Tom of Finland (1920-1991) was a pioneer in LGBQT and homoerotic art, blazing a trial in Finland and his works have been shown all over the world. From today September 18th, his work will be exhibited for the first time in Japan (ever) at Parco Shibuya. In a country where alternative sexuality is still barely recognized and some politicians spew homophobic bile, it’s a small accomplishment that the show is being held.
The exhibition will only last until October 5th.
The show has taken nearly years to put together, was delayed by COVID19, and ran into numerous obstacles along the way; thanks to the collective efforts of all involved, including the Embassy of Finland, the show is finally taking place. The whole story behind the curtains is told eloquently in this piece by Justin McCurry in The Guardian ↘
The exhibition will show that his work was a catalyst for social change and acceptance of homosexuality while celebrating sensuality and the beauty of the male body. The curator of the exhibit and director of The Container, Mr. Shai Ohayon points out that Japan is still very much behind in the recognition of gay and LGBQT rights.
The exhibit is being sponsored by: The Finnish Institute in Japan. Finnish Institute in Japan. The Container (art gallery) and PARCO.
The exhibition was designed to coincide with Tom’s 100th birthday anniversary and ｆeatures a selection of 30 historical works, ranging from 1946 to 1989. They span the artist’s entire professional career, and highlight both his artistic versatility and present his identity as an LGBTQ legend who paved the way for LGBTQ rights worldwide and helped to shape gay culture.
2020/09/18~2020/10/05 Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland at GALLERY X (B1F, Shibuya PARCO) https://art.parco.jp/
Open hours 11:00-21:00 *Last entry time 30mins before close *Close at 18:00 in 10/05 Admission is 500 yen.
*Pre-school child not allowed in
A documentary on the importance of Tom of Finland and the meaning of his art will also be shown at at two different theaters during the exhibition. “Award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings to screen the life and work of one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth century gay culture: Touko Laaksonen, a decorated officer, returns home after a harrowing and heroic experience serving his country in World War II, but life in Finland during peacetime proves equally distressing. He finds postwar Helsinki rampant with homophobic persecution, and men around him even being pressured to marry women and have children. Touko finds refuge in his liberating art, specialising in homoerotic drawings of muscular men, free of inhabitations. His work – made famous by his signature ‘Tom of Finland’ – became the emblem of a generation of men and fanned the flames of a gay revolution.
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.
It’s been several months since we announced the publication of the Japanese angsty poetry collection, Molasses and Shochu, but we wanted to share this new addition by Phoebe Amoroso also know as ume’SHHU.
For those of you who are not familiar with long-standing Japanese tradition, Valentine’s Day here is celebrated by women giving chocolate to men, sometimes out of obligation aka 義理チョコ (giri-choco), and sometimes, containing trace amounts of menstrual blood. On March 14th, men reciprocate by giving white chocolate to the women they fancy or who bestowed chocolate upon them.
Although, as you will see, the complexity of this poem, written by Ms. Amoroso, briefly touches upon these cultural traditions. They are important confectionary artifacts that have existed many decades after being created by Japan’s male-dominated cocoa industry and society at large. Please see the annotated version in the hardback edition of the book to deepen your understanding.
This chocolate isn’t black Nor as large as I had hoped. Every March 14th Is my Friday 13th. I have no lover To sweeten the occasion. Ever hoping for a Melty Kiss But forever doomed To Crunky Balls from the conbini– I had, after all, merely been convenient. There is no sugar coating that fact. Even though, Japan Has resigned me to smaller portions I was not expecting this starvation. I stared at the wrapper on my desk And wondered how obligation could be so bitter. Unwrapping the white KitKat I held every total loss, My palm sticky.
Anything and other than expected. A journey to some parts of Sadogashima
*This articles is reposted with permission from https://www.louiseclairewagner.com
When years ago, I first took notice of Sadogashima’s existence, I was instantly intrigued by the idea to visit there one day on my own. Though, I could not really tell why. For sure, pictures of the landscapes and the curiosity to discover the local culture played a part, howbeit Japan counts numerous astonishing places, and ultimately, I have to admit that it was above all the idea to break away which allured me as much. Indeed, I associated physical and mental distance with Sadogashima; disconnection, not with Japan, but somehow with the world. Before undertaking my journey, I had only briefly read some background information and not made any particular travel plan, as I wished to leave freedom to my own perceptions. However, and despite the aim to head out without any expectations, I quickly got confronted with fact that I had unconsciously and unwillingly pictured this place as well as my stay.
Seemingly small, Sadogashima, located off Niigata, is the largest island in the Sea of Japan. Its area is approximately 855 square kilometres and its coastline stretches around 280 kilometres. The population was at about 56,000 in the end of March 2018. Although I knew about this, I still couldn’t get rid of the idea that Sadogashima had to be compact and it was only through several walking and bicycle tours, and the distances together with the (hilly) relief put my physical capacities to the proof, that I finally started to agnise the island’s vastness.
Excavations from ruins indicate that Sadogashima has been inhabited for about 10,000 years. It was one of Japan’s independent provinces in the Nara Period, and early designated an island of exile. Beginning in AD 722 with Hozumi Asomioyu, further exiles included figures such as the former Emperor Juntoku in 1221, the Buddhist monk Nichiren in 1271, and Zeami Motokiyo in 1434, a Noh actor and writer, all of whom expressed critical opinions about the respective then-ruler. Today, many people ascribe the miscellaneous population and the cultural richness of the island to the prior exiles. Sadogashima is also known for its gold production, and back in the days, it was notably the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu who promoted the development of gold and silver mines by placing them under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. The prosperity attracted diverse workers and resulted in a rapid rise of the island’s population, which reached a peak of 125,597 in 1950. The mines were operated from 1601 until 1974 and definitely closed in 1989. With a remarkably rich, diverse and well-preserved environment, Sadogashima was the last natural habitat of the internationally protected wild Japanese Crested Ibis (Toki) which became endangered and went extinct in 2003.
However, artificial insemination started in 1999 and after 2000, baby birds were raised with increasing success and released back into nature.
Today, the main industries on the island are agriculture and fishing, and although for me everywhere on the archipelago fish and seafood has so far been delicious, the incredible freshness and quality of Sadogashima’s catch (combined with a glass of local sake) was so tasty that I had to enjoy it for every single dinner.
When some weeks ago, I boarded the ferry that brings one within two and a half hours from Niigata Terminal to Sadogashima Ryōtsu Port, I immediately was captivated by the particular atmosphere and intrigued by some other passengers. There were few people; a group carrying music instruments, some families, a young couple with camping equipment; a couple with numerous stuffed manga characters (that got carefully installed along one of the ferry’s windows), as well as several dispatched individuals whose actions did occur rather incomprehensible to me… But this was only the beginning of my reflection upon the island’s curious population.
The accommodation I stayed at disposed a very small number of rooms, some shared facilities including a charming and neat salon and kitchen, and (just as I had pictured !) a large terrace with ocean view. There I was, the sea in front of my eyes, fairly disconnected, and incredibly happy.
At my arrival, most of the other rooms were occupied by a Japanese three-generation family who enjoyed dinner at the first floor-situated gourmet restaurant. Besides some words and friendly gestures, we did not further communicate though.
The following day, after returning from a long trip to the very south of the island, I met two young women who had planned to eat downstairs the accommodation and stay overnight. When they told me that they both lived on Sadogashima, and one of them only few minutes away from the accommodation, I was rather surprised and wondered why they would book a room although they could practically walk home. Anyway, I didn’t want to be unpolite or intrusive and therefore just imagined possible reasons. As they proposed, I joined them later for some delicious fish, seafood and sake at a nearby izakaya. We shared very pleasant moments, and I ended up being kindly invited to have lunch with them the next day.
No sooner said than done, we were headed to a local restaurant. When in the end of the lunch, one of the staff pulled down her mask, smiled, and asked me if I remembered her. I was rather perplexed : it was the middle-generation mother who stayed at the same accommodation as me two nights before. The girls explained that her family owned the restaurant we had eaten lunch at and that she lived nearby.
The same evening, I crossed paths with three older women, who were calmly sharing some citrus fruits in the common living room. Although already tired, I could not decline their invitation to join them for a little talk. When they told me that they just finished dinner at the restaurant downstairs, that they would stay for a night at the accommodation, yet that they all lived on the island, I started to really wonder about Sadogashima’s curious inhabitants, their tendency to eat out during the week and their way to treat themselves by combining gastronomic pleasure with an overnight stay.
The last day before heading back to Tōkyō, I had a pleasant conversation with the proprietor of the accommodation, who generously gave me a voucher for a future stay. When I told him about my amazing yet peculiar experience with all the locals, he mentioned that this may not happen a next time and finally unveiled the secret: because of COVID-19, Sadogashima had launched a campaign for its inhabitants, in order to stimulate the tourist industry and local economy.
As mysterious it seemed, as simple it was. I had to smile. About the situation and about myself. About how we imagine things if we don’t know and don’t ask. About the curiosity of life, and the beauty of the unpredictable… Had I maybe imagined myself alone on a deserted island or amidst some stranded tourists, but hardly surrounded by these nice new acquaintances.
I would be lying if I said that it was love at first sight, and Sadogashima probably counts amongst the places which require not only time but also an open mindset in order to be enjoyed. Nevertheless, its particular atmosphere, the pureness of nature and honesty of people caught me, and it was with a nostalgic feeling that I left the island behind. When on the way back I found myself all alone on the large deck of the ferry towards Niigata, I had surprising sensations, feelings of energy and enthusiasm, and finally understood why I had been intrigued by Sadogashima for so long. Very differently than expected, it seemed that I precisely found what I had hoped for.
Certainly, there are many more aspects of the island that I could and should discover, but this shall remain for the future. Now I know some locals I sincerely wish to meet one day again, and not to forget, I still have my voucher.
Four seconds, after the counting of the ballots. That’s how long.
Four seconds in, and Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike knew she had won the Tokyo gubernatorial election for the second term. Her aides said later that it was more like two and a half seconds; a historical, landslide victory with nearly 60% of the vote in her name. The other candidates were dead in the water before they realized what hit them. Koike’s contender candidate Taro Yamamoto, an actor turned politician whose ideas for government reform made significant waves in the Lower House elections last year but who lost to Koike by over 3 million votes, told the press: “Mt. Yuriko was higher than I thought. I just couldn’t climb over it.”
If Yamamoto’s statement sounds rude or vaguely sexual, don’t worry – he probably intended it that way. Yuriko Koike was and continues to be, the first woman governor of Tokyo and her term in office has been defined by a lot of ruffled feathers in the male-dominated world of Nippon politics. Not just because she’s a woman, a fact which many older Japanese men still have trouble wrapping their minds around, but because Yuriko Koike has never ceased to remind everyone of her femininity.
It all seems a bit Marie Antoinette-ish. Let them refrain from everything. Let them stay home and Zoom their lives away while wearing face masks in the clammy Tokyo heat.
At age 67, Koike is well-preserved, perfectly coiffed and shod in a way that would earn applause from Carrie Bradshaw. She never loses her cool, raises her voice or looks harried. Her thirst for designer hand-bags is legendary, and rumor has it she keeps a room designated solely for the purpose of storing her darlings. Other rumors swirling inside the corridors of the Tocho building, says that she’s an old-fashioned gal who got to where she is today, by sleeping around with the right men yesterday. Or that she often treats her male staff as if they were hosts working in her own private host bar.
Ouch. That’s not nice, Yuriko-san, considering you’ve been waging war on host bars since day one of the pandemic. Most of these bars are located on YOUR turf in Shinjuku ward and yet you refer to them as “places of the night” that must be “refrained (your favorite word)” from visiting more than a few times a year. It all seems a bit Marie Antoinette-ish. Let them refrain from everything. Let them stay home and Zoom their lives away while wearing face masks in the clammy Tokyo heat.
Excuse the tone – I’ve just read through Jotei (Queen) – Yuriko Koike, the unauthorized biography by Taeko Ishii that came out on May 29. As of July 6th, the day after Yuriko Koike won her second term, the book had sold over 200,000 copies. “It’s not a flattering portrait of Koike-san,” said Ishii in an online interview. “It’s frightening to think that ultimately, this woman won’t rest until she becomes the next Prime Minister. Who put her in this position? We all did. Japan put her in this seat of power. It’s the culture of old Japanese men, who will empower women only if they’re attractive and will bend to their will. It’s the culture of Japanese women who believe that women politicians are clean and selfless and will battle old men politicians on their behalf. The whole of Japanese society created Yuriko Koike, Tokyo governor.” Ishii’s book is densely researched, especially in regards to Koike’s past. The governor has an impressive CV – for a long time, she had told the press that she had graduated from the University of Cairo in Egypt, at the top of her class and was fluent in Arabic. Based on an interview with Koike’s old roommate in Cairo, Ishii writes that Koike quit the university after two years and only pretended to have graduated. Her knowledge of Arabic is sketchy at best, and that she had told this friend, “I’m going to write an autobiography but I won’t include you because then people will know I lied.”
There are other examples of Koike’s brazenness. When victims of the Hanshin Earthquake back in 1995 came to her for help at her office, Koike started painting her nails, and then told them to leave. When the late Shigeru Yokota, father of Megumi Yokota who had gone missing when she was 13 years old, suspected of being kidnapped by the North Korean government, held a meeting with her present, Koike shed tears as she listened to his story. After it ended, she left and then came back for her precious handbag. Her words were, “Oh good, there it is. I thought my bag had been kidnapped!”
Ishii calls Koike “a monster” but from Koike’s point of view, that title may have just as well have gotten her re-elected. Koike has thrived on negativity, in particular the sexist, ageist jibes aimed at her by fellow politicians and the public. Four years ago when she was running for governor, Shintaro Ishihara – himself Tokyo’s ex-governor, called her “an old woman with too much make-up. Who would vote for her?” In that instant Ishihara dug himself into a hopelessly deep grave, and Yuriko Koike won the election.
This time around, it was former Livedoor CEO Takafumi Horie, who did the honors. Horie is he head of his own political party, and had called for a complete reopening of the metropolis plus an acknowledgment from the Tokyo metropolitan government that they had been mistaken in installing “severe” shutdown measures during April and May. To this end, Takafumi Horie sent three contenders into the gubernatorial race, but in total vain. His public image went down the tubes too, after he publicly called Koike “a piece of shit” when she called out for limited entry to Tokyo supermarkets, to avoid congestion at the cash registers.
Ishii points out that Koike will be in power for as long as Japanese male politicians refuse to hold any meaningful political discussions with women in politics without resorting to gender issues, ageist issues and just plain mud-slinging. Koike may have showed these old men who’s in charge, hah! But after that personal triumph, she has left Tokyo staring into an abyss. She seems to have no real plans for the bad stuff: rising infections, the scaled-down but still expensive Olympics slated 12 months away, joblessness and bankruptcies and a floundering economy. What now, Yuriko-san? The answer surely, is not in your handbag.
*Editor’s Note: This was originally published at “The Empress of Tokyo Reigns Forever” but Kaori Shoji, the author, had some misgivings. ‘As a Japanese, I’d prefer not to refer to anyone as Empress unless they’re a part of the Imperial Family. Which is why I used the word Queen instead.’ However, queen is not quite a proper translation for 女帝 (jotei) so we used the term Imperatrix instead which has a closer meaning to the title of the book about Ms. Koike, and sounds a little like Dominatrix, which is also a nice fit for Madame Koike.
Is there really no discrimination or racism in Japan?
This is a question that the creators of Japan’s beloved feminist podcast, SuperSmashHoes Podcast, and writer Yukari Peerless decided it was high time to ask. In a time when racism and police brutality in the United States have drawn global interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and the problems of intolerance all over the world, it’s certainly a question worth asking. Join Reflection on Racism, Diversity & Inclusion in Japan to find out more. Much of the discussion will be in Japanese but hopefully accessible.
Super Smash Hoes Podcast, hosted by Erika X and Fahreen Budhwani, and Yukari Peerless working with other NGOs have invited a group of experts and Japan hands to discuss issues of discrimination and racism in the shadows of the rising sun. Panelists include award-winning documentary film maker Miki Dezaki, Japan’s first black idol and sex worker rights advocate Amina du Jean, and Aerica Shimizu Banks,an engaging public speaker on the topic of diversity and an advocate for women of color who has accomplished much in her career. The speakers will talk about their own personal experiences with racism, ignorance, and prejudice and how to combat it.
If you wish to join the livestream, you are requested to contribute ¥1,000 yen which will be donated to two anti-racism charities. One is the Anti-Racism Information Center. The Center is an NGO that combats hate speech and raises awareness of the problems with xenophobia and misconceptions about race in a civil society.The other group is Save Immigrants Osaka which supports foreign immigrants detained in Osaka immigration center. https://www.facebook.com/saveimmigrantsOsaka/
Date: Wednesday, June 24 Time: 10am – 12pm Japan time (6pm – 8pm PST Tuesday June 23)
The Format: Round table discussion. It will be a “Webinar” on Zoom. The audience can watch but will be muted during the webinar. After the panel discussion, they will open up the floor and the audience can ask questions.
Admission: 1000 yen to a Paypal account. 100% to be donated to a charity.
They say it takes more than a death to change the world but perhaps that’s not true in the case of 22-year old Hana Kimura (木村花). She was a professional wrestler and one of the cast members of Terrace House, the now defunct reality TV franchise that first launched in 2012 and went on for eight seasons. For the uninitiated, Terrace House follows the relationship dynamics of three boys and three girls as they live as housemates in a posh seaside house with a terrace. Hana-chan as she was called, starred as herself – an up and coming wrestling star with pink hair who was eager to get ahead in the entertainment industry. In an episode aired on March 31st, Hana-chan unleashed her anger over a laundry mishap committed by a fellow (male) housemate. The two made up, but the whole thing exploded right in Hana-chan’s face.
Hordes of Terrace House fans posted Hana-chan hating comments – upwards of 300 a day – and many demanded that she either leave the show or die, immediately. It’s said that the Covid-19 induced isolation further drove Kimura over the edge. Alone in her home, she couldn’t help but read and obsess over the hellish comments on social media, directed straight at her.
On May 23rd, Hana Kimura was rushed to the hospital after friends found her lying on the floor in her apartment, but it was too late. The details of her death have not been disclosed, but she left a note, apologizing to her friends and thanking her mom for “bringing me into this world.” Astonishingly, the anonymous cyber bullies who were at least partly responsible for her death resumed their bashing, accusing her of being ‘weak and needy’ and ‘not cut out to endure the hardships of working in the entertainment industry.”
All that hate though, faded away after Fuji Television Network, the creator of the Terrace House franchise pulled the plug on the show five days after Hana-chan’s suicide. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi is now pushing for a law to hunt down those who post hate comments, and slap them with fines or worse. Even Prime Minister Abe has moved on the issue, remarking that “hateful comments on the Internet have the power to do irreparable damage, and they should be stopped, if possible.” Since then, things have been pretty quiet. Hana Kimura’s critics have seemingly disappeared off the face of the Net at least for now, and news commentators are continuing to express their ‘profound regret’ over her death.
That said, a certain apprehension hangs in the air; it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, PM Abe’s popularity has hit an all-time low and the belated delivery of two “Abenomasks” per household that he promised back in March, has become a running joke. It seems that most things he does these days is being ridiculed. The death of Hana Kimura may have been a welcome respite from having to deal with the social ills spawned by the lingering coronavirus, and the pile of political embarrassments racked up during the nation’s 49-day shut-down. Moritomo scandal, anyone?
it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage.
In the meantime, media pundits are pointing out that both the Abe Administration and the Japanese populace should have their minds on other, more relevant issues, like the racial protests tearing the US apart, and now raging in Europe as well.
Political columnist Takashi Odajima observed in Nikkei Shimbun that the pandemic has afforded the US an opportunity to take a hard look at social injustice, while in Japan that same pandemic has given the government an excuse to cover things up. “In Japan, the government hides its scandals and inconvenient truths under the masks they insist on wearing,” he wrote.
You don’t have to be a pundit like Odajima, to get that sinking feeling: once again, Japan lags way behind the west when it comes to grappling with stuff that truly matters, in spite of, or maybe because of, an ongoing pandemic. While we’re still wrapping our faces and panicking about the number of new infections cropping up in Tokyo (more than 10! How horrifying!), protesters across the Pacific are risking their lives for racial justice. The comparison is scathingly humbling. Gosh, we’re small. And scared shitless of direct conflict.
Odajima pointed out that the Japanese are hopelessly bad at arguing a point, or any form of adverse social interaction unless it’s done among family members. He’s right. The bad stuff happens mostly at home and behind closed doors. In some cases they continue for years before anyone finds out. There’s anonymous groping on trains, and faceless bullying on the net but public protests in broad daylight rarely occur unless the protesters are hiding their faces behind masks. This explains why Hana-chan got so much flack – she dared to express rage over public airwaves, in her own name. And though it’s been pointed out that the show’s producers obliquely coerced her to do so, many Terrace House viewers were too naive to see the difference between the ‘reality’ of reality shows, and real life.
Maybe that’s just the way the Abe Administration wants it. Passive silence behind masks is vastly preferable to outright self-expression, in whatever situation. Imagine if the Japanese took to the streets to protest income inequality, the plight of temp workers, foreign laborers, and single mothers, domestic violence and rampant child abuse–just a few items off the top of an endless list?
The truth is that at this point, the nation needs many more Hana Kimuras–brave enough to express anger and negative feelings without fear of being punished for it. Hopefully, we can do that better, once the masks come off.
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 yokaistatues 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.
The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Japan hard as of late. Classrooms remain empty after spring break, restaurants begin to provide take-out, and factories stall upcoming projects. The number of workers who are predicted to lose their jobs due to the novel Coronavirus was projected in the upwards of 1,021 people last month, according to the Ministry of Labor. Prime Minister Abe did declare a State of Emergency on April 7th, and the Ministry of Finance announced that ¥100,000 would be given to residents (and eventually confirmed that foreign residents were included) but some experts argue that this declaration occurred too late.
While April would normally be the start of new jobs for many in Japan, this April seems to have an opposite turnout for most job-seekers. Lines outside of Hello Work* buildings all over the country would be twice as long as lines for masks outside of drugstores. Certain locations have also reduced the amount of staff members on-duty, causing longer waiting times at local Hello Work branches.
(Hello Work is an employment service center operated by the Japanese government, under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Its main role is to help connect job seekers to companies in need of skilled labor.)
In early April, I became a part of this statistic. My 6-month contract at a city hall in Osaka was not granted for renewal, and the job openings for tourism and English education in the area seemed to have vanished as the governor also declared a state of emergency. I decided to reach out to Hello Work to see if I was eligible for any benefits and to search for jobs through their system.
I arrived on a Thursday morning around 11AM. The line encircled the entire building and moved slowly. There was little distance between us and we stood outside of the building for about two hours. Bottles of hand sanitizer were available to use before entering the building. It reminded me of Disneyland for a brief moment.
Once I entered the Hello Work office, I was greeted by an energetic staff member. Everyone in the office, including the job-seekers, were wearing masks. We were told to sit two to three seats apart from each other, and the seats for the computer lab were 1 seat apart. There appeared to be no multilingual support at this Osaka branch. Many of the people in the room appeared to be elderly or recently graduated from university. Some of the job-seekers previously worked in factories or in retail.
After about an hour, it was my turn. Since my previous contract was only for six months, I was unable to receive any benefits. But the staff member who assisted me thoroughly searched and found about fifteen jobs that I could apply for. The process itself took about 10 minutes. I turned around and saw the computer lab filled to the brim with anxious job-seekers. Most of them has 0 search results, and the staff would try their best to experiment with different search entries to find a match.
Hello Work branches all over the country seem to be facing the same dilemma. For many newly unemployed residents in the Chubu region, they faced the most difficulty with their former employer. “I did not know much about the paperwork I needed to file for unemployment”, said Guillerme Okada. “At the factories, we were suddenly told that we couldn’t work anymore. I had to ask several of my friends first.” Okada had brought someone with him as an interpreter to explain to his Japanese supervisor that he needed to give documents for Okada to receive unemployment benefits. “It is a common issue with factory workers in this area. If I struggle to get legal documentation, I struggle to trust this system. I came with my interpreter to Hello Work, but there were two already available to help me. I had a lot of support from my community and from them during this time.”
Other employers would also push back start dates and avoid paying the contracted salary despite the legal 60% minimum requirement. Maria M., a Tokyo resident, would get last-minute notices and conflicting information about her start date and paycheck.
“I had already given my previous job a month’s notice and quit to start this new one. I was supposed to start during the first week of April but they changed it. It’s at a store so telework is impossible.”
About four or five days later, she was asked to Skype with the human relations chair. Her hiring date was moved to May 15th with no pay in advance. She contacted the labor bureau about her situation. “They confirmed that my company was responsible for me. My friends [who also worked at the company] said that they were receiving part of their salary in April. When I told my employer that I contacted the labor bureau, they quickly agreed to offer me part of my contracted pay.”
During these uncertain times, it may be difficult to navigate unemployment and economic stability on top of acquiring the basic necessities for surviving the pandemic. As the numbers of infected individuals steadily increase, the ratio of available job positions drop to its lowest level in three years. However, with the national and local government bringing out new sources of financial aid for individuals and businesses alike, there is room for growth in the economy and policy change.