Monday, March 30, 2009

Meet Mr. Yamaguchi Tsutomo...

In the news here in Japan recently is a 93-year-old man named Yamaguchi Tsutomo. As a young engineer, Mr. Yamguchi was in Hiroshima on business on August 6th when a B-29 called the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb. Wounded in the blast and with Hiroshima devastated, Mr. Yamaguchi wisely went home...

To Nagasaki, where he survived the second atomic bombing on August 9th.

The Japanese government recently certified him the only double hibakusha, or radiation survivor. While he's entitled to government benefits, he won't receive any more for his double distinction than the single bombing survivors. In some ways, he's the unluckiest man I've ever heard of, and in others, perhaps the most fortunate. No one would ever want to be involved in a single atomic blast, much less end up on the receiving end of two. And yet Mr. Yamaguchi managed to live through two unendurably horrific events, and he's been beating the odds-- cancer, the stigma attached to being hibakusha (read the novel Kuroi Ame for more on this particular phenomenon) and simple aging-- for more than sixty years.

Anyway, I think his story is amazing.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Trans-Pacific Remakes Go Both Ways...

We're all used to Hollywood taking Japanese horror flicks and remaking them with interchangeable Abercrombie & Fitch-looking casts-- but look out, Toho Cinemas! Here comes a Japanese remake of Sideways, a film about a depressed writer and his lothario actor buddy on a roadtrip to California wine country. And it's still called Sideways.

I'm a fan of the original and own it on DVD. It's a movie I pop in the player and watch whenever I'm in a mellow mood. I also read Rex Pickett's novel, which is more broadly comic. And that's about the extent of my scholarship in American wine tasting culture and middle-aged failures. Still, I'm incredibly curious as to how the remake will translate certain cultural aspects. I'm also wondering how two guys from Japan just happen to run into two Japanese women on their little wine pilgrimage. To quote Jack, "Seems pretty fishy to me..."

Well, no matter. If American filmmakers can ruin international movies, I see no reason why other countries can't wreck ours in return. Fair is fair. And who knows-- Kikuchi Rinko's in the remake's cast, so it's already worth watching!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

WBC Fever... Catch It!

Well, I didn't exactly catch it, but a lot of my students did. The World Baseball Classic was a hot topic of discussion over the last few days. I received condolences when Japan beat the US this week, but they couldn't hide the brightness in their eyes. Actually, it was kind of funny how gingerly some people broached the topic, as if they were genuinely afraid I was upset at our loss. But I took it graciously. I enjoyed my students' excitement, and the breathless discussions of favorite players this week and last, even among people who usually aren't all that interested in sports.

And of course, if the American team couldn't win, I hoped it would be Japan. And it was. I found out yesterday from my boss, but a few minutes before he came and told me the news, a student and I had watched the medal ceremony on the tiny widescreen-- with a picture clearer than on some full-sized TVs-- on his cellphone in my classroom. He didn't turn on the volume, so we couldn't tell from even the players' expressions if they'd won first or second place. Sure, they seemed happy but minus crowd reaction shots and sound it seemed a slightly subdued awards presentation. This student was so caught up in the WBC finals he even watched some of the game earlier that day...

At a funeral!

So congratulations to Japan for its second WBC championship! Japan is a nation where baseball remains a national pasttime, whereas back home it's almost an afterthought.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wow... I Don't Think People Realize How Windy Japan Is...

A Fed-Ex jet crashed while attempting to land in heavy winds at Narita Airport. The pilot and co-pilot died, which is tragic. But this isn't the first time aircraft have encountered trouble from winds here, and it just serves to emphasize how insanely breezy Japan becomes at times.

Toyohashi and Hamamatsu are the two windiest places I've ever been in my life. Toyohashi was so windy that you could almost use an umbrella as a sail while riding your bicycle on rainy days. The only problem is, the winds tend to swirl so you wouldn't be able to go in a straight line. And they'd probably pluck the umbrella out of your hand and throw it across town given the chance. I've seen old people knocked over on their bikes by the wind here in Hamamatsu, just bowled right over to land on the sidewalk in a heap, air forced right out of their lungs in a great wheezy sigh.

Older people regularly hop off their bikes and walk them downtown, because the tall buildings turn streets and sidewalks into wind tunnels.

I've had strange things blow up onto my fifth floor balcony. Right now there's a girl's floral flipflop lying out there. Who does it belong to? Where did it come from? I'd throw it away but it'll probably take off on the spring winds by itself before I get over my laziness and OCD-inspired reluctance to touch it. That's what happened to the silver tall boy Asahi beer can that appeared on my balcony last spring. It stayed out there for about two weeks, then vanished. Probably jumped to the next balcony over. People's laundry regularly takes off and lands on the sidewalk downstairs; I fix mine to my clothesline with plastic laundry pins.

Another wind-based phenomenon are the hazy days caused by sand blowing in from China. Grit high in the atmosphere washes out the sun. The day I learned of this, I'd been wind-whipped with sand right in the face on my way to work. I had to wonder if the mote in my eye came from the Gobi Desert.

In about a month, we'll have the famous Hamamatsu Matsuri. It involves flying giant kites down by the seashore. A few years ago, conditions were so bad one of the kites crashed into the crowd and injured several people. I'm sure its flying team felt pretty low after that. But it's not really surprising when you consider how careful pilots must be when approaching their landings at Japan's airports.

Wind. Empty winds, divine winds. Deadly winds of Japan.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Famous Dotonbori Col. Sanders... Found!

Many years ago, Hanshin Tigers fans, overstimulated by their team's Central League championship, tossed a Col. Sanders statue into the filthy Dotonbori River in Osaka. Yes, the Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Apparently, the Dotonbori victory splash has long been a Hanshin fan tradition, and they thought since the statue resembled the ever-popular Randy Bass, he'd like to take part in it. Twenty-five years later, and the Colonel has risen from the polluted depths.

Not as exciting as locating the Titanic or the wreck of JFK's old PT-109, but still worth a moment's reflection. Hanshin fans are pretty extreme. Late last summer, while I was in Tokyo, I got to ride a train with a group of them. Tiger masks or painted faces, pinstriped jerseys, outfits predominantly in the team colors of yellow and black. One had a battered stuffed Yomiuri Giants elephant toy on a leash. He dragged it along across the concrete, let it lie defeated and humiliated on the nasty floor of the train car.

Monday, March 9, 2009

War is a horrible thing...

What an understatement. I just read this brief, very disturbing article on Wired. I already knew about these air raids from my various history readings, but each time I rediscover them it stirs up ghosts. Evidently, approximately one million ghosts. Nagoya, which was firebombed twice, is a very short train ride from here. It's home to the Chunichi Dragons, the baseball team my Atlanta Braves just received a pitcher from, and is known for tebasaki, fried chicken wing tips, and the animated Christmas illuminations at its train station. I've been there a few times. Not as many times as I've been to Tokyo, though. My adopted hometown, Hamamatsu, was bombed flat and shelled from the sea by the U.S. Navy.

I've talked to a man whose arm still bears scars he received from the flames when he was a toddler. He was unemotional about it, not a trace of reproach or even self-pity, as he told me the story. I've visited the house and eaten the food of a woman who lived through the devastation and remembers big American G.I.'s tossing candy from a train as they passed through town. Her mother refused to let her eat it, so she placed it in a drawer and just looked at it from time to time. Later, in Tokyo, she fell in love with the English language as she heard it coming from the mouths of actors in American movies. She decided to learn it so she could understand what they were saying without having to read the subtitles, and talk to those big Americans or their children one day. I know a junior high kid who loves WWII planes and builds model kits-- the Zero, the Spitfire and the Mustang. But not the B-29, he told me.

Not far from where I lived in Georgia for many years is a cemetary and park that was once a Confederate prison camp where hundreds of Union soldiers were held, and many died of starvation. I've walked on Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. I've dreamed of visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. There's a row of zelkova trees running past the station. They're a memorial to the what the city was before the war. I can't remember how it's worded on the plaque, sorry. It's a strange feeling to be in a place where these things have happened. Strange indeed. The streets you walk down in the larger cities here may follow old patterns, but they are all recent streets, none more ancient than sixty years. For over a year, I lived a minute's stroll from a temple gate here, the temple itself having fallen victim to a battle that happened before my country was even founded.

So perhaps everywhere you go there are ghosts. I hope one day we will listen to their voices. They're asking us to stop making war.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 3rd was Hina Matsuri...

And I meant to write a post about it. A few students mentioned it, so it was on my mind. Then I got distracted by other things and forgot until this morning. So here it is, at last. Hina Matsuri is the Doll Festival, or Girl's Day and it comes on March 3rd each year. You-- if you're a girl, that is-- put out your dolls in February but you have to remove them promptly after Girl's Day ends or you'll never get married. Horrors!

Here's a lovely fantasy version of Hina Matsuri from Kurosawa Akira's film Yume ("Dreams"):

Do not cut down your peach trees, please.

Monday, March 2, 2009

"Sayonara, Prada:" Interesting Article on the Changing Times Here in Japan...

I can't take credit for finding this. My friend Renuka posted it on Facebook. It's an article from The Atlantic online about how the tastes of Japanese consumers are supposedly turning away from big ticket name brand stuff like Louis Vuitton.

EHHHHH?!!? Louis Vuitton? Abandoned by Japanese consumers? Now is the time to declare this worldwide economic crisis a depression, and to look for signs of the Apocalypse! Louis Vuitton and Japanese consumers go together like chocolate and strawberries in spring.

I love reading articles about Japan from Western publications, especially if I feel I can vet some of it from personal experience. For example, the article's writer states:

What sells today is value. When the Swedish discount fashion retailer H&M opened its first Japanese outlet in September, more than 5,000 people waited on line.

I wasn't there for the opening of the flagship H&M here, but I did visit the chain's Harajuku store and you had to wait almost ten minutes in line just to try things on. That's how crowded it was.

But I want to add something to her analysis: while value might be what sells, don't discount novelty as an attraction to the Japanese consumer. In terms of consumerism (if not other aspects of living), people here tend to love the new. This is why you frequently fall in love with a product such as a certain type of ice cream bar or laundry soap, only to find it replaced seemingly overnight by completely different varieties.

H&M has that novelty buzz right now, and it's trendy to go there while it's new and hot. That makes it a destination even for out-of-towners like my Hamamatsu friends and students who clued me into its existence last fall. It'd be educative to correlate its sales with a loss in sales by other clothing chains, especially the Louis Vuittons and Pradas. Then we'd know for sure if it's novelty or value that drives this phenomenon. Or, more likely, heapin' helpin's of both.

The article is illustrated by a gorgeous photo of a trio of "Japanese consumers." They appear to be members of the decora fashion subculture, walking down Takeshita-dori in Harajuku. If so, the photographer was pretty lucky. I've been there many times looking for decora and mostly I run into hip hoppers, gosurori and cosplayers... and a lot of foreign tourists looking for decora.

However, images like this give one a skewed perspective of Japan. Those three girls are a rarity unless you're in a youth-oriented area on a particularly popular day.

What you sometimes may not realize is the way Western coverage of all the "freaky" aspects of Japanese pop culture emphasize small subcultures versus the vast numbers of normal, workaday people you're more apt to meet. For a more accurate view of the "Japanese consumer" this article is really about, look to the people behind the trio, the people in normal, boring outfits that are pretty much the same as you'd see back home, wherever home may be. The girls in the photo make for a dramatic image, but for the most part, they're not representative of the people actually quoted in the article. This is another example of how we tend to visually reinforce the stereotype of the wild-n-wacky world o' Japan.

Actually, from my perspective, I don't find these girls even all that strange. I think they're cool. But for every photo you see like that (even the ones in this blog from time to time), for every jokey article on the Onion about "weirdo" Japanese porn or cutesy, amusing stories about ridiculous Japanese inventions, there are about a million or more people who just go to work and come home and watch TV. Most of the people I've met aren't so very different from people back home, with some cultural allowances. And I've met thousands.

I love the unusual stuff because I'm not exactly a normal person, but I have to look actively for it to find it; then again, I live in a relatively small, ordinary city, not Tokyo or Osaka. I specifically spend so much time in Tokyo because I want to see these things myself. I'm into this stuff, Pop Japan. You could probably wrap yourself in the subcultures-- the cosplayers, the neo-punks, the visual-kei fanatics, the otaku-- if you're in the right place and make some connections. That would be your Japan, a small, personalized version of the greater mass of the truly banal.

If you come here expecting immediately to be overwhelmed in a William Gibson-style sensory overload by cutting edge strangeness that's right in your face, prepare to go on safari or be disappointed at the simple realities of day-to-day life here in Japan. I mean, I've even been in Harajuku on the wrong day and nothing was shaking!

Ask various people about their weekends, and you're apt to get the answer, "I was working," not "I piloted my giant gynoid sailor-style robot battlesuit in desperate combat against Mothra, then shopped 'til I dropped in Ichi-maru-kyu."

You know what? I often wonder why we Westerners tend to focus on "Strange Japan." What is it about Japan, specifically, that allows us to cultivate this funhouse mirror image of it? What we generally see on pop culture websites, in magazines and on TV shows is a caricature of Japan. A grotesque exaggeration at times.

Still, when you do find girls like these loose in the wild, or some similar fashion tribe member, it's a mind-blowing experience. Like that photo.