Thursday, 9 August 2018

Japan and Italy, Japan in Italy: Noodles, Mikado, and Internal Organs

A few months ago I did two special posts on the relationship between Italy and Japan and introduced Italian culture, including food, coffee, and films, in Japan. This was partly motivated by a recent spurt in viewers from Italy, particularly mysterious spikes of 60 views every two or three days (perhaps a university class?). In terms of total all-time views, Italy is currently in second place behind Japan at 5,006! Unfortunately, I'm still no closer to unravelling the mystery of my Italian fan-base (do drop me a line in the comment box!) but I'll continue the Italy/Japan theme, this time looking at Japanese culture in Italy.

This summer, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Italy, 2 days in Rome and 5 days in Florence. In terms of Japanese food, sushi and noodles seem to be the most popular and I spotted quite a few ristorante giapponese (pictured). The Japanese pavilion was apparently very popular at expo Milano in 2015 (in Japanese these kind of international expositions are called banpaku =万博). Even small supermarkets stocked Kikkoman soy sauce and instant cup/pot-noodles (pictured) and for those with a sweet tooth there were Pocky stick-biscuit chocolates (covered here) though the name, and packaging had been changed: in Italy they were called Mikado (!) and had a giant rising sun on the package!! There were also some rice-puff biscuits called (wait for it) Nippon, again featuring a mini rising sun.
One of my favourite places in Florence was the Central Market (Mercato Centrale) which had all sorts of amazing produce such as fish, meat, cheese, olive oil, spices, dried fruit and nuts, truffles, fresh fruit, and panforte (a Tuscan chewy dried fruit and nut cake which was a great souvenir - or omiyage =お土産 - for my Japanese friends). For those Japanese tourists worried about fitting all these omiyage into their suitcase - Japanese buy a lot of presents for people back home - I even spotted a Japanese takkyūbin (home delivery service) flag on one of the market stalls (pictured)! Upstairs is something of a hidden gem, a food court with all sorts of pastries, sandwiches, and coffee, perfect for a cheap breakfast. In fact, a new sushi shop was due to open - another taste of Japan in Italy.

Staying in Florence, one of my favourite local snacks was the lampredotto sandwich (panino), traditional street food in Florence made from tripe (the stomach of a cow) which has been slow-cooked in a vegetable broth and seasoned with herbs. One vendor had a sign (pictured) explaining this local delicacy in Japanese. The sign explained it was a regional speciality or meibutsu (名物). This particularly resonates with Japanese tourists since almost every region in Japan will have its own meibutsu, whether food or handicraft, which are popular choices for omiyage. It also explained the sandwich in terms Japanese would understand - the sign says motsu-nikomi (もつ煮込み) sando where motsu means the innards of an animal and nikomi means stewed. Japanese, like Florentines, love their internal organs, as exemplified by dishes such as motsu-nabe (hot-pot). Buonissimo!

Friday, 3 August 2018

Preparing to Enter University: Starting Examination Hell Early

A few weeks ago I gave a sample 30-minute lecture (known as a mogi jugyō =模擬授業) at an event at Tokyo Big Sight, a convention and exhibition centre in Ariake, Eastern Tokyo, an area which sits on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. The five-city event was called Yumenavi LIVE (夢ナビライブ) 2018, organised by FROMPAGE, a Japanese commerical services company, and supported by the Ministry of Education. Aimed at 1st and 2nd year high-school students, the Tokyo event alone boasted 380 lectures, 206 university booths, and 72 TED-style talks and was attended by 50,164 students! The event was billed as "a day to discover what (you) want to study and to get in touch with universities (you) can study at" (manabitai gakumon o mitsuke, manaberu daigaku to deau ichi-nichi =学びたい学問を見つけ,学べる大学と出会う一日).
The two towers of the imposing Tokyo Big Sight conventiona and exhibition centre
Tokyo Big Sight convention and exhibition centre in Ariake, Eastern Tokyo
Given the number of attendees and lectures, it was hugely impressive how smoothly everything went, with preparation starting many months before with an interview and short video message for students (viewable here). On the day itself, everything was ultra efficient and timed to the second. Speaking about the construction of Japanese identity, my own bilingual lecture, entitled "Who are the Japanese", had a full-house of 120 students (who could book seats before) plus others standing at the back. Lectures took place in 10 giant hexagons, with 6 speakers talking concurrently in each block; in fact, I'm not quite sure how students managed to hear amid all the cacophony! Afterwards, we were whisked off to a special area for students who had questions.
As Japan's population plummets - current estimates see it falling from 127m to some 90m by 2050 - the number of 18-year-olds is also in free-fall and competition between universities to secure entrants has become increasingly fierce. In Japan, the market for those looking to enter top schools and universities - known as juken - is big business. The word juken suru (受験する) literally means to take an exam and students preparing to or actually taking exams are called juken-sei. When does this start? In the case of those applying for national, prefectural and other public universities (kokkōritsu daigaku =国公立大学), students will be going to private after-school cram schools (juku =塾) from the first year of high school, and could start preparing for the exams as early as the end of their second year. For third-year high-schoolers the pressure is really on and they are pretty much devoting all their time to study by the summer when they become juken-sei proper. Whereas some students do get into universities through the recommendation and the AO system (based on interviews and essays rather than exams proper) and end their juken hell early, for most December-February are the juken peak, with an unfortunate few not finalising their place right up until March (for entry in April). But it is not only the student that suffers; the whole family is expected to pull together and support the juken-sei during this period, which means no holidays, no noise, and no fun...

Friday, 27 July 2018

Christianity and Religion in Japan: Churches in Karuizawa as the Ideal Wedding Venue

How many Christians are there in Japan today? The latest data from the Agency for Cultural Affairs (bunkachō =文化庁) gives a figure of 1.9 million "believers" (shinja =信者) for 2017, roughly 1.5% of the population. The data needs treating with care though: the total number of "believers" for all religions is given as 182 million, which at first glance may seem a little surprising given that Japan's total population is only 127 million! The reason is that many Japanese believe in multiple "religions", particularly Shintoism (for weddings) and Buddhism (for funerals). In this way, most Japanese embrace and enjoy diverse "religious" practices and rituals, including Christian ones, which are treated more like customs. The fact that the majority of Japanese claim that they are "non-religious" (mushūkyō =無宗教) - meaning they do not belong to any religious organisation - backs this up.
Japanese couple getting married in the Stone Church, Karuizawa

As mentioned in the previous post, Karuizawa, which is today a rich man's escape from the fierce Tokyo summer, was discovered - some even say "established" or "created" - and developed by Christian missionaries. The first of these was Alexander Croft Shaw, a Canadian missionary of the Anglican Communion, who, in 1888, took a liking to the cool climate of the area and built a cottage to spend summers in with his family. Today, every August there is a Shaw Festival when people lay flowers under Shaw's bust in front of Shaw Memorial Church.
Britishprof and students in front of the Kogen Church, Karuizawa

Shaw Memorial Church is just one of many churches and chapels dotted around Karuizawa which has made the town the place of choice for many couples to exchange their vows. Indeed, in recent years Christian-style weddings seem to have become increasingly popular as an alternative or even in addition to the traditional Shinto-style wedding - regardless of whether the couple are Christian or not. The Karuizawa Wedding Association was established in 2009 under the slogan of "Making Karuizawa the town of weddings" and the homepage currently lists 10 churches and chapels including two I visited: Kogen Church (高原教会) and Stone Church (石の教会) both in the forest in the Hoshino area of Karuizawa, a 10-minute walk from Harunire Terrace.
Outside and inside the Kogen Church, Karuizawa

The Kogen Church, a wooden building with a distinctive pointy triangular roof was built in 1921 and like many churches in Karuizawa is open to all people and boasts gospel worship on Sundays. The church holds a summer candle night throughout August from 6:30 to 9:00pm, with special events, such as a choir, from 13th to 17th, when hundreds of candles and lanterns are lit in the forest around the church - a quite spectacular sight.
Outside and inside the Stone Church, Karuizawa

Nearby is the Stone Church, or the Uchimura Kanzo Memorial Stone Church  (石の教会 内村鑑三記念堂) in full, constructed in 1988 by "organic" architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg (Uchimura was a Japanese author and Christian evangelist who ironically promoted "churchless Christianity"!). The stone arches are inter spaced with glass panels which generate a soft light inside the building. The chapel has rows of wooden pews and running water on the stone wall. Some parts were closed off when I visited due to a wedding: there is apparently a year-long waiting list to get married here!
Various shots of St. Paul's Catholic Church, Karuizawa (thank you to L for these!)

A final honourable mention must go to a church not on the Wedding Association list, St. Paul's Catholic Church (聖パウロカトリック教会). This is a Catholic wooden church, near the centre of old Karuizawa, designed and built in 1935 by Antonin Raymond, the Czech architect acclaimed as introducing modern architecture to Japan. It has beautiful stained glass crosses on the doors and a bell tower outside. The church also appears in the novel The Wooden Cross (木の十字架) written by Tatsuo Hori (堀 辰雄) and available here.

Click to preview
Click to preview
To finish with an historical footnote, it is worth remembering that Christianity was banned nationwide in 1614 - earlier in many localities - and the prohibition was only lifted in 1873, the year Shaw arrived in Japan. During the ban, many Christians were persecuted and killed, the most famous being the 26 "Martyrs of Japan" (Nihon no junkyōsha =日本の殉教者) who were tortured and crucified in 1597 outside Nagasaki. This period was the topic of Shusaku Endo's book Silence (Chinmoku =沈黙) which was recently turned into a film by Martin Scorsese (both pictured). The sites in the Nagasaki region associated with the "hidden Christians" (kakure kirishitan =隠れキリシタン) portrayed in the book and movie were recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of Cultural Assets.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Respite from the Sweltering Heat - A Visit to Cool Karuizawa

Coming back to Japan after a few weeks away was a shock: the fiercely hot summer days over 35℃ known as mōshobi (猛暑日) together with the "tropical nights" or (nettaiya 熱帯夜) where temperatures remain above 25℃ have started early and with a vengeance. Wednesday marked the first time temperatures topped 40℃ this year (40.7 in Tajimi, Gifu) - with Kyoto not far behind. My weather app on that day gave a reading of 35℃ for Western Tokyo with a heat index ("feels like") figure of 42℃! Europe, especially Britain, was unusually hot when I was there but in the shade and in the evening temperatures were comfortable - in contrast to the stifling, energy-sapping muggy humidity that is Tokyo. What do Japanese do to keep cool
Apart from fans (being given out on the street in the picture), parasols, summer kimonos, and various summer foods, such as watermelon, kakigōri (shaved ice), and eel (covered here), more and more public spaces in the city are installing mist showers (pictured) to cool people down. There are also an increasing number of "cool" goods on sale such as personal mist sprays, towels, cool pads to put under your pillow, arm-covers, wipes, and even underwear. But perhaps the best way to deal with the fierce summer heat is to escape the heat-island and basin effect of the big cities and head for the mountains - and for those in Tokyo, Karuizawa, in Nagano Prefecture, 1000m above sea level and only a hour or so away is the perfect place to gain some respite from the heat.

Arriving in Karuizawa, the temperature was a good seven degrees cooler than Tokyo and the "feels like" temperature was about the same as the actual temperature - the air was noticeably cooler. Karuizawa has been a popular get-away for the rich and famous since Meiji, including a number of non-Japanese, particularly missionaries in the past, and has a very cosmopolitan feel. Wood features prominently in the buildings (such as the police box pictured) and the woodland is coated in a lush green moss (koke =苔). The area as a whole is full of second/holiday homes (bessō =別荘) and resort hotels, though there are cheaper accommodation options (including a British-run B&B I would recommend!).
In terms of sightseeing suggestions, renting a bicycle (including tandems and electric bikes) is a great idea. The city is very bicycle friendly - there are cycle lanes and numbered course signs - and one of the many cycle rental shops will provide you with a cycling map detailing the five main courses. For a short 2 to 3 hour course starting from the station I would recommend the Shiozawa area, particularly the the leisure park known as Taliesin (タリアセン) centred around the beautiful Shiozawa Lake (塩沢湖) which features the Suikyū Villa (睡鳩荘) created by lay missionary William Merrell Vories as well as other buildings designed by Antonin Raymond. Nearby, is the quietly impressive Hiroshi Senju Museum (千住博美術館) named after the famous Nihonga (日本画) artist, an incredibly innovative building (sloping floors, open green spaces) designed by Pritzker Architect Prize Winner Ryue Nishizawa (西沢立衛).

Once you've returned your bike, how about catching a bus for lunch or dinner at Harunire Terrace (ハルニレテラス)located on the elm-tree lined Yukino River in the Hoshino area? The terrace has some lovely outdoor restaurants, has a great hot spring (onsen =温泉) just a short walk away, and is also close to some very famous Christian churches (featured in the next post). Be sure to grab a can of Karuizawa craft beer and look out for the can featuring an image from Senju's "When the Stardust Falls"(星のふる夜に)series (pictured). Guaranteed to cool you down!
[UPDATE JULY 23rd: Temperatures exceeded 40℃ in Tokyo for the first time ever while a new record was set on the same day - 41.1℃ in Kumagata, Saitama]

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Godzilla: The King of Monsters - and a Metaphor for Japanese Angst

The Godzilla Head in Shinjuku
Tokusatsu (特撮) live action films and dramas full of special effects, especially those featuring actors in superhero (think Kamen Rider) and giant monster (kaijū =怪獣) suits, reflect a very Japanese type of popular entertainment. Godzilla is perhaps the best known of these characters, though the original 1954 film was heavily influenced by King Kong and other Hollywood giant monster movies. Nevertheless, Godzilla (gojira =ゴジラ in Japanese, a blend of gorilla and kujira or whale) is a much loved Japanese icon that continues to fascinate movie goers: the 45th (and final?) movie starring the prehistoric city stomping sea-monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation was the 2016 "New Godzilla".

Godzilla cake set in Hotel Gracery, Shinjuku
Recent years have seen an explosion of new sites for Godzilla fans to visit. In April 2015, a giant Godzilla head was unveiled on top of the Shinjuku Toho Building, the film studio behind the original 1954 film. It stands around 50m above ground level which is also roughly the same size as the original 1954 Godzilla and on the hour sound and smoke comes from its mouth. The adjacent Hotel Gracery is something of a shrine to the irradiated monster with film posters (pictured), models, and even a special cake set (also pictured). Interestingly, the monster was appointed special resident and tourism ambassador for Shinjuku at the unveiling, which is the longest in a long list of non-humans, including the dress up doll Licca-chan and various sea-lions in Tokyo Bay, to be presented with residency certificates (jūmin-hyo =住民票) - much to the chagrin of foreign residents lacking such certification.

A new Godzilla statue also appeared in March this year in front of the Hibiya Chanter, the commercial complex in Yurakucho, Tokyo and the square was renamed "Hibiya Godzilla Square". The statue itself is disappointingly small though, standing at only 3m tall, but is pretty close in appearance to the Godzilla in the 2016 blockbuster. Another tourist stop on the Godzilla tour of Tokyo is the Godzilla-like image painted on the platform of Shinagawa Station marking the origin or start point (tetsudō hasshō no chi=鉄道発祥の地) of the circular Yamanote Line. If you still haven't had enough of Godzilla, you might finally try the new live-action Godzilla-themed escape game, also in Shinjuku, which opened this April.

Godzilla is actually more than just a pop culture icon - it also reveals much about the Japanese psyche and the hopes and fears of Japanese society itself. In the first place, the monster was conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons against the background of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 2011 earthquake and nuclear disasters gave Godzilla even more relevance as a broader metaphor for Japanese victim-consciousness and bureaucratic incompetence in the face of disaster; indeed, the key theme of the 2016 film was the lack of responsibility and flexibility demonstrated by Japanese so-called decision-makers in a nation paralysed by dependency and protocols. This is no fantasy; for example, the official report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster concluded that the fundamental causes were to be found "in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” No wonder Godzilla keeps coming back...

NOTE: I'll be taking a few weeks off, but normal service will be resumed mid-July. Watch this space! In the meantime, why not browse through any posts you missed, or search by preferred theme: there are 139 posts in total! Of course, if you have any comments, ideas, or requests do please get in touch using the feedback box on the right.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Immigration in Japan: Systems of Control and Deliberate Inefficiency

The other day, I had the "pleasure" of visiting the Tokyo immigration office (nyūkoku kanri kyoku =入国管理局) after quite a few years of not having to go. Because I have permanent residency (eijūken =永住権), I do not need to renew my visa, unlike the majority of non-permanent residents who do need to periodically extend their visa. On top of that, as part of the new 2012 residency management system, the re-entry permit system (sainyukoku kyoka =再入国許可) was streamlined so that if you return to Japan within a year, it is no longer necessary (as long as you remember to tick the right box on the Embarkation card!). Actually, I never managed to figure out why a re-entry permit should be necessary if someone already had a visa. In fact, I never even realised that such a thing was necessary when I first left Japan for the very first time for a holiday only to be told that without the permit I wouldn't be let back in! The memory of me standing in the Narita Immigration Office, which seems to specialise in unfriendly officials, and begging for help in broken Japanese is one that I shall never forget.

On entering the Tachikawa branch office or shucchōjo (出張所) just before 9:00 when it opens, there were already a lot of people milling about and my ticket number in the queue was 31. I was hoping that given the rapid rise in foreign workers in recent years, things may have changed. But no. There was no reception or help desk - you just waited your turn until your number was called. I waited two hours (getting all my Spanish homework done!) only to told that what I wanted to do couldn't be done. The people next to me had the same problem. There were surely many others who had filled out the wrong form or were confused about what documents or payment was needed, including people who had filled out the re-entry permit form and bought the stamps without realising that, if they came back within one year, it was unnecessary (no signs pointed this out). In sum, with no help desk to check and a pretty useless telephone enquiry service the only thing to do was wait and hope - and then go to the back of the queue and start again. When I asked the official whether things wouldn't be more efficient (for both sides) with a reception to screen and help people he simply said it couldn't be done (dekinai).

An "information" board containing no useful information
Why such deliberate inefficiency? Previous posts on immigration provide a hint, in particular the reality that Japan lacks a proper immigration policy despite a falling population and rising labour shortages. Today the number of foreign residents is at an all time high (around 2.5 million), which includes 1.27 million foreign workers. But despite the rapid rise - and need for - workers, the system remains one of control (kanri) of foreigners (gaikokujin) and the word migrant or migration (imin) remains taboo: Japan does not officially accept migrants nor does it have an immigration policy, as politicians frequently take pains to point out. So the system remains one of stop-gap ad-hoc measures (mostly focused on expanding the "trainee" system) coupled with strict controls, such as the fingerprinting and photographing of almost all non-Japanese passport holders, including permanent residents like me, each and every time they re-enter the country. These kind of "anti-terrorist" measures (as they are called) - now including facial recognition which was unveiled at Narita Airport on Friday - means Japanese border controls are even stricter than those in the US, who, unlike Japan, has good reason to fear terrorist attacks. On top of this, while living in Japan, non-Japanese have to carry their resident card (zairyū kādo =在留カード) with them at all times - woe betide you if you pop out to get a drink from the vending machine without your card and get stopped by a "friendly" police officer for questioning (known as shokumu shitsumon =職務質問).

FOOTNOTE: On June 5th, the government announced, in a draft on reform presented to the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (経済財政運営と改革の基本方針), plans for a new visa status which it hopes will attract "tens of thousands of foreign workers a year." The front page of the Yomiuri (June 6th) headlined this as "accelerating the acceptance of foreign human resources" (外国人材受け入れ促進). This is a classic case of "wanting to have your cake and eat it": desperately needing foreign labour but studiously avoiding creating a proper immigration policy to support them. In the final analysis, a system which tries to attract foreign workers but which makes them feel unwelcome once they do arrive is a system which is destined to fail.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Fireflies in Early Summer: Love, Returning Spirits, and the Ephemerality of Life

Early summer (shoka =初夏)is a beautiful time of the year in Japan: perfect temperatures, gentle light breezes, and clear blue skies. It is all the more beautiful for its transience, since the rainy season will arrive soon and with it humidity, dampness, and mould. I took the opportunity to air the futons today as it could well be the last chance for a while.

One symbol of the fleetingness of early summer are the fireflies (hotaru =蛍). Fireflies have a special cultural significance for the Japanese and feature in many idioms, haiku, tanka, novels, films, songs, stories, and place names. They symbolise everything from passionate love to returning spirits and the ephemerality of life. Even the names of the two most common fireflies - Genji and Heike - echo back to the fighting clans of the Kamakura period. Now is the prime-time for viewing (kanshō =観賞) these lightning bugs. Like cherry blossoms, there are firefly front maps that calculate the appearance of fireflies across the nations with scientific precision. Fireflies can usually be seen in Eastern Japan from mid-May to early June but, due to the warm March and April, this year they are being seen slightly earlier than in previous years.

Having never actually been to view the fireflies before (!) I decided to go to a local viewing spot (hotaru kanshō supotto =ホタル観賞スポット) and see what I was missing out on. Actually, just locally there is a small aqueduct dating back to 1655 which in the past was used for irrigation purposes and drinking water called Nobidomeyōsui (野火止用水) which literally means "water for stopping field fires"! Today it is a rural community development (ホタルの里づくり) spot known as seseragi where fireflies are raised; cages protect the larvae by keeping the water free from pollutants and rubbish (pictured). Unfortunately, I didn't spot even one firefly when I visited, something which raises serious questions about environmental degradation.

Click to preview
For those living a little closer to the centre of Tokyo, Kugayama, just 15 minutes from Shibuya, holds a firefly festival from June 9-10 in which you're pretty much guaranteed to see the dancing lights since some 2000 captive bugs will be released. Festival organisers suggest 8pm as the time when the fireflies are most active though the homepage says it is even possible to see them at lunchtime! See some hints on firefly watching, in Japanese, here. Definitely worth checking out if you're in the Tokyo area - though looking at the Meteorological Agency forecasts, the rainy season may be upon us even before then and the time we get to spend with the fireflies will be even shorter than usual.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Do Japanese have a Sense of Humour? Laughter, Comedy, and Jokes in Japan

Click to preview
The other day I went to a comedy charity night in Shibuya which featured seven comedians from various countries, including one Japanese. The audience though was almost entirely non-Japanese and I got to thinking about humour in Japan. Certainly, from the outside Japanese society looks strict and serious and some have even suggested that Japanese lack a sense of humour, or at least don't consider having a sense of humour as important as say a Brit would. But while it is true that there is no word for humour per se in Japanese (the English transliteration yūmoa =ユーモア is used), there is definitely a lot of joking and laughter in Japan, though the content and context seem rather different compared with the UK. Oshima argues that Japanese "jokes" are better understood as funny stories "told among close friends and family members to gain solidarity." Certainly, Japanese people don't really exchange or tell "jokes" to each other as kids might do in the playground or adults down the pub in Britain (if you ask a Japanese to tell you a joke they will probably be non-plussed!).

Poster for a local rakugo performance
In Japanese, owarai (お笑い), from the Japanese verb to laugh, can refer to a comical story, something laughable, or the comedy business in general. The latter consists primarily of rakugo (落語), a sit-down show by a single kimono clad performer based on a long shaggy-dog-style story, and manzai (漫才), a more modern two-person comedy act based on fast-paced dialogue. The former, rakugo, draws from a stock of fixed stories -  featuring a number of characters - that the performer personalises by adding his or her own gestures, timing, expressions, voices, and mannerisms (see here for an example of one of the most famous rakugo stories done in English). Though audiences tend to be older, most universities boast a rakugo club. The latter, manzai, typically features a straight/smart person, known as tsukkomi, and a funny/foolish person, known as boke, who is usually the target of a few smacks to the head by the straight guy. Japanese TV is full of manzai and slapstick humour; most of the popular comedians are from Osaka (Yoshimoto being the most famous agency) and humour is one area where the East/West divide can be most clearly seen in Japan. One of the most popular duos are Downtown (DVD pictured), and they feature in a new year's eve comedy program every year which is a must-watch for many young Japanese. This year's show, however, featured one half of Downtown, Masatoshi Hamada, in blackface, highlighting stark differences in what is deemed to be "funny" inside and outside Japan (in fairness, some Japanese also objected to the skit or konto - though quite a few others defended it as "Japanese comedy").

Click to preview
On a day to day level, Japanese enjoy engaging in riddles (nazonazo) and wordplay (dajare or kotoba-asobi), something which is made easier by the fact that the Japanese language has a relatively limited number of sounds resulting in the existence of many homonyms. This kind of "joke" is also known as an oyaji-gyagu (親父ギャグ)or "dad-joke" because the pun is usually feeble and corny. When such a pun is funny it might be praised as being omoshiroi which in Japanese means both "funny" and "interesting": clever or interesting word play is also funny. But while satirical comedy certainly exists in Japan, such as the work of Hisashi Inoue, political satire and parody is almost non-existent, and making fun of politicians, which is a staple of comedy in the West (I grew-up watching Spitting Image), is pretty much taboo in Japan (at least in the mainstream media). This is something of a mystery, especially given the mountain of material available! The only explanation I have heard is that this could be considered meiyokison (名誉棄損) which means defamation, libel, or slander though it seems to be as much a cultural as a legal issue. If any Japanese readers can shed some light on this, do please get in touch!

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Gotta Catch 'em all: Hikikomori Support through Pokemon

The franchise and monsters known as Pokemon (Pocket Monsters) boast a worldwide following, and few characters are more universally recognisable than Pikachu. Of course, Pikachu or any of the characters in Pokemon lack any strongly "Japanese" characteristics: Koichi Iwabuchi has called this kind of popular culture "odourless culture" (mushū bunka =無臭文化) and argues that the lack of an obvious Japanese look, taste, or smell is precisely the reason why it has such universal appeal. Certainly, most Japanese cultural products undergo some sort of adaptation to local markets to make them more accessible: the American version of Pokemon, for example, saw a slew of changes to names, signs, food, jokes, music, and pacing.

In the recently opened Pokemon Center in Nihonbashi - the nation's 25th and biggest Pokemon facility - there are thousands of Japanese looking Pikachu for sale. The picture shows lines of Pikachu wearing Happi (法被) - a traditional straight-sleeved coat worn at festivals - and Hakama (袴), sometimes described as "Japanese-style trousers" (see previous post here). The 1300㎡ center also has a Pokemon cafe which requires prior reservations, though the food is not particularly Japanese: curry and pancakes in the shape of Pikachu! Pikachu is in fact about the only character who has kept his original Japanese name, with pika being an onomatopoeic term for a flashing light and chū just a generally cute sound (used to describe both squeaks and kisses!).
The release of the AR Pokemon Go game for smart-phones (sumaho =スマホ) in 2016 saw huge interest in Japan, as elsewhere, but also generated a lot of negative publicity. There were a spate of traffic and other accidents in which players were so absorbed in the game they walked into the road or bumped into other pedestrians; in March 2017, one driver was imprisoned for three years for killing a boy while playing the game. Posters appeared at stations, imploring passengers to stop using their smart-phones while walking, known as aruki-sumaho (歩きスマホ). However, amid all the media brouhaha (sōdō =騒動) a number of positive uses for the app emerged, including as a fitness tool for the middle-aged, a way to attract tourists to disaster hit areas, and even for suicide prevention. One of the most interesting proposals though has come from the Japanese government who have suggested that Pokemon Go can help hikikomori - social recluses who are estimated to number anywhere from half a million to as many as 1.2% of the population - deal with isolation and withdrawal from society, a proposal which has solid scientific backing. Gotta catch 'em all, or, as they say in Japanese, pokemon getto daze (ポケモンゲットだぜ)!

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Italy and Japan, Italy in Japan: L'Italia più vicina (Part 2)

Still no closer to unravelling the mystery of my Italian fan-base (do drop me a line!), but I'll continue with part 2 and more on Italian culture in Japan. Let's look at food first, specifically Japan's love affair with Italian cuisine which has exploded since the 1990s. Indeed, Italian restaurants are absolutely everywhere and are even more common than the ubiquitous Indian and Chinese eateries. I've heard it said that the two cuisines share a lot of common elements, such as an emphasis on seasonality and simplicity.

Mr Donut's "Napolitan": A snip at ¥680
In fact, Japanese love pasta so much they even created their own dish: Napolitan (ナポリタン) which was created after the war by the chef of the New grand Hotel in Yokohama who was apparently inspired by GHQ rations of spaghetti mixed with tomato sauce (ketchup). Today, Napolitan, containing ham, sausage, green peppers, and canned mushrooms topped with powdered cheese (recipe here), is a staple at small cafes and family restaurants and is even featured on the menu of the fast food franchise Mr Donut (pictured). Unaware that it is a Japanese original, many Japanese travel to Napoli and ask for this only to be met with blank stares: ''Spaghetti alla Napoletana” is a completely unrelated dish! But although Italians coming to Japan may be horrified to find "ketchup spaghetti" carrying the name of one of their most hallowed cities, they will also surely enjoy other inventions such as tarako (cod roe) and mentaiko (spicy pollack roe) spaghetti with nori (seaweed) sprinkled on top which are absolutely delicious!


One thing I've noticed in recent years is the diversification of Japan's coffee culture: whereas in the past there was usually little choice beyond burendo (blended filtered drip coffee) or "American" (weak diluted espresso), today there are thousands of speciality shops and bars and Japan has become one of the biggest importers of coffee beans in the world. In particular, genuine espresso has become immensely popular: it is available (single or double) in one of the most popular cafes in Tokyo, Pronto, which is conceived as "an Italian bar, where you can enjoy aromatic Italian-style coffee and bread in the morning and pasta for lunch." Another cafe that seems to be appearing all over the place recently is Segafredo, whose headquarters are in Italy.
After all that food and drink, you'll probably ready to settle down to a good film and luckily the Festival del Cinema Italiano (Itaria eiga sai=イタリア映画祭) was  held in Tokyo earlier this month and will open in Osaka later this month. As well as showcasing some recent award winning films, a number of famous Italian directors also visited Japan and held talk shows after their films. In the panel hosting the Manetti brothers and Sydney Sibilia, the directors waxed lyrical about how influential Japanese anime (cartoons) had been for them, particularly classics like Captain Tsubasa and the Rose of Versailles, which were apparently something of an after-school staple for many Italians during their youth. It was interesting to note a frisson of unease among the high-brow Japanese audience which only grew when in response to a question on the influence of the legendary Japanese director Kurosawa, the Italian directors instead cited Takeshi Kitano as an inspiration (in Japan, "Beat Takeshi" is more widely known for his role as a comical TV host than for his directing of Tarantino-esque movies). De Gustibus non est disputandum!

Friday, 4 May 2018

Italy and Japan, Italy in Japan: L'Italia più vicina (Part 1)

One of the fun things about writing a blog is seeing how many hits the various posts get and which countries the viewers are in. In my 100th blog post I listed the top 10 countries from where I draw my audience: at that time the top three were Japan, the United States, and Russia. Since then, however, Italy has come out of nowhere to be consistently top, with almost 700 hits a month and mysterious peaks of 60 views every two or three days. So as a special thanks to my Italian viewers (grazie per aver letto!) I thought I'd do a special post on the relationship between Italy and Japan.

Japan-Italian relations go back to Marco Polo who though never actually visiting the country wrote about it in his famous book, describing the failed Mongolian invasions, stressing the trade possibilities, and even introducing the Chinese pronunciation of the country, Cipangu, from which we get the name "Japan" today (the Japanese themselves, of course, refer to the place as Nihon or Nippon). The first Italians set foot in the country a few hundred years later, in the form of Jesuit missionaries (between 1542 and 1600, 18 of the 95 Jesuit missionaries were apparently Italian).

After the period known as sakoku (鎖国) when Japan was, for the most part, closed off to European nations - in part due to the perceived threat of Christianity as detailed in the recent Scorsese film "Silence" based on the Endo Shusaku novel - the Meiji Restoration (1868) saw Japan engage in rapid modernisation and industrialisation in a bid to "catch up" with the West. It is said that the Italian struggle for independence (1861) known as the Risorgimento was something of a blue-print for this transformation. See here for more details of the Italian envoys, merchants, advisors, and others who were prominent in Japan during this period as well as the some of the similarities and differences between the two countries.

Since the 1990s there has been a marked "Italy-boom" with a keen interest in Italian culture in Japan. Italy is one of the most popular destinations in Europe for Japanese tourists, and for Japanese females in particular Italy seems to hold a special attraction. Perhaps one reason for the appeal is that the countries are so different: Japan is a supremely organised, efficient, punctual, and rule-ordered society so perhaps the spontaniety, passion, creativity, and romance of Italian society offers a unique release from what can be a rather stifling local environment? Even inside Japan, Italian culture is everywhere: in part 2, I'll cover food and language in more detail. For now, I'm going to leave you with a picture of the magnificent Istituto Italiano di Cultura (itaria bunka kaikan =イタリア文化会館), in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, a striking red building completed in 2005 and designed by the famous Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. In the meantime, I would love to hear from my mystery Italian viewers - send me a comment in the message box right!

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Enoshima for Lunch: The Perfect Golden Week Day-Trip

As mentioned in an earlier post, despite "hard-working" (kinben =勤勉) being the dominant image of the Japanese, both inside and outside Japan, the Japanese actually enjoy more national holidays than many other countries. Now "Golden Week" (ゴールデンウィーク) is upon us, a cluster of holidays that provide a "golden" opportunity to take consecutive days off. The holidays consist of Showa Day (昭和の日) on April 29th (moved to Monday 30th this year) through to Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpō ki'nen-bi=憲法記念日), Greenery Day (Midori no hi=みどりの日), and Children's Day (Kodomo no hi=こどもの日) on May 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively. In practice, however, Golden Week is crowded and travel (especially flights) exorbitantly expensive, so many Japanese choose to stay home and recharge their batteries - or take a day-trip.

click to preview
A perfect destination for a day-trip from Tokyo is Enoshima (江の島), a small off-shore island just over an hour south-west of Tokyo that is joined to the mainland by a 600m bridge. You can arrive either at Enoshima Station (on the Enoshima electric railway or enoden) or Katase-Enoshima Station (pictured) which is modelled on the Dragon Palace in the famous Japanese folk-tale Urashima Taro. The story, which sees the fisherman protagonist spend three days in the underwater palace only to find that three-hundred years have passed when he returns to his village, is used by Japanese to refer to people who have returned from abroad after a lengthy absence to find that many things have changed.

Like many tourist sites in Japan, Enoshima has a "must-eat" speciality or meibutsu (名物) associated with it, and in this case it is shirasu (白子) which is an almost transparent boiled whitebait/whitefish. These are the tiny young fry of sardines, anchovy, or herring - much smaller than the UK equivalent - which are full of calcium and DHA. They are typically sprinkled on top of white rice to make what is known as a shirasu-don, an abbreviation of donburi (丼) which refers to any bowl of rice with food on top (see here for a post on the popular fast food gyūdon or beef bowl). The picture shows a bowl of rice with whitebait, salted salmon roe (ikura), and fatty tuna minced with spring onion (negitoro) - with a blob of wasabi in the centre. This is kind of a kaisen-don (海鮮丼) or seafood-bowl though a kaisen-don proper would also have lots of sashimi on top too. Needless to say it is ridiculously good! Happy Golden Week everyone!!