Why the Japanese Media Would Rather Not Talk About Brett Kavanaugh

By Kaori Shoji

The Japanese media has been eerily calm about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, or if you want the truth, ‘downright reticent’ is more like it. Kavanaugh’s confirmation as Supreme Court justice was covered by major news outlets but otherwise, mainstream media seems more interested in Tokyo’s biggest fishmarket moving from Tsukiji to Toyosu.

“I’m really not interested in American politics,” said 28-year old Ayumi who works for Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s four major newspapers. “Since Trump became President, I’ve kind of lost faith in the US. I still love American music and culture but the politics just seems crazy over there.” Before the confirmation, Asahi carried a few articles on the Kavanaugh hearings, but nothing beyond a short description of what was happening. No in-depth analysis or outraged editorials, just brief, straightforward reporting. “You can’t really blame the Japanese media for avoiding the Kavanaugh case,” said an Asahi journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s not our battle. Personally though, I think that Dr. Blasey Ford was courageous in coming out like that. I can’t imagine a Japanese woman ever doing the same thing, at least not at that age.”

The journalist was inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately) voicing the opinion of Japanese society in general–that Japanese women of a certain age will rarely if ever, go public about a personal grievance that happened decades ago. A couple of years maybe, and if the woman were under 35. Otherwise, it would be like stumbling upon a blue rose in the desert.

His words remind me of another interview I did when the #MeToo movement was in full swing here, with a woman in her 40s. She had confessed to her husband about a sexual harassment incident that happened when she was 28, and when she tried to say how hurtful it was and ask what steps she could take now to lessen the damage, her husband scoffed. “He said no one was willing to listen to an old woman. He told me not to make waves, and that I shouldn’t embarrass our family.” She said this with a forced, self-deprecating grin but five minutes later she was in tears. Enraging, yes, but I was well aware of how typical the husband’s reaction was. Don’t make waves. Don’t embarrass the family. You’re too old. Don’t come to me with this, I’m tired.

The Japanese media traditionally sucks when it comes to covering issues related to women and sex –primarily because newsrooms have always been dominated by over-worked men too tired to deal with their womenfolk, from their mothers to girlfriends, daughters and wives. “Maybe it would be different if there were more women editors,” said the aforementioned journalist.

No, that’s not really it. It’s more an issue of empathy and the willingness to understand. It would also help if this society were not so youth-obsessed, especially when it comes to women trying to voice their opinions. An American (female) photographer once said to me that no man in her agency ever voluntarily made conversation with an older woman unless she was a foreigner. “So I guess I should be grateful for being 40 and getting attention, but I’m not,” she said derisively.

If the Japanese media is reluctant to discuss Kavanaugh, SNS show that the Japanese public is interested. Right after the confirmation, a large number of tweets expressed fear over America’s swing to the ultra-right, and what this may mean for Japan. “Abe will be executed,” was a familiar comment. But there is almost no mention of Dr. Ford and her ordeal and the ones that touch upon Kavanaugh’s accuser are far from positive. “I guess she went out on a limb for nothing,” said one anonymous tweet. “And then she was shot down like a dog.” Another said, “How can a woman of that age accuse a guy of something that happened so long ago and expect to be heard? She’s probably telling the truth, but at her age she should have known it wouldn’t work.”

At this point, such words feel like a slap in the face, and it’s hard not to feel the pain from old wounds that tend to flare up in bad weather. There are millions of women on the archipelago who have been assaulted, groped, raped, harassed and discriminated against. There are probably thousands if not more, of Kavanaugh equivalents in positions of power. As in the US, the elite boys club network in Japan is seemingly invincible.

There seems to be no antidote to the sorrow and injustice, apart from installing women-only train cars and hotel floors. Because harassment is so rampant here, gender segregation has become a luxury. I was in a hotel in Osaka where the male receptionist presented me with a key to the women-only lounge on the women-only floor, saying, “there are absolutely no men in the area so you can feel completely safe and relaxed.” Wow, um, thanks.

Still. We DO live in a world where it’s possible for an older woman to speak up about a traumatic episode that happened in her teens, and get the world to listen. There’s grounds for hope in that, even in Japan. If nothing else, the Kavanaugh hearings have gotten women talking and sharing about their own experiences of harassment and assault in this rigidly patriarchal society. Not in the scope and scale that’s happening in the US, of course. But a small, precious flame is flickering in the wind.

We’re Stuck With ‘The Last Samurai’ While Everyone Else Gets Crazy Rich

by Kaori Shoji

In high school, the girls around me had one wish–to have a different nationality, preferably American, and to trash our drab school uniforms for the outfits in “Beverly Hills 90210.” Being Japanese was just no fun, though it did seem better than hailing from other Asian countries. After all, this was the 1980s and the Japanese economy was gearing up to enter the bubble era. The Equal Employment Law for women kicked in. Chiaki Mukai was training to be Japan’s first woman astronaut. Takako Doi was rumored to become the future Prime Minister. Things were happening here, albeit minus the fun, sophistication and glamour we so coveted.

Little did we know that one day, Singapore and China would trump (pun intended) the US in many things regarding money, or that Asian women would come to rank among the richest in the world. These women would book first class flights on the five-starred Singapore Airlines to chill in the gaze of the Mer-Lion, and immerse themselves in gossip, shopping and spas with unlimited supplies of yuzu-scented sheet masks.

No yakuza, geisha, or Matt Damon here.

For that’s what the ladies in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” do. On the occasions that they haul themselves off the mani-pedi bed or tear themselves away from the mahjong table, they reach for their phones to tap a few keys and murmur a few instructions, to put extra padding on their already bursting bank accounts. After that, they’re off to dinner parties where a billion orchid petals pave the paths and splendid fireworks explode in the background. Who do these people think they are, clones of Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby”?

Speaking of which, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the kind of insular, extravagant love story that would have made Scott Fitzgerald weep with envy. Director Jon M. Chu, who hails from Palo Alto and attended USC, has been working in films and TV since 2002 and this time, he literally hit the jackpot. Somehow the man knew that the world needed the sight of well-heeled Asians with perfect teeth, flinging their cash around at the same time they’re being swooningly romantic.

Chu dares to tread where no Hollywood movie about Asia ever has. There is no poverty or war. No samurai conflict. No appearance of Matt Damon (The Great Wall)  or any white saviors to save the day. No immigration issues.  Most importantly, there are no mothers crying about the sacrifices they made, to give their children a bright future in America. The mother in “Crazy Rich…” (played by a gorgeously frosty Michelle Yeoh) is the type who, when running up against a racist manager at a London hotel, calmly takes out her phone and makes arrangements to buy the hotel then and there. Minutes later she strides away, leaving the manager to get down on his knees and scrub the mud off the carpet from her son’s shoes.

When Hollywood does Asia, it goes for the jugular, like “Joy Luck Club” and “Sayuri” and “The Last Samurai.” Hollywood executives hear the word ‘Asians’ and immediately conjure an image of sweating maidens in rice paddies, or yakuza with swords in Shinjuku, or maidens and yakuza hooking up in Shinjuku, or all of the above. But in “Crazy Rich..,” Asians get to do what white people in movies have been doing for centuries. It’s about time.

In the US, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the movie sensation of the summer and it’s easy to see why. Apart from the endlessly entertaining antics of the Asian one percent “Crazy Rich…” knows how to entice an American audience. The characters have American names like Nick (Henry Golding), Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel (Constance Wu). They speak perfect English and hold engrossing conversations about love and family. They take their entitlement completely for granted. And they’re never weird. If they are, they’re weird in ways that Americans understand. Like in one scene, a bunch of catty woman put a dead fish in a girl’s bed as a bullying tactic, and it’s straight our of  “Desperate Housewives.” Or if you want to be authentic about it, “The Godfather.”

Meanwhile, over here in the Land of the Rising Sun, people’s names are adamantly Japanese. Women are told to shut up and bear children, or shut up and work until 50 after which they must quit to care for elderly parents. Prime Minister Abe, now firmly ensconced in his third term, has promised the nation’s women that “things are going to change.” Seriously? They ain’t changing fast enough. All over Asia, Asian women are liberating themselves from tradition and antiquated family values to get a lot richer a lot faster than the Japanese ever did. Japan had its five minutes in the economic spotlight in the late 1980s but the 20-plus year recession combined with the notion of “seihin (清貧・clean poverty)” just about did us in. Evidence to that is seen in the way “Crazy Rich Asians” completely ignores Japan. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong – these places all get mentioned but Japan? Nada. True, Japan-born actress Sonoya Mizuno is in the cast but she plays a filthy rich Chinese woman. Go figure.

We’re a tad miffed, to be honest. But that really shouldn’t stop Japan from savoring every single frame of “Crazy Rich Asians.” From the sleek, precision make-up on the women to the bared torsos of the males (firm, slender and hairless – God’s gift to Asia) to the decor and wardrobe to the food and cocktails, “Crazy Rich…” is one huge, glittering monstrosity of a sweet, sweet treat. No wonder that for an increasing number of Japanese who will never be crazy rich, Singapore has come to represent the unattainable Japanese dream.

Update! Larceny Is Part of Family Love in Cannes Winner “Shoplifters”–Showing With English subtitles on June 21 (木)

『UPDATE: There will be a showing of the film with English subtitles at 7pm on June 21, at the Roppongi Hill Cinema. There will be a Q & A with the director afterwards. Details of the showing are after the review』

The titular family in “Shoplifters” give a new slant to the term “living in squalor.” (The film is partially based on true events)  Their house looks more like a bizarre crime scene than an actual dwelling for normal people but – and this is a crucial point in “Shoplifters” – the family is HAPPY. They enjoy the kind of freedom that one rarely sees in Tokyo families. The 10-year old son doesn’t go to cram school (or any kind of school for that matter). The dad is not an over-worked salariman whose only solace is the company drinking party. The mom couldn’t care less about keeping up with the Tanakas. And grandma – she’s an entertaining but cantankerous piece of work who drives well-meaning social workers up the wall.

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

Amid the filth and debris they huddle together for warmth and comfort. At mealtimes, they poke chopsticks into ramen tubs and food cans. The catch in this cozy utopia is that they must steal almost everything they need. The other catch is that dad has just kidnapped a 5-year old girl named Yuri. She had been neglected and abused by her biological parents, so the dad just had to rescue her. “We’ll return her to her folks in the morning” he says, but then he doesn’t and Yuri joins their little clan, adding another item to their history of crime.

“Shoplifters” just won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival – a first for a Japanese director in 21 years. The last time this happened was back in 1997, when Shohei Imamura came out with “Unagi,” and put leading man Koji Yakusho’s name on the international map. In Japan however, “Unagi” didn’t exactly break box office. It was artsy, dark and posed too many philosophical questions. While these ingredients worked wonderfully at Cannes, the general feeling in Japan was that everyone would rather watch Keanu Reeves.

“Shoplifters” is another animal. Keanu Reeves isn’t in it (too bad) but the director is Hirokazu Kore-eda: a constant contender at Cannes and other major international film festivals for the past two decades. He’s also a former TV documentarian with a shrewd sense of business. Shohei Imamura was an auteur of the old school, but Kore-eda has a nose for what sells. In his films, art never overwhelms commercialism and on the other hand, it’s not all business either. Kore-eda knows that in the international market, the biggest appeal of a Japanese film is its Japanese-ness and in “Shoplifters,” he adopts a Zen-like approach, letting the characters do their thing at their own pace, in their own space. A lot of things are unexplained or left for the audience to surmise. And pretty soon, the squalor of that awful house starts to grow on you. The ancient and no doubt odorous tatami mats, the wild, unruly shrubbery that grow all over the garden, the stained and mildewed bathtub – somehow, these things begin to assume a patina of Japanese charm. After all, we’re so used to seeing spanking clean Japanese homes inhabited by perfectly manicured people, at least in the media and after awhile, the hypocrisy of this set-up just gets to you. Such a house and family appear in the story for about 5 minutes and the contrast between them and the Shoplifters is jarring.

The Shoplifters’ house is a real one, sleuthed out by Kore-eda’s staff who combed the northeast wards of Tokyo for weeks before hitting upon the perfect specimen. Surrounded by high rise apartment buildings on all sides, the house is a tiny, crumbling Showa era relic. In the movie, it belongs to the grandmother, Hatsue played by Kirin Kiki. Divorced before becoming a widow, Hatsue still keeps her ex-husband’s photo on the ‘butsudan (miniature buddhist shrine)’ and takes out his pension every month to supplement her own. It’s the only steady source of income the family has, since the mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and dad (Lily Franky) earn minimum wage doing part time work and even that’s jeopardized when their employers install a workshare program. “What’s work share?,” asks the son and the dad’s response – “ahhhm, it’s when you share the work.” It also means less pay and less income to share with the family.

Nobuyo’s younger sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a ‘JK (short for ‘Joshikosei, which means high school girl) sex shop, which entails dressing in a school uniform and opening her legs in front of a two-way mirror. Aki’s wages are 3000 yen per session and upon hearing this, grandma Hatsue lets out a sigh of real envy. “That’s such a well-paid job!”

Of course, even working an honest job at minimum wage or a shady job at 3000 yen per hour, isn’t enough for a family to survive on and so shoplifting supplements their income. The movie was partly inspired by real events.

Partners in crime – the son Shota (Jyo Kairi) cases the joint with dad Osamu (Lily Franky).
Title: The Shoplifters
©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro.
Distributed by GAGA

The film is full of dark humor but it is also a biting criticism of modern Japan. Kore-eda is not a fan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The film references how the rights and wages of workers keep deteriorating and a growing number of people live in poverty, while “Abenomics” only benefits the elite.

The Japanese family has cultivated a certain image – that they revere their elders, that fathers work themselves to the bone, that the kids are models of scholastic excellence and good manners. In real life, that image is shattered again and again – consider that 1 out of 6 children live in poverty while the number of abused kids have been on the rise for the past 20 years. In the movie, Yuri’s biological mom is beaten by a rat of a husband and she takes out her anger on her daughter. And for all the love they show the son, the Shoplifter parents think nothing of depriving the boy of his future by keeping him home and teaching him to steal. The son, played by Kairi Jyo, is a compelling figure to watch – he loves the couple who have raised him, but at the same time he knows theirs is not a sustainable relationship. They have good times together but the son comes to realize that they’re bound more by crime and money than blood and love.

So, like a Bruce Springsteen song, it had to end. For me, the final scenes were blurred by a blizzard of tears, triggered by a longing for a raucous, uproarious, hugger-mugger childhood that never happened.

Shoplifters (万引き家族) opened nationwide in Japan on June 8th. 

The English subtitled screening and Q&A session of “Shoplifters” will be taken place on Thursday, June 21st.

【Date】Thursday, June 21st
【Time】19:00~(Q&A session after the screening)
【Venue】TOHO CINEMAS ROPPONGI HILLS
【Guest (tentative)】Kore-eda Hirokazu (director)

<How to buy the ticket>
・By PC & smart phone : Ticket site will be opened from Saturday, June 16th 0:00 at internet ticket vit (https://www.tohotheater.jp/vit/)
・Ticket counter at the theater : Ticket will be on sale from the opening on Saturday, June 16th at the theater (if the tickets are available.)

<Price>
Standard price *This film is rated PG12
※Additional costs will needed for Premium box seats. Please check the theater website.
※Movie tickets can be used.
※Free admission tickets can not be used.

<Caution>
※The screening is with English subtitles.
※Press will cover the Q&A and there will be a possibility that the audience could be on camera.
※The guests and Q&A session are tentative and are subject to change without notice.
※Reserved seating only and the ticket is for only 1 screening. You must obtain the seat for this screening to attend the Q&A.
※Resale is strictly prohibited.
※No camera (including by phoens) shooting or recoding are strictly prohibited.
※Once paid, ticket fees are non-refundable/non-changeable.

 

“The Only Woman in the Room”/ How The Amazing Beate Wrote Equal Rights For Women Into Japan’s Constitution

Unanswerable questions of the year: Is Japan really going to war? Is Japan’s peacetime constitution going to be trashed by the ruling party and returned back to the Imperial Constitution, which did not give suffrage or equal rights to women?

TheonlyThis question will be on the mind and haunt your waking hours after reading “The Only Woman in the Room” by Beate Sirota Gordon. In this memoir, she takes us through the various events in her life made remarkable by the fact that in late 1945, she became a member on the US Occupation team that drew up Japan’s National Constitution. Not only was she the only woman in the room, she was just 22 years old.

Her passport said she was an American citizen, but Beate Sirota had lived for 10 years in Akasaka, Tokyo with her Russian Jewish parents (her father Leo Sirota was a celebrated musician from Vienna and a close friend of Kosaku Yamada). For the past five years, she had been in the US while her parents had been in detention in Karuizawa. The only way to catch a plane out of America and into a ravaged, defeated Japan to see them again, was to get a job in the army. Beate’s Japan experience and the fact that she could speak, write, and read with fluency got her that position.

“The Only Woman in the Room” is honest, plain and straightforward – written not by a professional author but an extremely well-bred, cultured woman who had forged a career for herself in a time when women – even in America – were expected to marry, have babies and sink themselves in domestic bliss. Or just sink. Across the Pacific, American women her age were sizing up future husbands at cocktail parties. Beate was commuting from Kanda Kaikan to Occupation headquarters and working on the constitution 10 to 12 hours a day. She often skipped meals, since food was scarce and the work was so pressing. Her male colleagues pushed themselves harder and put in more hours – and Beate mentions that she admired and respected them for that. Her tone is never feminist, probably because she comes from a generation told to revere males and elders. Besides, she grew up in Japan where women shut their mouths and looked down when a male spoke to them, and that was exactly what she did when she first landed in Atsugi and an official asked to see her passport.

On the other hand, though her tone is consistently soft and modest, her voice is clearly her own – and when it’s time to stand up for the Japanese and their rights, she apparently didn’t give an inch. What an ally the Japanese had in Beate, especially Japanese women whom she describes in the book and in interviews she gave later on: “Japanese women are treated like chattels, bought and sold on a whim.”

Rather than change the whole world, Beate wanted to contribute to the building of a modernized Japanese society. Rather than yell out for women’s’ rights and organizing feminist rallies, she sought to raise awareness about the historical plight of Japanese women and children. And just as earnestly, she wished to help her parents, in particular her mother, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. Beate wasn’t a saint nor interested in being one. Without meaning to, she came pretty close. Her prose is never condescending, nor does it brim with self-congratulations as in the case of many memoirs. She had a story to tell and she told it and as far as she was concerned, when the story was over there was no reason for fuss or lingering.

 

beate

 

After the army stint, Beate Sirota Gordon returned with her parents to the US in 1948, married a former colleague in the Army and later worked as the director of the Asia Society and Japan Society in New York. She continued to give interviews about her work on the Constitution but only because she felt that the peace clause (the controversial Article 9) had to be defended repeatedly. She venerated her parents and remained very close to her mother until her death, while raising a family of her own, because family and love were precious and she knew first-hand the tragedy of losing them.

What culminates from her memoirs is her selflessness. Helping others, being fair, and maintaining a striking modesty in spite of her many accomplishments were the defining factors of Beate’s life. She died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, four months after the death of her husband Joseph Gordon. The Asahi Shimbun printed an extensive obituary on the front page, lauding her work and reminding the readers how the Constitution had protected Japan all these decades, for better or worse. Mostly for the better.

We in Japan tend to take the Constitution for granted. Many people remember and harp on the deprivation of the war years but few bother to recall the dismal details of everyday life before that. Women couldn’t go to school; they were expected to serve their parents and male siblings before marrying into households where she continued to serve and slave her husband and his clan. These women brought up their sons in the traditional way – which resulted in an unending circle of entitlement and arrogance for men, and toil and servitude for females. In poor families, parents sold off their children. Soldiers and military policemen detained ordinary citizens on the slightest suspicion and beat them during interrogation. They were responsible for committing unspeakable atrocities in China and Korea.

There was happiness, peace, equality, and respect in the Sirota household when Beate was growing up, but she knew too well how the average Japanese in Japan fared; how women and children were cut off from beauty, culture, or anything out of the familial box. She wanted a magic wand that would somehow change all that, and her idealistic, 22-year old mind told her that if she couldn’t get a wand, the Constitution was bound to be the next best thing. The task was daunting – she was working for peace and gender equality in a country steeped in tradition and ‘bushido’ feudalism. At this point in 1945, not even American women had gender equality and there she was, giving her all to ensuring that Japanese women would get that right. And just for the reason, there wasn’t nor has there ever been, anything in the American Constitution that resembles Japan’s Article 9.

At the end of the book is an elegy by Beate’s son and part of it goes like this: “Your legacy is the art of living in beauty and truth, of speaking up and out for what is right, and of finding our best selves and sharing them.”

 

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

 

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

1. “Kimitachiwa Dou Ikiruka” by Genzaburo Yoshino

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

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

2. “Sabishii Seikatsu” by Emiko Inagaki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention:

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

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

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

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

The Amazing Japanese Wife: Part 1

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

***

I bought a new car and my wife hates it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we are good. Fuckin’ Ay.

Celebrate Japanese Cinema Day: 映画の日! Ninja! Yakuza! Cyborgs! Reviews!

ikiru-1.jpg

Since 1956, Japan’s film industry has set aside a day to celebrate the birth of cinema in this country. December 1st, 2016, marks the 60th anniversary. The holiday is also known a 映画の日 (eiga no hi). The first showing of a film is generally considered to have happened in 1896 in Kobe, 19 years before Japan’s largest yakuza group, the Yamaguchi-gumi (still going strong) was founded in the same area.

Here are some links to articles our contributors have written in the past. Enjoy!

Some parting words from Yakuza movie icon Takakura Ken on yakuza films, his favourite movies, and acting

Ghost in the Shell: The Matrix of Sci-Fi Anime

Let’s Convenience Store! The Musical: コンビニへ行こう! : Japan Subculture Research Center

Aliens Versus Yakuza: 宇宙人対極道: A Masterpiece Of Bad Genre Films : Japan Subculture Research Center

The 10 Worst Films About Japan*: You Might Only Live Twice But Are These Movies Worth Seeing Once? : Japan Subculture Research Center

The Girl’s Guide to Decluttering and Hunting (in that order)


tokyo-clutter

Consider these 2 pictures. Before: Single, living alone in a 29 square meter apartment in Tokyo. The place is so filthy it’s a struggle every morning to shower, get dressed and get to the door. The toilet hasn’t been cleaned in 4 months and the tiny kitchen defies description. After: Living with a younger, handsome boyfriend in a new apartment twice the size of the old one. Clean hardwood floors and ample closet space. The bathroom decor features rose pink wallpaper and every household item is put away as soon as it’s used.

Needless to say, Japanese women toughing it out in the big city aspire to the “after” picture. Yet for many women trying to get by on this archipelago, reality edges ever close to “before” if not actually a precise duplicate.

Japanese women were once famed for being fanatical in their pursuit of cleanliness in the home and willing devotees at the altar of household chores. Now for many females, the mere thought of picking up clothes strewn on the floor, washing dishes piled in the sink and sorting combustible trash from the non-burnables and actually taking them out to designated spots on designated days of the week – all this is enough to bring on a mild case of eczema and/or insanity attack. We all have viable excuses to pull out at a moment’s notice: not enough time, not enough motivation, not enough cash left at the end of the month to buy cleaning products, not enough love during childhood, sibling troubles, boyfriend troubles…the list is enough to give Freud himself a nervous breakdown.

Enter the clutter consultants or chore specialists, all of whom comprise a huge chunk of the TK billion yen decluttering market. Among these, Marie Kondo or “Konmari” as she’s called in the US, has taken the concept out of the country and out into the big leagues. Time Magazine sited her among the “100 Most Influential People” alongside the other Japanese: Haruki Murakami. Apparently, a personage no less than Jamie Lee Curtis recommended that she make that list. Konmari’s book (US title: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) is a New York Times bestseller. There’s a rumor that Michelle Obama picked it up, read it and loved it. Her oft quoted advice about de-cluttering: “Don’t keep anything in the house that doesn’t spark joy.”

Over on the homefront though, Konmari is just one among many decluttering specialists who exhort Japanese women to take control over their lives by taking control of their stuff. It’s an interesting philosophical proposition: no god, man, ideology or diet is going to be that magic wand, but the will and strength to clear out one’s closet and scrub the toilet. Once you’ve made de-cluttering a habit, “everything in life will follow,” according to Konmari. Uh-huh. Kinda like “Field of Dreams” without the baseball. If you clean it, he (or romance) will come.

In this journey of de-cluttering, the Japanese woman will encounter two enemies: her possessions, and her mother. She wants to follow Konmari’s maxim of throwing out everything that doesn’t spark joy. She will start out with every intention of doing so. But every time she tries to trash her belongings (her high school year book, old boyfriend photos, clothes bought at bargain sales and never worn, shoes growing moldy in the cabinet, body shaping underwear, cosmetics, bags of rice from three years ago, exercise equipment galore are among the popular items) her resolve falters. She is after all, a Japanese woman who has the word “mottainai” stamped into her DNA. “This might come in handy someday,” is a refrain she’s heard since childhood – from her parents, from schoolteachers, from relatives and friends her boyfriend’s mother. Besides, it’s a huge hassle to sort out the trash. Better just let sleeping garbage lie around until the right man comes along and asks to stay over in her apartment. THAT’S when she’ll clean up. Really.

Often, her mother enables her in the task of clutter fossilization. Every Japanese mom over 50 is a sucker for stuff anyway and the older they get, the stronger their obsessions. Take the case of my grandmother, whom I revered in childhood as a cool old lady. She could speak a little French, she smoked a pack a day and quoted Spinoza when the mood hit her. But when she died, the entire family were dumbfounded to discover huge boxes of horded bottle caps (used) and disposable chopsticks (unused) pushed into a dark corner of her closet. Kimonos that she hadn’t worn in decades were rumpled into another box, every one of them black with mold. In the kitchen, she had 4 kettles that were never used and about 500 spoons pushed every which way in a huge drawer. We finally gave up trying to clean the place and hired an expert team that deals exclusively with dwellings of the elderly. They charged 200,000 yen for the first 6 hours, and 150,000 the next day. Her daughter (my mother) complained endlessly about the expense and my grandmother’s hording habits but she’s now exhibiting the very same behavior. Last month, I discovered a box full of unused disposable chopsticks and nearly had a panic attack. Et tu, Mom?

Indeed, every de-cluttering specialist warns about mothers, especially if you happen to live with her. De-cluttering specialist and blogger Mai Yururi lived with her mom and grandma in an old house in Sendai – when 3.11 hit, the house was left standing but the colossal amount of stuff, accumulated over the years, came down in an avalanche and nearly killed them. After that, the two older women finally agreed to throw out some things, but if not for the earthquake, Yururi writes: “I could have never convinced them to de-clutter.”

There’s no doubt about it, the path to a clean, spare room with things that only spark joy is not just littered with stuff no one wants anymore, it’s practically a hallucination glimpsed among the dunes in the Sahara Desert. Oh, for a bottle of water.

What We Wear About When We Think About Clothes: Musings on Japanese Fashion

Back in the late 20th century, the word on the street about Japanese fashion was that it had the lowest f*ckability points in the world. “I wouldn’t want to bed a girl wearing Comme des Garcons.” A guy I used to date said that, but then he was a paeleolithic rugby player whose idea of womens’ clothing consisted of pink micro minis and white high heels. Don’t get me wrong: I loved him, truly I did. After we broke up, I made it a point to observe and listen to the fashion opinions of muscle-bound, healthy young men – they seemed to be on to something. My conclusion: the nation’s fashion designers may be a big deal in Paris and Milan, but they were inflicting heavy collateral damage on the nation’s dating scene. A girlfriend of mine who went on a date wearing her first, uber snazzed Yohji Yamamoto, came home crying because the guy had fingered her voluminous, many-layered long skirt and sighed in frustration: “and how the hell am I supposed to take this off?” Sad, isn’t it.

Rei Kawakubo's works for Comme des Garcons, Spring/Summer 1997. Her work is extensively featured in the Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion exhibit and book.
Rei Kawakubo’s works for Comme des Garcons, Spring/Summer 1997. Her work is extensively featured in the Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion exhibit and book.

On the other hand, this guy was playing right into Yamamoto’s scheme of what clothes should be about. You weren’t supposed to take the skirt off, because you weren’t supposed to look at women in that way. And women shouldn’t give in to anything as vapid and frivolous as dating, either. The idea behind Japanese fashion – from 1981 when Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons made their Paris Collection debuts – to about 2003 – was that clothes should make you think. Think and ponder, with hands behind the back, pacing to and fro or something. Like a monk or a philosopher, someone who was naturally quiet and rarely lustful, whose body broadcasted ideas, not physicality.

Strangely enough (or not strangely at all, depending on your point of view), Japanese designers always had Japanese womens’ best interests in mind. Yohji Yamamoto, whose creations defined Japanese fashion for a quarter of a century, said the starting point of his career was a deep and abiding wish to aid working women. His mother had raised him single-handedly with a tiny dressmaking business in Shinjuku (his father was called to serve in WWII, and killed 7 months before the surrender) and Yamamoto grew up watching her work to the very dregs of existence. “I wanted to ease the pressure on my mom, and working women in general,” he said. “I wanted to make their lives a little better. Whenever I see a woman on the street, looking tired or a little depressed, I want to run up to her and ask: ‘how can I help you?”

Having said that however, Yamamoto added that the sight of a woman in heels caused him to shudder, along with tightly cinched waists and shoulder pads – all iconic items of the professional woman (at least in the west). “Those women are out of my range,” he said. “They don’t need my vision.” Yamamoto’s clothing are famed for the “space of air” between the fabric and skin, and the way skirts and pants seemed to flow and form a silhouette of their own, while withholding any information about the body that wears them.

The wish to help Japanese women is the essence of modern Japanese design. From the Koshino sisters (Junko, Hiroko and MIchiko) and Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake to Isao Kaneko, iconic Japanese designers in the fevered heydeys of the late 1980s sought to liberate Japanese women from gender stereotypes, the shackles of tradition and mental slavery. All hailing from the same generation, and having observed how the patriarchal Japanese society had wreaked havoc on the nation and inflicted untold suffering on its women, Japanese designers worked toward the same ideal, that their clothing should enlighten and empower the girls.

Their notions of doing that however, differed vastly from those in the west. At around the same era, London-based Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett were emphasizing female sexuality in all its sexy splendor – big breasts, tiny waists and full hips were prominently featured, and models strode the runways in brutish spikey heels. In Japan, designers went the opposite route. Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons (“Like the Boys”) was about enveloping the female body in heavy folds of dark, forbidding colors (Kawakubo’s famed words: “I work with different shades of black” made headlines at the 1986 Paris Collection), accentuating faces that had on little or no make-up, with hairstyles that channeled those of labor camp victims. Anything excessive, superflous, or prettily feminine were hacked off and left to die on the cutting room floor.

Speaking of concentration camp, Issey Miyake made great waves in the early 90s when he came out with a striped ensemble that bore a striking resemblance to Auschwitz prison uniforms. Priced at no less than 60,000 yen, critics were divided between outright adoration and spluttering indignation. Miyake loved flaunting his bad-boy, who-gives-a-f*ck personality, and he had plenty of opportunities to do so. By this time, Japanese designers had become fashion celebrities on European runways, and it was rumored that Karl Lagerfeld knelt at the feet of Rei Kawakubo and got a freezing look for his trouble. Meantime on the archipelago, women paid exorbitant sums for clothes that made them look weird, maimed, homeless or all three, and left their men scratching heads in bewilderment. New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham remarked that Japanese designs of this period recalled something mysterious and medieval, as if the elaborate layers of fabric hid something fantastically secretive or horribly injured.

Now, Japanese fashion goes hand in hand with Japanese geek culture, and “kawaii” is the watchword. Philosophical, cerebral threads have become a thing of the past: Yohji Yamamoto declared bankruptcy three years ago, though his flagship shop in Aoyama continues to do business and his spirit is carried on by his daughter Limi (who has her own brand). Comme des Garcons has formed a snug little empire consisting of disciples like Junya Watanabe and Tao Kurihara, while branching out into the organic food line via a collaboration with the famed Rose Bakery in Paris. The Japanese have become much more relaxed about fashion, thanks mainly to the marketing ploys of Japan’s own, homegrown casual wear brand Uniqlo, which the young Japanese love as much as overseas discount brands like H&M and 21 Forever. As for Japanese fashion’s f*ckability points, they’ve gone up. Way up.

Still, many of us feel a twinge of longing for the days when we worked and saved for a single piece of wardobe from a Japanese “maison,” fully aware that our boyfriends would hate it but secretly reveling in the deconstruction of the lines and absolute absence of coquetry that was in itself, a statement that went beyond mere feminism. In a perfect world, said Yohji Yamamoto, women were so pure and devoid of worldly desires that to get close to them was an experience akin to praying in a temple on top of a lofty mountain. His words would probably make zero sense to an Akiba chick in a pink micro mini. But we have the legacy, and this legacy could perhaps, become a pointer to the way Japanese women see themselves in the future.