The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Japan hard as of late. Classrooms remain empty after spring break, restaurants begin to provide take-out, and factories stall upcoming projects. The number of workers who are predicted to lose their jobs due to the novel Coronavirus was projected in the upwards of 1,021 people last month, according to the Ministry of Labor. Prime Minister Abe did declare a State of Emergency on April 7th, and the Ministry of Finance announced that ¥100,000 would be given to residents (and eventually confirmed that foreign residents were included) but some experts argue that this declaration occurred too late.
While April would normally be the start of new jobs for many in Japan, this April seems to have an opposite turnout for most job-seekers. Lines outside of Hello Work* buildings all over the country would be twice as long as lines for masks outside of drugstores. Certain locations have also reduced the amount of staff members on-duty, causing longer waiting times at local Hello Work branches.
(Hello Work is an employment service center operated by the Japanese government, under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Its main role is to help connect job seekers to companies in need of skilled labor.)
In early April, I became a part of this statistic. My 6-month contract at a city hall in Osaka was not granted for renewal, and the job openings for tourism and English education in the area seemed to have vanished as the governor also declared a state of emergency. I decided to reach out to Hello Work to see if I was eligible for any benefits and to search for jobs through their system.
I arrived on a Thursday morning around 11AM. The line encircled the entire building and moved slowly. There was little distance between us and we stood outside of the building for about two hours. Bottles of hand sanitizer were available to use before entering the building. It reminded me of Disneyland for a brief moment.
Once I entered the Hello Work office, I was greeted by an energetic staff member. Everyone in the office, including the job-seekers, were wearing masks. We were told to sit two to three seats apart from each other, and the seats for the computer lab were 1 seat apart. There appeared to be no multilingual support at this Osaka branch. Many of the people in the room appeared to be elderly or recently graduated from university. Some of the job-seekers previously worked in factories or in retail.
After about an hour, it was my turn. Since my previous contract was only for six months, I was unable to receive any benefits. But the staff member who assisted me thoroughly searched and found about fifteen jobs that I could apply for. The process itself took about 10 minutes. I turned around and saw the computer lab filled to the brim with anxious job-seekers. Most of them has 0 search results, and the staff would try their best to experiment with different search entries to find a match.
Hello Work branches all over the country seem to be facing the same dilemma. For many newly unemployed residents in the Chubu region, they faced the most difficulty with their former employer. “I did not know much about the paperwork I needed to file for unemployment”, said Guillerme Okada. “At the factories, we were suddenly told that we couldn’t work anymore. I had to ask several of my friends first.” Okada had brought someone with him as an interpreter to explain to his Japanese supervisor that he needed to give documents for Okada to receive unemployment benefits. “It is a common issue with factory workers in this area. If I struggle to get legal documentation, I struggle to trust this system. I came with my interpreter to Hello Work, but there were two already available to help me. I had a lot of support from my community and from them during this time.”
Other employers would also push back start dates and avoid paying the contracted salary despite the legal 60% minimum requirement. Maria M., a Tokyo resident, would get last-minute notices and conflicting information about her start date and paycheck.
“I had already given my previous job a month’s notice and quit to start this new one. I was supposed to start during the first week of April but they changed it. It’s at a store so telework is impossible.”
About four or five days later, she was asked to Skype with the human relations chair. Her hiring date was moved to May 15th with no pay in advance. She contacted the labor bureau about her situation. “They confirmed that my company was responsible for me. My friends [who also worked at the company] said that they were receiving part of their salary in April. When I told my employer that I contacted the labor bureau, they quickly agreed to offer me part of my contracted pay.”
During these uncertain times, it may be difficult to navigate unemployment and economic stability on top of acquiring the basic necessities for surviving the pandemic. As the numbers of infected individuals steadily increase, the ratio of available job positions drop to its lowest level in three years. However, with the national and local government bringing out new sources of financial aid for individuals and businesses alike, there is room for growth in the economy and policy change.
The whole world is somewhat baffled by how Japan is handling the coronavirus aka COVID19 aka Sars-CoV-2. The Diamond Princess debacle in which inept Japanese officials turned a cruise ship into a floating incubator for the virus did not bode well. Early on in the crisis, several politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expressed what was close to delight about the coronavirus disaster, stating that it would finally justify changing Japan’s constitution to a new one that gave the Prime Minister sweeping powers.
Japan has infamously under-tested, turning away most people who were not displaying already full-blown symptoms of coronavirus induced illness-–a fever over 37.5 degrees for four days, loss of sense of taste and smell, had been in contact someone diagnosed with the virus etc.– and has been extremely stingy in releasing information. Some suspect that Japan is hiding coronavirus cases and deaths in pneumonia statistics. Possible. Let’s assume that’s not true for the time being.
The Ministry of Health, which managed to get their own workers and medical staff infected on the Diamond Princess and then refused to test them, sending them back to work, where they infected others–doesn’t inspire confidence. The best they have done seems to be to warn people about the Three Cs (in Japanese 3の密. 密閉・密集・密接): closed spaces, crowds and close contact. Miraculously, avoiding an overlap of these three should keep you safe—until it doesn’t.
Despite having the first cases of coronavirus in January, the number of deaths in Japan remains very low, 108 today (April 12th) out of a nation of 126 million people
This week I wrote a piece for the Asia Times–TB vaccines offers hope in Covid-19 war –about studies that show a correlation between low numbers of deaths in countries that had a universal tuberculosis vaccination program for decades–and coronavirus. The vaccine is called BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin). Infection rates also appear to be strongly impacted positively by the vaccine. The vaccine is nearly a hundred years old. It was developed by French physicians and biologists Léon Charles Albert Calmette and Jean-Marie Camille Guérin in the 1900s and first successfully tested in 1921. Some theorize that when the vaccine is given to very young children and/or infants, that it creates ‘attained immunity’ which helps the older generation (those most vulnerable) battle the virus. Personally, I sort of hope that it’s true, that BCG is the BFG (Big Fucking Gun) in the war against this pathogen, kind of like the iconic weapon in the first-person shooter DOOM. (It’s a video game). It has been suggested that the vaccine only works if given to very young children and that the strain of the vaccine matters as well. Could be.
NOTE: BCG vaccine has many strains (types). The BCG-Japan strain seems to be the one that actually works against the coronavirus. France uses the BCG-Denmark strain. If anyone reading this has access to materials about the BCG-Japan strain, please share them with me. I would like to know.
There are problems with the theory that BCG vaccine is a silver bullet (or a BFG). Correlation is not causation. France and England had a vaccination program but they have a high number of deaths. They also appeared to have inoculated their citizens when they were in their teens rather than as infant, and both countries use a different strain of the vaccine then the predominant one used in Asia. However, even if the BCG vaccination works/worked to prevent fatalities, is there any reason to believe it will work on adults? In the Netherlands and Australia clinical tests are underway. We shall see.
One of the joys of running this blog, with the help of others, since 2007, is that sometimes we are leaked good information that can be used to generate a solid news story. That is usually rare. The nature of the internet is that you tend to get lots of criticism, threats, accusations or wild conspiracy theories that can’t be verified. Comments are all read and edited before being posted. Many on-line sites have gotten rid of comments altogether. When I looked at the comments and letters today, I thought of doing the same….once again.
But then I read this letter below. It’s intriguing. The anonymous source asserts that they are a member of the medical community in Japan. I have edited it slightly for clarity and removed some possibly identifying details. Below the letter, I have added some notes and observations.
As the headline tells you, it is a conspiracy theory, of sorts. A “conspiracy” is usually defined as a secret plan by a group of people to do something harmful or illegal. If the writer of this letter is correct, the steps Japan has taken so far are not completely harmful. Indeed, it could be argued that testing everyone is not a great idea and that it overloads the health care system. Japan’s approach to the coronavirus has had its merits.
“The Japanese Society for Infection Prevention and Control (JSIPC) updated their coronavirus manual on March 10.
The tone is calm. “Japan is moving from containment measures to a period of spreading infection and we must adjust accordingly,” it says. Since March 6, Covid-19 testing won coverage under national health insurance – ergo, “as public money is being used for the coronavirus testing, it is necessary to carefully screen who gets tested.”
It gently chides anyone who seeks “needless” testing and urges medical professionals to prevent overcrowding at hospitals by instructing patients with light symptoms to stay home and avoid others.
Critically, it points out that since there is no specific treatment for Covid-19, the priority must be treating the illness via its pathogen causes.
“The foundation of treatment is symptomatic therapy,” the manual reads. When signs of pneumonia are found, it suggests using all possible methods of treatment, such as giving oxygen and vasopressors as necessary. Above all, it reminds medical staff of the top priority: “Protect the lives of seriously-ill patients, especially in cases of pneumonia.”“
This makes sense on some levels. However, if you don’t know who has the coronavirus, how can you possibly contain it? The manual does note that Japan has moved beyond containment measures (水際対策) and must conduct a sort of triage.
I don’t know if it’s true nor can I say it’s untrue. Don’t believe it. I have limited resources, so I’ve decided to crowdsource this. I would like to know what you, the readers, think. And if anyone has supporting data, I’d love to have it–links and documents appreciated. If you can refute it, please do. Sometimes, many minds are better than one.
Send all mail, thoughts, comments, evidence and refutations to japansubcultureresearchcenter @ gmail.com with the heading, BCG and Japan.
Some short notes and observations on the letter are at the end of the document.
Dear Mr. Adelstein,
I’m ●●●● and I’ve just been reading your report into BCG.
You’ve got the half the story, and while there are clinical issues with the variables and the science, you’re on the right track.
The other half is on the Japan side.
Have you noticed why Japanese aren’t talking about their immunity through BCG? There’s reasons for this.
Japan has invested a lot of capital into developing and selling Avigan as a coronavirus treatment. They’ve put the weight of Japan Inc behind this, and [Prime Minister] Shinzo Abe is their pitch man.
Did you notice the abrupt change in Abe’s policy around the end of February? That’s because Japanese researchers and doctors, including my colleagues, became aware at that time that BCG vaccines were possibly also working with the immune systems of most Japanese under age 70. NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and MHLW [Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare] policies prohibit researchers and doctors from speaking publicly about this. But this is well-known in the medical community here.
What’s not understood is whether BCG is protecting children in the same way. We don’t have enough scientific or anecdotal evidence to rule out tuberculosis vaccine in Japan with confidence, especially because of the large number of foreign workers and tourists from at-risk countries, or whether BCG is working properly in tandem with other vaccinations in Japan. In layman’s terms, the younger generation of children in Japan don’t have the same immune system as the older generation. While we have decades of data about the health of the older generation, we still have insufficient clinical data about kids who haven’t been alive long enough to build up a reliable data base.
In the field of medicine, you can’t make a diagnosis or prescribe treatment based on anecdotes or hunches. We have to follow regulations and existing practices based on years worth of data and peer-reviewed studies. We simply can’t assume that BCG is protecting children from the novel coronavirus. Thus the medical community instructed Abe to protect these children as a preventive measure owing to the lack of available data on how their immune system would respond to Sars-CoV-2.
This also gave Abe and the MHLW political cover. Instead of doing nothing, they had to do something (1) . Abe couldn’t publicly announce that BCG was protecting the innoculated population of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. As you know, Abe is beholden to Keidanren (経団連・Japan Business Federation) and companies such as Fujifilm Holdings and their subsidiary Toyama Chemical, which manufactures Avigan (3). Who is going to buy Avigan if all they have to do is buy BCG? Why should Japan promote Avigan if most Japanese don’t need it? That is their reasoning. This is all about the sale of Avigan. (5)
This also explains why Japan was resisting international pressure to postpone the Summer Olympics. Abe and his panel of experts were assuming that BCG was protecting most of the population from the novel coronavirus. They had to cancel the games because of foreign pressure and the International Olympic Commission (IOC) (4), not because of any concerns about an overshoot of cases here in Japan.
There’s another issue that the media are overlooking. Japan now has millions of foreign residents and foreign tourists who didn’t get BCG shots. They are the most likely groups to acquire the novel coronavirus and spread it through the population in Japan. But Abe couldn’t say that due to policies of boosting tourist arrivals and preparing for the Olympics. Even if you think he’s a racist xenophobe, you have to credit him for respecting the rights of foreign COVID patients. Look at what China is doing with Africans, and you’ll understand Japan’s official thinking on this.
This also explains the Ministry of Health policy of keeping people away from hospitals (2). We don’t want people with colds, H1N1, ordinary coughs or sniffles to show up at hospitals demanding swabs, which also put health care workers at risk. They should stay home and rest anyway. MHLW set up a hotline for this purpose. If they didn’t, half of Japan would demand a test claiming to be sick. In most cases, patients with real COVID19 symptoms aren’t going to die anyways if they had their mandatory BCG vaccinations. Japan only wants to treat the most severe cases while protecting medical workers from infection. This is a reasonable policy. Most doctors support this, though some feel that we should be more proactive with outreach programs and advocacy on behalf of patients.
Try to see things from our perspective. We are watching more than a hundred doctors and nurses die in Italy. We saw the same thing in Wuhan. This scenario is Japan would serve nobody. It’s not selfish for us to protect ourselves. It’s good public health policy, and Japan is doing the right thing.
Please understand that the science isn’t black and white on this. Just because Japan made BCG shots mandatory doesn’t mean that every doctor gave them out, or that every parent took their kid to the doctor for the shot. Millions of people fell through the cracks and didn’t get vaccinated for TB, especially in the 1950s and 60s when Japan’s health care system was evolving. That’s why you are seeing numbers rise now, though on a much smaller level than in the U.S. or Italy. Most of the new cases now are people who didn’t get BCG shots. This is the common view of medical practitioners here.
This is especially true of patients in areas such as Taito-ku, which is the closest thing in Tokyo to Skid Row in LA. Many of these new patients are homeless, or they were born into impoverished families who didn’t vaccinate their children. You will see similar stories in impoverished areas of Osaka and other cities. Look at the data and you will find it.
(4) It would appear that after the Olympic Games were postponed that suddenly the number of Covid-19 cases jumped considerably. Correlation perhaps. Governor Yuriko Koike, who had been remarkably silent about the dangers of coronavirus, suddenly began talking about ‘a lockdown’ and the need for hyper vigilance with the pathogen only after March 23rd.
5) The Japanese government, including our friends at the Ministry Of Health, have conspired in the past to keep important medical data away from the public. The result was many innocent people being infected with AIDS and dying. Green Cross was the beneficiary and some of their executives were convicted of criminal negligence resulting in death. Government officials basically walked. See below and research more if you’re interested. Green Cross Executives receive prison terms in Yakugai (薬害エイズ) case.
Hiniku Taro, a former special prosecutor, implores Ghosn to respect Japan’s rule of law
It is most regrettable that Carlos Ghosn, the convicted criminal, former CEO of Nissan has cowardly chosen to escape from Japan rather than face a fair trial and inevitable conviction in Japan’s prestigious courts. This is very disruptive of our justice system and the prosecutor conviction statistics.
I think there is a cultural misunderstanding on the side of Ghosn-san that has led to this rash decision. As you may know, Japan is a country where justice works on the presumption of innocent until proven guilty. Which is the tatemae–like when your mama makes you a rice cake with zoni and you say it is good even if is not so tasty. Some have said, that in Nippon you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. This very true—up to certain point. That certain point, in my experience, being when we decide whether to indict or not. If it is not a slam dunk case, then we presume you are innocent because we don’t like to lose.
But once we indict you, we have 99% conviction rate. So post-indictment, you are presumed guilty until proven guilty. And Ghosn has unfairly denied us the right to prove his guilt. This is a great shame.
We only denied Ghosn 6000 files in preparing his defense and only kept him in jail for 129 days before his trial. We most benevolent but no no thank you from him. Just whine whine whine. He would have had a fair trial and been fairly convicted based on the incredibly slanted, selective testimony and evidence the prosecutors had arranged and altered, and a stark refusal to allow in any testimony that might exonerate him,.
Even then, he would still have a 1% chance of being found not guilty of some or all of the charges. Of course, since the prosecution can appeal cases in Japan, and we like to do, we’d probably have convicted him the second round. Yes, because you can get tried for the same crime here but we have no double jeopardy–in theory.
How do we know what’s a serious crime? Well, when a foreigner does it, it’s a serious crime. It is in the unwritten Roppo. When Coincheck, loses over a billion dollars worth of virtual currency–was there a crime committed? We don’t care. When Mark Karpeles, a FRENCHMAN, running a virtual currency exchange is hacked out of a half billion worth of virtual currency, we arrest him on whatever charges possible. knowing he must be guilty. And we hold him for 11 months, questioning him with no lawyer present, because we know he’s guilty. And when the IRS, Homeland Security and US authorities arrest the real hacker, we try to block that evidence from being submitted into court. And when the court finds him not guilty on major charges, and the crazy judge rebukes us?
We don’t talk about that. Not good idea to talk about that. And what about Enzai (冤罪) –wrongful convictions? This only happens in case of Japanese, who are very old and probably going to die in prison, so we say okay, maybe not guilty. Oh and that Nepalese guy wrongfully convicted of murder. Oops. Prosecutors are humans, too. PS. Don’t read those back issues of that magazine devoted to cases of injustice in Japan. Very old now. Much changed!
We work very hard to find or make evidence that will our make case. Ghosn and his lawyers were very uzai. Why would we want evidence that could exonerate the accused when we already have enough to win the case? We get so tired of whiny liberal lawyers who want a ‘fair’ trial for their client. L-o-s-e-r-s. This is why we will find any reason to deny them crucial evidence or share it with them—and also because we can!
The judge is almost always going to give us what we want. That’s how the system works. And as a long time resident of Japan, Carlos Ghosn must respect that system. It is the honorable thing to do. It very simple.
A Guide To The Japanese Prosecutor’s Office
You do or not do a crime.
Someone reports the crime to the police, who may or may not make an arrest. THEN
A) If you are politically connected to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his friends, or LDP and bonus points if you are wealthy business executive, the case is stopped early and investigation quashed.
If gung ho police insist, or foolish lower level prosecutors take papers from police, we wait until Japan wins Olympic bid or some big event and then announce that we won’t prosecute—so nobody notice.
B) If you are politically connected, you report crime to the police or even better, special prosecutor, and make back-door deal. Plea bargaining now welcome, welcome.
We arrest suspect (dirty foreigner or vocal critic) on lesser charges! Go to jail. If you don’t confess, we go to friendly judge and say, “He/she will destroy evidence or escape while we work little bit more. Can we keep them 10 more days?” Judge says, OK! We can hold you for up to 23 days, easy-peasy. Then like fish on a hook, we let you go–then rearrest! We hold them in jail until they confess and rigorously interrogate them every day.
If they don’t confess, it’s only because they’re guilty. And if they do confess, well we were right, they’re guilty.
Get With The Game, Ghosn!
This is Japan and everyone must play their part. We make occasional politically motivated public arrest of big person, but not anyone close to the Prime Minister. We leak like crazy to Japanese media bad things about suspect–even that they confessed. We prepare for the trial, hoodwink the lawyers, refuse to show them our evidence–because we can get away with it and the law doesn’t force us to do it, nor will the judge, and then we win. 99% of the time. And if we lose 1% of the time, well we win on the appeal. 😜
The role of the indicted is to either confess early or endure the proceedings and then get convicted anyway, but winning or escaping–that’s not an option.
Shame on you, Carlos Ghosn. You have made a mockery of the Japanese system of injustice justice. And what is even more unforgivable is that your selfish act may actually lower our conviction rates to less than 99%!
Hiniku Taro is a former prosecutor, now in private practice, after resigning from office when he was discovered to have forced a local politician to confess to being a serial underwear thief, ‘on a hunch’, in 2002. He says, ‘Even though I may no longer be a prosecutor, I never forget the valuable lessons I learned on the job such as yakuza and foreigners have no human rights’. For more information see the webpage for Hiniku and Tanuki Sougo General Law Horitsu Jimusho, located in Chiyoda-ku, Otemachi.
Let’s not call this an illustrious year for Japanese movies – a big chunk of my retina hopes never to witness another syrupy love story starring Sota Fukushi ever again. Or Ryo Yoshizawa or Ryota Katayose or any one of a platoon of mid to late 20s Japanese actors who spend most of their working hours wearing high school uniforms, pouting or playing some dreary team sport for the benefit of starry-eyed, female co-stars. If for some reason you wind up in cinema hell in the afterlife, try to strike a deal with the devil and avoid seeing Gozen Reijini Kisu Shini Kite (Come Kiss Me At Midnight). It’s being touted as the blockbuster love story to close 2019, but works more like a corrosive sugar crash that bodes ill for 2020.
That said, there were some gems to be found among the pebbles, though none of them managed to command a fraction of the public’s attention during the Rugby World Cup games. Sadly for Japanese cinema, the tournament just torpedoed every other means of entertainment, leaving movie buffs blinking and coughing in the dust as we tried to remember the titles that made the year memorable. The ones that made it into the membranes of our brains however, were courageous, socially aware and unafraid to step on more than a few toes. Perhaps, as all the pundits are pointing out, Netflix’s original content blew a hole in the Japanese film industry and made things a lot more liberal. Or libertine, as the case may be. For more details, read on for the best films of 2019 – in no particular order.
1) 全裸監督 (Zenra Kantoku) – The Naked Director
This edgy, bold and often hilarious biopic of AV (adult video) director Toru Muranishi was brought to us via the heroic efforts of Netflix Japan, a three-man writing team and the sheer gutsiness of actor Takayuki Yamada in the titular role.
Muranishi was dubbed “the emperor of AV” during the 1980s when the adult video was all shiny and new and proffered the cheapest ticket to titillation in the privacy of your own six mat tatami room. Muranishi churned out titles by the dozens and to save on labor costs, he played his own leading man and had intercourse with the actresses as he filmed them. Which is you know, busy, considering that back in the day, cameras were non-digital and very heavy. He is also credited for ‘discovering’ the talents of rich-girl Kaori Kuroki (played here by Misato Morita) who initially consented to work with Muranishi as a way of rebelling against her parents. Unflaggingly energetic and completely unapologetic, Muranishi embodied the perverted but enduring Japanese male fantasy: that groping and raping a pretty woman is actually a nice way to start a relationship with her. Currently, Muranishi works as a TV commentator and still has a lot to say about sex and women, most of which are unfit for the ears of sane folk.
2) 天気の子 (Tenkino Ko) – Weathering With You
Anime filmmaker extraordinaire Makoto Shinkai (of Your Name fame) came out with what was arguably the only really memorable film of 2019 with Tenki no Ko (International Title: Weathering With You. (Mild Spoiler Alert) A semi-utopian spin on the dismally dystopian subject of climate change, the ending of Weathering With You instigated a controversial firestorm on social media. The question, in a nutshell, is this: Should we forgive the protagonists for putting their personal happiness before the greater good? In the story, a teenage boy is intent on rescuing the girl of his dreams, but the cost of his choice is non-stop rain that submerges most of Tokyo in water.
Up until Weathering With You, Japanese anime characters had consistently sacrificed their romantic inclinations for the benefit of family or society – most notably in the films by Hayako Miyazaki. Boy and girl would get to meet but they rarely ever got together, as there were much bigger things at stake. But in Weathering… the boy chooses to be with the girl, even though this meant they and everyone else will be drenched in rain for years to come. Weathering...features gorgeous artwork combined with the latest in anime technology and may alter your whole perspective on weather and how it affects the soul.
3) 新聞記者 (Shinbun Kisha) – The Journalist
It was a bad year for journalists. Or more to the point, it was the year that Noriyuki Yamaguchi, formerly of the TBS news department, gave journalists a bad name by raping fellow journalist Shiori Ito three years ago, and when he was deemed guilty in court, held a press conference in December to say that she was a big liar. No wonder Japan slid back to 121st place (out of 144 countries) in gender equality – this is lower even, than UAE and China.
But I digress. The journalism profession and women journalists in particular, got a redemptive respite with the opening of The Journalist. Based on the bestselling autobiography by Tokyo Shinbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalistis a suspense thriller about how the titular protagonist (played here by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung) dares to go after the government to unveil conspiracy cover-ups with zero support from her status-quo loving male colleagues. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat (Tori Matsuzaka) from ‘Naicho,’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident. The whole package is gripping, revelatory and entertaining, but it’s a shame director Michihito Fujii couldn’t get a Japanese actress to play the lead. Apparently, no one was willing to risk being seen as anti-Abe.
4) 七つの会議 (Nanatsuno Kaigi) – Seven Conferences
They say Japanese corporate meetings are getting longer by the year, mainly because they’re run by fifty-somethings who feel intimidated by millennials and need to show the young whippersnappers who’s in charge. I know people who went into a morning meeting to reemerge 5 hours later, then having missed their lunch hour, go into another meeting that lasted all afternoon. It’s only after 5 that their real work day begins, and it’s midnight before they can go home. Seven Conferences shows just how this schedule works and paints a precise if unflattering, portrait of a large Japanese manufacturer. From scene one, it has you fidgeting with painful discomfort and/or traumatic workplace flashbacks. Based on the same titled novel by Jun Ikeido (master of drawing dysfunctions in the Japanese corporate world) Seven Conferences is thought provoking without getting preachy, in spite of the frequent allusions to power harassment and ‘karoshi/過労死 (death from overwork).’ The movie opened before the Work Style Reforms kicked in, and the experience may be a bit like watching a dinosaur (the big, cumbersome Japanese electronics company) kick and struggle before dying, giving into a new age where putting in insane hours isn’t a guarantee for anything.
Editor note: The so-called Work Style Reforms set a cap at overtimes hours of 100 per month, 20 more than what the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare considered the danger line for death by overwork. Flaws in the law make it possible for people to be made to work even longer hours.
5) 人間失格 (Ningen Shikkaku) – No Longer Human Novelist Osamu Dazai really had his moment in 2019. No Longer Human – a fictional biopic of Dazai’s last days in which he consorted with two mistresses while keeping his wife and children firmly on the sidelines – pushed his name back into the Japanese consciousness. Dazai died in 1948 at age of 38, in a double suicide with one of his lovers. His last work Ningen Shikkaku, was published posthumously, and this movie suggests he was collecting material for his next book with excessive drug-taking and philandering, and wound up pushing his luck a little too far. Filmmaker Mika Ninagawa is behind this bittersweet eye-candy of a movie, painting in bold strokes the desperation and addiction that defined Dazai’s (played by an excellent Shun Oguri) personality. Dazai also understood women in a way that no Japanese author has ever quite grasped (looking at you, Haruki Murakami) and the movie comes off as a deeply respectful tribute to that insight.
If you missed last year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters here’s another opportunity to see filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda in action. Kore-eda’s latest is Shinjitsu (international title: The Truth),which marks a celebratory first foray into working with an international cast and staff. And what a cast: the leads are French femme fatale extraordinaire(s) Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, joined by American indies icon Ethan Hawke.
Don’t let the Kanji character title fool you – nothing about “Shinjitsu is even remotely Japanese. To my relief and Kore-eda’s credit, he’s not pandering to western ideas of ‘Japanese-ness’ here, Not even a mention of a sushi restaurant. And he never shows signs that he’s a bit awed by the exalted figures walking around on his set. He simply goes about doing what he does best, which is portraying women in the family circle. (He does that with men too, but with women his gaze is warmer and far less analytical.) The filmmaker is especially adept at observing the emotional tug-of-war that inevitably erupts between older mothers and middle-aged daughters, the gentle power-mongering between husbands and wives, or the family matriarch quietly exerting her influence on the rest of her family. In Shoplifters, Kore-eda paid special attention and tribute to Kirin Kiki who starred as a sly, feisty old woman on the brink of destitution, surrounded by a family that subsisted on theft and shoplifting. Kiki died last year at the age of 75, – the same age that Catherine Deneuve is now. Kore-eda has said in interviews that he finds older women fascinating, not just because of the lifetime of stories they harbor but because they don’t capitulate easily to his directions, and has their own opinions.
With Catherine Deneuve in Shinjitsu, Kore-eda’s gaze lingers long and lovingly over the stunningly smooth contours of her face. When she speaks, everyone else falls silent, as Kore-eda makes sure she commands the kind of attention usually reserved for royalty. But then, pourquoi pas? Deneuve is probably the closest presence to royalty in France anyway. If Marie Antoinette were around to see Deneuve, she would probably be a fan.
In this, Deneuve plays Fabienne, a veteran French actress who has been estranged from her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) for years. But now her daughter, son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) has arrived in Paris from New York where they live, ostensibly to celebrate the publishing of Fabienne’s autobiography. From the beginning scenes when Lumir, Hank and Charlotte are rolling their suitcases across Fabienne’s large garden to get to her house, everyone’s nerves are on edge. Lumir is worried about what her mother may have wrote about her, and pissed off that Fabienne hadn’t sent her the galleys, even though she had promised. Hank – a TV actor, is uneasy about the fact that his wife pays most of the bills (Lumir is a screenwriter) and he doesn’t speak French. Even 7-year old Charlotte is apprehensive about meeting “grandmere,” as she understands that Fabienne isn’t your typical doting grandma. Indeed, Fabienne’s reception to the trio is cool and matter of fact, devoid of frilly dramatics that can accompany family reunions.
Lumir and her family is set to stay for a week, and Kore-eda traces each day with meticulous attention to detail. Fabienne is working on a movie – a sci-fi film about a mother who never grows old, but can only see her daughter once every 7 years. Lumir ponders over the wealth of meaning in that premise, while Fabienne just wants to get into the role and be good at it. Everyday, mother, daughter and granddaughter drive together to the film set and Lumir learns to put her initial animosity aside to look after her mom and enjoy her time there. Back at home, Fabienne’s current live-in boyfriend makes all the meals and her long-time secretary Luc arranges all her business affairs. Clearly, Fabienne hasn’t lost her allure to men; they flock around her like bugs to an incandescent light bulb. Even Lumir’s vagabond dad Pierre puts in an appearance. And one night when Fabienne kisses Hank good night, he becomes giddy enough to tell his wife all about it.
In the midst of it all, Lumir’s old resentments toward her mother come tumbling out of her emotional closet, but mother and daughter have both reached a point when they know that arguments won’t change anything – least of all, Fabienne. “I was never a good mother, but I am a splendid actress which is far more important,” says Fabienne at one point. Deneuve wears that line like a queen draping a long fur coat, and damn what the animal activists might say. (In the film, Fabienne walks her dog in leopard skin, the irony of which goes right over her head.) And Lumir turns her face away, and you can see she’s trying to hide a smile as if to say, “that is SO my mother.” It’s odd, eclectic moments like these that Kore-eda loves to depict; and no doubt it wouldn’t have gone over so lightly had the cast been Japanese. Family relations on the archipelago tend to be weighty, accelerated by decades of sameness and continuity. Kore-eda frequently punches a hole in that schematic, and he proceeded to tear that wide open in Shoplifters.
However, in Shinjitsu, and in Paris, Kore-eda seems to breathe easier, untethered by conventions, with a lot less to rebel against or prove. Apparently, the man doesn’t speak French beyond a few mundane phrases and the screenplay (written by him) was adapted into French by Lea Le Dimna. He made the whole thing mostly on gut-feeling and intuition and in many ways, Shinjitsu is his best work. Will he leave Japan to become a full-fledged international director? After Shinjitsu, that seems a likely scenario, which means the Japanese film industry will just have to carry on without him. What a devastating loss.
Julie Yukiko (雪子) Buisson aka Ukico has much in common with Snow-White, other than just her name, which literally means “child of the snow”—she is charming, peaceful, a beautiful woman with alabaster skin and blessed with an ethereal singing voice that calms the spirits of men and animals; she is enchanting. Her first song, Denial, and the surreal mystical music video for it were released on September 11.
She was born to a Japanese mother and French father and grew up in Paris. You could say she has made the best of her bicultural heritage, touching upon her roots to become a successful model and now a songwriter and singer. Her French-Japanese visage and sense of style helped her have a successful international modeling career.However, she has much more depth than her surface appearances, and that is part of her appeal.
Ukico (pronounced You-Key-Koh) was studying at the University La Sorbonne while pursuing her modeling career after high school. What sparked her interest in singing and songwriting was the death of her grandmother.
When she passed away, Ukico, wrote a poem as a eulogy, which she showed to her father—and to her surprise, he wept.
“It moved my father to cry and it showed me how to paint a picture with words. He still reads the poem, sometimes.” She felt the power of words come to life.
She had often thought about becoming a singer/songwriter but lacked confidence in her ability to compose or to voice her emotions musically. But seeing her father’s response stirred something inside of her.
“It was a wake-up call. I had always dreamed of studying and living in New York and pursuing music. I love so many different genres and singers. Everything from Massive Attack, to Little Dragon, to Lana Del Rey.”
The song writing of Fiona Apple was particularly inspirational to her.
To pursue her musical career more seriously she entered a music engineering school in NYC, The Institute of Audio Research. After graduating salutatorian, she interned at the recording studio Strange Weather based in Brooklyn.
She was given an opportunity to work on the production of 36 Seasons by Ghosface Killah. She also put in time at the world famous jazz club Birdland, live mixing for the Grammy Award winning band The Afro Latin Jazz orchestra, and other jazz acts.
While in New York, she experienced the loneliness, alienation and emotional struggles that come with life in the Big Apple.
She sought refuge in spiritual disciplines, yoga and meditation, eventually becoming adept enough to guide others.. Meditation and yoga are still a huge part of her life, and perhaps what gives her an aura of warm serenity—not the chilly vibe you’d expect from a snow woman.
During her time in New York, she was also taken under the wing of Justyn Pilbrow, a respected music producer who has handled major acts such as Halsey and The Neighbourhood.
After leaving New York and coming back to Japan she also became more interested in her own Japanese background and traditional music. It provided her with some solace as
She continued to work with Justyn Pilbrow and was also able to collaborate on musical pieces with Japanese virtuosos of Koto (Japanese lute), Shamisen, Shakuhachi (windpipes) and the Taiko (Japanese drum).
Her first single, Denial, has instrumentation featuring the shakuhachi and taiko. “The shakuhachi is such a beautiful instrument—it can express so much pain and tension.”
The video of the song is based on the story of Japan’s creation, as told in the Kojiki, a classic of ancient Japanese literature. The creation of the world starts with the first two existing Gods Izanagi (male God) and Izanami (female God). After forming Japan’s islands they gave birth to other gods—the god of the wind, seas, and more. But Izanami, after giving birth to the God of Fire dies from the trauma and fatal wounds. Her spirit goes down to the underworld. Izanagi who misses her terribly, decides to descend to the underworld to bring her back—like Japan’s own Orpheus.
The video, using Butoh dancers, brings to life the myth of creation, death and renewal. But what is the song about on a personal level? Fasting? Living without material goods? Denial of French culture, or Japanese culture?
Ukico answers, “It is a song about breaking up and the end of love. But it is a bit more than that. I was protecting my heart, not to fall in love again. I was in denial of closing my heart when I started to write it. But also there was underlying denial that I am mad at somebody.
But the real denial in the song is that I am angry at myself. It is because of myself, because of how I am choosing how to deal with things that the suffering comes. And there is some wisdom and transmutative power in understanding that.”
Certain facts of life we know to be true. The tide will turn. The sun will rise. Hayao Miyazaki is the god of Japanese anime. Still, the throne may be ready for a shakedown – or even a partial step down on the part of Miyazaki. Anime filmmaker extraordinaire Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) has blown a huge hole in the fortress of Miyazaki’s storied production company Studio Ghibli, with his latest: Tenki no Ko (International Title: ‘Weathering With You’).” It’s a semi-utopian spin on the dismally dystopian subject of climate change, and the ending has instigated a controversial firestorm on social media. The question at the eye of the storm is this: “Should we forgive the protagonists for putting their personal happiness before the greater good?”
Though the verdict is still out, my guess is that Hayao Miyazaki would probably say a loud “no way”. As the ultra-stoic-but-always-benevolent tyrant of Japanese anime, he has consistently sacrificed his characters’ romantic inclinations to “much bigger things,” as he once said in an interview – i.e., the benefit or survival, of human society. In a Miyazaki story, boy and girl will get to meet but they will never get together, as there are much bigger things at stake.
In Weathering With You the Tokyo metropolitan area is locked into a rainy season that won’t go away. No one has felt the feeblest of sunshine or glimpsed a patch of blue sky for months. The only exit out of this perpetual wetness seems to lie in the hands of a pretty teenage girl named Hina (voiced by Nana Mori) Her sort-of-boyfriend Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) is sort of her boyfriend, because they don’t exchange so much as a kiss–gleans Hina’s secret power. Initially, he advises Hina to cash in by starting a fair weather business and Hina agrees to go on social media and advertise her abilities as the “good weather girl”. Soon, orders for good weather start pouring in and Hina is summoned to a barbecue party here, a sports event there, or even an ancestral ritual at an old lady’s home. The money’s not bad either, and as Hina’s little brother Nagi (voiced by Sakura Kiryu) joins in, the trio start to feel like a cozy little family.
Sixteen-year old Hodaka is too shy to admit his love for Hina–especially since she has informed him that her 18th birthday is coming up and therefore, she’s way too old for a kid like him. That doesn’t stop Hodaka from going online and researching the perfect birthday gift, which he buys with the money he made with Hina. All this will most certainly elicit stern disapproval from their parents but thankfully, there are no such people in Weathering With You. Hodaka has run away, from home and parents left behind on one of the Izu islands scattered along the Pacific. Hina’s mother died a short while ago and she is supporting Nagi in a tiny apartment near Shinjuku. First, she was on the night shift at a McDonald’s and when that didn’t work out, she made a half-hearted attempt to become a porn actress before Hodaka pulled her back.
All the while, the rain never stops.
Fans of Shinkai know dark skies and heavy rains are a big part of his m.o. Plus, the precise, almost photographic depictions of Tokyo’s train stations (mostly the Yamanote line) and streets, especially in the Shinjuku area. Weathering With You has ample portions of both – the story opens on rain-soaked streets, inky puddles and the lesser known alleyways in the Yoyogi neighborhood. When Hina clenches her fingers and prays to the heavens, the clouds part, exposing a glorious patch of azure sky and splendid slants of sunshine. People put their umbrellas away to look up with a smile, and Hodaka rightly observes that “it’s amazing how good you feel when it’s cleared up.”
The contrast of bad weather and good, is one of the factors that propel the story forward – you get a feeling of how badly people need the sun, and what lengths they will go to get it.
The implication is that Tokyoites are ready to sacrifice Hina on the altar of blue skies, even if they’re only very vaguely aware of her powers or even her presence. In the movie, Hina is a ghostly figure whispered about on the Net, and her abilities are never totally understood. The terrible truth is that the more Hina makes good weather happen, the less there is of her own self; her trade-off with fine weather is her own, physical existence.
One morning when Hodaka wakes up, she’s gone without a trace, save for the bathrobe she was wearing the night before.
(SPOILER ALERT: That is nowhere near the ending for Hina or Hodaka、so don’t let this review make you feel like we’ve ruined the movie. ↖)
In reality, Japan braces itself for a rainy season (usually occuring at the beginning of June and lasting four to five weeks) that wreaks havoc on many areas across the archipelago. This year, southwestern Japan was flooded by torrential rains and in Fukuoka city, trucks and cars were submerged in rainwater while soil erosion led to landslides that caused thousands of people to lose their homes. Tokyo wasn’t as bad but enough water came down to partially shut down public transportation and delay construction on Olympic facilities.
In Weathering With You rainfall spells dire consequences for the metropolis as entire neighborhoods disappear underwater and mighty architectural monuments like the Rainbow Bridge, become steeped in water. Still, as a sage old woman in the movie remarks, “It’s all right, Tokyo has gone back to its natural state. That’s all this is.” Indeed, the Japanese capital is a 400-year old artificial island made on a landfill and the greater part of Shinjuku as we know it today, used to be swampland. If we can live with that, surely we can live with Hina getting to have a life of her own, and maybe, eventually–perhaps–falling in love with Hodaka. And the greater good be damned.
Japan Subculture Research Center asked Elizaveta to explain why she wrote the song and for the lyrics to the song. Here is what she had to say.
I wrote “Meet Again” not long after finding out about the tragic fire at Kyoto Animation. I had met some people from KyoAni, although just very casually, through a network of animators and visual artists I am occasionally part of, when in Tokyo.…
I was hoping to be able to tour the studio and visit their shop, when visiting Kyoto next. I was also aware of their positive reputation, as they were known for being an employee-friendly company in an industry, which often overworks and underpays animators. They had a lot of women working for them, too, which was unusual, and a breath of fresh air.
In the hours and days following the tragedy, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened, and following the news, which just got more and more grim.
The contrast between the beautiful, hopeful art produced by KyoAni and what happened to them, was very hard to reconcile with. I am not a starry-eyed optimist,
but I do prefer to believe that good things happen to those who put out good things into the world. While I know it’s a naive worldview, it’s better than the alternative. This event, though, was not an accident, but an act of deliberate evil. All circumstances aligned for it to be as awful as could be. It was incredibly hard for me to accept it as reality. There had been no magic hero to save the day, and nothing to soften the blow. Kyoto is a peaceful, mystical city of a few thousand temples. But no deity stepped in to offer protection.
Once you accept that something terrible like this happened and there’s no way to explain it, you must allow for healing to start, or at least attempt to get on the path towards it. I can’t even start to imagine the pain and trauma of those who had gone through this experience and survived are now having to deal, and probably for years to come. My heart also goes out to those who got the call that day to find out their loved ones were no longer with them. Furthermore, the trauma to KyoAni fans around the world may not have been as direct, but it’s real nonetheless. When you make art, those who love and consume it, become believers of the things your art brings into the world. For KyoAni fans, it would have been beauty, hope and harmony. A tragedy such as this one kills faith that the world is in any way fair and a worthwhile place to be part of.
I wrote “Meet Again” the day I went to the recording studio, and the song practically wrote itself. I heard it in my head, and the lyrics came to be just minutes before I walked out to catch the train. This recording is the first take, which we recorded and filmed. It wasn’t quite perfect in a couple of places, and so I did another take, but I had a hard time singing then, because I was too close to tears. And so I made the decision to keep the first take, as it was, and record no more.
I wrote this song as a way to heal myself, even though I was just a bystander of this tragedy. I hope it may serve as a source of healing to others affected by it. I still have hope and faith. There are so many things we do not know, and so much happens every day, which makes it hard to take heart and carry on. But carry on we must, and help those around us do so, too.
I don’t remember when I got the call that day They said you were no more And then the ground gave way
I sat and cried all night Still hoping they’d been wrong A part of me had died How could I carry on
As sunrise painted red Inside my sleepless eyes Still lying on my bed I thought I heard a voice
It sounded like my love A distant precious sound But there was not a soul That I could see around
I know you’re still with me In other shape or form Our union has survived A deadly firestorm
And when I look above I can transcend the pain Soar high with me, my love I know we’ll meet again.
何時のことか 覚えてない もういないと 立ち尽くした
泣き明かした まちがいだと 身を裂かれて 歩みようも
夜明けの赤 腫れ目を染め 伏せたままで 聞こえたのは
君のような 遠くの音 影ひとつも 見えないのに
今も そばに 形を変え つながりだけ 焼け残った
仰ぎ見ては 痛みを超え 君を連れて また会うまで あの高みへ また会うまで
Born in USA, Russian-raised Elizaveta made her debut on Universal Records (US) in 2012. Since then she became the voice of the Tavern Bard in Dragon Age, has toured USA, Russia and Europe, was a repeat guest performer at the main TED stage, and released a number of multi-lingual recordings, heard in multiple films and TV series. She produced and released an all-Japanese language duet album Mezameru Riyuu earlier this year, followed by a 16-city tour of Japan.
Shinbun Kisha (The Journalist) is getting great box office and rave reviews, belying the myth that a Japanese movie about newsrooms and politics just won’t cut it. Based on the bestselling autobiography by audacious Tokyo Shinbun (東京新聞) reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalist is a suspense thriller about how the titular woman journalist dared go after the government to unveil conspiracies and cover-ups. Infuriatingly, most of her male colleagues are intent on adhering to the status quo. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat from ‘Naicho’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident.
“All Japan needs is a mere facade of democracy,” goes a line in this movie, implying that the nation neither needs or wants the real deal.
But now, with the House of Councillors election happening on Sunday, politics is on many peoples’ minds, including millennials that had shown zero interest in the past. Tickets in 42 theaters have sold out and the movie’s distributors announced that they will be printing 10,000 new copies of The Journalist pamphlet, as they’ve been selling off the shelves in theaters across Japan. Next week, the two main cast members will appear on stage at a theater in Shinjuku, to take their bows and answer questions from the audience. It looks like politics and newsrooms are a winning combination!
The Journalist is gripping, wrenching and ultimately cathartic, even if the plucky heroine doesn’t oust the evil government agents or get an enormous raise for her efforts. No, what happens is that news hound Erica Yoshioka (played by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung), after a series of grueling assignments that require round-the-clock investigating, not to mention the actual writing –gets to keep her job so she can start the cycle all over again in the name of quality journalism. Yoshioka also keeps her dignity and integrity intact, which is much more than one can say for Japanese movies about professional women, or let’s face it, women protagonists in general.
The role of Erica Yoshioka is gutsy and intriguing and you can’t help but wonder why a Japanese actress didn’t snap it up. Rumors are going around that all the possible candidates had turned it down because they didn’t want to get involved in anything anti-government and were afraid of the backlash. Shim can return to South Korea, but Japanese actresses have to live and work here.
Personally, I’ll take what I can get, and bask in the fact that The Journalist got made at all. Usually, such projects never get off the ground. Not only does The Journalist dig at some old scars the current Administration would rather forget, it bears the hallmarks of a well-meaning dud. There is no love story. There are no sex scenes or girl idols to alleviate the complete seriousness of the proceedings. And the director, Michihito Fujii, is only 32 years old with no blockbusters on his resume. Initially, Fujii turned down the offer of director since, as he professed in an online interview, “I didn’t know anything about politics or the news.” Still, once he signed on, Fujii did the research, hit the books and lined up interviews with government officials. The story benefits from his efforts but the directing seems just a tad stiff and two-dimensional. Perhaps Fujii was too caught up in the material to do more than connect the dots, albeit with meticulous expertise.
As it is, The Journalists belong to Shim and Tohri Matsuzaka who plays Sugihara, the elite bureaucrat working for ‘Naicho’. They give their all to film and Matsuzaka has been commended on social media for taking on a “dangerous” role that could potentially give him a bad name (the anti-government name).
Compared to Shim’s Yoshioka, Sugihara is more nuanced and inwardly tortured. His job is to protect the current administration and make sure the press don’t get their hands on any problematic information, but he has his misgivings. When his boss commits suicide to cover up another cover-up, Sugihara is shaken.
(Editor’s note–this is based on the suicide of a Finance Ministry official who killed himself rather than take part in deleting or altering government documents that implicated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a scandal relating to a government land-sale to a right-wing elementary school, run by his crony. None of the other officials who participated in forging public documents, which is a criminal offense, were charged; the female prosecutor who dropped the case was promoted)
The boss’s last words to Sugihara had been “don’t end up like me,” and Sugihara can’t fathom whether that meant “don’t die” or “don’t get involved in anything bad.” For a Naicho bureaucrat, the two most likely mean the same thing. Matsuzaka is a revelation – he has always been good but The Journalist shows his range. Last year, he was doing sex scenes ad nauseum in Call Boy and here, he never even takes off his jacket.
A word about Shim as Yoshioka: in the movie, her character has a Japanese father and a Korean mother, hence her accent when she speaks Japanese. Yoshioka completely lives for her job, to the point of excluding everything else from her life. It turns out that her father (also a journalist) had killed himself over an incident involving fake news. As his daughter, she had vowed to pursue the truth, whatever the cost. Shim’s performance is excellent, and one can only hope there will be a future where Japanese actresses will go for roles like this – far, far away from the planet of ‘Kawaii’.
In real life, there aren’t a whole lot of women journalists working for Japanese newspapers. Many don’t make it past the first five years; what with the long hours combined with frequent transfers to regional branches, incidents of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and of course, that thick glass ceiling – the job doesn’t exactly encourage them to stay on.
Isoko Mochizuki, the author of the book on which the film is based, however, is changing the scenery. As mentioned above, she’s a veteran reporter for Tokyo Shinbun which is famed for its hard-hitting investigative journalism and for being the Abe Administration’s most vocal critic. Her frequent cross questioning of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has ripped a big hole in Japan’s infamous ‘kisha club’ system (where only the reporters of major newspapers are allowed to attend closed press conferences). And now, with the unexpected success of The Journalist, perhaps we can start discussing hard-hitting issues like democracy and freedom of the press. Who’s to say the Japanese don’t need it ? They seem to love films that bring up these issues.
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.