Reflections

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Witches and Demons on the Road to Olympic Glory

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/07/2021 - 1:27am in

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Published in Japan Forward 22/7/2021

The Witches of the Orient (directed by Julien Faraut, 2021).

“We thought we would have to leave the country if we lost,” recollects a member of the female volleyball team that represented Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “We seriously talked about going to Romania.”

Some highly remunerated present-day sports stars complain about the mental stress they undergo. Imagine the weight of expectation on this group of young factory workers nineteen years after the end of World War Two.

Japan had proposed two new sports to be added to the Olympic roster – judo, Japan’s national sport, and volleyball. Earlier in the day of their final, the female volleyballers had watched Japan’s open weight judo champion being crushed, quite literally, by the much bigger Dutchman, Anton Geesink, in the hallowed grounds of the Kodokan, the Mecca of judo.

The whole idea of judo is that technique and konjo (fighting spirit) beat bulk and muscle, but Geesink’s victory put that principle in doubt. Volleyball, on the other hand, clearly favours the physical attribute of height. For the shorter, slighter Japanese players to triumph over the Soviet Union’s team would require buckets of konjo, impeccable technique and new, creative tactics.

As history tells, the “witches” delivered and wiped away the humiliation of the judo defeat.

Not only did they beat the Soviets under the gaze of then Crown Princess Michiko and set off a multi-decade boom in volleyball. Not only did 67% of TV-owning households tune in to the match from the beginning, with 85% watching the climactic minutes, thus creating a national moment that validated sport as a symbol of communal identity.

Perhaps most important of all, they showed that konjo really does work when applied intelligently.

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Japan’s female volleyball team were first dubbed “witches of the orient” by the Soviet press during their three month tour of Europe in 1961 – though the Russian word used (charodeika) can also mean “fairy”.

Given the standard depictions of witches in the media, it didn’t seem a flattering designation when picked up by Japanese reporters.  But to director Julien Faraut, it had a positive vibe.

In a recent interview, he states “I love to see people that practically have supernatural powers, because they are the only people in the world that can achieve such moves and creativity in their sport.”

All of the witches worked for the textile company Nichibo (now Unitika), which was renowned for its volleyball team. Despite their sporting prowess, the athletes received no special treatment. They were required to be ready for a day’s work in the factory at 8 a.m., although intensive training sessions, supervised by their legendary coach Hirofumi Daimatsu, went on deep into the night and, on occasions, until dawn.

Konjo in action Konjo in action

In early 1964, the American magazine Sports Illustrated ran an exposé on the team titled “Driven Beyond Dignity.” Reaching back to wartime stereotypes, the journalist pronounced himself “chilled by the fanatical striving” and “the grim wild eyed intensity of the coach.”

In the above interview, Faraut offers a totally different perspective. In contrast to the usual narrative about Japan’s “backward” treatment of women, he notes that in those days female athletes in the west were not supposed to undergo the same gruelling training sessions as men.

In other words, Coach Daimatsu was a pioneer in the field of women’s sport. Interestingly, in the UK the film is being distributed by Modern Films, a company dedicated to female empowerment.

Daimatsu was known as a “demon” in Japan, but Japanese demons are not necessarily evil or dangerous. Anyone who is single-minded or meticulous can be described as one. In the case of a top-level sports coach, it’s a compliment.

After joining Nichibo in 1941, Daimatsu was drafted into the Japanese army and found himself in the middle of Japan’s disastrous Imphal campaign in Burma. One of the few survivors, he made his way along the “white bones road” back to Thailand and post-war life. Despite the rigour of his training regime, he was soft-spoken and calm.

As several team-members noted, he was a handsome man. The volleyballers were mostly war babies. One was born in an air-raid shelter. Of the six witches who played in the final, only two had both parents alive. From the way they talk about him today, it is clear that they saw him as a father figure. Not one has a bad word to say about him and his methods.

Sadly, Daimatsu passed away fourteen years after the Olympic triumph. In the film, there is a haunting expression on his face as the team members celebrate with tears of joy. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t look happy at all. Perhaps he was imagining life without a goal to inspire him. Perhaps he was imagining a society without a goal to inspire it.

Unquestionably, Daimatsu was a brilliant and innovative coach. He came up with the “rolling receive” tactic, apparently a taking hint from wooden “Daruma” dolls which bounce back when tipped over.

Daruma doll workshop Daruma doll workshop

More important, he instilled a huge dose of konjo in the team – or what might be called “winning mentality,” a trait shared by the greats in all sports.

“We were confident we were going to win,” says the late Kinuko Tanida. “It was due to the discipline and harshness of the training sessions that we became so strong.”

Faraut is in charge of the film archive at the French Institute of Sport, but is also an acolyte of Chris Marker, the great avant garde director and Japanophile. His first film, A New Look at Olympia ’52, is a homage  to Marker that includes footage of Marker’s rarely seen documentary on the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Faraut’s 2018 release, John McEnroe: In The Realm of Perfection, portrays the tennis champion as a kind of performance artist.

The Witches of the Orient is no ordinary sports documentary either. There is no voice-over, but plenty of throbbing music to convey the atmosphere. Faraut mashes up revealing and inspiring interview footage of the surviving team members today, extracts from the Japanese volleyball anime which he watched as a boy in the 1980s and colour film of the witches training in the early sixties.

Those scenes were taken from a short film by female director Nobuko Shibuya which was shown at Cannes in 1964. Faraut adds some computer-generated trickery to create an astonishing sequence that cuts rapidly between anime and Daimatsu hurling volleyballs at the witches like grenades.

Appropriately, the musical backing is Machine Gun by UK trip-hop band Portishead. In a recent live Q&A, Faraut spoke of a “female dimension” shared by the witches and Portishead’s introverted but powerful singer, Beth Gibbons.

He clearly enjoys overturning gender stereotypes, as in the opening sequence of a cartoon samurai rushing to save a helpless lady from a monster. Reality can be very different from expectations, as the unfortunate samurai finds out.

Training scene from Shibuya's short film Training scene from Shibuya’s short film

Author Robert Whiting was at the 1964 Olympics. In his recently published memoir, Tokyo Junkie, he recalls the witches as follows: “their bruising eleven-hour-a-day practice regimen over a period of two years was seen to symbolize the dogged resurgence of the Japanese economy, short on resources but full of fighting spirit.”

The witches and their demon coach certainly had a galvanizing effect on Japan and the wider world, to the extent that a young French movie director chose to film their story over half a century later. Not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a celebration of the enduring magic of sport – and, by extension, human possibility.

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What will digital life be like in 2035?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/07/2021 - 12:48am in

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The Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center regularly conducts surveys of stakeholders to assess the likely future of digital life.

The 2021 survey is focusing on insights about the evolution of digital spaces and whether or not there will be improvements in those spaces in the coming years when it comes to the overall good of society.

I’m sharing my responses to some of the prompts in order to promote open scholarship. I also want to challenge others to think about these prompts.

How do you imagine this transformation of digital spaces and digital life will take place? What reforms or initiatives may have the biggest impact? What beneficial role do you see tech leaders and/or politicians and/or public audiences playing in this evolution? What will be noticeably improved about digital life for the average user 2035? What current problems do you see being diminished? Which will persist and continue to raise major concerns?

Considering the negatives

As technology advances, there will continue to be positives and negatives that impact the ways in which the Internet and communication technologies impact the lives of average users. 

One of the biggest challenges is that the systems and algorithms that control these digital spaces have largely become unintelligible. For the most part, the decisions that are made in our apps and platforms are only fully understood by a handful of individuals. As machine learning continues to advance, and corporations rely on AI to make decisions, these processes will become even less understood by the developers in control…let alone the average user interacting in these spaces. 

This negatively impacts users as we fully do not understand the forces that impact our digital lives or the data that is collected and aggregated about us. As result, individuals use these texts, tools, and spaces without fully understanding, or questioning the decisions made or being made therein. The end result is a populace that does not possess or chooses not to employ the basic skills and responsibilities needed to engage in digital spaces. 

I fear the tech leaders and politicians will view the data collection, and opportunities to influence or mislead citizens as a valuable commodity. Digital spaces provide a way to connect and unite communities from a variety of ideological strains. Online social spaces also provide an opportunity to fine-tune propaganda to sway the population in specific contexts. 

As we study human development and awareness this intersects with ontology and epistemology. When technologies advance, humans are forced to reconcile their existing understandings of the world with the moral and practical implications said technologies can (or should) have in their lives. Post-Patriot Act era—and in light of Edward Snowden’s National Security Administration whistleblowing—this also begets a need to understand the role of web literacies as a means of empowering or restricting the livelihood of others. Clashes over privacy, security, and identity can have a chilling impact on individual willingness to share, create, and connect using open, digital tools, and we need to consider how our recommendations for the future are inevitably shaped by worries and celebrations of the moment.

In the end, I think most users will either surrender to these digital, social spaces and all of their positive and negative affordances. There will be a small subset that chooses to educate themselves and use digital tools in a way that they believe will safely allow them to connect while obfuscating their identity and related metadata.  

Considering the positives

Our world is increasingly dictated by algorithms. These algorithms complex algorithms drive, direct, and govern children’s experiences have not been constructed with their needs and interests in mind. Children represent an especially marginalized and vulnerable population who are exposed to high levels of poverty and inequality while being dependent on adults to structure their experiences and opportunities. Big tech and policymakers have a responsibility to consider the rights and needs of children. Instead, the burden is most often placed on families, educators, and community leaders to understand, support, guide, and regulate children’s access to media, information, and social connection.

Children live in and shape a connected world where they have the ability to consume and create literally at their fingertips. We need to prepare them to be lifelong learners with the skills they need to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate through digital technologies. Youth must also navigate the realities of a digital world in which every time they log into an app on a device they are using at school, they leave a data trail. 

We also know they engage in the affordances of digital technologies often through the price of their privacy. At the same time, we know that developing digital literacy includes the understanding that algorithms drive users to particular content. Children’s worldviews can be limited by geofencing and other algorithmic tools that are driven by for-profit purposes.

Even with all of these challenges, I am hopeful for the future of digital life for the average user in 2035 because of what I’m seeing as youth interact online. As adults seemingly do not understand how to effectively and critically use these texts and tools, in many ways youth are shown to be thoughtful, perhaps skeptical, users of tools and spaces. As youth leverage digital texts to restory their narratives, or engage in activist practices, they are documenting strategies to engage with algorithms and drive offline policies and behaviors. The hope is that we can protect them long enough to develop as more critical and aware consumers and creators in digital spaces.

No matter how you’ve answered the previous questions, we invite you to imagine a better world online: What is one example of an aspect of digital life that you think could be different in 2035 than it is today? We invite you to create a vignette of something you would like to see taking place in a “new and improved” digital realm in 2035. Your example might involve politics or social activities or jobs or physical and mental health or community life or education. Feel free to think expansively – and specifically.

As we consider the online and offline literacy practices that our students will need as future events warrant, the one constant is change. Our digital futures will be fluid, deictic, and ambiguous in nature. This means that tomorrow is not only subject to change, but it also the day that we should start dreaming or preparing for yesterday. Some of the spaces and places in which we currently exist online will cease to be relevant. New as-yet undeveloped literacies, technologies, and practices will soon take root. This requires a continual re-examination of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions utilized as we read and write the web. 

As an educator and researcher, what this means to me is that we need our schools to create cognitively flexible individuals that are nimble enough to handle any digital contexts, while empowered to create new possibilities. This means that we should not spend time in our classrooms teaching children how to best leverage social network spaces like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. We must agree that our dreams and aspirations for what would become of the web have largely gone unrealized or quickly become bastardized and tainted. Youth should have the opportunity to use these tools, or ignore these tools as they see fit. 

I dream of a future where youth have opportunities to move from consumers to producers of digital content. This means that they build skills necessary to critically consume digital content, curate what is important or relevant to their purposes, and then create digital content and write their narrative into existence. Youth would have the opportunity to learn and grow in digital spaces without foolish notions of something living forever online and coming back to ruin their lives. Youth would have opportunities to examine and understand code as they consider the ways in which these algorithms and tools impact their lives. Users in digital contexts would be able to easily understand and switch on or off the signals and data they are sharing with others. Just the same way you can turn on or off wifi or Airplane mode on your mobile device, users could control cookies, tracking elements, and web history. All of this would lead to an empowered individual that can effectively read, write, and participate online. 

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

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Thank You. I’m Sorry.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/07/2021 - 2:41am in

Last week we had our first meeting of the BARWE 2021 Summer Series. We were joined by representatives from Black Lives Matter at School.

In this post, I’ll identify two of my lessons learned from this first session that I’ll try to work into my everyday interactions with culturally diverse communities and individuals. In these two areas, I’ll work to identify it in my behaviors, work to correct it, and then maintain it in my daily interactions.

Communication isn’t as simple as just saying what you mean. How you talk and interact with others differs from one individual to the next. This is because language is learned social behavior and how we talk and listen is deeply influenced by our cultural experiences. The ways in which we normally or naturally communicate are usually only normal and natural or us or the groups in which we interact.

Although we might think that our ways of saying things are neutral, but they are often viewed in different ways by others. Judgments about confidence can be inferred only from the way people present themselves, and much of that presentation is in the form of talk. In this post, I’ll talk about my usage of Thank You and I’m Sorry.

Thank You

One of the speakers on our panel brought up the desire we all have to hear someone else thank us for the work we’ve done.

This could be in a workplace setting or interacting with family or friends. In the context of this session, it was around the expectation that some white people have as they try to do the work and engage with anti-bias or anti-racist critical, reflective practices.

While we’re at work, we do our job. We don’t wait for the boss to come over and thank us for showing up. As a parent, my partner and I don’t expect our kids to thank us for knocking out the mortgage or keep the lights on. We should just engage in our work, and not expect people to be there to thank us for showing up.

A “thank you” is a complicated topic. On the surface, the “thanker” is seeking to celebrate another. There are also some assumptions made in the act. It implies that the thanker is conferring approval on another’s actions since they’re in charge. This establishes or challenges power dynamics and the culture of the interaction.

I’m Sorry

I have a really bad habit of saying I’m sorry. I regularly say that I’m sorry for events that I wasn’t even involved with.

As an example, when advising students, we’ll often chit-chat at the beginning of a session and they’ll bring up some complaints. For some reason, I feel like to need to apologize or find some way to address or fix the solution.

I’ll most likely still work to help others address a problem or situation. But, I need to stop saying that I’m sorry.

In her book, Beverly Engel suggests that over-apologizing sends the message that you lack confidence and are ineffectual. It can also lessen the impact of future apologies. Research suggests that it lessens my self-esteem and it really just irritates people.

When you say “sorry” you’re not making assumptions about another person’s actions but communicating your own feeling, which is all you can really be sure about.

Finding Gratitude

Saying I’m Sorry and waiting for Thank You are cultural components that we need to pay attention to and change the ways in which we interact. These social transactions are a way to center ourselves in the power dynamic and take up space.

Please note, there is an important time, tone, and place for apologies in our everyday interactions. We’ve also recognized the need to privilege care as our lives are disrupted by events in and out of our control. Little challenges constantly arise and expressing gratitude does some of the work worthwhile.

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

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Memoir and the Creative Process

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/06/2021 - 2:33am in

In a recent post, I discussed some of my challenges with mental health and depression.

I have been thinking about writing about this for some time, mainly as a way to reflect and make sense of it.

I always put it off as I was concerned about what others would say. There is the hesitance to not get too real with others. I was worried that people would look at me differently, or measure their words and be gentle around me.

The truth is that I’m absolutely fine. I needed to come to terms with some skeletons in the closet. The funny thing about skeletons in the closet is that when you don’t deal with them…they not only stick around, but they start lifting weights and getting stronger.

I’m fine. If I wasn’t…I wouldn’t have written that post.

Finding Gifts in the Suffering

One of the pieces that inspired me to write the post and share more about myself was this interview with Mary Karr on the Tim Ferriss Show.

Mary Karr is the author of three award-winning, bestselling memoirs (The Liars’ Club, Cherry, Lit). She is also the author of The Art of Memoir, which details her own process as she breaks down the craft of memoir, and Tropic of Squalor, her latest volume of poetry.

Listening to Karr, I continued to think about the challenges of writing and creating digital content. We’re always trying to position ourselves a certain way. There’s a certain amount of concern in how much we share about ourselves.

I reflected on my experiences guiding individuals in K-12 and in higher ed as they write, and develop a digital identity. My guidance has always indicated that they have a choice to share as much about themselves as possible. I indicated that I strive to be as open as possible. That is not entirely true.

I realized that I wasn’t being real on this blog. I have almost 500 posts just on this blog. My newsletter has about 300 issues to this date. While talking with a friend after my last post, we both agreed that I’m not truly myself in my writing in these spaces. I’m a facsimile of what I think others want to see from me.

I’ll try to use this blog as a way to be honest with myself…and my readers. We don’t always recognize the gifts we’re given by suffering through disappointing and difficult times until long after the fact. I chose to not ignore trauma from my past and only share in person with those close to me.

Keeping It Real

After I wrote up and shared the post, I had a number of friends and colleagues reach out on social media, or through private channels to thank me for being brave and sharing. I honestly just wanted to share my story, and hopefully, this would normalize discussions about mental health.

I also took some time (thanks to COVID) to think about what is important in my life. I decided that I matter. I also decided that my partner and children matter. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of friends that I value deeply. But, at the end of the day, I realized that if my partner and kids were okay with me sharing…it’s ok.

There is some danger in this work. As Karr indicates in the interview, “everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.”

Some of these posts will show me to be a fraud and a fool. Some will show me to be a human being trying to figure things out. Sometimes I’ll get it right. Many other times I’ll be completely wrong.

As I make space for more of my memories in my writing, I’ll remember that our memories are not a perfect storage system. It is a filter of who we are. As I write about how I perceive things in the world, it’ll be a reflection of my landscape and the filters that keep me from truly seeing what is going on.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The post Memoir and the Creative Process first appeared on Dr. Ian O'Byrne.

Goodbye to the Future: The Last Days of the Nakagin Capsule Tower

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 08/05/2021 - 8:31am in

Published in Japan Forward 7/5/2021

On the western fringe of Tokyo’s Ginza district, you can find a bizarre structure that looks like something from Logan’s Run or some other half-forgotten SF movie of bygone years.

It consists of an asymmetric pile of identical concrete boxes, each with a large circular window that stares out at the world like an impassive eye.

There are 145 of these boxes, which are living spaces designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa. In 1972, they were trucked one by one to the site from a factory in Shizuoka and bolted to the twin central towers. They have been hanging in the air there ever since.

DSCF0506

This icon of Japan’s architectural avant garde is the Nakagin Capsule Tower. If you are interested in viewing it, you had better hurry. The word is that the new owner of the Nakagin company has secured enough votes from capsule owners to go ahead with a large-sale redevelopment scheme. If so, the entire building and its unremarkable neighbours are destined for demolition.

Such a fate would be sad, but inevitable and in some way instructive. The Nakagin symbolizes the boldness and imagination of the era that spawned it, but also the impracticality. There are lessons to be learnt from that too.

Kurokawa was a leading light of the “metabolist” movement which believed that buildings should be dynamic and adaptable like the city itself. Thus, he envisaged the individual capsules being replaced every twenty five years. Ironically, forty nine years after the Nakagin was completed, not a single capsule has been replaced, while the city around it has changed out of all recognition.

In 1972, you could gaze out of your round window –  inspired, apparently, by traditional tea ceremony houses – and watch the sun setting over Mount Fuji.  Today, far from being the highest building in the area, the Nakagin is overshadowed by the enormous, ultra-modern Shiodome complex. Back then, indeed until the mid-1980s, that area was home to a sprawling railway freight yard.

The inner window opens, but not the outer The inner window opens, but not the outer…. Photo N.W.

Why haven’t the capsules been replaced? Their only point of contact with the rest of the structure are the two high-tension retaining bolts. Yet the tiny space – about six inches –  between the capsules suggests that removing just one would be an excruciatingly complicated business. Water-pipes running through each unit would add to the logistical nightmare.

The window shielded from prying eyes... The window shielded from prying eyes… Photo N.W.

Effectively, all the capsules would need to be replaced at once, but such a communal decision has proved impossible to achieve, given the varying opinions of all the owners and the different states of repair of their capsules. The total cost per unit of a full refurbishment is estimated at around ten million yen ($92,000), roughly the same as the current market value of a capsule.

Such human complexity was never part of the vision of the future favoured by avant garde thinkers of the sixties and seventies. They assumed that people would be as modular and uniform as the concrete capsules.

Kurokawa, who passed away in 2007, was an intellectual and something of a celebrity, particularly after his marriage to the luminous film star, Ayako Wakao, the Jeanne Moreau of Japan.

Kurokawa and his wife - campaigning for Tokyo Governor in 2007 Kurokawa and his wife – campaigning for the Tokyo governorship

The concept behind Nakagin, as set out in his book Homo Movens (“Man in Motion”), was highly ambitious and, in the context of the Covid pandemic, quite prophetic.

“Until now,” Kurokawa wrote, “home life, work and leisure have been separated into different spaces and geographical zones. However, with our twenty four hour days, life is becoming more complex and multi-layered.”

The Nakagin was his response, an assembly of identical pod-like living structures that, depending on the interior furnishings, could serve as “mini-offices, ateliers, hotels, homes, meeting rooms or holiday cabins.”

Any meetings would have had to be sparsely attended. The capsules are tiny, with an area of just ten square metres. That is why the 2008 super-hero movie, The Wolverine, used the building’s memorable exterior to do service as a love hotel, but the interior scenes were shot elsewhere.

At six foot three (190 cm.), male lead Hugh Jackman could hardly fit into a Nakagin capsule, let alone perform a credible fight or love scene inside one.

Jackman and friend in search of a hotel Jackman and friend in search of a hotel

In the building’s glory days, a staff of “capsule ladies” was on hand to tend to provide secretarial and other services. There are no cooking facilities. The windows are permanently sealed, and the plastic bath-and-toilet unit is about the same size as an airplane loo. Today some of the capsules still retain the original fittings, including Sony reel-to-reel tape-recorders and dial phones.

 an original reel-to-reel tape deck Retro-tech: an original reel-to-reel tape deck. Photo N.W.

The original selling price was just five million yen, five times the average salary in 1972. Three quarters of the occupants were young “salaryman” businessmen, as Kurokawa had intended. As time went by and real estate prices rose, the Nakagin  attracted  wealthy CEOs and doctors keen to own a fashionable pied-à-terre so close to the Ginza nightlife. Kurokawa himself, and then his son, also an architect, owned a capsule for many years.

Today, twenty of the capsules are used as residences and some forty as offices. The rest are empty. An Airb&b letting became a victim of the pandemic.

The hard core of remaining occupants, including one foreigner, are in the creative industries. They have had no hot water since 2008, when a pipe broke, but there are health clubs reasonably close at hand that some residents use. Their devotion to the building is admirable, but they are fighting a losing battle against the overwhelming forces of time, economics and human nature.

Making notes on a foldable desk Making notes on a foldable desk… Photo N.W.

In the words of French poet Paul Valéry, “the problem of our time is that the future is no longer what it used to be.” That is certainly the case with Nakagin, which looks more like a condemned building than a feasible living environment. The foyer is grubby. Tubes and wires protrude from empty capsules. Netting covers the entire exterior to protect pedestrians from falling debris. Capsule roofs and floors contain asbestos.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that metabolism failed because the buildings it produced weren’t metabolic enough to cope with the ever-changing needs of the city’s inhabitants. Surely, preservation of their work as some kind of cultural relic would be the last thing that the young radicals of the late sixties and early seventies would have wanted.

No matter what happens to the Nakagin Capsule Building, Kisho Kurokawa has made a lasting mark on Japan’s urban landscape. In 1979, he came up with a clever variation on his capsule concept by designing the world’s first capsule hotel. The Osaka Capsule Hotel still stands today, together with 300 other capsule hotels in Japan, making for a total of 34,000 capsule “rooms” available on commercial terms.

Kurokawa in his prime Kisho Kurokawa in his prime

Clean, convenient and cheap, capsule hotels are a great solution for non-claustrophobes who suddenly need a place to stay in the big city. Once the preserve of salarymen who had missed the last train back to the distant suburbs, they have become increasingly popular with single women and foreign visitors. Some offer sauna and massage, as well as more spacious, two-level capsules.

The idea has taken off in other  Asian countries, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, and also some European countries. From the owners’ point of view, they are easy to build and easy to scrap or turn into something else –  which makes them truly “metabolic” in both physical and economic terms.

Capsule hotel in Fukuoka Capsule hotel in Fukuoka

According to Jane Jacobs, the great thinker on urban planning issues, “there is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

With the capsule hotel, Kurokawa put those words into practice.

 

Remembering 3.11: Faces and Voices of Resilience Part 1

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 05/03/2021 - 10:10am in

Published in Japan Forward 3/3/2021

In the event of an earthquake, you’re supposed to shelter under a table. That’s the official advice, anyway. In the early afternoon of March 11th 2011, when the walls of my dwelling started groaning and shuddering like a creature in pain, primitive instinct took over. Before I knew it, I was outside on the street.

Others were there too, mostly complete strangers. Social distancing comes naturally in Tokyo, but suddenly we were hugging each other for comfort. Waves of energy surged underfoot, causing us to stagger like drunkards. An instant premonition told me that somewhere on this land mass many lives would be lost this day.

In a matter of hours, the giant city had ground to a complete halt. It was unnerving – but as became clear as the days passed, it was nothing compared to the devastation wreaked in the north east region of Japan’s main island. The people of Tohoku, as it is called, had suffered one of the most terrible natural disasters to afflict a developed country in the modern era

The earthquake and tsunami caused 15,899 deaths, nearly all from drowning, with 2,633 missing. The waves of the tsunami are believed to have reached a height of 133 feet and moved at 430 miles per hour, giving people just ten minutes of warning as the wall of water raced to the coast from the epicentre offshore.

The quake itself shoved Honshu, Japan’s largest island, eight feet to the east, and shifted the earth on its axis by some 4-10 inches.

 credit, Soko Hashimoto It looked like a warzone: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

As if to prove the saying that bad news comes in threes, at the end of the week nuclear meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.  In all, over half a million people would have to be relocated.

Such statistics are easily digested. They have a numbing, almost comforting effect, allowing us to think we understand experiences that are unfathomable and unimaginable. How did the people of Tohoku cope with the reality?

***

Shoko Hashimoto’s face is a map of his life. It radiates intensity, strength, humour, boundless curiosity and a wisdom that comes from deeply lived experience. Though he has been based in Tokyo for decades, he seems to come from a different, earthier world – and indeed he does.

He is a native of Ishinomaki, a north eastern port town of some 150,000 souls which was hit hard on March 11th 2011, suffering some 4,000 casualties. He is part of Ishinomaki, and Ishinomaki is part of him.

For many years, Hashimoto held a regular photography workshop for elementary school kids in his hometown. Several of his pupils drowned in the tsunami, which took a terrible toll of schools near the port. Ten years on, he still has some of the photos they took.

A Nichiren priest prays for the dead children A Nichiren priest prays for the dead children: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

He recalls the shock of that dreadful day. “Something awful has happened in my hometown. I don’t know whether my relatives are safe. Kawaguchi Citizens’ Hospital is under water. People are saying that the east side of Kawaguchi Town, the Kadonowaki area, the fish market and the port area have been totally destroyed.  One of the men glimpsed on TV in an evacuation shelter was almost certainly my brother.”

It took over a week to confirm that his family members were indeed safe. On March 27th, sixteen days after the quake, he travelled up to Ishinomaki. He was shocked by what he saw. Some parts of the town looked like a war zone.

People rooted through the ruins of their houses, hoping to find something useable, and lined up for emergency rice rations. The smell of putrid fish was everywhere:  the tsunami had wrecked trucks packed with seafood produce intended for the major urban centres.

Hashimoto decided immediately to make a photographic record of his hometown’s struggle to return to normality. “What has the disaster taken from people?” he asked himself. “What effect will it have on their daily lives, their values and inner selves?”

In an attempt to answer those questions, over the next three years he made thirty six trips to Ishinomaki, spending the equivalent of twelve months there taking many thousands of photographs.

 credit Shoko Hashimoto The empty schoolroom: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

Hashimoto tells me that his childhood ambition was to become a diplomat, as English was his best subject at school. However, he soon came to realize that his heavy Tohoku accent, known as “zuzu-ben” because of the buzz-like intonation, might not go down well in top diplomatic circles. His next ambition was to be a painter, but his elder brother, who went on to become a fine arts teacher in Ishinomaki, got there before him.

In the end, Hashimoto opted for photography, which he studied at Nihon University’s College of Art. After a brief period as an in-house photographer for a monthly magazine – snapping celebrities was “boring”, he says –  he took the plunge and became an independent art photographer.

This was at a time when photography was booming and practitioners like Daido Moriyama had the cachet of rock stars. In the 1970s, the photo magazine Asahi Graph, which backed several of Hashimoto’s projects, was able to sell 100,000 copies a week.

Hashimoto’s approach to his work has always been uncompromising and emotionally committed. One of his first projects after turning professional  was to document daily life in Sanya, a rough-and-tumble area of east Tokyo where day labourers scuffle for jobs.

In order to understand their world, Hashimoto became a day labourer himself, unloading ship’s cargoes and cleaning up at construction sites. He even spent three days in the “monkey cage” (police holding cell), after photographing, and participating in, an invasion of Tokyo’s City Hall.

Some of his most interesting work has centred on Japan’s remote regions. Nishiyama Onsen: Empire of Nakedness explores the custom of communal mixed bathing in a medicinal spa high in the Yamanashi mountains. It was quite literally an immersive experience for Hashimoto, as he joined the naked throng singing and laughing in the crowded bath.

His Goze project involved roaming the countryside, mostly by foot in harsh conditions, with a small group of sightless female singers and musicians, the last remnants of an age-old tradition. Gaining the acceptance of the all-female band was no easy matter, but Hashimoto’s engaging, open-hearted personality invites trust.

Altogether, he was with them for three years, and the work he produced won him the prestigious Newcomers’ Award from the Japan Photographic Society. His images of 3.11 and its aftermath are just as visceral and haunting.

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto Trying to make sense of disaster: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

Hashimoto has an obsessive eye for detail. In conversation, he became quite animated on the subject of a classic photo by Bill Brandt. Well-known as the cover image for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, it portrays a tramp hunting for food in the trash bin of a fancy restaurant while a man in a bowtie and tuxedo looks on.

An academic book had described the bin as being made of plastic. Hashimoto, convinced it was metal, researched the market for bins in 1930s France to prove his point and wrote to the book’s publisher asking for a correction.

The same visual acuity is present in the haiku that he writes. According to the late Tota Kaneko, one of the masters of modern haiku and a stern critic, Hashimoto’s haiku come from the same creative source as his photos and have “a special visual impact”. Here are two examples.

One cold morning

Two people using sign language

Come passing through

 

Fledgling swallows

Having eaten from mother

Snap their beaks shut

Back in Ishinomaki, Hashimoto lost himself in photography. “It was if I was in a boxing match with the actuality before my eyes,” he recollects.  “Day after day, the camera captured piles of rubble, flattened fishing villages, the expressions on people’s faces.”

Sometimes he felt that he was talking to the tsunami itself, which had brought this once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe. “Why did you do it?” he asked. “What was the real reason?”

The reply was always the same.  “It was you.”

What does that mean? Hashimoto talks of an atonement that human beings must experience if they are to be protected from extinction on this earth, of the need to recognize the underlying principles of nature and the gods.

His heart told him to keep on pressing the shutter button.

All the photos in this two part series were taken by Shoko Hashimoto. His photobooks can be purchased online at the Shashasha bookshop.

To be continued…

Burn On, Joe! A 1960s Manga Icon Lifts Spirits Today

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/02/2021 - 10:50am in

Published in Nikkei Asia 17/2/2021

The fate of the 2021 Olympics Games in Tokyo may still be hanging in the balance, but one indirectly related event is already in progress. That is the Tomorrow’s Joe exhibition which I recently viewed at the Bungakukan (“Hall of Literature”) in the city’s Setagaya Ward.

Tomorrow’s Joe is probably Japan’s most famous sports manga. Serialized in the Weekly Shonen Magazine from 1968 to 1973, it has sold over 20 million copies in book form and spawned two hit TV anime series and three films. More than that, it summed up a whole era and way of thinking that still resounds in today’s Japan. Joe Yabuki, the young boxer who is hero of the story, remains a symbol of living with maximum intensity, no matter how daunting the odds.

He is known for his famous words when, toward the end of his last fight, his faithful corner man is about to throw in the towel. “Old man, I’m begging you… let me carry on… until there’s nothing left of me but white ashes,” says Joe.

 Danpei Tange Joe’s trainer: Danpei Tange

On the day I visited, the diverse range of attendees included young women, families and numerous manga geeks as well as some chaps old enough to have read the first instalment when it was hot off the press. Of the two joint creators, story-writer Ikki Kajiwara passed away over 30 years ago, but artist Tetsuya Chiba is still active, a living legend on the manga scene.

In a recent publication, he describes the background to the creation of Joe. “Back then, the economy was developing rapidly, but at the same time there was a negative side to it. We’d lost our Japanese soul and sense of self-respect, also many people were suffering from pollution, and the beauty of the natural environment was being destroyed. Anyway, however you look at it, we wanted to recover from that terrible lost war and charge forward with reckless abandon.”

Young Joe’s story is a dark one. He arrives out of nowhere, with no friends or relatives, and demonstrates his street-fighting prowess on the mean streets of the Sanya flop-house district of Tokyo.  Mythic heroes, from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker, always need a wise mentor to guide them. Joe’s Merlin is a facially scarred, one-eyed ex-boxer who sells his blood for booze money.

Joe is on the cute side of handsome, but the fights are gory and death lurks nearby. In one particularly disturbing scene, we see one of Joe’s opponents as a young boy bashing out the brains of his own father. Chiba based that gruesome incident on his own childhood memories of fleeing Manchuria among scenes of chaos and violence at the end of World War II.

Working class hero Joe Working class hero Joe

The manga was a tremendous success with students, including radical extremists. The leader of the nine-man armed group which hijacked a Japan Airlines plane and flew to North Korea in 1970 declared in their statement of responsibility: “Make no mistake – we are Tomorrow’s Joe.”

Most of the members of the Japanese Communist League Red Army Faction involved in that incident are dead now, but four remain in North Korea, including the former bass player of Les Rallizes Dénudés, a famed proto-punk band.

There were fans on the other side of the political spectrum too. One summer night in 1969, an editor working late at the offices of publisher Kodansha was amazed to find himself confronted by an impatient Yukio Mishima.

“I can’t wait until tomorrow for Tomorrow’s Joe,” quipped the great novelist and militant nationalist and demanded an advance copy of the magazine, so worried was he that his busy schedule would prevent him from procuring one. The editor quickly obliged.

Tomorrow’s Joe reached its apogee of fame in 1970 when poet and countercultural icon Shuji Terayama arranged a funeral to mark the death in the ring of Joe Yabuki’s great rival, Toru Rikiishi. The exhibit in Setagaya features a mock-up of a boxing ring and contemporary photos of this bizarre ceremony.

The funeral of Rikiishi The funeral of Rikiishi

Around 800 mourners, ranging from junior high school kids to office workers, attended that event. Also present was Masahiko “Fighting” Harada, a Terayama pal and a former bantamweight and flyweight world champion, as well as the manga’s two creators.

A senior priest from the Soto Zen sect chanted sutras while musty incense wafted over a black-bordered portrait of the “deceased” manga character. In Japanese Buddhist style, he was given an elaborate “new name” to prevent him being called back to this world.

Terayama claimed that the square-jawed Rikiishi, who was dating the daughter of a super-wealthy zaibatsu family, represented the pro-U.S.moneyed elite. Joe, on the other hand, starts off as a petty criminal who dreams of using his ill-gotten gains to build playgrounds and clinics in the slums. In Terayama’s eyes, he stood for revolution, and his defeat by Rikiishi (who died after winning the bout against Joe) symbolized the establishment’s knockout victory over the radical left.

Rikiishi death match Rikiishi death match

Terayama’s interpretation was creative, but if Tomorrow’s Joe were merely a political fable, it would be forgotten today. The reality is that Joe and Rikiishi had a lot in common. They first meet at a juvenile prison where Rikiishi has been sent for beating up a spectator who insulted him. Joe is in awe of Rikiishi’s prowess and there is a mutual attraction based on their opposing personalities.

In order to make their final match-up possible, Rikiishi reduces his weight by a fifth and drops from welterweight to bantamweight so that he can fight the lighter Joe. This extraordinary feat almost guarantees that Rikiishi will lose.

Haunted by his responsibility for his rival’s death, Joe falls into a deep personal and professional slump, until he learns to take Rikiishi’s courage as his inspiration. His future victories are dedicated to the man he loved, hated and killed.

Joe beaten by Rikiishi

This is a Japanese story, so there is no Hollywood ending. Joe reaches the top rank of boxers but, unlike Fighting Harada, never becomes world champion. The other guy, reigning champion Jose Mendoza, is just too good.

What actually happens at the end of Joe’s final bout is still a matter of debate amongst fans. One thing is for sure – Mendoza is marked forever by his fifteen round encounter with Joe Yabuki.

Ultimately, Tomorrow’s Joe is a classic because it tells a compelling story of personal growth. Joe is a lazy, thieving street-kid who becomes a man under the influence of mentors, friends and, above all, the sport. Yet it is his inner wildness that makes him such an awesome fighter.

He gives everything he has and more because that is the only way he knows to live.

Joe and me Joe and me

Not many of us can battle on relentlessly like Joe Yabuki, but now more than ever we need his example.

The exhibition at Setagaya Bungakukan continues until March 31st.

The Gambler Vs. The Bodybuilder: Shuji Terayama Meets Yukio Mishima

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/11/2020 - 11:24pm in

Mishima: You may think I’m an old fashioned classicist, but I don’t trust language without a logical structure.

Terayama: Then you couldn’t put up with a dog sitting on a book by Aristotle. I think it would be erotic if Brigitte Bardot was carrying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s sensational death by seppuku (ritual suicide, vulgarly known as hara-kiri), it is worth looking back at the conversation he had with Shuji Terayama just five months earlier.

It was originally published in the July 1970 edition of Ushio magazine, and I am grateful to Professor Nobuko Anan of Kansai University for her English translation.

At the time, Mishima was a huge celebrity who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times. Ten years older than Terayama, he came from a super-privileged background – Gakushuin school, the Eton of Japan, then Tokyo University. Before becoming a full-time-writer, he had joined the Ministry of Finance, the bastion of Japan’s ruling elite.

Terayama, by contrast, came from Aomori Prefecture in the far north of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, and consciously maintained his strong regional accent throughout his life.

From Terayama's autobiographical "To Die in the Country" From Terayama’s autobiographical “To Die in the Country”

His father was a policeman who died of illness after being drafted to South East Asia. His mother sent young Shuji to live with relatives when she went away to work as a cleaner on a distant American military base.

At first sight, Mishima, the fervent nationalist who sought to revive Japan’s martial traditions, would seem to have little in common with Terayama, the pied piper of the Japanese counterculture.

In fact, as the published dialogue demonstrates, these two sacred monsters of  post-war Japan shared several interests. They included writing for theatre, making experimental films, the possibilities of eroticism, mocking mainstream politics, breaking taboos and causing trouble.

Another point of similarity: they both died in early middle age, Mishima at 45, Terayama at 48. Mishima planned his death far in advance. Terayama suffered from an incurable illness. Awareness of their limited lifespans must have influenced their work and thinking.

The dialogue starts with an exchange of compliments. Mishima declares that he has seen several of Terayama’s plays and found them “quite interesting.” Terayama mentions that he sent Mishima a fan letter when he was young, but received no reply. That is quite plausible. Terayama often sent fan mail to writers and other prominent people he admired.

After a brief detour about theatre, Mishima compares the failure of the New Left’s street protests with his own strategy of forming a private army, the Tate no Kai (literally, “Shield Society”).

Mishima’s private army Mishima’s private army

“Theory is not meaningful unless it appears in action,” he asserts. “If theory doesn’t transform into action, it’s like the university teachers they despise…What connects theory and action is training. This is what soldiers do.”

The comment is in line with Mishima’s version of Wang Yangming Confucianism that preaches the unity of action and thought. It is also a hint that Mishima himself would not stop at words and empty gestures.

Terayama could not have had any idea what would happen on November 25th 1970, when Mishima and four Tate no Kai members would take a four star general hostage on a military base and attempt to incite a rebellion against the Japanese government.

But further hints appeared in the discussion about bodybuilding, which was one of Mishima’s obsessions.

Mishima: Here is the principle of bodybuilding. It’s to get rid of the involuntary muscles in your body.

Terayama: In short, getting rid of unpredictability from the body?

Mishima: You’re right. For example, look at my chest. I can move it freely to the music [he moves the muscles in his chest]. Does your chest move?

Terayama: I’m an unpredictable being.

Mishima: It may move all of a sudden one night.

Terayama: I can’t have any enjoyment without the fantasy that an unknown treasure may be hidden in my small body. Mishima-san, if you learn all about the structure of your body, you’ll find that it’s only water and fibre.

Mishima: You’ll live longer than me.

Yukio

Much of the conversation consists of intellectual sparring in which the two participants hop from topic to topic and namedrop Genet, Kant, Poe, Paul Valery, Bertrand Russell, Socrates and others. After several detours, they return to the subject later.

Terayama: Mishima-san, the day will suddenly come when you can’t move your involuntary muscles, even if you throw out your chest.

Mishima: That day won’t come.

Terayama: Yes, it will. Eroticism overflows at a time like that.

Mishima: A day like that won’t come. Never.

The discussion about bodybuilding is a proxy for the larger philosophical differences between the two men. In art, life and politics, Mishima prizes control, predictability and structure and finds flexibility “scary”. He obsesses about the smallest details, such as the design of the uniforms for his private army.

Terayama prizes randomness, chaos and spontaneity and is frightened by the idea of pre-determination. He loves horseracing and writes a column on it for a sports newspaper.

Terayama: Mishima-san, you don’t gamble. Is it because you think it’s not logical?

Mishima: I don’t like accident…

Terayama: Don’t you think we were accidentally thrown into the universe?

Mishima: No. In short, necessity is god.

Strangely enough, it is the approach of the iconoclastic Terayama that seems more in tune with traditional Japanese aesthetics as expressed in calligraphy or Bizen ceramics and cultural practices such as I-Ching divination. All of these leave space for spontaneity and chance. Mishima, the political nativist, has a fixation on structure and control that seems classically Western.

After Mishima committed seppuku, Terayama – who was in hospital at the time – commented that he should have done it in the cherry blossom season.

That is sometimes taken as a sarcastic dig at Mishima’s reverence for tradition, but it may not have been. Terayama could have simply meant that a backdrop of cherry blossoms would have intensified the drama of Mishima’s act. As theatre men, they would have both appreciated that.

Mishima might have preferred a spring death, but he had a book to finish, the last volume in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. He finished the manuscript in the early morning of November 25th 1970.

Terayama: Mishima-san, have you heard this story? There was a man who said “I’m an Edokko [inhabitant of  pre-modern Tokyo] so I don’t accept the existence of trains” Then a train hit him straight on and ran him over. As he was dying, he said “there was no train.”

“My Heart Sutra”, by Frederik L. Schodt

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/11/2020 - 2:06pm in

Tags 

Reflections

Published in the Nikkei Asian Review 13/11/2020

In December 1980, just days before his murder, John Lennon took part in a photo shoot in New York City. In one image, captured by photographer Bob Gruen, Lennon wears a jacket with a sleeve embroidered with the kanji (Chinese characters) that form the opening of the Heart Sutra, a core Buddhist teaching.

heartsutrajacket

Dabbling with Eastern religions was nothing unusual in the Western counterculture, and The Beatles had played a pioneering role with their highly publicized trip to India. But to Yoko Ono, walking alongside Lennon in the photo, and to the designer of that jacket, Kansai Yamamoto, the Heart Sutra would have been no more exotic than the King James Bible is in America.

As Frederik L. Schodt explains in this unique book, the Heart Sutra is everywhere in modern Japan — on towels, band-aids, T-shirts, tea-cups, smart phone apps, being chanted at local temples and as an establishing device on TV shows and films. A version by a guitar-strumming Zen priest has been viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube.  The sutra is a familiar sight, and sound, in the contemporary Sinosphere too.

Expressed in just 260 characters, the sutra was translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by the monk Xuanzang in 649 and appeared in Japan some 80 years later. The text in use today is, to all intents and purposes, unaltered since then. Simple but cryptic, it offers a series of seeming paradoxes, such as “form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself is form.” The ending is a mantra rendered into English by D.T. Suzuki, the great Zen proselytizer, as “O Bodhi, gone, gone, gone to the other shore, landed at the other shore, Svaha!”

Heart1

Schodt is not a religious scholar, though he is well informed about recent academic controversies concerning the sutra. He is not even a Buddhist, though sympathetic to the religion. Instead, he describes himself as “a typically modern, lazy, only occasionally spiritual being.”

His book is part history, part anecdote-rich memoir. He wrote it as “a way to sort my own thoughts and experiences and satisfy my own curiosity.” This sense of personal quest is what makes it such an engaging read to anyone with the slightest interest in the subject. The author must have done a tremendous amount of research and in-person investigation, but the writing is modest, honest and clear as a wind-chime.

His first encounter with the sutra came through the countercultural route. In the early 1970s, he attended a poetry reading in a Los Angeles bookshop at which the beat poet Allen Ginsberg chanted the mantra portion. Schodt had already spent five years living in Japan and knew the language well. Despite that, he had not been aware of the Heart Sutra’s existence. It was in subsequent years that his interest grew and he began to explore its place in the culture of Japan and the Sinosphere. Now he can recite the whole thing and copy the characters with pen and brush.

Schodt is best known for his illuminating writing on manga. He was personally acquainted with Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s “god of manga” and has translated several of his classic works.

At first sight, there may seem a long distance from “Astro Boy”, Tezuka’s best-known manga series, to the historical Buddha who preached in India 2,500 years ago. Not so. Tezuka produced an eight-volume manga biography of Buddha and spent decades on “Phoenix,” a multi-narrative opus (translated by Schodt) that explores reincarnation, karma and the connectedness of all phenomena.

buddha

Indeed, reading Schodt’s book makes me think that Buddhism, which teaches that all things (not just sentient beings) have Buddhahood, may be the ideal belief system for our artificial intelligence-driven, post-human future.

Schodt quotes from an interview with Masahiro Mori, a robotics engineer and long-time student of Zen, who wrote “The Buddha in the Robot.”  According to Mori, “to learn the Buddhist way is to perceive oneself as a robot… and to learn the robot is to learn Buddhism.”

How might that work in practice? Schodt visited the 400-year old Kodaiji Zen temple in Kyoto to view the “Kannon Android Mindar” in action.  Kannon is the feminized Japanese version of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion who is the narrator of the Heart Sutra. The android — which has human-like hands and face, but arms and chest with wires and motors exposed — explains the Heart Sutra and answers questions from a virtual audience.

On one level, this is a gimmick; on another, a logical extension of Buddhist practice. As Schodt notes, new Buddhist statues go through a consecration ceremony known as kaigenshiki (eye-opening ceremony) which imparts Buddha-nature to them. The Mindar android went through such a ceremony. A sceptical observer from a rival sect was forced to concede that, since people in the audience were praying to it, Buddha-nature had clearly entered the android and the consecration had worked.

Back to John Lennon, “gone, gone to the other shore” 40 years ago. In a fascinating aside typical of his book, Schodt  muses on similarities  between the Heart Sutra and the song “Imagine,” which is now jointly credited to Lennon-Ono, in line with Lennon’s recorded comments about Yoko’s contribution to the lyrics.

Both contain a series of negations. “Imagine” pictures an existence stripped of certain mental constructs — no countries, no religion, no possessions, etc. The Heart Sutra has a far more radical program — “no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind” — that erases the building blocks of reality itself.

Yet from this superficially nihilistic vision, the sutra mysteriously generates a sense of cleansing, stability and focus — and has been doing so for 1,500 years. Whatever your religious convictions, in this era of political fracture, global pandemic, climate angst and general confusion, that is surely something to be treasured.

Six Reasons Why Shinzo Abe Could Make Another Comeback

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/09/2020 - 10:27pm in

Japan handles political transitions with enviable speed and lack of drama.

On August 28th, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shocked the country by announcing his resignation on health grounds. Less than three weeks later, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was appointed prime minister, having comfortably bested two other candidates in an internal party election.

According to Sophia University Professor Koji Nakano, what we are getting is the Abe government without Abe. Certainly, Suga’s cabinet closely resembles the one that preceded it, with the key figure of Finance Minister Taro Aso, who held the office all through the Abe years, retaining his position.

The unassuming Suga is in some ways an unusual choice as leader. He was a cabinet minister for just one year, back in 2007, and has no faction of his own to support him. However, his experience as Chief Cabinet Secretary from 2012 to 2020 – effectively, being Abe’s right-hand man and point of liaison with the bureaucracy – made him the ideal continuity candidate. And continuity is what Japan needs as it recovers from the economic damage of the corona crisis.

suga7

Abe resigned because of a recurrence of the illness that ended his first spell in office, which lasted a mere twelve months in 2007. He returned in late 2012, with much improved health and much improved policies. If his medical issues were to clear up, as they did before, could he return for a third term?

There are at least six reasons why that could happen.

First, Abe may be the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, but he is six years younger than Suga and fifteen years younger than Taro Aso, as well as being nine years younger than US President Donald Trump and twelve years younger than Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden. Time is still on his side.

The second reason is the unprecedented surge in popularity for the outgoing Abe cabinet. In the summer, support for Abe sagged as the coronavirus crisis dragged on. Strangely to European or American eyes, the public seemed highly critical of the  government’s anti-virus strategy, even though the total fatality count of 1,470 barely exceeds the number of deaths caused by people choking on mochi (sticky rice cake) each year.

However, when faced with the reality of a premature end to the Abe era, public opinion executed a rapid U-turn. In early September, the outgoing Abe cabinet saw an unprecedented leap in support – from 35% to 62%, according to a JNN poll – in a single month. In line with that positive take on Abe’s overall achievements, the public switched to a strong preference for “Mr. Continuity” Suga over rival candidate Shigeru Ishiba, who had positioned himself as the “anti-Abenomics” candidate.

Third, Suga has little grounding in foreign / security policy, and there is nobody else in the cabinet that could reproduce Abe’s hyper-active personal diplomacy. Leaving such crucial matters in the hands of the foreign ministry would almost certainly achieve nothing.  In the event that  Donald Trump wins re-election in November, Japan would miss Abe’s “Trump-whispering” skills which helped Japan to avert the harsh treatment meted out to South Korea.

Fourth, Abe, though not a natural extrovert, stamped his presence on the world’s consciousness, thereby helping to raise Japan’s profile. It is hard to imagine Suga speaking at Davos, ringing the bell to open trading at the New York Stock Exchange or appearing as Super-Mario at an Olympic Ceremony.

abemario

Fifth, a general election must be held by next autumn, and Japan’s perpetually fissiparous opposition parties look as if they might for once get their act together. If they cease to obsess about microscopic scandals and come up with an attractive policy offering– such as a cut in the consumption tax – they might make inroads into the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s hefty majority.

Suga already dropped one huge clanger when he talked of the need to raise the consumption tax, at a time when the damage done by the previous hike is still fresh. He swiftly rowed back on that lousy idea, but the episode was a reminder that Suga is, by experience and personality, more of a backroom operator than a savvy frontman. If he performs poorly in the forthcoming election, his days will be numbered.

Finally, Abe has unfinished business, notably in relation to the long-overdue reform of Japan’s U.S.-imposed constitution, enacted in 1947 and never subsequently amended.

Polls show that the public is strongly in favour of the issue being debated, which it would have to be before passing both houses of parliament and then being approved by a referendum. Such a public debate would be a novel and very constructive exercise in democratic decision-making. Who, other than Abe, could lead it?

A third term as prime minister would be unprecedented in the post-war period, but Abe is used to breaking records. Not for nothing is Tobias Harris’ well-researched and fair-minded new biography of him entitled “The Iconoclast.” And if we go back to the volatile early years of Japan’s parliamentary system in the Meiji era, we find that prime ministerial comebacks were common and both Hirobumi Ito and Taro Katsu served three times.

In Japan’s post-war system, it is not necessary to be prime minister to have significant political influence. A re-energized Abe could take another cabinet position, as Taro Aso has done, become a special envoy or simply exercise power from behind the scenes, as several “shadow shoguns” have in the past.

Abe has exited with the highest public approval of his entire term in office and has been succeeded by his most loyal lieutenant. Politically he is still very much intact. If circumstances allow, there is no reason why he should not take up the reins again.

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