Daibutsu, Kamakura

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

Friday, March 26, 2010

150th Anniversary of 1st Japanese Embassy to America

Samurai sailors from the Kanrin Maru. (Wikipedia Commons)

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the first official Japanese embassy to the United States. In 1860, the Tokugawa shogunate government sent a group of samurai to America in order to ratify treaties between the two countries. The treaties were the result of the visit by the American "Black Ships" in 1853 headed by Commodore Matthew Perry whose purpose was to "pry open" the country of Japan. Although there had been a small handful of Japanese who had visited the United States previously, this official visit attracted much attention and curiosity among the citizens of San Francisco and the nation. Thousands lined the shore in San Francisco to watch the arrival of the Kanrin Maru, the small Japanese ship manned by samurai sailors. The Kanrin Maru was piloted by Katsu Kaishu, the man who would be the mentor to Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the famous leaders of the Bakumatsu period and the restoration of the emperor.

Newspapers reported on the visit to the smallest of details and reflected on the popular view of the time at how awed these visitors would be as they encountered Western civilization and American progress. However, that outlook changed when the stately, and always polite, Japanese ambassadors occasionally encountered rowdy crowds who mobbed them to get a glimpse of the exotic Japanese. Dismayed by these unseemly popular displays, some editorials began asking just who was really more "civilized".

While the Kanrin Maru and her crew remained in San Francisco for a period of time before returning to Japan, the embassy leaders traveled to Washington to meet President Buchanan at the White House where they were treated to formal dinners. In New York, the Japanese were welcomed by a grand parade up Broadway watched by half a million people. Unfortunately the excitement of the embassy was soon washed away by the civil wars that engulfed both nations later in the 1860s.

To mark the historic event, the city if San Francisco dedicated a bronze plaque last week at Pier 9 to honor where the samurai from the Kanrin Maru came ashore on March 17, 1860. Other events will include the planting of sakura trees in Japantown and a visit by a Japanese tall ship on May 5th as well as an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum called "Japan's Early Ambassadors to San Francisco."

President Buchanan receiving the embassy in Washington. (Wikipedia Commons)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai

In this classic piece of Japanese samurai cinema, modern-day businessman Susumu (Kinnosuke Nakamura) ponders seven generations of his samurai family, their codes, traditions and history of stark violence, as he comes to terms with his own place in the lineage. Nakamura takes on multiple roles, portraying not only Susumu, but his succession of ancestors, stretching back through 350 years of Japanese feudal history.

Black and white film released in 1963

Wow, what a great and shocking movie. A true masterpiece of Japanese samurai film. A must, must see. The film begins in modern time when Susumu Iikuru visits his fiancé at the hospital after she attempted suicide. What brought his fiancé to attempt to kill herself causes Susumu to reflect on his unethical actions as a salaryman that led to this as well as reflect on the long and troubled history of his family. Susumu’s family history stretches back through seven generations of samurai who had to live by the strict code of Bushido. The movie moves through a different story for each generation and each story ends in some shocking manner, the story of Susumu's family member who must "serve" his lord being the most shocking of all (I won't give it away, you have to see it). Kinnosuke does an incredible job portraying each of the seven generations of his family. This is the first of only two Japanese films to win the Golden Bear award from the Berlin Film Festival, the second being Miyazaki's Spirited Away in 2002. In addition, Nakamura won the Japanese Best Actor award for his part in this film. What is also interesting is that when this film was released in the 60s, the concept of the Japanese salaryman devoting his life to the company like a true samurai was strong and this film was a direct criticism of that philosophy.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Toyota casts doubt on runaway Prius claim

Toyota casts doubt on runaway Prius claim - Autos- msnbc.com: "SAN DIEGO - Toyota said there were 'significant inconsistencies' between a California man's claim that his Prius sped out of control and the findings of the company's preliminary investigation.

Toyota said in a statement that the accelerator pedal was tested and found to be working normally and a backup safety system worked properly. The automaker said the front brakes showed severe wear and damage from overheating, but the rear brakes and parking brake were in good condition."

The first time this story came out I was suspicious. It just didn't sound right and with how litigation-happy American's are, it was only a matter of time that someone would try a scam Toyota. Nothing has been proven yet but the evidence regarding this particular case is pointing to the driver not being honest about what happened. And it is logical to assume that the driver was attempting to scam Toyota. If it is eventually proven that the drive was lying, he should be put in Jail. Bad publicity like this potentially could cost Toyota millions in lost revenue.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Japanese man killed by Light Saber

Kirainet, a blog I enjoy visiting often, periodically posts hilarious photos of sleeping Japanese. The two below are a couple of the funniest ones I've seen. The guy looks like he was killed in a light saber battle, possibly with Count Dooku.

Photos courtesy of Kirainet.com

Friday, March 12, 2010

Story behind the famous Tsurugaoka Hachiman tree

A very famous 1000 year old ginkgo tree at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman shrine in Kamakura fell in a recent storm. There is a very interesting story about this very old tree. The tree is famous because of an event that took place in the year 1219. In 1219, Shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo was assassinated by Minamoto Kugyô. From the stories I’ve read, apparently Kugyô hid behind this very ginkgo tree in order to assassinate Sanetomo which he succeeded in doing. Kugyo was captured and beheaded the next day. Sanetomo was the 3rd Minamoto shogun during the Kamakura bakufu and it was following his assassination that the Minamoto never again had effective power. From that point forward, the true power behind the Kamakura shoguns was held by the regents of the great Hojo clan.

I don't know if Minamoto Kugyô really did hide behind this great gingko tree but it is an amazing story from one of the great events in Japanese history so it is sad to see this tree finally meet its end here in the year 2010.

Photos are from Wikipedia Commons and are labeled for reuse.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Are you ready for the toilet of the future?

Wikipedia Commons

Are you ready for the toilet of the future? - Innovation- msnbc.com

Not Japan, but America. Japan already has the toilets of the future. This article from MSNBC talks about how futuristic toilets from Japan are starting to trickle (pun intended) into America and the impressions some American's have of these technological toilets.

From the article:
“You walk into a bathroom in Tokyo and the toilets are like the captain’s chair on the Starship Enterprise,” says Kim Terca.

Terca says she found Japan’s smart toilets both “hilarious” and somewhat perplexing, since not all toilets offer the same snazzy features — including a special deodorizing feature that she says she never figured out.

Mary, a 53-year-old business consultant from Manhattan, says the special sound effects were what threw her for a loop. “I went to see my client and had to use the bathroom and as soon as I sat down, there was this sound,” she says. “In retrospect, I realized it was a rainforest or some nature sound to give you your privacy, but at the time it sounded like applause." (MSNBC)

I had my own interesting experience with a Japanese toilet during one of my visits several years ago. While sitting on the toilet I accidentally pressed one of the buttons on the panel and I received quite a wet surprise.

Teaser for "Hisshiken Torisashi" (Hidden Blade series)

First teaser for "Hisshiken Torisashi" starring Etsushi Toyokawa - Nippon Cinema: "A teaser trailer has been added to the official website for Hideyuki Hirayama‘s Hisshiken Torisashi, the latest in a long line of film adaptations of stories by the late Shuhei Fujisawa. This particular film is based on a short story taken from Fujisawa’s “Hidden Blade” series, a compilation of stories which involve a character (not always the protagonist) mastering a secret sword technique to be unleashed on his enemies later on.

Etsushi Toyokawa stars as a skilled swordsman named Kanemi Sanzaemon who kills the mistress of a powerful daimyo for abusing her political influence within the fictional Unasaka domain. This eventually leads to a violent confrontation in which he utilizes a “bird-catching” sword fighting technique. Meanwhile, his niece Satoo (Chizuru Ikewaki)—who is not blood related—harbors a secret love for him.

“Hisshiken Torisashi” will be released by Toei in Japan on July 10, 2010."
(Nippon Cinema)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

You don't speak Japanese? Call Google

The Los Angeles Times has an article on the newest advance of the Google Translate technology.

Google has developed a phone application that can listen to speech and provide translations in a computerized voice for English, Mandarin, and Japanese. The application runs on Google phones using the Android operating system. According to the article, the Times tested the application using several speakers of Mandarin and Japanese and the opinion was that, although not perfect, the application works surprisingly well for basic phrases. The application can translate to and from a total of about 50 languages into text but currently the only languages that it recognizes spoken words are English, Mandarin, and Japanese.

It is interesting how Google's translate computer programs are getting smarter. According to the article:

Google trains its computers to translate by constantly feeding them examples of a text that occurs in two or more languages. Many official United Nations documents, for instance, are carefully translated into the languages of member countries. Looking at those "parallel" documents, Google's translation system can deduce the way many words and phrases are translated. And the more examples it gulps down, the smarter it gets.

The idea of a Star Trek-like universal translator is coming. Maybe they will even eventually include Klingonese.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Zatoichi: The Last

Apparently this will be the very last movie in the long, long, long running Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman series and will mark the end of the franchise. It stars oddly enough Shingo Katori of the Japanese pop group SMAP but I won't judge Katori until I see the film someday.

Click here to see the trailer for Zatoichi: The Last

Plot: After years of traveling, blind swordsman Ichi (Shingo Katori) decides to give up his life of bloodshed to begin a peaceful life in his hometown with his young wife, Tane (Satomi Ishihara). Ichi puts aside his cane sword and becomes a farmer, taking up temporary residence in the home of his old friend Ryuji (Takashi Sorimachi). However, their village is ruled by the cold-blooded Tendo family, who make a habit of tormenting local farmers. Knowing of Ichi’s unparalleled skill with the blade, the other farmers beg for his help in dealing with them. Needless to say, his retirement from killing is short-lived. (Nippon Cinema)

Toho will be releasing “Ichi: The Last” in Japan on May 29, 2010.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


In this classic tale of revenge, lone samurai Magobei Wakizaka (Tatsuya Nakadai) squares off against the murderous clan he turned his back on to save innocent lives. Tasked with protecting a massacre's sole survivor, Magobei must go mano a mano with the band's nefarious leader (Tetsuro Tamba) -- who happens to be his brother-in-law. This Japanese martial arts flick holds the distinction of being the first of its kind to be filmed in Panavision.

This is a great, great film. It was released in 1969 and stars maybe my favorite Japanese samurai film actor in Tatsuya Nakadai. The story goes that a financially troubled clan during the Tokugawa Shogunate schemes to steal the shogun’s gold from one of his ships passing by their remote domain. In order to cover up the loss of the gold, the clan chief orders the murder of all the locals in a small village who witnessed the theft of the gold. Magobei, who is horrified by the evil act of his clan, flees to Edo (Tokyo) to become a ronin (masterless samurai). A few years later Magobei must fight off several assassins. It was then that he learned they were sent by his clan to silence him. He also learns that his clan is plotting another theft of the shogun’s gold and that they planned to massacre more innocent peasants in order to frame them for the theft. It is then that Magobei realizes he must stop the clan’s evil leader.

Nakadai is an incredible actor. I love his demeanor and how he speaks and he has by far the best sword fight scenes of any samurai movie (the best ever being from the movie Hara-Kiri or Seppuku). And as expected, the fight scenes in this movie are awesome, especially the final duel. The visual scenes in this film were incredible. Much of it filmed in the beautiful snowy landscape alongside a rugged coastline. This is where the awesome final battle takes place. The final battle is backed up by two taiko drummers with the most awesome beat. I replayed that scene several times just to listen to the incredible drumming. This is one of my favorite Nakadai movies, behind probably the best samurai movie of all time Hara-Kiri (Seppuku) which is right behind my favorite Seven Samurai.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Tokyo train zombies had their baby

They are really recycling the train courtesy poster messages now, and combining multiple messages into one. But what caught my eye are the two zombies from the last poster now have a baby. A zombie baby? This poster really makes the Tokyo trains looks like they are full of inconsiderate jerks. Probably does not compare to all the jerks and weirdos I see on the Los Angeles subway.