A priority item on the agenda of the first Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Iyeyasu when he seized power in 1603, was to limit foreign travel to Japan. He issued several orders like the ones we’re seeing around the world at this moment: urging the Japanese to stay put in their own communities and urging all foreigners to get the hell out. By foreigners, Iyeyasu specifically meant the European missionaries who were spreading ideas – like a virus! – about an omnipotent God that transcended traditional Japanese values. They also extolled the virtues of non-violence and giving to the poor; two factors that the new Shogun viewed as particularly harmful to his authority. The ‘aliens’ had to go, and those who didn’t, were eventually executed or banished to Dejima Island, off the coast of Nagasaki. Iyeyasu’s son and grandson tightened the screws on the lockdown as they in turn, became the Shogun. Japan effectively bolted its doors to the outside world and Sakoku*・鎖国(shutting down the country)’ went into effect.
Initially, other clan lords were skeptical about this sakoku thing. Before Iyeyasu came along, Japan had a fairly robust import/export system, supported by a prosperous merchant class in Osaka. Without inbound travelers and foreign business, these merchants were sunk, as was the burgeoning currency economy. But Iyeyasu shrugged off their complaints and worries. He chose reclusive isolation over commerce and progress, and for the next 265 years, Japan became a ‘hikikomori (shut-in)’ in the global community. Everything passed us by: the Industrial Revolution and the locomotive, colonialism and corsets, Mozart and coffee, the printing press and chocolate. Everything.
*Writer’s Note – Contrary to the belief that the Tokugawa Shogunate coined the term ‘sakoku’ which literally means a ‘country in chains,’ it was actually invented by German explorer Engelbert Kaempfer in the late 17th century and later translated into Japanese.
In the meantime, the Japanese got a lot of practice on keeping calm and carrying on behind closed doors, in spite of or because of everything happening in the larger world. Sure, sakoku sucked in a hundred ways but it also created a uniquely weird culture that continues to enthrall or amuse people all over the world. Iyeyasu’s capital city of Edo – now called Tokyo, was a haven of stability and prosperity with an unparalleled ecological and recycling system.
The sakoku mind-set made all this possible – a willful and deliberate closing of the shutters to the outside world while making sure that plenty went on inside. Call it aloofness, coldness or a thick-skinned pragmatism. In times like this, such traits can come in pretty handy.
You may have heard that the Japanese aren’t very expressive – well that’s just not true. The Japanese are THE LEAST expressive people in Asia which probably makes us the most rigid people on the planet. Long before this virus thing the Japanese have been wearing masks – as a prevention against all ills including a bad skin day and questionable breath. The mask was also fashionable among teenage girls, as hiding their mouths made them feel more attractive. (Kissing with masks was a real thing in the early aughts too, because many young couples deemed it erotic.) We were also adamant about washing hands, gargling and refusing to eat off communal plates.
Smiling and laughing in public, talking to strangers, physical displays of affection – these things are normal in western cultures but they’ve never taken off here unless it became a fad. Like being friendly to foreigners and embracing diversity was a fad that many Japanese felt pressured into doing because hey, globalism and the Olympics 2020. But now COVID-19 has given the Japanese a very good reason to go back to the way we were. Unrelenting, inexpressive, rigid and distanced. It’s all cool. Show me a person with a secret stash of face masks and 30 rolls of toilet paper and I’ll show you a model Japanese citizen.
As for touching one another, it’s a whole other issue unto itself. The Japanese just don’t do this, and never had. Though many of us love the idea of casual cheek kisses a la Francaise, we just couldn’t muster the courage to try it on a Tokyo street. Now, we don’t have to pretend anymore. Social distancing may be a new and scary concept for the west but to us, it’s very familiar, like our parents to whom we pay the obligatory visit over New Year’s.
Speaking of which, I don’t ever remember being hugged by my late father, who devoted much of his life to wedging a good, 1.7 meter distance between himself and the rest of the world. It wasn’t just him of course, many Japanese males can’t bring themselves to get close to anyone they know, which paradoxically explains why there’s so much groping on the trains. But the virus has resolved that snag–what with schools closed and people ordered to work remotely, the morning trains are far less crowded and consist mostly of masked salarymen clutching phones with one hand and briefcases in the other, studiously avoiding all eye and physical contact.
You might say the Japanese are good at this. There is little of the sense of deprivation and loneliness that say, an American person might feel about the loss of casual physical contact. We’re not touching, we’re not smiling, but who’s to say we’re not having fun underneath our face masks?
Editor’s Note: And judging by the hanami crowds this weekend and in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s “Let’s go outside!” admonitions, it seems like Japan’s 鎖国（sakoku ) period may end very soon.
Just for the record, while big concerts and public events are not happening, there’s still plenty going on in Tokyo and most restaurants and department stores have stayed open. Other venues include:
1) Shinjuku Gyoen Park Located in Sendagaya, this place is heavenly for a stroll among the greenery and themed gardens.
Are you looking for something to do that might help you meet people, create art, and perhaps get to know your date a little better? Then come Lime this Sunday.
“Lime”- A Caribbean word meaning “Hang out” or “a relaxed gathering”.
Add painting and you have “Lime and Paint.
Come join (Lee-Ann), hang out in a artsy colorful environment, learn a little about some amazing artists, and create your own art piece while enjoying drink of your choice
You’ll create your individual painting with a partner. Perfect for date/ friend/ family night.
If you wish to fly solo also doable. Come make a new friend or bring one. A drink of choice as usual is included and after you may purchase others throughout the evening, mingle with people, paint, laugh and enjoy the artistic lime. Appetizers should be ordered at the start so they will be ready for the break. Thank you.
For those who don’t know Lee-Ann’s background, she’s been an artist at large for over a decade, specialized in glass art for nine years now, and has taught art for over 14 years in Japan. She’s warm and witty and a wonderful guide for would be artists and those who need to brush up.
Doors Open: 16:00 – Come in, Relax and meet new friends
16:30 START- We will have a brief introduction on glass art and then get right into our creation.
There will be a break in which you can get more drinks.
Finish our masterpiece. 19:00/ 19:30 clean up and END but please feel free to stay and Lime a.k.a socialize
No experience necessary!
Come Join The Fun! All the details for booking are below.
. Once confirmed I will prepare the materials for you. We can’t confirm a spot until payment is made.
Japan Post Bank Branch number 17730 Account number 9942301 ハスラム リーアン
SHINSEI BANK Branch 柏 (Kashiwa) Account number 0321491 Account Type 普通 Lee-Ann Haslam
【料金】大人 3 options. All include one drink ticket. A. ￥5000 per Adult- includes a paint board/ canvas (your choice), paint, brushes etc. Just come as is everything will be provided.
B. ￥4000 per Adult- for those fellow artists who have their own brushes, paints and paint board/ canvas.
*kid friendly but please let me know so I can prepare.
Discount available for parent and child and couples, please ask.
Everyone is unique and each painting will reflect that. Let’s embrace it. Have fun, talk, laugh, Drink, create.
・絵画レッスン ・ワイン（白、赤 etc…） The painting lesson with a glass of Red or White wine (or other alcohol of your choice from a list provided) OR ・(コーヒー、お茶、ジュース etc… ）For those drinking Non-alcoholic Beverages coffee, tea, juice etc…
・絵のお持ち帰り . Take home your own art piece
Any questions please feel free to message me.
*Strict no refund policy. You may attend the next event.
Johnna Slaby is an abstract painter, from Osaka, Japan who’s work is gaining attention nationwide. Her paintings are evocative of some of the best artists of the genre, with a Nippon twist. She is also the twin sister of photographer, Reylia Slaby,
Join her at Look Close Look Far, an exhibit of works on paper and canvas that incorporate text, gestural marks and imagery from a day in the life.
Johnna works to mirror her own experiences and the elements she finds in her surroundings through the current series. Through the work there is an emphasis on how stories can be unfolded by both stepping back and taking a closer look; whether that be observing how morning light that enters the room, glancing up at the commuters on the train, or examining serendipitous moments in an everyday setting.
Eating vegan (a diet containing no animal products whatsoever) in Japan can be frustrating, given that most Japanese don’t seem to have even have the word “vegetarian,” let alone “vegan,” in their vocabulary. Even in Tokyo, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, dashi (bonito fish flake stock/seasoning) seems to be in almost everything– from miso soup to potato chips. The “Impossible Burger” hasn’t quite made it to Japan.
Oftentimes, even the menus at veggie-forward restaurants (often with names that include the words “farmer” or “yasai,” meaning vegetable) are mostly meat-centric dishes with some organic veggies on the side. While culturally, eating vegan hasn’t hit the mainstream in Japan quite yet due to various reasons, the vegan restaurants that do exist here are high quality and often very cozy and inviting.
Below are four 100% vegan restaurants in or near Tokyo that I encourage you to try, or would encourage anyone to try. They are all quite different in terms of location and type of food, but the one thing that they all have in common is value — and the safety of knowing you are eating in a place that knows what it means to be vegan.
Located in Jiyugaoka, one of my favorite neighborhoods, is known for its trendy vibes and romantic streets, Saido (meaning vegetable street) is truly a hidden gem. After walking through a lush garden, expect to be greeted by a very cheerful and friendly Japanese woman. She will explain the menu to you in detail, giving suggestions (osusume) along the way. At lunch time, for about 2,000 yen you will receive a three-course meal that comes with soup, a gastronomic wonder of a salad that emits smoke when opened, and then the main course. Choose from one of the many noodle dishes (e.g. yakisoba, abura soba, ramen, tsukemen), unagi-don, katsu-don, or curry.
2 Chome-15-10 Jiyugaoka, Meguro City, Tokyo 152-0035
Closest Station: Jiyugaoka
Olu Olu Cafe A somewhat cluttered, homey Hawaii-inspired 100% vegan restaurant in the Sangenjaya neighborhood near Shibuya. Their menu is quite varied, with choices from hot fried (soy-based) chicken to ramen.
The jambalaya there is one to write home about– or write an article about. Flavorful, subtly spicy, quality mock meat, and not too oily. All main course meals are from 900-1,200 yen, and portions are fairly large.
Once you’re done eating, head outside and walk around the area. There are plenty of parks, coffee shops, and clothing stores to be explored.
1 Chome-11-1 Ikejiri, Setagaya City, Tokyo 154-0001
Closest Station: Sangenjaya
Kousaiken Gu Since this restaurant is actually in Kamakura, it’s technically outside of Tokyo. Get on a train and go to the beach when you’re done. Even if you don’t go to the beach, it’s worth the trip thanks to its charm and quality.
It is almost hidden, located just up the street from the crowded beaches of Kamakura in a very quiet and residential neighborhood.
The restaurant has a mix of Japanese and Indian food with very limited seating– one inside and two outside seating area (with covering). The family who owns it originally operated the restaurant out of Nerima-ku in Tokyo, but moved it to Kamakura in 2017 where they have been running it ever since. They are very friendly and love to chat in English, so it’s a great place for tourists looking to take a break from kanji-riddled menus and staff with limited English abilities. For 2,000 JPY, one can get soup, a large vegetable plate, curry, rice + puri, dessert, and tea. I was blown away by the value. My favorite was the vegetable plate, which came with about 10 different types of vegetables, all cooked in different ways.
Conveniently located in Shibuya, it’s a tiny place with only two staff members including the chef.
This is meant to be a traditional Japanese restaurant vegan-ized. They serve up karaage, seasonal veggie dishes, curry, miso soup, and more. If going for dinner, I recommend the couple deli plate for two. It includes a sampling of all of their different dishes for just 4,200 yen.
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.”
Japanese theatres offer a wide variety of performances, but Youth Theatre Japan (YTJ) offers the younger generations a chance to perform on the same stages as the pros that they admire. And, don’t think for a minute that they are simply just kids on stage, these young musically inclined talents spend countless hours honing their skills at YTJ auditioning for a role. Then only best out of hundreds of hopefuls are chosen, and from there they go into intensive dance, acting, and vocal training to be ready for the stage.
YTJ believes that through performing arts youth are able to grow and develop into stronger individuals who are able to clearly communicate their thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. Thus, Members at YTJ are constantly learning new skills, practicing their English during lessons, and getting ready for showcases. By use of Partnership, Project, and Performance YTJ-staff remind members to focus on the whys behind each new skill and task that they are required to learn.
YTJ staff help members understand the importance of setting goals, learning a new skill, trying their best, and moving forward with passion. All while helping members learn to communicate and express themselves through song, dance, and interpersonal skills. As Youth Theatre Japan`s mission to provide innovative, creative and positive youth development through a fusion of “Entertainment” and “Education”. YTJ staff treat each child as an equal partner to help them develop a deeper sense of pride in their roles at YTJ and build up their self-esteem.
Over the past 10 years YTJ has successfully blended “Education” and “Entertainment” into their company and now has 35 studios and over 8,000 members in the Kanto, Kansai and Chubu areas. In addition to producing musicals they also host the Japan Youth Dance Festival.
Their next production will be the YTJ Alice in Wonderland Jukebox Musical! Please check the dates below for a show near you!
YTJ’s talented performers will be performing each song in English. This event is family friendly and please be sure to come dressed in your best Wonderland attire. There will be a special prize for a lucky guest who reads the Queen’s Decrees on the Alice Official Site or English Facebook Page and comes wearing the special item she requested! Tickets are 6,000 per person, be sure to reserve your seat at the tea party of the year.
Then later on this summer come follow Kaito and his friends! Jump and sing along as they embark on an adventure that helps bridge cultural gaps through music. During the journey they will learn more about themselves and the world around them they build up new interest in other cultures and diversity. This musical features popular songs from around the world performed in English. Tickets are on sale now and only cost 6,000 per person. Please follow the link for more information and to see showtimes and location https://show.ytj.gr.jp/info/worldmusic.
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.
Want to talk about movies? From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time. On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.
Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.
1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.
2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992 Directed by Juzo Itami
In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.
As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery.
One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’ The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.
5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami
Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.”
Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.
Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience.
7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008 Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.
Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.
8) 北野武監督 HANA-BI 1997年
Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face.
In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.
Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.
9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012 Directed by Mika Ninagawa
Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.
10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014 Directed by Naomi Kawase
Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach.
Text & video by Phoebe Amoroso, cover image courtesy of Kanamara Shrine
Our roving reporter, Pheebz, visited the annual Kanamara Festival on April 7th, which involves a lot of phalluses. The Kanamara Shrine (literally, “Metal Penis Shrine”) is where people pray for sexual health and fertility.
What’s the story behind this upstanding event? Watch the video below to peel back the mythological foreskin and get to the root of the matter.
The festival has its roots in local sex workers praying
for protection against sexually-transmitted infections, but in recent years, it
has come to represent LGBTQ and diversity with profits going towards HIV
Quite rightly, however, many have pointed out the hypocrisy inherent
in a country, which made international headlines for condemning vagina art by Megumi
Igarashi, better known as Rokudenashiko. Who was arrested on obscenity charges
for distributing 3D data of her vagina that she used to 3D print a vagina canoe
as part of her work.
Yet the obscenity of the flagrant double standards
provokes discussion, and an event that promotes inclusivity is worth
celebrating in a notoriously conservative society.
Many festival attendees are likely satisfied with pure spectatorship and sucking on phallic-shaped candy, and that’s fine too. But for maximum enjoyment, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the legend of a SAVAGE VAGINA DEMON (you read that right).
One legend has it that a beautiful woman was plagued by a jealous demon, who hid in her vagina and killed Husband Number 1 by biting off his penis. Husband Number 2 met a similar fate. Dismayed, she enlisted the help of a local blacksmith who seems to have been really chill about dealing with vagina demons. He made her a metal phallus, which she inserted. The demon, of course, bit it, but he broke his teeth and fled. Presumably she lived happily ever after, especially since she had her own personal metal phallus.
Everyone knows there is a dark side to journalism. If they don’t, they just haven’t worked the job long enough. It’s even darker when you work for a Japanese newspaper that still has morning and evening editions. That means six deadlines a day, since each regional version has its own deadline. I don’t miss those days.
When you’re on the police beat, you essentially live within the police press club. There’s at least one 24-hour shift a week, in which you may or may not catch a couple hours of sleep between 2 and 5:30 a.m., when you have to check the papers to see if the team has been scooped and notify the boss and the reporter in charge of the division.
You’re never home. You’re never not on call. Most of us end up divorced or legally separated. You will not be able to avoid hounding the friends, families and victims of a horrible crime for their statements and photos of the deceased. It’s a hyena-like task that I still do and will always dislike.
The darker side of the police beat or investigative journalism in Japan, especially when covering the yakuza, or as the police call them boryokudan (暴力団), or violent groups, is that eventually you’ll meet with violence. And I have several times. It’s left me with a litany of injuries – a weekly regimen of physical therapy, chronic post-traumatic stress and some brain damage.
As it stands, the head injury I suffered in 2010 has been both a blessing and a curse. It has resulted in temporal lobe seizures, less frequent as time goes on. I have a lesion in my brain, located around the temporal lobe – the product of a two-story fall, I suppose that was the initial injury (1986). In January 2010, an angry source – an ex-yakuza high as a kite on some very good crystal meth – kicked me in the head after I set him off and what was a conversation turned into a knock-down brawl. I believe he was in the midst of meth psychosis so it was hard to hold it against him.
It took a few days to realize that I wasn’t quite the same after that. I think that’s when things started going wrong on the temporal level; time was out of joint.
You might think that being able to relive the greatest moments of your life would a wonderful thing. You would be wrong. A few times a week, I have the displeasure, usually at random, but sometimes triggered by a sound or scent, of re-experiencing a past event in my life. Often they are very mundane. I wouldn’t call them memories, they’re stronger than that – they’re more than flashbacks. For me, they constitute a temporal dislocation; a disruption in the chronology of life; identity; of who I am and how I feel.
These re-experiences are things like laying down on a futon, beside a window on a rainy day. A woman I used to love, putting her hand on my neck and whispering something into my ear about the growth of oak trees in the summer. I lose myself for a minute, maybe just a few seconds. When I sleep, it’s worse. Sometimes, I relive violent events in my life—with all the fear, adrenaline, anger and pain that came with it. I feel the glass in my feet and I can’t stand up. When I calm down and check the soles and see that there’s nothing there–then I’m fine. It feels just as real as it did back then. I know that there’s no threat but my body doesn’t listen, so going back to sleep isn’t really much of an option. I could take a sleeping pill but that’s also another world of troubles.
I write a lot at night. I know many cafes and bars that are open at 3am; it’s good to have a place to go when it happens.
Generally, I’m very good at covering up my temporal disorder. I slip up now and then. I used to buy picture books for my children and then realize it has been years since they read books without words. My daughter when she was ten once horrified me by telling me that she was going to need a sports bra. Because in my head, I can remember reading to her Alice in Wonderland, the pop-up book, just last night. That was probably six years ago at the time. Everything seems like yesterday.
At least I’m blessed with faculties that tell me my sense of time and chronology is out of whack. But when I’m tired or sleep- deprived, it’s much harder to remember what was past and what is present. After a flashback, I have this strange feeling that time should have stopped where it was; that I should be walking into work at The Yomiuri Shimbun and filing an article on the latest hit- and-run. Right after one ends, I feel myself right back where I was at the time. It’s as if the world had been rebooted and put back to factory-shipped state.
After my temporal clock resets, I find myself feeling about a person I once loved exactly as I did – at what were wonderful little moments in the relationship. Weren’t we dancing together last night in a seedy bar in New York? Why can’t we just start at that point in time again? Because what happened after that doesn’t feel like it happened. It feels for a few moments as if that’s where time stopped.
I feel like I could go back to any point in time and pick up where things were. The rest of the world doesn’t function like that.
I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years. My mentor and sort of second father, Detective Chiaki Sekiguchi died of cancer in 2008. A colleague at the newspaper killed herself. People who were good friends and sources have gone missing. In 2010, lawyer and mentor, Toshiro Igari, was probably killed in the Philippines after taking on my case against the publisher of a yakuza boss’ biography. After obtaining the autopsy report from the Manila police, it’s clear that suicide was not the cause of death. A source, but not a friend, was shot to death in Thailand in April of 2011. I miss him as well, despite myself. My BFF, Michiel Brandt, passed away due to complications from leukemia in 2012. She was 30. I’m now 50. I keep waiting for the pain of that loss to be a little less but it stays. Even when you are well aware that life is impermanent and death comes to us all, sometimes it just seems too soon. There’s a part of you that doesn’t expect you to outlive your friends, especially when they are so much younger than you. Sometimes, I see her in dreams as well.
Sometimes, I have flashbacks to moments where I was a total jerk. Where I was rude or insensitive and I feel the same pangs of regret in the present that I felt in the past. I relive the mistake with no possibility of correcting it.
I have keys to apartments to where I can never go back in the physical universe. But in my own mindscape, I was just there and will be there again. Everything should be just where it was. The peanut butter in the cupboard, my toothbrush in a drawer, the balcony door open. The computer would be on the desk where I used to keep it. My desk in the Metro Police Headquarters should still have my stack of yakuza fanzines on top, stuffed into a cheap cardboard box. I wish I could throw away the old keys but I have this irrational belief that I will need them—even though the locks must have been changed and there is no reason to go back and no one there I know anymore.
Some of the memories are horrific. And they come with all the pain and horror of the time: photos casually shown to me that I never wanted to see; the smell of rusty iron from a bloody body, laying cut to shreds on a train track; or the sensation of burning, when a thug stubbed out his cigarette on my shoulder.
In general, maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Japan, I try to take a stoic approach to things. The idea of seeing a psychotherapist to resolve mental issues seemed like a waste of time. But I finally went to see one in 2010, to try and do something about my insomnia. After a couple of sessions, the diagnosis was chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He recommended anti- depressants to deal with the hyper-vigilance issues. I didn’t take them. I stopped going. I need to be hyper vigilant at times. It’s a survival mechanism.
I don’t want to turn it off; I just want to control it better. Meditation helps. Sleep helps. Exercise helps.
I thought that diagnosis would explain the strange flashbacks that were happening, but all I could find in the literature were references to people having flashbacks to traumatic events, not mundane or pleasant moments. It took a scan of my head and a visit to a neurologist to finally get diagnosed correctly.
There has to be a reason why we forget things. If we could recall the past too vividly, the present might pale in comparison. If we can’t forget, we can’t move on. Maybe our minds would explode with the complications of retaining memories of the past and awareness of the present at the same time.
I have anxiety about sleeping. I never know what time of my life I’ll wake up in. The persistence of the past both helps and hinders my relationships in the present. It helps because I get to relive mistakes and am thus reminded not do them again. It hinders because I’m able to forgive and then forget I’ve forgiven someone in the first place. Or forgive myself.
I’d like to walk on; I just keep treading water.
There’s a weariness that comes with covering violent crime, fraud, and human trafficking. There’s a sense of futility. You keep covering the same story, over and over – only the characters change. The narrative remains the same. In recent years, I’ve moved away from crime reporting and covering the yakuza. Bitcoin, politics, social issues, corruption, financial news. There’s a whole other world of things to report on–and just as important to know as well.
These days I’m in a good place mentally and physically. I am, if not happy, quite content with where I am and what I’m doing. But sometimes when I wake up, especially after having a disorienting flashback, I find myself strangely detached from life itself. I can only explain it by borrowing the words of Qoheleth, in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been is still happening now
What has been will be again and be as it is
just as it was
There is nothing new under the (Iand of the rising) sun.