Tofugu » People http://www.tofugu.com A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 27 Feb 2015 18:42:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Hideo Nomo, Baseball Rebel With a Cause http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/27/hideo-nomo-baseball-rebel-cause/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/27/hideo-nomo-baseball-rebel-cause/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=47950 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of Masanori Murakami’s Major League Baseball debut. Sent to the San Francisco Giants farm system for developmental purposes, Murakami sparkled when he took the mound in the minor leagues. Giants brass took notice and Masanori took the field against The Mets at Shea Stadium in 1964, becoming Major League Baseball’s first Japanese player. […]

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2014 marked the 50th anniversary of Masanori Murakami’s Major League Baseball debut. Sent to the San Francisco Giants farm system for developmental purposes, Murakami sparkled when he took the mound in the minor leagues. Giants brass took notice and Masanori took the field against The Mets at Shea Stadium in 1964, becoming Major League Baseball’s first Japanese player.

But instead of a flourishing career in the majors, Murakami found himself in an ugly tug-of-war between teams and country that would prevent Japanese players from coming to the US for years to come.

That is… until Hideo Nomo stormed into Major League Baseball and changed things forever.

Masanori Murakami Opens The Door

Photo by Dave Glass

It was only intended as a temporary, developmental trip. When the Nankai Hawks lent a handful of players to the San Francisco Giants, no one predicted it would spark an international incident.

And it was all thanks to Murakami’s success on the mound. The pitcher shined in the closing nine games of the 1964 season, posting a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings pitched. Robert Whiting commented, “No Japanese had gotten this much favorable attention in the continental United States since Kyu Sakamoto’s improbable (and misnamed) hit single ‘Sukiyaki‘.”

According to the contract stipulations, the Giants could sign one of the loaned Japanese players by awarding Nankai a fee of $10,000. Murakami signed the contract. The Giants wired Nankai the money and considered it a done deal – Murakami would take the field for the Giants come 1965.

Faced with losing a budding star, Nankai met with Murakami during his winter vacation in Japan. If he joined the Giants, they threatened, he’d never play baseball in Japan again. With additional pressure from his father, Murakami signed on with the Nankai Hawks for the 1965 season.

Murakami now had contractual obligations with two separate teams in two separate countries. Something had to give.

Of Culture and Contracts

Photo by delphinmedia

The root of the Murakami dispute lay in Nankai’s contract with The Giants. The Giants viewed the contract as a literal, binding agreement; every word was chosen with care. The $10,000 stipulation existed in the contract and therefore had to be honored.

Nankai managment, however, took a Japanese view of the contract. Robert Whiting explains,

The Japanese believed more in the spirit of the contract than the letter, that the purpose of a contract was to ensure that both sides benefitted. Since situations changed the parties… should not be locked in by mere words… What was most important was mutual understanding and the cultivation of ningen kankei , or human relationships.

Nankai stated the organization had accepted the $10,000 as a bonus for Murakami’s contribution to the Giant’s season. When the Giants refused to bend, Nankai resorted to other explanations. First they claimed the signature on Murakami’s release was a forgery. Next they flaunted a “home sick” clause that allowed a player to return to Japan due to difficultly to adjusting to American life. But Murakami’s success the previous season and signing of a new contract made that claim hard to swallow.

MLB (Major League Baseball) teams feared that Murakami’s disregard of contract would set dangerous precedent. What if other players followed suit? NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) teams harbored similar fears. Would other players follow Murakami’s example, abandoning the Japanese league for the MLB?

Yushi Uchimura, the Japanese commissioner took control. After mulling over the problem, “(Uchimura) came to the conclusion the (Nankai) Hawks had been careless in their dealings with the American team”.

In a compromise that balanced the spirit of ningen kanei with the expectation of binding contracts, Uchimura decided to allow Murakami to play for the Giants for the 1965 season. At season’s end Murakami would rejoin the Nankai Hawks and remain in Japan for the rest of his career.

At first US commissioner Ford Frick refused. But the sides finally came to an agreement when Murakami was allowed to choose whether to stay with the Giants or return to Japan at season’s end.

Murakami picked up where he left off for the Giants, mounting a successful 1965 campaign. Although he intended to stay in the US, pressure from his father and the Japanese media, who dubbed him a greedy traitor, gave him a change of heart. Murakami returned to Japan where he finished out an unremarkable career with one notable season in 1969 when he posted a 18-4 record with a 2.38 ERA.

The Murakami fiasco would sour US and Japanese baseball relations for decades. “As a result of the trans-Pacific tiff over Murakami, the U.S. and Japan commissioners has signed something called the United States-Japanese [sic] Player Contract Agreement… in which both sides pledged to respect each other’s baseball conventions.”

Free Agency: MLB Players Fight Back

curt flood

Photo by Dman41689

Until 1969, US and Japanese baseball teams enjoyed similar rights over players. Allen Barra of The Atlantic explains,

In 1969, players were still bound to a team for life by the so-called reserve clause. Simply put, a player was a team’s property. Unless the team chose to trade him or release him, his first big-league team would be his only big-league team for his entire career. A player’s only recourse was retirement.

Then the Cardinals attempted to trade Curt Flood against his will. Infuriated by players’ lack of rights, Flood sued hoping to benefit himself as well as future players. Due to a unconstitutional antitrust pardon granted to MLB, Flood would never benefit from his efforts. But his case would eventually see victory, giving birth to free agency.

In 1976, four years after Flood’s initial lawsuit, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became baseball’s first free agents. Free to negotiate with other teams, a player could weigh his options and accept the contract offer that best suited his needs. The media and fans vilified Flood, accusing him of destroying baseball. Allen Barra writes,

Prophets of doom and gloom about the future of the game could be seen on every sports page, but in the end, the Players Association worked out things with management, and salaries sky-rocketed—along with profits, it turned out, as fans liked the exciting new era of free agency and the players it brought to their teams.

…Meanwhile Back In Japan

Photo by kamon

Yet in Japan things went on as usual. Teams maintained control over their players, pay remained low and players had little say in their futures. Although players earned the right to strike, it wasn’t a step they were willing to take. Robert Whiting explains,

Indeed, the majority of players in Japan continued to speak not only of team loyalty… but also a feeling of responsibility to the parent company, the stadium food vendors, the parking-lot attendants, the transportation companies and other individuals and businesses dependent on professional baseball who would suffer economically in the event of work stoppage.

Although MLB teams are associated with the cities in which the play, Japanese teams are attached to their sponsoring companies. From the Yomiuri Giants to the Softbank Hawks, Japanese teams exist to advertise their respective sponsors.

In the US, players sought to take their share of their team’s profits. But Japanese teams made less profits (if any) from their clubs and therefore had less to offer players. The Economist reports, “Almost all (Japanese teams) lose money.” Unlike their American counterparts, most Japanese clubs fail to take advantage of “broadcasting rights, merchandising, sponsorship and internet distribution. Accordingly, the average salary for a Japanese player is around $500,000, compared with $3m in America.”

A team built and supported by a cooperate media giant, the Yomiuri Giants are the major exception. And when free agency finally hit NPB, it came at the whim of Giants’ brass who hoped to fill their team with established talent. Unlike in the MLB, the change did little in way of players’ rights.

Robert Whiting explains, “Players could only become free agents after ten full years of service on the parent team… the salaries of free-agent signees would be limited to only 150 percent of their previous season’s pay.” Player agents were banned from the negotiation process.

Despite a culture of loyalty, sooner or later Japanese stars were bound to be attracted to the salaries and challenge MLB offered. It was only a matter of someone standing up to the established system.

Enter the Rabble Rouser

Photo by RichardMcCoy

With his unconventional corkscrew windup, Hideo Nomo always marched to the beat of his own taiko. For example, when one of the nation’s top high school coaches rejected Nomo because of his windup, Nomo joined a relatively unknown team and thrived. And when colleges refused to draft him, Nomo joined Japan’s farm league. Both choices paid dividends, allowing Nomo to perfect his unique throwing style.

A successful 1988 Olympic campaign prompted Nomo’s drafting into the NPB in 1989. The Kintetsu Buffaloes offered him a record contract. “Nomo said yes,” Whiting recalls, “but only on condition that the Buffaloes promise not to change his form.”

It was money well spent as Nomo went on to become the league’s premier pitcher. But Nomo’s rebellious nature continued to show. When Kintestu struck an exclusive deal with the Mizuno sporting goods brand, Nomo donned Nike cleats to the NPN all-star series. Nomo’s refusal to compromise would eventually spell the end of his career in Japan.

In 1994 Kintestu brought in the strict, old-fashioned Keishi Suzuki as manager. Suzuki’s reputation for overworking pitchers proved true and Nomo paid the price with a shoulder injury. The last straw came when Suzuki demanded that Nomo, practice and play through injury. A firm believer in the rest and recovery practices afforded pitchers in the MLB, Nomo set his sights on America.

Enter Don Nomura, an agent waiting for a Japanese player to challenge the system. Nomura uncovered NPB’s voluntary retirement clause, Nomo’s key to leaving Japan. Under the clause, “a voluntarily retired player, under Japanese contract was obligated to return (from retirement) to his former team only as long as he stayed in Japan… A player who went on voluntary retired list in NPB would thus essentially be free to play in the US.”

When Kintestu declined Nomo’s request for an unprecedented three-year, $9 million contract, he announced his retirement from NPB. To the chagrin of Kintetsu, the media, and fans, Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and left for the player-friendly pastures of the MLB.

Walk this Way

Nomo became a sensation; he won games, he sold merchandise, he (once again) proved Japanese players could survive and even thrive in the MLB.

A media and society that once criticized him now embraced him as a successful countryman on the world stage. Japanese media outlets paid large sums for interviews, providing the opportunity for Nomo to criticize the Japanese game. He condemned its treatment of players, particularly the managers that cut pitchers’ careers short through overuse and ignoring injuries.

Nomomania hit both the US and Japan. Eric Nusbaum recalls,

He went into his ritual windup, summoning pitches from a place no one else had access to. He walked back from the mound, keeping his eyes on the grass. He disappeared from the public eye between starts. They called him the Tornado, but he was quiet and still, even at the center of a storm of tchochkes and sellout crowds at Dodger Stadium and kids who were mesmerized by his windup, his forkball, and even his name. We said it a lot. Nomo, Nomo, Nomo.

Nomo’s success and the loophole he exploited paved the way for other Japanese players. At home Japanese stars felt like big fish in a little pond, and for many a bigger challenge beckoned. Some, like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui would find similar success, becoming celebrities at home and abroad. Others, like Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Hideki Irabu, wouldn’t fare so well.

But no matter the degree of success, Japanese players have Hideo Nomo to thank for the opportunity to play overseas. Nomo’s unique windup symbolized his unique spirit. Like Curt Flood, Hideo Nomo was a man willing to break cultural and contractual moulds for the better opportunity of all.

The Ruin of Japanese Baseball?

Photo by ぽこ太郎

Just as US media and fans bemoaned the advent of free agency brought on by Curt Flood, Japan’s baseball pundits and media outlets declared Nomo’s move to the MLB the death-knell of Japanese baseball. With players free to leave NPB, many believed the league would become nothing more than a minor league feeding system for MLB.

These worries inspired the posting system. Under this 1998 arrangement, Japanese teams “post” a player as eligible to play in MLB and declare a “posting fee” or negotiation price. If an MLB team and player reach a contract agreement, that MLB team must pay the posting fee to the NPB team as well as the player’s salary. In other words, NPB team’s receive this posting fee as compensation for the player.

Although the posting system provided relief for NPB, it was also seen as a strike against players’ rights. Teams posted the player and declared the posting fee which added an undesirable expense for MLB teams hoping to sign NPB players.

Only long-time veterans could forgo posting. After nine years in NPB a player was free to negotiate freely.

Continued Success

Photo by ilovemypit

With two World Baseball Classic victories, Japanese baseball looks stronger than ever. The posting system has protected the NPB and the feared exodus of talent never came to fruition. As of 2014 twenty NPB players have used the posting system, yet among those twenty, only fourteen are Japanese, the others being foreigners who came up through Japanese teams’ youth recruitment systems.

Fresh off a magnificent season where he won a record-breaking 25 consecutive games in NPB, Masahiro Tanaka became the latest player to take advantage of the system, signing with MLB’s Yankees for big money in 2013. Only time will tell if Tanaka can reach Nomo’s success, but thanks to the rebel pitcher, Japanese players like Tanaka continue to challenge baseball’s best in MLB.

In 2014, fifty years after Murakami became the first Japanese player to play in MLB, Nomo continued blazing his revolutionary path, becoming the first Japanese player inducted into the leagues’s baseball hall of fame. Today Nomo’s career has come full circle as the retired pitcher “lead(s) an industrial league team in the Osaka region of Japan, called Nomo Baseball Club, which gives non-drafted (semi-professional) players an opportunity to compete” (Gandy).

But it’s unlikely any prospect will impact baseball like the uncharacteristically stubborn Nomo who broke with cultural norms, blazing his own path to success in the United States, a path other Japanese players felt inspired to follow.

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Japonism: How Japan Shaped Modern Art http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/06/japonism-japan-shaped-modern-art/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/06/japonism-japan-shaped-modern-art/#comments Fri, 06 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=48092 Art is pretty awesome. One of the most awesome things about art is how it can bring people together. Throughout history, neighbouring peoples have constantly exchanged aesthetic ideas, inspiring the form and content of each others’ work. Art has consistently transcended political conflict, with even the bitterest of rivals sharing innovations. A prominent and relatively […]

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Art is pretty awesome.

One of the most awesome things about art is how it can bring people together. Throughout history, neighbouring peoples have constantly exchanged aesthetic ideas, inspiring the form and content of each others’ work. Art has consistently transcended political conflict, with even the bitterest of rivals sharing innovations.

Hiroshige_Rough_Sea_at_Shichirigahama_in_Sagami_Province_1852

A prominent and relatively recent example is the modern diffusion of Japanese art across the Western world. While Chinese art has been known in Europe since ancient times, the influence of East Asian aesthetics truly skyrocketed in the nineteenth century, when Japanese prints arrived en masse to shops across Western Europe. As we’ll see, many of the biggest names in the modern art scene received gigantic bites from the Japanese art bug.

Lines of Communication

nanban-southern-barbarian-art-japan

Direct European contact with Japan dates to the 16th century, with the arrival of Portuguese traders, followed by those of other European nations. Japan was thereby introduced to Christianity, as well as European technologies like ship-building and guns. Naturally, many works of Western art were also imported.

This initial phase of Euro-Japanese relations is known as the Nanban period, where “Nanban” means “southern barbarians”. The term “Nanban art” denotes Japanese art of this period that reflects Western influence, including works of painting, sculpture, and furniture. Yet barbarian influence was quite limited overall, leaving native Japanese aesthetics fully intact.

Meanwhile, works of Japanese art were carried back to Europe. The impact of such works on Western artists was significant, notably in the field of ceramics. But this phase of Japanese influence on the West was a mere trickle compared with the flood to come.

In the early 1600s, Japan’s affair with foreign traders seriously cooled off. The Tokugawa, who ruled the country for upwards of three centuries, were somewhat averse to contact with the outside world; anyone caught trying to leave the country, for instance, could be executed. With policies like this in place, European residents and trade flows, though not eradicated, became increasingly rare.

Gasshukoku_suishi_teitoku-gaki_Oral_statement_by_the_American_Navy_admiral

Then, in the late nineteenth century, America sent a group of friendly visiting-ships into Uraga Harbour. Using some very persuasive arguments, the Americans convinced Japan to re-open relations with the outside world. From this point onward, Japanese culture would radiate throughout the West.

So It Begins

Three_Seated_Ladies_with_Lanterns_Tea_Pot_Candle_Holder_and_Stringed_Instrument_-_Kitagawa_Utamaro-ukiyo-e

“Modern art”, which dates roughly from the late nineteenth century onward, sought to break away from traditional aesthetics in favour of novel means of expression. In search of fresh ideas, many modern artists looked to native artistic traditions around the world, from Sub-Saharan masks, to Mesoamerican temples, to Oceanic tiki sculptures. Modern networks of transportation and communication accelerated these waves of cultural fusion.

Japanese influence on Western art, often known as “Japonism”, manifested most vigorously in France (followed closely by England and the Netherlands), especially among painters of the impressionist movement. While inspiration was drawn from imported Japanese ceramics, bronzes, textiles, and fans, the foremost medium of influence was the woodblock print. Japanese prints, also known as ukiyo-e, had the advantage of cheap mass-production, making them universally accessible both at home and abroad.

So what form did this influence take, specifically? To start with, European artists often lifted distinctly Japanese imagery from ukiyo-e, grafting them into their own works. Cherry blossoms, lanterns, kimonos, and temples would be four primary examples.

More deeply, ukiyo-e helped reshape the techniques and guiding principles of Western art. The long-entrenched standard of realistic shading and perspective was finally overturned, partly due to Japanese prints. After all, while physical realism is a fine way of doing things, why should it be the only way? The upheavals of modern art were driven largely by the notion that art is about communicating ideas, and that in order to communicate a full range of ideas, one must be open to a full range of forms of expression.

Ukiyo-e typically feature prominent outlines (rooted in the Japanese reverence for calligraphy), and areas of flat, vibrant colour. Shadows are generally omitted altogether. Early modern artists realized that, far from hindering Japanese art, these unrealistic techniques could unlock unique aesthetic experiences.

A_colored_version_of_the_Big_wave_from_100_views_of_the_Fuji_2nd_volume

Woodblock printing was also influential in terms of composition; that is, the overall arrangement of a picture. Traditionally, Western artists laid out scenes carefully to achieve certain effects; Renaissance painters typically sought a balanced, harmonious arrangement, while Baroque painters often went for a sense of unrest and movement. Japanese artists took a more subtle, organic approach, opting for asymmetry, often with the principal figure or object positioned off-centre. Many ukiyo-e scenes are presented from a diagonal view, and figures are often partially “cut off” at the edge of the picture.

Traditionally, Western art was dominated by standard “appropriate” subjects, which generally meant either biblical or classical; while some artists did portray scenes of everyday life, these were widely considered inferior. Part of the great revolution of modern art was the elevation of everyday life to first-class artistic consideration. Modern artists grew fond of capturing urban life, including streets, parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues. This everyday focus was partly fueled by (guess who?) ukiyo-e, in which these very subjects had long been explored.

The_Meeting_Together_Miai_from_The_Marriage_Ceremonies_-_Suzuki_Harunobu-ukiyo-e-ukiyoe

Had enough background info yet? It’s time to roll out some concrete examples. And why don’t we look at ukiyo-e artists and modern Western painters side-by-side, to really bring out the influences and whatnot?

Suzuki Harunobu / Edgar Degas

Suzuki Harunobu is known as the founder of polychrome ukiyo-e. French artist Edgar Degas is considered one of the great founders of the impressionist movement. Both men are known for their many portrayals of women, whether at home, socializing, or as professional performers.

Kannazuki_Harunobu_Suzuki

This Harunobu print depicts a young couple at home; the man kneels, reading a scroll, while the woman stands at the doorway. In terms of ukiyo-e influence on early modern art, the most striking feature of this print is its composition. Note the abundance of diagonal lines, along with the sense we are looking down on the scene from a height. The overall arrangement is asymmetrical, with elements positioned in a plausibly natural manner.

Ludovic_Hal-Albert_Boulanger-Cav

This relatively simple painting illustrates Degas’ love of ukiyo-e style composition. The view is elevated and diagonal to the architecture, providing interesting diagonal lines. The scene is sharply asymmetrical, with the right-hand figure cut off by a wall, similar to the partially hidden woman in Harunobu’s print.

Impressionist painters, who seek to capture the overall impression of a momentary scene, don’t concern themselves with sharp, detailed realism. Some parts of impressionist paintings border on abstraction, such as the background behind the two gentlemen in Degas’ painting. Note that a similarly abstract background is found in the top left of the Harunobu print, behind the house.

Kitagawa Utamaro / Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt, arguably the greatest American impressionist painter, is known particularly for her portrayals of women, including mothers with children. Ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamoro, whose work Cassatt collected, is known for these same subjects.

Yamanba_and_kintaro_sakazuki

Here we have a typical, everyday mother-child scene. Well okay, maybe not completely typical. The child is Kintarō, a popular Japanese folk hero with super strength, while the woman is Yama-uba, Kintarō’s “mountain witch” mother (biological or adoptive, depending on which version of the story you hear).

But still, it’s basically a mother-child scene. Note the warm psychological connection between the pair, as well as the close-up view (such that most of Yama-uba’s body is cut off) and the off-centre positioning.

Mary_Cassatt,_1902,_Reine_Lefebre_and_Margot_before_a_Window-painting

This Cassatt painting depicts a sensitive mother-child scene in typical sketchy impressionist style. Just like Kintarō and Yama-uba, the figures exchange an affectionate gaze; the child’s hands rest on her mother’s embracing arms, just as Kintarō’s left hand grasps his mother’s wrist. Like Yama-uba, this mother leans at a diagonal, only back instead of forward.

Utagawa Hiroshige / Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Hiroshige, known particularly for scenes of nature, was a master of capturing weather and the seasons. His work became a major influence for landscape painters of the impressionist movement.

Hiroshige,_The_station_Ejiri-ukiyoe

This print, which features a prominent figure over a landscape background, is from a series Hiroshige created while travelling along the Tōkaidō, the principal Japanese road of the age. Once again, diagonal lines are abundant, drawing the eye in criss-cross fashion across the picture. The mountain and tree are both cut off at the edges, and the colouring is mostly flat and contained within prominent outlines.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, painter and printmaker, is perhaps the most iconic ambassador of the bohemian artist lifestyle. His depictions of Paris night life and theatre drew partly from ukiyo-e, which often feature equivalent scenes of Japanese recreation, including kabuki theatre. Toulouse-Lautrec eagerly embraced the vivid colouring and dramatic curved forms of Japanese prints.

Lautrec_jane_avril_1899

In addition to the age-old art of painting, modern technology allowed a new medium to flourish: the poster. Toulouse-Lautrec is considered one of the leading figures in the “golden age” of poster advertising, which spanned the late nineteenth century. The actress in this Toulouse-Lautrec theatre advertisement, executed in bold outlines and flat colours, features a sinuous, diagonal posture that echoes the Hiroshige print above.

Katsushika Hokusai / Vincent Van Gogh

Hokusai is probably the most famous of ukiyo-e artists, due to his most famous work: The Great Wave, from a series of prints focusing on Mount Fuji. Along with landscapes and seascapes, Hokusai is known for his closeup studies of plants and animals. Landscapes were also among the favoured subjects of Van Gogh, the troubled Dutch artist, for whom ukiyo-e provided immense inspiration.

hokusai-woodblock-print-landscape

This print undulates with a gentle asymmetry, in the form of clustered houses and rolling hills. As usual, colours are few in number and flat in texture, with some parts of the scene left strategically uncoloured. Hills are evoked with simple outlines, rounded out with lateral sub-lines and vegetation.

Van_Gogh-The_Haystacks

Like Hokusai’s print, this Van Gogh painting features a rolling asymmetry of hills and vegetation, executed in a simple, bright colour scheme. The angled rows of haystacks lend the scene a vigorous bottom-left to top-right momentum. Outlines are thick, and there is little in the way of shading or shadows.

A Universal Language

Art of the late nineteenth century laid the foundation of modern art, which continues to this day. Even as the early twentieth century was ravaged by war, artistic endeavour pierced the darkness with lights of cooperation and understanding between kindred spirits across the world. Ukiyo-e was, and continues to be, very much one of those lights.

Art really is pretty awesome.

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 3: The Last Stand http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/04/christians-in-kyushu-part-3-the-last-stand-japanese-christianity/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/02/04/christians-in-kyushu-part-3-the-last-stand-japanese-christianity/#comments Wed, 04 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=47608 Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 to understand the history of Japanese Christianity that bring us here! When last we left our holy heroes, the situation for Christians in Japan had gone from tenuous to downright dangerous.  The Tokugawa shogunate had begun to persecute Christians, largely out of a fear that Christianity would […]

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Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 to understand the history of Japanese Christianity that bring us here!

When last we left our holy heroes, the situation for Christians in Japan had gone from tenuous to downright dangerous.  The Tokugawa shogunate had begun to persecute Christians, largely out of a fear that Christianity would subvert the order and hierarchy that they had struggled for so long to create and maintain.  In 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu issued a proclamation expelling Catholic missionaries from Japan.  Japanese Christians were forced to go underground, becoming known as Hidden Christians (kakure kirishitan).  Under successive shoguns, persecution intensified.  The final straw was to come in 1637, when a revolt broke out in Kyushu.

We’re Not Gonna Take It!

Shimabara-Castle

Photo by 663highland

The Shimabara Peninsula lies on the western part of Kyushu, somewhat out of the way.  The lord of the area, Arima Harunobu (1576-1612) was a zealous Christian, and after Hideyoshi’s 1587 expulsion edict, many Jesuits escaped to Harunobu’s domain.  He was later involved in the corruption scandal of 1610, stripped of his lands and ordered to commit seppuku.  He was replaced by Matsukura Shigemasa.

The life of a Japanese peasant was generally filled with a good deal of suffering.  It wasn’t unusual for a lord to treat them poorly.  Yet, Matsukura Shigemasa was exceptionally cruel.  He taxed everything, even births and deaths, and didn’t take kindly to those who couldn’t pay.  Being thrown into a water-filled prison was perhaps the best one could hope for.  His most notorious punishment was called the raincoat dance (mino odori), so named because the victim, wearing a straw raincoat, was doused in oil and set on fire, causing them to dance about.  Sometimes the family members of those who failed to pay were taken hostage or punished as well.  In 1637, when one of Shigemasa’s men assaulted a farmer’s pregnant wife the people finally snapped.

Rebel, Rebel

map-of-the-siege-of-hara-castle

Map of Hara Castle and surrounding area. Just south of the peninsula, you can see two large Dutch ships, which fired upon the rebels on behalf of the shogunate (there was a lot of Protestant-Catholic tension at this time).

The violence quickly spread from the original village to others on the Shimabara Peninsula, becoming a serious uprising.  The oppressed marched on Shimabara Castle, but couldn’t take it.  Meanwhile, the peasants offshore on the Amakusa Islands also revolted.  After conferring, they decided to come together at Hara Castle in the south of the peninsula.  The vacant castle’s coastal position made it quite the defensible base for the rebels.  It was generally illegal for peasants to own weapons, but the rebels still managed to get a hold of some.  Still, many had to make do with farm implements, or even sticks and stones (which we all know may break some bones, but are not the first choice for battle).

You may be wondering where Christianity comes into this rebellion.  The truth is that it may not have had that much to do with Christianity, at least initially.  It had much more to do with the extreme pressure and cruelty that Matsukura Shigemasa inflicted on the peasantry.  However, after converging at Hara Castle, the movement acquired some Christian leadership.  There were a handful of Christian ronin (masterless samurai), and at the top, a mysterious youth.

amakusa-shiro-at-shimabara

This young man was Amakusa Shiro (c. 1621-1638).  Born on one of the Amakusa Islands, he was the son of a former Konishi clan retainer (the family’s Christian head, Konishi Yukinaga was killed for picking the wrong side at Sekigahara).  He studied with Jesuits in Nagasaki, and according to local lore, made a name for himself preaching equality and dignity for the poor on the island of Oyano.  Little else is known about him, but during the rebellion his followers began to think he was the one foretold years earlier by Father Marco Ferraro, a priest who worked in the area before being expelled.  He said that, “After 25 years a child of God will appear and save the people.”

The rebels were able to hold out for a surprisingly long time. However, as the winter months wore on, hunger took its toll and the defenses were breached.  The victors spent three days slaughtering the rebels.  An estimated total of 37,000 were killed, including Amakusa Shiro, and as John Dougill points out, “It’s invidious to play the numbers game when it concerns the dead, but the number killed at Shimabara is almost identical to the 39,000 who died in the Nagasaki atomic bomb.”  10,000 heads were staked up around the castle, and 3,300 were sent to Nagasaki for the same treatment: a clear warning to the people.

Following the Shimabara Rebellion, the Tokugawa took the final step in guarding the country against foreign subversion by expelling all Europeans from Japan and banning their reentry on pain of death.  The one exception to this was the tiny island of Dejima, just off Nagasaki’s coast, where an extremely limited number of Dutch ships were allowed to dock and trade.

Methods of “the Man”

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Photo by Chris73

In the decades prior to and following the Shimabara Rebellion, the shogunate came up with some strategies for ensuring the loyalty of its subjects and rooting out Hidden Christians.  In 1635, the government began to require that all subjects register themselves at a local Buddhist temple, which in 1666 became an annual requirement.  Apart from this annual registration, it probably wasn’t necessary to regularly visit the temple.  However, groups of households were organized to observe and report on one another, and if one person was exposed as a Christian their family would also suffer the consequences.  To avoid suspicion, most Hidden Christians needed to have a Buddhist funeral as well.

Another set of tools at the shogunate’s disposal were fumi-e “stepping-on pictures”.  These were small pictures of Jesus or Mary, usually made of metal, stone, or wood.  As the name implied, they were designed to be trod upon, a sign that one held no loyalty to the forbidden faith.  Fumi-e were first used in Nagasaki in 1628, and became a staple of anti-Christian procedures.  The practice even became known to some back in Europe.  In Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Japan is the only real country visited by the protagonist, who asks the emperor “to excuse my performing the ceremony imposed upon my countrymen of trampling on the crucifix.”

In 1640, a central prosecution office (shumon aratame yaku) was established, with branch offices in each domain.  Many Christians were killed, their numbers dropping from 300,000 in 1612 to half that or fewer by 1625.  Not only that, but the government knew that if they could make Chirstians publicly recant their faith it would be far more effective than simply creating more martyrs.  Thus, various methods of persuasion including horrific tortures were inflicted on many arrested Christians.

Practices of the Persecuted

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Photo by PHGCOM

A Kirishitan statue of Mary disguised as Kannon

In the face of such persecution, how did Hidden Christians stay hidden?  In Part 1, we already saw that there were many misunderstandings in the early days of conveying Christianity to the Japanese people.  After the banning of the religion and expulsion of foreigners, the Hidden Christians were left without clergy, leading them to develop some very unorthodox practices.

Without a clergy, the only sacrament left to the Hidden Christians was baptism, as lay people were allowed to perform this in the absence of a priest. Thus baptisms became quite important. They also made statues of the Virgin Mary that look nearly indistinguishable from the Buddhist bodhisattva, Kannon, or Jesus statues disguised as Jizo.  In fact, Mary became a major focal point of Hidden Christians’ practice.  Though everyone was required to register at a Buddhist temple, in some more rural localities the Buddhist clergy knew there were Hidden Christians, but looked the other way.  Still, the consequences of being Christian could be so severe that they learned to be extremely secretive.

Perhaps the most important part of daily practice was the recitation of prayers.  Called orashio (after the Latin oratio), these were Catholic prayers such as The Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary.  They were passed down orally to avoid detection. Those that had been translated into Japanese changed little over the centuries, but not so for those in Latin or Portuguese.  For example, “Ave Maria gratia lena” became “Abe Mariya hashiyabena.”  In fact, many modern practitioners don’t know what some of their prayers mean.  Another important prayer was the Konchirisan (Contrition), which must have assuaged the guilt felt for stepping on fumi-e, holding Buddhist funerals, and all the other compromises Hidden Christians were forced to make in order to keep practicing their faith secretly.

The Second Coming of Japanese Christianity

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This state of affairs more or less continued throughout the remainder of Tokugawa rule, with Hidden Christians paying lip service to Buddhism to satisfy the authorities, while practicing Christianity in secret.  During the 19th century, even before the reopening of the country to the West, the shogunate began to become lax in enforcing many of the policies they had crafted to carefully maintain the hierarchy of society, including the hunting of Christians.  Of course the U.S. finally did force Japan to open up in the 1850s, then the Tokugawa fell in 1867, and the modern Meiji government was established the following year.

Foreign Christians reentered the country, and in 1871 religious freedom became law.  Hidden Christians revealed their existence, to the surprise of many at home and abroad.  This didn’t mean things became easy.  Many Hidden Christians rejoined the Catholic Church.  Many chose not to, largely out of respect for the practices of their ancestors, and a feeling that if they abandoned them it would be admitting they were wrong.  In addition, as the climate became more and more infused by nationalist State Shinto ideals, being Christian continued to be a liability until the end of World War II.

Considering Japanese Christians have only had about the last 70 years or so to make up for roughly 350 years of persecution, it may not be that surprising that Japan’s Christian population is so small.  I won’t dwell on the modern period and reintroduction of Christianity, as the main focus of these articles was meant to be the Hidden Christians.  Today there are very few carrying on the Hidden Christian traditions, mostly in Kyushu, particularly on Ikitsuki Island.  It’s hard to know exact numbers, but one estimate is that only about 500 practicing members remain on Ikitsuki.  Young people today are generally neither interested in carrying on Kirishitan traditions, nor in staying in the rural areas where the religion survived.  It seems quite likely that the religion will die out within the next few decades.  Even if their beliefs are no longer practiced, the history of the Kakure Kirishitan will remain.  Even in three articles, I was only able to highlight some of the major points in Japan’s Christian history.  I urge everyone to read more on the subject.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[Desktop – 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile]

Sources

  • Cobbing, Andrew. Kyushu: Gateway to Japan, A Concise History. Folkstone: Global Oriental Ltd, 2009.
  • Dougill, John. In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2012.
  • Elisonas, Jurgis. “Christianity and the Daimyo.” in vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of Japan, edited by John Whitney Hall, Marius B. Jansen, Madoka Kanai, and Denis Twitchett, 301-368. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/12/19/us-japan-christians-idUST14106220071219

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Interview with Ken Taya, aka Enfu, the Master of Japanamericana http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/28/interview-ken-taya-aka-enfu-master-japanamericana/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/28/interview-ken-taya-aka-enfu-master-japanamericana/#comments Wed, 28 Jan 2015 17:00:37 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=48261 When the review copy of Ken Taya’s art book, “Enfu: Cute Grit”, arrived at the Tofugu office, I knew I had something special in my hands. It was one instance where judging a book by its cover was very appropriate. I sat down with headphones full of music and cracked it open. What followed was almost […]

The post Interview with Ken Taya, aka Enfu, the Master of Japanamericana appeared first on Tofugu.

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When the review copy of Ken Taya’s art book, “Enfu: Cute Grit”, arrived at the Tofugu office, I knew I had something special in my hands. It was one instance where judging a book by its cover was very appropriate. I sat down with headphones full of music and cracked it open. What followed was almost a religious experience.

Seattle-based artist, Ken Taya, aka Enfu, grew up between the U.S. and Japan. From this life experience, he forged an art style that has won him praise as a video game industry professional, as well as laud from art critics and lovers of color the world over.

Tofugu got the opportunity to talk to Ken about his art, career in the video game industry, and what it takes to become a professional in both sectors.

Welcome to Enfu

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Q. Tell us a little about Ken Taya.

I’m a Japanese American bilingual nisei (二世) video game artist. I’ve been making video games for over 13 years as an Environment Artist. The types of games I’ve worked on range from Halo 3 to Scribblnauts Unlimited.

I went to University of Washington and Digipen Institute of Technology. I love hip hop, reggae, and old school rap. I used to breakdance in high school, but if I tried that now I’d snap my neck.

Q. What about your artist name Enfu? What does it mean and why did you choose it?

I’ve always liked monkeys, and my nickname in high school was “flying monkey” because of the way I played basketball. Enfu is the on’yomi (Chinese reading) of the Japanese Kanji 猿風 (sarukaze), which literally translates to “monkey wind”. I rarely go by the kanji, but that is the background.

Q. When did you first start drawing?

All kids draw, so I was just like any kid and have drawn since then. I guess drawing was always fun for me. What’s hardest is to stay childlike.

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Q. What do you do to stay childlike?

This is a scenario that illustrates a time I realized I lost my inner child. I was watching my daughter (then about 4) play Scribblenauts on the Nintendo DS. She was wide eyed playing this game. All she knew was she could write anything and it would appear in the game. She didn’t even know how to write yet.

What I’m trying to drive home is she didn’t yet know how to use the tools, but she was excited about spawning the next object. After many sessions of coaching her on how to spell the names of kitchen and tea items, she eventually got around to asking me “Papa, can I make an ocean?”

I outright told her “I don’t think you can make an ocean in this game, honey.” My reply meant nothing and she asked me how to spell it anyway. I reluctantly spelled out ocean and, to both our surprises, an ocean popped up!

At that moment I realized the adult me was beaten by a child. I was saddened by the restraints I put on myself as to what could and could not be done. I mourn the loss of the child in me, and it will be a lifelong struggle to regain that childlike perspective. As of now I only can harness the inner child in spurts. It is usually the time when I convince myself ‘I can do anything!’

Art and Video Games: A Regular 9 to 5

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Q. When did you know you wanted to pursue graphic arts as a career?

Well it was more the video game industry I wanted to enter. After graduating and working as a freight forwarder, I decided I wanted to be a part of making something cool. That’s all I knew. I just wanted to ‘make something cool’.

So I reassessed what I enjoyed, which was drawing, speaking Japanese, and playing video games. Then I just said to myself, “What kind of company allows me to do those 3 things specifically and (hopefully) locally as well?” It was Nintendo.

I looked up “how to get into Nintendo”, and Digipen came up as the school next to Nintendo. I took the test, got in, and that’s how I started my journey.

Q. How did you get started as a professional artist?

Well, I don’t really know if I’d consider myself a ‘pro’ yet. But in terms of earning a salary making art…pretty much right after Digipen.

Digipen did a great job putting me in probably one of the most stressful, competitive, supportive classes of students. I’m still friends with those guys to this day, and I have fond memories of us all grinding away on our projects and teaching each other.

I started Enfu in 2005 as a creative side outlet because I wanted to make my own thing, not just what I’m hired to make for a company. I started off making screenprints, and my first print, Tako Truck, embodied the content that meant something to me: East meets West…we’re really different yet really similar.

Q. So, after Digipen you got straight into game design?

Well, most of my formal titles were in the realm of Environment Artist, which is only a small slice of the production pipeline in game creation. I would model the digital 3D terrain/buildings/props that are in each scene. Only recently, when I started to make my own games/apps, have I really taken on the role of Designer. Everyone has a ‘designer brain’, but many don’t pursue it and stay within their discipline.

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Q. What does the Environment Artist do beginning to end? Are there specific steps to the creation process or is it more more loose? How long does the whole process take on a game the size of Halo 3?

Well, it’s hard to summarize, as it is a really complex process. You basically need to translate what the Designer needs for gameplay and combine that with how the Concept Artist interprets that same scene.

Then, aside from the complexity of creating the 3D models, texturing them, creating shaders for each texture, and flagging surfaces to react to effects a certain way, you have to budget the amount objects that can exist in certain areas whilst keeping the game performant.

Next, you have to make sure all your textures fit within the budget of the level, create geometry like grass and decals like signage, create convincing lighting scenarios, check all your portals dividing the level for loading purposes, and so so much more technical considerations to weigh. Do players get caught up in the geometry? Can other players identify other characters in front of the busy background?

To me, it is much much more complicated than drawing a picture. Also, much of environment work is a collaborative process, so managing and communication makes this discipline very interdependent.

Q. For our readers who want to know more about the video game industry as a whole, what does the whole process of game creation entail, beginning to end?

I’ve yet to complete a full game by myself, I’m still on that journey with my iOS match game. But, in a nutshell, a game is born first with a core game mechanic, then the look is conceived. After that, a whole body of work is required to execute the game (asset creation, optimization, level design, UI, animation, testing). Finally, scratch that a couple times and repeat the process until you finally end up with a game. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in many of the roles on the art side from beginning to end, aside from the music and programming disciplines. A game has to be fun more than anything else. Looking good is often simply a secondary priority. Many, many artists often forget that.

Q. What advice do you have for our readers who may want to get a career started in the video game industry?

You have to prepare yourself to play games, not as a consumer, but as a developer. That means, first play for reference but allocate most of your time to improving on your actual craft.

But if you’re considering going into the industry…you’ve probably already played many games throughout your youth. I would encourage you to drop everything and draw every single day (assuming your discipline in game design would be art). Then learn the basic digital 2d software like Photoshop. You’ll learn the rest in school. Explore a lot of analogue disciplines before fully pursuing digital tools. Its kind of like the advice of learning on an acoustic guitar before you play electric. You learn to be precise with your fingers on the fret board before you get away with sloppy techniques on electric.

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Q. It sounds like the best way to enter the field is with formal training. Is it possible to enter into a video game arts career without going to a school like Digipen?

Of course. Anything is possible. Of course I’m biased toward Digipen because that is where I went. I know a lot of other successful artists in the game industry that aren’t from Digipen. But I believe Digipen provides more training that goes beyond just the traditional/technical skills of rendering art. They also teach you to collaborate with their Programming department (which produces top talent) and the ability to collaborate with Programmers and other departments is an art in itself. It’s one thing to be able to draw, it’s another thing to be able to make a game. Pick any school if you want to draw. If you want to make games, pick a game school.

Q. What advice do you have for readers who may not want to make art for video games, but just make art, like you do with Enfu?

Draw everyday. Draw something that means something to you. Then try to sell it even though you’re not ready. It will toughen you up. Nothing forces you to consider your personal convictions better than having to literally stand behind your work at a table. You will hear many art theories by people who practice a lot, but if you don’t put it out there in action, you really won’t know.

Enfu Art is Born

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Q. When did you start your Enfu side projects and why?

I was working on F.E.A.R. at the time, and I really curious to see what else I could make other than suspense horror type FPS.

Q. Do you consider your Enfu work as more important than your video game work? Would you ever give up one for the other?

I’ve described it before in this way: Working on console games millions of people enjoy, working on Enfu thousands of people enjoy, and drawing a picture for my daughter making only her enjoy…they are all equally rewarding.

Q. When did you first feel like you had “your style”? In your book, there are examples of figure drawing and realistic styles. You have the skill draw in any style, so what is it about the iconic, shiny, and colorful that you feel represents you?

Well, I had put a lot of thought into it before I started doing the screen prints. I wanted to create something that looked hand drawn (hence wavy lines), but also reflected content that was relevant to my background.  I don’t just find a perfectly rendered image of a tree, it needs to be more than that. The style keeps getting refined and changing. But the gist of the style is well explained in my book. Line heavy, colorful, and busy. It really has its roots in what influenced me growing up. Japanese manga, games, and anime. Generally line heavy, colorful, and busy, but also weighs more in favor of content that is whimsical than mature, cute more than gritty.

enfu-ken-taya-cute-grit-book-cover

Q. Let’s talk “Enfu: Cute Grit”. Your book is wonderfully massive. How did such a gigantic project come about?

Well it took around 2 years to make the book which contains 10 years of my work. My publisher Chin Music Press worked closely with me to compile the gigabytes of data I sent their way. I trusted their book designer, Dan D Shafer (http://www.dandy-design.com/), to design the flow and look of the book. He just killed it.

Q. I love the way you use small icons to create patterns. What inspired this idea in your work?

I can point to the exact moment where this movement happened for me. I was working on marketing materials for Scribblenauts Unlimited, which was a launch title for the Wii U. I wanted to make an epic gif using all the 3-frame emotes used in the game. As I was putting it together, a coworker came by showed me a better way to put it together. He made it for me programmatically way quicker than had I done it manually. That was the “aha moment”. I asked him to create for me a basic pattern tool, which he did. I did some demos of this pattern tool when I was on book signings and there was feedback that people wanted to buy it. I am currently working with a partner to bring this proprietary software to market.

What I learned from my years as an environment artist is that a big scene is the sum of many many many small parts. And the engineering and creation of these products have so many technical requirements to meet, whilst having to look and feel good on a macro level. But this all starts with thousands of “lego parts”. In a game like Scribblenauts Unlimited, there are literally thousands of things you can spawn. You type in something, it pops up. The experience working on a game like that really only emboldened me to build a huge asset library of little images, and then figure out what to make out of it all. There are so many things you can make if you design your building blocks to be replicated quickly, and engineer the machine and process in which products are made.

Q. You have an Enfu app out for iPhone and iPad that lets you use your iconic art as emoji. So it seems only appropriate that I ask you a question with your own art and you do the same with the response. Here goes:

icon-question-for-ken-taya-enfu

Translation: How long does it take to draw one picture icon?

ken-taya-enfu-sticker-chat-response

Translation: First I don’t have any good ideas. I try drawing something, fail, and scrap it.

Then I have a better idea and draw it. It is good and it’s party time!

Takes around 30 minutes. I repeat this over and over just chasing that carrot.

Q. You’ve said that your daughter is your muse and inspired your character, Elly. Does the musing come through things she says or is it more unspoken?

Well the whole book Enfu: Cute Grit covers kind of covers the transition of my content being mostly about my Asian American identity, into capturing the fleeting innocent imagination of childhood. I think every parent sees their child and becomes appalled we were once that age, and covets the child’s perspective.

ken-taya-enfu-elly

Q. What’s the story behind your art on clothing? How did that come about? Is there anything special about using clothes as a canvas?

Curiosity led me there. I wanted to see what I’d learn from creating a different product offering. That is generally why I like to make many different things. I like wearing trucker caps, so I wanted to make my own. It’s cool to see people wearing them in public.

I was exploring surface design, which is a discipline already similar to what video game environment artists already do, texturing surfaces. I learned more about it, thought about other applications, and clothing was one of them. I invested much of my effort, and I am continuing to invest in this now, into making a pattern-making software that fits my needs.

Q. What artists have had the most influence on your work?

326, Kozyndan, Toriyama Akira, Taiyo Matsumoto, Mr., and Takashi Murakami. Basically many line heavy, intricately busy, youthful/childlike , and colorful Japanese style renderings are really interesting to me.

Japanamericana: Creating Art That Straddles Two Worlds

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Q. You lived in Sendai, Japan for a time. When was it and why did you move there?

My dad’s work brought us to Sendai as he is a University Professor. He taught at Tohoku University while I endured middle school with my broken elementary Japanese skills. (Still elementary by the way.)

Q. How did your time in Japan influence your work?

I was struggling in all my regular Japanese classes and my teacher, Miura-sensei, influenced my psyche by encouraging me in art class. He really made it a point to empower me to pursue art. Maybe because I was having fun, compared to my other classes, this let me know there was a sanctuary in art. I was in 7th grade at the time and it was impactful. I wouldn’t understand it all until much much later. I really wish I could thank Miura-sensei for his positive impact on my life.

Q. Your work has been called “a celebration of how cultures are enlivened by their commingling.” What, in your view, are ways that cultures can commingle to their betterment?

Well, the U.S. is kind of like that. We try to adopt other cultures’ ideals, fold them into our own, and then own them. The issue is more we don’t often commingle. We usually pick out characteristics that make people different and exaggerate them, without picking those exact same characteristics and trying to bridge the gap, while realizing we have an equivalent quirky difference. There is something extremely satisfying about the transformation from stranger to friend.

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Q. As an artist who deeply understands the blending of Japanese and American culture, how do you feel Disney handled this task with its film “Big Hero 6”?

Now, I’m going to sound super critical and nitpicky, so let me preface this with the fact that, overall, I loved the movie. But you asked, so here it goes:

I’m usually super vocal about the lack of Asian Americans represented in media. I’m also trained as an Environment Artist, who has himself had experience working on fictional hybrid Asian themed sets. That map (in the link) was the penthouse of a corporation called Sino-Viet, a total hybrid Asia-generic set. I mean, there is a rocket launcher in the river between a stepped zen garden. Who builds that, right? So I totally understand bending the reality for the sake of fulfilling the design needs of the deliverable.

With that said I still had issues with Big Hero 6.

Character:

Finally a half Asian lead!

Hiro as a character displayed absolutely no Asian American/Asian qualities whatsoever. He basically had a ‘white’ personality with an Asian name. What do I mean by “he has no ‘Asian qualities’ “? Well, let’s see, there is already a precedent for other cultures. Hispanic characters throw in Spanish words or slang. African Americans have their own swag carved out. Asian Americans…what defines them as Asian American? It is a mystery, almost. Lilo and Stitch had Hawaiian culture ingrained in its dialogue. Even Po from Kung Fu Panda had more Asian in him than Hiro, and he was a Panda and voiced by Jack Black.

Environment:

Yes, this is a fictional town, I get it. But if you’re going to portmanteau city names, you’re establishing solid reference points. San Fransokyo was just San Francisco “ching-chonged up”. It was supposed to be a mix between SF and Tokyo, but many representative props weren’t “Tokyo” at all. They took the red shinto gates (torii) and put them on the bridge.

They’re gates of shrines, but to me they represent totally different regions of the country. What if a Japanese Anime had a hybrid set based on NYC and put Mt. Rushmore on top one of the buildings? Does sprinkling in Baptist church steeples in the environment make it American? Its like an effort was made to highlight old Japan, not modern Japan, which is kind of sad. Tokyo Tower instead of Sky Tree.

What they got right were the vehicles, especially the police car. A bit of redemption.

Also we need to stop putting chopsticks in hair buns and calling that ‘good enough’. Yeah so, Japanesey pagoda-like roofs curved up corners = not Japanese.

All these little details are petty in the bigger scheme of things, but these petty details are what Environment Artists need to take care of.

Let’s hold San Fransokyo to higher standards. What did Treasure Town in Tekkonkinkreet look like? What about the hybrid fantasy world Sen strolled through in Spirited Away? I believe those environments were twice as lush, more embellished, with way more attention to detail than the cityscape of San Fransokyo.

All that to say some things were a bit “off” to me, but I know it’s passable for most. I know most of my critique can seem a little like “this ramen isn’t as great as the ones in Tokyo”-type comments, but I’m happy that I get to eat good ramen stateside. I’d much rather be slightly misrepresented than have no representation at all.

Q. What is it about Japanese aesthetic that you find most appealing? How do you incorporate this into your work?

Well its not just the Japanese aesthetic, but also the Japanese psyche (content) which speaks to me. Aesthetic is the shallow shellac which identifies or brands the work, but content is what keeps people engaged in your work.

The Japanese aesthetic not only prioritizes the line, being line heavy, but also unabashedly uses color, and, to a lesser extent, plays with the contrast between nothing-ness and busy-ness.

Japanese content mirrors the culture in its idolization of youth, thematically and aesthetically. This appeals both to children or the inner-child. Though cute or “kawaii”, the Japanese psyche promotes grittiness, hunkering down, working hard, and perseverance. These characteristics are necessary to focus on the intense line work.

Wrapping Up

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Q. What is the one question you wish people would ask you, but never do? (Then answer it!)

Most people would never really ask this outright because it may sound offensive:

Q. Why are you so obsessed with being Japanese?

My answer would be different depending on who asked it.

American: I’m proud of what makes me different.

Japanese: It’s kind of stupid to be proud of something you had no choice in.

Q. How do you feel about the Seahawks going to the Super Bowl?

Answer:

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Get Your Own Cute Grit

Big thanks again to Ken Taya for answering so many of our questions. If you’d like to buy his massive art book “Enfu: Cute Grit”, get it here:

If you’d like to then get that book signed, Ken will be at Giant Robot in Los Angeles on February 7th from 2:00pm-4:00pm. He’ll be signing his book, shaking hands and just generally being awesome. Check out his site at enfu.com.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[Desktop – 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile]

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 2: The Shogun Strikes Back http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/23/christians-in-kyushu-part-2-persecution-rebellion/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/23/christians-in-kyushu-part-2-persecution-rebellion/#comments Fri, 23 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=47012 Be sure to check out Part 1 before engaging in this epic second part. When we last left off, Oda Nobunaga, the padres’ most powerful patron had just perished.  The next great unifier to take his place was a general of his, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598).  Hideyoshi had worked his way up from peasanthood to become the most […]

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Be sure to check out Part 1 before engaging in this epic second part.

When we last left off, Oda Nobunaga, the padres’ most powerful patron had just perished.  The next great unifier to take his place was a general of his, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598).  Hideyoshi had worked his way up from peasanthood to become the most powerful man in Japan.  Due to his background, he was never able to take the title of shogun, but he was equally influential.  His policies laid the groundwork for what was to come, including an increasing suspicion of Christian motives.  There will be plenty about him in this article, but first, back to Kyushu.

The King of Bungo

statue-of-otomo-sorin Christians in Kyushu

Photo by 大分帰省中

As mentioned in Part 1, just before leaving Japan in 1551, Francis Xavier met with Otomo Sorin (1530-1587), lord of Bungo (in eastern Kyushu).  Initially reluctant to meet with Xavier due to slanderous descriptions given by Buddhist clergy, Sorin was convinced to see him by a Portuguese captain, who described Xavier as a man of high status who could commandeer a European vessel anytime he wished.  Sorin gave the Jesuits permission to preach in his territory and a building to use, but it would seem his initial generosity was not religiously motivated.  In 1562, he even became a Buddhist lay-priest.

However, over time he may have had a change of heart.  In 1578, he converted to Christianity, taking the name Francisco in honor of Xavier. Actually, a marital problem led to his conversion.  Sorin had married a woman in 1550, who was staunch in her traditional religious beliefs and shared a contentious relationship with the Jesuits.  She is known only as Jezebel, the name the Jesuits used to refer to her.  In 1578, Sorin became ill, which the priest Luis Frois claimed was Jezebel’s fault.  He was nursed by one of her ladies-in-waiting, with whom he fell in love.  Sorin had his new paramour spirited away to a seaside villa where they were free to hear Christian instruction.  First, she converted, taking the name Julia. Later Sorin also converted.  They soon married, and Jezebel, as a pagan, was no object.  To many observers Sorin’s behavior was scandalous, but to the Jesuits he was a hero.  Sorin’s happiness did not last long.

At the same time that Sorin was pulling a Henry VIII, there was trouble brewing further south.  The Shimazu family, which had rejected Christianity, had begun to expand their territory northward.  They soundly defeated the Otomo at the Battle of Mimigawa (1578).  The Shimazu were doing so well that by the mid-1580s, nearly all of Kyushu was theirs.  Knowing the Shimazu’s final push would come soon, Sorin asked Toyotomi Hideyoshi for aid.  In 1587, Hideyoshi’s armies entered Kyushu and began pushing the Shimazu forces back southward to their home territory until they were forced to surrender.

Christian Cruise

Japanese-delegates-visit-Pope-Gregory Christians in Kyushu

Japanese delegates visiting Pope Gregory.

Otomo Sorin did one other major thing in the history of Christianity and Japan.  In the midst of combating the Shimazu in 1582, he and two other Christian lords sponsored the first official Japanese embassy to Europe.  The embassy was the brainchild of Italian Jesuit, Allesandro Valignano (1539-1606), who had been preaching in Japan for three years.  The Tensho Embassy (named after the reign-name of the time) consisted of four Japanese converts.  With them was their European tutor and translator, and two servants.  They stopped at Macau, Kochi, and Goa along the way.  Valignano himself accompanied them as far as Goa.

The embassy arrived in Lisbon in 1584, and from there went on to Rome.  During their European tour, they met several kings and two successive popes.  In Rome, one of the converts was made an honorary citizen.  They returned to Japan in 1590, after which Valignano ordained them as the first Japanese Jesuit fathers.

A Tenuous Tolerance

toyotomi-hideyoshi-climbing-a-mountain Christians in Kyushu

Having conquered Kyushu, Hideyoshi soon finished what Nobunaga had started and united all of Japan under his banner.  Like his predecessor, Hideyoshi expressed an interest in what the Europeans had to offer.  When the Tensho Embassy returned from Europe, he received them at Osaka Castle, curious to hear their stories and the music of European instruments, like the harpsichord, which they had learned to play.  However, under his rule we can also see the seeds of doubt that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Christian mission in Japan.

In 1587, Hideyoshi issued an edict to expel the missionaries (not all Europeans).  He seemed mainly concerned that too many lords were converting, and were also forcing the conversion of their retainers and subjects.  There was a worry that Christian lords might have conflicting loyalties.  Fortunately for the padres, the edict was not well enforced. They there were able to remain in Japan, they had to keep quiet for a while.  This was not true, however, of the Franciscans and other orders, more recently arrived, who continued to preach boldly.  This led to Japan’s first martyrs.

The 26 Martyrs

painting-of-the-nagasaki-martyrs Christians in Kyushu

In 1596, the San Felipe, a Spanish galleon shipwrecked off of Shikoku, spilling its cargo of silks and gold.  When the local authorities confiscated as much of this as they could and detained the crew, the ship’s pilot warned them to be careful lest they wind up a Spanish colony like South America.  He told them “the missionaries come as the king of Spain’s advance guard.”

This was just the wrong thing for Hideyoshi to hear, and from a list of 4,000, ultimately 24 leading Christians from the Kansai area were arrested.  Hideyoshi had them marched all the way to Nagasaki to face execution.  This was symbolic as Nagasaki had become one of the strongest Christian centers in Japan.  Along the 450 mile journey, two more were arrested for giving comfort to the prisoners, including a twelve-year old boy.  He was given the chance to recant, but refused.  On February 5, 1597, the 26 were crucified on a hilltop in Nagasaki.  It may sound like Hideyoshi chose this form of execution to be ironic, which I don’t think is out of the question, but crucifixion had long been a common punishment in Japan.

Tokugawa Transition

Konishi_Yukinaga Christians in Kyushu

While dealing with issues at home, from 1592-1598 Hideyoshi had thousands of samurai carrying out an invasion of Korea.  One of the top two generals of the expedition was a Christian himself, Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600).  Yukinaga often found himself at odds with the other leading general, Kato Kiyomasa (1561-1611), a Nichiren Buddhist.  When Hideyoshi passed away in 1598, his war weary generals negotiated an end to the war in Korea, but Yukinaga’s problems were far from over.

Japan soon divided between those supporting the Toyotomi and those supporting another former ally of Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).  In 1600, came the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, and Ieyasu emerged victorious.  Konishi Yukinaga had fought for the losing side, but rather than commit ritual suicide (seppuku), he chose execution.  This would have been the less honorable choice in the eyes of most of his peers, but his Christian faith taught him that suicide was a sin.

Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, and established a line that would rule Japan for the next 268 years.  At first, like Hideyoshi, he took a cautious attitude toward Christianity.  In 1600, shortly before the Battle of Sekigahara, English pilot William Adams (1564-1620), the basis for the protagonist in James Clavell’s Shogun, arrived in Japan.  Ieyasu valued his knowledge, but Adams, out of his own Protestant prejudices against the Catholics, fed the lord’s fears that the missionaries were precursors of a Catholic conquest.

The Hammer Falls

jesuit-with-a-japanese-nobleman Christians in Kyushu

Added to the fear of foreign conquest, one of the biggest concerns that Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu had always had with Christianity was the matter of loyalty.  For a Christian samurai, did allegiance to the shogun or the pope take precedence?  In 1612 there was a bribery scandal, involving a daimyo and a member of Ieyasu’s council, both Christians.  This showed that ties between the faithful might be stronger than those to the central authority.  In addition, at the execution of a Christian, a priest told the crowd that obedience to the Church should trump obedience to their daimyo.

These events led Ieyasu to ban Christianity in domains governed directly by the shogunate, and many daimyo followed his example.  Then in 1614 he issued the “Statement on the Expulsion of the Bataren”, in which accusations against the priests were leveled. They were commanded to leave the country at once, and Japanese converts were ordered to renounce their faith.  Most missionaries left the country, but some continued to operate in secret. Those who were caught were executed.

Anti-Christian measures became even harsher under the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, who took power in 1623.  It’s estimated that in 1612 there were approximately 300,000 Christians in Japan, but that by 1625 there were half that or fewer.

Dark Times Ahead

beheaded-jizo-statues Christians in Kyushu

Things were never easy for Christians in Japan during the Sengoku period but, as the country moved toward unification and peace, they came under even closer scrutiny.  Though some anti-Christian reasoning points to other issues, it seems that the biggest problem was the fear of those in authority that Christians would have conflicting loyalties.  After a century of chaos, betrayals, and civil war, that was something the Shogunate would not tolerate.

Next time we’ll see where the suppression of Christianity leads.

To Be Continued . . .

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara: The Death of Yakuza Cinema http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/19/ken-takakura-bunta-sugawara-death-yakuza-cinema/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/19/ken-takakura-bunta-sugawara-death-yakuza-cinema/#comments Mon, 19 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=47382 2014 has proven a sad year for Japanese cinema with the passing of two legends: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. Although close in age, the two came to represent opposing eras of yakuza cinema – Ken Takakura’s honorable yakuza heroes of the 60’s gave way to Bunta Sugawara’s cutthroat yakuza criminals of the 70’s. The two actors symbolize the yakuza genre, making the […]

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2014 has proven a sad year for Japanese cinema with the passing of two legends: Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara. Although close in age, the two came to represent opposing eras of yakuza cinema – Ken Takakura’s honorable yakuza heroes of the 60’s gave way to Bunta Sugawara’s cutthroat yakuza criminals of the 70’s. The two actors symbolize the yakuza genre, making the close timing of their deaths somewhat apropo.

Yet simplifying their legacies would be a mistake as the two actors transcended the genre they grew famous for.  As the popularity of yakuza films faded, both men showed versatility by taking on new roles.  Ken Takakura acted in dramatic films and even got his feet wet in Hollywood while Bunta Sugawara kept closer to his tough-guy roots, starring in the Trucker Yarou comedy series.  Both stars worked well into old age, starring in sentimental dramas like Ken Takakura’s Dearest and Bunta Sugawara’s My Grandpa.

Join Tofugu in celebrating the legacies of these amazing, genre-transcending actors. Choosing only a handful of movies from the hundreds they appeared in proved a challenge and the following recommendations mix things up, featuring a variety of works spanning the actors’ careers. So grab some senbei and fire up the old projector, Betamax or whatever you’re using nowadays – on to the movies!

Ken Takakura

A Meiji University graduate, Ken Takakura “was in the process of applying for a lifelong ‘salaryman’ position at the Toei film company in Toyko when, on the lot, he entered an audition on impulse” (Roger Macy). Soon after, Takakura debuted in Denko Karate Uchi (1957) and never looked back, pumping out hundreds of movies through Toei Studios.

Described as “brooding, dignified, (and) hard hitting,” Takakura played heroic characters with a sense of justice  (Ben Beaumont-Thomas). And no term better describes Takakura’s performances than dignified. Even when playing a criminal, Takakura could radiate dignity with a single glance.

His characters aren’t perfect, but that makes their struggles easy to identify with.  In lowly roles, we root for him rise above his situation. When in positions of power we hope he can see justice through.

Takakura’s acting prowess and English ability helped him land roles in pictures abroad.  He made his western debut in the WWII film Too Late the Hero and went on to star in a handful of Hollywood films.

His empowering roles took on special significance in China where “Takakura’s 1976 hit Manhunt was among the first Japanese films to be screened in China after the Cultural Revolution” (AFP-JIJI).  His role in Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles helped solidify his position as a cultural bridge between nations.

I compiled this list hoping to exemplify the variety of Ken Takakura’s roles, from dignified yakuza to struggling police officers to hard-nosed baseball managers.

Abashiri Prison (Abashiri Bangaichi – 1965)

Take a trip to Japan’s legendary Hokkaido prison, a detention center similar to the US’s Alcatraz in fame and reputation.  We all know Takakura’s good-guy character has a justified reason to be there, and part of the movie’s fun is waiting to find out why. All the while inmates try to pull Takakura into an escape plot he initially resists, but is given reason to consider. Will Takakura join the plan?

Hokkaido’s snowy landscapes provide a deep, beautiful black and white backdrop to this prison adventure. Despite some impromptu festival dances and scenic drives to labor areas, no one wants to end up in Abashiri Prison.

Abashiri Prison combines Takakura’s classic dignified persona with a strong cast and great plot. As a bonus for watching you’ll get a taste of Japanese prison life and learn why you don’t have to worry about dropping the soap in Abashiri Prison.

Demon Yasha (Yasha – 1985)

“A hyena with a conscious is no longer a hyena.” My favorite among Ken Takakura’s films, Demon Yasha tells the story of a yakuza who leaves a life of crime behind to move to Hokkaido. There he goes legit, becoming a fisherman, family man and respected member of his village.

Of course things don’t stay peaceful for long and trouble comes calling when a young, drug dealing “Beat” Takeshi arrives with his attractive girlfriend.  Will Yasha be able to protect the village and continue living his new life?  Or will his yakuza roots pull him back in?

Faced with deep temptation, Yasha becomes one of Takakura’s more troubled, complex characters. Demon Yasha kept me guessing on how it would all turn out. I enjoyed the film’s atmosphere and rhythmic, no-nonsense cinematography that gave it a “Beat” Takeshi-like movie feel.

Black Rain (1989)

East meets West in this police crime drama directed by Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame.  And boy does it feel like a Ridley Scott movie with its dark, brooding, confined locations and (where does it all come from?) smoke and steam. The movie’s eerie depictions of Osaka creeped me out as a kid and continue to do so today.

Circumstances force American cops, played by Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia, to venture into Osaka in pursuit of a ruthless yakuza named Sato.  To do so they must cooperate with a Japanese cop (guess who!) who is caught between adhering to police protocol and helping the American cops apprehend Sato.

Ridley Scott makes sure Black Rain‘s pace never slows by striking a great balance between plot development and action.  The music, mood and style are pure eighties goodness, but my favorite aspect of the movie is Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia and Ken Takakura’s chemistry. I really enjoyed the interactions among the three, with Andy Garcia acting as the voice of reason in contrast to his strong-willed partners.

Black Rain is worth watching just to witness Takakura’s karaoke duet with Andy Garcia.  Yuusaku Matsuda’s brilliant performance as Sato is also worth note, as it was one of his last.

Mr. Baseball (1992)

In Mr. Baseball Ken Takakura plays second fiddle to Tom Selleck, but that does nothing to undermine his contribution to the film.  A struggling major-leaguer, Selleck’s stubborn character gets shipped to Japan where he struggles to adjust to his new life. Takakura plays the team’s equally stubborn manager whose job is on the line thanks in part to his new American import. The two bump heads, refusing to bend to cultural differences and the comedy-drama ensues.

All but forgotten in the annals of moviedom, Mr. Baseball shines at showing the difficulties a foreigner living in Japan faces. Although I had trouble relating to Selleck’s jerk of a character, his situations felt very familiar.  I couldn’t help but cringe at some of his faux pas, recalling my own.

Despite Takakura’s great performance, to those who never experienced Japan, Mr. Baseball may feel like a forgettable comedy. But those that share some of Selleck’s awkward experiences will appreciate its realistic depiction of culture shock, or more appropriately, culture clash.

Dearest (Ananta e – 2012)

Takakura’s final film has a “it’s not the destination, its the journey” theme. Dearest sees Takakura trekking across Japan to spread his late wife’s ashes in her hometown. During the trip he meets all sorts of people, takes in the beautiful scenery and grows even closer to his late wife.

Dearest features a cast of popular actors including “Beat” Takeshi (Outrage), Koichi Sato (Unforgiven), Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (of pop group SMAP) and Haruka Ayase (Happy Flight).  As a result, the film becomes more a celebration of Ken Takakura than a good movie in its own right.  Like Clint Eastwood’s recent work, Dearest has sentimental themes, but lacks Eastwood’s punch and purpose. Still, I’m glad I joined Takakura for his last ride.

Bunta Sugawara

The gritty, bloody and chaotic Modern Yakuza Outlaw Killer served as my unforgettable introduction to Bunta Sugawara and a new world of Japanese cinema.

In an era where Akira Kurosawa was the face of Japanese cinema (fans had to dig deep to find Golgo 13 and Shogun Assassin) in the West, one thing was clear – Kurosawa this was not.  Despite its descriptive title, the film’s violent, reckless style shocked me – and I’ve been a Bunta Sugawara fan ever since.

Perhaps Sugawara played badasses so well because he was, in fact, a certified badass. According to film reporter Mark Schilling,

Sugawara entered the Shintoho studio in 1958 after leading a scuffling existence on the fringes of Tokyo’s underworld that furnished material for his later roles. When the studio went bust in 1961, he left for rival Shochiku, but his career was treading water until former-gang-boss-turned actor Noboru Ando helped him join the Toei studio in 1967.

Sugawara’s resulting library of work steered the yakuza genre in a new direction. Audiences watched Takakura films, but they experienced Sugawara films – and occasionally showered afterward for spiritual cleansing (maybe that was just me).

Although best remembered for the groundbreaking Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, Sugawara went on to star in a variety of roles as a boxer, a trucker driver and even a police inspector.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai – 1973)

The theme song strikes like a bolt of lightening and serves as a warning; this isn’t your usual yakuza film.  Director Kinji Fukasaku’s gritty directing style means Battles Without Honor and Humanity doesn’t just look different from previous yakuza movies, it feels different. Based on true accounts of crime in post WWII Hiroshima the shaky camera, gratuitous blood and haunting locations give the film a life of its own.

And Bunta Sugawara is at the helm.  A former soldier turned street hoodlum, Sugawara is sent to prison where his life becomes entangled with one of Hiroshima’s top yakuza families. The film and its sequels follow the ups and downs of Sugawara’s violence filled life of crime. Winner of the Kinema Junpo Awards for best actor and best screenplay in 1974 (IMDb), Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a Japanese film classic that shouldn’t be missed!

Truck Guys (Torakku Yarō – 1975)

Like Ken Takakura, Sugawara didn’t limit himself to the yakuza genre and Truck Guys provides a light, comedic alternative to his heavy, violence-laden yakuza films. Sugawara’s rough but lovable trucker character proved popular enough to spawn several sequels.  Cheesy and campy in all the right ways, Truck Guys‘s bar fights, races, CB radio karaoke sessions and heartbreaks make for an entrancing hour and a half.

The Boxer (Bokusa – 1977)

The Boxer finds Sugawara playing a former boxing champion who turned his back on the sport at his peak, though no one knows why. Fate brings a eager young boxer to the former champ’s doorstep. Sugawara reluctantly agrees to train the young man, who brings hope to Sagawara and a band of hopeless misfits that rally around the two.

I’m a sucker for boxing films and The Boxer’s gritty montages, music, and film style quickly won me over. Sugawara and Kentaro Shimizu’s performances propel the film past rocky attempts at symbolism and campy seventies trimmings. Sugawara’s dignified character provides a refreshing change from his usual riff-raff.

Why did Sugawara’s character quit the sport? Will his protégé win and bring him and his supporters redemption?  You’ll have to watch to find out!

The Man Who Stole the Sun (Taiyou wo Nusunda Okoto – 1979)

In The Man Who Stole the Sun, Sugawara jumps to the right side of the law, playing police inspector Yamashita. After stopping a gun-wielding maniac in a hostage crisis, detective Yamashita becomes a subject of fancy for Kido, a terrorist who just completed the construction of an atomic bomb.  The Man Who Stole the Sun becomes a game of cat and mouse, with Yamashita doing his best to catch the criminal and protect the city before it’s too late.

Like many Sugarawara films, The Man Who Stole the Sun has a kinetic style that’s over-the-top and fun to watch. I loved witnessing Kido’s plan unfold; we witness him study, plan, steal materials, build a bomb, and then terrorize Tokyo before battling it out with inspector Yamashita.

A stirring and memorable soundtrack accompanies the plot and puts today’s uninspired, synthesized soundtracks to shame. As a testament to the soundtrack’s awesomeness, Yamashita’s theme makes an appearance in Evangelion 2.0.

“Individuals don’t need atomic bombs, nations do!” one investigator shouts when he learns of Kido’s intent. Like Terror in Resonance (Zankyō no Teroru), the recent anime series this movie undoubtedly inspired, The Man Who Stole the Sun explores the meaning of extreme destructive power, touching upon important themes while maintaining its true goal of entertainment.

My Grandpa (Watashi no Guranpa – 2003)

Even the badass Sugawara can’t avoid a sentimental ride into the sunset. Still, Sugawara stays close to his roots, playing an old yakuza in My Grandpa.

Instead of retiring to a quiet life, Sugawara leaves prison prepared for a head-on confrontation with his past. This includes settling the score with a rival gang, atoning for his best friend’s death and coming to terms with his estranged granddaughter.

Although a criminal, Sugawara doesn’t play his typical wild, ignoble yakuza character. Instead My Grandfather has the class of a Takakura gangster – a dignified criminal with reason and remorse. Less sappy than Takakura’s Dearest, My Grandpa  transcends simple sentimentality by focusing on an empowered old man coming to terms with a haunting past and regret.

Bonuses!

International Gangs of Kobe (Kobe Kokusai Gang – 1975)

I imagined that if Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara starred in a movie together it would have resembled something like a yakuza-themed The Odd Couple, with Ken Takakura’s dignified yakuza having to pacify Bunta Sugawara’s crazy side.

In International Gangs of Kobe the opposite occurs; it’s Sugawara’s presence that brings out Takakura’s ruthless side. Although the two start off as allied gang members, Kobe proves too small a town for the giants of yakuza cinema. The gang splits into rival factions and Takakura and Sugawara settle their differences with violence. Tons of action and a notable cast make the unexceptional International Gangs of Kobe a load of silly yakuza fun.

Antarctica (Nankyoku Monogatari – 1983)

Do you remember that 2006 Disney movie called Eight Below?  The one where Paul Walker leaves a bunch of sled dogs at a base in Antarctica during the harshest part of winter? Did you know the plot is stolen from – I mean based on the plot of Ken Takakura’s Antarctica? If you like dog movies then check Antarctica out, though calling it a Ken Takakura movie is a bit of a stretch considering it stars a bunch of dogs.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – 2001)

Although Ken Takakura appeared in enough English language movies to make him a familiar face in the West, Bunta Sugawara never gained notoriety overseas. His most recognizable role in the West consists of just his voice, as the multi-limbed boiler room operator Kamiji in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. That’s right! If you watched the Studio Ghibli film in Japanese you’ve already experienced Bunta Sugawara!

The Projector Rolls On

black rain

Both Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara have been referred to Japan’s Clint Eastwood. However, Ken Takakura’s noble yakuza share more in common with the clean-cut cowboys of John Wayne’s old westerns. Clint Eastwood comparisons seem more appropriate for Bunta Sugawara, whose violent yakuza films changed a genre, just as Clint Eastwood’s violent spaghetti westerns did in the US.

But in the end the comparisons prove unnecessary. Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara were trailblazers of Japanese cinema and lynchpins of Japan’s domestic industry.  Both actors survived the studio system and overcame typecast roles to become lifelong artists whose influence can still be felt today. Bunta Sugawara helped pave the way to the ruthless and shocking gangsters of Takeshi Miike’s yakuza films while Ken Watanabe followed Ken Takakura’s blueprint to fame abroad.

If you haven’t experienced these legends for yourself, please take the time to see their works and experience Japanese film history!

Do you have a personal favorite that wasn’t mentioned?  If so, please recommend it in the comments section below.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Christians in Kyushu, Part 1: Guns and Rosaries http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/08/christians-in-kyushu-pt-1-guns-rosaries/ http://www.tofugu.com/2015/01/08/christians-in-kyushu-pt-1-guns-rosaries/#comments Thu, 08 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=46634 In 1543 the first Europeans arrived in Japan. Two (maybe three) Portuguese merchants aboard a Chinese ship were blown off course and forced to land on the island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. Only six years later, the first Christian missionary came to Japan. What followed was, what some historians call, Japan’s “Christian century.” […]

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In 1543 the first Europeans arrived in Japan. Two (maybe three) Portuguese merchants aboard a Chinese ship were blown off course and forced to land on the island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. Only six years later, the first Christian missionary came to Japan. What followed was, what some historians call, Japan’s “Christian century.” Despite 100 years of Christian dominance, today only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. In this three-part series we’ll look at what happened in between. There will be a focus on Kyushu because many of the significant events of Japan’s Christian history were centered there. Those first Portuguese men to arrive at Tanegashima also brought the first guns to Japan. Today’s article will focus on the sixteenth century, during which time guns and Christianity were often entwined. Both had a heavy impact on Kyushu and Japan at large during this period, known as the Warring States period (sengoku jidai), a century where central authority in Japan had lost its sway and samurai clans vied for dominance.

The Apostle of the East

1-Francis-Xavier01 Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the first Christian missionary to Japan, was born to an aristocratic family in Spain. Xavier became a founding member of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits). They were the first order to specifically make missionary work their purpose. In the early 16th century the Portuguese had established colonies in India, including Goa. In 1541, Xavier sailed to Goa to take charge of the Jesuit mission there. After a few years of preaching to southern Indians and uncouth Portuguese sailors with little success, he moved on to another Portuguese colony, Malacca, Malaysia in 1545. It was at Malacca that Xavier met a young Japanese man named Anjiro (or Yajiro, according to other sources), who was curious about Christianity. Anjiro was from Satsuma (modern day Kagoshima prefecture), on the south end of Kyushu. After being implicated in a murder, Anjiro had fled to Malacca, where he picked up some Portuguese, and developed an interest in Christianity. That interest, combined with Anjiro’s stories of Japan, convinced Xavier that it might be prime territory for spreading the word. The two set sail on a Chinese ship, along with two Spanish Jesuits, an Indian and two more Japanese converts. On August 15, 1549 they disembarked at Kagoshima.

Making Good Impressions

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Photo by Roke

The Shimazu family who ruled Satsuma also controlled Tanegashima, the island where the first Europeans had landed. The Shimazu had been impressed by European firearms and were quick to reproduce them. So, when Xavier arrived they respectfully welcomed him, curious to see what he might have brought along. They gave him permission to speak to their subjects and, through translators, they began to preach. Xavier and his Spanish colleagues began studying Japanese, and soon were attempting the occasional sermon in Japanese, transliterated into the Roman alphabet for them. For the most part, Xavier and European missionaries who followed were quite impressed with the Japanese people. The Jesuits, for their part, were unyielding on matters of faith, but otherwise tried to adapt to local customs. They limited their meat consumption to better fit into Japanese society. They couldn’t be persuaded to bathe daily as the Japanese did, but compromised by doing so once a week (or every fortnight in the winter). Although the Jesuits found many admirable qualities among the locals, there were generally hostile relationships between them and the Buddhist clergy. Though there were a few interfaith friendships, the Jesuits often accused Buddhist monks of being lazy and sodomites. The Buddhists thought the Europeans were spreading lies.

Mission Impossible

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Photo by Uploadalt

Some of the most curious quirks of the Jesuits’ mission in Japan sprang from dealing with the language barrier. Xavier once described Japanese as “the devil’s own tongue.” Xavier and others were largely working through Japanese translators, but they were trying to convey something that had no precedent in Japan. An early mistake was when Anjiro translated God as Dainichi, a Buddhist deity. This led people to think the priests were from some new Buddhist sect, and Xavier didn’t discover the error for two years. They tried Deus (deusu), but decided it sounded to close to daiuso “big lie.” They settled on Tenshu “Lord of Heaven.” The missionaries found many translations carried Buddhist connotations, so they began to use the Latin or Portuguese words for new ideas. For example, they used the word bataren (from the Portuguese, padre) to refer to themselves, so they wouldn’t be confused for Buddhist priests.

Comings and Goings

4-Japanese-Christians-in-Portuguese-Dress02 Ten months after Xavier’s arrival, the Shimazu changed their stance towards the Christians, prohibiting proselytizing and further conversions. This was probably prompted by the landing of a Portuguese ship at Hirado, in northern Kyushu and outside of Shimazu territory, which dashed Shimazu hopes of securing European trade through the missionaries. Xavier left for Hirado, having only converted 100 people in Kagoshima. Xavier made another 100 converts in Hirado, but didn’t stay long, leaving Kyushu and striking out for Kyoto with hopes of meeting the shogun or perhaps the emperor, stopping briefly in Yamaguchi and Sakai along the way. When he reached the capital, Kyoto, he was disappointed by the effects of the civil wars. The shogun was in exile, the emperor powerless and nearly penniless, and the residents too worried about the next attack to care about his message. Xavier headed back the way he came. During his first stop in Yamaguchi, Xavier had made a poor impression on the local lord, Ouchi Yoshitaka (1507-1551), but on the return journey he decided to try again. This time he pulled out all the stops, dressing in a fine silk cassock and bringing gifts, including a clock, wine, textiles, cut glass, a pair of spectacles, a telescope, and a three-barrel musket. The lord was pleased and gave them both permission to preach and an abandoned temple, Daidoji, in which to stay. Xavier spent four months there before going to Bungo, in eastern Kyushu. Xavier had remained the head of the Jesuit mission in Goa, India during his entire adventure in Japan. When a Portuguese ship landed at Bungo, he hoped to receive word from his Indian mission. There was no word to be had, and Xavier felt he must return to Goa aboard the ship to see to his responsibilities. After two and a half years in Japan, sowing the seeds of the Christian mission, Xavier said farewell to the country that he once described as “the only country yet discovered in these regions where there is hope of Christianity permanently taking root.” The following year he died of illness on a small Chinese island.

Convenient Conversions

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Photo by 大分帰省中

Before Xavier left Bungo for Goa, he was granted an audience with the local lord, Otomo Sorin (1530-1587). Sorin gave the Jesuits a building which became their headquarters. Many years later, Sorin converted to Christianity himself (more on that in part two), but this initial generosity was probably a political move to draw in Portuguese trade. Kyushu became the hotspot for lordly conversion. The first lord to convert was Omura Sumitada (1533-1587), with territory in northwestern Kyushu. In 1561, Jesuits approached him, saying that if he would “permit the law of God to be preached in his land, great spiritual and temporal profits would follow him therefrom.” Sumitada gave them the port of Yokose-ura, and converted to Christianity in 1563. Though “temporal profits” seem to have been a factor, Sumitada acted zealously on behalf of his new faith, burning down temples and shrines. His actions provoked a revolt led by a rival family member. Yokose-ura was burned by the rebels, so in 1570 Sumitada opened the port of Nagasaki to the Jesuits. At the time of its opening, Nagasaki was a small fishing village, but from then on it grew into a center of foreign activity.

The Enemy of My Enemy

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Photo by 名古屋太郎

Around this time, the Jesuits made their most powerful ally, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). The first of Japan’s great unifiers began to patronize the Christians in 1568. Doing so helped him in trade with the Portuguese, getting guns and cannons to aid his conquest. Nobunaga appreciated the austerity of the Jesuits, and found hypocrisy in a Buddhist clergy who “preached about suffering while living in luxury.” Nobunaga never converted, and it doesn’t seem that he ever believed in the Christian message, but he certainly had no love for Buddhist institutions either. A number had been thorns in his side. He burned the great temple complex on Mt. Hiei, killing roughly 25,000, and spent eleven years fighting the ikko-ikki, a type of militant Buddhist group. In Nobunaga’s town shadowed by Nobunaga’s castle at Azuchi, the Jesuits set up a school for the children of the local elite, called the Seminario. There they taught Latin, the history of Christianity, music, and Japanese literature. Unfortunately, it lasted only three years, because in 1582 Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his generals, and chose to kill himself rather than be captured. The traitors then attacked Azuchi Castle, which burned down along with the Seminario. Nobunaga had been a source of hope for the Jesuits, and with his death there were even harder times ahead for the Christian mission in Japan.

Onward to Part 2! →

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Brian Ashcraft: A Scholar of Japanese Schoolgirls Studies http://www.tofugu.com/2014/12/19/brian-ashcraft-scholar-japanese-schoolgirls-studies/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/12/19/brian-ashcraft-scholar-japanese-schoolgirls-studies/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 17:00:21 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=47460 Over all these years reading and writing about Japan I couldn’t help but notice a certain name popping up more and more: Brian Ashcraft. Whether it was on Wired, Kotaku, the Japan Times, or his various books, I kept seeing him. Eventually I became a fan of him too. He was (and is) one of the […]

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Over all these years reading and writing about Japan I couldn’t help but notice a certain name popping up more and more: Brian Ashcraft. Whether it was on Wired, Kotaku, the Japan Times, or his various books, I kept seeing him. Eventually I became a fan of him too. He was (and is) one of the most well read and well written experts of Japanese culture that the internet has to offer.

So I was especially pleased when we got a copy of his latest book, which you can read more about in yesterday’s review of Schoolgirl Confidential. I wanted to learn more about how he chose the topic of schoolgirls to write a whole book about though, so we asked him to the interview dance and he said yes.

Let’s learn what goes on inside the brain of Japan-expert (and schoolgirl expert) Brian Ashcraft.

Name: Brian Ashcraft. Occupation: Author Of Japanese Things

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1. What’s your story?

Let’s see, where to start. I’ve been in Japan well over a decade now. I ended up coming here on a lark of sorts. I’d always been interested in Japan since I was young, growing up with video games and anime. But it wasn’t until I was in college spending my summers at a movie distribution company that I thought Japan might be an interesting place to visit.

The movie distribution company was called Rolling Thunder Pictures and was started by Quentin Tarantino. My boss, Jerry Martinez, visited Japan to try and get the rights to the iconic yakuza film Battles Without Honor and Humanity as well as a Gamera movie. He was unsuccessful, but had a wonderful time in Japan. I thought after graduating, I should visit. I did. And now, here I am married with three children. The plan was only for a few months, but it’s obviously turned into a much longer stay. Japan is now my permanent home.

2. Why schoolgirls?

Ha, why not? There’s actually a few good reasons. A friend of mine said he had a friend at Wired Magazine who was looking for Japan-based writers and that I should pitch articles. I did and after writing a bunch for Wired, I ended up as a Contributing Editor for several years. Besides doing a couple features, I wrote about Japanese schoolgirl trends. So for a good chunk of time, I followed their fashions and interests, read their magazines and absorbed their culture. An editor named Andrew Lee who was at Kodansha International was keen to do a schoolgirl book and knew I had written about their trends and that’s how this project was born.

But, in a larger sense, I wanted to explore the eternal question as to why schoolgirls continually appear in Japanese popular culture. Why are schoolgirl characters in so much of the visual culture in Japan? Why do they keep popping up in commercials, even if the ads are for things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with them, like bread or health insurance? The answer wasn’t as straight forward as you’d think, and I thought the book would be an interesting way to look at some larger issues in Japanese society.

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3. Could you give us a synopsis of Schoolgirl Confidential?

Certainly. The book is a look at how schoolgirls, and in turn young women, have influenced and come to define Japanese popular culture. It sets out to answer the question as to why schoolgirls are so popular in Japan.

4. From the original idea, through the research, writing, and editing up to publication, how long would you say this whole project took?

This was a several-year project that began long before it got the greenlight. As I mentioned, my first paying writing job was covering Japanese teen trends for Wired Magazine over a decade ago. To do so, I had to immerse myself in their culture. So the book really drew upon that backlog. Andrew Lee, who edited and designed the book, was super keen to do a book on schoolgirls. I figured out a structure and a way to cover this topic that worked for me, and then, I believe we went into production for about a year, a year and a half.

5. How much of the book was you and how much was your wife, Shoko?

I really wanted to do this book with Shoko for a number of reasons. One of which was that often when you see schoolgirls written about in English, they are portrayed in a somewhat abstract and nebulous way. Yet, these young women grow up, get jobs, maybe get married and perhaps have families. So, it was super important that Shoko participated, because I wanted to ground the project in reality. This is also why we spoke with numerous Japanese women of varying ages.

Of course, Shoko was around when I was writing for Wired, so she’s been following these recent trends as well–and was an invaluable source of firsthand information when discussing fads of the 1980s and 1990s. Friends and mothers of friends and even grandmothers helped fill in everything from the pre-war years to the 1970s.

Like with any project, collaborators have an huge influence, and Shoko most certainly did.

6. Reading through the book, it really felt like there was only one voice, so the two of you seem to mesh really well. Was it easy for you to work together?

When my books have a “with” credit that means I wrote it. So, the book I just finished, “Cosplay World” is credited as “By Brian Ashcraft and Luke Plunkett.” That’s because we literally split the writing 50-50 and then rewrote the heck out of each other’s work. It’s now hard to tell who wrote what, and that was what we wanted to do. We’ve been working together for a long, long time at Kotaku, so this arrangement worked best.

For “Schoolgirl Confidential,” the book is in English. Shoko will be the first to say she isn’t a writer, so for the sake of efficiency, I wrote all the words. That doesn’t mean to say her influence isn’t felt in those words. They are. Likewise, as with any good editor, Andrew Lee’s influence is also felt in the text. If a book is a collaborative process, then it should be a collaborative process. Writing is so lonely! I love working with others, whether that’s a great editor or a wonderful collaborator. I was able to funnel all that into a singular voice, which is perhaps why you felt that way.

7. This book seems like it was extensively researched, how much of the information did you know prior to the decision to publish it, and how much did you learn in your journey to write it?

That’s hard to say. Lots of the information was stuff I had picked up over the years writing for Wired. Other stuff was the result of talking to people or reading up. The really interesting stuff for me was learning about the uniforms, because uniforms are often taken for granted. I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and learn as much as possible about that. But I really loved researching and writing all the chapters, whether that was pop music, movies, or games, because this is stuff I am interested in.

8. How did you go about doing the research part?

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Photo by Jim Epler

One thing that was very important for me was that the book tackle a variety of issues in a way that really hasn’t been done before. Sometimes, students email me, saying they’ve used the book at university for papers and whatnot, and for me, that was the point. I do see this as a serious look at schoolgirl culture that certainly could be used in a course on Japan, but by “serious,” I don’t mean “dull” or lacking humor or wit. I still wanted the book to be fun, but have a certain gravitas. This is an earnest look at popular culture.

So, to answer your question, the research really started when I was writing for Wired, covering teen trends. For this book, it then became a matter of doing more precise research for each chapter. And then creating a book that, hopefully, even students interested in Japanese popular culture could use.

9. You spoke to a decent amount of famous (or once famous) people, like Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill, Battle Royale), who was the hardest person to arrange an interview with?

Everyone I spoke with was incredibly generous with their availability. Surprisingly, nobody was difficult at all! Perhaps, I caught them at a good time? I’m not sure. But they were all great.

10. Do you have any fun stories about any of the interviews?

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Oh sure. When I spoke with the AKB people about setting up an interview, they asked me how many members I wanted to speak with. I thought about saying all of them, but instead, said if I could speak to three who were still students, that would be great.

After the interview, I remember telling Shoko that Rino Sashihara seemed like she had star quality. So I wasn’t really that surprised when she later became one of Japan’s most famous idols!

It was also really cool interviewing Scandal. The group is now a major band, but when I interviewed them, they were were largely unknown. It’s exciting to see people on their way up.

11. What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research on schoolgirls?

I think the thing that surprised me the most–or even saddened me somewhat–was that during the war, schoolgirls wore pants so they could run away from U.S. military bombs. I remember talking to my wife’s grandmother about that, and it was a detail that really made the horror of the bombing raids much more immediate. These kids were dealing with stuff like this on their way to school.

12. So schoolgirls are more than just people, they’re a symbol to Japan and the world outside it. Without spoiling the, I guess, conclusion of the book, why is the Japanese schoolgirl so pivotal to Japanese society?

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Photo by Jim Epler

Well, in the past, symbols of Japan were either the geisha or the samurai. The schoolgirl, however, encompasses qualities of both, which is why you see schoolgirl characters appearing in a wide range of media–from fighting games and horror movies to coming of age stories and teenage love stories. Schoolgirls can mean and embody so much to such a wide section of Japanese society, from kids to adults as well as to men and women.

13. In the book you, every once in a while you have these really poignant statements. Like this for example, “Schoolgirls represent the common people, they are the soul of the country and bear the brunt of society, they are the ones who keep it going.” (p.145) Could you explain that a bit?

Certainly, in that section I was talking about how schoolgirls are often depicted in art. In the past, French painters might have painted field workers to explore larger issues, but today, many Japanese artists, both male and female, use schoolgirls to explore problems in society, such as suicide or a lack of individualism, or merely, the stresses of modern life and consumer culture.

14. I know some people find the layout of the book to be a bit of a turnoff, but I feel like it really fit the topic and the discoveries to be made about these young women and the world that’s grown up around them. Who’s decision was it to make it look so much like a fashion magazine?

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Oh, wow? Really? I love the design. Andrew Lee, who edited the book, also did the design. He designed my arcade book Arcade Mania!, too. He’s a fantastic designer. The feeling was, look, this is a book about schoolgirls, so let’s embrace the visual look of schoolgirl culture. We didn’t want to shun that look at all. Why make a book on schoolgirls if you are going to shy away from schoolgirl culture, you know? What’s the point?

15. What is your personal favorite chapter of the book?

That’s hard! I mean, I studied art history in college. So, for example, going to Takashi Murakami’s studio for an interview was incredible. Ditto for interviewing Makoto Aida, an artist I had studied years ago. But, I spent time in the movie business in Hollywood, so writing about movies was great, too. And I like games, anime, manga, fashion, media, history–you name it. I like ‘em all!

16. Was there anything that didn’t make it into the final edition (that you wish had)?

Hrm. Good question. There was one famous fashion model we had talked to about the book, and she seemed interested, but we weren’t ever able to finalize an interview with her. She would’ve been interesting to interview, I think.

17. What is the one thing about schoolgirls that nearly nobody knows?

Well, I’d say ultimately there isn’t. Because really, even if the adults don’t know something, the schoolgirls themselves do. That being said, some of the historical issues surrounding things like uniforms, such as where the first sailor style schoolgirl uniform appeared, have been somewhat foggy until recently. Stuff like that, maybe, because a good chunk of schoolgirl history and culture doesn’t always make it into the standard history books!

18. What is one question you hate getting asked (and then can you answer it for us?)

The appeal of schoolgirls is just about sex, right? Um, no. This question actually ends up showing a lot about the person who asks it, revealing what kind of schoolgirl media he or she has seen so far.

19. What is the one thing you wish we asked you in this interview?

Did you write the book on a computer? Nope! I first write everything out longhand with a 4B pencil, and then I type it up. I love writing with pencils, and of course, with my day job at Kotaku, doing so is simply impossible due to the lightning speed at which the internet moves. Mono 100 are my favorite pencils, but I also like Hi-Uni and the new Blackwing 602s.

20. Where can people find you? (books, websites, Twitter, etc)

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You can find me on Twitter @Brian_Ashcraft or on Kinja should you want to read only my Kotaku posts. Luke Plunkett and I recently published Cosplay World, a book on cosplay that we are both very proud of. Besides the great content, it’s a flexicover that was printed in Italy and has a wonderful coffee table book feel to it. Here is my Amazon author page.

21. What are you working on next?

Right now, I am writing a book on irezumi for Tuttle. I am collaborating with Hori Benny, an Osaka-based tattooist and an all-around good dude. After that, I have another book in the pipeline. Besides that, I write for Kotaku on a daily basis and do a column each month for The Japan Times. I like to keep busy. Life is short. Writing is fun.

22. Anything else you want to say to the Tofugu reader people?

I love Tofugu! This is a great, great site that does a solid job of covering Japanese culture. I’ve been reading it for years. The comments section is also fantastic, so keep up the good discussion Tofugu reader people and keep the wonderful articles coming Tofugu writer people!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Bushido: Way of Total Bullshit http://www.tofugu.com/2014/12/08/bushido-way-total-bullshit/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/12/08/bushido-way-total-bullshit/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 17:00:23 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44471 The term bushido calls forth ghosts of Japan’s hallowed samurai class.  A class so bent on preserving honor, they’d rather slit their own bellies in ritualistic suicide than live a shamed existence. In The Last Samurai, bushido melds with Nathan Algren’s soul, curing the troubled American of alcoholism, war trauma, and self-loathing.  What powerful medicine!  A reinvigorated, purified Algren turns […]

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The term bushido calls forth ghosts of Japan’s hallowed samurai class.  A class so bent on preserving honor, they’d rather slit their own bellies in ritualistic suicide than live a shamed existence.

In The Last Samurai, bushido melds with Nathan Algren’s soul, curing the troubled American of alcoholism, war trauma, and self-loathing.  What powerful medicine!  A reinvigorated, purified Algren turns his back on his employers to join rebel samurai bent on defending bushido, their dignified honor-code of loyalty, benevolence, etiquette, and self-control.

At least, that’s what popular culture would have us believe.  In reality the term bushido went unrecognized until the early twentieth century, long after Nathan Algren’s fictitious character joined the factual Satsuma Rebellion and years after the ousting of the samurai class.  In all likelihood samurai never even uttered the word.

It may come as an even greater surprise that bushido once received more recognition abroad than in Japan.  In 1900 writer Inazo Nitobe’s published Bushido: The Soul of Japan in English, for the Western audience.  Nitobe subverted fact for an idealized imagining of Japan’s culture and past, infusing Japan’s samurai class with Christian values in hopes of shaping Western interpretations of his country.

Though initially rejected in Japan, Nitobe’s ideology would be embraced by a government driven war machine.  Thanks to its empowering vision of the past, the extreme nationalist movement embraced bushido, exploiting The Soul of Japan to pave Japan’s way to fascism in the buildup to World War II.

And so too The Last Samurai exploits Inazo Nitobe’s depiction of bushido, renewing movie-going audiences’ admiration for a venerable concept and glorified past that never truly existed.  But as bushido’s precarious history proves, the truth often takes a back seat to more fashionable depictions, whether it be to change Western perceptions, fuel a fascist war agenda, or sell movie tickets.

Inazo Nitobe

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Photo by あばさー

Born in 1862 in Iwate Prefecture, Inazo Nitobe was just a baby when the final remnants of Japan’s ruling samurai class came to an end.  Despite being of the samurai class themselves, Nitobe’s family remained far removed from the battlefields and warrior culture of old Japan, gaining recognition as pioneers of irrigation and farming techniques.

At age nine Nitobe moved to Tokyo to live with his uncle where he began intensive English study.  A unique subject of study at the time, Nitobe would become fluent in the language.  In Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal, Cameron Hurst writes, “The Christian son of a late Tokugawa samurai… who was educated largely in English at special schools early in the Meiji era, Nitobe… could communicate with foreigners to a degree that even the most ardent exponents of kokusaika (internationalization) today would envy” (511).

In 1877 Nitobe made his way to Hokkaido where he enrolled in Sapporo Agricultural College.  Created under the influence of William S. Clark, a devout Calvinist from New England, the school served to further solidify Nitobe’s commitment to the Christian faith and he joined Clark’s own “Sapporo Band” of Christians (Oshiro).

In Sapporo, Nitobe’s estrangement from the Japanese society, culture and people grew. Japan’s northernmost island remained largely unsettled wilderness and shared few cultural connections with mainland Japan.  “Hokkaido was only just becoming a real part of Japan,” Hurst writes, “so Nitobe was essentially isolated spatially, culturally, religiously, and even linguistically from the currents of Meiji Japan” (512).

Following his graduation from Sapporo Agricultural College, Nitobe began graduate school in Tokyo. Unsatisfied with his studies, in 1884 Nitobe moved to the United States and enrolled in John Hopkins University.  After graduating, the globetrotting Nitobe would bounce around Germany, the United States and Sapporo and even become the under-secretary general of the League of Nations (Samuel Snipes).

Unique to his era, Nitobe’s knowledge of English and Western literature remains impressive even by today’s standards.  Oleg Benesch, author of the in-depth study Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic In Late Meiji Japan writes that Nitobe grew to be “more comfortable in English than Japanese” and eventually “lamented his lack of education in Japanese history and religion” (159).

It was during his time in California that Nitobe penned Bushido: The Soul of Japan. The contrived imagining of the samurai class reshaped Western perceptions of Japan and would eventually come to redefine Japan’s own interpretation of bushido and the samurai class.

Playing Catch-Up: The Meji Restoration

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While Nitobe immersed himself in Western religion and culture, the Japanese government continued its own international pursuit – modernization.  Professor Kenichi Ohno of GRIPS explains, “The top national priority was to catch up with the West in every aspect of civilization, i.e. to become a ‘first-class nation’ as quickly as possible” (43).

Years of isolationism meant Japan had fallen behind the world powers in terms of technology and military power. When Commodore Matthew Perry flexed his black ships’ military muscle in the early 1850s, Japan had no alternative but to accept his terms.  In professor Ohno’s words, resulting exposure to foreign technology and culture “shattered their (Japan’s) pride,” making Japanese view their own nation as backward and out of step with the world (43).

Japan’s Meiji government looked to the West not to Westernize per se, but to become a powerful nation on the world stage.  While Nitobe doted over Western culture, the Meiji government devised a three pronged plan for modernization that focused on “industrialization (economic modernization), introducing a national constitution and parliament (political modernization), and external expansion (military modernization)” (Ohno 18).

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Photo by World Imaging

Political modernization would bring an end to Japan’s feudal system and therefore its ruling samurai class.  New policies stripped the samurai of privileges and blurred class separation.  Voyages in World History explains: 

The Meji reforms replaced the feudal domains of daimyo with regional prefectures under control of the central government.  Tax collection was centralized to solidify the government’s economic control…  All the old distinctions between samurai and commoners were erased: ‘The samurai abandoned their swords… and non-samurai were allowed to have surnames and ride horses.’ The rice allowances on which samurai families had lived were replaced by modest cash stipends.  Many former samurai had to face the indignity of looking for work. (686)

Meanwhile, by strengthening its military Japan sought to protect its interests and become a player on the world stage.  And Japan’s efforts saw quick results.  Kenichi Ohno writes, “In the military arena, Japan won a war against China in 1894-95 and began to invade Korea (it was later colonized in 1910). Japan also fought a victorious war with the Russian Empire in 1904-05.”  These victories demonstrated Japan’s growing military might and gave the nation a needed confidence boost.  Victory over Russia, a “Western nation,” proved Japan had become global power.  The world took notice.

Class mobility and economic freedoms ushered in by ending the samurai led feudal system spurred Japan’s furious growth.  The Meiji government’s plans had begun to bear fruit.

Nitobe’s Ulterior Motives

colorized-photo-of-meiji-era-samurai

Photo by Okinawa Soba

While the Meiji government plotted to strengthen Japan’s presence on the world stage, Nitobe sought to change Westerners’ perceptions of Japan from within.

At the time, Westerners knew little about the formerly isolated nation.  Rumors about Japan – a feudalistic society whose armies relied on swords and bows and arrows – painted the picture of an unsophisticated, archaic island nation.  In From Chivalry to Terrorism Leo Braudy writes, “Before World War I, many in Europe viewed Japan as a warrior society unadulterated by either commerce or the control of civilian politicians, with it’s aristocratic military class still intact” (467).

Nitobe put faith in the power of his pen and began to write.  By simplifying the most eloquent, ideal aspects of Japanese culture into terms the West could relate to, he hoped to paint a new, noble image of Japan.  Writing in English only served to make Nitobe’s contrivance more deliberate.  Maria Navarro and Alison Beeby explain,

The original text (of Nitobe’s book) was written in English, which was not Nitobe’s mother tongue… Writing in a foreign language obliges one to “filter” one’s own emotions and modes of expression…  It allows the writer to express more empathy for the ‘other culture’ (in Nitobe’s case Western culture). Furthermore, one is much more conscious of what one wants to say, or what one wishes to avoid saying, in order to make the work more acceptable for intended readers.

In 1899 Nitobe, “the self-described bridge between Japan and the West” published what would later become his most famous work, a romanticized, Westernized summation of the ideals of Japan’s governing class, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Braudy 467).

Christianity and the Taming of the Samurai

Japanese-Christians-in-Western-clothing

Photo by World Imaging

Bushido: The Soul of Japan represents a synthesis of Japanese culture with Western ideology. Nitobe tames Japan’s samurai class by fusing it with European chivalry and Christian morality.   “I wanted to show…” Nitobe admitted, “that the Japanese are not really so different (from people of the West)” (Benesch 165).  Although it saw release years after the extinction of the samurai, Bushido: The Soul of Japan presents an original idealization and idolization of the samurai class.

Yet Nitobe shapes the concept of bushido around principles of Western culture, not the other way around as might be expected.  Bushido: The Soul of Japan offers a suspicious lack of references to Japanese source material and historical fact.  Instead, the student of English literature relies on Western works and personalities to explain the bushido’s principals.  Nitobe quotes the likes of Mencius, Frederick the Great, Burke, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Shakespeare, James Hamilton and Bismarck – sources that that have no connection to Japan’s history or culture.

In his self-proclaimed formulation of The Soul of Japan, the devout Christian references the Western Bible more than any other sources.  Somehow Nitobe sees Bible quotes as appropriate and satisfactory support for bushido.  “The seeds of the Kingdom (of God) as vouched for and apprehended by the Japanese mind,” Nitobe declares, “blossomed in Bushido.”

Nitobe spends much of the book ascribing bushido to the tenets of Christianity.  Politeness, he quotes Corinthians 313, “suffereth long, and is kind; envieth not, vaunteth not itself” (50).  Bushido’s benevolence, Nitobe explains, is “embodied by the Christian Red Cross movement, the medical treatment of a fallen foe (46).”

Even a quote by Saigo Takamori, the legendary samurai, takes on a Biblical aura.   “Heaven loves me and others with equal love; therefore with the love wherewith though lovest thyself, love others” (78).  Nitobe himself admits, “Some of those sayings reminds us of Christian expostulations, and show us how far in practical morality natural religion can approach the revealed” (78).

Nitobe even goes as far as to paint the samurai as Japan’s heavenly sent forefathers, holy mechanisms that shaped Japan.  “What Japan was she owed to the samurai.  They were not only the flower of the nation, but its root as well.  All the gracious gifts of Heaven flowed through them” (Nitobe 92).

Giving Soul to Suicide and the Sword

samurai-armor

Photo by WikiImages

In his taming of the samurai, Nitobe even justifies their most savage attributes – seppuku (also known as harakiri or ritual suicide) and the sword – under the guise of Christian mores.  And it all starts with the soul.

Nitobe declares that in both Western and Japanese custom, the soul is housed in the stomach.  “They (The Bible’s Joseph, David, Isaiah and Jeremiah) all and each endorsed the belief prevalent among the Japanese that in the abdomen was enshrined the soul” (113).

This assertion allows Nitobe to exalt suicide to a holy act, “The highest estimate placed upon honor was ample excuse with many for taking one’s own life,” before challenging Western readers to resist his interpretation, “I dare say that many good Christians, if only they are honest enough, will confess the fascination of, if not positive admiration for, the sublime composure with which Cato, Brutus, Petronius, and a host of other ancient worthies terminated their own earthly existence.” (113-114).

The sword receives similar treatment and Nitobe declares swordsmiths to be artists, not artisans; swords not weapons, but representations of their owners’ souls.   He explains:

The very possession of the dangerous instrument imparts to him (the samurai) a feeling and air of self-respect and responsibility.  ‘He beareth not the sword in vain’ (Romans 13:4).  What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart – loyalty and honor…  In times of peace .. it is worn with no more use than a crosier by a bishop or a sceptre by a king (132-133).

Nitobe’s skilled manipulation dignifies and venerates even Japan’s most “savage” customs.  The author’s dedication to and knowledge of Christianity and Western culture allowed him to forge a propaganda tool under the guise of historic fact. Nitobe hoped Bushido: The Soul of Japan would change Western opinions of Japan, raising the country’s status in the world’s eyes.

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in The West

bushido-book-cover

Photo by Rob at Houghton

Bushido: The Soul of Japan became a hit with Western readers.  “The slim volume,” Tim Clark writes in The Bushido Code: The Eight Virtues of the Samurai, “went on to become an international bestseller,” influencing some of the era’s most influential men.  Nitobe’s treatise so impressed Teddy Roosevelt that he “bought sixty copies to share with friends” (Perez 280).

Although almost exclusively read by scholars, Nitobe’s influence seeped into the Western conscious.  Braudy writes, “This view of Bushido was an attractive image for Westerners…  Balden-Powell has included bushido as an ideal code of honor in his exhortation to the Boy Scouts.  Parliamentary groups… invoked the samurai as kindred spirit and writers on war preparedness haled up the samurai ethos of the Japanese army as a model to follow” (467).

Nitobe’s account shocked readers by providing a glimpse into an unfamiliar, misunderstood world.  With nothing to offer a counter point, Western readers accepted Bushido: The Soul of Japan as a factual representation of Japanese culture, and it remained the West’s quintessential work on the topic for decades.

The Soul of Japan‘s Reception in Japan

angry-go-player

Photo by Lx 121

Bushido: The Soul of Japan received a different reaction in Japan.  Although bushido had yet to enter Japan’s mainstream consciousness, scholars’ interpretations of the concept varied and few agreed with Nitobe’s representation.  In fact,”Nitobe stated that he resisted the Japanese translation of his book for years out of fear of what readers might think” (Benesch 157).  Many of those readers attacked Nitobe’s work for its agenda and inaccuracies.

Oleg Benesch explains that most Japanese scholars did not take Nitobe’s work seriously:

At the time of its initial publication, Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul Of Japan received a lukewarm reception from those Japanese who read the English edition.  Tsuda Sokichi wrote a scathing critique in 1901, rejecting Nitobe’s central arguments.  According to Tsuda… the author knew very little about his subject.  Nitobe’s equation of the term bushido with the soul of Japan was flawed, as bushido could only be applied to a single class… Tsuda further chastised Nitobe for not distinguishing between historical periods. (155)

Many of Nitobe’s contemporaries subscribed to an orthodox bushido based 0n Japan’s ancient history.  This purely Japanese form of bushido was seen as unique and superior to any foreign ideology.  Orthodox writer Tetsujiro Inoue went as far as declaring European chivalry as “nothing but woman-worship” and even derided Confucianism as an inferior Chinese import (Benesch 179).  The orthodox school of thought dismissed Nitobe’s”corrupted,” Christianized version of bushido.

To complicate matters, at the time of Bushido: The Soul of Japan’s release,  few Japanese even recognized the term bushido.  In Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai Mamoru Oshii explains, “Bushido was not known among Japanese people…  It appeared in literature, but was not a commonly used word.”

Benesch supports Oshii’s argument:

Indeed, (Bushido: The Soul of Japan) was only the second book-length specific treatment of the subject in modern Japan…  Only four works in the database mention the term before 1895.  The number of publications increases from a total of three in 1899 and 1900 to seven in 1901, six in 1902 and dozens per year from 1903 onward. (153)

Nitobe’s treatise predated bushido as an understandable term and therefore appeared alien to its potential Japanese audience.

To make matters worse, Nitobe’s book romanticized an old fashioned and exploitative class system everyone but the samurai hoped to leave behind.  Accounts of samurai abusing the lower classes run rampant.  Although rare, samurai could lawfully kill members of the lower class (kirisutegomen) for “surliness, discourtesy, and inappropriate conduct” (Cunnigham).

With such inequities, it’s no surprise the lower classes felt no love for Japan’s elite.  Benesch writes, “The disdain most commoners had for the samurai has been described as legendary” (27). Not far removed from the inequities and immobility of the former class structure, the common people had no interest in idolizing or celebrating their former ruling class.

However, Nitobe wrote for Western audiences and therefore never intended for Bushido: The Soul of Japan to be read by Japanese readers.  Nitobe wrote in English, referenced English sources and romanticized facts to satisfy his agenda and influence Western minds.  He did not expect people with critical knowledge on the subject to read his work.  “I did not intend [Bushido: The Soul of Japan] for a Japanese audience,” Nitobe admitted (Benesch 165).

Critique of Inazo Nitobe

Miyamoto-Musashi-sneak-attack

Photo by  KoS

Nitobe’s “fear of what (Japanese) readers might think” proved sound when Bushido: The Soul of Japan received heavy criticism in Japan.  However, Nitobe soon found himself under attack as well. Many Japanese scholars accused the author of being unqualified to write on bushido, questioning his expertise on Japanese history and culture.

Unlike the era’s other bushido theorists, Nitobe inhabited the outskirts of his own country and culture. He grew up studying English, sheltered from Japanese culture in Hokkaido.  Nitobe would go on to live abroad, marrying an American woman and dedicating himself to Christianity. Although he eventually returned to Japan and took work as a professor, it was long after Bushido: The Soul of Japan had been written and published. Critics claimed that Nitobe’s alienation from Japanese culture meant he lacked the necessary historical and cultural knowledge to write on an inherently Japanese topic like bushido.

Nitobe’s astounding lack of references to Japanese history and literature add weight to this argument.  Bushido: The Soul of Japan remains curiously void of factual backing, becoming a vehicle for Nitobe’s equivocal ramble and yearning for an imaginary past.

The few Japanese references Nitobe made call his integrity into question. For example, although Saigo Takamori did in fact lead the Satsuma Rebellion, the heroic motivations and suicide Nitobe references were embellished to lionize Saigo as the ideal samurai.

To be fair, many of Nitobe’s critics also ignored factual history and cherry picked data for their own interpretations of bushido.

Many writers on bushido, even in the 20th century, tended to propose their own theories without references to, or regard for, the ideas of other commentators on the subject.  Instead, they gradually relied on carefully selected historical sources and narratives to support their theories. (Benesch 116)

However, Nitobe’s contemporaries’ actions don’t excuse his own.  At its core, Bushido: The Soul of Japan presents baseless conjecture while exposing its author’s detachment from Japanese history and culture.  Nitobe forgoes fact while presenting a wonky rambling on a history he does not and can not support.  While proselytizing a universal morality to gain Japan favor in the West, Nitobe fails to prove bushido’s actual existence.

Give Me That New Old-Time Bushido?

samurai-in-meiji-era

Photo by  T0XiC0k82

Popular culture presents bushido as a concrete moral code so intertwined with Japan’s hallowed samurai class that the two appear inseparable.  But in reality the term bushido did not exist until the twentieth century.  In fact, Nitobe, one of the first scholars to embrace bushido, thought he created the term in 1900.

“Terms like budo (the martial way), bushi no michi (the way of the warrior), and yumiya no michi (the way of the bow and arrow) are far more common,” Benesch writes (7). Although these terms prove that warrior ideals had a place in the Japanese consciousness, equating them to bushido would be inaccurate.

The concept bushido came into use during the Meiji era but wouldn’t gain widespread acknowledgment until Meiji’s end.  Despite popular imagery, ancient samurai did not write about or discuss bushido.  Dishonorable acts didn’t end careers and lives as romanticized histories lead us to believe.

That isn’t to say that ancient Japan lacked laws or moral codes – claiming such would be ridiculous.   Rosalind Wiseman puts it best in her book Queen Bees and Wannabes, “We all know what an honor code is.  It’s a set of behavioral standards including discipline, character, fairness, and loyalty for people to uphold and live up to”(Wiseman 191).  From small communities like workplaces and clubs to large institutions like religions and nations, every culture has honor codes and concepts of morality.

But popular representations of bushido, samurai, and ancient Japan depict a clear and strictly enforced code of honor.  To dishonor oneself was to commit spiritual and physical suicide.  Popularized after the samurai class’s demise, books like Bushido: The Soul of Japan and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure help facilitate this myth, making it seem as if samurai lived and acted according to a literal, clearly defined set of rules that never existed.

committing-seppuku

Photo by Chris 73

Some researchers cite “kakun” (家訓), or family house rules, as the origin of bushido.  “In many cases the kakun were meant to serve as ethical and behavioral guidelines for the sons or heirs of the writers and often reflect concerns regarding the prosperity and the continuity of the clan” (Henry Smith).

Attributing family kakun to an overarching moral code is a leap most researchers don’t take.  Benesch comments, “Bushido receives little or no mention in postwar scholarship on medieval house codes… Evidence indicates that the association of bushido with (kakun) is a product of late Meiji-era interpretations” (8). Passed down from generation to generation kakun varied greatly by family. The scrolls became family heirlooms, not a set of rules to live by.

Early discourse on the subject exposes how vague warrior class values had been.  “An examination of source materials and later scholarship relating to samurai morality does not reveal the existence of a single, broadly-accepted, bushi specific ethical system at any point in pre-modern Japanese history” (Benesch 14).  Besides, warriors focused on victory and survival – battle didn’t lend itself to counterproductive codes of honor.

Any laws or moral codes put into place during the Edo era actually served to tame Japan’s wild, unprincipled warrior class as they moved from the battlefield to desk jobs.  “The samurai were too busy fighting in earlier centuries, and only began to concern themselves with ethics in the relatively peaceful Edo period” (15).

With no battles to wage, the Tokugawa government relegated swords to ornaments of class, the ultimate status symbols.  Samurai became upper-class bureaucrats with leisure time to spend on philosophical pursuits.  Ideas of honor and etiquette frowned upon disloyalty and senseless violence, playing into the Tokugawa government’s strategy to maintain control over a united Japan.

The Honorable Samurai: Fact or Fiction?

samurai-on-horse-statue

Bushido had never existed as an honor code or term in ancient Japan as Bushido: The Soul of Japan implied.  Nitobe’s representation of the samurai class proves itself just as contrived.  Like all human beings, samurai morals varied by individual.

Honorable Warriors?

hokusai-samurai-siege

Photo by Guidod

Historical accounts show that samurai did not follow an honor code, which would have been an impractical obstacle to survival, victory, and comfortable living.  Timon Screech writes “We are talking mythologies. The belief that samurai ever fought to the death does not survive investigation, nor the claim that they made the sacrifice of disembowelment when atonement was required. The motto the way of the samurai is death was invented long after death had ceased to be on most samurai’s minds or a reality in their lives… they were bureaucrats.”

Although depicted as common practice, seppuku was not the mainstay of the samurai as Nitobe depicted. “It hurt too much,” Screech explains.  “Suicide actually took the form of a pretended stab carried out with a wooden sword, or even a paper fan, at which a signaled assistant would sever the head from behind, cleanly and painlessly.”

Benesch writes that seppuku was “limited to hopeless situations in which a defeated warrior was certain to be subjected to torture, a common practice at the time” (16).  Ignoring seppuku’s factual history, writers romanticized the practice and exalted it to the ultimate form of honor.

Illustrated-Story-of-Night-Attack-on-Yoshitsune's-Residence-At-Horikawa,-16th-Century

Photo by Lepidlizard

And what of the sword, the so-called soul of the samurai?  Charles Sharam explains, “Prior to [the Tokugawa era], the samurai were in fact mounted archers who were highly skilled with the bow and arrow, occasionally using other weapons if necessary. For the greater part of their history, the sword was not an important weapon to the samurai.”

Depicted as the antithesis of the sword in modern media, firearms came to represent the abandonment of “samurai values.”  The loud foreign weapons embodied a loud, dirty (literally due to the gunpowder and smoke), dishonorable way of killing from afar.  But what about archery, the samurai’s original weapon of choice?  Though elegant, bows fired projectiles and killed from afar – just like firearms.  Shouldn’t archery be viewed as just as dishonorable as guns?

Furthermore, samurai had the privilege and advantage of mounted combat.  In fact, Oshii theorizes that Miyamoto Mushashi created his legendary niten ichi (二天一), or two sworded technique for better balance and more efficient killing from the saddle. Both the shooting and cutting down of foot-soldiers from a favorable mounted position clashes with the honorable image of the grounded sword fighter popularized by modern depictions of the samurai.

In Bushido: The Soul of Japan Nitobe describes loyalty as the shining attribute of the samurai class.  However, samurai sullied Japanese history with rampant examples of disloyalty.  G. Cameron Hurst III writes:

In fact, one of the most troubling problems of the premodern era is the apparent discrepancy between… codes exhorting the samurai to practice loyalty and the all-too-common incidents of disloyalty which racked medieval Japanese warrior life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most crucial battles in medieval Japan were decided by the defection – that is, the disloyalty – of one or more of the major vassals of the losing general. (517)

And although bushido denounces materialism as a corruptive force, samurai weren’t the epitome of anti-materialism that bushido writers like Nitobe described.  Benesch explains:

Loyalty required payment.  Reciprocity was expected at every stage of the process… and most samurai would have considered their own lives to be considerably more important than the lives of their superiors…  (Furthermore) repeated looting of Kyoto evidenced of a lack of ethics, and the great importance warriors placed on appearance (represented) the antithesis of the popular image of the austere and frugal samurai. (19-21)

Honorable Lifestyles?

Samurai-in-edo

Photo by WTCA

Tokugawa ushered in an unprecedented era of peace that forever altered the live’s of Japan’s warrior class.  Many samurai moved from the battlefield to civil service positions.  As society’s upper class, these samurai held cushy positions in the new era’s bureaucracy.  Swords became symbols of status, not battle.  With ample leisure time, these samurai enjoyed hobbies such as tea ceremony and calligraphy.  Others spent time in the pleasure quarters.

While peasants toiled in the fields to feed the nation and pay taxes and merchants struggled to maintain a respectable position in society, the samurai worked desk jobs for rice stipends.  Disposable income afforded samurai the luxuries of materialism and the former warriors became Japan’s most fashionable class.  In other words, samurai represented “the one percent” (actually  six to eight percent according to Don Cunningham) of the Tokugawa era.

Satsuma-Palace-Destruction

But not all samurai enjoyed life in the upper class.  Low status samurai made small stipends that barely afforded daily living.  Bound by the Tokugawa era’s strict laws that forbade outside unemployment, some of these samurai renounced their status to become artisans or farmers (Cunningham).

Still other Tokugawa era samurai could not find employment.  These vagrants often turned to dishonorable acts.  As Don Cunningham explains in Taiho-jutsu: Law and Order in the Age of the Samurai, “Facing unemployment and an ill-defined role within their new society, many samurai resorted to criminal activities, disobedience, and defiance” (Cunningham).  With few prospects and mounting frustrations, these samurai dressed and spoke flamboyantly, harassed lower classes, joined gangs, and brawled in the streets.

Whether elite civil servants or unemployed ruffians, Tokugawa era samurai did little to reinforce Nitobe’s depictions of an honor-bound class that set a high moral standard for other classes to aspire to.

Honorable Interpretations?

Battle-of-Taharazaka

Photo by World Imaging

The loss of status ushered in by the Meiji government did not please those samurai accustomed to the Tokugawa system.  Benesch states, “The samurai found their social status increasingly challenged by economically powerful commoners, some of whom were also purchasing or receiving samurai privileges such as the right to wear swords” (24).  Rendered useless in an age of peace even the sword, “the soul” and symbol of the samurai had lost meaning.  New class mobility allowed the uppity lower classes to challenge the samurai in both wealth and status.

As the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 proves, the changes pushed some samurai to take action.  “Gradually eliminating their stipends and special status…  created a large group of disgruntled shizoku (samurai), a number of whom gathered around Saigo Takamori and instigated rebellion.”

Romanticized histories like Bushido: The Soul of Japan and The Last Samurai, depict Saigo as a defender of truth, honor, and the purity of the warrior’s code.  In truth, holdouts from a bygone era rebelled, attempting to preserve their status and cushy way of life that included rice stipends, property, and nepotism.  Professor Ohno points out:

The previous samurai class, now deprived of their rice salary… were particularly unhappy with the new government which was established, ironically by young samurai…  Silk and tea found huge markets, soaring prices enriched farmers.  Enriched farmers bought Western clothes.  The merchant class grew, particularly in Yokohama… Inflation soared (and) samurai and urban populations suffered. (41-43)

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Photo by Diogo151

Low ranking and unemployed samurai, many of whom pushed for changes, saw the Meiji era as a change for the better.  A weakened class structure meant poor or unemployed samurai could seek fortune elsewhere.  The abolition of the heredity system allowed for mobility.  Suddenly those in high positions found incentive to work hard.  Although a minority, Saigo and other top ranking samurai had the most to lose and rebelled as a result.

Lucky for Nitobe, honor is in the eye of the beholder, a concept open to interpretation.  For example Nitobe cites The 47 Ronin Story as the ultimate example of loyalty, but others interpret it as a cowardly sneak attack.  Japan celebrates Miyamoto Musashi as its most skilled sword-fighter, yet he arrived late to duels and “dishonorably” sneak-attacked opponents.  Nitobe describes the Satsuma Rebellion as a battle of honor, not a rebellion driven by the preservation of class status.

Although Nitobe and his fellow writers lament the corruption and destruction of bushido by modernity, the concept never existed as they describe.  Samurai were not the loyal, honorable, bastions of bushido that they have come to represent.  Charles Sharam writes in The Samurai: Myth Versus Reality, “Samurai were a superfluous burden on Japanese civilization… that contributed little to society but drained a considerable amount of wealth. That said, their elimination in the years of the Meiji Restoration was most definitely warranted for the betterment of the nation.”

Fascism – Nitobe’s Unintended Consequence

Japanese-Navy-in-Nanking

Just decades after ousting the samurai, the Japanese government would find a new use for its former ruling class.  Despite military victories abroad, Japanese officials felt troops lacked confidence and fighting spirit.  Bushido’s image of honorable samurai fighting to the death provided the solution (Oshii).  The ideology that changed the West’s perception of Japan would now serve to fuel fascism and the Japanese war machine.  

According to Nitobe, Japan came from a long line of honorable, brave, and capable warriors that could be extended to all classes.  He wrote, “In manifold ways has bushido filtered down from the social class where it originated, and acted as leaven among the masses, furnishing a moral standard for the whole people” (Nitobe ).

Trickle down bushido meant even the lowliest citizen could aspire to and attain the glory and honor of a samurai.   The warrior spirit was ingrained in the Japanese soul.  By taking bushido mainstream, the Japanese government looked to boost its soldiers’ and citizens’ confidence by applying the ideology among its military and citizenry.

Battle-of-the-Yellow-Sea

Photo by:  PawełMM

Furthermore, bushido justified Japan’s imperialistic cause by demonstrating Japan’s moral and cultural superiority to other nations.  Bushido writer Suzuki Chikara “felt that both Western and Chinese thought were alien to Japan, and that the nation would have to focus on its own ‘true spirit’ and promote ‘national spirit-ism'” (Benesch 101).  Like America’s Manifest Destiny and the religious zealotry that fueled the crusades, romanticized bushido served to motivate and rationalize Japan’s imperialist agenda.

Now that it had found an ideology, the Japanese government had to make bushido “leaven among the masses” or moving propaganda.  “Civilization and Enlightenment” and “Rich Nation, Strong Army” became wartime slogans.  The nationalized education system streamlined curriculums to spread government rhetoric and foster an enlightened, battle-ready citizenry.

The national curriculum changed history to fit government agendas.  “The Edo-period texts that showed the greatest nostalgia for pre-Tokugawa conditions were carefully selected, condensed, and edited to purge them of those elements which ran counter to the national project in the early twentieth century” (Benesch 21).

Mandatory texts romanticized past events and personalities.  According to Oshii, “False images were created out of government necessity.”  Thanks to the government’s agenda, unfamiliar entities like bushido, Hagakure and Miyamoto Musashi entered the mainstream conscious.

Japanese-Beheading-1894

Photo by PawełMM

Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan gained popularity in prewar Japan thanks to its ideology and romanticism of the past.  Nitobe declares, “Yamato Damashii, the soul of Japan, ultimately came to express the Volksgeist of the Island Realm” (27).  Defined as the spirit of the people, Hitler embraced Volksgeist for his own fascist agenda (Griffen 255).  Like bushido, Volksgeist celebrated its country’s folk history, cultural heritage and race.  These unrealistic nostalgias for the past sowed the seeds of fascism that would lead to the unspeakable violence and tragedies surrounding World War II.

Bushido would find its ultimate embodiment in kamikaze pilots and foot-soldiers who “honorably” sacrificed themselves for their country.  “Although some Japanese were taken prisoner,” David Powers of BBC writes, “most fought until they were killed or committed suicide.”  As these soldiers’ government issued volumes of Hagakure taught, “Only a samurai prepared and willing to die at any moment can devote himself fully to his lord.”

Nitobe’s Legacy

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Although he had never intended it, Nitobe’s fanciful idealization of Japan’s past had obvious fascist implications.  In an eerie prediction of what was to come, Bushido: The Soul of Japan states,

Discipline in self-control can easily go too far.  It can well repress the genial current of the soul.  It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities.  It can beget bigotry, breed hypocrisy, or habituate affections. (110)

Both Nitobe and the imperialist government subverted the truth and exploited Japan’s past for their own ulterior motives.  Thanks to Nitobe, Japan’s ancient soldiers and bureaucrats became honorable, spiritual warriors.  More concerned with loyalty, benevolence, etiquette, and self-control than victory, monetary gains or rank in society, the samurai became a paradigm for readers to aspire to.

But history is ever-changing.  True events fade from memory and years of interpretation’s tincture, both intended and unintended, shape modern understandings of the past.  Blurred mixtures of fact, opinion and fantasy enter mainstream consciousness and gain acceptance as “true” history.

Did Saigo Takamori really commit seppuku at the Satsuma Rebellion’s end?   Did Davy Crockett really fight to his death at the Alamo, or was he executed upon surrender as some historians believe?  Was the Satsuma Rebellion a battle for virtue or for status?  Was the Boston Tea Party a rebellion against unfair taxation or wealthy American merchants fighting to maintain their monopoly over tea?  And what about George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree?  And his wooden teeth?

While the truth may never be known or agreed upon, it’s important to question the events and the motivations behind our so-called histories.  In Japan’s case, government manipulated histories, including a glorified samurai class and bushido code, became propaganda that helped inspire a fanatical war machine.

Society often looks for answers to our present problems in the past.  Like the current Tea Party movement’s misinformed exploitation of America’s past, Nitobe’s bushido created a yearning for the unsubstantiated simplicity and purity of a bygone era.

As The Last Samurai proves, Nitobe’s legacy lives on.  Accurate or not, his simplified idealization of bushido and the samurai still garners the world’s admiration.  And as long as it does, popular culture will follow in the footsteps of both Inazo Nitobe and the Japanese government, exploiting their mythical image for its own motives – consumer’s hard earned cash.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[Desktop – 1280×720] ・ [Desktop – 5120×2880] ・ [Mobile – 640×1136]

Sources

  • Benesch, Oleg.  Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic In Late Meiji Japan
  • Braudy, Leo. From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
  • Cunningham, Don. Taiho-jutsu: Law and Order in the Age of the Samurai. Boston: Tuttle Pub., 2004. Print.
  • Griffin, Roger, and Matthew Feldman. Fascism: Critical Concepts in Political Science. London: Routledge, 2004.
  • Hansen, Valerie, and Kenneth Robert. Curtis. Voyages in World History. Second Ed. Print.
  • Hurst, Cameron G. “Death, Honor, and Loyality: The Bushido Ideal.”Philosophy East and West 40.4 (1990): 511. Web.
  • Miyamoto Musashi: Souken Ni Haseru Yume. Dir. Mizuho Nishikubo. Prod. Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. By Mamoru Oshii. Production I.G., 2009. DVD.
  • Navarro, María Teresa Rodríguez, and Allison Beeby. Self-Censorship and Censorship in Nitobe Inazo, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, and Four Translations of the Work. TTR : Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction 23.2 (2010): 53.
  • Oshiro, George M. “Nitobe Inazo and the Sapporo Band.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 34.1 (2007): 99-126. Nazan Institute for Religion and Culture.
  • Perez, Louis G. Japan at War: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013. Print.
  • Powers, David. Japan, No Surrender in WWII. BBC.
  • Wiseman, Rosalind. Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. New York: Crown, 2002.

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How To Cope When Japan Isn’t Perfect http://www.tofugu.com/2014/11/24/crisis-in-japan-how-to-cope-when-things-go-wrong/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/11/24/crisis-in-japan-how-to-cope-when-things-go-wrong/#comments Mon, 24 Nov 2014 17:00:54 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=45939 Life is life wherever it happens. Even if your dream of living in Japan has come true, you can still be blindsided by awful things sometimes. Bad things happen everywhere, but living in a foreign country can add an extra layer of challenge on top. During my time in Japan on the JET Programme, I […]

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Life is life wherever it happens. Even if your dream of living in Japan has come true, you can still be blindsided by awful things sometimes. Bad things happen everywhere, but living in a foreign country can add an extra layer of challenge on top. During my time in Japan on the JET Programme, I faced plenty of troubles, the worst of which was a bus accident during my commute which caused severe injury to my face (I’ll just say that the name “safety bar” is deeply ironic.) The accident was ugly and tangled me up in medical, insurance, workplace exploitation, compensation, and legal issues. This, on top of the everyday stresses of living in Japan, certainly took a toll on my mental well-being. Though my physical injury is not yet completely healed, I’ve been able to deal with the practical, mental, and emotional aspects of the accident thanks to the support I received. So it feels only right to share what I learned while dealing with these troubles. A few of my solutions will only apply to JETs, but others will help anyone who lives in Japan. But no matter your situation, I hope my experiences can do something to help you cope with crises in Japan.

Culture Shock

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Photo by Joel

Culture shock is the disorienting, overwhelming feeling that often affects people living in foreign countries. It’s the most common problem faced by foreigners moving to Japan. I don’t think I know anyone who didn’t get a touch of it. Culture shock has many causes including, language barriers, information overload, social stress, and change in diet. There are four stages, sometimes called 1) Honeymoon, 2) Frustration, 3) Adjustment, and 4) Mastery.

One of the main causes of culture shock in Japan is people’s expectations before they arrive. As Buckaroo Banzai once said, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Going to Japan might change your life, but it’s not going to change you. For some people this can be hard to accept. You’ll be taking your strengths and weaknesses with you. Keep this in mind when comparing your life in Japan with life back home. Other people have difficulties caused by excess expectations of Japan itself. If you arrive in Japan thinking you’re going to be living in an anime, you’re going to have a difficult time and miss out on the good things about the real Japan. Tempering your expectations and approaching Japan with a fresh mind can help.

However, even the best preparations won’t prevent culture shock completely. I knew a guy who proved that culture shock can happen to anyone. He had studied in Japan, was fluent in Japanese, and had Japanese heritage. Yet even he got stuck in the dreaded stage 2 of Culture shock. In some ways it was worse for him because he didn’t recognise what it was for a long time.

Recognising culture shock is the first step to dealing with it. If you’ve been feeling down, angry, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, unmotivated to study Japanese, or found yourself frustrated at Japan you might have culture shock. Even if you’ve been living in Japan for a long while, you can still experience it. Unfortunately going though culture shock once is no guarantee that you won’t go through it again. It is a cycle. I went through the cycle several times in three years, and had to learn to keep an eye on myself.

Coping with Culture Shock

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Photo by Pank Seleen

Thankfully, once you’ve recognised that you’re being culture shocked, there are some practical things you can do to help you feel better. Compare your eating, drinking and socialising habits with how they were back home. Then try to reclaim the things which made you happy in your home country. If you drank less at home, try to drink less in Japan. If you got more sleep, try to get more sleep. Do and eat things that remind you of home. But, as with all of this advice, don’t go to extremes. I knew someone who moved into an apartment that their JET predecessor had been living in. The new JET found a room full of American drinks and candy. Every time his predecessor had seen a bottle of Coca-cola or a snickers, he’d bought it because it reminded him of home. He hadn’t eaten them though, just kept them as a shrine to America. So snacks from home are good, but don’t take it too far. In fact, when dealing with culture shock, moderation should be your watch word.

Exercise can seem like the last thing you want to do when suffering culture shock, but it really helps. Even just going for a walk can be good for you. Get out of your house and connect with people. They will be your lifelines when things are roughest. You might feel watched if you go out for a jog, but don’t let this get you down. People are going to comment on the things you do. The sooner you can come to terms with it, the better you’ll feel. Just put in some headphones and get in the zone.

Try to eat well too. Fruit can be expensive in Japan, but indulge yourself sometimes, or try tinned fruit, which is cheaper but still healthy. Don’t live entirely on kombini meals. Yes, they are convenient, but they are also loaded with stuff that will ruin your energy. Getting to grips with Japanese cooking is not only healthier, but learning about Japanese food will also make you feel more confident when you walk into the supermarket, which will help in making Japan a home for you. When I first arrived I felt overwhelmed by all the unknown packets and bottles. For my first three months I only bought food which had pictures of what it was on the package. Going shopping was a big frustration for me. I tackled this by researching more about Japanese food. Cookpad is a great Japanese home-cooking recipe site in both English and Japanese.

Learning more Japanese is another good way to battle culture shock. If you are having frustrations in an area of your life, focus your studies on that area to overcome them. I used to dread going to the post office. It stressed me out until I sat down and crammed some vocabulary. This wasn’t an instant cure for my culture shock, but being able to regain some control helped bring me out of my stage 2 slump.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, talk to someone. This can be hard for some people, but remember talking to people is a sign of strength and decisive action. Luckily we live in the future, so even long distance video calls are possible and cheap or free! Talk to people back home. Getting a perspective from outside Japan can help, as well as reminding yourself that there is a place beyond Japan.

However, don’t get trapped only talking to friends and family outside of Japan, some of whom might want you to come home sooner than you’d like. Sometimes this means talking to other foreigners in Japan who might have gone through similar things. Be wary of “stage 2 parties” though. This is where lots of expats get together and moan about Japan. It’s fine to let off steam, but don’t let that sort of thing suck you down further. Try to get a wide range of perspectives, foreign and Japanese.

However, there may be some times when you feel as if you have no one to talk to at all.

Lifelines

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Fear not! There is always someone for you to talk to! If you are a JET you can call the AJET Peer Support Group (PSG.) This is a telephone service that runs from 8pm to 7am every night of the year. If you call 050-5534-5566 or Skype AJETPSG (for free!) you will get through to a member of PSG. They are trained listeners who also point you in the direction of all sorts of resources; medical, legal, counseling and more. All of the members are drawn from the JET community, so they will understand the sorts of problems you are going through. You don’t have to tell them your name and they have a strict confidentiality policy so they will never tell your employer or anyone else anything you say to them. The only exception to this is if they feel you are in danger of hurting yourself. Then they will take any steps necessary to ensure your safety.

Don’t think that you have to be in a really serious situation to call them though. While they are trained to deal with severe problems, you can also call them for any reason at all. If you are undecided about recontracting, it can be very useful to bounce ideas off someone. If you’re having difficult times at work, they can help you think of ways to improve your situation. If you want to talk about personal issues, they will give you a non-judgmental space to express yourself. They don’t work for the JET Programme, they work for JETs. You’re not going to hear the usual official lines from them and they won’t just say, “Every Situation is Different.”

If you do need to hear the official lines though, then calling the JET Line, which lets you speak to one of the Programme coordinators at CLAIR in Tokyo, is the way to go. The line operates Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 17:45. You can reach it on 03-5213-1729. I had a mixed experience calling the JET Line.The first response I got from the JET line was the basic “Every Situation is Different,” which didn’t address my problems. My Prefectural Advisor, who was herself a fantastic source of support and an angel in human form, encouraged me to call again after the problems got worse. The second time I called, the JET Line was much more effective. The JET Line spoke with my Contracting Organisation on my behalf. After that my Board of Education slowly began to change the situation. You should keep in mind though, that as a JET, you are employed by your Contracting Organisation, not CLAIR. The JET Programme can’t do more than put pressure on your employer to improve your situation. JET acts as an agency, placing you with employers, but does not directly employ you.

There is often a feeling in the JET community that we should put up with a lot because we are lucky to be here. While I agree that JETs should try their best to adapt to cultural differences, foods and so on, that doesn’t mean we should let ourselves be exploited. JET is a large programme, and there are going to be problems in it. Things like the JET Line and the Prefectural Advisers system are mechanisms to fix those problems. Take advantage of them when necessary. It’s not failure to ask for help.

Workplace Problems

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Photo by ancorena

The English teaching market outside of JET has its own problems. There are a lot of dodgy businesses out there. Even respectable businesses can turn nasty if you get sick. I had a friend who was fired but not fired because she got a lung infection. Her doctor told her she needed rest to recover fully. Her employer just told her not to come back, but that she wasn’t being fired, so they wouldn’t pay her severance. Of course, this is illegal under Japanese law. If you find yourself in a situation like this, call your local Labour Standards Bureau. They will provide a free mediation service between you and your employer. Some offices have English speaking staff. This option is not open to you if you are a JET or other kind of public servant, only if you are employed by a private company. There are also unions which defend the rights of foreign workers and language teachers in Japan and may be able to offer you advice and legal counsel.

Wherever you work, take some time to read through Japan’s Labour Standards laws. They are surprisingly generous to workers in some cases. Of course, this won’t be much comfort if you’re working for a black company, but it’s still good to know the ground you are fighting on.

Support

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Photo by Emran Kassim

If you aren’t a JET, there are also people for you to call. TELL (Tokyo English Life Line – www.telljp.com) operates a phone service across Japan. The number is 03-5774-0992 and the line is open from 9am to 11pm daily. They offer support to anyone going through a hard time in Japan, as well as dealing with emergency calls and providing information. Their directory (www.bluejava.com/tell/index.html) is also a great place to look for contacts to other services that could help you with a specific problem, covering everything from counseling services to housing disputes. TELL also offers a face to face counseling service, based in Tokyo and Yokohama (www.telljp.com/index.php?/en/counseling) .

Living in Japan, particularly taking part in workplace drinking culture can cause problems for some people. There are some familiar support organisations that also operate in Japan. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous (www.aatokyo.org), Al-Anon (www.al-anontokyo.org) for friends and family of alcoholic, and Over-eaters Anonymous (www.oaintokyo.org). There is also JHelp which offers emergency assistance across Japan. If you live in Tokyo, you can get help from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Foreign Residents’ Advisory Center. These organisations can provide you with support in English.

Don’t forget that you can also contact your Embassy. After I was unable to get the forms I needed to claim an accident insurance payment from my employer, I called the British Embassy in Tokyo. The staff was incredibly helpful. They contacted my employer and were able to get me the forms. Of all the people I called following my accident, the British Embassy were the most compassionate and helpful. The US Embassy also provides a useful list of sources of help in Japan.

Finding Different Perspectives

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Photo by Adam Sharron

Life in Japan can be stressful. It is easy to fall into the trap of blaming Japan for all your problems. Take a moment to consider which of your problems are really caused by Japan specifically and which could happen to you anywhere.

Personally, after the traffic accident that left me severely injured, I was very angry at Japan. It took me time to realise that accidents happen all over the world. It wasn’t Japan as a whole I needed to be angry with.

We can never know what would have happened if we’d made the choice not to come to Japan. All we can do is face reality as best we can. That doesn’t mean rolling over and accepting our fate though. While I came to terms with the accident, I still fought to get the compensation I was entitled to and for change in my commuting situation so that the same sort of accident wouldn’t happen again.

Dealing with problems in Japan requires a fine understanding of what you need to adapt to and what you need to fight to change. It’s tough, so don’t beat yourself up if you fail sometimes. Just take a breath and get the help you need.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[Phone – 640×1136]

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Shunga: Japan’s Ancient Erotica http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/21/shunga-japans-ancient-erotica/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/21/shunga-japans-ancient-erotica/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:00:34 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=44409 Vending machines selling school girl’s panties?  Grown men reading pornographic comics in public?  Gender segregated train-cars to protect women from gropers? Ear-cleaning parlors with very happy-endings?  With situations like these making headlines, it comes as no surprise that Japan has earned a reputation for perverted culture. My first foray into the world of anime left me with a similar […]

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Vending machines selling school girl’s panties?  Grown men reading pornographic comics in public?  Gender segregated train-cars to protect women from gropers? Ear-cleaning parlors with very happy-endings?  With situations like these making headlines, it comes as no surprise that Japan has earned a reputation for perverted culture.

My first foray into the world of anime left me with a similar impression.  At that time, action, comedy, and even children’s anime vhs tapes shared shelf-space with hentai titles.  I’d feel embarrassed looking past cartoon breasts and butts big enough to make Sir MixALot blush to find what I wanted.  Finally I’d spot Goku throwing a fireball next to a sailor-suited girl being molested by aliens, an R-18 sticker (un)cleverly affixed over her private bits.

Although Japan might get a raw deal when it comes to perversion, it’s not a recent development.  In fact, Japan has a long, rich history of erotic images.  The roots of pornographic manga and anime can be traced all the way back to the Edo era, during the shunga (or erotic woodblock printing) boom.

Recent lifts on shunga bans have opened the floodgates, allowing greater understand of the true meaning, uses, themes, and lasting impact of shunga.  But recent exhibits have refueled an age-old debate – what separates art from obscenity?

What Are Shunga?

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The term shunga (春画) literally translates into “spring picture” but has little to do with the season, describing erotic prints that gained popularity during the Edo era.  Examples of shunga range from subtle adult situations to grossly – in both senses of the word – explicit imagery, and cover an array of subjects and themes.

Although shunga originated during the Heian period (794 to 1192 A.D.), a lack of technology made copying images painstaking and expensive.  As a result only the upper-classes had the luxury of owning pieces of art, shunga or otherwise.

The Edo era (1603 and 1868) saw the advent of woodblock printing which allowed for the mass production of quality images.  Through this technique artists carved images into wooden blocks which were coated with ink and pressed onto paper, leaving a print.   As technology improved, the mass production of images lead to greater availability, lower prices and therefore wider distribution of prints.

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Photo by: David Monniaux

Chances are you have already seen what many consider the world’s most famous woodblock print in The Great Wave by Hokusai.  It may come as a surprise that such a renowned artist also gained notoriety for pornography. Many famous woodblock artists dabbled in shunga and Hokusai is no exception.

However artists weren’t in search of notoriety. Tim Clark, curator of a shunga exhibition at The British Museum explains, “We can be pretty sure that everybody in Japanese society, from the ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson used and enjoyed shunga.”  High demand for erotic prints meant shunga outsold other genres and artists simply migrated to the most profitable market.

Edo, the capital city at the time, became the shunga boom’s epicenter.  In Masterclass: Understanding Shunga: A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art Majella Munro writes, “No indulgence or pleasure was unavailable within (Edo’s) precincts… from brothels to… huge quantities of porn, guidebooks, and other marketing paraphernalia”(p13).

Of course the images drove shunga’s popularity.  In his book Sex and the Floating World, Timon Screech explains, “Shunga… are rarely stories, and in most instances a page can reasonably stand alone.”  The scarcity of narrative driven shunga suggests plot took low priority on shunga customers’ lists.

Shunga’s Uses

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Photo by: Bruno Cordioli

Why did Edo-era people buy shunga?  In Sex and the Floating World, Timon Screech gives the topic thorough investigation and the reasons range from the logical to the absurd.

Let’s start with the absurd – some shunga owners believed the erotic prints brought good luck.  Warriors carried the prints, convinced they warded off death.  In a sword carrying culture forged in the deadly violence of war, a society that continues to buy protection amulets today (probably of the non-erotic variety, though I’ve never opened one to find out), people tried anything to escape death’s cold grip.

As if that weren’t enough, shunga were also rumored to prevent fires.  Ota Nanpo, one shunga owner wrote, “If you collect these types of book, you will save yourself from destruction by fire” (Screech).  Combustable building materials and the use of fire as a source of heat and light made fires a constant problem in ancient Japan.  In a time predating fire insurance, responsible homeowners bought the next best thing – shunga.

Kunisada-An-Erotic-Guide-to-the-Bedchamber

One logical claim is that some owners used shunga as sexual guidebooks.  Luke Malone of vocative.com explains, “More detailed shunga were often used as sex guides and given as gifts to children from wealthy families.”  The erotic prints made perfect educational gifts for young people unpracticed in the arts of pleasure or old dogs looking to learn new tricks.

However, Screech believes the most common reason behind shunga’s widespread ownership and popularity is also the most obvious – the prints served as a source of self-pleasure.  He writes, “Erotica were intended for those who, as a result of constraints of time or finance, or their ethical stance, were unable to go (to the pleasure districts) often.”

It’s no coincidence that Edo, a “City of Bachelors” became the center of printing during the shunga boom.  Tokugawa law, which separated husbands from their wives and lovers, helped justify and popularize the ownership and use of shunga among both sexes.  Travel was difficult, couples could go months without reuniting.

Shunga helped separated couples pass the time (wink, wink) and provided a cheap and reusable alternative to the expensive red-light districts and pleasure quarters.  Screech writes, “Shunga ownership might be excused as only for interim use until the next authentic bout (of sex).”

Shunga’s Themes

Good Old-Fashioned Love

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Despite what those anime vhs covers of my youth led me to expect, most shunga depict affectionate love-making.  Ruth Styles of Dailymail.co.uk writes, “Most of the images, although explicit, are loving – even tender – and show the pleasure being shared out between men and women in equal measure.”

With Japan’s reputation for perversion, the affection these prints depict may come as a surprise.  Most shunga depict physical love between husbands and wives – or at least consenting adults.  But these tame depictions take a backseat to the striking, memorable impressions left by the less frequent, but more extreme shunga.

Fashion’s Finest

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Today’s viewers might assume the throes of passion left little time to undress, as many of shunga’s subjects remain fully clothed.   But at the time, flashy attire flaunted wealth and gained popularity with prostitutes and actors, giving fashion a “sexual power” that made it a shunga staple (Screech).  Japanvisitor.com writes, “It was the fine silks and sumptuous clothes of the geisha that made them the stuff of men’s dreams.”  Partially clothed bodies proved to be more provocative than the fully nude, so most shunga feature partially or even fully clothed subjects.

Homoerotic Over and Undertones

Moronobu-shunga

Heterosexual couples represented the norm in shunga, but they weren’t the rule.  Screech points out that during the Edo period, “‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were not fixed, distinct human types, rather they were understood as activities.”

Furthermore, nanshoku, or “traditional male love,” remained an enduring facet of Japanese society and Japan accepted homoerotic themes that would have otherwise been been dismissed as immoral by most Western culture at the time.

Gender Ambiguities

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Shunga’s art style makes differentiating the sexes no easy task.  “In shunga, male and female bodies appear virtually identical other than the genitals” (Screech).  The differentiation of Shunga’s male and female faces and bodies is made even more difficult by the subjects’ ambiguous, tumbleweed-like bodily entanglements.

The prominence of fashion added to the confusion.  Worn by both sexes, kimonos tended to hide bodily features and add to shunga’s rampant gender ambiguities.

To further complicate matters, cross-dressing actors and prostitutes also made their way into shunga.  Screech points out, “Indeed, Westerners routinely mistook the attractive boys (wakashu) for girls, as do many modern viewers.”

Onstage, adolescent boys played girl’s roles with great feminine effect. As evidence of nanshoku’s popularity, “boy prostitutes of the Edo period commonly dressed as girls” (Screech).  Shunga’s style and the era’s attitudes rendered gender identification in shunga difficult and ultimately unimportant.

The Depiction of Genitalia

Yet shunga provide an easy way (or should it be two easy ways?) to discern gender ambiguities through their depiction of male and female genitalia.  Many shunga feature shocking, at times grotesquely enlarged genitals.

In most cases, neither sex outshined the other – male and female subjects received equal embellishments and exaggerations.

Voyeurism

In what may have been an effort to the lighten guilt of viewers, voyeurism played a major role in shunga.  Most of the scenes took place indoors or surrounded by natural barriers, providing ample cover for naughty onlookers.  Viewers can ogle the images alongside third-parties depicted as men, women, children and even animals.

Screech explains, “By investing in the gaze in some other, non-human or humanoid form, artists could provide a point of entry into the picture for any viewer.”  When enjoying a print, a commoner might identify with the lower class peeping-tom looking in on a upperclass couple.  Conversely, the upperclass couple would identify with the subjects of the action.

Plot and Parody

Suzuki-Harunobu-Sexual-Misconduct-shunga

Although plot-driven shunga collections may have been rare, they did exist.  At times artists depicted or parodied scenes from the era’s popular stories, including The 47 RoninHakkenden: The Dog Warriors and even The Tale of Genji.  Screech cites a poem reacting to the eroticization of Genji:

Even Genji
can be poison
to young minds

Jippensha Ikku’s travel tale, Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige, inspired a whole series of travel prints by legendary woodblock artist Hiroshige in The Fifty-three Stations of the Toukaidou (Screech).  Screech writes, “The entire preface to the book is a series of sexual puns, in this case nanshoku ones.”

Some shunga featured limerick-like poems.  The British Museum’s Tim Clark gives one example from Kitagawa Utamaro’s print Poem of the Pillow:

Its beak caught firmly in the clamshell,
the snipe cannot fly away,
on an autumn evening.

Other shunga featured animal puns, helping to excuse animal voyeurs – some more exotic than others.  Screech describes one exotic case, “Camels were called rakuda, which sounded like the casual expletive ‘raku da!’ (feels comfy).”

Even Enma, the lord of hell becomes a victim of parody.  In Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, Gary P. Leupp describes one instance where Enma is so moved by a nanshoku painting that, “he immediately falls in love with the image and, in his excitement, tumbles down from his thrown…  The king of hell at once declares his determination to leave the netherworld for Japan, where he will seek out the actor and ‘share his pillow” (87).

Encounters of the Unique Kind

But shunga’s unique encounters didn’t end with camels or King Enma.  Japan’s colorful array of beasts, monsters and youkai also got in on the act.  Screech explains, “Folklore had it that some beasts (including tengu, kappa, even transforming males foxes) kidnapped human males for sexual pleasure.”

Once again Hokusai inked the most famous example in The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a picture depicting a woman making love with two octopuses in what many consider the birth of “tentacle porn.”

Although most early shunga depict consensual encounters, some later examples take a darker tone.  “Actual rape becomes a shunga fetish,” Screech writes, “either by friends and relatives or by burglars and cut-throats.”

Even the human body can morphs and become the aggressor.  “In Kunisada’s use of the homunculus in his New Tale of the Welling Waters of 1827, Beanman must draw his sword to fight off a monster vagina that threatens to engulf him until, quelled, it surrenders to his bidding” (Screech).

Some of shunga’s unique encounters avoided the dark and extraordinary for more inquisitive tones.  The limited number of foreigners in Japan sparked curiosity and inspired some artists to depict non-Japanese subjects.  Ruth Styles explains, “And while most shunga do focus on ordinary Japanese people, the odd Dutch or Portuguese adventurer sometimes creeps in.”

Lasting Influence

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Photo by: Ignis

Have shunga left a lasting legacy?

I think I experienced one aspect of it as an innocent youth at the video shop.  Ancient shunga prove Japan’s interest in pornographic art – be it comics, cartoons or ancient shunga – is nothing new.

Industry giants feel the same way.  Luke Malone writes, “Toshio Maeda (widely considered to be the grandfather of erotic manga)… sees (erotic manga) as the modern iteration of an important cultural tradition (i.e. shunga).”

Calling hentai manga a “remnant” of shunga seems like an appropriate description.  Perhaps today’s tentacle, monster, demon, alien and robot pornography can be traced back to the days of anything-goes erotic prints.  Even Japan’s lolita and wakashu fetishes might find a root in shunga’s younger boy and girl subjects.

But shunga’s legacy need not be limited to extremes.  Most prints celebrated more subdued themes, like loving sex between consenting adults.  And these themes also enjoy continued popularity in Japan’s modern erotica.  They just don’t make headlines.

Perhaps Japan’s modern erotic media – including manga, anime, movies, video games – would not be socially acceptable or even legal today if it weren’t for the path blazed by Edo era shunga.

Obscenity?  Art?  Or Both?

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and time has been kind to peoples’ perceptions of shunga. Many of today’s viewers admire the prints as works of art.  Distinguished museums in the west, like The British Museum, have held popular exhibitions celebrating the medium.

Yet shunga continue to be considered obscene in Japan, their country of origin.

The recent arrest of the “vagina artist” Megumi Igarashi has helped stoked the debate – what separates art from obscenity?  Police arrested Ms. Igarashi, also known as Rokudenashi-ko (“A No-Good Girl”), for distributing 3d data for the replication of her vagina for artistic purposes.  The No-Good Girl’s art included a “no-good” kayak modeled after her vagina.

She presented her case at a press conference (video presented by The Japan Times):

I was charged with the crime of distributing obscene data…  The way that this word, ‘obscenity’ has been attached to the vagina makes it seem like some remote, unfamiliar object…  In Japan there is a tradition of festivals that celebrate sexual organs, and yet we also have this notion of obscenity.  I think my arrest was a symptom of this distorted notion of sexuality that exists in this country.

But it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, Western taboos shaped Japan’s attitudes and laws dealing with sex and nudity.  In her essay Shunga in the Meji Era: The End of a Tradtion? Rosina Buckland explains, “From 1872 onwards, the government undertook to regulate and control prostitution more strictly, as part of its project to “civilize” Japan in the view of Western nations.”  Laws banning shunga soon followed.

Despite its reputation for perversion, Japan takes a conservative stance when it comes to sexuality.  And although headline making situations exist, they do not represent the norm.  Tim Clark remarks, “Somehow ironically, (shunga) are more explicit than today’s Japanese pornography laws would allow.”  Strict laws outlaw displaying genitalia in media – a common element of Edo-era shunga.

In all likelihood, few Edo-era people purchased shunga for their artistic value.  During an era devoid of magazines, video, and the internet, shunga represented the equivalent of modern day pornography.  So it’s understandable that Japanese law considered shunga obscene.

Yet if few people question non-erotic woodblock prints’ validity as art, isn’t it hypocritical to treat their erotic counterparts differently?  After all both use the same method of production and depict imagery popular of the time period.

Is Ms. Igarashi’s kayak obscenity or art?  Should she have the right to make it and display it?  Should fans have the right to see it?  Where do we draw the line?  And who has the right to answer these questions, particularly when it comes to policies that affect others?

Perhaps American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put it best in the Jacobellis v. Ohio obscenity case when he said, “I know it (obscenity) when I see it.”  Individuals define obscenity by their own opinions and values – there is no clearcut definition.  And as we have seen in the case of shunga, one person’s art may be another person’s obscenity.

But one fact cannot be denied – art or not, shunga hold value as unique cultural artifacts.  And we can learn a lot from these primary sources that offer a peek into Edo era attitudes, interests, people and bedrooms.

One thing’s for sure, I’ll never look at hentai reading commuters on the train the same way again.  I might even sit a little bit closer to them.  They are not perverts, but misunderstood, safety-conscious citizens; heroes willing to tarnish their own images to protect themselves and everyone in the vicinity from fire.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[1280×1600] ∙ [2560×1600]

Sources

 

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The Life Of A Junior High Night School Teacher http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/20/the-life-of-a-junior-high-night-school-teacher/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/10/20/the-life-of-a-junior-high-night-school-teacher/#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 16:00:00 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=42187 Last week, we learned what a junior high night school was and, as I mentioned, today we are going to hear from a teacher of one of those schools. The person I interviewed just started as a junior high night school teacher last April, so she is in the middle of figuring out what this […]

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Last week, we learned what a junior high night school was and, as I mentioned, today we are going to hear from a teacher of one of those schools. The person I interviewed just started as a junior high night school teacher last April, so she is in the middle of figuring out what this job is like. In other words, we can get her fresh impressions of this type of school.

(Please note that at the request of the interviewee, we are keeping this person’s identity a secret.)

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1. What is a public junior high night school?

It’s a public school for those who were not able to complete their compulsory education. Although there are different requirements depending on the location, it’s open to both Japanese and non-Japanese people.

2. How many night schools are in Japan?

36 Schools.

3. Are there any regional features among junior high night schools?

In recent years, the majority of students have been non-Japanese people. Depending on which region of Japan you look at, the ethnic majority in any given school varies greatly. For example, the school I work for is located in Tokyo, near Shibuya. Until 5 years ago, the majority of students were Japanese orphans from China who had returned to Japan, but in the past 2-3 years the number of Nepalese students has been increasing. We currently have 61 students in total and over 20 of them are Nepalese.

The majorities even change from school to school in Tokyo alone. I’ve heard that one of the eight schools in Tokyo has a lot of Brazilian students. Knowledge of these schools often spreads by word of mouth among certain communities, and that seems to explain the increases of certain ethnicities in certain schools. Since the location of our school is very close to Shibuya, teenage students or ones in their early twenties tend to come to our school. It is also known that there are a lot of Korean students in Osaka and a lot of Burakumin students in Nara.

4. What does a night school teacher do?

It’s basically the same as what a daytime schoolteacher does. The only thing that differs from daytime teachers is how to approach the students. Since many of the students can’t understand Japanese very well, we have to be creative with lessons. For example, we often draw illustrations or do charts more than writing. Some teachers also use tablets to search for words in a student’s native languages when they don’t understand during the class.

5. What is the difference between day and night schools?

The duties are the same. The difference is the time of the lessons and students, and their level of Japanese language skill determines which class they’re in. Other than that, it’s basically the same. We have school trips, school lunches, and classroom cleaning time just like ordinary schools do. We have sport festivals including volleyball and basketball tournaments.

The eight junior high night schools in Tokyo compete against each other in those tournaments. One unique eventwe have, since there are so many non-Japanese people, is an “International Foods Exchange Party” where everyone brings their own country’s cuisines. As for school hours, the first class starts at 5:30pm and the last one ends at 9pm. Before the classes begin, we open a self-learning room at around 3pm, so the students who want to study can feel free to come earlier and study. We also have activity clubs set up before and after classes. Depending on the club, it lasts for 30 minutes to an hour a day and they are held 2 to 3 times a week.

6. Do night schoolteachers communicate with daytime schoolteachers?

Although we use the same building, there is an atmosphere as though we teach in different schools. We don’t avoid communicating with each other, but since the school time and curriculum is completely different, we don’t communicate very often. It’s difficult to work at both daytime and night schools, so we just do our own jobs. Perhaps we would talk more if some event was held that encouraged communication, but nobody has really found it necessary.

I work as the volleyball coach for the daytime school students, but I prepare for classes on weekdays so I can only attend their games on weekends. There is a fulltime coach from the daytime school, as well. I just help out. Since it would often take up your weekends, not many night school teachers get involved in such things either.

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7. What subjects do you teach?

Math and Japanese. In our junior high night school, the proficiency level of each student determines which classroom they are placed in. The lowest level classroom presents grade one content, such as doing addition on a piece of paper, learning words, kanji, and reading comprehension of grade 1 level material. The highest-level class presents content typical of the third year of junior high school.

I teach grade 2 Japanese and third year junior high math. What I just described was for regular curriculum classrooms. In my school, there are Japanese classes for non-Japanese people outside of just the classes following a regular curriculum. Since such classes are for those who barely understand any Japanese at all, the curriculum focuses on Japanese as a second language and it includes practical activities, such as physical education, home economics, and art. Only students in a regular curriculum classrooms learn math, science, or social studies.

8. What are your typical hours?

Even though classes are held from 5:30pm to 9:30pm, I work from 1pm to 9:30pm.

9. What’s the best thing about being a night school teacher?

Each classroom only has 3 to 10 students. Since they are small classrooms, the time and focus that a teacher can direct towards any one student is much larger. The ages of the students are also close to mine, so we are all friendly. Students often speak to teachers in a positive and polite way. There are also older students, as well as multinational students, so teachers are often able to learn a lot from them and about their respective countries. We can learn what it is really like to live in other countries and not just from what is reported in the news. I got more interested in the world outside of Japan after working here.

10. What’s the worst thing about being a night school teacher?

It is very difficult to convey to students the nuance of things that are uniquely Japanese. Particles and onomatopoeia are particularly tough. For example, there was a sentence “ツルツルして滑りやすい。(tsurutsurushite suberiyasui)” and my student asked me what “tsurutsuru” meant. I explained that it is onomatopoeia for “slippery” or “smooth”, but that suberiyasui also means slippery. For those who don’t understand both Japanese and English, it was very difficult for me to explain. Also, there are so many cultural differences that it’s not only difficult to teach the Japanese language, but also our mindset, our conduct and our manners. Those things are very difficult for me. The worst thing is, however, that there are many students who cannot attend due to their jobs or their family problems, and most of them withdraw from school. There are also some students who cannot really be involved with events or activities outside of usual classes and I think that is a shame.

11. What’s the funniest story you have from being a night school teacher?

On June 8, there was a volleyball tournament among the eight junior high night schools in Tokyo, and our school won. It was really fun for all of them and I was so happy for my students. We practiced three times a week after night school on top of the 3 days of special practice before the tournament. Both students and teachers had been practicing so hard so they could win, so we were very happy to get the result we did. Students who didn’t play in the game did a really good job of cheering for our team too. They were such exciting games. When the other school took the first set, the teams’ mood went way down, but all the teachers and students only cheered louder and they were able to get their minds right again. When we won, students were doing the victory dance and I thought it was a very international show of a good emotion because Japanese students don’t usually dance. Anyways, getting that win was a really good moment that shows what can happen when we all come together and work towards the same goal.

12. I imagine being a night school teacher gives you some free time during the day. What do you do during the day?

Just ordinary private errands. I don’t do anything specific. My workday is 8 hours long, so I basically have the same free time as the other people working in offices.

13. What do you think are the best aspects of the Japanese education system?

I think Japanese education is very tolerant. It’s certainly fantastic that we are this devoted to and enthusiastic about the education of non-Japanese people.

14. What are the worst things about the Japanese education system?

I haven’t found any, yet.

15. Why are kids going to school at night instead of during the day?

It’s not their choice. Our students are people who can’t meet the requirements of daytime school, so they just come to night school instead.

They are Japanese people who couldn’t complete their junior high school education for some reason. The reasons are various. Some couldn’t go due to illness, or their parents didn’t let them go to school. We have a student whose parents didn’t let them go to school, and he tried to work after their death, but couldn’t find a job because he had no education. Then he came to night school. Others stop going to school because they’re being bullied, or because of their parents’ death. There is also a student who was raised in a religious group and had never been enrolled in Japanese compulsory education, but then he came to night school after he became an adult.

Non-Japanese students have various reasons too. Some of them had to move to several new countries due to their parent’s job and couldn’t finish the junior high school education in their own country. Others just grew up in a country that didn’t have a proper educational system. Some students actually came to Japan when they were under the age of 15 and went to daytime school for a while, but they couldn’t get along with people or make any friends, or they gave up studying there because they didn’t understand Japanese very well. Later on, they decided to come to night school to complete their compulsory education.

nightschool-03

16. Who are your students?

In my current class I teach one person from Bangladesh, one from Thailand, one from the Philippines, and one from Nepal. Four of them are teenagers and one is in his 40’s.

17. Why are international students increasing?

The rapprochement reached between Japan and China in 1972 increased the number of Japanese orphans in China returning to Japan, and they and their families became the majority of students. Since the late 1970’s, Indo-Chinese refugees increased. Since the 1990’s, non-Japanese people increased in Japan as a result of people’s jobs, or due to the increase in international marriage, and their kids and family members started coming to night school. After that, there was a time when Afghan refugees increased as well.

When times change, as reflected by international situations and the internationalization of Japan, the students have gradually changed along with them.

18. Can you tell us about a student you’ve helped a lot?

I’ve just started this job, so I haven’t had any specific student yet.

19. Are there any specific problems that international students have?

They are uncertain of their likelihood of staying in Japan. (If they are not sure how long they can stay in Japan, it can discourage them from studying.)

20. Is there anything else you want to say about your job?

While teaching non-Japanese students, I’ve learned that foreign workers have helped Japan a lot. We don’t just pay them for the work they do. They are supporting Japanese society. With the rapid decline of the birthrate, we have to treat such workers really well. I think Japan will come to rely on foreign workers more and more in the future. Therefore, offering education to non-Japanese people who play an important role as citizens in Japan, teaching them not only general knowledge but also Japanese manners and conduct, is very important too, I think.

Night school was originally aimed at Japanese people who could not study because of the war, but now most of the students are non-Japanese people. In our school, only 4 students are Japanese. Our students are as varied as their historical backgrounds. I think it is essential to offer a great education to non-Japanese people right now because if they learn a lot at our night school and enjoy themselves while doing it, they might come to think really fondly of Japan and then one day repay Japan for its kindness. They might work hard for Japan, or they might become a great bridge between Japan and their own countries. Right now, my students all like Japan. Being kind to each other – It is in this way, I believe we can foster great international relationships.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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