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.
If you go to the art section of a bookstore in Japan, you will inevitably find heaps of DIY books of a certain style of line drawings that seems unique to Japan. The idea of this artistic style is that if you can draw circles, rectangles and triangles, then you can draw just about everything. What’s more, the things drawn in this style all seem to be imbibed with a certain spirit as though they were alive – onigiri rice balls greet you with smiles, an iPad too smiles back at you.
‘The Twilight Samurai’ (2002)
Once upon a time, I was having this “Yoji Yamada phase”. It began circa 2002 when I first saw The Twilight Samurai [たそがれ清兵衛] (2002) – which was to me an emotional hydrogen bomb. Afterwards I searched for everything I could find directed hitherto by Yamada-sensei – the long-running Tora-san series (1969-1995), Kazoku (1970), The Yellow Handkerchief (1977), My Sons (1991), A Class to Remember (1993)… I was a Big Fan.
Out of the machinery of the risk-averse Japanese entertainment industry, there is on average (only) one film that is actually worth watching. In the subsequent years that Yamada-sensei releases a new movie, you can more or less count on him occupying that spot. The Hidden Blade [隠し剣 鬼の爪] (2004) was a strong follow-up to The Twilight Samurai, and while Love and Honour [武士の一分] (2006) was an all-around weaker production, it was still arguably the best of the batch in 2006 (with Memories of Matsuko [嫌われ松子の一生] by Tetsuya Nakashima [中島哲也] coming in as a close second).
Seigou Matsuoka [松岡正剛] (1944 – present) – one of Japan’s foremost men of letters – managed the experimental bookstore Matsuoka-Maruzen between Oct 2009 to Sep 2012
Matsuoka-Maruzen [松丸本舗] , an experimental bookshop that operated from Oct 2009 to Sep 2012, is a foremost example of places in Japan I love that no longer exists.
It was located on the 4th floor of the flagship store of the bookshop chain Maruzen, in a building called Marunouchi OaZO, near Tokyo Station. In other words, it was an experimental bookshop located within a traditional bookshop. When I was working in an office nearby, I used to spend many happy hours during lunch and after work, whiling away in this place.
A traditional bookshop would categorize books into fiction and non-fiction; they would put books into sections such as children’s books, adult books, manga, magazines; to save bookshelf space, they would put books on different shelves depending on the size of each book; they would also put the newest publications in prominent display.
Shigeru Mizuki [水木しげる ] (1922 – 2015)
Shigeru Mizuki [水木しげる ] (1922 – 2015), the creator of the Gegege Kitaro
manga series, was a lifelong student of the otherworld.
Although he is best known for his fictional works inspired by Japan’s lores of supernatural beings (called youkai), I have always thought that his magnum opus were his autobiographical accounts in manga format, namely:
- Nononba [のんのんばあとオレ] (1977)
- Showa: A History of Japan [コミック昭和史] (1998-1989)
- Boku no Isshou wa Gegege no Rakuen da [ボクの一生はゲゲゲの楽園だ] (2001)
These are memoirs of his life – drawn from memories happy and tragic from a childhood during the Great Depression surrounded by the mysteries of the Tottori countryside, early adulthood as a lowly foot soldier in a brutal war which left him with several near-death experiences and an amputated arm, his subsequent years as a struggling manga artist, and finally his prosperous and mature years in which he was free to explore the supernatural side of the world which had always fascinated him. With nostalgia and poignancy, he depicted his lively, lovable and oddball family and friends. Without illusions, he also painted the terrible events in history that claimed the best of his youthful years. Interestingly, he also spoke with frankness about his encounters with inexplicable mysteries.
Shuji Terayama [寺山修司] (1935 – 1983), avant-garde poet, dramatist, writer, film director and photographer, is not for the faint-hearted.
I dived into his mind-bending universe with the purchase of an artbook called Terayama Shuji no Kamen Gaho [寺山修司の仮面画報], which is brimming with sketches, photos, quotations and explanatory notes on his works. I have to say that he was not an icon of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s – 1970’s for nothing. He was way out there. To give you an idea of the sort of strange and surreal images that gush forth from his high-powered imagination, below are two pictures of props used by Tenjo Sajiki [天井桟敷], an experimental theatre troupe which he formed in 1967. The first one is called ‘Machine for an Indolent Audience to Appreciate the Classics’ [怠惰な観客のための名作鑑賞機械]:
Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959)
The Japanese gourmet Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959) (actually he is a man of many hats – aesthete, chef, writer, ceramic artist, calligrapher, painter, seal carver, philosopher, entrepreneur, cultural critic, socialite – but for the purpose of this post let us think of him as gourmet) once wrote about a conversation he had with a guest that is almost like a zen koan
of its own:
Guest: Sensei, please tell me about the the essence of cuisine.
Kitaooji: It is something you produce in order to eat.
Guest: So we produce cuisine in order to eat. Then, sensei, what it is that we eat for?
Kitaooji: We eat in order to live.
Guest: Then what do we live for?
Kitaooji: We live in order to die.
If you simplify this into a formula: to cook => to eat => to live => to die. In other words, we cook in order to die.
The reason why I mention him is because he is the one who solved a mystery that has been on my mind for many years – namely, why is cuisine called ryori [料理] in Japanese?
This is the follow-up work of the Seagraves after their controversial book The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family (1999).
Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold (2006) is the chronicle of how the Japanese military joined hands with yakuza and indigenous gangsters alike throughout Japan’s conquered territories in Asia to systematically blackmail, terrorize and loot civilians of valuable assets during the Pacific War. At the risk of simplifying a very complex story that took many decades to unfold, essentially the Japanese military had outsourced spying, intelligence and counter-intelligence activities to the yakuza. The yakuza in turn forged links with indigenous gangsters in occupied lands, who provided valuable information as to what wealth was owned by whom in the local areas and helped to make these blundering operations both effective and efficient. At the top overseeing these activities was Prince Chichibu, younger brother of the Showa Emperor.