Island of Gods, Island of Demons

According to the old stories, Iki was one of the first islands of Japan, made by the creator gods themselves. It is the island of the Moon, with Tsushima across the strait being the island of the Sun. The gods had to raise up heavenly pillars to keep the island in place. Iki is said to be home to 1200 shrines despite being only 17 km long and 14 km wide.

But gods are not the only ones that tread here.

According to different old stories, Iki was a Demon Island (鬼ヶ島). Not the one from the Momotaro story, a different one. Demons ran rampant in old Japan, and you can see the evidence today here on Iki: there is the famous Devil’s Footprint and many shrines have demon-shaped wooden dolls to keep away evil (and Mongols). But where did all the demons go? The answer to that question can be found in the traditional kites of Iki.

The ondako (鬼凧) or “demon kite” is one of the symbols of the island. You can see them on the backs of tour buses, at the entrance to the museum, and they sell little versions of them as souvenirs. They are ubiquitous.

There is a kite flying festival in April, but on windy days, if you go down to Sakyobana, the north-facing cliffs, there is a group of older gentleman that fly the kites. They are quite large, and when they go up into the strong winds, they make a sort of buzzing sound that is loud. It is like one of those murder hornets, a warning.

The ondako depicts a fierce looking warrior, with upturned moustache, wearing an ornate helmet. The warrior is looking upwards, because perched on top of the helmet is the head of a demon. The story goes like this:

The hero Yuriwaka came to Iki and killed most of the demons, finally facing down their Poison King. The evil demon king attacked Yuriwaka with his massive golden club, but Yuriwaka was able to decapitate the king. The demon king’s head then flew up into the heavens to get some medicine that would help re-attach his head to his body. Meanwhile Yuriwaka hid the body, and waited for the demon head to finally die. When the Head of Poison King returned and could not find his body, the demon attacked Yuriwaka by chomping on his head! The helmet protected Yuriwaka, and soon the demon head died. Since then the people fly kites celebrating Yuriwaka’s deeds high up into the heavens as a warning to any demons who might be thinking about coming down.

Statue depicting a warrior fighting a demon
Yuriwaka fighting the Poison King, statue in downtown Go-no-ura

Negotiating the seas

It has been busy recently for Japan’s three disputed territories.

Early in October China opened a new digital museum about the Senkaku Islands, and China has had coast guard vessels near the Senkakus for a record number of days this year.

Just a few days ago the “Day of Dokdo” in South Korea was to be marked by singer Kim Jang-Hoon by holding an online concert while cruising around the islets.

Two days later Russia deployed a new missile system to the Kuril Islands during military drills.

These and more are just some of the happenings in these longterm disputes that have been drawn out for decades. Luckily there have been no clashes, and the “fighting” has been mostly taking place in the legal realm. If you are looking to get a good foundation on one or more of these conflicts, check out my review Serita Kentaro’s book The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis for BooksOnAsia.net. The review is posted on BooksOnAsia.net, check it out here → Negotiating the seas

Cover for The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis

This is my first piece for BoA, and I hope to have a couple more before the year is out.

Articulate Noise — Review of Better Living Through Criticism

cover of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

For a book with “how” in the title, there is not much instruction. Better Living Through Criticism is more of a “watch me think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth” which is much more entertaining. If writing described as “pontificating” or “a meditation” does not immediately turn you off, you will probably enjoy A.O. Scott’s reference-filled critique on the practice itself.

Imagine sitting at an outside cafe on a brisk autumn Sunday morning, steam rising from three coffee cups as you look across the cold, green, metal table at your Uncle A and your other Uncle O. They both super smart, well read, and are going through a sort of mid-life crisis, questioning everything. Also, the only way they can communicate is in references, stringing together literary quotations like a pair of (Philadephia-based) conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, they have been meeting here every Sunday for weeks and still haven’t come up with any solution. But there have been lots of conclusions.

To some, this might be the worst kind of excuse-inducing scenario. I would immediate pull up my chair and take an expectant sip of coffee.

Each chapter takes on a fundamental topic (What is criticism? What is the role of the audience? What is the role of the critic? What is the business of criticism?) and is interleaved by conversational asides where Scott interviews himself, revealing more of his thinking in a sort of disarming, conversational way. (Chapter summaries here)

Although at some points the book feels like a drawn out magazine article, I do appreciate the philosophical approach he takes on the topics he covers. Although I do a lot of book and movie reviews, I have never really considered myself a critic. Better Living Through Criticism did make me think more seriously about my approach. I attempt to read every book with a critical eye and engage with the ideas within when I write about it. I want to add value, above and beyond any value judgement. This is the result of the “thinking” that goes both into criticism as into writing. A.O. Scott quotes Elizabeth Hardwick in the inaugural New York Review of Books:

“[T]he great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

H.L. Mencken declared that any good critic was motivated to “make an articulate noise in the world.” This advice I took to heart, but I was struck by Scott’s definition that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Of course this does not mean a critic should “sell” the work. Scott returns often to the “struggle between criticism and publicity” throughout: critics shouldn’t be PR or marketing, nor should they hack down everything. For Scott, if he doesn’t like a work, “the only ethical and honest course of action for me would be to remain silent and leave the discussion to others.” (I have not always followed this advice, but as you can see I read many more books than I review). For the works that are worthy, one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader. Scott describes a budding cineast who “dreams of casting a spell like the one he finds himself under.” Critics are artists too.

Better Living Through Criticism didn’t give me a map, but certainly gave me a destination to strive towards in my own practice of criticism. There are many ideas in the book to grapple with and I have a stack of notes that I will return to. Also, there are many referenced works for me to look up and appreciate next. To better living!