“The Crusher Boss” by Ichiyo Matsuzaki/Reviewed by Kaori Shoji

 

Soul Crusher Boss
Times to lean in and times to run away

For those of us living and working in Japan, it’s tempting to think that the soul-crushing boss is a phenomenon unique to the archipelago. Certainly, there’s a better chance of meeting one of these insensitive, abusive, anachronistic, stuck-in-the-Showa-era-mindset men (because they’re always male) in corporate management positions than in say, New Zealand or Italy. Actually though, the soul-crusher boss can be found in the farthest reaches of the globe. And why go that far? We have only to turn on the news to catch up with the biggest soul crusher now in business: the current US President.

However, according to Dr. Ichiyo Matsuzaki who specializes in workplace depression and mental stress, and coined the phrase “Kurasshaa Jyoushi (Crusher Boss),” this monster carries a Japanese passport. Earlier this year, Dr. Matsuzaki came out with his latest book on that very subject “Kurasshaa Jyoushi – Heikide Bukawo Oitsumeru Hitotachi (The Crusher Boss – People Who Think Nothing of Driving Their Underlings Crazy”) and it’s a spine-chilling account of how some Japanese bosses literally choke the life out of their subordinates and view the deed as a badge of honor.

The book kicks off with an incident that happened when Dr. Matsuzaki was invited to advise a group of executives from a major ad agency, on solving problems of mental health and overwork within their company. Dr. Matsuzaki and his team went into the meeting armed with data and solutions but received a frigid welcome. Minutes into his presentation, Dr. Matsuzaki was then asked to pack up and leave as quickly as possible. “One executive came right out and said he had gotten to his current position by destroying 5 of his men and he was proud of it,” writes Dr, Matsuzaki in his book. “One after another, these managers all said in different ways that no good will ever come out of coddling employees with mental health problems. Spending time and resources on such matters will blunt the company’s competitive edge, and they preferred it if I didn’t mention anything more about mental health and overwork. They just weren’t interested.”

That little scene unfolded 15 years ago, and it prompted Dr. Matsuzaki to invent a term for these bosses: “The Crusher.” The book goes on to describe the twin pillars that make up the personality of a Crusher Boss: 1) He is convinced that he’s acting for the good of his underlings and the company. 2) He has no sense of guilt and is incapable of empathizing with those he quashes underfoot. It’s darkly interesting to read that this first incident took place at an unnamed “major” ad agency. Readers may recall that last Christmas, 24-year old Matsuri Takahashi jumped off a building (the rooftop of her company dormitory) because of acute stress and overwork, according to her Twitter account and the last text messages she sent to her mother. Ms. Takahashi had been an employee of infamous ad giant Dentsu Inc., a company with an abominable track record of driving their workers to the brink of insanity or actual suicide.

Crusher men can be found anywhere, and in any industry. But in Japan, the Crushers are can take years to surface or pinpoint because their tactics are more subtle than bosses that are obviously violent or clearly into harassment of all kinds. The book divides the Crusher into 4 types: A) The boss who has no idea how much his underlings are suffering because he simply lacks any sense of empathy. He’s convinced that he is the good guy, and whatever he’s doing will ultimately benefit the company. B) The perfectionist who operates on the notion that everyone else around him must be a perfectionist too. Since this boss is so caught up in pursuing perfection, he has no idea how to give praise or encouragement, but will swoop down anyone who makes a mistake at work, however trivial. C) This boss has an inkling that he’s being a jerk, but he’s too sneaky to get caught and too shallow to do anything really drastic. He’s also the type to get ahead faster than any of his colleagues and leave depressed, ruined subordinates in his wake. D) This is the Unhappy At Home boss, who has given his all to the company and used every means at his disposal to get ahead of his peers. Consequently, he has alienated himself from his family and when he goes home, his wife and kids treat him like a stranger or a serial killer who happened to drop in.

We all know these men. As a Japanese woman, I can attest to encountering at least one or more types of Crushers at every turn and stage of life. They were there as teachers at regular school and as instructors at cram schools. He was the coach on the volleyball team in my middle school, who stepped on the hands of 14-year old girls after a tournament, because these girls made crucial mistakes on the court that led to defeat. He was the company president who interviewed me for a job, and then boasted gleefully that his father had been a Japanese  Army sergeant who murdered “hundreds of Chinese” during WWII. He is the cafe owner in my neighborhood who made it a habit of verbally abusing and embarrassing his staff right in front of the customers. My own father, grandfather, and other males in my family were to varying degrees, Crushers. They could never be described as warm or empathetic in the family circle and probably wasn’t much different in their workplaces.

Why do Crushers continue to crush souls? Though Dr. Matsuzaki’s book describes the traits of the Crusher boss in painful detail, it falls short when it comes to analyzing the reasons behind their behavior. Dr. Matsuzaki writes that a lot of it has to do with these men’s childhoods and the way they were brought up. As children and adolescents, they had never experienced much joy, love or abundance. They had always lived in the shadow of the Japanese surrender in WWII and were saddled with a mega-sized inferiority complex. There was always tremendous pressure from their parents to excel in whatever they did, because unless they worked their asses off they would never be able to marry, own a house and become a respectable Japanese citizen. Metaphorically speaking, the wolf was always at the door, ready to pry it open and devour them alive. In other words, the book states that the awful mind-set of Japanese society, brought about by the Japanese defeat and the rapid growth era of the 1960s and 70s, is to blame. Everyone suffered back then, and everyone must suffer now.

This conclusion is a little disappointing – jerking a thumb back at the war and the rapid growth period is something most academics do when they want to explain almost any bad thing plaguing the Japanese today.

Nor does the good Doctor offer any coherent solutions. But his book does raise awareness about Crusher bosses and Japanese labor (mal)practices. And some Crusher boss sitting at a desk in some company may suddenly wake up and realize that it’s HIM the book is talking about. Not that I would bet on this ever happening. As Dr. Matsuzaki so eloquently explains, the overriding trait of the Crusher boss is an air-tight, ironclad oblivion to his own abusiveness. And the Crusher could die a hundred times before it would ever occur to him that maybe, just maybe – he could be wrong about something. We all know about these men. The question remains what to do about them.

The 10 Worst Films About Japan*: You Might Only Live Twice But Are These Movies Worth Seeing Once?

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic and some considered to be the worst films in Japan by our caustic guest movie review,毒舌姫, 庄司かおり様

 

by Kaori Shoji

1) Memoirs of a Geisha  (2005)

 

Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Zhang Ziyi as a ravishing prewar geisha by the name of Sayuri (‘white lily’), this particular vehicle sinks to basement level lows of pigeon-holing and cultural misunderstanding. As a Japanese female I just don’t feel like forgiving this one – the emotional damage is irrevocable. To make things worse, national acting treasure Ken Watanabe makes an appearance and seals his fate as an enabler for Hollywood filmmakers to cater to the white male fantasy regarding all things Japanese – namely, geishas. The one bright spot is Kaori Momoi as a hard-as-nails proprietress of a geisha house. The lone authentic presence in a film hyped up on false pretensions.

 

2) The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai parody, The Last Jedi!

Just as Japanese women could never escape the geisha issue, Japanese men will always be associated with the samurai. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hollywood just HAD to up and star Tom Cruise as a disillusioned ex-Union soldier who finds redemption and rebirth in the samurai racket in Meiji era Japan. The story (penned by Jon Logan) is just wrong on so many counts one forgets to feel offended. Most discouragingly, the film was wildly popular on both sides of the Pacific, which goes to show you: the samurai racket (like the geisha racket) is good business. How it affects the yen rate is anyone’s guess.

3) Lost in Translation (2003)

Don’t get me wrong – I love Sofia Coppola as much as the next girl movie afficionado. But the thoroughbred filmmaker of the Coppola clan whose sensibility radar is always spot-on when it comes to charting the emotions and mindscapes of the under-29 woman, ran into some major static at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. As a poignant and appropriately jaded love story between Bill Murray as the slightly weary Hollywood actor come over to shoot a commercial, and Scarlett Johansson (who was all of 18 at the time) “Lost..” is a 4-star affair. But Coppola’s cut-out portrayals of Tokyo are sterile and silly and the Tokyoites who make brief and regrettable appearances…spare us the embarrassment please. No wonder the Murray-Johansson couple hardly ever venture out of the hotel.

 

4) You Only Live Twice 

The Japanese have had always had a soft spot for James Bond but after Sean Connery spent time here for this movie, he became Main Man 007 man as far as the archipelago was concerned. At the time of the film’s release (1967), Connery was sited in fashion magazines as the dude in the suit, who never, ever wore undershirts and whose hairy chest held a ferocious appeal, especially to Japan’s first Bond girls Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama. He left behind a massive inferiority complex from which the nation’s male populace never fully recovered. Shame on you, Bond-san.

5) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Okay, so this isn’t a movie about Japan, but as a depiction of a Japanese male it’s practically the cinematic equivalent of a hate crime. The Hollywood classic that stars  Audrey Hepburn as It Girl of Lower Manhattan, Holly Golightly and the buffy George Peppard as her neighbor slash would-be lover, the film is absolutely delightful. But once Mickey Rooney comes on as a mysterious Japanese man called “Yuniyoshi,” we start feeling a leetle uncomfortable. Rooney is outrageously made-up: protruding teeth, slanting eyes behind thick glasses and spiky black hair heavily pomade-ed. So as a poster boy endorsing Japanese internment during WWII, Yuniyoshi-san is perfect. Otherwise we can do without him, thanks very much.

 

6) Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale (2009)

You can’t grow up in Japan and not know the loyal dog Hachiko (he went to Shibuya station everyday to greet his master coming home from work) or choose the dog’s statue in front of Shibuya Station as a meeting spot. Hachi is to the Japanese what Cheerio’s may be to the American – so much a part of our daily fabric that it seems weird, really weird when Hachiko shows up in a Hollywood movie starring Richard Gere. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (whose feature debut is called “My Life as a Dog”), the whole thing feels forced, contrived and highly artificial. Hachiko doesn’t belong in a manicured suburban town among all those white picket fences, and Gere as the college professor who opts to be his American master, well…the word “jarring” comes to mind.

 

 

7) Wasabi (2001)

 

 

Around the time this film was released, France had a kind of amorous fling with Japanese culture and one of the byproducts was this film by Gerard Krawczyk. The equivalent of an haute couture dress souped up on Akiba culture, the film has great ideas and (probably) benevolent intentions. Unfortunately they don’t quite work together. Too bad, as it pairs Jean Reno as a Parisian cop once married to a Japanese woman, and our very own Ryoko Hirosue in a role pitched halfway between a pouting, flighty anime girl come to life and Reno’s comprehensive guide to Tokyo. The result is a chaotic hodgepodge of vignettes that show up the city as a kind of noisy, plasticine pleasure palace.

Ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life

 

8) The Pillow Book  (1996)

This is an ambitious undertaking by British auteur Peter Greenaway, but his sensibility that created such visually resplendent (and often grotesque) pictures like “Drowning by Numbers” and “The Belly of an Architect,” failed when it came to a rendition of  “The Pillow Book” (a collection of essays by 10th century court scribe Seishonagon). For lovers of the truly weird, the film provides much fodder: Vivian Wu stars as the extremely sensuous Nagiko, who inspires her calligraphy master dad (Ken Ogata) to paint characters all over her face and body. Later, she meets her match in Jerome (Ewan McGregor) who proves himself masterfully creative with the brush as he is with other uh, physical skills. For the record people, this has nothing to do with Seishonagon’s book and still less with calligraphy.

Try reading the actual book instead. Sei Shonagon was the Kaori Shoji of her day: acerbic, funny, and a great essayist.

 

9) Ai no Corida (In the Realm of the Senses) 

When this opened in Paris back in 1976, people lined up for hours for the pleasure of seeing one of the most controversial films of the 20th century. In Tokyo it was banned from opening at all and when that was cleared many theaters refused to show it. Based on the real-life story of servant girl Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and her master Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), “Ai no…” takes Japanese eros to a whole new dimension.  Director Nagisa Oshima is masterful in his no-holds-barred depiction of an all-consuming sexual obsession between a man and a woman. But ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life.

 

10) Rhapsody in August (1991)

1991-Rapsodia-en-agosto-Akira-Kurosawa-USA-1
Somehow Richard Gere makes it into at least two of the worst ten movies about Japan. Hopefully, he can be in more before the decade ends.

A well-crafted story commemorating the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki by Japanese cinema giant Akira Kurosawa, this marked his first-time collaboration with Asiaphile Richard Gere. Gere plays the relative of an old woman whose husband had died on that August day and now with dementia setting in, she often relives the day that deprived her of her parents, husband and many friends. There are plenty of opportunities to make Gere’s character feel remorse about what the US did, but Kurosawa was apparently in a forgiving mood, and the movie spares Gere any major discomfort. As it is, we never get closure.

 

Kaori Shoji writes about movies and movie-makers for The Japan Times and is also a writer for the International Herald Tribune and other publications. Well known for her sharp wit, some have likened her to “the Dorothy Parker of Japan.

 *Editor’s note: The 10 Worst Films About Japan are not necessarily in order of suckiness. Thank you. 

The 100 Hour Japanese Work-Week and One Woman Who Escaped

I was one of those people who wept over Hillary Clinton’s farewell “glass ceiling” speech, and not just because of how the election turned out. It seemed that however way you sliced it, women will have a hard time in the workplace and in modern society and that Clinton’s defeat was symptomatic of a huge, cancerous issue. Sob.

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Here on the archipelago, we’re feeling the sharp edge of the blade known as overwork, afflicting both women AND men as they struggle to keep up with the increasingly ruthless culture of corporate Japan. The recent suicide of a 25-year old woman who worked for ad giant Dentsu is just the tip of the iceberg of a phenomenon known as “black companies,” or companies who enforce long working hours and excessive work ethics. This double duty can result in stress-related illnesses, severe depression and worse. In the case of this 25-year old, much worse. Just before her death, the texted her mother that she couldn’t stand work and she couldn’t bear life.
On the other hand, most Japanese – white collar or not, are well aware that clocking in over 100 hours of overtime a month is quite common, and so is not getting paid for that time. Dentsu was raided by Labor ministry investigators earlier this month, and they raked up evidence to show that workers were actually falsifying their overtime records to avoid having to bill the company and cause trouble. Such a mind-set can only exist in a country like Japan, whose finest moment came in the 1970s to 1980s, during the miraculous economic growth period. This was when trading companies gobbled up Manhattan property and car manufacturers kicked Detroit’s ass and a Harvard professor wrote a book called “Japan As No.1.”

“That was the rosiest time in post-war Japanese history,” writes Emiko Inagaki in her bestselling autobiography “Tamashiino Taisha (My Soul Wanted to Quit).” She adds that Japan’s current horrendous work culture that puzzles and even disgusts the rest of the world, is a holdover from that rosy time. “No one has come up with a dream to quite match the dream of the rapid growth era. Working hard and shopping with the money earned and then working hard some more and shopping some more – we loved it. We still love it, and refuse to look for an alternative.”

Inagaki is a former journalist for national news conglomerate Asahi Shimbun, and her book tells how she climbed up Asahi’s mercilessly patriarchal hierarchy rung by bloody rung. The media is the one place in the Japanese corporate world where a woman can even hope to compete with men in the same arena, and according to Inagaki she chose the profession for that very reason. A graduate from one of the nation’s top universities, Inagaki felt that she owed it to herself and her family, to become a financially independent individual. Other women of her generation were apt to work for a few years, get married and withdraw into the home. But for 3 decades, Inagaki plugged away at the job, moving from one department to another, one regional office to another. For the most part, it was a ride. In the book, she writes with loving tribute to the years she gave to Asahi, years that shaped her personality and cemented her resolve.

On the flip side, she was often depressed and prone to binge-shopping. She writes with comic flair of how, on every payday she would sail into her favorite boutiques and pick armloads of posh outfits that she subsequently never wore, how she was turned on by the gushing welcome she got from the salesgirls (“after all, I was an excellent customer!”), basking in the euphoria of buying just about anything she wanted. And it wasn’t just clothing. She loved getting drunk with colleagues and friends at expensive sushi restaurants. She loved riding cabs everywhere. And she was proud of being able to afford the rent on a designer condo when other women her age were struggling to pay for their kids’ school fees. Inagaki was living the Japanese Dream – work like crazy, spend accordingly and to hell with everything else.

At a certain point though, she had to ask herself if this was true happiness. The answer was an uneasy NO. And then Lehman Shock came along in 2008 and partially jolted her out of the earn-spend cycle. “But what really did it for me was 3.11,” she writes. “I vowed to stop spending so much on myself, and I especially wanted to cut down on utility bills.” Inagaki covered Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown, and witnessed first hand the potential side effects of unbridled economic progress. “The Japanese were apt to think that working and earning was the most important priority. But 3.11 showed us that there’s more to life than that, and the revelation can come at any time.” Inagaki decided to use as little electricity as possible, just as a personal experiment. “I would come home, and not turn on the light switch and wait until my eyes got used to the dark.” Pretty soon, she could navigate her way around her home with no lights at all. “I thought: so this is what being truly independent is all about.”

Gradually, the idea dawned on Inagaki that she was free to quit the company. “I had been working for Asahi for 30 years. The idea of leaving scared me a little but more than that, I was exhilarated. Dare I do it? Would I be able to survive?” At this point, Inagaki was 50 years old and single, with nothing to her name but a position in a highly respected company. To cut herself off from this veritable life support system, in a country renowned for discrimination of women (especially unemployed single women) could spell disaster. She wasn’t going out there completely unequipped. Prior to her leaving Asahi, Inagaki had her hair done – in a stylish afro. And she had already weaned herself off the expensive lifestyle and started looking for a smaller, older, much cheaper apartment. She was KonMariing her stuff as well. Out went the expensive, unworn outfits. The designer furniture and decor items. One by one, she pared herself down and came to recognize who she really was, shorn of the invisible corporate armor that had both protected and incarcerated her.

Inagaki now works as an occasional TV commentator and takes on freelance writing assignments. The latter as she writes in the book, pays so little it took her breath away. Back in Asahi, she had been convinced that professional writing was a fairly lucrative gig, but the reality of being an independent freelancer has hit her hard. Still, with no dependants and a cheerful disposition, she can treat her new life as one on-going adventure. She cooks her own food, hand washes her laundry, has no A/C and generally keeps expenses down to about 100,000 yen a month. To her surprise and delight, she is suddenly enormously popular with men of all ages. “Everyone wants to talk to me. The other day, a young photographer asked to take my picture.” She attributes it to the afro and her new, carefree aura. “If there’s any hope for us, it’s to believe that it’s okay to live as an individual, to liberate yourself from working for a company.” With so many Japanese convinced that life begins and ends in an office, her message is vital – a shining light glimpsed at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

When your soul wants to quit, well, it’s time

AKB48: A Microcosm Of Dark Corporate Japan. Sexual exploitation of child labor is sooo cute. (Book review)

akb48 black companies

One of the first things you’ll notice about the Japanese – men AND women – is the apparent lack of awareness regarding issues like gender and racial discrimination, worker exploitation, social injustice and other stuff that have western observers of our culture taking one look and scratching their heads. That stuff about a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly yelling out harassment remarks to a female politician while the Assembly was actually in session? I regret to have to tell you that such incidents are way too familiar to the average Japanese to sink in below sea level. It’s only when someone else (i.e., a westerner) is looking at us that we come to our senses and profess to be shocked. Otherwise, well, we’re too busy working and being exploited and having our Constitution rewritten to suit the hawkish inclinations of the current Prime Minister. But I digress.

Meet The New Zegen 女衒 (Sex merchants)  Same As The Old Zegen 

AKB48 aren't just a band of teenage girls creepily sexually exploited by a money-grubbing management team that includes an ex-yakuza associate, they're also symbols of how badly workers in Japan get screwed over--in every way.
AKB48 aren’t just a band of teenage girls creepily sexually exploited by a money-grubbing management team that includes an ex-yakuza associate, they’re also symbols of how badly workers in Japan get screwed over–in every way.


Shohei Sakakura, author of “AKB 48 and the Black Companies (AKB48と日本のブラック企業)” – is one of those rare Japanese with the mindset of a western intellectual. As editor-in-chief of Posse magazine, Sakakura first alerted the public to the presensce and prevalance, of black companies.  Until then, most of us thought it was kind of normal in a Japanese way, to put in “service overtime (サービス残業)” hours, meaning we accepted the fact of working in the office until dawn without getting paid it. We also accepted getting laid off without notice, no maternity or paternity leaves, discrimination against women, sexual and moral harassment in the workplace, poor wages and did I mention no overtime pay? 

To the Japanese, work proffers its own reward and justification and with news of the unraveling global economy we were grateful to be able to work at all. Of course the majority of the Japanese KNOW exploitation exists, and that this was one of things that was wrong with the country and the rest of the world. This is why we have so many “izakaya (pubs)” around – where else to drown our sorrows  but in beer stains? 

And now AKB 48, in case you didn’t know, is the brain child of Yasushi Akimoto, aka the King Midas of the Japanese entertainment industry. Everything he touches has turned to gold – unfortunately, the gold stays firmly tucked in his pocket without benefitting the girls he ruthlessly expolits. But there it is – the man certainly knows how to make a yen from peddling idoru fantasies to love-starved males with glasses and bad skin.  

Who IS Akimoto anyway? Sakakura’s book doesn’t do much digging about the man – he just assumes that the Japanese know who Akimoto is (we do) and leaves it at that. Suffice to say, Yasushi Akimoto is what 50 years ago many older Japanese would describe as a “Zegen 女衒”or merchant who dealt exclusively in young women. A Zegen was the middleman who bought and sold girls (often with the express consent of the parents) to the sex trade and entertainment industry and too bad for the Japanese that no one bothered to distinguish between the two until the GHQ came along to tell us Nooooo, they were different. (Okay, we got that now.) The GHQ also did much to stomp out the Zegen operating in and around Tokyo but the middlemen simply went on doing what they did, and took on another name: “entertainment producer.” From sex shows and strip houses to brothels and the euphemistically called “bars,” the Zegen had their fingers in all the right pies (yuck), and kept the best for entertainment industry, which had direct pipeline to the yakuza.


Girls from the country, whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to school or arrange good marriages, came to Tokyo in droves and were snapped up by a Zegen producer or another. The lucky ones made it to the TV screen and when that no longer worked, were taken down a few notches to serve as bar hostesses or cabaret dancers, and eventually wound up in a brothel. It was the oldest story in the book, repeated ad nauseum. 

Yasushi Akimoto was a Zegen with a vision – having never been popular in high school himself, he recognized the deep sexual frustration and vast need for sexual fantasies festering in the educated and dateless Japanese male. When he came out with “Onyanko Club” in the mid-1980s, people were blinded by the sheer genius of this man. Here he was, peddling quite ordinary high school girls on TV, who all got up on the studio stage to teasingly sing “oh please don’t take my school uniform off, no-no-no!” to an audience who could never hear such titillating pleas when they were 18 so was totally stoked to hear it now, from a gaggle of winking girls all beckoning SIMULTANEOUSLY. 

Needless to say, the Onyanko went “viral” long before the Internet came along and deep down, we suspected that if Akimoto wasn’t around to appease the Otaku populace with these girls and their pleated skirts, the nation’s sex crime rate would soar drastically. 

Akimoto subsequently married an Onyanko (and he was too smart to pick the prettiest of the lot, but went for a quiet, mediocre type) and settled down in his idol manufacturing kingdom. Then he unleashed AKB 48 to the Japanese public – which basically means 48 Girls in Akihabara. These girls were grass roots level – they had no connections, no prestige, and was willing to work till they dropped. Most telling of all, they were excessively and agressively, ordinary. 

In his book Sakakura lays bare disturbing but familiar facts: Akimoto treats the girls like fast food workers – hiring and firing in bulk, with hourly wages to match. The ones in the coveted “center position” are the prettiest, and supposedly the best dancers with the best paychecks but the vast crowd of girls behind the stars — they’re mired in obscurity. And once the girls “graduate” (i.e., fired) from the group, they’re left with no skills or abilities and their detour into the sex trade is a lot swifter than the days of Onyanko. 

Yasushi Akimoto is a Zegen through and through – he’s found a way to cash in on the criticisms and problems within the AKB, by having the girls sing songs (written by him of course) about revolution, sacrifice and worker exploitation. For Akimoto, even capitalist irony works in his favor. Karl Marx is puking in his grave. 

Sakakura writes that though he’s not an AKB fan per se, he does sympathize with the plight of the girls and sees them as a micro reflection of the huge labor problems that continue to erode Japan’s supposedly peaceful and egalitarian society. And let’s not forget that the PM is a HUGE fan – but then Japan’s highest political leader seems to love it when young people are put in situations where they have to fight and bleed and claw their way to survival. To him, “that’s the true Japanese spirit.” Yeah, right. 

Continue reading AKB48: A Microcosm Of Dark Corporate Japan. Sexual exploitation of child labor is sooo cute. (Book review)

“Does My Gaijin Husband Go Good With My Dress?” Mixed Marriage in France & Japan

 

One of the abiding myths that exist among the Japanese is that we are a single race nation. The school system teaches among other things, that no one, but absolutely no one, lives here except us Japanese-speaking, NHK-loving folk, firmly entrenched in samurai values and our ethical values personified in our being workaholics. Those who aren’t a member of this clan? Well they just happen to be here by accident, and should be tolerated without being truly welcomed. Facts like the systematic pillage/plunder of the Ainu race in Hokkaido, the enslavement of Koreans brought here during the late 16th century, the Chinese laborers who came via Okinawa during the country’s modernization process in the early 20th century – such things are swept under the futon and politely ignored.

The myth swells up like an unwieldy monster when it comes to marriage. Among many respectful families in the Kansai area, prospective brides are literally put under a hot lamp and examined minutely. Family lineage is a huge issue and woe to any young woman if there’s a record of a non-Japanese tarnishing her family tree. Never mind that Kobe has a sizable Indian population (the biggest in Japan) and in Osaka, 1.28 people out of every 100 are “zainichi,” or Japanese Korean (Source: todo-ran.com). Kansai families are renowned for their conservatism and adamant about protecting their blood. And on the rest of the archipelago, many Japanese women will date “gaijin” or foreign men, but only a fraction of those couples ever make it to the altar.

On the other hand, once you go out of the major cities and into the countryside, you’ll see that Japanese men have been willing to marry outside the Japanese bracket, for the past 30 years. As elsewhere in the world, young Japanese women refuse to marry into farms that translate immediately to a life of endless toil. Consequently, men in rural areas consider themselves lucky to marry women from the Phillippines, China and South America, claiming that foreign women are much more hardworking helpmates than their cold and calculating Japanese counterparts. As for the language barrier, it could be just be the glue to bind a lasting union. As Tokuo Miyake, a dairy farmer in Matsumoto City says of his Phillippinna wife: “I like it that we don’t speak each other’s language very much. We live with my mother, and my wife doesn’t understand it when my mom lashes out at her. Because we understand only the bare essentials about each other, there’s less to be annoyed or irritated about.”

Opening March 19 is a French movie about this very subject called “Serial Bad Weddings” – a hilarious and sometimes poignant observation of the merge between traditional values and foreign culture. The French sleeper hit of 2014, (one out of every five people in France saw it) it has finally reached our shores, just in time for the Abe Administration to contemplate opening the nation’s doors to refugees another couple of centimeters this year. (Editor’s note: That might allow a small child to slip in) 

Director/Co-writer Phillippe de Chauveron himself has been involved in an intense relationship with a Ghanian woman for the past decade and is now ready to tie the knot. “Speaking as a Frenchman, I think that my country can best be described as schizophrenic,” he said. “On the one hand, there are the ultra-rightists who want to crack down on foreigners and refugees, and then there are the liberals who are all for opening the gates. There is evidence of rampant racism but we try to take a stand on systematic discrimination and to help refugees start their lives anew. It’s very chaotic, but we’re always evolving.”

Intriguingly, France has the highest rate of mixed marriages in the EU – close to 20% of married couples are of differing nationalities. For the rest of Europe that number on average, is a paltry 3%. In Japan, mixed marriages have soared since 1965: one out of every 30 or so couples who got married between 2006 and 2013 fit that bill. 50 years ago, it was one out of every 230. (Source: nippon.com). De Chauveron says that the French are probably “more willing to experiment and try out things. Also, we are more likely to tire of relationships that go too smoothly. We thrive on arguments and passionate discussions and we love poking fun at each other’s racial foibles.” De Chauveron added that every mixed union is,  “fraught with disaster and laced with laughter. It’s a matter of finding the right balance.”

The story unfolds around the 4 daughters of the Verneuil Family, one of the most respected old names in the Loire Region. The dad (Christian Clavier) and mom (Chantal Lauby) are a little dismayed when their daughters (whom they brought up to be good French Catholics) all marry foreign men: an Arab, a Jew and a Chinese man. They pin their last hopes on their youngest daughter, but she commits the ultimate faux pas by getting engaged to an African. Chaos ensues. “The French are still struggling with the ills of our colonial legacy,” said De Chauveron. In his view though, “at least we are struggling, and very much aware of these issues.” That’s much more than we can say for how things are in Japan.

A niche manga about the life of a Japanese man and his French wife living in Tokyo
A niche manga about the life of a Japanese man and his French wife living in Tokyo

But there’s one Japanese chipping away at the mixed marriage ice, so to speak. That would be Manga artist Jean Paul Nishi (despite his pseudonym he’s a total Nippon male). He is the author of a manga series about living as a Japanese in Paris, finding the love of his life and then bringing her back to Tokyo where they are now raising a son. “I liked the movie a lot,” said Nishi who was at the press screening. “I especially identified with the dad. In real life, I’m one of the husbands you know, one of the guys who marry a French girl and tick off the family and all that. But I could really tell what was going on in the mind of the father, probably because I’m Japanese and conservatism is in my blood.” Nishi said that having lived in both countries, he’s become hyper aware of the cultural differences between Japan and Europe. “The Japanese think that being an an enlightened adult and a global citizen and all that, is to ignore the bad stuff, sweep all that aside and pretend like they can’t see the elephant in the room. The Europeans and particularly the French, are the opposite. They want to have it out and engage in deep discussions or fling insults at each other and then finally reach an understanding with each other. The Japanese think it’s a virtue not to say what’s on their minds but in Europe, not speaking up and or being dishonest about your feelings can lead to irreparable results. I think the Japanese have a 50-year lag compared to the French, in terms of interacting with others not from these shores.”

On an optimistic note, we could probably shave off at least 5 years from that lag, when we start admitting to certain historical facts about the country and our own bad legacies.

The Rise & Fall Of Japanese Xmas: Please Bring Back The Sex & Money & Carnal Pleasures

“Those were the days” is a phrase a woman must never utter once she hits 40 as it makes her seem unnecessarily outdated. But there are times when one is called upon to bend this golden rule, and state – clearly and plainly – that those WERE the days. Hell, yes.

Has the Sexy Spirit of Japanese Xmas Been Lost Forever? (At least you can still order appropriate attire).

One is referring to the Japanese Christmas, of course. Back in the day, or the 1990s to early 2000s to be exact, Christmas was drenched in two things: sex and money. In Tokyo especially, there were shopping couples sightings as early as the last week of October (Halloween wasn’t yet huge back then), browsing the aisles of Tiffany’s and Miu-Miu, the girls sighing in ecstasy over their wish list items while their dates nodded and inwardly did some calculations as to what all this was going to cost them. A quick round-up of the salient spending points: dinner in a swank restaurant followed by a night at a hotel, where the exchange of gifts will lead to carnal delights and a morning-after confirmation that yes! this girl was indeed going to be the official girlfriend. On average, the sum total ranged between 100,000 and 150,000 yen. I know of guy after guy who went into debt, just to splurge on a woman who was likely to ditch him before Valentines Day came around, not two months later. Of course, no one mentioned or was interested in the fact that Christmas marked the celebratory birth of a baby called Jesus, who spent his first night in this world swaddled in rags and laying in a manger.

Back in the day, or the 1990s to early 2000s to be exact, Christmas was drenched in two things: sex and money.

Okay, so the Japanese were clueless about the significance of western religious. Still, the fevered anticipation of it all, the sheer, heady delight of champagne and room service and red strap sandals elaborately wrapped in gorgeous chiffon paper! But don’t think the girls rested on their arses while the men worked overtime and scrambled for cash. Women had to spend too, on hair salons and lymph drainage treatments and pedicures, not to mention the all-important issue of the Christmas dress. Take the case of my friend Rika, whose most triumphant Christmas was in 2000 when she invested in a facial, a massage and a Chanel dress but skipped the lingerie entirely and squeezed four dates into a single Christmas Eve. This by the way, worked for her and a lot of others because in Japan, the 23rd is a holiday (the Emperor’s b-day) and that’s when most people do their Christmas thing, which makes everything extra hectic. C-Eve is a regular day – everyone has to show up for work so it’s quieter and easier to get reservations and space appointments.

After 2008 however, the Christmas-scape altered perceptibly and 3.11 changed it completely. People started talking about ‘kizuna (bonding)’ and ‘kazoku (family),’ two words which have since become embedded in the collective psychology – and they sure ain’t got nothing to do with doing naughty things in hotel rooms. The Christmas season is now pretty much about corporate drinking parties called “bonenkai,’ and otherwise rushing to get work done in time to take New Year’s off – a traditional Japanese event firmly entrenched in the family (again). The only people shopping at Miu Miu these days are those who speak Chinese. Ditto for people with reservations in four star hotels. As for fancy dinners, few Japanese could afford them anymore and the ones that do are not in couples – they’re co-workers in groups of three and four and mostly of the same sex.

Have we lost our capacity for ridiculousness, our carpe diem mentality and taste for sexual pleasures? One hates to admit it, but the answer seems to lean toward a loud ‘yes.’ A big problem is the aging thing. Japan is turning gray at breakneck speed and now everyone seems to be middle-aged or older – too mature to go overboard on just about anything. The remaining younger populace is far too worried about the future and saddled with pension funds and insurance payments to splurge on girlfriends, even if they existed. Women for their part, are wary of relationships that lead nowhere and with the emergence of the “sefure (sex friend),” there’s no excuse for spending a yen more than is absolutely necessary on what is after all, a moderately fun distraction. As a 20-something boy at work told me the other day, “Sex is such a chore. I’d just rather go to bed with my phone and play games until I fall asleep.”

Call me a patriot, because I broke down in tears. What is this nation coming to?

Ah yes, those were the days. To think that 25 year old women were once called “Christmas Cake,” because the cakes on sale after Christmas Eve were past it and over-the-hill and on the brink of eternal spinsterhood. Yes, it was rampant sexism but it was a fun, harmless brand of sexism compared to the stuff our current PM likes to peddle and which by the way, has turned things real sour between the men and women of Japan. And who does any dating these days? More Japanese women are forgoing the ritual completely, to tie the knot at 35 and older (that’s IF they decide marriage is on the agenda). Against this dismal backdrop, no one is likely to wear a Chanel dress with no underwear for Christmas.

So, join me in a wistful toast for the good old days.

Cheers!

The Girl’s Guide to Decluttering and Hunting (in that order)


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Consider these 2 pictures. Before: Single, living alone in a 29 square meter apartment in Tokyo. The place is so filthy it’s a struggle every morning to shower, get dressed and get to the door. The toilet hasn’t been cleaned in 4 months and the tiny kitchen defies description. After: Living with a younger, handsome boyfriend in a new apartment twice the size of the old one. Clean hardwood floors and ample closet space. The bathroom decor features rose pink wallpaper and every household item is put away as soon as it’s used.

Needless to say, Japanese women toughing it out in the big city aspire to the “after” picture. Yet for many women trying to get by on this archipelago, reality edges ever close to “before” if not actually a precise duplicate.

Japanese women were once famed for being fanatical in their pursuit of cleanliness in the home and willing devotees at the altar of household chores. Now for many females, the mere thought of picking up clothes strewn on the floor, washing dishes piled in the sink and sorting combustible trash from the non-burnables and actually taking them out to designated spots on designated days of the week – all this is enough to bring on a mild case of eczema and/or insanity attack. We all have viable excuses to pull out at a moment’s notice: not enough time, not enough motivation, not enough cash left at the end of the month to buy cleaning products, not enough love during childhood, sibling troubles, boyfriend troubles…the list is enough to give Freud himself a nervous breakdown.

Enter the clutter consultants or chore specialists, all of whom comprise a huge chunk of the TK billion yen decluttering market. Among these, Marie Kondo or “Konmari” as she’s called in the US, has taken the concept out of the country and out into the big leagues. Time Magazine sited her among the “100 Most Influential People” alongside the other Japanese: Haruki Murakami. Apparently, a personage no less than Jamie Lee Curtis recommended that she make that list. Konmari’s book (US title: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) is a New York Times bestseller. There’s a rumor that Michelle Obama picked it up, read it and loved it. Her oft quoted advice about de-cluttering: “Don’t keep anything in the house that doesn’t spark joy.”

Over on the homefront though, Konmari is just one among many decluttering specialists who exhort Japanese women to take control over their lives by taking control of their stuff. It’s an interesting philosophical proposition: no god, man, ideology or diet is going to be that magic wand, but the will and strength to clear out one’s closet and scrub the toilet. Once you’ve made de-cluttering a habit, “everything in life will follow,” according to Konmari. Uh-huh. Kinda like “Field of Dreams” without the baseball. If you clean it, he (or romance) will come.

In this journey of de-cluttering, the Japanese woman will encounter two enemies: her possessions, and her mother. She wants to follow Konmari’s maxim of throwing out everything that doesn’t spark joy. She will start out with every intention of doing so. But every time she tries to trash her belongings (her high school year book, old boyfriend photos, clothes bought at bargain sales and never worn, shoes growing moldy in the cabinet, body shaping underwear, cosmetics, bags of rice from three years ago, exercise equipment galore are among the popular items) her resolve falters. She is after all, a Japanese woman who has the word “mottainai” stamped into her DNA. “This might come in handy someday,” is a refrain she’s heard since childhood – from her parents, from schoolteachers, from relatives and friends her boyfriend’s mother. Besides, it’s a huge hassle to sort out the trash. Better just let sleeping garbage lie around until the right man comes along and asks to stay over in her apartment. THAT’S when she’ll clean up. Really.

Often, her mother enables her in the task of clutter fossilization. Every Japanese mom over 50 is a sucker for stuff anyway and the older they get, the stronger their obsessions. Take the case of my grandmother, whom I revered in childhood as a cool old lady. She could speak a little French, she smoked a pack a day and quoted Spinoza when the mood hit her. But when she died, the entire family were dumbfounded to discover huge boxes of horded bottle caps (used) and disposable chopsticks (unused) pushed into a dark corner of her closet. Kimonos that she hadn’t worn in decades were rumpled into another box, every one of them black with mold. In the kitchen, she had 4 kettles that were never used and about 500 spoons pushed every which way in a huge drawer. We finally gave up trying to clean the place and hired an expert team that deals exclusively with dwellings of the elderly. They charged 200,000 yen for the first 6 hours, and 150,000 the next day. Her daughter (my mother) complained endlessly about the expense and my grandmother’s hording habits but she’s now exhibiting the very same behavior. Last month, I discovered a box full of unused disposable chopsticks and nearly had a panic attack. Et tu, Mom?

Indeed, every de-cluttering specialist warns about mothers, especially if you happen to live with her. De-cluttering specialist and blogger Mai Yururi lived with her mom and grandma in an old house in Sendai – when 3.11 hit, the house was left standing but the colossal amount of stuff, accumulated over the years, came down in an avalanche and nearly killed them. After that, the two older women finally agreed to throw out some things, but if not for the earthquake, Yururi writes: “I could have never convinced them to de-clutter.”

There’s no doubt about it, the path to a clean, spare room with things that only spark joy is not just littered with stuff no one wants anymore, it’s practically a hallucination glimpsed among the dunes in the Sahara Desert. Oh, for a bottle of water.

The 70 Year Fallout: A Lament for Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Editor’s note: This year it will be 70 years since the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. What is not widely known is that Japan was working on building its own atomic bomb, and if they had been faster, many believe that Imperial Japan would have used it. It does not lesson the horror of what was done but it should be noted. War is a horrible thing and it seems like it would be a tragedy to ever see Japan take up the mantle of war again. And the spectre of nuclear energy unleashed by the bomb is something that haunts this country as well, something that maybe should be abandoned as well. For a perspective on what the bomb meant to Japan and the Japanese people, Kaori Shoji, writes on it eloquently. 

 

A baby born in in the year the Japanese surrendered in WWII – the same year two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaaki respectively – has turned 70 years old. During these 7 decades, the two cities had known starvation, struggle and the kind of recovery the majority of the Japanese thought was impossible.

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On August 6th, 1945, above Hiroshima City, American bomber pilots first scattered flyers from their planes that warned all civilians to evacuate the area. The civilians – consisting mainly of hungry women, children and the elderly, picked up the flyers but couldn’t make out the words. For the past 6 years the Japanese military had banned all use of English words like “radio” and “milk” (not that the majority of the public had access to such luxuries) and drummed it into the Japanese public that the Americans and British were ogres or beasts.

A short while later, a huge mushroom cloud burst in the sky and in what seemed like a matter of seconds, the entire city went up in flames. Charred bodies were everywhere, but those who died instantly were better off than those that survived – suffering from horrendous burns and a raging thirst, they died in unspeakable agony within hours or days or weeks, depending on their exposure to flames and radiation.

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It took some time for the news to travel up and down the archipelago. In Tokyo, people heard that a terrible mega-bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, but they were too busy running for their lives like cockroaches, under firebombs that exploded in the sky and razed entire districts in a matter of hours. My grandmother, who was in middle school at the time, said that 24 hours after the a-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, people were already whispering about it on the streets but “we were too desperate to pay much attention.” Three days later on August 9th, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 15th, the Emperor of Japan went on the radio and announced to his people that after years of everyone having to “endure the un-endurable,” the war had finally ended.

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The baby is now 70, and s/he has turned into a grandparent. This baby has only a sketchy memory of the terrible years after the war. By the time this baby grew into a teenager and graduated from high school, s/he had enough to eat and clothes on their back. They could look forward to a solid if not a personally happy future, with job security and a house in the suburbs. Their lives were made infinitely easier than their parents,’ with appliances, gadgets and the all-important, sheerly reliable Japanese car. At the back of their minds however, lies a hard nugget of anxiety and a deep sense of sadness. Take for example, the case of Shizuko Ohnishi, whose father died in Hiroshima’s nuclear bomb attack 2 months before she was born. Her pregnant mother had been staying with relatives in the mountains, 20 kilometers from the city and subsequently been spared. “Or else I never would have been born,” said Ms. Ohnishi quietly. She still visits the city’s hospital – called the “Genbaku Byouin (Nuclear Bomb Hospital) that treats victims from 70 years ago. “I wasn’t born yet, but my mother was exposed to radiation and she died in her 50s from thyroid cancer. It follows that I would go the same way though I didn’t expect to outlive her this long. I consider the last 20 years as a bonus I don’t really deserve.”

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Ms. Ohnishi’s words are in a way, typical of those who have been through “that day.” The Japanese feel they are to blame – for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for the over 800,000 civilian deaths, the misery and poverty during the postwar years. They wanted to sweep all the reminders of a past blackened by death and destruction, right under some heavy futons which is why not a whole lot of Japanese born between the 1930s, right up until the 1970s, are willing to discuss or dwell on that period – especially not with foreigners, not to mention Americans. During these 7 decades US-Japan relations have been a defining factor behind Japanese policy, economy and export industry. It has brought us among other things, the Peace Constitution and Tokyo Disneyland. So hey – better to pretend all that stuff just never happened, right? This logic is in the same ballpark with the logic that over the years, has banned manga and literature depicting the bomb attacks. The latest to come under restriction is the classic manga “Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen)” series by Keiji Nakazawa. Several school boards in Japan have taken it out of circulation, ostensibly because it contains “discriminatory language” including “kichigai (moron, or crazy person).” WTF, big time. Still, this sort of thing keeps happening, precisely because the victims say things like they don’t deserve to live until 70.

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In the meantime, Hiroshima has moved on from becoming a blackened, barren land to a glittering urban epicenter, flush with money and guarded by Japan’s most efficient regional police force. The city’s symbol remains the Atomic Dome – the former “Industry Endorsement Center” built in the early 20th century. It was one of Hiroshima’s first western style buildings made of concrete, and equipped with a domed ceiling which most Japanese had never seen. In the aftermath of the a-bombing, 90% of the main facade was ripped apart by flames but the dome structure remained.

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To the rest of the world, the dome became a symbol of mankind’s first deployment of the nuclear bomb. To the survivors in Hiroshima, it represented a mega-scar that wouldn’t go away. Months after the bombing, the more audacious types gathered at the dome, bared their torsoes to show their burn marks and posed next to grinning American Occupation soldiers who loved to take photos and send them back to their families. This brought them a few dollars and in those days, a few dollars was wealth. Others picked up bent, burned and twisted pieces of steel or rubble, human bones and the like, and sold them to the soldiers as souvenirs. But these people disappeared in the early 1950s as Hiroshima concentrated its efforts on looking forward and marching the march of the rapid growth economy. It was during this time too, that Hiroshima’s mayoral office debated on whether to keep the dome going or to tear it down. It brought back memories too terrible to contemplate, but on the other hand, Germany had turned Auschwitz into a museum. Shouldn’t they like, do the same?

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In the midst of all this, the survivors in Nagasaki took second place. They were like the back-up chorus, always several feet from center stage. Hiroshima now has a world-wide repute but Nagasaki less so, and you can see it in the vastly differing ways the two cities have dealt with the past. Nagasaki has remained faithful to its illustrious roots as Japan’s one and only port open to the outside world (actually just mainland China, Korea and the Netherlands) during the Tokugawa Shogunate, and a safe haven for Japan’s “Secret Christians” who went into hiding for 3 centuries after Christianity was banned in the late 1500s. Until Japan officially opened her doors to the West in 1865, these people built clandestine altars and carved statues of the Virgin Mary, always in fear of being discovered, tortured and impaled on the end of a spear until dead, as mandated by law. When the bomb was dropped, it first struck the Nagasaki City Prison before spreading out over the entire city, and destroyed Nagasaki’s iconic Urakami Cathedral, among everything else. In the Cathedral neighborhood, there were an estimated 14,000 Catholic inhabitants. Over 8000 died from the bomb and Nagasaki considers the victims to be martyrs.

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Today, Nagasaki remains somewhat provincial and markedly more laid-back than Hiroshima. Urakami Cathedral has been rebuilt and the city has maintained close ties with the Vatican. Apart from commemorating the a-bomb’s 70th year anniversary, Nagasaki is celebrating 150 years since the official revival of Christianity. There’s not much here in the way of industry, despite the fact that Nagasaki was the site of Japan’s very first trading company (Kameyama Shachu). The police and yakuza forces – so rampant in Hiroshima, just doesn’t have the same sway here. Everything about it feels retro and exotic, like the slabs of whale meat on display in the local markets as if no one here has heard of Greenpeace. The local celebrity is actor Masaharu Fukuyama and local legendary figures include Thomas Glover, reputed to be a masonic spy for the British government when he came over here in 1859.

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Nagasaki’s Peace Park feels very different from Hiroshima’s – more formal and less a part of the daily fabric, though ice cream vendors call out to American military folks out for a jaunt in Nagasaki from the naval base in nearby Sasebo. “Gee, that’s sad,” said a blonde woman to her husband, as they looked over the bomb replica at the museum, and reading the story of a little boy who showed up at a crematorium with a dead baby strapped to his back. Over the years, surveys have consistently shown that over 50% of Americans think the bomb attacks were “necessary” and “not wrong.” No American in government has ever issued an apology.

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The Dome in Hiroshima is undergoing major repairs, in time for the Olympics and an expected tidal wave of foreign visitors. It resides in the Peace Park, which is a pretty piece of urban greenery where gaijin tourist couples laugh and frolic and take selfies, right in front of the Dome. Local children scream and play while their mothers stand gossiping. Seventy years has gone by and the area surrounding the Dome has shifted from war atrocity memorial to a somewhat banal city park where a white construction sheet covers a small dome structure. It’s hard to say whether this is a good thing. It probably is, though that very thought clogs my throat like the ghost of a sobbing voice.

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by Kaori Shoji

Book Review: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” (日本人はなぜ美しいのか) by Kaori Shoji

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Amazon book link: http://amzn.to/1yxEKjj 

Here’s a question: why is it that everyone else in the world gets to wax eloquent about the virtues of their home country, but the minute a Japanese does the same thing, we get lambasted for (A) being an ultra nationalist rightist Imperialist and/or (B) having a Prime Minister who would dare visit the Yasukuni Shrine, whoever that Prime Minister happens to be at the moment.* (Editor’s note: It would help if the Prime Minister visited a different shrine, as former LDP bigwig Koga proposes and Japan stopped denying war atrocities and retracting apologies. Obviously, there is a lot Japan has to be proud of but definitely not the war. Just sayin’)

That’s okay. We’re Japanese: the most self-effacing, self-deprecating, self-loathing people on the planet. Needless to say the stress-factor involved with all this can be so damaging as to send the entire nation spinning into a black hole of depression. That depression is the driving force of the bad economy (no wonder it’s taking forever to recover) and now that the failure of Abenomics is official…oh, forget it.

Gentle cough.

Let’s turn our minds to this book: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful,” by Shunmyou Masuno (枡野 俊明) published earlier this year by Gentousha Shinsho (幻冬舎新書). Professional Zen gardener and one of the most influential Zen masters of our time, Masuno heads the Kenkouji Temple in Yokohama. For the past 6 years, he has written extensively on Zen and how to deploy it in our daily lives, but this is the first time he has linked Zen to the Japanese national identity. “We are beautiful,” Masuno writes, “because Zen resides at the very core of the Japanese existence.”

“Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” opens with a revealing (if self-congratulatory) episode about being commissioned by Mark Shuttleworth – the Cape Town wunderkind who founded investment company HBD and later flew to the International Space Station via Soyuz. Shuttleworth was building a botanical garden on the Isle of Man and was keen to put in a Zen garden. Masuno writes about how Shuttleworth picked him up in his private jet and flew with him to the Isle to start work on the garden. “When you stop to think about it,” writes Masuno, “many iconic IT billionaires are deeply influenced by Zen.”

Among them, Masuno cites Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who bought a villa on the grounds of Nanzenji in Kyoto. “There must be something about Zen that speaks to super successful people,” writes Masuno, and it’s probably true. Even on this archipelago, Nikkei Business magazine has consistently promoted Zen as a way of optimising work quality and achieving serenity. Zazen sessions have become a secret boom among young OLs and salarimen. Even Shinzo Abe goes to a temple in Yanaka, Tokyo once a month for Zazen and meditation.

Zen has its roots in India. It then crossed over to Chinese Buddhism before winding up in Japan. “Ours is the only Asian country that adopted the teaching with such earnestness, merging the country’s lifestyle to Zen philosophy,” writes Masuno. That merging, according to Masuno, is what makes the Japanese so distinctive and “beautiful.”

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Zen actually resides in every facet of the Japanese mind,” writes Masuno, and the foremost example of that is seen in the way we work. “The dedication to craftsmanship and the reverence for precision and discipline is unparalleled.” He also points out the endearing peculiarities of the Japanese aesthetic, and how it revels in the flawed and incomplete. Evidence to that is seen in the imperfect, spontaneous energy of a Zen garden. Or how the Japanese refuse to throw out cracked bowls and plates, but will find a way to mend them with gold dust. Masuno writes, “Ruptures, cracks, creases and wrinkles — the Japanese will find beauty in these flaws because Zen is a philosophy that accepts and ultimately forgives everything.”

The book goes on to explain:
“Western aestheticism is about adding things. Its objective is to express and celebrate the self. Japanese aestheticism is about subtraction. The objective is to erase the self, in order to be at one with nature.”

No doubt about it – even a cursory reading will make you feel better about being Japanese, which is more than we can say about Asahi Shimbun. (Their goal seems to lie in crushing the Japanese spirit under the ghostly heel of a WWII military boot.) And Heaven knows we need this sort of boost; after all, no one else was going to stroke our egos if we didn’t do it ourselves.

Having said that, the book falls short of addressing the real and immediate problems among the Japanese today. Zen may be effective in achieving inner peace, but it’s not doing much to bridge the ever-widening generation and income gaps, the super-aging of a society where children are treated like rare and precious specimens or ruthlessly exploited, the deep and abiding discrimination against women, and so on.

The ills are still here, whether we’re beautiful or not. And on a bad day and standing in the Yamanote Line, I’m tempted to think the Japanese (including myself) are the saddest, least attractive people on the entire planet. Even if we were tapped into the beauty of a Zen garden, few of us have the time or inclination to sit on a rock to contemplate it.

Still, Masuno’s book is hugely inspiring, if only because it makes us realize the seeds of beauty are within. All we have to do is become aware of it, and from that moment something will have changed. It may be an inflection in the voice, or a change in the way one holds an umbrella, or yes – even the way one stands in the Yamanote line. Zen is the one method that beautifies the physique, as well as the way one perceives the world, free of charge.

So Mark Shuttleworth can keep his expensive Zen garden because the Japanese already have theirs – right in our own backyard. We only have to dig a little.

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 “There is a simple way to become buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Do not seek anything else.”

“A fool sees himself as another, but a wise man sees others as himself.”

“Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home;
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;

But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.”

― Dōgen, Zen master, founder of Soto Zen Buddhism

Book Review: “The Bad-Mood Marriage” 不機嫌な主婦 なぜ女たちは「本能」を忘れたのか(朝日新書)

By Kaori Shoji

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 9.52.32 PMAs long as time immemorial, being a woman in Japan meant the rawest of deals. The long, long tradition of top-down patriarchy held that women were good for of either two things: sexual slavery or household drudgery. Once a woman got past her reproductive years, she was expected to control the younger women in the house, which mostly meant bullying the daughter-in-law and sowing a lot of ill-will in the family. By the time she hit her mid 40s, this woman had white hair and grandchildren. At 60, she was dead or getting there; her tiny body stooped so badly it appeared she was folded in two.

Zowie, it was this bad – or so Japanese women born after WWII were taught, offset by a brand new, American imported democracy. Women were told there was nothing remotely fine about being born in Japan. To the rest of the world, she represented the demure and docile geisha-equivalent while inside her own country, she was slated for a lifetime of toil and family bondage. The only way out of this awful spiral was to get an education, an office job, and marry well – preferably to an urbanized, liberal man whose mama lived far, far away.

But even that was no guarantee. My own mother went to an arts university and never had to deal with her husband’s mother and lived the modernized convenient life in Tokyo. She said over and over that marriage was a tombstone that marked the spiritual death of a woman and every child she had drove the nails further into her coffin. “Never get married,” she liked to say. “It’s the stupidest thing in the world.” My mother wasn’t a rabid feminist; she was simply echoing the conviction of many women of her generation who felt they had been cheated. Women born in the post-war years often feel like they were never given a chance – happiness always seemed to elude their grasp as husbands disappeared into their jobs and children departed for futures that rarely included a place for their mothers.

In the last 10 years, anthropologist and epidemiologist Chizuru Misago’s (三砂ちづる) works have turned the tables on the timeworn assumption that Japanese women have always been repressed and unhappy and will continue to be so unless she leaves the archipelago at her earliest opportunity. A highly accomplished academic whose resume includes a Ph.D from London University and a decade of fieldwork in Brazil, Misago holds that no good can come from over-educating the Japanese woman or copying western notions of feminism. In her 2004 breakthrough book “Onibabaka Suru Onnatachi” (Women Who Turn into She-Ogres), she discusses the virtues of the socio-political system in pre-modern Japan that actually protected women and their bodies, the benefits of squat toilets, and sex from an early age. She’s a strong advocate of marriage (whether it’s a love-match or family arranged) and sleeping with one’s spouse as often as possible. In short, Misago’s teachings flew right in the face of everything the post-war education system strove to encase in concrete and submerge in the ocean like a corpse killed by the yakuza.

Misago laid it out in black and white: the prime reason Japanese women turn bitchy or into she-ogres is because they’re not touched and cuddled enough. Never before had a woman academic come right out and said sex – not love – was crucial to women’s mental and physical well-being. Women sat up and paid attention, among them novelist Banana Yoshimoto who later wrote a book about the importance of skinship, childbirth, and healthy sexual relationships.

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Unfortunately, Misago’s words weren’t enough to turn back the winds of our particular time, one in which an unprecedented number of women join the workforce, remain virgins past 25, and never marry. The divorce rate is up. Incidents of domestic violence and child neglect are up. The bottom line seems to be that sex and relationships are not only hard to get in Japan, they‘re on the endangered species list along with the whooping crane.

Dr. Misago’s 2012 work “Fukigenna Fufu” (The Bad-Mood Marriage) gets right to the heart of the matter. She lays bare the sorry state of Japanese coupledom in which man and wife sleep apart and hold conversations that sound like joyless office memos. Worst of all, they seem to have no idea how to love their children, which is at least partly responsible for an alarming soar in juvenile crime.

“One of the worst predicaments for a child,” she wrote, “is that their parents are not happy together as man and woman. Think how lonely it must be for the child. Think of the enormous pressure a child feels when confronted with the discontentment and unhappiness of his/her mother.”

If we are to fall in with Dr. Misago’s teachings, we owe it to our kids to kiss and cuddle with our spouses as often as possible. Never mind about falling salaries and the rising cost of living. Never mind about work and getting ahead. Children are young and impressionable for only so long. By the time they leave for college, the damage of a sour marriage will have left permanent marks on their personalities and outlooks.

Interestingly, Misago wrote that Japanese women in their 70s are apt to be the most selfish but unhappiest demographic. They were the first female generation to get college educations en masse but were also socially restricted from seeking jobs that matched their degrees. They often had no choice but to stay home, raise children, and wait for their husbands to come home. “These women often sought personal redemption by pushing their sons and daughters to be better at school, to be competitive, and to get ahead in life,” she wrote. “But actually, that’s not a very nice message. If you want to raise children to be loving human beings, you must first love them unconditionally and for who they are.”

Misago’s words have been a revelation for many Japanese women, raised by mothers who scolded and cajoled and coerced them to be better at everything, from having the right playmates to finding the most acceptable husbands with the highest incomes. Ugh. Surely we must scrap this legacy. It’s not too late to work on a good-mood marriage.