Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is Japan all doom and gloom?

Below is an AP article from MSNBC. It paints a pretty gloomy picture of Japan's future. My question, is this article just another typical gloomy Japan article based on exaggerations and oversimplifications or is this trull what Japan's present and future look like?

Japan has been overtaken by China as the world's No. 2 economy. Its flagship company, Toyota, recalled more than 10 million vehicles in an embarrassing safety crisis. Its fourth prime minister resigned in three years, and the government remains unable to jolt an economy entering its third decade of stagnation.

Image: Office workers head for a train station in Tokyo
Shizuo Kambayashi / AP
For once-confident Japan, 2010 may well mark a symbolic milestone in its slide from economic giant to what experts see as its likely destiny: a second-tier power with some standout companies but limited global influence.

For once-confident Japan, 2010 may well mark a symbolic milestone in its slide from economic giant to what experts see as its likely destiny: a second-tier power with some standout companies but limited global influence.

As Japanese drink up at year-end parties known as "bonen-kai," or "forget-the-year gatherings," this is one many will be happy to forget.

Problem is, there's little to look forward to. With a rapidly aging population, bulging national debt, political gridlock and a risk-averse culture slow to embrace change, Japan's prospects aren't promising. And a tense, high-seas spat with China has intensified fears of its neighbor as a military as well as economic threat.

A few optimists hope Japan can harness its strength in technology and its "Cool Japan" cultural appeal — from fashion and art to "anime" cartoons. The country needs to shed its reliance on manufacturing, they argue, and find new growth areas such as green energy, software engineering and health care for its elderly.

But talk to university students, and their outlook is bleak.

Many worry about finding steady jobs and whether they can support families — concerns that have contributed to Japan's low fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman. Average household income has fallen 9 percent since 1993.

Makoto Miyazaki, a 22-year-old student at prestigious Keio University in Tokyo, senses forces outside his control — and Japan's — are going to dictate his future.

"Internationally, Japan is between big countries like China and the U.S. And Korea is becoming a major competitor — that's a big threat to Japan," he said. "I feel like we have fewer choices."

It's a startling contrast with the 1980s, when Japan was flush with cash and some experts believed its economy was poised to dominate the world.

Millions have given up the goal of lifetime employment at a major corporation and become "freeters," flitting among temporary jobs with few if any benefits. As companies cut costs, temporary workers have grown to a third of the work force, up from 16 percent in the mid-1980s.

Further, the population is projected to fall from 127 million to 90 million by 2055 — 40 percent of them over the age of 65. That's going to place a heavy tax burden on workers.

Economic difficulty is a chief reason more than 30,000 Japanese have committed suicide every year for the past 12 years.

Hopes for change from the Democratic Party, which toppled the long-ruling conservatives last year, have fizzled. The Democrats lost control of the upper house of parliament in July elections, setting the stage for political gridlock.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has acknowledged Japan's declining status.

His prescription: "Open up the country." He advocates reducing trade barriers, loosening regulations and making the country a more attractive place to invest.

His Cabinet recently approved cutting the corporate tax rate by 5 percentage points to 35 percent and is weighing whether Japan should join a U.S.-led free trade zone, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would slash tariffs on everything from electronics to food.

Business leaders say doing so is vital, but farmers fear a flood of cheaper imports would ruin them. Analysts say it could be a vehicle for economic revival but also lead to job losses and social dislocation, especially in rural areas.

"Merely unleashing the forces of competition and the free market isn't going to do the trick because people who feel vulnerable will crawl back into whatever they have," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Nakano and others say sweeping changes are needed in both policy and mindset, from expanding the social safety net to overcoming a deep fear of failure that has constrained entrepreneurship and risk-taking — and Japan's economic potential.

About 77 percent of Japan's jobless aren't getting unemployment benefits, according to International Labor Organization data, in part because temporary workers don't qualify.

Shizuo Kambayashi / AP
Japanese will drink up at year-end parties known as "bonen-kai," or "forget-the-year gatherings," noting 2010 is one year many will be happy to forget.

Japan can be innovative: It is the world leader in hybrid vehicles and industrial robots. Nintendo's Wii gaming console is a hit in living rooms around the world. Entrepreneur Tadashi Yanai, Japan's richest person, built Fast Retailing Co. and its low-cost Uniqlo brand into one of Asia's biggest clothing retailers.

But Japan sometimes undermines itself by being insular. Its sophisticated mobile phone industry, for example, has failed to grow overseas because it operates on a network hardly used anywhere else — earning it the nickname "Galapagos Syndrome."

One optimist is Michael Alfant, an American who has worked in Japan for 20 years. He sees the country becoming more entrepreneurial and focusing on opportunities in service industries.

"Japan is reinventing itself," said Alfant, CEO of Fusion Systems, a startup software company, and the incoming president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. "I'm very confident Japan will get there."

Any change is likely to come gradually.

A conformist, consensus-based culture means Japan is generally slow to make changes or respond to crises — as seen in Toyota Motor Corp.'s handling of its safety woes.

"One would think there would be more of a sense of urgency here," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "At best, Japan will muddle through, meaning it will avert catastrophe, but it is hard to see anything but bleak prospects in a country that should be doing better given its enormous strengths."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tokyo residents the sleepiest people in the world

If you live in Tokyo than I know this is very familiar to you. This is an article from CNNGo.com.

public sleeping trains tokyoTwo passengers end up at the last stop on the JR Yamanote line which runs a one-hour loop around the city.

City dwellers in Tokyo get the least shuteye in the world, according to a survey from food company Ajinomoto.

It's not that Tokyoites are rising early -- citizens of Shanghai, New York, Paris, Stockholm and Tokyo all get up at an average of 6.40 a.m. It's the late-night drinking culture that's making our citizens drowsy.

public sleeping trains tokyo
A father sits beside two children sleeping on a bench in the shade at Toshimaen amusement park in Tokyo.

Shanghai advantage

As the only ones staying up after the stroke of midnight, respondents in Tokyo are hitting the pillow at 12.19 a.m. on average, compared to 10.20 p.m. in Stockholm, 10.38 p.m. in Shanghai and in New York, supposedly the city that never sleeps, people are doing just that by 11.15 p.m on average.

That means Tokyoites are sleeping an average of just five hours and 59 minutes each night, one and a half hours less than their Shanghai counterparts.

Forty-nine percent of respondents in Tokyo said they were unhappy with the situation, a sign that many still feel obliged to join late-night drinking sessions with colleagues. Only 29 percent were happy with their sleeping habits, compared to 68 percent in Shanghai.

The survey also revealed that commuting times were not to blame with Tokyo and New York posting the same results.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Japan, manga, anime: Tokyo bans sales of sexually explicit comics to minors - latimes.com

Hmmm, what took them so long?

Los Angeles Times

Tokyo bans sales of sexually explicit comics to minors

The ordinance also outlaws certain images, stirring a debate about freedom of expression.

By Kenji Hall, Los Angeles Times

December 16, 2010

Reporting from Tokyo


The titles in one corner of Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo's Shinjuku district suggest the kind of themes that manga comics fans crave: romance, feudal-era adventure, betrayal.

But above the packed bookshelves a sign reads, "Adult manga."

It's the hard-core content within this genre of comics or cartoons, depicting rape, incest and sex crimes, that lawmakers in Tokyo want to keep out of the hands of minors.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly on Wednesday approved an ordinance that makes it illegal to sell or rent sexually explicit manga and anime that "unjustifiably glorifies" violent sexual acts to anyone younger than 18. The law, which goes into effect next year, also bans images of fictional characters that appear to be underage and are engaging in sexual acts. Publishers, retailers and artists who break the rules face fines of up to about $3,500.

"It's common sense.... This is the conscience of the Japanese," Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who proposed the measure, told reporters after the vote. "Would they show that kind of stuff to their kids?"

The ordinance, which amends an existing law, applies only to the Tokyo metropolitan area, where about 13 million people live.

But opponents of the revised law said there already are regulations to protect youths and that the new rules were an attempt by politicians to rein in freedom of speech.

Some opponents of the changes say authorities could use the law to ban any book, movie or video game or block any website that they deem inappropriate. Others worry that the law might be used to crack down on sexually explicit content in theater, painting and other art forms.

"The governor and his supporters say that it's not about curbs on expression, but we think this will have a negative impact," said Yasumasa Shimizu, vice president of Kodansha, a major Tokyo-based publishing house.

Last week, 10 major Japanese publishers threatened to boycott the Tokyo International Anime Fair in March if the measure was approved. On Monday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan weighed in, pleading with both sides to keep the fair from being canceled.

On Wednesday, as the 127-seat assembly prepared to vote, about 200 people demonstrated against the new law at Hosei University in Tokyo.

Manga comics and anime films and TV shows are popular among adults and children in Japan. They run the gamut from sci-fi tales and historical classics to schoolgirl romances. The most well-known manga comics often have a second life off the page as mainstream TV dramas and films, and it's common to find characters in ads hawking products as diverse as watches and cars.

The issue involving sexually explicit manga has highlighted the predicament Japanese policymakers must wrestle with: Though manga comics and anime films rank among the top cultural exports, there has long been a darker side to the material that might tarnish the industry's image overseas.

Many critics of Tokyo's new rules acknowledge that the most violent and sexually explicit books and films should not be for children, but they also say the issue goes well beyond comics.

"Legislators should be focusing their attention on improving sex education, rather than targeting the manga and anime industry," said Meiji University professor Yukari Fujimoto, a former manga comics editor. "The worst thing that this law might do is stifle artists' creativity. Their imagination is the reason Japanese manga and anime have so many fans worldwide."

Hall is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

Monday, November 29, 2010

Two blogs of interest

Spike Japan has a new post titled Amakusa: Islands of dread. It details the sad history of Amakusa Island which is situated west of Kyushu. Spike Japan reveals the aspect of Japan's depopulation in much detail including Amakusa's rapid decline.

The second is from Ichijoji and is called The Death of Saigo. This post talks about the famous "last samurai" Saigo Takamori and the myths and legends surrounding Saigo's supposed seppuku during his famous rebellion.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shogun-ki: Samurai and Death in Battle - A Translation

Shogun-ki: Samurai and Death in Battle - A Translation: "As another translation, I've (Kitsuno from Shogun-ki) picked out a section of a book called '日本の歴史・合戦のおもしろ話' (Japanese History - Interesting Tales of Battle). This translation deals with Samurai and death in battle. Everyone likes to think that Samurai were in love with the idea of death in battle and that they had no fear of death. Japanese historian Owada Tetsuo gives a much more reasonable explanation, which I hope everyone finds enlightening. This is the first of two sections I'll be translating. Due to the vague nature of Japanese, I've added some slight exposition here and there to clarify, but otherwise it is a direct translation."

Friday, October 01, 2010

Please do it again

Like lemmings marching to their death. The salaryman in the gray suit looks very nervous with the suspicious looking punk behind him. Either that or he is showing him how to do the dance move they are all performing.

This poster would be laughed at and ignored in America. Unfortunately the idiots who ride the subway in Los Angeles pay no attention to train etiquette. People in LA start pushing to get on the train without letting passenger exit first. Morons.

Miniature Daibutsu in HDR

This is a photo of a miniature Daibutsu using the HDR feature of my Android phone. This Daibutsu statue is only 4cm tall. I like how the HDR photo appears to give Daibutsu a glowing halo.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trailer - The Last Chushingura

From Nippon Cinema:

A 2-minute trailer was released for Shigemichi Sugita‘s The Last Chushingura, a new film adaptation of Shoichiro Ikemiya’s 1994 novel which was previously made into a 2004 NHK TV drama.

The film stars Koji Yakusho and Koicho Sato as the only two survivors of the legendary raid in which 47 ronin killed a corrupt court official named Kira Yoshinaka for the honor of their executed master knowing full well they’d be forced to commit seppuku afterward. Sato’s character, Terasaka Kichiemon, is a loyal retainer who’s secretly ordered to escape the raid by his leader, Oishi Kuranosuke, in order to relay the facts of the incident for the sake of posterity. Yakusho’s character, Senoo Magozaemon, is an “unworthy samurai” who flees the night before the raid and goes into hiding, establishing himself as a coward and a pariah. The two men cross paths 16 years later, and Magozaemon finally has a chance to explain his actions.

“Saigo no Chushingura” will be released by Warner Bros. in Japan on December 18, 2010.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Japan Photos - Something is Missing

While walking around my local Otawara Tochigi-ken neighborhood I came across these two garage/storage buildings. Both of these buildings are about 5 minute walk from each other. Do you notice something missing in each photo?

Yes, both garage/storage buildings are missing the number four. The reason is the number four in Japan is an unlucky number. The number four is considered inauspicious because it is pronounced the same as the word for death (shi). Therefore, one should not make presents that consist of four pieces, etc. In some hotels and hospitals the room number four is skipped. It seems the owners of these garage/storage buildings did not want to bring bad luck on their cars or tools.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pasadena teahouse sent to Japan for restoration, then returned to America

I like to periodically post Japan related articles that I find especially interesting and this is one from the Los Angeles Times.

The Japanese tea ceremony has a long history and was also popular among some of Japan's greatest samurai warlords such as the powerful Oda Nobunaga and the great unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi of the late 16th century. The great tea practitioner from the late 16th century, Sen no Rikyu, was also an influential political confidant of Hideyoshi. But Rikyu somehow angered the great warlord, most likely some sort of political intrigue, and Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. This is interesting because seppuku was generally performed only by a samurai, which Rikyu was not. This shows the important place in society that Rikyu held.

A Pasadena teahouse, falling on hard times, will be sent to Japan for restoration, then return to grace a new garden at the Huntington Library.

By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

September 12, 2010

Japan's Grand Master of the Phoenix Cloud visited Los Angeles four decades ago and dedicated an exquisite teahouse to the public in the hopes of popularizing the sublime art of tea ceremony in the West.

Trained as a kamikaze pilot during World War II, the grand master saw tea as a way to promote peace, share Japan's cultural treasures and repair a national image battered by wartime militarism. The 400-year-old art expresses the values of harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity through the highly refined and ritualized making and serving of tea.

But the ceremony failed to catch on much beyond a small circle of Japanese Americans. The teahouse, given to the Pasadena Buddhist Church, declined in use. Termites began attacking the wood and paper structure, and the elderly couple who cared for the teahouse for decades no longer could do so.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has stepped in to rescue the teahouse as part of an ambitious $6.7-million project to restore its Japanese garden and develop an authentic tea garden. In collaboration with the grand master's Urasenke School and the Buddhist church, the Huntington hopes to use the teahouse to expose the art to a broader swath of society and develop a premier program for Asian garden arts, including the tea ceremony, flower arranging, bonsai and stone viewing.

James Folsom, the Huntington's botanical gardens director, said the ancient Japanese art is as relevant to Americans today as it was to the Zen monks and warring samurai who practiced it four centuries ago.

"When life is so hectic, when you're rushing around looking at e-mails, how do you remind yourself to stop and be human again?" Folsom said. "The tea ceremony reminds us to step out of that, to appreciate silence and tranquillity in the presence of others and to enjoy the beauty of the moment. We would hope that tea helps lead people to a change in their own lives."

The Urasenke Tankokai Los Angeles Assn. offered a farewell bowl of tea to several guests in the Pasadena teahouse. The house, designed by the grand master's brother, Sen Mitsuhiko, is a light and airy structure featuring woven bamboo ceilings, white papered shoji screens, bamboo tatami mats and the all-important alcove displaying the day's carefully selected Japanese scroll, vase and flower arrangement.

The gathering's hostess, Soen Clarkson, performed the tea ceremony's ritualized acts: First, fold a silk cloth to wipe the tea caddy and tea scoop. Place the powdered green tea in a specially selected bowl. Pour in water heated over a charcoal brazier. Whip the mixture into a froth with a bamboo whisk. Then, offer it to the guests along with Japanese sweets.

As the guests sipped tea, Robert Hori, vice president of Urasenke's Los Angeles chapter and director of advancement at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, explained his choices in selecting the various accoutrements for the occasion. The careful consideration of such items is part of the tea ceremony's spirit of hospitality as the host aims to capture the gathering's treasured and irreplaceable moment.

The boat-shaped vase pointing outward symbolized the teahouse's departure from the Pasadena church, he said. A Rose of Sharon and bush clover, both short-lived blooms, reflect the transiency of life. The scroll of Japanese calligraphy was used when the grand master dedicated the teahouse, named the Arbor of the Pure Breeze, in Pasadena in 1965.

And for the day's tea scoop, Hori selected a utensil named "gratitude."

"We're really grateful for the opportunity to give the teahouse a new life," he said. "It's the end and it's the beginning."

Tea was first taken to Japan from China by a Buddhist monk in the 9th century. But it was not until the 16th century that Sen Rikyu perfected the Way of Tea by incorporating into it Zen elements of simplicity and oneness with nature. By designing a teahouse with an entrance forcing guests to lower their heads and crawl through, the tea master also sought to eliminate social distinctions.

Fourteen generations later, Sen's direct descendent, Tantansai — the Grand Master of Purity and Serenity — served tea to American Occupation forces in Japan. That, in turn, inspired his son Hounsai to move beyond his military training and lingering disdain for Americans and dedicate his life to international harmony through tea. In 1965, he visited the United States to officially dedicate the teahouse his father had bequeathed to the church.

Sosei Matsumoto, a 90-year-old tea master lauded for her accomplishments by President Clinton and the emperor of Japan alike, was the first to teach tea ceremony in the new Pasadena teahouse. The structure, she recalled Sunday, was used for classes every week, with special tea ceremonies for New Year's and the summer Obon festival honoring ancestors.

But the Pasadena tea group failed to expand and dwindled to about seven students, said Yaeko Sakahara, also 90, who took over the classes from Matsumoto more than three decades ago. One of the major obstacles, she and others said, is the traditional requirement to sit on bamboo mats with legs folded under, a position that can turn legs numb after a few minutes. Tea ceremonies can last from 20 minutes to four hours.

Another obstacle to sustaining interest in tea is growing acculturation among younger generations of Japanese Americans, said Irene Takemori, Pasadena temple president.

"The younger generation is more interested in sports and don't have a lot of time for this cultural stuff," Takemori said. "It's really a shame, because it's such a beautiful experience to drink tea and find peace of mind."

When health issues began to preoccupy Sakahara, the teahouse's future hung in the balance.

Enter the Huntington. The renowned cultural institute had been looking for a Japanese teahouse after one of its donors, Mary B. Taylor Hunt, bequeathed a $2.6-million endowment for an authentic Japanese tea garden and related cultural programs. The Huntington's nine-acre Japanese garden, designed by founder Henry Huntington and William Hertrich, reflects a Western interpretation of Japanese aethestics but is not considered authentic, Folsom said.

After months of consideration, the Pasadena Buddhist Church decided earlier this year to donate the teahouse, clearing the way for the transfer.

The Huntington plans to close the current Japanese garden next year for several months of renovation, including restoration of its ponds and a traditional Japanese house. The new two-acre garden will be installed behind the house, along with the Pasadena teahouse. The grand reopening is expected to occur in 2012, in time for the garden's centennial anniversary, Folsom said.

This week, carpenters from Japan are scheduled to fly to Los Angeles and begin dismantling the teahouse. The pieces will be shipped to Kyoto, restored, then sent back to the Huntington.

Folsom said the Huntington, working with the region's tea schools and the Buddhist church, will seek to popularize the Japanese art, possibly using more ceremonial forms that allow practitioners to sit in chairs rather than on folded legs, among other ideas.

For the longtime guardians of the teahouse, Sunday's farewell was bittersweet.

"The teahouse has been an integral part of the temple, so it's a little sad to have it depart," Takemori said. "But it's in the best public interest and for the best use of the teahouse."


Monday, September 13, 2010

Japan Photos - A gate with no walls

Nice gate entrance to this home.

But I don't see it really providing much security.
I have seen these types of wall-less gates on other Japan blogs from around Japan. Curious as to the point of the gates with no walls. Are they unfinished projects? Did the homeowner run out of money? This particular gate is in Otawara in Tochigi and has been this way since my first visit in 2002.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Japan Photos - Japanese Bugs

I am not a fan of bugs although my boys love Japanese beetles. In my opinion, Japanese beetles and spiders are pretty nasty looking creatures. On my recent trip to Tochigi Japan I snapped a few photos from around the Otawara neighborhood.

Here are two Japanese beetles that my son collected. We let them go in the park before we returned to America.

This is an extremely nasty looking spider. It's web spanned a small road (about 7 feet or 2 meters wide). The web was just high enough for a small car to go under or if I walked in the middle of the road but had not been paying attention and walked along the side of the road I would have gotten a face full of the web below. Frightening.

This is a pretty cool looking dragonfly that let me get really close.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Japan Photos - Japanese Walls

I just returned from a one week trip to Japan. Since it was such a short trip I did not do any sightseeing to places such as Kamakura or Nikko. I enjoyed the trip nonetheless and took many walks around a small neighborhood in Otawara in Tochigi prefecture where I took a number of photos which I will post over the next few weeks. I apologize for the quality of some of the photos. I am very much a novice photographer and I took these with my Android phone.

One of the things I like about Japan are the walls that surround most Japanese homes. They come in many different styles and sizes and are made with interestingly textured stone or cinder block. Below are some photos I took of some walls in the Otawara neighborhood during the last week of August.

Below is a newer wall surrounding a relatively new house. I prefer the older heavier looking Japanese stone walls versus this more modern wall but it still looks nice and a lot better than most walls I see around Los Angeles.

Below is my favorite type of stone. I love the texture and naturalness of the stone used in this wall as well as the cap stones placed along the top.

Maybe my favorite type of Japanese walls are like the one below topped with the tile roof. Very traditional looking. There must be a name for this type of style but I don't know what it is.

I love the old wood storehouse behind this wall.

This door is maybe only about 4 feet tall (1.2 meters).

Below is a newer wall. I don't like the newer walls as much as the old heavier looking walls.

I love the small columns on top of this wall below.

The simple style of the windows on this wall below really make a difference. Beautiful.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Thirty-years after writing the script with fellow master directors Akira Kirosawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa brings the story of an unruly samurai (Koji Yakusho) to the screen. Nicknamed Dora-Heita ("Alley Cat") for his penchant for debauchery, the samurai is assigned to clean up a lawless small town. His reputation is well-known, so the local Yakuza thugs are in disbelief when the new magistrate (bugyo) gets down to business.

I just finished watching my 100th samurai flick which was one of the Zatoichi films. I'm now up to 102 samurai films after watching the first two from the Sleepy Eyes of Death series. Today I want to write about Dora Heita which I watched a few weeks ago. The film was actually planned many years ago by the famous directors Kurosawa, Kinoshita, Kobayashi and Ichikawa who formed Yonki-no-kai or The Committee of Four Knights in 1969 and wrote the script together. Only after three of them had died, Ichikawa could finally make his 74th movie out of their script. So even though the film was released in 2000 for me it really had more of a classic 60's samurai chambara film feel. What this means is that like most Kurosawa films, you won't see a 2 hour bloody samurai sword movie. There is one excellent sword fight scene but Dora Heita does not even confront the Yakuza until well into the film. The first 45 minutes of the film follow Dora Heita as he builds up his plan for taking down the powerful yakuza. The acting is very good in this film especially with Koji Yakusho as the streetwise magistrate sent in to clean up the yakuza infected town. This film coming from the mind of Akira Kurosawa does have a lot of similarity to Kurosawa's great films Yojimbo and Sanjuro. This film however is not in the same league as Kurosawa's Yojimbo flicks as it does not have the quality of a Toshiro Mifune. However, it is still a very good film as long you don't compare it too much to Yojimbo.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Apology for slight 600 years ago

Here is an interesting story I found in the Japan Times about a 600 year old apology.

Apology for slight 600 years ago

To offer apologies for an unkindly act committed by their ancestors 600 years ago, the people of Ayukawa, a village in Wakayama Prefecture, will offer mochi (dumplings of glutinous rice) to the Kamakuragu Shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, dedicated to the memory of Prince Morinaga on Aug. 19, when the 600th anniversary of the prince's death will be celebrated.

Defeated in his battle against rebels, Prince Morinaga with a few retainers was obliged to hide, and on Oct. 15, 1331, he passed through the village of Ayukawa. The prince and his party were fatigued and hungry, having eaten nothing the whole day. At the houses of the villagers they asked for some food, but they were refused because of the disturbed state of affairs at that time.

Soon after that, the villagers learned that the person to whom they refused to give mochi was Prince Morinaga. Such a discourteous act toward an Imperial Prince was something that the villagers could not think of. So to atone for their wrong, they resolved not to make and eat mochi forever. Thus for more than 600 years the village people never made mochi even on New Year's Day.

This year the villagers have finally decided to make mochi on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the prince's death — and to offer them in his memory at the Kamakuraga Shrine.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Please do it again

That's very nice of the man in the geta and massive afro offering to carry the woman's suitcase up the stairs. At least that's what I think he is going to do. Maybe that's his suitcase and he's asking her to carry it up the stairs for him because he doesn't want to trip and fall in his geta sandals.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Taboo (Gohatto)

From legendary director Nagisa Oshima comes a spellbinding samurai action-drama. In 1865, the Shinsengumi samurai corps is combing the new recruits for the next samurai warriors. Two are chosen: Tashiro Hyozo, a low-level samurai, and the dangerously handsome Kano Sozaburo. Rigid rules maintain order and unity, but the Shinsengumi finds itself wrought with rumors and jealously when Kano becomes the object of much fascination. (1 hour 40 minutes, 1999)

The famous and brutal Shinsengumi, the Shogun's last samurai police corps, responsible for a reign of terror against the bakufu's enemies, and infiltrated by homosexual samurai. Not what most people imagine when they think about the famed Shinsengumi of the 1860s but in reality homosexuality among the samurai was not all that uncommon. The Japanese name of the movie is Gohatto which roughly means taboo so with a name like that you pretty much knew what to expect with this film. Taboo is directed by Nagisa Oshima, one of the more highly regarded directors in Japan, and also stars Beat Takeshi. Beat Takeshi is excellent as usual in masterfully depicting the films meaning and the taboo of this time period.

This is really a quiet and plaintive movie, not a slashing sword fighting movie, but it does have an intense sword fight scene at the end. However, the plot of the movie really is rather minimal and essentially boils down to a lot of infatuated desire towards Kano. The difficulties and jealousies begin to emerge during the sparring sessions that highlight the sexual desires of a number of Kano's sparring partners. But maybe the film is deeper than it seems. A friend of mine from the Samurai Archives mentioned how she felt Kano's homosexuality was a smokescreen and I think I might agree. Maybe Kano's homosexuality and stunning looks are a tool he is using to gain power. Kano is no meek effeminate samurai. He is a bloodthirsty sword fighter who joined the Shinsengumi in order to have a license to kill. Kano is really using his beauty to gain power over the others in the organization. In reality, the meek and effeminate looking samurai exercises a much more subtle type of power in contrast to that of the power and authority held by Hijikata. Whether the homosexuality was a smokescreen or not, this was a decent film. Not amazing, not epic, not overwhelming, not shocking, but decent and I would recommend it.

Here is the trailer for the film.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Yes I can Use Chopsticks

There is a website called Yes I Can Use Chopsticks that is from an American who teaches English in Fukushima Japan. I often read his online journal which describes his daily adventures and the silliness of certain aspects of Japanese culture. The way he writes about is daily experiences is often hilarious and below is a perfect example. I was cracking up at how he describes below how the school staff go crazy when the bread truck arrives at school.

"A truck selling bread just pulled up and everyone went F-ing crazy to go get some bread. SOME BREAD. Is it laced with heroin? I don’t know, but everyone truly goes crazy when this bread truck pulls up. They have come probably 100 times since I have been here and I have never understood it. They pull up, the office staff announces “the bread truck is here” and people literally scramble and trip over themselves to get out to it to buy…..bread. Simply bread that can be bought at the store. The only thing I can possibly imagine is they have some special contract with us and the teachers are showing their appreciation or something, but still it’s a bread truck. Now if the truck were made of bread, oh I’d run out to see that."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Origin of Za in Japan

Did you know that trade guilds in Japan originated as early as the twelfth century or earlier. Trade guilds derived from an early form of association called a za which means a seat and probably signified a place reserved at ceremonies or a market for a group of persons having the same interest. Early za were social groups that developed into occupational groups such as dancers, musicians, and other entertainers that performed for court nobles, powerful religious institutions, or manorial lords. This custom actually has persisted into modern times such as a company of actors, the Kabuki-za.

By the fifteenth century some mercantile za were organized by market rather than just commodity for example in certain towns. However, in the bigger cities such as Kyoto the za still tended to be organized by specific commodity and were usually concentrated in a special quarter of the city. This can still be seen today in certain cities in modern Japan such as the Zaimoku-za (timber merchants) quarter of Kamakura or the famous Gin-za (silver merchants) of Tokyo.

In their earlier forms, these organizations were not independent but were subordinate to a monastery, shrine, or a manor lord for which they served. But eventually these traders began to form quasi-independent za not only for their own protection but to increase their power and their profits. With this increasing power, many za began to have a monopolistic character by preventing competitors from obtaining raw materials within a certain area. A very powerful early za were the salt dealers of the Yamato province which controlled the salt wholesalers, retailers, and pedlars of the entire province. Eventually by the fifteenth century the za made powerful enemies by abusing their privileges and were forced to give way to other forms of mercantile organization such as "free" markets and guilds established by Oda Nobunaga.

Another famous za that I am sure most of you are familiar that has survived into modern Japan is the Yaku-za. This modern za has interests in many kinds of businesses and trades.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the trade guilds and associations were transformed into more modern forms of business with the growth of the zaibatsu and keiretsu monopolies of the 20th century.

Sansom, George (1961). A History of Japan: 1334-1615.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Please Do It Again

The muscle man may be politely moving his bag so as not to bump the man behind him or he may actually be protecting his stash from theft. Looks like in the 3rd picture he is saying "look at my muscle little man. I will crush you if you touch my bag again." The guy with the book definitely looks a little terrified. Muscle head man kinda looks like a foreigner to me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love and Honor

Unhappy with his food-tasting job, samurai Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura) dreams of opening a martial arts school for boys. But when eating toxic shellfish leaves him blind, his hopes for the future are dashed. Learning his wife (Rei Dan) has been forced into sexual favors in order to secure a stipend, Shinnojo works to revamp his sword skills and seek revenge. The film is the third in a series from director Yoji Yamada (Twilight Samurai and Hidden Blade).

This film fits in nicely with Yamada's other two films in this series, Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade, both good movies. The storyline in this film is not that original but Yamada and actor Kimura do a very good job in telling the story. The ending is straight out of a Zatoichi flick but the sword fight scene is performed superbly and I think realistically, much more believable than any Zatoichi sword fight by a blind man. Gee, what a surprise, Takuya Kimura is a former member of the pop group SMAP. It seems every samurai flick and taiga drama these days includes a present or former member of SMAP. But in reality the SMAP members including Kimura actually put on pretty good performances in their samurai roles. Kimura plays his blind character convincingly. Actress Rei Dan also does a good job as the wife. Mimura's loyal assistant Tokuhei adds a bit of humor and personality to this film. Tokuhei is played by one of my favorite Japanese actors Takashi Sasano who has been in dozens of films and TV shows including Departures and Katen no Shiro.

There is no sword action in this film at all until the end of the film and even then it lasts only about a minute or two so if that is what you are looking for this film is not for you. But it is still a good sword fight scene nonetheless. If you watched Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade and enjoyed them then you will probably like this film as well. I certainly enjoyed this film as I also did Yamada's other films in this series so I give this 2006 film my recommendation. (2 hours, 2006)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The myth of of samurai cavalry

I am republishing this 2009 post because there is such a common misconception regarding medieval samurai cavalry.

This poster from the Akira Kurosawa film Kagemusha illustrates the classic view of early samurai cavalry. Great cavalry charges of thoroughbred looking horses.

But as Karl Friday in his book Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan reveals, the mounted samurai of the movies bare little resemblance to the actual mounted warriors from medieval Japan. Early medieval Japanese war-horses were actually much smaller and slower than the horses seen in classic samurai movies.

According to Friday, the mounts favored by early medieval samurai were stallions raised in eastern Japan and selected for their size and fierce temperament. They were stout, short-legged, shaggy, short-nosed beasts, tough, unruly and difficult to control.

In 1953, a mass grave at Zaimokuza near Kamakura was unearthed that is believed to contain the remains of men and horses killed during Nitta Yoshisada's attack on the city in 1333. The skeletons show the horses of the period ranged in height from 109 to 140 cm at the shoulder. Modern thoroughbreds by comparison range in height around 160 to 165 cm.

Also, these medieval horses could not sustain high speeds for long distance due to their size and the weight they were carrying, mounted samurai with full armor. Even modern racing horses can only go full out for 200 or 300 meters. Early medieval Japanese horses gave the samurai a rugged, stable, and comfortable platform from which to shoot their arrows, but it was a heavy beast not well designed for high speeds or long distance riding.

Horseman had different roles throughout the samurai era. During the Heian/Early Kamakura era they operated much like skirmishers with bows. They began to make greater use of hand-to-hand weapons like naginata and swords as time went by, ending up using primarily short yari during the sengoku. And by the late Sengoku with the advent of firearms, they did begin to function much like 'trucks'-there are many accounts where samurai were told to dismount before they reached the battlefield so as not to have their horses shot. Horses were rare and expensive, and no samurai was in a hurry to throw their horses lives and training away. (Samurai Archives)

In addition, the amount of dismounted combat in Sengoku jidai increased along with the increase with the number of guns. I think this was probably due to the fact that relatively few number of Japanese cavalry made it easier for concentrated fire of arquebus to defeat them. (Samurai Archives)

So the scenes in the movies with the cavalry charges that seem to go on forever are of course greatly embellished. But they make for an exciting movie.