Tag Archives: Japan

If only freedom of speech meant knowing when to be quiet

Twenty-four hours after the big day, by now hopefully the major disappointment should be fading. I refer, of course, to the possible inability – if in certain parts of the US – to sit in a cinema and watch North Korean assasination romp (words you never thought could belong together) The Interview.

Personally, having caught a bit too much of an earlier Seth Rogan-James Franco offering, This is The End, a thousand years could pass without me needing to witness this comedy pairing again, but realise I probably don’t speak for all. To each their own. But I do wonder about all those manning the freedom of speech barricades this holiday season and their seeming unfamiliarity with this particular xkcd cartoon:

free_speech

It is surely an ultimate act of assholery to depict the assassination of another country’s leader, however much of a despot they may be, and play it for laughs. Especially when you come from a nation with a long history of assassinating leaders who cause you displeasure. That third panel seems to me to have particular resonance in this situation: too often Hollywood, if not America itself, is immune from the consequences of its actions. Payback – like taxes – is for the little people, not the overgrown children at the top of the Tinseltown food chain that few dare say no to. Even when the ‘boss’ does mention that perhaps a scene is going a little too far and needs to be reshot, the cry goes out that this is Art and artistic expression cannot be constrained.

North Korea seems to have been the butt of  jokes for so long now that perhaps the creative team behind this movie didn’t expect to provoke so much ire. From Team America: World Police to Kim Jong-Un Looking at Things, the narrative has been established that this is more of a tin pot dictatorship than a Pol Pot one. Yet the numbers dying there in recent years – although likely to be never finally confirmed – suggest that there’s not much to laugh at north of the Demilitarized Zone. Even Cold War vintage Bond never went as far as to off a real Soviet leader on-screen, instead using rogue generals or shadowy organisations such as SMERSH to add a drop of reality to a gallon of fiction. Satire has its place, but Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Spitting Image’s depiction of the Thatcher era suggest that it is an ineffectual weapon at bringing about regime change.

Speaking of ineffectual weapons, perhaps one’s perception of North Korea shifts when they are near neighbours. I remember taking a train to work and refreshing Twitter to find out what was happening with a missile that had been launched in my general direction. Luckily – or perhaps not for the scientists that had designed it – it splashed down somewhere in the sea off Japan. And had it not, it no doubt would have been intercepted. Still, it is hard not to feel that there is not giving in to threats and then there is not grabbing the tiger by the tail in the first place.

The Vulture story referenced above quotes Amy Pascal of Sony Entertainment Pictures as saying she is not sure,

how to deal with Japanese politics as it relates to Korea so all I can do is make sure that Sony won’t be put in a bad situation.

Japanese relations with both sides of the Korean divide are usually quite fraught, to put it mildly. At any time, it should not be unexpected that a Japanese parent company might ask its foreign subsidiaries to avoid putting the North’s back up. But at a time when delicate negotiations between the two countries are pushing along like the proverbial glacier, when you realise what is at stake, perhaps artistic expression should sit down, preferably in a back seat, and keep its mouth firmly zipped.

If this latest round of talks don’t result in anything, then I don’t think we’ll ever see them again. We’re both in our late 80s, so we have to accept that we might not be around for much longer. She is constantly in my thoughts. When I think of how I have been unable to do anything to help her all these years, I quietly say sorry to her.

Japan is currently seeking information about a number of its citizens – possibly more than 800 people – who were abducted and taken to North Korea in the 70s and 80s. The clock is ticking as more than one family member has died not knowing what happened to their relative. Information provided in the past has since been shown to be false and remains that were said to be those of certain abductees turned out not to belong to the stated person.

And while the arguments may run that threats should never be responded to, that Art cannot be trammelled by mere politics, that ends up giving cold comfort. The name of Sony is so synonymous with Japan that stating that Sony Entertainment Pictures is an independent American company holds little sway. Via torrents and the campaign for the right of Hollywood to do as it pleases, there will be more chance of seeing The Interview this Christmas than there will be of the Arimotos seeing their daughter Keiko.

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The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone, Japan

Finding myself with time to spare and a copy of The Little Prince at hand, resting on the shelf more for decoration than for anyone to read, presented an opportunity. So I settled down, opened the pages and drifted off on adventures with my friend from Asteroid B-612.

Later, the realisation dawned that I had been meaning for a long time to write about my visit to The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone but the endless concerns of pretending to be a grown-up had intruded. The photographs remained tucked away and with them my memories of walking down a French street without having ever left Japan.

A street in Provence, in Japan

This is not so much a museum as its own world: dedicated to The Little Prince and the life of the pilot he meets in the desert, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The buildings that house the museum, along with the gardens that surround them, could have been transported here from Europe.

Museum entrance with gardens

Museum gardens

Little Prince Museum grounds

While the attraction may be owned by a Japanese broadcaster and have been created in the midst of a literary theme park boom, it has clearly been put together by those who love the author and his most famous work. There is much joy to discover in the small details. This window exhibit in one of the shops on the French street features contemporary adverts from airlines and destinations that were popular during Saint-Exupéry’s flying career.

Suitcases on display

Here is the entrance to the exhibition hall where, once admitted, you are required to put the camera away.

Theatre du Petit Prince

That is a shame as far as this photo series goes, however it does allow the visitor to focus on the detailed recreations of scenes from the author’s life, including his childhood bedroom, office from the early days of postal aviation and apartment during his exile in New York, among others.

The exhibits’ descriptions are mainly written in French and Japanese, although there is an audio guide available in English. Having made the decision to go without, I coped pretty well while giving the last vestiges of my French abilities a workout. It doesn’t really matter which language you are most comfortable in though, as the final exhibit shows, The Little Prince now appears in almost every language found on our planet.

There is, as you would expect, a well-stocked gift shop, café and restaurant. Yet even on a grey day such as the one of my visit, with rain never very far away, the gardens are not to be rushed through. To do so may mean missing one of the many scattered sculptures.

Here is our hero with the characters of the sheep and the fox:

Little Prince, sheep and fox

Little Prince detail

And here he is on his small home, with his rose:

Little Prince and Asteroid with rose

The details of Saint-Exupéry’s life are worthy of a hundred adventure tales and, whether you are familiar with his works or not, a stroll around this beautifully crafted museum is an excellent way to discover more about the man and his creations.

Model of Saint-Exupery's plane

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Japan, the museum is about an hour away from Tokyo. A visit will delight all who are children, or were once children or who wish they still were children.

What better guide could you ask for?

Le Petit Prince, Hakone

For you it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!

 

 

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Ainu (2009- 2013), photographs by Laura Liverani

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

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

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

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

ainu40

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

ainu23

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A desk of one’s own

Writer Erinna Mettler sparked my interest this week with her post on ‘Desk Envy’. A desk is such a fundamental part of a writer’s equipment, yet so difficult to perfect, it is no wonder that there are thousands of pictures like the ones of famous writers’ workplaces in the post which can inspire the green-eyed-monster. Space in the home is at such a premium – certainly in the UK, even more so in Japan – that for most of us the dream of a quiet room with a huge desk covered with piles of essential writerly clutter and (crucially!) all of one’s own must remain unindulged.

Still, we can dream. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Lake District recently, with hints of spring breaking through the winter gloom all around. The hotel had this lovely number sitting in a corridor seemingly unused and unloved, except by the chambermaids for heaps of fresh linen mid-change.

hotel desk

Contemplating all that space for half-scrawled notes and pages torn out of newspapers could give me palpitations. Drawers overloaded with notebooks, both filled and still to be used, cartridges and half-full bottles of ink, because this desk would go so well with my favourite pens… until my thoughts crash into the likely shipping costs to get the thing to Tokyo and realise it isn’t to be.

The reality for most of us is that writing space has to exist wherever we find it. When I lived in London I would write sitting on the bed, a cushion behind me and one under the knees, laptop finely balanced, in a pose that would strike dread into the heart of any physiotherapist or yoga teacher. Although it did keep me paying the bills to have my poor spine straightened out again. Having to clear away the detritus which somehow accumulates around any working writer – take the picture of Einstein ‘s desk for evidence – before I could go to sleep was always such a disheartening thought that writing into the early hours became the norm.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I came into possession of a dedicated writing desk. A low wooden table acquired from a neighbour who was moving on, it was the first piece of furniture that I owned after arriving and all the more loved for that. Writing in bed continued, of course, as well as curled up in a chair, but owning a desk was a step up and great things were sure to follow, I was convinced. This is my first Japanese desk, looking far too neat, which means it was probably tidied for the picture:

first writing desk in Japan

Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be the perfect writing desk, otherwise this post would end here. The difficulty, entirely of my own creation, was that there was so much of Japan to explore beyond those walls that I barely spent any time within range of the desk. Writing again became something to do in cafés, on trains, at work, or in the park. Anywhere, it seemed, but at the dedicated space that had so fortuitously been granted.

For my next apartment, things would have to change. After coming into possession of another donated desk and chair, then finding a wonderful place to locate them – overlooking a neighbour’s well-stocked garden – combined with living closer to the distractions of the city, suddenly writing time was almost abundant. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their free days here:

Tokyo desk

It is summer, hence the mosquito coil kept close to hand, but the air conditioning unit was right above the window and the fridge a short hop away. ten minutes hate became an unneglected website again, letters were penned and the following spring my book, The Teas That Bind, was written here. All punctuated with essential breaks for pots of tea and staring out of the window. The way the butterflies would dance through the sunshine as it dappled between the trees will stay with me forever.

But life moves on, time intrudes and I find myself between desks again. As ever, my reserve writing haunts are cafés and there is fun to be had attempting to track down a new favourite. Here is where Erinna Mettler surprises me a little, as she writes:

The words don’t really flow in public cafés. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness.

Although it has been a long while since I was a resident of the same town,  my memories of it being full of serviceable writing cafés would be shattered if they had all been conquered by the big chains. In the same way that we fetishise desks, most writers probably have a picture in their head of the perfect writing café experience, my own heavily influenced by a visit to the actual table in Paris once used by this lady:

Simone de Beauvoir writing cafe

It is doubtful if she would be as prolific today, however, if she were attempting to write in the 21st century version of her home-from-home café, surrounded by loudly obnoxious tourists and gawping fan-girls such as myself.

Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from all this desk adulation: that the space itself is irrelevant. Make it the best, comfiest, happiest place it can be but don’t get too caught up with perfection. While perfection on the page should always be the goal, sometimes the means and the location of production will have to fall far short of the ideal. Sitting at the dream desk racked with writer’s block and indecision would be a far worse fate than that of being jammed into a tiny table at a terrible café with a mug of bad coffee scrawling note after note on napkins because there is no more space in your notebook.

As Hemingway knew,

the great thing is to last and get your work done

because what is created when your backside is in the chair is far more important than the quality leather cushion or cracked plastic that it rests upon. So even if you are lucky enough to achieve perfection in your surroundings, be sure to recall this advice from Stephen King:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

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The Daily Mail on those funny foreign types

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

image

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

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

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

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

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Words to live by

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

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

Thank you for your consideration!

Photo by me, taken in Yokohama

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Never say never

Today is VJ Day (in Japan and the UK, the US marks the anniversary on 14 August due to time zones).

Unlike this iconic pair, not everyone got to celebrate. Contemplating the numbers who died in the war which ended 67 years ago is staggering, as historians have only been able to agree that the final count is somewhere between 62 and 78 million people.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for that the best way to honour the memory of all those lives lost would be a pledge by all sides to make damn sure it never happens again, instead of using it as an opportunity for sabre-rattling. Tempers have frayed following the decision of a Japanese Cabinet member to visit the controversial war shrine at Yasukuni – resting place of 14 convicted war criminals – which will today become a place of pilgrimage for peace marchers, veterans and right-wingers, some wearing Imperial Army uniforms.

Encounters at the shrine in the heat of August usually become fraught, with violence directed at foreigners, as reported by photographer Damon Coulter, or at left-wingers and peace marchers by some unsavoury characters encountered by the photographer, Adrian Storey, being the norm. It is a long way from last week’s more somber memorials for the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at which civic leaders spoke of their hopes for peace and a nuclear-free world.

While it is tempting for some to keep fighting that conflict it is difficult to see what doing so achieves. The stated aims of many of our grandfathers in fighting was less for a political ideology or a country than for their hope that we wouldn’t have to do the same. They had seen their fathers return from another ‘war to end all wars‘, be told ‘never again’ and watched as that promise of peace was betrayed. Their generation fought for us to be able to enjoy a better future.

The promise of peace is not guaranteed, however, not unless we remain vigilant. ‘Never’ looks like a short time when Europe has seen an increase in violence against immigrants, particularly in economically ravaged Greece. In Asia, relations between South Korea, Japan and China are strained over control of a number of small islands and the natural resources which lay within their territorial waters. In the Middle East, despite denials, things again look ominous.

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.

- George Orwell

Yet there is another way. Not everyone at Yasukuni shrine today will be there to promote a right-wing ideology. Some will attend to march for peace, others to release doves. Even some of the nationalists, such as this one who spoke to Adrian Storey, can behave in a way that encourages a ‘faint flicker of hope’. If those of us who believe in peace, who know that what we have in common is greater than our differences and that those differences can be better overcome by diplomacy than by fighting, continue to guard that flickering flame, one day we will be able to say we have finally fought the war to end all wars.

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Inspiration is everywhere

If there is one thing I have learnt from the last couple of weeks of reactions to the London Olympics on the social media sites, it is that you can look at event of this nature and see whatever takes your fancy. All manner of commentators from an array of political standpoints have been able to use the Games to support their previously held views. As pal and mortal bath-dweller, Mark Woff so eloquently puts it:

There seem to be thousands of humans spending hundreds of hours commenting on threads with such earnestness, glibness, vitriol, lack of self-awareness… one wonders what drives it. More crassness in people hissing comments over the Twitterfeeds at athletes, people seeing and sustaining the dark side everywhere…

And yes, there was plenty to hate, especially the grasping behaviour of some of the companies involved, the empty seats a slap in the face for everyone who had tried to get tickets in the ballot and failedincluding athletes’ familiesthe Tory MP who deemed the celebration of British accomplishments in the opening ceremony to be ‘leftie multicultural crap’. All buzz-killers.

But also, yes, plenty to celebrate, even for those of us in parts of the world who had to experience serious sleep deprivation to follow our heroes. I don’t know if I have failed or passed the Norman Tebbit ‘cricket test’, but I have been keeping an eye on the Japanese victories as much as the TeamGB ones, if only because national broadcaster NHK seemed to have a policy of only showing events Japan was doing well at.

Japan’s women footballers – nicknamed the ‘Nadeshiko’ after the name of a flower – may have been disappointed not to stun the US again following their victory in last year’s World Cup, but showed a lot of heart to take the silver. The game could have gone their way if they had taken all their chances, but they still surpassed the men’s team and – perhaps – earned a seat in business class on the way home.

Seen from here, where gender equality lags far behind that of comparable countries, the most inspirational outcome has been the pleasure Japan has taken in the success of its female athletes, especially in wrestling, table tennis and judo. It is too soon to tell if that will be enough to overcome the workplace inequalities, lack of affordable childcare and adherence to traditional gender roles common to most of Japan. Hopefully it is a start.

In addition to this celebration of the kids at school who were really good at running and suchlike, there was good news for the ones who prefer to be nose-deep in a book too. NASA managed to land a robot the size of a small car on Mars, following a journey of eight months and a landing by way of a sky crane and parachute. Sending back pictures, communicating via Twitter – both on 100% real and verified, as well as the predictable but still funny spoof feeds – the Curiosity should be enough to get us dreaming of space again.

And so, just as every other commentator has used these events to reinforce whatever it was they already believed about something, so I choose to see them as a light in the dark, proof that so long as there are people prepared to risk it all, work harder than the self-confessed lazies like myself ever could to push their minds and bodies to achieve more than was thought possible, we might not be quite as doomed a species as previously suspected. Who knows what our future could hold?

If we can sparkle he may land tonight

- David Bowie, Starman

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Challenging preconceptions and prejudices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eight methods to beat the blues

My pal the Japan Camera Hunter has written this great post, all about escaping a photography rut and beating the blues. While it is no doubt useful to those with a camera permanently affixed to their hands, I was struck by how much of his advice – read a book, change of scenery, look at your old work – could also apply to writers and, I am guessing, to other creative types too.

I have been feeling like I have been in a rut lately, probably something to do with the summer heat encouraging indolence, so will be giving this advice a try – with some luck and hard work you will be seeing the results here soon! In the meantime, take a look at JCH’s excellent post and see what you think.

I hope it helps with whatever you are working on…

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