Recently, the creator of Rurouni Kenshin Nobuhiro Watsuki admitted to possessing child pornography (Baseel, 2017). He told the police that he likes young teens about the ages of 13-15 years old. Possession of such materials, according to the Act on Punishment of Activities Relating to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the Protection of Children, is punishable by up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 million yen. The Act doesn’t cover drawings, animations, or games. It focuses on images of actual children (Umeda, 2014). In response, his publisher is putting his current work on hold. Japanese publishers are quick to distance themselves from anything that resembles a crime (Baseel, 2017).
The scale shows popularity of a search with 100 being highly popular and 50 being half as popular. “Teen” has been a fairly popular to highly popular search for a long time. Taken from Google Trends.
The word “teen” has been a popular term since Google started tracking its data–see the chart above. Of course, most of these searches are innocent. Pornography accounts for about 4% of websites and 10-15% of searches (Ogas, 2012). This information may be a little dated. Many pornographers get around child pornography laws by having legal-aged women dress–erhm, undress–as teens. These videos and images cater to men who seek women to emulate their school-boy crushes (Paul, 2005). Of course, these women are legal adults selling a fantasy and not the real deal as Watsuki was caught possessing. But the data suggests Watsuki’s attraction isn’t uncommon. For most of history, girls married older, sometimes much older, men as soon as the girls had their first periods. It was a sign of adulthood, even if it was at 13 or 14 years old. If we were from that time frame, we’d wonder what the problem was. I don’t write this to defend Watsuki’s actions. I find such behavior deplorable (as with pornography in general). At the same time, we need to understand context. We agree today that such behavior is wrong and unlawful, but that also wasn’t always the case. Each view impacts how we would consider Watsuki and his work. There are some who still hold onto the old, historical view of adulthood and sexual attraction. I ponder if these men may have a neurological reason, but I digress. We don’t know from the current information if Watsuki shares this historical view. It wouldn’t provide any defense; it would help explain why he would put his career and creative life’s work in jeopardy.
We could look into how otaku culture and child pornography mix–remember that Japan’s child porn laws do not cover anime or manga–but let’s focus on how reputation and writing tangle. It looks possible that Watsuki’s work will be blackened by this. I’ve already seen some people wonder if it’s okay to still like Rurouni Kenshin in some discussion boards and comment areas. How much does a writer’s character matter when it comes to a work? Is it okay to like a work from a writer that is…unsavory? The second question assumes a pattern of behavior instead of a mistake that can be corrected. In Watsuki’s case, there isn’t enough information as I write this, but his admission suggests an pattern of attraction for the young instead of a recent habit.
Photo of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll in 1860. Alice was his inspiration for Alice in Wonderland
Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll the author of Alice in Wonderland, is believed by many to have been a repressed pedophile. But this view isn’t without contention. Many people believe it comes from a projection of modern views onto what was, perhaps, a common practice in the Victorian period–photographing nude children (Woolf, 2010). How much of the tangle of reputation and the author’s work is our own projection? How does it make you feel that Lewis Carroll photographed nude children? How does that change your view of Alice in Wonderland? It has led some to analyze Alice for signs of repressed sexual feelings toward children. It is possible that Rurouni Kenshin will undergo the same. The trouble with this, as anyone who does literary analysis knows, you can read in what you expect. This confirmation bias mixes with the projection of modern sensibilities.
Of course, in the case of Nobuhiro, it is okay to project modern sensibilities because he lives in the modern era. This event is similar to the Bill Cosby sexual abuse and harassment issues in recent years. It has tarnished Cosby’s work to the point where it has all-but disappeared. I suspect Rurouni Kenshin will share a similar fate among the wider anime fandom. Tony Yao over at Manga Therapy (2017) sums up how all but the most hard-core Rurouni Kenshin fans will likely treat the work: “To be honest, I think it’s fine if fans don’t support Watsuki’s works. I don’t care anymore because I have other series that take up my mind at the moment.”
For those of us who create, whether it’s writing books, writing manga, creating videos, blogging, or any other creative work, Watsuki’s poor decision should give us a warning. Reputation matters. It tangles with your work and a mistake (or a pattern of behavior) can ruin your work. It takes years to build trust and only a single catastrophic mistake to lose that trust. And when it comes to creative work, trust is a part of it. You may enjoy the story of Rurouni Kenshin, but you are also trusting that the story is as it appears. As with Lewis Carroll, once that trust is broken or cast into doubt, you won’t view the work in the same way. Although Lewis Carroll’s pedophilia is up for debate, I can’t read Alice without seeing signs of it. It ruins a story I once liked.
As a fellow creative, I feel more sorrow than disgust toward Watsuki. After all, its possible his life’s work may be disparaged and, worse, forgotten. He has broke his trust with many of his fans. In short, Rurouni Kenshin won’t be the same even if Watsuki never has another issue with child pornography. It is possible publishers may not publish his work again. The event will impact his wife and family too.
When it comes down to it, all the questions I’ve asked are for you to decide for yourself. Is Rurouni Kenshin tarnished because of Watsuki’s behavior? Have you moved on and don’t really care? No matter how you answer the questions I’ve posed, remember that Watsuki is human as are those who remain fans of Rurouni Kenshin. Liking a work with a tarnished author doesn’t tarnish the fan. Otherwise, there would be millions of people tarnished because of Alice of Wonderland. If you are a creative, take Watsuki’s poor decisions to heart and develop your moral character. Your work depends on it.
Before I got into anime, before I got into studying Japanese culture, I was a book lover. I grew up ravenous, reading every book in my school library’s science and fantasy sections. Few experiences in life match the musty, ancient scent of a book old enough to be a great-great grandparent. The touch of paper–how old was the tree before it gave its life to spread human knowledge?–between my fingers whets my appetite for knowledge.
Yes, before I was a Japanophile I was a bibliophile. I still am. Inked conversation torrid on the page excites me. People, hundreds–no, thousands–of years gone can whisper into our ears. Stories and facts, drivel and the sublime, are available for those who merely look.
Then came the e-reader and the online world.
The inked order of books scattered across the digital ether, free of their bindings. Anyone can share their stories and their facts, their drivel and their sublime. You’d think with such open access people would be able to seek out new worlds and boldly go where they haven’t read before.
Well, you’d be wrong.
The rise of the internet and social media allows people to wall themselves into rooms of their own making. The voices echo without any naysayers until we believe the world works so. The messages our minds consume shapes how we think. It strikes me as odd how the age of open access has increased this trend more than the closed world of books. Or perhaps we simply have more studies on this human tendency. We don’t like to be wrong, after all.
E-Readers and Books on Electrons
I dislike Kindles and other digital readers. I also like them. I like them as a librarian and as an author. I dislike them as a bibliophile. Where is the luscious musty scent? Where is the feel of the page? Where is the annoyance of your bookmark falling from the book?
But as a librarian, I like them because they encourage reading. But then, I also dislike them because of the hassles companies make. Ebooks can be copied to devices any number of times, yet companies use old book models to protect their profits. Okay, I get it as an author. After all, I want my books to make money so I can write more than I can now. However, efforts to enforce the old model create issues for accessibility. It strikes me as odd how ebook lending libraries have limited copies available. Not to mention, ebooks are overly complicated for those who struggle with basic computer skills. I encounter this issue regularly at the library.
Each day, I work with older library users who love their ereaders (they love the ability to change font sizes). But the complication of downloading ebooks leaves them confused. Do I want a Kindle file? Epub? Nook? What’s a MOBI? Techies like us like to see these under-the-hood options, but it scares anyone who doesn’t understand computers. Is is better to hide all of this and let the device handle it behind the scenes. Some of this is compounded by publishers insisting in digital rights management and other access limitations. It is getting better, however. New apps like Libby do a better job of hiding the headaches.
The Bibliophile and the Manga Fan
So what does all this have to do with you, the anime and manga fan? Well, most of us are familiar with online manga, but libraries have recently gotten into legal e-manga. Online subscription services also move manga increasingly off of paper. This is mixed, like so many things. Online distribution increases the chances of seeing more obscure stories being translated. It doesn’t cost as much to produce and distribute e-manga which makes for better profitability for even low selling titles. However, for those who enjoy physical media, this will reduce our selection. Titles on smashed and pulped trees are only those with the most popularity. You see this problem with American fiction. Shelves are dominated by a handful of bestselling authors: James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Clive Cussler, and others. It makes it harder for new and low-selling authors to make it. Likewise, the cost of printing keeps lesser known mangaka from getting translations here in the States. But on the flip side, ebooks make it easier for new and low-selling authors to find readers.
Online manga and books skip one of the pleasures of physical media: the bookshelf. The sight of a bookshelf is part of the culture of the book. If you want to learn about someone, you browse their bookshelves. Their organization, their titles, and their state of wear reveals a fair bit about a person. Bookshelves are quite private despite being publicly displayed. So too with manga collections.
E-readers, however, are even more private. It is socially frowned upon to grab an e-reader or phone and start looking through it. Although people who own e-readers typically own books as well.
The Times Are A-Changin’
Books and manga aren’t going anywhere, but ebooks and e-manga are going to increase in popularity. This, as with all things, is mixed. Various studies have shown we remember less when we read on a screen compared to paper. Much of that is because we don’t just read on most e-readers. We check email, visit Facebook, and other distractions. Books don’t have that option.
You’ve probably read online scanlations of manga at one point or another. The access is great, but part of the culture of the book is the collection as I’ve mentioned. As more books go online, it will become harder to collect our favorite series. But change is part of life.
This post is rather personal. I dislike reading ebooks unless I am researching a project. But I don’t really have anything against them. If you love ebooks, great! I am a bibliophile. A home must have books to be a home. While more people read more than ever (which is excellent!) I ponder the fate of the bookshelf. Normally, I try to keep abreast on change. I believe everyone needs to learn new technology and adapt to the rapid pace of change. If you don’t, eventually you won’t be able to function in the modern world. I know how to use Kindles, Nooks, and other e-readers, but I don’t own any. Nor do I plan to do so anytime soon. In this, I choose to resist. I will learn how to use each new version, but I likely won’t use them myself. Now, you can be a bibliophile and use e-readers. In fact, most do. But I already stare at screens for most of my waking hours. Books, newspapers, and magazines are the few sanctuaries I have from glowing screens of text.
What are your thoughts on the shift toward e-reading? Are you a bibliophile? Do you worry about the future of books? Let’s discuss.
One night as I scrolled through Netflix, I stumbled across Midnight Diner: Tokyo, a half hour show that focuses on, well, a midnight diner. The tiny eatery sits in one of the many narrow alleyways of Tokyo, well off the neon main streets. As you may suspect, some interesting characters appear in the late, late hours. Based on a manga, this live-action show centers on the small, but cozy confines and the lives that drift in an out of the space. The diner’s owner, simply called the Master, offers only one item on his menu, pork soup, but he will make anything upon request as long as he has the ingredients.
These requested dishes brings together the various diners, and as an added bonus at the end of each episode, the show explains how to make each dish. As you may suspect, the diner has regulars that appear in various episodes. An elderly gentleman named Chu becomes almost a part of the diner’s furnishings. Visitors include young women, transvestites, high-powered businessmen, and even porn stars. The Master acts as a sounding board, listening to his visitor’s stories and offering advice when asked. He possess a sad warmth, and he doesn’t reveal much about his personal life. At least, he doesn’t during the single season Netflix has. But the show offers hints. Interestingly, the diners don’t really attempt to learn much about him. They are engrossed in their own affairs, which is realistic from my own experiences working with the public. Despite the Master’s relative quiet, the show has a pleasant mix of sadness and happiness. Episodes end on a happy note, which I found a welcome reprieve from the often overbearing shows that fill television nowadays.
The Master refrains from interfering with the hi-jinks of his customers. He prefers to disappear into the background and listen, sometimes facilitating conversation with a well-placed treat or drink when conversation slows. He only intervenes in one episode when a comic duo beings to fight. For the Master, his restaurant is a place of sanctuary.
Throughout the season, small bits of philosophy and life-lessons spice the stories, such as the idea that a good day must follow a bad one. A few central themes keep reappearing, however. Although they are not overtly stated, they reside in the subtext of the diner’s purpose. First, the show urges us to be introspective as we grow older. Time passes swiftly, and it does us well to take time to dwell on memory. The second subtext ties together with this idea: to carve out small pleasures in the daily routine. It’s easy to lose sight of what gives life meaning as we go about the daily routine of work and home life. The small pleasures, such as a good hot-pot meal, lend meaning and help prevent the slide toward drudgery. The Master seeks to provide a small area of pleasantness for this very reason. He often offers food on the house for people who are obviously down or having a bad day.
The final theme of the diner involves togetherness. People from all walks of life sit elbow to elbow in the small, not-quite claustrophobic confides of the diner, sharing in conversation and food. The diner acts as a sanctum of connection between people who would normally just walk past each other without a thought.
Midnight Diner is a pleasant show you need to watch. A few of its episodes are odd, but then it is a Japanese show with different sensibilities. It often ends on an upbeat note, tinged with a touch of reflection. Its themes and focus on connecting people is needed in our divided society. You’ll notice throughout the show that people don’t chatter on cell phones. Rather, they sit next to each other, enjoying food and conversation. You’ll see quiet visitors who sit back and enjoy the banter of the old men. You’ll see the prim and proper sit next to transvestites with brightly dyed hair. All the while the Master works to make the conversation smooth with his food. Regular customers will bring treats to share with the Master and whoever is at the diner at the time. At the center of it all is the idea of connection and pleasantness, even when people disagree with each other.
That, perhaps, is the lesson we Americans need to learn the most.
At the end of January, I had the privilege to witness a benshi performance, which impressed me immensely. Finally, it led to me writing this blog post. So, what am I actually talking about?
In Japan, silent films were never truly silent
A still from the 1929 silent film “Tokyo March”
Western audiences may be faintly aware that in the first cinemas, at least a pianist used to accompany silent films, if there wasn’t an entire orchestra at hand. As we still experience today, music is very effective in conveying emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of urgency or suspense regarding the story unfolding on screen.
But in Japan, they went far beyond that. The story of cinema in Japan begins with imports of western movies, showing scenes that were strange and exotic to Japanese viewers. Thus, these scenes needed explaining, and this is where the origin of the benshi lies. Literally, the word means ‘orator’ or ‘speaker’, and benshi started out as ‘film explainers’. Soon, however, they also became commentators, narrators, entertainers and voice actors. Some may pinpoint the development to a single person – “Somei Saburo was the first of these narrators who could be called a benshi. Rejecting the oft-assumed role of playing outside observer, Saburo chose to imitate, voice, and personify the characters depicted on the screen.”[i] – but a parallel development seems more likely.
Owing to their origin as explainers of western ‘exotic’ contexts, benshi tended to dress in western attire, commonly tuxedo and top hat.
Sawata Midori, allegedly the most famous contemporary benshi.
This trend continues until present day, as the most famous of today’s benshi, Sawato Midori, performs in suit and bow tie – despite the fact that, unusual for a benshi then and now, she is a woman. The benshi I watched, Kataoka Ichirō, is one of her students. At the beginning of the performance, he remarked that at the height of benshi popularity, in the 1920s, there were over a thousand of them active in Japan. The most popular of them earned more than the Prime Minister! In fact, cinema goers didn’t go to see a specific movie for its director or its actors so much as for the benshi performing it.[ii] Now, however, there are only about 10 benshi left, and (as Kataoka assured us) he, at least, earns significantly less than the Prime Minister.
In contrast to the tradition, Kataoka dresses in traditional Japanese garb for his performances. About half of the short films he showed to us that night were period pieces, however, so it fit with the general theme.
…and the medium
In the old days, benshi manipulated the films they showed as they saw fit. To this day, they script their own texts for each movie, including the dialogue, even if the original script is available. Their performance unfolds in addition to, or sometimes at odds with, the intertitles. Often, though, Japanese silent films would not even have intertitles, since the directors knew the benshi would take care of narrative coherence and transition. Now, if the benshi’s dialogue took longer to perform than the scene allowed for, he would just instruct the man at the projector to lower the projection speed a little.[iii] This also led to a tendency in Japanese early film to use long, uninterrupted shots to allow the benshi time for his performance. Of cause, if he found a sequence boring, he might turn it into a comedic interlude and crank up the speed to get it over with.
A still from the silent animated movie “The Monkeys’ Masamune”
In short, the main attraction was the vocal performance, and the film was only the raw material. Sometimes, the benshi would comment on the action, drawing attention to the fictitiousness of the story, in an almost Brechtian fashion.[iv] The relationship between film and ‘explanation’ was in fact reversed: “the images themselves being the illustration of an independently existing storyline.”[v]
Benshi might also use their position for political propaganda, as was the case with the war films during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5[vi]. Korean benshi likewise attempted to instigate rebellion against the Japanese colonial rule.[vii] The benshi‘s immense popularity was a major factor in the comparatively late start of sound film in Japan – but when progress finally took hold, the ‘talkies’ made the benshi obsolete.
Japan has a rich history of performance art, and the benshi can be linked to a number of them. The narrators of Kabuki theatre are prominent and visible.
Benshi Asou Yata, sporting a very fitting mustache.
So is the chanter of bunraku puppet plays, who also lends his voice to the silent puppet characters, much like the benshi voice the actors on screen.[viii] Furthermore, oral narrative performance art has a long tradition. In the Middle Ages, you could listen to biwa-hōshi, blind itinerant monks who recited war epics while accompanying themselves on a lute. To this day, there are performances of conversational comedy called rakugo.[ix] (Incidentally, the garments of rakugo performers may be another influence on Kataoka’s costume choice.) Even the master-student training system used by the benshi was adapted from other traditional Japanese arts.[x]
Because of these connections, benshi performing film were not a radically new thing, but rather a development based on older art forms. The links between theatre and film ran so deep that some theatres employed a number of benshi, some of them female, to feature in a single performance of “live dubbing”.[xi] For some time, there were also mixed shows, where part of the action was acted live on stage, part filmed beforehand and dubbed live.[xii]
Narrative: A performance of Kataoka Ichirō
Kataoka Ichirô, almost as I have seen him.
It is at the end of January, 2017, in Trier, an ancient but small city in western Germany, close to the borders of Luxembourg and France. The Romans have left some impressive ruins, and Karl Marx was born in one of the strangely diagonal streets south of the market square. Today, the Broadway cinema, in cooperation with the department of Japanese studies of Trier university, presents a short film screening with benshi narration. At that time, I’m struggling to pinpoint the thesis of my Master’s dissertation. I have no clear idea what a benshi is, but it sounds interesting – especially since one of the films on the list is about Jiraiya, the toad mage, for whom I have a soft spot. Upon arriving at the cinema, I buy a bottle of German lemonade with real caffeine and sit down with a book. The performer is here already, and I shyly admire the traditional Japanese clothing he wears. Two other students of Japanese Studies join me at my table and update me on the goings-on in the student council. One of them is very excited because, he says, he is interested in everything about the Taishō period (1912-26). We sit down in the higher part of the screening room; it has a seating capacity of about a hundred and is 2/3 full at least. Someone from cinema management says a few words of greeting and presents Kataoka, not without mispronouncing his name, of course. Then Kataoka introduces himself. He has a pleasant, tough not very remarkable, speaking voice and is quite proficient in English, which is, sadly, quite unusual for a Japanese. At first, the audience is somewhat hesitant to respond to him (German stiffness, probably), but they mellow during the first film.
Lump Theft and Monkeys’ Masamune
Tengus’ banquet scene from the silent animated film “Lump Theft”.
“I know this one”, I whisper to my neighbour, the Taishō enthusiast, as the screen flickers to grey and yellowish life. The first film is an animated short, about two old men with lumps and the karmic justice visited on them, quite by accident. “It’s on youtube.”[xiii]
How different it feels now, though! With the onset of the strange music – well, strange to modern Western ears at least, I cannot even discern the instruments – Kataoka’s performance beings. He does so in Japanese, of course, but someone has kindly provided subtitles, tailored to this specific event. As the introductory intertitle appears, the benshi’s voice turns into the solemn, melodious whine of a traditional Japanese narrator. He croaks like friendly raven once he voices the old man, produces the servile chatter of low-rank Tengu mountain goblins, as well as the rumbling laugh and growled anger of the goblin king. This feels just like anime now! If it weren’t for the moments when he, clearly on purpose, speaks even if characters are drawn with their mouths closed, or stays still when they seem to speak.
When that first movie is over, I am sitting on the edge of my seat for the next one, but that’s a fable with a somewhat dubious morale. A hunter trying to shoot an ape is wrong, but cutting a boar in half with a sword seems to be perfectly fine.[xiv] Between films, Kataoka gives us some facts in English about benshi practise and history.
Little Tarô, absorbed in his new toy.
Bad mannered hippos!
I am impressed by the third film because it mixes two styles we now mostly see as distinct. In a live-action sequence, a little boy receives a toy train from his father as a present. The dress and movement of the actors give me the feeling that historical knowledge only get you that far. This grainy movie has more life in it than any textbook on the Taishō era. Anyways, the boy finally goes to bed, enamoured with his new toy, and dreams of being a conductor. The dream sequence is animated; and full of anthropomorphic animals.[xv] It’s nice comedy and also instructive, explaining how to behave on a train. Seems to have been effective, since the Japanese are usually very pleasant, and quiet, train passengers. Kataoka takes the comedic tone of the piece to slip in a few jokes of his own, as one of ‘his’ characters metanarratively remarks on this being a black and white movie. In one instance, there was even a self-reflective joke in the subtitles!
The movie I like best, though, is Tokyo March.[xvi] It’s a complicated, kabuki-esque plot of love found and lost, mistaken identity, rivalry and family secrets, and Kataoka excels in portraying the characters- from young men to an old woman, from the sad heroine to the lecherous and finally gilt-ridden father.
The heroine, foced to become a geisha, is weary of unwanted attention.
Japanese speech patterns, of course, are highly codified by age, gender, class/profession and region. Which intonation, harshness or softness of voice, and what pitch one uses, how one refers to oneself, how questions, commands and states of emotional excitement are marked with specific particles, differs according to these criteria. I guess that makes the benshi’s voice-acting possible, if complicated. As an additional treat, the ending of the movie had some insensely, um, homosocial lines, which made my inner fangirl squee.
“My happiness will never be complete without you, Yoshiki.”
Frog VS Snake VS Slug, the classical threeway tie.
In fact, I keep forgetting the benshi’s presence because I get so absorbed in the characters and their story… I am only jolted out of it when Kataoka’s script diverges from the action. However, here he keeps a superb balance of immersion and alienation. By contrast, in his rendition of the Jiraiya movie, his narration seems to run off course a bit too much. He turns the confusing film into somewhat of a coherent story, but clearly this is only possible by intensively reinterpreting and repurposing the images. Perhaps I am getting tired, too. In any case, if you fancy a pretty young woman transforming into a slug, or warriors beaten back by lawn sprinklers, good entertainment, give it a try.[xvii] It’s the first special effects movie made in Japan, apparently.
The last film is a modern homage to silent film, and in direct contrast with the originals before, the difference is easy to spot. The pictures are too clear, the resolution too high, and the sudden tilts into yellow, blue or red seem exaggerated. There are scratch marks superimposed on the image, but it takes me only a few minutes to notice the repeating pattern. That being said, the story itself, about a jealous samurai and his bloody revenge, is interesting, and Kataoka once again amazes me with the variety of voices at his command.
Quite an experience, that was.
Poster of the most popular “morning drama”, Oshin. This genre makes extensive use of voice-over narration, especially at the beginning of each episode.
Benshi may have all but disappeared, but they sure have left a mark on the Japanese visual narrative. It’s not just Kataoka’s amazing versatility, which reminded me of some modern-day anime voice actors. Or that anime sometimes employ similar speaking styles in voice-over narration. In general, Japanese film features wide angles and long takes – perhaps in memory of the benshi who once needed the time to perform. And finally, voice-over and concluding narration is relatively common in Japanese live-action TV, which might be a legacy of the benshi.[xviii]
In addition, after the advent of sound film, some benshi who had lost their jobs became kamishibai artists. Kamishibai or paper theatre is a street art combining hand-drawn slides and vocal narration. It is seen a precursor of modern manga – the Manga Museum in Kyōto has a whole room dedicated to kamishibai, with an actor performing in period clothing. So, here we have another direct link with modern visual narrative.
Long story short, if you get the chance to see Kataoka or one of his colleagues perform, I strongly recommend going.
[ii] Yomota Inuhiko, transl. Uwe Hohmann: Im Reich der Sinne. 100 Jahre japanischer Film. Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2007, p 26; see also J.L. Anderson: “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts”. In: Arthur Noletti Jr. & David Desser: Reframing Japanese Cinema. Authorship, Genre, History. Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 359-311, p. 261.
I got into anime at an old age compared to most. My early twenties, and that was over 10 years ago. Now, as a fan at the further end of the age spectrum (anime skews teens and early 20s as the average age of fans), I am aware of the liabilities of enjoying the medium. American culture still views anime as something for kids, teens, and immature college students. Rural areas like mine are particularly like this. Because I study anime and American otaku culture, I receive a double hit of stigma. Intellectualism isn’t popular in today’s United States. Americans look at intellectuals (not that I see myself as one) with suspicion. I am considered even stranger for studying and writing about what I do. Luckily, my family and inner circle of friends accept my interests. My girlfriend is an otaku and Japanophile. But it is hard to expand my inner social circle in an area dominated by football and beer.
Despite these issues, being an anime fan and researcher offers more advantages than disadvantages. My specialty compliments my job as a librarian. Teens and college age students come to me with anime and anime research questions. They feel comfortable and appreciate having an older fan to speak with. Teen fans in my area face the same stigma, looks, and misunderstandings as I face from well-meaning neighbors. I provide a older voice and nonjudgmental access to anime and manga of all types. Many come to me looking for new anime to watch or seeking “touchier” subjects like yuri and yaoi.
General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (191-?). The ‘Odori’, a Dramatic Dance in Old Time Costume. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-8422-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Studying anime and Japanese culture continues to shift my perspective. It points out poisonous areas in American culture–such as the culture of selfishness–and offers solutions. A day where you fail to learn something new is a wasted day. Anime, with its international reach, extends a taste of Japanese culture to everyone. That culture differs quite a bit from Western culture, yet has enough Western elements that it remains accessible. Zen, in particular, influenced my perspective on life.
Ten years ago I had a crisis of faith sparked by a series of deaths in my family and an ugly breakup with my girlfriend at the time. I plunged into a dark depression of which I remember little. My Christian faith died. But one day stands out in the blank spaces of memory. One day at a local bookstore I stumbled across “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk. I remember having the exact amount of money in my pocket to book cost, down the the penny. The book changed my perspective forever. I couldn’t get enough of Zen. I read Japanese Zen writers and everything else I could get my hands on. Gradually, my Christian faith began to revive under Zen’s care. While it appears strange, Zen is a practice that can stand alone or plug into an existing belief set. It revived my Christian faith, but the resurrected faith is quite different from the childish faith I once had.
While Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings were the catalyst for my Christian faith’s resurrection, anime was where I had learned about Zen’s existence. It introduced many of the concepts and provided a starting point. It sounds cheesy, but I guess you could say anime changed my life, if indirectly.
The messages we consume changes our view of the world. Information and stories are food for the mind. Much of anime is junk food, but to be fair, American TV is mostly junk food too. The American mind suffers from obesity, stories that lead to impulsive behavior and misunderstanding. One the whole, anime contains good messages: friendship, persistence, loyalty, and community. Anime exposes people to Japanese culture (even if it is a glossed over, watered-down exposure) and helps you escape an American-centric view. American media can be insular and white-washed. Anime raises awareness of different approaches to characters and storytelling.
These messages influence us in ways we are not always aware. Advertising works in this way with its messages of dissatisfaction, selfishness, and greed. Most of anime contains messages about appreciating the moment and relationships. Since I started my anime habit and my study of Zen, I find I enjoy the journey more than I had in the past. Before my studies, I focused on outcomes and destinations. Now I enjoy the path more than the destination. I view mistakes and failures as learning experiences, as ways of improving. Many anime characters embody this idea: Goku and Ichigo for example.
I am not sure how long I will continue to study anime and American otaku culture. I consider myself an outsider rather than a member of otakudom. In order to study it, I have to have some distance. Writing about anime allows me to pull my interests in history, sociology, psychology, art, and economics together. But it does come out a small price. I care little what others think, however. I rather like the label of eccentric.
I am hesitate about this post. I dislike publicly speaking about myself. Few know that I had struggled with depression, but I can confidently say “had struggled.” Depression no longer troubles me. Now, it is an old friend that visits for a few hours to tell me something is wrong before leaving again. The trick with depression is embracing Zen and Christian meditative tradition and practice. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t instant. It takes years of work, but depression can be embraced, even welcomed. If you have problems with depression, I urge you to learn zazen and practice it. Again, it requires persistence and patience and time. I write this personal post with the hopes it will inspire you, lift you. I want you to know that you are not the only one who struggles with stigma from those who fail to understand anime and Western interest in Japanese culture. But you can thrive despite the stigma. Only those with narrow minds and dull lives fail to understand how Japanese culture and anime and manga can fascinate. Have sympathy for such people.
How has anime influenced you? What stigmas do you face as a fan or researcher? Have you wrestled with depression?
Akio Kashiwagi was a whale. No, he didn’t perform tricks at Sea World. Casinos call super-elite high rollers whales. How high did he roll? He would bet $200,000 a hand at baccarat tables. When he visited Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, he would wager $14 million an hour (Johnston, 1990). Kashigawa worked as a Tokyo real estate investor, and like James Bond he enjoyed baccarat.
His love for the game led to problems with creditors. When he died, he owed $9 million to American casinos (New York Times, 1992).
Kashigawa was said to be a normal Japanese salaryman outside of his high rolling habits. For example, he enjoyed samurai dramas and traditional Japanese furniture. He married a popular geisha who was 6 years older, and they had 3 children together. As a strict parent, he worried about alienating his eldest son, and he owned expensive paintings that he lent to museums (Watanabe, 1992).
At age 54, he was found dead in his kitchen, stabbed 150 times with an object resembling a Japanese sword (Watanabe, 1992; New York Times, 1992).
Japanese media speculated one of Kashigawa’s creditors decided to make an example of him.
His house lacked signs of forced entry, and Kashigawa always locked his home (Watanabe, 1992).
The middle child of 10, he worked as a farmhand and later as a guide at Mt. Fuji. Kashigawa entered real estate just as the market began to explode, but his money-lending business earned him a shady reputation. He was said to disappear on loan-due dates so debtors couldn’t pay. Kashigawa would then seize their property. He seized land a kindergarten stood upon, evicted the children, tore down the school, and built an apartment complex (Watanabe, 1992).
His murder was never solved.
Japanese and American Violence
It sounds like a crime straight out of CSI or NCIS. For those of us in the United States we shrug. Murder is so common in the news that we only blink. Back in 2008, the US saw more than 12,000 gun-related murders. Japan: 11 (Engel, 2014). Kashigawa’s death stands out because of its rarity and circumstances. According to a study by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (2014) less than 1 person in 100,000 is murdered in Japan. In the US, that number is 4.8 per 100,000. The report further explains why:
The country’s homicide rate is associated with a stable and prosperous society with low inequality and high levels of development. Young Japanese males now commit only a tenth of the homicides committed by their predecessors in 1955, and the age and sex distribution of victims tend to be uniform across age groups. This has been attributed by some researchers to, amongst other factors, extremely low levels of gun ownership (1 in 175 households), a greater chance of detection (according to police data, 98 per cent of homicide cases are solved), the rejection of violence after the Second World War, the growth of affluence without the accompanying concentrations of poverty common in many highly developed countries, and the stigma of arrest for any crime in Japanese society.
This isn’t to idealize Japan. If anything, Kashigawa’s death suggests a strong presence of organized crime in Japan, which most people who study Japan are aware of. Rather, I want us to think how we consider crime. TV shows like CSI and NCIS make crime glamorous in many ways. Sure, the bad guys get caught, but crime is shown as an exciting chase, a battle of wits. Criminals appear to be heroes against the government and the status quo. Anime like Psycho Pass and Ghost in the Shell show the same. Crime is generated by society. There is a strong correlation between crime and economic opportunity (Kanayama, n.d.). Money had a hand in Kashigawa’s death. People with fewer economic options (or feel their business is threatened) resort to theft and violence. American society often focuses on having more and better. That pressure stresses those who lack the economic options, and many turn to crime. Ghost in the Shell touches on the higher end of this. Those with wealth often turn to crime because they seek to preserve their lifestyle or feel as if they can get away with it.
In any case, Japan may have lower gun violence than the US, but that is primarily because gun ownership is lower. An act in 1958 limited ownership of weapons by citizens: “No person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords,” with a few exceptions (Allemon, 2000). This law didn’t prevent Kashigawa’s murder. This blog post is turning a little political, but these are topics that we need to discuss. Swords and many types of guns are designed for one thing: to kill people.
Limiting access would reduce the number of deaths associated with these weapons. The proof is in the statistics, but it cannot eliminate it. After all, 11 people still died from guns in Japan in 2008. If we could magically make all guns disappear in the United States, we will still see just as much violence. Although we would probably see fewer fatalities. The issue isn’t with firearms (for the record, I come from a hunting family, and I have no issues with owning hunting rifles and shotguns and other hunting-oriented firearms) but with society. Japanese culture’s focus on community and family encourages its lower level of violent crime.
Likewise, American individualism encourages violent crime. Individualism places value of the self above that of the community. It makes selfishness a virtue, and selfishness leads to increased disregard for the welfare of others. However, you can also argue community can encourage violence: gangs. Gangs appear when a sense of belonging is missing. But if American community hadn’t eroded as it has, gangs would have fewer voids to fill.
This is a heavy set of topics for an anime and culture blog, but it is important for us to think about these problems. It is important to set aside all the media hubris on the issues and the political hubbub about gun ownership. We must look at the underlying reasons why violence happens. It will never disappear, but deep societal change, a slight shift away from individualism and toward Japanese-style communal focus, would benefit the United States.
Allemon, M. (2000) The Japanese Firearm and Sword Possession Control Law: Translator’s Introduction. Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association.
Engel, P (2014) How Japan’s Murder Rate Got to be So Incredibly Low. Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/why-japans-murder-rate-is-so-low-2014-4
Johnston, D. (1990). “At $200,000 a Hand, He’s Trumps Kind of Gambler, Inquirer. http://articles.philly.com/1990-05-11/news/25887492_1_casino-al-glasgow-atlantic-city
Kanayama, T. an Arichika Eguchi (n.d.) Japan’s Challenge on the Increase in Crime in the New Century. https://www.npa.go.jp/english/seisaku2/crime_reduction.pdf
New York Times (1992). “A Top Gambler is Killed Owing Casinos Millions”, New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/12/us/a-top-gambler-is-killed-owing-casinos-millions.html
UNODC (2014) Global Study on Homicide 2013 https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/GSH2013/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf
Watanabe, T. (1992) “Global High-Roller’s Trail Ends in a Mystery,” LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-08/news/mn-1383_1_japan-s-real-estate