Category Archives: Japan

Ainu (2009- 2013), photographs by Laura Liverani

As if we needed any additional incentive to travel to Spain, now that winter has definitely arrived in the northern climes, the mail brings word of a new exhibition, opening at Ciclo Cultural du Japon in Valencia.

Ainu (2009- 2013) contains photographs by Laura Liverani, as she explains,

The Ainu, the native people of Japan, were officially recognized as an ethnicity in 2008, after more than a century of discrimination and oppression which almost completely effaced their language, society and culture. Today several individuals and groups across Japan are involved in Ainu rights, cultural revitalization and diffusion. This photographic series explores contemporary Ainu identity and culture, focusing on representation and self-representation of the Ainu, both within institutions such as museums and outside, in everyday’s life practices. The work, still in progress, started in 2009 and aims at raising questions about a culture in the process of changing and redefining itself.

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In the occasion of the exhibition, the photographs will be accompanied by a text by Marcos Centeno, director of the documentary film Ainu. Caminos a la memoria (2013) which will also premiere in Valencia.

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An exhibition well worth seeing, in a fantastic city as well. I have been unlucky enough to have been in Europe while Laura was exhibiting in Japan and now back in Japan as this one opens in Spain. If you are fortunate enough to be closer, I would strongly recommend a visit, while I wait for our travel schedules to coincide!

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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Breasts. Some of us have them. Do you have them? How often do you think about them? (You may answer this question even if you are not thinking of your own.) Do you worry about their size, what people you meet think about their size, or whether sexual partners are turned off by their size? Are you always comparing your breasts to those of others? Do you find it impossible to enjoy even long-wished-for experiences because of thoughts like these? Even in moments of danger does your mind stray to the size of your potentially inadequate breasts?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and you are a highly sought after physical therapist with a sideline in lucrative contract killings, you should probably do everyone a favour and stop obsessing. Call a plastic surgeon, use some of the pile of money you have sitting in a safety deposit box and get the blooming things done. Go up a cup size. Or two! Get the silhouette you have always known you deserved. And then we can get on with the rest of the book because you are one of two main characters in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and frankly, there are bigger things to worry about than the size of your breasts (sorry… Not sorry.)

In over 30 years of breast-owning, I have never thought about a pair as much as I have about Aomame’s. It feels cruel to a writer whose books I have enjoyed in the past, but someone needs to say: ‘Haruki, give it a rest, lad’. In his defence, it could be argued that Aomame is living out a suspended adolescence, where girls can fixate on such superficialities, and that when given the chance to change her appearance in order to evade capture more effectively, she declines. However, when this happens:

Aomame mourned the deaths of these two friends deeply. It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.

The reaction is laughter rather than sorrow. Only the weight of the tome and an unreturned rental deposit on my apartment prevented me from throwing it across the room with great force, à la Dorothy Parker. It isn’t as if Mr Murakami is some crazed misogynist who doesn’t know any better. Countless examples prove that he can write women well, when he manages to lift his literary gaze higher than their chests. Aomame’s boss, the Dowager, is the kind of kick-ass old lady that everyone needs on their side: tracking down powerful abusers, maintaining a haven for their victims and dispensing quiet justice from a hothouse filled with butterflies. Fuka-Eri is a precocious literary talent, despite suffering from something akin to dyslexia. Yet her ‘beautifully developed’ full breasts are the feature that rates a mention almost every time the teenager appears. To add balance, so do her small, beautiful ears, if you are playing Haruki Murakami Bingo. Prepare to shout ‘full house!’

What bedevils 1Q84 is the makings of a great story trapped somewhere within these pages, that unfortunately isn’t one you can read unless you want to get busy with a red pen, scissors and glue. Editorial input seems to have been limited to pats on the back while waiting for the Nobel Prize Committee to call. It is all the more frustrating because the amount of time that a book this size demands in investment would suggest that readers be rewarded in return. There are small glimmers of interest. The author is particularly good on the subject of cults, the origins of the Sakigake group are gripping and the menace and influence they are able to wield genuinely alarming. Underworld lawyer Ushikawa’s backhanded property dealings are a nod to the asset price bubble which is about to inflate, hobbling Japan’s economy for two decades and counting. The Little People are another frightening entity on first appearance, albeit later defanged and left woefully under-utilised. Tengo’s co-conspirator Komatsu has a great deal of interest to say on the nature of publishing stardom and the manipulation of the reading public, bestseller lists and the patrons of literary prizes (ahem). Unfortunately these potent elements are diluted in a soup of double moons, cats and small breasts, until it begins to feel like a parody.

Perhaps the biggest letdown, remembering the many memorable characters that inhabit Murakami World, is the weakness of the two leads. It is difficult to feel the affection with which we regard, say, Watanabe’s meanderings into maturity in Norwegian Wood, for the romance of breast-obsessed Aomame and her opposite number, Tengo. Tengo could be an early forerunner of the much lamented ‘herbivore men’, except that he seems to be getting more than his fair share of the sex, which even by Murakami standards is decidedly icky. Haunted through his most intimate moments by a brief sexual memory from infancy concerning his mother, fantasising about the 10-year old Aomame, a sex scene with Fuka-Eri so cringe-y it was nominated for a Bad Sex award, Tengo could be a poster boy for abstinence. Vaginas are hairless and appear ‘freshly made’, in which case they are entered, or possess ‘thick, rich [pubic] hair’ in which case they are not. Murakami could be satirising the youth-fixated sexual landscape and its effect on women’s bodies – or he might just dig really young girls. And we are meant to root for Aomame and Tengo as star-cross’d lovers, despite him getting his rocks off with young girls and her prowling Roppongi bars to pick up balding middle-aged men. It is all a far cry from Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League.

Much has been made of the inspiration provided by Nineteen Eighty-Four (nine in Japanese is ‘kyu’, hence the ‘Q’, the Little People as the opposite of Big Brother) but it is a struggle to note any deeper connection between the two. However, if Mr Murakami is looking to George Orwell for inspiration, there is this passage, from Why I Write:

I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it…

Perhaps Murakami has outgrown his own motifs, writing with more than half an eye on the judges in Stockholm blurred his focus, or it is possible that he went and sat in a well halfway through and the publishers got a ghost-writer to finish it from screwed up notes retrieved from the bin, or via a box marked ‘patent pending ACME MURAKAMI THEME GENERATOR’. Like Fuka-Eri’s work, Air Chrysalis, this is a book crying out for a determined editor backed by a ruthless publisher. In tests, 8 out of 10 talking cats said ‘It’s no Kafka on the Shore, now, is it, mate?’

J. C. Greenway’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is 266 pages long and she has never tried to throw it across a room.

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The Daily Mail on those funny foreign types

The UK’s Daily Mail attempted to bring a little light relief on Christmas Eve, via the subject of Japanese dining choices:

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Long-time Japan watchers will no doubt shrug at this well-worn trope, critics of the Daily Heil will note that it has taken them a while to catch up on this story, which must have been doing the rounds for over 20 years.

I suppose there is something to be said for the Mail approaching it from the angle of amusement at those funny foreign types and their ways, instead of the thundering outrage at the death of Christmas which they so readily summon at this time of year.

For the record, while I have never eaten KFC at Christmas in Japan, it is very popular. However, usually with young couples rather than families as Christmas isn’t a holiday or a family event in Japan, that’s saved for New Year’s Eve instead.

ten minutes hate wishes a very Merry Christmas to all readers, wherever you are and whatever you are eating while reading.

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Words to live by

I don’t often post funny signs from Japan, as it seems a bit cheeky when I speak about 20 words of the language, but the juxtaposition of this set made me smile. Vital advice, I hope you will agree.

The rules are: try not to make a noise, stop playing with fireworks and  do not climb over the fence.

Thank you for your consideration!

Photo by me, taken in Yokohama

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Challenging preconceptions and prejudices

Ever since I arrived in Japan I have held a – some would say irrational – prejudice against Roppongi. Admittedly based on little more than an after-work trawl through the area’s multiple British pubs and a few horror stories heard about the clientele of the ‘all you can drink’ nightclubs, I was content to describe it to a visiting friend as something she could comfortably miss off her itinerary. ‘Like drinking in Leicester Square in London’, I said, ‘fine for idiots who don’t know better and tourists’.

But, as with holders of all other prejudices, close examination proves me to be the idiot for damning the whole neighbourhood based on a couple of dodgy nightspots. Today I was lucky enough to be invited to Roppongi’s Mori Art Museum for the ‘Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World’ exhibition, which runs until 28 October. You would be daft to let a similarly irrational aversion prevent you from seeing it.

The exhibition, the first of its kind to be held in Japan, opens by noting a significant parallel in the way both the Arab and Asian nations are viewed by outsiders. The diverse natures of both regions are often dismissed as offering little more than their stereotypes, be that veiled women for one or geisha for the other. The artists in the Mori’s exhibition play with these stereotypes in various ways, from Halim Al-Karim’s ‘Untitled 1′, with its indistinct red-clad figure to Maha Mustafa’s ‘Black Fountain’. The latter splashing oily droplets all over a white room whose windows look out over the Tokyo landscape, reminding the viewer that while one country’s problems are caused by a lack of natural resources, another’s spring from an abundance of them.

The Arab Express curators are aware that for many people, the first thing they think of when considering the region will be its conflicts. The artist always has a choice about how much reality to include or ignore and many of those represented here wrestle with these concerns. In ‘To Be Continued’, Palestinian artist Sharif Waked confronts our fears with his depiction of a typical suicide bomber’s video which, on closer inspection of its subtitles, has the protagonist reading from One Thousand and One Nights. ‘The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer’, included in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s ‘Wonder Beirut’, features depictions of the once-popular tourist attractions of the ‘Paris of the East’, the negatives burnt by the photographer after the outbreak of the civil war in an attempt to make the pictures resemble the city he found himself living in.

It is a powerful and thought-provoking collection, yet not without moments of humour, even including a series of works which reference the Japanese trend for purikura. Capturing the diverse cultures which make up the Arab World is no small challenge, yet the range of works on display will ensure you leave feeling at once informed, wrongfooted and entertained.

Confront your own preconceptions at the Mori Art Museum before 28 October.

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Where things change very slowly

Seems I wasn’t the only one who heard the call of the anti-nuclear power plant protestors outside the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence and decided to see what was happening. In amongst the crowds that gathered yesterday was former PM Yukio Hatoyama. The wheels-within-wheels and behind the scenes machinations of politics being what they are, it seems less than likely that he had entirely pure motives for wanting to join in calling for no more restarts to the country’s nuclear power plants.

Still, as we were held for a time behind barricades, watched over by bored police officers and an array of cameras, it was difficult to escape the feeling that all this celebrity attention could mean that the weekly protests are becoming too big to ignore. That hasn’t prevented some of Japan’s media from trying, with coverage of Monday’s huge Yoyogi Park gathering making headline news… on page 38 of certain publications.

And some remained unimpressed by Hatoyama’s appearance at the demo, with one attendee quoted in the Japan Today story saying:

He can come here and say something impressive but it doesn’t really matter. This is a grass roots movement. Things change very slowly in Japan, but we must continue to protest.

I would agree with that assessment. The crowd I saw on Friday night was striking not only for the people you would have expected to see – students and seasoned protestors among them – but also the business people, families and retirees that I imagine could be experiencing standing in the streets outside the Prime Minister’s house shouting slogans for the first time.

It would be easy to say that there are no easy answers to Japan’s current energy difficulties. The protestors in the streets understand that glib soundbites won’t provide the necessary solutions, here’s hoping that the politicians, former amd current, are also cottoning on to that.

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You say you want a revolution?

I have a confession to make. I’m not in this picture.

You say you want a revolution, well you know,
we all want to change the world

- The Beatles, Revolution

Protestors have been coming together in Tokyo each Friday evening, gathering outside the Prime Minister’s residence to demonstrate against the restarting of some of the country’s nuclear power plants. Not me though. Instead, your fearless correspondent was sipping a vodka tonic, pontificating on what it all meant and making bold statements all over the internet about what an heir to Orwell she is.

If Orwell had walked into that bar he probably would have told me to go to hell and he would have been right. I don’t have the excuse of working on a Friday, or having commitments, or living far away from the district where the demonstrations have been taking place, like others who would have loved to attend but couldn’t. With no good excuse, only my own preoccupations, I’ve been lazily watching as the protests built via word of mouth to the point where organisers and police could argue about tens or hundreds of thousands attending (organisers say around 150,000, the police 20,000).

So I sipped my drink and pondered the more-than-fifty shades of grey area that surround The Nuclear Question:

Because it’s dangerous, sure. There could be another earthquake and tsunami at any time. But we need the electricity. Except TEPCO (the utility in charge of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant) falsified safety test results, while METI (the Government department with oversight of the industry) looked the other way. You like electricity, especially the lights, the music and the air conditioning that it brings, but when the yakuza are all but running some plants, who is really overseeing them? Fukushima Daiichi was years out of date, as well as poorly maintained and inspected, they don’t build nuclear power plants like that any more.

Maybe alternative power can make up the gap, Panasonic is planning to build a town where all the houses are energy self-sufficient to show it can be done or we could just switch all the old power plants back on and this time make sure they get checked properly. Can Japan innovate again, this time on renewables and will we really do setsuden (power saving) properly when the air conditioners are already running full blast and it’s only July?

I heard they want to make Miyagi a hub for green manufacturing as part of the reconstruction but it’s a big gamble, the Oi nuclear power plant is built on a fault but up and running at full capacity and the kids of Fukushima have radiation in their thyroid glands but still talk on the Children of the Tsunami video about how they want to go home but people must know that’s a never by now. If we switch all the plants off the economy is doomed, it will mean no jobs, but the lakes are radioactive, parents aren’t letting their children drink tap water although the neon and screens are loud and bright in Shibuya and please show me the box where I mark the ‘X’ that makes this all go away for another few years…

How to cover all those thoughts with a slogan like ‘no nukes’ is beyond me, so I drink more vodka and lime and try to pretend it isn’t happening, for an evening at least. How do we begin to fix this mistake, sixty years in the making? Collective errors that brought nuclear power plants and prosperity to the regions of Japan, yet left them mismanaged and vulnerable to natural disasters. It is easy to forget, but the plants weren’t dumped on places like Fukushima, they were welcomed by populations desperate for the jobs and incomes they brought with them.

And I can’t help thinking that if Fukushima Daiichi had possessed a back-up generator on a hill somewhere – or even on its own roof – if the inspectors had made sure the company was prepared for the once in a lifetime event, if everyone had done their jobs like they were supposed to, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. No anger, no disbelief, no mistrust, no demonstrations.

The banner I want to hold says ‘no stupidity’ or ‘no hubris’, perhaps. No more cosy lunches between regulators and the regulated. I don’t know if we can un-invent nuclear power now it exists, or make it safe enough to be used to power us into a greener future. I don’t know if we can convince politicians to look beyond the short term and their own self-interest. I do know that if enough of us put down our drinks, get involved, engage with the problems that have us wide-awake and staring at 4am instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, maybe we can get a little closer to that revolution after all.

I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse

- Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I know where I’ll be next Friday evening. See you there?

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Hana Walker’s Half Life 2:46 by Our Man in Abiko

I consider myself lucky to know Our Man in Abiko and was proud to be part of the team he assembled to put #Quakebook together, containing stories of the Great East Japan Earthquake, before signing up again for light editing duties on the Abiko Free Press’s attempt to assess what had changed for Japan since those catastrophic events: Reconstructing 3/11. As the Man mentioned in his review of my own book about Japan and earthquakes, The Teas That Bind, it is incredibly difficult to be honest about a friend’s work. So why trust anything I write about his latest book, Hana Walker’s Half Life 2:46?

I may be a slight bit biased but to miss out on this fantastic story because of such fears would be a shame. By Chapter 4, as our hero Hana hurtled towards the seventh dirtiest lake in Japan, trapped inside a Mercedes with a lecherous hoodlum, I was hooked. Reading the book on my phone for the final seconds before work, or burning the candle late into the night to finish the last few chapters, testifies to the gripping nature of Hana’s quest. It takes her far from her Abiko home to find schoolgirl Emi Blackmore, missing in Ishinomaki in the North of Japan, on behalf of Emi’s estranged and distraught father, while getting some disgruntled gangsters off her back and trying to come to terms with her own chequered family history.

Hana’s mission is realistically located in the Japan residents will recognise as the one they sometimes love to loathe, peopled by less-than-helpful bureaucrats, crabby ramen shop grandmas and inept English teachers, bedevilled by mama-charus, noisy pachinko parlours and daytime cooking shows. Tatami mats, onsen, 100 yen stores and ‘nihongo jouzu’: it’s all here. American tourists wear cowboy hats, the yakuza exude menace, and so life for the characters is proceeding in its almost-usual channels as the clock ticks around to 2:46pm on 11 March 2011.

The recreations of that day are note-perfect and will be recognisable to everyone who was in Japan. Interspersing tweets with the story shows characters reacting to real news events and sharing darkly humorous catalogues of exactly what in the kitchen had smashed, just as we did. Half Life has plenty to say about the nature of belonging and nationality, about Japan and her relations with the world, in parallel with the occasionally thorny paths of father-daughter relationships, both real and surrogate. There is more to learn here – about conventions on punctuality, how blood type determines personality, that wallets can be left anywhere to be handed in later with cash intact, Japan’s unique and distinct four seasons and what always happens to the nail that sticks up – than from any etiquette guide. The cosy government, yakuza and TEPCO culture that contributed to the disaster at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is likewise illuminated.

Yet all this is covered without once detracting from the fast-paced tale of Hana’s attempts to find Emi, escape the police and the bad guys, while avoiding getting framed for murder or eaten by kittens (yes, really). And the serious moments never detract from the humour of what is at times a real caper – the bicycle scenes providing exactly the right mix of comedy and suspense – because our Hana is no suave detective, perhaps with more of Philip Marlowe about her than Lisbeth Salander.

In The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler writes, ‘down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ Abiko’s streets may be less mean than the City of Angels’, but in desperate times, Ms Walker displays those same qualities. Hints have been dropped regarding a sequel, which is fortunate, as with Hana around Japan is sure to remain what Chandler called ‘a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in’.

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This is where I live

At times you have to escape the city, to see a wider sweep to the horizon, feel fresh air on your face and remember what it is to have elbow room, before returning feeling charged and able to appreciate the urban beauty again.

My home city, looking as beautiful as it gets, courtesy of the very talented Samuel Cockedey.

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ten minutes hate at The Cat’s Meow

I mention that I have family about to arrive and they are so happy to hear the news, we talk of places my relatives should visit while they are here and it is a relief to turn to a less fraught topic of conversation for a short while.

It seems such a small crumb of comfort to be able to offer when what is needed is a feast.

Fortunately there really was a feast on offer last Friday when I appeared as a guest of The Cat’s Meow at Biscotti Tapas in Tokyo to read extracts from The Teas That Bind, answer questions about writing, tea and earthquakes as well as sign some copies of the book.

Thank you to everyone who organised or attended, it was really great to meet you and I hope you enjoyed the evening as much as I did!

Photo by Uchujin/Adrian Storey

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