Category Archives: Culture

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Musings VIII: Monsters and Identity in “The Great Yōkai War”

Monsters – the Ultimate Adversary?

youkai yokai Japanese Monsters Mizuki shigeru

An assembly of yôkai.

It seems to be the most gripping kind of tale: The fight against a monster. Our heroes may confront it literally, as a demonic creature or a mad serial killer, or more symbolically, in the faceless grinding mechanisms of society, or the depths of their own subconscious.

The Japanese monsters categorized as yōkai are fascinating to me, not only because of their ever-changing appearance and narratives but also for their function in cultural discourse. A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about the classic Yōkai daisensō, “Great Yōkai War”-chapter in Mizuki Shigeru’s manga Gegege no Kitarō, and while the material in doubtlessly somewhat dated now, I still consider it interesting enough to bear retelling in this blog.

The Father of Modern Monster Manga

Mizuki Mura Shigeru

Mizuki (Mura) Shigeru, 2010.

Mizuki Shigeru was one of the most influential mangaka of the 20th century. He was born as Mura Shigeru in 1924, most likely in Ōsaka,[1] and grew up in the remote town of Sakaiminato (“border harbour”) which faces the Sea of Japan. In his own autobiographical stories, he marks two eras of his life as most important: Firstly, his childhood, when an old woman told him stories about yōkai and thus built the foundation of his lifelong attention to them. Secondly, his war experiences, especially the time he spent convalescing in the village of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea after the loss of his left arm. In his works, he often idealizes the life of the natives: “as if I had somehow come upon a fairyland”[2]. Besides the spooky stories about Gegege no Kitarō, see below, Mizuki also illustrated numerous yōkai, some of which he invented or gave physical appearance for the first time. He also created a number of influential autobiographical narratives and the award-winning Showa: A History of Japan.[3] Mizuki was active as an artist far into old age; he died in November 2015. It is a great regret of mine that I never managed to visit the museum devoted to him during my stay in Japan.

Monsters and Japanese Identity

Gegege no Kitaro Kitarou

Kitarô being his usual caefree self.

In contrast to ever-raising action levels and expectation-driven heroes who developed from the model of Tezuka Osamu’s protagonists such as Astroboy, Mizuki’s Kitarō is a more ambiguous, more laid back figure.[4] And a decidedly uncanny one, of cause. As the last descendant of a spirit tribe, Kitarō usually functions as mediator between yōkai and humans.[5] In the story Yōkai daisensō, “The Great Yōkai War” (1966), however, Kitarō allies with a group of yōkai to liberate an island from an occupation by Western monsters. This story reflects two important moments of Japanese Post-War culture and politics: The American occupation and the re-emerging discourse of Japaneseness.

A Transformation of the historical situation

In Yōkai daisensō, Mizuki addresses the real conflict of the American occupation of Japan by shifting it into a fantastic otherworld. The “monstrous” concepts of American occupation and war itself take physical form as Western monsters and thus return to the public conscious, where they can be worked through and resolved. For, as Japanese studies scholar Fabio Gygi puts it, “[t]he only way to exorcise a monster […] is to conjure it, that is, paradoxically, to make it appear”.[6] Doubly distanced in the otherworld of monsters and the island of Kikaigashima, a fictitious location at the tip of Okinawa (the very edge of Japan), the trauma becomes safe to handle. In addition, criticism of the present situation, which might be a dangerous topic in realistic works, becomes possible in a fantastic scenario.

Western Monsters as Occupation Force

western monsters Kitarou Kitaro wolfman dracula Frankenstein

Three of the four western monsters.

Scholar of Japanese Media studies Zilia Papp analyses four approaches to the monster-war-theme in her 2009 article.[7] Regarding the Kitarō manga, she emphasizes the anti-American theme. In earlier narratives about monster wars, yōkai symbolized the alien Other, including foreigners, and were defeated by Japanese human characters.[8] By contrast, Kitarō and a band of yōkai depart to aid a child in markedly Asian dress (he is wearing a Vietnamese hat) against clearly western monsters. Thus, Mizuki uses Japanese monsters to represent the Self and “stereotypical western monsters” for the enemy. Namely, the antagonists are a witch, a wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, and the design of the latter two clearly alludes to American cinema.[9] In addition, “[a]nalogies to the Pacific War (1942-45), the Battle of Okinawa (1945) and the Vietnam War (1959-75) are articulated” in text and image.[10] As a result, a clear confrontation between Japanese and American representatives emerges.

Kitaro Sunakake Baba Medamoma Oyaji Konaki Jiji Nurikabe Yokai Youkai Daisenso Daisensou

The company departs.

Yōkai, Japanese Monsters, as icons of Japaneseness

In her analysis of the ikai (otherworld) motif in Japanese literature of the 1990s, professor for Japanese literature Lisette Gebhardt states that an otherworld may include aspects of the alien and the afterlife. It serves as construction site for new patterns of identification.[11] In the 1960s, new identification patterns were also certainly necessary after the collapse of the military system of wartime Japan. Moreover, the development from wartime shortages and destruction to the economic growth of the 50s and 60s necessitated a redefinition of what it meant to be Japanese. This definition often arises from texts of the nihon(jin)ron or “discourse of (the) Japan(ese)”. Cultural Anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu proposes a subdivision of modern Japanese history according to the prevalent type of nihonjinron. Kitarō would fall into the early third phase, in which Japanese cultural traditions were revalidated. Fittingly, Michal Dylan Foster in his epochal study Pandemonium and Parade (2009) describes Mizuki’s works as “(re)discovery of the yōkai as pop-culture icon”.[12] Kitarō assembles yōkai from all over Japan to assist the child from the occupied island, thus his group comes to represent Japan as a whole. With their roots in local myth and folklore, yōkai are symbols of Japan in its perceived cultural uniqueness.

Monstrous Self

It is not only their clear-cut confrontation of American monster villains and Japanese yōkai which marks the latter as representatives of the Japanese (reader him/her) self. Mizuki also uses visual techniques to encourage identification with the yōkai boy Kitarō. Initially overpowered by the Western monsters, Kitarō faces the chief villain, a tentacle-sprouting, floating, one-eyed creature named Beādo.[13] In this scene, Kitarō’s pitiful state is evident in the loss of this hair and his ancestral vest Chanchanko, two of his usually effective weapons. This alone activates the reader’s sympathy and thus identification.

kitaro Kitarou Beado back panel

Kitarô faced with the main villain.

Moreover, he is positioned with his back to the reader in a pose used to provoke identification at least since Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscape paintings. We look over his shoulder and share his perception. The well-known manga Akira (Ōtomo Katsuhiro, 1982-90) also uses this method, as manga scholar Miriam Brunner describes. “His body protrudes […] into the picture and invites the viewer’s identification […]. Passing beyond his upper body, the recipient’s eye is guided”[14] toward the panel focus, in this case the looming figure of Beādo. Mizuki is usually very conventional with his panel designs. Therefore, it is noteworthy that this panel is the only instance in Yōkai daisensō where a character stands completely outside his panel and as close as possible to the reader. Mizuki thereby emphasizes the equation of yōkai and Japanese reader in this moment of failure and helplessness before an overpowering Western force. This of course makes the final triumph of the yōkai all the sweeter.

Nostalgia for a phantom

Mizuki reworks past trauma and present distress in a fantastic realm. His reference to ancient yōkai folklore is an emphasis of cultural tradition which can be contextualized in the search for a new identity after defeat and rapid economic growth. In so doing, he also gives form to a yearning for a less complex, less globalized world; a ‘truly Japanese’ world untainted by both war and westernization. Foster describes this emotional state as one of melancholy desire: “nostalgia might be characterized as a longing for a past (time, place, self) that is impossible to (re)claim because it no longer exists or, more likely, never did.”[15] The fantasy of a magical Japan populated by yōkai satisfies this yearning for an unalienated home.

Final Remarks

The manga confronts and works through past and present political and cultural crises, while at the same time it supports the formation of a positive consciousness of Japaneseness through fantastic nostalgia. In this way, the Great Yōkai War illustrates a specific moment in Japanese cultural history and history of thought.

Notes and References

[1] Foster, Michael Dylan (2008): “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru”. In: Mechademia 3, 8–28. 12.

[2] Mizuki Shigeru, Musume ni kataru otōsan no senki, 148-149, as quoted in Foster 2008:21.

[3] Since the original writing of this essay, an English translation in 4 volumes by Zach Davisson has appeared, which ranks high on my To-Read-list. As an introduction, see his own blog about the publication of the first volume: https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/11/04/countdown-to-mizuki-shigerus-showa-1926-1939-a-history-of-japan/

[4] The most influential German manga scholar, Jaqueline Berndt, discusses this contrast. See Berndt, Jaqueline (1995): Phänomen Manga. Comic-Kultur in Japan. Berlin: Ed. q (Japan-Edition).63-65.

[5] Some of his adventures are available in English translation, also courtesy of Mr. Davisson. When I originally wrote my essay, though, I had to work exclusively with Japanese-language material since the only available translation was a French one.

[6] Gygi, Fabio (2008): “Mnemonic Monsters. Memory, Oblivion and Continuity in Japanese Popular Culture”. In: Minikomi 75, 5-12. 6.

[7] Papp, Zilia (2009): “Monsters at War. The Great Yōkai Wars, 1968-2005”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 225–239.

[8] Papp 2009:226-7.

[9] Papp 2009:227.

[10] Papp 2009:227.

[11] Gebhardt, Lisette (1999): “Ikai. Der Diskurs zur ‘Anderen Welt’ als Manifestation der japanischen Selbstfindungs-Debatte”. In: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (ed.): Überwindung der Moderne? Japan am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, S. 146–171. 147.

[12] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009a): Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 164.

[13] This enigmatic name might refer to the pirate Blackbeard, so that the tentacle-like appendices become a beard. Alternatively, Beādo may actually be a bugbear, a folktale creature whose main purpose seems to be to frighten children. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bugbear

[14] Brunner, Miriam (2009): Manga – die Faszination der Bilder. Darstellungsmittel und Motive. Dissertation. München: Fink. 94-5, my translation.

[15] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009b): “Haunted Travelogue. Hometowns, Ghost Towns, and Memories of War”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 164–181.176.

Manga images taken from:

Mizuki Shigeru (1996[1959-67]): Gegege no Kitarō. Complete new edition. Tōkyō: Komikkusu. (“Yōkai daisensō”, Vol. 2, 119-171.)

Other images:

Portrait of Mizuki Shigeru: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/Shigeru_Mura_201011.jpg

 


A Taste of Haiku

Haiku is a traditional Japanese poem consisting of three lines and 17 syllables. Unlike Western poetry, haiku rarely rhymes. This poetry conveys layers of meaning by using natural imagery. Zen Buddhism appears throughout haiku, and a specific branch of poetry, called jisei, or death poem, were written just before the writer died in battle or committed ritual suicide. Many haiku are rather funny too. I’ve included a few of those in this selection. Here are some traditional haiku.

Iio Sogi (1421-1502)
Snow yet remaining

The mountain slopes are misty—

An evening in spring

Yuki nagara

Yamamoto kasumu

Yube kana

Does not China also

Lie beneath the selfsame sky

Bound in misery

Morokoshi mo

Ame shita to ya

tsurakaran

Passing through the world

Indeed this is just

A shelter from the shower.

Mono goto ni

Oi wa kokoro no

Ato mo nashi             

 

Yamazaki Sokan (1464-1552)

 
Even at the time

When my father lay dying

I still kept farting.

Waga oya no

Shinuru toki ni mo

He o kokite

 

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

 
The quiet pond

A frog leaps in,

The sound of water.

Furuike ya

Kawazu tobikomu

Mizu no oto

Quietness

Seeping into the rocks

The cicada’s voice.

Shizukasa ya

Iwa ni shimiiru

Semi no koe

The roadside thistle, eager

To see the travelers pass

Was eaten by the passing ass!

Michinobe no

Mukuge wa uma ni

Kuware keri

 

Stabbed in a dream—

Or was it reality?

The marks of a flea.

Kiraretaru

Yume wa makoto ka

Nomi no ato

 

Yamamoto Kakei (1648-1716)

 
I have no wife, said I.

And so my landlord gave to me

A tiny maiden flower.

Tsuma nashi to

Yanushi ya kureshi

ominaeshi

 

Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738)

 
Although I say,

“Come here! Come here!” the fireflies

Keep flying away!

Koi koi to

Iedo hotaru ga

Tonde yuku

This autumn

I’ll be looking at the moon

With no child on my knee.

Kono aki wa

Hiza ni ko no nai

Tsukimi kana

 

Ogawa Shushiki (1669-1725)

 
The cherry by the well

Is dangerous for one

Drunken on wine

Idobata no

Sakura abunashi

Sake no ei

 

Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775)

 
The butterfly—

What are the dreams that make him

Flutter his wings?

Chocho ya

Nani o yume mite

hanazukai

I sleep…I wake…

How wide

The bed with none beside

Okite mitsu

Nete mitsu kaya no

Hirosa kana

 

Tan Taigo (1709-1771)

 
The change of servants

Her tears

Splash on the tatami.

Degawari ya

Tatami e otosu

Namida kana

 

Yosa Buson (1716-1783)

 
There’s no loincloth

On that butt blown in view –

In the spring breeze.

Fundoshi senu

Shiri fukareyuku

Haru no kaze

 

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

 
“The peony was as big as this,”

Says the little girl

Opening her arms.

Kore hodo to

Botan no shikata

Suru ko kama

Ours is a world of suffering,

Even if cherry-flowers bloom.

Ku no shaba ya

Hana ga kirakeba

Hiraku tote

 

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

 
I’m trying to sleep—

Go easy

When you swat flies.

Nemuran to su

Nanji shizuka ni

Hae o ute

How much longer

Is my life?

A brief night…

Yomei

Ikubaku ka aru

Yo mijikashi

References

Bowers, Faubion. (1996) The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. New York: Dover Publications


1800s Japanese Photography: Windows to the Past

1800-japan-photos-08Photographs are everywhere. Every cell phone has a camera stuffed into it. Selfies and photos in general are so ubiquitous that they often lack impact. Even the most stunning photos make us shrug and click on to the next website. But if we stop and consider photos, they are a marvel. Photography captures a moment in time. The moment may be contrived, posed, or spur-of-the-moment, but it is still a glimpse at a time period. It is a glimpse at a person long gone.

The number of photos floating around the Internet combines with our ever-onward rush to consume information. How often do you stop to contemplate a picture for more than a few seconds? I am guilty of rushing onward too.

japanese woman western clothing

Japanese woman wearing Western clothing c. 1900

Why is this woman wearing Western style clothing? What was her name? What was her favorite food? She was a predecessor to the moga of the 1920s. Moga is short for modan garu, or modern girl. She was a hip, liberated woman for her time. Moga typically wore one-piece dresses that ended at the knee, high-heels, and sheer stockings. A hat made of soft fabric accented her short hair styled after popular American film stars (Sato, 1993). Our lady has the hat, but her dress looks Victorian. We can only speculate about how she viewed herself. Many of these photographs are for postcards meant to be sold in the West. But they are still glimpses of people and periods lost to time.

moga-at-beach

Moga on the beach. 1920. Notice their Western-style swimsuits. These ladies were fashionable for their time and they threatened traditional womanhood in Japan.

samurai-hand-tinted-photos-from-1865

A pair of sumo going through ritual movements for a Western audience (These postcards targeted Western visitors). A hand tinted photograph from 1865.

We can’t forget the people not seen in these photographs: the photographers. The names of photographers are sometimes as mysterious as the people depicted. What made the photographer set up this shot? What relationship did the photographer share with the people in the picture? We can rarely answer these questions.

1865 japanese mother w child

Japanese mother with her sleeping child. c. 1865 hand-tinted.

These people are gone. These frozen moments tantalize. The toy cat on the right side of the photograph and the thick blankets surrounding the child speak of the mother’s love. The ink paintings in the background are lovely. What do they tell us about the family?

felice-beato photographer 1863

A lovely hand-tinted photograph of a woman washing her hair taken by Felix Beato. c.1863.

We happen to know who took these hand-colored photographs. Felix Beato, an Englishman, used glass plate negatives coated with egg whites. This technique allowed photographers to capture detail but at the cost of long exposures. It took 4 hours to make a photo. However, Beato figured out a way to reduce the exposure time to 4 seconds. He took photographs in Egypt, China, and many other locations. He lived in Yokohama (Nobuo, 1972).

1800-japan-photos-04

A samurai in full armor, a relic of the past even when this photograph was taken.

We rush about both online and offline by our societies. We bounce to and fro, forgetting how to look deeply. Look at these photographs for several minutes. Look into the eyes of these people. Perhaps someday someone will look at photographs of you with the same questions you have. Who is this? What was their favorite food? Favorite color? What were they thinking? Why was the photograph taken?

Or perhaps they will only spend a few seconds glancing into your eyes before moving on without thinking of these questions.

We live in an exciting time. A few clicks pulls up hundreds of frozen memories, but appreciation for this remains low. It’s human nature to grow accustomed to the everyday. It takes effort to cultivate thankfulness and mindfulness. These photos of people long gone reach across time if we stop and listen. I find this exciting and humbling. Even contrived postcards offer a glimpse of a different era and way of thinking. Japan was opening to the world after a long period of isolation under the Tokugawa. These photos suggest anxiety and excitement, a curiosity for the new, and a desire to reach out to the West. For the Japanese at the time, the West was just as alien as Japan was to the West.

Edo period women

Edo period women

A Buddhist monk. c. 1870

A Buddhist monk. c. 1870

 

A geisha poses for a post card. Hard-tinted.

A geisha poses for a postcard. Hard-tinted.

A Japanese mother with her child.

A Japanese mother with her child.

References

Nobuo, I. (1972). BEATO IN JAPAN. Image, 15(3), 10-11.

Sato, B. (1993). The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles During the 1920s. Gender & History, 5 (3). 363-381.


Japanese Love for Vending Machines: A Brief History

Vending_machine_of_soft_drink_and_ice_cream_in_JapanYou probably expect me to talk about Japan’s infamous panty vending machines. Alright, alright. I will, but there is more to the story. Did you know vending machines were once considered a threat to Japanese tradition? Do you know why Japan historically has the densest concentration of vending machines in the world?

Beyond panties and bras, vending machines in Japan dispense a staggering variety of products: frozen beef, hamburgers, soft drinks, eggs, cigarettes, alcohol, ice cream, soup, porn, towels, flowers, bus tickets, train tickets, toys, batteries, coffee, DVDs, and even dates…the kind that involves people, not the fruit.

Back in 1993, there were 50 machines in every square kilometer (Minshall, 1993).  In 1998, Japan had over  5.4 million vending machines (Mak, 1998).

Who invented the first vending machine is up for debate.  In 1867, the German Carl Ade is believed to claim the first patent. But in 1888, Yoshiichi Tawaraya was said to produce the first automatic vending machine (Minshall, 1993).  In either case, Japan took the idea and ran with it.

Why Were Vending Machines so Popular in Japan?

Japan loved vending machines for many reasons. Convenience dominates these reasons. Etiquette rules Japanese society. Many people get tired of obligated small talk and social requirements. Vending machines let you avoid that.

“Because of traditional attitudes it can be psychologically awkward to walk into a shop to buy something small, like a pack of cigarettes, and just leave.” (Sterngold, 1992)

Seventeen ice vending machineJapanese businesses have a reputation for lavishing attention on customers and smothering them with personal service. Small neighborhood shops thrived because they provided intimacy and trust people once demanded (Sterngold, 1992). But over time, this changed. The increasing pace of life drove people toward the immediacy of vending machines. The Japanese tradition of elaborate courtesies smashed against a world that doesn’t have time for them.  Vending machines, at first, appeared to be another threat to tradition. They allowed people to avoid traditional interactions with their rituals. But they can also be seen as a middle ground between retaining traditional social etiquette and throwing it away. They carve out a middle ground.

Busy people can use them instead of pressuring the culture to drop traditional etiquette. Busyness can’t be underestimated as a changing force. Japanese workers put in long hours, often off the clock.  Vending machines allow people to circumvent cultural expectations in other ways too. They help people avoid social embarrassment associated with buying certain products. For example, in the 1990s flower machines allowed young men to avoid the embarrassment of admitting to shopkeepers they were buying a nice gift for a sweetheart. Such a gesture of affection was unusual in Japan for the time and rather embarrassing (Sterngold, 1992).

Vending machines soon developed a wide variety of products to accommodate long work hours and avoid the embarrassment of trying to placate a wife a salary-man rarely sees. Even better for the customer, prices between different machines remained the same. On the business side, vending machines save on overhead. Land and labor in Japan cost a bundle. Vending machines produce more revenue for each square meter of space compared to a retail store (Mak, 1998). Competition zeroes in on location. Because product prices remain the same, vendors seek the best locations for their product selection. Volume creates profit, so the best locations in the busiest areas yield the best profit. Vending machines encourage impulse buying and immediate need. That is why underwear machines are found in saunas (Sterngold, 1992).

Japan’s low crime rate helps. Businesses can place machines all over and not worry about vandalism (Mak, 1998). Here in the US,  we place vending machines in front of established businesses because of the real threat of vandalism. You will rarely see a vending machine standing alone in a street. In Japan, vending machines appear nearly anywhere.Vendors need to place their machines where the consumers need them to maximize impulse buying. Even if this means the machine stands along on a hiking path in the middle of a forest (selling insect repellent, of course). Access to electricity limits placement more than anything.

Finally, vending machines have return policies. People can fill out a form (paper back in the day)  if a machine ate your money, and the product was delivered to you (Minshall 1993).

Weird Vending Machines

Vending machines are a common sight at train stationsHere’s the part you were waiting for! Because vending machines sell such a wide range of products, you will get a few strange varieties.

Back in the 90’s vending machines peddled dates for those who lack time to meet people. Remember, this was before online dating. Japanese men would submit an application with a photo including information about their blood types, height and weight, astrological sign, and job. Guys paid $40 to make 30 copies of their forms destined to be randomly placed in 30 “Happy Guy” vending machines around Tokyo. Women put in $2 to receive the info (Thornton, 1992).

In 2013, a bra vending machine debuted, but it sold few. The bras it sold cost 3,000 yen — about $30.

Used Panty Vending Machines

Panty Vending Machines

They kinda look like Pokeballs. Gotta catch them all?

Vending machines that sell underwear worn by teens are one of those stories that refuses to die. These machines did exist in Tokyo, but they were never a common way of buying such (Waterstreet, 2014). The whole thing started back in the 1990s during a teen school-girl craze that swept through parts of Japan. It rode on the waves of the exploding j-pop idol movement. Worn school uniforms and underwear were sold in specialty adult stores (Ashcraft, 2012). School girls would sell their clothes to these shops. This didn’t last long. Japan’s health departments cracked down, and the practice became illegal. But new underwear can still be sold.

The underwear fetish still survives, just like the urban legend of worn-panty machines.

As you’ve seen, the 1990s were something of a golden age for vending machines. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind some Japanese style vending machines here in the States. No, I don’t mean the panty-machines. The ability to buy little things like batteries and other odds without fighting checkout lines would be great! But the US has a lot more theft and vandalism than Japan, so I don’t see this ever happening. What would you like to see in a vending machine?

References

Ashcraft, B (2012). Japan’s Panty Vending Machines: The Unreal Hyperbole (and Honest Truth). Kotaku. http://kotaku.com/5948143/japans-panty-vending-machines-the-unreal-hyperbole-and-honest-truth

Mak, James (1998), “Why is Japan a Paradise of Vending Machines?”  Japan — Why it Works, Why it Doesn’t: Economics in Everyday Life.  University of Hawaii Press.

Minshall, Tim (1993) A Paradise of Automation. New Scientist. 140 (1893), 61-62.

Sterngold, James (1992) “Why the Japanese Adore Vending Machines. The New York Times. 

Thornton, E. (1992). Japan’s New Cupid: Vending Machines. Fortune, 125(7), 13.

UPI (2013) Bra Vending Machine attracts few customers in Osaka, Japan.

Waterstreet, C (2014). Vending Machines Reveal Tolerance of Abuse. The Sun-Herald. 34


Oshibori: More than a Hand Towel

oshiboriJapan has a long history of puppets. In the last 70 years, a new type of puppet has appeared, made from chopsticks and oshibori. Oshibori are damp hand towels given to guests at restaurants. The towels are used to clean hands and in Kitakyushu, entertain businessmen. Going out for drinks after work with colleagues is a part of Japanese business culture. Oshibori puppets entertain and help salary men relax (NHK, 2016).

You can even take classes. Yasutaka Nakamura, after 22 years of puppet practice, offers classes that attract company managers. They view this form of puppet as a communication skill (NHK, 2016).


An example of a hand towel puppet in action.

The puppet’s moves are based on classic Japanese dance. One of the hallmarks of Japanese dance is the pause. Dancers freeze for several moments before continuing. These pauses make the puppets look more alive.

Oshibori are heated, but during summer months cold towels are used instead. They are meant for hands and puppet making, not for wiping faces, chests, necks, or anything else. Although there is some allowance for pressing (not wiping) the towel to your face. Companies specialize in cleaning and providing oshibori. Often, the towels ship already dampened in plastic bags. Sometimes the towels are scented with mint, citrus, or floral aromas. They shouldn’t be used to wipe your mouth, and etiquette dictates you roll the towels when finished (Morales, 2010).

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t fold the towels into art before you are finished:

How to fold a bird.


How to fold a rabbit.


How to fold a toilet.

References

Morales, D. (2010). Big (only) in Japan? Oshibori. Japan Times. http://blog.japantimes.co.jp/japan-pulse/big-only-in-japan-oshibori/

NHK. (2016). Building Bonds Using Hand-Towel Puppets. NHK. http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/editors/3/20160218/index.html


The World’s First Novel: The Tale of Genji

the_tale_of_genji_-_1951_filmBack in the 11th century, a Japanese woman wrote the world’s first modern novel. The novel remained unknown in the West until after the Meiji Restoration and the rise of modernism in literature. In 1925, Arthur Waley’s translation of the work released, shocking novelists of the time (Phillips, 2010). The Tale of Genji stands as a cornerstone in Japanese literature and world romantic literature, but we know little about the author. Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1014) lived as a lady-in-waiting in the Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1185) (Hirota, 1997). Sadly, that’s the only thing we know that’s certain. Many legends surround her. Ironically, the legends draw a contrast to the dalliances found throughout the Tale of Genji.  Stories surrounding Muraski rarely include romantic relationships.

These “biographies” are largely fiction. In almost all of them, she expresses loyalty her husband, regardless of the situation. The “Bunkai Bag of Wisdom for Women’s Education” (1749) prefaces one of her legends with (Hirato, 1997):

Murasaki Shikibu is the daughter of Tametoki, the governor of Echizen. Because her father Tametoki was a wise scholar, from a young age she read and studied books, and mastered the texts of Japan and China. She also conveyed the essence of then notion of “concentration and insight” to the scholar-priest of the mount of Tendai, and cultivated the essence of the Buddhist way.

The legend pegs her as a scholar of Tendai Buddhism.

Readers of Genji won’t be surprised at how little is known about Murasaki and how many legends circulated about her. Genji is a dense, difficult work to decipher. As a monogatari, or fictional story, Genji targets noble women. The story makes assumptions that noble women of the Heian period would grasp, but these assumptions leave the rest of us feeling lost. Genji is a part of romance literature designed to be read aloud by women to pass the time. As Prince Genji remarks in the story: “Sometimes I stand and listen to the stories they read to my little one,” Reading stories aloud was a part of Heian period noble lifestyle. Because of its assumptions and design, many Westerners outside of modernist circles viewed the work as trite. Basil Hall Chamberlain and other early Western Japanese scholars viewed it as “long-winded” and “devoid of interest” (Phillips, 2010).

The Setting of Genji

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We must understand the Heian period to understand Genji. Chiefly, a fascination in Chinese culture marked the Heian period. The Japanese Imperial Court emulated Chinese fashion and customs while they pursued the arts. A noble was expected to be well versed in literature, poetry, painting, dancing, calligraphy, and more. Genji extends this list by being good at perfume making as well. Noble men used the Chinese language similar to how Medieval European nobles and priests used Latin. In Heian Japan, Women were not allowed to speak Chinese. The period expected women to remain separate from men. They would converse through fabric blinders dividing rooms. Genji shows how great the difference was between the genders by having characters fall in love with each other based on their handwriting.

Indirection defined the Heian nobility, much to our confusion. Murasaki’s lack of direct statements makes the Tale of Genji challenging. It even challenged Japanese scholars to the point where they adopted nicknames for the hundreds of characters in the tale. Murasaki refers to each character by their title rather than by a name. During the Heian period, proper names were considered too blunt for polite use. To make things more complicated, these titles would change over the course of the story. So Japanese scholars pinned their nicknames to clarify who was who. For example, Genji’s son is nicknamed Yugiri, which means “evening mist.” These nicknames appear in English translations as if they are a part of the original story, but Murasaki never used them (Phillips, 2010).

The tale formed a critical part of a noble woman’s education (Naito, 2014). Artists lavishly illustrated scrolls depicting the story, making the story expensive. Because of this, less well-off noblewomen dreamed about owning a copy. In an autobiography, Sarashina nikki (c. 1060), a noblewoman from a rural province writes about this longing (Hirota, 1997):

Brought up in a remote country father even than the Azuma Road, I must have been a terribly countrified child. Yet, how did I start longing for the tales whose existence I could barely imagine? At idle hours of the day or at evening gatherings, as I listened to my sister, stepmother and others talking about this or that tale, or discussing pieces from the Shining Genji, my curiosity increased. But how could they recount from memory enough to satisfy me? Frustrated, I had a statue of Yakushi Buddha built in my size…I prostrated myself and prayed, “Please let us leave for the capital soon. They say there are many tales there—please let me read all of them!

The tale continued to be copied and read by women up until the Edo period when printing techniques expanded Genji’s audience. Male critics panned the Tale. For example, Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) didn’t think the tale was proper literature because a woman wrote it (Naito, 2014).

Did you know cliff notes appeared in Japan? The complexity and length of the story prompted artists in the Edo period to create their own version of cliff notes with simplified plots and story summaries. The rise of woodblock printing widened the audience beyond noble women. The Illustrated Tale of Genji by Yamamoto Shunsho made the tale easier to read by adding punctuation, shorter annotations, and reading guides (Naito, 2014).

Understanding The Tale of Genji

toyohara_kunichika_-_the_tale_of_genjiThe reticence of Murasaki and her assumptions make the Tale of Genji difficult to understand.  On its surface, the story looks to be a fluffy romance filled with illicit love and a lot of sex. However, the novel has many things going on that can only be seen by looking at what is left unsaid. For example, Genji brings a young girl home with the intent of raising her. During one of these domestic scenes, he finds her coloring pictures. He dabs red paint on his nose to make her laugh. These moments of humanness speak about the lack of humanness found in the elegance of court life.

Under the facade of love, elegance, peace, and high aesthetics, Murasaki hints at a deep wrongness with court life. Genji appears to lack a plot unless you read between the lines. Murasaki does all of her plot work through layers of symbols and through the unsaid. Much of the story focuses on how Genji lost his favor in the Imperial Court and had to be removed by his father, the emperor. This was done to protect him from court politics. After all, his mother was a low-ranked consort. The powerful Fujiwara family pressured the emperor to name the child he had with one of their daughters as heir.

Under the first chapter’s picturesque scenes and romance lurks the threat of rebellion and civil war. Murasaki suggests this at the beginning of the book by alluding to a rebellion in China known as the An Shi Rebellion. This rebellion destroyed the Tang dynasty and left millions dead (Phillips, 2010). After this allusion, the conflict disappears. But its unspoken presence creates dread behind the facade and the character’s actions. They too are on the verge of a conflict that could end a dynasty.

At one point, Genji falls in love with his father’s new wife. Genji eventually seduces her, and people mistake his son for his Father’s son. The boy takes the throne later in the story. Despite not saying it, Murasaki suggests Genji regrets his seduction and how it betrayed his father. His act throws the entire line of succession in doubt. Throughout Japanese history, the emperor was thought to be a descendant of the gods. Genji’s son breaks this line for the first time in 1500 years (Phillips, 2010). While we miss the event, the significance would be evident for anyone who lived in the court at the time. The event casts a shadow over the underlying plot and behavior of the characters.

After his father’s death, Genji goes on and has an affair with a daughter of the Fujiwara family, who now controls the court as a regency. In a rare event, Murasaki as the Fujiwara outright state what was unspoken throughout the early chapters:

The Empress Mother’s countenance nevertheless failed to lighten. She could not have Genji pointedly mocking and belittling her by brazenly invading her house while she was at home, so nearby, and this gave her a fine reason to set in train the measures to accomplish his downfall.

Murasaki’s love for the unspoke extends toward Genji himself.  About 3/4 through the story, Genji dies. His death comes after he retires from the world as a monk, a common practice for Heian period nobility (Phillips, 2010). The last years of his life do not appear in the story; a blank chapter marks his death. The following chapter picks up 8 years after Genji’s death and focuses on two of Genji’s descendants. Genji’s subtle last years and death, however, doesn’t end Genji’s story. Throughout the last chapters, the story becomes far grimmer and darker. The death of Genji infects the story with a sadness that the thin veneer of beauty and courtliness can’t hide any longer.

The Tale of Genji ends without the closure those of us in the West expect. The tale ends with a young girl, chased by Genji’s descendants Niou and Kaoru, throwing herself into a river to escape them. A group of monks finds her alive, but she can’t remember what happened. When she finally does, the book ends. The abrupt ending and lack of closure troubles modern readers. It doesn’t feel finished. Yet, when you look at the story as a whole, with its veneers and suggestions, the ending fits. Murasaki expects us to see through the veil and fill in the gaps. The ending’s cut off also fits the darker mood of the last portion of the tale. Death couldn’t save the girl from the flowered conflict swirling about her.

The Strangeness of the Tale of Genji

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When I read Genji, Murasaki’s reticence struck me. Despite the dalliances of Genji and the general frivolousness of the tale, I felt something was wrong. The entire novel has a pall, a darkness, overlaying it. The characters feel devoid of hope or direction despite their cultivation. An emptiness pervades their behavior, and they appear to be aware of it but unwilling to face it. Murasaki’s genius shows in how she weaves all of this through suggestion alone. The blank chapter that stands in for Genji’s death stuck me. Its silence says more than the most purple prose could.

The complicated nature of the text, with its tangled relationships and emotions, is designed to stimulate discussion. Much of the text is open to interpretation. This makes sense. Heian women were shut off from the world. Boredom was a struggle. A complex, interpretive text like the Tale of Genji would allow them to imagine and discuss the story for years. The longevity of the text and the fact the text has seen over 20 manga adaptions attest to this (Myake, 2008).

The story influenced Japanese art. Genji-e scrolls from the 12th century influenced the Edo period’s woodblock prints, particular that of Utagawa Kunisada. In turn, Utagawa would influence the modern manga adaptions of Genji (Myake, 2008).

You can read Genji as a fluffy romance full of affairs or as a darker story of people attempting to ignore the frivolousness of their lives and looming catastrophes. Without some knowledge of Japanese history, The Tale of Genji makes for a difficult read. Despite the difficulty of understanding the unstated, The Tale of Genji stands as the first novel and speaks about the importance of women’s contributions to world culture.

References

Hirota, A. (1997). The Tale of Genji: From Heian Classic to Heisei Comic. Journal Of Popular Culture, 31(2), 29-68. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1997.00029.x

Miyake, Lynne (2008) Graphically Speaking: Manga Versions of the “Tale of Genji” Monumenta Nipponica. 63(2) 359-392.

Naito, Satoko (2014) Beyond the Tale of Genji: Murasaki Shikibu as Icon and Exemplum in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Popular Japanese Texts for Women. Early Modern Woman 9 (1). 47-78.

Phillips, Brian (2010) The Tale of Genji as a Modern Novel. The Hudson Review. 63(3). 373-390.