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Archive for the ‘Japanese Culture’ Category

Next up in the “Teaching in Asia” interview series is my friend Philip, who some of you may know as ToLokyo on YouTube. Philip graduated from university in 2003 with a degree in English Education – Secondary and a certification to teach grades 6-12 in Florida. During college, Philip did an internship abroad in Saipan. After graduating, he moved to South Korea in the summer of 2003 and started teaching English. Then, in mid-2005, Philip moved to Japan, where he made his living as a freelance English teacher until the summer of 2010. He is currently traveling around the world filming a YouTube video series called “Caught Doin’ Good,” that highlights individuals and organizations all over the world who are doing good things to build up the communities around them.. With seven years of experience living and teaching in both South Korea and Japan, Philip’s observations on living and working in Asia are extremely insightful and nuanced. Furthermore, as a formally-educated English teacher, his perspective on foreign-language teaching is much deeper than that of the average, run-of-the-mill ALT. He is also one of the most genuinely happy and fun-loving individuals that I have ever met; every time I see him, I am surprised by his positivity and enthusiasm. If you’d like to read more about Philip, his ‘Caught Doin’ Good’ project, or watch his YouTube videos, please follow these links:

Philip/ToLokyo’s website: http://www.locomote.org

Caught Doin’ Good homepage: http://www.cdg2010.org

ToLokyo on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/ToLokyo

Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?

Philip: When I graduated from university, I considered teaching around Asheville, NC in a high school.  I knew I’d had enough of South Carolina and Florida, and I was ready to start something new.  At that time, it was the beginning of the war in Iraq, and massive funds had been diverted from education programs all over the nation to be used in the war effort.  I heard horror stories from friends who graduated the year before of having to teach with no textbooks or resources.  In one fateful week, I randomly encountered about 5 teachers.  They all had the exact same advice: “RUN~!!!!  You’re young!  You can do something else!  You don’t have to be stuck in this hell of a job!  Get out while you still can~!!!!” I took the hint and decided to look into a website I had heard of a few years back called Dave’s ESL Cafe.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in Asia?

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Grotesque by Kirino Natsuo

Unlike the West, Japan does not have a history of strong feminist movements – or, at least, Japanese feminism is less focused on individual autonomy than Western feminism. Even today, most ‘feminist’ dialogue takes place within community or civil rights organizations, not feminist activist groups. While the position of women within Japanese society has changed since the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL, AKA ‘Japan’s Toothless Lion’) passed, Japan is still a country characterized by an M-shaped labor curve for women and abortion is still a preferred form of birth control, due both to cultural factors and the difficulty and expense associated with using oral contraceptives. I would also like to point out that many observers believe that low-dose oral contraceptives were finally approved for use in Japan in late 1999 (after 35 years of debate) because that the Diet fast-tracked the approval of Viagra (which took about 6 months). Therefore, one must ask: how successful has women’s suffrage been within Japanese society?

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Alright, I realize that by doing something like this I am going to be revealing just how much of a nerd I am to everyone who reads this blog. However, considering my last blog post mentioned that I have history-induced orgasms, I guess I’m not fooling anyone into thinking that I am coolness personified.

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of critical essays and reviews on the works of Kon Satoshi, who has recently passed away. (To read a translation of his final words, please visit Makiko Itoh’s blog.)

These will be the first Japanese anime reviews that I have ever posted on this page. You will see that this is not because I don’t watch anime. In fact, I have seen more anime than I care to admit. I was obsessed with anime and manga for the majority of high school. The reason why I tend to keep this under wraps is because I don’t want people’s perception of me and my essays to be clouded by this fact. Let’s face it, anime fans have a horrible reputation (and not undeservedly so) and I already have to contend with enough comments calling me ‘Wapanese.’

Anime is a fairly big deal in the United States. Anime and other forms of Japanese pop culture play an enormous role in influencing the way the younger generation of Americans perceive Japan, and for that reason it is probably one of Japan’s most powerful exports (in terms of soft power). However, the distribution of anime does not necessarily lead to a more informed or accurate view of Japan or the Japanese people. No one is going to develop a deep understanding of Japan through watching big-breasted school girls or giant robots. In terms of cultural understanding AND film studies, anime is mostly consumerist crap that facilitates escapism (trust me on this, I’ve seen a lot).

One of the exceptions is Kon Satoshi. Like Miyazaki Hayao and Oshii Mamoru, the works of Kon Satoshi not only hold their own against the classics of live-action cinema but also show us the potential of anime as a serious filmmaking genre.

Kon Satoshi (1963-2010)

In light of the impact and importance his work has had on the genre, Kon Satoshi’s filmography may seem surprisingly small. It includes:

  • ‘Magnetic Rose’ from Memories (1995) – writer
  • Perfect Blue (1998) – director and animator
  • Millennium Actress (2001) – writer, director and animator
  • Tokyo Godfathers (2003) – writer, director and animator
  • Paranoia Agent (2004, a 13-episode series) – director
  • Paprika (2006) – writer and director

Kon’s last work The Dream Machine will be released posthumously in 2011.

Perfect Blue (1998)

Kon explored a number of themes in his work – the tenuous relationship between reality and illusion, the subjective nature of perception, the power of memories and nostalgia, Japanese history and society, the female image, and an unrelenting examination of psychology.

My first experience with Kon Satoshi was back in 2000 (I was 13). I had recently been exposed to Japanese anime and this was around the time that mainstream retailers like Blockbuster began to carry anime titles. I was happily devouring as much anime as I could get my hands on and rented Perfect Blue.

It blew me away.

Millennium Actress (2001)

Not only did Perfect Blue fuel my interest in the anime genre, I list it as one of the films that has had the most impact on me personally. Along with films like Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Perfect Blue has had a profound impact on how I appreciate and analyze cinema. Shortly after watching Perfect Blue, Kon’s Millennium Actress was released on DVD in America (I actually preordered it, lame). Kon’s deeply touching and nostalgic exploration of Japanese history and cinema motivated me to explore other genres of Japanese filmmaking. I can honestly say that the works of Kon Satoshi had a major influence in how I became the person I am today.

The force and impact of Kon Satoshi’s work not only transcend the boundary between animation and live-action filmmaking but have expanded the limits of the anime genre. As a fan, I know that his death will be deeply felt – within the anime industry as well as the film genre, internationally as well as domestically.

I will be reviewing Kon Satoshi’s work chronologically. Because all of his work has a strong thematic unity, I believe that watching and studying his work in chronological order reveals his stylistic development as a director and how key themes have been developed and expanded upon over the course of his career.

That said, the first review is the ‘Magnetic Rose’ episode from Otomo Katsuhiro’s Memories (1995).

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Back in April/May, my mother came to visit me in Japan. During our trip down to Osaka, we took a ‘little’ detour into the nearby Wakayama-ken. Our destination: Koyasan (高野山). Founded in 819 by the monk Kukai (AKA Kobo Daishi), Koyasan is the world headquarters of the Koyasan Shingon sect of Buddhism. Home to approximately 120 temples, Koyasan is definitely a place where monks outnumber lay-people.

My mother is fascinated with monks and Japanese Buddhism, so Koyasan was a definite MUST during her trip. For her, I think both fall clearly into the ‘Oriental Mystique’ category. Personally, my image of monks is based almost entirely on my knowledge of the Heian period of Japanese history. Specifically, when I think ‘monk’ I think of two things – the Heike Monogatari and The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha by Mikael Adolphson. The Heian period ended in 1185 and ‘sohei’ (warrior monks) have pretty much been extinct since Nobunaga set fire to Enryaku-ji back in 1571, so it’s safe to say that my knowledge of monks is a bit outdated. What can I say, I love living in the past.

Despite our combined ignorance, we were both interested in doing a ‘temple stay’ – where you stay in one of the local Buddhism temples and can enjoy some shojin ryori or ‘devotion food.’ (It’s all vegetarian, of course.) Little did we know that our trip to Koyasan would coincide with one of their most important ceremonies – the Kenchien Kanjo.

After we settled into our room at the Sekisho-in, some friendly monks ushered us out the door and ordered us to immediately head to the Garan. We followed a mass of Buddhist pilgrims clad in white and weilding votive candles down a gravel path illuminated by lanterns. The tree-lined path opened up to reveal an impressive orange-and-white pagoda. While monks bustled back and forth, the spring air was filled with chanting.

Further up the path lay the Kondo, a massive wooden structure that was originally built by Kobo Daishi in 819 (it has subsequently been rebuilt 7 times, probably due to fires).

The Kechien Kanjo is a Buddhist ritual where the blindfolded participant throws a flower into the Taizokai (Womb of the World Mandala) to establish a link between the participant and one of the emanation forms of Dainichi Nyorai. Afterward, water is used to wash away all worldly desires. On the first day, a procession of monks in colorful brocade robes called the Teigi Dai-Mandala0ku is held.

Day One in Koyasan –

Day Two:

How to Get There:

From Osaka’s NAMBA STATION take the NANKAI KOYA LINE to GOKURAKUBASHI STATION. From there, board the cable car for a brief ride to KOYASAN STATION at the top of the mountain. From Koyasan station, take the bus (there’s only one) to the town center.

Nankai Railways actually offers a KOYASAN WORLD HERITAGE ticket. This pass includes a round trip ticket to Koyasan from Namba Station, unlimited travel on the buses in Koyasan, and discount admission to certain attractions in Koyasan. The pass is valid for two consecutive days. The Regular version will cost you 2,780 per person and the Limited Express version is 3,310 per person.

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Which one of these things is not like the other?

I was recently asked to answer a few questions for the new website iShare-Japan about my experiences since I have moved to Japan. As some of you know, I have lived in Japan for almost a year; my so-called ‘Japaniversary’ will be on August 3rd. That’s no where near long enough to have developed a deeply nuanced understanding of Japanese culture (years of research on the country notwithstanding). I found this the most difficult question to answer: “What are some of the worst things about living in Japan?”

My mood routinely fluctuates between obscene love for Japan, disbelief that I am actually living here, and irrational frustration towards everything Japanese. The truth of the matter, though, is that living in Japan is now my daily life. That makes it difficult to identify if the problems I encounter are unique to my geographical/cultural location or merely representations of the difficulties everyone encounters from continuing to breathe.

Upon closer examination, I realized that there is a very easy way to depict the challenges I have faced since coming to Japan.

I am going to tell you something about myself that is readily apparent to anyone with eyes: I have been lucky enough to live a privileged life (and continue to do so). I come from an upper-middle class background, I attended a respected private university in the East Coast, and I conform to nearly every societal beauty standard without much difficulty – I am not fat, I am tall, I maintain a decent standard of athleticism, I have blonde hair, blues eyes, and, above all, I AM WHITE. In truth, the only institutionalized difficulty I may have faced in America is that I am female. And let’s face it, gender is less of an obstacle in America than most places in the world. That said, I’d also like to point out that the rest of the blog will be draw from my personal experiences, which are influenced by my privileged background. I cannot speak for anyone but myself.

What I’m getting at is that I have come from a culture of white privilege. Feminist writer Peggy McIntosh has written about the subject of white privilege extensively, and I will draw from her essay on the subject throughout this blog. She accurately sums up my life in America as such;

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.

When I moved to Japan, the privilege that I unconsciously lived with for my entire life was thrown out the window. I moved from being a member of ‘the dominant cultural form’ to being a minority. This will happen to everyone who moves to Japan who is not Japanese. Most of the complaints I hear from foreigners about living in Japan are directly related to this.

Peggy McIntosh outlines a list of 50 Daily Effects of White Privilege. All of these will be reversed when you move to Japan. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:

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As a part of the ‘Japan YouTube community’ (though somewhat reluctantly) I’ve encountered a lot of the videos that people have posted about racism in Japan. I don’t really agree or approve of a lot of these videos, because they are almost always very negative and extremely one-sided. Personally, I haven’t experienced much racism while living in Japan. While many Japanese people do seem to be somewhat shy and nervous around gaijin, I don’t consider this racism. As someone who grew up in the United States of America and in a family that is very interested in different cultures, it is not always easy to try and understand the perspectives of people who have spent their entire lives in one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.

Japan always seems to get a lot of criticism for it’s ‘insular mindset’ and inability or unwillingness to try and relate to foreigners. The JET Program itself was created as an attempt to address these criticisms, criticisms that I often find unfair. Many of the Japanese people that I have had the pleasure of meeting are very open to learning about different cultures and different people. Most of the time, Japanese people consider me strange not because of my own culture, but because I am so interested and invested in learning about Japanese culture.

Of course it is difficult to live in a rural area of Japan around people who do not speak the same language and have not traveled outside of the country. It is also very difficult to be the one person who looks different from everyone else. At least for me, it has been very hard to adapt to being stared at all the time – it makes me feel like I am living my life underneath a microscope. This is not necessarily racism and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Yesterday, I braved the crowds at Asakusa’s Senso-ji temple to witness a time honored Japanese tradition – shaking babies. No, I don’t mean the sort of behavior that results in Shaken Baby Syndrome, but the infinitely more entertaining one type that involves young sumo wrestlers.

Every year on the 4th Sunday of April, Senso-ji Temple at Asakusa holds a nakizumo festival, where young sumo wrestlers stand in a traditional sumo ring and compete to see who can make a baby cry the loudest and longest. A referee watches and yells, “Nake nake nake! (Cry, cry, cry!)” until finally declaring one baby the winner. The cries of the babies are supposed to bring good fortune to the children and drive away evil spirits. This type of festival is held in a various locations around Japan…in Asakusa, it has been going on for 400 years.

I was a little disappointed that they didn’t recruit full-grown sumo wrestlers to scare the kids into crying, I would have loved to see a big sumo wrestler holding a tiny baby. Instead, we got two sumo-wrestlers-in-training. Neither one of them looked much older than 15 to me. It was quite entertaining to watch these two chibi-sumos try to make the babies cry – one was fond of throwing the kids into the air (which they seemed to enjoy more times than not) while the other was trying to be very nice to the babies (which only seemed to make then cry harder). That’s babies for you, fickle creatures indeed.

When neither of the sumos could make a baby cry, the judges busted out some silly plastic oni (demon) masks and wore them in front of the babies – which made the audience burst out into laughter and the kids burst out into tears. Can anyone say, ‘Traumatized for life’?

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