A Letter to Isaku in Konch magazine

My piece on Japan’s nuclear disaster, “A Letter to Isaku,” and all our children, is published in the new issue of Konch Magazine from Ishmael Reed Publishing Co.

Isaku takes taiko to another place

Isaku Kageyama believes taiko must claim its legitimate place in the world of great music.
Japanese culture is beautiful.
But unless Japan can be part of the world and see its place in the true sense _ with all the duties, responsibilities as well as rewards involved _ it won’t work.
Art is a way of facing up to that important and universal Question _ and maybe one of the few ways where there is a true Answer.
Luis Silva made this multicultural video statement in his gorgeous documentary for WeAllJapan, that says it all.

Music in Tokyo

Heard the other day at Gamuso, a cool artsy dive in Tokyo where I have read poetry with music a couple of times, Samm Bennett on the diddley bow, a one-string instrument made of a marron glace box, speaking a million words with a single string, his voice and his heart.

Another Robot

My story on the robotic “fashion model.”
Yes, I did ask the scientists why of all possibilities they have to come up with a robot for entertainment _ the very jobs people want to keep for ourselves and can hope to express our human-ness.
Unfortunately, they said, the technology isn’t good enough for robots to do work that humans don’t want to do.
So make them do the work that people want to do?
Have no fear _ it’s not good enough to take away any modeling jobs either.
People do it better.

What’s in a Face?

The robot by Hiroshi Kobayashi at Tokyo University of Science is just a face.
It sits on top of a mannequin body and attempts to duplicate emotional expressions as communicated on the human face.
Motors pull back at rubber skin, mostly around the eyes and mouth.
It is strange-looking and makes you stop and wonder what a face is all about.
Of course, we don’t like to admit we are vain and spend a lot of time and effort worrying about what we look like.
Looks aren’t everything, we say, what counts is the person _ inside.
But the truth is: Isn’t it after all looks that people notice first, and why we are attracted to a person?
If we didn’t care about appearances, then there would be no movie stars and fashion models and other people who make a career out of looking beautiful.
Mr. Kobayashi, who is an expert on the meaning of the face, says animals don’t communicate with their face though they may show their teeth or snarl.
Facial communication is one quality that makes human beings different from animals, he says.
That shows the face is important in human existence.
It’s the No. 1 tool in communication.
And it makes us human.
He also says all facial communication except smiling is negative.
The others are sadness, disgust, fear, anger, surprise.
I suggested there may be other unsmiling expressions that aren’t exactly negative like a sense of pathos, despair about the human condition, nostalgia, belief in the eternal, etc.
But he was quite firm that only smiling is positive.
In a column running this month in The Nikkei, actress Kyoko Kagawa recalled director Yasujiro Ozu once told her not to smile so much.
As an up-and-coming actress, she was constantly being told by everyone else to smile _ even when she didn’t even feel much like smiling.
“People don’t smile only when they’re happy. Sometimes they smile because they are sad,” Ozu was quoted as saying.
It is true that when people get their photos taken, they like to smile.
Say cheese!
And if you get your photo taken off-guard, your photo ends up making you look like an idiot.
It’s very difficult to get a portrait that’s nice without smiling, which probably means that people perceive the positive message of the smile, no matter how contrived it may be.
Robot scientists tell me it is important to justify the social benefits of their research.
I suggested to Mr. Kobayashi that his research could be beneficial for people who may have had their faces damaged by burns or war, to restore their faces so they can communicate with people using the robot face.
He said he had never thought about it.
I thought it was a great idea and a way that his research could help people, but he didn’t appear too convinced.

Meeting a ninja

Meeting a ninja isn’t something that happens everyday.
But it’s always uplifting to witness immersion in an endeavor for its unworldly intrinsic worth, not material gain, social status and other mundane purposes.
And the more unworldly the pursuit, and the more mysterious, self-effacing and secretive, like Ninjaism, that point becomes undeniable.
Real-life ninja Masayuki Waki is at a warehouse-like cafe in Kabukicho _ of all places _ to teach some tourists ninja techniques, including escaping grabs, turning somersaults and throwing star-shaped weapons.
He is patient and friendly and utterly professional.
I asked him what determines whether someone is a ninja.
But he said those kind of definitions don’t apply to ninja.
Ninja is a way of life.
And so it’s not like becoming a certified accountant or earning a judo black belt or graduating college.
It’s more like taking the leap of faith.
A ninja could be sitting right next to you on the Yamate Line: The whole point of being a ninja is that it shouldn’t be so obvious.
He says the evil-spirited assassin stereotype about ninja is false.
No one wants world peace more than ninja, he says.
Ninja also have the skills to save lives and help people.
And that could come in handy at any moment in life _ even on the Yamate Line.
Waki, 49, said he began learning ninja techniques two decades ago to use them on his job as a stuntman and fight-scene choreographer for movies and TV.
But he became totally captivated by the ninja world.
As a ninja should be, Waki is nimble on his feet, limber and quiet.
There is an airy quality about him that’s a bit hard to explain, but I’d say Nordic skier Kenji Ogiwara also has that bird-like quality as though his bones were hollow and he can really fly.
Ninja are strong as an individual but not in an aggressive way of self-assertion so they also blend in with the crowd.
Very ninja-like!
Interest in ninja is bigger among foreigners, who are more in tune to the sensibilities/instinct of survival than are “heiwa boke” Japanese, according to Waki.
At a dojo where he trains, about two-thirds of would-be ninja are from abroad.
At the one-day lesson for tourists, he demonstrates how flipping a business card like a “shuriken” can make it travel across the air, while simply throwing it won’t work.
He also notes jewelry and heels can serve as weapons.
And don’t try to finish off your opponent.
That kind of overkill is just asking for trouble.
Just run!

Being Big in Japan

Some famous Americans are embarrassed to Be Big in Japan.
Read lack of taste, intelligence and technical finesse taken for granted with Being Big Elsewhere like Europe and the US of A.
Asians wear mousey dark suits, part their oily hair at the side, have buck teeth and dark glasses and sing karaoke and fight each other at bargains for designer items and stand in long lines for Broadway musicals, Sting concerts and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
So Being Big in Japan is really Nowhere at all, except for the money obviously.
But Being Big Somewhere gets complex if you aren’t part of the mainstream and must place yourself in such a way to get to the funding/reputation/Crumbs of the Pie that make those outside the mainstream acceptable to the mainstream under its standards.
Not caring about Being Big Anywhere is to be free of all that nonsense.
And then Japan _ like the California desert or what Europe was for Dexter Gordon or the bottom of the sea where dolphins play _ can offer relief.
I’m earning an honest living fortunately in a way that has something to do with writing and the public good.
And I do the right thing in my responsibilities to my family, my conscience and society.
When I have free time, I write poems.
I’m spending what time I have on Earth in a way that makes sense to me.
Wanting to Be Big is Very Small.

Chushingura Revisited

I try to find time once a year or so to visit Sengakuji, the Tokyo temple where the 47 samurai of the Chushingura saga are buried.
It’s a 300-year-old story that holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese.
I’ve often heard the comment on how odd Japan must be for admiring such brutality.
You can still see at the temple the well where the ronin washed off the chopped off head of their target Kira.
You can also see the big rock still stained with the blood of Asano Takuminokami, who was forced to disembowel himself in the ritual of harakiri as punishment for his assault on Kira.
But the appeal of Chushingura isn’t about violence for revenge.
It is about the fight for justice.
The ronin withstood ridicule and ostracism, and took great risks as individuals sticking to what they thought was right, to say, “No,” to the abuse of power.
That is so different from the stereotype of Japanese as conformists who bend to the hierachy.
When the samurai march through the streets of Tokyo, Kira’s head dangling from a spear, the crowd comes out to cheer them on as heroes, even though they are outlaws.
I love this scene.
And I love that hyperactive Edo-era reporter with his notebook and brush-pen yelling out his “Extra” about the ronin’s surprise attack on Kira’s estate.
Everytime I go to Sengakuji, I am amazed at how there is a constant trail of visitors.
The incense is burning _ always _ before the stone graves of the ronin, lined up next to each other, as though their death was just yesterday.
The visitors aren’t all old as you’d expect.
One time, I saw a young woman, perhaps a teen-ager, putting a bouquet in front of one of the graves, and I could be mistaken but she wore a cap to hide her loss of hair for chemotherapy.
The visitors always comment on how young the ronin were when they committed harakiri, their punishment for revenge-murder, a violation of Edo law.
The carvings on stone give their names and ages _ Chikara, the son of leader Oishi Kuranosuke, was 16.
But I’m also struck by how some of the warriors were in their 50s, even 60s.
Told again and again in Kabuki and Bunraku plays, countless remakes of movies and TV shows, the characters and their sidebar anecdotes are as real to us as stories about our relatives.
The Chushingura story speaks to us today because it’s not merely about an outdated repressive samurai code or worship of madness-like loyalty as some would have us believe.
It’s a more universal story about individual choice: How to live _ and especially how to die.
It’s a testament to how modern and merchant-dominated Edo society had already evolved.
And so its values were more about human choice, not feudalistic fate.
Precisely because Japan is such a conformity-driven hiearchical political society, even today, the brave men who took a stand will be remembered for having shown individualistic honor and the courage of conscience in a sadly group-minded world.

Fujiya fiasco




Fujiya, the candy-maker of Peko-chan fame, is in deep trouble after acknowledging it had used old milk and other ingredients in its products.
The employees in charge of media act confused and disorganized.
That just adds to their bad image (irresponsibility/incompetence.)
Today, they weren’t sure if a Fujiya plant was being investigated by prefectural officials.
We have yet to confirm the reports, they said.
It was faster to just get the facts from Saitama Prefecture.
The latest is that the company didn’t tell the public about food-poisoning in 1995, merely filing a report with the local heatlh authorities.
I wonder why wrongdoing highlighting the lack of corporate ethics, Mitsubishi Motors, Snow Brand, etc. just keeps happening, although each time the public is outraged, and the outrage is genuine.
Change seems so slow in coming in Japan.
People continue to buy Mitsubishi cars and trucks.
Snow Brand lives under a different name Megu Milk.
And the Fujiya fiasco will be forgotten/forgiven. People will go back and buy Peko-chan cakes.
There’s so much “akirame” in Japanese culture.
Outrage serves merely as an outlet for emotions.
It never quite seems to serve as the engine for change that it should be.


One of the biggest stories to watch for this year is Toyota’s almost-certain-to-happen rise to the top, beating General Motors as the world’s No. 1 automaker in annual global vehicle production (and sales).






And there’s Sony. Sony needs to perk up its image (after the embarrassing massive recall of lithium-ion batteries). And the new year has started with everyone talking about the iPhone instead. Sony has so much riding on how the PlayStation 3 and Blu-ray disk fare this year. Maybe we need to even watch for takeover attempts and management shuffles?





Japan hopes to lead the world in robotics, and robots are constantly in the news here. Stories about robots make for a fun read (and fun reporting), partly because Japan views robots as cute nearly human companions _ a contrast to the view prevalent in the West of robots as tools.




An important development to monitor this year is Japan’s defense business. Japan is growing more assertive on the international stage, and the government has made no secret of its ambitions to beef up defense. The nuclear threat from North Korea has encouraged public support for the changes.