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]