The Eternal Outsider :Ten Years Black in Japan–a book review

by Kaori Shoji

Trevor David Houchen was an expat in Nagoya for about 8 years before getting divorced from his Japanese wife. He tried to get joint custody of his two young children but was defeated in court and went the way of other divorced dads in Japan i.e., a six-hour long, unsupervised meeting once a month. After some mental health issues and a string of failed relationships, Houchen decided that he was through with Japan and vice versa. He boarded a plane back to the US and in LA, started writing what would become “The Eternal Outsider – Ten Years Black in Japan,” and remarried another Japanese woman. (Editor’s note: The book bears some similarity to Black Passenger, Yellow Cabs, previously reviewed here).

Houchen and his wife now live in Atlanta. His book – a hefty 508 page volume packed with explosive sex scenes and lengthy, soul seaching monologue, came out this month via a self-publishing company in New York. Houchen hopes the book will provide a passage back to Japan that will lead to a reunion with his kids. He hasn’t seen or heard from them since leaving Nagoya nearly five years ago.

Houchen’s story is by no means unique – an interracial marriage gone sour followed by an exit out of the archipelago is a tale oft-told by foreign men. Ditto the separation from the children which has become a huge problem in the past 5 or so years, despite the Hague Convention. Barring extreme and/or extenuating circumstances, Japanese courts favor Japanese mothers when it comes to child custody rights. And foreign-born parents are almost always banned from taking their kids out of the country.

Houchen’s plight is sad but “The Eternal Outsider” isn’t out to invite reader sympathy, not least from the presumed target audience of American males interested in Japan. Many will pick up the book, just from the photo of the Japanese-looking young woman wearing that classic Japanese expression which can be both a come-on and a signal of distress. Once they dip into the pages though, resentment may come bubbling up like coffee in an old-fashioned percolator. Houchen is black American, and through the book he inducts the reader into a whole other world of foreigner male entitlement that exists in East Asia. For many Japanese (and other East Asian) women, dating a white man equals romance and prestige. But dating an African American – now that brings some SERIOUS cache. Among other things, it broadcasts that the woman is earthy, sassy and adventurous enough to try dreadlocks. It also means she rocks – mainly in the sack which is the most important place to rock anyway. A friend of mine who once dated Kevin-from-Bushwick gleefully declared: “I feel like my butt is now 10 centimeters higher than it used to be!” To get that effect the rest of us would have to spend 100 hours in a Cross fit class.

Which is part of the reason why Houchen was able to experience what he describes in the book – never saying no to a bevy of Nagoya beauties who literally break his door down in order to share his bed. Sometimes, he has to do the work and actually ASK a woman out, but hey, why bother when the answer is ‘hai (yes)’ every single time? Most of them have the good grace to proffer their bodies and ask nothing in return. Many of them pay for his meals and clothes or in one case, gifts him an electric piano. One lover whom he refers to as ‘H,’ plonks down her own cash to support his magazine and music business and picks up the check for everything else.

Houchen’s success rate is phenomenal and you almost imagine him grinning with nostalgia for those golden days or shaking his head in pity at the sorry state of dating in his own USA. Guys not getting any? Guys sending hopeful dick pics to Tinder dates? Seriously, Dudes, just hop on a plane to Japan!

The other part is that Houchen – for all his self-absorbed, sexual predator asshole-ness, is actually a stand-up kinda guy with a real love for this country. He’s nice to his numerous girlfriends, nice to his ex-wife, obviously loves his kids and even tries to get along with his in-laws. This is Nagoya we’re talking about, a region famed for its ultra-conservative attitude towards dating and relationships. Nagoya parents are known for laying down the law when it comes to their children’s marriages and will meddle in everything from baby names to the color of the bath mat in a newlywed’s home. Most of them are NOT thrilled by the idea that their precious offspring could be involved with a foreigner. The fact that Houchen was able to swing a marriage at all is a miracle but as he writes in the book, “No, I’m not Japanese. But I tried. So hard….I tried my best to be invisible, to compact myself into a smaller, paler, less amped and less woke version of myself.”

That worked for awhile until it didn’t. “International Marriages,’ as they’re called in Japan, is still frowned upon by many in the older generation and according to “The Eternal Outsider,” Houchen’s in-laws looked upon him as a sort of disease to which their vulnerable daughter fell victim. There’s a hilarious account of how one day, his mom-in-law showed up at Berlitz, where Houchen was in the middle of teaching, and demanded to see him. Houchen had to excuse himself from class to go out and placate an older Japanese woman who suspected  that he was unemployed and came to check if he was lying. The incident rattled Houchen and he couldn’t recover enough to keep teaching the student. Berlitz ended up firing him.

“The Eternal Outsider” is an engrossing read but speaking as a Japanese woman, many of the pages was torture to get through. Somehow, it reminded me of a news story that was floating around in the mid 1990s, about how easily Japanese women capitulated to foreign men. It goes like this: Six Japanese college students – all young women, went on a holiday trip to Rome. In a restaurant, they were picked up by a local man who invited them all back to his apartment. They went, and he proceeded to have his way with them – all at once, and all on his own. These women weren’t tied up. They simply lay there on their backs while the man whizzed his way from one to another, all through the night. How’s that for stamina?  Houchen talks about how humiliating the divorce was for him, but hello – there’s a sizable amount of humiliation on this end too, except no one wants to talk about it. Houchen’s book certainly doesn’t.

Speaking of humiliation, Houchen fell apart when he discovered that his ex-wife had installed a Japanese man in the apartment they had shared and who was “a good five inches shorter” than Houchen. She had her parents, their kids and this new man who was already being referred to as “Papa.” He describes her united front as “a team” whose very existence drained all joy out of his life in Japan. In the meantime, he never stopped sleeping with any woman who happened to drop in, including a former student whom he used to teach at a local junior high school.

On the one hand, this stuff could be fodder for a hit series on Netflix. On the other hand, you could shrug and say “shouganai (it can’t be helped)” – he got what was coming to him.

Still, I’m uncomfortable about leaving it like that. The book reveals in a deeply observant way how ultimately, Japan and Japanese women refused to be messed around with, particularly by a foreigner. And in the end, Houchen’s wife and copious lovers all vanish like smoke from a pack of Seven Stars: Houchen’s preferred cigarette brand in the land of the rising sun. Sure, he had the time of his life but it was just that – a time. And now it’s gone.

Why the Japanese Media Would Rather Not Talk About Brett Kavanaugh

By Kaori Shoji

The Japanese media has been eerily calm about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, or if you want the truth, ‘downright reticent’ is more like it. Kavanaugh’s confirmation as Supreme Court justice was covered by major news outlets but otherwise, mainstream media seems more interested in Tokyo’s biggest fishmarket moving from Tsukiji to Toyosu.

“I’m really not interested in American politics,” said 28-year old Ayumi who works for Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s four major newspapers. “Since Trump became President, I’ve kind of lost faith in the US. I still love American music and culture but the politics just seems crazy over there.” Before the confirmation, Asahi carried a few articles on the Kavanaugh hearings, but nothing beyond a short description of what was happening. No in-depth analysis or outraged editorials, just brief, straightforward reporting. “You can’t really blame the Japanese media for avoiding the Kavanaugh case,” said an Asahi journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s not our battle. Personally though, I think that Dr. Blasey Ford was courageous in coming out like that. I can’t imagine a Japanese woman ever doing the same thing, at least not at that age.”

The journalist was inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately) voicing the opinion of Japanese society in general–that Japanese women of a certain age will rarely if ever, go public about a personal grievance that happened decades ago. A couple of years maybe, and if the woman were under 35. Otherwise, it would be like stumbling upon a blue rose in the desert.

His words remind me of another interview I did when the #MeToo movement was in full swing here, with a woman in her 40s. She had confessed to her husband about a sexual harassment incident that happened when she was 28, and when she tried to say how hurtful it was and ask what steps she could take now to lessen the damage, her husband scoffed. “He said no one was willing to listen to an old woman. He told me not to make waves, and that I shouldn’t embarrass our family.” She said this with a forced, self-deprecating grin but five minutes later she was in tears. Enraging, yes, but I was well aware of how typical the husband’s reaction was. Don’t make waves. Don’t embarrass the family. You’re too old. Don’t come to me with this, I’m tired.

The Japanese media traditionally sucks when it comes to covering issues related to women and sex –primarily because newsrooms have always been dominated by over-worked men too tired to deal with their womenfolk, from their mothers to girlfriends, daughters and wives. “Maybe it would be different if there were more women editors,” said the aforementioned journalist.

No, that’s not really it. It’s more an issue of empathy and the willingness to understand. It would also help if this society were not so youth-obsessed, especially when it comes to women trying to voice their opinions. An American (female) photographer once said to me that no man in her agency ever voluntarily made conversation with an older woman unless she was a foreigner. “So I guess I should be grateful for being 40 and getting attention, but I’m not,” she said derisively.

If the Japanese media is reluctant to discuss Kavanaugh, SNS show that the Japanese public is interested. Right after the confirmation, a large number of tweets expressed fear over America’s swing to the ultra-right, and what this may mean for Japan. “Abe will be executed,” was a familiar comment. But there is almost no mention of Dr. Ford and her ordeal and the ones that touch upon Kavanaugh’s accuser are far from positive. “I guess she went out on a limb for nothing,” said one anonymous tweet. “And then she was shot down like a dog.” Another said, “How can a woman of that age accuse a guy of something that happened so long ago and expect to be heard? She’s probably telling the truth, but at her age she should have known it wouldn’t work.”

At this point, such words feel like a slap in the face, and it’s hard not to feel the pain from old wounds that tend to flare up in bad weather. There are millions of women on the archipelago who have been assaulted, groped, raped, harassed and discriminated against. There are probably thousands if not more, of Kavanaugh equivalents in positions of power. As in the US, the elite boys club network in Japan is seemingly invincible.

There seems to be no antidote to the sorrow and injustice, apart from installing women-only train cars and hotel floors. Because harassment is so rampant here, gender segregation has become a luxury. I was in a hotel in Osaka where the male receptionist presented me with a key to the women-only lounge on the women-only floor, saying, “there are absolutely no men in the area so you can feel completely safe and relaxed.” Wow, um, thanks.

Still. We DO live in a world where it’s possible for an older woman to speak up about a traumatic episode that happened in her teens, and get the world to listen. There’s grounds for hope in that, even in Japan. If nothing else, the Kavanaugh hearings have gotten women talking and sharing about their own experiences of harassment and assault in this rigidly patriarchal society. Not in the scope and scale that’s happening in the US, of course. But a small, precious flame is flickering in the wind.

We’re Stuck With ‘The Last Samurai’ While Everyone Else Gets Crazy Rich

by Kaori Shoji

In high school, the girls around me had one wish–to have a different nationality, preferably American, and to trash our drab school uniforms for the outfits in “Beverly Hills 90210.” Being Japanese was just no fun, though it did seem better than hailing from other Asian countries. After all, this was the 1980s and the Japanese economy was gearing up to enter the bubble era. The Equal Employment Law for women kicked in. Chiaki Mukai was training to be Japan’s first woman astronaut. Takako Doi was rumored to become the future Prime Minister. Things were happening here, albeit minus the fun, sophistication and glamour we so coveted.

Little did we know that one day, Singapore and China would trump (pun intended) the US in many things regarding money, or that Asian women would come to rank among the richest in the world. These women would book first class flights on the five-starred Singapore Airlines to chill in the gaze of the Mer-Lion, and immerse themselves in gossip, shopping and spas with unlimited supplies of yuzu-scented sheet masks.

No yakuza, geisha, or Matt Damon here.

For that’s what the ladies in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” do. On the occasions that they haul themselves off the mani-pedi bed or tear themselves away from the mahjong table, they reach for their phones to tap a few keys and murmur a few instructions, to put extra padding on their already bursting bank accounts. After that, they’re off to dinner parties where a billion orchid petals pave the paths and splendid fireworks explode in the background. Who do these people think they are, clones of Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby”?

Speaking of which, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the kind of insular, extravagant love story that would have made Scott Fitzgerald weep with envy. Director Jon M. Chu, who hails from Palo Alto and attended USC, has been working in films and TV since 2002 and this time, he literally hit the jackpot. Somehow the man knew that the world needed the sight of well-heeled Asians with perfect teeth, flinging their cash around at the same time they’re being swooningly romantic.

Chu dares to tread where no Hollywood movie about Asia ever has. There is no poverty or war. No samurai conflict. No appearance of Matt Damon (The Great Wall)  or any white saviors to save the day. No immigration issues.  Most importantly, there are no mothers crying about the sacrifices they made, to give their children a bright future in America. The mother in “Crazy Rich…” (played by a gorgeously frosty Michelle Yeoh) is the type who, when running up against a racist manager at a London hotel, calmly takes out her phone and makes arrangements to buy the hotel then and there. Minutes later she strides away, leaving the manager to get down on his knees and scrub the mud off the carpet from her son’s shoes.

When Hollywood does Asia, it goes for the jugular, like “Joy Luck Club” and “Sayuri” and “The Last Samurai.” Hollywood executives hear the word ‘Asians’ and immediately conjure an image of sweating maidens in rice paddies, or yakuza with swords in Shinjuku, or maidens and yakuza hooking up in Shinjuku, or all of the above. But in “Crazy Rich..,” Asians get to do what white people in movies have been doing for centuries. It’s about time.

In the US, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the movie sensation of the summer and it’s easy to see why. Apart from the endlessly entertaining antics of the Asian one percent “Crazy Rich…” knows how to entice an American audience. The characters have American names like Nick (Henry Golding), Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel (Constance Wu). They speak perfect English and hold engrossing conversations about love and family. They take their entitlement completely for granted. And they’re never weird. If they are, they’re weird in ways that Americans understand. Like in one scene, a bunch of catty woman put a dead fish in a girl’s bed as a bullying tactic, and it’s straight our of  “Desperate Housewives.” Or if you want to be authentic about it, “The Godfather.”

Meanwhile, over here in the Land of the Rising Sun, people’s names are adamantly Japanese. Women are told to shut up and bear children, or shut up and work until 50 after which they must quit to care for elderly parents. Prime Minister Abe, now firmly ensconced in his third term, has promised the nation’s women that “things are going to change.” Seriously? They ain’t changing fast enough. All over Asia, Asian women are liberating themselves from tradition and antiquated family values to get a lot richer a lot faster than the Japanese ever did. Japan had its five minutes in the economic spotlight in the late 1980s but the 20-plus year recession combined with the notion of “seihin (清貧・clean poverty)” just about did us in. Evidence to that is seen in the way “Crazy Rich Asians” completely ignores Japan. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong – these places all get mentioned but Japan? Nada. True, Japan-born actress Sonoya Mizuno is in the cast but she plays a filthy rich Chinese woman. Go figure.

We’re a tad miffed, to be honest. But that really shouldn’t stop Japan from savoring every single frame of “Crazy Rich Asians.” From the sleek, precision make-up on the women to the bared torsos of the males (firm, slender and hairless – God’s gift to Asia) to the decor and wardrobe to the food and cocktails, “Crazy Rich…” is one huge, glittering monstrosity of a sweet, sweet treat. No wonder that for an increasing number of Japanese who will never be crazy rich, Singapore has come to represent the unattainable Japanese dream.

Marry Early or Marry Late or Remain “The Honorable Single”? You can pursue marital bliss in Japan but it’s a tricky animal.

Just in case you didn’t get the memo, Japan has a pretty terrible track record when it comes to love and relationships. People are marrying late or not at all and by 2040, half of Japan’s households will be single. In 10 years, one out of 4 men and one out of 5 women in the Tokyo metropolitan area are expected to live out their lives without ever having co-habited with a partner.

The Japanese have a phrase for people who go through life on their own, “Ohitorisama (お一人様)” – meaning, “The revered solo” or “the honorable single”.  Once upon a time, people scoffed at the Ohitorisama; now they’ve come to represent freedom and options. But the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. More young Japanese, especially women, are aspiring to marry in their 20s and start a family while they still have the energy to take a crack at the work/life balance thing. A phrase that has come up on the radar of women’s magazines, is “Oikomikon,” meaning: coercing oneself to get married. This was coined by Natsuko Yokozawa, who authored a book of the same title and has become something of a guru to young women eyeing marriage as a way to escape the fate of being yet another overworked, bled-out salariman who has sex once every 5 years – or less frequently than the Olympics and the World Cup.

Yokozawa’s book is eye-brow raising – not because it’s progressive, but because it sounds like something out of a 1970s bridal magazine. “The number one reason men split up with their girlfriends is because they can’t cook,” she writes. “We MUST learn how to put a nutritious meal together, and fast!” She also exhorts young women to stop partying and start taking care of themselves, in order to “catch” a nice, reliable, family-oriented man looking for a nice, healthy womb to carry his progeny.

While Yokozawa is sure to be much loved by Cabinet ministers who tend to view Japanese women as baby producing drudges, she also seems to be getting the women’s vote, too. As Maya Furuse, a freelance editor for a number of women’s magazines, says: “The allure of marriage and childbirth is more powerful than ever. No Japanese woman wants to grow old without having worn a wedding dress, but equally important is to spend weekdays in casual mom clothes, pushing a McLaren stroller and getting in line with other moms at Starbucks.”

For those who aren’t sure about the specifics of “casual mom clothes,” it’s a combination of high end (read: artistically distressed) jeans that go for 30,000 yen (approx. 300 USD) a pop, oversized shirts, cute flats and gifted jewelry (by her husband of course). The whole ensemble screams ‘woman’s happiness’ in a way that career advancement and workplace prestige never, ever could.

More young women are wising up to this hard truth, as Japan Business Insider reports that graduates from top level universities like Waseda, Keio and Sophia, are looking for employment as general staff, rather than becoming professionals (as would befit their degrees). General staff are most often referred to as “OL (Office Lady)” and have traditionally been considered a few notches below highly educated women who can trump their male colleagues and get ahead on the success ladder. Until about 5 years ago, female graduates from elite universities were adamantly career-minded. Now, according to the JBI story, more young women are making the choice to secure a relaxed and sustainable future where they can get married, have kids and still “work for life” instead of being single, childless and burnt out at 40. Marriage is the goal–a happy marriage? Not so much. 50% of Japan’s marriages are sexless. Chronically long hours may contribute to that–overwork may not always kill you as in 過労死 (karoshi) but it sure as heck will kill your libido.

Get married or miss out is the new/old message bombarding women in Japan. And of course, looking great is part of the package.

Women in Japan: they’re looking at jobs that don’t involve overtime, competition or stress. They’re looking at companies with paid maternity leave packages and assurance that they’ll rejoin the work force after childbirth. Young Japanese women aren’t against working, but they ARE against the idea of working like a man. Indeed, over 60% of women in high-powered jobs end up quitting within 10 years and that time span is getting shorter.

Some women get the wake-up call well into their 30s. My friend Kanako, who did the “Kakekomikon (the last chance, last minute marriage)” at the age of 39, said the reason she finally tied the knot with her on again, off again boyfriend of 10 years, wasn’t out of love. It was because she was afraid of turning into her father. “When I was young, I thought marriage was for losers like my housewife mother,” she said. “But after 35, I saw I was becoming my father, which was far worse.”

The message of one popular author in Japan is essentially “Women get married now or walk home alone for the rest of your life.”

Sad but true – on late night trains in and around Tokyo, you’ll see legions of exhausted women, their make-up worn off and their painfully swollen feet forced into heels, contemplating the end of yet another grueling day. Around them are equally tired men, carrying discount suit jackets and staring at their phone screens. In spite of the Abe Administration’s much touted (and reviled) Work Style Reform Law that recently kicked into effect, not much of anything has changed for the white collar worker. In fact, it’s gotten worse. People staying in the office until midnight? Check. Spending an hour or more in commuter trains? Check. By the time they get back to their homes in the suburbs, most folks are too tired to do anything but chill in front of the TV – WITH NO OVERTIME PAY. This has been the lifestyle for generations of salarimen, and though men had carried the bulk of the misery, this past decade has seen more women on the old treadmill, giving their all to the company and almost nothing to their personal lives or well-being.

Back to my friend Kanako – she was a powerhouse warrior who battled through tough workplace problems but was stumped when it came to relationships. She married her “sometimes boyfriend” after he was demoted at his company, staring at a 30% pay cut, and losing his hair and confidence. “The money thing wasn’t important for me anymore,” she said. “I was sick of working and earning. I wanted real down time, a home life, someone to laugh with. My father had none of those things and when he retired, he had to face the fact that no one wanted him around. He had done nothing to invest in his personal life and now that neglect was taking its revenge.”

In an ideal world, sexless marriages wouldn’t be 50% in Japan, but it’s not an ideal world.

Now 3 years into their marriage, Kanako and her husband are buddies. They cook together 3 nights a week, take day trips to a favorite onsen and board the same commuter train to get to work every morning. “We’re not romantic at all,” laughs Kanako. “I see him more as a comrade than a husband. But he has my back, and in the end that’s all I really need.”

New Movie “The Trial” (審判)Shows The Kafkaesque Side Of Japan’s Often Criminally Unjust Justice System

If you are unlucky enough to be indicted for a crime in Japan, you’ll find that the system actually works on the presumption that you are guilty until proven guilty. The conviction rate is 99%.  If Franz Kafka was alive today, he’d find that Japan’s courts provided ample material for his pessimistic work. The recently released film The Trial (審判)based on Kafka’s famous work, and directed by John Williams, thus seems tremendously disturbing.

The Trial (審判) is a new film which updates Franz Kafka’s classic nightmarish novel to modern Japan–with great effect.

John Williams is that rare western filmmaker who has chosen to live and work in Tokyo, though he originally came to Japan in 1988 with the intention of saving enough money to go to film school in the US. “I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 14,” he said, in the offices above the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya, where his latest work The Trial (Shinpan) is showing. It’s not everyone who keeps a promise made in their teens, but John Williams did just that, albeit in a place very far from his native England.

John Williams is from South Wales  and back in the mid 1980s when he graduated from university, the British film industry wasn’t what you’d call thriving, in fact it was rather gomping. “Actually it was at a very low ebb,” laughed Williams. “Of course in the 90s, works like ‘Trainspotting’ changed the landscape but we couldn’t see that coming just yet. There were practically no film schools for young students and the average age at the National Film School – the only institution for aspiring filmmakers, was 27.” So John Williams decided, like many others before and after him, to study movie-making in the US, specifically at NYU film school. To that end, he needed to get some cash together and Japan seemed like the place to earn it.

Fast forward 30 years and with the completion of “The Trial,” Williams has 5 films under his belt. He also teaches film production/European films at Sophia University’s Foreign Languages Department. But he never did get to NYU since, just like in the Lennon song, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. By the time Williams got the funds together for New York, he was deep in the throes of life in Japan and travels in Asia. “I was in India when the acceptance letter came and didn’t even see it till I got back. And, well, going to the US seemed to me like a conventional, boring choice. Staying here seemed much more interesting.”

Listening to Williams say that in the Eurospace office, the moment felt like a movie scene all by itself. Eurospace is an iconic Shibuya theater, famed for showcasing indie gems from around the world. There was Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.” Francois Ozon’s “Criminal Lovers.” More recently, it put on “Frances Ha” when few Japanese were even aware of the now Academy award contender Greta Gerwig. And now Williams’ “The Trial” is being shown as a limited release, it will currently be running as the late show every night until the 20th. Given the story (based on the Kafka novel) and weird but intriguing vibe, “The Trial” and the Eurospace venue seem to be made for each other. (Please check with Eurospace website for movie times as they may change).

Eurospace – situated in Maruyamacho, and sandwiched between two love hotels. In fact, every square meter of land in the area is occupied by love hotels. Couples sheepishly stroll around, checking on room prices and curiously eyeing the movie theater. “The Trial” – a film about a young Japanese salariman suddenly condemned for an unnamed crime, and who has a weakness for women and sex.

Otherwise the movie is an invitation to match and compare. Williams does a superb job of superimposing Kafka’s most famous character Josef K., a 30-year old German banker in 1914, onto the life of Yosuke Kimura, a 30-year old banker in present day Tokyo. “It’s present day, but I deliberately made the time frame abstract, almost non-technological,” said Williams. Indeed, Kimura’s hand isn’t welded to his smartphone the way everyone’s is these days, and he almost never looks at a computer screen. Kimura’s main interest seems to be women, as he tries to hook up with every female who crosses his path. His success rate is dismal however, and there’s clearly no emotion or chemistry involved. “I thought about Japanese women a lot when making this movie,” said Williams. “They’re trapped in a society controlled by men. They get so much encouragement to please men and become good wives and mothers, and practically no support when it comes to voicing their opinions or carving out careers.”

Aptly, “The Trial” is wintry and bleak, steeped in various shades of black and gray. Kimura (played with studied excellence by Tsutomu Niwa) even lives in a monotone apartment, devoid of color, clutter or any human warmth. On the morning of his 30th birthday, Kimura wakes up to find two strange men in his bedroom, and they inform him that his “case” is coming up for trial. Kimura has no idea what they’re talking about but in a few days, he receives an envelope summoning him to court the following Sunday. It doesn’t say what time or where exactly and when Kimura finally arrives, the Judge (Ichiro Murata) informs him that he is one hour and 26 minutes late. Kimura is incensed by this, and tries to argue that he cannot be late for an event that doesn’t specify the time. While this is going on, a woman (Shizuko Kawakami) has loud sex with a man in a dark suit in a back room. When Kimura returns to court the next day, the woman crudely seduces him and Kimura is ready to fall for it, until they’re interrupted by the janitor (Ichi Omiya) who tells Kimura that the woman is his wife. Later, Kimura encounters a group of people who are all awaiting trial, and no one seems to have any answers, either to the nature of their crimes or the system that seems convinced of their guilt. Yes, I know – surreal, right?

“For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”–John Williams (photo by Kaori Shoji)

On another level, “The Trial” shows up the very Kafka-esqueness of Japan’s judicial system – the long, grueling process of scrutiny between arrest and indictment, and how, once indictment kicks in, it’s impossible to overturn it*. “For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”

And how. Watching Kimura’s expression shift from incredulity and contempt to finally – defeated resignation, a kind of dread washes over me like a wave in a polluted ocean. The whole thing is maybe a little too close to home.

Editor’s note: One of the dark secrets of Japan’s criminal justice system is that the prosecution in Japan will punt (fail to prosecute) any case that is not a slam-dunk for fear of losing. Sexual assault cases have a particularly low prosecution rate and politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats are often allowed to walk free–including the 39 bureaucrats involved in forging, deleting and altering documents in a dubious land deal involving a right-wing school and the Prime Minister of Japan. The prosecutor who dropped the cases was recently promoted. 

Child Abuse In Japan. Why Japan Keeps Returning Abused Kids To Their Parents Until They Are Killed

What causes a 5-year old girl to write in her notebook, “Please forgive me,” just a few days prior to her death from abuse? “Please forgive me” is ‘onegai, yurushite,’ in Japanese, and the phrase made headlines after 5-year old Yua Funato was found dead in her apartment home in March. According to news reports, Yua had been beaten by her father and starved by her mother. The direct cause of her death was sepsis, brought on my poor nutrition and untreated pneumonia. Asahi Shimbun reported that Yua was ordered (by her mother) to practice writing Japanese at 4 in the morning everyday and was punished when she made mistakes, usually by being forced to sit for hours on the concrete veranda of their apartment, in the dead of winter.

“Better to light a single candle then curse the darkness a thousand times.”

According to Nippon.com, Yua’s treatment is pretty much standard among the growing number of child abuse cases in Japan. The father beats the child in places were bruises can’t be seen (in her case, injuries were confirmed on her upper thighs and back) and the mother stops feeding them. Verbal abuse, beating s and starvation form the unholy trinity of Japanese abuse cases and Yua, apart from everything else, was told by her mother Yuri that she shouldn’t have been born into the world, and that she was hated by everyone. Yua had to sleep in a tiny room with no heating, away from her parents and younger brother who occupied a bigger room with an air conditioner. At the time of her death, she was 8 kilos lighter than the average 5-year old and her digestive tract was clotted with vomit.

Now three months later, neighbors and sympathizers continue to place incense, candy and flowers outside the Funato family’s apartment in Tokyo’s Meguro ward. Social commentators have sighed and shook their heads with pity. Even Prime Minister Abe has been moved to comment that child abuse “cannot be overlooked.” But all that sympathy came too late for the 5-year old. The whistle had been blown on Yua’s parents several times over two years before the tragedy but the authorities had done nothing to help. Japan’s infamous child consultation centers (notice it’s consultation and not welfare) are hindered by an antiquated rule that favors parents’ rights over children’s, parents’ testimonials over children who, like Yua, had cried to a social worker that she didn’t want to live at home because her father beat her. Japan’s social workers mainly consult with the adults, and the first thing they ask the parents of a child perceived to have been beaten, is: “Are you abusing your child?” Yeah, right, like the parents are going to come clean and admit it. In the case of Yua, the parents had been “cautioned” and invited to attend a parents seminar, designed to help adults become better carers of offspring. The Funatos never showed up.

The damning, daunting fact is this: As of 2016, there were well over 100,000 cases of child abuse reported in Japan, up 100 times since 1990. In the US, that number  is something like 67,000. And before Yua, there was Riku and Takumu and many other children of pre-school age who had been beaten, abused, starved or outrightly murdered by their parents. In spite of the government’s pledge to build more day care facilities and put families first, Japan is a place that’s not very nice to kids. Daycare is one thing, but public schools – once the bastion of a legendary educational system, is rife with problems from bullying to underpaid, overworked teachers who are mostly too tired to notice that a kid is showing up to school with bruises, or haven’t had a square meal in days. As the media keeps reminding us, one out of six Japanese children live in poverty, and go to school (if they are able) on empty stomachs.

As for children blessed with a stable home life, they often feel crushed by a tremendous pressure to succeed, i.e., get into a good university that will ensure a well-paying job 15 years down the line. Many kids start going to cram school as early as second grade, studying for entrance exams that will ensure at least a partial foot in the door of a prestigious university.

The experience of being born a Japanese national used to be described as following the ‘Bathtub Curve,’ meaning the best years of a Japanese life came at the beginning, between 0 and 12 years old, and in the end, between 65 and 75. My high school politics teacher taught us that, and I still remember the shock of seeing the long, flat line that supposedly represented the years between adolescence and retirement. Equally shocking was that upward curve representing babyhood and primary school. Were those years really so glorious? In primary school, summer vacation lasts just over a measly month and even that was tempered with shitloads  of homework that had to be completed and submitted on September 1st. School lunches were for the most part, awful rations laid on prison-like tin trays. At home, dads returned on the last train, stressed to the very core of their beings and moms were equally tired from chores and childcare.

Dismal as it often is, there’s no comparing a normal Japanese childhood to what Yua, and tens of thousands of children like her, are going through on a daily basis. Some commentators have lamented that there are simply not enough social workers to go around. True, every time a child dies from abuse, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor (Koseirodousho) issues a statement about labor shortage being the definitive problem in the service industry. There are just not enough Japanese to do the work of caring for children, the elderly or the sick and diseased. When a staff member of a senior home was arrested last year after killing one of his charges, the reason given was fatigue. He was fed up with having to care for helpless people, and his work chart showed he had been pulling 12-hour shifts with almost no days off.

With Yua, the social workers who had been in charge of her case had also been understaffed, which led to carelessness and cutting corners. Yua’s parents moved the family from Kagawa prefecture to Tokyo, after a neighbor blew the whistle on Yua’s father. The child consultation workers in Kagawa then neglected to pass the full bulk of the paperwork from Kagawa to Tokyo, and Yua’s case was never reviewed in her new locale. Add to that the fact that child abuse facilities are notoriously crowded. Barring extreme circumstances, abuse victims are often returned to their parents, and the cycle of violence begins all over again. This was certainly true of Yua, who spent 3 months in a child care center in Kagawa but was not allowed to stay.

Sometimes, family is the most horrendous aspect of a child’s life. If Yua had been separated from her parents, chances are she would have lived. But Japanese tradition dictates that families must stick together, and what goes on within that circle is sacrosanct. More than the labor shortage, or parents seminars, we need to rethink the Japanese family, and take a long, hard look at its dysfunctions.

****

Editor’s Note: The Japan Times in a recent editorial , What is lacking the fight against child abuse, had some suggestions on how to prevent further tragedies. 

“A 2016 revision to the child abuse prevention law simplified the procedure for officials of such centers to carry out on-site inspection of homes where child abuse is suspected without the parents’ consent. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry says that protection of children should be prioritized and that officials should not hesitate in the face of parents’ objections to take abused children under protective custody. However, it is believed that many welfare officials balk at resorting to such action out of concern that support for the family may not proceed smoothly if the action is taken over the parents’ opposition.

Japan’s efforts to stop child abuse are weak when compared with the systems in many Western countries. For example, in the United States, where efforts to prevent abuse of children started much earlier than in Japan, far greater numbers of child abuse cases are reported to and handled by child protection service agencies. Such agencies are staffed by far larger numbers of experts per capita than in Japan, and the police and the judiciary are more deeply involved in the effort against child abuse. What’s lacking in our system to stop child abuse should be explored so that similar tragedies will not be repeated.”

Nazis, Goebels, His Secretary and Nippon. An Austrian Documentary Reminds Us Of Japan’s Failure To Reconcile History

She’s old, really old. You could describe her as an ancient relic. But at 103 years old, Brunhilde Pomsel seems strong, confident, even blase. Pomsel is the centerpiece of the stunning documentary, A German Life (released in Japan as Goebbels to Watashi ) in which she recounts the years she spent in the employ of the Third Reich, as a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels. Shot in a gradations of black and gray, A German Life, highlights her still soft hair and the brightness of her eyes. What you’ll notice however, are the deep crevices crisscrossing her face, an incredibly creasy visage that make her look like some kind of exotic deepwater fish. Only once does her confidence falter, and that’s when she’s asked to recall whether she was aware of the existence of the concentration camps. “I didn’t know it,” she says but her voice lacks conviction. “I wasn’t guilty of that, but if I was, then the whole of Germany during the reign of the Third Reich – was guilty.”

The film will resonate with many viewers in Japan, not least because Germany was an Axis partner in WWII, but for the radical difference in the way the two nations have dealt with their wartime legacies of shame and humiliation. For many Japanese, the war years are a receding memory, most often romanticized and tinged with sentiment, as in The Eternal Zero. The stories told in the media or retold by our elders, have always varied little, summed up in a singular theme that combines victimization and valor. In this theme, the atrocities committed by the military in Asia, are glossed over. After all, the Japanese starved, Japan went through unspeakable deprivation, was relentlessly firebombed and then the Japanese people had two nuclear bombs dropped right on their heads for good measure. Whatever terrible things the Japanese military did in China and Southeast Asia, was paid for with our own suffering. We’ve checked off the items on our rap sheet of atonement. So let’s agree to sweep all that stuff under the futon and get on with the business at hand, shall we?

A German Life, which tells the story of Goebbel’s secretary and seems to explain how Germany allowed the Nazis to rise up and get away with what they did, opens on June 16th in Japan.

This particular logic (or lack thereof) has come to define the collective memory in the 7-plus decades after the Japanese surrender. It wasn’t really our fault, but the fault of the entire era, and the unstoppable war machine! Compare this mind-set to Germany. They also suffered from the air raids and bombings and went through hell. But they are also a people unafraid to rub their faces in the shit pile of defeat. To this day, they are still examining what exactly happened, and why. New revelations of Nazi atrocities are being unearthed all the time, to be dissected and discussed. The Germans have not averted their gaze from the past, rather they’ve been pretty relentless in their cause to track down and then lay bare the gruesome details of their own crimes. Consider the meticulously categorized displays at the Auschwitz Memorials. The unforgiving precision that characterize the guided tour of those Memorials. The sheer number of movies and documentaries that have come out about the camps and the Third Reich. Or the revived public interest in Sophie Scholl, the young political activist who was guillotined for her fierce anti-Nazism.

“For all that, I believe that Germany is experiencing an eerie deja vu of the Nazi years,” said Florian Weigensamer, one of the four-man directorial team behind A German Life. Weigensamer was in Tokyo to promote the film, along with another director Christian Krones, who is also the founder of Blackbox Films and Media Productions. Blackbox engineered the whole endeavor that is this movie and other award winning documentaries. Krones and Weigensamer have been colleagues and friends for over 20 years and they’ve dedicated a good chunk of their professional lives to the excavation of some of humanity’s most complex problems. (One of their recent projects is a documentary called Welcome to Sodom that examines Ghana’s burgeoning waste problem, born of discarded home appliances.)

Krones is the oldest and most experienced member of Blackbox but he stresses that there’s no corporate hierarchy at work. “I like to take a democratic approach to filmmaking. No orders are issued top-down. There are no one-man decisions. We hold extensive meetings and discuss the film process every step of the way, like a real democracy.” And he added with a chuckle, “We do this because the film industry tends to be very dictatorial and we are very sensitive to anything that smacks of dictatorship!”

The directors of “A German Life”

Blackbox is an Austrian company as are Krones and Weigensamer. Because they don’t carry German passports, the pair say that their gaze on WWII and the Nazi atrocities are a little distanced. “We were both born many years after the war,” said Weigensamer. “And growing up, I remember my own family didn’t really talk about the war unless it was to say that we were victimized. In this way, I guess we are a lot like the Japanese.” In 1938, Austria was forcibly annexed to Germany in what was known as the Anschluss, and according to Krones, it “laid the groundwork for turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. The Nazis held Austria in a grip of terror and the Austrians felt powerless. They descended into denial, and most people just tried to make it through the war years without getting killed.” Weigensamer nodded in assent, but said, “And now we are seeing the rise of neo-Nazis, and the end of tolerance for refugees and outsiders.” Indeed, Krones said, “When we first started filming ‘A German Life,’ I thought, we would be talking about something that was past and over with. Now I feel like I’ve gone back in time, and traveled to a future where the nightmare is beginning all over again.”

As for Brunhilde Pomsel, she comes off as neither a tragic heroine or an evil monster but a woman with exceptional secretarial skills and a breathtakingly banal personality. Astonishingly, before taking up her duties for the Third Reich, Pomsel had worked in a Jewish insurance company in Berlin while having a side gig in the afternoons working for an official in the Nazi Party. Her lover and fiance was half Jewish. (In the film, she has a silver band around her ring finger.) He was killed in Amsterdam in 1942. Her best friend was a young Jewish woman named Ava, who died in one of the camps. All around her, Jewish people were being taken away, ostensibly to a place of “re-education,” and she didn’t think to question what this may really mean. Her take on Joseph Goebbels is that he was “so dapper, so dashing! The cut of his suits was perfect.” Pomsel even remembered how Goebbels’s children would come to pick him up at lunchtime so that they could all walk home together for the midday meal.

Pomsel apparently compartmentalized all that into her life, and shut out whatever she deemed unworthy of attention. She never stopped to examine the contradictions of her thoughts or her actions. She simply wanted to perform her duties well, and then go home.

“The thing is, she was very likable,” described Weigenhamer. “She was articulate, self-sufficient and loved going to the theatre. She took very good care of herself and liked to have a good time. At first I thought I liked this woman but the more time I spent with her, the more I got to hate her.” Krones said: “What struck me was her incredible selfishness. I honestly got the feeling that she was alone because she didn’t want to share her life with anybody. She enjoyed living. But as in the war years, she wanted her life to be hers alone. And this mentality, this wish to shut out others – is part of what made Hitler successful.”

Brunhilde Pomsel died last year, at the age of 106.

The film opens in Japan on June 16th. Editor’s note: ironically, the current government of Japan doesn’t only have a desire to revise history and bury Japan’s war crimes, the Prime Minister and his cabinet have a great fondness for the Nazi Party and their political strategies. History does repeat itself.

 

Update! Larceny Is Part of Family Love in Cannes Winner “Shoplifters”–Showing With English subtitles on June 21 (木)

『UPDATE: There will be a showing of the film with English subtitles at 7pm on June 21, at the Roppongi Hill Cinema. There will be a Q & A with the director afterwards. Details of the showing are after the review』

The titular family in “Shoplifters” give a new slant to the term “living in squalor.” (The film is partially based on true events)  Their house looks more like a bizarre crime scene than an actual dwelling for normal people but – and this is a crucial point in “Shoplifters” – the family is HAPPY. They enjoy the kind of freedom that one rarely sees in Tokyo families. The 10-year old son doesn’t go to cram school (or any kind of school for that matter). The dad is not an over-worked salariman whose only solace is the company drinking party. The mom couldn’t care less about keeping up with the Tanakas. And grandma – she’s an entertaining but cantankerous piece of work who drives well-meaning social workers up the wall.

1) One Big Happy Family – clockwise from right, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki and Sakura Ando.
Title: The Shoplifters
©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro.
Distributed by GAGA

Amid the filth and debris they huddle together for warmth and comfort. At mealtimes, they poke chopsticks into ramen tubs and food cans. The catch in this cozy utopia is that they must steal almost everything they need. The other catch is that dad has just kidnapped a 5-year old girl named Yuri. She had been neglected and abused by her biological parents, so the dad just had to rescue her. “We’ll return her to her folks in the morning” he says, but then he doesn’t and Yuri joins their little clan, adding another item to their history of crime.

“Shoplifters” just won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival – a first for a Japanese director in 21 years. The last time this happened was back in 1997, when Shohei Imamura came out with “Unagi,” and put leading man Koji Yakusho’s name on the international map. In Japan however, “Unagi” didn’t exactly break box office. It was artsy, dark and posed too many philosophical questions. While these ingredients worked wonderfully at Cannes, the general feeling in Japan was that everyone would rather watch Keanu Reeves.

“Shoplifters” is another animal. Keanu Reeves isn’t in it (too bad) but the director is Hirokazu Kore-eda: a constant contender at Cannes and other major international film festivals for the past two decades. He’s also a former TV documentarian with a shrewd sense of business. Shohei Imamura was an auteur of the old school, but Kore-eda has a nose for what sells. In his films, art never overwhelms commercialism and on the other hand, it’s not all business either. Kore-eda knows that in the international market, the biggest appeal of a Japanese film is its Japanese-ness and in “Shoplifters,” he adopts a Zen-like approach, letting the characters do their thing at their own pace, in their own space. A lot of things are unexplained or left for the audience to surmise. And pretty soon, the squalor of that awful house starts to grow on you. The ancient and no doubt odorous tatami mats, the wild, unruly shrubbery that grow all over the garden, the stained and mildewed bathtub – somehow, these things begin to assume a patina of Japanese charm. After all, we’re so used to seeing spanking clean Japanese homes inhabited by perfectly manicured people, at least in the media and after awhile, the hypocrisy of this set-up just gets to you. Such a house and family appear in the story for about 5 minutes and the contrast between them and the Shoplifters is jarring.

The Shoplifters’ house is a real one, sleuthed out by Kore-eda’s staff who combed the northeast wards of Tokyo for weeks before hitting upon the perfect specimen. Surrounded by high rise apartment buildings on all sides, the house is a tiny, crumbling Showa era relic. In the movie, it belongs to the grandmother, Hatsue played by Kirin Kiki. Divorced before becoming a widow, Hatsue still keeps her ex-husband’s photo on the ‘butsudan (miniature buddhist shrine)’ and takes out his pension every month to supplement her own. It’s the only steady source of income the family has, since the mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and dad (Lily Franky) earn minimum wage doing part time work and even that’s jeopardized when their employers install a workshare program. “What’s work share?,” asks the son and the dad’s response – “ahhhm, it’s when you share the work.” It also means less pay and less income to share with the family.

Nobuyo’s younger sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a ‘JK (short for ‘Joshikosei, which means high school girl) sex shop, which entails dressing in a school uniform and opening her legs in front of a two-way mirror. Aki’s wages are 3000 yen per session and upon hearing this, grandma Hatsue lets out a sigh of real envy. “That’s such a well-paid job!”

Of course, even working an honest job at minimum wage or a shady job at 3000 yen per hour, isn’t enough for a family to survive on and so shoplifting supplements their income. The movie was partly inspired by real events.

Partners in crime – the son Shota (Jyo Kairi) cases the joint with dad Osamu (Lily Franky).
Title: The Shoplifters
©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro.
Distributed by GAGA

The film is full of dark humor but it is also a biting criticism of modern Japan. Kore-eda is not a fan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The film references how the rights and wages of workers keep deteriorating and a growing number of people live in poverty, while “Abenomics” only benefits the elite.

The Japanese family has cultivated a certain image – that they revere their elders, that fathers work themselves to the bone, that the kids are models of scholastic excellence and good manners. In real life, that image is shattered again and again – consider that 1 out of 6 children live in poverty while the number of abused kids have been on the rise for the past 20 years. In the movie, Yuri’s biological mom is beaten by a rat of a husband and she takes out her anger on her daughter. And for all the love they show the son, the Shoplifter parents think nothing of depriving the boy of his future by keeping him home and teaching him to steal. The son, played by Kairi Jyo, is a compelling figure to watch – he loves the couple who have raised him, but at the same time he knows theirs is not a sustainable relationship. They have good times together but the son comes to realize that they’re bound more by crime and money than blood and love.

So, like a Bruce Springsteen song, it had to end. For me, the final scenes were blurred by a blizzard of tears, triggered by a longing for a raucous, uproarious, hugger-mugger childhood that never happened.

Shoplifters (万引き家族) opened nationwide in Japan on June 8th. 

The English subtitled screening and Q&A session of “Shoplifters” will be taken place on Thursday, June 21st.

【Date】Thursday, June 21st
【Time】19:00~(Q&A session after the screening)
【Venue】TOHO CINEMAS ROPPONGI HILLS
【Guest (tentative)】Kore-eda Hirokazu (director)

<How to buy the ticket>
・By PC & smart phone : Ticket site will be opened from Saturday, June 16th 0:00 at internet ticket vit (https://www.tohotheater.jp/vit/)
・Ticket counter at the theater : Ticket will be on sale from the opening on Saturday, June 16th at the theater (if the tickets are available.)

<Price>
Standard price *This film is rated PG12
※Additional costs will needed for Premium box seats. Please check the theater website.
※Movie tickets can be used.
※Free admission tickets can not be used.

<Caution>
※The screening is with English subtitles.
※Press will cover the Q&A and there will be a possibility that the audience could be on camera.
※The guests and Q&A session are tentative and are subject to change without notice.
※Reserved seating only and the ticket is for only 1 screening. You must obtain the seat for this screening to attend the Q&A.
※Resale is strictly prohibited.
※No camera (including by phoens) shooting or recoding are strictly prohibited.
※Once paid, ticket fees are non-refundable/non-changeable.

 

“Yo girls, get out of the ring!”–Sumo, Sexism And Why In Japan Upholding Tradition Can Mean Protecting Discrimination

Ever since the #Me Too movement landed in Japan late last year, there’s been a greater awareness of women’s rights and sexual harassment. In Tokyo subways cars, there’s a video ad exhorting female teens to refuse to work inside Japan’s infamous underage sex industry. Some train station kiosks sell pin badges for young women, printed with an anti-groping slogan. All this marks quite a progress from the days (only 5 years ago) when sexual abuse and discrimination were so much a part of the daily fabric that many victims didn’t think it worthwhile to raise their voices.

Recently however, Japanese women were given a rap over the knuckles, jolted back to reality and reminded that we were second-class citizens in a male-dominated society. The incident happened during a sumo exhibition match in Kyoto earlier this month. After the match, the mayor of Maizuru City, Kyoto, got up on the arena to make an award-giving speech when he suddenly had a stroke and crumpled to the ground. In a flash, two women in the audience went up, massaging his heart while calling an ambulance. These women were professional nurses and knew what they were doing. In other circumstances, they would be applauded, lauded, maybe even paid for their heroism. Instead, they were told – a total of three times – to get off the arena. Over a loud speaker, no less.

In the world of sumo, the arena is sacred – and females are not allowed to even touch its holy rim.  Why’s that? Traditionally, women have been deemed impure, and feared to contaminate the match if they got too close to the arena. A century ago, women weren’t even allowed to watch sumo bouts, as their poisonous gaze may harm the godly flesh of the sumo wrestlers. Tides will turn and times may change, but sumo has, and will always hold women unworthy. Two days after that Maizuru City mayor was carried away on a stretcher, another exhibition match was held. This time, the mayor was a woman and her request to give out the award ON TOP of the arena, was adamantly refused. She had to make her speech from under the arena, stretching her arms above her head, to the winning sumo wrestler.

This incident is by no means the first of its kind. Women mayors, and even a Cabinet Minister acting on behalf of the prime minister, were banned from mounting the steps to the arena for no other reason than that they were women. Women were dirty – after all, they menstruated, had babies and grew old. How despicable. Sumo wrestlers on the other hand, were glorious creatures whose dense muscles and shining flesh were a testament to male power and the incarnation of ancient deity. Never mind that these wrestlers were born from women like everyone else. Never mind that some of sumo’s staunchest supporters are women. Never mind that the sacred arenas are made from packed dirt, and taken apart and shoveled away after each tournament, so what’s the big deal?

After the Kyoto fiasco, the head of the Sumo Association issued an apology to the nurses. But the rules have not been radically changed and will likely stay the same forever. On April 28, the association did announce that it was acceptable for women to enter the arena if a man’s life was in imminent danger or in other dire emergencies. But for the time being, if Japan were ever to have a woman in the Prime Minister’s seat, she too will be told to get the hell off the holy arena during the award ceremonies.

Sumo and tradition have been air-tight for over two millennia, though unlike Judo or Kendo with their forbidding, too-solemn public image, this particular sport is extremely accessible. The spectators gather around the arena in a circle, often taking off their shoes to sit cross legged on mats. They’re free to drink beer, sake and munch boxed meals sold in the numerous lobby stalls. And though it’s closed to women, the sumo world is open to foreigners. Two out of the three current “Yokozuna” or highest ranking wrestler, are Mongolian. There have been wrestlers from Russia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Brazil, respectively. Taiho – one of the greatest and most popular sumo wrestlers of all time, was half Ukranian and raised by a single (Japanese) mother.

There are, of course, no female sumo wrestlers recognized by the Sumo Association. That happening is as likely as Japan’s other bastion of misogyny and tradition, the Yakuza, letting a woman sip the sake cap of fraternization. There are no sexy female yakuza. Whether there are sexy yakuza or not, is a matter of taste.

On or off the arena, sumo wrestlers are admittedly sexy. They are a splendid sight: enormous men with protruding stomachs, naked save for the “mawashi” or sash elaborately wound around their middles, leaving backsides exposed. They seem cuddly and friendly – like giant teddy bears that bow politely to the stable masters before going at each other with the full force of their mighty weight. In terms of celebrity status, sumo wrestlers are on par with kabuki actors, also entrenched in anti-woman tradition. In spite of this (or maybe because of it) there’s never a shortage of women who want to marry into those worlds, though both may be riddled with scandal and rife with discrimination. Adversity acting as an aphrodisiac, maybe.

While condemning the discrimination, I have a tiny, grudging sliver of respect for sumo. As the world continues its relentless march toward total globalism, sumo still prefers to be weird and backward, mired in a logic that’s 2000 years too old. At the same time, the wrestlers are for the most part, smartphone-wielding college graduates that pal around with pop idol groups. The combination is fascinating, even alluring. True, I will never be allowed to touch the sacred arena but I’m free to ponder, (and be frustrated by) its unfathomable mystery.

UPDATE: Oh Lucy! A darkly funny movie that asks: Can learning English in Japan change a woman’s life? The answer…..

Oh Lucy! has been doing so well in it’s Japan release, that the distributors, for one night only, will  be showing the English subtitled version. May 17th, from 18:50 at the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya.

Shinobu Terashima is one of the few Japanese actresses who plays hardball, consistently choosing roles that blow holes in the cardboard stereotype of the Japanese woman. We all know this woman: saintly, supportive, long-suffering AND a wildcat in bed. Yawn.

作品名:『オー・ルーシー!』
公開表記:4月28(土) ユーロスペース、テアトル新宿 他にてロードショー
配給:ファントム・フィルム 
コピーライト:(c) Oh Lucy,LLC

While Terashima (the thoroughbred scion of veteran actress Junko Fuji and the late Kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro) can probably do sexy wildcat with both her hands in cuffs and wearing a straitjacket (wait a minute, maybe this is TOO sexy) she’s far less accommodating when it comes to the saintly and long-suffering bit.

Shinobu Terajima is a perfect fit for the role of Setsuko aka “Lucy,” in a funny, sardonic and ultimately warm-hearted film called “Oh Lucy!” Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi who first penned the screenplay as a graduation project for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, said she was actually taken aback by the movie’s success. “Oh Lucy!” was nominated for two awards in last year’s Cannes Film Festival – a first for a Japanese director – besides winning the NHK award at the Sundance Film Festival. “I was never really interested in portraying a heroic woman, or a beautiful woman or any of that. I guess I was really tired of seeing those types up there on the screen,” said Hirayanagi. “I needed to see someone different, and came up with the idea of Lucy. She’s not young or cute but she’s really, really watchable.”

Atsuko Hirayanagi penned the screenplay to this highly rated film.

Indeed, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from Terashima as Setsuko, a 43 year old Tokyo OL (Office Lady) with just the right amount of inner venom and outward politeness, neatly balanced on the scale of Japanese womanhood. Setsuko, whose name means restraint and saving money, divides her time between a dreary office in a small company and an apartment packed to the gills with her stuff. Tokyo media has stories galore about single Japanese women of a certain age who can’t stop hoarding, and Setsuko’s little room is straight out of this urban folklore. Then one day Setsuko gets a call from her niece Mika (Shiori Kutsuna), and invited to attend an English conversation class. “The teacher is friendly and very nice,” assures Mika and Setsuko decides to go, not least because she had witnessed a suicide on the train tracks that morning. For a few minutes she had felt the chill hand of death on her shoulder, and well, life is too short to spend it being miserable, right? She may as well try something new. And new it is, with a vengeance. The drop-dead handsome English teacher, John (Josh Hartnett), makes her wear a blonde wig, pushes a ping pong ball in her mouth to correct her pronunciation, and tells Setsuko that from that moment on, her name is Lucy. Then John gives Lucy a big, tight hug. Cue, Setsuko, I mean Lucy’s swooning face.

Unfortunately, her new-found happiness is destroyed overnight. The next day she goes to class and John has left for LA, accompanied by Mika who it turns out, is his girlfriend. Setsuko/Lucy PTSDs for awhile before springing to action and books a flight to LA. That she ends up boarding the plane with her prim, correct sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) who is Mika’s mom and direly worried about her daughter – can only be described as a typically Japanese female predicament. Every time one wants to do something totally crazy, a prim correct female relative appears to drag you back to sanity. No wonder so many women remain single in this country.

Every time one wants to do something totally crazy, a prim correct female relative appears to drag you back to sanity. No wonder so many women remain single in this country.

Hirayanagi’s understanding of this particular terrain (English conversation classes, being a single woman in Tokyo, the uniformity and blandness that come with being Japanese) is frighteningly accurate. “I think being able to speak English will change a Japanese person in the most unexpected ways,” she said. “The Japanese language is just not conducive to self-expression, whereas English is all about expressing yourself, your needs, your emotions. Setsuko discovers after landing in LA that in the US, life isn’t about getting by and being right, it’s all about survival. You have to speak up, you have to make your needs known and you have to convince people of your worth. Otherwise, it’s over. It’s as simple as that.” Hirayanagi herself has been living the sink-or-swim scenario since the age of 17 when she first went to LA as a language student. After this stint, she wrangled a student visa, enrolled in San Francisco State University and launched an acting career in LA while waitressing at “Nobu” in Malibu. “Back then, I loved the anything-goes mentality of LA,” she said. “I went to every audition I could get, hustled and worked and generally lived the life of an almost-actor in LA. There are thousands and thousands of people like me. But in the end, I knew that I wasn’t really cut out for acting. I would much rather stand behind the camera, work on screenplays and make something on my own.”

Josh Hartnett even shows up playing a modern-day Charisma Man

Looking back, Hirayanagi added that her experience as an actor has proved invaluable to her filmmaking career.

“I know what actors go through, what they’re up against, their joys and struggles. I also know my way around a film set, so I could establish a rapport with the actor and crew right away.” Indeed, Hirayanagi has a reputation for being wonderful to work with – no less a personage than Kaori Momoi starred pro bono, in the short film version of “Oh Lucy!” and Josh Hartnett consented to play John because he loved the vibe of her screenplay. “They say that a director loses a limb every time s/he makes a film,” laughed Hirayanagi. “I believe that. But I think this space is where I want to be. It’s never going to get easy but at least I have the conviction that I belong here.”

作品名:『オー・ルーシー!』
公開表記:4月28(土) ユーロスペース、テアトル新宿 他にてロードショー
配給:ファントム・フィルム 
コピーライト:(c) Oh Lucy,LLC

 

Setsuko/Lucy isn’t so lucky. The trip to LA turns out to be a journey of self-discovery as she learns some unsavory aspects of her personality and forced to admit that John – stripped of the Charisma-man status he enjoyed in Tokyo – is actually a loser. Mika had dumped him in short order and is nowhere to be found. Toxic animosity with her sister comes bubbling up to the surface. Unwanted and unhappy, Setsuko must dig deep in her heart to unearth what it is she really wants. Her life may be banal but her pain and struggle is real, and sure to strike a chord with women everywhere. More importantly, in the end she’s a different woman from the one she left behind in that monstrously cluttered apartment. Maybe learning English IS the cure-all antidote. Hey, I’m sold.

作品名:『オー・ルーシー!』

公開表記:4月28(土) ユーロスペース、テアトル新宿 他にてロードショー

配給:ファントム・フィルム 

コピーライト:(c) Oh Lucy,LLC

 

 

監督・脚本:平栁敦子

 

出演:寺島しのぶ 南果歩 忽那汐里 ・ 役所広司 ・ ジョシュ・ハートネット

 

プロデューサー:ハン・ウェスト、木藤幸江、ジェシカ・エルバーム、平栁敦子

エグゼクティブ・プロデューサー:ウィル・フェレル、アダム・マッケイ

共同脚本:ボリス・フルーミン

音楽:エリク・フリードランダー

 

2016年サンダンス・インスティテュート/NHK脚本賞受賞作品

 

(2017年/日本・アメリカ合作/5.1ch/ビスタ/カラー/原題:OH LUCY!/95分)