Ghost in the Shell: The Matrix of Sci-Fi Anime

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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. Coming soon, our article about the Hollywood remake. 

 

In my mind, anime can be categorized into two varieties: action-based/artistic ones, and teenage school kid soap operas. The former is what western critics typically consider to be “good”, anime like The Cat Returns or Cowboy Bebop, which contrast beautiful hand-drawn landscapes and well-trodden stories with violence and distinctively weird characters that could only be thought up in Japan. Along with Akira, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the big grandfathers for sci-fi anime, and more importantly black leather-clad sci-fi such as The Matrix. Even in the ‘making of’ videos for The Matrix, creators shamelessly admit they wanted to take Ghost in the Shell‘s stylish film noir settings and fight scenes and recreate them in live action. With the newest full-length film in the Ghost series, Kōkaku Kidōtai – Shin Gekijōban, released in late June and in theaters until July 17th), and a live-action version on the horizon, it’s important to look back to see what it was about the original film that turned the manga into an international favorite.

Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 film directed by Mamoru Oshii, revolves around a group of cyborg law-enforcers in the future tracking down a hacker called the Puppet Master, who hacks into the minds of unsuspecting civilians and erases their memories in the process of controlling them. One of the cops does refuse to grade-up and is 100% flesh.  The protagonist is the beautiful but coldhearted Motoko Kusunagi, a cyborg cop and one of a handful of heroic female protagonists in anime.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t cater to the male sexual fantasies many have about robo-cop girls in the future. Viewers might be a bit puzzled after one of Kasunagi’s final fight scenes in which she celebrates her victory by tearing off her clothes (the film claims it allows her to scan the room, but it doesn’t explain the two other times she fights criminals naked). It does vary from similar western sci-fi films in that Kasunagi is never treated like a damsel in distress requiring someone like Neo to save her, but it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that director Oshii is simply giving viewers that dreamlike fantasy they unknowingly coveted in Japan’s workaholic society. It’s suggested in Roger Ebert’s 1996 review of the film that Japanese salarymen become so exhausted and dehumanized by the 80-hour work weeks that they “project both freedom and power onto women, and identify with them as fictional characters.”

Aside from the cop chases and virtual missions Kasunagi embarks on within the minds of those possessed by the Puppet Master, the deeper question the film’s moody plot somewhat attempts to ask is whether robots should start being considered human. Most of the conversations between Kasunagi and Batou (Kasunagi’s friend and fellow cyborg-cop), consist of debating whether their ability to think makes them human, think Descarte’s saying “I think, therefore I am.” Thankfully Ghost in the Shell throws in a couple one-liners to make sure it never takes itself too seriously:

Motoko- “Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny.”

Batou- “You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.”

Much like Akira, the draw of Ghost in the Shell is the stunning and complex drawings of the futuristic city. In daytime scenes, it looks orange and very much apocalyptic. However, when Kasunagi enters someone’s mind or tracking someone at night, the futuristic scenery seen in Gundam and Akira takes center stage. However, one thing that distracted me from the beautiful futuristic settings were the eyes of the characters. In both this and Akira, the eyes are much more akin to those in a western comic book, rather than more recent anime that give characters blocky, rectangular eyes. The more realistic character designs create the effect of each character having a certain ‘fleshiness’ to them. This is great if the main focus over the top violence and sexiness, but I believe it reduces some of its artistic merit. The extra contour lines provide more opportunities for limbs and blood to go flying in the fight scenes, but it does so at the expense of placing characters in an uncanny valley of halfway between realistic and cartoony, thereby taking viewers out of the experience. Just as we increasingly demand our fruit to lack any blemishes or obscurities, anime has come a long way in shrinking noses, rounding eyes and turning lips into straight lines for the sole purpose of immersing you in its universe. I once read a book on the history of cartooning that explained how we more easily identify emotions when complex facial details are taken away, and by the end you are left with blank dots and lines for faces (see Gudetama, for example).

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Aside from the characters the film succeeds in its mission to create the coolest futuristic vibe that had been seen so far in anime, something that inspired many movies after it, both anime and live action.

Several Ghost in the Shell films have been made, along with the original 1989 manga and an upcoming live action film set to release in March, 2017. This live action version, directed by Rupert Sanders, will be featuring Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kasunagi. However, many took to social media to state their displeasure that a white actress is taking the role of a well-known Japanese heroine. Personally I don’t find much wrong with it considering the history of anime characters combining aesthetics of Asians and westerners. Porco Rosso, one of my favorite movies of all time, takes place in a fictionalized Italy with clearly white humans everywhere. But that doesn’t take away from Porco (the main character) being a distinctly Japanese character in how weird the anthropomorphic pig man is. As long as it can recapture that image of the rainy neon-lit streets with robo-cops fighting huge mech tanks, it won’t really matter who’s doing the killing.

The Realities and “Legal Slavery” of Japan’s Porn Industry

Japan’s pornography industry has come under greater scrutiny after Tokyo Metro Police arrested executives of a well-known talent agency for allegedly coercing an actress to engage in sex on camera.  Human rights groups had been calling for action for months.

Police announced Monday that they had arrested the president of Marks Japan Group and two others on suspicion that they forced a woman into appearing in adult films by threatening to punish her financially. They also threatened to force her parents to pay for “contract violations” if necessary, police said…..For the full article, please see this article written by Jake Adelstein, Mari Yamamoto, and Louis Krauss for the Los Angeles Times. 

JSRC is pleased to publish the full commentary from Shihoko Fujiwara, founder of Japan’s Lighthouse: Center for Human Trafficking Victims, in regards to the darker side of Japan’s multibillion dollar pornography industry.

Executives of this firm were arrested for illegally dispatching women to work in pornographic films, allegedly coercing them to do so as well.
Executives of this firm were arrested for illegally dispatching women to work in pornographic films, allegedly coercing them to do so as well.

 

Shihoko Fujiwara, Founder of Lighthouse-

Lighthouse: Center for Human Trafficking Victims have received over 100 complaints regarding forced participation in porn. 10% of these complaints are from young men around 20 years old, (some coerced into gay porn as well).

In the porn industry, the production side holds all power while the agencies and scouts who cater to them by supplying the talent often deceive the so-called talents into doing the shoots. The producers cannot get away with claiming that they did not know. It is possible that the entire industry play a part in creating a system of forcing people into porn acting in a similar manner as human trafficking.

The reality is that there are too many young men and women who are forced into porn, for the industry to dismiss it as something they were unaware of.

Victims are talked into signing a fashion modeling contract, however when they turn up on set they are given a porn script and informed that it is a porn shoot. They beg to quit or go to home but are threatened to be charged millions of yen for penalties and often end up giving in. They are used and disposed with long lasting consequences on their schooling, careers and marriages.

The time has come for the government and the society to face the issue head on. There are currently no laws or ministries who oversee the porn industry but there is a dire need for such authorities to take control of the situation.

This is Lighthouse’s statement in Japanese.
人身取引被害者サポートセンターライトハウス(Lighthouse: Center for Human Trafficking Victims) には、この18ヶ月の間にも100件以上のポルノ強要相談が来ています。1割弱と少ないが20歳前後の男性からの相談もあります。
 ポルノ製作をする制作会社は業界内でも権力がある側にいるのではないか。我々の経験では、そこに俳優を供給するプロダクション(agent)やスカウトは、若い女性を騙したり、脅して無理やり連れてくる場合がほとんどだ。制作会社は「知らない」では済まされない。業界全体でポルノ俳優の供給に人身売買と言えるような強要が使われているのではないか。

業界全体が知らなかったでは済まされないほど、若い女性や男性が無理やりポルノに出演させられている現状を支援団体は目の当たりにしている。ファッションモデル契約と聞いて契約に同意したのに、当日に突然ポルノ出演と聞かされ台本を渡され、帰りたいやめたいと懇願しても数百万円の違約金を払えと脅され屈する、若干10代の若者たち。使い捨てにされ、インターネットや販売店に拡散された「商品」によってその後の進学・就職や結婚にも大きな影響が出ています。

 • これを見逃していた国や社会全体が問題を直視する時期に来ています。現在ポルノ産業を管理所轄する法律も官庁もないが、早急に整備が必要だと考えています。

 

How did Japan’s Whalers Of The Past Feel About Their Job & The Whales They Killed?

Despite the popular opinion that Japan’s dedicated pro-whaling community comes from a background of legendary, barbaric whalers who slaughtered whales without mercy, some reports show that pre-harpoon whalers were actually very considerate for the feelings of these giant creatures. Sociologist Hiroyuki Watanabe’s book titled Japan’s Whaling, takes a broad look at the entirety of the country’s Whaling history. One section in particular covering the early modern period, Watanabe discusses how fishermen have, from then to the modern day, evolved into holding rituals repenting the slaughter of whales.

The section focuses primarily on a book from 1840 by whaler Hoshute Riyu, titled Ogawajima Keigei Gassen (The Battle with the Whales at Ogawajima), which, while depicting whales as the sworn enemies of the fishermen, also implements a Buddhist mindset to lament their deaths.

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According to Hoshutei’s account, there existed “a consciousness among the people of the day that it was heartless to kill and make use of whales.” Hoshutei’s book, from the excerpt taken out, shows genuine anguish for killing the whales as being very equal to humans:

“How merciless it is to feel no pity for that resounding cry of pain as they face west to die, then row the carcass in to shore, cut it up in the barn and then immediately boil the meat or grill it before serving it and savoring the taste.”

The fact that Hoshutei describes the whales who “face west to die” is due to the Buddhist principle that the religion’s paradise is located to the west, showcasing a belief that all creatures are equally capable to reach the so-called “best” afterlife.

In some ways the excerpt resembles biblical writings that lament our inability to avoid sin, in an attempt to save ourselves from an unforeseen judgmental deity. The book was written with the intent to donate it to a shrine, Watanabe points out this could be possibly to avoid punishment for their killings. Hoshutei deals with the hypocritical nature of a whale fisherman lamenting his profession by adding that it’s a sad part the cycle of life and death that requires us to take advantage of nature’s resources (whale meat) before they leave us in their short existence.

He also describes the cries of the whales as they are slaughtered as heart-rending.

What followed Hoshutei’s very heartfelt consideration to the whales, we see a downward spiral that lead to the mindset we’ve come to see today that whales are just another fish to be caught and controlled by the Japanese as their own product.

With the implementation of Norwegian style harpoon hunting, whales began being killed much more rapidly. Along with the Meiji Restoration that led to the destruction of many Buddhist temples and its influence on the public, this boost in whale-killing technology led fishermen to conduct memorial services from time to time, such as donating a bell, as a way to honor the whales.

It’s unclear how common it was for someone like Hoshutei to make a beautifully hand-illustrated book detailing how beautiful whales are both before and during their killing.  The “bleeding hearts and Western imperialists” who seek to protect the whales are often believed to overly humanize these warm-blooded cetaceans but it seems that the Japanese fishermen of old also felt compassion for the animals, and remorse for killing them. They at least honored the animals by making full use of all the parts.

It’s a far cry from today’s state supported whaling, for meat that no one wants to eat. There are now several tons of it in storage. That shows a lack of respect for the whales and for Japanese taxpayer money wasted on a “tradition” that only hardcore nationalists and people getting kickbacks want to preserve.

Governmental Parties to Youth: ‘We can be cool too!’

Last Sunday’s upper house election was notable because it was the first time 18 and 19-year-old were allowed to vote. Both current parties courted the youth vote, and while many look to the youth as more likely to oppose the current pro-war regime, the LDP got the most support from young voters. According to a Kyodo News report, 40 percent of new 18 to 19-year-old voters voted for the LDP in the proportional representation segment, while the Democratic Party (the main opposition,) received 19.2 percent.

When it came to whether youths think Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution should be revised, results were 47.2 percent of teenagers said they were against the revision, while 46.8 percent were in support.

In recent years, Japanese youth have been very much characterized by their apathy when it comes to participating in elections. But now with the lowered age requirement, more of the younger demographic has started to gain interest in voting.

One event that helped spark more youth turnout on Sunday was “Don’t Trash Your Vote,” a combination of voting party and rock concert in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood that mixed popular bands with updates on the election in between as well as a results viewing on the TVs following the music. 23-year-old college student Mio Takahashi said this was a great way to help encourage young students and workers to vote who would rather go to a concert than a voting both.

“Young Japanese people are constantly wanting to go out to parties in order to feel cool, other times they’re just busy at school or finding a job, so a lot of them don’t worry much about how elections might affect them,” Takahashi said. “But this kind of event helps spread the message that voting and knowing who you elect for our government is also important, so I think it’s a great idea mixing it with good music.”

Entertainment means, such as music, have been popular in Japan to send political messages. Naoya Matsumoto, a 30-year-old bass player and drummer for one of the bands at the Sunday event, agreed that a lot of bands enjoy the chance to help motivate the audience for a greater cause.

“When our band heard about this, it sounded like a great opportunity for us to play to people while also getting a message across about the importance of politics and helping inform more young Japanese people,” Matsumoto said. “In between each band, someone would get up and talk about the incoming results, as well as motivating them as young people to make a difference.”

Even the LDP has used music to help garner votes. In an attempt to appeal to Japan’s Otaku (people very invested into Japanese manga and anime), as well as Net Uyou (cyber right-wingers) demographics, LDP officials gave a speech Saturday in front of the AKB 48 Cafe (named after the all girls band criticized for promoting sexualization of pre-teen girls but has a huge following in Japan). The AKB members elections often have just as much attention as the governmental parties elections do, so it very well may have impacted the results.

For the youths who have protested and voted to attempt to stop Abe and his parties from revising the constitution, the future does not look very bright. Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), has been the primary youth protest group against Abe’s undemocratic plans of the past several years, but may soon be disbanding. Last October, SEALDs announced it would plan to dissolve following Sunday’s Upper House election, mostly because their members have all grown into their early 20s and will soon graduate University. SEALDs was also a proponent of using music to send messages to youths who may have not many opportunities to be taught why avoiding a dictatorship-like future is similarly important to them finding a job out of school.

Known for its demonstrations that sometimes included rap-influenced music and stylish placards, SEALDs was very much encouraged by political professors and democratic party officials to continue their resurgence in youth activism that sparked hopes in society that the nation’s youngsters may finally start caring about who is elected.

It begs the question: Why disband when the country seems to need youth protest the most? SEALDs leading members said if any other members wish to create a new group they may do so, but why weren’t any followup leaders in place? It could be because of the demanding needs of daily life and job-hunting, which  many Japanese college students seem to value over taking any kind of political stand when schoolwork is more important. Seeing how music can really draw out the uninformed young Japanese to vote, this could be a major issue now that Abe and his parties control a two thirds majority in the Upper House and could rewrite the constitution. Without the streets filled with angsty, pro-freedom music from SEALDs, it might all be replaced by LDP members buying out their own shows to promote a new, more conservative generation of young adults.

 

Manga and Dating Sims: The Real Path to Japanese Mastery

While some Gaijin living in Japan develop their niche through obscure and unpredictable events such as getting hired to work for a Japanese newspaper covering crime stories, there’s an equal amount of people who get inspired by the more traditional pop culture of Japan in the form of games and manga.

Benjamin Boas is a former Brown University student who moved to Japan several years ago, and decided to write a manga— with help from illustrator Chika Aoyagi— that details how he got interested in Japanese culture. Boas’ experiences and means of learning Japanese range from a devout enjoyment of mahjong—which led him to studying Japan’s mahjong community and forced him to improve his Japanese—to many popular manga, dating simulators and traditional video games.

This is a good exercise for Japanese learners such as myself, as the kanji can be hard but not too hard to understand the main idea of each conversation. Like many recent manga, Boas provides the hiragana readings for all the kanji, and makes some interesting and possibly intended to be funny uses of katakana where kanji or hiragana would typically be used. For example, when saying “boku ha” for himself, he often uses ボクinstead of 僕, Boas seems to use this to depict his own gradual assimilation into Japanese lifestyle, often using katakana during scenes of him as young boy getting sick off a tuna bowl and less so when describing more challenging manga and games. Other highlights include an early obsession with Tokimeki Memorial, a dating simulator game that he couldn’t yet read the Japanese but could follow along with the virtual schoolgirls’ sad and pleased expressions.

Boas has an existential crisis when hearing his friend's grandmother speak in Kagoshima dialect.
Boas has an existential crisis when hearing his friend’s grandmother speak in Kagoshima dialect.

A decent portion of the book is dedicated to his interest in the differences Japanese manga and games have to American versions and the perceived ‘weirdness’ of the country’s pop culture. In one section, he and the animator discuss why many manga include girls with skirts that fly up at the slightest wind, Chika Aoyagi claiming Americans can’t get passed something sexual in manga that’s there for simple enjoyment and not meant to be creepy.

Most of all, I would recommend this book to those in the midst of studying Japanese and enjoy the quirky differences in the language from the gaijin perspective. I was similarly confused in the beginning when Boas–working as an intern salaryman–is told his co worker is leaving due to a shotgun wedding (a rushed marriage due to pregnancy), typically written as “dekichatta kekkon.” However, his friend then shortens this into “kanojo to dekichattan,” dekita meaning “was able to do,” and kanojo meaning girlfriend, thus making the naive intern think he was litterally saying “he was able to get a girlfriend.” After some brief searching of why dekichatta is used, the spelling implies that it was a spur the moment marriage with the implication of there being a pregnancy. It once piece of useful dialogue that helped me understand how “a wedding I was able to do,” then shortened further to simply “dekichatta,”  can be construed as its true meaning.

Boas also provides some useful vocabulary for the basic Japanese learner, particularly while exploring manga and anime’s odd visual effects to communicate emotion, such as veins popping to signal anger which often resemble traffic intersections, and teardrops the size of ostrich eggs to symbolize embarrassment.

In the manga section, Boas also touches on the fact that characters often respond to getting excited by girls’ underwear by getting intense nosebleeds or 鼻血(hanadji), which I first thought to be  chopsticks sprouting from their noses (pictured below).

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Whether you are a gamer–who laughed similarly at poorly translated English text in ported NES and SNES games such as “All your base are belong to us”—or you want to hear someone else’s story with very relatable challenges of getting into Japanese lifestyle and culture, Boas book is both fun and good practice that I recommend checking out.

 

TGIF in Tokyo! Tonight June 17th “This and That Cafe” to Feature Amazing Lineup of Artists

Tonight (Friday June 17) at 7:30, the Super Deluxe performance venue in Roppongi will be hosting the 29th incarnation of This & That Cafe, an event where artists, both international and local, come together for a great night of art, music and fun.

The musical acts range from the soothing alternative rock sounds of Metro Ongen, a four-piece Japanese band, to a skilled drummer from Ghana named Winchester Nii Tete Boye, to even a didgeridoo player from Japan named Smily.

There are also an equal number of impressive visual art performances lined up such as onnacodomo, a collection of three DJs who create spontaneous artwork with computer graphics, mirrors, toys and lights. In addition, Shinpei Kashihara will be doing more traditional live art using the traditional “suiboku-ga” (ink painting) style.

So, if you’re on your way home from work, head over to Roppongi and get a seat for some drinks, good times and amazing artists who will be intermingling with the crowd. Here’s the description provided by Super Deluxe’s website:

This&That Café celebrates its 29th volume by welcoming all “City Shapers”- the new-generation urbanites who are changing Tokyo’s creative landscape. Whether it’s a drum master hailing from Ghanna or a “suiboku” ink painter from Tokyo, all walks of life and all manner of expressions are welcome. Just be sure to come with an open mind, and be prepared to leave a little bit different than when you arrived.

Japan’s Classic (Misleading) Pro-Whaling Book: “You can’t tell us what to eat!”

Japan’s fishing traditions have long-been one of its most important aspects, surviving hundreds of years mostly on fish as well as obscure seafood such as sea urchins, squids and eels instead of red meat. But now with the world’s human population reaching new heights, many organizations have requested Japan stop hunting certain endangered species, particularly whales. Not all Japanese are ready to give up on whaling, particularly those from Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR), which is funded by the government and continues to support whale hunting at a smaller capacity allegedly for the sake of “research” and maintaining the tradition.

Masayuki Komatsu, one of the Institute’s members and Japan’s deputy commissioner to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), published a book back in 2001 explaining why he believes Japan’s whaling industry is necessary in our modernizing world. Broadly titled, The Truth Behind the Whaling Dispute,  Komatsu makes many claims that Japan needs to curtail certain whale populations to prevent other fish species from going extinct, and that these animals are just “part of the food chain”.

Komatsu's "The History and Science of Whales" shows you the typical Japanese whale dishes.
Komatsu’s “The History and Science of Whales” shows you the typical Japanese whale cuisines.

Komatsu’s basic point is that after a certain amount of years protecting the whales, we reach a point where whales will start competing with human fisheries and make the major human-consumed fish species go extinct—(Editor’s  note: Like Bluefin Tuna perhaps? Damn those whales. They’re ruining our sushi menus).

The only problem with that theory is most whale species don’t eat fish targeted by humans. Minke and baleen whales eat krill, while sperm whales mainly eat deep-sea squid that are unreachable and undesired by fishermen.

What I think does ring true in Komatsu’s argument is his depiction of anti-whalers as having an unflinching belief that whales should be protected because of how big and majestic they are. Unlike whales, one can travel the countryside to see pigs, cows and chickens packed by the thousands into cramped stockyards, yet there is a much more ubiquitous support for “save the whales” than “save all farm animals”. His underlying point is that because we have overprotected some whales since their closest chance of extinction in the 1960s, we as humans need to play the role of god and control the populations of certain whale species that may overtake others. According to Komatsu, it’s not as easy as letting nature restore itself:

“Misunderstanding leads the ignorant public to believe that the ‘leaving whales alone’ doctrine is the correct approach to restore proper balance in the ecosystem,” Komatsu says. “It is completely wrong to believe that ocean resources can recover to the virgin status, if left alone.”

Komatsu’s example of this is antartica’s blue whale population, which dropped from 200,000 to 500 whales in the 1960s, and since then has risen back up to 1,200. He says the population has not yet reached its original level is because minke whales have been taking all the krill in the Antarctic for themselves. Like the hundreds of movie-depicted time travelers who have to fix the past to restore the present, Komatsu says we need to “cull a considerable number of minke whales.” (Editor’s note: H.G. Wells wrote a book about this right?) 

“This is a law of nature with which mankind has interfered,” Komatsu says. “Since mankind has broken the law and skewed the balance of nature, it is a duty imposed upon us to act responsibly and bring it back to the proper balance.”

You need to really be invested in this topic to get a lot out of Komatsu’s longwinded, high school-like thesis of a book on why whales need to continue to be hunted. Later sections I haven’t discussed include: 1) why whale meat is an important source of protein that we aren’t utilizing to the fullest 2) why whale meat is more environmentally friendly than beef, which requires deforestation for farmland.  Komatsu claims  naïve environmentalists are blind to the possibilities of whale meat:

“Which is better for conservation of nature, expansion of grazing land by deforestation or sustainable utilization of a part of wildlife?” Komatsu says. “It would be a folly to discard utilization of renewable resources just for the sake of appeasing so-called environmentalists whose egotistic assertion have been disseminated through misleading TV commercials.”

I suppose we never know at what point in the near future we’ll have to stop eating beef to preserve the planet. I heard from one Japanese friend that good whale meat can be quite tasty. Komatsu argues that soon, when humans will be totaling more than 10 billion, it will be hard to keep up beef and chicken farming—since that accelerates global warming by cutting down trees for land. The excrement from farm animals pollute the water and kill off natural water plants and freshwater fish.

“Under these circumstances, can we afford to abandon the idea of utilization of whale resources? The answer is: ‘Absolutely not!'”

On the topic of the Japanese using whales as an important source of protein, Komatsu lashes out at the IWC (which he later brands as “Goblins” for shifting the original focus from “stabilizing whale oil prices” to a focus on protecting whales) by saying they totally disrespect the cultural traditions of places in Africa and Asia. He says urban civilians are fooled by environmentalists handing out pamphlets showing gorillas being eaten by essentially countering with thought ‘well, what if they’re not eating an unreasonable amount of gorillas!’ In his actual words:

“The arrogance of their assertion, ‘stop eating wild animals’ totally disregards the social structure of the people surviving on the meat of hunted animals.”

Komatsu might be right in thinking environmentalists are pushing us towards adopting developed countries’ more boring diets, food being one of the things that helps tie Japan to third world countries that offer similarly diverse foods. You can be sure in the 1960s there weren’t as many crustless, paper-white bread sandwiches at konbinis as there are nowadays, leading Komatsu to this fear of Japan being stripped of its whaling cuisine (despite the fact not many Japanese eat whale anymore. (Editor’s note: The Japanese government has over two tons of frozen whale-meat, much of it from ‘research’ whaling that it’s saving for some unspecified emergency. Whaling may not sustainable without Japanese government subsidies which begs the question—should taxpayer money be used to sustain it and do most of the Japanese people want public funds used for that purpose). As an American, I can definitely agree the internet has led to a stigma that certain foods such as Natto have been framed too negatively, and in Komatsu’s eyes I suppose whales are no different.

“No one has a right to criticize the food culture of other people. When we Japanese eat our food such as NATTO (fermented soy beans), ANKO (sweetened black beans) and SASHIMI (fresh slices of raw fish), we accept that some people may think that such food is weird (it is theit business to think so), but we would be angry if they forced us to stop eating it.”

Movies such as The Cove are able to post generally agreed ‘disturbing’ pictures of whales (and dolphins) being sliced apart, but Komatsu raises the question of “Why is it more disturbing than pig and cow slaughter houses?”

As my friend and Johns Hopkins Asian Studies Professor Yulia Frumer points out, Japan relies very heavily on foreign exports and likely harbors ill feelings for having to listen to the U.S. for what foods it can and cannot receive. I admit that Komatsu gives dozens of faulty numbers in his writing about whales, (he actually hindered his argument in “The History and Science of Whales” by mistakenly saying the estimated number of sperm whales was 200,000 when it was actually 2 million,) but I think it’s important we consider how some of Japan’s older generations feel belittled by the U.S. and Australian whaling/fishing commissions that wants to tell them what they’re allowed to catch.

“Analysis of their argument leads us to believe that they are viewing the rights of the non- human creatures as equal to the rights of men. Here, I think it is worthwhile to ponder upon what truly should be the protection of animals.”

Komatsu manages to make some logical arguments but there is a twisted logic to it and in the end, whaling in Japan is not necessarily something that the majority of the population wants and the industry is unsustainable.

So why does it keep getting funded? That’s a subject worthy of a book in itself.

 

Jake Adelstein contributed to this review. For more on the whaling issue please see this article originally published in The Daily Beast. 

I’ll Have the Whale, Please: Japan’s Unsustainable Whale Hunts

Former NYT Chief Explains Japan’s Lack of Journalistic Freedom

Martin Fackler, former Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times, gave a lecture high above Tokyo at Academy Hills in Roppongi last Thursday, primarily about why Japan’s quality and freedom of the press has regressed from a world ranking of 11 to 72 since 2010 (Press Freedom Index). Filling the auditorium were around 100 mostly-Japanese journalists, students and teachers interested in getting the outsider insight on why Japanese news sources are lacking. In Fackler’s opinion, the mainstream media and their reporters have been molded by Abe’s government into thinking they are getting special access to all the country’s biggest topics, when really it’s diluting the quality of their stories. Whereas in the U.S., major sources like New York Times and BBC that are unafraid to feature public opinions that may oppose the government, Fackler says Japan’s media culture has taken the importance of so-called “access journalism” too far.

“It seems like it’s all about getting the scoop in mainstream Japan media,” Fackler said. “It’s not just the atmosphere, it’s how people’s’ careers are made, by getting the scoop to the officials’ breaking access news.”

While also praising Abe’s cabinet for their savvy when it comes to promptly addressing the media, he points out that the desire for a scoop has made newspapers such as Asahi and Mainichi regress into a routine of rarely questioning or opposing officials in their writing, since doing so would cost them their special access rights.   

“Abe gives out a lot of scoops and one-on-one interviews with cooperative media members, and even has dinner with them,” Fackler said. “So if you play ball, you get a lot of access. That’s why there are a lot of ‘scoops’ in the yomiurii shimbun, sankei shimbun.”

Nowadays in Japan’s newsrooms, getting ‘scoops’ is overvalued in place of more quality journalism, i.e. going out into the field and reaching out to the officials individually in order to not get a pre-canned speech that everyone accepts as true.

Fackler also pointed to press clubs as a culprit for dumbing down Japanese reporting, something that rang true with me.  When I started reporting for JSRC in Summer 2015, I noticed that a lot of the foreigners in the FCCJ rarely left the workroom to write their stories. For me, this was radically different than experiences in my hometown Baltimore, where a protest by locals in the rough parts of town was often a bigger story than the original government plan they were protesting.

“All the reporters sit there and wait for the officials to bring them news,” Fackler said. “These clubs were originally intended as a way to keep a close eye on the government, but now what they’ve become is a machine to create a very passive type of journalism. It’s not just the facts that the officials parlay, it’s also the stories, narratives and how to understand it all.”

Fackler’s opening story and example of this new “passive journalism,” was his experience initially reporting on the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Minamisoma City Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai sent out an S.O.S. for help and almost no local reporters came in person to talk to him, Fackler being one of the few who didn’t opt to run for the hills on March 13th, one day after the disaster.

“I’ll never forget the reaction, because everyone at the front desk excitedly murmured: ‘kisha ga kimashita!’ (a reporter came!). Sakurai said the reason there was so much commotion was that all the Japanese reporters had left. So while all the mainstream papers were saying ‘The government has everything under control, don’t exaggerate the risks, etc.’, those reporters were themselves running for the hills,” Fackler said. “It became a lesson to me of how the media here has a tendency to repeat the official mindset, even if they believe differently, and that there’s a pressure to not deviate from the official narrative.”  

In my opinion, much of what the former correspondent listed as the deep issues with Japan’s newspapers are easily fixable, it just takes some sacrifices with losing favor in the government’s circle of media it likes. I appreciated how Mr. Fackler took notice of NHK broadcasts constantly being focused around an official or prosecutor’s good work, never a simple salaryman or artist. Newspapers are just as much to blame for Japan’s fall in press freedom as Abe and his regime, if not more because of the power I believe news articles can have in rallying people to pressure the government into doing what’s best. Instead, we see newspaper writers falling into line like they are simply mere kohai (second rank) to the government that tells them what’s important.

“I think the Abe govt. has raised the bar with dealing with press, but the problem is the big media haven’t followed. They’re still in this post-war heiwagyou case thing, where they’re so used to having stories fed to them, that when the government roughs them up a bit, they’re like dogs and roll over on their backs. I don’t think they know or have had a good fight with the government in a really long time.”

Nikkei buys the Financial Times: Have The Lunatics Taken Over the Asylum?

On Friday, four executives from the Nikkei media company talked to the press after purchasing Financial Times, the U.K.’s 127-year-old newspaper, for a reported 1.3 billion dollars. The main reasons chairman Tsuneo Kita cited included a desire to expand Nikkei’s reach beyond Japan and to improve its online presence, something FT is much more adept at doing. Investigative journalism is also something the FT is 100 times more adept at doing than Nikkei’s flagship newspaper, which has been likened to a cheerleader or in-house publication of the Japan Business Federation (経団連). Can this merger create synergy or will it be more like MOX fuel?

Nikkei takes over the Financial Times. Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss. Will we get fooled again?
Nikkei takes over the Financial Times. Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss. Will we get fooled again?

 

Many are wondering how hands-on Nikkei will be—or rather how much it will interfere– when it comes to the Financial Times reporting on Japanese businesses and their semi-frequent controversies. Recently, while magazines like ZAITEN were reporting on Toshiba’s “creative accounting” or “improper accounting” as “fraudulent accounting” as early as June, Nikkei continued to use the improper and incorrect term “improper accounting” until the Toshiba friendly third-party committee officially described Toshiba’s over a billion dollars of inflated profits on the books as “false.”

In the 2011 Olympus Scandal, The Financial Times was the first English language paper to break the story, while Nikkei’s Keizai Shimbun (日経新聞) waited about a week to fully report on it and tacitly acknowledge that fraudulent accounting had taken place. Nikkei CEO Naotoshi Okada admitted they could have done a better job reporting on the scandal: “Maybe it is true we were somewhat delayed with reporting on the Olympus scandal,” Okada said. “But this is not because we withdrew ourselves from covering the scandal.”

When asked about whether these contrasting traits would affect the Financial Times’ ability to report stories on time and in their entirety, Okada was first puzzled, not being a fluent speaker of English. I had to ask the question stated that there would be minimal change to how Financial Times operates and emphasized they will be protecting its “editorial independence.”

“Nikkei has no intention to force Financial Times to do editing and reporting as Nikkei wants it done,” Okada said. “Nikkei and FT are totally separate in terms of following respective editorial procedures and policies until the articles are formulated. They’re independently figured out. Nikkei acquiring FT will not result in articles assigned by Nikkei to FT. That is what I mean by ensuring independent right of editing.”

Not trying to make too many promises, Okada then added that acquiring FT still means collaborations will still occur to a certain extent.

“With the acquisition here’s going to be exchange of human resources and of course within editorial companies there’s going to be more frequent exchange of views, but we will still respect that FT is independent.”

In response to the purchase, Michael Woodford—a former CEO at Olympus who was fired for exposing the 1.7 billion dollars major accounting scandal— said that “the media in Japan is self-serving and deferential to powerful forces, and the Nikkei is not regarded as being independent of corporate Japan.”

Woodford was fired for raising questions about payments for financial advice and payments to front companies. He later wrote a book called Exposure:Inside the Olympus Scandal How I Went From CEO to Whistleblower detailing what had happened at Olympus and also expressing thanks to the Olympus employee who had the courage to blow the whistle and to FACTA (a Japanese publication) and the Financial Times for writing the truth.

“Because of this reality, (of Nikkei subservience to corporate interests rather than the interests of the general public), if the FT had been owned by Nikkei at the time of the Olympus scandal I would have unquestionably gone to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal instead,” Woodford said in a personal statement.

“While I’m sure the FT will be committed to maintaining its editorial independence, I’m deeply troubled that the ‘subliminal effect’ of being owned by Nikkei will make it less willing to publish articles critical of corporate Japan, which very much includes the Nikkei itself which has long tentacles and powerful influence in the country.

This is a sad moment for journalism, not only for this country but also globally.”

The Nikkei Buys The Financial Times. The Financial Times Sells Out To The Nikkei. Two stories and the same story.
The Nikkei Buys The Financial Times. The Financial Times Sells Out To The Nikkei. Two stories and the same story.

Q & A Memo

*The press conference was held yesterday, almost covertly at 5pm at the Imperial Hotel. The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan was notified roughly around 4pm, giving many foreign reporters outside the press club system little time to prepare.

A last minute notice of the Nikkei Press conference
A last minute notice of the Nikkei Press conference

Jake Adelstein, the editor-in-chief of Japan Subculture Research Center notified me. He had covered the Olympus fraudulent accounting extensively and also wrote the afterword to Michael Woodford’s book. He dispatched me to the press conference, as soon as he heard, here’s the question I asked:

“The Financial Times broke the story on the massive Olympus Accounting Fraud while your paper ignored it and was a mouthpiece for Olympus for the first week. Why should we believe you’ll protect the FT tradition of investigative journalism in Japan?”

The answer from Nikkei was as follows (translated from the Japanese)

“Maybe it is true we were somewhat delayed with reporting the Olympus scandal. But this is not because we withdrew ourselves from covering the scandal. Nikkei has no intention to force FT to do the editing and reporting as Nikkei wants it done. Nikkei and FT are totally separate in terms of following respective editorial procedures and policies until the articles are formulated. They’re independently figured out. Nikkei acquiring FT will not result in articles assigned by Nikkei that are covered by FT. That is what I mean by ensuring independent right of editing. With the acquisition here’s going to be exchange of human resources and of course within editorial companies there’s going to be more frequent exchange of views, but we will still respect that ft is independent.”

Jake Adelstein contributed to this report. 

With “The War Bill” Looming, Japan’s Press & Academia Rebel Against Team Abe

During this time of year, walking around Tokyo can often be compared to entering a bowl of soup. Similar metaphors could be used for how lethargic the process has been for scholars such as Sophia Professor Koichi Nakano to get their message heard by Prime Minister Abe about why they believe collective self-defense is unconstitutional. In Nakano’s words: “I think it’s going to be a long, hot summer,” Nakano said. “Each time Mr. Abe opens his mouth, we have less clear an idea of what the bill allows the military to do.” Nakano, along with Mari Osawa and Manabu Sato, visited the FCCJ on Friday to once again explain why more than 95% of political scholars are against this new bill that would increase Japan’s military capabilities.

Recently however, tension between the media and Abe’s party has reached new heights, especially in light of the LDP’s comments attacking the media for being critical of the bill. This in turn prompted FCCJ President James Simms to make a public statement requesting the Government respect the freedom of the press rights given in Japan’s constitution. At Friday’s conference, while some new takes were given—as seen with Osawa who believes the increasing youth poverty rate is more important than the security bill—the most noticeable aspect was how all four speakers subtly called out Abe and the LDP to better explain the bills and specifically explain how they plan to employ the possible new self-defense laws. Even moderator Andy Sharp directed several comments directly to Mr. Abe: “We have a standing invitation to Prime Minister Abe and the LDP to come speak at the club,” Sharp said. “We’ve been refused so far … But again, Mr. Abe, if you’re listening, Nakano Sensei says ‘Hi,’ and we ask you please come to the club and explain the bills to the foreign audience.”

According to Nakano, Abe and his party are only digging themselves a deeper grave with their strategy of avoiding specific explanations of what the bill will allow and lead to, something Nakano thinks simply allows the opposition more time to figure it out: “The societal forces are only going to be growing the days that go by, and the government doesn’t seem to get it because they say they can explain it without actually trying to explain it. But with the passage of time, people are creating a better understanding of the bill, which actually strengthens the opposition.”

Nakano and others.
Professors Manabu Sato, Mari Osawa and Koichi Nakano at the FCCJ last Friday.

In news journalism, one of the main goals has always been to report facts how they are, with minimal amounts of our own opinions tainting the reality of what’s happening. But over the past weeks, the media has been forced to defend itself and play a role other than simple reporters. Throughout the conference, Nakano characterized Abe and his party’s not-so-subtle intimidation of the media as being “high handed,” because they refuse to adequately explain the bills and then seem defensive when questioned about it. In response to whether there is a connection between the plan to gradually eliminate humanities from public universities and the security laws, Nakano said it definitely aligns with the government’s past resistance to the media and its new plan to punish teachers who are considered ‘biased’ for any controversial stances they teach.

“I don’t think there’s a direct connection since as of now it’s just a plan,” Nakano said. “But the government doesn’t particularly welcome active citizenry, and I think even though they are lowering the voting age to 18, the LDP politicians have began saying if there’s biased teaching in classrooms, they will institute punitive measures against those teachers, as if they have the monetary right to determine what constitutes politically ‘biased’ teaching.” So it seems to be clear people like us in academia are not just enclosing ourselves in the laboratories and offices, but we try to put our specializations towards contributing to what’s happening.”

In these final stages of the legislation being passed, the academic analysis has somewhat been given up on by the many politicians and scholars arguing against the bills, instead joining the protests being held by the many different groups of both officials and the public, all of which refuse to accept that Abe can simply pass the laws without approval of most of the country. On Friday night, a couple hundred people gathered around the National Diet building to protest the bill, which included five drummers, a conch-shell blower and many chants telling Abe to stop, (a lot of “Abemo Yamero!”). The police ended the protest soon after eight even though it was planned to go on another hour or so. If it so happens that Mr. Abe sees the press conference or finally listens to the media that has largely joined the public in protest, hopefully he will soon face the music and avoid the big riots that would ensue if the bill is indeed passed on July 15.