his maturation.

“Disney of Japan” indeed. While the comparison might, at best, give the uninitiated a small idea of the scope and influence of Tezuka’s work, those hoping to delve into his work should bring a flashlight; it’s going to get dark.

--Andres Oliver 

Thumper Bumper: Tezuka's epic, eight volume Buddha begins with a woodland creature's sacrificial self-immolation. Via.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Media Watch Japan: 'Celibacy Syndrome' And The Spectre of 'Herbivore Men'

An Osamu Tezuka-drawn crowd flees the latest trend.

Every couple of years (or even mere months) the mainstream media cycles a sensationalist Japanese trend piece usually linked to population, sex, food or fashion, highlighting Japan's "bizarre extremes", or, more underhandedly, perceived corruptions of American or Western normalcy.

Top of the recent "trends" were the perennial pop-up Herbivore Men. The rash of grass feeding fellas stole the world's heart-on from about 2006 to 2011, representing, in the words of Slate, the "nexus between two of the biggest challenges facing Japanese society: the declining birth rate and anemic consumption". They shunned corporate life (Reuters), subverted manhood (NPR), and led the way in sexless love (Guardian).

Jezebel was one of the few outlets with a more balanced take on the phenomenon. They considered it "a kind of rebellion" (pointing out that "half the point of a trend piece is to record and perhaps stir up terror at the trend's inevitable destruction of society") and a means to buck stereotype and find another way to be "manly".
Sound[s] a lot like what's happening in America. The recession and dwindling job security have made certain male roles — provider, consumer, progenitor — more difficult to step into. In Japan, men are responding by rejecting those roles. Maybe rather than trying to return to a bygone era of buying and babies, Japan and America should accept a more frugal, perhaps smaller population and new definitions of success.
But the groundwork the boys of ambivalence laid towards sexless love gave them a cameo in Japan's latest "looming national catastrophe": Celibacy Syndrome.

"Young people in Japan stopped having sex," blared the Observer headline a couple of weeks ago. "Japan's under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren't even dating, and increasing numbers can't be bothered with sex."

The 2500+ word exposé leads with commentary from a sex worker-turned-therapist and weaves in testimony from disaffected locals, as well as pretty much every alarmist birthrate/demographic data point and relationship/intimacy study from the last few years.

As usual the media pickup/reuse/recycle came immediately and with gusto. TIME précised the more shocking figures and examples--the only original contribution an East v. West platitude: "with all our millennial whining about casual hookups and online dating, we might not have it so bad". The Washington Post goes so far as to say the trend is "endangering the global economy" (hm, just like hipster beards?) The BBC dredged up Japan's dreaded virtual girlfriends, asking if perhaps the whole lack of shebang is Japan's inimitable way of dealing with global overpopulation, or (there's often an "or" in these stories) "is it just time for Japanese men to grow up, have more sex and make more babies?" In one of the strangest spins, New York magazine posits that Japan's new "national crisis" stems from romantic trips to a parasite museum.

Though spotlighting the "bizarre demographic chill [that] has stolen over the Land of the Rising Sun", Slate's reaction added a little nuance to the story, touching on the inherent singlehood bashing:
Maybe Japanese young people are pioneering a deeply satisfying lifestyle in which love and sex have receded into the background—and the trade-off makes them perfectly happy. … Rates of psychological illness in Japan and the United States are comparable: 24 percent of Japanese adults and 25 percent of American adults have suffered some sort of mental health problem. So could a collective bias against singlehood be warping the way we see celibacy syndrome? Is it really a syndrome, or just an alternate (convenient, culturally exigent) mode of being? I find the notion of an intimacy-starved society as depressing as anyone, but maybe those are my reactionary, Jane Austen–informed values talking. At the very least, Japan’s new status quo might remove some of the stigma from living alone."
In a separate article, Slate was one of the first major outlets to directly say "no, Japanese people haven’t given up on sex", showing the spin tide had turned to balance itself. Bloomberg took the second wave further, noting that much of the data for these types of stories is "cherry picked" and the result of foreign journalists "traipsing into 'exotic Japan' and getting lost in a forest of stereotypes, fuzzy data and tarted-up headlines", but then they recontextualize the population problem as stemming from Japan's "exorbitant living costs, elevated stress and diminished confidence".

Finally, a full week after the Observer article, the UK Independent nailed the bigger issue: "These stories gain traction because they support a view of east Asia which is at best patronising and at worst overtly racist…"
as if to remind us what a disturbingly odd place Japan is, an alarming Japanese news story explodes online. Western media outlets clamber over each other in their haste to cover the story, with every report of bagel heads, snail facials or ritual head shaving [see also elder crime, cat cafés, monkey waiters, 'crazy' foods and flavors (esp. Kit Kats), virtual girlfriend/boyfriends, pillow paramours, odor-eating underpants, etc. --ed.] being used as further evidence of a unique Japanese weirdness. A lack of understanding (and, sometimes, basic fact-checking) means that entire stories are lifted, often without critique, and churned into dubious clickbait. Earlier this year, widespread coverage of a supposed eyeball-licking epidemic among Japanese teens that turned out to be a hoax left more than a few editors red-faced.
More urgent problems in Japan that don't get as robust coverage as sexcapades (or lack thereof): shut-instragically high suicide rates, a nuclear crisis two and a half years ongoing,  flaring tensions in Southeast Asia.

Of course, there are broader (and more real) issues with Japan's population, from sex and fertility rates to demographic disparity. But while trends consistently point downward, a point only briefly touched on in the recent media maelstrom is that there is as much too much population as there is too little space.

Japan and the U.S are among the world's top 10 most populous countries, with some 320 million people in the U.S. and 128 million in Japan. In terms of pure landmass, it's well known that Japan would fit into Montana, or about 90% of California. But when comparing the difference in densities (Japan's 873 people per square mile to America's 90) to understand Japan's situation, the entire U.S. population would need to be squeezed into the states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Or, looked at another way, the U.S. would need grow nearly three hundred times to 900 million.

Given the island nation's land lack, a little population leveling may be natural. But how much, what's the precedence, are there ways to expand without zapping limited resources? These are stories that could be written with some depth (the Indepdent points out that the World Bank lists 15 countries that have fertility rates equal to or below that of Japan, including economic powerhouse Germany). And what about a non-faith based celibacy positive article or a 2500+ word exposé on the thrills and tribulations of choosing to be single?

Until then, the fear of sexlessness sells as much as sex, it seems, and we'll have to wait to see the headline:

Japanese People Have Sex, And If They Don't That's Okay Too

--Shannon Jowett