Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Love In Traditional Japan

Ever since Japan emerged onto the international scene in the mid-1800s, countries have viewed the Japanese as an unromantic people, and that relationships had no romantic love like in the West.  Meiji-era author Lafcadio Hearn, a foreign-born man who studied culture and is best known for writing about Japanese ghost stories, also took pains to translate and spread information about especially romantic and beautiful stories of love and couples from Japanese fairy tales, books, and theatre.  But still, the world still got the idea in its head that Japanese people don't seem to be very open and passionate in public, and mistook it as coldness, and this interpretation has stuck to today, now even among Japanese people themselves, who see other countries' views on love and romance, and think that Japan is too old-fashioned and unromantic.

It's true, a lot of Japanese don't like to say "I love you" or go on about stars in the eyes and unyielding, undying passion, and make out heavily in public.  At least, back then.  We didn't even have a word for love until fairly recently in our country's history.  But this has been changing since after World War II, when we were encouraged to be more romantic, and America became popular, and romance and kissing scenes were inserted into films for a more international appeal (even though most of the cast was played by men).  But it's not that we aren't romantic.  Sure, kids today are fans of the cultures of America and Korea and wherever and are more than happy to hold hands in public and talk about love and romance.  But from an outsider's view (or the view of today's youth who are seeking true love and have better things to do than read into obscure cultural facts like yours truly, Japan just doesn't seem to have all that lovey-dovey stuff that everybody wants now.

But stop a minute, and think about it.  In Japanese dramas, a lot of the tense scenes are nearly silent, filled with looks and small gestures.  How many Kurosawa and other WWII-era films feature a woman in the rain?  Since Japan is comparatively conservative in public (albeit privately more liberated and mature sexually) men and women didn't like to meet and be seen like that, especially if they weren't sure if they wanted to be married yet.  So girls would purposefully "forget" their umbrellas when it was supposed to rain or snow, and wander the streets hoping a handsome gentleman would arrive and offer to share his umbrella with her.  Whether the meeting was predestined or coincidental, walking together under an umbrella became the symbol of love and romance, and girls would swoon over the idea, and guys would always carry an umbrella with them.

But you're a teenager and you want some melodrama. No problem. That motif is still used today and understood by modern-day Japanese as an understated and lasting symbol of the beginning of a relationship.

Think of Kon Satoshi's animated film Millennium Actress.  A girl meets a boy, feels a connection, and the two barely share any words with one another.  They do not talk of love, they talk about the future, and hope.  And that brief moment was enough for her to spend the rest of her life striving to find him again.  That is more significant than a teenaged date, I think, and many Japanese stories are littered with such quiet, simple allusions to something much bigger and more overpowering.  Language is extremely important in Japan, and warrants its own entry, but I'll briefly explain: the more you say, the longer your words are, the more formal you are being.  After you are in a close relationship with someone, you will leave out more and more specifics, until eventually you may only say a word, or nothing at all, and they'll be able to understand you.  That's the Japanese ideal of love.  At least, it was.  Couples used to (and some still do) never tell one another "I love you".  Because words are so important, and the word "love" is a well-known one, it is believed that, to say that, is an insult to your relationship.  Because other people can use that word, and you're meant to feel that there is no word in any language that can express the true feeling of your relationship.  People were meant to spend their entire lives, their sole purpose, to be able to communicate how they felt for one another, without the bonds of language confusing or labeling that feeling.

I'll talk more about the importance of words in Japan and how the idea is used in an upcoming entry, please look forward to it! 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Banchō Sarayashiki, "The Dish Estate of Banchō", A Famous Japanese Ghost Story


So, we've arrived on the final day of Japanese Ghost Story Week.  Thank you so much for reading!  I hope you've been enjoying them.  I've had a ton of fun writing this week.  As always, if you want to read the rest of the stories, please find them here.

Tomorrow is Halloween, and all of the spirits and nefarious creatures will roam the world.  There won't be any Trick-or-Treating in Japan; Halloween isn't really a well-known American holiday there like Christmas and Thanksgiving, though it is celebrated with relish by lovers of horror nationwide.  There even used to be a monthly horror manga magazine called Halloween.  But whether people know it or not, it's Halloween in Japan now.  All these things I've been talking about still come out... there are just so many yōkai and yūrei in Japan, they'll come out whether it's a holiday or not.  And if you like, some of them are so well-known and prevalent that, if you know where to look, you can go and see them.

Which brings us to today's story.

As you learned in the very first folktale I shared, 日 means, not only day, but Sun.  However, there aren't very many scary or evil things associated with the Sun.  Japan is the Land of the Rising Sun, and the kanji for the country itself means Sun's-Origin, and the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is one of the most revered gods in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan.  I could tell the story of the Sun, but that simply wouldn't seem right to be associated with the motley crew of ghosts I've paraded out all this week.

So instead, I think I'll tell a story that comes from the Land of the Rising Sun.  It is not the most famous ghost story in Japan; that one would require a long-winded dissertation from me, and I've been trying to keep these entries on the shorter side.  So I'll tell... the second most famous ghost story in Japan.  And let's see if my free-association doesn't bring us back around to the sun and tie this week up quite neatly in time for Halloween.

Shall we begin?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dorotabō, "The Rice-Paddy Man", A Dirty Yōkai

We're getting closer and closer to the end of Japanese Ghost Story Week.  I hope you've been enjoying it!


土 means earth.  Not the planet Earth, but physical earth, like soil, mud, and dirt.

So what is today's creature?  Is it a yōkai?  A ghost?  Or perhaps... a ZOMBIE?!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dodomeki, "The Demon With 100 Eyes", An Urban Legend Yōkai From the Edo Period


金 means "gold".

Today's focus is very different from the other stories I've told so far, in that it is neither really a ghost nor a yōkai (unless you count the opinion of Mizuki Shigeru, which really, you should...).  This story doesn't really adhere to the usual Japanese ghost story, yōkai story, or folktale.  Instead, it follows the newer method of folk telling, much like the recent and popular mass hysteria surrounding this new "Urban Legend Yōkai", Kuchisake Onna.

While today's creature has had their legend told since long before, it wasn't until the Edo period that the story really worked itself into a frenzy.  As I've mentioned before, the court nobles and fine people of the old capital of Kyoto, suddenly forced to live in this new, unfamiliar, countrified place, were filled with fear about the strange things lurking in the city, and that's originally why they got together to have 100 Ghost Story Night.  However, this story was not the type shared at Ghost Story Night.  Like Kuchisake Onna, people wanted to share the supposedly true story of this monster, and how they know for a fact that it really happened to their friend's wife's brother's cousin's nephew.  They wanted to warn their friends of the mysterious and dangerous forces of this city that they lived in.

So let's get into this new breed of Urban Legend Yōkai, based on the number one thing everybody could agree was unavoidable in their city:  gold.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jinmenju, "The Human-Faced Tree", A Yōkai with Strange Roots


木 means "tree".  So I'll tell you about one of the (many) tree yōkai.  And while it is a yōkai, it is a very odd one, even by yōkai standards, as its story makes no sense.  Also, it has to do with humans in its appearance, as well as the history of it.  This thing's history deals with a great many humans, and also gives some interesting insight into Japanese folktales, so that's why I've chosen it for today.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Funa-Yūrei, "Marine Spirits", Japanese Ghosts of the Sea


Today's story is about 水, water.  It's a ghost story, but since the ghosts are popularly known, it sort of identifies itself as a yōkai, with distinctive appearance and patterns.

It even has its own card in the Obake Karuta deck.

However, it has to do with humans, and it is a ghost story, after all, so I'll tell you the story, then tell you about some of its habits afterward.  By the way, the stories will be getting scarier and scarier from this entry.  (Though, I've always had an irrational fear of today's ghosts in particular...)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Yaoya Oshichi, "Greengrocer Oshichi", A Japanese Folktale

Back for Day Two of Japanese Ghost Story Week.  If you missed Monday's installment and want to know what this is all about, please click here.


Today's tale has to do with 火, fire.

I've actually told a bit of this tale before, here in the Kagrra, and Yoshitoshi entry.  However, I mainly told the kabuki version, dealing with the theme, and there are a few variants and a great many different images of this story I'd like to share.  So it shouldn't be too bad.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Taketori Monogatari, "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", A Japanese Folktale

As it's Halloween, and mainly because I was ever-so-politely requested to do this instead (I really do get around to fulfilling requests... eventually), I'm going to ramp it up by doing a week of

! Japanese Ghost Stories !

I will post a different story every day this week, leading up to Halloween.  Yes, every day!  And I will try to keep each one relatively, or at least comparatively, short.  Each tale has been selected to pertain to each day of the week.  So when I'm done, you'll also know all of the days of the week in Japanese.  And I won't even dwell on it!

So what's today?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sessue Hayakawa, Japanese Star of the American Silent Screen

I thought I'd take this entry to write about another person who is very influential to me. An actor whose life was so damn amazing that it's actually much more interesting than the movies he starred in, which is really saying something, as his movies are great.

I really won't get into the whole portrayal of Asians in American media, as it's a touchy subject and has been covered countless times before by writers much more educated on these things than I am. However, suffice it to say that there are a scant few Asian stars in Hollywood at all, and when they are in films, their nationalities are chosen at random, and they are limited to playing stereotypical parts like "the kung fu master", "the demure geisha", "the awkward math genius friend", or "the scary Japanese girl terrorizing Americans". When you see an Asian at all... often the parts are re-cast to star white actors. So it's hard to find a good role model, a leading man doing awesome things (non-martial-arts-related) who just happens to be Asian.

This sort of thing is not new. Back when movies were first getting really popular, silent films and then the subsequent "Golden Age" of Hollywood, quite a few films included an Asian character. And since this was the movie industry's first big chance to enrapture their audience with resplendent images of exotic Asian locales, they didn't simply move the picture to an American location and re-name everyone to make them American. Very few foreign or foreign-looking stars found success, however. Perhaps the most famous silent film star, and one of the only foreign men to attain romantic lead status, was Rudolph Valentino.

Yeah, that guy, the one with all the eye makeup. Women lusted after him, some even committing suicide when they got news of the actor's premature death, and his roles as a Spanish Matador or Arabian Sheik or the like coined the phrase "Latin Lover", first used to describe Valentino's appeal. Of course, the moral society of the time didn't like seeing foreign men taking away their white women, so often Valentino would have to play over and over again opposite the few Italian/Spanish/etc. actresses in the roster, or eventually sacrifice himself to return the girl to a man of the proper, ie, same, race, or, in a flourish of Shyamalanian proportions, reveal himself to actually be a white European in disguise... somehow.  Those "foreign" actresses I mentioned that he often had to star with were hired for the sole purpose of starring with him, a luxury afforded to one, maybe two other "foreign" stars.

The problem was that the studios wanted to make money, and with no real Asian actors having a big star name, a film full of nobodies, Asian or otherwise, wouldn't draw audiences. Also, during one of their psychological surveys that they so often conducted to predict trends and the biggest successes, audiences complained that they didn't like seeing white actors playing Asian with Asian actors doing stereotypical bit parts in the background, because it made the white actors' yellowface look extremely inauthentic and distracting. The studios' solution? Fine, just re-cast everybody with white actors!

So we ended up with big-name stars granting us little gems of thespian nuance like these:

(Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn)

Oh,that's nice.

It's not as if this practice has gone away, but Asian-Americans are just such a minority, and today most major movies are still just star-vehicles for the big name to stand there looking hot and doing nothing, that it's really a battle of principle instead of a want to see Asian actors taking on roles that require acting talent. But I digress.

I'd like to introduce you all to a Hollywood star from Japan who not only played the romantic lead, but did so with such sheer talent and complete disregard for "what was expected of him", that he became one of the top draws of Hollywood cinema.

Sessue Hayakawa: Hollywood's Asian Superstar That You've Never Heard Of

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Isshi's Passing

I'm sure everyone has heard the news, and I'm very sorry about it.

Isshi is a very big influence on me, as you know, and will forever remain as the inspiration to my calling of spreading and preserving Japanese culture.  He was an extremely talented person and a very intelligent, interesting, creative, and artistic musician and performer.  He has always remained constant in his beliefs and eager happiness to share with everyone his poetry, voice, and knowledge about Japan. 

I still wish to continue his message, and owe him very much through his music which has helped me through some extremely dark times in my life.  I will always consider him a dear friend.

I have not updated recently because I was working on an entry on him, in fact, but that will have to wait; I don't think now is the right time.  But I will keep writing about him.  I will work even harder to continue spreading his message and his memory through all that I write.  That message, his life, and his talent should be remembered, and I give all credit to my aspiring occupation of "folklorist" to the all the brilliant and hard work that he shared with the world.

It has been said before, by another Japanese writer of great prestige and exquisite talent, that,

"A silent death is an endless word."

It is always there, waiting to be spoken, and will remain forever.  Isshi himself has often stressed that his spirit is encapsulated in his lyrics and his songs.  Please continue to listen, please continue to keep him alive, because he will always remain where the melody is heard. 

The Supreme Essence of Neo-Japanesque, the truth behind words and spirits, the wholeness of Isshi and Kagrra, and Japan remain rooted firmly like the sakura trees.  While the cherry blossoms bloom for only a short time, and we look at them in awe and reverence, feeling some mixture of envy and thanks for the beautiful and violent way they have burst into bloom, so too do they violently strip themselves from the trees and scatter in the wind.  Beauty and life fade, but the sakura choose to fall on their own, flying around us like butterflies returning home, the image of which has become an ideal for the Japanese life, an eternal symbol of Japanese culture. 

The world Isshi flies through must look glorious.

He will never fade away and he will be missed sorely.



I'll see you again in the next life.

ええ、一志様。 次に会うのは、境なき世です。

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Thoughts on the Demise of Kagrra,


So now that the day is finally here, I want to take a moment to share a few things I've been thinking about.

I've put it off and avoided it, but I'd like to take this opportunity to give a few of my thoughts to Kagrra, and what it means to me.  As I'm sure most? some? of you know, Kagrra, is my favourite band, and there's a reason for that as well.  I almost avoided Jrock altogether, as it's not really something that appealed to me, but when I first heard them, I quickly became a fan.  I found the entire rock scene in Japan like another planet; very interesting to learn about, but not something I belonged to.  Hell, at the time Kagrra, would only let women into their lives, so to attach myself to such a band, it was embarrassing to talk about.

What did appeal to me, however, was what I encountered when I began seeing Kagrra, fans both online and off.  I got exposed to Kagrra, through my mother, whose career/hobby/obsession is traditional Japanese demons and monsters, and weird old poetry about them from the Heian period.  So when my hobby of sorting through my feelings by writing manifesto-like blog entries came about, and I'd happen across people saying "What does this mean?  What is this reference?", the irritating know-it-all aspects of myself would kick into high gear, and I'd be able to answer their questions.  I liked to blog about funny things (especially in the eccentric and confusing rock community), historical Japanese films, and traditional Japan.  Sound familiar?

Some point along the way, the members of Kagrra, held an interview where they expressed a want to spread their music, and the information on the ancient Japanese spirit, throughout the world.  I saw many replies to this, among them quite a few international fans saying that they wished they could understand the Japanese (not to mention Japanese wondering what the hell some of these kanji Isshi was most likely making up were).  Having firmly decided that I had no talent to be in my own rock band, or Kabuki, or even a teacher, anything that would put me in front of people and leave me to my own misguided devices, I decided to start writing in English, and it was my deepest wish to be able to at least use the ability of understanding the eccentricities of Kagrra, and odd Japanese things that I could share them, and in that way, have something to do, something to work towards.

When things got tough, I found solace in being able to type and type and type and type, organise my thoughts, and write about Japanese culture and other things I liked.  I don't know how many people read my blog, but I try to keep all of my entries accessible and public so that those who want to, can.  I hope that it's brought amusement, information, or even awakened a passion in you to learn.  I've begun to focus on writing about the things I want to, instead of the things I think I should, but it's still a bit off.  I want to be clear.

Through this time I've actually made several decisions about my life.  I think I want to do this.  I can't teach, I won't, but I'd like more than anything to be able to continue to spread information about my interests and my country throughout the world, the way Kagrra, has.  Maybe I'll translate literature, maybe I'll work in a museum, I'd like to be a scholar or a special guest lecturer on Japanese history or art.  I still don't know, but I have plenty of time.

So now that Kagrra, has reached their glorious demise, I'd like to take a moment to thank them for all of their hard work, and for inspiring their fans to learn about many Japanese traditions and thoughts that are still endangered, but most of all I personally would like to thank Kagrra, for inspiring one aimless, talentless boy to work through stress and anger and hard times in life by focusing on the things that matter.  I tried to rebel, at one point I even tried to denounce my own religion, but something seemingly as silly and inconsequential as a flamboyant rock band and their preservation of things that people start to forget has compelled me to do the same.

I don't have much talent; but I do have knowledge and a passion to share.

So as Kagrra, has met their demise, I will invoke my rebirth.

Even if they are gone, I hope everyone will still continue to support them and be their fan, and even garner new ones.  And I will still use them as a jumping-off point to talk about traditional things, and still explain their lyrics and their cultural homages, and their amazing music, because they should never be forgotten, and will still be in a full presence here.  I hope you, whoever you are, if you are a fan of them, or a fan of Japan, will find interest in my never-ending work to spread information, humour, alleviate my stress, whatever I choose to do in this blog.  I'd just like you to know that I will work very hard, and it's important to me. 

In their stead I will dedicate myself to educating others, as well as furthering my own.  After all, I'm nobody special.  Or as Isshi would say, I only come alive when you read my words, however far away and insignificant I may be.

Onward, to the future, through the past!!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Japanese Food Culture: Shun, Washoku, and Seasonal Dishes

So it's a New Year, how is everybody enjoying it so far?  Though this entry was supposed to coincide with the beginning of the year, my overwhelming new schedule for school and the gym, paired with my chronic procrastination, brings this entry to you around the Chinese Lunar New Year instead of January 1, as originally planned.  Regardless, this is my first entry of 2011!  Happy New Year(s)!  As we learned last year, the New Year is one of the most important holidays in Japan, and signifies a fresh beginning.  So let's begin with an entry about freshness.

This entry is actually fulfilling a request made of me by a friend of mine, whom I was talking to when I got the idea for it.  We were discussing popular snacks in Japan, and I went off into a tangent, like I do, and started going on about seasonal foods and the importance of traditional Japanese thoughts and aesthetics when it comes to eating, and she seemed interested to know more, in entry form. 

Perhaps to shut me up and give me something to do, more than anything, though she specified that she wanted a lot of pictures, so I've gathered a lot of them.  So while this entry will be photo-heavy, I'll try to keep the droning history lesson to a minimum (as much as I possibly can while getting the point across).

So please enjoy a brief synopsis of the thought process behind Japanese cooking, the significance of seasonal foods, and a multitude of photos depicting both, hopefully informing and entertaining you just as much as it makes you hungry!