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Video: ups and downs – How I Joined a Japanese Choir

It’s been many months and summer is almost here. Cherry blossoms have bloomed and fallen. During the holidays and into the spring, a few bumps along the way led to headaches and delays. Beneath all that however were the trips, festivals, and most importantly the people there to push you through those times. In Nagasaki, one such group does that through the magic of music.

A special thanks to The Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club. I love you all and couldn’t have done this without you!

Sorry for the delay. Had to borrow a friend’s computer to do this! Thanks so much Matt!

Music:
Hold Me Down – Foreign Fields
いざ起て戦人よ – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club
ふるさと – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club

 

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8 (most used in this video)

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CC 2015

Check out my previous episode on traveling to Yakushima and Tanegashima, and taking video of the stars above Japan.

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Tokai Red Seal Saag


Kabuki Curry

Time

1 hour

Cost

¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ ¥

Serving Size

4 Adults

Notes

  • seafood/meat optional
  • immersion blender recommended 


Act 1: The stage is set 

 

Curry is a cuisine many get passionate about. It is widely acknowledged however, that as a catch-all categorisation, it is imperfect when referring to the multitudinous regional variations of disparate dishes of the Asian subcontinent. Perhaps this is even truer in South-East Asia where the colours associated with curry dishes are more indicative of their make up than the term by which we classify them. Japan is an exception to this rule and, disregarding tiny elements of flair, curry as a dish, in its naturalised form is remarkably standard. It is thick, fragrantly aromatic, lightly sweet and a literally warming “soul food” (in the Japanese sense – comfort food).

 

Over at Serious Eats they take the position that Japanese curry “might well be considered one of the country’s national dishes,” which many might debate, myself included (just for fun). That said, I do not believe it would be too bold to conjecture that curry is, probably by quite some margin, the nation’s favourite “yōshoku”, western food adopted and adapted for the Japanese palate. The reason I feel comfortable calling it “western” is not because Japan is the east of the East whereby literally the rest of the world could be considered the West. But because, like everyone else I have spoken to on the subject, I am quite willing to accept that Japanese curry is a derivative form of British Curry, itself a derivative cuisine, in the form of flour thickened stew heavily flavoured with blended spice. Even in a roux, that some may say sets apart Japanese curry, the thickener is flour. Note that the aforementioned British Curry is used in a more traditional sense and without passing comment on modern dishes like Tikka Masala or Balti.

 

Over at the BBC, they decided to throw a curve-ball from the outset by playfully pointing out that if one was to look for the word curry in British cooking you could point to the late 14th Century where cury was Anglicised to replace the French cuire (to cook). Thankfully, they do go on to see common sense and admit that this red herring is almost universally disregarded for the widely-accepted explanation that the Tamil word kari (meaning sauce) was employed and exported by early imperialists in Southern India. The earliest published Anglo curry recipes are from the mid 18th Century. Back in India, spice blends were being adapted as new imported ingredients became available, such as chillies from Central America and South-East Asian cloves. Jump forward to Meiji era Japan (1868-1912) and the British Royal Navy were taking curry with them wherever they were next seeking to drop anchor.

 

Act 2: The plot thickens 

 

Happily enough, I bought into this version of events until I read the boldface claim that the first Japanese person to eat curry was not until 1871. This seems altogether too recent to my mind. The appeal of the narrative is obvious. Yamakawa Kenjiro, a 16-year-old would-be scholar from a noble samurai family sets forth and eats curry aboard a naval vessel bound for the new world, en route to becoming the first Japanese graduate of Yale. Later going on to be a noted physicist and historian and one of the most important educational forces of his generation, it is, all in all, a very ennobling association. At the same time though, it just seems too perfect, like the-made-for-TV-movie follow-up to the Suntory whiskey story.

 

It is with one foot firmly on both sides of the fence that I state that it is plausible that the honourable Yamakawa-san very well may have been the first notable Japanese national to be recorded as having eaten Victorian-era imported British Navy style curry, but beyond that qualification-laden sentence, I’m afraid I cannot see myself conceding that he was the first to eat curry… EVER. Without doubt, from this point on, the popularity of curry increased, from first appearing on Tokyo menus in 1877, then snowballing to ubiquity in restaurants and pre-made packet mixes alike within a century. My argument isn’t that the form that went on to become popular curry was introduced earlier, it is rather that, even if only a logical inference, with pre-colonial contact between India and Japan, there must be have someone who ate some form of curry, even if only using that term in the very broadest sense.

 

Indirectly, through Korea and China, Japan has had contact with India since the loving arms of Buddhism, that wrapped North and South around Asia, reconnected here. Buddhism has been practised in Japan since at least the 6th Century, though I am not trying to imply that curry came as part of the package. By the 12th Century students from every corner of Asia, including Japan, were enrolled at the great Buddhist university at Nalanda, near the present day India borders with Nepal. Surviving nearly into the 13th century, Nalanda University acted as one of the academic hubs of the Buddhist world for 700 years and declined around the time that Oxford in England was starting out and a full half-millennium before Yale was even established. All that said, there is a likelihood that students of Nalanda would have been expected to observe an austere diet and may not have eaten curry in their time in India. Moreover on their return, they would have likely lived in monasteries and may not have had opportunity to pass on any foreign food experiences.

 

Act 3: The spice of life 

 

At it’s most basic, curry is a melange of spices, whether dried or fresh, with ingredients that can be unique, but more often are common to other curry dishes, where the spice take precedence in the flavour and the proportions of which make all the difference to the final outcome. That attempt at a definition was a mouthful, as is good curry. Andrew Lawler over at Slate, writes that a “proto-curry” of turmeric, ginger and garlic can be traced back 4,000 years to India’s ancient Indus Valley civilisation. What this shows is that, along with the long history of spices such as these used in Vedic culture for religious purposes and in Ayurvedic medicine, they were also being eaten together. This is evidenced by remains in cooking pots and traces on human teeth. Unsurprisingly, turmeric, ginger and garlic are all also common ingredients in Japanese curry.

 

As it turns out, Japan is actually one of the largest consumers of turmeric in the world. I would love for this to be because of the amount of “Indian saffron” being used in curry, but I suspect this has more to do with the modern interest in its efficacy in the guise of pseudo-scientific snake-oil hangover cures. For the record, I am not doubting the medicinal benefits of turmeric, but you can probably save some money and get the same effects by adding a teaspoon next time you brew up some chai.

 

As a spice, outside of curry cookery, turmeric has been in Japan a very long time. In her tracing of “the golden spice” Iris Benzie shows that from its native India, turmeric had made its way to China by the 8th Century. From there, in Japan it first shows up midway through the Heian Period (794 – 1185), but was not cultivated domestically until the ascension of Edo in the Tokugawa Period (1603 – 1868). [A period discussed at length in my last column]

 

Act 4: Our hero emerges 

 

If you’re at all a fan of kabuki theatre, you may have come across the name Tenjiku Tokubei, where he is a recurring magician character. Tenjiku is, in fact, an old-fashioned Japanese term for India. Japan was the “sun country” from whence the hinomaru or “circle of the sun” arose, China, the “central country” and India the “centre of heaven,” so named because of it being the birthplace of the Buddha. Tenjiku “India” Tokubei as it turns out was a historical figure that travelled widely during the first thirty years of the Tokugawa period, before the Shogunate mandated sakoku lock-down deemed that Japan should cloister itself away from the outside forces for fear of colonial and religious ambition from without. Far from being a holy man or magician, the man, who would in fact go on to be a monk in his later life, got his nickname after he published an account of the travels of his youth aboard the “red seal” armed merchant ships that performed the only sanctioned international trade of the period (whose letters patent held the Shogun’s red seal).

 

In this era, the travel narrative became a popular literary subject and Tokubei became known as somewhat of a Japanese Marco Polo after garnering fame from his memoir titled Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari (Sea Travels to India). In his early years, he had also journeyed extensively around South-East Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam, but most famous was his trading trip to India, that saw him there for over a year. What is notable about Tokubei’s travels is that he spent such a long period of time on the ground in India, 13 months or thereabouts, that he could take notes on the multiple rice harvests of the year, along with buying and eating local produce such as coconuts, which he quite succinctly equates to being yashi palms. Unfortunately, Tokubei does not specifically write about eating curry in India. That said, in trading with locals in local goods and consuming local delicacies, I feel strongly that it is almost a certainty that we could point to him as being the new (or old) poster boy for curry in Japan, pre-dating the current version of events by a quarter of a millennium with an allegory more historically poignant than that currently on offer.

 

Epilogue: A tribute 

 

While there are plenty of juicy details to sink your teeth into in Tenjiku’s travels, what it is lacking is a representative dish. So, inspired by my adventures in the Mariana Trench of curry research, I’ve experimented with an emblematic curry dish myself. For it to truly work, it needs to be thick like a Japanese curry, but not have the flour of a British curry, or a roux for that matter. For this purpose a traditional saag (palak) spinach curry would be perfect, where the blended leaf itself thickens the dish. For flavouring the Indic “three sisters” of turmeric, ginger and garlic are a good base. To enhance these, some garam masala adds our spiced background. Where saag would usually use cream, I suggest a little “yashi” coconut and we have ourselves a sauce, along with a nod to other forms of green curry from Southeast Asia. For a touch of both old and new Japanese influences, a little miso in place of stock and the not so secret Japanese curry trick for smooth sweetness, a dash of chocolate.

 

Being that beef is taboo in India, noted by Tokubei, and that meat on the whole likely made its way into curry through Muslim accretion, pork also seems like the wrong choice for this dish, despite it being common in curry in Japan. For a saag classic, you might try a traditional version of a modern trend and incorporate cheese. It is common to offer cheese as a “topping” for Hokkaido style Soup Curry, which is unrelated to, but delicious in the same vein as paneer (Indian fresh cheese). If you do make paneer, I beseech you to not waste the whey that is a by-product. Whey chapattis are some of the best I have eaten, the lactose in which makes them far softer than when made with plain water. Saag, like Japanese curry is genuinely versatile enough that any of these could work. Today though, let’s take it in another direction and sail with the winds of our nautical theme.

 

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Tokai Red Seal Saag

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp peeled and chopped fresh garlic
  • 1 tbsp peeled and chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tbsp turmeric powder (or fresh)
  • 1 tbsp garam masala paste (or powder)
  • 1 tbsp white miso paste
  • 1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
  • ½ cup lukewarm water (plus extra by feel)
  • 1 tbsp powdered coconut milk powder
  • 6 cups washed and chopped spinach (or mixed greens)
  • 10g white chocolate (optional, but worth adding)
  • 16 large prawns (shelled and de-veined)
  • 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika powder
  • 1 tbsp butter (or ghee)
  • A little extra salt to taste
  • 1 bulb garlic, thinly sliced (optional)
  • 4 tbsp sweet red fukujinzuke pickles

Preparation and Method

 

For the sauce: In a small saucepan, heat oil and sauté garlic and ginger over a medium-high heat until fragrant. Add turmeric and garam masala and sauté for a further minute. Mix water with fish sauce, miso paste and coconut powder. Use this wet mixture to deglaze spices and add greens to wilt. Just spinach will do, though I like the idea that any cooking greens can be used to make saag. Pictured is a mixture of spinach, Japanese mustard spinach komatsuna and some leftover mizuna I had from a salad earlier in the week. Stir together and reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes until greens are darkened and soft. If the mixture appears dry add a little more water a teaspoon at a time to keep moist. With an immersion blender, pulse into a thick green sauce paste. Stir through the broken white chocolate. Cover to keep warm.

 

For the prawns: Mix together flour, paprika and chilli in a bowl and coat prawns. Over a medium-high heat in a small frypan, fry prawns in butter and optional sliced garlic, seasoning lightly with salt. Arrange fukujinzuke pickles on a warmed serving plate to form a circle and top with four prawns per person. The paprika and chilli are meant to intensify the red in the prawns though, if you prefer, they could be fried un-floured, or taken one step farther and deep-fried crumbed or in a tempura batter.

 

For plating: Next to the prawns, add a spoon on the curry to the plate and, with a silicon pastry brush, swipe a circle around the plate if you like the effect. Swipes were en vogue, then out, but with our subject matter, I find it quite fitting. Serve with rice cooked with a little butter and turmeric (a teaspoon per cup is plenty, but how much rice you want is up to you). I have not listed the small edible chrysanthemums or kogiku I plucked the petals from for the final garnish as an ingredient above. This is mainly because they are not more than an affectation. In terms of color, they do link the main dish to the turmeric rice. If you do go looking for them, they can be found in the vegetable section of large supermarkets. I had some fun thinking about poetic ways they could be used to tie the throne of Japan into our tale, but in the end, I just liked the way they looked and, with our eyes eating first, that could be seen as important.

 

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Cleaning prawns

The spices: Garlic, ginger, garam masala paste and turmeric

The spices: Garlic, ginger, garam masala paste and turmeric

The wet ingredients: miso, coconut and water

The wet ingredients: miso, coconut and water

The greens: Spinach, Japanese mustard spinach and mizuna

The greens: Spinach, Japanese mustard spinach and mizuna

Chopped and in the pot

Chopped and in the pot

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All simmering nicely

Blended and adding chocolate

Blended and adding chocolate

Prawn coating dry ingredients

Prawn coating dry ingredients

Frying prawns

Frying prawns

Japanese edible chrysanthemum "kogiku": Pretty but not vital

Japanese edible chrysanthemum “kogiku”: Pretty but not vital

 

Sources:

“An Introduction to Karē-Raisu, Japanese Curry Rice” www.seriouseats.com

“Curry Story” www.sbfoods.co.jp

“Curry: Where did it come from?” www.bbc.co.uk

“Indus Civilization food: how scientists are figuring out what curry was like” www.slate.com

“Turmeric: the Golden Spice” Iris Benzie www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

“Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari” Tenjiku Tokubei http://kindai.ndl.go.jp

Translation of “Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari” in “Literary Subjects Adrift: a cultural history of early modern Japanese castaway narratives” Michael S. Woods

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Video: under the stars – Filming the Night Skies of Japan

A trip to the islands of Yakushima and Tanegashima at the beginning of fall provided an opportunity to visit one of the most picturesque landscapes Japan has to offer. My favourite photos however whether back home in Canada or in Japan, are taken simply by pointing my camera up into the night sky.

My longest video thus far with over 1500 km driven for footage around Kyushu and about 2 months to film everything, hope you enjoy!

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0 (most used in this video)

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Nagasaki and my summer adventures.

Kobein oneweekend (1)

Kobe In One Weekend

Sweet, bustling Kobe!
Oh sweet, bustling Kobe!

Keeping busy with work often makes taking a vacation look like a farfetched dream… And yet, snuggled between each hectic week is a much welcomed break known as “the weekend”. Ah yes, the weekend! Often, it seems like too short of a time to get anything done besides catching up on sleep. And yet weekends are perfect opportunities to travel. Enter “In One Weekend”, a series of posts where I will provide sample itineraries for getting the most out of your weekends based on my own travels. This post’s destination is none other than KOBEKobe is the sixth largest city in Japan, and it has its fair share of cultural, foodie, and shopping delights. Let’s visit Kobe In One Weekend!

Disclaimer: Because Kobe is surrounded by so many other tourist hotspot cities, many people choose to visit the city only transiently. You can have a good day trip in Kobe, provided you pick and choose what you are most interested in doing. However, spending a full weekend in Kobe does not disappoint either!

Day 1 

Morning: Ikuta-Jinja Shrine

Lions guard the entrance to Ikuta shrine.
Lions guard the entrance to Ikuta shrine.

A gorgeous, nearly 2000 year-old shrine that is nestled amongst some of the busier districts of Kobe, Ikuta-Jinja Shrine is a sight to behold. After purifying yourself and praying, you can go behind the main shrine area to find a delightful park, with ample shade and a small stream of water trickling throughout. You can be sure to find yourself relaxed and at peace in this quiet part of town. On some days you might be so lucky as to stumble upon a wedding or festival event.

Afternoon/Lunch: Sannomiya and Motomachi Areas

A sweet tray from Patisserie Tooth Tooth, one of the many bakeries found in Kobe. Also, what's up with the bakery's name?
A sweet tray from Patisserie Tooth Tooth, one of the many bakeries found in Kobe. Also, what’s up with the bakery’s name?

Sannomiya is the most bustling district in Kobe, where you can enjoy shopping, arcades, izakayas, and heaps of bakeries. Both the Sannomiya and Motomachi areas are great for passing the time, and absorbing the city atmosphere. One recommendation is to enjoy either lunch or some sweet treats at one of the many bakeries in this part of town. Also worth seeing is a small park dubbed “Tits Park”, which as the name suggests, contains mounds that resemble certain body parts… This park has become an unofficial meet-up place for many youngsters.

Dinner: Try Kobe Beef in Sannomiya!

Tender, juicy steak topped with fragrant garlic chips. Mmm..
Tender, juicy steak topped with fragrant garlic chips. Mmm..

Surely, even if you have never heard of Hyogo prefecture or know anything else about Kobe, you must have heard about the legend that is Kobe beef. Kobe cows receive daily massages and are beer fed to ensure development of relaxed, tender meat. Some say that the cows listen to classical music as they graze in pasture. As a result of such treatment, Kobe beef is said to be so tender that it can literally melt in your mouth… is this a myth? I’ve got news for you- it isn’t. But if you want to partake in the feast you must pay the (hefty) price. Though pricey, many Kobe beef set menus come with plenty of food to fill your tummy. Eat up!

Evening:  Harborland and Meriken Park

Harborland, beautifully lit up!
Harborland, beautifully lit up!

After stuffing yourself with beef, what better way to shake off the post-meal slug than by taking a walk alongside a harbor? Harborland and Meriken Park are located at Kobe Port, and provide gorgeously lit nighttime views. You can enjoy shopping and dining along the harbor, or you can even ride in a giant neon ferris wheel! Also in this area is Kobe Tower, where you can take in all of Kobe in one sweeping view.

 

Day 2 

Morning: Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum

A life size model of what it looked like to brew sake in pre-industrial Japan.

A life size model of what it looked like to brew sake in pre-industrial Japan.

The Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum is a tad out of the way if you are staying in the main (Sannomiya) area of Kobe, however, it is a worthwhile stop if you are interested in the subject matter. Though small, the museum boasts life-size replicas of brewery equipment and brewery worker figures. After circulating the museum you can enjoy free (FREE!) sake tasting, and even sample the museum’s very own brand of in-house sake. From the museum gift shop you can also buy and ship gift bottles directly to your loved ones. Convenient!

Kitano Foreign Village

An atmospheric jazz bar right nect to the Kitano district.

An atmospheric jazz bar right next to the Kitano district.

Kitano-cho is a unique area where you can visit various residences built by foreigners after the opening of the port of Kobe to the west. Many of the residences are former embassies, and they offer guests the opportunity to explore many different types of architectural styles and world cultures without leaving Japan. Kitano-cho is also filled with shops and cafes specializing in foreign goods and foods. Also in the area is the Trick Art museum and a number of art galleries.

As an added bonus, you can return later in the day or evening to try out one of the many live jazz bars in the area.

Afternoon option: Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway

Not too far from the Kitano area are the Nunobiki Herb Gardens, equipped with a ropeway from which you can see the Nunobiki waterfall, the Nunobiki Gohonmatsu dam, and various other beautiful Kobe sights. The area also boasts a number of specialty cafes, herbal shops, and even a herbal foot bath.

Afternoon option: Cat Café

A pensive Kobe Cat cafe' employee gazes out the window...

A pensive Kobe Cat cafe’ employee gazes out the window…

If the ropeway sounds exhausting to you, perhaps you would prefer to relax at a cat café. Though cat cafés are by no means exclusive to Kobe, they are one of the quirkier styles of cafes which can be found in the area. For an hourly fee, you can play with cats and order various café drinks or sometimes even parfaits and sweets. If you are not a fan of cats, this is not recommended. Also, keep in mind that many of the cats are sleepy and unless you purchase some of the available food, they may be very hesitant to play with you.

This cat cafe' employee isn't too thrilled about being confronted with a cat toy.

This cat cafe’ employee isn’t too thrilled about being confronted with a cat toy.

Ever wondered what the underside of a cat looks like while its sitting down? Wonder no more.

Ever wondered what the underside of a cat looks like while its sitting down? Wonder no more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner/Evening: Nankinmachi (Chinatown)

Momo manju- peach shaped bun filled with red bean paste in Chinatown.

Momo manju- peach shaped bun filled with red bean paste in Chinatown.

They say to save the best for last… and if you’re a foodie then Kobe’s Chinatown, Nankinmachi, is certainly amongst the best culinary experiences in the city. Nankinmachi boasts vibrant, colorful streets filled with street food vendors. Choose from Chinese style ramen bowls, Peking duck wraps, shumai (dim sum), cha han (fried rice), karage (fried chicken), and more. This is also a great area to buy omiyage, or souvenirs, and to observe beautiful Chinese décor and architecture.

 

Hopefully you now have some ideas about what Kobe has to offer. Just know that there is so much more out there for you to explore, so feel free to tweak this itinerary to your liking, and to remove or add days depending on your preferences. Happy weekending!

 

Fortunes at Ikuta shrine.

Fortunes at Ikuta shrine.

Sannomiya area streets.

Sannomiya area streets.

Shrine near Hakutsuku Sake Brewing Museum.

Shrine near Hakutsuku Sake Brewing Museum.

A Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum figure "hard at work" labeling sake barrels.

A Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum figure “hard at work” labeling sake barrels.

Meow from Kobe!

Meow from Kobe!

Beautiful gateway leading to Nankinmachi.

Beautiful gateway leading to Nankinmachi.

Vibrantly colored Nankinmachi.

Vibrantly colored Nankinmachi.

 

  Next entry: Osaka In One Weekend

toto wide

The Ideological Structure of Japanese Toilets

[This is not a ‘how-to’ kind of post. Rather, this is a ‘why’ kind of post. If you need a jump-start on Japanese toilets, I found this simple Guide to Japanese toilet by the manufacturer Toto.]

“We have such a multitude of lavatory types because there is a traumatic excess which each of them tries to accommodate – according to Lacan, one of the features which distinguishes man from the animals is precisely that with humans the disposal of shit becomes a problem.”

 Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies

In my previous post I mentioned the barrage of everyday objects in forms different than I’m used to, and what they say about Japan’s culture or vice versa. I didn’t mention toilets, but they’re an obvious example. I’m not the only one who has thought of this. Marxist philosopher and media theorist Slavoj Žižek has this to say about the differences in toilets around the world (if you can get through his lisping nose-scratching):

When he asked the designers from each respective country why the difference, each insisted that their country’s design had the most utility. It would seem that they couldn’t possibly all be right, but given the unspoken ideological assumptions of each country, each country’s toilets fit their assumptions with perfect utility. The utility of each toilet’s design depends on what its objective is with respect to the “…three different attitudes towards excremental excess: ambiguous contemplative fascination; the hasty attempt to get rid of the unpleasant excess as fast as possible; the pragmatic approach to treat the excess as an ordinary object to be disposed of in an appropriate way.”

Broadly construed, media is anything of human construction capable of conveying ideology. Thus, everyday objects and household appliances are just as much members of the media as anime or the internet. In other words, toilets are meaningful texts which can be read and understood, if only subconsciously. They are one of many mediums used to reinforce the dominant ideology of a society – just where you don’t expect it.

So what would Žižek say about toilets in Japan? Why hasn’t the washlet caught on in The States, and why is the squatter still a thing? What is the Japanese attitude toward excremental excess, and how do Japanese toilets accommodate this attitude?

I proceed on the premise that there must be an ideological reason for any major structural difference (and ignore the possibility that some differences or preferences might simply be random or due to other factors like logistics – but even if this is the case, resulting toilets will still convey ideology, even if difference in ideology didn’t directly effect their construction).

The Washlet

The Washlet® was born in the early 80s when the Japan-based Toto Ltd. (the world’s largest toilet manufacturer) combined a French bidet basin (a separate fixture from the toilet and sink for washing the nether regions), with a Western flush toilet and gave it an electric control panel with additional seat-warming, self-cleaning, deodorizing, and drying functions.

Žižek doesn’t mention the bidet, but it’s an important aspect of the French bathroom, especially in contrast to the Anglo/American. Bidets are almost as old as flush toilets, and they seems to fit the model of French revolution. The bidet reduces or eliminates the need for toilet paper. The Anglo/American, on the other hand, opted for toilet paper exclusively. Which might be more pragmatic, but in the long run how many more trees have been killed, how much more work is it, and how sanitary is this practice?

A guess is that the Anglos just wanted to distance themselves from a French practice. At first glance, it might seem that the washlet hasn’t caught on for the same reason the bidet hasn’t.

I posit that the washlet must be understood in the context of the standard bathroom-restroom setup of the Japanese dwelling (and in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon set-up). In most Japanese houses and apartments (but maybe not tiny Tokyo apartments or hotel rooms) bathrooms and restrooms are actually distinct and separate things. The restroom (お手洗い or トイレ) is little bigger than a closet – just enough room for you to slip on the toilet slippers, sit down, and close the door.

IMG_0209[1]

Cozy or claustrophobic?

This room has one purpose and one function only. Sometimes there might also be a small sink (that sustainably feeds into the toilet tank) exclusively for hand-washing. The vanity (洗面所) where you brush your teeth, shave, wash your face, etc. is entirely separate, and might be an extension of the bathroom.

The bathroom (浴室) is, aptly, for bathing. Usually there is an area to wash/shower yourself off before you get in the bath (as you would at an onsen). This ingeniously keeps you from bathing in your own filth. But the best thing about the Japanese bathroom is that it is a bathroom and not a toilet room.

Need I mention that bathrooms tend to get steamy? Why on Earth would you put the appliance you defecate on in the same room that you are supposed to clean yourself (including your teeth)? There’s an answer, and it’s ideological: Anglo/American pragmatism.

It’s simple. It’s not that the Anglo/American doesn’t care about maximizing hygiene, it’s just that it will always come second to practicality in the value system. (And by Anglo/American, I mean anyone who has inherited their ideology.) Put all the complicated plumbing in one room, take care of all your private business in one place, the thinking goes. And this brings us back to toilet paper and the washet. My hypothesis for the reason the washlet still hasn’t caught on in the Anglo/American world is that the washlet simply isn’t pragmatic enough. The washlet values hygiene over pragmatic simplicity. The washlet is a superfluous luxury. A nice idea, but not practical, so says the Anglo/American.

IMG_0212[1]

The graphic icons are helpful

IMG_0213[1]

Same toilet, different control panel, more buttons and knobs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the buttons and gadgets can seem overwhelming. I admit, I’ve found it easier just not to mess with it, and use the washlet the old-fashioned way. Maybe this is just because I can’t read all the buttons in Japanese, or the idea of having a nozzle squirt my anus is new and radical to me. But I think there might even be a deeper ideological reason. The Anglo/American says get in, take care of your business, and get out. This ideology is best fulfilled by the old-school wipe-and-flush model. And I admit, I’m ideologically biased. I like the idea of the washlet, but in practice I don’t.

Japan, on the other hand, is very particular about the separation of the inside/outside realm of the clean/dirty. The Japanese concept of uchi-soto (内外) literally inside-outside usually refers to in-group/out-group distinctions. But it can also refer to indoors/outdoors (内 can also mean house or home). Clean and dirty are also viewed in sharp contrast. The word for pretty (きれい) also means clean, and the antonym dirty (きたない) conversely has many negative non-literal connotations.

Ritual cleansing, called misogi (禊), is important in both Buddhism and Shinto. Temizuya (手水舎), water basins with wood ladles, are located outside of temples and shrines. They are for patrons to wash their hands and rinse their mouths out before entering. (A relic of this is the Japanese custom of gargling water upon reentering the home.) The torii gate and komainu (the guardian lion-dog statues) also mark the separation of the worldly outside and the sacred inner space.

So it is no surprise that the semi-symbolic ritual of changing your shoes/slippers like Mr. Rogers anytime you go inside or outside is a big deal in Japan. It’s almost a religious rite. This also explains why the most offensive thing you can do in a Japanese home is leave the toilet slippers on after leaving the restroom: you just trespassed on the sacred with the profane.

The Japanese style restroom/bathroom achieves this separation. And the washlet, as ritual purifier, is central. It is so valued, because washing is valued at a religious level.

I haven’t mentioned or discussed the washlet’s feminine functions. Mostly because I have male parts and try very hard to avoid pushing those buttons. If you think I’m missing some crucial insight, however, please leave a comment below.

The Squatter

IMG_4932

The persistence of the primeval squatter seems to present a paradox when juxtaposed with the ultramodern washlet. In my view, the two present a tension that persists in Japanese ideology. The two accommodate separate attitudes toward excremental excess.

First of all, squatting itself has deep roots in Asian culture. Chairs are a Western invention (probably ancient Egypt). Which is not to suggest that the West had some sophistication Asia lacked. To be sure, chairs are just another form of ideological conveyance. (Thrones immediately come to mind.) And if nothing else, chairs are designed to elevate and separate you form the Earth.

For whatever reason, even after the introduction of chairs, sitting, kneeling, and squatting remains common. Indeed, the squat is a sort of rest position for Asians.

In China

South Korea

people squatting photo

Photo by Jrwooley6                                      Some Rights Reserved

Thailand

people squatting photo

Photo by Greg Walters                                   Some Rights Reserved

Vietnam

And, of course, Japan

To be fair, the squat is probably quite comfortable for those who grow up doing it, and weren’t taught it’s impolite or undignified.

The chair has made us soft. So naturally, we prefer to shit on toilet seats.

The reason we find the squatter altogether distasteful, is that it is so close to the ground. It’s a little too natural for our comfort. (Nothing unsettles the Western psyche quite like nature.)

But consider two very tangible benefits of the squatter:

  1. More hygienic.

The cool thing about the squatter is that you never have to make direct contact with the toilet. You can just hover above it. (Does a thin strip of toilet paper laid on the seat really do the job?) This is probably the main reason it is still so common in public restrooms.

2.  Better for your bowels.

Sitting, or not squatting properly can put unnecessary pressure on your bowels and make it harder to have a natural bowel movement. 2-minute video by Business Insider illustrates: Scientists have discovered that we’re going to the bathroom the wrong way.

I’ve got to hand it to Japanese intuition and longevity.  The only real problem with the squatter is that it’s so shallow, which means it doesn’t diffuse the odor very well, so Japanese public restrooms, especially in more rural areas, tend to stink more than usual.

Interestingly, the squatter (and by the same token, the Anglo toilet) seems to have had some cultural impact on how feces are depicted.

Take the emoji Pile of Poo. Though growing in worldwide popularity (it’s been incorporated into Unicode), Pile of Poo is Japanese. It is typical in Japan for poop to be drawn in a steaming pile rather than as a phallic-shaped turd like South Park’s Mr. Hankey. Turds are preserved by floating in a toilet bowl, not by hitting a dry surface. The way toilets handle and preserve our shit affects they way we think about shit itself. Make of that what you will.

The Japanese Urinal 

At first glance, there seems nothing special about the Japanese urinal.

IMG_4202

But having used my fair share of public restrooms in Japan, I’ve noticed they’re all basically the same. They all sit on the floor, but unlike other urinals that extend to the ground, the basin is still about a foot high with no puddle. This makes it a bit harder to piss on your feet, and I imagine it keeps the floor around it cleaner. Thus they reap the advantages of a one size fits all model (they’re kid friendly, with no minimum clearance), but avoid the pitfalls of other floor length urinals.

And the shape is kind of elegant, until you realize it’s just a vertical squatter.

They’re uniformly spaced slightly further apart than usual – which is nice since I’ve never seen any partitions for privacy. With more of a crowd culture, privacy isn’t as much a thing.

Finally, in restrooms with more than one or two urinals, there is usually one with handlebars. This is considerate for the elderly and handicapped, but it’s also super convenient when you’re drunk.

The Japanese urinal gets an all-around thumbs-up, but they definitely need a few partitions.

Origami

There’s a phenomenon in hotels around the world of folding over the last sheet of toilet paper into a ‘V’ to let guests know the room has been cleaned. I’ve noticed that in Japan this practice extends beyond hotels into all kinds of public restrooms. There’s something kind of charming and classy about it. And it makes me feel a little bad about disturbing that neatly folded sheet.

The last time I came to Japan I bought a toilet paper origami instruction book as a gift. It had everything from cranes to sailboats to neckties. A quick Google, and you’ll find all kinds of gems. I don’t really know anything about origami, but I like the idea of anonymously leaving an uplifting piece of art for the next person, in such an intimate space. Until it occurs to me that the artist probably folded it before washing their hands. 

Night Soil

Even before the Edo period, people that lived in cities or towns would collect their sewage and farmers would actually buy it from them for fertilizer. This practice even continued up to the Occupation.

More Begging Monks (near the "Honey Buckets") by John W. Bennett. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, The Ohio State University

More Begging Monks (near the “Honey Buckets”) by John W. Bennett. 
DOING PHOTOGRAPHY AND SOCIAL RESEARCH IN THE ALLIED OCCUPATION OF JAPAN, 1948-1951: A Personal and Professional Memoir. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, The Ohio State University

The barrels on the right were for collecting night soil. It was only after the industrialization of the late 50s and 60s that night soil was replaced by farmers with chemical fertilizer. Suddenly night soil went from being fertilizer to waste. That is, the attitude toward it went from reusable sustainer of life to excremental excess. Then came the problem of how to treat and dispose all that excess sewage.

Night soil usage is still around, however. It accounts for about 10% of the population, though it is treated at sanitation plants before being recycled as biomass. Japan’s night soil treatment system is proposed as a cheap, sustainable solution for developing countries.

(see History and Current Situation of Night Soil Treatment Systems and Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems in Japan by X.M. Yang, A. Morita, I. Nakano, Y. Kushida and H. Ogawa. Japan Education Center of Environmental Sanitation; Japan Environmental Sanitation Center. 2010.)

An Afterthought: The Taboo Isn’t Logically Necessary

Elsewhere in his discussions, Žižek mentions a scene from an old surrealist film: Phantom of Liberty, “in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit on their lavatories around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper, ‘Where is that place… you know?’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.” (The Plague of Fantasies)

We can imagine a world in which the norms are reversed. And there are different kinds of toilets with different ideological implications that haven’t even been invented yet. Everyone shits, but is that a problem?

I’ve just been shooting at the hip, so what do you think the cultural implications of Japan’s toilets are?

Also, if you’re Slavoj Žižekand I got you all wrong or you have other ideas about Japanese toilets, do drop a line.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 5.45.03 AM

Video: summer lights – The Highlights of Summer in Japan

Summer is over and school is starting again. Here are a few of the highlights experienced during the last 2 months.

This video definitely took a bit longer to make than I hoped. School starting up and just generally being busy has made it especially difficult to find time to simply sit down and edit. Hopefully it’s entertaining and stay tuned for the next episode which I assure you will be filled with a few surprises 😉

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 (most used in this video)

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Omura and first moving in.

SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVALS

Summer Music Festivals in Japan

It’s summer now, and for those musically obsessed of us out there, that means SUMMER FESTIVAL SEASON! Japan, which boasts a recording industry second only to the US, has about as many music festivals as there are people in the country. There’s just so many! What this means is that there’s just about something out there for all tastes.

Sadly, by the time of this posting, some events may have already passed, but hay! There’s always next year, right?

July

DEAD POP FESTiVAL

deadpopfest

Where: Kawasaki, Kanagawa

When: July 11th & 12th

With a goal to “Knock Down the Wall,” this festival’s line-up is all across the board. From comedy bands, to rock, to punk, to ska, to the very border of metal, walls are definitely getting knocked down.

Sekigahara Live Wars

sekigahara

Where: Sekigahara Battlefield, Fuwa-gun, Gifu

When: July 18th-20th

This festival is particularly fun. It is a yearly “battle” between day 1: women (though, women fronted, not specifically women ONLY), day 2: men, day 3: idol groups. These divas will definitely relight the fires of war at this festival.

JOIN ALIVE

Where: Iwamizawa, Hokkaido

When: July 18th & 19th

JOIN ALIVE aims to be a very chill festival, going so far as to offer free admission to junior high school and under kids. And seriously, looking at that line-up, I would KILL to have gone to this festival as a junior high schooler. Also, there are rides! How cool is that!?

Fuji Rock Festival 

Where: Yuzawa-cho, Niigata

When: July 24th- 26th

One of the biggest yearly festivals in Japan, Fuji Rock Festival takes places at an off-season ski resort, and as such, one of the main draws (aside from the concerts) is the fact that you can camp it. Though an even bigger draw to it is that it features a huge line-up of non-Japanese bands. And these aren’t a bunch of nobodies. These are HUGE acts! Because of this, the website is FULL of handy information in English. Enjoy!

Punkafoolic! Bayside Crash

Where: Tokyo

When: July 25th

This is a nice little punk rock fest that takes place deep in the heart of Tokyo, pretty close to Tsukiji Fish Market. BUT! It’s just before orientation. Sorry incoming people. Maybe next year.

Tokai Summit

tokaisummit

Where: Nagashima Spa Land, Kuwana, Mie

When: July 26th

Tokai Summit holds the claim to fame of being the first outdoor festival dedicated to Hip Hop. Even better, it takes place in my home prefecture! YEAH! Though it’s only a one day event, NagaSpaLand offers an amusement park and outlet shopping to fill the rest of the music-less hours of what should totally be a weekend affair.

August

Rock in Japan Festival

Where: Hitachinaka, Ibaraki

When: August 1st & 2nd then August 8th & 9th

Rock in Japan Festival is put on by music mag “Rockin’ On” and is one of the biggest festivals of the year. It’s so big that not only is it a given that it’s going to sell out, but you can’t even just expect to buy tickets for it. No, you have to enter a raffle just to be allowed to throw your money at it. It also takes place on two separate weekends, all the way up in Ibaraki, so unless you’re placed in a surrounding prefecture, good luck seeing the entire festival. With one of the most diverse line-ups, there is easily something for everyone here…and not gonna lie, probably 10/10 of my favorite current artist list.

Zushi Fes

zushi fes

Where: Zushi, Kanagawa

When: August 7th-9th

MTV, yes THAT MTV, invites you to get your party on in your swimsuit at this resort festival featuring quite a few Japanese DJs, R&B singers, hip hop groups, and everything in between.

Rising Sun Rock Festival

risingsunrockfest

Where: Ishikari, Hokkaido

When: August 14th & 15th

This is a music fest for people who love Japanese music and hates sleep. Concerts go on ALL NIGHT LONG, and the festival prides itself on only featuring Japanese artists. Ishikari, next door to tourist hotspot Otaru in Hokkaido is a gorgeous area, and being able to enjoy amazing music as the sun comes up on a new day is definitely an experience to check out.

Sonicmania/Summer Sonic

Where: Chiba and Osaka

When: August 14th-16th

Summer Sonic is a MONSTER of a festival. Technically the fest begins on the 14th with Sonicmania, a one day EDM festival that, though run by the same people, is considered a separate event with a different name. Summer Sonic itself takes place in both Osaka and Chiba at the same time, often with artists playing one city one day then the other the next. Not only is it geographically huge, but it also draws some major foreign artists, as well. Generally, if you go to one summer music fest in Japan, for most people, it’s this one.

MONSTER baSH

Where: Yoshino, Kagawa

When: August 22nd & 22rd

Not to be confused with the OTHER Monster Bash, the International Classic Monster Conference, Film Festival and Expo, this MONSTER baSH is the original outdoor music festival of Shikoku. Its aim is to bring people together, year after year, to smile and enjoy amazing music. I can definitely get behind that sentiment, though they chose a rather odd name for that kind of goal.

Sweet Love Shower

sweet love shower

Where: Lake Yamanaka, Yamanashi

When: August 28th-3oth

Taking place in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Sweet Love Shower is celebrating its 20th year in existence. It is presented by none other than Space Shower TV, who once deleted my youtube account for hosting too many of their videos, which explains the slightly odd name. The festival itself has a lot of great artists, mostly if you’ve seen them on SSTV, you’ll see them at the fest.

September

Sunset Live

Where: Itoshima, Fukuoka

When: September 4th-6th

Taking place in Kyushu, Sunset Live promises a laid back, very chill music fest in the late summer heat. The artist list features an eclectic line up of rock, folk, jazz, and electronic artists. Looks to be a very chill event, where you can catch the sun setting below the ocean horizon. A very nice coda to the summer.

OTODAMA

otodama

Where: Izumiotsu Phoenix, Osaka

When: September 5th & 6th

Looking at this setlist, this festival looks amazing and insane at the same time. It looks like the first day is super laid back, very chill, and the second day, all hell breaks loose. A very nice collection of really great, yet not terribly known groups. I really want to go to there.

Inazuma Rock Fes

Where: Kusatsu, Shiga

When: September 19th and 20th

This festival is a highly popular gathering of major pop acts, such as two of the ridiculously popular 48 groups and TMR. If you are wanting to hit this festival, better get in quick. Tickets are already selling out.

Punkafoolic! Shibuya Crash

shibuya crash

 

Where: Shibuya, Tokyo

When: September 20th

Another punk rock festival presented by Punkafoolic! For one glorious day, punk rock from all over the world takes over O-East and O-West (am I the only person who still thinks of them as On Air?). Those of you who had to skip out on Bayside Crash will definitely be able to make this one.

Kansai Lovers

kansailovers

Where: Osaka Castle Music Hall, Osaka

When: September 23rd

At only 1000 yen (drinks for an extra 500), Kansai Lovers is a great chance to bid farewell to the summer and enjoy some great up and coming musicians. I, for one, am highly tempted to drag myself all the way out to Osaka for this one day festival.

 

While this is quite a long list of various music festivals all over Japan throughout the summer, it is by no means exhaustive or complete. I hope, though, this will inspire some of you to hit up a festival or two. They’re no comparison to seeing your favorite artist at a one-man show, but they can be a great way to expose yourself to some great new bands you’d never heard of before. Great way to find new music at a pretty decent price. Enjoy!

kawaiirethink

Rethinking “Kawaii”: 4 Unique Idol Groups

Typically, I am not the biggest fan of idols. I find them highly exploitive of both their consumers and their working members (more about this will come in a later post, but as my profile blurb states, I did my final research in university exposing the links between human trafficking and female idol groups specifically). However, in honor of LADYBABY’s first (very, very unique) YouTube debut on July 4th, I’ve decided to put the spotlight on some of the more unique idol groups I’ve run across in my research. While many idol groups thrive off the holy nectar of all things kawaii (“cute,” and typically very effeminate), these shiny new groups all push the boundaries of what idol groups can bring to the table.

LADYBABY

First up we have the group of honor: LADYBABY. Now who is LADYBABY? The most prominent figure you may notice is no other than Ladybeard, Japan’s resident cross-dressing Australian entertainer extraordinaire, flanked by Kaneko Rie and Kuromiya Rei, both winners of the idol contest Miss iD 2015. Their first music video (complete with English CC), shown above, for their debut single (set to go on sale July 29) is about all things fabulously Japanese. Clearly, this is a group that’s trying to go for the kawaii factor and twisting it all around at the same time just by the mere presence of Ladybeard. With such a dramatic debut, it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.

BABYMETAL

For those already in the loop of out-of-the-ordinary idol groups, the strange mash of cutesy hard rock of LADYBABY may make you instantly think of BABYMETAL, a group that debuted their first album early in 2014 (despite forming way back in 2010). The three members (nicknamed Yumetal, Moametal, and Su-metal), each being tasked with some combination of “scream,” “dance,” and “vocals,” rose quickly on YouTube to international fame (and confusion) for their unique blend of metal and kawaii. Like most female idol groups, the average age for the members here is quite young (currently around 14 or 15), but despite their youth, they have dominated the rock genre in Japan, ranking in the top 10 of the Oricon charts on multiple occasions.

Macho29

One of my bones to pick with female idol groups especially is how they have a tendency to sexualize and commodify their members from a very young age. (Quick comparison: “Arashi sexy” vs. “AKB48 sexy.”) Well, I can’t say it’s progress in the realm of feminism, but now it’s not just skin-bearing girls being ogled by the media—there’s now a whole idol group dedicated to shirtless, muscular men, complete with their own binding contract (à la AKB48’s “no love” rule) prohibiting them from drinking alcohol and smoking, among other things. The group was formed after the massive success of the one-day event “Macho Cafe” in Shibuya earlier this year. This group definitely doesn’t fit the bill of kawaii, but it also doesn’t fit the sleek and sophisticated image of most male idol groups either.

KBG84

This last group may be considered kawaii, but definitely not in the sense you may assume. 33 Okinawan grannies singing and dancing around? That sure sounds pretty darn kawaii to me. KBG84 (in contrast to AKB48), with the grotesquely punny media slogan 天国に一番近いアイドル (Tengoku ni ichiban chikai aidoru, or “The closest idol group to heaven”), stands out in this list since the required age to become a member is 80, and the average age of all its members is 84 years. As for the oldest member? That honor goes to Yamashiro Haru, at the grand age of 97. The group hails from the tiny island of Kohamajima in Okinawa Prefecture (KBG stands for Kohamajima Baachan [old lady] Gasshoudan [choir]). They are currently working on a special, mega-hit tour, and just recently performed in Tokyo last month.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of rule-bending idol groups, and who knows what the future will bring? What other groups have you found that break away from the tried-and-true kawaii?

RIP Seba Jun

An Intro to Japanese Hip Hop

So after my last post comparing the mane or “imitation” faction of Japanese Hip Hop to the recent Rachel Dolezal case, a couple people commented saying they’d like to see a post that offered a good intro to Japanese Hip Hop in general. Now I’m pretty sure that these guys were asking for a list of my favorite artists or a couple good playlists more than anything else, but instead I decided to do the post as a short introduction to the history of Hip Hop in Japan. Of course a huge number of artists are going to come up along the way and I’ll link to all of them when they do, but primarily this is going to be about the spread of global Hip Hop culture to Japan, its idiosyncrasies in the country, and the role Hip Hop has played in Japanese society as a whole.

(I did end up caving though and created a short playlist with some of my favorite tracks, for anyone interested in a soundtrack to accompany their reading)

Please keep in mind that there is a lot of history behind Japanese Hip Hop, and for the sake of space I’ll have to stick more or less to the more general outline of its evolution. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out the work of MIT professor Ian Condry, which you can cop for free in PDF form here. I rely a lot on Condry myself, as you’ll see if you read him!

graffiti near Yokohama's Sakuragichō Station

graffiti seen near Yokohama’s Sakuragichō Station photo by • • TRUE2DEATH • • https://www.flickr.com/photos/true2death/2085128307

But first, before I begin talking about Japanese Hip Hop, I want to clarify my terms, as I think the particular meaning I associate with Hip Hop might not be shared by all of my readers.

When the average person thinks of Hip Hop they probably imagine it to be just a genre of music or a fashion style. Of course there is also the corporate perspective, which views Hip Hop as a highly profitable product to be commodified and marketed to the general population. These stereotypes are widespread and not completely without substance, but to characterize Hip Hop in this way is to completely misunderstand its essence and inherent value.

Far from being just a style of music, Hip Hop is a culture–a way of living that is fundamentally socially-critical, anti-mainstream, and profoundly creative. The shared approach to life that is called ‘Hip Hop’ is the origin of a number of artistic forms such as DJing, MCing, breaking, and modern grafitti art (together its ‘core four elements’), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that wherever these elements are found Hip Hop is also present.

The true essence of Hip Hop culture is found in its “unique collective consciousness; the creative, causative force behind Hip Hop’s elements,” prompting many Hip Hoppers to stress that Hip Hop is not something one does, but rather something one lives (krs-one.com).

It never ceases to amaze me that something like Hip Hop, with its very specific modes of expression and even more particular cultural/historical context could take off so quickly universally, but it has exploded onto the world scene in the years since its birth. There is perhaps no country on Earth today without its own, unique Hip Hop culture. But what exactly does Hip Hop look like when separated from its original context in America’s inner cities? For the relatively wealthy, Japanese urban youth with no experience of racial persecution, can Hip Hop really be relevant or understood? These are some of the questions I think we should keep in mind when looking at the history of Hip Hop in Japan.

But now without any more prologue, let’s get into the actual history.

yoyogi breakdance1

Photo via Tokyobling • https://tokyobling.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/donate-for-japan/

Interestingly enough, Hip Hop first came to Japan not through rap, DJing, or fashion, but instead through breaking. Professor Ian Condry of MIT describes the introduction of Hip Hop to Japan in the following way:

The seminal moment for breakdancing in Japan was 1983, when Wild Style, a low-budget film featuring the first generation of U.S. rappers, DJs, and breakdancers, was shown in Tokyo theaters. Performers who appeared in the movie, such as the breakdance team Rock Steady Crew, came to Japan at the same time and performed in Tokyo discos and department stores. ECD, now a key figure as [a Japanese] rapper and producer, recalls one of these shows: “Actually, when I saw those guys, I didn’t really understand what the rappers and DJs were doing. In terms of what left a lasting impact, I can’t remember a thing except the breakdancing…Another hip-hopper, Crazy-A, relates being reluctantly dragged by his girlfriend to see the movie Flashdance but then [becoming] spellbound by the breakdance scene. [Today, Crazy-A is] the leader of the hip-hop outfit Rock Steady Crew Japan.
 (A History of Japanese Hip Hop, 228)

(for anyone interested, here is the trailer for Wild Style as well as the breakdancing scene from Flashdance that Crazy-A was describing. From here on out if a film is referenced I’ll link to it directly the first time its title appears)

I managed to find some somewhat grainy footage of the 1983 tour of the American Rock Steady Crew throughout Japan to promote the release of Wild Style. For those who don’t speak Japanese, the commentator in this video begins by explaining the concept of rapping to an audience that is likely encountering it for the first time. Here’s one more video I managed to find from that tour for anyone interested.

Busy Bee on the Wild Style Japan Tour http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/gallery/17043/13/wild-style

Busy Bee on the Wild Style Japan Tour • http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/gallery/17043/13/wild-style

As is clear from ECD’s comment above as well as the commentator’s explanation in the video, Japanese people at this time knew next to nothing about the history of Hip Hop and were merely impressed by its energy and style. Once breakdancing got a foot in the door here though, it would take off almost immediately. The location for its inevitable rise in popularity? Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, and the “pedestrian’s paradise” [歩行天] area of Harajuku where traffic was shut down every Sunday and people would gather to break. Crazy-A describes this early breakdance scene in his interview with Condry, saying:

“I [Crazy-A] suggested that maybe we should start [breaking]…and from the next week on, every week, we danced. At first we did it with a radio cassette and cardboard laid out on the ground. Sometimes there was a turntable and PA system. It was like a block party, a natural phenomenon [自然現象]. And then people like B-Fresh started up too.”

That began in the winter of 1984. By the next year, Crazy-A was dancing on television on a weekly music show and also as a back-up dancer for a teen idol. This exposure, along with another movie, called Breakdance, released in 1985, is credited with initiating the first of several breakdancing booms [ブーム].
(Condry, A History of Japanese Hip Hop 228-229)

It’s harder to find early videos of the breakers in Yoyogi park/Harajuku, but here is the oldest footage I could find of Rock Steady Japan. In addition, here are a couple videos of the B-Boy “Chino,” a member of Rock Steady Japan and later of the B-Rock Crew, both from the 80s: Chino 1 + Chino 2. These videos give a pretty good glimpse into what the vibe of the early Japanese Hip Hop scene would have been like.

A recent photograph of the 歩行天 (pedestrian paradise) area of Harajuku http://webronza.asahi.com/national/articles/2011021400011.html

A recent photograph of the 歩行天 (pedestrian paradise) area of Harajuku http://webronza.asahi.com/national/articles/2011021400011.html

By the late 80s/early 90s, the popularity of breaking in Yoyogi and Harajuku had given birth to some of Japan’s first DJs and rap groups as well. Japanese legend DJ Krush started out playing behind B-Fresh–Japan’s first rap group to record with a major record label–in this same sort of environment (Condry). Krush is still popularly known as the first Japanese artist to use a turntable, and for any of you who speak Japanese there’s a really fascinating interview of him in 1996 talking about his work and approach to music-making. Also really interesting is his explanation of how to DJ from 4:03, targeted at a Japanese audience who overall still knew very little about Hip Hop.

DJ Krush went on to become a respected artist outside of Japan as well, working with a few artists you might have heard of like: Black Thought and Malik B of The Roots, Mos DefAesop Rock, and so on. Needless to say he’s collaborated with nearly every major Japanese artist in the game and he’s still going strong today. The story goes that Krush (aka Hideaki Ishi) was originally a yakuza member but left the organization after one day finding a severed finger on his desk that he later learned belonged to a friend.

So what initially got him into Hip Hop after leaving the criminal underground?

You guessed it, Wild Style.

In one interview Krush recalled the sudden popularity of Hip Hop fashion after 1983 saying, “at the time my friends laughed at me because I used to wear stylish suits and nice leather shoes and short hair, but after I saw Wild Style, I started wearing a Kangol hat, an adidas track suit and sneakers” (DJ Krush Interview, Condry).

Now 52, DJ Krush continues to play at sold-out venues worldwide http://houselist.bowerypresents.com/tag/dj-krush/

Now 52, DJ Krush continues to play at sold-out venues worldwide
http://houselist.bowerypresents.com/tag/dj-krush/

While artists like Krush and B-Fresh were busy emerging onto the scene from these outdoor/public performances behind Tokyo B-Boys, there was a different strain of rap developing simultaneously in Japan’s club scene. In his interview with Condry, MC Bell of B-Fresh explains that:

When you talk about Japanese hip hop, you definitely have to recognize that there are two streams. One is that of Itō Seiko and Tiny Punx, what might be called the classy [oshare] style that started with the people who frequented clubs, The other stream started with Hokoten (“pedestrian paradise”) in Harajuku. At Harajuku’s Hokoten, it started with break dancing. If you consider that hip-hop culture developed in stages, the first way we [B-Fresh] took up hip hop was in Breakdance. (229-230)

Partly for the sake of space–but also because I tend to think the strain of Hip Hop in Japan associated with breaking is the more authentic one–I’m not going to really talk about this club rap trend. It is important to know the difference between the two, though, as many later artists would refer back to the B-Boy roots of Hip Hop culture in Japan in order to appear more legitimate through their connection with the “true” tradition.

Take for example the 1998 single B-Boyイズム (B-Boyism) by the group Rhymester. The video is shot in much the same sort of spontaneous outdoor breaking environment that characterized early Japanese Hip Hop, and the lyrics stress the connection even further:

Forget the numbers,                                   数はともかく
we’re a minority at heart                          心は少数派
Broadcasting on a special wavelength     俺たちだけに聞こえる 
That only we can hear                                 特殊な電波

How many times I gotta say it?     何度でも言うぞ 
My name is Yellow B-BOY                        俺の名前は黄色いB-BOY 
Number one, not fuckin around               ハンパナク、ナンバーワン

From lyrics like this we get the sense that the B-Boy faction of Japanese Hip Hop is not really concerned with making music that’s popular or well received so much as staying true to its roots. The club strain, on the other hand, almost by definition would end up being tailored to what the public wanted to hear.

Like I said, there’s so much more to tell about the history of Japanese Hip Hop and its evolution through the 90s and 2000s, but I’m not trying to write a book about it at the moment. So here I want to kind of change direction and talk about another aspect of Hip Hop in Japan–graffiti.

落書きは犯罪

A poster from Kanagawa Prefecture reminding citizens that “Graffiti is a crime!” and urging them to call 110 if they see someone doing it

Up until now we’ve talked about breaking, DJing, and MCing in Japan, but what about graffiti? Does this expression of Hip Hop culture also turn up in Japan?

Just by looking at the sign above we see right away that the answer is, of course, yes, but instead of talking too much about it, I’d rather just show you the Mecca of graffiti art in Japan until 2010 (when it was painted over by the government)– the legendary Yokohama graffiti wall

Pretty amazing right? Just a shame Japanese public opinion has yet to come to that realization, otherwise it might still be around today.

Of course there’s a lot of graffiti around Tokyo as well, as I’m sure there is in any big city in Japan. Here are a couple of photos I took around the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo last year

1376599_10151984612377930_186905466_n1381824_10151976861407930_1207851923_n 1378022_10151976875602930_653630739_n
Right now though, some of the most provocative and fascinating graffiti in Japan is coming from a mysterious artist who goes by the name 281_Anti Nuke. A lot of people have called him the Japanese Banksy, and the parallels are apparent almost immediately.

Anti Nuke is eminently camera-shy, and his website description of himself simply states: 281_ Artist, Japan, anti nuclear power plant, born on 3/11/2011

After making an original, Anti Nuke turns his art into stickers that can be put up by anyone all over Japan. Even though he’s received any number of death threats over the years, he remains bold and unafraid in the face of the ultra-conservative elements of Japan’s government.

Anti Nuke's signature piece depicts a girl in a raincoat with the subheading "I hate nuclear rain"

Anti Nuke’s signature piece depicts a girl in a raincoat with the subheading “I hate nuclear rain” http://www.fatcap.com/graffiti/172688-281-anti-nuke-tokyo.html

281 2

He uses his art to speak out against the agenda of Japan’s ultra-conservative politicians http://www.fatcap.com/article/281-anti-nuke.html

This sticker depicts the Tepco logo along with the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to spread the message that "The Third Bomb Can't Be Thrown Away"

This sticker depicts the Tepco logo along with the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to spread the message that “The Third Bomb [i.e. Fukushima] Can’t Be Disposed Of” http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/281antinuke/interesting/

Anti Nuke covers his face as he poses with one of his originals

Anti Nuke covers his face as he poses with one of his originals http://waspinthelotus7.tumblr.com/post/89243869532/after-3-11-japan-is-not-that-silent-you-can

Now I’m sure some of you at this point are thinking “this guy is cool and all, but does he really have anything to do with Japanese Hip Hop?” My answer is that this guy embodies Hip Hop. Here I want to go back to the words of one of Hip Hop’s original pioneers, KRS-One, who I quoted in the beginning of this article. When talking about “cultural literacy,” one of the necessary traits to any true Hiphoppa, KRS-One says:

Cultural literacy, from a Hiphop perspective, can only be achieved by authentic Hiphoppas; it is a sensitivity toward the further growth and collective well-being of your social group. Such literacy is created by the principles of the culture itself; YOUR culture. This is what you are literate of when you are culturally literate—you are hip to your hop. You understand the ingredients of your social group; you can read its blueprint in an effort to enhance (yourself) it.
(krs-one.com)

Anti Nuke is like a doctor who has diagnosed the many illnesses plaguing Japanese society–in the face of threats on his own life and on his family’s, he remains singularly dedicated to the mission of forcing his fellow citizens to own up to these problems rather than simply pretending they don’t exist. In an attempt to change Japanese society as a whole, Anti Nuke is harnessing his own creativity as a tool to hold the mainstream culture accountable for its actions. In my mind, this is Hip Hop in its most essential form.

Anti Nuke himself describes his work in the following way:

[Japanese people] only vote for the winner; they only think about the winner. They have no concept of real strength. They feel satisfied just knowing that the party they voted for won… Maybe it’s true that there’s no political party you can count on, but it’s more than that. It’s fear. It’s Japanese people never doubting their leaders. Looking out at Shibuya, I’m sure that nobody out there remembers the idea of radiation anymore. People abroad know more about the crisis in Fukushima than the Japanese. The Japanese are trying to forget. I want to make them remember.

Anyone who wants to learn more about 281_Anti Nuke and his art should check out this short documentary about him put out by VICE Japan in 2014, and now I’ll stop trying to convince you of why this guy is, in my opinion, such a great representative of Japanese Hip Hop (he is though)

remember 311

Image via http://www.widewalls.ch/artist/281-anti-nuke/

Graffiti is actually a pretty good place to segway into one of the final areas I want to look at in this article–the relationship between Japanese and other countries’ Hip Hop cultures.

In 2010, Japan lost one of its major Hip Hop leaders in a car crash in Shibuya. After Seba Jun (AKA Nujabes–his name spelt backwards) passed away, there was a worldwide mourning for the artist that took on many different forms. One of those forms was graffiti.

in memory of nujabes

The gif above is a short from a 2010 video uploaded by Indonesian graffiti artists KOMA (INDO) and OLDER+ who paid respect to the fallen legend through their art. Other graffiti artists would show their love for Nujabes by drawing characters from the popular Samurai Champloo anime series that Seba had helped to create the soundtrack for:

This piece depicts Mugen, a character from the Samurai Champloo series https://wpzr.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/nujabes/

Even when it was not graffiti art per se, thousands of Nujabes’ fans worldwide created works of art in tribute to him. Any quick search on google for “Nuajbes art” will turn up hundreds of such drawings:

nujabes1

http://thegreyninja.deviantart.com/art/nujabeS-staeB-nI-tseR-157991701

nujabes2

http://paradigmtradition.deviantart.com/art/Another-Reflection-201999296

nujabes3

http://infinity-joe.deviantart.com/art/Tribute-to-Nujabes-287289348

The music community was quick to pay their respects to Nujabes as well. I personally own four tribute albums to him, but I’m sure that there are at least three times that many floating around out there. Some of those that come to mind right away include Australian producer Taku’s album 25 Nights for Nujabes, as well as compilation albums Tribute to Jun, Tribute to Jun II, and Modal Soul Classics II.

In my opinion one of the coolest tributes to Nujabes after his death came out of South Korea, where one local elementary school teacher organized his students into groups to cover Nujabes’ track Aruarian Dance as a class project (here is the original song for reference)

In November of the same year he passed away, some of the many artists Nujabes collaborated with in his life gathered together to remember him at an event they called Eternal Soul. On the occasion of this gathering, Japanese rapper Shing02 described Nujabes in the following way:

Living in America I’ve had the chance to interact with people from all over the world, and among people in their 20s, the love for Nujabes is so strong it surprises even me. Nujabes was, how can I put this, some sort of phenomenon… Honestly, even now I find it hard to believe that I was there with him…

I think what was most unique about his work was the way he strung sounds together, his sampling methods… Somewhere in his music there’s this sort of intense feeling of nostalgia, like you’re looking back on something, looking back while always keeping your eyes straight ahead…

The Nujabes “phenomenon” that Shing02 is describing here is so strong that you can even find T-shirts online sporting the message “Nujabes Changed My Life”

nujabes changed my life

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jacobira/5929089764

Basically, Nujabes love runs deep.

One of the most interesting ways that Nujabes embodies the connection between Japanese Hip Hop and the worldwide Hip Hop community is seen in his frequent depiction alongside American Hip Hop legend J Dilla, who shares the same birthday as Seba and also passed away in his 30s from a rare blood disease. The two are often drawn together with the message “Rest in Beats”

nujabes dilla3

http://oecn.deviantart.com/art/Rest-In-Beats-196590939

nujabesdilla3

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/384002305699706375/

Nujabes dilla

http://hiphopfightsback.com/post/77630445354/j-dilla-nujabes-both-passed-away-in-february-and

nujabes dilla2

http://paloma-demanet.tumblr.com/post/42529775617/j-dilla-nujabes-quick-drawing-gonna-do

nujabes dilla 2

http://glarbinator.deviantart.com/art/Nujabes-and-J-Dilla-40th-Birthday-Poster-432568051

Nujabes may be gone, but his legacy only grows stronger as time passes. He is certainly not the first Japanese artist to start a wave of international Hip Hop collaboration/connection (see for example DJ Yutaka, early member of Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation), but for an ever-increasing number of non-Japanese people, Nujabes continues to serve as a doorway to the much larger community of Japanese Hip Hop. I speak from experience, too, as Nujabes was my both my introduction to and motivation to learn more about the culture.

Anyways, let’s try and wrap things up.

Rest in Peace.

http://reflective-vibes.tumblr.com/image/10607727878

So I already spent a lot of time talking about artists like DJ Krush and Nujabes, but to close this article I want to introduce a few more of my favorite artists/groups in Japanese Hip Hop. Hopefully if anything, they’ll serve as a good springboard off of which anyone interested can start to get to know the greater community as a whole.

First off, I want to talk about my favorite Japanese rapper, Dengaryu 田我流.

Last February I was able to see Dengaryu and his collective Stillichimiya live in Shibuya, and beyond killing the show the dude was nice enough to hang around and talk for about 45 minutes afterwards. We talked a lot about the state of Japanese Hip Hop and society, and I want to just briefly introduce his thoughts on both.

talking with Den

talking with Den

Dengaryu described how leaving Japan for a couple of years to live in the US helped him to realize many of the problems present in Japanese society; he also stressed the point that for those people who never leave Japan–a nearly homogenous country that encourages conformity–it can be almost impossible to become aware of these issues. Dengaryu went on to talk about the role that he felt Hip Hop should play in calling these societal problems to light, and as an example told me how much he was impacted as a kid by listening to the 1998 song Hoo! Ei! Hoo! put out by rapper You the Rock as a social criticism of the law banning dancing after midnight. (This law just got repealed by the way! But more on that in a second)

In his own words, Dengaryu said that he felt Hip Hop to be ‘a global culture not dependent on your skin color or birthplace, but more on your experience of the world.’ For him and other Japanese people living in Japan, it is correspondingly wealth, and not race, that plays the greatest factor in the difference between individuals’ experiences of society.

When I asked him if the Japanese Hip Hop community had a different societal experience than that of the mainstream Japanese culture, he responded: “It depends on the person, same as in the US. One of your friends might be fuckin’ poor, one of your friends might be fuckin’ rich. That’s the difference. The world is like that, same situation.”

Clearly though in Dengaryu’s own life, coming from what he describes as 超田舎 (middle of nowhere) and never having much money, he has felt some discrimination from mainstream Japanese society. In one of his songs, Dengaryu raps:

Hello from the lower classes of society               下流社会からこんにちは
Is it all right if we just exist                                     俺ら生きてていいっすか、
Mr. Big Shot?                                                           お偉いさん?

On this same note, Den commented on the gangster/thug aspect of American Hip Hop music, calling it the music of the those ‘living at the bottom of society’ and saying:

It’s really important. I love gangster music because it’s straight. Our happiness is like this—drinking, making a lot of money, but at the same time we feel a lot of pain. It’s simple… I can see the reality of their lives through their lyrics.

Dengaryu has little sympathy for those Japanese rappers who try and affect an appearance that makes them look more like black American artists, calling them “fucking whack” (again, see the other article I wrote on imitation in Japanese Hip Hop). He explained this further by telling me that “in Japanese we have a saying
(十人十色)– each individual has his/her own mind, originality, identity—ten different people, ten different ways—and we respect that…But most Japanese artists…just wanna be like black people. ” Dengaryu clearly sympathized with and respected the African American struggle without feeling the need to emulate them or even necessarily like their music (though he stressed there are many American artists he listens to regularly).

Shot of Den eating ramen from Stillichimiya's "Welcome to Yamanashi" series on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdlZGY4bD8Y

Shot of Den eating ramen from his”Welcome to Yamanashi” series on youtube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdlZGY4bD8Y

While I wouldn’t go so far to say that Dengaryu represents most of Japanese Hip Hoppers, he is certainly a member of a large (and always growing) group of conscious, culturally literate Japanese artists. Another member of this group that I definitely want you guys to check out is the artist Shing02, whom I mentioned earlier in connection with Nujabes. These two artists worked together a lot before Seba passed away, and their most famous collaboration is probably the Luv(sic) series–he also sang the theme song for the Samurai Champloo series that I linked to above.

Shing02 never ceases to amaze me in that he is fully bilingual and wraps in both Japanese and English. One great example of his songwriting genius is his song
愛密集 (“Love Concentrated”). The title of this song has a double meaning, as its pronunciation in Japanese is Ai Misshu (i.e. I miss you). You can see the lyrics (with English translation) and grab either the original version or the remix (which I personally prefer) here, if you’re interested.

Beyond just rapping though, Shing02 also has a pretty awesome art career going as well. Last year he came out with a video called Bustin’ to make a statement about the no dancing after midnight law, and he’s also done exhibitions built completely around his old drafts from the songwriting process. When the dancing-ban law finally got repealed a few weeks back, Shing02 posted the following on his Facebook page:

The Japanese “Dance Ban Law” that was in effect since 1948 is officially reformed. The new law will require “clubs” to comply with certain lighting and space restrictions, but knowing only a few years ago dancing after-hours could lead to arrests (see: http://e22.com/bustin) and court cases actually debating over what constitutes a dance, this is a HUGE improvement and a positive step towards recognition of our culture. With freedom comes responsibility.

Shing is a great artist but also just a great dude in general, so I highly recommend checking him out.

Shing02 (left) with Uyama Hiroto, who also collaborated extensively with Nujabes post via r/Nujabes subreddit

Shing02 (left) with Uyama Hiroto, who also collaborated extensively with Nujabes
post via r/Nujabes subreddit

The third artist I want to recommend is EVISBEATS (but if you checked out the Dengaryu song I linked to above then you’ve already been introduced to him). When I asked Den about EVISBEATS, his response was “man, that dude is the Buddha!” He told me that their collab had drastically changed his way of thinking about life, and that EVISBEATS had given him a number of books about Buddhism that he still treasured to this day.

If you’ve ever heard anything by EVISBEATS before, this isn’t such a far-fetched story either. He’s all about making relaxing beats, and his lyrics definitely convey his Buddhist worldview as well.

If you’re interested in checking him out, I recommend you start with either いい時間, Just a Moment, or ちょうどyeah

snagged this photo from Evisbeats' blog, which you can check out here: http://amida.blog27.fc2.com/

snagged this photo from Evisbeats’ blog, which you can check out here: http://amida.blog27.fc2.com/

The last intro I have for you guys is actually a group, and full disclosure I owe this recommendation 100% to my conversation with Dengaryu. Still feel a little embarrassed that I didn’t know of them before he mentioned them to me…

In my opinion it’s hard to find anything better than Nitro Microphone Underground out there in Japanese Hip Hop, and their single Still Shinin’ will always remain the single greatest Japanese rap song ever made in my mind.

(Don’t take my word for it though, check it out for yourself and see if you’re not bumping it on repeat for a week.)

The group’s status as one of the classic Hip Hop groups of Japan was set in stone long ago, and many of the members have gone on to have successful solo careers as well (e.g. see Dabo). Calling any one of the Nitro members on stage/album for a performance is a guaranteed way to spike your legitimacy

NMU performing live in 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmj7yT5j6Ps

NMU performing live in 2009
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmj7yT5j6Ps

So anyways, there are a million more artists I could recommend to you, like Tha Blue Herb, 般若, Norikiyo, SD Junksta, or AKLO, but I think it’s probably about time I stopped writing. If you read this far I really appreciate your time and attention! There is just too much to talk about in an article like this and so I inevitably had to skip over a lot of history, but I hope that I did at least an OK job at offering a look into the world of Japanese Hip Hop. Let me know what you think in the comments–

Until next time!

If you give a girl a Koto

If you give a girl a koto

Disclaimer, only because I know it’s relevant to this piece, and in general as of late; cultural appropriation. There are many out there who scoff at foreigners who pick up traditional Japanese instruments or buy/wear kimono, and to be perfectly honest I understand where that criticism comes from. There are definitely those who treat Japanese culture as a “costume”, one that can be thrown on for fun only to be taken off when the going gets rough. I defend myself on the grounds that I take playing the koto and learning about its history seriously, and only wear my kimono when the occasion calls for it. I recognize my place as an outsider and don’t make any excuses or cut any corners. I fully encourage any foreigner who wants to participate in and learn from Japanese culture, or any culture other than their own, to do just that. As long as it’s respectful, go for it, because it’s an absolute blast! And with that…

koto

c/o Holly Nwangwa

 

If you give a girl a koto…

            If someone were to ask you what traditional Japanese music sounded like, it’s most likely the soft, twangy sounds of the koto that would come to mind. Dubbed the “Japanese harp”, it is a roughly 6 foot long stringed instrument made of solid wood. A typical koto has 13 strings, with the bass having 17. Pitch is controlled by moving the bridges up and down the koto’s length.

She’s going to ask for some picks…

            The koto is played with picks placed on the thumb, index, and middle finger of the right hand, regardless of the player’s usual dominant hand. The picks are rectangular-shaped pieces of ivory glued into a leather band. Wearing them is fun because they look like a sweet set of nails (the word for pick in Japanese, tsume, literally means ‘nail’).

c/o Jean-Pierre Dalbera

c/o Jean-Pierre Dalbera

When you give her these, she’ll ask for a teacher…

As for the origins of my personal koto journey, I was never really interested in playing until I came to Japan. My predecessor was introduced to my koto teacher, Kaseyama sensei, through our former ALT supervisor who had played the koto with Kaseyama-sensei since girlhood. As such, when I came to Japan, my predecessor took me and the other Sanuki ALT, Kelsey, to watch a lesson. Two years later, and I am still playing! Kaseyama-sensei lives about 20 minutes away from my apartment in a charming house nestled within a beautiful garden of stones and wild plants. The room in which I practice once a week is filled with an assortment of kotos; some of which my teacher claims are older than I am (I’m only 24, so it isn’t that big of a stretch). Kaseyama-sensei takes playing very seriously. She won’t hesitate to tell me about koto masters who have spent years playing the same two strings over and over in order to hone their technique. Her own hands are small and gnarled; callused by decades of playing. She’s intimidating, but in an endearing way, and we’ve become quite close over the months, chatting as we do whilst enjoying the tea and snacks she serves after the lesson.

solo teacher

c/o Holly Nwangwa

 

Next, she’ll probably want some music…

Since starting, I’ve learned about a dozen songs, ranging from the slow and soft to the frantic and feverish. There is definitely a repertoire of pieces that koto players are expected to know. The first song I ever learned was, naturally, ‘Sakura’. If you don’t know this song by name, you’ll most likely know it by ear. It’s basic enough that one can easily learn the techniques whilst learning the song, as well as being recognizable enough to build confidence in playing. Most players can “air koto” the melody to Sakura form memory.

The measures in koto sheet music are read vertically, from right to left. To put it simply, the kanji, which signify strings 1-13, tell you which string to pluck and when to pluck it. Various annotations throughout the piece dictate plucking techniques. I’m learning a song right now that has both my hands flying up and down the koto, pressing strings, grazing strings, switching chords…it’s exhausting, but definitely not boring. I do a lot of pick adjustment and wrist flexing during practices.

Full disclosure: coming from no musical background I had a lot to learn in terms of musical lingo and comprehending the dynamics of songs. It doesn’t help that Kaseyama-sensei explains everything in Japanese, which can sometimes add to the frustration of trying to understand the meaning of words I’d never heard in English! But before I knew it, I went from flustered incomprehension to easily being able to pick up on sentences such as “move the 9th string up to an F# before this next measure, or else the key signature won’t modulate”. It felt like I was learning a whole new branch of Japanese! I found my listening skills outside of koto playing begin to sharpen as well, mostly due to the surge of confidence I got in being able to fully understand and respond to Kaseyama-sensei during her lessons. I also became used to having to rely heavily on context clues, and to pick up on things I did know in order to understand what I didn’t.

She won’t want to play alone, so she’ll ask for some friends…

Deciding to play a traditional instrument almost guarantees you’ll belong to a troupe of sorts, which is an invaluable experience in navigating Japanese social groups. My troupe members don’t expect anything special from me. We all play together, help each other into our kimonos, and gripe about difficult pieces to one another. I’m a blatant intruder, yet at the same time the fact that I’m taking time out of my life to devote respect to an old art form has gained me respect from my peers. I went from being one of the foreigners that stood back while everyone else prepared things, to being included and expected to carry my own weight. Kagawa is a small community so I see a lot of my troupe members around town, and it’s nice to extend the amount of friendly faces I can recognize.

It wasn’t always as harmonious as it is now, however. As a foreigner living in Japan, stares are a way of life, but the sort of stares Kelsey and I got at concerts were more piercing. It was the weight of being different piled on top of the strangeness of a foreigner doing something so quintessentially Japanese . I remember feeling upset because even after trying my hardest not to draw any unnecessary attention to myself so as not to attribute my downfalls to my foreignness, I was still referred to in passing as “gaijin-san.” But, rather than withdraw into myself and feel bitter and spout all sorts of negativity, I made an effort to get to know everyone and insert myself into the social circle as naturally as I could. In the end, I know my members didn’t mean anything unkind, but really were just generally surprised that another bout of foreigners were trying to play with them.

solo practice

c/o Holly Nwangwa

She’ll be asked to play in a concert…

Every now and then Kaseyama-sensei will tell the troupe to play in a concert. These concerts are low-maintenance affairs shared with other musical and dance troupes in the area, mostly comprised of older participants. One thing I admire about Japanese culture is that it does not dismiss its elderly: they’re respected and have an active place in society for as long as they like. Anyway, these shows are free….to the public: we actually have to pay to play in concerts, which was a definite culture shock for me! The first concert I performed in was at New Years, and ended up costing upwards of 15,000 yen. This included the fee to rent the venue, money for bentos, and “appreciation money” given to Kaseyama-sensei. It turned me off of wanting to play in concerts for a while, but since then they’ve been significantly less expensive.

A typical set-up on stage has the kotos laying diagonally facing the audience. Sometimes there are chairs and music stands set up behind the kotos, for when the shakuhachi (“Japanese flute”) players accompany pieces. While I usually practice at home and at Kaseyama-sensei’s house sitting on a stool with the koto at roughly my waist level, the koto is traditionally played whilst propped up slightly from the ground on a small stand. Thus, players must sit in seiza to play. Sitting in seiza means sitting with your legs tucked underneath you. Needless to say this is QUITE painful and uncomfortable for large amounts of time. Amongst Japanese people it’s a sort of inside joke that seiza hurts, but for me (I have a weak ankle from a bad sprain in high school) it got to the point where I would simply fall over in pain after a particularly long song or relentless ensemble session. For concerts, though, I’m relatively fine, due to an average song being at most 8 minutes long. Getting up afterwards, however, remains less than graceful.

She’ll need to look the part…

Probably the most exciting thing about playing in concerts is dressing up, which means kimono time! For summer concerts we wear yukata – a lighter, less formal take on the kimono, made of cotton or silk – but I knew that the kimono was an exponentially bigger deal to obtain. Kaseyama-sensei was actually pretty nervous about being able to find one that fit me properly (I’m 5’11’’ on a good day), but after heading to a kimono seamstress’s house and looking through the wealth of options she had, I was able to find a kimono that fit me. I had to get the sleeves altered so I wouldn’t trail them all over my koto when playing, but other than that it was a fabulous find. Owning a kimono is no small task; the amount of components that go into a relatively smooth silhouette is a bit staggering. Getting dressed for concerts is a flurry of people helping tie, tighten, and pin each other. Adding the koto picks is the final part of our transformation into a group of very beautiful ladies with very terrifying hands.

group

c/o Holly Nwangwa

Once she has started, she won’t want to stop…

It didn’t take long for me to become obsessed with koto music. I would hum pieces we were currently learning whenever I could, and I began to hear koto everywhere, from television dramas to department stores. With my newfound nugget of musical wisdom, I began conceptualizing how to tune my koto to play a variety of songs, and even painstakingly tracked down sheet music to a song Kelsey and I heard at a concert in the city once, only to have Kaseyama-Sensei glance at it and lament on how “kira kira” (flashy) koto composers are these days. Independent study, here I come….

 

And to do that, she’ll need her own koto!