After the past couple of years, we could all do with more laughs. Yet when Ben “BJ” Fox proposed opening a comedy venue in the middle of a pandemic, many people thought he was having a laugh – and not the right kind. It’s a fact he acknowledged at the venue’s opening night last Friday, describing the project self-deprecatingly as a midlife crisis.
The audience, however, was gleeful and, as comedy-lovers, presumably grateful too. Tokyo Comedy Bar becomes the city’s only stand-up comedy club, bringing shows nightly to the heart of Shibuya. From roast battles and improv to hosting international comedians, the venue has big ambitions, impressively offering shows in both English and Japanese. As the name cunningly suggests, it’s also a bar, boasting craft beers on tap, and there’s no obligation to stay for a show.
We caught the late show of Tokyo Comedy Bar’s English two-part opening event, with BJ Fox MC-ing a line-up of six comedians. Admittedly, we were a little sceptical whether they could all deliver, but we were proved wrong; the laugh-a-minute from the audience was evidence enough that these performers knew their crowd, tackling everything from politics to sexuality, and especially life in Japan.
Jon Sabay kicked off the evening, riffing on expats versus immigrants drawing on his own family history, and then educating us on the true signs of whether someone is a gaijin. Up next, Bill Miller began his set by taking on Japanese apartment sizes in some near-the-bone humour that definitely wouldn’t make it onto NHK. A shout-out must also go to the musically talented Ruben VM for highlighting the most endangered species in the world in his song “Extinction,” and getting us all to sing a truly heart-warming song about nationalism.
With both opening shows sold out, it’s going to be exciting to see how Tokyo Comedy Bar will develop the city’s stand-up scene and whether it’ll bring fresh comedic talent to the stage. One thing, however, is for certain: after two years of almost all events being cancelled in the city, the venture couldn’t be further from a midlife crisis. It’s post-pandemic therapy, and long may it continue. For the full event schedule, check Tokyo Comedy Bar’s website or Instagram.
This coming Sunday (May 15, starting 10am), sees a unique event at the Yokohama campus of Meiji Gakuin University and online via Zoom, called THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, marking the international departmen’s ten years of teaching global and transcultural studies.
This one-day symposium features a panel of star speakers who will try to predict what will happen in the next ten years in Japan, East Asia, and the World. The star speaker is MUHAMMAD YUNUS, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, known as “banker to the poor”, live by Zoom link from the Yunus Centre, Dhaka, Bangladesh . The event also features Alex Kerr, author of books such as Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, noted professional economic journalist, Rick Katz, Hiroko Takeda author of The Political Economy of Reproduction: Between Nation-State and Everyday Life (2005) and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Japan (2021) along with Kyoko Hatakeyama(Professor of International Relations, University of Niigata Prefecture), David Leheny, Masafumi Iida, Eric Zusman, Mika Ohbayashi and Hiroshi Ohta.
It will be an interactive event, with 15-minute presentations and equal time for free discussion. This is a great chance to get into conversation with some elite experts on Japan and broaden your own knowledge of the country and Asia. Admission is free and open to all, but prior registration is required.
A Symposium commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the Foundation of the Department of Global and Transcultural Studies, Meiji Gakuin University
SUNDAY MAY 15, 2022, MEIJI GAKUIN UNIVERSITY YOKOHAMA CAMPUS
As our department marks ten years of teaching global and transcultural studies, the world appears to be balanced on a knife edge. Internationalism is locked with nationalism, secularism with religious fundamentalism, democracy with authoritarianism, tolerance with intolerance. The Corona Pandemic has ushered in a new and frightening era of massive biohazards, while Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of a return to Cold War type confrontation. Casting a long shadow over these massive ideological struggles is climate change, thought by many experts to be close to a tipping point from which will flow disastrous consequences for humanity and the natural environment.
This symposium will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Department of Global and Transcultural Studies. It will be an opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and survey the world and the prospects for the ten years to come. Each of our speakers will be invited to gaze into their crystal ball and forecast how global affairs will develop in the next ten years. We hope to examine their predictions ten years later, when the department celebrates its 20thanniversary.
Muhammad Yunus (2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner)
9:30am: Doors Open; Registration
9:50am: Welcome and Opening Remarks by Leo Murata (president of Meiji Gakuin University)
Panel 1: Prospects for Japan
Chair: Prof. Tom Gill (Meiji Gakuin Dept. of Global and Transcultural Studies)
May 4th has become an iconic day for Star Wars fans across the universe. “May The 4th Be With You” becomes “May The Force Be With You” quite nicely. (If you already knew this, stifle that groan young Jedi, some of us didn’t know). And on this day, what better time to introduce one of the stranger and more delightful books to come out this year in Japan: Zen Wisdom From Star Wars (スター・ウォーズ 禅の教え エピソード4・5・6). It’s written by noted Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Shunmyo Masuno (枡野 俊明) and takes scenes and dialogue from the good episodes of the series to illustrate Zen Buddhist sayings and wisdom. (A full review will come later this month).
The book is well-written, with just enough English sprinkled in to make the book semi-accessible to those who can’t read Japanese or are still struggling to do so. The books works better than you might imagine.
Zen Buddhism, was heavily influenced by Taoism, and George Lucas freely admits to having borrowed heavily from Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese culture in the creation of the Star Wars mythos.
The book includes such pearls of wisdom as:
山川草木悉皆成仏 (Sansen Somuku Shikkai Jobutsu)/Everything is filled with the light of life (Everything has Buddha-nature).
安閑無事 (Ankan Buji)/Feel gratitude for everything no matter how small. Or rather: appreciate peace and quiet, health and safety. Because that won’t last forever. For example, affordable health care in America? Gone. (安閑無事が懐かしい）
閑古錘 (Kankonsui)/Maturation and calm come as you accrue diverse experience.
Well, remember that Star Wars is just fiction, but good science fiction, and the words of wisdom in the movie were not said by Taoist sages or Jedi masters but written by screenwriters. However, if you want to know the philosophy and sayings that inspired the film, this book is a good place to start.
Or better yet, buy yourself a copy of The Tao Te Ching, and substitute the word “Force” everytime it mentions “Tao”. According to the Star Wars English Japanese Dictionary, the Force (フォース) is all the energy derived from every living thing. The Tao, which is often described as being indescribable, is close to the same thing.
So for your further education, here are few words from The Force Te Ching
Force Te Ching
by Yoda- chapter 81
Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.
The Jedi never tries to store things up.
The more he/she does for others, the more he/she has.
The more he/she gives to others, the greater his/her abundance.
The Force of The Light Side is pointed but does no harm.
The Force of the Jedi is work without effort.
(adapted from the Tao Te Ching translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)
When I was just starting as a reporter in 1992, a veteran reporter at the Yomiuri Shimbun gave me some valuable advice on being a good journalist, specifically being a good investigative journalist. I’ve never forgotten it but in the 30 years since then, times have changed. This is the first revision I’ve ever done of the rules. Think of this as the 2022 edition, a three decade late update.
One thing that hasn’t changed in Japan are the laws related to civil servants.
The laws here in Japan basically state that if a public official (police officer, bureaucrat etc) shares confidential information with a third party, they are committing a crime. They can be fired or prosecuted. This happens. If it’s a state secret they may be sentenced to five years or more in jail. This is why newspaper articles in Japan abound with anonymous sources dressed up with phrases like, “according to someone close to the investigation” or “government sources”. Japan’s press freedom ranking in 2010 was 11th in the world, now 66th out of 180 countries. Protecting sources gets harder all the time.
So keeping that in mind, here’s the list again with three new rules and here’s a little background.
I interned at the Yomiuri Newspaper briefly in 1992 before starting as a regular staff reporter in 1993. When I was visiting legendary crime reporter, Inoue Ansei at the police press club, took me up to the coffee shop, ordered us some green tea, and asked what I wanted to do at the Yomiuri.
“Well,” I said, “I’m interested in investigative journalism and the side of Japan I don’t know much about. The seamy side. The underworld.” I told him that my father was a country coroner and that crime and the police beat had always interested me.
He recommended I shoot for Shakaibu (社会部), the national news section, which was responsible for covering crime, social problems, and national news.
Inoue put it this way: “It’s the soul of the newspaper. Everything else is just flesh on the bones. Real journalism, journalism that can change the world, that’s what we do.”
I asked him for some advice as a reporter.
“Newspaper reporting isn’t rocket science,” he said. “The pattern is set. You remember the patterns and build from there. It’s like martial arts. You have kata [the form] that you memorize and repeat, and that’s how you learn the basic moves. It’s the same here. There are about three or four basic ways to write up a violent crime, so you have to be able to remember the style, fill in the blanks, and get the facts straight. The rest will come.
“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.
One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.
Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.
Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.
Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.
Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to an unfolding investigation and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of breaking news make you forget about the unfinished news.
Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.
Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.
Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.
And that was it. I haven’t grown much wiser over the years but as the media landscape and technology have changed, I think it’s time to add three more rules.
And here they are:
Nine: Share your data. The internet is a vast and endless storage hub. If you’ve written something the world should know–put up supporting data and documents on the web, maybe in a dropbox file that anyone can access. Use hyperlinks. Knowledge empowers everyone. Be sure not to reveal sources but share the intel you have; some of your readers may even return the favor.
Ten: Seek information. Learn every means possible of ferreting information from the web and from public sources. Social media can be a cesspool but it can also be a wonderful way to find information, collaborators and whistleblowers. Ask questions. Post your query and post a way to contact you, and welcome what comes.
Eleven: Protect Your Sources–And Protect Yourself. In the modern world, when people don’t like the message, they attack the messenger. This wasn’t the case back in 1992 when Yomiuri reporters didn’t get bylines. Individual reporters were rarely attacked because no one knew who wrote the stories. Now they do. You will make enemies because of this. To paraphrase a detective I admired, “An investigative journalist without enemies, isn’t investigating hard enough”.
You’ll find that enemies (people who wish you harm) include people who don’t like what you’ve written, or what you are going to write, and sadly, other journalists who are professionally jealous or hold a grudge. Protect your reputation. It’s not just a matter of your big fat ego: if people don’t feel you’re credible, the good work you do won’t be read or won’t be taken seriously.
When you know someone is gunning for you, be proactive. The person on the defensive always looks guilty. Anticipate attacks, undercut them, and prepare your rebuttal.
And some final advice. There are many types of journalism in the world: sports journalism, entertainment journalism, gaming journalism and they’re all valid forms of the art and wonderful vocations. Investigative journalism, by its very nature, involves writing things that the powers that be don’t want written. This will make people angry. You can’t avoid it. You should always try and weigh the public’s right to know something versus the damage that it will do to the life of an individual. If you’re not a full-time staffer, who’s assigned to cover this or that story, then you have the ability to decide what is and what is not worth writing. So choose wisely but if it’s important, write it.
Hidetoshi Kiyotake, my former supervisor at the Yomiuri, gave me some good advice which I will share with you.
If you’re going to be an investigative journalist here, you have to make up your mind and be ready [for what comes]. You must endure unreasonable criticism, and continue to fight.
In Japan, reporters who reveal their sources are scorned and cannot continue to do proper and decent reporting. That’s why you must keep your important sources anonymous. This often leads to investigative journalists having to go it alone, feeling isolated. You just have to believe in yourself and your friends and hang in there.
“1. Write the truth by any means possible. 2. Protect your sources. 3. If you can’t write the story, without protecting your sources, find new or different sources– or drop the story. There’s always another news story, people only have one life. That’s Japanese Journalism Ethics 101”—senior national news editor, 1999
(This article was originally published in September of 2012)
In 2012, Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun, forced a national news reporter to resign after he mistakenly sent an email which revealed the identity of his police contact. The police officer had been an informant on links between the Fukuoka Police and the yakuza. The detective who was outed later tried to kill himself. Here are the details:
“At the Fukuoka bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in July, a reporter resigned after leaking confidential information related to an assistant inspector who had been arrested for accepting bribes from organized crime members.
Shukan Bunshun (Aug. 30) reveals that a police superintendent who served as the reporter’s source attempted suicide the following month.
On July 20, reporter Masahiro Goto, 33, disclosed the identities of his sources after he mistakenly sent an email containing his reporting to multiple news organizations while he was attempting to contact his editorial colleagues.” –English translation from Tokyo Reporter
The reporter made a careless mistake. The cost was great for himself and for the courageous officer that was speaking to him. You might ask yourself, but why would the whistle-blowing cop try to commit suicide?
The answer isn’t as simple as fearing reprisals from his fellow policemen or great shame; the answer is because he may possibly face criminal charges for talking to the reporter. Because in Japan, if you are a public servant, and this includes police officers, leaking information to the press can be prosecuted as a crime. It’s a violation of the Civil Servants Act (国家公務員法100条また109条 and possibly 公務員法60条−62条). The law states that a public servant may not release secrets gained during the course of his work, and he/she can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and or a 500,000 yen fine if they violate the law. (国家公務員に対し、「職務上知ることのできた秘… … 守秘義務に背いた者には、1年以下の懲役または50万円以下の罰金が科されます) What is considered “secret” is pretty much whatever the government wants to consider “secret”. The Japanese courts and prosecution have some latitude in disputing the classification.
If a public official talks to reporters or releases information without permission they can be lose their jobs and be prosecuted for violations of the civil servants laws. In other words, if I named my all my sources, I could cost them their jobs and get them thrown into jail. I’m not willing to do that. Source confidentiality is an even more sensitive issue when involving articles about the yakuza. Revealing a source could cost them their job, their finger, or maybe even their life.
Even whistleblowers are subject to possible prosecution. Here is one example. Fortunately it did not end in actual criminal prosecution but this is one of the few cases reported in English.
For releasing the video, the Coast Guard officer was put under criminal investigation. It was only because of massive public support and sympathy that the case was dropped. Technically, it’s illegal to share any secrets or information that a public servant has access to in the course of this work. This law applies to police officers and all government employees. Violators of the law, those who have talked to the press on the record, or off the record, and then been exposed—have been fired, prosecuted or both.
Thus in Japan, many news reports read, “The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department said…” “Sources close to the investigation revealed…” The number of cases where a police officer makes a comment on the record, in his own name ,are extremely rare. Essentially, in less an individual receives approval at the highest levels, to make a comment on the record is risky. Comments made on background can be career destroyers if the source is found out, and may also subject them to criminal charges.
Whenever possible, I try to name sources and put as much factual data into a story as I can but I’m always aware that the costs for the source are almost always greater than my own. It’s not a crime to name a public official as your source; the person named may become a criminal under Japanese law. That doesn’t seem like justice to me nor does it seem like ethical journalism.
Journalists aren’t saints and I’ve known a number of them who’ve betrayed their sources for “a really big story.” Sometimes they’ve claimed that the public right to know outweighs the safety and welfare of the individual. I’ve known other journalists who bitterly complain when scooped and demand from the officials to know who leaked information to their rival reporter. Usually the journalists that do these things are border-line sociopaths. I don’t know what the US standard is on this but in Japan, if you’re any kind of a responsible journalist you don’t burn your sources nor do you ask others to do the same.
I’ve been writing about the Japanese underworld since 1993. I’m very well aware of what can happen to someone who writes the wrong thing or someone who has their cover blown. Sometimes they get hurt, sometimes they get fired, sometimes they suffer punitive damages, sometimes they go to jail, sometimes they “commit suicide”, and sometimes they just vanish.
That’s another high cost of being an investigative journalist in Japan–if the bad guys don’t like the message, they attack the messenger. If they can’t attack the messenger, they attack the people he loves. In January of 2006, the son of an investigative reporter, Atsushi Mizoguchi, was stabbed by members of the yakuza. The court found two of the yakuza involved guilty and sentenced them to hard labor for assault, noting, ” (they) attempted to violate the right to free speech and expression through the cowardly means of attacking a family member. It had a major impact on society.” Mr. Mizoguchi had written articles critical of their boss. Mr. Mizoguchi himself was literally stabbed in the back in 1990 after writing a book about the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime group, that was not well received. The assailants were never caught.
If you’re going to write about crime or corporate malfeasance in Japan, you always have to consider the risks to your sources, your friends, and yourself. And then you do the best you can. You try to do as much good as you can and as little harm as possible. As I get older, I often seem to find that when I weigh the value of writing a “scoop” versus the damage that it might do to an innocent person, and the relevance to public welfare, that I often drop the story. As my mentor said many years ago, there are many, many stories; people only have one life.
I don’t know why other people continue to be investigative journalists in Japan. It’s an increasingly difficult and painful occupation. You stand to lose much personally and gain little. The case of Minoru Tanaka is a sad reminder of how the court hammer is increasingly used to bludgeon journalists into silence. Write the truth, and be sued into oblivion. That’s the reality independent journalists here are facing.
Why do I continue? I do it because I love the work and because I like Japan. This is my home. And I continue to be an investigative journalist because I believe that the role of journalism–at its best–is to uncover the truth that people should know, to see that justice is done when the authorities fail to carry it out, to protect the weak from the strong, and by doing this, make our society a better place to live.
The book opens on one of the most devastating days in Japan’s history, March 11, 2011, which left thousands dead and missing—and culminated in a triple nuclear meltdown. Our protagonist and narrator Jake Adelstein, seasoned American journalist turned private eye, who has brought back bags of supplies from the US to be taken to the disaster area by yakuza friends–discovers he’s having a meltdown of his own: liver cancer.
Join Jake as he takes us back on a journey and recounts the events leading up to the disaster, the 2009 publication of his memoir TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan, and how he became a corporate gumshoe. He picks up where he left off, chronicling his other career, battling the yakuza and criminals as a due diligence investigator while battling his own worst enemy: himself. Previously the only American journalist to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, Jake covered extortion, murder, and human trafficking–fighting to make Japan recognize the problem. No longer a reporter but still trying to be a knight in dingy armor, he realizes that even a paladin has to earn a living. And instead of having 10 million readers now he’s writing reports that will only be read by three corporate executives.
This sequel to TOKYO VICE is written as a stand-alone volume and provides an in-depth history of the inner-workings of crime in Japan, and not just the gangsters. With each job assignment Jake learns more about industries rife with financial fraud, anti-social forces, corruption, and fraudulent bookkeeping–and how to spot a business that no client should engage with.
The book is divided into three parts coinciding with the breakdown of Jake’s personal life in parallel with Japan’s meltdown and an in depth analysis of how the Yakuza operate: UNUSUAL EVENTS, MELTDOWN, and THE FALLOUT.
UNUSUAL EVENTS sets the stage for the state of Japan leading up to the meltdown. The yakuza, like many criminal organizations, were not born out of thin air. Their ranks have come from members of society who do not feel like they have a place. Those marginalized by society such as the Korean-Japanese and burakumin, among others, were not given many opportunities by society, and were drawn into a life of crime.
But it’s a high level of crime now. In fact, one day Japan’s equivalent of Classmates.com is taken over by a Yakuza front company. Information is king.
Jake transitions into a career as a detective introducing a team of characters ranging from fight-til’-the-death former prosecutor Toshiro Igari to brave right-hand researcher and human trafficking victim advocate, Michiel Brandt. He makes new friends and enemies along the way–while dealing with the PTSD from the events that took place in Tokyo Vice by self-medicating with sleeping pills, booze, casual sex and clove cigarettes.
Learn how gangsters were gradually ousted from the financial markets by the due diligence of dedicated investigators, rebel cops, and new laws.
Meanwhile, TOKYO VICE is published but an old foe resurges — the ruthless yakuza Tadamasa Goto. If Tokyo Vice was Jake’s attempt to ruin and get his nemesis ‘erased’– Goto outdoes him with the publication of his autobiography, Habakarinagara, loaded with veiled threats. When Jake asks his mentor, Igari Toshiro, to help him take Goto to court, Igari bravely agrees but…..
MELTDOWN lands us in a disrupted Japanese society. Jake learns he has liver cancer while Japan is in the midst of a nuclear meltdown. His “best friend forever” Michiel is diagnosed with leukemia for the fourth time while the corruption of the Japanese nuclear industry comes to light.
Jake, hired to find out whether Tokyo Electric Power Company is responsible for the accident and what that would mean for investors, returns to his investigator roots with a renewed attitude to not give up and seeks out a new enemy to vanquish.
In chapters from the FALLOUT like The Nine Digit Economy: How The Yakuza Turned Japan’s Stock Market Into Their Casino, he shows how and why the authorities felt that anti-social forces threatened the very foundations of Japan’s economy.
Jake gets ahold of the most dangerous photo in Japan, showing the Vice President of Japan’s Olympic Committee with the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group, but can he break the story before his own knees get broken? And in the process of reporting on the Olympics discovers that the biggest gang of all in Japan may be a political party, founded by war criminals including former Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather, yakuza, ultra-nationalists and funded by the CIA.
What’s the difference between the Liberal Democratic Party politicians and the much-feared Yamaguchi-gumi thugs? It may only really be the badges they wear on their lapel.
While the book can be an enriching companion and sequel to TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan, TOKYO PRIVATE EYE: Investigation, Damnation, and Salvation In The Land Of The Setting Sun is a memoir that can stand alone recounting the years 2007 to 2014 through the eyes of an intrepid reporter and gumshoe with three decades spent covering the dark side of the sun.
Not only is it a riveting memoir about the life junctions we all face, including grief and career changes, but it also provides a working knowledge of Japanese organized crime, political corruption, the process of corporate investigations and shows the collusion between mafia, state, and business that led to a nuclear disaster. It also shows that Japan’s biggest problems are not necessarily the fading yakuza.
TOKYO VICE has been adapted for television into an eight episode straight-to-series on HBO Max starring Ansel Elgort playing Jake Adelstein. The series also stars Ken Watanabe and is written and executive produced by Tony Award-winning playwright J. T. Rogers (Jake’s high school senpai) with Endeavor Content serving as the studio. Michael Mann directed the pilot episode and served as executive producer.
Jake Adelstein is one of few experts on Japanese organized crime and the underworld. A former special correspondent for the LA Times, he has written for the Times, the Washington Post, the Japan Times and Vice. His other two books, Le Dernier Des Yakuzas (2017) J’ai Vendu Mon âme En Bitcoins (2019) with Nathalie Stucky, have both been published by Marchialy in France, his “third home.” He currently writes for the Daily Beast, the Asia Times, Tempura in France, and ZAITEN.
“Intimate Stranger” will be screened with English subtitles at 6:50 pm on March 17, and at 4:15 pm on March 21 at Shibuya Eurospace. On March 21, there will be a post-screening talk with Jake Adelstein, the journalist and author of “Tokyo Vice.” https://www.cine.co.jp/shinmitunatanin/eng/
In Intimate Stranger a razor blade – the old fashioned kind that you see barbers wielding in movies, with an open blade that folds into a scabbard – makes a frequent appearance. So often in fact, that its significance shifts from symbolic to menacing, and the film starts to feel like a horror story. It’s pretty sharp, this blade, enough to slash open the face of a yakuza but with the right pressure, will leave a photogenic wound on a young man’s face. One of the questions that came up during the Q&A session after the screening of Intimate Stranger held at the FCCJ, was whether the writer/director Mayu Nakamura went around with a razor blade stashed in her bag. To which Nakamura replied breezily, in English: “I keep a razor blade in my heart.”
Intimate Stranger is about a woman with a missing son, who connects with a 17-year old boy during a mask-clad, pandemic stricken winter in Tokyo. The woman works in a high-end shops that sells baby clothes, and at night she trawls the Net in search of a son who, in his photo that sits on her desk, looks incredibly unhappy. The teenager whom she takes under her wing (though the story reveals the circumstances are far less benevolent) is missing a family who cares about him. They strike up a relationship of sorts, each enabling the other to be what they want: a devoted mother, an adored and adoring son. Only the older woman is aware that this charade has a payoff.
The woman is Megumi, and she’s Nakamura’s creation as well as a bit of her altar ego. Megumi has no qualms about keeping a razor blade on her person: she uses it as much for self-defense as a source of sensual pleasure. An attractive, fiftyish woman played by veteran Asuka Kurosawa, Megumi is first seen as a lonely single mother looking for 17-year old Shimpei, who one day left their little home and never returned. The young scammer she befriends is Yuji (Fuji Kamio) who shows up to claim the reward cash promised for ‘any information’ about Shimpei. Yuji is one of the runners for a phone scam operation but he’s not very good. His boss is abusive and violent and Yuji sticks around because he has nowhere else to go. When he meets Megumi, he cadges a cafe meal and 5000 yen in return for fabricated information. “I met your son in an Internet Cafe. We played some video games together, and then he left.” He’ll probably feed her enough lies to string her along, and at the right moment another runner will call her up, pretending to be Shimpei, and ask for money.
Megumi however, surprises Yuji by inviting him into her apartment “just until Shimpei comes home.” And Yuji can’t resist the prospect of home-cooked meals and a warm bed, plus a maternal figure who scolds him for throwing his dirty jockeys under the bed. She promptly picks them up, launders them, hangs them out to dry and irons them out. Megumi is a great launderer as well as cook, cleaner and knitter of baby clothes. She revels in doing what other women may consider domestic drudgery, with a repressed, almost secret joy. This trait may be particular to Japanese women – they grow up expecting and expected, to spend their adult lives running a household, bearing and raising children and receding into a hard shell of domesticity. After years of doing that, a kind of demon may take up residence in her mind. “I feel like I’m in a pressure cooker,” says Megumi at one point. “The pressure mounts and mounts and one day, I snap.”
Sparse and minimal on the surface, Intimate…ispacked with a roiling, murky weirdness Nakamura feels is unique to Japan. In one scene, Megumi airs her views to Yuji: “Did you know that phone scamming happens only in Japan? Grown men calling up their mothers and grandmothers for money and expecting to get it…this would be unthinkable in the West. Why does this society pamper their males so much?” And Yuji, who earlier had scammed an old woman out of 200,000 yen by pretending to be her Covid-infected grandson, has no answer.
Intimate…is Nakamura’s second fiction feature, since 2006 when she made her debut with “The Summer of Stickleback.” Nakamura is not your ordinary Japanese filmmaker, meaning, she didn’t apprentice (read: slave labor) under an older, established male director or work in Japan’s tradition-entrenched, labor intensive studio system. Nakamura got her filmmaking experience and eye for frame composition in London, first as an undergrad at the University of London’s film society, and later in the graduate program of NYU film school. She made her first film at the age of 18, “on a Super 8” and 2 years prior to that, had quit high school in Tokyo to enroll in a London boarding school. “My father was a poet and my mother was a journalist,” Nakamura told me in a separate, private interview. “They never said ‘no’ to my plans. I’ve always been independent and competitive and I hate to lose.” You could say Nakamura benefitted from this upbringing but she also made paid a hefty price to be the person she is today. Her parents were so wrapped up in work that they left their 6-year old daughter to live with her grandparents in Kyoto, where she subsequently spent the rest of her childhood. “Kyoto is heavily conservative. They don’t take kindly to outsiders and since I was from Tokyo and couldn’t speak the local dialect, I was bullied.” It was the kind of intense and destructive bullying designed to break her spirit – everyone in school ignored her totally and pretend she didn’t exist. “As a result, I became very strong,” laughed Nakamura adding that whatever hardships came her way, they couldn’t match what she suffered through in Kyoto.
As soon as she could, Nakamura got herself out of Japan and spent the next 14 years of her life abroad. She even got a green card in the US (“I won it in a lottery”) indicating that there could be a god out there who evens up past misfortunes with a destiny jackpot.
That god, in the scheme of Intimate Stranger, is definitely female. Nakamura, who had waited a decade to make Intimate…, says that after her years abroad, she was floored by many aspects of Japanese womanhood and felt the need to unleash her bewilderment and rage. “I had a very tough time getting funding. I was told by male investors that it was disgusting for an older woman to be in a semi-erotic relationship with a teenage boy. I am sure that they wouldn’t have said that if the genders were reversed. In Japan, women past 30 are no longer women, they’re expected to become mothers and morph into asexual beings.” Megumi, for all her allure, clings to her identity as a mother. The apartment she shares with Yuji is a metaphor for her uterus, explained Nakamura, which account’s for the feeling of deep security, coupled with unbearable claustrophobia. They say that few people ever survive their mothers but my guess is that even fewer women survive the experience of being a mother.
At least it wasn’t a long, protracted goodbye. Ishihara would have hated that.
On February 1st, Shintaro Ishihara, long-time ex-governor of Tokyo and former Minister of Transportation (among other credentials) died. He was 89 years old. He was one of the last guardians of Japanese patriarchy as well as a charismatic politician. The unapologetic, racist, brash and chauvinist Ishihara had both supporters and opponents, including Yuriko Koike, the current mayor of Tokyo who was the first woman to hold the position. Ishihara referred to her on more than one occasion as ‘obasan (old woman)’ and Koike accused the man of running Japan’s capital city into the ground.
(Editor’s note: Even Koike can be right. Shinginko Tokyo, the bank created by Ishihara using Tokyo’s funds was a tremendous failure, leaving huge debts behind. However it did provide a windfall for Kanto yakuza).
Ishihara hated outspoken women and liberal men; he had no kind feelings for the US and refused to be enthralled or intimidated by western culture. Ishihara reserved his most acidic venom for China. For thirty years, he railed against the government in Beijing and demanded that Tokyo annex the non-populated Senkaku Islands (located several hundred miles north of the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa) instead of permitting Chinese fishermen to fish there.
In 2002, a group of Tokyo women tried to take him to court for inappropriate statements made on TV, in which he expressed agreement with a Tokyo University professor that “women who are past their child-bearing years should not live on until old age. Men can propagate the species until their 80s and 90s but women living into their 80s is a disease of civilization.”
But he also had an unmistakable, evocative allure, what in Japanese is known as ‘hana’. It was hana that kept him in the Governor’s seat for over a decade and hana that launched his bestsellers, like The Japan That Can Say No and Genius.
Ishihara had a bit of Donald Trump in him but unlike the ex-prez he had no interest in flaunting his women and stuck with the same wife he married in 1955. As Tokyo governor he wielded an influence on par with New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo, though Ishihara never got slapped with a harassment suit.
There were always rumors of shady doings going on inside his lavish office in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. A handful of young female aides quit with generous severance payouts. A male assistant tried to commit suicide because he couldn’t stand the Governor’s bullying.
Now that Ishihara’s gone, any dirty secrets will stay firmly bolted in the closet (maybe). Japanese political staff are for the most part, exceedingly loyal and any boss worth their salt knows it. Back in 2002, I was at Ishihara’s press conference and was struck by how his staff anticipated his every word and the slightest of head-nods, rushing to follow his orders before they were even given. Tall, imposing and suave, he made most of his contemporaries look like scrapings from a drain pipe. One thing you have to admit: he was well-bred, well-read and carried himself accordingly.
Born in Kobe in 1932 to wealthy parents, Ishihara was a novelist before becoming a politician, and a politician before becoming Tokyo’s longest serving governor. At the age of 21 when he was at Hitotsubashi University, Ishihara won the Akutagawa Award (Japan’s highest literary prize) for Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun) which was adapted for the screen starring his younger brother Yujiro.
Editor’s note: That the book won a literary prize says terrible things about Japan in the 1960s. The book was later translated as Season of Violence and this review from GoodReads sums it up succinctly:
Heterosexual Mishima — which is to say not written with any grace or artful tact but with a similar vision of violent machismo and drama: erections breaking through paper (shoji) doors and young rapists clinging to life as they drag their cut apart bodies across the street, prostitutes at sea, cruelty as sport and pastime. Tatsuya in the eponymous novella is so terrible and frightening it made me sick.
‘What have I been to you all these weeks?’
“A woman,” he shrugged.
Together, the Ishihara brothers created a brand not unlike a powerful mafia family. While Shintaro sired four boys and did his best to dent what he saw as Nagatacho’s (Tokyo’s equivalent of Capitol Hill) slavish, pro-American policies. Yujiro formed his own film production company called Ishihara Gundan (Ishihara Army Corps), mimicking big bro’s penchant for strutting machismo.
He had no offspring but had a knack for gathering tall, muscular male performers into the Ishihara brand orbit. Yujiro was probably the first Japanese male to pull off a leather jacket over tight jeans and have sex on the beach in front of a camera. Shintaro was a badass nationalist with a big mouth. In his youth, he wore bespoke suits and palled around with Yukio Mishima. When the latter committed seppuku, Ishihara arrived at the scene to show his moral support and politely tell the press to f*ck off.
Shintaro outlived his little brother by 35 years but cancer got him in the end. On the day, his widowed sister-in-law (herself an actress who starred in Season of the Sun) appeared in the media to express her sadness.His four sons, two of whom are politicians, appeared in the news to attest to their dad’s astonishing vitality. “He kept writing, right up until a week ago,” said second son Yoshizumi Ishihara, who is a successful actor and emcee. His eldest, Nobuteru Ishihara who two months before had quit his position as advisor to Prime Minister Kishida, after losing in the general elections to the daughter of a vegetable seller and single mother, said tearfully that he hoped he could live up to his old man.
However, even Ishihara’s most vocal critics grudgingly admit that when the chips were down, he was someone you could rely on.
When the 3.11 disaster struck Northeast Japan he moved to send aid and resources to Fukushima and the Tohoku area faster than any other prefecture. He worked to remove almost 170,000 tons of rubble and trash from the tsunami-hit region and cart the loads into Tokyo for disposal, despite strong opposition from the capital city residents. When asked how the Metropolitan Office should respond to irate Tokyoites, he held a press conference to say “These people should be told to shut up. There’s nothing else to say to them. I mean, how selfish can these people get?”
He arranged housing for people who lost their homes and was also responsible for building shelters for domestic violence victims. Personally, I was always grateful that he banned diesel vehicles from Tokyo streets and delivered much on his promise to green up the city.
Ishihara was a monstrous mass of contradictions and in the end, he couldn’t keep up with newfangled notions of gender equality, BLM, diversity and tolerance and globalism. That being said, I know I’m not the only one who feels Tokyo has lost something. It’s probably for the better but all the same, we’ll never get it back.
Shintaro Says The Darndest Things
After Yoshiro Mori was fired from the Tokyo Olympics Committee for saying that women’s speeches tended to be too long, the same committee should have made clear the length of the speech(es) in question. Otherwise, it’s unfair.
Drive My Car which opened last August 2021, was one of the best things to hit Japanese theaters in years. Yet many Japanese cinephiles or people who footed it to theaters in spite of the pandemic, quietly gave it a miss. Two weeks later audiences were willing to sit through the new 007 movie with masks on throughout the nearly 3 hour duration, refused to pay the same tribute to what is effectively the first successful cinema adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story by a fellow Japanese. Shame on us. Drive My Car bagged three awards at Cannes including Best Screenplay, (the first such feat for a Japanese filmmaker) and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. It’s now firmly placed on track for an Oscar.
So never mind the box office beating. The careers of director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi and lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima went on a meteoric ascent as Hamaguchi picked up the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Wheels Of Fortune And Fantasy months before Drive My Car and is now being inundated with offers from Hollywood and Netflix. Veteran lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima was all over the media in TV and film last year before giving his best performance yet in Drive...He was named Best Actor by the US Films Critics Award, the first for an Asian actor.
Through it all, the 43-year old Hamaguchi appeared unfazed. In interviews he has stated that Japan isn’t his only playing field though he has professed a love for its cinema industry and in early 2020, he crowdfunded over 330 million yen to save arthouse theaters from Covid bankruptcy. Hamaguchi discipled under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, another auteur whose international reputation has come to overshadow his Japanese notoriety. Under Kurosawa, Hamaguchi learned the ropes of competing in the film fest circuit, dealing with foreign distributors and grooming his stories for global appeal. Otherwise, Hamaguchi is a visionary filmmaker with a special flair for intricate and nuanced storytelling, which comes to the fore in Drive My Car. He took a 40-page Murakami short story and leavened it up to a running time of 3.5 hours, adding Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Korean actors and the Hiroshima City backdrop in the mix. Through Hamaguchi’s careful doctoring, Murakami’s original story was reborn with much more weight and muscle, able to grapple with emotions that have both urgency and relevance. This is some serious cinema alchemy we’re looking at here.
On the other hand, Hamaguchi is respectful of Murakami and makes sure the film has the author’s logo stamped all over it. There’s no mistaking the elegant lassitude permeating the storyline, the finicky intellectualism and inherent narcissism of the characters. The only factor that strikes a non-Murakami chord is the presence of Toko Miura, who plays a woman named Misaki. She’s a chauffer with a skeleton or two in the closet of her mind and she’s at once fragile and tough, capable and vulnerable. In Murakami’s story, Misaki serves as a young, female sounding board for the protagonist’s inner musings. In Hamaguchi’s film, her importance goes up several notches and she’s recreated into a women with her own agenda and personal demons, who’s not there to be sexually objectified or soothe anyone. Miura, who used to work part-time at a Tokyo gas stand when she wasn’t working as an actress, is now one of the most watchable performers in the Japanese film industry and Drive My Car owes a huge chunk of its success to her prowess.
Still, being a Murakami story, Drive My Car ultimately comes off as tale of male ego, or more to the point, the taming of it. Nishijima plays a slender, 50-ish man named Kafuku (an obvious play on the name ‘Kafuka’ from the Murakami bestseller “Kafka By the Sea”), a stage actor who discovers that his wife Oto (played by a splendid Reika Kirishima) has been sleeping around. Kafuku has been semi-aware of Oto’s infidelity but when confronted with the scene of her having sex with another man, his mind shuts down. That night, Oto is found dead from a brain hemorrhage and Kafuku retreats into a shell of wordless grief.
Two years later, Kafuku accepts a residency position in Hiroshima and he’s introduced to Misaki, who has been hired to drive him to and from the theater in his car (a Saab 900, of course). Through their brief conversations finds himself able to face Oto again, not as a wife who betrayed him but a woman in her own right. In the meantime he collaborates with Korean actors for the stage production of Uncle Vanya and builds a rapport with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who had been Oto’s last lover.
Murakami’s story is part of a compilation titled Men Without Women, a fate which, in the Murakami scheme of things is akin to death by torture. Men cannot exist without women or their fantasies and much of Murakami’s words are devoted to describing the subtleties of their allure. In his fiction the female is never objectified outright but she’s not to allowed to exist outside the confines of the male ego, either. Murakami always hands over the reigns of power to his women characters, making sure they will never abuse it. If she gets too much for the man to handle, she tends to make a fast exit. Like Oto. Or Naoko from his trademark novel Norwegian Wood.
This Murakami penchant is in perfect keeping with the Japanese literary tradition and reveals, that for all the Americanisms and western-liberal icons/props scattered across the pages of each and every one of Murakami’s works, the master is in fact, a traditionalist. The combination was dazzling and exotic back in the 20th century. Personally I likened a Murakami novel to a cool, fizzy drink ordered in a bar in an American military base, not that I could set foot in such a place. But two decades plus into the 21st century, the magic of Murakami’s words come off as nostalgic and quaint. It took an alchemist like Ryusuke Hamaguchi to filter out the antiquated grunge of the original short story and upcycle it into a masterpiece.
For all that, many of us who grew up on Murakami are not ready to cancel him altogether. Generations of Japanese owe him for showing us a world outside the archipelago, for writing about jazz and beer and summer afternoons spent swimming laps at the pool, for dedicating an entire book to marathon running as a pleasurable hobby, for girls who enjoy sex and own up to their sexuality, for boys who are clumsy about relationships but bafflingly knowledgeable about coffee. We owe him for being easily translatable and comprehensible to an international audience that would otherwise equate Japan with anime and karoshi (death by overwork). Maybe Haruki Murakami can’t carry the brand on his own anymore but that happens to every established business with a recognizable logo. And now that Ryusuke Hamaguchi has set the precedent, more Murakami adaptations are sure to follow. If you’ll excuse the slightly nationalistic tone, it’s a good time to be Japanese.
Editor’s note: If you’re a fan of Haruki Murakami, with a sense of humor, be sure to avail yourself of a copy of 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary of Haruki Murakami Words) which is tongue in cheek tribute and guide to his writings. Even if you don’t read Japanese, the great illustrations, the haiku-like use of English, and the pin-pointing of his common themes and motifs is a delight to read.
Scientists have abundantly proven that global warming is real and causing havoc on the planet. CO2 levels are rising with Earth’s temperatures, but the truth of the matter does not make the relationship a cause and effect. There is a rising level of CO2 with now 412 parts per million. In addition to increased levels of methane and nitrous oxide, this is considered the primary reason for global warming. This theory, which receives strong support from scientists, may not be the only factor. This article proposes other mechanisms that may play a role in global warming.
There is a massive nickel-iron ball at the center of the earth with a diameter of 760 miles, spinning faster than the rotation of the earth and having a temperature of 5000°C. It generates heat in the earth so that when you dig to 32 inches deep in Missouri the pipes don’t freeze. Additionally, it produces magnetic fields that are easily measurable. Around this ball of solid iron-nickel is another layer with a radius of 2,165 miles. It is believed to be made up of a liquid alloy. There is an interface at this level with the outer mantle, and some scientists believe oil is produced there. Exactly how this heat is generated or the mechanism is unknown. It’s almost as if we have a sun buried deep inside the earth.
The origin of man or how we have been designed is a mystery to me, but lubrication is built into our physical self. Our joints, eyes, and reproductive organs are lubricated. There may be a mechanism in place at the interface with this giant heat-producing ball at the center of our planet that deals with the friction that it produces. Current theories suggest that the spinning ball and surrounding liquid iron might produce their own oil, reducing friction. The removal of portions of this oil may cause irregularities in the spinning ball, contributing to global warming and earthquakes.
Editor’s note: In short, we are pumping so much oil out of the earth, that we’re essentially running a car without oil, causing tremendous friction and making the engine overheat.
Several scientists believe that oil is produced at the interface between the heated sphere and the carbon surrounding it.
This is the abiogenic theory of oil‘s origin. As this oil seeps between the plates, Saudi Arabia has an infinite supply of oil, whereas when drilling in the Gulf of Mexico closer to its source, there were such great pressures that it took many months to stop the leak.
We have not identified any planets that support life as we know it. We have the water vapor cycle, the carbon dioxide/oxygen system, and the nitrogen cycle. How do we know that oil is not a vital component of the planet’s survival? Approximately 135 million tons of oil have been extracted since 1850, yet the world is not running out of oil.
When the oil is taken from the earth, the spaces around it are apparently filled with water. The water supply is affected but more importantly the water acts as a poorer insulation than oil, which could also contribute to the warming of the earth. Many of our weather patterns are caused by the heating of vast amounts of water. The heat produced causes global warming and an increase in hurricanes. In recent days, we have witnessed tornadoes wreaking havoc on Kentucky and its neighbors. While glaciers are melting, ambient temperatures do not appear to be high enough to cause this. There is a possibility that the melting is caused by heat from the earth itself.
The solution to global warming remains the same, stop taking oil out of the earth. We still have time.
A very wise friend recently told me that it is unlikely we would find similar life forms on other planets–because they would have likely destroyed themselves already. As a species, we are destructive, not only killing each other, but also destroying the planet. We have the intelligence to stop doing one thing that is undeniably bad for the environment, drilling for oil and using it. Next time the oil light in your car comes on, think about it.