Archive for July, 2012

Shirtless Ultraman

July 13, 2012

Ultraman is big. It’s one of his defining characteristics. But he’s especially big this month, with several Ultra-themed events happening around Tokyo.

One of them is a show at Zen Foto gallery in Roppongi, featuring works by Daisuke Matsumoto in which a shirtless Ultraman confronts a monster in the heroic style of Beowulf. I haven’t been to it, but it looks amusing. (I assume that’s on purpose.) The show runs through July 19. See details at their site or on the above publicity image.

Read about additional Ultraman events here, here, and here.

A censorship fight over “comfort women”

July 6, 2012

A frail old woman with white hair, a bent back, and a deeply lined face sits by herself in a small, shabby room.

That description would fit several of the black-and-white photos I saw at an exhibition last night in Tokyo. As mundane as the pictures are, certain people strenuously object to their being seen. And that’s why I had to see them.

To get into the exhibition, held on the 28th floor of a Shinjuku office building, I had to wait in a corridor while a uniformed guard used his arm to block the doorway of the small gallery space, allowing people to go in one by one. A woman ahead of me had a very large bag, and he looked inside it before admitting her. Once I got through the door, another guard watched as I walked through a metal detector.

And then I saw a bunch of perfectly ordinary black-and-white portraits of harmless-looking old ladies.

What was the big deal?

A certain number of women, many of them Korean, were forced to work as sex slaves for members of the Japanese military during World War II. They were euphemistically called “comfort women.” The ones who are still alive today are very old. A few of them are the subjects of the photos in this exhibit, taken by photographer Ahn Sehong.

The existence of “comfort women” is an accepted historical fact, but right-wing groups in Japan would prefer to sweep it under the rug.

The Nikon Salon in Shinjuku had planned to display Ahn’s photos, but then canceled its plan. It seems that no clear reason for the cancellation has been given, but you can sample the unofficial speculation and official evasions in coverage by The Japan Times herehere and here, The Wall Street Journal here and here, and Radio Australia here.

Ahn sued, and won. The court ordered Nikon to hold the exhibition after all, and it is now doing so. The show runs through July 9, this coming Monday on the 28th floor of the Shinjuku L Tower, on the west side of Shinjuku Station.

The gallery’s website states, “Although the originally scheduled photo exhibition by Ahn Sehong was canceled for certain reasons, the Tokyo High Court has issued a provisional disposition order allowing the temporary use of the Shinjuku Nikon Salon for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition. In accordance with this provisional disposition, the Shinjuku Nikon Salon will be temporarily used for Mr. Ahn’s exhibition.”

You can see a few of the photos at Ahn’s website, here. The images themselves are not particularly remarkable, but the effort to censor them is outrageous.

Admission to the exhibition is free.

Speech should be, too.

Coca-Cola adds a word to the Japanese language

July 5, 2012

A few weeks ago, I began to notice that some of the Coca-Cola vending machines I saw on the streets in and around Tokyo had a new word painted on them: Ecoru.

Spelled with the Roman letters E, C, and O plus the hiragana character “ru,” this was clearly a verb that meant something along the lines of “to be eco-friendly” or just “to eco.”

Lots of Japanese verbs end in the suffix “-ru.” For example, eat, think, sleep, run, throw, forget, and live are taberu, kangaeru, neru, hashiru, nageru, wasureru and ikiru.

According to “Zakennayo,” a 1995 book on Japanese slang, the Denny’s restaurant chain was such a popular hangout for Japanese teens in those days that they turned its name into a verb: “deniru,” meaning “to do Denny’s.” I never encountered that word in real life myself, but I get the concept. And apparently so does some clever copywriter at the Coca-Cola company.

It seems that the ecoru machines have been around for a couple of years. They involve such eco-tweaks as LED lighting and non-CFC coolants, and they claim to put less strain on the power grid by charging up in the off hours so they don’t have to draw on the public electricity supply during periods of peak demand.

You can find technical details in Japanese at Coca Cola’s website here. It shows that some of the machines even have solar panels on top. I haven’t seen those yet.

Condsidering what a big business vending machines are in Japan, this looks like a step in the right direction.


“Tomo”: A young adult fiction anthology

July 3, 2012

Since the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, a number of books have been published with the aim of raising money to help recovery efforts. Charitable considerations aside, one of those I can recommend as a good reading experience is “Tomo,” an anthology of young adult fiction from or related to Japan.

Editor Holly Thompson has put together a collection of impressive breadth and variety, with 36 stories that touch on aspects of young people’s lives in present-day Japan and also in history. Most are prose, but some are told in verse, or in graphic-novel format. Most are very fresh, but there are also contributions from past writers such as literary giant Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) and Ainu folklorist Yukie Chiri, whose short life ended in 1922, when she was just 19 years old.

Thompson has divided the book into seven sections, only the first of which, “Shocks and Tremors,” deals overtly with the disaster. It probably come first because it establishes the book’s raison d’etre, but I’d suggest reading it later because the subject matter gets things off to a rather gloomy start.

Other that that, I liked almost everything about this book. Here are some comments on my favorite stories:

“One” by Sarah Ogawa and “The Zodiac Tree” by Thersa Matsuura

Both of these stories, in the section “Insiders and Outsiders,” are told from the point of view of a girl who is an outsider in a small Japanese community. In both, the girl meets a boy we first see engaged in a visibly traditional activity: sweeping the veranda of a temple in one story, practicing kendo in the other. There seems to be great distance between them (plus apparent hostility in one case), but as the stories unfold the gap is at least partially bridged. Not only do these two stories share an archetypical outline, they are both written with the vividness and delicacy of a watercolor painting. The protagonists’ feelings come through as genuine, in part because they are not overplayed. The characters experience real anxiety without any internal or external histrionics. They make tentative overtures, fraught with uncertainty, that lead to a climax that is sweetly innocent yet emotionally satisfying.

“Kodama” by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

This eerie tale, part of the “Ghosts and Spirits” section, also depicts a girl’s encounter with a mysterious boy. But in this case, the boy’s mysteriousness is downright paranormal. “Kodama” is a story that could easily have failed – but succeeds wonderfully. Countless stories have been written in the form of the diary of a person who may be documenting a supernatural occurrence, or who may simply be going mad. The pitfalls of cliché lie all around such a project, but Ohi somehow avoids them.

This is one of the graphic-novel-style entries, but it is not divided into comic-book panels. Instead, we are shown the pages of a notebook filled with sketches. The illustrations are expressive, but still simple enough to believably pass as part of a diary. As for the text, it conveys meaning not only through the words themselves, but also their placement, size and style. The sentences may be straight, slanted or even looping. And yes, there does come a point at which the text trails away toward the bottom of the page in an illegible scrawl, just as you’d expect at the end of a haunted-person-going-mad diary. But wait! This isn’t the end of the story. It’s only the middle. How it really ends I’ll leave for you to discover.

“Staring at the Haiku” by John Paul Catton

This is another supernatural tale, describing the establishment of a ghost-busting club at a Tokyo high school. It contains some effective humor, and is written with a magician’s flair for misdirection. When a group of teenage friends set out to become paranormal investigators, their first case appears to focus on solving the mystery of an enchanted calligraphy paper that gives excitable girls a one-character clue about the names of their future boyfriends. However, as the case unfolds, in ways both funny and spooky, it turns out that something entirely different is going on.

Disclosure: Over the years I have met and become acquainted with a number of English-language writers who live and work in Japan. These include Thompson, Catton, and several other “Tomo” contributors. But I do not know anyone else whose name I have mentioned in this post.

Buy “Tomo” here: Friendship through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories

The plot thickens: A third lover appears

July 2, 2012

In a previous post (here), I wrote about a trademark dispute between the makers of “White Lover” cookies and “Funny Lover” cookies. Now there’s a “Black Lover” on the scene:

White Lovers (Shiroi Koibito) are cookies made by Hokkaido-based Ishiya Co. Funny Lovers (Omoshiroi Koibito) are cookies made by Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. And Black Lovers (Kuroi Koibito) are little bars of chocolate-covered corn made by Hokkaido-based Sapporo Gourmet Foods.

The design on the Black Lover box features the silhouettes of a man and a woman beneath and old-fashioned streetlamp with a block of text hovering above them. I hoped the text would describe some classic old love story, but here’s how I’d translate what it really says: “Grains of love. These are the jewels of a vast land — sweet and crispy snacks of corn and Asahikawa-grown black beans coated in chocolate to fascinate lovers.”

I brought my Black Lovers to the office, ate one, and shared the rest with coworkers — one of whom remarked on their similarity to a “Corn Chocolate” product made by another Hokkaido-based confectioner called Hori. So, in the name of research, I dropped by the Hokkaido antenna shop in Yurakucho, Tokyo, to buy some of those:

They certainly look similar. But to my palate, Corn Chocolate is tastier Black Lovers. The Hori product has a more disctinct corn taste — especially the white chocolate variety, which has a milder-flavored coating.

Considering that Ishiya decided to fight Yoshimoto Kogyou over the Funny Lovers, I wonder what is going on in Hokkaido right now among Ishiya, Hori, and Sapporo Gourmet Foods over the Black Lovers.

Is it sweet love or bitter  hate?

This used to be a grungy little curry shop

July 1, 2012

Planted in the center of an underground corridor in Ginza subway station, at the bottom of a flight of stairs from the street, and one flight up from the Marunouchi Line train platform, there used to be a grungy little curry shop where the customers sat elbow to elbow on tall stools and hunched over plates of curry teetering on the edge of a very narrow counter that separated them from the nearly-as-narrow kitchen.

I always meant to eat there one day. I never actually got around to doing so, but I loved that little shop nonetheless.

The Japanese curry they served was of an especially odorous type, and the entire west end of the station was often filled with its earthy perfume. I don’t know how old the shop was, but it looked as if it had been around for decades, and whenever I got a whiff of it as I hurried to change trains, I always felt a gratifying connection to history, imagining that I was inhaling the very same aroma that millions of other people from all walks of life had smelled over the decades since back around the middle of the Showa era.

I didn’t even have to step off the train to enjoy such a moment. On at least one occasion, I was riding the Marunouchi Line with my nose in a book when the train paused at Ginza en route to somewhere else. As the doors opened and closed, an invisible cloud of curry vapor flowed into the car. Without even needing to look up, I said to myself, “Ah. Ginza.”

Becoming a person who knew that smell was a minor accomplishment. Inhaling deeply, I could puff myself up and think, “What a seasoned Tokyoite I am! I can find my way around by smell!”

That may have been silly, but it is true that accumulating the experience to recognize the tiny and unique details of a place, especially the odd bits of reliable coziness hidden away in a big concrete city, really does help turn that place into home.

One day, perhaps about two years ago, the grungy little curry shop was dark. The doors were closed. The smell had dissipated. A paper on the wall announced that the shop had reached the end of the line, and thanked its customers.

I had never been one of them.

Shortly thereafter, a floor-to-ceiling plywood barrier went up all the way around the shop, and also around a little sushi place that had been its close-quarters neighbor. I passed through Ginza Station countless times after that, but I never saw or smelled the grungy little curry shop again.

Then, yesterday afternoon I did a double take at the sight – one flight of stairs down from the street, and one up from the Marunouchi Line platform – of a brand-new, brightly lit, boutiquey gift and clothing store right in the spot where the curry shop had once stood. (It’s in the photo at the top of this entry.)

It’s part of the latest Echika underground shopping mall, following the ones that already exist in Ikebukuro and Omotesando subway stations. Not only is there a boutique where the curry shop used to be, but there are other new stores where nothing used to be, stretching up and down a long underground corridor. It’s all very shiny and new and brand-name, and nothing like the grungy little curry shop.

There are a couple of places that serve food in the new mall, including a nice-looking gourmet deli I’m sure I’ll try before long, and an outlet of the Auntie Annie’s soft pretzel chain where I already bought a snack on the way home last night.

But I wish I had eaten some of that aromatic curry.