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


By Kaori Shoji 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Johnny Be Bad: A rare interview with Japan’s boy Idol-maker and pederast

(special contribution from Steve McClure)

This out of print book allegedly details the sexual abuse committed by Idol-Maker Johnny Kitagawa towards the young men in his stable and beyond.

Editor’s note: Japan’s most beloved pederast (a male who sexually assaults young men) , Johnny Kitagawa, died last week. He was an idol maker, the brains behind such super male idol bands as SMAP, Kinki Kids, and an entertainment legend. He was also so powerful that the seedy and dark side of his life was swept under the table even after his death.

There were some in the media that dared challenge the sleazy smooth Svengali. Weekly magazine, Shukan Bunshun ran a series of well-researched articles in 1999 describing how Kitagawa systematically abused young boys. Kitagawa then sued the publisher for libel but despite the testimony of alleged rape victims interviewed for the piece, the Tokyo District Court ruled in his favor. They ordered the publisher to pay 8.8 million yen in damages to Kitagawa and his company in 2002.

However, The Tokyo High Court overturned this decision in July 2003. They concluded that the allegations were true. “The agency failed to discredit the allegations in the detailed testimony of his young victims,” ruled the presiding Judge Hidekazu Yazaki. The case stood. The story was barely a blip in the Japanese media horizon. In an entertainment world where Johny’s stable of young boys was a prerequisite to ratings success, his ‘indulgences’ weren’t deemed worthy of reporting.

Johny granted few interviews–here is the story of one of them:

My interview with Johnny

By Steve McClure

It was only after I’d interviewed Johnny Kitagawa that I realized I’d scored a bit of a scoop.

“You interviewed Johnny? That’s amazing – he never does interviews,” my Japanese media and music-biz colleagues said. “How on earth did you manage to do that?”

It was 1996 and I was Billboard magazine’s Japan bureau chief. I was hanging out with an American producer/songwriter who had written several hit tunes for acts managed by Kitagawa’s agency, Johnny’s Jimusho. 

“Want to hear a funny story about Johnny?” Bob (not his real name) asked me. 

“Sure,” I said. 

“Well, the other day, Johnny told me he’d discovered a promising male vocal duo. I asked him what they were called.

“‘I’m going to call them the Kinki Kids,’ Johnny told me.

“I told him that ‘kinky’ means sexually abnormal in English slang.

“‘Oh, that’s great!,’ Johnny said. 

Bob and I laughed. 

“Say, Steve, would you like me to set up an interview with Johnny for you?” Bob asked. 

I told him that would be swell. 

Some days later I was informed that Kitagawa would grant me an audience at his private residence. I was enjoined not to reveal where the great man lived (it was Ark Hills in Akasaka, for the record).

I showed up at the appointed day and hour, and rang the doorbell of the condo high up in one of the Ark Hills towers. A browbeaten middle-aged woman answered the door. Evidently a domestic of some kind, she said I was expected and asked me to come in. She led me into a garishly decorated living room full of Greek statuary, Louis XV-style furniture and sundry examples of rococo frippery. There were no Ganymedean cup-bearers offering libations or any other signs of sybaritic excess.

I was ushered into the presence of the pop panjandrum. Johnny was sitting in an armchair beside a window with a stunning view of Tokyo. He was small, bespectacled and unprepossessing. If you saw him in the street, you’d never imagine he was the notorious and feared Svengali who had a stranglehold on the geinokai (芸能界/Japan’s entertainment world). 

After we exchanged pleasantries, I got down to business. I asked Johnny about his early life in Los Angeles. “My dad ran the local church,” he told me without elaboration in a quiet, rather high-pitched voice. I later found out that Kitagawa père had been the head of a Japanese American Buddhist congregation in L.A. 

Johnny was equally vague about when he first came to Japan. He reportedly arrived while serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the Korean War. 

This set the tone for the rest of the interview – it was hard to get a straight answer out of Johnny, at least when it came to his personal history. He was more interested in talking about all the boy bands he’d groomed and propelled to stardom during his long and extraordinarily successful career.

Johnny told me how he got his start in showbiz when he saw some boys playing baseball in a Tokyo park, and later molded them into a pop group called The Johnnies. That set the template for the rest of his career – scouting for boys and using them as raw material as his pop production line churned out an endless succession of unthreatening quasi-androgynous male idol groups. 

A classic showman, Johnny said he was more interested in live performances than records. He made his mark with coups de theatre like having ’80s male idol act Hikaru Genji do choreographed routines on roller skates. 

“Once you release a record, you have to sell that record,” Johnny said. “You have to push one song only. You can’t think of anything else. It’s not good for the artist.” The Johnny’s stable of acts has nonetheless racked up dozens of No.1 hits over the years. 

Johnny’s English, like that of many longterm expats, was quaintly fossilized. I could hear echoes of ’40s and ’50s America when he said things like “gee,” or “gosh” when answering my questions. 

Soon after the interview began, the browbeaten obasan put a steaming dish of katsu-curry in front of me. I begged off, explaining that I’d just eaten lunch. This didn’t prevent the arrival of another dish soon after: spaghetti and “hamburg” steak, as I recall. Hearty fare for starving young idol wannabes was my take on the menu chez Johnny. 

Having decided that “Are you or have you ever been a pederast?” might be somewhat too direct a question to put to the dear old chap, I lobbed a series of softball queries with the aim of establishing a friendly rapport. But even the most gently tossed questions elicited amiable but frustratingly vague answers from Johnny.

In the silences between his frequent hems and haws, the wind whined like a sotto voce banshee through the slightly opened window.

Johnny did tell me that he received 300 letters a day from guys wanting to sign up with his agency. I wasn’t sure if he was boasting or bored. 

The time came to leave, and Johnny accompanied me to the door. “Come back anytime,” he said with a friendly smile as he waved me goodbye. 

As I made my way down the hall to the elevators, I saw the finely chiseled profile of a young man peeking from around a corner, looking in my direction. He caught a glimpse of me and retreated. I resisted the temptation to tell him the katsu-curry was getting cold. 

Sadly, I didn’t take up Johnny on his kind offer to come up and see him sometime. 

Bloodshed, Firecrackers and Tears–The Best Japanese Movies Of The Heisei

By Kaori Shoji

Want to talk about movies?
From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time.
On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.

Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.

1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

顔無し (NoFace)

In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.

2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992
Directed by Juzo Itami

The Japanese Gentle Art of Extortion

In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for  Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.

As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery. 

3) The Shoplifters『万引き家族』2018
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

1) One Big Happy Family – clockwise from right, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki and Sakura Ando. Title: The Shoplifters ©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro. Distributed by GAGA

One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’  The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.

4) Ichi『殺し屋イチ』2001
Directed by Takashi Miike

Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.

5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami

Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.” 

6) Zan『斬』2018
Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto 

(C)SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.  

Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience. 

7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.

Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.

8) 北野武監督
HANA-BI 1997年

Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face. 

In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.

Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.

9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012
Directed by Mika Ninagawa

Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.

10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014
Directed by Naomi Kawase

Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach. 

Heisei to Reiwa ≠ Heiwa?

On April 30th, Emperor Akihito became the first sitting Japanese Emperor to abdicate the throne in over 200 years. Then, the following day on May 1st, his son Naruhito ascended the throne, becoming the 125th emperor thus marking the official start of the Reiwa (令和) Era.

In recognition of this momentous occasion, that PM Abe described to Trump as being “100 times bigger [than the Super Bowl],” many stores and companies released new products. Such as Reiwa branded sake and beer, a ¥100,000 truffle wagyu burger, foie gras and gold dust toped 3kg wagyu burger, gold dust seasoned potato chips and cans of Heisei Era air from Heinari in Gifu Prefecture, heisei branded bottles of water costing ¥2000. While many other stores simply opted to hold special time-limited sales.

At the same time, many Japanese consumers enjoyed an extremely long holiday (by Japanese standards) of 10 days and many went on spending sprees with some economists estimating there to be a nationwide spike in spending by tens of billions of Yen.

Meanwhile, many in China reportedly were baffled and disappointed that the new era name wasn’t based off of Chinese classics like many past era names and instead was instead allegedly derived from a collection of classical Japanese poetry from the late 7th to 8th centuries known as The Manyoshu.

One of the most odd effects of the new Reiwa era name, however, is the celebration of many Tibetans living in Japan due to the new era’s name sounding similar to the Tibetan word for “hope”. There are many people who hope and believe that the new era’s name is an auspicious sign for the Tibetan people; May 10th marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.

The Art of The Inkstone (硯石)

You can’t make blood from a stone but you can make ink with a stone, and beautiful artistic ink. That is, if you’re using as 硯石(suzuri-ishi), a traditional Japanese ink-stone, which in and of itself can be an art object. I went to Daigo-machi in Ibaraki Prefecture to see one be made by a traditional craftsman and try one out for myself. If you’re an amateur calligrapher (書道家)but aspire to greatness, you need one of these in your life. 

It’s cold up in the mountains where the ink-stones are made. Warm tea makes the trek better.

Daigo-machi located in Ibaraki Prefecture is one of the few places where traditional suzuri are still made. There is a particular kind of stone that is perfect for making suzuri and the town still has a limited supply. The stones are able to grind down the solid materials used for making ink to do calligraphy, but are also resistant to being ground down as well.  As far back as the Tokugawa era, the stones from Daigo and the suzuri produced there were considered natural treasures. 

The stones were treasured by Japanese artists like Hoan Kosugi, noteable authors such as Saneatsu Mushanokōji (武者小路 実篤) and even Japanese  Prime Minister Tsuyoshi (話せばわか) Inukai*.

Taizan Sato became fascinated with the process of making ink stones after attending a workshop conducted by the man who would later become his master, Taiseki Hoshino.

He opened his own workshop in the town in the year 2002. He has learned over time to touch a stone and know immediately whether or not it is suitable to be an ink-stone. It can’t be too hard and it is helpful if it has some claylike qualities, but not to the point of being absorbent.

The process of selecting the stones

Other stones and materials are used to smooth the basin
The master uses his own proprietary powder for the finish.

In an effort to combine the town’s traditional lacquerware with the ink stones, he uses only lacquer painstakingly handscraped from the urushi trees to paint the outside edges of the stone, and ads design, to turn them into works of art on their own. Many of Japan’s living national treasures use his stones in their artwork and calligraphy. 

The finished ink-stone (on the left) is coated with urushi (lacquer) to give it a shine and transform the object into art itself. The rough-edged version is considered even more elegant (渋い).

Sato-san has one disciple (弟子) to follow in his footsteps.

As an amateur calligrapher, I can tell you that the feel of the one of his hand-made stones compared to the cheap ones sold in stationary stores is a world apart. The smoothnesss of his hand-made suzuri are extraordinary and yet the part of the stone used to grind down the ink is so subtly raised that you can barely feel it with your finger. The ink has to be ground very slowly, almost as if you were gently rubbing the ink stick against a bare nipple—-a bare nipple with razor stubble. The right amount of water and delicate friction produces a finite level of ink which pools in the “ocean” of the ink-stone (suzuri). 

The detailed structure of the ink-stone makes it possible to vary the lightness and thickness of the ink; the results are brush strokes that are not uniform and subtle on the paper. For Sumi-e paintings, it is also a wonderful tool to have. Admittedly, such a majestic tool is slightly wasted on a person like myself who as my calligraphy teacher points out, “Lacks all delicacy and does not follow the proper stroke order” but maybe someday…..

I purchased one of the stones for someone much more qualified than me to make use of it (list price 30,000 yen but I only had 23,000 yen in cash so he generously cut me a deal). I gave it to a curator at the Met who is an expert on calligraphy. In another decade, I may be worthy of owning one myself. Which means another trip to Daigo…..a town with many charms.

As long as you’re in town…..

Japan is a famous for lacquerware known as urushi, and to make it the authentic way, you need organic sap from the urushi tree. Daigo provides much of the quality organic urushi needed for Japan’s traditional crafts.

The process of urushi-kaki

Due to the cold climate and soil composition Daigo produces what some say is the finest raw urushi in Japan. It is clear, dries quickly, and has a fragrance reminiscent of Japanese cypress. If you make arrangements in advance, you can go to the serene Urushi tree forest and see how the sap is extracted. The master urushikaki (person who scrapes urushi) is Yuzo Tobita, who is 84. There used to be a hundred people doing the work. Now there are, including Tobita, five or six people continuing the tradition. It’s hard work. It takes up to ten years to grow an urushi tree and from one tree, at best you can extract 200 milliliters, basically a small bottle of Shiso Pepsi Cola.

Fortunately for the tradition, there are young apprentices like Yuma Watanabe who is 26 and now learning the art. If he sticks with it, traditional urushi may last another few generations.

After you’ve seen the urushi drawn from the sap, and maybe tried your hand at the work yourself—take a visit to Kijian, where you can see lacquerware being made and buy some souvenirs. The master , Toru Tsuji, has his own style of creating lacquerware, Yamizonuri, which results in elegant and zen-like austere utensils.




*Prime Minister Inukai was assassinated on May 15, 1932 starting the dark age of Japanese Imperialism

Book Review: Japanese Tattoos

By Taylor Drew

Coauthored by Brian Ashcraft, a senior contributing editor for the website Kotaku, and Osaka based tattoo artist Hori Benny, this book Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design was written with the goal with the intention of helping those that are thinking of getting a Japanese style tattoo (perhaps most commonly known outside of Japanese as irezumi・刺青). Both authors use extensive knowledge of Japanese style tattooing and personal interviews to guide the novice away from committing any cultural faux pas in a work that spans 158 glossy pages.

“Over the course of researching, interviewing, and writing this book, we consulted numerous friends, colleagues, experts, and total strangers with the goal of introducing and decoding the most prevalent motifs so that English speakers can have a better understanding of their meaning and hopefully get Japanese tattoos that can be worn with pride – as they should be”

The book begins with an introduction to the history of irezumi in Japan, from punitive tattoos, to prohibition, and all the way back to modern times. This first section also covers briefly some reasons why Japanese tattoos have changed over time. The book is then divided into six additional chapters based on the different styles and motifs found in irezumi, with numerous sections in each chapter that clearly divide different motifs in that style. A tattooist and client profile are also included at the end of every chapter, giving life to the theme of that particular chapter. There are also information boxes that provide additional information to support the content within the main body of the work. All of this is supported with high quality, full colour images of tattoos and virtually every single page of the book.

What I found extremely impressive about this book was the sheer quantity and quality of the accompanying images. Not only are specific motifs and their meanings clearly explained, but the authors have also provided imagery and explanations of the images themselves. The reader is able to enjoy each and every motif – usually in more than one style. Both Ashcraft and Hori Benny did an exceptional job collecting the various photographs of irezumi for the book.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book though, was the addition of the Tattooist Profile and Tattoo Client Profile at the end of every single chapter. While the majority of the book reads, to an extent, like an irezumi dictionary of sorts, these sections brought extra life into the vast amount of information being provided. We, as readers, are given the opportunity to hear the voices of individuals that are not the authors. These sections are personal and provide a real solid look into the minds of the tattoo artists and their clients. We are able to see their views on irezumi and what they mean to them personally. The extra insight brought in by these sections is a crucial component in what makes Japanese Tattoos work – it makes the “foreign” content relatable.

That being said, the large amount of information that the book contains is also a weakness. There were certain sections that I found difficult to read. There are extra text bubbles of information throughout the book, but in some places their existence takes away from the overall flow of the work. The reader is obligated to both stop midsentence to go read the “extras” or move on and hope they don’t forget to go back and read them again. Such as,

“The fox (kitsune in Japanese) is associated with the formless Shinto deity Inari, who is sometimes depicted as male, other times as female and sometimes as gender-less. Inari is not only the god of rice, sake wine, and fertility, but also the god of metal workers and commerce. Stone fox statues often appear at the more than ten thousand officially recognized Inari shrines in Japan, and because the fox guards these shrines, the animal is often confused with the god. The pure white foxes, however, aren’t simply the god’s messengers, but also guard and protect the shrines. These foxes also carry connotations of wealth and fertility, due to Inari’s rice associations.” (pg. 57)

The Fox (Kitsune/狐) Tattoo is a joy to behold.

I found sections like this rather disjointing and it did affect my reading experience. Definitely not a problem for many readers, but something that I wish would have been laid out a little better, especially considering the high quality of the content on every single page.

Overall, Japanese Tattoos was a fascinating read and I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in tattoos or keen to learn more about specifically about irezumi. While perhaps the academic might find the content a bit shallow in terms of the historical content, it is important to remember that that is NOT the goal that Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny set for this book. They wanted to create a resource for English speakers who wanted to get Japanese tattoos. A goal that I would say they accomplished with flourishing colours.

Taylor Drew is a new contributor to JSRC she is a Canadian living in Tokyo since 2015. (Almost) fluent in Japanese. Loves Iwate and cats. 

Mahjong Horoki 2020 – A Film Way Cooler Than Cool Japan

by Kaori Shoji

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

Mahjong in an addiction that’s ageless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

In Japan, Saving Face Trumps Justice. Your odds of being found guilty: 99%

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Meditations on long-form journalism, Japan, Bitcoin and Justice

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Too Little, Too Late? Porn Mags Set to Disappear From Convenience Stores–And So Will Male Courage?

by Kaori Shoji

In Japan, the convenience store “baito” or part time job, is a rite of passage. Teenagers work at their neighborhood ‘conbini’ after school as a way of padding their allowances and college students work graveyard shifts to pay for living expenses. I did it, my friends did it. Most every Japanese person I know has worked at a conbini at one point or another. And in 2016, Sayaka Murata won the prestigious Akutagawa Literary Award with her autobiographical novel “Conbini Ningen,” in which the protagonist woman is addicted to her conbini job, to the point that she can’t think about anything else.

“I know it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m hyper sensitive but honestly, I feel that women shouldn’t have to deal with porn, especially in a convenience store. It’s sexual harassment.”

In case you think conbini work is boring and easy, let me tell you right now that the job calls for brains, guts and ace reflexes. For women, it’s often a test of mental endurance as well. A woman I know, in her late 30s, has been working the 9 to 7 shift at her local Family Mart for the past 5 years. She says the job is fine, except for one thing: she hates handling the porn magazines that comprise a “not insignificant chunk” of the store’s revenue. “I hate touching those things,” said this woman who has been diagnosed as an HSP. “I know it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m hyper sensitive but honestly, I feel that women shouldn’t have to deal with porn, especially in a convenience store. It’s sexual harassment.” Twenty-seven year old Reina, who quit an office job to work at a Seven Eleven run by her mother, says she feels “slightly sick” every time she has to ring up a porn mag for a male customer. “I’ve been at the job 3 years and I still can’t get used to it,” says Reina. “I don’t lose my cool or anything but I get really uncomfortable. I don’t talk to my mother about it but I call tell she knows how I feel.”

But Reina and thousands of conbini workers like her are about to get a break. In deference to the Tokyo Olympics and the expected soar in foreign tourists including families and minors, major convenience stores Seven Eleven and Lawson have announced the decision to abolish all porn magazines from their outlets by August 31st. The third member of the conbini triumvirate Family Mart, has announced that the company has “no intentions of following suit.” Bad news for my HSP friend (who wants to remain anonymous). At her place of work, the porn stays.

Reina says that the announcement gave her much “relief,” though there are some months to go before she’s free from the unpleasantness of handling porn for work. “That stuff is always about rape,” she says. “The covers show women being tied up and the headlines are violent. Frankly, they’re scary.”

In Japan, the public display of porn – rape or otherwise –  has long been a sore point. In 2004, then Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara issued a law that required convenience store porn magazines to be partially bound in cellophane, to prevent casual riffing. “If anyone wants to look at those things, they’re going to have to show some courage, go up to the register and pay for them, right in front of everyone else.” This was a statement Ishihara apparently made to an aide, and later picked up by Japan’s sports tabloids, infamous for their own abundant porn content.

For some weeks afterwards, “show some courage” was a popular, mirth-filled punch line among Japanese men. Whether Ishihara really said those words isn’t the point – the move was classic ex-Governor. Always a gung-ho macho, one of Ishihara’s pet laments was the “pathetic-ness” of the slinky, under-confident Japanese male. He didn’t need to trot out the Olympics to turn the screws on their source of fun.

Unfortunately, his cellophane law simply gave rise to another problem: “harmless porn.” Instead of riffing through X-rated content, men turned to “gurabia,” magazines that featured bikini-ed young women on the covers in provocative poses and more of the same inside the pages. Since the women weren’t nude, the magazines couldn’t be described as hard porn. And the blurbs were all about how “beautiful” or “cute” the girls were so how could it be offensive, right? (Though their cup sizes were loudly touted along with their prettiness) Emboldened by this new wave of accessible and ‘kawaii’ porn, salarimen took to visiting the conbini on their lunch hours and picking up the magazines along with their bento and canned coffees. The early naughts were also about “tosatsu,” or shooting voyeuristic pictures of random young women on the streets, or catching them unawares through open windows. And these photos often found their way into – you guessed it, “harmless porn” magazines, stacked on conbini shelves.

“Harmless Porn”

Now, 15 years later, porn magazines (whether hard or harmless) comprise a dismally shrinking market. In the late 1990s, the conbini magazine market sold to the tune of 500 billion yen a year and the adult genre made up nearly 50% of that revenue. Retail analyst Hiroaki Watanabe says that those heydays are long over, and the market has been reduced by almost 70%. “These days, the main clientele of adult-only magazines are seniors, who don’t have smartphones or Internet access,” he says. Indeed, the aforementioned Reina says that porn mag buyers are nearly always “older men, who never make eye contact and have an air of shame.”

Indeed, the aforementioned Reina says that porn mag buyers are nearly always “older men, who never make eye contact and have an air of shame.” 

 

At this point, Mini Stop is the only major convenience store that has completely cleared theirs shelves of adult mags. This is understandable, as Mini Stop is owned by retail conglomerate AEON known for a squeaky clean, family-oriented image. As for the conbini triumvirate, about one-third of their outlets don’t carry adult magazines, according to the companies’ PR.

The PR for Family Mart stated that ultimately, the company leaves the choice to stock porn up to the individual outlet owners. “Some of our outlets don’t carry magazines at all, regardless of content,” said the PR spokesman. “Anyway, we’re heading toward an era where customers can purchase and download magazine content right at the cash register. Paper magazines will be obsolete.”

Ex-Gov Ishihara probably didn’t see that coming. If a tap on a smartphone is all it takes to buy porn at the local conbini, what’s going to happen to male courage?