Japan from the inside out

The bogus and the bona fide (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ONLY MAD DOGS and Englishmen venture into India’s noonday sun, it was once said, and the same could apply to Japan in August. Though neither a mad dog nor an Englishman, I was walking on the sunny side of Saga City’s main street early one Saturday afternoon in August 2007 when I heard the echoes of loud and frenzied drumming come thundering down the block.

The Ushikko

Encountering the unexpected is one of the delights of life in Japan, but the time, the place, and the combination of Japanese taiko and African rhythms meant that whatever was going on was not a matter of daily tea and rice, as they say here.

In the middle of that block is a plaza built into an open area occupying the space of about three or four shops. There’s a small stage at the rear, faced by a few benches and surrounded by some trees and shrubbery. On the stage that day were about 10 teenaged girls dressed in matching black t-shirts and shorts and performing synchronized dances while whaling away at the drums.

And boy, did they have rhythm.

Their audience numbered only a few more people than were in the group itself, and their performance ended about 15 minutes after I arrived. Still full of energy, the girls bounced off the stage, toweled off the sweat, and began packing up their gear. After striking up a conversation with one of them and an accompanying adult, I discovered they were part of an informal group from Ushizu High School in Ogi, Saga, that called themselves the Ushikko (牛っ娘, or cowgirls). In addition to the Japanese taiko, they were also playing the djembe from Guinea.

Saga City is a No-Shinkansen Sticksville of 180,000 in Kyushu, Ogi is a town in the outer suburbs that doesn’t even have express train service, and Ushizu is on the outskirts of Ogi. But someone else’s preconceived notions about life in the provinces didn’t stop a few local teenaged girls from creating a Japanese-Guinean drum fusion and giving free performances in a near-deserted downtown street on a hot summer Saturday.

The club was founded informally by a group of friends in 2003, and their dedication and novelty made them a popular attraction at local events. They’ve appeared during halftime of a soccer match on the home ground of Sagan Tosu, a second division J League team, and performed at the national presentation and concert of the New Life Adventure organization.

The Ushikko were recognized as an official school club in 2008, and it now has 31 members. Since I saw them in 2007, they’ve deemphasized the taiko rhythms to focus on Guinean drumming. They’ve also learned some of the language of that West African country to use as vocalizations and shouts of encouragement as they perform.

What inspires them? Outgoing group leader Ogata Kana told the Nishinippon Shimbun:

“I get carried away by the rhythms, and I feel refreshed in spirit when the performance is over.”

Said school faculty advisor Uematsu Atsuko:

“The students are passionate and practice with great enthusiasm. I’ve never seen students enjoy their club activities so much.”

Even with the greatest of passion and enthusiasm, it still would be difficult for small town girls to overcome the obstacles to learning and mastering a cultural tradition from a country on the other side of the world. They don’t have proper teachers, for a start. Their only instruction comes from clerks at a Kumamoto music shop that sells djembe, who visit three times a year to give lessons.

It’s difficult…but not impossible. The girls caught a break when they were filmed for a segment of a Kyushu regional television program profiling people and events of interest. Oyama Nobuo, the chief municipal officer of Mishima-mura in Kagoshima, caught the program by chance at home.

The story of Mishima-mura is as fascinating as that of the Ushikko. Classified as a village for administrative purposes, it actually consists of three small islands with a combined population of 4,000 in the East China Sea 100 kilometers from Kagoshima Prefecture. The name Mishima literally means “three islands”, which in this case are Kuroshima, Takeshima (no, not that one), and Iojima (or Iwojima, and no, not that one either).

Jamming with the Mishimanians

Despite their size and remote location, the islands are the place to go in Northeast Asia to learn about the djembe. Famed Guinean performer Mamady Keita visited about 15 years ago, which inspired the locals to start drumming themselves. They enjoyed it so much they started the first djembe school in Asia. It’s operated by Tokuda Ken’ichiro, whom Keita personally authorized as a teacher. He makes the trip from Guinea about once a year to help with their drumming and have a high old time with the Mishimanians.

Mr. Oyama was so moved by what he saw on the TV program that he mailed the Ushikko some instructional DVDs produced by the Mishima-mura school. In appreciation, the girls sent him a video letter with scenes from their practice. That prompted both him and Mr. Tokuda to visit the girls in Ogi for some hands-on instruction and a jam session.

Said Mr. Oyama:

“They have fun when they’re playing. The animated expressions on their faces are wonderful.”

That became the starting point for the Ogi-Mishima djembe exchange. The mayor invited the Ushikko to the islands and take lessons at the school. The national government helped with their travel expenses, the village provided the food and lodging, and the girls sailed off for five days of drumming and island fun when the fall term at school ended a month ago.

The officials at Ushizu High School agreed to let the girls make the trip on the condition that they practice as much as possible. That’s why the girls put in five hours of work a day, which impressed Mr. Oyama even further—hands get swollen after five hours of drumming.

At least they didn’t have to worry about finding a way to stay warm in mid-December!

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and finally you do it for money.
– Molière

The criticism seems to be getting to Lisa Katayama. She sat right down and wrote herself a letter, and made believe it was addressed to you.

Ms. Katayama has made a name for herself, such as it is, by further cluttering the pop kultursmog with articles about the weirdness of Japan and the Japanese. Her pieces run in the outlets that pander to the tastes of those who swallow whole every eccentric aspect of Japan the infotainment media can dish up. Her audience consists of the sort of people who would find an excuse to convince themselves that half-chewed bubble gum in a museum vitrine is the ultimate in hip, postmodern irony. Indeed, the first paragraph of this letter to herself contains a favorable reference to a “beautiful” book about “fetish restaurants”.

She’s also developed an anti-audience of people who know a thing or two about the real Japan and wonder why she would purposely hold up the country she calls her “motherland” to the ridicule of the English-speaking world.

The letter Ms. Katayama wrote to herself was given the title, Why It’s Time to Lighten Up about “Weird” Japan. Why does she do what she does? Why is she so anxious to defend herself by ordering the rest of us to lighten up?

To make a short story even shorter, it’s because she, like Molière and the prostitutes, makes money out of it.

Oh, that’s not what she says. Oh, no. Heavens to Betsy. That’s not her intention at all. In fact, she would have us believe it’s “deeply personal” when someone criticizes Japan or her view of it. (More of the latter than the former, I suspect.)

“It’s most important to remember that it’s all in good fun. The way I see it, Japanese popular culture is like abstract art.”

The comparison to abstract art provides her with a cheap excuse for getting away with anything she wants. It has the added advantage of appealing to the soi-disant cultural elitists who pretend they really understand and appreciate abstract art.

“Both involve many components that can be interpreted in many ways. If you ask the artist what it means, he might say, ‘What do you think it means?’”

That provides two more cheap avenues of escape. One rescues the artist from having to do any heavy lifting to find the Deep Meaning himself. The other allows him to play it coy without offering an explanation that the cultural critics would gum to death and the rest of us would laugh at.

“And whatever meaning you attach to it is more a reflection of who you are than the composition of the art itself.”

How convenient for her: If you don’t like what she does, that’s your problem.

She even goes so far as to say:

“…none of this is meant to be taken seriously.”

Enough of the crap. She’s not fooling anyone but herself, and I doubt she’s even accomplished that. It’s obvious she takes it very seriously, for pecuniary reasons, if nothing else. She gets paid for providing product on order tailored to outlets such as Boing-Boing, where this lame lament appeared, knowing exactly why they ordered it. One look at the name of that publication and everybody knows what’s going down.

But when she’s called out by people who know as much—if not more—about this country than she does, she mounts the high horse and claims that she “strives to tell each story objectively without condescension or sensationalism.”

The mere fact that she goes out of her way to write and sell these stories is intrinsic condescension and sensationalism.

“I get hundreds of racially-charged comments from readers, long ranting responses from defenders of Japanese culture, and dozens of emails from people at big media outlets who want to find out more about these ‘strange’ phenomena.”

How novel to find someone who still thinks that big media outlets, the smokestack industry of the information age, set the standard for worthwhile journalism.

She also gets more than racially charged comments and long ranting responses. She got this previous post from me when she wrote about one man’s silly seduction techniques for Wired magazine. It was neither racially charged nor a rant. Instead, I pointed out that the article displayed the typical myopia of the anti-Nipponistic basher/mockers. This cool clique exaggerates some strange behavior in this country while overlooking the same strange behavior in their own backyard. Most of the time, that behavior is much more extreme than that of the Japanese.

In this case, Ms. Katayama found a man (with “beady eyes”) who peddles his techniques in Japan, yet she ignores–or is ignorant of–the fact that sales of seduction techniques is now a big business in America. There the “techniques” are even more unusual, such as the use of so-called neuro-linguistic programming, black fingernail polish, and their own insider jargon. Boing!

The reason she knew my post wasn’t a racially charged comment or a rant was because she wrote in to protest that she didn’t really mean to present the story as weird, honest, it was just those anonymous meanies who wrote the headlines at Wired.

Her self-justification continues:

“I went back home, honed my story-finding skills, and launched my own blog…”

All that’s required to hone one’s story-finding skills for this type of story is to go slumming at the trashy end of the convenience store magazine racks and to watch more daytime television.

“I got major Japan-related assignments from magazines, consulting gigs from print and radio outlets, and a book deal. It was really strange for me, because all I thought I was doing was telling people about the place I came from.”

Funny, isn’t it, that so many people in Japan don’t recognize this “place you come from”. Why is it that her work generates such a negative reaction? Is it because her gig is making a buck by pleasing one of the lesser common denominators? Is it because she indulges a narrative that she pretends is about this thing of the Western imagination called “Japan”, but is really about a few cherry-picked subcultures and misfits in the larger cities?

“One thing was clear: Weird Japan sells. “

One more thing was clear: She’s not the first to realize there’s good money to be made by selling out. People with real talent have been doing it long before she stumbled over the idea.

Is she old enough to recognize the name of Werner Klemperer? He was the son of conductor Otto Klemperer and soprano Johanna Geisler. Klemperer was both a violinist and a concert pianist, and he performed as an operatic baritone and a singer in Broadway musicals. He appeared in the Hitchcock movie Wrong Man and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the 1987 Broadway revival of Cabaret. His 1981 role as Prince Orlofsky in Seattle Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus was well received by critics and the public alike. He was the narrator on a recording by the Boston Symphony of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, which won a Grammy. He also served as the director and president of the nonprofit Young Musicians Foundation of Los Angeles, and was a vice president of Actors Equity.

Most people wouldn’t recognize him from that career synopsis. They know him only from his role as the bumbling Nazi prison camp commandant Col. Klink in the American TV series Hogan’s Heroes.

Klemperer, who was Jewish, eased his conscience by insisting that his character be portrayed as a fool in every episode. Lisa Katayama eases hers by making believe she’s doing serious journalism about her homeland that isn’t condescending or sensationalist.

She concludes with this oddly worded sentence:

“I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if we made a commitment to roll with it.”

I think we’d all understand Japan a little better if Lisa Katayama found something else to write about.

Shortly after Ms. Katayama’ s Boing-Boing whinge appeared, she wrote a blog post for the same publication that makes me wonder if calling her to account is like getting upset at a child who wets his pants on a long car trip. This time the post wasn’t about Japan:

“I went on a trip to northern India to see the Dalai Lama. I traveled with a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. While we were there, we met a bunch of kids who lived with no electricity but told us that, when they grew up, they all wanted to be computer scientists. So we whipped out our cameras and iPods — the closest things we had on hand to real computers — and showed them how technology works….Later, I found out that one of my travel mates thought what we had done was cruel. We had seduced these poor kids with luxuries they will probably never be able to afford, and sullied their pure, technology-free lives with the temptation of electronics.”

Her travel mates were a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. I’d bet cash money the one who cried cruelty and thought being electronica-free equaled purity was one of the first three. They’re the ones in that group who can make a handsome living on hot air without having to worry about being real.

“So who’s right? Did we ruin these kids for life or give them hopes for a better future? Does it not matter? Is there even a right answer to this question?”

Where are the snows of yesteryear? And what is reality? So many questions that Lisa Katayama can’t answer.

Of course there’s a right answer to this question, which needn’t be asked to begin with.

Of course you show them the iPods. You show them every iPod function you can possibly think of. You let them handle the iPods themselves for as long as time permits. It’s never cruel to inspire a child. That’s exactly how adults are supposed to interact with children.

Asking these questions is like asking if it would be cruel to show a book to illiterates who want to learn how to read.

How odd that these city folk could be so provincial. How strange that the sophisticated white collar professionals could be so small-minded and elitist. How inexcusable, considering that Ms. Katayama grew up in Japan, where people often talk about the importance of “giving dreams” to children.

Children everywhere, and especially in the Third World, need all the inspiration they can get. I’m sure the teenaged Ushikko could have answered her questions correctly without a moment’s hesitation.

Meanwhile, the world will somehow manage to muddle through without yet another article about the Dalai Lama.

Hiding the iPods from those children would be like telling the Ushikko or the handful of villagers on three remote and tiny Asian islands not to bother learning to play the djembe. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be as skillful as Mamady Keita.

Then again, Mamady Keita doesn’t think it’s cruel to come halfway around the world once a year for 15 years to teach and have fun with the folks in Mishima-mura.

If answering those questions presents a dilemma for her, if she thinks it might have “ruined these children for life”, one wonders just how much of life she’s missing—and why she thinks she’s doing anyone any favors by writing about Japan for the English-speaking world.

Meanwhile the Ushikko and the Mishimanians are having a grand time playing the drums and learning a lot about themselves, the world, and life in the bargain.

Do you think this article is cruel and unfair?

Make a commitment to roll with it.


There are no YouTube presentations of the Ushikko—I’m going to have to call their school advisor—but there was a seven-minute film of a small group in Mishima-mura having a ton of fun combining a performance with a children’s art project. Here it is:

Here’s another video showing part of the Mishima-mura djembe school graduation ceremony. The first part consists of traditional Japanese music and dance, which should give you an idea why learning the djembe wouldn’t be so strange for them at all. Though the islands are officially part of Kagoshima, the whistling is very Okinawan. (You may want to stop halfway through when the speeches start.)

While we’re at it, check out the New Life Adventure website, which is worth a quick glance even if you don’t understand Japanese. It’s a part of Japan that Lisa Katayama, the Boing-Boing culture mavens, and the FCCJ barflies don’t know about. I doubt they’d be interested even if they did.

And Mishima-mura has its own website, also in Japanese only.

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