Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

All you have to do is look (152)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 31, 2012

Nakamura Mari, who has been performing as a busker (with an electric keyboard) in front of train stations until the last train of the day. She’s sold 80,000 CDs in four years. A group of 15,000 fans provided her enough support to get her a solo gig at Budokan in Tokyo. The performance here is at Shibuya Station.

Posted in Music, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Music made easy

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 2, 2012

MANY people wish they could play music like Beethoven or Jimi Hendrix, but few have the talent or the discipline to bring their chops to that level.

But the wild and crazy guys at Maywa Denki, the self-described “parallel-world electricians”, have solved that problem with the otamatone. Here’s the regular version (note the shape):

Here’s the jumbo version:

And here’s the bilingual website. Once upon a time, they were a subcontractor for Toshiba and Panasonic. Not any more!

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Music, New products, Science and technology | Leave a Comment »

Can’t get enough of that chin-don

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 11, 2012

IT’S been entirely too long since the last chin-don report, and the objective of this post is to rectify that shortcoming immediately.

For those unfortunates who have yet to be exposed to the glorious goofiness that is chin-don, it is — among other things — Japan’s unintentional contribution to urban street/world music. The form arose more than a century ago with the creation of bands that mixed Western and Japanese instruments (mostly percussion in the latter case) to play anything and everything from the Western and Japanese musical repertoire as they marched through town in outlandish costumes and makeup to advertise local commercial establishments in any way they could figure out to attract attention. That involves clever repartee, unicycle riding, and kitchen sink juggling in addition to the music.

There’s been a grassroots popular revival of the style in the past few years, though it never went entirely away. A national contest for chin-don bands has been held in Toyama for more than half a century, but many of those bands are professional. (The truly far gone do it for a living.) Every year in early November, there’s a national contest for amateurs only in Maebashi, Gunma. This year’s jamboree was the 10th, and it began on Saturday.

Ten teams from Gunma, Tokyo, Saitama, Tochigi, Iwate, Aichi, Nagano, and Toyama participated, and the team from Iwate was crowned the champion.

The entertainment on the second day — today — was a grand parade through the commercial district of Maebashi.

Here’s a taste of what it looked and sounded like yesterday. One of the groups consists of high school students. Anyone who still thinks the Japanese are a nation of straight arrow conformists should hit the chin-don tag below for previous posts and see how quickly those preconceptions shatter!

Posted in Music, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The top of the Japanese pops

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

IT’S the Top of the Pops Japan! The Japanese Society for the Rights of Artists, Composers, and Publishers (JASRAC) released their list of the top 100 songs over the past thirty years ranked by copyright usage fees received from broadcast, net distribution, and karaoke use.

The society presents its JASRAC Award every year to the song that received the most money in usage fees, but this list was specially presented to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their founding. They did not release the amount of money generated by each song, but they did give a special award to the top three songs.

And here they are. The leader of the pack was SMAP with Just One Flower for the World. This performance features some nice, healthy, elastic girls.

Popularity at karaoke establishments supported the rankings of #2 and #3. Number two was Izakaya, a duet with Itsuki Hiroshi and Kinomi Nana. An izakaya is a small, traditional Japanese eating and drinking establishment, with the emphasis on drinking. In the first verse, the woman allows as how she’ll accept a bourbon, and make it a double. This is probably a clip from the old Sunday evening television program Enka no Hanamichi.

Mr. Itsuki was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2007, one of the Medals of Honor that are decorations of the Japanese government. The purple one is for academic and artistic accomplishment.

In third place was another duet: Futari no Osaka, by Miyako Harumi and Miyazaki Tadashi, who were once married. The title has a compactness difficult to convey in English, but might be translated as The Two of Us and Osaka.

Posted in Music, Popular culture | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

PSYched out

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 27, 2012

SOME people have caught on that the Japanese seem impervious to the delights of the Gangnam Style Youtube video by PSY, which has now become one of the top ten most-watched Youtubes ever. That’s a matter of degree, because the song did make it into the lower level of the iTunes top 30 in Japan. It didn’t mirror the success that it’s had in the United States and Britain, however, or the lesser success in China.

Those folks are puzzled because Japan is perhaps the country most open to South Korean pop culture in the form of K-Pop, television shows, and certain types of movies (i.e., the ones middle-aged women like). Different theories are being offered for the limpness of the interest, but they’re ultimately unsatisfying because they miss another reason for the relative popularity that might be the most important of all.

One theory floating around is that Facebook postings gave a boost to the PSY video in the West, and that with only 30% of Net users, Facebook has a lower penetration in Japan than elsewhere. That might have something to do with it, but the Japanese are just as aware of Youtube and use it just as frequently.

Another theory is that the K-Pop performers regularly release Japanese-language versions of their performances, and PSY’s song is only in Korean (as far as I know). Foreign language pop songs for the teen and early 20s demographic in Japan are unlikely to be much more popular than a foreign language pop song in the United States, for example. There are some exceptions, but all of them are in English, the language everyone studies for six years in secondary school.

As this report points out, however, PSY was slated to release a Japanese-language version of the tune (called Roppongi Style) earlier this year, but his plans came a cropper. That post quotes a translated opinion from someone in the Japanese television industry:

PSY had already begun to be featured on Japanese morning variety news programs back in July, but the reaction from viewers was horrible. This was right around the time when Japanese media were under fire for over-promoting K-pop while attitudes toward Korea were souring, and the reason K-Pop became so popular in Japan in the first place is because Korean artists are known for being beautiful, so PSY looked completely out of place on screen. Even if he debuted in Japan, I don’t think he would have sold very much.

The industry insider raises some important points, and it’s not just the one about beauty. PSY first appeared in July, and the problems with South Korea didn’t erupt until August, but it was natural for those problems to dampen the enthusiasm for Korean pop culture. Lately I’ve been quoting and featuring excerpts here from a book by Tsukuba University Prof. Furuta Hiroshi, who is fluent in Korean. He studied for a time at a South Korean university and had a Korean roommate while there. He later returned to teach Japanese at another South Korean university from 1980 to 1986. He says his hobby is watching South Korean and North Korean movies and collecting them on DVD.

In a current edition of one of the Japanese monthlies, however, Prof. Furuta dashed off an article in which he declares that after the events of this summer, he will not visit the Korean Peninsula again until attitudes there change. The behavior of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, combined with the frothing-at-the-mind articles in South Korean newspapers (which they conveniently translate for their Japanese-language websites) has poisoned the well of Japanese goodwill. A connection has been snapped.

There might be an attempt to start restoring those connections by the end of the year. Every New Year’s Eve since 1954, NHK TV has broadcast live a program called Kohaku Utagassen, which presents the most popular singers in the country. The show’s concept is a singing contest between the men’s team and the women’s team. The results are judged by celebrities, the audience at NHK Hall, and now on the Internet.

While greater affluence and the resultant increase in disposable income and decentralization of culture have lessened the program’s impact, it is still the touchstone for identifying the performers the mass audience most want to see, with demographic differences taken into account. Three K-Pop acts performed on last year’s program. As of last month, it was starting to look as if none would be invited this year. Said one person affiliated with the program’s production team:

“President Lee’s problematic statement about seeking an apology from the Emperor had a serious impact. Many Korean performers do not refrain from shouting “Dokdo is our land” at the top of their lungs. Their appearance would elicit a negative reaction from viewers.”

That now seems to have changed. The question was raised at a meeting of department heads at NHK on Wednesday, and reports say a network official answered: “We are considering this from the overall perspective and will separate politics and culture.” That could mean that some K-Poppers will appear after all.

Given the South Korean predilection with taking everything that happens in Japan the wrong way, an overreaction to the Japanese ambivalence toward the global cultural success of the Korean Nation was to be expected. Some Japanese music bloggers suggested the South Koreans used bots, or automated viewing programs, to pump the Youtube viewing totals. Others started calling the song “F5 Style”, referring to the keyboard key for refreshing a browser window.

Those witticisms detonated a small explosion at the premises of the Korean Wave Research Institute. That organization is a non-profit established in 2010 to conduct research into and promote Korean culture, particularly the pop variety. (They also display the seals of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Korea Tourism Association on their website, which suggests government funding.)

Anyone in Japan could have scripted the response of KWRI President Han Koo-hyun in advance:

Denouncing the “conspiracy theories” of YouTube chart manipulation, KWRI president Han Koo-Hyun said the “outrageous” Japanese argument was “tantamount to doubting a world record in an Olympics marathon.”

Skepticism about the song’s worldwide popularity on YouTube “should be viewed as a primary school kid’s jealousy and envy”, Han said in a press release.

Not content with defending the success of “Gangnam Style,” Han launched a vitriolic attack on the only Japanese entry in YouTube’s chart of the 30 all-time, most-viewed videos.

Currently ranked 29th with more than 237 million views, the video shows a young Japanese woman engaging in the popular Internet meme activity of dropping some mentos candy in a bottle of diet coke so that it sprays soda everywhere.

Mocking what he described as the “most grotesque and preposterous content” on the entire chart, Han said it was “another lowly example showing the video-related preference of the Japanese.”

And some people would have you believe the attitudes of the Japanese are the biggest obstacle to improved bilateral relations.

“A primary school kid’s jealousy and envy”? I put it down to collegiate spitballing — it’s the Internet, dude. “Grotesque and preposterous” are terms that should be reserved for the continuing Korean ban on Japanese performers on Korean terrestrial TV and radio. If South Korea has a television program resembling the Kohaku Utagassen, Japanese singers are prohibited from appearing on it by law.

The extent of Japanese popularity aside, however, there is another aspect to the intense interest in the video that people tend to reference obliquely. Brian Ashcraft, the author of the piece at the first link cited, wrote:

Online in Japan, however, some seem to think that the idea of a fat Asian guy wearing sunglasses and dancing about is probably humorous to Westerners—hence the song’s popularity.

Last month in the Guardian of Britain, Arwa Mahdawi took that one step further in an article titled, What’s so funny about Gangnam Style? The subhead:

The South Korean pop video taking the internet by storm does little to overturn tired stereotypes of east Asian men

She concluded:

The last time the west laughed so uproariously at a Korean singer was when an animated Kim Jong-il bewailed how “ronery” he was in the film Team America, and how nobody took him “serirousry”. The puppet had a point: popular western media doesn’t tend to take east Asian men seriously – even when they’re brutal dictators. The stereotype of a portly, non-threatening Charlie Chan-type who speaks “comical” English is still very much alive, apparent in everything from hungry Kim Jong-un memes to Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts. And it’s hard to escape the uncomfortable feeling that this stereotype is contributing something to the laughter around Gangnam Style.

I’ll take that another step further. Consider:

* The only people who understand the social commentary of PSY’s lyrics are the Koreans. Everyone else is working off the music and the video.

* The music, while catchy, is not that compelling. I sent a link of the Youtube video to a friend in England before it caught on there. One of his three income sources is his work as a DJ at pubs on weekend nights and at wedding receptions. (He’s also a big technopop fan and has played piano since childhood.) He thought the video was fun, but commented that the music reminded him of 20-year-old European disco.

* The video features several attractive Korean women. The Japanese are already familiar with northeast Asian pulchritude. But in the United States and Britain, where the video is especially popular, such a free concentrated shot of exotic beauty is seldom seen all at once in the same place.

* PSY is variously described in English-language accounts as “portly”, chubby”, or “dumpy”. He performs a goofy horse-trot dance; a moonwalking Michael Jackson he isn’t. I can see junior high school kids clumsy with the initial rush of puberty trying it out as a joke at a dance party, but that’s less likely for high school students and not at all for college men and women. (If someone did that at a party where I attended university, guys would have either hooted him out of the building or asked where he got the mushrooms.)

* One of the first places I saw the video referenced on the Internet was at an American site for the fans of the baseball team I follow. A frequent poster used the video to create a short gif file to accentuate a humorous reference in a point he was making. He didn’t use the scene with the women covered in feathers or that Korean yogini with the pert and shapely butt. He instead snipped several seconds from the scene near the beginning with a shirtless PSY sitting outside in a lounge chair and a boy doing the dance in the foreground.

There you have it: This video has become an example of Weird Koreana in the same way that Westerners incapable of taking successful East Asians seriously have for years found Weird Japan stories and photos as entertaining as the dickens. I’ve seen English-language websites focused on politics and world affairs whose only links or mentions of affairs in Japan are limited to goofball stories. Now it’s Korea’s turn.

They’re not laughing with PSY. They’re laughing at him. PSY himself may be laughing all the way to the bank, but that doesn’t alter the reason he’s got the cash in hand to begin with.

This is an observation that Westerners do not like to hear. To see how they usually respond, try some of the commenters on Arwa Mahdawi’s article at the Guardian. “What’s the problem with you Guardianistas,” they ask. “This is all in fun.”

My worldview is about 180° away from that attributed to the Guardianistas, but I agree with Ms. Mahdawi. I’ve made the same point about Weird Japan by commenting on one or two Western websites (with less politico-cultural stridency than she uses) and the outraged backlash is the same. Telling people in the Anglosphere to their cyberface that they really aren’t as clever, classless, and free as they like to think they are does not earn hits on the Like button.

I suspect PSY is hip enough to know that he’s seen as a clown in the West, but he’s now so rich that he probably doesn’t care. The question he’ll have to come to terms with is whether he’ll want to work against the typecasting in the future, and, whether he does or doesn’t, if the creators of his video can keep coming up with ideas as striking as the one for his Big Payday.

It’s understandable that the Gangnam Style phenomenon has generated excitement in South Korea about the potential for spreading Korean pop culture worldwide and creating cultural ties where few now exist. I hope they can and do.

It would be most unfortunate, however, if their excitement causes them to overlook the ugly side of the Gangnam Style phenomenon.

The photo above is of the K-Pop song-and-dance team Shojo Jidai. The group has the same name in Korean. They were one of three Korean groups to appear on the NHK New Year’s Eve program last year. This electronic disco number is similar musically to Gangnam Style, and is sung in Japanese (with a bit of English). The Japanese-language version of their song has more than 66 million views on Youtube. So much for anti-Korean childishness.

Other than the language, the differences with Gangnam Style are obvious.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Music, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 11 Comments »


Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 21, 2012

THE Japanese are more aware than anyone else of the deficiencies of their national political establishment. It’s often said that the bureaucrats are the real politicians, and the politicians are really just lobbyists for the interests of the ministries they’re associated with or other private sector interests.

Here’s a demonstration of the severity of the problem. The following is a Tweet today from Matsuda Kota, an upper house representative from Your Party:

“The South Korean pop star PSY is very popular in the U.S. and Europe. They say he’s also going to collaborate with Justin Bieber. PSY talks to the international media in fluent English. We must learn from South Korean artists in this regard. South Korean female groups popular in Japan also mastered English first to establish a global presence.”

There were Chinese naval frigates in Japanese territorial waters this morning in a deliberate provocation, people throughout the world are wondering if war will break out between China and Japan, relations with South Korea are in a deep freeze, the economy is in the doldrums, the government just passed a bill to double the consumption tax in the teeth of deflation, the devolution of authority to regional governments is stalled, and Matsuda Kota is Tweeting about disposable chewing gum culture.

This would be understandable if he were a chinless wonder along the lines of Hatoyama Yukio, whose political position derives entirely from the fact that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were prominent national politicians, and his mother illegally bankrolled his fledgling party with money from the Bridgestone family fortune (for which the back taxes and penalties alone totaled $US six million).

But Mr. Matsuda was an entrepreneur who founded Tully’s (coffee) Japan, cashed out, and turned his attention to politics. He’s handsome enough to have been in show business. He’s also a member of Your Party, which is the only party now in the Diet that takes reform seriously.

Why is he even talking about this?

To be fair, he probably wants to encourage young people to learn English so they can be more active internationally. There’s nothing wrong with that, but most of the people who are fans of Korean girl groups are not reading his Tweets. I know Japanese high school and college students. They’re not going to get excited about English just because PSY is fluent enough to appear on the Today show. Do you want to speculate on how many people are thinking about PSY this time next year?

Now you know why the Japanese electorate is so frustrated — every election, they keep kicking the bums out, only to be disillusioned by their replacements. There’ll be two national elections by next summer at the latest, and that trend will continue until the electorate gets what it wants.

Gangnam Style

Speaking of PSY, if you haven’t seen his video, consider yourself to be in cultural hibernation. It has more than 200 million views on Youtube alone. While it’s a massive international sensation, it’s really just the combination of a danceable novelty tune with an entertaining, eye-catching video. Like other novelty acts, PSY is unlikely to come anywhere near that success again, particularly outside of South Korea. He’s probably set for life there, however. (He’s already establishment himself; he’s released six albums in South Korea already.)

But unbeknownst to the ravers and teenyboppers outside the country, there’s a lot going on in that tune lyrically. The blind squirrels at AP found an acorn with this article explaining the back story:

The district of Gangnam, which literally means “south of the river,” is about half the size of Manhattan. About 1 percent of Seoul’s population lives there, but many of its residents are very rich. The average Gangnam apartment costs about $716,000, a sum that would take an average South Korean household 18 years to earn.

Gangnam…is new money, the beneficiary of a development boom that began in the 1970s.

As the price of high-rise apartments skyrocketed during a real estate investment frenzy in the early 2000s, landowners and speculators became wealthy practically overnight. The district’s rich families got even richer.

The new wealth drew the trendiest boutiques and clubs and a proliferation of plastic surgery clinics, but it also provided access to something considered vital in modern South Korea: top-notch education in the form of prestigious private tutoring and prep schools. Gangnam households spend nearly four times more on education than the national average.

The notion that Gangnam residents have risen not by following the traditional South Korean virtues of hard work and sacrifice, but simply by living on a coveted piece of geography, irks many. The neighborhood’s residents are seen by some as monopolizing the country’s best education opportunities, the best cultural offerings and the best infrastructure, while spending big on foreign luxury goods to highlight their wealth.

“Gangnam inspires both envy and distaste,” said Kim Zakka, a Seoul-based pop music critic. “Gangnam residents are South Korea’s upper class, but South Koreans consider them self-interested, with no sense of noblesse oblige.”…

…PSY does something in his video that few other artists, Korean or otherwise, do: He parodies the wealthiest, most powerful neighborhood in South Korea,” writes Sukjong Hong, creative nonfiction fellow at Open City, an online magazine.

If you’re one of those who’ve been in cultural hibernation and haven’t seen the video, it’s embedded in the AP article. It really is a hoot once or twice, and even better, a lot of the women in it are hot!

Posted in Music, Politics, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

In their heads

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 11, 2012

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
-Oscar Wilde

THE terminally serious sitting at their cubicle desks of respectable discussion are missing the point with the intellectual skirt chasing of gravitas and erudition. They’d find it more productive to apply some good old-fashioned Buddhist detachment to the goofiness, mythomania, and triple-digit loon factor of the global gutter press and dumpster-dive right into the middle without holding their noses. The immediate benefit would be a wealth of entertainment superior to most vaudeville of either the 20th or 21st centuries. The payoff would be information more useful and an education more practical than that to be found in their learned periodicals of choice better suited to their class prejudices.

If you think I’m red-lining it on the loon meter myself, follow this trail and watch where it leads.

Let’s start with Tokyo Sports, a daily tabloid of the type that prints all the news that isn’t fit to print, extensive coverage of sports news with huge headlines, and speculation on the physical characteristics of the sexual organs of female celebrities.

Here’s an excerpt from their 23 August edition.

“It would be a good idea to ban the Korean Wave, or even K-Pop. That would include Girls’ Generation and Kara. Korean consumer electronics and other products make their way into Japan, but I think there will definitely be a boycott. (Person connected with the Liberal Democratic Party).”

That’s Square One: A solitary unidentified guy in an unidentified party position biting into the red meat of the sort that people chew whenever there’s an uproar between two nations. The Korean Wave is no more likely to banned in Japan than French fries were to be renamed Freedom Fries in the US a decade ago during the runup to Iraq War II.

Now for Square Two: Someone from enews, “The Voice of Korean Entertainment”, read the article and gave it to Erika Kim to translate and Lee Kyung-nam to put into publishable form. Here’s their treatment.

“One official from the leading opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has even told the Japanese press that Japan should ban any Korean wave related content and K-Pop… According to a Japanese newspaper, Tokyo Sports, the official said, “We need to ban the Korean wave, K-Pop, everything. Girls’ Generation (SNSD) and Kara are also out of the question. Korean electronics make their way into Japan, but a boycott will definitely arise soon.”

See how quickly they upgraded to “an official” telling “the Japanese press” that they “need to ban” the Korean wave, K-Pop, “everything”?

Square Three followed shortly thereafter. MTV Iggy picked up the enews story and ran this headline:

Japan Wants to Ban Korean Media Over Dokdo Islands

We’ve gone from an unidentified someone to the entire country in a virtual blink of the eye. Using the enews story as a basis, Janine Bower reported:

“Right now, Japanese officials are working to place a ban on all forms of Korean media.”

Bower wanted to give the site’s readers some background, but research and reading comprehension do not seem to be her strong points:

“It all comes down to a fierce territory dispute between what are called the Dokdo Islands to the Koreans, and the Takeshima Islands to the Japanese. Japan believes that the islands belong to them because the US government abolished Korea’s ownership of them during World War II.”

Janine must have been playing with her i-Pad during class. In addition to the rules for preposition use, she doesn’t know that Korea never had “ownership” of the islets until they seized them in 1954, so the US government couldn’t abolish anything. After World War II, the Americans upheld the Japanese ownership of the islands that dated from 1905 and rejected the Korean claim through the peace treaty.

And now we fly off the board entirely and into the world of the vernacular South Korean news media, which always has one foot in the gutter and every columnist is Drama Queen for a Day in drag. Lee Jeh-yeong got a whiff of the story and wrote a column for the Korean site Ajunews. Lee is being the pundit, so here’s how he starts:

“I visited Japan in 1990. One evening, I asked a young man in the subway for directions. He was true to the famous Japanese reputation for kindness by giving me very detailed instructions. But he kept repeating the same words in clumsy English two or three times. I thought this was strange, and wondered if he was being too kind. Just then I realized what was really happening. This young Japanese man, who had alcohol on his breath, somehow wanted to show off to his Japanese friends that he was good at English.”

That’s one possibility. Another is that alcohol had loosened the man’s tongue at the expense of briskness. We’ve all seen it happen. Yet another is that Lee’s English isn’t very good, and the Japanese man wasn’t sure that he understood. A fourth is that the Japanese man lacked confidence in his own English and was trying hard to convey the information to Lee. Finally, maybe he was just being kind. Everyone else in the world who visits Japan thinks their kindness to befuddled strangers is delightful. Lee complains about it and looks for ulterior motives.

Then again, the idea of being kind to foreigners struggling with the language might be a foreign concept for Lee. I was once lashed with a torrent of verbal abuse from a young female clerk in a Busan supermarket because my very rudimentary Korean wasn’t good enough to understand her instructions on where they stocked the instant kalguksu I wanted to buy and take back home. I have no idea what she said, but she was behaving as if I had tried to slip my hand up her dress. It was all I could do to keep from laughing in her face. Finding similar stories on the Web is easy to do.

After ranting for a few paragraphs, Lee concludes:

“The Japanese themselves will probably never admit it, but they have now developed an inferiority complex towards the Republic of Korea (大韓民国). They’ve added a “Korean complex” to their “White complex”, and Japan’s far right has been overcome by a profound dread. They’re anti-Korean and anti-Korean wave. If they take one more step, they’ll be shouting for all the foreigners to get out of Japan.”

See what you would have missed if you hadn’t gone dumpster diving?

The key passage came in the middle, however:

“Mass culture is like the water of a river. It isn’t possible to stop the flow of the river through artificial means. In the past, we indiscriminately banned Japanese culture, but at the time, many Koreans thought Japan = First Class and were infatuated with Japanese culture. During the colonial occupation, and then until the 1990s, our inferiority complex towards Japan drove a hostile reaction toward Japan, the Japanese, and Japanese culture. Now, however, our national brand is ranked #7 and the Japanese national brand is ranked #27. They fear Korea and are rushing headlong into anti-Korean sentiment and banning the Korean wave.”

I’ve always thought mass culture more closely resembled chewing gum than the waters of a mighty river, but we can let that pass. After all, many people outside of South Korea enjoy their version of disposable television programming and music. More important is the selective amnesia that Lee shares with his readers.

Japanese pop culture was prohibited entirely in South Korean until 1998 — only 14 years ago. Deregulation began that year on 20 October. The government permitted manga to be sold and award-winning movies from international festivals to be shown in theaters, but not on television. There have since been three more deregulations.

* As of 10 September 1999, concerts were permitted in venues with 2,000 seats or fewer, though the prohibition on CD sales and broadcasting remained. More movies were permitted, still in theaters only.

* As of 27 June 2000, international award-winning film manga could be shown in theaters only. The restriction on the number of seats in halls for musical concerts was lifted, but CD sales and broadcasting was still forbidden. Some electronic games were allowed to be sold, except television games such as Nintendo. Some sports, documentary, and news programs could be broadcast on television.

* As of 1 January 2004, the screening of all movies and manga was allowed in theaters only, music could be sold in shops, and television dramas were allowed on cable channels, with age restrictions.

As far as I can determine — Koreans aren’t forthcoming about this — it is still illegal today to broadcast Japanese television dramas, films, cartoons, and concerts on regular television, or Japanese music on the radio.

South Koreans also seem to be as hazy on history as Janine over at MTV Iggy. Even the academics, as Prof. Ishii Ken’ichi demonstrates. He starts by citing a passage in Media Asia:

Japan and Korea, both of which had blocked the importation of each other’s cultural products, have opened their media markets in recent years. Since 1989, the Korean government has gradually lifted the gate for several cultural products, such as Japanese pop music records, limited films and television programmes and animation. Korean television dramas traditionally limited their portrayals of Japanese to those who participated in Japan’s colonization of Korea. Meanwhile, Japan permitted, for the first time, the broadcasting of Korean music on the air in June 2000. (Dal Yong Jin, “Regionalization of East Asia in 1990s”, Media Asia, 29(4), p227, 2003)

Note that Dal gives the Koreans credit for lifting some of their restrictions first before the Japanese eliminated their imaginary ones. But Prof. Ishii quickly sets the record straight. The emphasis is his:

“Media Asia” is one of the most prestigious academic journals on media and communications in Asia. Also Dal Yong Jin is a Korean Ph.D. candidate majoring in media and cultures, who will probably become a professor in media and communications. However, the above quoted paragraph is based on a completely wrong belief. In fact, Japan has never prohibited any foreign cultures (including Korean ones) on TV. Thus, it was impossible for Japan to “permit for the first time the broadcasting of Korean music in 2000”.

Prof. Ishii is generous and calls it a misconception. It’s also possible that Dal either made the story up, or took the word of someone else who made the story up.

Why would someone from a country with these Taliban-lite broadcast restrictions, both past and present, foam at the cybermouth about Japan adding to its White Complex with a Korea Complex and being on the verge of driving all the foreigners out of the country?

The likely answer is, to use a common sports expression, that the Japanese and the Japanese presence are “in their heads“ in a way that the Koreans never have been, aren’t now, and never will be in Japanese heads. Articles with this sort of content and language about South Korea do not exist in Japan outside of a dumpster. It’s difficult to find anything remotely similar to this even on the “far right” sites they like to complain about. Perhaps the best explanation is to be found by consulting Stedman’s Medical Dictionary or a psychiatric journal.

Because this is South Korea, there is also the aspect of plagiarism. Keeping the locals from seeing the original enables South Korean industry in general, and the media industry in particular, to snatch it for themselves without royalties or attribution. For example, here’s a comparison of Japanese originals with the South Korean knockoffs. (I’ve seen another in Korean shops myself.) Just yesterday, a thread popped up on the Korean Internet complaining that the opening scene to a music program hosted by the singer HaHa was ripped off from a Japanese commercial for Softbank, a telecommunications and Internet company. Here’s the Softbank ad:

And here’s the HaHa intro:

Finally, a third reason is green old envy. Any Japanese success internationally causes the gnashing of Korean teeth domestically. When the sanctions on Japanese culture were first partially lifted in South Korea in 1998, the Japanese government sponsored a series of events for Japan Week. One was a concert by Japanese singer Sawa Tomoe, whose mother is Korean and who spent some of her childhood in that country. She sang songs in Korean and English, and the South Korean government gave her permission to perform two songs in Japanese. One of those songs, as this article describes, was “’Kokoro’ (Heart), in which she put to her own melody a famous Korean poem that her grandfather–a renowned Korean poet himself–had translated into Japanese.”

Ms. Sawa wanted to sing another song in English, but decided against it after the Koreans made it clear they were displeased with her choice. The song the South Korean government didn’t want their countrymen to hear a woman of partial Korean heritage sing, even in a third language, says all you need to know about how deep the Japanese are in their envious heads.

The lyrics were neither politically nor socially controversial. Rather, they are about a lonely man trying to cheer himself up and give himself encouragement. Here it is in the original Japanese with the original singer.

UPDATE: Reader Avery M took the trouble to translate the Japanese Wiki page on Korean media censorship into English, and sent us the link. Thanks, Avery!

Posted in Arts, I couldn't make this up if I tried, International relations, Mass media, Music, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

Lanterns, lions, and Taiwanese proto-pub rock

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2012

OF the many cultural treasures in South Korea, one of the finest is the Gyeongbok Palace in northern Seoul. Built in 1394 and rebuilt in 1867, it was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty. It’s really a complex rather than a single building, and it’s also the site of the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum. Naturally, it’s a popular destination for tourists, both foreign and domestic. One of the attractions is the hourly changing of the guards, which is more frequent that the similar ceremony at Buckingham Palace. That’s a photo of the Gyeongbok Palace gate above.

Gyeongbokgung is accessible by Line #3 on the Seoul subway, which has a station nearby. Five years ago, the officials in charge of such things came up with the idea of using models of traditional Korean lanterns to light the corridor from the subway to Exit #5.

They used a design identical to that of the stone lantern in front of the Muryangsu Hall at the Buseok Buddhist temple in Yeoungju. The temple was built in 676 and has become another well-known tourist attraction. The stone lantern out front has been designated as National Treasure 17. This is it:

And here are the six models of National Treasure 17 lining the Seoul subway corridor on Line #3.

Aren’t they an attractive addition to the underground corridor? It’s an improvement over plain tile walls. But only photos of the lanterns remain, because the lanterns themselves aren’t there anymore. They were taken out in June.

A group of citizen-activists with the provisional name of The Search for the Location of Cultural Treasures (the actual name is clumsier) decided to get upset about the lantern installation five years after it happened because it reminded them of the stone lanterns that line the main pathway to Shinto shrines in Japan. Therefore, in South Korea, they fall under the category of ilje janjeh (日帝残滓), literally “detritus from the Japanese Empire”. The term is commonly used in the country’s news media.

The head of the group, a Buddhist priest named Hyemun, added that the Gyeongbok Palace is more closely associated with Confucianism than with Buddhism, so it was inappropriate to have Buddhist lanterns in the subway nearby.

The company operating the subway wanted to leave them in the corridor, but then the mass media got involved. That settled that. The company is wholly-owned by the city of Seoul, so they thought their only choice was to bend to public opinion. They weren’t happy about it, however, because the lanterns had to be dismantled by hand to be removed.

Others recalled that the same type of traditional Korean lantern which reminded some people of the detritus of the Japanese Empire also stood in front of the Changdeok Palace in Seoul. That’s another one of the Joseon Dynasty palaces, and this one dates from 1412. The lantern there stood outside, so it was easier to remove in February. At last report, the traditional Korean lantern Japanese Empire detritus at the Cheongwadae, or Blue House, the office and residence of the South Korean head of state, is still there.


Still, the Koreans had it a lot easier than the Japanese would if the same bee were to buzz in their bonnets. The latest expample of purifying their line of sight of the imperial detritus of centuries worth of Korean tradition involved only the removal of six elaborate light fixtures in the Seoul subway and a cultural relic at a palace. So far.

But Japan has more than 88,000 Shinto shrines nationwide, ranging from large facilities with more than a million visitors a year to plain neighborhood wooden structures smaller than the average house. Large or small, almost all of them have a pair of lion-like statues standing guard to ward off evil from the premises. Here’s a photo of one.

They’re called koma-inu, and the name literally means “Korean dog”. The word koma was used in ancient times for the Korean Peninsula.

The Japanese think they were of Indian Buddhist origin, but the models they used came from China through the Korean Peninsula. If Japan were to be seized by a detritus disposal spasm, it would take years to remove these Buddhist images at Shinto facilities that have Korea in their name. Their associations are closer to the unclean than the Korean lanterns.

Not all of the statuary at the 88,000 shrines would be removed. Some of them have foxes instead of koma-inu. And the Mimeguri Shinto shrine, in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward, has the statue of a real lion.

No one knows when the Mimeguri shrine was founded, but it was definitely there in 1693. The tutelary deity of the shrine is Mitsui Takatoshi, the founder of the Tokyo store in 1673 that later became the Mitsukoshi department store. It was called Echigoya in those days, and it’s shown on the left in this Hiroshige print.

The modern Mitsukoshi was modeled after Harrods in London, and their main store in Tokyo has a statue of the same sort of lion on the first floor. That lion was copied from the beasts that surround the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square. The British Empire detritus at the Mimeguri shrine was once on the first floor of Mitsukoshi’s Ikebukuro store. The shrine asked for it when the store closed.

That’s not the only oddity at the shrine. Shinto shrines have a gate with two columns at the entrance called a torii. This shrine has a tori with three columns arranged in a triangular shape.

It was modeled after the torii at the Konoshima Shinto shrine in Kyoto, which has one of a handful of triple toriis in the country. The idea is that the third column connects the shrine to another shrine on the next lot. This one came from the Mitsui estate. In fact, the shrine’s name in Japanese (三囲) can also be read as Mitsui.

There are also stone lanterns of the traditional Japanese Empire detritus variety on the grounds, without any visible connection to the Mitsui family business.

They do look a bit like Korean National Treasure 17, but then the statue of the beast at the main gate of Gyeongbokgung also looks a bit like some of the Korean lions at Shinto shrines. Except those are really Chinese.

Isn’t East Asia fun?

And because it isn’t possible to have too much East Asian fun, let’s have some more! The Taiwanese duo in the video below was known as the King of Kinmen, and the style of music they’re playing is called nakashi. Here’s an explanation of its origin:

(A)ccording to Tsan Yi-cheng (詹益城), who was once one of Taiwan’s most recognized faces on the nakashi scene, the most credible of these stories gives credit to Japanese sailors during the early 1900s for inventing this primitive form of pub rock.

“Nakashi originated in port towns such Tamsui and Keelung. Japanese sailors would come ashore and, being sailors, frequent bars. Of course there were no tape or CD players, so the sailors had to make their own entertainment,” Tsan said. “So they performed music which took on aspects of enka, or Japanese country music and filled it with lyrics about roaming the world and having a girl in every port.”

According to Tsan, the result of this odd musical coupling was unlike anything people in Taiwan had ever seen or heard before. Until the Japanese sailors came along, local pub and teahouse bands were still using traditional Chinese classical instruments rather than western ones.

“With their guitars, accordions and appetite for good times, Japanese sailors revolutionized bar and teahouse music in Taiwan,” the Peitou-based nakashi star said. “They enthralled crowds in teahouses and bars and, of course, drove the women wild with their contemporary musical style.” As Japan’s colonization of Taiwan continued, nakashi slowly became the music of choice for both the occupying forces as well as the Taiwanese.

As more locals began to pick up accordions and guitars, however, nakashi slowly became localized. Instead of drawing on enka for inspiration, Taiwan’s nakashi players added elements of Fujienese and Taiwanese folk to the tunes.

Instead of forming disposal squads of purity inspectors, the Taiwanese turned their detritus of Imperial Japan into a golden good time.

Nagashi with a g, by the way, is the word for the practice in Japan of singers and musicians going from bar to bar at night to perform for tips. That’s probably the origin of the Taiwanese term. When I first arrived in Japan, I knew one old nagashi singer who accompanied himself with an acoustic guitar, but I haven’t seen him or anyone else do it in quite a while.

Here’s what it looked and sounded like in Taiwan during a nagashi renaissance.

Posted in Arts, History, Music, Popular culture, Religion, Shrines and Temples, South Korea, Traditions, Travel | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ecumenism and equanimity

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 28, 2012

THE scene in the photograph above contains what today are incongruous elements, as Japanese will immediately recognize. But in another sense, the scene is neither new nor incongruous at all.

At the upper right are Shinto priests from the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa, conducting a Shinto service in front of the Great Buddha in the Todai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara. Todai-ji dates from 728, while the Tsurugaoka shrine is the junior institution, having been founded in 1063.

The story of the relationship between the indigenous proto-religion Shinto and the continental import Buddhism is too long and complex to examine here. Relatively speaking, they are separate and equal, but were more closely connected at times in the past, with some buildings used as both shrines and temples. The Meiji-era government ended all that by decree.

They came together again to conduct a joint Buddhist-Shinto ceremony at Todai-ji on the 21st to pray for the souls of those who died in the Tohoku disaster and for the recovery of the area. It began at 6:30 a.m. with a Buddhist memorial service in which 300 people participated. Monks read from 600 scrolls of the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.

The delegation from the Kamakura shrine included about 100 people, and their part of the service started with a Shinto prayer. Shrine maidens (miko) performed a kagura (Shinto dance) to pray for peaceful seas. There were eight dancers in the group, a larger number than usual, and this is what it looked like. (Again, the image of miko in front of the Great Buddha is an incongruous sight nowadays.)

Finally, the Junior Chorus Ensemble, consisting of 20 junior high and high school girls from Minamisoma, Fukushima, performed the well-loved classic Furusato, or Home Town. It was composed in 1914 for children to sing in school.

The two institutions also have a long relationship. The tutelary deity of the shrine is one of the early shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo. He provided assistance to the temple after it was destroyed during the Siege of Nara in 1180. The smaller Taira army overwhelmed a larger group of warrior monks in established defensive positions in Nara to burn down much of the city, including all but one of the Buddhist temples. The Heike Monogatari describes the original Great Buddha statue at Todai-ji melting in the heat of the fire.

The performance of Furusato probably sounded something like this.

Here’s an excerpt of the kagura dance, Urayasu no Mai. It’s not as old as you might think. This dance was created in 1940 as part of the national celebrations commemorating the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Imperial line.

Could one of the reasons the Japanese were not overcome by hysteria during the Tohoku disaster be a certain perspective and equanimity inculcated over many centuries as a result of the vicissitudes of history, snippets of which are described above?

Do I read too much into it all? Perhaps.


* That’s an unfortunate choice of words in the book review at the link:

…(L)ike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, (Japan) embraced reactionary modernism.

Nothing “reactionary” about them at all, unless you were a Stalinist. Fascism was a progressive movement, as even the progressives — such as FDR — recognized. The term was coined in 1984 by Jeffrey Herf.

* My sister gave me a print of this illustration of Minamoto no Yoritomo as a gift not long before I started studying Japanese. She had no idea who it was, but she said it reminded her of me.

Posted in Festivals, History, Music, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Artistic expression

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 19, 2012

CAN’T pass this story up, though it’s not Japan-related.

From the Bangkok Post:

The Culture Ministry will call a meeting with organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent after the popular programme aired a female contestant painting on a canvas with her bare breasts on national television on Sunday.

“There must be limits on artistic expression. I was shocked when I saw the clip,” Ms Sukumol said. “The ministry will meet the organisers of Thailand’s Got Talent to get an explanation.”

There were three judges on the program. Two passed the contestant and one flunked her. Two of the judges were men and one of them was a woman. The judges who passed the contestant said it was another type of artistic expression.

No, you don’t have to ask. You already know.

There’s a six-minute video at that link, by the way. The program was recorded before broadcast, so one small section of the screen was electronically altered.

There’s no accounting for taste, I know, but I would have preferred to see the female judge (actress Pornchita Na Songkhla) render that painting rather than the actual painter. Her nickname is Benz.

Oh, brothers and sisters, ask and ye shall receive! Benz (who thought the performance was inappropriate for Thai culture) has some experience with this sort of thing herself. As the blogger Kaewmala reports at this website, she starred in a photo layout for Image magazine in 2010. In a couple of those photos, she’s topless and covered with chocolate. In another, she bares half her chest (vertically, from the middle out) with two rather dark-complexioned gentlemen pulling on her blouse.

As the site notes, that raises the question of whether some breasts are more artistically equal than others.

Now that’s an issue that deserves thorough debate!

Kaewmala also reports that Judge Benz really digs it when boys do it:

In fact, the gender split is reversed in this vote on the same program. The comparison of this video with the one in the link above is one of the most educational experiences I’ve ever had on the Internet.

There’s a big black hairy guy in this one, too. One commenter says the pianist’s name is Elton.

Posted in Arts, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Music, Thailand | Leave a Comment »

Very deeply hidden harmonies

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 15, 2012

AN article floated alongside during the daily grand tour of the Internet about the sort of musical event I’d love to attend if it were geographically feasible.  The South Korean Culture Ministry is sponsoring the 2012 Arirang Festival for three days starting tomorrow in Seoul. Arirang is a folk song that Koreans sometimes refer to as their unofficial national anthem. The festival will present performances of the song in different styles, ranging from K-Pop to traditional pansori.

Listening to the same song for three days could get tedious, but Arirang has several regional variations, and those will also be performed. The song itself is said to be about 600 years old, but the version most frequently heard today is the Seoul version that dates from the 1920s.

The most interesting part of the story is the reason the Culture Ministry decided to hold the festival to begin with:

Titled the “2012 Arirang Festival”, the three-day event is taking place as Seoul prepares to submit its official application for a Unesco designation for “Arirang” in all its regional forms this month. This follows on the heels of China’s controversial decision last year to list the song as its National Intangible Cultural asset, and seek registration as China’s Unesco World Heritage.

People in the West know all about oligarchies, hegemons, and imperialists, and they recognize those characteristics in contemporary China. Even casual students of history recognize what’s going down when China claims 90% of the islands in the South China Sea and plays gunboat diplomacy using fishing boats with its neighbors, or says the Senkakus are part of their core national territory despite their recognition of the islets as Japanese territory for 75 years (until seabed deposits of natural resources were discovered). They understand the underlying motives propping up the façade of plausible deniability about mystery websites that assert Chinese claims to Okinawa or parts of North Korea.

What seems to have escaped the notice of many, however, is that China intends to extend its reach beyond the sphere of geopolitics into the cultural. Taking formal steps to assert ownership of the traditional culture of East Asia, even when they don’t own it, is in a different dimension altogether. It’s another manifestation of the belief that China is the flower in the center of the world, as expressed in the adjective 中華 (a term used by the Japanese as the Chinese in Chinese food). Now that they’re strong enough to back up the gasconade outside their borders, they expect the rest of the world to recognize their Imperial Floritude and pay tribute.

It’s also easy to find Westerners sympathetic to the Chinese; the believers in the fascisto-progressive movement that began a century ago have much in common with the rulers of Beijing. Flat-earther Thomas Friedman has famously wished the United States could have the Chinese government “for a day”. Others advocate the global adoption of the one-child policy, and some even think it’s a “boon for China girls”, even though they admit a generation has “disappeared”.  A few of these folks can be remarkably blasé about those forced premature disappearances. You remember what Trotsky said about being unable to make a national omelet without losing a few eggs, right?

For a superb insight into the contemporary Chinese mindset, I recommend the English blog Hidden Harmonies, written by a group of native Chinese and ethnic Chinese overseas. Strictly speaking, it is one of the most educational websites anywhere. It was initially intriguing because their critique of the Western media’s inability to write jackassery-free stories about China is immediately recognizable to those who see the same willful braying fatuity in stories about Japan. Once you know how the Japan fingers operate, it’s easy to spot in the China stories. Here’s an example from Hidden Harmonies:

Recently, a series of photographs showing a white American man in China giving an old woman some of his fries have caused a stir in China. Being opportunists, the western press could not contain themselves so as to use this incident in order to show the merciful beneficence of western culture to Chinese. This gloating huffington post article for example could not help but compare this act of McFry magnanimity with the callous behavior of Chinese public in leaving a child to die in the street (also see here for similar self-satisfied, supercilious reporting of this incident)…

The message is loud and clear. Whites are the type of people that share their fries with poor and old people while the Chinese like to watch children die in the street…Why is this even a story that the west is focusing on? Aren’t there comparable acts of kindness that take place everyday involving people of all ethnicities and nationalities in all countries? But none of those likely involve the symbolism that the western media loves. McDonald’s is a symbol of American culture. The beneficence of a white man sharing some wholesome good ol’ American McFries  with a homeless Chinese woman makes western audiences feel good when that image is contrasted with the mainstream media images of heartless, subhuman Chinese.

Further acquaintanceship with Hidden Harmonies brings the picture into focus, however. For example, the first paragraph of their justification for the Chinese claim of the Senkakus includes the assertion that the islets are uninhabitable. That will puzzle the many Japanese who know that the Koga family ran a business on those inhabited islands from 1895 to 1940. It will also puzzle President Ma of Taiwan, whose master’s thesis notes the existence of a natural spring that can support 200 people. Yet HH congratulates themselves on their important research.

One post about the Dalai Lama is titled “Lowlifes Imitating Art”, contains a reference to his “government of goons”, and suggests their problem is Tibetan Buddhism.

Another is titled, “Let’s Talk About Tiananmen Square, 1989”. The talk is written by someone living in China and involves the explanation that the students and the soldiers were really copacetic with each other with the exception of a few malcontents, that perhaps only a handful of people were maybe possibly killed on the square, that the trouble was caused by some “thugs and anarchists” among the demonstrating workers, and that the ringleaders were five or six people called “student leaders” (the sardonic quotation marks are theirs) later spirited out of the country by their “handlers”.  They update the career of one of these leaders by explaining she has converted to Christianity and is involved in CIA-backed “charity” work (ditto), which they say is really a “forum to complain about China’s one child policy”.

The poster writes:

From everything I know, I can find no fault here.

The post also has several photographs. It doesn’t contain this one. It presents a different perspective of that fellow in the white shirt standing in front of what seems to be four tanks in the cropped picture.

There’s also no mention of the 60,000 people who earlier this month commemorated what those hooligans did 23 years ago to sully the Chinese reputation:

Hong Kong held a candlelight vigil Monday to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in stark contrast to mainland China where activists said hundreds of people were detained.

Hong Kong’s Victoria Park glowed with candlelight in what has become an annual act of remembrance for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people killed in the June 3-4, 1989 onslaught against pro-democracy activists in Beijing.

“The trend of democracy cannot be blocked,” Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, told the crowd in a speech.

“Never forget June 4. Democracy for China now! Long live democracy!” he said, estimating that 180,000 people attended the event. Others said there were no more than 60,000.

Tiananmen veteran Fang Zheng, whose legs were crushed by a tank as the PLA rolled into the square said: “You have all not forgotten what happened 23 years ago. Thank you all for 23 years of support.”

In other words, the propaganda from those Western devils is so insidious it successfully ensnared 60,000 Chinese in Hong Kong.

Another educational benefit derived from reading the site over a period of time is that one begins to realize why the Chinese oligarchs aren’t worried about the defilement of their children’s minds when they send them to study overseas. Not only are the scions impervious to Western values, they are openly contemptuous of them — starting with democracy.

Here’s what it looks like when they do criticize the Chinese government: Calling on the government to uphold the rule of law by prosecuting a Brit caught in the attempt to rape a young Chinese woman instead of just deporting him.

Was their view on the rule of law the same when the Japanese applied the same principle? When some Chinese bravos tried to storm the Senkakus during the Koizumi administration, Mr. Koizumi had them apprehended and sent back home. This was unacceptable for the later Democratic Party government, however, because that showed disrespect for the rule of law. Thus, when the Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested for ramming two Japanese coast guard ships in the fall of 2010, they put him in detention and started the legal process working. The DPJ insistence on the rule of law lasted only a couple of weeks, until the Chinese decided to throw some Japanese engineers in jail for suspected espionage, cut off rare earth exports, and harass the Japanese ambassador by calling him in for a half-dozen harangues, once in the middle of the night on a Saturday night.

Score another one for the guys at Hidden Harmonies.

Faith in the Mother of all Manifest Destinies combined with the resentment stemming from the imaginary insult of being prevented for centuries from assuming their rightful position as the Ultimate Expression of the Divine Blossom Among the Weeds, and their growing economic strength, means that the Chinese will be more assertive in the future about expressing this world view and acting on its assumptions. Even to the point of insisting that all your culture are belong to us.

Be prepared.


Because the only absolutes, as Benjamin Franklin observed, are death and taxes, fairness demands that this lover of Chinese classical/traditional music and practitioner of chi kung — which really deserves recognition as an intangible cultural world heritage — present some positive stories as well.

Here’s one:

China will take swift counter-measures that could include impounding European aircraft if the EU punishes Chinese airlines for not complying with its scheme to curb carbon emissions, the China Air Transport Association said on Tuesday.

The warning came as the U.N.’s aviation body expressed concern about the growing threat of bilateral reprisals.

Chinese airlines, which have been told by Beijing not to comply with the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, refused to meet a March 31 deadline for submitting carbon emissions data.

A new stand-off looms after EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said the carriers would have until the end of this week to submit their data or face enforcement action.

“Chinese airlines are unanimous on this. We won’t provide the data,” Wei Zhenzhong, secretary general of the China Air Transport Association, said on the sidelines of an International Air Transport Association (IATA) meeting in Beijing.

Since the point of curbing carbon emissions was to prevent global warming, and since people (the Chinese government among them) now know that the globe stopped warming more than a decade ago, and the plot was revealed to be a particularly vile bit of fockery promoted in part to further the concept of global governance, the EU tax is pointless. The faster and harder the Chinese step on this insect, the better.

And it behooves us all to take note of what the Chinese deem to be of value in the international marketplace. (Since living in the Bay Area of California with its large Chinese population, I’ve been amazed at how those most natural of born capitalists ever took Marxism seriously.) It would seem they are not sanguine about the prospects for the global economy.


It’s easy to see why Arirang is still popular after 600 years. It’s an adaptable song.

Posted in China, International relations, Music, South Korea | Tagged: | 10 Comments »

People who should know better

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 5, 2012

ONCE Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru admitted both defeat in his effort to prevent the restart of the Oi nuclear power plant and his acquiesence in the restart, it was essential he break his Twitter ceasefire to spin the outcome, rally the troops, and regain the initiative.

The fusillade began bright and early Monday morning, and the initial volley was a mild complaint about the Hitler comparisons. Mr. Hashimoto chose to aim at Watanabe Tsuneo, the chairman of Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, which operates the country’s largest newspaper, a television network, a baseball team, and a publishing house. Mr. Watanabe’s position and political influence made his use of the H-word in reference to Mr. Hashimoto a news story in Japan. The story itself faded quickly, and few outside the media are interested in what he has to say, but one appearance is enough for them to assume they have carte blanche to trot it out whenever they feel like it. A peculiar aspect of this story is that the Yomiuri Shimbun does not sail in the NYT/WaPo/Guardian orbit. In the words of The Economist, their editorial position is “conservative”.

Mr. Hashimoto exposed the absurdity of the analogy by noting that Hitler was a mass murderer, and said that he thought it was in violation of “international etiquette”.

Now there’s a man who doesn’t follow political discourse in the English-speaking world.

Once he was warmed up, he moved on to the issue of nuclear power. He tried to justify the decision to give in on Oi by explaining the difficulty of his (and the city of Osaka’s) position:

We have no authority. We cannot collect data, issue regulation orders, plan rolling blackouts, or do anything else.

It took only a few minutes for one blogger to respond:

Mr. Hashimoto originally claimed, “There will be sufficient power even without nuclear energy. All we have to do is turn off our air conditioners for a few days.” In other words, he just admitted that no data collection backed up his claim.

She added:

It should be possible for the city of Osaka to formulate energy-saving plans and conduct trials, but no trace of any concrete efforts on their part can be seen.

The Osaka mayor insisted that the primary issue was local safety and a crisis management system:

The people promoting atomic energy bring up the national economy, but Osaka’s problem is different. The national economy should be discussed in the context of creating a new energy policy and a power supply system.

Notice that the mayor used the adjective “national” instead of “local” for the issue of the economy. The latter would have negated his argument. Meanwhile, Monday’s Japanese edition of the Asian Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government has decided to resume nuclear power plant construction, which they suspended after the Fukushima accident. Chinese authorities said they made their decision after weighing safety concerns and the benefit the plants would have on the national economy. One of the safety concerns might have been that coal is the fuel used to generate 77% of China’s energy, and they just spent the last half-decade opening coal-fired plants at an annual rate that exceeds the entire power generating capacity of England.

Finally, Mr. Hashimoto said the anti-nuclear power forces should move on to the “second stage”. Stage Two is preventing the other idled 48 reactors in Japan from resuming production until a new regulatory agency is created and new safety standards are devised.

So to sum up, he expects other regions to share their power with his Kansai region to offset their shortfall, while (a) the Oi nuclear plants that supply his region are the only ones in the country operating, (b) he rallies his forces to prevent the restart of plants in other regions, which (c) are dealing with power shortages of their own with the plants shut down.

Yeah, that’ll work.

Some sort of malware seems to have infected the political programming of the devolutionary reformers. Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi caught the virus too:

“I support the denuclearization of power, so I want them to stop the restart. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry said they would release a hazard map by the end of the summer. (Restarting before that release) is disrespectful. Whatever else can be said, they’re screwing around with us.”

Hori Yoshito, an entrepreneur who founded a venture capital funding company, read that and blogged that a politician’s views on nuclear energy should constitute a litmus test: Opposition = failure. Mr. Hori also remembered that one serious energy shortage in Japan resulted in the country going to war.

Love! Love! Hairo

War wasn’t on the minds of the 450 or so people who showed up for a demonstration against the restart of the plants in Fukui City on Sunday that featured the latest in protest music. What is it about the combination of music and activism? The Jamaicans thought they could Chant Down Babylon, and the Love Generation believed they could chant the rain away at Woodstock.

Unlike those two groups, narcotization wasn’t a factor for the Fukuians. It might have been a sugar high instead, because they grooved to Fujinami Kokoro performing her anti-nuclear power hit, Love! Love! Hairo. (Hairo means “eliminating reactors”.) Kokoro is a 15-year-old singer/actress/celebrity who broke into the biz as a clothing model when she was in the first grade. Now she’s becoming known as a “datsugenpatsu idol”, datsugenpatsu meaning the denuclearization of power generation. She told the crowd at Fukui City:

“Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko said he would make a decision on restarting the Oi plant on his responsibility. What sort of responsibility will he take? The accident at Fukushima #1 isn’t over yet.”

Of course there’s a YouTube! The official release of Love! Love! Hairo features her in a duet with Kanaru, who is even younger.

The lyrics are unremarkable, with one curious exception. That’s the inclusion of the word giman, which means fraud or trickery. It is unlikely to be part of the vocabulary stock of the average junior high school student.

At least the Hollywood establishment uses adults at the age of consent when they peddle their papers. It would seem Kokoro is the tool that emerged at the end of someone else’s process to indoctrinate the youth, not the youth whose bright idea started the process.

Kokoro also has a Twitter account that she uses for Tweeting anti-nuke lines that some people think she writes herself. Those messages have been retweeted and praised by the likes of Sakamoto Ryuichi and Son Masayoshi. Fancy that — two very famous and very busy people with enough time to read teen-tweets!

The former is the well-known world-class musician-composer and third-rate thinker. The latter is a billionaire who founded SoftBank, the leading Internet company in Asia. Mr. Son also keeps his eyes peeled for lucrative crony capitalist business opportunities when they aren’t glued to the Twitter site. After he conferred with then-Prime Minister Kan Naoto last year, everybody got solar all of a sudden. Mr. Kan’s last act as prime minister was to shepherd a bill through the Diet that will require utilities to buy electricity generated by renewable sources at rates well above market prices. Nuclear energy costs about JPY 10 per kWh, but the rate for alternative energy that goes into effect on 1 July will be about double that. It will be higher still for solar energy — the juice generated by businesses, schools and homes is already sold at four times the nuclear power rate.

Now guess which Japanese billionaire plans to build 10 solar power plants.

Indeed, the use of Kokoro as a propaganda vehicle is an international phenomenon. Here’s Ralph T. Niemeyer, the director of the film Hibakusha, keeping his eyes peeled for a different kind of business opportunity. The complete English title of the movie is Hibakusha – from Hiroshima to Fukushima, Nuclear Capitalism Tries to Rebound. To ensure a better audience in Japan, the word “capitalism” was replaced with “business” in the local title. Watch his eyes light up at the end when he hears that she has a high show business profile, and is a really intelligent girl with her own ideas.

The Good Book quotes The Nazz as asking his old man to go easy on the unhip because they haven’t got a clue. All the people in this story know not what they do either, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing any more forgivable. Only Fujinami Kokoro gets a pass, and that expires on 22 November this year.

That’s her 16th birthday.


Wrote Japanese blogger Ikushima Kantoku:

Many people have expectations for Mr. Hashimoto, and I am one of them. It’s a feeling of half-love, half-hate, and I don’t understand it myself.

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The Korean hue in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 2, 2012

ONE of the guilty pleasures this website provides is the chance to contribute to the disappointment of those people overseas, particularly in the West, who think it is a matter of received wisdom that the Japanese hate Koreans. It would be more pleasurable to think it contributes to their enlightenment, but that would assume they’re interested in being enlightened.

Page 38 of the 1 January edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun (which runs to 40 pages, with page 40 being an advertisement) has an article about the popularity in the Kyushu region of a Busan vocal duo known as Hue. The article reports that the duo, Kim Ji-hyeon (she) and Ryu (or Yu) Mu-yong (he), will make a concerted effort to extend their popularity throughout Japan this year. They’ll start with their first solo concert in the country in Fukuoka City on 6 March.

Once members of the Busan Municipal Chorus, they formed their duo in 2005 to perform what they call popera. Their repertoire seems to consist of pop music that requires sophisticated vocal technique, as well as some opera selections.

Hue’s first Japanese appearance was in Fukuoka City at a Fukuoka City – Busan Friendship Commemorative Concert in 2009. They’ve since performed here more than 10 times, mostly in Fukuoka City. That’s easily arranged, because the city is accessible from Busan by a three-hour jetfoil ship service, or dozens of daily flights that take less than an hour.

They were encouraged to step up their activities in Japan after Yoshida Fumi (56) formed a fan club for them in Fukuoka City. Ms. Yoshida cried when she heard them perform the Japanese song Sen no Kaze ni Natte with Korean lyrics. That’s a translation of the line “I am a thousand winds that blow” from the English-language poem Do not Stand at my Grave and Weep. The song, a tear-jerker suited to a semi-operatic performance, was originally released by the Japanese composer on only 30 privately-produced CDs. It became a national phenomenon in slow motion, however, and eventually inspired a special television drama with that name.

Ms. Yoshida’s fan club, which consists mostly of junior high and high school girls, turned out for Hue’s three Fukuoka City concerts last year, as well as a performance in Busan. Hue returned the favor with an expression of thanks to the club on their newest disc, which was released last fall. They also printed all the lyrics in Japanese and recorded the song Prologue, the lyrics of which are by Ms. Yoshida’s favorite poet, Yun Dong-ju.

Poet Yun studied English literature at two Japanese universities in 1942, but was arrested as a thought criminal by Japanese police and sentenced to two years in jail in 1943. He died in prison in 1945 in — get ready for it — Fukuoka. There’s plenty of information available about him on the Japanese-language part of the Web.

The newspaper report notes that the duo is almost unknown in South Korea.

Now roll all of the above information around in your head one more time and marvel at how amazing life its own self can be.

Here’s a YouTube clip of an appearance they made on Kumamoto television promoting a concert in that city in December 2009. The interview before and after the song consists of the pleasantries you might expect; Ms. Kim (who now has red hair) says she looks forward to seeing the local tourist attractions, such as Kumamoto Castle and Aso. It’s easy to understand why they’re popular. They’re quite talented, though the style of music won’t be to everyone’s taste. But that isn’t the point, is it?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: They sing in English.

When they’re not singing in Italian, that is:


Speaking of those in the West who either can’t be bothered or are too thick to get it, BBC introduces a Roland Buerk report this way:

South Korea’s K-pop music has overtaken Japanese music as the industry’s most popular genre in the country.

Relations between the two countries have been difficult after Japan’s colonisation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century.

But with the growing popularity of Korean culture, will attitudes to people of Korean origin, who make up a large ethnic minority in Japan, soften?

Let’s see…in the first paragraph, someone writes that South Korean pop music is more popular in Japan than Japanese pop music, but in the third paragraph asks if Japanese attitudes towards the Koreans living in Japan will change. Spit out that gum before you try walking, son.

Buerk even mentions the growing popularity of Korean restaurants in Japan, but still can’t see beyond the end of his nosenetwork’s pre-packaged narrative.

Further, he fails to provide actual statistics for his claim about K-pop dominance. Taking a mass media report on faith has been a suckers’ proposition for decades. Korean music could very well be the Top of the Pops in Japan, but he has to show us the numbers to be credible.

Finally, he still can’t competently pronounce Japanese place names, despite having lived in the country three years this month. Any native English speaker can learn proper Japanese pronunciation in a matter of minutes. Buerk’s failure to do so demonstrates his level of commitment to his assignment.

If you’re interested in seeing the clip, please hit the search engine of your choice. Links around here are reserved for serious journalism.

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Posted in Japanese-Korean amity, Music, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Winter beauty

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 4, 2011

THIS POST was timed to go up at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night in Japan. For 22 years, from 1978 to 2000, that was the starting time for the broadcast of the 30-minute musical program, Enka no Hanamichi. Enka is a style of music popular in Northeast Asia, and in Japanese the word is usually written with the two characters that mean “to perform” and “to sing”. An excellent description is found at Barbara’s Enka Site:

A friend of mine once remarked that these were “Japanese torch singers” and that’s a fairly good description. Enka songs are 1 to 6 minutes long, and are performed standing, usually wearing formal attire. For men this can be either Japanese or Western attire, for women it is generally a kimono. (Korean and Chinese women seem to usually sing Enka in glittering gowns.) The song lyrics are tragic yet philosophical, and sometimes even amusing. Drinking songs are common, usually to help “drown my sorrows”. Songs of love, separation, death and suicide abound. The subject matter of the typical lyrics involves tragic love and sweet resignation to the comfort of cherished memories of better times. Arrangements use a unique mixture of Western and Japanese instruments, from the koto to the electric guitar. Violins are common, but surprisingly, pianos are not.

We Western music lovers might imagine it this way… Team up a songwriter who writes old-fashioned Gypsy music with a romantic lyricist of an American blues or country music background. Then translate the lyrics into poetic but old-fashioned Japanese and arrange the music for a band made of half Japanese musicians and half European classical musicians, plus a harmonica and electric guitar. Then find a Japanese woman to sing the song in full kimono, but choreograph her performance as if it were an operatic aria. That would give you something close to Enka music…

Enka no Hanamichi was an elegantly done program — the production quality was so good, the singers would use their filmed appearances as promotional videos. Japanese television makes extensive use of the stereo sound function to present movies and television programs in their original language versions, as well as the dubbed Japanese version. This program used the same function to offer just the background music, which allowed the viewers at home to use it for karaoke. (Song lyrics are commonly printed on the screen for all types of music programs here.) The elegance, exquisite sadness, and sheer amount of talent involved meant the program was a fine way to spend a half hour on a chilly autumn or winter evening, after a bath and with a glass of shochu mixed with hot water.

I was reminded of the program after reading short article from a Wakayama newspaper announcing the selection of enka singer Sakamoto Fuyumi, a native of Kamitonda-cho, to receive a local award for her contribution to culture. (The characters used to write Fuyumi are “winter” and “beauty”. It’s also her real name; names of that sort for women are not uncommon in Japan.)

Her big break came when she appeared on an NHK program for amateurs. Songwriter Inomata Kosho, one of the judges, was so impressed with her performance he took her in as a pupil. (In fact, she became his live-in housekeeper.) Her first hit came at the age of 20 in 1987 and sold more than 800,000 copies. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun article too old to be on line, that was a record at the time for first releases, though I suspect they’re referring specifically to this genre. Since then, she’s released more than 30 albums and appeared on NHK’s famed New Year’s Eve Music Program, Kohaku Uta Gassen, more than 20 times.

Part of her appeal is her combination of sweet femininity with a certain gutsiness and unfeigned naturalness. Another part is that she really is a winter beauty: She won an award in 2006 for looking good in a kimono.

Ms. Sakamoto has maintained close ties to Wakayama, and when informed of the award, said:

I will continue to devote myself to the path of song with the hope that I can please everyone in Wakayama. Thank you very much for this honor.

You can hear and see all that for yourself in this YouTube video, which is another fine way to spend a chilly Sunday evening. Note how the instrumentation is a combination of Western classicism, rock and roll, and traditional Japanese music, as Barbara the Enka Lady explained.

And for yet another example of Japanese ecumenicism, as well as Sakamoto flexibility, here she is with Hosono Haruomi of Yellow Magic Orchestra in a group called H.I.S. performing Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze with Japanese lyrics.

Stick around to the end and you’ll see her in a brief interview. She looks good in jeans, too.

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We love chin-don too!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 23, 2011

CHEESE and crackers, Laurel and Hardy, strawberry ice cream and tempura — felicitous combinations all, but none are so fine as the pairing of high school girls and chin-don!

We Love Chin-Don Girls

As long-time friends know, chin-don is that whacked-out Japanese urban street music presented by musical jesters decked out in Edo High Camp, armed with Western and Japanese and instruments, and performing a repertoire from the Western and Japanese Hit Parades stretching as far back as the turn of the century — the 20th Century, that is. Now I ask you: Could anything be sweeter than these young sweeties getting down to century-old East Asian funk in a style that makes Weird Al Yankovic and Spike Jones look as straitlaced as a Salvation Army marching band?

Those lucky enough to be at the Lunar Park amusement park in Maebashi, Gunma, last Sunday would have seen six female high school seniors from the Tatebayashi Commercial and Technical High School in Gunma’s Meiwa-machi working out in a group called We Love Chin-don.

They aren’t the only Gunma girls with a chin-don jones. Their formation was inspired by the Chin-don Girls, another group of students from the same high school who were graduated this spring. They were the first to perform at Lunar Park last year.

The new group was started by senior Kawasaki Ayumi, who saw last year’s band up close and personal and thought they were too cool for school. She rustled up five of her friends to continue the new tradition. They were tutored by the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club of Maebashi, an amateur group who won a national championship in April at the national chin-don competition in Toyama. They also picked up tips by watching videos of the Chin-don Girls in action.

We Love Chin-don began performing in local festivals and senior citizen homes in July, and their Lunar Park performance was a joint appearance with their mentors. Said Kitahara Yuichiro, the big chikuwa of the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club:

“Today they performed with a lot of guts, and all their practice resulted in a big success.”

Said the big chikuwa-ette Miss Kawasaki:

“The great part about chin-don is that we get excited by coming in contact with other people. We want to pass chin-don on to the younger girls in school.”

This time we’re in luck! We Love Chin-don will next appear at the 9th National Amateur Chin-don Competition in Maebashi on 5-6 November. That gives us two weeks to get ready.

Now if only they had seen fit to put videos of their performances, or those of their models in the Chin-don Girls, on YouTube or a similar site. They haven’t — yet — so we’ll just have to make do with this brief clip of their teachers in the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club.

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