Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October is Spookey Month: What our English Clubs taught me this week!

Yeah, I apologize for how slack this year's "October is Spookey Month" has been.  I'm usually very enthusiastic about sharing that ol' Halloween feeling with you from over here in Japan.  But this year marriage and work and my comic book blog took away a lot of my energy for exploring the strange and supernatural here, so I didn't learn as much this year.  Spookey, the band, hasn't toured or released any new music or videos in a while, and I used up the "A" material already.  So not much to tell you this Spookey Month.

But we did give our English Clubs this week a bit of a Halloween focus.  I really wanted to show them It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which we have at home on Blu-Ray, but we don't have access to a player.  Instead, we used a story about a ghost tour in Matsue:  Matsue's ghost tour still popular | The Japan Times to learn some vocabulary and have some fun talking about ghosts and monsters.  It went over very well and the students shared some insights that really impressed me.

Just about everyone nominated Sadako from Ringu as the most famous of Japanese ghosts.  When I asked this of my Tuesday and Wednesday groups, both immediately came up with her name.  The most liked seemed to be Kitaro from Hakaba no Kitaro (GeGeGe no Kitaro), a very popular choice with my Wednesday guys, who cited his helpfulness as their reason.  Hanako-san from the toilet got a mention from one student, so we'll place her a distant third in the ghost fame-popularity sweepstakes.

When we talked about kuchisake-onna, two students could tell me in English her traditional question of, "Am I beautiful/pretty?" but only one out of both clubs could guess the best reply, "You're so-so."  We had to make sure everyone knew what to say before they left because it was quite dark both nights.  I don't want to be responsible for any of my students coming to grief at kuchisake-onna's hands.  We talked a little about rokurokubi (one student brought them up and another illustrated the concept on the chalkboard, which was pretty brave of him considering how his first attempt at drawing a ghost ended up transformed into a dripping ice cream cone by one of his friends).  No one knew about Teke Teke, but when we finally got around to talking about her, they were almost all disgusted by the idea.  So I'm guessing that's either a more regional urban legend, or none of our Tuesday or Wednesday students have seen the horror movies based on the story, or have spent as much time thinking about this stuff as I have.

Out of eight students, five said they don't believe in ghosts and three said they do, but they were unanimous in the belief that graveyards are scary places.  None of them felt particularly enthused about visiting a temple at night, even in a group armed with flashlights.  I'm not sure if this is because the idea bores them (some) or creeps them out (the others).  As to why we're sometimes afraid of even familiar surroundings in the dark, most agreed it's because of the unknown.  We just don't know what might be lurking around even in our own houses when the lights are out.  Two students cited instinct, as in "People have an instinctual fear of the dark."  One student mentioned the safety issue-- you simply can't see what's around you, so you might trip over something and injure yourself.  Practical.

I asked why Sadako and most Japanese ghosts wear white.  One student said this is because dead people wear white at their funerals.

And they all agreed there aren't any decent commercial haunted houses in Shizuoka prefecture.  I guess that's a matter of taste, but since they're more the target audience than I am, I'm going to defer to their opinion.

Finally, when writing about ghosts, one student revealed he's more interested in UFOs.  I think we should do a club activity based on that sometime in the near future.

So, to make up the general crappiness of my own Halloween blog celebration, here's a link to a 2006 blog entry by someone else about a supposedly-cursed Kleenex commercial from the 1980s!  I don't know who Moroha is, but this is truly some cool stuff!  I just wish I'd known about it sooner, because it would have been interesting to see if our English Clubs knew anything about it.  Nice job, Moroha, and thanks for posting that!

Monday, October 28, 2013

October is Spookey Month: A frightful day out in Kawasaki | The Japan Times

A frightful day out in Kawasaki | The Japan Times

This event was so cool even an idiot like me has heard of some of its DJs.  Too bad we missed it. Actually, considering the weather last weekend, I'd be surprised if this parade happened this year.  I hope it did.

Your day-to-day life here in Japan can be pretty boring.  The Internet phenomenon of "Meanwhile, in Japan..." with some outrageous photo that purports to show that Japan is some kind of hallucinatory maelstrom of the strange and unusual is only so much bullshit.  Exaggeration, cherry-picking, confirmation bias and all that.  Kyary Pamyu Pamyu isn't popping through everyone's windows at night with her back-up dancers, there are no nationwide lotteries for students in junior high classes to kill each other off and most kids are too exhausted from school, club activities and cram schools to do much giant robot piloting or sword-fighting against demons from another universe.  Trust me, most of the time you're not missing a whole lot.

But when things do happen here, you find that in Japan the fun is unlike what you'll find anywhere else.  The live shows I've been to here have been by and large better than the ones I went to back home (although we tore it up on the dance floor every New Year's Eve in Athens, Georgia, and I miss that a lot every December).  And there are these Halloween parades that, if these photos are to be trusted, look like a pure delight.  So if you have a chance to take part in one of these events, you really should.  There's Halloween done in your home country's style, and then there's Japanese Halloween, which must be the coolest of the Halloweens.

The rest of the time it's work and dinner with family and watching TV and going to the supermarket.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

October is Spookey Month: Some neat Japanese beliefs: You may find mei mystifying | The Japan Times

You may find mei mystifying | The Japan Times

This is a timely Halloween-related article by Mark Schreiber in that it covers the language of some Japanese beliefs, or superstitions.  I tend to favor the former term because of a folklore class I took years ago where my instructor taught the word "superstition" is a bit loaded.  Or has negative connotations.  I can't remember which aspect she stressed the most, but the point she made while discussing nomenclature-- that as a folklorist, your job is not to judge belief but simply to catalog it and research to understand its origins and meanings-- has stuck with me.  Schreiber's linguistic explanation of the Japanese word meishin just makes me long for that classroom again.  I'd love to discuss some of Schreiber's examples with that professor. She was very cool and open to turning the class into a forum for sharing because she absolutely loved what she was doing.

She made us read some fascinating books, too, all of which I kept after the semester instead of selling them back for beer money the way I did with almost every other required text.

My starting point for studying folklore was my lifelong fascination with "friend of a friend" tales.  You know, urban legends.  My friends and I grew up absolutely believing in Halloween apples with razor blades in them and hippie babysitters cooking infants in the oven.  Sometimes I think I really screwed up my life by not pursuing this interest on a professional level, rather than as just a hobby.  I'm not saying I'd have contributed much to the field, but I would have at least satisfied my curiosity and gotten paid to do so.

My favorite Japanese urban legend is Hanako and her haunted toilet, but just about any belief interests me.  Number-related ones.  Good luck finding an examination room labeled #4 at a Japanese clinic.  But other numbers have significance, too, and whenever I meet a new one, I try to find out as much as I can about it.

For example, just yesterday my wife and I were discussing the lousy weather and how it had her down.  She's working her butt off at three jobs and she's just plain tired.  Some of this she ascribed to this being her unlucky 33rd year.  The year you turn 33 is one of those ill-omened years.  Why is your 33rd year considered unlucky?  Is it any 365-day period before and after the birthday itself, or is it only the year in which you actually turn 33?

I'm disappointed we didn't have a chance to go into all that because we had other, more pressing things to discuss, but this belief is ingrained enough in her family her mom asked her to delay our wedding for one year to avoid the 33rd year misfortune.  That was news to me.  I knew, though, we chose our anniversary date to avoid inauspicious ones, which you can read about more in Schreiber's article.

In the meantime, make sure you have a full tank of gas if you and your partner park out at Lover's Lane, and if you have a Doberman as your animal companion, check its mouth in case of choking.  If you're in Japan, you should probably just stay out of school restrooms altogether.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: Japanese ghosts!

Halloween is the time for ghost stories, right? Well, in Japan, I believe that time is actually late summer, around the O-Bon holidays. But for our purposes, October is prime ghost time. I'm no expert on Japan or Japanese culture by any means, but I have watched a lot of Japanese horror stories on TV, enough to know Japanese horror is pretty different from what we're used to in North America and possibly Europe. Japanese ghost lore differs from what I grew up with as well. How?

Well, read this article and you'll know as much about it as I do.  When I read it, my main concern was in identifying what category Sadako of Ringu and Kayako of Ju-on fame fall into.  I've come to the conclusion they're both of the onryo, female ghosts who were abused in life.

There are two things about Japanese ghosts that really disturb me.  One is their behavior is often completely bizarre, and the other is they often turn up uninvited to your house. 

As we see in the Ringu and Ju-on films, onryo tend to crawl along the ground, but in other horror shorts, they perform extremely strange movements or inexplicable rituals before they strike.  In one short film I've watched several times, a group of ghosts in a Japanese inn loudly eat uncooked rice and swing their long, black Sadako-like hair to and fro before they do whatever it is they do to the protagonist, a high school girl unfortunate enough to wake up among her sleeping classmates to witness this bizarre spectacle.  When you sleep alone on a futon right after watching this, you're bound to have some crazy dreams of your own.  Stories like these seem to operate more on the logic of dreams than that of the waking world.  Even if that old stand-by revenge is the ghost's ultimate motive, the specific event emphasize the alien, even arbitrary, behavior of ghosts.  After all, as supernatural beings they exist outside life as we know it, so why should they be bound by familiar social mores or ?events set in motion, proceed along paths that are entirely strange to me when I'm awake and rational, but feel very familiar in times I've woken in the middle of the night from some frightening dream.

And unlike poltergeists or other Western-style ghosts, confined to a specific place such as a haunted house or a graveyard, a few Japanese ghosts have a tendency to roam around freely, and even show up uninvited to your house or apartment.  There's another short where a ghost keeps ringing the doorbell at a modern, well-lit apartment before letting herself in.  Other Japanese ghost tales are geographical in nature (Hanako in the toilet, the haunted inn the main character in Banana Yoshimoto's Hard-Boiled visits, the Miyazaki house in Ju-on just to name two), but you can never be sure the ghosts are going to stay where they belong.  So after experiencing this kind of horror, which appears to violate the rules we ex-pats have learned growing up, you can't comfort yourself with the old "If you hadn't visited the hotel/house/abandoned mental hospital, you'd have been just fine" story logic found in Western horror.

That's why if you're tired of slashers and "found footage" poltergeist flicks, you should spend some time on YouTube watching Japanese horror shorts, which you can find in the dozens.  The original Ju-on short about two girls meeting disaster while feeding rabbits at their school is probably still available there.  It's exactly what I'm talking about-- frightening because of its mix of the banal and the strange.

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: a video by the band that inspired my annual Halloween holiday tradition

This band is from right here in Hamamatsu.  They seem to be on the inactive list of late, but here's hoping they'll re-emerge soon with some new music.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: Does Halloween exist in Japan?

"Does Halloween exist in Japan?" or "Do people in Japan celebrate Halloween?"  People ask me variations on this question occasionally.  And by "people," I mean friends and relatives back home.  I'm not expert; I just live here.  The answer is, "Yes."

My first year living here, the local Toys-R-Us put a photo display in their front window of kids in Halloween costumes.  They also sold plastic or foam pumpkins and costumes for kids and adults.  The following fall, the teachers and some students of the conversation school where I worked had a Halloween costume party at a restaurant.  Later, I learned from some newspaper articles of police worries about costumed trouble-makers in Tokyo, but I don't think these people caused much mayhem that year. 

The next place I work always put a plastic jack-o-lantern out filled with cookies and candy on Halloween, and I passed out candy in my kid and adult classes.  If the students in a particular lesson had a high enough English level, we'd engage in a little season-appropriate discussion, usually about Halloween traditions and what costumes they'd wear if they went trick-or-treating.  One college student on her way to a semester in Canada really hoped she'd get to attend a Halloween party.

Another conversation school I briefly worked after that holds an annual Halloween party for its kid students and the instructors are all required to attend and wear costumes as well as supervise fun events.  I don't have any objections to that kind of thing although I changed jobs months before having to take part.  I think this is pretty common for conversation schools that like to include some exposure to foreign culture along with language studies.  A friend and his wife run their own school here and I think they either allow or encourage the kids to wear costumes on October 31st. 

Last year, a few students at the school where I currently work begged us to introduce a Halloween theme to our lessons the last week of the month, but it was already too late for us to do anything.  I did give out candy in our English Club, though, and we discussed the best way to kill various monsters. 

This year, there's apparently an event called "Sexy Halloween" in Nagoya.  And I've heard Tokyo Disneyland, which is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, has Halloween decorations.  I'm going to go ahead and assume Universal Studios Japan is doing the same thing, too.

Supermarkets have Halloween candy available, too.  Some even have special displays.  Seiyu, which recently sold Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, also sells costumes and decorations.  And, of course, Freshness Burger and Baskin-Robbins decorate.  Well, Freshness Burger did as recently as four years ago-- fake cobwebs and colorful jack-o-lantern posters.  Baskin-Robbins sells Halloween ice cream flavors, which we've already talked about.

So it seems Halloween is making inroads.  And why not?  I don't think I'm telling you anything too controversial when I declare Japan the top cosplay country in the world.  Haunted house attractions like the one that used to be in the basement of Zaza City here in Hamamatsu have a perennial appeal, and most of the kids I've taught know who Jason is and all about his hockey mask.  I've never seen any trick-or-treating here, though.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fourth Annual October is Spookey Month: Baskin-Robbins' Halloween flavors hit Japan again!

I grew up eating "ice milk," which is the pre-1980s name for what we now call low-fat ice cream.  That's why any trip to my hometown's Baskin-Robbins was a major treat.  Fatty ice cream is more delicious than any other kind.

Hamamatsu has at least 4 Baskin-Robbins stores, or, as they're known here in Japan, just "Thirty-One."  One not far from my old apartment in Sanaru-dai, one each in the two major malls in the suburbs and a central location right downtown in Zaza City, where it is now officially Halloween.

I can't read very many Japanese characters, so I'm not sure what those flavors are, but they're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky.  They're all together ooky.  An ice cream Halloween!

Melt-Banana: Being 'stupid' isn't so bad when it comes to touring | The Japan Times

Melt-Banana: Being 'stupid' isn't so bad when it comes to touring | The Japan Times

This is a fantastic interview with Melt-Banana.  As a veteran of playing shows for no people myself, it's fun to read about their early days with four people up front, or playing mostly for the venue's owner and the other bands on the bill.  They've been hardcore tour monsters for so long, I imagine they have thousands of anecdotes stored up about shows large and small.  With their newest album, "Fetch," now available and another North American tour in the offing, it's time to take another look at one of my favorite bands courtesy Yako, Agata and interviewer Ian Martin.

Their dedication, motivations and laser focus come across quite well in this chat.  The 3/11 earthquake/tsunami rattled them, just as it did everyone, but here they come again.  I'm going to miss Rika bouncing away in front of her amp (this interview is the first I've read that actively engages her absence at any length), but we've all come this far together and there's no point in backing out now, with all this challenging new music on the way.  I'm one of those fans in favor of bands evolving their sound and trying new things, and from what I've heard so far, "Fetch" is something special.

Oh, and their basic niceness.  When you feel like you have to play to those four people because they came out specifically to see you, that's nice.  I've seen this in action firsthand in my few, brief interactions with them at shows, although I'm way too shy to ask for a photo or any of that jazz.  Just seeing Yako talk to a couple of late-arriving fans and put them on the list so they could get into a sold-out show even though the entire thing grew out of a misunderstanding with the door guy remains a highlight and all I did was stand nearby and watch as it happened.  They also take the time to "like" even my lame comments on their Facebook feed. 

They are nice.

Usually I spend October blogging about Japanese monsters and ghosts, but this year October features two holidays.  One is the "Fetch" release date-- my copy should be heading my way as I type-- and the other is our more traditional, end-of-the-month horror fest.  We'll be dealing with "Fetch" as soon as it gets here and then we'll visit some haunted houses or invite ghosts into our apartment for a little talk.