Japan from the inside out

The bogus and the bona fide

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 8, 2010

I have a sense of mission; that is to serve as a medium in the transient space between life and death conveying the ideas of our ancestors to the people of the future.
– Kitahara Kanako

DURING HER FIRST WEEK at Waseda University, Kitahara Kanako wandered around campus in search of an extracurricular club that she might like to join. A natural performer, she gravitated toward groups devoted to the arts, particularly music, dance, and drama. On one of her scouting expeditions, she was intrigued by the sounds coming from the assembly room for the traditional Japanese music group. After she spent a few minutes listening and watching, the club members encouraged her to try the Satsuma biwa, a stringed instrument related to the Middle Eastern barbat (the ancestor of the oud) by way of the Chinese pipa.

The biwa arrived in Japan during the eighth century. One of several varieties, the Satsuma biwa has four or five strings and frets raised four centimeters from the neck to allow the bending of notes. It was popularized in the late 16th century by the family of the feudal lords of the Satsuma domain, which is now Kagoshima. The musicians perform while seated and hold the instrument vertically, resting on the lap. They sound the strings with a large, triangular plectrum that has a curved end for grasping. Traditional Satsuma biwa performers were minstrels who used the instruments to accompany their singing.

As Kanako later told me, the first time she touched plectrum to strings, she felt a jolt go through her body (zotto shita). She sometimes wonders if she was a biwa performer in a previous life. The Waseda University biwa group she joined receives instruction from graduates still in the Tokyo area, rather than from formal teachers. They are as open to different types of expression as university students everywhere; in addition to the classical repertoire, Kanako also performed with rock bands in clubs. (She also was involved with modern dance and once performed in white body paint.)

During her last year at Waseda, Kanako arranged for employment with a publishing house after graduation. But she changed her mind when she gave a benefit performance at a home for the elderly and was stunned to see tears streaming down the faces of the audience. That inspired her to give up a career in publishing and devote her life to the performance of music.

In 2004, she began studying with biwa master Tanaka Yukio of the Tsuruta school, whom she visits once a month in Tokyo for lessons. Just two years later, in 2006, she won the grand prize at the Kumamoto National Contest for Traditional Japanese Music, as well as the Incentive Award of the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. That same year, she passed the audition for performing traditional music on NHK, Japan’s quasi-public television and radio network. (NHK is famously strict about the musicians it permits to perform on their network, though their pop music standards have been relaxed in recent years to allow rock groups to appear on their year-end musical TV special.) Since passing the audition, she has performed on NHK-TV and NHK-FM.

The following year, she accompanied her teacher to Italy for three concerts to perform both traditional and modern works. Among the latter was Nuove Musiche per Biwa by Carlo Forlivesi, a composer/performer interested in both early European music and traditional Japanese music. This piece includes sections written for two biwas. According to the publicity blurb from ALM Records:

“(It) presents a radical departure from the compositional languages usually employed for such an instrument. Also thanks to the possibility of relying on a level of virtuosity never before attempted in this specific repertory, the composer has sought the renewal of the acoustic and æsthetic profile of the biwa, bringing out the huge potential in the sound material: attacks and resonance, tempo (conceived not only in the chronometrical but also deliberately empathetical sense), chords, balance and dialogue…dynamics and colour.”

On 3 October last year I was passing through the atrium of a shopping mall here in Saga City on my way home when a woman approached me from behind and began tugging on my sleeve. It was Kanako’s aunt; Kanako was about to perform, she told me, so wouldn’t I stay a bit longer and watch? Of course I would.

Making a living as a freelance translator is a solitary profession. Most of my working time is spent in a second floor office at home in front of a computer. I communicate with clients in other parts of the country by e-mail or telephone. Both to keep in direct contact with the human race and for a change of pace, I teach two classes in the spring at the local university, and help out one or two hours a week at the English school that brought me to Japan in 1984. That’s how I met Kanako; I was one of her teachers during her high school years. She was an excellent student: cheerful, intelligent, ready to try anything, and already capable of a dead-on impersonation of comedian Shimura Ken.

As it turned out, the show in the shopping mall wasn’t a solo performance of traditional music, which I had seen her do before. This was a 30-minute group performance that might best be described as either avant-garde or experimental. The main performer was improvisational dancer Iwashita Toru, but it was a collaborative effort that also included Kanako and two other local people: artist Ogushi Ryohei, and percussionist Sekine Shinichiro. In addition to conventional percussion instruments, Mr. Sekine’s kit that day included kitchen utensils and plastic buckets. I learned later that his usual gig is playing the vibes and marimba in jazz bands.

Mr. Iwashita is well known in artistic circles in Japan as an improvisational dancer and an instructor at the renowned Sankai Juku, a dance troupe that has performed in more than 40 countries. A native of Tokyo, he has been working as a solo artist since 1983. He’s also been involved since 1988 in working with the psychiatric staff at a Shiga hospital to offer the patients dance therapy, and he serves as an advisor to the Japan Dance Therapy Association.

Their performance was filmed, and the organizers have edited the film for a 10-minute YouTube presentation, which you can see here. The event itself was titled Haizai to Dansu, or Debris and the Dance. On the right side of that page are links to two more videos showing a similar, but not identical, performance in the lobby of the JR Saga Station. Click on the link to see what can happen in a shopping mall in a small Japanese town on any given Saturday. You might be surprised when you see the costumes and set decorations.

Some people will find the performance stimulating, some will find it mildly interesting, and others won’t care for it very much. The point for me, however, is not the content of the performance itself, but that the performance occurred at all. An improvisational dancer with a national reputation, an artist, and two musicians—one of whom is a national award winner—created an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of their respective disciplines and gave a series of free performances in a public space. In this instance, the public space was a suburban shopping mall in a semi-rural municipality of 180,000 that is 35 minutes from the nearest urban megacenter by limited express train. To use the phrase of reader and frequent commenter Mac, it is a “No-Shinkansen Sticksville”.

The point is that this is yet another aspect of the face of everyday Japan, and not some outré self-indulgence conducted in a dingy loft in a down-at-the-heels district of a big city where only the hipsters and great pretenders congregate.

The point is that this is yet another aspect of the country that the overseas mess media choose to ignore while peddling a narrative of Japan as the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated with xenophobic losers obsessed with vicarious sex, otaku, and those so inept at social interaction they have to rent friends.

Someone writing under the name of New Year’s Resolution sent in a comment this week about the recent contributions from the flunkeys who’ve put their integrity in a blind trust, all the better to make a buck by feeding the media machine. One was that seat-warmer at the FCCJ bar, The Guardian’s Justin McCurry, who once described his frothy story about an overhyped and already forgotten “rent-a-friend” trend as “lighthearted”. He might have a point; it was the sort of piece that could be considered lighthearted if your default attitude is that of Spitball Artist and you have what the Japanese would call a twisted navel.

The other was Richard Lloyd Parry, to whom the Times of London has given the assignment of filing stories about this part of the world. One of his blog posts on the Times site a few years ago seems typical of his approach. That day–the last day I visited the site–Parry thought the most important information he could convey to his readers about Japan was the observation that former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo resembled the cartoon character Homer Simpson. (One wonders if the perceived likeness was the high rounded forehead, the eyes, or Homer Simpson’s skin color.) Perhaps lightness of heart is as contagious as lightness of intellect.

Something else might be contagious too, or somebody switched on the media echo chamber again. Late last year, within a month of each other, both of these journalistic stalwarts chose to inform the people of Britain about the phenomenon of what they described as herbivorous girly men in these parts, long after their brethren in the Japanese mess media had moved on to their next contrived sensation. Opinions on whether there’s any meat to that story or whether it’s a PR ploy dreamed up by one of the marketing consultants pushing it will likely depend on how much time one spends interacting with real people.

(In passing, it’s interesting to note that the type of journalists who once loved to mock the Japanese for all their home-grown theories about Japanese uniqueness, known as Nihonjin-ron, now love to scarf up the other cultural flotsam and jetsam as long as they can peddle it to the hometown papers for their News of the Weird section.)

One wonders how often McCurry reads the newspaper he writes for:

Sakurai’s generation reached adulthood as the economic edifice started to crumble, and unemployment and contract work replaced jobs for life and twice-yearly bonuses.

Japan’s official unemployment rate is at about 5%. If that crumbling economic edifice is causing the lads to wear bras and twirl their pinkies as they sip their afternoon tea, I’m glad to be living in this country; at their official unemployment rates, Britain and the United States are about to see their streets overrun by battalions of Boy Georges.

Then again, one wonders what country Parry is living in:

The last few years have seen a range of products to cater to a broadening of tastes among Japanese men. Japanese brewers have introduced weaker beers as sales of conventional alcoholic beverages have declined.

There’s an ordinary supermarket a 10-minute walk from my house. In addition to the ersatz brews, its shelves contain at least a half-dozen brands of beer (and now stout!) that would pass German purity standards and have an alcoholic content of 5% or more. Only one of those brands existed 25 years ago, and most of the rest were created within the past five years. It’s also not unusual to see stronger local microbrews on supermarket shelves. And even Times readers know that sales of “conventional alcoholic beverages”—stronger spirits, I assume—have fallen worldwide over that time.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall seeing any men in this town wearing bras. One would think the straps in the back would be as visible as those worn by women. Perhaps that’s the disadvantage of living in a No-Shinkansen Sticksville.

But boys will be ambitious, and these two might be angling for their own feature column, perhaps like the one the New York Times gave Roger Cohen. Cohen paid a brief visit to Japan and decided it was the perfect opening either for social commentary on a grand scale or something to fill column space on a deadline about a month ago. He saw some digitized images while working out on a treadmill in a spa—probably in his downtown Tokyo hotel—and extrapolated that into a description of a country of 127 million people as bored, gloomy, straight-jacketed otaku plunged into post-modern despair. He concluded by saying that all you need is love, as John Lennon put it, and then added that we all need some of Hatoyama Yukio’s yuai, too.

Some people drop names to have us believe that they’re well connected; others drop phrases from languages they don’t understand to have us believe they’re sophisticated multi-culti internationalists. By this time next year, when Mr. Hatoyama is no longer prime minister, the yuai concept will be as forgotten as the concept of grass-eating girly men, but by this time next year, the biens pensants will have moved on to another equally irrelevant faux insight.

Cohen, by the way, went so far as to describe the digital image of sushi on his treadmill as “unctuous”.

Yes, the New York Times is a publication written by pretentious asses to be read by pretentious asses, but one would think their gloomy circulation figures should have plunged them into such post-modern despair they might have considered incorporating diversity into their hiring practices. But they haven’t, and they won’t.

Some people can distinguish the bogus from the bona fide at a glance. The real recognizes the real immediately; after all, they are fellow travelers, to borrow a phrase from another context. It also isn’t a coincidence that the children in the shopping mall audience were the ones to have most enjoyed the collaborative improvisational performance. They’re too young to have learned how to cop a pose.

Some people wouldn’t recognize the bona fide if it walked up and bit them on the ass.

Some people enjoy deliberately rejecting the bona fide to glorify the bogus as a lifestyle choice. They’re the same sort of people who think the best way to take advantage of a university education is to attend courses in “popular culture”, if they don’t oversleep. Well, you pay your money, or the money the government fronts you, and you take your choice.

Some people are bottom feeders. They might be capable of making distinctions, but their choice is to take a fistful of dollars instead to feed a morally bankrupt media machine and pander to the acolytes of chewing gum culture by holding up the people of a country as an object of ridicule around the world.

And you can bet that every one of those bottom feeders believes to their soul that they’re ever so clever and classless and free, as John Lennon again put it.

But as Lennon also put it, “they’re still f*cking peasants, as far as I can see”.

Except with them, one doesn’t have to look very far or very hard to see it.

Are you surprised to find people like Kitahara Kanako and Iwashita Toru in this malaise-ridden nation of otaku? I’m not. I run into people like them all the time. All it takes to meet them is a bit of normal circulation in society instead of cracking wise about the natives with the ex-pats at the other end of the bar.

But you’re unlikely to meet them, or the millions of other creative, brilliant, and engaging people in Japan, in the pages of the overseas English-language media.

That’s another reason why, if your knowledge of Japan is based on what you read in that media, everything you know is wrong.

8 Responses to “The bogus and the bona fide”

  1. Paul said

    Absolutely nobody will read this.

  2. Nicolas Cueto said

    Paul wrote “Absolutely nobody will read this.”

    What do you mean? You read it. I read it. Surely at least a few others have read it too.

    Or does your exaggeration refer to Ampontan’s “bottom feeders”?

    Anyway. Thank you as always, Ampontan.

  3. A reader said

    Here’s another person who has read this. Thanks Ampontan for sharing another great article and a reminder of how much I miss living in auch an interesting place like Japan.

  4. StJohn Rylance said

    I read it too! Japan is a wonderful country and it’s people are as diverse as anywhere else in the world.

  5. camphortree said

    I read it too. The article sounds so familiar to my heart. Since there are not enough young women in the village I am from the young and old together perform either contemporary or traditional dance- depending on the instructor of the year the farmers’ union hires. The dance show is held on the Day of the Aged(敬老の日)in the village community center. Yes, there are many kinds of dances in Japan other than geisha dancing. The children get to do their share of performances. At the end of the show each family opens their lunch boxes(重箱)and enjoy an indoor picnic.

  6. John Wilson said

    Me too….and thank you. Japan has so many wonderful people who are doing real things, and living real lives….and the outside world sees only the crap presented by the bottomfeeders.

  7. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    While I appreciate harsh critisism against Justin McCurry, Richard Lloyd Parry and Roger Cohen, I seriously wonder if readers of these press are really impressed with what they write. There are 3 possible reactions: 1. Do not read material at all (may be best?) 2. Read but laugh away the writers, not taking contents seriously. 3. Read and taking contents seriously. I believe 2 outweighs 3 and 1 usually outweighs both.

    McCurry and Parry are probably unhappy about their assignment to Japan – London or Paris were the best. They try to find bad things about the places where they are unhappy, dissatisfied and awkard (and so are they even before they land Narita and so continue). If my presumption hits, then from informatin here Cohen is the worst damnass, but anyway, I tell you, Cohen cannot even leave a slightest scent or scar on the face of human being or on this planet, letting alone Japan or Japanese. He does not exist, in true sense of (modest, fair) existence. He does exist, only to waste natural resources. There are tons of such people, though, and it is not limited to English speaking correspondent from fancy English newspapers of renowned brands. It should be fairly easy to find those among Japanese media people. You know, Asahi shinbun’s fools once created scribbling on coral reef….

    Thanks for this. Did you read the comments sections below a lot of those articles in the Western press? When you get the chance, please read this post about the effect on readers and viewers overseas. It has four links, two of which are to two other posts here. One is called Anti-Nipponism, which is long, but examines anti-Japanese bias in detail. Another is about the commenters on a BBC post about whaling.

    While there are some jerks here, too, the problem is that the overseas media has created a narrative about Japan of a nation of juvenile goofballs who would be ready to march into East Asia for conquest again at the drop of the hat.

    Read those other posts when you have time, and see what the consumers of those articles around the world have to say about Japan. It isn’t pretty.

    This post of mine, BTW, got big circulation in the US because of a link to a very popular website. More of the same.

    – A.

  8. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    I partially realized that comments section of articles.

    More explicit one was 731Butai 731部隊 movie thing on you-tube. See comments section of those. I thought I saw more than one comment saying Japan and Japanese should be wiped off. (There was one die-hard commentator (prob. Japanese) fighting against all those comments. I was marveled.)

    On the other hand, have you ever read the comments at Yahoo Japan news (actually limited to news by Jiji-Tushin 時事通信)? Take anything about current politics. Are comments at Western press and comments at Japanese press – when compared with a view to know the mentality of commentators, are they that different?
    Probably not. I try to avoid reading comments as much as possible, for that reason.

    – A.

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