The other day I was in Mayfair meeting an antique jewelry dealer from Japan. We discussed the contents of an interview he gave some years ago in which he said:
“It used to be a tough job being a king. If you lose a war, you would be killed. Even if there is no war, you never know when you might be poisoned by those around you. So the king takes to wearing jewelry in order to invoke higher spiritual powers to fortify his own frail self and to manifest the divinity within him. Jewelry used to be shingu [神具], or an ritualistic article transforming the wearer to someone greater than himself.”
He then continued: “Ōkurashō [大蔵省], the old Japanese word for “the Ministry of Finance” actually came from the English word “the Treasury”. The main purpose of the Ministry of Finance was to manage “treasure” or zaihō [財宝], and it used to be that much of that treasure consisted of jewelry. Losing that treasure of jewelry would be the same as losing national identity. It follows that in East Asia, the word for “country” [国] is a square enclosing the word for “jade” [玉]. However, I have noticed that there seems to be a subversion of values in which paintings now command exorbitant prices, whereas jewelry is treated as separate from all other genres of art and perhaps a lesser one at that – like mere decorative accessories for rich ladies.”
Vol. 1 of ‘Namuji’ by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
Although Yoshikazu Yasuhiko [安彦良和] (1947 – present) is most widely known as one of the creators of the popular Gundam series, I have always thought that the height of his creative powers was during the 1990s, when he began to move away from the sci-fi genre and started to produce a dozen different manga stories that were based on various controversies in world history.
Namuji [ナムジ] (1989 – 1991), his first attempt in historical fiction when he was 42 years old, was (in my opinion) also his best work. It has won the Excellence Prize at the 19th Japanese Cartoonists’ Association Award in 1990, and is the first storyarc of the Kojiki [古事記] trilogy.
The entire Kojiki trilogy is an imaginative reinterpretation of myths related to Japan’s beginnings as a nation, and the story begins with one of the most well-known deities in Japanese mythology – namely Ōkuninushi [大国主].
Yutaka Matsushige (1963 – present) plays the protagonist of ‘Kodoku no Gurume’
Perhaps due to the persistent image in Japanese culture that a master artisan should be a man of few words who just shuts up and makes things, for all the country’s obsession with good food, Japan has not yet given rise to the Jamie Oliver type of food celebrity (who probably talks more than he cooks). Indeed, one may say that (to use a marketing lingo) the ‘influencers’ of the food industry tend to be fictional characters rather than real people.
This was the impression I had when I watched the hugely popularly TV series Kodoku no Gurume [孤独のグルメ] (‘The Solitary Gourmet’) based on the manga of the same name. The protagonist Goro Inogashira is a salaryman who visits his clients all over Japan, and sometimes overseas. His one hobby in life is to eat delicious food by himself at a restaurant. He makes of point of eating all by himself because he wants to eat without bothering about other people or being bothered by other people. Although he mostly eats at low-to-mid price range establishments, he has become an iconic symbol of a growing trend in Japan where it is becoming an acceptable thing to eat alone at a restaurant – these days, even the high-end ones adjust their menus to accommodate patrons who eat all by himself or herself.