November 30, 2008

No Right or Wrong...or Is There?

Yet another one of Hermès' eccentric window installations in its Ginza store. Yes, this is right side up according to them.

November 27, 2008

Accumulating Dots to Make a Non-Illusion

I'm still slightly mystified by the QR Code reader ("quick response" reader, or "barcode reader") program in my mobile phone. The system has been around for a few years now, but for the longest time I thought it was used to scan for prices, like you would in a supermarket. These barcodes actually function as quick links to websites, and are scanned with and accessed through cell phones.

When I finally understood that the computer chip-like accumulation of black dots arranged in a square were barcodes, I started seeing them everywhere. They're used most predominantly to advertise websites for companies, and can be seen in the corners of ads everywhere,
from posters in trains to magazines to postcards that come in the mail. I even saw one on TV once, in a sweepstakes promotion: "to apply, just scan this barcode with your phone and follow the instructions on the website!" (The TV screen changed while I was still scrambling to activiate the barcode detection program.)

While the mere thought of viewing the internet on a narrow cell phone is enough to make me feel claustrophobic, the fact is that over half of cell phone users in Japan use the internet solely through their phones. This number is expected to rise in the coming years. Having gone from pilot project to phenomenon before acheiving ubiquity, the next step, it seems, is breaking away from the ugly black molds. This can be evinced by the Estee Lauder ad in the photo, with its cute Christmas tree icon. (Or it could be that they've already run out of variations of black dots and have decided to use color.) In the future, we'll probably be able to use photos as barcodes, zapping away at ads with our cell phones. I wonder if I'll still be loyal to my computer when that time comes.

Let Down by 2009

The "2009" in twinkle lights is certainly pretty. They do add an extra bit of sparkle to an already stylish Ginza street. But these banners are hanging from streetlamps, surely you wouldn't need more light to read the things? Far be it for me to scorn creativity, but this lavish use of electricity stuck me as odd in these ecologically-conscious times.

Japan has always excelled at making things aesthetically pleasing, but that can no longer be a top priority when there is a bottom line to be met.

So far, the only way the country has contributed to "saving" the planet is by commercializing -and cashing in on- eco-life. Eco-goods have become such a popular trend that stores are stocking enough nylon tote bags ("eco" bags) and aluminum tumblers to outfit the entire population. Is it any wonder that Japan is failing to meet its carbon emissions goals for 2012?

November 25, 2008

Bad Man's World

Jenny Lewis-"Bad Man's World"

As much as I love this song, with its heavy-handedness; I can't help thinking that Jenny Lewis just wanted an excuse to sing, "I'm a bad, bad girl."

Spot the Monster!

It's been about 10 years since I last bought stickers, but seeing these in a bookstore, I couldn't resist. Of all the things to turn into cute stickers, ancient Japanese monsters would be the last thing I could think of. These one-eyed, long-necked, fire-breathing creatures all have names, and can be traced back to literature and folklore from hundreds of years ago. As with so many mythical creatures, they were most likely conceived to explain the inexplicable, but they also have their roots in the Shinto religion.

These demons and ghosts gradually made their way into pop culture, as can be seen in the animated short "A Fox and a Badger in Rivalry”, below. Made in 1933, this film tells the tale of a badger who holds a competition to see which can out-trick the other. (Both animals are said to have transformative powers, which they generally use for evil, according to Japanese folklore.) The animation may remind you of Disney, but the appearance of one-eyed kiddie goblins, demons with iron rods, and snakelike ghosts, the resulting short is distinctly Japanese.

Kids nowadays will recognize these monsters from folktales and ghost stories, though some of the creatures, such as the laquer umbrella with one eye and one leg, or the red lantern breathing fire, invoke images of Japanese life so far removed from what we know today that their scare factor is debatable. With these stickers, it seems, they have transcended their mythical origins and finally emerged as yet another batch of cute Japanese characters.

November 22, 2008

Dreaming Big

A cat gazing at a statue of a shachihoko. I always assumed the cat was seeing it with food on his mind, longingly thinking of the delicious meal it would provide.

But then I realized that a shachihoko isn't exactly a fish; with the head of a tiger and the body of a fish, it's actually a tiger-fish. Even the kanji, 鯱, is a combination of 魚 (fish) and 虎 (tiger).

So which was the cat reacting to, the shachihoko as kindred spirit or possible prey?

November 21, 2008

Drawing and Manual Arts Education

My packrat grandmother has had this box for over 45 years, a toolbox that was required for my father's drawing and manual arts class in elementary school. The basic contents:

I'm guessing the wrench and the blue plastic plus driver are new additions, but the rest is all still in place. In this age of overprotective parents and cautious children, it's slightly refreshing to think of 10-year-olds using handsaws for arts and crafts, the general assumption being that they would know how to handle them in a responsible manner.

November 20, 2008

Two-Faced Electric Boxes

(In Ginza.)

(In Aoyama.)

These are:
a. Logos for an electric company.
b. A street artist's tag.
c. A gang sign.
d. Please tell me because I have no idea.

November 19, 2008

The Seal of Approval

Free with a purchase of a stack of nengajo (New Year's cards): a mini mailbox. Modern mailboxes are actually rectangular,with two slots, one for regular mail and the other for express delivery, but Japan Post went with a classic look. In recent years, some towns have gone out of their way to revert to this old version, replacing the ugly square mailboxes with the old-school style.

Lest you think that it's just another cute trinket, the bottom flips open to reveal that it is, in fact, a seal case. In Japan, family seals are used for everything from finalizing bank accounts and other important documents to accepting package deliveries.

There's even a tiny inkpad stained with vermilion ink. Other things included with the nengajo were a memo pad and some pocket tissues, decidedly less delightful. Yet, it's a far cry from last year, when a two-hundred card purchase yielded two pocket tissues and a dishwashing sponge that crumbled after the first use.

November 18, 2008


(Dove balloons from a wedding in Chiba.)

Irène Némirovsky's five-part plan for her novel Suite française, which she started writing in 1941:

1. Storm (later changed to Storm in June)
2. Dolce
3. Captivity
4. Battles?
5. Peace?

Set in France, Suite weaves together multiple storylines to tell the intersecting fates of the French during World War II. Storm in June follows Parisians of various social backgrounds as they flee to the countryside, while Dolce focuses on a small rural town under German occupation. The bare bones of the latter three parts were in place, but before they could be written, the Jewish-born Némirovsky was sent to Auschwiz. She died there in 1942, after a month in the concentration camp.

Published in its unfinished form in 2004, Suite française gained worldwide attention for being a rare war novel that was written while the events were still unfolding. While this immediacy is one of the novel's its greatest assets, it meant that Némirovsky could only imagine what remained to be seen. The question mark at the end of the final part, Peace, is indicative of the despair and uncertainty she must have felt.

November 16, 2008

Things That Are But Aren't

Not a 1000000 yen bill.
(A pocket tissue ad for a probably frightening money loaning company.)

Not a mop.
(A shaggy dog in a suspicious pet shop in Shinokubo.)

Not a donut.
(A dog's chew toy.)

Not a dog.
(A jewelry store in Ginza.)

November 12, 2008

A Taste of Gaudi in Waseda

With its 125-year history, the Waseda University campus is a careful balance of old, storied buildings and new constructions. The surrounding area, with its Shinto shrine, fast-food chains, and used bookshops similarly balances the traditional with the modern. While quietly charming and ideal for students, it is hardly the greatest source of style and creativity in Tokyo.
Walk a few minutes away from Okuma Auditorium (named after the university's founder) in the opposite direction of the school, and you might be tempted to reconsider this last statement. What was once the headquarters of the student Marxist movement of the 1960s has given way to a confection not unlike a gingerbread house--with surreal touches.

(Tiles, ceramics, and stones decorate the outer wall)

Wholly unexpected and endlessly intricate, the Dorado Waseda is the masterwork or architect Von Jour Caux. Born Toshiro Tanaka in 1934, the graduate of Waseda's Architecture department is understandably and justifiably referred to as "Japan's Gaudi". Dorado Waseda, which was built in 1983 is informally referred to as "that Gaudi building" among students.

Surprisingly, the building is advertised in real estate ads as a residential building. (Yours if you can shell out 170,000 yen, or 1,737 US dollars in our current economy.) Considering the rooms do not come equipped with a shower or a bathroom, in reality they are most likely used as offices. Throughout the years, the most visible first floor has been used for a hair salon, and later, a barbershop.
If the building at first glance seems inscrutable, extended viewings only increase its mystique. Students rushing past the Dorado on their way to class either take one glance and look away, as if they don't want to wonder why its there, or betray their surprise by letting their eyes bug out. The more adventurous (and less busy) venture inside, and are most likely delighted by the giant beckoning hand, right next to the mail boxes on the first floor.

(The ceiling of the first floor)

My most fervent wish is to see the other floors, and inside the rooms. I almost had my chance once. Hovering below the windows, I was trying to peek inside, when a woman stuck her head right out and asked, "Are you Kana-san?" Imagine what I could have seen if I had just said yes!

November 9, 2008

PET Bottles Keep Cats at Bay

About fifteen years ago, I began to notice the unexplainable presence of 2-liter bottles around my neighborhood. Filled with water, they were placed in front of parking spaces, the walls between houses, flowerpots, even next to cars. They were conspicuous and ugly, and clashed horribly with the well-groomed yards and carefully tended plants. I entertained the idea that they were a part of some local religious ritual before gathering the courage to ask a neighbor.

Answer: they were for the cats, both strays and pets. They had clawed, chewed, and urinated on enough people's property that when a television program espoused PET bottles as a way of warding them off, people immediately decided to test out this theory. The logic was that cats hate shiny things, and the light reflecting off the water would frighten them and keep them away, especially at night.

This dubious idea was never actually proved, and surprisingly, no one ever invented a better, or at the very least, more visually pleasing solution. There have been reports of the water bottles leading to a traffic accident (the reflection proved distracting), and even being the cause of fire that broke out when the plastic functioned as a lens and burned some leaves on the ground. Yet they remain in use today, whether out of habit or fulfilling their alternative role as traffic cones for cats—still ugly, and still quite pointless.

November 6, 2008

When Laziness and Technology Collide

Continuing the grand tradition of not-entirely-necessary Japanese inventions: photorealistic "under construction" signs!

While the LED man waves a flag to warn drivers, two construction workers stand and talk in the street. Sigh.

November 5, 2008

Himalaya Film Festival Tokyo 2008: The Himalayas as a Microcosm of the World

Environmental problems in India, the persecution of Tibetans, poverty in rural China--these are the issues that find their way into the media. Often treated as disparate topics, it is easy to forget that these countries are inextricably tied to one another, both historically and geographically. The Himalaya Film Festival Tokyo (HFFT), which was held from October 31st to November 3rd, showcased 30 films that focused exclusively on the mountainous region that extends from China, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, India and Pakistan, shedding light on the political, cultural, and environmental issues that, all too often, go unacknowledged.

Held in conjunction with nonprofit organization Himalaya Archive Japan and Himalaya Archief Nederland, this marks the second year for HFFT, following the inaugural festival in 2006. The primary objective of the festival, says Himalaya Archive Japan director Kunihiko Tanaka, is to create opportunities through moving images. This applies not only to the audience, who can expand their knowledge of the Himalayas, but also extends to the filmmakers, who receive the necessary exposure that will hopefully lead to future projects.

You don't need to be a cynic to see the potential for disappointment behind these remarkable intentions. The HFFT had to confront its fair share of stigma, beginning with the fact that all of the films shown were documentaries. For many people, watching documentaries, with their often pedantic tone and grim depiction of mankind's failings, do not constitute a good time. Yet, in the absence of any recognizable names or faces, the stories are what take hold.

One such example is The Forbidden Team, which follows a Tibetan soccer team formed within a refugee camp in India. Despite China and FIFA's refusal to declare them a national team, they head to Denmark and take part in a landmark match against Greenland. While essentially an underdog story, the harsh reality of Tibet's ongoing struggle for autonomy gave the film an urgency and vitality that few studio films could achieve.

The specialized content of documentaries may also frighten away viewers who feel that being familiar with the subject is a prerequisite for watching them. This assumption can be debunked by a film such as Call it Karma. In the film, director/narrator Jeoff Brown recalls how a fortuitous encounter with Gyalten Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, in Vancouver led to his interest in the Tibetan faith. Karma is ostensibly Rinpoche's life story, but running parallel to his tale is Brown (and the viewers') crash course on Tibetan Buddhism.

Another prejudice HFFT was up against was the old "preaching to the converted" argument: the people who have come to see the films are already somewhat invested in the issues it addresses, but those who have no interest or knowledge of these topics will never see them. While the number of attendees for some of the screenings were despairing, patience is imperative when showing films that receive little or no promotion other than word of mouth. Some of the films in the selection, such as The Forbidden Team, were originally aired on television. Others, such as Tibetan Refugees: A Struggle Beyond Generations (the work of HFFT's own Kiyohiko Tanaka) have made rounds at various film festivals, in the world effectively amassing a modest but growing audience.
Finally, there is the ultimate pessimistic reaction: even if the films are shown and people are moved, they will resign themselves to their everyday lives, not knowing how to take action. Having observed the audience over two days, it struck me that if the films provoked any sort of emotional response from them, they could be called successful. These documentaries highlight an area of the world that Japanese education merely skims over, and the mainstream media, while occasionally expressing interest in their ethnographic cultures, is reluctant to rock the boat.

Although the ultimate goal of screening these documentaries would be people becoming personally vested in the issues, one cannot ask viewers to ingest a host of information in one sitting and then immediately becoming politically active. We must first be informed enough to be able to ask questions. It is when we are equipped with the facts that we become most powerful.

To borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin (!), the Himalayas are a microcosm of the world's biggest issues. Human rights, democracy, the environment--these are all interrelated topics that gain significance when told through different perspectives. In the upcoming posts, I would like to focus in particular on a number of films that I viewed at the festival, playing my small role in spreading the word.

November 4, 2008


(Kasai Seaside Park in Tokyo.)
I am excited about seeing the ongoing process of the US presidential election when I wake up tomorrow.

November 1, 2008

Don't Forget to Make it Cute: Halloween, Japan-Style

(Halloween decorations in a café in Tokyo.)

Christmas and Valentine's Day have long been celebrated in Japan, but in recent years, Halloween has also become visibly popular. Perhaps influenced by the expanding gaijin communities or Japan's eternal fascination with the West, what was once limited to learning about jack-o'-lanterns in English class and seeing pumpkin chocolates at imported-goods stores has now become something more widespread.

The idea of Japan adopting Halloween, originally an Irish pagan holiday before it was aligned with the Christian All Saints' Day, may cause some to scratch their heads. But for better or for worse, Japan recognizes Halloween, to say nothing of Christmas and Valentine's Day, in its own way: by ignoring the historical and religious connotations and embracing it through consumerism and consumption.

Walk around any commercial area in Tokyo in October and it's easy to spot the evidence. A string of jack-o'-lantern lights in a café window, tiny pumpkins stacked on top of each other in flower shops, paper decorations hanging in conbini. By making Halloween cute and stylish (the ultimate Japanese credo), businesses are capitalizing on the holiday to lure customers.

Yet, Japan's acceptance of Halloween doesn't necessarily include practicing the actual customs. While seeing young people dressing up in costume to go out on the 31st has become less unusual, in an age where friendly relationships with neighbors have become rare, one doubts that trick-or-treating will ever be greeted with anything other than nervous suspicion.

On my way to work on Halloween Day this year, I was surprised to see a small procession of toddlers and preschool children walking down a main street in costume, accompanied by parents and minders. Clutching their paper pumpkin bags filled with candy very tightly, the younger children seemed slightly dumbfounded to find themselves dressed up, with their Power Ranger and Peter Pan teachers snapping photos of them. One hopes that when they grow older, they will wonder why they were wearing orange that day and eating candy, and eventually be spurred into learning more about this day.

Happens Every Day

In the elevator: a leaf?

No, a praying mantis.

In Japan, they are usually seen in the summer. Yet another worrying effect of global warming, an insect is forced to take refuge in an elevator because the nights are too cold for their liking.