The Art of Sakoku(鎖国) – Keeping Cool and Aloof Behind Closed Doors in Japan (for future reference)

by Kaori Shoji 

A priority item on the agenda of the first Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Iyeyasu when he seized power in 1603, was to limit foreign travel to Japan. He issued several orders like the ones we’re seeing around the world at this moment: urging the Japanese to stay put in their own communities and urging all foreigners to get the hell out. By foreigners, Iyeyasu specifically meant the European missionaries who were spreading ideas – like a virus!  – about an omnipotent God that transcended traditional Japanese values. They also extolled the virtues of non-violence and giving to the poor; two factors that the new Shogun viewed as particularly harmful to his authority. The ‘aliens’ had to go, and those who didn’t, were eventually executed or banished to Dejima Island, off the coast of Nagasaki. Iyeyasu’s son and grandson tightened the screws on the lockdown as they in turn, became the Shogun. Japan effectively bolted its doors to the outside world and  Sakoku*・鎖国(shutting down the country)’ went into effect. 

Initially, other clan lords were skeptical about this sakoku thing. Before Iyeyasu came along, Japan had a fairly robust import/export system, supported by a prosperous merchant class in Osaka. Without inbound travelers and foreign business, these merchants were sunk, as was the burgeoning currency economy. But Iyeyasu shrugged off their complaints and worries. He chose reclusive isolation over commerce and progress, and for the next 265 years, Japan became a ‘hikikomori (shut-in)’ in the global community. Everything passed us by: the Industrial Revolution and the locomotive, colonialism and corsets, Mozart and coffee, the printing press and chocolate. Everything. 

*Writer’s Note – Contrary to the belief that the Tokugawa Shogunate coined the term ‘sakoku’ which literally means a ‘country in chains,’ it was actually invented by German explorer Engelbert Kaempfer in the late 17th century and later translated into Japanese.

In the meantime, the Japanese got a lot of practice on keeping calm and carrying on behind closed doors, in spite of or because of everything happening in the larger world. Sure, sakoku sucked in a hundred ways but it also created a uniquely weird culture that continues to enthrall or amuse people all over the world. Iyeyasu’s capital city of Edo – now called Tokyo, was a haven of stability and prosperity with an unparalleled ecological and recycling system. 

The sakoku mind-set made all this possible – a willful and deliberate closing of the shutters to the outside world while making sure that plenty went on inside. Call it aloofness, coldness or a thick-skinned pragmatism. In times like this, such traits can come in pretty handy. 

You may have heard that the Japanese aren’t very expressive – well that’s just not true. The Japanese are THE LEAST expressive people in Asia which probably makes us the most rigid people on the planet. Long before this virus thing the Japanese have been wearing masks – as a prevention against all ills including a bad skin day and questionable breath. The mask was also fashionable among teenage girls, as hiding their mouths made them feel more attractive. (Kissing with masks was a real thing in the early aughts too, because many young couples deemed it erotic.) We were also adamant about washing hands, gargling and refusing to eat off communal plates. 

Smiling and laughing in public, talking to strangers, physical displays of affection – these things are normal in western cultures but they’ve never taken off here unless it became a fad. Like being friendly to foreigners and embracing diversity was a fad that many Japanese felt pressured into doing because hey, globalism and the Olympics 2020. But now COVID-19 has given the Japanese a very good reason to go back to the way we were. Unrelenting, inexpressive, rigid and distanced. It’s all cool. Show me a person with a secret stash of face masks and 30 rolls of toilet paper and I’ll show you a model Japanese citizen.

As for touching one another,  it’s a whole other issue unto itself. The Japanese just don’t do this, and never had. Though many of us love the idea of casual cheek kisses a la Francaise, we just couldn’t muster the courage to try it on a Tokyo street. Now, we don’t have to pretend anymore. Social distancing may be a new and scary concept for the west but to us, it’s very familiar, like our parents to whom we pay the obligatory visit over New Year’s. 

Speaking of which, I don’t ever remember being hugged by my late father, who devoted much of his life to wedging a good, 1.7 meter distance between himself and the rest of the world. It wasn’t just him of course, many Japanese males can’t bring themselves to get close to anyone they know, which paradoxically explains why there’s so much groping on the trains. But the virus has resolved that snag–what with schools closed and people ordered to work remotely, the morning trains are far less crowded and consist mostly of masked salarymen clutching phones with one hand and briefcases in the other, studiously avoiding all eye and physical contact. 

You might say the Japanese are good at this. There is little of the sense of deprivation and loneliness that say, an American person might feel about the loss of casual physical contact. We’re not touching, we’re not smiling, but who’s to say we’re not having fun underneath our face masks?

Editor’s Note: And judging by the hanami crowds this weekend and in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s “Let’s go outside!” admonitions, it seems like Japan’s 鎖国(sakoku ) period may end very soon.

Just for the record, while big concerts and public events are not happening, there’s still plenty going on in Tokyo and most restaurants and department stores have stayed open. Other venues include: 

1) Shinjuku Gyoen Park 
Located in Sendagaya, this place is heavenly for a stroll among the greenery and themed gardens. 

2) Oedo Onsen Monogatari 
The popular bathhouse in Odaiba is alive and doing good business, along with the fancy La Qua Spa in Tokyo Dome

3) Tokyo Tower and Shibuya Sky 
In case you want look down on the city and laugh at its petty problems. 

4) Tama Zoo 
The animals are fine and chilling out. We should do the same. 

5) Fujikyu Highland Amusement Park 
Scream your head off on the roller coasters, at least until 3PM when the place closes. 

6)Brick

Most bars are open but this place in Ginza is a personal favorite, with one of the finest selection of whiskeys in Tokyo. 

END

“The Only Woman in the Room”/ How The Amazing Beate Wrote Equal Rights For Women Into Japan’s Constitution

Unanswerable questions of the year: Is Japan really going to war? Is Japan’s peacetime constitution going to be trashed by the ruling party and returned back to the Imperial Constitution, which did not give suffrage or equal rights to women?

TheonlyThis question will be on the mind and haunt your waking hours after reading “The Only Woman in the Room” by Beate Sirota Gordon. In this memoir, she takes us through the various events in her life made remarkable by the fact that in late 1945, she became a member on the US Occupation team that drew up Japan’s National Constitution. Not only was she the only woman in the room, she was just 22 years old.

Her passport said she was an American citizen, but Beate Sirota had lived for 10 years in Akasaka, Tokyo with her Russian Jewish parents (her father Leo Sirota was a celebrated musician from Vienna and a close friend of Kosaku Yamada). For the past five years, she had been in the US while her parents had been in detention in Karuizawa. The only way to catch a plane out of America and into a ravaged, defeated Japan to see them again, was to get a job in the army. Beate’s Japan experience and the fact that she could speak, write, and read with fluency got her that position.

“The Only Woman in the Room” is honest, plain and straightforward – written not by a professional author but an extremely well-bred, cultured woman who had forged a career for herself in a time when women – even in America – were expected to marry, have babies and sink themselves in domestic bliss. Or just sink. Across the Pacific, American women her age were sizing up future husbands at cocktail parties. Beate was commuting from Kanda Kaikan to Occupation headquarters and working on the constitution 10 to 12 hours a day. She often skipped meals, since food was scarce and the work was so pressing. Her male colleagues pushed themselves harder and put in more hours – and Beate mentions that she admired and respected them for that. Her tone is never feminist, probably because she comes from a generation told to revere males and elders. Besides, she grew up in Japan where women shut their mouths and looked down when a male spoke to them, and that was exactly what she did when she first landed in Atsugi and an official asked to see her passport.

On the other hand, though her tone is consistently soft and modest, her voice is clearly her own – and when it’s time to stand up for the Japanese and their rights, she apparently didn’t give an inch. What an ally the Japanese had in Beate, especially Japanese women whom she describes in the book and in interviews she gave later on: “Japanese women are treated like chattels, bought and sold on a whim.”

Rather than change the whole world, Beate wanted to contribute to the building of a modernized Japanese society. Rather than yell out for women’s’ rights and organizing feminist rallies, she sought to raise awareness about the historical plight of Japanese women and children. And just as earnestly, she wished to help her parents, in particular her mother, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. Beate wasn’t a saint nor interested in being one. Without meaning to, she came pretty close. Her prose is never condescending, nor does it brim with self-congratulations as in the case of many memoirs. She had a story to tell and she told it and as far as she was concerned, when the story was over there was no reason for fuss or lingering.

 

beate

 

After the army stint, Beate Sirota Gordon returned with her parents to the US in 1948, married a former colleague in the Army and later worked as the director of the Asia Society and Japan Society in New York. She continued to give interviews about her work on the Constitution but only because she felt that the peace clause (the controversial Article 9) had to be defended repeatedly. She venerated her parents and remained very close to her mother until her death, while raising a family of her own, because family and love were precious and she knew first-hand the tragedy of losing them.

What culminates from her memoirs is her selflessness. Helping others, being fair, and maintaining a striking modesty in spite of her many accomplishments were the defining factors of Beate’s life. She died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, four months after the death of her husband Joseph Gordon. The Asahi Shimbun printed an extensive obituary on the front page, lauding her work and reminding the readers how the Constitution had protected Japan all these decades, for better or worse. Mostly for the better.

We in Japan tend to take the Constitution for granted. Many people remember and harp on the deprivation of the war years but few bother to recall the dismal details of everyday life before that. Women couldn’t go to school; they were expected to serve their parents and male siblings before marrying into households where she continued to serve and slave her husband and his clan. These women brought up their sons in the traditional way – which resulted in an unending circle of entitlement and arrogance for men, and toil and servitude for females. In poor families, parents sold off their children. Soldiers and military policemen detained ordinary citizens on the slightest suspicion and beat them during interrogation. They were responsible for committing unspeakable atrocities in China and Korea.

There was happiness, peace, equality, and respect in the Sirota household when Beate was growing up, but she knew too well how the average Japanese in Japan fared; how women and children were cut off from beauty, culture, or anything out of the familial box. She wanted a magic wand that would somehow change all that, and her idealistic, 22-year old mind told her that if she couldn’t get a wand, the Constitution was bound to be the next best thing. The task was daunting – she was working for peace and gender equality in a country steeped in tradition and ‘bushido’ feudalism. At this point in 1945, not even American women had gender equality and there she was, giving her all to ensuring that Japanese women would get that right. And just for the reason, there wasn’t nor has there ever been, anything in the American Constitution that resembles Japan’s Article 9.

At the end of the book is an elegy by Beate’s son and part of it goes like this: “Your legacy is the art of living in beauty and truth, of speaking up and out for what is right, and of finding our best selves and sharing them.”

 

Love In The Time Of Coronavirus

by Kaori Shoji

The Japanese have never been known for being warm, affectionate or touchy-feely but now it seems like everyone has wedged a hefty distance between themselves and other human beings. On TV, commentators are comparing COVID-19 to the AIDS scare of 30 years ago in the way it discourages people from physical contact, much less the exchange of body fluids. What a bummer. From casual hugs to love hotel trysts, direct contact just isn’t happening anymore and it’s taking a toll on our emotional well-being. Which is why you need to get to the theater this weekend to see Hatsukoi (First Love), if only as a reminder that even in this time of virus infestation, love can thrive – in a manner of speaking. 

Hatsukoi is filmmaker Takashii Miike’s latest, and the cute title is a foil for the utterly sinister events that unfold on screen. This stands to reason – Takashi Miike has built his own cinematic kingdom on the foundations on gore and violence for the last 35 years. Why would he stop now? At the press conference given at the FCCJ earlier this week, Miike joked that he came up with the title in the hopes that people will be lured to theaters, thinking Hatsukoi is a “genuine love story.” If so, they are in for a rude awakening. Hatsukoi is less about the 59-year old Miike mellowing in his advancing years than Miike confirming he still has what it takes to go full throttle on his triple fortes of murder, mayhem and decapitation. 

Having said that, Hatsukoi shows Miike in an uncharacteristically romantic mood, even occasionally favoring the love story factor over the blood-spewing brutality thing. As a result, Hatsukoi is much more palatable than Ichi the Killer: Miike’s 2001 landmark project that put his name on the Hollywood map. Both works share significant similarities – they’s set in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, where a yakuza turf war is raging. Both feature double crossing yakuza going at each other’s throats. And in both movies, the lead role is a sad underdog who never had a break in his life. In Hatsukoi, this is Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), a boxer whose day job is a busboy at a Chinese diner. Leo had been abandoned by his parents at birth and since then, he’s been licking the bottom of a very rotten barrel. That’s about to change however, when he meets a girl on the streets of Kabukicho – hence, the titular first love. 

Interestingly, Hatsukoi’s present day Kabukicho is a different town from when Ichi had stomped its streets. The yakuza have gone corporate and their street cred is way down, which means they must look for ways to co-exist with the Chinese gangster groups that have infiltrated Shinjuku. But old-school clan boss Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) would rather just go to war and kill them all. This doesn’t sit well with Gondo’s young underling Kase (Shota Sometani), who is weary of the clan’s outdated notions of yakuzahood. He’s looking for a fast exit, but not before he lines his pockets with the clan’s meth supply. Crooked cop Otomo (Nao Otomo) is looking for a cut in Kase’s profits, plus a free sex session with the clan’s whore Monica (Sakurako Konishi), forced to turn tricks to pay back her father’s debt. Monica is the focal point of the story as well as the eye of the clan wars shit storm, and in the process she inspires Leo to dream of a future with at least a semblance of personal happiness. They fall for each other, and you can see they’re very careful not to muck it up with anything sexual just yet – it’s the first time either of them have ever been in love. 
The big surprise, coming from Miike, is that Hatsukoi is also about female empowerment. Leo and the other males in the cast may be compelling but they never get off the rails of Japanese machismo and as such, very predictable. The women characters on the other hand, are definitely not the familiar cut-out victims from a typical yakuza movie (take your pick between willing sex kitten or giving mother martyr). First, there’s Becky as Juli, a hard as nails yakuza moll who supervises Monica. When her boyfriend Yasu (Takahiro Miura) – the clan’s accountant – turns up dead, Juli morphs into a raging, screaming avenger with a tremendous blood thirst. She won’t stop until she hunts down Yasu’s murderer, even if that precludes her own, violent death. And Monica, who starts out as the stereotypical victim – sexually abused by her father, then sold into slavery to repay his debts – matures into a person with her own agenda under Leo’s tutelage. In the end, she even gives the ole patriarchy a good, hard kick in the teeth. 

The flesh tearing, head-rolling bloodscapades of Takashi Miike is alive and well. But dig a little under the surface and you’ll see that maybe the filmmaker has changed, just as his beloved Kabukicho has altered beyond recognition. Far from the nonsensical blood-drenched antics of Ichi, it’s now a town where two young people can meet, fall in love and hold hands even as the world bleeds and falls apart around them. Under the current circumstances of virus angst, this particular love story is probably as good as it gets. 

The Truth about Kore-eda

by Kaori Shoji

If you missed last year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters here’s another opportunity to see filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda in action. Kore-eda’s latest is Shinjitsu (international title: The Truth),which marks a celebratory first foray into working with an international cast and staff. And what a cast: the leads are French femme fatale extraordinaire(s) Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, joined by American indies icon Ethan Hawke. 

The Truth (真実) is that Kore-eda transcends Japan’s boundaries to produce great films.

Don’t let the Kanji character title fool you – nothing about “Shinjitsu is even remotely Japanese. To my relief and Kore-eda’s credit, he’s not pandering to western ideas of ‘Japanese-ness’ here, Not even a mention of a sushi restaurant. And he never shows signs that he’s a bit awed by the exalted figures walking around on his set. He simply goes about doing what he does best, which is portraying women in the family circle. (He does that with men too, but with women his gaze is warmer and far less analytical.) The filmmaker is especially adept at observing the emotional tug-of-war that inevitably erupts between older mothers and middle-aged daughters, the gentle power-mongering between husbands and wives, or the family matriarch quietly exerting her influence on the rest of her family. In Shoplifters, Kore-eda paid special attention and tribute to Kirin Kiki who starred as a sly, feisty old woman on the brink of destitution, surrounded by a family that subsisted on theft and shoplifting. Kiki died last year at the age of 75, – the same age that Catherine Deneuve is now. Kore-eda has said in interviews that he finds older women fascinating, not just because of the lifetime of stories they harbor but because they don’t capitulate easily to his directions, and has their own opinions. 

With Catherine Deneuve in Shinjitsu, Kore-eda’s gaze lingers long and lovingly over the stunningly smooth contours of her face. When she speaks, everyone else falls silent, as Kore-eda makes sure she commands the kind of attention usually reserved for royalty. But then, pourquoi pas? Deneuve is probably the closest presence to royalty in France anyway. If Marie Antoinette were around to see Deneuve, she would probably be a fan. 

In this, Deneuve plays Fabienne, a veteran French actress who has been estranged from her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) for years. But now her daughter, son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) has arrived in Paris from New York where they live, ostensibly to celebrate the publishing of Fabienne’s autobiography. From the beginning scenes when Lumir, Hank and Charlotte are rolling their suitcases across Fabienne’s large garden to get to her house, everyone’s nerves are on edge. Lumir is worried about what her mother may have wrote about her, and pissed off that Fabienne hadn’t sent her the galleys, even though she had promised. Hank – a TV actor, is uneasy about the fact that his wife pays most of the bills (Lumir is a screenwriter) and he doesn’t speak French. Even 7-year old Charlotte is apprehensive about meeting “grandmere,” as she understands that Fabienne isn’t your typical doting grandma. Indeed, Fabienne’s reception to the trio is cool and matter of fact, devoid of frilly dramatics that can accompany family reunions. 

Lumir and her family is set to stay for a week, and Kore-eda traces each day with meticulous attention to detail. Fabienne is working on a movie – a sci-fi film about a mother who never grows old, but can only see her daughter once every 7 years. Lumir ponders over the wealth of meaning in that premise, while Fabienne just wants to get into the role and be good at it. Everyday, mother, daughter and granddaughter drive together to the film set and Lumir learns to put her initial animosity aside to look after her mom and enjoy her time there. Back at home, Fabienne’s current live-in boyfriend makes all the meals and her long-time secretary Luc arranges all her business affairs. Clearly, Fabienne hasn’t lost her allure to men; they flock around her like bugs to an incandescent light bulb. Even Lumir’s vagabond dad Pierre puts in an appearance. And one night when Fabienne kisses Hank good night, he becomes giddy enough to tell his wife all about it. 

In the midst of it all, Lumir’s old resentments toward her mother come tumbling out of her emotional closet, but mother and daughter have both reached a point when they know that arguments won’t change anything – least of all, Fabienne. “I was never a good mother, but I am a splendid actress which is far more important,” says Fabienne at one point. Deneuve wears that line like a queen draping a long fur coat, and damn what the animal activists might say. (In the film, Fabienne walks her dog in leopard skin, the irony of which goes right over her head.) And Lumir turns her face away, and you can see she’s trying to hide a smile as if to say, “that is SO my mother.” It’s odd, eclectic moments like these that Kore-eda loves to depict; and no doubt it wouldn’t have gone over so lightly had the cast been Japanese. Family relations on the archipelago tend to be weighty, accelerated by decades of sameness and continuity. Kore-eda frequently punches a hole in that schematic, and he proceeded to tear that wide open in Shoplifters.

However, in  Shinjitsu, and in Paris, Kore-eda seems to breathe easier, untethered by conventions, with a lot less to rebel against or prove. Apparently, the man doesn’t speak French beyond a few mundane phrases and the screenplay (written by him) was adapted into French by Lea Le Dimna. He made the whole thing mostly on gut-feeling and intuition and in many ways, Shinjitsu is his best work. Will he leave Japan to become a full-fledged international director? After  Shinjitsu, that seems a likely scenario, which means the Japanese film industry will just have to carry on without him. What a devastating loss. 

Weathering With You (Review)

by Kaori Shoji

Imagine a rainy day that lasted forever

Certain facts of life we know to be true. The tide will turn. The sun will rise. Hayao Miyazaki is the god of Japanese anime. Still, the throne may be ready for a shakedown – or even a partial step down on the part of Miyazaki. Anime filmmaker extraordinaire Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) has blown a huge hole in the fortress of Miyazaki’s storied production company Studio Ghibli, with his latest: Tenki no Ko (International Title: ‘Weathering With You’).” It’s a semi-utopian spin on the dismally dystopian subject of climate change, and the ending has instigated a controversial firestorm on social media. The question at the eye of the storm is this: “Should we forgive the protagonists for putting their personal happiness before the greater good?”

Though the verdict is still out, my guess is that Hayao Miyazaki would probably say a loud “no way”. As the ultra-stoic-but-always-benevolent tyrant of Japanese anime, he has consistently sacrificed his characters’ romantic inclinations to “much bigger things,” as he once said in an interview – i.e., the benefit or survival, of human society. In a Miyazaki story, boy and girl will get to meet but they will never get together, as there are much bigger things at stake. 

In Weathering With You the Tokyo metropolitan area is locked into a rainy season that won’t go away. No one has felt the feeblest of sunshine or glimpsed a patch of blue sky for months. The only exit out of this perpetual wetness seems to lie in the hands of a pretty teenage girl named Hina (voiced by Nana Mori) Her sort-of-boyfriend Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) is sort of her boyfriend, because they don’t exchange so much as a kiss–gleans Hina’s secret power. Initially, he advises Hina to cash in by starting a fair weather business and Hina agrees to go on social media and advertise her abilities as the “good weather girl”. Soon, orders for good weather start pouring in and Hina is summoned to a barbecue party here, a sports event there, or even an ancestral ritual at an old lady’s home. The money’s not bad either, and as Hina’s little brother Nagi (voiced by Sakura Kiryu) joins in, the trio start to feel like a cozy little family. 

Sixteen-year old Hodaka is too shy to admit his love for Hina–especially since she has informed him that her 18th birthday is coming up and therefore, she’s way too old for a kid like him. That doesn’t stop Hodaka from going online and researching the perfect birthday gift, which he buys with the money he made with Hina. All this will most certainly elicit stern disapproval from their parents but thankfully, there are no such people in Weathering With You. Hodaka has run away, from home and parents left behind on one of the Izu islands scattered along the Pacific. Hina’s mother died a short while ago and she is supporting Nagi in a tiny apartment near Shinjuku. First, she was on the night shift at a McDonald’s and when that didn’t work out, she made a half-hearted attempt to become a porn actress before Hodaka pulled her back. 

All the while, the rain never stops. 

Fans of Shinkai know dark skies and heavy rains are a big part of his m.o. Plus, the precise, almost photographic depictions of Tokyo’s train stations (mostly the Yamanote line) and streets, especially in the Shinjuku area. Weathering With You has ample portions of both – the story opens on rain-soaked streets, inky puddles and the lesser known alleyways in the Yoyogi neighborhood. When Hina clenches her fingers and prays to the heavens, the clouds part, exposing a glorious patch of azure sky and splendid slants of sunshine. People put their umbrellas away to look up with a smile, and Hodaka rightly observes that “it’s amazing how good you feel when it’s cleared up.”

The contrast of bad weather and good, is one of the factors that propel the story forward – you get a feeling of how badly people need the sun, and what lengths they will go to get it. 

The implication is that Tokyoites are ready to sacrifice Hina on the altar of blue skies, even if they’re only very vaguely aware of her powers or even her presence. In the movie, Hina is a ghostly figure whispered about on the Net, and her abilities are never totally understood. The terrible truth is that the more Hina makes good weather happen, the less there is of her own self; her trade-off with fine weather is her own, physical existence.

One morning when Hodaka wakes up, she’s gone without a trace, save for the bathrobe she was wearing the night before.  

(SPOILER ALERT: That is nowhere near the ending for Hina or Hodaka、so don’t let this review make you feel like we’ve ruined the movie. ↖) 

In reality, Japan braces itself for a rainy season (usually occuring at the beginning of June and lasting four to five weeks) that wreaks havoc on many areas across the archipelago. This year, southwestern Japan was flooded by torrential rains and in Fukuoka city, trucks and cars were submerged in rainwater while soil erosion led to landslides that caused thousands of people to lose their homes. Tokyo wasn’t as bad but enough water came down to partially shut down public transportation and delay construction on Olympic facilities. 

In Weathering With You rainfall spells dire consequences for the metropolis as entire neighborhoods disappear underwater and mighty architectural monuments like the Rainbow Bridge, become steeped in water. Still, as a sage old woman in the movie remarks, “It’s all right, Tokyo has gone back to its natural state. That’s all this is.” Indeed, the Japanese capital is a 400-year old artificial island made on a landfill and the greater part of Shinjuku as we know it today, used to be swampland. If we can live with that, surely we can live with Hina getting to have a life of her own, and maybe, eventually–perhaps–falling in love with Hodaka. And the greater good be damned. 

Statue of a Korean Girl Causes Meltdown at Aichi Triennale

by Kaori Shoji

It’s 35 degrees Celsius in Nagoya City and the mercury is expected to rise even further. Maybe the recent incident at the Aichi Triennale has something to do with it – the heat feels merciless and suffocating, much like the protest calls that continue to plague an otherwise celebratory art event.

Whether in the state of California or on the prefecure of Aichi, Japan, statues of comfort women, raise the ire of certain Japanese males who would like to sweep the past under the chair.

For those not in the know, here’s a rough sketch of what happened: On August 1, the Aichi Triennale kicked off. Directed by celebrity artist Daisuke Tsuda, the Triennale aimed to close the gender gap and encourage increased participation from women artists and feminist themes. One of the main exhibits, “The Non-Freedom of Expression – What Happens Later,” caused a huge stir. Created by a Korean sculptor couple (whose identities have not been revealed in mainstream media), the centerpiece is a statue of a young Korean girl. The description says she is a comfort woman, forcibly taken from her home by the Japanese military during WWII.

On August 2, the Triennale offices are flooded with calls of protests and outrage, including one from Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura, who it was said, sputtered with anger all over his phone screen, and then followed that up with a written statement. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also phoned in his appearance, expressing concerns that a government funded art event was showcasing a statue loaded with anti-government sentiments – is this right? There were more than a few death threats, many of which expressed intentions to replay the recent Kyoto Animation arson incident that killed 35 people.

On August 3, Daisuke Tsuda holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the exhibit. A controversial firestorm erupts across the archipelago.

It feels like the Japanese will never see eye-to-eye on the comfort women issue with their neighbors on the peninsula. On the list of old wounds that Japan would prefer to forget, or failing memory lapse, ignore completely – the sexual slaves known as “ianfu” or comfort women” to the western world, occupies first place. There’s something about this chunk of history that grates on Japanese male nerves, for it’s usually the men: politicians, commentators, academics and the rotund salariman sitting next to me on the subway – that get incoherent with indignation at the mere mention of the term. Last summer, I happened to be at an informal gathering when the subject came up. We were standing around a small table of drinks, and as soon as the word “ianfu” was uttered, the women scattered like sparrows and the men launched into a tirade that amounted to: “Of course there were comfort women in wartime. What else were they expecting? We were at war!”

Infuriatingly, the Japanese term for “comfort women”  (慰安婦・ianfu) is comprised of the kanji characters ‘ian’ which means to console and heal, and ‘fu’ which means female. ‘Ian” is still in circulation, most often in terms like ‘ianryokou,’ which refers to annual trips that many corporations dole out to their employees, ostensibly to let them relax and have a good time. Back in the mid-Heisei era, it was still quite common for these consolation trips to include geisha attendance and jaunts to strip bars, for the benefit of their male employees. In some companies, it was the norm for executives to invite prostitutes to their hotel rooms, and put it on their company tabs. For many, many Japanese men, a woman’s value is measured by how well she consoles and heals their tired nerves. One of the highest praises that can be bestowed on a woman, remains: ‘iyasareru’ (癒やされる)meaning, “you heal me.” When the outside world (in this case South Korea) dares to put a dent in that beautiful, traditional, man-woman relationship (i.e., the brave male being healed by a willing sexual slave, regardless of nationality) which Japanese men apparently see as their birthright, it probably feels like a punch in the face. Nagoya mayor Kawamura said as much when he wrote in his statement: “The collective Japanese heart has been trampled to bits.”

Awww, what a shame.

But the incident at the Aichi Triennale shows that though their hearts are trampled, Japanese men are capable of pushing back, albeit over their smartphones. At the press conference, Triennale director Daisuke Tsuda stressed that the cancellation wasn’t due to Mayor Kawamura, or the Chief Cabinet Secretary, or anything political. “It was because of the phone calls,” he said. “The office lines were jammed with protest calls and there simply weren’t enough staff to deal with them. Everyone was working overtime anyway, and I could not, in good conscience, ask these people to deal with angry callers on top of their already considerable workloads.”

Tsuda went on to say that the decision was “heartrending” because “this will create a precedent of being able to crush work of art with anonymous phone calls.”

And now that the statue has been taken away, we have yet to assess the repercussions. As the dust settles, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party members are getting their act together to say – altogether now, boys! – that threats and violence are BAD. Freedom of expression is GOOD.

Now that we’re clear on that matter, who’s ready to address the problem of comfort women?

[The Journalist] Shines Light on Japan’s Dark Side (film review)

by Kaori Shoji

Shinbun Kisha (The Journalist) is getting great box office and rave reviews, belying the myth that a Japanese movie about newsrooms and politics just won’t cut it. Based on the bestselling autobiography by audacious Tokyo Shinbun (東京新聞) reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalist is a suspense thriller about how the titular woman journalist dared go after the government to unveil conspiracies and cover-ups. Infuriatingly, most of her male colleagues are intent on adhering to the status quo. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat from ‘Naicho’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident. 

“All Japan needs is a mere facade of democracy,” goes a line in this movie, implying that the nation neither needs or wants the real deal. 

But now, with the House of Councillors election happening on Sunday, politics is on many peoples’ minds, including millennials that had shown zero interest in the past. Tickets in 42 theaters have sold out and the movie’s distributors announced that they will be printing 10,000 new copies of The Journalist pamphlet, as they’ve been selling off the shelves in theaters across Japan. Next week, the two main cast members will appear on stage at a theater in Shinjuku, to take their bows and answer questions from the audience. It looks like politics and newsrooms are a winning combination!

The Journalist is gripping, wrenching and ultimately cathartic, even if the plucky heroine doesn’t oust the evil government agents or get an enormous raise for her efforts. No, what happens is that news hound Erica Yoshioka (played by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung), after a series of grueling assignments that require round-the-clock investigating, not to mention the actual writing –gets to keep her job so she can start the cycle all over again in the name of quality journalism. Yoshioka also keeps her dignity and integrity intact, which is much more than one can say for Japanese movies about professional women, or let’s face it, women protagonists in general. 

The role of Erica Yoshioka is gutsy and intriguing and you can’t help but wonder why a Japanese actress didn’t snap it up. Rumors are going around that all the possible candidates had turned it down because they didn’t want to get involved in anything anti-government and were afraid of the backlash. Shim can return to South Korea, but Japanese actresses have to live and work here. 

Personally, I’ll take what I can get, and bask in the fact that The Journalist got made at all. Usually, such projects never get off the ground. Not only does The Journalist dig at some old scars the current Administration would rather forget, it bears the hallmarks of a well-meaning dud. There is no love story. There are no sex scenes or girl idols to alleviate the complete seriousness of the proceedings. And the director, Michihito Fujii, is only 32 years old with no blockbusters on his resume. Initially, Fujii turned down the offer of director since, as he professed in an online interview, “I didn’t know anything about politics or the news.” 
Still, once he signed on, Fujii did the research, hit the books and lined up interviews with government officials. The story benefits from his efforts but the directing seems just a tad stiff and two-dimensional. Perhaps Fujii was too caught up in the material to do more than connect the dots, albeit with meticulous expertise. 

As it is, The Journalists belong to Shim and Tohri Matsuzaka who plays Sugihara, the elite bureaucrat working for ‘Naicho’. They give their all to film and Matsuzaka has been commended on social media for taking on a “dangerous” role that could potentially give him a bad name (the anti-government name). 

Compared to Shim’s Yoshioka, Sugihara is more nuanced and inwardly tortured. His job is to protect the current administration and make sure the press don’t get their hands on any problematic information, but he has his misgivings. When his boss commits suicide to cover up another cover-up, Sugihara is shaken.

(Editor’s note–this is based on the suicide of a Finance Ministry official who killed himself rather than take part in deleting or altering government documents that implicated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a scandal relating to a government land-sale to a right-wing elementary school, run by his crony. None of the other officials who participated in forging public documents, which is a criminal offense, were charged; the female prosecutor who dropped the case was promoted)

The boss’s last words to Sugihara had been “don’t end up like me,” and Sugihara can’t fathom whether that meant “don’t die” or “don’t get involved in anything bad.” For a Naicho bureaucrat, the two most likely mean the same thing. 
Matsuzaka is a revelation – he has always been good but The Journalist shows his range. Last year, he was doing sex scenes ad nauseum in Call Boy and here, he never even takes off his jacket. 

A word about Shim as Yoshioka: in the movie, her character has a Japanese father and a Korean mother, hence her accent when she speaks Japanese. Yoshioka completely lives for her job, to the point of excluding everything else from her life. It turns out that her father (also a journalist) had killed himself over an incident involving fake news. As his daughter, she had vowed to pursue the truth, whatever the cost. Shim’s performance is excellent, and one can only hope there will be a future where Japanese actresses will go for roles like this –  far, far away from the planet of ‘Kawaii’.

In real life, there aren’t a whole lot of women journalists working for Japanese newspapers. Many don’t make it past the first five years; what with the long hours combined with frequent transfers to regional branches, incidents of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and of course, that thick glass ceiling – the job doesn’t exactly encourage them to stay on. 

Isoko Mochizuki, the author of the book on which the film is based, however, is changing the scenery. As mentioned above, she’s a veteran reporter for Tokyo Shinbun which is famed for its hard-hitting investigative journalism and for being the Abe Administration’s most vocal critic. Her frequent cross questioning of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has ripped a big hole in Japan’s infamous ‘kisha club’ system (where only the reporters of major newspapers are allowed to attend closed press conferences). And now, with the unexpected success of The Journalist, perhaps we can start discussing hard-hitting issues like democracy and freedom of the press. Who’s to say the Japanese don’t need it ? They seem to love films that bring up these issues.

The Muji Hotel: Where Japanese Consumerism Meets Cute With Zen Minimalism But They Don’t Make Out


By Kaori Shoji 

I am at the reception counter of Muji Hotel – the much touted and long awaited hotel produced by Muji, Japan’s popular minimalist clothing and household products brand. Muji, as you may know, stands for Mujirushi (無印) which literally means “no seal or stamp”; it’s a brand who’s trademark is no (visible) brand. Which is very Zen-like unless you look at the label inside.

When the hotel first opened in early April, rumor had it that every room was booked solid for the next 2 years. In late May, procuring a room (on a weekday) proved easy. Muji (rhymes with Fuji) has grown into a global label touting Japan-style simplicity and aesthetics but to the average  non-minimalist Japanese, it remains inscrutable, even unfathomable. Many see the pared down surfaces and uniform designs of Muji products as a tad too aggressively simple to fit into their own lives. 

Aggressive maybe, but never offensive. There’s not the tiniest fragment of offensiveness anywhere in the Muji Hotel, including the young woman who checks me in. She’s an epitome of serenity and calm, her hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck and wearing what is clearly a Muji outfit (white shirt and loose black cardigan plus black pants) the uniform of the hotel staff. She speaks almost flawless Japanese along with English and Urdu which she says is her native language. Before handing me the card key to my room, the young woman gives me an ‘omamori’ or talisman, compliments of Muji – and explains that inside the tiny cloth satchel there’s an emergency whistle (“in case of a natural disaster and other unforeseen events”) and a tiny leaflet containing instructions on getting through emergencies great and small. I open this leaflet and on the last page there is this advice: “If you should feel lonely, look up at the stars in the night sky.” 

My room which is a single, feels spacious thanks to the high ceiling measuring over 3.5 meters. In Tokyo, high ceilings are a luxury and when it comes to hotel rooms, they’re the exclusive domain of high-end imported brands like the Peninsula, the Park Hyatt and the Ritz Carlton. Muji is distinctive in that it’s a genuine Japanese hotel, located in one of the choicest pieces of real estate in Tokyo, but only charges a fixed rate of 140 USD per single room, per night. Most importantly, it doesn’t suck or resemble a prison cell.

On the other hand, you can’t imagine anyone having a tryst here– it’s far too pristine and devoid of emotion. And a hotel without a tryst is like a cupcake without icing. Or am I being offensive? (Editor’s note: Not offensive. ‘A donut without a hole’ might have been an offensive metaphor but then again they eat donut holes in Australia, so who’s to say?)

Back in my room, a faint scent of linen combined with lavender lingers in the air, piped out from a portable aroma diffuser, one of Muji’s most popular items. Actually, everything in the room is made by Muji, from the bed to the packets of shampoo and conditioner precisely laid out in an oak chest (also Muji), to the little bag of complimentary snacks and the bottled water in the mini-fridge (also Muji). The idea is to let the guests get a taste of what it’s like to live a life defined by Muji, by spending some time in a space designed and totally controlled by Muji. And afterwards,  we can take the escalator down to any of the five floors of Muji’s flagship store that’s located right below the hotel. The hotel and the shop are in the same building, and some of the tourists check in with empty suitcases, to stock up on Muji products during their stay. It’s a pretty nifty arrangement for Muji and The Minimalists–which could be a great ambient music band name. 

The brand has always opted for discretion, restraint, understatement with a whiff of snobbishness. To admit to a love of Muji is to tell the world that as a consumer, you’re very woke. Muji covers all the bases that would gladden the heart of a discerning shopper: recyclable materials, ethical off-shore manufacturing, diversity among the staff, organic cotton in the clothing line and energy efficient appliances. Add to that the flat, unobtrusive, utterly desexualized designs and it all totals up to something that is for many minimalists, a guilty pleasure. Indeed, many Japanese minimalists admit on their blogs that if they have to shop at all, they shop at Muji. Others have taken it several levels higher by buying Muji houses (yes, they will make an entire house from the ground up) and outfitting it with Muji kitchens and bathrooms, after which they proceed to fill it up with Muji furniture and Muji food. 

Muji was launched in 1980 by retail giant Seibu Conglomerates, as an alternative brand to what (then) Seibu CEO Seiji Tsutsumi saw as the nation’s misguided and excessive consumerism.  Japanese consumers were hurling themselves into the go-go economy, believing that shopping nirvana was the closest thing to paradise. All of a sudden, the cramped living spaces of the average Japanese were overflowing with stuff. Few of it matched or made sense, and perhaps for the first time in Japanese history, people found themselves in possession of with more STUFF than they ever thought possible. 


Muji offered an escape hatch from the clueless clutter of it all, with uniform, collapsible shelves and drawers designed to hold the simplest, most non-intrusive products. Now, forty years later, any discussion of Japanese minimalism almost always precludes a discussion of Muji. Konmari may be riding on her big wave at the moment, but Muji had been on the beach long before she was decluttering the ocean.

But as the hotel room shows, Muji has perhaps, gone a bit overboard. They had always walked the fine line between selling their ideals and selling their products but with the opening of the hotel, it seems that boundary has been obliterated. Muji has merged the product with the ideal, and the whole package comes with a price tag. 

Consequently, the last thing you’d want to do in this space is to indulge in carnal pleasures, though to be fair, the hotel does encourage it. (Muji Prophylactics are sold on the third floor.)  But since I was alone, what else was there to do but open my laptop to work at the Muji desk, lit by a Muji lamp, wearing Muji slippers after taking a shower in the Muji bathroom? Maybe I’ll even follow Muji’s suggestion and look up at the night sky for a few twinkling stars–and then fall into a dreamless Muji sleep. 

Note: In a homage to Muji style, none of the photos in this article have been captioned.

Mahjong Horoki 2020 – A Film Way Cooler Than Cool Japan

by Kaori Shoji

Note: Theories abound as to how mahjong originated in China. Some say the inventor was Confucius who played it, was hooked and ultimately abandoned it because of its addictive nature, some time in the 6th century B.C. In its present state, mahjong is played with 136 to 144 rectangular tiles, over a table seating 3 to 4 players. All the tiles are marked with Chinese characters and symbols.The goal of the game, simplified, is to get a mahjong, which consists of getting all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair. A pair is two identical tiles. A set can either be a “pung,” which is three identical tiles, or a “chow,” which is a run of three consecutive numbers in the same suit. A single tile cannot be used in two sets at once. In the west, the closest thing is gin rummy. In Japan, mahjong has been around since the 1900s and is a semi-legitimized form of gambling, provided the stakes are low. It used to be the favorite past-time of college students and bored reporters in the police press club.

Mahjong in an addiction that’s ageless.

On March 17, the day that character actor and performer Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) was arrested for possession of cocaine, the producers of the film Mahjong Horoki (Mahjong Chronicles) inwhich Taki appears in a significant role, held an emergency meeting. First item on the agenda: to open the film on the slated date of April 5, or to scrap it? Already the Japanese media was moving to make Taki disappear – all his endorsements, events and TV appearances were cancelled. A concert scheduled for this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, evaporated. NHK even rubbed out all of Taki’s scenes in their prime time Sunday night drama Idaten, (including those already aired), making preparations to shoot everything all over again. 

Taki had never sold on a nice-guy image but this scandal was huge, packing enough explosives to rock Mahjong Horoki 2020’s distributor company Toei, from its very foundations. After much discussion, the makers of the film – in particular director Kazuya Shiraishi, Taki’s long-time friend, pushed for a go. Letters were sent out to the press explaining the move, and why Shiraishi decided not to slash any of Taki’s scenes before opening. “Taki’s arrest is not the movie’s fault,” said the letter. Fair enough and a good thing, too. “Mahjong Horoki 2020” is weird, gross and ultimately appealing – it’s a celebration, among other things, of the sheer, raging wonders of the Showa era (1926 – 1989). So much, that the last 31 years of the Heisei era start to look like a bland, blah wasteland. As a line in the movie aptly describes it, “the only thing anyone does around here is to live a long, long time.” Ouch. 

Still, the Heisei era should be given credit for supplying Shiraishi with the iPhone 8, (eight of them to be exact) that he deploys in shooting the film. The colors schemes are too lurid, and the jittery, hand-held effect doesn’t really work in scenes with open spaces but the device is brilliant for close-ups, of which there is plenty, including Taki’s scary, deadpan visage. 

Taki plays a man called Mori – and he’s the kind of snide, rude, power-hungry asshole that Pierre Taki portrays to perfection. Mori is the director of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is abruptly cancelled with the breakout of WWIII. A very pissed off Mori vows to hold an Olympics of something, and as the story progresses that something turns out to be mahjong. On the Friday that the movie opened, Pierre Taki was released on bail and director Shiraishi announced in a press conference that he hoped the Japanese public would “laud and encourage” Taki, once he was rehabilitated and reinstated as a media figure. 

Speaking of reinstated, another intriguing presence in the movie is Becky, the half-British, half-Japanese comedienne whose career was all but obliterated following a noisily publicized affair with a married musician. In Japan, infidelity is a serious offense among celebrities, perhaps more so than drug use. Becky was benched for over 2 years while her partner in crime came out relatively unscathed (which is another can of worms labelled gender discrimination). In “Mahong…,” she stars in a double role – first as a mysterious club hostess with incredible mahjong skills, and next as the android “AI Yuki,” programmed to win against the most talented mahjong player. 

As you may have guessed, Mahjong...is defined by and obsessed with, the titular game. Based on the first of the 4-part novel series by Tetsuya Asada (aka Takehiro Irokawa) published in 1969, Mahjong…recreates the blood, sweat and tears backdrop of Tokyo’s immediate postwar years as well as highlight the dark grotesqueness that often accompanies the game. Unlike pachinko, mahjong comes under illegal gambling and liable for prosecution, as in the case of a mayor who was arrested in the middle of a game in Fukuoka prefecture 3 years ago. Like pachinko however, the police turn a blind eye to most mahjong players and the “jyanso,” or mahjong houses that host them. As long as the stakes are low, the cops won’t come bursting in – theoretically. The crossover line is 200 yen at 1000 points, which roughly adds up to about 30,000 yen an hour for the winner. 

In Japan, one hears of fantastic mahjong stories, like the woman who won 550,000 yen on a single night and then lost double that amount in her next game. Or the guy who put up his home as collateral and how his wife and kids found themselves on the street even as he holed up in a jyanso to turn his luck. When it comes to addiction and self-destruction, mahjong players are in a league of their own and the tumble into the mud sludge of debt generally comes quicker than anyone bargains for. The consequences (since most jyanso are owned and operated by the yakuza) can be severe. Tetsuya Asada’s novel series laid it all out, tracing the life of the protagonist “Boya (which means little boy) Tetsu.” At first, Tetsu was a fresh-faced 16-year old mahjong rookie, being groomed for the game by the pros in Tokyo in 1945, when the city was nothing but ash and rubble. In the last volume, Tetsu is a salariman in his his early 30s, struggling to break free of his addiction (and failing) as Japan gears up to become the world’s number one economy. 

Mahjong Horoki was adapted to the screen once before, in 1984 by Makoto Wada. A young and perky Hiroyuki Sanada played Tetsu, and Mariko Kaga played his benefactor and the story’s mahjong goddess. Now in 2020, those roles have gone to Takumi Saito and Becky, respectively. Saito is best known for having cornering the market on degenerate, sexy dude roles but now in his late 30s, the role of Little Boy Tetsu may be a stretch (in the story, he’s also supposed to be a virgin. No way.). But to Saito’s credit, Tetsu’s addiction to the game oozes out of his every pore. The guy can only think of one thing: to sit at the mahjong table and play for the kind of stakes that, even if he wins, would destroy his soul forever. 


Japan has changed beyond recognition since Asada penned the original novel series, but addiction – as this movie abundantly illustrates – is a monster that never dies. 

The high price of cocaine in Japan (metaphorically & literally)

by Kaori Shoji

The March 12 arrest of Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) for possession and usage of cocaine sent shock waves through the Japanese media. Now that April and the new Reiwa era has kicked in, the hew and cry over Taki’s fiasco has died down somewhat. And he is out on bail. And of course, he did a 30 second bow, after his release to show he was very very contrite. And yes, there is someone out there who actually counts the length of an apology bow. By the end of the Reina era, the average “bow of apology” is expected to stretch to 75 seconds. 

Would you be surprised if this yakuza-ish character in the game was a coke-fiend? Would you be less surprised if the actor playing him was a coke-head?

The repercussions however, are far from over. Pierre Taki went from being the frontman of synthpop/techno band Denki Groove to one of the most visible actors in Japanese film and television. Taki was never a lead man but with his deadpan humor and weighty presence, he had carved out a John Malkovich-like position and as such, the man is not easily replaceable. At the time of his arrest Taki had been working on a number of TV dramas including NHK’s prestigious Sunday night series Idaten. NHK has announced that they have deleted all of Taki’s scenes including the ones already aired. Apparently, NHK is shooting everything again from scratch, tripling the workload for cast and crew members while other major networks scrambled to cancel Taki’s scenes and appearances. All of Taki’s product endorsements were pulled out. Sales of Sega’s video game Judgement Japan in which Taki appears as a key character, has been stopped. 

Judgement Japan was a spin-off of Sega’s popular yakuza games series (龍が如く in Japan) and coincidentally, the series also had another actor retroactively removed from the a game after allegations of cocaine use were published. Even in a game about yakuza, it’s not acceptable for the actors playing the characters, who use drugs, to actually use drugs. In a show of moral consternation, Denki Groove’s music was subsequently yanked off the Net. 

Adhering to the Japanese custom in such cases, Taki’s elderly father has appeared in the media to apologize for the wrongdoings of his 51-year old son. The rest of Taki’s family (his wife for instance) has not been seen. 

According to news reports, Taki’s arrest cost the Japanese media over 3 billion yen in losses. That bill will be sent to Taki and it remains to be seen how he’ll deal with it. 

In the meantime, Taki seems resigned to his fate. The prosecution has released part of his statement attesting to a coke habit going back 30 years. “When I was in my twenties, I was doing cocaine and marijuana whenever I went abroad. After that, the habit stuck with me,” Taki reportedly said. Rumor has it that Taki in the full-statement added “I’m not the only one,” which sounds ominous. 

Speculations abound as to who’s next in-line to be busted for drug use. Japan has a reputation of being relatively drug-free, with the exception of amphetamines known as “kakuseizai (覚せい剤)” which has been around since the 1920s. Kakuseizai was and continues to be, a picker-upper used by many segments of the populace—especially yakuza and media celebrities. Interestingly enough, the drug is considered relatively harmless compared to the big baddies: cocaine and heroin. It’s also easy to lay hands on some of it, provided you have the cash and the right friends with tattoos. 

Cliched as it sounds, most clubs in Roppongi have V.I.P. rooms where people like Taki can stroll in, sit down and start inhaling shabu—the other name for the drug—referring to the dry mouth and thirst that comes with usage, as well as the tendency of habitual use to suck the life out of the addict. Street prices are now fixed at 70,000 yen per 1 gram, which is a third of the price of cocaine. Five years ago, kakuseizai peaked at 90,000 yen to the gram but the word on the street is that the suppliers have come to outnumber the users. 

Japan’s notoriously slow (or thorough, depending on how you look at it) narcotics investigators usually take 18 or so months to gather the evidence for a viable case, and another few months before actually making an arrest. A media analyst who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “I know of a case where the narcotics team spent three years trying to nab the president of a major ‘talent’ agency. They made sure the evidence was air-tight, went in and made the arrest. After all that, the president went free on a suspended sentence. The next year, he was back in business.”

Indeed, kakuseizai can tarnish a public image but not irrevocably. Former baseball superstar Kazuhiro Kiyohara is a case in point. In 2016 he was arrested for using and possessing kakuseizai but after the hullabaloo died down, Kiyohara reinvented himself as a rehab guru. His heavily confessional self-help books continue to sell and he makes frequent appearances on comedy shows. He has turned his misfortune into a second fortune. 

The aforementioned analyst explained: “If a celebrity is going to slip, he or she better make sure they’re big enough to withstand the fall. The bigger the name, the more lenient the sentence and the faster the comeback. Everyone in the entertainment industry understands this, which is partially why it takes so long for prosecutors to make an arrest. Everyone crowds around the golden goose, to protect and nurture. A lot of peoples’ livelihoods depend on the survival of that goose. The goose called Pierre Taki kept going for 30 years.” 

So is getting caught using drugs a by-product of this super-aged society? It’s sure starting to sound like it. Mega -stars like Aska, (of the music duo Chage and Aska) was arrested for kakuseizai abuse twice, but in his sixties he’s back on stage, touring the archipelago as a one-man show. 

Pierre Taki may not be so lucky. Compared to kakuseizai, cocaine constitutes a serious offense and it’s much more difficult to buy in Japan. Taki has never cultivated a squeaky  clean image but the overall verdict is that it will take him some time to bounce back from this one. Other celebrities arrested for coke include Shintaro Katsu, an iconic actor from the Showa era whose booze and womanizing lifestyle was in perfect sync with his yakuza roles. In 1990, Katsu (then in his late 50s) was arrested in Hawaii for possession of cocaine which he hid in his underwear. He was promptly deported back to Japan and arrested in Narita Airport but he never admitted where he got the drug and seasoned his trial with bawdy jokes. Katsu’s career and health deteriorated after that but when he died 7 years later at the age of 65–11,000 fans turned up for his funeral. 

“I know this is a bad thing to say, but many in the entertainment industry tend to view cocaine as a glamor drug,” said the journalist. “Being arrested for kakuseizai is pretty much run of the mill but a coke habit suggests money, connections and status.”

If this is true, we’ll surely be seeing Pierre Taki again. He may need the money, after all.