Nazis, Goebels, His Secretary and Nippon. An Austrian Documentary Reminds Us Of Japan’s Failure To Reconcile History

She’s old, really old. You could describe her as an ancient relic. But at 103 years old, Brunhilde Pomsel seems strong, confident, even blase. Pomsel is the centerpiece of the stunning documentary, A German Life (released in Japan as Goebbels to Watashi ) in which she recounts the years she spent in the employ of the Third Reich, as a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels. Shot in a gradations of black and gray, A German Life, highlights her still soft hair and the brightness of her eyes. What you’ll notice however, are the deep crevices crisscrossing her face, an incredibly creasy visage that make her look like some kind of exotic deepwater fish. Only once does her confidence falter, and that’s when she’s asked to recall whether she was aware of the existence of the concentration camps. “I didn’t know it,” she says but her voice lacks conviction. “I wasn’t guilty of that, but if I was, then the whole of Germany during the reign of the Third Reich – was guilty.”

The film will resonate with many viewers in Japan, not least because Germany was an Axis partner in WWII, but for the radical difference in the way the two nations have dealt with their wartime legacies of shame and humiliation. For many Japanese, the war years are a receding memory, most often romanticized and tinged with sentiment, as in The Eternal Zero. The stories told in the media or retold by our elders, have always varied little, summed up in a singular theme that combines victimization and valor. In this theme, the atrocities committed by the military in Asia, are glossed over. After all, the Japanese starved, Japan went through unspeakable deprivation, was relentlessly firebombed and then the Japanese people had two nuclear bombs dropped right on their heads for good measure. Whatever terrible things the Japanese military did in China and Southeast Asia, was paid for with our own suffering. We’ve checked off the items on our rap sheet of atonement. So let’s agree to sweep all that stuff under the futon and get on with the business at hand, shall we?

A German Life, which tells the story of Goebbel’s secretary and seems to explain how Germany allowed the Nazis to rise up and get away with what they did, opens on June 16th in Japan.

This particular logic (or lack thereof) has come to define the collective memory in the 7-plus decades after the Japanese surrender. It wasn’t really our fault, but the fault of the entire era, and the unstoppable war machine! Compare this mind-set to Germany. They also suffered from the air raids and bombings and went through hell. But they are also a people unafraid to rub their faces in the shit pile of defeat. To this day, they are still examining what exactly happened, and why. New revelations of Nazi atrocities are being unearthed all the time, to be dissected and discussed. The Germans have not averted their gaze from the past, rather they’ve been pretty relentless in their cause to track down and then lay bare the gruesome details of their own crimes. Consider the meticulously categorized displays at the Auschwitz Memorials. The unforgiving precision that characterize the guided tour of those Memorials. The sheer number of movies and documentaries that have come out about the camps and the Third Reich. Or the revived public interest in Sophie Scholl, the young political activist who was guillotined for her fierce anti-Nazism.

“For all that, I believe that Germany is experiencing an eerie deja vu of the Nazi years,” said Florian Weigensamer, one of the four-man directorial team behind A German Life. Weigensamer was in Tokyo to promote the film, along with another director Christian Krones, who is also the founder of Blackbox Films and Media Productions. Blackbox engineered the whole endeavor that is this movie and other award winning documentaries. Krones and Weigensamer have been colleagues and friends for over 20 years and they’ve dedicated a good chunk of their professional lives to the excavation of some of humanity’s most complex problems. (One of their recent projects is a documentary called Welcome to Sodom that examines Ghana’s burgeoning waste problem, born of discarded home appliances.)

Krones is the oldest and most experienced member of Blackbox but he stresses that there’s no corporate hierarchy at work. “I like to take a democratic approach to filmmaking. No orders are issued top-down. There are no one-man decisions. We hold extensive meetings and discuss the film process every step of the way, like a real democracy.” And he added with a chuckle, “We do this because the film industry tends to be very dictatorial and we are very sensitive to anything that smacks of dictatorship!”

The directors of “A German Life”

Blackbox is an Austrian company as are Krones and Weigensamer. Because they don’t carry German passports, the pair say that their gaze on WWII and the Nazi atrocities are a little distanced. “We were both born many years after the war,” said Weigensamer. “And growing up, I remember my own family didn’t really talk about the war unless it was to say that we were victimized. In this way, I guess we are a lot like the Japanese.” In 1938, Austria was forcibly annexed to Germany in what was known as the Anschluss, and according to Krones, it “laid the groundwork for turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. The Nazis held Austria in a grip of terror and the Austrians felt powerless. They descended into denial, and most people just tried to make it through the war years without getting killed.” Weigensamer nodded in assent, but said, “And now we are seeing the rise of neo-Nazis, and the end of tolerance for refugees and outsiders.” Indeed, Krones said, “When we first started filming ‘A German Life,’ I thought, we would be talking about something that was past and over with. Now I feel like I’ve gone back in time, and traveled to a future where the nightmare is beginning all over again.”

As for Brunhilde Pomsel, she comes off as neither a tragic heroine or an evil monster but a woman with exceptional secretarial skills and a breathtakingly banal personality. Astonishingly, before taking up her duties for the Third Reich, Pomsel had worked in a Jewish insurance company in Berlin while having a side gig in the afternoons working for an official in the Nazi Party. Her lover and fiance was half Jewish. (In the film, she has a silver band around her ring finger.) He was killed in Amsterdam in 1942. Her best friend was a young Jewish woman named Ava, who died in one of the camps. All around her, Jewish people were being taken away, ostensibly to a place of “re-education,” and she didn’t think to question what this may really mean. Her take on Joseph Goebbels is that he was “so dapper, so dashing! The cut of his suits was perfect.” Pomsel even remembered how Goebbels’s children would come to pick him up at lunchtime so that they could all walk home together for the midday meal.

Pomsel apparently compartmentalized all that into her life, and shut out whatever she deemed unworthy of attention. She never stopped to examine the contradictions of her thoughts or her actions. She simply wanted to perform her duties well, and then go home.

“The thing is, she was very likable,” described Weigenhamer. “She was articulate, self-sufficient and loved going to the theatre. She took very good care of herself and liked to have a good time. At first I thought I liked this woman but the more time I spent with her, the more I got to hate her.” Krones said: “What struck me was her incredible selfishness. I honestly got the feeling that she was alone because she didn’t want to share her life with anybody. She enjoyed living. But as in the war years, she wanted her life to be hers alone. And this mentality, this wish to shut out others – is part of what made Hitler successful.”

Brunhilde Pomsel died last year, at the age of 106.

The film opens in Japan on June 16th. Editor’s note: ironically, the current government of Japan doesn’t only have a desire to revise history and bury Japan’s war crimes, the Prime Minister and his cabinet have a great fondness for the Nazi Party and their political strategies. History does repeat itself.

 

CICADA by Yu Shibuya Limited Screening with English Subs

CICADA

Yu Shibuya is a quiet force to be reckoned with. As a rare bilingual and exceptionally talented playwright, screenwriter and director he has won multiple awards with his shorts and features across the world. His works are often painfully tragic yet peppered with subtle humor, resulting in a poignant and hopeful aftertaste. His ability to depict Japan with a loving gaze of one that knows it from the inside and out, uniquely teases out the mundane and obscurities alike, creating a distinct and irresistible world.

His latest feature CICADA(千里眼) is no exception. It was made in 2014 in Japan with a Japanese cast but with an entirely American crew. The director Dean Yamada is a Japanese American whom Shibuya teamed up with in 2009 to create the short “Bicycle” which was chosen as an official selection at major film festivals, including the 66th Venice Film Festival and Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival.

CICADA has won many awards including three Grand Prizes at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Guam International Film Festival, and the Pan Pacific Film Festival and is now showing for a limited run at Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas with English Subtitles. Shunji Iwai, legendary director of  90s New Wave films became a fan of Shibuya’s work after watching Bicycle and flew to LA to watch CICADA, subsequently casting Yugo Sasou the leading man in his own films.

JSRC recommends film lovers in Tokyo to seize this opportunity to enjoy his work on the big screen while they can.

STORY (TRAILER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJc2iQdfKSw)

Cicadas live underground until their final stage of adulthood. When they surface, they attach themselves to a tree bark, shed their skin and fly away, leaving behind their exoskeleton still clinging fully intact to the tree.
Much like the cicada, Jumpei, a mild-mannered schoolteacher, is sheltered. Introverted almost to a fault, Jumpei has finally found a woman he is ready to marry. Ever weary and careful, Jumpei decides to take a series of premarital tests and finds out that he is infertile. Devastated, he keeps the news from his girlfriend.
In the meantime, Jumpei’s nine-year-old nephew is being bullied in school, and his distraught mother and clueless father are at their wits’ end. Jumpei is enlisted in helping out the family. While Jumpei’s prospects of having a family of his own seem to be non-existent, despite attempting several alternative cures, he is forced into his sister’s dysfunctional family life, and what transpires is a series of comical and heartbreaking events.

IKEBUKURO HUMAX CINEMAS

〒170-0013 Tokyo, Toshima, Higashiikebukuro, 1 Chome−22−10

Limited run until 2/23 at 20:20 every night, with post screening talks with Yu Shibuya and guest.

http://senrigan-movie.com/

If you cannot make it to the screening, enjoy his work here

The Apology (100年の謝罪)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPr6wH2VwWY

Bicycle(自転車)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I_rok_FMW0

 

Japan’s Pakuchi (Coriander) Craze is Just Crazy! But Also Crazy Delicious!

For reasons beyond me, in Japan, it is mistakenly believed that Thai people eat pakuchi (coriander) all the time. For Thai people, Japan’s pakuchi craze seems really crazy; we may use pakuchi in cooking but it’s not the spice of our lives. It’s not our main staple either.

 

Pakuchi (Coriander) related foods and snacks are big in Japan.
Pakuchi Goods Galore

Pakuchi or ‘パクチー’  is derived from a Thai sounding word ‘Pakchee’ meaning coriander. It is an herb seen in many Thai dishes, either sprinkled on top or put in the soup. When I first moved to the Tokyo vicinity in 2011, it was actually the first time I saw pakuchi sold in supermarkets and even spelled with a Thai sound. I was very surprised to see the Japanese knew of the existence of this little herb we find so cheaply anywhere in Thailand.

In reality, pakuchi is nowhere near a vital part of Thai food ingredients.  True, we sometimes grind the roots of pakuchi and mix it with other ingredients to create a curry paste, since this herb gives the paste a nice flavor and smell. In day to day usage, we usually just put a few leaves on top of a finished dish for decoration. When I was growing up, there was even a proverb in Thailand that says ‘Sprinkle pakuchi on top’. This applies to situations when you decorate something to make it look nice or sometimes even to cover up something. At school, we used this proverb at times such as when we knew a teacher was going to come by and check up on us. As you would imagine, we cleaned up the classroom, sat straight, and maybe pretended to be doing some work — that is metaphorically the real role of pakuchi in Thai cooking. We see it a lot but we never see piles of it in our food.

Pakuchi Spring Rolls! Divine.

In recent years, I have been noticing a growing trend of people eating pakuchi in Japan. Many people here also asked me about it thinking that it is Thai food and I always explain that it is like a garnish, similar to parsley or green onions (ネギ negi) in Japan. The trend really startled me but at the same time, I was amazed by the variety of pakuchi products available. From pakuchi chips, soup, ramen, spicy sauce, fried rice, spring rolls, porridge to even pakuchi candies. There are even pakuchi specialty restaurants with menus such as pakuchi salad, tempura, stir-fried pakuchi, and pakuchi cheese. Some places also serve drinks like pakuchi mojito or pakuchi lassi. On top of that, pakuchi cheesecake and other pakuchi flavored desserts are also on the menu. As I saw once on TV, a Japanese TV star came out to a cooking show and taught people how to make ‘pakuchi fried rice’ with more pakuchi than I had ever eaten in my life.

Like many Thais who travelled here, my first reaction was ‘is this for real?’. This was ollowed by about 5 minutes of laughter and probably another 5 minutes of instagram photo snapping time. What pops up in our heads when Thai people think about pakuchi isn’t ‘yummmy’, it is more of an ‘ewww’, which is probably a universal reaction people would have when thinking about eating a huge amount of garnish alone as it is. It took me literally years to finally decide to try some myself.

I have to admit, I liked it. Pakuchi dishes turn out to be really good..

The perfect pakuchi (coriander) salad

First, I visited Coffee Kaldi to, a shop full of delicious food ingredients for many ethic cuisines. At Kaldi, there are many lines of pakuchi products. I tried pakuchi fried rice, chips, porridge (though this says Vietnamese soup) and pakuchi noodles. And the result was far beyond what I imagined — they were all good. I also found my winner — Pakuchi potato chips (パクチーポテトチップス). They tastes salty, earthy with a little bit of sweetness and tint of (very) nice pakuchi smell. I am now a regular repeat pakuchi potato chips eater. My only complaint would be that the bag is too small — not enough chips. I found Vietnamese pakuchi porridge and pakuchi fried rice to be very tasty — I like to have the porridge for breakfast especially. Some other products could be some hits and misses but what surprises me the most is that nothing really tastes bad. I was so sure it would all taste horrible but as it turned out, it was not. Only the pakuchi chips and pakuchi cheese in the photo below are what I would not recommend.

The Pakuchi Fish Cheese and this brand of Pakuchi Chips were just awful.

I tried going to Pakuchi restaurants. Each restaurants has quite a different menu.  But just seeing ‘pakuchi salad’ on the menu just blew my mind away. There is no way you can find this menu anywhere in Thailand. There are many interesting menus. I have tried: pakuchi stirred fried, pakuchi beef tongue, pakuchi cheese dakkalbi, pakuchi roots tempura, pakuchi chichimi, pakuchi spring rolls, pakuchi gyoza, and others. For desserts, I even got to try pakuchi cheesecake. For drinks, I got pakuchi mojito and pakuchi lassi. I have to say that they are all very delicious but it takes many plates to feel full as pakuchi is very light. It is hard to pick a favorite but mine would probably be pakuchi roots tempura, pakuchi chichimi, and pakuchi cheesecake. What makes it good is how pakuchi has a faintly sweet taste with a lovely smell. Who would have imagined it to be this tasty.

pakuchi yum woon sen

Some side info I learned from the Japanese friend I went to one restaurant with; she told me that there have been a lot of research about pakuchi in Japan. It is believed to have a lot of nutrition that is good for health and the Japanese also believe that that is why Thai people are skinny. I don’t know if either of these theories is true. She also explained that in Japan, girls who say they like pakuchi are considered cute; they’re considered to be the same type of girls who say their favorite color is pink.

Despite me finding pakuchi products here delicious, none of my friends back home believe me. Their reactions to my social media posts were skeptical, awkward, horrified, or some just burst out laughing — all of which were my reactions before I actually had a taste. Japan is a master of strange productions of things. I am still amazed at how they can turn a garnish like pakuchi into delicious dishes.  Next time I visit home, I will make sure to pack a suitcase full of pakuchi chips for people to try. I challenge you readers to try pakuchi here as well. By the way, just be sure not to order pakuchi salad in Thailand, people will just think you’re clueless or weird or both.

There’s nothing quite like Pakuchi (Coriander) Cheesecake at the end of a meal.
Drink up with some coriander cocktails!

Banzai To Japanese Print Media! Kaori Shoji’s Picks For Excellence In Japan’s Written Word World 2017

 

As Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” would say with a sigh and drag on her cigarette holder, “Quelle year.” As far as bad years go, 2017 pretty much did us in and it’s not even over yet. Still, the news isn’t all bad, at least in the Japanese publication world. Paper and ink is still around. The Japanese language is not dead (though it may be mired in poop – more on that later). Here are some of the best publications that restored my faith in print, life and native country, and shone through like beacons of light on a dark and murky sea.

1. “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka” by Genzaburo Yoshino

Part self-help book and part shining example of the epistolary art, “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka (How Do You Live)” was written 80 years ago by journalist Genzaburo Yoshino, famed as of one of the last great philosophical writers of post-war Japan. Yoshino always wrote from a humanitarian, anti-war stance (he was arrested and imprisoned during WWII) and launched legendary leftist magazine “Sekai (The World)” a mere one year after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Lesser known is that Yoshino also wrote for children and young adults in the pre-war era. Published in 1936, “How Do You Live” is a book of letters from a gentle, enlightened uncle to his thirteen-year old nephew, as the latter tries to navigate the difficulties of growing up in a Japan controlled by militarists and headed toward a destructive war. The uncle comes up with the nickname “Coperu-kun” (after Copernicus) for his smart and always pondering nephew. What is life? Why are we here? What’s friendship and what does it mean to be human? Together they tackle all-important questions while being respectful of each other’s boundaries and getting each other’s backs. If only I could go back in time and give this to my 13-year old self, I’d discover that life could be beautiful in the bleakest of times.

The publishing house behind “How Do You Live” is Iwanami Shoten Publishers. The manga version authored by Shoichi Haga (published by Magazine House) was rushed to bookstores at about the same time as the novel, and on its own, has sold over 33,000 copies. Japan’s beloved filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki chose “How Do You Live” as his back-from-retirement project, and has said in interviews that it will take 3 to 4 years to do justice to this masterpiece.

2. “Sabishii Seikatsu” by Emiko Inagaki

Ms. Inagaki was 50 when she decided to quit her job at Asahi Shimbun, one of the nation’s most powerful newspapers. The reasons were varied but as she put it in her previous book “Tamashii no Taisha (The Soul Wants to Quit)” she was fed up with the work/spend treadmill and longed to break free. Two years on, she’s still unemployed, single and nearly 2 decades away from drawing a pension. “Sabishii…” is all about how Ms. Inagaki sustains body and soul – and has the time of her life doing it.

“Sabishii Seikatsu” literally translates as “The Lonely Life” but a more apt English title would probably be “In Praise of Solitude.” If you’ve wondered whether it’s possible to live in Tokyo on 100,000 yen a month (no, she doesn’t have roommates and yes, she likes going to bars) including rent, the pointers are in this book. And you got to hand it to her – Ms. Inagaki knows how to do semi-poverty in style. She frequents the public bathhouse instead of using her own shower, forgoes electricity for a single gas ring and candles, hand-washes her clothes and does not own a refrigerator. She finds infinite joy and fascination in adjusting her life as if this was the Edo Period, albeit with an iPhone and laptop. Her sole indulgence is a monthly trip to her favorite hair salon to maintain a snazzy afro She goes out for the occasional latte and bagel but otherwise, she’s a perky flower child forming a one-woman front against authority, energy waste and nuclear power plants. If the Abe Administration’s nuclear re-booting policies are getting you down, here’s Ms. Inagaki to tell you to stop fretting, turn out the goddamn lights and hop on a bicycle. The best revenge is written out in these pages.

3. “Moshi Bungotachiga Kappu Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara” by Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi

The Japanese think they see the universe in a cup of tea and a single tatami mat. Authors Keiichi Kanda and Ryo Kikuchi saw a bestseller in instant yakisoba noodles, and they got to work to make it happen. “Moshi Bungotachiga Yakisobano Tsukurikatawo Kaitara (What if the Literary Giants were to Write How to Make Instant Yakisoba Noodles?”) has its tongue firmly ensconced in the cheek, but offers preposterous fun. One of the sleeper hits of the year, the book has spawned a sequel and sold over 15,000 copies so far.

Page after page, “Moshi…” simulates how different authors would take on the same theme of making the perfect instant yakisoba, in their individual literary styles. And that’s it. There’s nothing else. You may well ask, so what IS this yakisoba? It’s fried noodles flavored with worcester sauce, a kind of soup-less version of the cup noodles we’re all so familiar with. Yakisoba comes inside a plastic square container accompanied by a packet of a few strands of dried cabbage. You pour in some boiling hot water, let it sit for a few minutes and (this is the all important factor), you then POUR OUT the water through a little hole in the container. This is called the “yukiri” process. You then prise open the lid, mix in the sauce and dried veg and there you have it – yakisoba. In this book, eminent authors from Ryunosuke Akutagawa to Haruki Murakami to Kanzaburo Oe are pulled off their pedestals and riffed on as they virtually write their own perfect instant yakisoba recipes. From the west, the exalted likes of Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andre Breton, Dostoyevsky and Susan Sontag are called to take a stab at yakisoba creation.

The perfect companion for the times you want to run away from the world and computer screens. Just keep a yakisoba on hand and try mimicking your favorite wordsmith as you make those noodles.

4. “Kyujussai Naniga Medetai” by Aiko Sato
The translation of the title is: “Ninety Years Old, What’s There to Celebrate?” Personally, I feel it’s closer to “So I Turned 90 – No Biggie!” Japan’s treasured granny authoress Aiko Sato is an amazingly youthful nonagenarian with a badass attitude toward life, politics and the general yuckiness attached to growing old in Japan’s super-aging society. This book started out as a column in women’s magazine “Jyosei Seven” and was published by Shogakukan Ltd. It has sold well over a million copies.

One out of 4 adults in the Tokyo metropolis is now over 70 and it feels like the nation’s dwindling population is growing grayer by the week but Ms. Sato shrugs off the hand-wringing negativity. Part memoir, part self-help guide for every generation and a sizzlingly entertaining read, “Ninety…” was published in 2016 but has marked week 63 on the bestseller list and is still the most lucrative title of 2017.

What rises from the pages is a cheerful nihilism. Ms. Sato dispenses the wisdom garnered from nearly a century of life but she warns us none of it is particularly warm or heartfelt. Nearly all of the chapters deal with disappointment and despair and in one segment she discusses love. “If you love a man to the point that you’re ready for marriage, don’t let anything stop you. But don’t bank on happiness ever after. Life is volatile and love even more so. Nothing lasts forever so be prepared for sadness and suffering, betrayal and all the rest of it.” In other words, shit happens. Or more to Ms. Sato’s point, shit is inevitable and the less fuss we make about it, the better. The mostly hilarious read is tinged by moments of sadness – for all her sharp wit, Ms. Sato admits to feeling crushed by loneliness. She has pretty much outlived her friends and loved ones and the ones that remain are “not feeling so chipper.” But navigating the minefield of depression is one of her “projects” and she considers everyday a “learning experience.”

Surprisingly, “Ninety…” is popular among children and millennials. Says 24-year old Saeko Kato, an OL who has written a gushing fan letter to Ms. Sato: “No one can escape growing old, but I like to think that there will be fun times ahead. This book fills me with hope, and the energy to face whatever lies ahead. Being a Japanese woman, I think I’ll live a long time so I need to know that it’s going to be all right.”

5. “Pen Plus” Magazine, November 20th Edition
Cover Story: “Made in Japan wo Sekaie! (Let’s Bring Made in Japan to the World)”

Once upon a time, the “Made in Japan” logo was a brand to be reckoned with, standing for quality, reliability and thousands of labor hours that fueled the nation’s legendary work ethic. This year, that logo crash-burned on the tarmac as we saw one mighty manufacturer after another indicted for falsifying data, covering up scams and more. On the other end of the work spectrum, “Premium Friday” and the whole “Hatarakikata Kaikaku (Work Style Reform)” thing kicked in. Even as demand for quality went up, Japanese workers face the pressure to go home and not spend so much time being dedicated employees. What to do?

One way out of the conundrum is to look at small to mid-sized companies. While the manufacturing giants that defined Japan’s rapid growth era are flailing sheer size and antiquity, smaller operations are full of ideas, light on their feet and zipping around. “Pen Plus” magazine is a spin off of the monthly “Pen” magazine and they’ve dedicated an entire issue to rethinking the “Made in Japan” logo. The conclusion? It’s not about high-tech gadgets and appliances anymore but handwork and craftsmanship. And thanks to the Internet, Japanese artisans can collaborate directly with offshore brands to come out with products that have global appeal and marketing power.

Kaihara Denim out of Fukuyama City in Hiroshima prefecture, has wowed fashion designers like Jean Toitou of A.P.C., and Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone, and morphed into some of the world’s most coveted pairs of jeans. Japan’s chocolate artisan extraordinaire Susumu Koyama is now one of the most revered figures in the international chocolate industry. Toward the end of the issue, there’s an interview story with former soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata. He launched a project called ReValue Nippon, from his very own, Japan Craft Sake Company. Admittedly, it has less of an impact than Cristiano Ronaldo’s men’s underwear but hey, it’s a start.

Honorable Mention:

Grades 1 Through 6.
THE publishing sensation of 2017, “Unko Kanji Doriru (The Poop Kanji Drills)” series enables elementary school kids to have a jolly fun time while studying kanji. It gave a new twist to the heretofore ho-hum kanji learning experience, and provided entertainment for parents as well. There are reports that the series took some of the pressure off of pooping in school – which has always been a traumatizing experience for generations of Japanese school kids (for the girls, it’s the squat toilet that does it.)

Most of the practice sentences in “Unko…” are master stroke combinations of education and hilarity. Like this one for second graders: “Ima sugu kokode unko wo surukotomo dekirundesuyo (It’s okay for you to poop right here, right now).” Or this one for third graders: “Yoyaku shiteita unko wo torinikimashita (I came to get the poop that I had reserved).” And so it goes for six solid issues. Some of my friends have bought the series to use as prizes for their company Christmas parties. If nothing else they do provide solid reading for the holidays.

Tokyo Comic Con 2017. Tokyo Ghoul ♥️ Tokyo Comic Com but the cosplayers?

The Cosplay Crusaders At Tokyo Comic Con 2017

Tokyo Comic Con 2017.

This is year 2 for TokyoComicCon!

“What started as the Golden State Comic Book Convention in 1970, Comic Con today is an event encompassing technology and pop culture. The San Diego Comic-Con (U.S.) is a huge annual event in early July, attracting more than 130,000 visitors by showcasing large range of elements; comics, animation, games, and movies.”–Tokyo Comic Con 2017

Last year, On December 2016, the event made its way here as Tokyo Comic Con 2016. The organizers state that: “In close relation to  ‘Silicon Valley Comic Con’ organized by Woz, Tokyo Comic Con is a festival celebrating Japanese and American pop culture, while keeping its genetic American style foundation. Unlike other existing comic, film, animation festivals or game shows, this is a place where everyone can share and enjoy the revolutionary and enthusiastic experience.”

Well, whether it’s a revolutionary experience or not depends on you, but so far it has been quite fun.

There is an interesting mish-mash of Japanese and American comic books, displays of Batman figures, the Justice League, Tokyo Ghoul, Star Wars booths galore. You can be photographed with Darth Vader, experience using “The Force”, hold the heavy guns from Bio Hazard aka Resident Evil. And on the first day, a Friday (December 1st), there was already a motley crew of cos-players livening up the event. Not to mention, the free pinball machines. Ghostbusters! Star Wars!

Cosplayer, Kaia Leveaux, dressed as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, explains the universal appeal of the event, eloquently. “I love coming to ComiCon because it’s my chance to do what I love. I love dressing up. I love comics and games. I love seeing small time artists finally make it big. And best of all, it’s a place to come together. It’s hard to live in a foreign country and not speak the language. But here, we find common ground and can connect with one another. No words needed.”

Kaia says Tokyo Comic Con is a community experience.

 

The price of 3200 per day (advance tickets) may seem steep but then again the US Comic Cons are supposedly twice the price or more. For a full schedule and prices check out, TICKETS Ⅰ TOKYO COMIC CON 2017,

 

 

The Yakuza That Stole Halloween: They tricked cops, rival gangs, the media & treated the kids.

TOKYO—

It was a grisly grim and horrific Halloween in Japan but it wasn’t all bad news–there was a yakuza Halloween, after all. After the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group (yakuza), announced that they would be calling off their annual Halloween party this year, they surprised and delighted the neighborhood children by holding it anyway.

The Trick

The Yamaguchi-gumi had posted a sign around October 20th, that they would be refraining from having the annual Halloween Party this year, due to “various circumstances”.

A liberal translation of the tricky announcement that the Yamaguchi-gumi would be calling off Hallowen.”Every year on October 31, we have held the traditional Halloween [party]. However, this fiscal year, due to a number of various circumstances, we will be halting the event. We understand that we are making the children who were looking forward to this very sad, but next year we absolutely will hold the event, so please look forward to it. Thank you for allowing us to inform you.”
It was an oblique reference to the violent gang wars between factions of the group. There was an attempted assassination of the leader of the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi, a splinter faction, in September. His bodyguard ended up taking the bullet. It seemed like a good call not have the event–no one wants kids caught in the crossfire.

The media reported the non-event, including this reporter. Tensions were low, the children who looked forward to the event, which was restarted last year after a one year hiatus, were unhappy.  

Lining up for cotton candy at the Yamaguchi-gumi HQ. Photo: Natasha Shewa
Not only a sack of great Halloween candy but cotton candy in a Pretty Cure (Glitter Force) bag. My daughter would have loved it–when she was five years old. (Photo by Natasha Shewa)
One of the few regrets in life I’ve had was not taking my kids to trick or treat at the Yamaguchi-gumi Headquarter so they could learn the gentle art of extortion.

 

The Yamaguchi-gumi did have their annual halloween party after all (2014 photo)

The Treat

Suddenly at around 4pm on October 31st (Japan time), gangsters opened the shutters of their headquarters and began distributing bags of candy to the neighborhood kids, as they have done for over a decade. A gangster dressed as a giant jack-o-lantern waved children inside the compound. The yard was garishly decorated with Halloween lights, blow-up pumpkins and ghosts, and a cotton candy machine according to those who attended.

The neighborhood children were delighted. Each garish bag was decorated with jack-o-lanterns and “Happy Halloween” in English. The bags had cookies, crackers, and chocolate filled koalas.“They did celebrate after all,” rejoiced one local woman. “Not only were the decorations great and the gift bags full of tasty stuff, there were two big lines for cotton candy. And the gangsters were super nice.”Some members were in costume distributing bags saying “Happy Halloween!” while others were in white jumpsuits and  bullet-proof vests patrolling he area as the police looked on. “Security was top notch,” stated one mother who attended.

One father in the area of Indian descent wrote me, “The kids got one bag each, worth about 800 yen ($7) worth of stuff. My wife said it was a really fun event.” Many in the large Indian community in Kobe were convinced that they played a role in the tradition, recounting stories of visiting the headquarters in their youth. One woman remembers that eventually Japanese school children began following their lead on Halloween–making costumes out of black garbage bags and tagging along.  This year, as  a special bonus, the Cotton Candy was packaged in a Pretty Cure (Glitter Force) Anime bags. My daughter Beni would have been delighted–if she was still five years old.

For a haul like this, I’d go trick or treating at the Yamaguchi-gumi HQ, if I was 10 years old.

No Masks Necessary

For the rest of the world, the Japanese mafia, even the well-organized Yamaguchi-gumi are frightening creatures. They don’t have to hide in Japan. They don’t wear masks but many of them wear sunglasses and are covered in ornate tattoos, often with violent images, and have a characteristic scowl. Some members cut off a finger in atonement for their own mistakes or on behalf of their friends to settle a dispute. A chopped off finger to atone for your mistakes is known as a shiniyubi (死に指) “a dead finger”. When a pinkie is sacrificed for another person, it’s the more honorable ikiyubi (生き指) or “living finger.” Many yakuza also have facial scars. This dates back to a time when instead of killing a rival, some thugs would just cut the person’s face and let them live. A small number of yakuza deliberately cut their own faces, to give the impression that they had survived a deadly confrontation.

In Japan, to discreetly discuss the yakuza, some people still use their index finger to pantomime cutting their face.

The yakuza derive their revenue from racketeering, gambling, fraud, insider trading, blackmail and other unsavory acts. Many members though, also run legitimate businesses. The Yamaguchi-gumi ostensibly forbids its members from engaging in theft, robbery, and drug dealing. They claim to be a humanitarian organization and are regulated under Japanese laws but not banned outright.

Tricky Yakuza 

The police were less than delighted with today’s “trick.” An organized crime control detective from the Kansai area said, “We weren’t completely caught off guard but it was a risky move in light of the current gang war. I think their rivals (Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi and the  Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi) were snow-jobbed but now I get the ‘trick-or-treat’ thing’ now.” He went on to explain that the party was good PR for the organization. The false cancellation may have been an effort to stave off trouble and the press, he speculated.

Local press has also noted that many people in Japan are now bringing lawsuits against yakuza groups to force them to vacate their local offices. It appears that this year’s Halloween Party was the gang’s way of forestalling this, while gaining the goodwill of the community.  Much of the media came late to the party, but the local newspaper, Kobe Shimbun, posted a slightly critical story around 7:30 pm. They also removed from their website an October 21st article stating that the Halloween party was going to be cancelled, “Probably due to the influence of the gang war.” 

I hastily updated my own article—which was hard to do from the scene of the multiple murders at Zama City. One former Kabukicho talent scout was arrested that day for desecration of a corpse, after police found nine severed human heads and body parts in his apartment. They were looking for a missing woman–they probably found her. It was a grisly Halloween indeed. All things being equal, I wish I’d stuck to my original plans to go to Kobe.

In the end, the Yamaguchi-gumi tricked us all. But in some ways, it was the highlight of my dark Halloween.

The police were pissed and so were some of the media. The kids were just happy to get their candy. And it may be the only time in their little  lives that they get to turn the tables on the yakuza and safely extort something from them. Trick or treat!?

This year it was both.

Make Up Your Mind…by October 30th. aMaz(e)ing art by Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson, who’s “micro art” style often involves intricate mazes and patterns painstakingly drawn by hand, evoking Op Art, Keith Haring, Escher and more is holding an art-show at the Wieden Kennedy Tokyo art gallery until October 30th. It’s worth visiting.

According the artist’s website, “Ian Anderson was born in 1991 and grew up in Antipolo, Philippines. He moved to Los Angeles in 2001 with his mother and step father. Out of high school, Ian worked as a teacher of animation and video game design for 5 years at Exceptional Minds Studio. Having no formal art training, Ian was almost entirely self taught. His signature “micro art” style was developed at an early age.

‘I’m fascinated by the energy that something handmade gives. Sure, it would be more convenient to go on a computer and create a tile of my patterns, or to make the spacing and line quality absolutely perfect. But I like things a little wrong. Everybody knows what “Right” is supposed to look like, “wrong” is more interesting to me.”

The opening reception party for the show “Make Up Your Mind” was held on October 21st, featuring a live painting performance with guest artist, dominatrix and fashion designer Lehysl. Using ropes (縛り), paint, and a cooperative model and a body stocking, the three worked together to create a living painting. There were points before, during, and after the performance  that all three seemed to blend into the canvas, stepping in and out of the 2nd dimension and back into the 3rd dimension.

Lehysl and Anderson bonded over their love of lines—his are hand-drawn, hers are made out out silk or other materials and take shape as ropes. Lehysl said, “It was an honor and great fun to make temporary art from a different art, shibari, the art of rope tying. It was a liberating performance.”

There won’t be any models hanging upside down for the last few days of the exhibit but stroll by while you can. The gallery is located close to Naka-Meguro station and you can unwind at the Tsutaya Book Cafe close-by and further your study of art via some good book over decent coffee.

 

Good signs: Japan’s APU graduate creates successful deaf cafe in Indonesia

“Fingertalk” a cafe run by the deaf in Indonesia has become a successful philanthropic business in Indonesia. It owes its success to the experience and determination of Dissa Syakina Ahdanisa, a graduate from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU). APU is a university located in the famous hot spring city of Japan — Beppu, Oita prefecture. It was after her graduation that she has embarked on a path to become a social entrepreneur focusing on helping the deaf community in her home country of Indonesia. APU is renowned for having multicultural environment with foreign students from 86 countries (as of May, 2017) and for having a strong bond between the university and Oita community through various local activities. The school aims to give students more than just a four-year higher education, but also a unique life experience, which is hoped will result in producing open-minded, brilliant, and inspiring graduates who embrace the term ‘differences’ and challenge the world to do the same.

Dissa founded ‘Fingertalk’ in May 2015, a business which has expanded from a single cafe to two fully operating cafes, one workshop/craft store, and a recently branched out into a car wash business. What’s special about Fingertalk’s business model is its goal to connect the deaf community with the hearing community by hiring all deaf employees. While aiming for that long term goal, Dissa hopes that for now, Fingertalk can create job opportunities for the deaf, be a fun place where people enjoy universal pleasures, such as food and artwork, and be a place where people can learn something new — particularly sign language. Hence, ‘Fingertalk’, named by the young social entrepreneur herself, represents the way the deaf community communicate by sign language. In Indonesia, sign language is called Bisindo.

On 2 June 2017, Dissa came to APU’s Tokyo campus to give a talk about her life after APU, specifically about the Fingertalk business and her recent visit to schools for the disabled in Oita prefecture, supported by the local government. The event was flooded with interest from APU alumni owing partly to the fact that in September 2016, the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, had spoken of Dissa and praised her for her inspiring work in the Youth Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) in Laos.

Dissa said when she was 10 years old, she became fascinated with sign language having met a deaf person who taught her how to spell her name at an event in an old folks home where she accompanied her mother. During her time in APU, she found her passion for volunteer work and took several trips to many countries with a mission to contribute in some way to a better society. After graduating from APU, Dissa obtained her masters’ degree in Australia and worked in the Singapore headquarter of one of the world’s top financial institutions. However, she continued to pursue her passion for volunteer work. During one of her volunteering missions, she spent three months in Nicaragua where she heard of a cafe with deaf employees called ‘Cafe de Las Sonrisas’. She decided to visit the cafe and was very inspired by the concept. Having remembered the man she met as 10-year-old combining with her passion for the non-profit field, Dissa felt an urge to create a similar cafe in Indonesia. After  a considerable amount of research, she found that Indonesia has more than 6 million people with disabilities, and of which, more than 470,000 are deaf. And the more prominent problem is that more than 70% of people with disabilities there are not working, let alone receiving proper education.

Fingertalk cafe & car wash business

At the event in Tokyo, when asked about her biggest obstacles in opening ‘Fingertalk’, Dissa admitted that she had a rough beginning. Though some people supported her idea, it was hard for her to raise funds to realize her cause. So, she decided that she would have to do it all by herself. She intended to save as much money as she could from her job in Singapore and at the same time, she started learning Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) in order to understand more about the deaf community and make new friends. Eventually, she kickstarted ‘Fingertalk’ in Tangerang City, Indonesia, and soon after, left her job at the financial institution to pursue her dream full-time.

‘It all started by getting to know someone from the deaf community. Then, they started introducing me to their friends and people they know. That’s how I started recruiting people for Fingertalk. I started by interviewing them with pen and paper when I wasn’t fluent at Bisindo. I needed to find out what they can do, and what they aimed to be. Through the process, I luckily met one deaf lady who allowed Fingertalk to use part of her house as the first cafe for free. This jumpstarted our business.’ says Dissa. Despite the hurdles of the financial obstacles, the location, and the staff recruiting she had to manage, the cafe took off and people started coming into the cafe. In the cafe, there are sign language posters everywhere in order for the people from the hearing world to try and communicate with the employees. With this, Fingertalk took one step closer to its mission—connecting the two worlds and teaching people something new. With more and more people coming in, the employees also feel more motivated to communicate and work hard. More importantly, this help them to believe in themselves and their abilities. According to Dissa, the biggest challenge she faces is ensuring that the employees’ self esteem remains intact; that they don’t feel any less confident than those who hear.

This year, Dissa and some of the staff from Fingertalk came to visit Beppu, Oita where APU is located. She also visited schools for children with disabilities. The city government of Oita Prefecture generously supported Dissa fully in all the trip arrangements. Together, they visited Oita School For The Deaf  (大分県立聾学校) and Beppu Special School.

Oita School For The Deaf

According to Dissa, the schools have such great facilities for children that can support their learning and creativity. The atmosphere was warm and fun. Even in a deaf school, they have a piano where the children can enjoy music through the vibrations on the floor. Dissa felt like Japan is at least 40 years more advanced than Indonesia in terms of educational and life opportunities support for people with disabilities. She was also impressed with how caring the teachers are. One teacher in particular, a deaf teacher who did not let his abilities be an obstacle for him to doing things such as learning English, she found to be very inspirational. Other than the schools, she also visited Taiyo no ie (太陽の家)or ‘The Sun Industries’ — an organization established in 1965 after the Paralympics in 1964 with the motto that more than charity, what’s more important today is creating employment opportunities for disabled people. To provide employment opportunities to people with disabilities, Sun Industries have made partnerships with large companies such as Sony, Omron, Denso, Fujitsu, and others. This is another example of a good support system that Japan has for people with disabilities. After the trip, Dissa is determined to make use of her new knowledge to help people in Indonesia through Fingertalk.

Dissa mentioned how supportive APU alumni and the faculty members have been to Fingertalk.

APU event in Tokyo campus – Dissa signing ‘Fingertalk’

Not only have friends from APU  paid visits to the cafe, but also Professor Kenji Yokoyama, a vice-president of APU. Dissa finds suggestions from alumni from all over the world useful and interesting since each country has different pros and cons in the support system toward people with disabilities. At the event, one alumni even suggested a tool similar to Google Translate for sign language, something to consider in the future. Some others asked about the future of Fingertalk whether it is the expansion of business into different areas or expanding its focus to people with other types of disabilities. Dissa’s answer was that she is now focused on helping deaf people but the long term goal is to definitely help people with other type of disabilities as well. Now Fingertalk is still small but she is aiming to expand its services and footprints.

After two years of founding Fingertalk, the business has attracted interest from media and local government and received awards such as Tokoh Metro 2017. Fingertalk’s crew have also been invited to attend many events such as Inovasi Indonesia Forum & Expo and Festival Kewirausahaan. When asked of what keeps her going with such positive energy, her answer was that “I want people to learn something from me when they meet me, even if it is just the sign of Beppu”. She taught use our right hand to create something that looks like number three and our left hand as a horizontal C to cover the base of our right hand, making the three fingers visible. With two hands pounding each other twice, it becomes ‘Bep-pu’ — the three fingers represent steam wafting from hot water, for Beppu is famous for its hot springs. Later, she personally taught me how to say ‘Thailand’ in sign language. It’s a very clever and fun way to sign my homeland. You use an index finger to point to one’s nose and slide the finger down and outward from yourself. This represents elephants, the symbol of Thailand. It’s something I’ll never forget. And that is part of why Fingertalk works so well, because the people working there and those visiting are always learning something from each other. It’s not just a meal and a drink, it’s a rewarding experience.

Bisindo (Indonesian Sign Language)

O-bon: Festival of The Dead or “Please Feed The Hungry Ghosts Day”

Late July marks the official start of O-bon, the Festival of the Dead, where Japanese people visit the graves of their ancestors and/or pay their respects to the recently departed. For Tokyoites, August is the time of celebration.

It’s also a semi-official vacation for many, and the trains out of Tokyo fill-up with families going back home to visit the living and the dead.

Some Japanese families who can’t afford to travel put offerings on the family Buddhist altar and welcome their departed in-laws into the home for a few days before wishing them farewell. (In some cases, when the visiting ghosts won’t leave, they have to call in a Buddhist exorcist to kick them out. Maybe.)At JSRC, we thought you’d like to know a little bit more about this festive occasion and why it’s celebrated. *Editor’s note: The 90% well-researched version was revised to be 99% accurate and less snarky. All snarky and historically inaccurate parts are followed by a ★ for clarity.  While ☆ represents a gross simplification.

It’s a long road home from the underworld to Tokyo.

The history of the holiday which came to be known an O-bon/お盆–pronounced like Oh! Bone!–is very long and the stories as to how it came to be celebrated in Japan are as ethereal and mysterious as your average ghost.

The old lunar calendar that was used up until the Edo period actually had the holiday on July 15th but the modern calendar places it on August 15th. This means that now it also coincidentally comes on the same day that Japan surrendered to the United States and World War II ended.

O-bon was originally a Buddhist holiday that dates back as least as far as the year 606 in Japan, where it was written up in Nihon Shoki (日本書紀) one of Japan’s earliest historical records. At that time it was called 盂蘭盆会 (urabonkai). It was believed that on this day if you made offerings to the local Buddhist monks, that the spirits of your parents and other ancestors would be saved from spending time in the lower realms of existence and be sent on to a better incarnation.

In time, over centuries, with the free-market liberalization of the metaphysical world, the Buddhist monks got cut out of the distribution system and now the offerings are made directly to the spirits. ☆

The “bon” in O-bon  (盆) itself refers to the vessels (plates, bowls, tupperware etc)  in which offerings are placed upon for the spirits of the deceased. The physical bowl has come to refer to the holiday or the period where the holiday is celebrated in modern lingo. Of course, O-bon as a holiday could be translated as “honorable container day” but then it wouldn’t sound as cool as “Japanese Festival Of The Dead.” The practice of offering food and drinks (such as Pepsi-Watermelon Cola and Wasabi Potato Chips etc) to the visiting spirits is believed to have spread from the original ceremony in Japan’s hip 600s.

 The O-Bon Sutra: If it’s in an ancient book it must be true.

            There is even a Buddhist holy book about O-bon, called the 盂蘭盆経 (Urabonkyo) which establishes the basic ideas of the holiday. In this tale, a disciple of Buddha, named 目連 (Mokuren) finds out that his deceased mother is trapped in the realm of hungry ghosts (餓鬼) and tries to find a way to relieve her suffering. *Buddhism postulates six realms of existence. Hungry ghosts aka gaki (餓鬼) are spirits with huge stomachs and small throats that can never get enough to eat and are perpetually famished.  Look for my book on the United States of America and its obesity problem, Hungry Ghost Nation, in 2015.★

Mokuren, the Buddhist monk, is bummed that his Mom is a sort of demon. He makes votive offerings of food and water to his Mom, but right before she can wolf them down, they all burst into flames, making that a no-go. He decides to save Mom.

“Mom, you look great as a hungry ghost–not fat at all! But I’ll talk to the boss, we’ll figure this out.”

Our hero, Mokuren, who we’ll call Mork, just to make it easier to remember,  has a talk with the Buddha about this problem. The Buddha, who being all-wise and everything, says to him, “Well, Mork, your Mom was really a total thug and it’s not going to be easy to spring her from her realm of suffering. However, if you wait until the last day of our post-rainy season vacation, which is July 15th, and make offerings to all of your Buddhist monk pals and supporters—making sure everyone gets fed, maybe your Mom can eat some of the leftovers or get lucky?”

And so he does just that, the monks and lay-supporters have a huge party: drinking, dancing (the original o-bon odori), eating, and having lots of fun. The Buddha says to them, while the party goes on, “Guys, let’s take a moment and pray for the well-being of our beneficiary who put on such an awesome party, and for his ancestors as well—up to seven or so generations. Let’s calm our hearts and meditate and do a thanksgiving sort of thing.”

            ”仏陀は、十方の比丘に対し、このように言った。「比丘達よ、七月十五日に供養を受ける時、
施主の家の為に祈り、七世の祖先の為に祈り、
坐禅をして心を静めて、然る後に、頂きなさい。」「比丘達よ、初めて御飯の供養を受ける時、
施主の家の為に祈り、七世の祖先の為に祈り、
霊前で祈願をしてから、然る後に、頂きなさい。」それを聞いた、比丘達は、法悦に包まれて、
モッガラーナの涙も、完全に止ったのである。
そして、母親も、一劫続く餓鬼道から救われた”

And lo and behold, the monks are wrapped in holy bliss and Mork’s Mom (Mokuren’s Mom), was freed from the realm of hungry ghosts. The Buddha then promises the same service to any monk or lay disciple who will take the Buddhist monks out for a party on July 15th.☆

The authenticity of this Sutra is widely debated but it doesn’t seem any less plausible than the Book of the Mormon.

50 Ways To Appease Your Loved Ones

O-bon is celebrated in different times, manners and places in Japan. The most common belief is that the spirits of the dead return around August 11th and leave again around August 15th or 16th, depending on the traffic in the spirit world. (O-bon traffic in our world peaks on the 14th and 15th, as most Japanese families in Tokyo go on vacation during this period as well and it collides with summer vacation for the kiddies.)☆

During this period families come together, greet the spirits of the departed, and then send them off again to the netherworlds. Some areas greet the spirits with a large bonfire (迎え火) and then send them off again with another fire (送り火). The energy crisis in Japan has dimmed plans to replace the bonfires with large LED lamps spelling out “Welcome” or “Good-bye” but in the future, who knows?

Depending upon the household and the area, some families will clean up the Buddhist altar and make their offerings there, placing faux horses made out of egg-plant or cucumbers to provide transportation for the wandering spirits. The smoke from the incense is believed to provide a highway for the ghosts and their cucumber horses to travel on.Tokyo dwelling families originally from Narita City in Chiba Prefecture families make a giant “limousine bus”* out of pumpkins and grapes to make the travel to Tokyo easier for the mass gatherings of ghosts arriving at the airport from the underworld. ★Actually that’s not really true. Apparitions can easily take the Narita Express now.☆

In many areas, O-bon odori(お盆踊り), the O-bon dance is performed. The dance dates back to Heian era Japan and was believed to be a ceremony both to welcome the spirits of the dead, memorialize them, entertain them, and appease them. It’s not known if the modern-day hostess club has its origins in the O-bon odori.★ The movements of the dance are said by some to mimic the writhing of souls burning in hell—which makes sense if you’ve survived enough Japanese summers. But it’s hard to see how the writhing of tortured souls could be amusing. Mmmm….laughing at the suffering of tortured souls—amazingly O-bon pre-dates Japanese game shows.

Poorly choreographed O-bon Odori

Since the 1600s, many versions of the O-bon Odori incorporate Buddhist chanting which is believed to help the restless spirits go to a better place….Hawaii or heaven or a better incarnation. But not Saitama☆.

Deep O-Bon Thoughts (As Deep As A Plate)

Jokes aside, O-bon is one of the most interesting of Japanese festivals and while August 15th marks the current official date for the holiday, it still begins in July in many places in Japan. If you can use it as an excuse to get out of work, try celebrating it twice in the same year. You can claim to have relatives in Kansai. The actual dates and practices don’t mean that much but it’s an idea that I like in principle. There is something good about remembering those who have departed from our lives and will not return. It reminds us how lucky we are to still be alive, to eat, to drink and to dance. Even for those of us who can barely dance at all, there is something joyous about this holiday. Dance while you can.

“I love having the ancestral spirits visit but I wish they’d clean up after themselves. It’s about time to light that incense and send them off.”

「このお盆に生きている全部の人間は、単に今年度の生き残り分にすぎない」吉川英治 (小説家)

“All of us who are still alive this O-bon, we’re simply the survivors of our fiscal year.”—Eiji Yoshikawa, Japanese novelist.

 

originally posted on August 15th, 2012 and updated yearly

 

The Amazing Japanese Wife Part 3: A Man Needs His Carcinogen

This is the third in a series of short fiction by Ms. Kaori Shoji  entitled “The Amazing Japanese Wife” about international marriages in Japan gone off the deep end. Any similarity to real events, persons, or incidents are your imagination and probably means that you really should have a stiff drink and contemplate the meaning of happiness, karma, and the universe. You need Suntory time. Previous chapters are below, although not all stories are clearly connected. 

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 2 “Fucked Up In Six Trees” 

***

I bought a new car and my wife hates it.

Or more to the point, I bought a new car knowing she’ll hate it. So what? So this snazzy little Mazda sportscar – a black Roadster to be precise – is all mine. I’m not particularly fond of driving in Japan, the roads are too narrow and parking is sheer torture. It’s my wife Seiko who does the driving when we go out together, in her beloved white Mercedes purchased 4 years ago on the occasion of our seventh anniversary. In Japan, the number 7 is extra special, expected to bring all kinds of luck and wealth. Besides, I had just had a windfall, business-wise and figured it was about time. “Let’s get a new car, a good one this time!” Seiko had said, and I took her in my arms and said yes because I hadn’t seen her so excited in a long time. The next day, we were at the Mercedes dealers. That’s Seiko. She always goes for the adamantly mainstream, heavily conservative Japanese choice. They all love the boxy Mercedes (which everyone here calls ‘Bentsu’) color white. The plasticky and ridiculously expensive Vuitton handbags. Those painful Ferragamo shoes. Terrible French restaurants with Michelin stars. I could go on all day.

The white Mercedes and Seiko have been inseparable. In the beginning, she had willingly drove me to the train station in the mornings and picked me up again in the evenings. I would text her the time of my train out from Tokyo, and she would be come meet me in Yokohama with the seventh anniversary car. That worked for awhile, until Seiko started making excuses and ducking out of our routine. First it was yoga classes and then it was cooking school. When she finished learning how to make the perfect roast beef, she started meeting friends from said school to hang out at that new Italian joint. I protested because it felt like she was cutting me out of her life, to which Seiko flared up. “I’m not your chauffer, I have my own life.” She said that in English and then she said it in Japanese, which is her habit when making a point.

I briefly let my mind wander over that memory and then shrug it off. Now that I have my own wheels, most things about my marriage have lost its urgency. I know this is textbook male menopause stuff – I’m 54 – but the Roadster has been a godsend. It soothes over the rough spots, especially on those days I know Seiko won’t be home to greet me. Fuck it, I thought all Japanese wives waited on their husbands and cooked elaborate dinners just for the two of them, every single night. That was the deal, otherwise I wouldn’t have…what, gotten married? No that’s not it, Seiko was the best thing that happened to me. I was tired of playing the field, tired of one-night stands and each new date with a Japanese woman who didn’t speak much English, grated on my nerves. I longed for a relationship where I could talk with the girl all night, and then in the morning, make love over champagne cocktails. I wanted to be a cooler Woody Allen, to a Japanese version of Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.”

“Even the ones who talk in English aren’t all that interesting. I mean, where have these women BEEN all their lives, is what I want to know.”

Cathy said that, a couple of months after Seiko and I were married. Cathy was a friend of some years, and since we both grew up in Houston, we got each other in a way that was impossible with Seiko. “Hey dude,” Cathy would say when we met to talk, either in a bar or at a little Mexican restaurant that served Tokyo’s most authentic burritos. “How y’all doin?” I loved Cathy with all my heart but the physical attraction wasn’t there. Banking on that, I treated her like any other guy friend and poured out my apprehensions of life with Seiko. Then one night when Seiko was at her parent’s house and I was with Cathy in her apartment, things got boozier than usual. Cathy put her bare foot in my lap, and then the foot began digging gently into my groin. And before I knew it, we were making out with the kind of ferocious hunger I hadn’t known since college. Cathy yanked her shirt off and then her bra.

“At least you don’t have black nipples. Most Japanese women do, I mean, all across Asia, women are fuckin’ gorgeous until they take off their bras, man last time I was in Manila I was with this girl who…” Then I felt a gust of wind. Cathy had quickly disengaged herself and sat up. She gazed at me like a sliver of bacteria under a microscope and said with quiet finality: “Just make sure I never have to see your face again. I mean EVER. Are we clear?” Somehow I pulled on my pants and stumbled out and that was the last time I talked to her.

My problem is this: after 20 years in Japan, I’ve gone from being an American Male to an American Male in Asia, which are two entirely different entities. I’m uneasily aware that much of what I say or how I act would never be tolerated back home. Apart from Cathy, I haven’t been close with any white women here, though I know many of them are attractive and smart and worthing talking to. At ex-pat dinner parties, I’ve noticed how some of them would just get up from the seat next to mine, to go talk to someone else. Later, someone told me how so-and-so remarked that I never spoke of anything except Japanese women, which bored her stiff and was plain offensive.

To hell with it. Of course I talk about other things, like this car. My friends all whistled and cheered when I drove into town to show it to them. They didn’t take me up on the offer to let them drive it though, because their girth would have made it it dismally uncomfortable. Okay, it’s a tight fit for me too, but one of my resolutions is to lose the weight and glide in and out of this baby with ease. Secretly, I’ve named my car Sandra after my high school crush. I sure as hell wasn’t going to call it Cathy.

And I also talk about work, because I happen to be CEO of my own translation company. It’s mostly technical translations which bring in the most cash, and I’m proud to have had the foresight to set one up immediately after my arrival here in the mid 1990s. I sold the company, moved out of Japan and went to the Philippines to start another company, sold that, moved back and here I am. So I sure as hell wasn’t about to let some broad from Oakland sit judgement on what topics I choose for discussion. She should be thankful I even took the time to talk to her. Bitch had a face like a rock anyway.

I’m driving over Bay Bridge now, and the Kawasaki smoke stacks loom on my left. I freaked out when I saw this place for the first time, and made the mistake of breathing in the black factory fumes that rose to the sky in towering spirals. Kawasaki is an ungodly sprawl of fossil fuel industry, sex shops, Korean barbecue restaurants that serve every kind of cow innard including rectums, and a sizable residential area thrown in for measure. The air is leaden with grease and smoke, mindful of late 19th century London. Not that I would know, but Arthur Conan Doyle described this stuff in the “Sherlock Holmes” books. Which reminds me, must get a new audio book for when I’m with Sandra.

It strikes me at this point that Sandra is a consolation prize for the hurtful fact that I haven’t slept with my wife in over a year, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Not. One. Bit. Some time after Year Five of our marriage, when I was on the brink of diving into the big Five Oh and Seiko was in her mid 40s, she completely turned off sex. I had to cajole and negotiate every time I felt like it, and was deeply humiliated to discover that she never felt the same.

Oh wait, there was that time when we were having dinner in this fancy ‘kaiseki’ dining bar and she started flirting with the waiter. They were giggling politely together as they discussed the menu and I looked at Seiko’s face and saw how badly she wanted this guy. He was nothing special, just a young Japanese in his early 20s, pencil thin like most of them, with glasses and short cropped hair. I watched and bided my time, and during dessert I said some of the worst things a man could say to a woman: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You do realize you’re old enough to be his mother and he’s laughing at you behind your back, you know that, right?”

Instead of snapping back at me, Seiko fell silent. She seemed so vulnerable at that moment, pale-faced and more adorable than she had ever been since the early months of our marriage. A single tear fell from her eye as she said: “he looked like my boyfriend in college. It’s just nostalgia.” I could have apologized, but like the white male idiot that I am, I forged on. “Ahhh, nostalgia. The Japanese are just so hung up on nostalgia. What the hell’s with the memory lane thing? You guys lost the war. We put you back on your feet. And your college boyfriend? He’s an old man now, he’s fat and bald and riding a packed commuter train as we speak!”

Seiko forgave me but after that little incident, we had sex less and less. I said we should get counselling but she practically snorted with derision. “Why do American men want sex so much? Are you sick? Is it a disease? I wish you would express your love for me in other ways.” And when I tried to bring it up again, she turned her face away, cried and said in Japanese: “I’m tired, leave me alone, please leave me alone.”

My American buddies who had married Japanese women had warned me this would happen, especially after babies came into the picture. Tim, who had divorced his American wife to marry a Japanese woman named Yoko (of course we called him Da Lennon after that), laid his woes on bar counters all over Tokyo. “Man, I need to get laid,” he would whine, and recount how Yoko had moved out of their bedroom and laid a futon in the baby’s room for easy night nursing. “Japanese women. They stop being women and just turn into fucking mothers. Why don’t they just tell me before I booked the goddamn church?” Poor Tim. He and Yoko are still together, and raising two boys. He’s always taking the kids out for soccer practice and baseball games but Yoko never goes. Tim always says the same thing: Yoko is resting and wants to have the house to herself. “Yeah, Seiko always says that too, and she doesn’t even have the excuse of kids!” I laugh. I let my heh-heh-hehs sink in, but no one laughs along.

Once I get past the Kawasaki rust belt, I get off the highway and ease Sandra by the curb. With some difficulty, I get out of the car and place my feet on dirty pavement. I look out again over the factories and gas tanks. I do this maybe twice a week, just to breathe in the awful fumes and contemplate the red and white checkered oil towers, the colossal chimneys vomiting up all kinds of toxic gas. And it gives me such a thrill. Men are like factories, I think. All the internal pumping and churning, the permanent furnace sitting between our legs, the enormous clanging and hulabaloo to produce…what? Something no one really wants or cares about, probably. But at these moments, I understand exactly why Donald Trump wants to brings back these factories, and the millions of men in hard hats who support him. We can’t help it, we ourselves are factories. Born to Spew.

Tonight, I’m getting take-out Chinese at my neighborhood place, and then relaxing on the sofa with Netflix until Seiko comes home. Not a bad life, I tell myself, steering the car around to face Yokohama again. Sandra and I take off, and for once the roads are pretty clear. I estimate another half hour until we get home. Later, maybe I can tell my wife about the man-as-factory thing. Maybe she’ll laugh, and we can hang out together on the sofa and be friends.

Seiko and I still share the same bedroom but sleep in single beds placed two feet apart, because she claimed my snoring bothered the hell out of her. I understand this arrangement is the most popular among Japanese couples. Salariman husbands only come home after the wife and kids are asleep anyway. Two single beds work just fine. The other day, one of the younger Japanese men at my company, said casually that he hadn’t spoken to his wife in a month even though they’re currently sharing a double bed inherited from his brother. “And that doesn’t worry you?” I asked. “Don’t you miss talking to her, what if she’s having an affair?” He smiled and said that lack of communication was the secret to a long-lasting bond. “I don’t know what she’s doing. She doesn’t know what I’m doing. But we are good.” Those were his exact words.

But we are good. Fuckin’ Ay.