Friday, December 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Mark Gallucci

Tenmyouya at work. Via.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Mark Gallucci

Friday, December 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Mark Gallucci

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

Shamisen building circa 1909. Via

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Mark Gallucci

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Mark Gallucci

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Learning Japanese: The Classroom Experience & The Ultimate Goal

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

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

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

I finished the first of three free trial Japanese lessons the other day. It went well. Since it was held at Noon, there were many retirees. I may have been a bit too ambitious so it went over the scheduled time, yet there were still some materials that I wasn't able to cover. They definitely got the sense of what it is like to learn Japanese and seemed to have enjoyed the lesson. Some are interested in signing up for a regular class. I always enjoy teaching and this occasion was no exception. I hope they got a taste of what it’s like to study and learn Japanese in this brief session. I am excited about the second and third sessions on Nov. 3rd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Andres Oliver

Japan's Monsters Inc.: Getting To Know Obake, Yokai & Yurei

Just a few of Japan's inimitable collection of supernatural creatures Illustration by Ben Warren.

Compare America's werewolves, vampires, ghosts, witches, and zombies to Japan’s abundance of supernatural creatures, and it’s hard to believe Japan didn't invent Halloween—a holiday that has only arrived recently as a pop-culture import popularized by theme parks such as Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan.

But Japan’s bestiary of mythical creatures was around long before Halloween. Tales of hundreds of mythical beings with few or no Western parallels are divided into whole subcategories that aren't always clear even to native Japanese.

Today the Japanese term often used to describe creatures seen during Halloween is obake—inhuman beings that have undergone a transformation. People, animals, even inanimate objects such as neglected or abandoned containers can become obake (this type of obake is known as a tsukumogami and appears often in Japanese folklore). They are typically not very dangerous creatures, tending to prefer mischief over malice (though this is not always the case).

The karakasa-kozo is a perfect example. Typically abandoned by its former owner, this paper umbrella has developed a single eye, two arms, a leg (in place of its handle), and a long tongue which it uses to lick people. A harmless obake, it enjoys scaring its victims by popping out of umbrella racks.  

Another category of Japanese creature seen during Halloween is yokai. These mysteriously gifted beings are beyond human comprehension and often possess supernatural powers. They tend to be more malicious than their obake counterparts.

Kappa, mischievous humanoid sea creatures with green, scaly skin, are one of the most famous yokai. They can be hostile towards people, and can enjoy eating human children. They are one of the few yokai able to speak a human language, and are known for their extreme sense of honor. Should a person chance upon one, it is recommended to bow deeply, as the kappa will likely return the bow, spilling the water in the plate on its head and losing its source of power.


The last major category is yurei. These once-human apparitions are bound to the physical world by strong feelings such as a grudge or a romance. The only ways to dispel yurei are to fulfill its wishes or for priests to perform the proper rites to send it to the afterlife.

The onryo is an intensely vengeful class of yurei bound to Earth, seeking retribution for a past injustice. The most famous example is Oiwa from the ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan. Oiwa is disfigured by a poison disguised as facial cream sent from an admirer of her husband. Disgusted with Oiwa’s ghastly appearance, the husband orders his servant to rape her, so so he will have grounds for divorce. The servant cannot bring himself to do so, and instead shows Oiwa her reflection in a mirror. Horrified, she breaks down, takes up a sword, and in her rush to the door, accidentally stabs herself in the throat. She uses her last words to curse her husband, binding her soul to the physical realm, where she relentlessly torments him until his death.

The story, originally a kabuki play, has received numerous film adaptations, and has had a major influence on modern Japanese horror. Oiwa, for instance, is very similar to Sadako from The Ring.


Unlike obake, yurei and yokai don't always make the transition to Halloween in Japan. These vengeful spirits and demons give way to the ghosts, vampire bats and haunted pumpkins of America's Halloween. In fact, the term obake has lost much of its original meaning, and now commonly refers to standard American ghouls.

But many of these mythical creatures live on in popular culture through anime and manga. The series GeGeGe no Kitaro and InuYasha feature notable modern incarnations. Kitaro and his friends are protected by a character called Nurikabe, based on the yokai of the same name, which manifests itself as a giant wall, extending infinitely in all directions until it is poked near the ground with a stick. InuYasha's Kirara is a nekomata, a cat with two tails fabled for its great power, and the character Shippo, is a classic kitsune (fox demon), able to shapeshift and perform magic.

Today's revival of classic Japanese creatures doesn't compare to their heyday in the Edo period. This decline in popularity—the folklore began to be dismissed as embarrassing fairytales when Japan began to modernize in the 19th century—has led there to be little knowledge of these creatures outside Japan, with few opportunities for foreigners to discover them.

One such opportunity is today's Obake Family Day at Japan Society. Children of all ages learn more about yokai and obake firsthand, by creating their own while learning a bit of Japanese, make masks, use traditional Japanese calligraphy to illustrate their spirit creatures, and even take pictures with their favorite obake. The stories behind the beasts will be told through traditional kamishibai (paper-theater) storytelling.

While the legends of yokai and obake (and even yurei) continue to haunt Japanese ghost stories to this day, America has remained mostly unaware of their existence. Still, there’s something here worth exploring, and it’s about time Japan’s rich, haunted history made it across the ocean.

After all, we've been in the dark for far too long.

--Mark Gallucci 

Children can make an Obake Buddy at Obake Family Day. Photo by Aya Wilson.
[UPDATED 11/3/14]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kaiseki Cuisine: An Haute Smorgasbord of High-class Healthiness

Kaiseki: A mega-sampler platter. Via

The dishes keep coming one after another. Smoked duck breast with chrysanthemum sauce, sashimi, crab, pumpkin and butternut squash soup–and the meal still isn’t even halfway through. The waiter presents several choices for the next course, and by the time you’ve decided, you are already thinking about the next six.

If you were at any other restaurant, this would likely be the point at which you would start contemplating how to burn all this off the next day. However, you are at Michelin-Star chef David Bouley’s Brushstroke, patting yourself on the back for sticking to your diet.

Brushstroke, the result of a collaboration between Bouley and the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, Japan, specializes in a type of seasonal Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki, and Bouley claims it’s one of the healthiest ways to eat.

"About 10 years ago I started to think about how I wanted to do food with a healthier twist," he says. "Why? Because I want to see people more often," Bouley told Town & Country.

But  kaiseki is not just healthy. It is very much a high-class cuisine with centuries of tradition. The food is expensive, meticulously arranged, and served in small portions, much like French haute cuisine. It is believed that the term kaiseki (written with the Japanese characters for “stone” and “chest”) originated from the Zen Monk practice of placing warm stones into the front folds of their robes to ward off hunger.

No two kaiseki menus look the same, and meals can consist of more than 14 courses, decided upon by the head chef. The menu is ever-changing (over 5,000 seasonal dishes at Brushstroke alone), and the food is made to be as aesthetically appealing as possible, often presented on creatively-styled dishes and bowls to enhance the visual effect.

Some common courses include a bite-sized appetizer called sakizuke, a seasonal sashimi called mukozuke, and several soup courses, among others. If you’re somehow still really hungry before dessert, there is one final course known as tomewan, which is simply miso soup and rice. However, people often choose not to eat it, as kaiseki can be very filling.

When Bouley first introduced his tasting menu in the 1980s, he faced a lot of challenges, as he told GrandLife:
People sometimes thought they were going to eat too much, that there was too much food. They thought it was going to take too long. Those folks with the metabolism of being packed in like Thanksgiving dinner? That’s not what this is. This is like being a birdie, you know. I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you. And you’re playing. I’m teasing you.
It’s this seduction that gives Bouley a sense of purpose–being able to convert even the most reluctant diners. That trend continues October 23 at Japan Society, where he’ll be holding a lecture all about kaiseki’s past, present and future, followed by a tasting reception where guests will have the opportunity to taste Bouley’s brand of the distinctive cuisine for themselves.

“I’m a chef of ingredients," said Bouley. "That’s my type. That’s what it’s all going to come back to. Ingredients. Your body remembers them your whole life. A beautiful presentation is fun, but you will forget that. You won’t wake up one day with a craving for that. However you will wake up with a craving for a perfect white peach. I’ve always been sensitive to that. That has got me hooked.”

--Mark Gallucci

Friday, October 10, 2014

Facing Forward, Looking Back: Hisashi Tenmyouya’s 'Street-Samurai' Style

Detail of Tenmyouya's Rhyme.

Hisashi Tenmyouya is a man of many styles. He’s a rebel and an innovator, doing his best to express the diversity of Japanese culture through art.

“Japanese culture has been considered a world that is ascetic, static, simple, minimal, one of anime and manga," Tenmyouya said in an interview with Laura J. Mueller, who co-curated the exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab, opening today at Japan Society. "However, that is just one aspect of Japanese culture. It is more diverse. We treasure the sight of cherry blossoms falling from the tree. We amuse ourselves with fireworks exploding like flowers blooming in the sky. We enjoy festivals with elaborately designed floats moving down the street.”

Tenmyouya has invented several self-described styles in the years he's been making art. His Butō-ha (circa 2000) depicts resistance towards the authoritative art system. His Neo-Nihonga (2001) incorporates elements of traditional Japanese art (nihonga), while using contemporary art styles and modern art materials, such as acrylic paint. And most recently, Basara (2010) draws inspiration from the extraordinary beauty of past eras, including the woodblock print artists of the late Edo period (1615 – 1867), and the kabukimono (men, often samurai, who dressed and acted flamboyantly) of the late Sengoku era (mid-15th to late 16th centuries).

“My manifesto, Basara, is based on the subculture of the ‘street-samurai culture’ that is excessively decorative and imbued with a rebellious spirit that defies traditional values. Basara stands for anti-authority and anti-aristocratic culture, which is derived from samurai culture on the streets. Basara represents a counter to the traditional values of wabi, sabi, Zen, and otaku,” he said.

Still, even across multiple styles, there are some common themes to be found in Tenmyouya’s work. His paintings tend to depict subjects that are in direct contrast with each other.

His 2002 work Neo Thousand-Armed Kannon presents Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, with her many arms holding machine guns, army knives and pistols. The piece examines the state of the world in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the U.S., highlighting the close relationship between violence and faith despite their opposite natures.

These contrasts are not always so serious, however. He also created a poster for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, appropriately titled Football, depicting two soccer players wearing samurai armor and decorative helmets in the midst of a battle for the ball - one player with his leg pulled back, ready to kick, and the other sliding towards him in an attempt to steal the ball away.

"[His] works exude an historic feel that is also wholly contemporary,” wrote Vicente Gutierrez in The Japan Times about Tenmyouya's Tokyo exhibition in 2009.

“Tenmyouya’s paintings of fantastic beasts and tattooed warriors are a record-album-cover designer’s version of Buddhist and Shinto religious icons,” wrote the The New York Times’ Holland Cotter, when Tenmyouya was featured in Japan Society's 2011 exhibition Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art.

Even though his solo exhibitions have mainly taken place in Tokyo, people from all around the world have been introduced to Tenmyouya’s unique style when his works have been showcased in places such as Berlin, Sydney and Singapore. He made his U.S. debut in 2002 in One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art at New York’s Bronx Museum.

He received more worldwide exposure with the 2006 video documentary Near Equal Tenmyouya Hisashi (released internationally as Hisashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouveau), in which director Go Ishizaki followed Tenmyouya as he worked on his paintings.

Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights features Tenmyouya’s first large-scale installation: a room adorned with several of his paintings, placed around a Zen garden with volcanic rocks and skulls planted in a sea of blood-red sand. One of the centerpieces of the room, his most recent work Rhyme, is a sizable painting which depicts yakuza-type men battling each other wearing nothing but fundoshi (ceremonial loincloths). While the subject matter is traditional, there is a sense of surrealism (a tiger and several horses wearing armor against a shimmering gold background), and the style is thought to be influenced by Leonardo de Vinci’s early-Renaissance The Battle of Angihari (1505).

It’s one of the many influences that contribute to Tenmyouya’s distinctive “street-samurai” style, in addition to his striking visual approach. His always-innovating, rebellious mindset makes each of his paintings more unpredictable than the last. With new styles, new ideas and new concepts, Hisashi Tenmyouya will be a fascinating artist to follow in the years to come.

--Mark Gallucci, additional reporting by Younjoo Sang

Images (top to bottom, left to right):  Hisashi Tenmyouya, (b. 1966), Rhyme (Detail), 2012. Acrylic paint, gold leaf on wood; inkjet print on paper, mounted on wood; each 49 7/8 x 118 1/8 in. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colonel Rex W. & Maxine Schuster Radsch Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.23.1-.2a-b.; Neo Thousand Armed Kannon, 2002. Acrylic, wood; 89 ½ x 68 5/16 in. Takahashi Collection, Tokyo. © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery; Football, 2004, official poster selection of the 2006 World Cup in Germany; Neo Acalanatha (Detail), 2004. Acrylic, wood; 42 1/3 x 18 5/7 in. Collection of Katsura Yamaguchi. © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Meticulously Monumental: Manabu Ikeda’s Dedication to Perfection

Manabu Ikeda attends to details. Via.

The wave rises. Uprooted buildings, destroyed planes, and derailed trains follow. A giant glacier is swept along, rope-tethered climbers working to scale the massive chunk of ice as it travels. Roads have been split, tunnels upturned, and a raging fire is rapidly consuming what’s left of a small forest. This could be the apocalypse.

Or it could be a mere fraction of what’s taking place in Manabu Ikeda’s Foretoken, a drawing of a massive, 6 by 11 foot wave crashing through civilization.

Ikeda’s works are examples of precision and persistence which sacrifice neither scope nor detail, depicting painstakingly crafted landscapes laden with subtle touches and sweeping emotion. To achieve this, he uses a small, fine-point acrylic pen for his drawings, working on only a few inches each day for up to eight hours, which will eventually make up the minute details of a much larger piece, which often takes him years to complete. For his current project, Ikeda is in the middle of a three-year residency at the Chazen Museum of Art, working on a single drawing.

Commenting on Meltdown, one of Ikeda’s more recent drawings, Chazen director Russell Panczenko told the Wisconsin State Journal, “if you look closely, with all this detail covering the whole surface, there isn’t a pen stroke that is more than an eighth of an inch in length. So – talk about intensity.”

Ikeda’s meticulous approach is very much connected to Japanese tradition. In Japan the term takumi is reserved for one who has mastered his/her profession at the highest level of technical precision.

“The master does it by hand; that’s what makes him the master. That’s important to him,” Panczenko noted.

Ikeda’s work process tends to be spontaneous, as he either sketches quickly thought-out images in sketchbooks or directly inks his larger works without a sketch draft.

Manabu Ikeda's Foretoken (Detail), 2008. Pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on boards; 72 x 132 in. Collection of Sustainable Investor Co., Ltd. © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

“I use ideas that flash in my mind at the moment,” Ikeda said in an interview with Hi-Fructose Magazine. “From a distance, I look at the whole balance of work, and finally determine the image, which takes about one year after I started drawing. Recently, I try to have a whole solid image in the beginning to shorten the time.”

Ikeda’s works received much critical praise in America during Japan Society's 2011 exhibition Bye Bye Kitty!!!, which highlighted contemporary Japanese artists whose works utilized traditional styles while going against foreign preconceptions of Japanese art.

The New Yorker described Ikeda as “a visionary”, saying, “It would take you hours to explore thoroughly, and then you’d have to start over, to refresh your memory. Does this sound like a stunt? It’s an enchantment.” The New York Times praised Ikeda’s attention to detail:
… nothing tops Manabu Ikeda’s miniaturist ink landscapes and cityscapes. In "Existence" he presents the world as a giant, decomposing tree. In “History of Rise and Fall,” it becomes a shifting, clattering architectural pileup: a million-roofed samurai castle garnished with cherry trees, fragmented Buddhist sculptures and ant-size hanged human figures.
From October 10 to January 11, visitors to Japan Society Gallery can experience the largest number of Manabu Ikeda’s drawings assembled to date, presented alongside works by “ultra technologist” collective teamLab and Neo-Nihonga purveyor Hisashi Tenmyouya in Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab.

The exhibition showcases a crossover from past to present, according to Japan Society Gallery director and exhibition co-curator Miwako Tezuka. Many of Ikeda’s drawings focus on this transition – more specifically, on the shift from reliance on nature to reliance on technology.

“I agree that we benefit a lot from advanced technology," Ikeda told Hi-Fructose, "but at the same time, I feel that we are acting contrary to nature, which makes me feel endangered. Also, figuratively, accomplished shapes do not move my heart. At the end, for example, the mystery of a caterpillar’s color and shape is much more fun for me than any amazing technology.”

-- Mark Gallucci; additional reporting by Younjoo Sang

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seeds of 'Unearthly Delights': teamLab's Digital Garden

teamLab's immersive, interactive art, part of of Japan Society's' fall exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights.

TeamLab is a collective of around 300 individuals specializing in various areas such as art, design, mathematics, and computer engineering. With their combined efforts, they create works that blur the lines between art and technology.

Although they invent cutting-edge software to create their art, their roots are distinctly traditional, drawing inspiration from scenes of nature and domestic landscapes commonly found in classical Japanese paintings.

Their artistic and technological prowess can be viewed in the exhibition Ultra Subjective Space at Pace Gallery through August 15. Much of the work depicts a three-dimensional world with three-dimensional objects, but “flattened” to emulate the look of Japanese paintings.

Traditional East Asian landscape paintings depict space in layers of picture planes; one at the foreground, the other in the middle-ground, and then the last one indicating the farthest space in the background. Transitional spaces are to be then completed in one’s own (i.e. subjective) imagination. On the other hand, Western art has been using a linear perspective with one fixed point.

"Western approach to spatial representation is based on optical illusion," explains Miwako Tezuka, director of Japan Society Gallery. "Before Japanese learned the linear perspective system to create visual illusion in painting, I think they felt, rather than saw the depth by empathetically entering into the planes of foreground, middle-ground, and background of paintings.

Teamlab shares this point of view, stating in their manifesto:
We propose that people in Japan at that time may have actually seen the world as they chose to depict it in Japanese painting. People of today have a perception of space that is based on the perspective they see in photos and paintings, but is it not possible that people of old saw and were able to feel space in the art work they looked at?” teamLab wrote on their website.
In an evocative review of the Pace exhibition, VICE illustrated teamLab's achievement of capturing this:
The European standard of linear perspective is absent from these compositions, allowing viewers to place themselves anywhere inside the scene, rather than being limited to a single point of view… [The works] each capture a celebratory perspective on nature, effortlessly combined with the sleek, clean, hi-tech texture intrinsic in their medium.
The combination of design and technology also makes their work an interactive experience.

The Ever Blossoming Life series, for example, shows a cluster of flowers in a gold background and a dark blue-black background where flowers bloom, drop their petals, wither, and die with progression of time. While the flowers collectively bloom and wilt ad infinitum, they are programmed so that they display the images in real time and never duplicate their previous states. Just like real flowers, each flower bud blooming, wilting and falling cannot be repeated exactly the same again. The life of each plant, the duration of each flower is a unique image in space and time.

After their Pace Gallery show, teamLab will have their first major museum presentation in Japan Society Gallery's fall exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab. Their work is a perfect fit for the show that highlights visionaries shaping the present and future of Japanese art while harkening to the past.

The moving images that teamLab creates are extraordinary in the original sense of the word: their nature-filled landscapes not only reminisce one of the classical Japanese painting subjects of “flowering plants of four seasons” but also are truly out of this world, says Tezuka.

"They contain so much more visual and philosophical information than what our mere eyes can perceive. They invite our multi-sensory participation, and this fall, we will have that very chance to participate in strolling through a brand-new digital garden that will blossom in Japan Society Gallery."

--Younjoo Sang

Photo: teamLab (est. 2001), United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World, 2013 (detail). Interactive digital work, 8 screens; endless, 9:16; sound by Hideaki Takahashi. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Taiko Drumming: The Whole Body Pulse of Japan's Resounding 'Heartbeat'

Does Kodo have a workout video? Image via.

Learning an instrument is a physical challenge as much as a musical one, from proper finger placement on guitar, to shoulder and back strength for cello, to mastering a variety of breathing techniques needed to sound any wind instrument. After thousands of hours of rigorous practice, the sole motivator for taking on such an arduous task may be the rewarding feeling when a song finally plays to perfection.

But motivators can also be mental health, a means of meditation or a whole body workout. All three are possible with taiko, the word for Japanese drums and traditional Japanese drumming, often considered the resounding 'heartbeat' of Japanese culture.

The popularity of taiko can be seen in its many benefits. Some choose to play taiko because of their love of music or their interest in Japanese culture. The meditative aspect stems from the instruments' roots in religion, specifically Buddhism. In terms of full body workout, the physical stamina required increases depending on the size of the drums and weight of the drumsticks, as well as the degree of strength and control needed to create different sounds. This does not necessarily mean taiko players must be physically fit to learn to play (though they probably will be after a few years of playing regularly). Anyone can learn from small children to the elderly, and benefits abound for people with disabilities (taiko has been used as therapy for people with Downs Syndrome and autism, and deaf people can play by feeling the vibrations made by other players).

Originally, taiko was not the big production that it is today. According to Japanzine, a national magazine about Japan, the clay figure of a man beating a drum dated around the 6th or 7th centuries is the earliest evidence of taiko in Japan. Further evidence supports that it was originally used on the battlefield as a way to intimidate the enemy.

Over the centuries, taiko was incorporated into daily village life as a timekeeper, into imperial court music, into religious activities as the powerful sounds became associated with the gods, and  has become the centerpiece of many matsuri (Japanese festivals). It was not until post-war Jazz musician Daihachi Oguchi created the first ensemble format of taiko with multiple drums and rhythms that taiko developed into the arrangements seen today.

Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble performs in 2012. 

Taiko has spread across the globe with world renowned professional groups like Tao and Kodo, purveyors such as Kenny Endo and hundreds of esteemed amateur ensembles. Among several in New York are the New York Suwa Taiko Association, which has performed at several Japan Society events; the New York Taiko Aiko Kai, a resident group of the TC Taiko Society at Columbia University's Teachers College; and Brooklyn's only taiko group Taiko Masala, which will head up the taiko portion of Japan Society's 2014 summer high school workshop, From Taiko Drumming to J-Pop Music & Dance.

Everywhere people are inspired to play taiko with its unforgettable sound and enriching benefits. As much as an opportunity to learn an instrument, taiko is a way to experience and contribute to the heartbeat of Japan.

As the old kakegoe goes, SO-RE!

--Ana Belen Gomez Flor
The New York Suwa Taiko Association launched Japan Society's all day j-CATION festival in 2012. Photo by George Hirose.