[Book] ‘The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family’ (1999) by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave

The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family (1999) by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave

An eye-opening account of the Japanese Imperial family from the Meiji Era onwards. It is explosive, controversial and fascinating. It chronicles the colourful life of the bon vivant Meiji Emperor, followed by the reign of the Taisho Emperor and whispers of his mental insanity in corridors of power, to direct war-time involvement on the part of the Showa Emperor and senior-ranking princes and their subsequent bailouts and evasions of war crimes in the post-war era, and finally to the effective hostage of the Imperial Family in the hands of Right-wing conservatives up to the present day.

Two things from the book impressed me in particular:

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[Book] ‘Lost Japan’ (1996) by Alex Kerr

LostJapanReading this book was like having a long conversation with a sophisticated, level-headed observer of Japan who has spent decades digesting the country’s culture and history. Alex Kerr (1952 – present) is a rare mind who possesses a deep appreciation of Japan’s aesthetics and is nonetheless not blind to her darker, dysfunctional sides. In addition to being a Japanologist (he did Japanese studies for his undergraduate degree at Yale), he also has the unique advantage of being also a Sinologist (afterwards he did Chinese studies at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar). In addition to being a scholar and aesthete, he also has the uncommon experience of having also worked as a businessman during the Bubble Era. Only someone with his background could have had the insight and authority to say things like:
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[Book] Lee O-young (III): A cultural theory of rock-paper-scissors

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Continuing from Part II of this series. Lee O-young – having highlighted some key differences in outlook between the East and the West as embedded in linguistic structures in the first half of Janken Bunmei-ron [ジャンケン文明論] (2005), or “A Cultural Theory of Rock, Paper and Scissors” – then proceeds to the main argument of his book. He argues that the game of rock-paper-scissors is a metaphor for understanding how East Asians perceive the balancing forces of nature and adopt the game to govern certain aspects of human relations.

Rock-paper-scissors is a game of random chance. Anyone has the chance to win at this game. It is also a game that is outside the traditional top-down structures of social relations. More importantly, the game reflects the idea that there is never an absolute top-dog or winner in nature (even the strongest or cleverest mammal can fall prey to germs). So rock is defeated by paper, paper is in turn defeated by scissors, and scissors is in turn defeated by rock.

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[Film] The bitter Kodak smile in Japanese cinema

I have always thought that the word kushou [苦笑] means (by dictionary definition and popular usage):

To smile at something that is bitter to you and look bitter while you smile.

But over the years of having watched dozens of Japanese films, including nearly everything by Yasujiro Ozu [小津安二郎] (1903 – 1963), I am beginning to think that there is another kind of kushou. A more subtle kind perhaps. It is namely:

To smile at something that is bitter to you and not look bitter while you smile.

For some reason, I have only spotted that smile in Japanese films so far. You will know that smile instinctively once you have watched enough of them (whether they are directed by Ozu or not, for his influence is lasting and widespread). It is the Kodak smile that you usually only see in advertisements of toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics or the like. If a shot of the smile were taken out of the context of the film, you might even be fooled into thinking that the smile was induced by joy. But that smile always appears in some tragic context.

Tokyo Story [東京物語] is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

Tokyo Story [東京物語] is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujiro Ozu.

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[Manga] ‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’ by Hikaru Nakamura (Part I): the Venusian woman, the myth of Tannhäuser, and the meaning of ‘recruit’

'Arakawa Under the Bridge' [荒川アンダー ザ ブリッジ] Vol 1 - 14 by Hikaru Nakamura was serialized on Young Gangan between 2004 and 2015

‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’ [荒川アンダー ザ ブリッジ] Vol 1 – 14 by Hikaru Nakamura was serialized on Young Gangan between 2004 and 2015. It was partly adapted into anime by Akiyuki Shinbo in 2010.

Synopsis: Kou Ichinomiya is born the scion of a powerful commercial empire in Japan and is himself a high-achieving university student who is already running his own business enterprises. One day, he falls over a bridge and falls into a river, and is rescued by a young woman named Nino, who claims to be an alien from Venus. Kou asks her for a way for him to repay her, and Nino tells him to make her fall in love with him, thus beginning Kou’s life of living under the bridge with her. Kou gradually learns that under the bridge is the home of a group of eclectic, borderline insane individuals with hints of mysterious pasts involved in espionage, warfare, ESP experiments, the mafia, high politics, stardom and space travel…

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[Aesthetics] Fonts of mystery: the calligraphy of Kukai

Kukai04Of all the works of calligraphy I have ever seen in Japan, my favorite is the late style of Kukai [空海] (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. He had experimented with many different styles throughout the course of his life, and methinks he reached the height of his artistic powers when, at the age of 52, he wrote Masuda-ike Himei Narabinijo [益田池碑銘并序], the original of which is now stored in Koyasan Reihoukan Museum [高野山霊宝館]. The calligraphy of this piece was said to be engraved on a commemorative tomb for the creation of a (now extinct) reservoir in Nara called Masuda-ike.

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[Manga] Usamaru Furuya (II): His Third Phase and ‘Teiichi no Kuni’

Continuing from the first part of this series, perhaps fifty years from now Usamaru Furuya will be remembered as the David Bowie of the manga industry. David Bowie had experimented with many artistic personas (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke etc), and likewise Usamaru Furuya – having devoted his early works to mystical visions, alchemical Great Work and soul searching – made a 180 degree turn with the launch of Teiichi no Kuni [帝一の國] (2010-2016), a political thriller set in a high school that is metaphorically a microcosm of power struggles in Japan’s arena of realpolitik.

The Third Phase of Usamaru Furuya and Teiichi no Kuni

Teiichi3

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[Aesthetics] Broken is beautiful – the art of ‘kintsugi’

金継ぎ

Kintsugi [金継ぎ] is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Instead of seeing cracks as something to be disguised, it is thought that the cracks form a unique, one-of-a-kind pattern (it is not easy to replicate the exact same cracks after all), and that the cracks become part of the history of an object. Moreover, this technique can also be used to combine fragments from different broken articles creatively to form a new item.

金継ぎ0

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[Book] Lee O-young (II): ‘As above, so below’ in linguistics

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Continuing from Part I of this series, Lee O-young also observes the tendency of East Asian languages to incorporate contradictory properties into the same noun. For example, the English word ‘elevator’ becomes 升降機 in Chinese, meaning ‘a machine that elevates and descends’. Whereas the Chinese mind observes the elevator’s abilities to both elevate and descend, the western mind focuses on the ‘elevation’ bit and the ‘descent’ part just disappears.

The tendency of European languages to submerge two polarities into one is also observed in the word ‘man’ which can include both male and female. In a sense, the ‘woman’ has disappeared into the ‘man’.

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