First of all, this is not really review of Matt Alt’s new book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. The book is great, it is a fun romp through Japanese history using the lens of some of its most popular products. Go get it, you will love it. What I want to do here is to engage with a specific set of ideas as presented in the book. As a pop history of Japan and a selection of Japanese products, I think this book is wonderful. But there is a (small) aspect of the book that I found jarring, and I think it comes down to the framing — “conquering the world.” The commentary below is pretty in the weeds (not to mention possibly pedantic), and assumes that you are familiar with the content of the book. So, if interested, go read the book, then come back and check this out. I’ll wait. 😉Continue reading “Pure Invention”
In the fight against coronavirus, some in Japan are pulling out all the stops. Kyodo reports that a temple in Kyoto recently held the Kitano Goryoe, a Shinto-Buddhist rite which hasn’t been held since since 1467. The rite originates to the 10th century, and was meant to appease Tenmantenjin (Tenjin for short), a raijin or thunder god, who rained down all sorts of terrible upon Kyoto in 903. I want to take a moment to explore a little of the history of Tenjin as I have been running into him quite often recently.
It all starts with the story of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a minister in the Heian Court, and a prodigy. He came from a family of scholars and was an accomplished poet. He held a number of posts including professor of literature for ten years and governorship of Sanuki province (modern day Kanagawa) for four. After that governorship he returned to Kyoto and was promoted to high court by the Emperor, who was trying to beat back Fujiwara influence in Heian at the time. In 901 Sugawara was outmaneuvered by the Fujiwara, who accused him of plotting against the throne, and he was stripped of all his offices by the new Fujiwara-backed Emperor and sent to Kyushu, far away from all the action in Kyoto.
Being “exiled” to the frontier lands of Kyushu was very disappointing for Sugawara Michizane. He made the long journey to Dazaifu, the seat of the Japanese government in the West at the edge of the Japanese realm, where he spent the next couple of years writing poetry protesting his innocence and lamenting his fate at being relegated to irrelevance. Within two years he died, age 58.
A few months later heavy rains started pouring in the capital of Kyoto. Lightning ravaged the city. Many Fujiwara clanspeople died and their houses burned to the ground by the lightning. Putting two and two together, the court appealed to the Emperor who destroyed the original exile letter of Sugawara Michizane, restored all of his offices, and then deified him as Tenjin, or Sky God.
Although a thunder god, eventually Tenjin became worshipped as a deity of poetry, scholarship, and letters, in respect to the skills of Sugawara Michizane.
Kitano-tenmangu shrine was built in 947 and backed by the government as an insurance policy against future pandemics. This is a very prominent shrine in northern Kyoto that I would pass through nearly every day on my commute when I worked at Ritsumeikan University many years ago. I have been to many festivals and events there.
Last week I was in Fukuoka, where I came upon Suikyō Jinja (水鏡神社), “Water Mirror Shrine”, built on the location where Sugawara was said to have stopped to use the local water to look at his face. Later a shrine was built there and dedicated to Tenjin, and it is said this is where the name of Fukuoka’s downtown core neighbourhood came from (I am talking about Tenjin, obviously).
Sugawara Michizane’s grave is located near Dazaifu, the seat of the old western government where he died. On his gravesite is now is the sprawling Dazaifu Tenmangū, a shrine dedicated to Tenjin.
Below is a video from last week I took of the walk from Dazaifu station, through a fairly empty shopping street, and into Dazaifu Tenmangū where a prayer ceremony is being held.
Near the Tenmangū is a museum that has many artefacts related to Sugawara Michizane, including what is said to be his carrying sword, which has been handed down to the head priest of Dazaifu Tenmangu for generations.
Note the distinct ship of the grip. This is known as a “tweezer shaped handle” sword (毛抜形太刀) and is representative of swords in that era, before the invention of the famous Japanese katana.
The news of priests in Kyoto invoking Tenjin at a temple I visited often in my twenties, stood out to me as I am here in Kyushu seeing his legacy first hand in my forties. History, whether mythical or personal, has a way of coming around. Here’s to Tenjin helping us all with coronavirus. 🙏 ⛩️
[This is a long post. At the very bottom is a condensed list of lessons learned if you do not have the time to spare.]
Since the typhoon was due to strike on the Monday, we started shopping for supplies on Friday morning. The 9th typhoon of the season, Maysak, had just passed a couple of days ago. We deployed the rain shutters and slept all together in the large guest room, 8 tatami mats, as the wind rattled and rain battered the house. Our house is very well built, so weren’t too worried. But the next typhoon, Haishen, was supposed to be way bigger. It was dubbed a Super Typhoon.
The North Pacific typhoon season has an annual average of 30 typhoons. Of those only about eight will hit Okinawa and the southern islands, usually petering out or veering away at the southern tip of Kyushu. About three will make it further to strike at northern Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu.
The more I went around town to pick up supplies, the more I saw people boarding up their stores and taping their windows, and the more rumours I heard about how this was a “once in a 30 year storm” or “No! Once in a 100 years!”
On Friday afternoon, the kids came home with a letter: school on Monday was cancelled due to the approaching typhoon. Things were getting serious. Haishen was massive, and the nightly news showed endlessly looped footage of historical typhonic destruction. The townspeople were getting anxious. Historically this area had never been hit bad, but with global warming, who knew what to expect? I certainly had no clue. Even though I lived in Japan for eight years, I was far from the truly destructive effects of a typhoon. Living in Kyoto and Nagoya, a typhoon to me was a massive rain storm that meant you needed to take an extra set of clothes and shoes to work, as you would likely be ankle deep in water and totally soaked when you arrived. Typhoon Number 9 hit in the middle of the night, so we barely experienced it. Although we had done some disaster prep, it felt like a practice run for Haishen who had our little island right in the sight of its menacingly calm Eye.Continue reading “First island typhoon experience”
This is a quick tutorial on how to easily type macrons on Apple devices with a hardware keyboard. The onscreen keyboard on the iPad makes this easy, but not when you are using an external hardware keyboard.
This will be particularly relevant to academics needing to write Japanese terms in rōmaji. I searched the web and found all sorts of non-solutions, either out of date or irrelevant, so I am putting this up on the web for others to find. As of 2020, this is the best way.
Hat tip to Hiromu Nagahara on Twitter who told me the answer: set all your input sources to ABC-Extended. This allows you to use Opt+A to insert a macron before you type a vowel.
First, for macOS go to System Preferences → Keyboard → Input Sources, hit the plus button and choose ABC – Extended.
This used to be called US Extended, but thankfully they made the name more neutral. It won’t mess up your spellcheck settings, which are actually set in from the Text pane of the Keyboard settings. See below.
Now you can use the Opt+A keyboard shortcut to add a macron:
On your iPad you can do a similar thing. Tap on Settings → General → Keyboard → Hardware Keyboard then your language — mine is English (Canada) — and select ABC – Extended.
Now the Opt+A keyboard shortcut works on your iPad’s hardware keyboard too!
It is the last day of summer break. The kids’ school here on Iki had a 3 week summer holiday, shortened by the school missed in April due to coronavirus measures. Although our break was shorted by a couple of weeks, we are lucky. Some schools only got 9 days. We are also lucky to be going back to school. In my home province in Canada, some kids have not physically been at school for more than six months!
We travelled back to Kyoto for Obon during the break. We visited the family grave, I picked up a charm I needed from the 10th century occultist Abe no Seimei (photos), and I also did my first “anime pilgrimage” to Omi-jingu inspired by the show Chihayafuru (photos). Other than Kyoto we spent a day in Fukuoka (photos), took a couple trips to the local beaches on Iki, and got shocked by the biggest live jumbo shrimp ever (photos and video). We had an eventful summer holiday.
Which of course meant I did almost no work…
At the beginning I was really beating myself up for not hitting my daily reading/writing goals… not checking off the chapters and watching the inbox of papers pile up. I had a good number of blog posts right up until school let out. I tried getting up extra early, and doing things before the kids got out of bed — but I was so tired out from the 42 degree heat and travel throughout the day that I needed my sleep. Plus, it was summer holidays! I realized that even though I “work from home” and keep my own hours, I am still allowed to take time off.
So I let go… played with the kids, helped them with their summer homework, painted with them, and watched some movies (including Knives Out which freaked them out a little, but it was all I had on my iPad and we had limited internet access), and made memories with them. I also got to read some books just for fun, without taking notes in my zettelkasten!
And the great thing is, while I was not stuck in the details, buried up to my eyeballs in footnotes during my daily research, my brain was still working.
Before break I was having trouble with the progress of the book. Finding the right narrative for a travelogue is tough when everyone is isolating and you cannot follow the serendipitous lifepaths of strangers you meet on the roads. In Iran it was chance meetings that allowed me to meet a both a self-declared “Islamic terrorist” and an Armenian Christian who taught me an important lesson about being a religious minority. These kinds of random encounters have somewhat dried up during the pandemic. Before the break I was struggling with the dryness of the manuscript. It was reading more like a white paper from the OECD. During the summer break I had a chance to get some distance which lead to some insight and somewhat of a breakthrough. I am excited to get back to writing, and I have learned the lesson of taking summer breaks seriously even while having lots of fun cavorting about the countryside, splashing in the ocean, making dumb jokes and laughing with my kids!
In 1971 a surprising archeological discovery was made on Iki island: the remains of a stegadon (in fact, the remains of two). While mammoths and mastodons have shaggy hair, stegadons have hide like modern elephants and their tusks go outward, which also is apparently different than other prehistoric elephants. Here is a picture of me hanging out with one… well a statue of one:
It’s a fun statue for visitors to take pics in front of. But right beside the stegadon is an art museum dedicated to a famous artist born on Iki: Koganemaru Ikuhisa (小金丸幾久). Born in 1915, Koganemaru has pieces all over Japan. You might be familiar with the “Oath of Peace” outside of Ōimachi St in Shinagawa (Tokyo). Or if you have been to Sasebo on Kyushu, you might have seen the massive statue at the Urakami Repatriation Peace Park (here are some Google Images of it… it is very much in Koganemaru’s style of abstract women). I haven’t been to that repatriation site but I have visited the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum where 6.6M Japanese landed from Manchuria and Soviet improsonment after WWII. Anyways, a couple of months ago I was in Omura city and stopped to see a statue depicting the first Japanese embassy to Europe, a group of 12 year old boys who went over in the late 16th C. Turns out this piece too was a Koganemaru! I didn’t know that until I walked into his memorial hall on Iki, close to that stegadon. Prehistorically predetermined?
Below are some samples of his work on display in the hall. (These pics are all on Flickr as well if you want to see them bigger.)
All the above are life-size, except the Meiji emperor who is 2x. As you can see Koganemaru primarily worked in metal. It is quite stunning to see these in person, and not being a connoisseur, I have no idea how he made them. There are quite a few effects showing off his different techniques.
Koganemaru’s last statue, erected in 1997, is just across the bay from my house. It is of Shōni Suketoki, a local hero who saw his first battle against invading Mongols at the age of 12. In the second Mongol invasion at Iki, at the age of 18, he led a force to once again defend Japan. This time he was killed in battle. A local park is named after him, and his epic statue is right at the front of the Ashibe ferry terminal.
Statues in Japan actually have a very interesting history. If you want to learn a little more about public history and monuments, check out this podcast on the politics of public statues and monuments in Japan with Dr. Sven Saaler →
The 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb was a couple of days ago. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki 75 years ago today, on 9 August 1945 at 11:02.
I was in Nagasaki a couple of weeks ago and stopped at the hypocenter monument pictured above. The black monolith points up where at 500 meters the bomb exploded, killing a third (75,000 people) of the city and injuring another third. At least 182k deaths have been attributed to the bomb.
There are a number of displays at the hypocenter, including this heart-rending statue:
She looks out onto a plaza that is covered in chalk scribbles — like what you would see on an EKG readout. The lines cover the whole plaza, all leading towards the hypocenter. Here and there a small section has a chalk frame and a number.
Turns out this is an AR art installation by Shinpei Takeda. You download the app and point it at those special markers and you can hear the stories and see pictures of the aftermath. Take a look at this video to see a quick demonstration.
Further up the hill is the Nagasaki Peace Park, filled with statues made by local artists and gifted from countries around the world in sorrow and solidarity.
They call Hiroshima “The City of Monuments”, but Nagasaki has its fair share. On this 75th anniversary, spare a thought for the second and last city in all of human history to be the victim of an atomic weapon.
The term ritō means “remote island.” Japan has lots of remote islands. When living on islands like this there are some things you need to take account of such as transportation to and from the island. Iki Island has three main ways to get on and off the island:
- Jetfoil: this is the high speed hydrofoil that leaves from two of the ports on the island, and connects us to Fukuoka, the biggest city on Kyushu (1.5MM population). Time: about 1 hour
- Ferry: there are a few ferries that operate from all three ports. Two routes go to Fukuoka, and one to Karatsu, in Saga prefecture. Time: about 2 hours
- Air: Twice daily are flights from Iki to Nagasaki Airport. Time: about 20 minutes
In the other direction, you can catch a ferry or a jetfoil to Tsushima Island from which you can head on to Korea. The boats that go to Tsushima from Fukuoka have a stopover on Iki.
Of course, if you had a boat yourself you could probably make the trip to the Kyushu mainland, but these three modes of transportation are the usual way people and products go to and fro.
The jetfoil is pretty quick so people take it on day trips to Fukuoka all the time. Some islands are very remote, but Iki is lucky to be so close to the biggest city in Kyushu. It is like a bus from the suburbs: you jump on and in an hour you are in the big city for shopping and good eats. You can catch the afternoon jetfoil back, or even catch the late night ferry back if you want to stay out a little longer. The parking lots at the terminals are free for locals, so people just park their car for the day, or for a few days, or even a week or more while they are away on the mainland.
Locals also get the benefit of something called the “Islander Card” (島民カード), or more literally the “Frontier Remote Island Islander Discount Card”. This is a residency card that gives you all sorts of benefits, the best being travel to and from the island at about half price. A flight to Nagasaki is normally about $100 but only $50 for me.
The Islander Card system is run by the prefecture of Nagasaki, which Iki is part of. It is one of the ways that islanders benefit from all the development money that flows from the national government to support the remote islands (more on that in the future). Another thing we get from the Nagasaki prefectural government that connects us to civilization is access to the interlibrary loan system. I can use the amazing Mirai On prefectural library and get books shipped over to one of our small libraries on the island for pickup.
So, hydrofoil, ferry, and plane, those are your options. Of course, weather being weather, these often get interrupted. It was my first time here when I learned the term 欠航 kekkou, which is “flight cancellation” but is also used for ships. When we first came to the island back in January the seas were too rough due to wind, and our jetfoil was redirected to a southern port. Then on the way back, our jetfoil was cancelled completely, and we had to take the ferry. The ferry being bigger and heavier, can withstand a lot more weather wise. But even then it can be cancelled. When it does, the island doesn’t get that days newspaper, and a bread shortage will happen.
Out here on the ocean fog and mist can be a big deal, and this causes flight cancellations all the time. A few weeks back, when I was to take my first flight to Nagasaki, the plane was cancelled due to visibility concerns. I had to postpone for a few days.
The planes that service Iki are Dash 8s, operated by ORC — Oriental Air Bridge — which has a codeshare with ANA. The Dash 8 can only haul just under 40 people, so they are quite small, and I don’t think there is a ton of instrumentation.
The flight to Nagasaki is just 20 minutes, and the route is Nagasaki to Iki and back. Even if there is iffy weather they load up all the passengers and cargo in Nagasaki, then take off, then come over to Iki, fly around for a bit and wait and see if there is an opportunity to land, and if not, head back to Nagasaki. I was waiting in the lounge, having passed security and everything, when they cancelled my flight. It was a bit annoying, but probably not as bad as the poor people who were stuck in the plane and had to go back to their starting point!
With cancellations being pretty common, all of these travel agencies, and even the hotels on the mainland are pretty forgiving in terms of refunding or rescheduling. I don’t have a ton of experience, but so far every time it has happened to me, all the companies involved have been very understanding.
Iki Island is a great place because it is self reliant: fish, rice, beef, freshwater, and electricity are all produced on the island — great for emergency preparedness (knock-on-wood for the coronapocalypse). However, with such a small population (26k) it can be a little inconvenient for getting certain products. There are no malls here… not even a McDonalds or a Starbucks… never mind an Apple Store. Having a few daily ferries, jetfoils, and planes each day means that you can get products shipped pretty easily and quickly, you just have to watch out for the ritō price — a lot of places will charge you extra to ship here. Luckily, Amazon Prime actually includes Iki so we tend to order things from there if possible.
Inspired by his recent interview in Japan on the Record I sought out some of Professor John G. Russell’s work on race in Japan. In his analysis on the Nissin whitewash scandal last year, this extraordinary paragraph:
Even though the Japanese have been seen to whitewash themselves, it hasn’t been simply a matter of skin color and that is why the term “whitewashing,” at least in the Japanese context, is inadequate and misleading. After all, the Japanese have traditionally viewed their own skin color as white, as did early European missionaries and merchants to the country, whose accounts of the Japanese they encountered were otherwise devoid of descriptions of their physical appearance. Indeed, according to University of Haifa professor Rotem Kowner in “From White to Yellow” (2014), it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the Japanese came to be seen — and eventually came to see themselves, at least rhetorically — as members of “the yellow race.”
Hence in lightening Naomi Osaka’s countenance, Nissin was not trying to minimize her blackness but possibly trying to emphasize her Japanese-ness. Ironic.
In fact, Russell refers to anthropologists Hiroshi Wagatsuma and Toshinao Yoneyama who point out:
Japanese have not only traditionally viewed their skin as white but that they view the texture and color of their skin, smooth and unblemished with freckles, as purer and more aesthetically appealing than Caucasian whiteness.
This might sound wacky to Westerners, but only proves (once again) how race is a social construct, not a fixed reality. For example, “whiteness” has gone through many iterations. From my review of The History of White People:
The ranking and re-ranking of people by those at the top of society is highly dependant on the prevailing political winds and threats to the position of the elite. During the first World War, the Germans were down-ranked out of whitehood, and soon Americans were to worry about “Soviets” and “the feebleminded Juke-Kallikak-Polish-Russian-Jewish-French-Canadian-mongrelized-Alpine Under-Man.” Later, as America faced immigration “crises” from Asia and Eastern Europe, the Irish and Italians, previously outsiders, were invited into whiteness. The race to whiteness is competitive and relativistic.
John G. Russell’s piece shows how as the Japanese were introduced to Western race theory, they were constructing themselves, and also how the result was unique and independent from the West. Racial constructs are not universal (though they are universally wrong).
Last year I discovered the excellent UBC Meiji at 150 Podcast. I was late to the discovery, but enjoyed working through the 120 episode backlog. Since then the host of the show, Dr. Tristan Grunow of Yale University, has gone on to create Japan On the Record, a show where scholars of Japan can share insight into the news of the day. I really love this as an idea, and I think these kinds of podcasts are probably the best thing that universities can do to for public engagement. But I digress. Today I wanted merely to celebrate Dr. Grunow’s recent efforts on the podcast in light of the death of George Floyd and the most recent wave of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has had a great turnout in Japan.
Starting with his powerful 8 minute 46 second “silence” episode, Dr. Grunow has recently been featuring a series of Black scholars of Japan, and just like with the Meiji 150 podcast, JOTR is introducing me to all sorts of different research that I would not be aware of if I stayed merely within my own narrow interests.
Long ago, as a student in Japan, living in an international dorm and being othered for the first time, it didn’t take me long to see where I as a white guy was on the racial hierarchy in Japan when compared to my classmates of Black, East or Southeast Asian, or Filipino heritage. (Which in turn, helped me to better see the racial hierarchy in Canada. What is that famous quote about travel teaching you more about own country?). Take a listen to some of the following episodes below that dig much deeper into Japan’s relationship to Blackness, and subscribe to Japan on the Record1 for future episodes to widen your perspective about this country.
Please take a listen to the following episodes (and subscribe for future ones!) to learn more about Japan’s relationship to Blackness:
- Dr. John G. Russell gives historical perspective on how the Japanese were introduced to Black people, and also a very enlightening interpretation of that Nissin commercial with Naomi Osaka. Link →
- A roundtable of Black scholars on Japan, and their experiences studying Japan differ in Japan compared to the US, where Japan studies is oft-considered a “white space.” Link →
- Dr. Reginald Jackson breaks down that NHK video, Japanese depictions of Black people, and discussing Japanese adoption of Black culture. Link →
- Black Okinawan biracial communities, and how oppressed Okinawans showed solidarity with Black Americans, with Dr. Mitzi Uehara Carter Link →
- Dr. Marvin Sterling talks about minority communities in Japan, and how they use Reggae as an expression of identity. Link →
- Non-disclaimer: I am not affiliated with this podcast or Dr. Grunow. I am just a fan who wants to share this show far and wide! ↩