Recently in Japanese Category

Peter Payne, Pornographer

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I've been censored again, ironically, by a pornographer. He has censored me before, so this time I saved my remarks, and I'll post them here for your evaluation. But first let's examine the censor.
Peter Payne first came to my attention in the early 1990s. Payne moved to Japan and started an online business exporting Japanese pornography. He sent pornographic spam hawking his wares to email addresses (such as mine) he harvested from Japanese-related Usenet newsgroups. I immediately complained to his ISP that I had no interest in receiving his pornographic spam. Payne responded by claiming I had signed up to receive the spam, when I would never do any such thing. But that was back in the days when spam was taken seriously by ISPs, so the spam stopped, despite Payne's protestations of innocence. I would have been glad to never hear of him again.
But since his early days as a porn peddler, he branched out into selling anime and manga, becoming quite a self-declared authority on the subject. Payne now drones on about anime subjects on the Japundit blog. And here is where we tangled again.
Peter Payne wrote an absolutely absurd article about how Japanese people can't deal with their memories from World War II except through the metaphor of anime and manga. When I paraphrase his argument this way, I convey it far more clearly and concisely than he did in the original article. Let me quote the paragraph that set me off:
If you asked Japanese who they considered the most respected “military heroes” of the country were, you might find some who would answer Amuro Rei or Bright Noah or Captain Okita/Captain Avatar, the legendary characters from these war-oriented anime series.
I responded:
When I ask my Japanese friends who are the greatest Japanese war heroes, they tell me stories of Oda Nobunaga, Toyoyomi Hideyoshi, Takeda Shingen etc. Not a single one of them has ever cited imaginary warriors from anime.

I suppose it depends on who you hang out with. I suppose it’s only natural that if you peddle porn and manga, you have lowbrow friends. But don’t let that warp your perceptions of Japanese society as a whole.
This is my problem with anime otaku. They spend so much time watching and discussing absolutely mind-rotting drivel, attempting to make it into something far beyond what it is: lowbrow entertainment. And then they make sweeping generalizations about Japanese society based on their "insight" into the culture, as they gleaned it from cartoons. I think this is terribly offensive, I argue that it is a thinly disguised form of racism. They are stereotyping a whole culture, based on ridiculous ideas they learned from comics or other comics fans.
So it is at times like this I enjoy pointing out that Peter Payne is a pornographer. A person who knows all the latest Japanese porn actresses but knows nothing about legendary samurai warriors (known by every Japanese schoolchild) could not help but form a warped opinion of Japanese culture. And of course he is particularly touchy about his profession, censoring any reference to it on the blog where he tries to "redeem" himself by pretending to be an astute cultural commentator.
Others agreed with my remarks, now the first comment in the censored thread starts, "I agree," but she is agreeing with ME and not Peter Payne. This is not obvious since Payne deleted my remark. This is a devious way to manipulate your blog's commenters, to make it look like they agree with the article, rather than agreeing with my dissent. This is shameful. But Peter Payne has no shame. That's why he has a nickname: Peter Porn.

Sony Style 1996

I bought some Sony gear in 1996 when I was in Tokyo. In some ways, this gear represents Sony at its peak, these designs have never been surpassed. And in other ways, it is all totally obsolete. But it continues to serve me well, so I thought it deserved a little homage.

I was shopping in the consumer electronics stalls in Akihabara when this Sony SRS-T10 portable speaker caught my eye. The design was so compelling, it was a little round oval like a clam shell. It's a limited edition that was never sold outside Japan.

I asked if I could see it, the speaker opened up like a flower, I said it was beautiful. But the vendor said, "You don't want to buy this, it sounds like crap!" I figured it was about as low-fidelity as I could tolerate, but at least as good as the speakers in a laptop. He insisted I hear it before he would sell it to me. The vendor loaded it with batteries and plugged it into a little CD player, I thought it sounded fine, considering how cheap it was, under $20. So I bought one, much to the exasperation of the vendor, he thought I was crazy to like such a piece of crap.

I asked the vendor if he had anything that sounded better. He showed me a slightly bigger model, the SRS-T50. This model had more batteries and can pump out a lot more volume. It uses the same basic design with little wings that fold out to reflect the stereo sound. But the vendor objected again, he said this speaker sounds like crap too. So once again, I had to hear it before I could buy it. I thought this model sounded pretty darn good, so I said I would take two of them, and again, the vendor growled with exasperation, I had to laugh. I gave one of these speakers as a gift to my brother, he said everyone asks where he got it, and comments on how good it sounds.

It's a shame Sony never sold this particular unit in the US, they sold the same speaker in a garish yellow and grey "Sports" design that was a huge flop, I think it would have done better in the stylish Tokyo black and grey. My only problem with the design of the SRS-T50 is the placement of the power switch on the top. I throw this speaker in a bag or suitcase, the switch gets bumped and it powers on, wasting the batteries. So I usually just put a piece of tape over the switch before I carry it.
That's my pet peeve, I used to carry my CD player in my briefcase, the switches would activate, and by the time I discovered it, the batteries were exhausted. I looked around a long time for a CD player with no protruding switches, I was determined to find the ultimate design, it took a few weeks of research, but I finally found the Sony DiscMan ESP D-777.

This was really what I'd gone into this store to buy, this premium CD player was hard to find and I'd spent weeks hunting for it. Now the vendor was quite pleased, he said, "oh yes, this really is excellent equipment, Sony's best. But it's quite expensive." And indeed it was, for it had Sony's latest design. This was the thinnest CD player ever made, the smallest, most minimal mechanism that could play a CD, thanks to the new NI-MH battery design. Previously the thinnest CD player had to be thicker than its AA batteries. Now it only had to be thick enough for the rechargeable NI-MH flat packs, about 2/3 less space.

What really sold me was the remote. All the new music devices in Japan used little remote controller badges, you'd clip it on your lapel and plug your headphones into it. Then you could remotely control your CD player, skip tracks, adjust the volume, etc. without ever having to touch the player. You can see my remote buttons are worn down from constant use, but the player is in pristine condition. I used to keep the player in its case in my jacket pocket, with the badge clipped to my lapel. Everyone in the US asked what it was, there were no remotes like that available in the US yet.

I remember paying about $200 for the D-777, which was a lot of money even back then, most portable CD players were between $50 and $100. About 9 months later, I saw the newly imported D-777 for sale in Best Buy for $395. What a deal. But there still hasn't been a CD player made that's better than this unit.
And that's the problem with the D-777, it was a huge design accomplishment, Sony still lists it on their history website as one of their greatest products ever. But today you can get a better music experience in an iPod Shuffle that's smaller than the Sony remote controller. The D-777 was the last, best CD player ever, I used to mix and burn my own CDs and I carried it constantly, it was so light and easy to carry. But mp3 players made it totally obsolete. Still, Sony's design innovations like the remote controller were very influential in the design of the next generation of mp3 players.
I haven't used my CD player in years, not since I bought my first iPod. But the speakers still work great, and I plug them into my iPod and iPhone all the time. The speaker technology is outdated, but I'll keep using them until I find something that sounds better, and looks better.

Cheat Sheet

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A long time ago, I was walking down the street in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, and I came across a strange thing lying in the street. I found a pen with a label stuck on the side, bearing cryptic Asian writing. I had no idea what it was since I had not yet started studying Japanese at that time. I saved the pen, it's been quite a few years since I have seen it, but I just ran across it today so I thought I'd scan it in and preserve an image of it.

Here's a closer look at some of the writing on the pen. The text says "shinbun" (newspaper) in both kanji and hiragana.

It was many years later, after years of study of Japanese that I finally figured out what the pen was for. It's a cheat sheet for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which is given annually in the location where I found the pen. But words like "shinbun" are very simple, even a beginner would know them, so this would be a cheat for the lowest level test. If you need to cheat on L4 on the JLPT, you might as well not even take the test. The funny thing about this pen is that both the kanji in 'shinbun" are wrong. But there's one more odd thing about this pen. You have to fill out the JLPT test with a number 2 pencil, so this cheat pen would have stuck out like a sore thumb.


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On a fine spring day in late April, I visited Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. This temple was constructed in 645 AD and is Tokyo's oldest temple. Sensoji is dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. There is a legend that two fishermen pulled up a statue of Kannon in their nets while working in the nearby Sumida River, so this temple was erected on the site next to the river where the statue was found.
Each year on the third sunday in May, the Sanja Matsuri is held, a festival celebrating Kannon and Sensoji Temple. The matsuri was just over yesterday, I wish I could have been there. So I'll just put up a slide show with my best pictures for everyone to enjoy. Click on the photo to see the slide show.

The Smokatorium

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Japanese attitudes towards smoking are a bit different than here in America. I was taught that it is considered rude to smoke out in public in Japan, since you are polluting other peoples' space, but it is polite to smoke indoors, even if there are non-smokers present, as long as it is in an enclosed area where the smoke can't escape out into the public. Even after living in Japan for a while, I still wonder if my Japanese teachers (who were nonsmokers) were just making this up, or whether such attitudes really exist, I still can't tell.

I remember a funny story from a few years ago, the Prime Minister (Nakasone, I think) was a chain smoker, one of his idiosyncracies was the elaborate antique lacquerware smoking set he kept on his desk. An anti-smoking group accused the Prime Minister of setting a bad example for children, he responded that he would henceforth set an example by smoking as much possible.
People in Japan feel free to smoke anywhere at all, and non-smoking zones are pretty rare. There has been considerable government resistance to establishing any sort of anti-smoking rules or anti-smoking publicity. This is largely because the Japanese Government owns 65% of Japan Tobacco and part of every tobacco purchase goes directly into the Japanese Treasury. Some people even speculate that the Government encourages smoking because it reduces the average lifespan, killing off elderly people who would otherwise be drawing a pension, saving the taxpayers a fortune.
But those attitudes are changing. Before I left on my trip to Japan, I heard that Chiyoda-ku passed a law completely prohibiting smoking in public, and on the public sidewalks in particular. The rationale was that Chiyoda-ku has extremely crowded sidewalks in areas like Akihabara, and smoking caused a danger to others, lit cigarettes could injure people or burn holes in their clothing. Of course that's merely a propaganda point to give everyone a good reason to cooperate. I was skeptical that such an anti-smoking campaign could be successful.

But one day I got off the train in Akihabara, I was just about to light up, and then I noticed signs painted on the ground at every street corner, declaring that a No Smoking order was in effect everywhere in Chiyoda-ku. Nobody was smoking outside the train station, which is a pretty unusual thing. I stopped at a Police koban and asked if it was true, that smoking was completely prohibited everywhere in Chiyoda-ku. The policeman said you can not smoke on the street, but there are a couple of places where smoking was still allowed indoors. And he directed me to a place where smoking was permitted, I call it "the Smokatorium."

After you walk through the double-door airlock entrance, the first thing you notice about the Smokatorium is the overpowering density of cigarette smoke, and that every single person is smoking. Everyone is drinking coffee and smoking, talking on the phone and smoking, reading a book and smoking, but everyone is actively smoking, and they leave immediately when they've finished smoking. The premise of the Smokatorium is that it's a room with vending machines, you're encouraged to buy a can of soda or coffee to help defray the expense of providing a smoking lounge. The smoke is so intense that you couldn't possibly stay there longer than it takes to smoke a cigarette, and then you leave. Each table has a huge air vent built into the tabletop, you flick your ashes into the air intake, and it sucks the smoke out of the air too. The air currents are quite strong inside the room, but the wind was full of stale smoke. I thought it would be less smoky to stand close to the air intake, but quite the contrary, all the room's smoke was rushing right past me into the vent. After smoking a cigarette, staying inside the Smokatorium for just a minute or two, I felt quite ill like I'd been suffocating for lack of oxygen, my clothes reeked of smoke, I wanted to take a bath and change my clothes. Perhaps this was the whole point of the Smokatorium, negative reinforcement.
And the negative reinforcement is right up in your face. Covering the walls of the Smokatorium are anti-smoking posters, I saw one and immediately burst into laughter at the silly infographic-style images. I've posted a couple of those graphics in this story, and you can inspect the entire poster by clicking on the image below.

The reason I call this place the Smokatorium is because it reminds me of the old Judge Dredd comic strip. In the future world of MegaCity, tobacco possession is totally illegal outside the Smokatorium. If you want to smoke, you must go to the Smokatorium, where you are issued a bubble helmet, it's like a space suit helmet but it has a little hole in the faceplate where you can insert a cigarette. You exhale into the interior of the helmet and the smoke is blown out a vent into the room. The room is so thick with smoke that you can barely see, so everyone gets fresh air from their helmet's oxygen tank, and nobody has to breathe secondhand smoke. In a comic strip I remember, someone is arrested and charged with possession of tobacco outside the Smokatorium, so Judge Dredd sentences him to an extremely stiff penalty, one minute inside the Smokatorium without a helmet.
Ever since I smoked a cigarette at the Akihabara Smokatorium, every time I smoke, I have the sensation that my nostrils and lungs are burning. So I decided to quit smoking completely. I'm wearing a nicotine patch right now, this is my 3rd day of no smoking. If I ever feel like I want a smoke, and I need to motivate myself to stay clean, I'll just think about the couple of minutes I spent inside the Smokatorium without a helmet.


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One of the first words I learned when I started studying Japanese was "jisaboke." Literally "jisa" means "time difference" and "boke" means "stupidity" so combined it means "time difference stupidity." But jisaboke really means "jet lag."
I've never had such a bad time with jet lag before. I'm usually a night owl, staying up until 3AM, but since I got back from Japan, I've been staying up until 6AM or more, and sleeping all day. My schedule is completely backwards. But I am finally recovering a normal schedue, today I managed to get up at 9AM after getting to sleep at 1AM.
I was worried I'd have terrible jet lag problems when I got to Japan, you really have to live on a daytime schedule because the trains stop running at midnight and you have to go home or else you're stuck wherever you are until 5AM when the trains start again. I even got a prescription for sleeping pills in case I had trouble getting to sleep. But I never needed them at all. The moment I got to Japan, I got up with the sunrise (which was about 4AM since they don't have Daylight Savings Time) and I fell dead asleep about 9PM.
But now that I'm back, my schedule is in shambles again. I feel lethargic all day, and some days I sleep 4 hours out of every 8, it's like my day is 12 hours long. I can't keep my mind on my work, I feel like the past week has been a total loss.
I used to joke that I lived on Tokyo time even in the US, waking up and going to sleep at roughly the same times as people do in Japan. But I wasn't really that close. Now I know what it's really like to be that far off the local time zone, and it's wearing me out.
Anyway, this is a sort of apology for not having blogged much since I got back from my trip. I'll get my life back in order shortly. I mean, really REALLY get my life in order, I decided to quit smoking and I start on the nicotine patch tomorrow morning. I have a feeling I'll have a lot of nervous energy I'll need to channel into something.
As I left Japan, speeding towards the airport on the express train, I took one last blurry picture out the window. I thought it expressed my mood perfectly, with the train conductor standing alone, with a bowed head, beside an empty train carriage with open doors.

Click the arrow on the player below to hear Last Train to Clarksville by The Plastics

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I like to listen to The Plastics when I'm in Japan, they were the first Punk band in Japan, their 1979 album still expresses a lot of the Postmodern bizarreness of living in Japan. I played the album for one of my friends, and he asked me, "is this all there is, a Japanese band singing American songs in bad English?" I told him that in Japan, people practically live their lives in trains, so a Japanese band singing Last Train To Clarksville has an entirely different meaning.
I like to listen to this particular song as I take my last train ride to the airport. When I heard this song, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of loss, not because I was leaving Japan, but because I had to go back to America. I never have culture shock going to Japan, I get it severely when I come back to the US. My instant reaction is that everyone in America is so rude and inconsiderate, they ignore all the little social rituals that make life easier for everyone.
I knew I was back in the US when I tried to get off the plane. I was stuck in the Coach section way in the back of the plane, and it was a long 11 hour flight from Tokyo to Dallas. It took a long time for everyone ahead of us to deplane, all I could think about was getting off, getting past Customs, and popping outside the terminal for a cigarette. Just as the the forward sections were clearing and Coach passengers filled the aisles, there was an announcement over the speakers that the Customs asked that each passenger have their passports in hand as they exited the plane. I pulled mine out of my shirt pocket. But there was an elderly couple ahead of me, towing luggage bigger than the suitcases I checked through, they immediately dropped them in the aisle, started unzipping them, and searching for their passports, like it never occurred to them that they would need their passports upon arrival in the US. I watched for about 90 seconds as the entire plane ahead of them cleared out, leaving me and the entire Coach section stuck behind these two idiots. People behind me started shoving in frustration.
Now in a situation like this in Japan, you would merely say "orimasu," which literally means "I'm exiting," and people move to let you pass by. I tried saying what the phrase would really mean in this context, and in my politest tone, said, "pardon me, if you're not ready to deplane, please step aside and allow others to pass." In response, the short, fat old man screamed at me, "what did you say to my wife? If you talk to her like that again, I'll smash your face in!" His wife, standing between us, looked mortified. I said nothing in response, I merely stood there holding up my own passport. They leisurely searched their luggage, and after a few more minutes, finally located their passports, and deplaned.
In Japan, about the worst thing you could possibly do is cause inconvenience to a large group of others through your own selfish actions. And about 50 of us in Coach were inconvenienced because these idiots decided to block the aisles to hunt for their passports. But I laughed and laughed when I saw Instant Karma in action, I got waved through Customs without a search, while Mr. and Mrs. Asshole got sent for a full luggage search.
But it could always be worse. And shortly, it was worse, oh so much worse. But I will spare you the horror of listening to my story about being jammed into a seat next to a sweaty 450 lb man on the second leg of my flight home. I once rode in a cargo plane full of goats, and this flight was much worse. Enough said.
So excuse me if I vent. It will take me weeks to get over the trauma of my trip back home. And now that I'm back, I'm totally jet lagged, I'm exhausted. It will take me a while to decompress before I can process my photos and write about the more pleasant experiences I had in Japan.

I'm Not Going To Die

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My friends have been bugging me for an update since I haven't been posting much lately. So I suppose it is appropriate for me to declare a return to health, and that I am not going to die. My horrible rash has pretty much disappeared, it was not Toxic Shock or anything fatal. I'll ascribe it to either a toxic shellfish I ate (it was delicious anyway), or perhaps to overwork from too much walking.
I have so much to post about, but I figured I should wait until I get home and can put up with photo galleries with the stories, my busted laptop is not up to the task. And my hotel's Mac is difficult to use, the Japanese keyboard has the punctuation in all the wrong places, it's OK for short posts, but for lengthy writing, it drives me crazy.
As I discussed in an earlier post, I decided to take along Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad," and his travelogues usually set the tone for my own travel writing. I got to about chapter 2, and Twain makes extensive remarks about how the burden of writing a travel diary is the worst curse one could wish upon a tourist. I'll have to dig up the exact quote, it was hilarious, and it seemed like a sensible warning. So I pretty much gave up on daily diary writing, and I even stopped reading Twain's novel. I can either focus on experiencing Japan, or on writing about it. And I have been places where no gaijin has gone before. I can't wait for this trip to end, so I can write about it all.

There Was Beer in the Soda Machine

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It's been a busy week, with too much happening to write about it now. But now it's friday night, and time to relax. One thing I noticed about this neighborhood, there are beer and sake vending machines on the street. Of course Japan is famous for liquor vending machines, but I heard they were made illegal a while ago, unless they had restricted access like inside a convenience store where the proprietors can keep the minors away from the machine. But in this neighborhood, there are still open, unrestricted liquor vending machines, they even sell liters of sake and whiskey in large bottles, which would explain the high number of drunken homeless bums in the area.
So at 9 PM I figure I'll pop across the street and buy a One-Cup sake, pop it in the microwave and have some atsukan. But when I put 200 Yen in the machine, all I get is a couple of beeps and my money back. And now I notice the sign I never bothered to read, the machine automatically turns off at 8PM. Damn.
Update: I went back in the daytime when I can read the instructions more clearly. You have to scan your Japanese driver's license and input your thumbprint. So no sake machines will work for me. Damn.


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There is no finer way to begin one's excursion in Japan than at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. It is always the first stop on my Japan itinerary. This huge complex of museums will tax the resources of even the hardiest museumgoers, each exhibit is a treasurehouse that could take a lifetime of study to fully comprehend, and there are three buildings full of exhibits.
I intended to begin my visit as I always do, purchasing sushi at the vendors near Ueno station for a lunchtime picnic, to fortify myself for the exertions of the museum. Unfortunately, the sushi vendors are all closed for reconstruction, so a beer and a few sticks of yakitori will have to suffice. As I sat in front of the museum, relaxing and munching away, I was surprised to hear three different groups of Japanese ladies stroll past, declaring "it's just like America!" Nothing could have surprised me more than such a declaration, I could not comprehend how they could think such a thing. Perhaps it was the presence of foreigners in the park? Even my own presence? But finally one group of women pointed a finger towards a group of pine trees, apparently they evoked an image of America.
I finished my picnic and walked over to a water fountain to rinse off the sticky yakitori sauce, I turned the knob but no water came out. I turned the knob the other direction, and suddenly a column of water shot out, to a height of 20 feet. From behind me, I heard the sound of dozens of girls giggling, a huge tour group of women were walking together towards the museum, arriving unseen behind me, just in time to watch my little spectacle. I finished rinsing my fingers, and with some regret, I realized my picnic had delayed me enough to put me behind the largest crowds at the exhibits.
And there is the biggest problem with Japanese museums: the people who go to see them. Japanese museumgoers are the worst museumgoers in the world. They crush together, pushing up against the glass walls that protect the exhibits from the crowds. They wear big floppy hats and fan themselves with the museum programs, blocking the view of the exhibits. They stand and stare at long scrolls, walking slowly down the cases to insure that nobody else can go past, they carefully inspect every character, in the deluded belief that they can actually read 10th century Chinese. They crowd around the display cards, paying more attention to the description of the art object than the object itself.
My sister once told me some very sensible advice about such museums, she said that when faced with an embarrassment of riches, one cannot see everything, or the really great art objects will fail to make an impression. Our memories of great works are diluted with thousands of impressions of lesser works. You must focus on the objects you really want to see, and pass by the rest without tarrying. It is better to have a few strong memories of great works, than to leave the museum with a mass of muddled memories that all merge together.
And so this is how I approached the Tokyo National Museum, and I will focus on a few highlights. The big blockbuster show was a display of shingon mandalas from Mount Koya. Many of these objects are designated as Culturally Significant Objects, as one can observe by the red legend in the corners of the display cards. I cannot begin to explain the practices of esoteric shingon except by means of a simple metaphor, it is a meditative practice analogous to solving a 9x9 Rubik's Cube in your head, and every facet of the little cubes is colored, and you have to align all the colors, even those facing the interior of the big cube. It is a recipe for madness, a massive misinterpretation of buddhism. Oh well, every religion must have its fringe crazies.
One of the strangest objects in the show was a long scroll of purple paper with writing in black ink. There were many such scrolls in this exhibit, but this one was annotated in the strangest way, it had white dots placed on top of each kanji character. There was no pattern in the white dots that I could discern, they were placed at various positions on top of the kanji, and occasionally a white kanji character was written aside the black text as an annotation, so these markings were obviously intended as an aid to the priests that read the scrolls. My educated guess is that the dots corresponded to the 9 quadrants of the shingon mandala, and were intended to remind the reader of what meditative image should be evoked as each kanji was read. My guess is probably incorrect, but life is too short to investigate such arcane matters, unless one is a priest at Mount Koyo.
But let us avert our attention from the overcrowded blockbuster exhibit, and turn to the galleries, where we can stroll in a more leisurely fashion without the jostling crowds. Each gallery contains the finest examples of Japanese art, and in considerable quantity. Here is a gallery of lacquerware, the finest collection in the world, not just one gallery, but three full galleries. Here is a collection of fine hair combs produced in the Edo era, they are in perfect condition despite their age, each one is cut with the finest teeth that would be difficult to produce even with modern technology, and there is not just one comb, there are 30 identical combs. Here is a collection of ancient paintings on silk, they are so old and faded that the images can hardly be seen, but they are all remounted in fresh silk brocade frames, just as they have been periodically restored into new frames every hundred years or so. Here is a huge gallery of Chinese bronze dating back to the Sung dynasty, oh dear, this collection isn't nearly as good as the Art Institute of Chicago. Oh well, one cannot have everything, and this is Japan, not China, so what did you expect? Here is a huge gallery of tea vessels, each object is intended for solitary contemplation during the tea ceremony, but in such quantity, they lose their impact by sheer weight of numbers. How can one experience the sublime, when the quiet whisper of a million objects combines into a deafening shout? Let us retire from these galleries, and seek a sharper focus.
I am always fascinated by evidence of the collision between Eastern and Western cultures, and there was a nice example in an exhibit of early medical textbooks illustrating the latest knowledge obtained from Dutch doctors. Another nearby gallery shows objects produced in the 15th century for Jesuit priests, one famous object is a christian altarpiece in lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a distinctively Japanese style. Nothing could more vividly demonstrate the incongruity of importing christianity to Asia, a region where the predominant religions (as well as lacquerware techniques) predate christianity by several millennium.
My particular favorite exhibit was a group of rubbings of inscriptions on Chinese stone monuments. These monuments were intended for use as a source for reproduction by taking impressions on paper, in a sense, they are the first printing presses. And some of these particular rubbings date back to 300 B.C. and are widely known as the prototypes for all kanji characters. Let me reiterate, these monuments date back thousands of years and were quite old and worn when the impressions in this exhibit were made, the rubbings are relatively modern at merely 2300 years old. It is relatively common to see these images reproduced today in kanji copybooks, and indeed, some of the stones were carved specifically to mass produce examples of finely written kanji for others to copy. But it can be heartbreaking to see such an exhibit, when some of the paper objects are mere fragments, with burned edges. We cannot possibly know what else was lost, surely there was far more to this artwork than the few square inches of unburnt paper we see today.
And as the evening approaches, I myself am feeling a little burnt at the edges. My feet are blistered, my back is aching from hauling my bag over my shoulder, I should have checked it in a coin locker. It is time to limp back to my hotel, this has been far more amusement than any one body can bear.


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I arrived in Asakusa, and it looks like I'll have good computer access so I'll be able to blog during the trip. Maybe I'll even be able to post some pictures if I can get my laptop up and running on their network. That would be a nice switch from this little iMac/233 I'm using now.
Not much to say yet, since I've just arrived and haven't seen anything except the insides of some trains and my room. If anyone in Tokyo wants to meet up, drop me an email (look for the link on the left side of this page, just under the search box).
Disinfotainment brings you another strange video from FujiTV (4 min, Japanese subtitles only) of interest primarily to linguists and Japanese language students. The subject of this video is gyarumoji, "girl's characters," and since these characters are mostly shown on small cel phone screens, much of this writing will only be visible to high-bandwidth viewers. But keep watching, some examples are visible in large print. I guarantee you will be able to read a bit of gyarumoji by the time you finish watching this video, even if you only have a 56k modem. Pay close attention and you may even notice that Cliche Kitty flashes across the screen!

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Teenage Japanese girls have a long tradition of making themselves incomprehensible to adults through the use of obscure slang and speech patterns. But lately, a new fad has arisen, the use of foreign character sets to represent hiragana characters. These characters were first used in text transmissions through cel phone messaging, but now has spread to other media. I have often argued that Japanese media corporations are commonly used to disseminate new language forms, and this video shows how the process works, through new technology, and through a novel use of old technology.
We start our exploration in a trendy karaoke box in Shibuya, where several girls are singing along to karaoke subtitles written in gyarumoji. But first let's go out on the streets of Shibuya and talk to a few girls, and see some gyarumoji users and how they send messages to each other. Our reporter locates a few girls who demonstrate the characters and we see a few real messages on their cel phone screens, with subtitles so we can see what the strange characters represent. The girls proudly declare that their mothers can't read these characters, so our reporter sets out with a simple message in gyarumoji, konnichi wa (hello), and asks some adults if they can read it. They are all baffled by the strange writing. One of the young gyarumoji users even admits that she only knows 2 people who can read it.
Let's return to the karaoke box, and watch our reporter try to keep up with the strange subtitles. She is barely an adult herself, but the gulf of a mere few years has set her far apart linguistically from these youngsters. After fumbling with the lyrics, one of the young girls grabs the microphone from the reporter, and resumes singing with her exclusive cadre of girlfriends who are initiated into the intricacies of this incomprehensible writing system.
From the Mainichi Online:
...on June 11, a total of 5.95 million yen was anonymously posted to five public offices -- 1 million yen each to the Ministry of Finance, the Meteorological Agency, the Social Insurance Agency and the Board of Audit of Japan, and 950,000 yen to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. One million yen was also posted to the Gunma Prefectural Library. In each of the cases, the parcels of money bore a June 10 postmark from the Takasaki Post Office in Gunma Prefecture.
There is only one glaring omission from this news story, an interview with the clever clerk that opened the envelope for the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
Disinfotainment offers this important piece of news to international journalists and media outlets covering the World Cup: it's over. Brazil won. Nobody cares anymore. There is no need to continue coverage of the games, there are no more games. There are no more victory rallies. There is nothing to report. Of course, this has not stopped the media (particularly the Japanese media) from continuing to report on the World Cup. I regret to inform these "journalists" that nothing they write will have any relevance to the the games. They were over two days ago. So get over it. The world is full of important news, a two-day-old game is not news.

My brother asked me if they had convenience stores in Japan like 7-11. Yes they do, and they are Nirvana.
Back when I was a student in Japan, I stayed at a small temple way out in the country, the host family was on the edge of the poverty line. I was starving to death, there was never enough food. And what food there was, was always the same: squid. I remember eating squid breakfast lunch and dinner, sometimes 5 or 6 meals in a row. Last night's leftover squid was there on my plate for breakfast. Squid sashimi, broiled, baked, stuffed, shredded, dehydrated, I've consumed about every single edible product you can make out of squid. I love squid, and it is the local specialty, it was at peak season and cheap, but you can only eat so much squid. Over the course of a few weeks, I lost about 30 pounds.
So at every opportunity, on my 45 minute walks to and from school, I would search for other sources of food. Alas, that route mostly took me through the fishmarket, where the specialty was fresh squid. The best things I could find were some horrible vending machines near the train station selling hot canned coffee, Pocky, etc. I even considered eating a colorless food supplement gel bar called "Calorie-Mate" but I was never desperate enough to try it. I used to take different routes every day trying to find a decent place to eat breakfast or even a good vending machine. And then early one morning I was walking along a route I'd been before, and hey, I never noticed there was a 7-11 here, and I was just down this road yesterday! So I walked right up, the automatic door swept open, and I walked right in.
And I was right, there was no 7-11 here yesterday. Yesterday it was a cinder block shell, today it is a fully equipped 7-11 store with a sign up on top, everything in place and fully stocked. I walked in and abruptly landed right in the middle of the new boss giving the grand opening speech to his 5 employees, all assembled in a line wearing their 7-11 uniforms. Everything came to a halt. Ooops. With a few bows and a little "gomen" they understood I was not a crazy gaijin and could understand their language. The boss bowed and said he was sorry but they were not open yet, please come back tomorrow. I very politely said I was sorry to trouble them and I would come back. Darn it, no breakfast today. But from that day on, I was a regular customer. Finally I had something besides squid to eat.
I told that story to my brother, and he said I should have given them a US $1 bill and told them of the tradition of framing the first dollar a company earns and hanging it near the cash register. Then the Japanese store's little talisman would be a US Greenback. I laughed and wished I'd thought of that. And then I realized, I didn't have any US money at the time.

Buried Treasure

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FujiTV News reports that on March 5, a construction worker in Koyabe, Japan dug up an ancient earthenware pot containing 1,295 gold and silver coins, worth at least 65 million Yen (approximately $500,000US). Some coins were dated Meiji 3nen (1871) but the bulk of the coins are over 400 years old. The media compared the construction worker to an old fairy tale about "Hanasaka jiisan," an old man who digs up a pot of gold. There was no report about who now owns the gold.

My friends were discussing ancient printing processes, and I pointed them to a very interesting site about the history of the "Toshaban." The toshaban or "gariban" process uses the stencil process like silk-screen printing, with the speed and low cost of a mimeograph machine. It flourished in the early 20th century and developed into a wide cottage industry of amateur printers across the entire country. My university has a huge collection of music and film fanzines from about 1900 to 1960 printed in this manner, some are fantastic works of art, and obviously took an immense amount of effort to produce.

The toshaban is becoming a lost art, but there recently has been a resurgence of fine-artists in Japan using the process. This website ends with a wonderful tale of these artists traveling to Laos to teach the toshaban to schoolteachers, who immediately loved the low-tech process for its simplicity and low cost.

I've posted a chart of standard Japanese paper dimensions. This will primarily be of use to graphic designers, artists, or researchers that need a quick reference to dimensions of prints, photographs, or other papers. This TIFF file is very small, only 216K and optimized for laser printing, but should be easily viewable if you zoom in (the type is very tiny, the original document was a wallet-sized card).

I picked up this reference card in an art supplies shop in Tokyo several years ago. This may seem like an extremely obscure set of information, but there really is an interesting story behind it. Governmental regulations on paper dimensions go back hundreds of years in Japan, and the archaic names in kanji (i.e. "hanga" or "half-picture") still give a hint of that ancient system.

FujiTV News reports that 85 whales beached in Ibaraki Prefecture, 32 were transported to a nearby deep harbor and released back to sea. The "melon-headed whale" travels in pods of 100 to 500. Last year near this same spot, 50 whales beached themselves. Local residents of Hasaki that assisted the biologists in the rescue were left with the task of disposing of tons of dead whales. One local resident said "last year, we cut them up and ate them...they were delicious." And again this time, the prime cuts were quickly carted away by fishmongers.
The report concluded with government warnings against eating possibly-diseased whale meat, and complaints of the cost of disposing of beached whales. Kagoshima Prefecture recently spent ¥25Million (about $186,500) to bury whale carcasses, and Hasaki faces similar disposal costs.


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Recently I've been watching the old Japanese film series "Zatoichi" on the Independent Film Channel. Zatoichi is a legendary blind swordsman who roamed Japan during the late Tokugawa era. Unfortunately I missed the first few films of the series, and I have no idea how the legend of Zatoichi began or why so many people want to kill him.