Bloodshed, Firecrackers and Tears–The Best Japanese Movies Of The Heisei

By Kaori Shoji

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

顔無し (NoFace)

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

The Japanese Gentle Art of Extortion

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. 

3) The Shoplifters『万引き家族』2018
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

1) One Big Happy Family – clockwise from right, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki and Sakura Ando. Title: The Shoplifters ©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro. Distributed by GAGA

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.

4) Ichi『殺し屋イチ』2001
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.” 

6) Zan『斬』2018
Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto 

(C)SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

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. 

The Past Present

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.

Meditations on long-form journalism, Japan, Bitcoin and Justice

Turn phone horizontal and please click Thread Reader App icon in upper right corner ↘, if you have trouble reading on mobile device

If you love Japan, make it better. Our mission statement 2019

Criticism is caring.

Happy New Year 2019

 

If you don’t address social problems or recognise they exist, nothing changes. I love Japan and many Japanese people are hard-working, honest, and polite. That doesn’t mean the society doesn’t have problems, such as child poverty, gender inequality, discrimination against: the handicapped, women, foreigners, especially Korean Japanese—powerful organised crime, nuclear dangers, staggering injustice in the legal system, repression of the free press, sexual assault on women with impunity for many assailants, rampant labor exploitation, death by overwork, and political corruption. Ignoring the problems doesn’t make them better. If you are offended by that, rethink your love of Japan.

The Japanese government has stated: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and have the right to live with dignity. Many people in the world, however, are not able to enjoy their rights. The United Nations has thus engaged itself in activities to improve human rights situations. Japan strongly supports UN activities in the human rights field, believing that all human rights are universal
Is it unfair to expect Japan to live up to its promises?

It’s a cute Japanese dog photo because who doesn’t love these loyal dogs?

The argument that “It’s worse in XXX (China,North Korea, US) so it’s okay to have XXX (sexism/racism/fascism/wage slavery/death by overwork) in Japan” is silly. It’s like the accused in a murder trail arguing, “I should be declared innocent because I only killed one person in the robbery but my partner killed three.” Some things are never okay. Whataboutism is the last resort of the intellectually dishonest weasel. (Sorry kids).

I don’t think that the work we do is shouting to the wind. Every effort matters. Sometimes sarcasm is an effective tool. We try to be polite in our response to the comments but rudeness is sometimes met with rudeness. 親しき仲にも礼儀あり

Does any of our work make a difference? Yes.
Actually, in my time as a reporter, me being “Jake Adelstein”, on editing duty today–criticism of huge problems in Japan, via articles that I have written and written with others, resulted in better laws against human trafficking, comprehensive measures to deal with dioxin pollution, and the Japanese government recently admitting that there is a huge problem with exploitation of underage girls that needs to be dealt with.

I and many of the writers on this blog who live in Japan, love this country, and loving a country doesn’t mean remaining silent; it means speaking up about what is wrong, and correcting it. The effort doesn’t always work but sometimes it yields results. And people who can’t see any fault or social problems in their country or refuse to do anything about it or just as complicit in the rise “dark corporations,” greedy nationalists, death by overwork, exploitive enterprises, corrupt politicians, and the nuclear industrial complex that have done so much harm to the nation. For decades many warned of the dangers that TEPCO and its poorly managed nuclear power plants held. They were ignored. It doesn’t make them any less correct.

The battle to protect human rights, worker rights, equal rights, the environment, democracy, the public right to know, justice, gender equality and to fight poverty and end corruption are important struggles. All over the world. Japan is no exception.

I’m a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in training, which is a part of Japanese culture–surprise! I wouldn’t argue the metaphysics of Buddhism are true, but there are universal truths and there is a motto that I have as an editor and journalist and try to keep in my own personal life. Pardon the idealism but I believe this creed applies everywhere in the world.
So below is a modified version of our editorial policy, adapted from the Dhammapada (法句経). Thank you for your consideration.

Jake Adelstein, Japan Subculture Research Center, editor in chief

Conquer anger with compassion.
Conquer evil with goodness.
Conquer trolls with humour & sarcasm
Conquer ignorance with knowledge
Conquer stinginess with generosity. 
Conquer lies with truth

The Creepy Troll That Loved Me: A Personal Horror Story

 By all means, do go and tell your side of the story to them, motherfucker.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I heard that your daughter gives really good head… and so does your son.

Hey, I wanted to hear if your children are getting a good sleep because… when you get fired, and I get fired, you’re going to have to put your kids out of international school and into Japanese school and I’ll be teaching there.  (The tape recording is below ↘)

(2007)

Christopher Johnson

Where I come from, you don’t mess with a man’s car, a man’s woman, a man’s dog, or a man’s job. You go behind someone’s back, and they come knockin on your front, with a shotgun. And I suppose you’ll send this to your mommy to defend you, right? (2011)

Christopher Johnson

 

I have a talent for pissing people off. I’m sure it comes from a personality defect, of which I have many, and I will strive to work on improving my generally surly nature.

However, while I’m surly I don’t delight in the suffering of other people. Unfortunately, I have a cyberstalker who does. And when he can’t get to me, he attacks my friends. Or uses his virtual sock-puppets (Chris Beck, Kita (I don’t have the balls to use my real name) Yaesu to do it.

The worst troll in the world is one that claims to be a journalist—they abuse our profession by writing with malice, distorting the truth and mixing it with enough lies to make it seem plausible, and claim to be “reporting” to do it. I call them “trollnalists”. 

There is a certain disgruntled self-professed journalist Christopher Johnson aka The Troll who has a personal vendetta against me and anyone who is my friend or employer. The reasons are very simple: I made the mistake of asking about his visa status when he was denied entry into Japan and/or deported in 2011. I then refused to write an article on his behalf in 2012. He took it very personally.

In a single skeptical tweet, I gained a stalker who has devoted five years to attacking me, my friends, women I've dated, and people who I work with. It was just a question.
In a single skeptical tweet, I gained a stalker who has devoted five years to attacking me, my friends, women I’ve dated, and people who I work with. It was just a question. The answer was very hostile. So it began.

He’s accused me of 1) being addicted to meth-amphetamines 2) not having been a police reporter, which is probably because he can’t read enough Japanese to figure out what 警視庁記者クラブ means 3) being a womanizing asshole 4) plagiarism 5) being completely wrong about yakuza involvement in the nuclear industry 6) being mentally ill and in addition, he’s stalked and defamed my friends and colleagues, especially female reporters. It goes on and on.

He’ll probably alter his crazy blog posts soon to eliminate claim #5. He’s devoted 40 sprawling pages to my life which he continually rewrites when glaring errors are found. No one is sure what he does to support himself these days but perhaps his famous brother, Gordy Johnson aka Grady Johnson is supporting him. Who knows?

He is right about number 3. Gotta work on that.  I can be an asshole and a womanizer.  Guilty.

I didn’t mind so much his man-crush and attacks on me, but now he continues to harass other journalists I know, accusing them of plagiarism. He accuses them of  taking money from corporations to slant their coverage, etc. He writes their editors, calls their offices, tweets at them endlessly. It’s hard to really explain how venal this individual is so I’ll let him speak for himself.

This is the kind of guy I’m dealing with. The kind of guy who left messages like this for his co-worker at NHK in 2007.

I will have to tell you that Tanaka-san and Iida-san are now well aware of your fucking bullshit. By all means, do go and tell your side of the story to them, motherfucker.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I heard that your daughter gives really good head… and so does your son.

Hey, I wanted to hear if your children are getting a good sleep because… when you get fired, and I get fired, you’re going to have to put your kids out of international school and into Japanese school and I’ll be teaching there. 

 

The Troll. The Bully. Self-proclaimed journalist. Terrible nuisance.天の邪鬼
The Troll. The Bully. Self-proclaimed journalist. Terrible nuisance.天の邪鬼

 

 

It is a revolting thing to do, for which CJ has never apologized. It makes him sound like a pedophile–and although he spent many years in Thailand, there is no evidence that he is one. But it’s still a fucking awful thing to say. An apology would be nice.

Dave Schaufele, the NHK co-worker, sent JSRC a note on the incident:

“It’s time to stand up to this bully.
I would have no hesitation beating the living crap out
of this sicko after his comments about my children, as
 would any father in a similar position I suspect. So if he
 ever sees me again he better turn the other way and run.

Friends at NHK who know CJ recommended
 that I just ignore him because he’s mentally unstable.
But if his slanderous meltdown rant is starting to spread
I guess I need to reply and set the record straight.

I must admit I’m so short of time between work and
family that I haven’t even started a Facebook page,
let alone made 14,000 blog posts as “Greji” whose
slang and poor spelling might indicate that English 
is not his first language. CJis simply delusional.

I suspect he knows I’m not Greji but was simply looking for a way
to use NHK’s name in the headline and fabricate a high profile
story that would make him seem like a victim instead of a predator.
 CJ knows that his own actions resulted in his loss of work but
his alter ego is trying to find someone else to take responsibility.

CJ pulled all the hateful slander completely out of his ass.
I have many Jewish friends and have never made any anti-Semitic
 remarks nor written anything about Johnson’s girlfriend or family
 and therefore he can provide no examples at all in his rant.

I made no phone calls to him period; another fabrication
to try and justify his pedophile phone messages left on my 
keitai answering system. Playback is continuous once 
activated and no alterations were made whatsoever.

I do sometimes get a sunburned neck when working outdoors
but have no neo-nazi contacts or own any guns. I guess
 those were the most hurtful fabrications Johnson could come
up with in his appeal for sexual-predator sainthood.

He’s a mental case whose 2 sexual harassment complaints on file
at NHK got him fired in 1995 but he managed to sneak back
in years later. I was unaware of his past and when he first
started work I actually tried to help the guy out as a fellow
Canadian by giving him over $1,000 in extra work, which he 
thanked me for by inviting me over to his XXXs place
 for a beer. Seems like he’s been freeloading off her for years.
 But as the old saying goes – no good deed goes unpunished.
 CJ left town on short notice and our NHK boss asked me to
 cover a couple of his shifts. When he returned he went psycho
 and tried to get me fired, which backfired because the bosses 
remembered that he was the pervert they got rid of in ’95.
When he made disgusting sexual comments about my young
 children I played his phone messages for my boss and it was 
3 strikes you’re out – again – for that sicko.

I guess CJ figured that if I hadn’t posted his phone messages in
 5 years I have probably lost or erased the file so it’s safe to slander
 me and headline NHK’s name to regain his Economist notoriety.
I did erase the file because I didn’t want to hear his voice again.
For the record I haven’t spent a minute thinking about the asshole
 during the past five years and this is my first and only blog post
 related to him in all that time.

Now you know – the rest of the story.”

 

He does what trolls do. He writes my employers, he makes threatening calls to the FCCJ. He has a penchant for harassing my female friends especially. Maybe in his mind they are the weaker sex. I gather he’s a misanthrope and a misogynist.  I wish he would just attack me. It’s such a dishonorable thing to do to attack the friends of the person you hate. Even the worst yakuza aren’t usually that low.

He is angry that I would not take up his cause or defend him. I don’t know him well and I didn’t think he had a position that I could defend and I politely declined to offer my support. By asking one pointed question, about his visa status, he perhaps feels that I sprung a hole in his credibility dyke, which caused him a flood of attack and ridicule.

I don’t know; I’m not a mind reader.

Recently his threats have escalated. He is very fond of threatening to sue people for slander. He also poses threats to them as questions under the guise of being a journalist. He makes sexual slurs about female reporters. He has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make me angry and scare individuals working with me. For many months, I ignored him. He went away. I ignored him again. But he came back and started harassing anyone he can identify as my friend or employer.

I realized that stepping back was the wrong approach. It was a cowardly act to do nothing. This man under the guise of ”journalism” has terrorized individual after individual because everyone hopes that he will grow bored and find a new person to attack and stalk–and thus they do nothing. This is understandable. But because no one stands up to this bully, the number of those who have suffered because of him keep growing.

Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Einstein was right. I’m doing something about.

The more I know about the individual and his past, the more I began to feel increasingly uneasy. He has a history of making insidious threats. On October 16th, 2007, he left disgusting messages on the answering machine of an NHK colleague that implied he would sexually molest the individual’s children. The tape contains what seems to be the sounds of said journalist masturbating over the phone.

Allegedly, the dispute The Troll had with a co-worker ended in him making several obscene calls to the man’s home phone which resulted in his firing from NHK. NHK has not confirmed this although others who were working at NHK have and so has The Troll in his own blog.

 

Transcripts of threats made to NHK co-worker October 16th, 2007

 The story of the Troll who threatened to molest the children of a fellow NHK worker 

録音テープ(出所不明)被害者はNHK職員だとそうです。

10月16日2007年

Troll:

I will have to tell you that Tanaka-san and Iida-san are now well aware of your fucking bullshit. By all

means, do go and tell your side of the story to them, motherfucker.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I heard that your daughter gives really good head… and so does your son.

和訳:飯田さんと田中さんはあなたの嘘八百をよく知っているよと教えてやろうと思った。どう

ぞ、あなたの言い分を二人に言ってみな、この糞野郎。ところが、言い忘れたが、あなたの娘は

フェラチオがうまいそうだね。。。あなたの息子も。

新しいメッセージ、10月16日、火曜日、(平成19年)

午後9時22分

Sounds of what may be masturbation

約20秒ジョンソンが自慰している音が聞こえる

メッセージを保存しました。次の新しいメセージです。

10月17日、水曜日、午前、10時58分。

Hey, I wanted to hear if your children are getting a good sleep because… when you get fired, and I get

fired, you’re going to have to put your kids out of international school and into Japanese school….

子供はよく寝ているか。聞きたかったな。あなたと僕は首になったら、あなたは自分の子供をイン

ターナショナルスクールから退学させなくちゃならない。そして子供を公立学校に入れると。。。

(俺はそこで教えて待っていますよ)

For the record, this is his explanation:

“The letter enraged ●●●。 His new round of phone calls and letters now insulted ●●● and my family,including my brother, leader of one of Canada’s most popular bands at that time. I couldn’t take it anymore. Regrettably, I lost my temper. During a heated exchange of insults by email and phone, I left a nasty message on his phone. I responded to his insult that, “I hear there’s a job opening for a teacher who likes children, right up your alley”. In effect, I said to him: “if you get me fired from NHK, I will have to get a job teaching English again, and I might end teaching your children.” ●● claims he recorded it. He probably took the comments out of context, and possibly tampered with them, given his skills at voice acting and doctoring evidence and twisting facts…”

 You can listen for yourself.

In addition, in May of 2011 he also made several threats to the journalist who replaced him at France 24.

Although I received the journalist’s permission to post this and verified it with three sources, I have deleted the name of the journalist threatened and changed the name of the one making the threats. Why? Because it’s customary practice in Japan to not publicize the names of people who are possibly mentally ill and may be under investigation for criminal offenses.

Other than blocking out some names, to protect the individuals from the loathsome attacks and smears of the troll, I have altered not a word, but put some sections in bold that are particularly disturbing. I’m reasonably sure the Troll aka Hostile Journalist will coming looking for me since by opposing him, I’m obviously a mofo.

We shall see.

PS. To Hostile Journalist: Do not even think about threatening (脅迫罪) anyone who cooperated with this article other than myself. Have some decency.

The story of the Troll threatening  the journalist aka  “The Mofo” that “stole” his job

 

 Troll’s  Letters To His Replacement at France 24 May-June 2011

The Troll, quoted here as “Hostile Journalist” sent a series of hostile emails after being fired by France 24. The reasons he was fired or let go may or may not have to do with the emails he sent. The emails were provided by a past victims of the Troll and on my own initiative I have kept his name non-public for fear that The Troll will retaliate against him as well.Hopefully, he is intelligent enough to realize that the emails he has sent constitute a threat. If he has a problem with this posting, I hope he will be a man and come after me and not the journalist who was kind enough to give me the materials. The letters began with an unsolicited posting from Troll.

 The Troll Writing To France 24 Journalist Who Replaced Him 

20 May 2011

Dear Journalist

I’m Troll, a veteran Tokyo-based journalist who has covered almost every major story in Asia and around the world since 1987, including the wars in Yugoslavia, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, for major media worldwide.

I’m going to cut straight to the point about this. I do not allow people to take freelance strings that I have cultivated over the years. For your information, Loick Berrou hired me in July 2007 as the France 24 Anglo reporter in Tokyo, and since that time I have done hundreds of live phoners and on-camera

reports from Tokyo (often using the satellite feedpoints at Reuters and NHK), Tibet, China, Burma and Thailand (using feedpoints at Asiaworks).

I have taken great risks to build up the network. I was the only foreign journalist in Lhasa the week of the riots in March 2008, and I broke the story worldwide on France 24, beating BBC, CNN and everybody else. I also snuck inside Burma and reported on the crackdown on protesters, and Cyclone

Nargis, for the network. Last year, I did a flurry of reports amid gunfire and explosions during the battle of Bangkok (working in the same battle-zone where France 24 cameraman Nelson Rand was shot several times.)

Immediately after the March 11 quake, I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to arrange logistics for●●●, one of the network’s top Francophone correspondents (you can see the work we did together on the documentary The Battle of Bangkok). I also did 60 live reports for France 24 the first four weeks

after the quake, while you were working for somebody else, apparently.

I do not know what university training or professional qualifications you have in journalism, and I’m not familiar with the impact of your work. I’ve worked around most of the top journalists in Asia, and I don’t recall meeting you.

As for me, I have been through a weeding out process, of four years at Canada’s top journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa, and then some of the leading networks and newspapers in Canada, before coming to work as a professional journalist in Asia. I learned to speak and read Japanese beginning in 1989, and covered the Kobe earthquake and sarin gas attack for CBC TV in Canada and others in 1995.

Like many other pros, I naturally have issues with amateurs who come to Japan, declare themselves journalists, hang around the FCCJ to pick up work, and then consider themselves experts in our field. Doctors and lawyers would not tolerate this in their fields either, and I think I have every right to call someone’s bluff on this.

While I was covering the TEPCO presser today, I found out from●●, ●●● and a senior person in Paris that you, somehow, have become the France 24 correspondent in Tokyo. I do not accept this, for any reason, and I will do whatever is necessary to protect a position that I have earned with the network, at great personal risk and sacrifice.

It’s not personal, it’s professional, and I can assure you that I will stake my 25-year career on this. If I tried to steal someone’s string, which has earned them thousands of dollars over the years, I would expect them to fight me for it.

I will tell you very frankly that I am a 6-foot, 200-pound guy from a rough part of the Detroit area, and I’ve been through too much – 9 wars, where I lost 7 friends – to let anyone disrespect me.

★★★

The Troll later discovered his email was forwarded to France 24 prompting another email.

★★★

21 May

That is very sleazy to send a letter, which I sent to you and you alone, to my employers at France 24. If you have any manhood, you will meet me in person to settle this. And you can bring your pals XXX and the other jerks who diss me on Facebook and at the FCCJ as well

 

The Journalist Responds To Troll’s Implied Threats 

21 May

Troll-guy ,your unsolicited message appears to be a clear threat of violence towards me. Please clarify if I’m mistaken in this.

For the record: I was approached in Feb to work with F24 and have done a few bits of work with them since. I have no interest in who has worked with them in the past, continues to work with them now, or will work with them in the future.

I have no idea what issues you have with F24, but please take them up with the organization.

Equally, I have no idea what issues you have with ‘jerks’ on FB or the FCCJ, but please take them up with the people involved.

 

The Troll Responds To The Journalist

Who the hell are you talkin to me like this? You think your ass is powerful? You are a 5-foot 6, 150 lb dweek in shorts and sunglasses looking over your shoulder in a crowd. And I suppose you’llsend this to your mommy to protect you, right?

You aren’t the asshole ●● who smashed my brother’s head against the grocery store wall, and beat up my father in front of my mother and sister across the street from our house, and then laughed at my little brother in the court house. aYou aren’t the crackhead who shot my uncle ●● in the head in Detroit. You aren’t the home invader who murdered my brother’s drummer in his house in ●● this Christmas. You aren’t the gang that strangled me and beat me unconscious and broke my nose and ribs and left me naked in a park to die in Nairobi, or the jerks who mugged me at knifepoint in Rio de Janeiro. Youaren’t the Chetniks who severed the head of my roommate ●●●in Vukovar. You aren’t Khaled Sheikh Mohammed who cut up Daniel Pearl like a goat a few weeks after we had Thanksgiving dinner in Islamabad. You aren’t the Taliban motherfuckers who murdered●● and raped and killed the women in the van in Afghanistan. And you aren’t the gunmen who shot ●●●●● three times last year when we were working for France 24 in Bangkok. You are a spineless sewer rat who sends a private confidential letter to my boss to shaft me out of a job worth perhaps 10,000 year or more, a job I earned while you were a driver with another network and writing an FCCJ article slagging off serious pro journalists who hired you. Where I come from, you don’t mess with a man’s car, a man’s woman, a man’s dog, or a man’s job. You go behind someone’s back, and they come knockin on your front, with a shotgun. And I suppose you’ll send this to your mommy to defend you, right?

 

Where I come from, you don’t mess with a man’s car, a man’s woman, a man’s dog, or a man’s job. You go behind someone’s back, and they come knockin on your front, with a shotgun. And I suppose you’ll send this to your mommy to defend you, right?

★★★

The Journalist Responds To The Troll 

Mr. Troll,

It seems you got a rough deal off F24, which is a shame, but I really think your anger is directed in the wrong direction. To state the obvious, I don’t make the hiring decisions. I was asked to work with them in Feb and was surprised not to hear from them during the post-quake period. It seems they used someone else – that would be you. Now they’ve asked me to do the odd phoner.

I don’t know why they they’ve made that decision- it’s between you and them.

I was more than a little surprised to come in on Friday night to a long abusive threatening email from someone I’ve never met. I forwarded it to the people at F24 – ●● saying I had no idea what your history with them is and the situation needed clarifying .If you wanted a respectful response, you should have a sent a respectful email. This will be my last response to any insulting/ threatening mails.

 

 

★★★

If you wanted a respectful response, you should have a sent a respectful email. This will be my last response to any insulting/ threatening mails.

That seems to be the best approach to dealing with this fellow. He does make a lot of threats. He, or his proxy, even threatened the editors at Wikipedia, when they refused to post an entry for him. He accused an employee of Google Japan of deliberately altering search results to make him look bad.  He does manage to get under my skin. However, I’m certainly not the only one.

If you’d like to know more, please check out Japan Probe which has article after article about his not so amusing attacking on others journalists, his implied threats, his rantings, and his career history as a malcontent and troublemaker in Japan.

I took this post down once. I’m reposting it so that everyone knows that this is a man that threatens to molest children and viciously attacks other members of the journalism community. He may be a journalist; he is also very close to being a cyber stalker. I won’t write his name because he thrives on attention. I tweeted a parody of his blog today that has his actual name on it. I should have read it closer. I was taught that the mentally unstable should have their names undisclosed because they aren’t entirely responsible for their acts. I don’t know if that is the case with this individual but I suspect as much. Possibly a sociopath with delusional disorder. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I won’t engage with this individual in any way. Because there’s a difference between him and me. I give a damn about my sources and my friends. I’d rather people think I’m a jerk than violate the three things I believe in: protect your sources, write the truth, and if you can’t do both, then don’t write the story. Some people may not agree with that philosophy. It’s what I believe in. I don’t have a perfect score on protecting my sources. I get to live with that for the rest of my life. I atone and I carry on.

Because where I come from, when you attack a man’s friends and defame them, stalk women, and threaten to harm children–you’re someone who needs to go to jail until you learn to behave like a human being, not a troll. Or am I simply too old-fashioned?

I recognize that people have a right to start their lives over–that they deserve a second chance. And I’d be willing to give this man a second chance, if he showed any remorse, if he apologized to all those he’s wronged.  He won’t do that. He won’t even answer three simple questions 1) Did you threaten to molest a man’s children when you were working at NHK? 2) Did you threaten another reporter in 2011? 3) Have you misused the position of being a journalist to harass women that reject you and people who disagree with you?

There is no solution to dealing with a man like this. As long as he has access to the internet, he will continue to try and destroy those whom he perceives as his enemies—and there a lot of them. He’s bordering on criminal behavior and when he finally crosses the line, I hope to see that at last he gets the attention he deserves. Because where I come from, when you attack a man’s friends and defame them, stalk women, and threaten to harm children–you’re someone who needs to go to jail until you learn to behave like a human being, not a troll. Or am I simply too old-fashioned?

At the very least, if he was a man and not a troll, he’d stop attacking my friends and young reporters-–and do some actual journalism.

*This article was published several years ago but has been updated at the request of several individual who claim to be experiencing harassment from Christopher Johnson. 

 

 

 

Write Hard To Live Free: Happy Year Of The (Watch)Dog! 番犬報道の年ですよ!謹賀新年

 Today marks the start of The Year Of The Dog. I like dogs and I like them because I think journalists should be the guard dogs of a free society. We bark, we bite, we protect democracy and the public right to know. That’s our duty. ワンワン.

If you’re a lapdog for the powers that be, like executives at Fox News or News Corporation, journalism may be a rewarding and easy job.

Being a free-lance foreign correspondent and investigative reporter in Japan these days is a lot like being the private detective in the Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest. You’re working for a newspaper editor who’s dead before you ever get to meet him (sounds like the newspaper business in general) and you have to struggle to get paid the money owed to you. You deal with gangs and thugs and crooked politicians, pitting them against each other, appearing to take work from anyone and at the end of the day, if you’ve brought someone to justice and you’re the last man standing: you’ve won. Collect your cash and go home.

Actually, it’s not really like much like that at all, but I wanted to start this article with a hard-boiled simile.

Jokes aside, making a living as freelance reporter in Japan these days is rewarding, but risky and unstable, and there are fewer and fewer of us doing it full time.

 

There are a lot of reasons for that. The number of working journalists is decreasing every year, while the number of people working in public relations keeps going up. Newspapers and magazines that have bureaus in Japan or that will pay for stories from Japan keep declining in number. Time’s Tokyo Bureau closed years ago. Newsweek folded. Dow Jones culled a large number of senior reporters this year. Reuters hires and fires at a schizophrenic pace. Bloomberg downsized. CNN and CNBC are barely here. The Los Angeles Times bureau once existed but I can only barely remember it. It used to have an office in the Yomiuri Building,

To my delight from spring of 2015 until the fall of 2016, I was a special correspondent for the L.A. Times. Then the newspaper ran out of money. No more budget for Japan.

Well, if you read the expose from the L.A. Times Guild (the labor union formed this year) it may not even be that they ran out of money – but rather that TRONC, Inc., the corporation running the newspaper into the ground, just sucks up all the profits and awards them to its executives, not the reporters. It certainly doesn’t spend more than it has to on paying for actual reporting. The problems at the Los Angeles Times are a microcosm of what’s happening all over the media – fewer and fewer people are asked to do more work with fewer resources. That’s the case for regular employees.

I applaud the union for actually standing up for members’ rights as workers and against mismanagement.

Maybe they’ll accomplish something.

Maybe some rich philanthropist will buy the newspaper as Jeff Bezos of Amazon did with the Washington Post, and restore it to glory.

And maybe I’ll do that job again if that happens. It was a great gig.

 

Mark that word, gig. Martin Fackler, who tried freelancing for a while but has now returned to the New York Times, says the experience taught him that “Freelancers are the Uber drivers of the new journalism gig economy. Everything is on a transactional basis, with no benefits or guarantees. You get more freedom, but pay for it with lower living standards and no job stability – like the rest of the gig economy.”

I’ve been a journalist since 1993–in Japan. Next year, I’ll have been doing it 25 years, a quarter of a century, more than half my life. At 48, I have now been a journalist half my life.

Half of those years (12.5, to be exact) were spent working as a regular employee at the world’s largest newspaper. I was a reporter and a regular employee for life aka (seishain/正社員), with the promise of a pension, all my insurance covered, paid vacation with use of the company’s corporate vacation facilities, an actual expense account, a bonus twice a year and a stable income. Sure, I worked 80-hour weeks but I didn’t have time to think about the work-life balance because there was none. Life was work and since I liked the work – investigating, interviewing, writing – it worked for me.

I’ve been working freelance since 2006. I’d like to say that it has gotten easier but in fact, even as you become well known, or relatively well known, life doesn’t get any easier. The joy of freelance work is that you can to some extent pick and choose the stories you want to write and who you write them for. The sadness of freelance work is that income is so unpredictable that you can’t really walk away from a gig and you have to pay constant attention to the news for a story that someone might want because it’s timely.

I currently write regularly for the Japan Times, ZAITEN, the Daily Beast and Forbes. I write for other publications as well but those are my main gigs. And I’m happy to have them.

However, to make my rent, I have to write a lot and I do part-time jobs. I do consulting work. I appear on Japanese television shows. I write short books and I write long books. I run a blog.  I am constantly hustling.

Every day, I spend an hour or more reading newspapers and magazines in Japanese, looking for what may be a good story. I scan the articles and put them in a file. I make appointments and send out letters requesting interviews for the stories that I think are interesting. I answer email. I meet people in the afternoon, or attend press conferences. In the evening, I try to meet up with sources and maintain those relationships. I don’t have an expense account, so cheap bars and izakaya I like. If it’s an expensive place, I eat cheap somewhere first and then just have drinks.

You don’t have job security as freelancer and sometimes you don’t even get respect.

At least in Japan, you can get public health insurance, at an affordable rate. It’s one reason I can’t afford to leave Japan. That is a great perk of being a freelancer here.

By the way, the term for non-regular correspondents in the industry is “stringer.” It makes you sound sort of like a barnacle.

Below the stringer is “the fixer.” Fixers set up the meetings for the reporters coming to Tokyo, often doing the interpreting and translation of the materials. They are often not even credited for their work.

I rarely do fixing for anyone but I will for one public radio station because their correspondent is great; she credits me for the work I do on a story. That’s nice.

I’m not alone in struggling with the freelance life. Willie Pesek, author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades and recipient of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers prize for commentary also joined the freelance ranks this year. What he has to say is worth hearing:

Six months into my freelance existence, the very first of my career, I’m struck by George Orwell’s observation: “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” Having a full-time journalism gig strikes me as a similar tradeoff. The certainty of a reliable paycheck, medical benefits and access to an HR department has its merits. But the liberty freelancing affords – who you write for, which topics, which arguments -– is its own joy after two decades with major news companies.

But the biggest pros of this existence -– like working when I want to -– can also be key drawbacks. The main challenge, I’m finding, is maintaining a reasonable life/work balance. At times, while juggling various writing assignments, my inclination is to work around the clock. Creating boundaries -– like closing the laptop and having a life –- is a work in progress for me. So is knowing when to say “when.” Quality and actually has never been more important in this Orwellian fake-new world, but the quantity imperative gets in the way. Part of the tension, of course, relates to making a living –- one’s natural reluctance to turn down writing assignments. Finding a balance is something all freelancers will struggle with more and more in the years ahead. It’s a fact of this trade that quality comes first.

Then there’s the Tokyo problem. In my 15 years in Asia, I’ve always been a regional writer, which is proving to be an asset as a freelance. Lots of demand for columns for China, India, North Korea, the Philippines. Japan, not so much. Sadly, many overseas editors favor “weird Japan” items over, say, reality checks on Abenomics. But, hey, Tokyo is still a great, great city in which to live. The domestic story here, though, can be a hard sell. The Abe government using this latest electoral mandate to make big things happen would be the gift that keeps on giving for freelancers.

Willie, has a good point. Japan isn’t as important as it used to be.

I kind of wish sometimes that I hadn’t focused so much on Japan. But I’m okay with that. In the end, I may be working more hours now than I did as a regular employee. And as any freelancer will tell you, you also have to spend a lot of time on social media, getting people to read your articles, responding to those who have read them. Now and then you have to munch on the trolls who plague anyone who writes about Japan in a critical way.

Sometimes, people close to me ask me why I don’t change jobs. Here’s the best answer I can give.

Japan is my home. I love Japan. My children are Japanese. Most of my friends live here. Many Japanese people here are hard-working, honest and polite.

That doesn’t mean the society doesn’t have problems, such as child poverty, gender inequality and discrimination against: the handicapped, women, foreigners, especially Korean Japanese. Japan has a pestilent well-entrenched mob. There are nuclear dangers, staggering injustice in the legal system, repression of the free press, sexual assault on women with impunity for many assailants, rampant labor exploitation, death by overwork, and political corruption. Ignoring the problems doesn’t make them better. If you are offended by that, rethink your love of Japan.

I believe that journalism, especially investigative journalism, is a force for good and for maintaining a healthy society. It’s a vocation, not just a job. Sure some of the work is crappy, including writing about a series of crap-themed kanji instructional books for children—but you also get to do some enormous good.

Weird as it sounds, this year I took the vows to become a Zen Buddhist priest and I am one now. Not full-time.

It’s not easy being an investigative journalist and keeping the Ten Grave Precepts of a Soto Buddhist priest but there is a point where the two professions match up.

To paraphrase the Hokukyo, this is what we do.

Conquer anger with compassion.

Conquer evil with goodness.

Conquer trolls with humor and sarcasm.

Conquer ignorance with knowledge.

Conquer stinginess with generosity.

Conquer lies with truth.

The monetary rewards are not so great. Sometimes, the spiritual rewards make it seem like the best job in the world.

 

 

 

 

This was originally published in The Number One Shimbun, the periodical of The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan.  It has been slightly modified for New Years. 

 

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.

性犯罪被害に遭って警察に相談した結果? How do police handle sexual assault cases in Japan?

Aliens Versus Yakuza: 宇宙人対極道: A Masterpiece Of Bad Genre Films

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic.

AVN: Aliens Versus Ninja (エイリアンvs 忍者)released in 2010 is a camp classic for both lovers of Alien films and Ninja films. I was delighted to find that the super-deluxe release of AVN included on the second disc a 15 minute short-film エイリアン Vs 極道 (Alien Versus Yakuza), a Yuji Shinomura film . If you find the movie in the bargain bin at the local Tsutaya, it’s worth picking up. The plot is simple. Young yakuza and his older brother–in the yakuza sense–accidentally run over an Alien while on their way to late-night Karaoke in the boss’s car. They aren’t quite sure what to do with the body.  They don’t even realize it’s an alien, believing that they’ve just run over an unlucky foreigner. “Maybe half?”

Our hapless yakuza anti-heroes run over an alien and decide to get rid of the body. Not sure exactly what it is, they decide it must be a foreigner–and probably half-Japanese.

After a short debate, they decide to dismember the body and get rid of the evidence.  Young yakuza goes to scour the glove department for a big knife, buried amidst piles of trashy magazines, but when he comes back the trunk is empty and his older brother (兄貴/aniki) is acting strangely. Could it be that Older Brother realized younger brother had slept with his girlfriend or has something stranger happened?  Even when younger brother confesses and makes a peace offering; “Only once! Only slept with her once. I saved you a seat at the speed-dating thing (合コン・gokon)–can we call it even?” –Aniki’s anger is not quelled. What happens next is almost totally predictable but even after the young yakuza confronts the ousted alien, accusing him of being an 当たり屋 (atariya), a con man who shakes people down by throwing themselves in front of a car and suing for damages–the fight isn’t quite over. Because this Alien has a driver’s license.

Young yakuza throws a cigarette at the alien, accusing him of being an 当たり屋 (a professional con man who throws himself in front of cars to extort insurance money.)

I wouldn’t want to spoil the rest of the film for our readers but it does solve the ancient question: in a battle between an alien and a yakuza, who would win?  Note: Some may argue that this question was settled in the masterpiece Predators, where the lone Inagawa-kai member in the film faces down a Predator with an ancient samurai sword,  but  Predators are really not your standard aliens. The film is bloody, silly, and probably unrealistic* but in the short yakuza film genre, it’s in a class by itself.

*For instance, I don’t think it’s possible to catch a bullet in your teeth but I’m not a war reporter so I’ll reserve judgement.

Yakuza University: It’s a hard knock education

The underworld has its own language, and its own idioms.

Higher education for many yakuza begins in jail.
Higher education for many yakuza begins in jail.

Yakuza are not the exception to the rule. For example, instead of saying “going to jail” (刑務所に行く: keimusho ni iku), they say “going to university” (大学に行く : daigaku ni iku). This phrase has a special meaning and is not used randomly. First, yakuza consider that jail is informative, a required kind of rite of passage to become a true gangster. Then, because prison is actually, for the yakuza, an educational place, in a scholastic sense. If they are rich enough (and it is often the case, or their oyabun’s position, given that one of his duties is to provide assistance to his subordinates), they can learn calligraphy, painting, but also the art of haiku, among other things. They get books from other clan members, but others are provided by the Government within the prison. One can find in these prison libraries masterpiece of literature, but more surprisingly, economic or even law books. In fact, the yakuza often get out jail with a better academic level than they had at the time of their incarceration. This “Prison University” is even more important to them than the majority of yakuza has never graduate, and many of them have even stopped attending school before the end of high school.
To talk about jail, yakuza also use terms such as “slammer” (豚箱 : butabako)–literally “pigbox” or “hard labor” (懲役に行く : chōeki ni iku); despite its few advantages (when you have the money to afford them), prison remains a detention center, not a holiday club.
Some of the less bright yakuza spend so much time in jail that they are mostly yakuza in name only. Amongst themselves, they are referred to a ”prison yakuza” (懲役ヤクザ: choeki yakuza).

 

 

Le monde criminel possède souvent son propre langage et ses propres expressions. Les yakuza ne font pas exception à la règle. Par exemple, plutôt que de dire « aller en prison » (刑務所に行く : keimusho ni iku),  ils diront « aller à l’université » (大学に行く : daigaku ni iku). Cette expression a un sens bien particulier et n’est pas utilisée au hasard. D’abord parce que les yakuza considèrent que la prison est formatrice, une sorte de rite de passage obligatoire pour devenir un vrai gangster. Ensuite, parce que la prison est effectivement, pour les yakuza, un lieu de formation et d’éducation, au sens scolaire du terme. S’ils sont assez riches (et c’est souvent le cas, ou bien le cas de leur oyabun, dont l’un des devoirs est de prodiguer à ses subordonnés une assistance), ils peuvent apprendre la calligraphie, la peinture, mais aussi l’art des haiku, entre autre choses. Ils reçoivent des livres de la part d’autres membres du clan, mais d’autres sont mis à disposition par le gouvernement au sein même de la prison. On peut trouver dans ces bibliothèques carcérales des grands classiques de littératures, mais, plus surprenant, des livres d’économie ou même de droit. De fait, les yakuza ressortent souvent de prison avec un bien meilleur niveau scolaire que celui qu’ils avaient au moment de leur incarcération. Cette « université de la prison » est d’autant plus importante pour eux que la grande majorité des yakuza n’a jamais fait d’études supérieures, et que beaucoup d’entre eux ont même cessé de fréquenter l’école avant la fin du lycée.

Pour parler de la prison, les yakuza emploient également d’autres expressions, comme « la taule » (豚箱 : butabako), ou encore « aller au bagne » (懲役に行く : chōeki ni iku); malgré ses quelques avantages (quand on a l’argent pour se les offrir), la prison n’en reste pas moins un centre de détention, et pas un club de vacances.