Category Archives: Recommendations

Why Nausicaa is awesome

Via Roger Ebert, here is Filipino reviewer Michael Mirasol’s take on what’s so great about Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind:

My favorite part (emphasis added):

The film is considered to be the first of Miyazaki’s works to showcase his strong environmental inclinations. In every film since he has made his case for man to grow closer to nature as a return to the olden days. He does so with positive reinforcement, hardly ever resorting to demonizing, moralizing, or sermonizing. Here, the toxic jungle isn’t so much an inhospitable realm as it is a fearsome marvel of nature. It’s huge arthropod denizens never come off as oozing grotesques, but wondrous (though scary) creatures. The film’s largest creations, the ohmus, are wholly original, and are almost proof that the eyes are the window to the soul.

Miyazaki’s refusal to narrow down conflict to two or even three sides is refreshing, and quite admirable considering its target audience. The film’s story does concern good versus evil, but they aren’t manifested in simplistic ways. Each populace has its own motivations. Each conflict has its reason. Wars exist among man and against nature. Several stakes exist. Even death is hardly out of bounds. For much of the film, there is no one problem/solution. But despite this moral complexity for an animated film, it all fits Miyazaki’s big picture, and in the end we see it.


The link has a transcript, so it might be easier to read that instead.

I think it’s a testament to Miyazaki’s subtle storytelling power (or maybe just my own lack of insight) that this point never explicitly dawned on me after watching the movie. It’s just a natural part of the landscape. And it’s surprisingly rare for movies to take this approach, though it seems to be a major feature of Miyazaki films.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I sense a broader point here. One of the refreshing things about living in Japan is that people seem much less dogmatic than in the US. That is, issues are seldom as black and white as they seem in the States, and there seems to be less pressure to adopt the “correct” set of opinions based on political leanings. Could this have something to do with a generation raised on Miyazaki’s pluralistic stories as opposed to Americans growing up with Disney tales of good and evil?

Upper House election – morning roundup


Mrs. Adamu enters the polling station

Today Japan votes to select half the members of its upper house of parliament. I have been lax in my blogging duties this time around, but thankfully there is a wealth of excellent writing on the election in English to choose from. To get an idea of what’s going on, I recommend:

>> Transpacific Radio is planning to do a live video feed of the results tonight. Other obligations prevent me from joining this time, but once I get home I’ll be watching from my corner of Tokyo.

>> Japan Real Time – The Wall Street Journal’s new Japan blog has been (somewhat surprisingly) a great resource for info on the election comings and goings.

>> Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English-language live map of the results. If you read Japanese you can turn to any number of sources, though – I will be using Asahi, for the most part.

>> Conflicting takes on the election’s meaning from two people who normally agree with one another.

First, we have Michael Cucek’s article on the “meaningless” upper house election. His ultimate point as to why the high number of undecided voters in the polls:

Japan’s Meaningless Election

...

There is, of course, a more fundamental reason why many voters are confused and unable to make a choice, even on the eve of a historic first election under a non-LDP government–and that is the lack of a clear national purpose. Japanese voters are highly educated, law-abiding (for the most part) and eager participants in their own democracy. Ask most of them what Japan’s national goals are, however, and you’ll draw an embarrassed silence, or some dangerous platitude like ‘to live at peace with other countries.’

Without goals or aims, it’s extremely difficult to choose which path to take. Or, in this case, which party or person you want to vote for.


In contrast, here is Observing Japan:
The significance of this election has been thrown into clear relief since Kan Naoto took over from Hatoyama Yukio as prime minister and head of the DPJ. What once looked to be a referendum on the leadership of Hatoyama and DPJ secretary-general Ozawa Ichirō — a referendum that polls suggested that the DPJ would not win — is now an election on the future of Japan, perhaps to an even greater extent than last summer’s historic House of Representatives election. If the DPJ can retain control of the upper chamber, it will have three years before it will have to face the voters again in an election, provided that no snap election is called in the meantime. Those are three years that the government can use to make tough political decisions that a government with a shorter time horizon might be less inclined to make, like, say, a consumption tax increase.

And so this election is critical for Japan’s future.


I would come down somewhere in the middle. If Japanese voters have nothing more to aspire to, what was all the fuss about last year? And why was the debate over issues like Japan-US security, privatization of Japan Post, and so on, so fierce and unyielding? At the same time, this election won’t change the main party in power – the biggest question is whether the DPJ will need a coalition partner or partners to secure a majority in the upper house. Important, yes, but not the defining issue of a generation either.

English necessary for today’s Japanese workers?


There has been some debate recently over the state of English in Japan.

Most notably, Rakuten President Hiroshi Mikitani has announced that all his employees must be able to conduct daily business in English by 2012… or else. Rakuten has made several international deals lately, including the purchase of major Ebay seller Buy.com and the deal to set up a Chinese online retailing site with Chinese search engine Baidu. Also, Fast Retailing, operator of Uniqlo discount clothing stores, has mandated that all meetings with at least one native English speaker be conducted in English.

In reaction, the Nikkei has printed an editorial about the role it thinks English plays in the development of corporate Japan. Relevant excerpts follow:

Japanese have no choice but to adopt English to take advantage their overseas employees’ knowledge and personal connections.

While companies must enhance their employees English-language training, lawmakers and educators should understand that English has become more important than ever for Japan Inc.

English education in Japan has been criticized for being skewed toward reading comprehension. Although teaching methods have gradually improved, due in part to the increased use of native English speakers as teachers, but other countries show how far Japan still has to go.

It is also important to provide support for people who study English while working.

People’s basic skills English should be improved, but of course that doesn’t mean all Japanese must be fluent in the language.

Japan needs a national strategy that defines who needs English and how fluent they should be.


Personally, I feel bad for the Rakuten employees who are going to be forced to uncomfortably and unnecessarily speak English to each other in daily activities, even though I see the point Mikitani is trying to make. If doing business overseas requires English, then why not demand that all your employees speak that language? All the same, I am sure he will realize eventually that Japanese education has dismally failed most of his workers. As a practical matter, most Japanese people cannot speak English at an acceptable business level. Unless the Japanese education system can deliver, it won’t be practical to simply command Japanese employees to speak the language.

Apply to appear on NHK’s Cool Japan (conditions apply)

Kelvin on Twitter linked to this page on NHK where people can apply to appear on their late night show Cool Japan, about stuff non-Japanese people think is cool about Japan. Here’s an excerpt from introductory spiel and questionnaire for prospective guests:

We are looking for participants who have lived in Japan for less than one year to appear on the television show COOL JAPAN.
Interested parties are requested to fill out the following questionnaire.
Please review the questionnaire carefully and answer each question.
...
Nationality
Length of Time in Japan
Unique cultural aspects of your home country you are willing to shareMusic, fashion, arts, etc
Interests in Japanese culture
Aspects of Japanese society you find interesting, unique, odd?

So, is Japan suddenly not cool after you’ve lived in the country for one year? As Durf reminds us by way of WestFearNeon, NHK might be looking to talk to people at that tender stage after arriving in Japan when they tend to feel really positive about Japanese culture. Any longer than one year, and some of the same people who were once raving about might start grumbling about paved-over rivers and overly rigid rules. In WestFearNeon terms, NHK only wants wide-eyed wonderers and eager students.

Too bad, really. As a self-proclaimed “recovered” gaijin I would be happy to talk about all the stuff I like about Japan.

Ghost to be remade as Japanese film starring Nanako Matsushima

The title says it all. From Nikkei (sub reqd), we learn that Paramount is doing a co-production with Shochiku to remake Ghost, the 1990 the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore romance. It will star Japan’s tallest movie star Matsushima Nanako opposite Korean actor Song Seung-heon. NTV is apparently also involved. The US studios are apparently broadening their cultural horizons because their native, English-language content isn’t as popular with Japanese audiences as it used to be. Japan is no doubt a lucrative market for Hollywood since movie tickets cost significantly more here than they do in the US.

Ghost was a pretty sweet movie, so a remake might make for some good viewing. More to the point, I love the idea of remaking classic American films for Japan.

Personally, I want to see a Japanese version of Be Kind Rewind. “Sweded” versions of Seven Samurai, Godzilla, and Audition would be intense.

Or maybe Mr. Baseball, only in reverse? Given how times have changed, the story of an aging Japanese ballplayer getting sent to a small team in the US is probably more common now than the scenario in the original.

The toilet god

Here is an interesting song from singer Kana Uemura called “The Toilet God.”

The video (hosted by her record company) is apparently popular, currently checking in with just under a million views. Her album Pieces of Me has hit #10 on the Oricon charts but has since slipped to 17th place. I think part of the buzz comes from the juxtaposition of the silly sounding title and the somber content.

The song tell the story of the singer’s bittersweet relationship with her grandmother and runs about 10 minutes long. The title comes from the grandmother’s original way to get her to clean the toilets. Basically, there’s a goddess in the toilet who will make you grow up to be a beautiful woman only if you make the toilet spotless.

The story, based on Uemura’s real-life experiences growing up and then leaving Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture (incidentally, where I spent a year as an exchange student) is nothing short of heart-breaking: the girl moves in with her grandmother and the two get along until she reaches her rebellious teenage years. They fight and eventually she leaves the house for Tokyo. Two years later, the grandmother falls ill. The singer visits but is soon turned away. The grandmother dies the next day, leaving the singer with no chance to make amends for all the trouble she caused.

This song has a lot of elements that often help spell pop success:

– An attractive singer-songwriter with a guitar – Tear-jerking lyrics – Shout-outs to local dialects (she sings in Kansai-ben)

And to that she has added a twist, the off-color song title.

It’s tempting to call this the pop song equivalent of a keitai novel, but I liked it because it while it is heavy on the pathos, it still rings true because the story is so common and familiar. This song doesn’t offer a voyeuristic look at a dysfunctional family so much as a raw reminder of our own private dysfunctions.

See below for my quick and dirty translation of the lyrics:
Continue reading

WITNESS the seedy underbelly of the Visual Kei scene

Everyone, stop what you’re doing and read Tokyo Damage Report’s epic piece on the visual kei music scene. The way it’s written makes it hard to quote, but here are some relevant facts. The interview is long but well worth your time. Read to find out:

  • The coming together of of shojo manga and glam rock that created Visual Kei in the 80s.

  • How Japanese recording acts are formed and popularized.

  • How popular bands find ways to maximize revenue from fans (selling photos, lots of “limited edition” merchandise, and special izakaya parties for the most gullible/hardcore fans)

  • Where the labels go to find talent (it’s mostly ex-thugs).

  • Why Japanese record producers—think Yasushi Akimoto of AKB48, Tsunku of Morning Musume, etc.—are so heavily relied upon to produce every aspect of the final product that they become drug-addled auteurs.

  • The typical salary for a visual kei band member (lots of in-kind perks, very little cash)... and why they put up with it

  • The willingness of label bosses to forego short-term financial gain in favor of long-term connections (perhaps an ubiquitous aspect of Japanese business relations)

For some reason he’s been sitting on this gem since 2008! Shame on you, man.

It’s hard to tell the credibility of some parts, but I think it’s easier to swallow as a true-to-life mockumentary than as a faithfully transcripted interview.

To close out, here’s the video for one of my favorite viz-k songs, Luna Sea’s “Tonight”:

Giving all permanent residents the right to vote = terrible idea

The DPJ has agreed to submit a bill that would grant foreign permanent residents of Japan (let’s call them PRs) the right to vote and run in local elections. Getting voting rights without having to give up Korean citizenship has long been a goal of zainichi Korean activist groups. But this proposal would apply both to “special” permanent residents that include the population of “zainichi” Koreans and Chinese from Taiwan who remained in the country after WW2, and to any foreigner granted permanent residency.

The bill has stirred up a firestorm of criticism, most loudly from the right wing. However, in support of the bill are some powerful forces, first and foremost DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa, whose job it is to ensure a lasting majority for his party. According to at least one critic, the decision to offer suffrage to all PRs may be  an attempt to secure a more permanent voting base because the zainichi population has been falling precipitously as the original group dies off and their decendants naturalize.

Personally, although I could potentially benefit from this bill if I one day am granted permanent residency, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Except for unique circumstances, only the citizens of a country should be allowed to vote.

Right-wing anger

The right wing and their allies in the opposition LDP have mobilized against this bill. Right-leaning Sankei Shimbun has run features pointing out the “big problems” with the bill. Financial services minister and conservative People’s New Party President Shizuka Kamei is against the proposal, noting he would refuse to sign a cabinet decision on the matter. In a statement, he worried that some areas with large foreign populations would see an upheaval of political power. He also suggested the compromise measure of loosening the requirements to naturalize, without being specific.

Protests have been common, and generally have taken a highly xenophobic tone. The crux of the argument is that there is no good reason to give PRs the vote and that almost no nations unilaterally grant foreign citizens the right to vote (some EU countries allow it for other EU citizens, along with some other exceptions made for special groups (PDF)). Some of the criticism veers into the paranoid, however. In addition to the long, long list of furious red herring arguments documented by Debito, here is a video of one activist calmly explaining that this is an attempt by China to take over Japan by populating the country with foreign voters.

Almost non-existent support

It’s obvious enough that these protesters are making ridiculous arguments and have cranked the outrage way out of proportion. But what is the case for giving PRs the vote?

In addition to expected support from zainichi Korean groups, we have some uncharacteristically half-baked support from Debito, the well-known human rights agitator: “Debito.org is in support, given how difficult it can be to get PR in Japan, not to mention how arbitrary the naturalization procedures are.” But just because it’s tough to get the status, that doesn’t mean one should get the right to vote and be elected. I am not accusing foreigners in Japan of being spies or degenerates, but a basic tenet of a country and the Japanese constitution is that it is to be governed by its citizens. That requirement helps assure those who will be involved in politics are committed citizens of the country. Permanent residents are already protected under the law and do not need to renew their visa to stay in the country. I think if they want more than that they should be ready to give up their original passport and become citizens.

In an article in Japan Focus, professor Chris Burgess praises the zainichi suffrage movement as “multiculturalism in practice” but makes no mention of the expanded proposal.

I can understand giving the special permanent residents the vote because they are for all practical purposes citizens of the country. The current DPJ proposal would essentially exclude those who did not explicitly take South Korean citizenship (朝鮮籍維持者), if I understand correctly. But I would not even have a problem with these people getting the vote as it was an tragedy of history that put them in the country in the first place. If Japan would permit dual citizenship that would be one thing, but absent that letting them vote one way to let them participate in society.

But really, what constituency of non-zainichi PRs is actually asking for the right to vote? The only one who really stands to gain is the DPJ itself which would earn itself an expanded and loyal voter base. That’s an irresponsible way to decide election policy in this country, and as much as it pains me to side with rabid right-wingers who may wish me ill will, they are right on this issue. There are more important issues in my opinion (allowing dual citizenship, establishing an immigration policy) that should be given more priority.

(Thanks to Mulboyne for the video link)

Facts on Japanese libraries

(Updated and corrected)

If you’ve never been to one of Japan’s public libraries, I suggest you check one out. While they vary in quality from place to place, in my experience they’ve been great resources of free books and periodicals (especially magazines). The users tend to be surly older men there to get a free newspaper, kids playing with the picture books, and serious students studying for exams. While they have some odd rules (no late fees, you can actually check out periodicals, and there are draconian photocopy limitations), all in all I love them.

So that’s why I was so happy to see that Japan’s ministry of education has some numbers on Japan’s network of public libraries as part of a survey taken every three years of “social education” institutions like libraries, civic centers, and museums.

Some facts:

  • At the time of the survey, taken over 2007 and 2008, there were 3,165 public libraries in Japan, or one for every 40,349 people. In the US, there are an estimated 122,356, one for every 2,485 people. That compares to 42,204 convenience stores and 13,000 pachinko parlors. The number is up from 2,396 in 1995. (Correction: The US number included public school libraries, whereas the Japanese numbers did not. The corresponding US number is 16,604, or one for every 18,312 people.)

  • Japanese people borrowed over 600 million books in 2007.

  • There are a total of 34.03 million cardholders (26.7% of the population), who borrowed an average of 19 books apiece. Elementary school-age cardholders were more avid readers, borrowing 35.9 books each. The cardholder population is actually down from 36.9 million in 1999 but up from a sharp fall to 26.4 million in 1998.

  • However, today’s cardholders visit the library 5 times a year, vs. just 3 times in 1995.

  • Though there are only 14,981 employed librarians or assistant librarians in Japan (including those working at privately run collections), it’s estimated more than 200,000 people have passed the official librarian exam. In the US, there were 150,000 employed librarians in 2008. That’s 4.7 librarians or assistants for each library vs. just 1.2 per library in the US. I am not exactly sure what to make of this difference, but maybe it has something to do with the relatively higher qualifications needed to become a qualified librarian in the US (a masters degree in library science) vs. Japan (an undergrad degree in library science or a degree in any field plus some extra training).

  • By far the biggest library in Japan is the National Diet Library in Tokyo with a collection of 34.7 million books, compared to the US Library of Congress’s 141 million. I guess if the Diet doesn’t actually have to make any decisions, its members don’t need to do as much background research!

While I won’t get into it now, Wikipedia has some info on the history of libraries in Japan if you’re interested.

(link thanks to J-Cast)

Stuff I want to eat: Frijoles, a Chipotle knockoff in Azabu Juban

menu_buritto001

When I lived in Washington, DC, one of my favorite places to eat was Chipotle, the formerly McDonald’s-owned seller of giant burritos. The combination of spicy salsa, sour cream, guacamole, and seared meat all wrapped in an overstuffed tortilla made for a reasonably priced explosion of flavor, guaranteed every time.

Accordingly, a complete lack of anything comparable in Japan (or any decent Mexican food, for that matter) has been a source of considerable homesickness for me.

Until now.

Joe has pointed me to Frijoles, a restaurant in Azabu Juban with a menu essentially identical to Chipotle. I have not eaten there yet, but it has so far received some positive word of mouth. I’ll be sure to report once I’ve had the chance to try it out.