As I sit here in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium press section, the seats are vibrating from the music and bass blasting out of the speakers. Even before the opening ceremony began, all the Paralympians seated on the stadium field were celebrating.
The United Kingdom and Peruvian teams were ecstatically encouraging their international peers to take advantage of their circular seating arrangement to complete a whole wave. The wave would make it through 2/3 of the Paralympians before losing momentum in the last 1/3 section adjacent to the flag poles. After each attempt would die out on its final leg, the particularly invested athletes from Peru and the U.K. would stand up and urgently “gesture” to the responsible section.
Finally, when the wave accomplished a full lap “around the globe,” so to speak, you could hear the whole stadium, including those of us in the press booths which have been following the wave’s progress, cheer and clap at this spontaneous game. The wave’s informal and collective nature lent it an intimacy that elevated our joy at its success.
Now, it has been early 30 minutes since the wave experienced a natural death. And yet, despite the pageantry and impressive stage production of the closing ceremony, I don’t believe anything that has transpired on the field has made me and my fellow reporters laugh and smile as it did. At least, that was the case with the two Japanese reporters flanking me at my table.
20:51 Representatives from each participating Paralympic team have been adding circular mirrors to a miniature figure of Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest free-standing tower. Just now, the final paralympic deputy for the Japanese team attached the last piece to complete the model. The mirrors represent the windows and natural skeletal gaps on the tower.
Upon its completion, the current focal point of the Tokyo skyline was raised, “Flags of Our Fathers” style by the ceremony’s performers. Who knew relations between the United States and Japan were so tight? (Indulge me in my humor readers. I am both Japanese and American, and that gives me permission to make such dry jokes.)
21:00 The first Paralympic I’mPossible Awards are being presented to the first five recipients of the recognition. For further information on the I’mPossible Award, click here.
Best host country School: Kizarazu Municipal Kiyomidai Elementary School in Chiba, Japan
Best overseas school: Lilongwe LEA School, Malawi
Excellence host country school: Chiba Prefectural Togane (I could not catch the end. I believe it was Chiba Prefectural Togane Special Education School)
Best (Male) I’mPossible Paralympian Award: Lassam Katongo from Zambia. He is a track and race Paralympian and secondary school teacher.
Best (Female) I’mPossible Paralympian Award: Katarzyna Rogowiec from Poland. A three-time Paralympian and two-time Paralympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing. She is also a former ITC anti-doping committee member.
The awards for the two Paralympians were accepted by their respective national Paralympic Committees on their behalf.
21:23 The Tokyo Skytree “miniature,” which must be roughly five meters tall, accompanies other notable architecture that shapes the city’s skyline, including Rainbow Bridge. You guessed it, the “Rainbow” Bridge is not actually colored in seven distinct shades. However, after numerous complaints that the bridge’s namesake made little sense, a night-time illuminating feature was added.
The closing ceremony’s similarity to a Disneyland parade is as prominent as the August 24 opening ceremony. The fluorescent animal costumes adorned by dancing performers and the musical production remind me of the Mermaid Lagoon Theatre from The Litte Little Mermaid area at Tokyo DisneySea.
“The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games have not just been historic. They have been fantastic,” Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, said in his closing speech. He said that despite the games’ accomplishments, the world has flaws with accessibility that no mask can cover.
“As we build back better, 15% of the world’s population cannot be left behind,” Parsons said. “People with disabilities should not have to do exceptional things to be accepted.”
Following a WeThe15 campaign commercial, a Japanese singer seated in his wheelchair sang “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong with a powerful voice would have made the raspy icon proud. The song’s second half was sung by a female singer with a visual impairment. The two voices converged in the final part of the ballad accompanied by a children’s choir.
As a piano player in the center of the stadium played the last notes of the iconic song, the egg-like encasing of the Olympic and Paralympic flame closed, extinguishing the fire that has burned since July 23.
And with that, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games had ended.
Thank you for following me and Jake Adelstein throughout our coverage of the Olympic and Paralympic Games! It has been a true privilege and honor.
Editor note: Japan had two different military programs working on developing an atomic bomb. The movie reviewed here only discusses one of the programs. Japan’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons was much more successful than imagined, click here and read What If Japan Had the Atomic Bomb First? For more details.
Review by Kaori Shoji
“Gift of Fire (Japanese original title: Taiyo no Ko)” proffers an unsettling view from an old and familiar window. Directed by Hiroshi Kurosaki, the gist of this story set in the summer of 1945, is this: just weeks before Japan’s surrender in WWII, a team of graduate students at Kyoto University were hard at work on the creation of a nuclear bomb. While this piece of information may not be news to many western historians, the majority of the Japanese are bound to feel baffled. For generations, the Japanese were conditioned – by our elders, by the media, by the education system and history itself, to feel that we were the victims of a war that very few in the populace ever wanted to fight. And now a Japanese movie is saying we could have been the perpetrators of the world’s first nuclear bomb attack? That’s an incredibly heavy load to process, and still more to confront.
After all, Japan had banked the struggle of the postwar years and the rapid growth era that followed it, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horrors that happened on August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima and then, a mere 72 hours later in Nagasaki, were recounted through generations and revived in the media more times than anyone could count. It was a legacy of suffering, a collective mantle of unspeakable sadness under which the Japanese toiled and labored for decades to come. At the same time, the two bombs exonerated the Japanese from having to explain and face up to wartime atrocities – the crimes committed in Korea, China, Singapore and pretty much the entire Asian Pacific Rim. Call it the a-bomb card, pulled out when the Koreans or Chinese got noisy about acknowledgement and reparations for war crimes. And whenever the Japanese people protested against the econo-centric measures of the government that irredeemably polluted oceans and mountains and quashed the livelihoods of millions of traditional workers. For seventy plus years, the a-bomb card served Japanese politicians, their politics and the national conscience. We suffered enough, now leave us alone.
But “Gift of Fire” says it may be about time to turn in that card.
The Kyoto University lab was under close scrutiny by the Imperial Army and the scientists were pressed for results. If and when they succeeded in splitting the atom, the plan was to drop the bomb on San Francisco. The students were plagued by doubts and filled with anxiety, and who can blame them. Nightly air raids, frequent power outages and utter lack of resources prevented their experiments from moving forward when all the while, they were listening to American news on a hand-crafted short wave radio. The Americans were closing in on the Japanese Imperial Army though the propaganda reports from the frontlines said otherwise. “Should we even be doing this, in the comfort of a laboratory? Shouldn’t we be fighting and giving our lives to this country?” says one anguished student, who eventually quits the project to enlist in the Imperial Army.
The truth was, the Kyoto University team lacked everything to build anything, let alone a weapon of mass destruction. Still, they forge on, fueled by a blind hope that an atomic bomb will change the course of the war or even end it. Besides, says Professor Arakatsu, the helmer of the project: “if we don’t build it the Americans will. And if the Americans don’t get there first the Soviets will. Why do you think this war started in the first place? It’s because the world is in a race to procure energy resources. Whoever gets control of the energy, gains control over the world.”
By saying that, Arakatsu has shifted the concept of war from ideology and nationalism to science and technology. Fittingly, “Gift of Fire” is mostly devoid of sentiment and righteousness, preferring instead to sanctify the scientist and all that he stands for. In Arakatsu’s laboratory, scientific advancement is a religion, and the god at the altar is Albert Einstein. The highest prayer of course, is E=mc2. The film marks the first time a Japanese film has addressed the atomic bomb from a scientific standpoint, and bringing in an American voice to the proceedings. Kurosaki persuaded Peter Stormare to appear in a voice-only role that defends, honors and ultimately glorifies the scientific mission.
Perhaps that voice belongs to Shu (Yuya Yagira) who is the most committed member in Arakatsu’s lab. Shu is responsible for procuring the much-needed uranium for their experiments, and turns to a local potter for his meager supply. The potter used to make beautiful things, but now he only makes funeral urns. “A lot of people dying,” says the potter matter-of-factly to Shu, pointing to the rows and rows of small white urns turned out in his kiln that day. Shu can only nod, bow and make his exit with the uranium powder stashed in his rucksack. Shu knows that Japan will hurtle toward a terrible defeat unless they can build the bomb before the Americans. At the same time he knows their chances of making that happen are practically zilch. Yet the thought of giving up never crosses his mind. A stubborn work-ethic and an obsessive regard for science dictates Shu’s actions and his MO, like the rest of his team, is to ‘ganbaru (do the best they can)’ until they drop.
Director/writer Hiroshi Kurosaki is a seasoned television director, best known for his work on the NHK morning drama series “Hiyokko, (2017)” which means ‘youngster.’ Kurosaki has a flair for portraying youth and innocence under duress. “Hiyokko” was set in the post war years, with a young female protagonist (Kasumi Arimura) searching for her missing father in Tokyo. Arimura teams up with Kurosaki again for “Gift of Fire” as she plays Setsu, who is Shu’s possible love interest. Setsu, perhaps as a nod to our times, is not the typical docile young woman of wartime Japan. In one scene she lectures Shu and his brother Hiroyuki (played by the late Haruma Miura who committed suicide last summer. The film marks his final screen appearance) about their tunnel vision, exhorting them to look beyond the war and envision a future without violence. In the post-screening press conference Kurosaki said: “I wanted to portray what a young woman must have felt in the final days before the surrender. She’s young and has an intense desire to live and experience life, but death is always there.”
“Gift of Fire” is not without redemption. What permeates the otherwise dark and spartan narrative is the sheer innocence of the characters, especially Shu and Hiroyuki. In their separate ways, the brothers seek closure to a war that had come to define their identifites – Shu by creating the atomic bomb, and Hiroyuki by flying a plane right into an American warship. Defeat may be imminent but neither of them are about to surrender peacefully. “They made mistakes, they’re not heroes,” said Kurosaki. “They are ordinary young men, blundering on and doing the best they can.” Sadly that’s never enough to right a ship gone horribly awry. END
The article below is reprinted from Unseen Japan. Please note: Kentaro Kobayashi, a comedian turned director of the Olympics opening ceremony was fired from his post, on July 22, after footage of him making holocaust jokes resurfaced. Kobayashi, made fun of the murder over 6 million Jews by the Nazis in a comedy skit in 1998. “Let’s play Holocaust (ホロコーストごっこしよう)” was one of the lines.
“Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide. The Nazi regime also gassed Germans with disabilities. Any association of this person to the Tokyo Olympics would insult the memory of 6 million Jews and make a cruel mockery of the Paralympics,” stated SWC Associate Dean and Global Social Action Director, Rabbi Abraham Cooper.
Holocaust Joke Lands Olympics Opening Director in Hot Water
by Noah Oskow
This piece originally appeared on Unseen Japanand a section has been printed here with their permission
Recently, I’ve gotten used to waking up, opening Twitter, and immediately seeing some new controversy erupting from the oncoming Tokyo Olympics. These daily scandals are often enumerated on the trending ticker to the right of the screen; most recent was the story of the Olympic Village being like “Medieval Japan,” with tiny rooms without internet, TV, or enough toilets. Much more serious was the furor over opening and closing ceremonies composer Oyamada Keigo (famed internationally by his stage name, Cornelious); a twenty-something Oyamada had bragged, back in the ’90s, of physically, sexually, and emotionally torturing disabled classmates during his school years.
Still, when I woke up this morning and groggily glanced at Twitter, I never quite expected to see the Holocaust come into play. There, in the trending section, the word 「ユダヤ人」(yudaya-jin, Jewish person) shone out like a worrisome beacon. I was immediately concerned, even before I even had time to read and comprehend the whole phrase. Seeing “Jewish” trend rarely seems to mean anything good. And why would it be trending in Japan, a country with such limited awareness of anything Jewish? I refocused on the topic tag, and apprehensively read it out: 「ユダヤ人大量惨殺ごっこ」. “Playing at the Holocaust,” or, to literally read out the academic term used, “playing at the great massacre of Jewish people.” And above the phrase, portentously indicating the trending subject, was the word “Olympics.”
A Laughing Matter?
Kobayashi Kentaro is half of the popular gag comedy duo “Rahmens.” Outside of Japan, his most famous work is most likley his legendary series of comedy shorts entitled “The Japanese Tradition.” The videos, which humorously lampoon aspects of Japanese culture, building from the believable to the outright surreal, were a staple in my high school Japanese class. (Their “Sushi” video is especially beloved; I can’t count the number of times I’ve shared it with friends.) Kobayashi is also the director of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony, entitled “United by Emotion,” which will air Friday night, Tokyo time (early morning PST).
The issue causing the hubbub over on Twitter doesn’t have anything, in particular, to do with the Olympics, other than perhaps causing some to be “United in Anger.” Much like the (substantially worse) Oyamada scandal, it involves something the principal said more than two decades ago. Nonetheless, it’s the sort of thing that demonstrates a lack of awareness towards the realities of other human beings; something which seems antithetical to the stated ideals of the Olympics.
“Playing at the Holocaust”
The controversy in question stems from a skit Rahmens put on in the years directly before gaining national fame. In the sketch, released on VHS collection by Colombia in 1998, the duo parody the children’s educational show 「できるかな」(Do You Think You Can Do It?) The Japanese show, which was also popular in Latin America, taught children how to make paper crafts using scissors and tape.
In the skit, Kobayashi is portraying protagonist Noppo-san, while his partner is the show’s anthropomorphic gopher, Gonta. They’re discussing ways to play with paper; Kobayashi talks about how they could wrap up a newspaper into a cone and pretend it’s a baseball bat; a rolled-up newspaper sphere could be their baseball. As for the crowds, all they would need are a bunch of cut-outs of people to place on paper bleachers.
Katagiri Jin, playing Gonta, says he has just the right sort of collection of human paper cut-outs. He rushes off to grab the imagined paper figures. Kobayashi replies, “ah, from that time you said ‘let’s play the Holocaust.’” The audience laughs uproariously at this out-of-left-field joke. Kobayashi follows up with “Koda-san was really angry about this one. Said, ‘do you think we could air that?!’” Then, looking at the imagined paper cut-outs, he says, “wow, you made this many?”The skit in question.
The Brewing Storm
The sudden retrieval of this mostly-forgotten joke from decades ago and attendant media coverage resulted in a myriad of responses. Chief among these were those who expressed shocked disbelief.
“Ah, I didn’t know about this skit. This is no good. It’s like if you did a sketch where the joke was the atomic bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or about the Battle of Okinawa, or the Kobe or Great East Japan Earthquakes. The Genocide of the Jews isn’t a subject to be used in such a carefree manner. Much less to be made the subject of a gag.”
“In the latter half of the 1990s, the same decade where the Goldhagen controversy burned through Europe, the Holocaust could still be used as a “funny gag,” and even be packaged and put into circulation on a VHS without a single issue. As a Japanese researcher of modern German history, this is really something I need to come to grips with…”
A Real Controversy, or No?
Of course, there were also those for whom the joke, unearthed from decades past, was old news. Both topically, as a single joke, and as something for whom statutes of limitations may have passed, it seemed like an empty controversy…..
For the rest of the article, please click here at Unseen Japan
Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has previously contributed to Japan Subculture Research Center.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics are turning into a coronavirus spreading festival of bullies. Despite allegedly having a theme of harmony and diversity, the Olympics appear more and more to be symbolic of cruelty and callousness. The latest case in point: this week, composer Keigo Oyamada, 52, who is the composer for the opening and closing ceremonies was revealed to have brutally tortured and bullied special needs students through elementary to high school. He said on record to two separate magazines in the 90s that he forced his victims to eat feces and masturbate in public. He ridiculed them, beat them, and egged on other accomplices. His gleeful retelling of these hate crimes resurfaced a day after his role in the Olympics was announced.
He issued an apology on Friday (July 16). He won’t step down and the Tokyo Olympic Committee issued a statement late in the evening the same day that they won’t fire him.
However, as we have already seen in the long history of Tokyo Olympic debacles, when the tone-deaf organizers finally hear the voices of dissent, they will probably eat their previous words, but unlike Oyamada’s victims—they won’t literally have to eat shit.
“I’d strip (one disabled kid) naked and roll him up in cords and make (him) masturbate. I made him eat shit and then performed a belly- to-back-drop wrestling move on him.”
That’s too bad.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Organizing Committee announced on July 14 that musician and composer, Keigo Oyamada, would be overseeing music at the Tokyo opening ceremony. He is a world-famous musician, also known by his moniker, Cornelius. However, it didn’t take long for his ugly past to emerge, and the hashtag “Boasting About Bullying” began to trend the next day, racking up over 10,000 retweets. The original tweet cited two interviews in the past in which he appeared to be proud of his younger years as a bully. The interviews appeared in the January 1994 issue of music magazine, Rockin’ On Japan, and the March 1995 issue of subculture magazine, Quick Japan.
In the interviews, Oyamada confessed to bullying classmates from a nearby special needs school from elementary school all the way through high school. In Rockin’ On Japan, he describes what he did as follows: “I’d strip (one guy) naked and roll him up in cords and make (him) masturbate. I made him eat shit and then performed a belly- to-back-drop wrestling move on him.” In the interview with Quick Japan, he admitted that he also made gleefully fun of kids with Down’s Syndrome attending a nearby school. He alluded to spurring others to bully the special needs children, “providing ideas”. Also, in another interview he seems to have admitted to what could be construed as attempted murder*, “Remember that case where kids rolled up another kid in a mattress and killed him? We did that sort of thing (to the special needs kid) and stuffed them in the vaulting horse…”
*A boy died in Japan Jan. 13, 1993, after being rolled up in a mattress in the school gymnasium’s storeroom by bullies. The mattress was placed vertically in the storage area and he was placed in it upside down; he died of asphyxiation and/or suffocation.
One of the magazines followed up Oyamada’s interview by contacting the family of his victims, who told the reporter that the bullying had nearly driven their son to suicide.
Here is the truth. Oyamada has confessed to committing sexual assault, assault, forcible indecency, public indecency, and attempted murder.
The actions Oyamada took would normally be crimes in Japan, but the statute of limitations has long passed.
In a statement released to the press Friday (July 16), the composer admitted that he did not show any regret when he spoke to the magazines years ago and he deserved the criticism he was receiving. He said that he would not step down and implied would atone for his past by contributing to the Olympics.
Ironically, the unifying concept of Tokyo 2020’s opening and closing ceremonies are “Moving Forward,” something the formerly respected musician must be praying for. The theme of the opening ceremony, which he is responsible for, is “United by Emotion.” The overarching disgust of the Japanese public at his criminal past has achieved exactly what the Olympic and Paralympic committee wanted. The entire country is united by repulsion.
“I am deeply sorry for how my words and actions hurt my classmates and their parents. I regret and take responsibility for taking the role of an antagonizer rather than a friend during my school years, a time that should be filled with fond memories,” Oyamada wrote in his Twitter apology essay on July 16.
However, in his sincere apologies to the world, and to the victims he traumatized, the singer clarified that not every heinous act recorded in the interviews were factually accurate.
“Regarding the contents of the article, as I was not able to confirm the final draft before it was published, there are many parts that deviate from the truth. However, there is no doubt that my classmates were hurt by my words and conduct. Therefore, I felt personally responsible, and chose at the time to not point out any mistakes or exaggerations in the story,” he defended himself in his Twitter post.
Perhaps the first magazine article published in 1994, followed up by a 22 page Odyssey retelling of his psychotic escapades in 1995, contained some factual errors that made it to copy. Instead of forcing a fellow student with a disability to eat feces, maybe he presented it to them on a clean plate with napkins.
What Oyamada did not do in his lengthy apology was resign as an Olympic and Paralympic ceremony composer.
“In hindsight, I should have declined the position offer considering some people would be displeased by my participation for various reasons. However, in these difficult times with its numerous challenges, I consulted the creators of the opening ceremonies who were making strenuous efforts to build the best event possible. After much thought, I chose to accept the job out of a hope that my music would bring some good to the ceremony,” the singer explained his noble self-sacrifice.
“In addition, I have invested considerable effort into this musical project,” he continued. Whether the Paralympians competing in this year’s games will be so forgiving is not certain.
The Tokyo Olympic Committee issued a statement acknowledging a failure to screen Oyamada properly, adding that, “We would like him to continue to do his utmost in preparation until the very end,” expressing no desire to have him resign or fire him. They also added in his defense, “Oyamada clearly regrets his past words, has reflected on them, and is currently maintaining a high moral standard while dedicating himself to creative activities.” One might note that the Committee recognizes that Oyamada regrets speaking about his inhumane activities but is vague about whether they believe he really regrets what he did. Words are cheap. The Olympics are inevitably, “Moving Forward.”
The reaction of the Japanese public has been overwhelmingly negative, calling the decision to employ him for the Olympic music “a fatal mistake in the selection process.” One twitter user, posting an article about Oyamada’s past bullying, noted wryly, “Well, after all, it’s like the Olympics itself is making the public eat shit.” A few days ago International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach appeared to be the most hated man in Japan, but in the low-bar race for a gold medal in unpleasantness, Oyamada may now be the leading contender.
Mark Bookman, a historian of disability in Japanese and transnational contexts, and Postdoctoral Fellow at Tokyo College, part of the esteemed Tokyo University, emailed us, his understanding of the problem, taking time to explain the significance of the games. “The Olympic and Paralympic Games provide activists, policy makers, and members of the public opportunities to reflect on the past, present, and future of disability rights on local and global scales. They have helped catalyze change and lead to improvements in accessibility and social welfare for diverse demographics of disabled people in multiple countries, including, but not limited to, Japan.”
But he also points out there is a downside to the games.
“However, the games do not always lead to positive results. On many occasions, their spectacle has shifted public attention away from the needs of ‘ordinary’ disabled people in favor of elite athletes. Indeed, the games have helped to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and foster unfavorable outcomes for many individuals, in part due to awareness issues and lack of resources for carrying out reforms.”
Bookman warns that ‘going forward’ with Oyamada may actually roll back advances for the disabled in Japan, and more.
“While stakeholders involved in the games, myself included, have worked to mitigate such negative consequences and use the games as a platform to promote inclusivity, one cannot help but question the Tokyo Olympic Committee’s decision to ‘move forward’ with Oyamada Keigo as a key figure. By elevating (him), who has confessed to committing harmful acts against disabled individuals, the committee is (perhaps unwittingly) creating a space for people who sympathize with his actions. As rates of abuse against disabled persons continue to climb in Japan due to stresses on the nation’s care economy (tied to its rapidly aging population, declining birth rate, and shrinking labor force), one cannot help but wonder what kind of future might come from the Tokyo Committee’s decision. Indeed, as conversations about ‘selecting lives,’ eugenics, and equitable distribution of resources continue to unfold around us in relation to COVID–19, their decision may have dire consequences.”
Michey Peckitt, who runs the blog, Barrier Free Japan, had this to say. “I’m only disappointed. Obviously I did not grow up or go to school in Japan, but Oyamada’s behaviour does not surprise me at all. At school in Britain I was treated in a similar fashion. Being made to eat sh*t is pretty standard bullying behaviour in my experience, although being made to masturbate in public is a new one. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that as it’s difficult to masturbate when your hands don’t work because you have cerebral palsy. As a disabled person living in Japan I’m sad Oyamada’s music is being used in the Olympics, but ultimately nothing surprises me about the Tokyo Games now.”
Rikako, my wife, was staying with her best friend from university, the one that hung around her all these years and never got married. She was pretty attractive too, the last time I saw her, which was what, 10 years ago? Now I couldn’t remember what this friend’s name was. Something that didn’t end in ‘ko’ meaning ‘child.’ In Japanese, the ‘ko’ at the end of a name indicated that the person was female which in this day and age, can raise questions about misogyny or gender discrimination but let’s just put that aside for now.
In Rikako’s case, the written characters of her name stood for ‘wisdom,’ ‘fragrance,’ and ‘child,’ and Rikako said she often felt uncomfortable by the sight of her written name. “It’s a little demeaning,” she had said, wrinkling her nose as if she smelled something bad. “Makes me feel like a little girl.” Then Rikako would get that look on her face, which was supposedly a cue for me to say something like “but you are my little girl. You’ll always be a young girl to me.” And then she would pretend to pout which was another cue for me to massage the back of her feet, and then we’d head off to the bedroom or just fuck on the floor. But for years I hadn’t taken that bait. I mean, come on, we’re both 45. That kind of ritual just doesn’t work anymore, not that it did when we were in our thirties.
Back then we were just living together and not officially married. But Rikako loved planning what she phrased as ‘the inevitable event’ down to the last minute detail. She showed me sketched drawings of ‘my ideal dress’ and ‘the ultimate bouquet,’ and littered the living room with brochures from tons of wedding companies. She was adorable in her adoration of all things wedding and I would steal glances at her profile, poring over the menu cards or venue decorations. Not that it made any sense to me. All that trouble and fuss, not to mention the expense! It was horrendous. But if my little girl wanted to get married in a ridiculous white dress, then it was up to me to smile and nod approval and go along with it.
One of the things I least like about Rikako is how she continues to think and behave like a young woman when very clearly, she’s not. Not, not, not. The topics she chose to talk about, her gestures and her ‘weekend loungewear’ supposedly chosen to stimulate our sex life, ended up being embarrassing, especially during these past few months of a global pandemic. Suddenly, we were trapped in each other’s company for weeks on end, since both our companies mandated that we work from home. I didn’t know what to do with her, how to be with her and certainly not on a 24/7 basis in the confines of a cell-box Tokyo apartment. And she, on the other hand, was annoyed by every little thing I did, or didn’t. That’s not precisely why she left but I’m choosing to blame it all on Covid.
On the last Saturday of July 2020, Rikako announced that she was leaving “this life” with me, so she could “learn to breathe deeply again” in the house of her friend who didn’t have a ‘ko’ at the end of her name. She spent the morning packing, made some coffee which she poured out for the both of us, said something about the laundry and walked out the door with the big Samsonite, the one we both took turns using in the days when frequent business trips were the norm. I almost said, “Wait, I may want to use that” but I didn’t because I wouldn’t. Ever again, if the news was anything to go by. At this rate experts said, we would be lucky to start traveling again in late 2023 or thereabouts.
I knew what she was expecting. That I would turn up at her girlfriend’s place, looking worse for wear, abashed and contrite and promising to do better. That I needed her, oh so much. That we would go away to an onsen for the weekend, and tell each other that the last three months hadn’t done any damage to our marriage. Just thinking these thoughts made me ore than slightly queasy, or inclined to kick the toilet lid which stayed flipped open, thanks very much.
I didn’t. Go out to whatshername’s place, that is. I just stayed in our apartment for which I paid the mortgage every month and suddenly seemed airy and spacious. I worked during the day. Sometimes I did the laundry, otherwise I let my underwear pile up in the washing machine. I lost interest in mealtimes and ate whenever I felt hungry, on whatever tasted like something I wanted to eat. I played Assassin’s Creed until dawn.
Now, three weeks after Rikako’s departure I would go for nocturnal walks around the neighborhood and stand by the river to watch the surface of the water break into choppy ripples. I would cruise the convenience stores and stock up on packets of salami and cheese. It was so intensely pleasurable, so immensely liberating, that on these walks I would take off my mask to let out a silent scream of joy.
Marriage is hugely overrated. I was told it was the only route to happiness but I realize now it was a device that worked only when Rikako and I were putting in eighty-hour weeks at our respective jobs, and so burned out that self-reflection and long, winding discussions and bringing each other up to speed on what we wanted out of life I don’t know, all the stuff that married couples seem to do in Hollywood movies–seemed like an obscene waste of scant resources.
Then the pandemic whirled into our lives and presented a whole new playing field. I was fine with being married to Rikako, but I sure as hell was not prepared to be with her day and night. No man should be asked to do that, at least not in a one-bedroom condo with both of us trying to work and Zoom and use the toilet, sometimes all at once.
She claimed it was much worse for her and was relentless about letting me know it.
“I hate the sight of you in those sweats.” “
You’re playing games all the time, can’t you rent a car and take me out on the weekends?”
“I’m not your mother, don’t make me pick up your clothes.” “
The toilet’s dirty, you never clean it.” “
I’m not your mother, I can’t make your meals all the time.” “
I’m not your mother, stop acting like an overgrown kid.”
In the old days, Rikako and I were buddies most of the time, united in our shared lifestyle choices. Our own condo unit in a nice Tokyo neighborhood. Both of us were career driven, with a joint savings account. Overseas vacations, preferably twice a year. And no kids, never. That discussion was over and done with when we decided to make it all official, and hold a ‘resort wedding’ in Karuizawa. Rikako had said at the time, and I’m quoting verbatim here: “I have no interest in becoming a mother and sacrificing my career and my looks and identity to that undertaking. It’s so meaningless, it’s so thankless.”
Did I judge her for that? Hell no. My mother shook her head and told me I would be lonely in my old age and that it wasn’t too late to walk out of this relationship and find a nice girl who would give me a family. I told my mother it was none of her business and stuck by Rikako. We had shared too much of our lives together to call it quits. Besides, she still looked good at 35 and I wasn’t getting any younger. I doubted I would run into anyone so desirable again.
Mostly though, I was too exhausted from work to deal with it. I’m an aeronautical engineer and one of the core members of a government sponsored team that designs manned space vehicles. For the last 15 years, I was flying out to Houston to work with NASA every month or so, and deadlines popped up on my screen every 15 minutes. I was working weekends, past midnight, sometimes until dawn. Until the pandemic hit, I could honestly say that Red Bull was my dearest friend.
When Rikako and I finally tied the knot ten years ago, I was already looking forward to old age and some rock-solid downtime. Retirement seemed to me a glorious mirage of frosted cocktails, glimpsed in the burning desert of my work routine. I was Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient,” trudging on the hot dunes forever and ever but knowing that eventually, Juliette Binoche would turn up to dress my wounds and whisper to me with a French accent that “everything was going to be okay.” We had the movie on Blu-ray. It was Rikako’s favorite and we would watch it on Saturday nights when I managed to be home. I kept losing the thread of the narrative because I always fell asleep but in the end, yeah, I got it. Ralph Fiennes: What an old dog. The guy is dying and delirious and he still can’t keep his mind off women.
These days though, I think about old Ralph a lot. I ask myself what images would parade through my brain when I’m ready to kick the bucket and I have to admit, it’s not work. Women. It would be women, whether they had the ‘ko’ on their names or not. No doubt Rikako’s face would be one of them but there would be others. My life isn’t completely barren. There are some unforgettable visages and bodies and they’ll all come back to me as I lie there on a hospital bed.
There’s one woman I’m sort of obsessed about now. I haven’t slept with her. I don’t know her name. She’s around 14, probably in her second year of middle school. Yes I know what this sounds like but I promise, this isn’t heading in that direction. This woman – this girl whom I privately named ‘Naoko’ after a girl in my neighborhood when we were both growing up – is someone I used to see in the subway station every morning as I commuted to work.
Naoko is tall for her age, lanky and lean and tanned, with short hair that’s carefully tucked behind her ears. She’s always carrying around a big sports bag emblazoned with her school logo, and printed underneath are the words ‘Track and Field Team.’ She’s a runner, and I’m betting by her physique that she goes for the 400 meter. I was an 800 meter boy myself and I see all the signs of a mid-distance sprinter: the way she holds her head, the snatches of conversation I sometimes overhear when she’s talking to her friends, the condition of her calves extending from her pleated uniform skirt and ending in socks and a pair of brown loafers.
The sight of her takes me right back to the days when I was training night and day to compete in the nationals and get a full-ride scholarship to one of the good universities. She even looks a little like my girlfriend of those days, whom I could see only once every three weeks because the rest of my time was eaten up with running and school.
Am I lusting after Naoko? To my utter relief, the answer is no. It’s a huge relief to be able to say that because otherwise I would be betraying the straight-backed, fresh-faced teenager that I once was. No, I just yearn to talk to her, encourage her, be a part of her life somehow. I think about how wonderful it would be if I had a daughter like her. We would share running stories and I could coach her on pacing and rhythm. I would tell her that mid-distance sprinting is the most intelligent of track sports and how rewarding it was to…
A buzz on my phone. I go take a look at it and it’s a message from Rikako. “I want to come home. I’ll see you in two hours or so. I’m sorry about having left but I think we both needed this break from each other.”
After about 10 seconds of rumination, I send back a smiley face and the words: “I’ll be waiting.”
My imaginary conversation with Naoko had already shattered into a million pieces and those pieces were floating around in the air. I sigh, turn off the air conditioner and go open some windows. I’m still trying to process the fact that Rikako will be back, marking the end of my days of freedom. I guess what this means now is that I have to do the laundry and clean the toilet before my wife gets back.
Yesterday, June 23rd, marked one month before the opening of the “cursed” Tokyo 2020 Olympics and hundreds of residents marked the occasion by holding a protest in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Headquarters. As the delta variant of the novel-coronavirus spreads rapidly and public health concerns are rising, the clamor to call-off the Olympics is increasing. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike was not there to hear the voices of protest yesterday; she is in the hospital due to “fatigue.” The government swears it’s not due to COVID-19 and of course, we believe them.
(Update) The protest will begin at 18:00 by the front entrance on the second floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No.1, and will migrate to the Shinjyuku ALTA building at 19:00. Further guidelines for the protest can be found at the hangorin group’s (anti-Olympics) tumbler page. The organization will also livestream the protest on YouTube from 18:00.
In collaboration with this domestic demonstration, international anti-Olympic organizations in Los Angeles, U.S., Pyeongchang, South Korea, and ironically Paris, France, where the IOC was born, are scheduled to hold simultaneous protests.
People have different ways of dealing stress and fear, especially during a protracted battle with a worldwide pandemic. Some Japanese are claiming that superstition saved us (as opposed to the two cloth masks per person promised by Prime Minister Abe), along with praying at Shinto shrines and guzzling detoxifying green tea.
As fears over a Covid-19 ‘infection explosion’ very gradually recede in the rearview mirror, more people are in a mood to agree with these theories.
After all, rural and traditional Japan remained largely unscathed by Covid-19, and these are the areas where people routinely visit local shrines, carry omamori (お守り・talismans), ask for ‘oharai’ (お祓い) –which is the practice of having a Shinto priest chase out bad spirits and demons lurking in one’s immediate vicinity, and down a lot of tea after the ceremony. If you get a Buddhist priest to do it, it’s yakubarai (厄払い). Add to that list, the drawing of an Amabie and posting it on social media. You may have just the armor needed for pandemic warfare.
A what? An Amabie (pronounced ama-bi-eh) is a yokai (妖怪）which can be translated as apparition, phantom creature or monster. She has the appearance of a three-legged mermaid with a beak in lieu of a mouth and she’s been around since the mid-19th century, according to Edo-Period documents. Though the typical Japanese yokai is often grotesque and loves to play pranks on humans, the Amabie is a beach chick that emerges from the sea to foretell epidemics. If you carry around her picture, she can ward off mass contagion and the effect is doubled if you draw it yourself. A lot of people in Japan and elsewhere have tried their hand at drawing Amabie, and she now has a definite presence on social media, on #Amabiechallenge and others.
Strangely enough, the Amabie has become a thing that may actually work. As of May 20th, the Japanese government has lifted the State of Emergency order for most of the nation, excluding the Tokyo metropolitan area. But the capitol city has been reporting less than 20 new infection cases for a week. Day care centers are talking about reopening as early as the 25th. Some local bars are welcoming customers again, even if masks are mandatory and draft beer is a thing of the past. Yes, the economy is in shambles and there’s nothing on TV but at least we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
This isn’t the first time modern Japan has turned to superstition and yokai for solace and guidance. The late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the mega hit yokai manga series Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Spooky Kitaro) had always held that the yokai was what kept Japan from teetering over the edge into the abyss of disaster. Without their presence and powers, he said, the archipelago would just be a dreary sinkhole of greed and corruption. The yokai is a familiar figure in Japanese folklore, and some date back a thousand years. Some function as avatars for Shinto gods. Others do mischief and love to disrupt people as they go about their lives. The yokai can be friendly too, and will make good companions, as long as you respect tradition, revere nature and refrain from harming others.
Mizuki hails from Tottori prefecture, a very traditional region that has racked up a total of three– count ’em three!–Covid 19 infection cases and zero deaths so maybe his take on the yokai was right. Mizuki’s own illustration of the Amabie has been posted on social media since mid-March, courtesy of Mizuki Production, and apparently this has been printed out and carried inside wallets or folded into omamori sachets. A friend of mine in Tottori reports that local reverence for Mizuki has soared, and the 800 meter long “Mizuki Shigeru Road” in his hometown of Sakaiminato, which is marked with yokai statues and merchandise shops, has seen a lot of (masked) tourist action. These people hang out bv the various yokai figuresto take photos, and leave little notes of prayer for the pandemic to end.
Shigeru Mizuki died in 2017 at the age of 93 but if he were around today, he would no doubt have had plenty to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic. Mizuki was a WWII veteran who lost an arm in combat in Papua New Guinea, and the harrowing experience shaped his views on authority and Japanese society. After the war Mizuki struggled to survive before settling down to write manga, which he continued doing right up until his death. For many years, he could barely make ends meet but his career took off when the Kitaro series hit prime time TV in the late 1960s. However, success didn’t turn his head or soften his judgement on what he saw as crimes committed by the Japanese government, be it throwing the nation into war, or going whole hog on nuclear energy. His manga was never cute or very accessible – they depicted the Japanese as desperate and conniving, with caricatured features like bad teeth, squinty eyes and terrible posture. His portraits of the typical Japanese male were so unflattering they resembled the Yellow Peril posters propagated by the US military during WWII. According to Mizuki, the only way these unattractive Japanese could achieve a slightly higher level of humanity, was to befriend a yokai.
Mizuki’s drawing of the Amabie though, is soft and friendly-looking. She really does seem concerned about the welfare of this archipelago. It’s not a bad picture to carry around, especially in a time when everyone is masked and avoiding eye contact as if the very act of acknowledging another person is a risky undertaking. If a picture of a three-legged mermaid is going to make people feel better about each other, it should probably be framed and put up inside the Diet building.
by Shoko Plambeck The day my birth records were sent to a Shinto shrine my father skinned a badger and hung its coat above my crib. The tale of my birth supposedly unfolds like this: The day I was born the stars were restless and the earth was tossing a blizzard thick as cream through the Nebraskan plains. My father was on his way to work in his red Chevy when he came across a dash of brown, obscured by the snow like a fainting spell. He shot it, thinking it was a soft furred marten, but what he killed instead was a badger. The badger of the plains. Symbol of earth, grounding and consistency; finding her in such weather conditions was like the moon waxing when it should wane.
Still, he put the creature in the back of his truck. When he got to work, there was a call from my mother: It’s two months early, but I’m going into labour. My grandparents got the same call and flew in from Japan. When my obaachan first saw me she announced, This girl will be named Shoko, spirit in flight, and years later when I moved from place to place, hobby to hobby, man to man, she’d lament naming me so irresponsibly. In a shoebox, I went home.
The badger skin was nailed above my crib and my birth records were sent to the monk at the family Shinto shrine. The results came weeks later. My mother read as I drank eagerly from her; she herself was a dark star but at twenty-four she could not even imagine what that would mean. Only years later would she say that the badger had to be a mother and the unimaginable must have happened to make her split into the fatal snow.
My mother read: The child will need to seek grounding. In the moment she was born the stars were restless and they will reverberate through her blood forever. Before she could read any further, my grandmother snatched the fortune out of her hand and read: bright as Sirius, inconstant as Mercury.
This poem was originally posted in Matador Review but was reposted with permission of the author.
Shoko Plambeck is a writer, traveler, and poet. She studied English literature at Temple University in Tokyo and the University of Vermont. She currently lives in Japan but can’t wait to move back to the US to be with her cockatiel and poetry books again.
May 4th has become an iconic day for Star Wars fans across the universe. “May The 4th Be With You” becomes “May The Force Be With You” quite nicely. (If you already knew this, stifle that groan young Jedi, some of us didn’t know). And on this day, what better time to introduce one of the stranger and more delightful books to come out this year in Japan: Zen Wisdom From Star Wars (スター・ウォーズ 禅の教え エピソード4・5・6). It’s written by noted Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Shunmyo Masuno (枡野 俊明) and takes scenes and dialogue from the good episodes of the series to illustrate Zen Buddhist sayings and wisdom. (A full review will come later this month).
The book is well-written, with just enough English sprinkled in to make the book semi-accessible to those who can’t read Japanese or are still struggling to do so. The books works better than you might imagine.
Zen Buddhism, was heavily influenced by Taoism, and George Lucas freely admits to having borrowed heavily from Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese culture in the creation of the Star Wars mythos.
The book includes such pearls of wisdom as:
山川草木悉皆成仏 (Sansen Somuku Shikkai Jobutsu)/Everything is filled with the light of life (Everything has Buddha-nature).
安閑無事 (Ankan Buji)/Feel gratitude for everything no matter how small. Or rather: appreciate peace and quiet, health and safety. Because that won’t last forever. For example, affordable health care in America? Gone. (安閑無事が懐かしい）
閑古錘 (Kankonsui)/Maturation and calm come as you accrue diverse experience.
Well, remember that Star Wars is just fiction, but good science fiction, and the words of wisdom in the movie were not said by Taoist sages or Jedi masters but written by screenwriters. However, if you want to know the philosophy and sayings that inspired the film, this book is a good place to start.
Or better yet, buy yourself a copy of The Tao Te Ching, and substitute the word “Force” everytime it mentions “Tao”. According to the Star Wars English Japanese Dictionary, the Force (フォース) is all the energy derived from every living thing. The Tao, which is often described as being indescribable, is close to the same thing.
So for your further education, here are few words from The Force Te Ching
Force Te Ching
by Yoda- chapter 81
Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.
The Jedi never tries to store things up.
The more he/she does for others, the more he/she has.
The more he/she gives to others, the greater his/her abundance.
The Force of The Light Side is pointed but does no harm.
The Force of the Jedi is work without effort.
(adapted from the Tao Te Ching translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)
😭 Records* is an agency that specifically targets singers outside of Japan who have a passion for anime with hopes of releasing music in Japan. Most of the music released are famous anime song covers. All artists must pay for their own recording and album cover photos.
Once you join 😭 many promises are made to you including performing at their festival, living in Japan, performing on TV in Japan, releasing songs in video games in Japan, etc.
I joined 😭Records when there were just a couple of artists working with the label. I was lied to on what companies the label worked with. So I believed the company to be legit. I was promised by the CEO Hiroaki Usotsuki** that if I record an anime cover album of 5 songs, I could perform at their festival in Japan. This was the main reason why I recorded with them. I’ve performed in Japan before booking my own gigs and thought this would be the same situation. I recorded the five songs and wanted to stop there before moving forward. But the CEO kept asking me to record more. They told me it would be better to have a full album to debut at the festival. I was hesitant but decided to move forward. At the end of my time with 😭 Records I had recorded 20 songs.
After I started recording, over 100 artists were signed to the label. It happened very fast!That’s when I knew I made a big mistake. He started saying that I had to now compete with all the other artists. I had to be a top 10 selling artist to perform at their festival, he said. The festival never happened again. Hiroaki only had the festival a couple times out in Japan and was using it to get people to record.
Because 😭 Records signed so many artists they had to make this website where you sign in to see what songs you can record with them and how much money you were making. The system was never up to date on payment or songs. That very system that they created was recently hacked and a mass email from the hacker was sent warning people of Hiroaki. In that system breach all the banking information of the artists was leaked. I was lucky to have never given them that information.
After the hack occurred many artists contacted each other about it and found out that most of the singers were not getting paid at all. Many artists at this point were with 😭 Records for over five years with no royalty payment.
Once the hack occurred it was also exposed that 😭 Records is not an official company in Japan. They were never registered as a company in Japan.
😭 Records is still accepting applications from foreigners online today. Even though they have never paid their past singers any royalties whatsoever.
This info was also released that 😭 Records also has another company called H●● Agency. H●● Agency is an outsourcing company that brings people to Japan like teachers, construction workers, etc.
This info was exposed that these employees also were not getting paid the proper amount of money or not paid at all. But these employees actually came to Japan with promises of housing arrangements, visa, etc. But all found out very soon that they were stuck in Japan with no place to go. Many had to sleep in the park to figure out a way back home. They also sell the workers to their clients with an outsourcing system with the CEO of H●● taking most if not all of the money.
Hiroaki owns multiple companies with many different names. He will probably get rid of H●● Agency due to everything getting exposed. But he can easily move on to his other companies he has and continues taking advantage of foreigners looking to find a home in Japan.
*Due to vague threats of legal actions and the failure of getting a response from the company in question, we have reluctantly not named the firm here. Within the arts community it is becoming infamous.
**This is not the CEO’s real name. See information above.