Shinbun Kisha (The Journalist) is getting great box office and rave reviews, belying the myth that a Japanese movie about newsrooms and politics just won’t cut it. Based on the bestselling autobiography by audacious Tokyo Shinbun (東京新聞) reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalist is a suspense thriller about how the titular woman journalist dared go after the government to unveil conspiracies and cover-ups. Infuriatingly, most of her male colleagues are intent on adhering to the status quo. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat from ‘Naicho’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident.
“All Japan needs is a mere facade of democracy,” goes a line in this movie, implying that the nation neither needs or wants the real deal.
But now, with the House of Councillors election happening on Sunday, politics is on many peoples’ minds, including millennials that had shown zero interest in the past. Tickets in 42 theaters have sold out and the movie’s distributors announced that they will be printing 10,000 new copies of The Journalist pamphlet, as they’ve been selling off the shelves in theaters across Japan. Next week, the two main cast members will appear on stage at a theater in Shinjuku, to take their bows and answer questions from the audience. It looks like politics and newsrooms are a winning combination!
The Journalist is gripping, wrenching and ultimately cathartic, even if the plucky heroine doesn’t oust the evil government agents or get an enormous raise for her efforts. No, what happens is that news hound Erica Yoshioka (played by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung), after a series of grueling assignments that require round-the-clock investigating, not to mention the actual writing –gets to keep her job so she can start the cycle all over again in the name of quality journalism. Yoshioka also keeps her dignity and integrity intact, which is much more than one can say for Japanese movies about professional women, or let’s face it, women protagonists in general.
The role of Erica Yoshioka is gutsy and intriguing and you can’t help but wonder why a Japanese actress didn’t snap it up. Rumors are going around that all the possible candidates had turned it down because they didn’t want to get involved in anything anti-government and were afraid of the backlash. Shim can return to South Korea, but Japanese actresses have to live and work here.
Personally, I’ll take what I can get, and bask in the fact that The Journalist got made at all. Usually, such projects never get off the ground. Not only does The Journalist dig at some old scars the current Administration would rather forget, it bears the hallmarks of a well-meaning dud. There is no love story. There are no sex scenes or girl idols to alleviate the complete seriousness of the proceedings. And the director, Michihito Fujii, is only 32 years old with no blockbusters on his resume. Initially, Fujii turned down the offer of director since, as he professed in an online interview, “I didn’t know anything about politics or the news.” Still, once he signed on, Fujii did the research, hit the books and lined up interviews with government officials. The story benefits from his efforts but the directing seems just a tad stiff and two-dimensional. Perhaps Fujii was too caught up in the material to do more than connect the dots, albeit with meticulous expertise.
As it is, The Journalists belong to Shim and Tohri Matsuzaka who plays Sugihara, the elite bureaucrat working for ‘Naicho’. They give their all to film and Matsuzaka has been commended on social media for taking on a “dangerous” role that could potentially give him a bad name (the anti-government name).
Compared to Shim’s Yoshioka, Sugihara is more nuanced and inwardly tortured. His job is to protect the current administration and make sure the press don’t get their hands on any problematic information, but he has his misgivings. When his boss commits suicide to cover up another cover-up, Sugihara is shaken.
(Editor’s note–this is based on the suicide of a Finance Ministry official who killed himself rather than take part in deleting or altering government documents that implicated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a scandal relating to a government land-sale to a right-wing elementary school, run by his crony. None of the other officials who participated in forging public documents, which is a criminal offense, were charged; the female prosecutor who dropped the case was promoted)
The boss’s last words to Sugihara had been “don’t end up like me,” and Sugihara can’t fathom whether that meant “don’t die” or “don’t get involved in anything bad.” For a Naicho bureaucrat, the two most likely mean the same thing. Matsuzaka is a revelation – he has always been good but The Journalist shows his range. Last year, he was doing sex scenes ad nauseum in Call Boy and here, he never even takes off his jacket.
A word about Shim as Yoshioka: in the movie, her character has a Japanese father and a Korean mother, hence her accent when she speaks Japanese. Yoshioka completely lives for her job, to the point of excluding everything else from her life. It turns out that her father (also a journalist) had killed himself over an incident involving fake news. As his daughter, she had vowed to pursue the truth, whatever the cost. Shim’s performance is excellent, and one can only hope there will be a future where Japanese actresses will go for roles like this – far, far away from the planet of ‘Kawaii’.
In real life, there aren’t a whole lot of women journalists working for Japanese newspapers. Many don’t make it past the first five years; what with the long hours combined with frequent transfers to regional branches, incidents of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and of course, that thick glass ceiling – the job doesn’t exactly encourage them to stay on.
Isoko Mochizuki, the author of the book on which the film is based, however, is changing the scenery. As mentioned above, she’s a veteran reporter for Tokyo Shinbun which is famed for its hard-hitting investigative journalism and for being the Abe Administration’s most vocal critic. Her frequent cross questioning of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has ripped a big hole in Japan’s infamous ‘kisha club’ system (where only the reporters of major newspapers are allowed to attend closed press conferences). And now, with the unexpected success of The Journalist, perhaps we can start discussing hard-hitting issues like democracy and freedom of the press. Who’s to say the Japanese don’t need it ? They seem to love films that bring up these issues.
I am at the reception counter of Muji Hotel – the much touted and long awaited hotel produced by Muji, Japan’s popular minimalist clothing and household products brand. Muji, as you may know, stands for Mujirushi (無印) which literally means “no seal or stamp”; it’s a brand who’s trademark is no (visible) brand. Which is very Zen-like unless you look at the label inside.
When the hotel first opened in early April, rumor had it that every room was booked solid for the next 2 years. In late May, procuring a room (on a weekday) proved easy. Muji (rhymes with Fuji) has grown into a global label touting Japan-style simplicity and aesthetics but to the average non-minimalist Japanese, it remains inscrutable, even unfathomable. Many see the pared down surfaces and uniform designs of Muji products as a tad too aggressively simple to fit into their own lives.
Aggressive maybe, but never offensive. There’s not the tiniest fragment of offensiveness anywhere in the Muji Hotel, including the young woman who checks me in. She’s an epitome of serenity and calm, her hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck and wearing what is clearly a Muji outfit (white shirt and loose black cardigan plus black pants) the uniform of the hotel staff. She speaks almost flawless Japanese along with English and Urdu which she says is her native language. Before handing me the card key to my room, the young woman gives me an ‘omamori’ or talisman, compliments of Muji – and explains that inside the tiny cloth satchel there’s an emergency whistle (“in case of a natural disaster and other unforeseen events”) and a tiny leaflet containing instructions on getting through emergencies great and small. I open this leaflet and on the last page there is this advice: “If you should feel lonely, look up at the stars in the night sky.”
My room which is a single, feels spacious thanks to the high ceiling measuring over 3.5 meters. In Tokyo, high ceilings are a luxury and when it comes to hotel rooms, they’re the exclusive domain of high-end imported brands like the Peninsula, the Park Hyatt and the Ritz Carlton. Muji is distinctive in that it’s a genuine Japanese hotel, located in one of the choicest pieces of real estate in Tokyo, but only charges a fixed rate of 140 USD per single room, per night. Most importantly, it doesn’t suck or resemble a prison cell.
On the other hand, you can’t imagine anyone having a tryst here– it’s far too pristine and devoid of emotion. And a hotel without a tryst is like a cupcake without icing. Or am I being offensive? (Editor’s note: Not offensive. ‘A donut without a hole’ might have been an offensive metaphor but then again they eat donut holes in Australia, so who’s to say?)
Back in my room, a faint scent of linen combined with lavender lingers in the air, piped out from a portable aroma diffuser, one of Muji’s most popular items. Actually, everything in the room is made by Muji, from the bed to the packets of shampoo and conditioner precisely laid out in an oak chest (also Muji), to the little bag of complimentary snacks and the bottled water in the mini-fridge (also Muji). The idea is to let the guests get a taste of what it’s like to live a life defined by Muji, by spending some time in a space designed and totally controlled by Muji. And afterwards, we can take the escalator down to any of the five floors of Muji’s flagship store that’s located right below the hotel. The hotel and the shop are in the same building, and some of the tourists check in with empty suitcases, to stock up on Muji products during their stay. It’s a pretty nifty arrangement for Muji and The Minimalists–which could be a great ambient music band name.
The brand has always opted for discretion, restraint, understatement with a whiff of snobbishness. To admit to a love of Muji is to tell the world that as a consumer, you’re very woke. Muji covers all the bases that would gladden the heart of a discerning shopper: recyclable materials, ethical off-shore manufacturing, diversity among the staff, organic cotton in the clothing line and energy efficient appliances. Add to that the flat, unobtrusive, utterly desexualized designs and it all totals up to something that is for many minimalists, a guilty pleasure. Indeed, many Japanese minimalists admit on their blogs that if they have to shop at all, they shop at Muji. Others have taken it several levels higher by buying Muji houses (yes, they will make an entire house from the ground up) and outfitting it with Muji kitchens and bathrooms, after which they proceed to fill it up with Muji furniture and Muji food.
Muji was launched in 1980 by retail giant Seibu Conglomerates, as an alternative brand to what (then) Seibu CEO Seiji Tsutsumi saw as the nation’s misguided and excessive consumerism. Japanese consumers were hurling themselves into the go-go economy, believing that shopping nirvana was the closest thing to paradise. All of a sudden, the cramped living spaces of the average Japanese were overflowing with stuff. Few of it matched or made sense, and perhaps for the first time in Japanese history, people found themselves in possession of with more STUFF than they ever thought possible.
Muji offered an escape hatch from the clueless clutter of it all, with uniform, collapsible shelves and drawers designed to hold the simplest, most non-intrusive products. Now, forty years later, any discussion of Japanese minimalism almost always precludes a discussion of Muji. Konmari may be riding on her big wave at the moment, but Muji had been on the beach long before she was decluttering the ocean.
But as the hotel room shows, Muji has perhaps, gone a bit overboard. They had always walked the fine line between selling their ideals and selling their products but with the opening of the hotel, it seems that boundary has been obliterated. Muji has merged the product with the ideal, and the whole package comes with a price tag.
Consequently, the last thing you’d want to do in this space is to indulge in carnal pleasures, though to be fair, the hotel does encourage it. (Muji Prophylactics are sold on the third floor.) But since I was alone, what else was there to do but open my laptop to work at the Muji desk, lit by a Muji lamp, wearing Muji slippers after taking a shower in the Muji bathroom? Maybe I’ll even follow Muji’s suggestion and look up at the night sky for a few twinkling stars–and then fall into a dreamless Muji sleep.
Note: In a homage to Muji style, none of the photos in this article have been captioned.
Editor’s note: Japan’s most beloved pederast (a male who sexually assaults young men) , Johnny Kitagawa, died last week. He was an idol maker, the brains behind such super male idol bands as SMAP, Kinki Kids, and an entertainment legend. He was also so powerful that the seedy and dark side of his life was swept under the table even after his death.
There were some in the media that dared challenge the sleazy smooth Svengali. Weekly magazine, Shukan Bunshun ran a series of well-researched articles in 1999 describing how Kitagawa systematically abused young boys. Kitagawa then sued the publisher for libel but despite the testimony of alleged rape victims interviewed for the piece, the Tokyo District Court ruled in his favor. They ordered the publisher to pay 8.8 million yen in damages to Kitagawa and his company in 2002.
However, The Tokyo High Court overturned this decision in July 2003. They concluded that the allegations were true. “The agency failed to discredit the allegations in the detailed testimony of his young victims,” ruled the presiding Judge Hidekazu Yazaki. The case stood. The story was barely a blip in the Japanese media horizon. In an entertainment world where Johny’s stable of young boys was a prerequisite to ratings success, his ‘indulgences’ weren’t deemed worthy of reporting.
Johny granted few interviews–here is the story of one of them:
My interview with Johnny
By Steve McClure
It was only after I’d interviewed Johnny Kitagawa that I realized I’d scored a bit of a scoop.
“You interviewed Johnny? That’s amazing – he never does interviews,” my Japanese media and music-biz colleagues said. “How on earth did you manage to do that?”
It was 1996 and I was Billboard magazine’s Japan bureau chief. I was hanging out with an American producer/songwriter who had written several hit tunes for acts managed by Kitagawa’s agency, Johnny’s Jimusho.
“Want to hear a funny story about Johnny?” Bob (not his real name) asked me.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, the other day, Johnny told me he’d discovered a promising male vocal duo. I asked him what they were called.
“‘I’m going to call them the Kinki Kids,’ Johnny told me.
“I told him that ‘kinky’ means sexually abnormal in English slang.
“‘Oh, that’s great!,’ Johnny said.
Bob and I laughed.
“Say, Steve, would you like me to set up an interview with Johnny for you?” Bob asked.
I told him that would be swell.
Some days later I was informed that Kitagawa would grant me an audience at his private residence. I was enjoined not to reveal where the great man lived (it was Ark Hills in Akasaka, for the record).
I showed up at the appointed day and hour, and rang the doorbell of the condo high up in one of the Ark Hills towers. A browbeaten middle-aged woman answered the door. Evidently a domestic of some kind, she said I was expected and asked me to come in. She led me into a garishly decorated living room full of Greek statuary, Louis XV-style furniture and sundry examples of rococo frippery. There were no Ganymedean cup-bearers offering libations or any other signs of sybaritic excess.
I was ushered into the presence of the pop panjandrum. Johnny was sitting in an armchair beside a window with a stunning view of Tokyo. He was small, bespectacled and unprepossessing. If you saw him in the street, you’d never imagine he was the notorious and feared Svengali who had a stranglehold on the geinokai (芸能界/Japan’s entertainment world).
After we exchanged pleasantries, I got down to business. I asked Johnny about his early life in Los Angeles. “My dad ran the local church,” he told me without elaboration in a quiet, rather high-pitched voice. I later found out that Kitagawa père had been the head of a Japanese American Buddhist congregation in L.A.
Johnny was equally vague about when he first came to Japan. He reportedly arrived while serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the Korean War.
This set the tone for the rest of the interview – it was hard to get a straight answer out of Johnny, at least when it came to his personal history. He was more interested in talking about all the boy bands he’d groomed and propelled to stardom during his long and extraordinarily successful career.
Johnny told me how he got his start in showbiz when he saw some boys playing baseball in a Tokyo park, and later molded them into a pop group called The Johnnies. That set the template for the rest of his career – scouting for boys and using them as raw material as his pop production line churned out an endless succession of unthreatening quasi-androgynous male idol groups.
A classic showman, Johnny said he was more interested in live performances than records. He made his mark with coups de theatre like having ’80s male idol act Hikaru Genji do choreographed routines on roller skates.
“Once you release a record, you have to sell that record,” Johnny said. “You have to push one song only. You can’t think of anything else. It’s not good for the artist.” The Johnny’s stable of acts has nonetheless racked up dozens of No.1 hits over the years.
Johnny’s English, like that of many longterm expats, was quaintly fossilized. I could hear echoes of ’40s and ’50s America when he said things like “gee,” or “gosh” when answering my questions.
Soon after the interview began, the browbeaten obasan put a steaming dish of katsu-curry in front of me. I begged off, explaining that I’d just eaten lunch. This didn’t prevent the arrival of another dish soon after: spaghetti and “hamburg” steak, as I recall. Hearty fare for starving young idol wannabes was my take on the menu chez Johnny.
Having decided that “Are you or have you ever been a pederast?” might be somewhat too direct a question to put to the dear old chap, I lobbed a series of softball queries with the aim of establishing a friendly rapport. But even the most gently tossed questions elicited amiable but frustratingly vague answers from Johnny.
In the silences between his frequent hems and haws, the wind whined like a sotto voce banshee through the slightly opened window.
Johnny did tell me that he received 300 letters a day from guys wanting to sign up with his agency. I wasn’t sure if he was boasting or bored.
The time came to leave, and Johnny accompanied me to the door. “Come back anytime,” he said with a friendly smile as he waved me goodbye.
As I made my way down the hall to the elevators, I saw the finely chiseled profile of a young man peeking from around a corner, looking in my direction. He caught a glimpse of me and retreated. I resisted the temptation to tell him the katsu-curry was getting cold.
Sadly, I didn’t take up Johnny on his kind offer to come up and see him sometime.
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.
On April 30th, Emperor Akihito became the first sitting Japanese Emperor to abdicate the throne in over 200 years. Then, the following day on May 1st, his son Naruhito ascended the throne, becoming the 125th emperor thus marking the official start of the Reiwa (令和) Era.
In recognition of this momentous occasion, that PM Abe described to Trump as being “100 times bigger [than the Super Bowl],” many stores and companies released new products. Such as Reiwa branded sake and beer, a ¥100,000 truffle wagyu burger, foie gras and gold dust toped 3kg wagyu burger, gold dust seasoned potato chips and cans of Heisei Era air from Heinari in Gifu Prefecture, heisei branded bottles of water costing ¥2000. While many other stores simply opted to hold special time-limited sales.
At the same time, many Japanese consumers enjoyed an extremely long holiday (by Japanese standards) of 10 days and many went on spending sprees with some economists estimating there to be a nationwide spike in spending by tens of billions of Yen.
Meanwhile, many in China reportedly were baffled and disappointed that the new era name wasn’t based off of Chinese classics like many past era names and instead was instead allegedly derived from a collection of classical Japanese poetry from the late 7th to 8th centuries known as The Manyoshu.
One of the most odd effects of the new Reiwa era name, however, is the celebration of many Tibetans living in Japan due to the new era’s name sounding similar to the Tibetan word for “hope”. There are many people who hope and believe that the new era’s name is an auspicious sign for the Tibetan people; May 10th marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
The decades following the
end of the Second World War marked a significant period of development for
Japanese manga. The genres of manga became divided between two primary genres, shounen, and shoujo, for boys and girls respectively, and the art of telling
longer running stories became mainstream practice. As well, women began to
enter the manga industry rapidly during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which would
cause a significant shift in the stories that were told and how they were
presented within shoujo manga that
was released (Prough 2011:46-48). The stories that were produced in this new
style followed patterns of using exotic locations outside of Japan as the main
setting and expressing the emotions involved in human relationships, often love
triangles between the main character, the heroine, and two boys that she was
close to. They also employed a drawing style that remains recognized as a style
for shoujo manga. Despite the many
changes that took place, it was not until the 1970’s that female manga artists
would begin to experiment with the portrayal of kissing and sex in shoujo manga for older teenagers (Prough
2011: 53). However, these initial intimate scenes were not between two people
of the opposite sex but rather between two boys.
This new genre of shoujo manga, known as yaoi, shounen ai, and/or boys love depending on time period and context,
offered a new type of story to be consumed by the girls that were reading manga
at that time. Even though this new genre of shoujo
manga was about the love between two boys, it was not about portraying a
realistic and loving relationship between two men. Instead, the relationships
within boys love manga were symbolic of things desired and things experienced
by Japanese girls and women; they were a way for restricted individuals to
express their sexuality in text. While the genre has gone through many
stylistic changes, especially in recent years, this symbolism can still be seen
even in more recent works of boys love manga. By understanding the thematic and
stylistic origins of boys love manga and by analyzing some more recent works, it
will be possible to see how this symbolism continued on through various dynamic
changes in the genre while also developing into something new to accommodate
for continuing critic from the gay community and its allies in Japan.
Origin of Boys Love
The boys love genre saw its origins in the early 1970’s as a
type of mainstream shoujo manga. At
the time known as shounen-ai, these
stories followed the romance between two beautiful boys. The appearance of
these beautiful boys is striking because of the androgynous nature of their
appearances; with their long flowing hair and slender bodies their gender
appears as ambiguous to the untrained eye. In addition to their genderless
appearances, when engaging in intimate activity, the panels of the manga were
placed in a way that made their sexual actions even more ambiguous by never
directly showing insertion of a penis or other obviously male occurrences
(Prough 2011:53). While the appearance of these beautiful boys may bring to
question the true nature of their sex, interviews with artists of the genre
suggest that in their eyes at least, there is no doubt that these beautifully
drawn androgynous boys are male (Welker 2011: 213). None the less, it is likely
that the ambiguous appearances of the boys likely helped facilitate an
understanding of the characters for the readers.
Additionally, the early
settings of these shounen-ai manga
were placed in exotic locations just like other shoujo manga of the time. Not unlike other shoujo manga, these exotic locations were typically historical
Europe in aristocratic families, all-boys boarding schools, or both. Again like
other shoujo manga of the time, the
focus was on the emotions and connections made by the main character to others
around him.The combination of
foreign location and androgynous boys allowed for the mainstream shoujo manga readers to enjoy these
early shounen ai stories by
distancing them from the sexual content
but also by being relatable which was an overall important accomplishment for
manga because intimacy had never been expressed in such a way in manga before (Prough
the 1980’s, shounen ai had left
mainstream shoujo manga magazines and
began publishing in specialty magazines for the genre. With this new vein of
publishing the genre took on a new name courtesy of the publishing industry,
becoming the English “boys love” that is primarily used in this essay. Stories
about the love between two boys also began to thrive in another market, that of
doujinshi, or self-published
fanfiction (Prough 2011: 54). In this instance, these self-published works were
manga though doujinshi as a term
refers to all fan-published material. Within these fan-made works, the genre
was known as yaoi, an acronym that
stands for “no climax, no ending, no meaning.” This terminology represents the
way that these stories were written without much thought or plot. In this case
of boys love doujinshi they were
typically a quick and steamy after between the two main characters. These fan-made works were often much more
sexually explicit than their counterparts in shounen-ai were originally and as already stated, their sexual
encounter was overall the main point of the story. Many of these fan-made works are now often
based off stories in shounen manga,
with those released in the Weekly Shounen Jump magazine being especially
popular (Saito 2011: 180). Some of these titles include Gintama, Naruto, One Piece, and The Prince of Tennis. The
authors of these particular doujinshi
displayed and still do display a special ability to shift the friendly bonding
of shounen manga and turn it into a
romantic encounter between two teenage boys. The development of these doujinshi as separate to published boys
love is important because of the way they influenced setting and also sexual
content in commercially published works. Boys love manga was already evolving
continuously right from the start based on competition between the producers
and the consumers.
Experiencing Sex in Boys Love
The boys love manga that was produced from the 1990’s until
today has been able to become much more sexually explicit in part due to the
influence of the market of self-published manga (McLelland 2000: 19). While not
all boys love manga has sexually explicit content it is very common and much
more common than it was in the past. The role of the beautiful boy has also
changed. While most of the boys shown in boys love manga, there is less
emphasis on androgynous features than there was before; there is little doubt
by anyone that the characters are male, even without clear display of a penis.
A result of this is a division between roles that have become more clearly
visible to the readers, a division of roles that is essential to understand current
boys love narratives about sex more clearly.
In the vast majority of boys love manga, the
relationship between the two boys is understood in terms of their individual
roles as either the uke or the seme. The seme is recognized as the dominant, aggressive, male role in the
relationship and the uke is seen as
the passive feminine role (Saito 2011: 184). In this dichotomy, while both boys
are more clearly masculine in their features, the uke typically has more feminine features such as longer hair and
larger eyes as well as being more emotional while the seme shows more masculine traits. The manga The World’s Greatest First Love, by Shingiku Nakamura, is a good
example of this type of character description. The story follows two men that
reconnect ten years after a high school love gone wrong in the editing
department of a publishing company where they are now both employed. The seme, Masamune, has a squared chin and
always remains relatively expressionless even in some of their more steamy
On the other hand, the uke, Ritsu,has a more triangular chin and easily blushes in romantic
situations because of embarrassment (Nakamura 2015). While not all boys love
manga change the appearance between the two roles to such an extent, it is
usual for the features of the uke to
be more cute and feminine than those of the seme
both in appearance, mannerisms, and even personal skills and interests. These
personality traits as assigned by role are prominent in most boys love manga that
has been published in recent years by commercial publishers.
These appearances and
personality traits also translate to what sexual role each character performs. The
more masculine and dominant seme
plays the role of the penetrator, and the more passive and feminine uke plays the role of the penetrated
(Saito 2011: 184). By framing the relationship between the two boys is this
way, the authors of the manga are placing them within a very stereotypical
heterosexual relationship structure. The more masculine and dominant seme is almost exclusively the character
that initiates a relationship and then sexual contact, sometimes initiated by
platonic teasing or despite his insecurities about his sexuality. When the two
boys inevitably have sex, the uke will
be on the bottom, usually facing the seme
and laying underneath him. The story No
Touching At All by Kou Yoneda is an example of a story that follows this format.
The main character Shima is a closeted gay man that has moved from his old
company to a new company after a relationship with a straight man gone sour. He
is therefore timid and shy because of his past experiences and catches the
attention of the laid back and apparently straight section chief Togawa. Togawa
is initially interested in Shima platonically because of his cute behavior but
eventually falls in love with him (Yoneda 2011). The first time they have sex
is somewhat of an accident and uses sexual actions that are stereotypical to
heterosexual sex. The seme, in this
case, Togawa, is the dominant role in the relationship that is leading on the
relationship despite Shima’s hesitations. None the less it is clear that even
though their first sexual experience happens largely by mistake, the experience
was still pleasurable for both people involved.
By placing boys love
relationships into the frame of a heteronormative relationship, the readers are
able to understand what is happening between the two characters on an emotional
level, but in a sense, the couple is not understood within traditional
heterosexual relationship values. Instead, the boys love couple is seen as
functioning within a loving and equal relationship that cannot be experienced
outside of their world (Saito 2011: 180). While the roles between the uke and the seme may seem to be quite strict for determining character
personality and sex roles, the fact that they are both able to feel immense
pleasure from sex is an important aspect of sex that is presented in boys love
manga. As a genre that is directed to straight women, the perceived equality
portrayed within the boys love genre is said to be a response to traditional
sexual restrictions for Japanese women (Welker 2014: 267). Therefore the
narratives in boys love manga became a place for both the authors and readers
to express their sexuality freely. In a society that there is still great
pressure for women get married and have children within a certain time frame
which puts a heavy restriction the sexual liberty of women who are expected to
be primarily mothers and wives within a limited frame of time.
In comparison, men have
more freedom sexually in Japan even though they are also expected to get
married (McLelland 2000: 14). In this sense, the boy becomes the perfect canvas
for describing the ideal sexual situation, that of mutual pleasure, for women
because men traditionally have more sexual freedom than women. While it is true
that the appearances of the boys have become less ambiguous, the placement of
the panels in the manga still leaves a lot to the imagination. That with the
combination of the more feminine features of the uke makes it easy to imagine how a woman could relate to and desire
what this character may experience. A sexual experience between the two
partners as portrayed in many boys love manga is, therefore, able to illustrate
the possibility of giving and receiving pleasure without fear of shame. This
sex acts as an extension of love as well as a confirmation of feelings and is a
very important aspect of sexuality in boys love manga.
While many interactions in
boys love manga are focused on the mutual development of feelings between the seme and the uke through normal means, there are also works that are much more
violent in nature that seem to work in contrast to this image of pure and
mutual love. These aggressive sexual situations occur within a variety of
different scenarios that usually involve the negative emotions of the seme or an outside individual that has
enacted some type of violent act, psychological and/or physical towards the uke. For example, in No Touching At All, Shima’s initial fear
of being in a relationship with Togawa and people discovering that he is gay
stems from the sour relationship that he experienced at his previous workplace
because of his love for a straight man. There is also a point in the manga
where this fear does not allow him to trust Togawa’s love and the two have
rather aggressive sex for the “last time” in which they do not face each other
in mutual pleasure but instead Shima is used as a release for frustration and
violently taken from behind (Yoneda 2011). Another much more graphic and
violent example of aggression in boys love manga can be seen in the series that
in English known as Caste Heaven by
Chise Ogawa. As the title of the manga alludes to, the main characters of the
series attend a Japanese high school that the students run using a caste
system. The main character Azusa has always been the King of the caste but when
the next caste game begins he is tricked by the Jack, Karino, and plummets to
the lowest level of the caste after being pulled from the game by a situation
where he is gang-raped by a group of boys at the school. His subjugation
continues as he is targeted by students who could not go against him when he
was King. Karino, who has become the King, promises to protect him on the
condition that Azusa will become his personal sex slave (Ogawa 2015). Put into
this role Azusa is subjugated over and over again to the whims of Karino who
simultaneously protects him and sexually abuses him as his own personal public
toilet. In this type of situation, the dominance of the seme towards the uke is
exaggerated and intensified, but they still fit into the general guidelines of
the roles, even though Azusa is originally portrayed as being dominant.
Albeit disturbing to
certain readers, this type of story is also essential in understanding sexual
narratives in boys love manga. Unlike the example of Shima and Togawa who
symbolized sex that was desired, the type of violence experienced by Azusa acts
as a way for readers to become spectators of violence rather than be victimized
by such an incident (McLelland 2000: 20). The acts committed against Azusa by
Karino can be seen as a method of revenge as well as a way to subjugate an
inferior to elevate status. While Azusa begins by appearing more dominant, he
gradually gains more and more characteristics that are associated with women, and
his new status as subjugated may reflect the way that certain Japanese women
feel about the possibility of their position. By being the viewer instead of
the victim, reading about these actions becoming committed against a boy in the
story may provide the readers with comfort or some type of twisted empowerment
by acting as a fictionalized revenge against a system that works against them
in cases of sexual violence. As Caste
Heaven is an ongoing series, it is hard to say how the story will end, but
if using other manga of this style and by this author as a guide, the story
will end in either a mutual love or it may really just be a case of sexual
abuse with no alternative motive by Karino. These options bring to question the
feelings of the authors as they write these types of stories; are they merely a
kink or is there some deeper and darker frustration that fuels their creation?
Regardless of what the answer may be, the portrayals of aggressive sex in boys
love manga as violent, and abuse can be seen as symbolic of the suppression
felt by many Japanese women in Japan.
Love Moving Forward
With increasing popularity and stories that reach out to
many types of female readers, the boys love genre has been able to expand far
beyond being a subgenre of shoujo manga.
While unstable, the market has expanded to include many different forms of boys
love narratives including anime adaptations, novels, PC and video games,
voice-only drama CD’s, live action movies, and other boys love related
character merchandise as sold in stores such as Animate in Ikebukuro. As already explained, sexually explicit
content as also moved out of doujinshi
and into publisher released boys love manga.
While boys love films are not new, there has been a great about of
recent success, especially with the release of the movie adaptation of No Touching At All last year that this
year was rereleased for additional screening (Taiyou Garden 2015). This level
of success has likely contributed to an increased released of live-action
adaptations of manga such as Seven Days and
Wait for Me at Udagawachō. With the
release of live action films that are more popular, the fans and genre of boys
love will only become more visible from now on. None the less, these fans
remain to stigmatize in Japanese society until today because they are
essentially seen as consuming gay pornography. This stigmatization makes a full
evaluation of the boys love market impossible because many fans consume boys
love in secret as not to be shamed by their acquaintances that are also not
fans (Saito 2011: 176). This expansion also represents an increased importance
of the symbolism and representations of perceived equality in boys love manga
as well as approaching issues of gender fluidity.
increased attention has also affected the types of narratives that are seen
within boys love manga today. It was already shown how the development of doujinshi influenced the amount of
explicit sexual activities shown in boys love manga, but the exposure to
critics also affected the narratives that were being told. These types of criticisms
can be cited as far back as the early 1990’s to both gay men in Japan and their
supporters criticizing what they claimed as completely fictional and
unrealistic representations of homosexual relationships (Nagaike 2015: 65).
More and more often, the main characters of boys love manga are openly gay from
the start, such as Shima who was previously described. Shima’s situation also
shows an increased representation of some of the problems and fears that gay
men in Japan may have to face such as alienation at the workplace (Yoneda
2011). Previously published stories often diminished or ignored the seriousness
of these issues real life and important issues. While No Touching At All displays some of these improvements, other works
have taken it a step further, perhaps as the pioneers of something completely
new. One such work is called Koi
Monogatari, meaning “love story” in English. This story is told through the
perspective of Hasegawa, a high school student who discovers that one of his
classmates, Yamato, is gay when he catches him stroking the hair of one of his
friends. Given his carefree personality, Hasegawa is initially shocked because
his friend is the subject of interest but gradually gets to know Yamato and
starts to wish for his happiness (Tagura 2015). In becoming friends with
Yamato, Hasegawa is able to learn more about some very real struggles and
insecurities that gay young men have and comes to realize that there is nothing
wrong with being gay because that is just the way they are; they cannot do
anything to change it even if they want to. This narrative suggests that there
are authors in the boys love community that are starting to take the lived
experiences of gay men very seriously and are being to incorporate that
narrative into the genre through an understandable shoujo manga style lens.
From the beginnings of shoujo
manga following the Second World War and the introduction to shounen ai narratives in the early 1970’s,
boys love as a genre has gone through many dynamic changes since its creation.
The genre that began sexual expression in shoujo
manga developed over the years from ambiguously gendered boys that
participated in equally ambiguous sex, to some less ambiguous and much more
sexually explicit. Even with that level of change, boys love as a genre was
still able to maintain the symbolism that it originated with, the narratives of
expressing restricted female sexually and subjugation. These narratives have
remained relatively unchanged as since through Shima and Togawa, Ritsu and
Masamune, and Karino and Azusa. Boys love has always been a way for women to
voice their dissatisfaction and also a way for them to experience their desire
through fiction. More recently, the genre has expanded the way that it has
reached its audience, making boys love have even more influence over the way in
which participants express their sexuality through fiction. However, the
dynamic changes of the boys love genre are not stopping with just increased
styles of expression but also increasing the type of narratives that are being
told. While the genre may not be and may never be able to be completely
embraced by gay men in Japan given its shoujo
feeling, this does not discount the fact that more and more narratives that
express the sexuality of gay men in Japan are being released such as the story
of Yamato by Tohru Tagura. All of these narratives, regardless of homophobic
tones or not, are an important representation and expression of realities and
desires of sexual equality in Japan. While it cannot be understood now how far
the influence of boys love will expand, the genre is without a doubt an
important place for those that are restricted to express sexuality without worry
McLelland, Mark J.
2000 The Love Between ‘Beautiful Boys’ in Japanese Women’s Comics. Journal of Gender Studies 9(1): 13-25. EBSCOhost. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.library.smu.ca
2015 The World’s Greatest First Love. Adrienne Beck, trans. San Francisco: SuBLime.
2015 Kasuto hevun. Tokyo: Libre Shuppan.
Prough, Jennifer S.
2011 Straight from the Heart. United States of America: University of Hawai’i Press.
2011 Desire in Subtext: Gender, Fandom, and Women’s Male-Male Homoerotic Parodies in Contemporary Japan. Mechademia 6: 171-191. Project Muse. http://muse.jhu.edu/
2015 Koi monogatari. Tokyo: Gentosha Comics.
2015 News. http://www.doushitemo.com/news.html
2011 Flower Tribes and Female Desire: Complicating Early Female Consumption of Male Homosexuality in Shōjo Manga. Mechademia 6: 211-228. Project Muse. http://muse.jdu.edu/
2014 Beautiful, Borrowed, and Bent: “Boys’ love” as girls’ love in shōjo manga. In Gender and Japanese Society: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies Volume IV. Dolores P. Martinez, eds. Pp. 256-281. New York: Routledge.
2011 No Touching At All. Jocelyn Allen, trans. California: Digital Manga Distribution.
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.
You can’t make blood from a stone but you can make ink with a stone, and beautiful artistic ink. That is, if you’re using as 硯石(suzuri-ishi), a traditional Japanese ink-stone, which in and of itself can be an art object. I went to Daigo-machi in Ibaraki Prefecture to see one be made by a traditional craftsman and try one out for myself. If you’re an amateur calligrapher (書道家）but aspire to greatness, you need one of these in your life.
Daigo-machi located in Ibaraki Prefecture is one of the few places where traditional suzuri are still made. There is a particular kind of stone that is perfect for making suzuri and the town still has a limited supply. The stones are able to grind down the solid materials used for making ink to do calligraphy, but are also resistant to being ground down as well. As far back as the Tokugawa era, the stones from Daigo and the suzuri produced there were considered natural treasures.
The stones were treasured by Japanese artists like Hoan Kosugi, noteable authors such as Saneatsu Mushanokōji (武者小路 実篤) and even Japanese Prime Minister Tsuyoshi (話せばわか) Inukai*.
Taizan Sato became fascinated with the process of making ink stones after attending a workshop conducted by the man who would later become his master, Taiseki Hoshino.
He opened his own workshop in the town in the year 2002. He has learned over time to touch a stone and know immediately whether or not it is suitable to be an ink-stone. It can’t be too hard and it is helpful if it has some claylike qualities, but not to the point of being absorbent.
In an effort to combine the town’s traditional lacquerware with the ink stones, he uses only lacquer painstakingly handscraped from the urushi trees to paint the outside edges of the stone, and ads design, to turn them into works of art on their own. Many of Japan’s living national treasures use his stones in their artwork and calligraphy.
Sato-san has one disciple (弟子) to follow in his footsteps.
As an amateur calligrapher, I can tell you that the feel of the one of his hand-made stones compared to the cheap ones sold in stationary stores is a world apart. The smoothnesss of his hand-made suzuri are extraordinary and yet the part of the stone used to grind down the ink is so subtly raised that you can barely feel it with your finger. The ink has to be ground very slowly, almost as if you were gently rubbing the ink stick against a bare nipple—-a bare nipple with razor stubble. The right amount of water and delicate friction produces a finite level of ink which pools in the “ocean” of the ink-stone (suzuri).
The detailed structure of the ink-stone makes it possible to vary the lightness and thickness of the ink; the results are brush strokes that are not uniform and subtle on the paper. For Sumi-e paintings, it is also a wonderful tool to have. Admittedly, such a majestic tool is slightly wasted on a person like myself who as my calligraphy teacher points out, “Lacks all delicacy and does not follow the proper stroke order” but maybe someday…..
I purchased one of the stones for someone much more qualified than me to make use of it (list price 30,000 yen but I only had 23,000 yen in cash so he generously cut me a deal). I gave it to a curator at the Met who is an expert on calligraphy. In another decade, I may be worthy of owning one myself. Which means another trip to Daigo…..a town with many charms.
As long as you’re in town…..
Japan is a famous for lacquerware known as urushi, and to make it the authentic way, you need organic sap from the urushi tree. Daigo provides much of the quality organic urushi needed for Japan’s traditional crafts.
Due to the cold climate and soil composition Daigo produces what some say is the finest raw urushi in Japan. It is clear, dries quickly, and has a fragrance reminiscent of Japanese cypress. If you make arrangements in advance, you can go to the serene Urushi tree forest and see how the sap is extracted. The master urushikaki (person who scrapes urushi) is Yuzo Tobita, who is 84. There used to be a hundred people doing the work. Now there are, including Tobita, five or six people continuing the tradition. It’s hard work. It takes up to ten years to grow an urushi tree and from one tree, at best you can extract 200 milliliters, basically a small bottle of Shiso Pepsi Cola.
Fortunately for the tradition, there are young apprentices like Yuma Watanabe who is 26 and now learning the art. If he sticks with it, traditional urushi may last another few generations.
After you’ve seen the urushi drawn from the sap, and maybe tried your hand at the work yourself—take a visit to Kijian, where you can see lacquerware being made and buy some souvenirs. The master , Toru Tsuji, has his own style of creating lacquerware, Yamizonuri, which results in elegant and zen-like austere utensils.
*Prime Minister Inukai was assassinated on May 15, 1932 starting the dark age of Japanese Imperialism
Coauthored by Brian Ashcraft, a senior contributing editor for the website Kotaku, and Osaka based tattoo artist Hori Benny, this book Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design was written with the goal with the intention of helping those that are thinking of getting a Japanese style tattoo (perhaps most commonly known outside of Japanese as irezumi・刺青). Both authors use extensive knowledge of Japanese style tattooing and personal interviews to guide the novice away from committing any cultural faux pas in a work that spans 158 glossy pages.
“Over the course of researching, interviewing, and writing this book, we
consulted numerous friends, colleagues, experts, and total strangers with the
goal of introducing and decoding the most prevalent motifs so that English
speakers can have a better understanding of their meaning and hopefully get
Japanese tattoos that can be worn with pride – as they should be”
The book begins with an introduction to
the history of irezumi in Japan, from punitive tattoos, to prohibition, and all
the way back to modern times. This first section also covers briefly some
reasons why Japanese tattoos have changed over time. The book is then divided
into six additional chapters based on the different styles and motifs found in
irezumi, with numerous sections in each chapter that clearly divide different
motifs in that style. A tattooist and client profile are also included at the
end of every chapter, giving life to the theme of that particular chapter. There
are also information boxes that provide additional information to support the
content within the main body of the work. All of this is supported with high
quality, full colour images of tattoos and virtually every single page of the
What I found extremely impressive about
this book was the sheer quantity and quality of the accompanying images. Not
only are specific motifs and their meanings clearly explained, but the authors
have also provided imagery and explanations of the images themselves. The
reader is able to enjoy each and every motif – usually in more than one style.
Both Ashcraft and Hori Benny did an exceptional job collecting the various
photographs of irezumi for the book.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book
though, was the addition of the Tattooist Profile and Tattoo Client Profile at
the end of every single chapter. While the majority of the book reads, to an
extent, like an irezumi dictionary of sorts, these sections brought extra life
into the vast amount of information being provided. We, as readers, are given
the opportunity to hear the voices of individuals that are not the authors.
These sections are personal and provide a real solid look into the minds of the
tattoo artists and their clients. We are able to see their views on irezumi and
what they mean to them personally. The extra insight brought in by these
sections is a crucial component in what makes Japanese Tattoos work – it makes the “foreign” content relatable.
That being said, the large amount of
information that the book contains is also a weakness. There were certain
sections that I found difficult to read. There are extra text bubbles of
information throughout the book, but in some places their existence takes away
from the overall flow of the work. The reader is obligated to both stop
midsentence to go read the “extras” or move on and hope they don’t forget to go
back and read them again. Such as,
“The fox (kitsune in Japanese) is associated with the formless Shinto deity Inari, who is sometimes depicted as male, other times as female and sometimes as gender-less. Inari is not only the god of rice, sake wine, and fertility, but also the god of metal workers and commerce. Stone fox statues often appear at the more than ten thousand officially recognized Inari shrines in Japan, and because the fox guards these shrines, the animal is often confused with the god. The pure white foxes, however, aren’t simply the god’s messengers, but also guard and protect the shrines. These foxes also carry connotations of wealth and fertility, due to Inari’s rice associations.” (pg. 57)
I found sections like this rather
disjointing and it did affect my reading experience. Definitely not a problem
for many readers, but something that I wish would have been laid out a little
better, especially considering the high quality of the content on every single
Overall, Japanese Tattoos was a fascinating read and I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested in tattoos or keen to learn more about specifically about irezumi. While perhaps the academic might find the content a bit shallow in terms of the historical content, it is important to remember that that is NOT the goal that Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny set for this book. They wanted to create a resource for English speakers who wanted to get Japanese tattoos. A goal that I would say they accomplished with flourishing colours.
Taylor Drew is a new contributor to JSRC she is a Canadian living in Tokyo since 2015. (Almost) fluent in Japanese. Loves Iwate and cats.
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.