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.
Not Cool. #Reiwa Japan:
Run by sociopathic Hitler-loving plutocrats, w/ plummeting press freedom, endemic poverty, rising censorship, deliberate destruction of public records, continual death by overwork, a corrupt bureaucracy, & a medieval justice systemhttps://t.co/hXmND5lsW3
“Take this whisky, please,” said the elderly Japanese man running a liquor store in a small town in Ibaragi Prefecture. He was cheerful and insistent. “It’s called News and you’re a journalist, so it’s the perfect blend. Please, I have two bottles and it’s just gathering dust.” And as I protested, he pulled it off the shelf, lightly dusted it, put it in a bag and handed it to me.
It is April 20th 2019. I’ve been in Ibaragi for two days working on four stories with a television crew. The four stories are:
1) The problems Japan’s traditional lacquerware artists (urushi/漆の職人) are facing as the artisans capable of harvesting the sap from the urushi trees die off.
2) The mild and refreshing green tea of the region (奥久慈茶) which has almost died out due to the Fukushima disaster.
3) The tradition of crafting ink-stones (硯/suzuri) which are essential for beautiful Japanese calligraphy (Shodo/書道・習字)
4) The history of konyaku (菎蒻) which is used to make Shirataki noodles, faux sashimi, and has become very popular because it’s filling and low in calories.
I was also considering a fifth story about the local delicacy: Shamo. Shamo (軍鶏) are free-range chickens that were originally fighting birds (喧嘩鳥) used in cock-fights and later domesticated. We had lunch at a place famous for it’s Shamo Oyako-don, which is chicken and egg over rice. Oyako means parent and child and if you think about it, eating a chicken with egg, is kind of horrifying. Don’t think about it.
The town we were visiting once had a population of over 40,000 people 20 years ago, but is down to a third of that number. The Game Center is shuttered and looks like it has been that way for many years. Many of the stores on the main road are out of business. Trains come once per hour and after 5pm, you can’t even leave by train.
I had some time to kill after lunch at the local restaurant and walked over to the liquor store down the street. There appeared to be no one inside but the light was on, so I opened the door. Within a minute, a cheerful, and dapperly dressed thin man with grey hair and grey slacks came out and greeted me. I looked around the store—and on one shelf were three bottles of Suntory Whisky, each which must have been ten years old or more. We chatted and I tried to buy one of them from him.
“I couldn’t sell these to you in good conscience. They’re very old.” He opened one and showed me the line of the whisky. “You can see some of it has already evaporated. It wouldn’t be fair to sell it to you.”
I thought about just giving him three times the price of the bottle on display. The hand-written card in front of the bottle was slightly discolored. I realized that this guy had no idea how much Japanese whisky was now worth. And you know, like everyone in the world, I had this fleeting thought of, “Wow, I could really make a fortune buying this guy’s whisky for a fraction of what’s it worth.” I thought about doing that….and then I explained to him that the price of Japanese whisky, especially old whisky, was skyrocketing.
He listened with some interest and raised an eyebrow. “To be honest, I don’t really like whisky. I’d rather drink something else. So I had no idea. How about you? Are you a whisky fan?”
“I like sake–given a choice.”
He nodded. “Me too. This might be my favorite,” he said while handing me an empty bottle of Kudoki Jozu. The name of the sake loosely means, “Talking a woman (man) into having sex with you.” It is also a delicious, dry and tart wonderful sake. I told him that I was fond of Suigei (酔鯨/drunken whale) and the local brew. We talked for fifteen minutes but then I had to leave. I asked him to consider selling me one bottle of whisky and he said he’d think it over.
Today, I dropped by the liquor store once more, before it closed–meaning before 5:30 pm. He greeted me like an old friend and he showed me all his favorite booze, including the empty bottles, collector’s items, and everything Suntory that he had–as well as some rare Nikka whiskies. However, he wouldn’t budge on selling me any of them. “I don’t know if they’ve aged well. I’d feel bad.”
But then, as if he had been waiting, he pulled off a back shelf a 1000 ml bottle of a whisky I’d never heard of, Kirin-Seagrams whisky NEWS. I looked for some information on the bottle but all it told me was that it was 80 proof, malt-grain. And some odd notes in English: One Liter Per Month. NEWS is light & smooth. You can enjoy it on the rocks, with water, or with anything. NEWS can create your new lifestyle.
I thanked him—he was insistent I take it–and took the bottle back to where I was staying and began pulling up what I could find about it on the net. It had been launched by Kirin around 1983, and they had even hired a hot Hollywood actor, Jan Micheal Vincent, to shill it in a Japanese commercial. The commercial was taken off the airwaves when it was widely reported that Vincent was an alcoholic; his alcoholism was definitely not good news for the NEWS brand name.
I wondered what it might taste like. One guy had found a bottle in the home of a relative, consumed the whole thing and posted a review. He noted it was free from any peculiarities and had crisp and clear taste. I found one or two web sites selling bottles of it with prices ranging from $50 to $400 (as part of a set).
So as I sat in my room, my conscience began to bother me. Because I don’t think he realized he’d given me $50 worth of booze–and a whisky that is no longer in production. I decided I needed to buy something from his store at least. The problem was that there was no ATM anywhere in site. Even the convenience store at the station didn’t have an ATM. I borrowed money from the cameraman, rather sheepishly, and ran back to the store before it closed. He was mildly amused to see me again and before he could ask any questions, I said, “You gave me a great bottle of whisky. Let me at least buy something. What’s the best sake here?”
He thought about it and then pulled off the shelf a bottle of (家久長・霊水八溝/Hakucho-Reisuiyamizo). I bought it and asked it was dry sake (辛口) and he whispered, “It used to be very dry but these days it’s sort of in the middle. It’s still very good.”
He sold it to me at wholesale price. I didn’t have any room in my bags left for another bottle of sake and the 1000 ml bottle of whisky, so I looked for something else in the store. There was some really beautiful looking pottery–a sake glass, a tea cup, and a coffee cup. I asked if they were also for sale and he replied, “Oh, my friend asked me to put those there. He’s a potter. He makes good pottery. You can buy them, if you really want do.” And so I did.
He packed them up nicely and I profusely thanked him. As I was leaving and he started turning off the lights and closing the store, he said to me, the following words.
“Well, if you ever do make it back this way again, let me know. I might sell you the whisky if you really want me to. You might know better than me. But if I were you,” he paused, “I’d drink that whisky I gave you with a bunch of your fellow journalists. It’s a lot of whisky. If you never drink it, it’s just going to end up somewhere else gathering dust and that’s a shame. Good booze is meant to be savored, not to be kept on a shelf. Thanks for coming in.”
Sometimes, I forget one of the reasons I have come to love Japan over the years–the unexpected kindness of strangers. It happens more often than you’d expect.
And so even with what I paid for the sake, the teacups, the coffee cup and the sake glass–I still didn’t pay anything close to what the whisky is worth. So maybe I will drink it with a group of friends after all. The sake has been around longer than I’ve been in Japan and maybe drinking it with friends would be the perfect way to celebrate what will be over three decades in Japan this summer. (I arrived in Japan on September 14th 1988).
Of course, I also feel a journalistic duty to drink this booze. It looks like the liquor advertised in 1983 and is being sold at an incredible mark-up all over the world, but I can’t be sure. If I don’t open it up, drink it, and confirm it with multiple sources–I’ll never know whether it’s real NEWS or fake NEWS.
Sometimes, to make sure you’re getting real NEWS, you need expert advice, good friends, several sources and some big round ice cubes.
Note: Theories abound as to how mahjong originated in China. Some say the inventor was Confucius who played it, was hooked and ultimately abandoned it because of its addictive nature, some time in the 6th century B.C. In its present state, mahjong is played with 136 to 144 rectangular tiles, over a table seating 3 to 4 players. All the tiles are marked with Chinese characters and symbols.The goal of the game, simplified, is to get a mahjong, which consists of getting all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair. A pair is two identical tiles. A set can either be a “pung,” which is three identical tiles, or a “chow,” which is a run of three consecutive numbers in the same suit. A single tile cannot be used in two sets at once. In the west, the closest thing is gin rummy. In Japan, mahjong has been around since the 1900s and is a semi-legitimized form of gambling, provided the stakes are low. It used to be the favorite past-time of college students and bored reporters in the police press club.
On March 17, the day that character actor and performer Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) was arrested for possession of cocaine, the producers of the film Mahjong Horoki (Mahjong Chronicles) inwhich Taki appears in a significant role, held an emergency meeting. First item on the agenda: to open the film on the slated date of April 5, or to scrap it? Already the Japanese media was moving to make Taki disappear – all his endorsements, events and TV appearances were cancelled. A concert scheduled for this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, evaporated. NHK even rubbed out all of Taki’s scenes in their prime time Sunday night drama Idaten, (including those already aired), making preparations to shoot everything all over again.
Taki had never sold on a nice-guy image but this scandal was huge, packing enough explosives to rock Mahjong Horoki 2020’s distributor company Toei, from its very foundations. After much discussion, the makers of the film – in particular director Kazuya Shiraishi, Taki’s long-time friend, pushed for a go. Letters were sent out to the press explaining the move, and why Shiraishi decided not to slash any of Taki’s scenes before opening. “Taki’s arrest is not the movie’s fault,” said the letter. Fair enough and a good thing, too. “Mahjong Horoki 2020” is weird, gross and ultimately appealing – it’s a celebration, among other things, of the sheer, raging wonders of the Showa era (1926 – 1989). So much, that the last 31 years of the Heisei era start to look like a bland, blah wasteland. As a line in the movie aptly describes it, “the only thing anyone does around here is to live a long, long time.” Ouch.
Still, the Heisei era should be given credit for supplying Shiraishi with the iPhone 8, (eight of them to be exact) that he deploys in shooting the film. The colors schemes are too lurid, and the jittery, hand-held effect doesn’t really work in scenes with open spaces but the device is brilliant for close-ups, of which there is plenty, including Taki’s scary, deadpan visage.
Taki plays a man called Mori – and he’s the kind of snide, rude, power-hungry asshole that Pierre Taki portrays to perfection. Mori is the director of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is abruptly cancelled with the breakout of WWIII. A very pissed off Mori vows to hold an Olympics of something, and as the story progresses that something turns out to be mahjong. On the Friday that the movie opened, Pierre Taki was released on bail and director Shiraishi announced in a press conference that he hoped the Japanese public would “laud and encourage” Taki, once he was rehabilitated and reinstated as a media figure.
Speaking of reinstated, another intriguing presence in the movie is Becky, the half-British, half-Japanese comedienne whose career was all but obliterated following a noisily publicized affair with a married musician. In Japan, infidelity is a serious offense among celebrities, perhaps more so than drug use. Becky was benched for over 2 years while her partner in crime came out relatively unscathed (which is another can of worms labelled gender discrimination). In “Mahong…,” she stars in a double role – first as a mysterious club hostess with incredible mahjong skills, and next as the android “AI Yuki,” programmed to win against the most talented mahjong player.
As you may have guessed, Mahjong...is defined by and obsessed with, the titular game. Based on the first of the 4-part novel series by Tetsuya Asada (aka Takehiro Irokawa) published in 1969, Mahjong…recreates the blood, sweat and tears backdrop of Tokyo’s immediate postwar years as well as highlight the dark grotesqueness that often accompanies the game. Unlike pachinko, mahjong comes under illegal gambling and liable for prosecution, as in the case of a mayor who was arrested in the middle of a game in Fukuoka prefecture 3 years ago. Like pachinko however, the police turn a blind eye to most mahjong players and the “jyanso,” or mahjong houses that host them. As long as the stakes are low, the cops won’t come bursting in – theoretically. The crossover line is 200 yen at 1000 points, which roughly adds up to about 30,000 yen an hour for the winner.
In Japan, one hears of fantastic mahjong stories, like the woman who won 550,000 yen on a single night and then lost double that amount in her next game. Or the guy who put up his home as collateral and how his wife and kids found themselves on the street even as he holed up in a jyanso to turn his luck. When it comes to addiction and self-destruction, mahjong players are in a league of their own and the tumble into the mud sludge of debt generally comes quicker than anyone bargains for. The consequences (since most jyanso are owned and operated by the yakuza) can be severe. Tetsuya Asada’s novel series laid it all out, tracing the life of the protagonist “Boya (which means little boy) Tetsu.” At first, Tetsu was a fresh-faced 16-year old mahjong rookie, being groomed for the game by the pros in Tokyo in 1945, when the city was nothing but ash and rubble. In the last volume, Tetsu is a salariman in his his early 30s, struggling to break free of his addiction (and failing) as Japan gears up to become the world’s number one economy.
Mahjong Horoki was adapted to the screen once before, in 1984 by Makoto Wada. A young and perky Hiroyuki Sanada played Tetsu, and Mariko Kaga played his benefactor and the story’s mahjong goddess. Now in 2020, those roles have gone to Takumi Saito and Becky, respectively. Saito is best known for having cornering the market on degenerate, sexy dude roles but now in his late 30s, the role of Little Boy Tetsu may be a stretch (in the story, he’s also supposed to be a virgin. No way.). But to Saito’s credit, Tetsu’s addiction to the game oozes out of his every pore. The guy can only think of one thing: to sit at the mahjong table and play for the kind of stakes that, even if he wins, would destroy his soul forever.
Japan has changed beyond recognition since Asada penned the original novel series, but addiction – as this movie abundantly illustrates – is a monster that never dies.
Today’s Asahi Newspaper, NHK and other media ran a story about an appalling ruling handed down in Nagoya Court on March 26th.
The father of a woman, who was 19 at the time of the alleged sexual assault, was tried on charges of quasi-rape (準強制性交等罪）after having non-consensual sexual intercourse with his daughter at their home in Aichi Prefecture in August and September of 2017.
Quasi-rape in Japan is defined as sexual intercourse taking place when the victim is unable to give their consent or say not. You may remember that a prominent friend of Prime Minister Abe, and also his biographer, was supposed to be arrested on charges of quasi-rape for an alleged attack on journalist Shiori Ito. In Ms. Ito’s case, she claimed to have been drugged and sexually assaulted. A high-ranking police office who was formerly the secretary to cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga, intervened to stop the arrest and later scuttled the investigation.
In situations where the victim is drugged or unable to refuse to have sex with an assailant, due to threats or danger to their life, charges of quasi-rape can apply.
The prosecutors argued that because of repeated violence and threats leveled against the daughter, that she was unable to say no to her father’s sexual demands. The defense argued that the sex was consensual—and even if she wasn’t able to resist, she still consented.
The court, in his verdict, recognized that the daughter had not consented. The judge even noted, “Because of the many years of sexual abuse [and other abuse], that she was mentally under the control of her father.” The court also recognized that she had been compelled have sex with her father since her second year of junior high. However, the final judgement was that she wasn’t completely under his control, “Therefore, there is a reasonable doubt as to whether she was really unable to resist.” Thus, her father was found not guilty of the charges. In other words, she could’ve resisted and she didn’t so Dad goes free.
Incest is not a criminal offense in Japan, although it was once in the past.
Masako Chiku*, the Nagoya Prosecutor, said they would consider appealing the case. Public reaction in Japan was of out rage and disappointment. In Japan, police are reluctant to pursue sexual assault charges; prosecutors routinely drop 50% of cases of sexual assault. According to one survey, 90% of Japanese women feel that Japan is easy on sexual offenders. In a country, where the Prime Minister’s pals get away with having quasi-rape investigations stopped before prosecution can even happen, you can kind of see where they are coming from.
What a different Japan it would be if the man accused of sexually assaulting Shiori Ito had been arrested, as was planned, and thrown into jail for 23 days, like Carlos Ghosn, and interrogated eight hours every day. But of course, this didn’t happen. He’s a friend of the Prime Minister. And he’s a Japanese man.
*The name of the prosecutor may be phonetically incorrect. In Japanese 築雅子次席検事
For those who are interested in the interview of Carlos Ghosn,former CEO of Nissan, with French TV LCI, here is the transcript in English.
As you may know, Mr. Ghosn has been arrested four times, after Nissan executives went to the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office and decided to make them the tool of getting rid of Carlos Ghosn, rather than settling the matter internally.
This is shared here for educational purposes.
The actual interview is available in French here: https://lnkd.in/giWYb9D
This comes courtesy of Jacques Deguest
Angel Investor, Co Founder & CEO in Japan, MBA, LLM
I’m claiming this word!
To completely implement the teachings of tidiness as espoused by Marie Kondo, the tiny Zen Buddhist-like wizard of minimalism and organization.
“Dude, he went #FullKondo & gave away all his manga. Just kept 30 issues of Berserk!”#FullKondopic.twitter.com/sYfHoXn0jC