Amanojaku at Astro Hall

Amanojaku led by master drummer and composer Yoichi Watanabe did their “live” concert at Astro Hall in Harajuku THU Aug 20.
The stage was so small their pieces like “Dotou” and “Bujin” got a different, bit cramped, look.
But the music was as forceful and fascinating as always.
And it’s great Amanojaku is taking stage in a place like Harajuku.
You certainly got a close up look.
Chris Holland, from Denver Taiko, made his professional debut with Amanojaku and got a great strong sound on his odaiko solo.
Go Chris!
Amanojaku will be at a Bon Odori _ Japan’s native dance festival for the homecoming of ancestral spirits.
So if you want to get down and dance and have fun, hop on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line to Minami Tanaka Danchi (housing projects) in Nerima Ward.
Get off at Nerima Takanodai station and follow the drumbeat.
Thank the Japanese gods for another summer that’s over.

FRI Aug. 21 and SAT Aug. 22

photo by Annette Dorfman

Jellyfish in Monterey
photo by Annette Dorfman.

Amanojaku Taiko and Sumida River Hanabi

AMANOJAKU plays on a TV show about the annual Sumida River fireworks airing 7 p.m.-8:54 p.m. for a collaboration between Taiko and Hanabi.
Video found on YouTube showing (from left to right) Mayumi Kawana, Isaku Kageyama, Hiromi Ogawa the drummers of AMANOJAKU, led by Yoichi Watanabe.

Amanojaku in Dubai

Found on YouTube scenes of Amanojaku performing in Dubai in February as part of “FIESTA Japanese Food Night” at the Grand Millennium hotel.

An apology in Japan

“I want an apology from the police and prosecutors,” was what Toshikazu Sugaya, 62, said after winning freedom from what DNA tests proved had been an unjustified 17-year imprisonment in a murder he did not commit.
Slim and soft-spoken, Sugaya looks more like a gentle grandfather than any stereotype of a murderer of a 4-year-old girl.
He is drawing an outburst of public empathy in Japan, a nation where nearly 100 percent of criminal trials end in convictions but Sugaya is just the first retrial case in 22 years.
Since 1992, more than 215 people in the U.S. have been exonerated, including 16 who were at one time serving death sentences, according to the Innocence Project.
For federal cases, the wrongfully convicted can seek compensation of $100,000 a year for each year of incarceration for those on death row, and $50,000 a year for each year in prison for those not on death row, the non-profit legal clinic says.
But for state cases, half of the states have no compensation statutes.
In Japan, Sugaya, for now, wants an apology _ at least one clear vindication in this culture where a heartfelt apology can get bigger than life.
To make it even more profoundly Japanese, he also demanded the authorities apologize to the dead.
His parents died while he was in prison.
He will visit their grave, and he would like the police and prosecutors to also go and offer their apologies, he said on nationally televised news.
Sugaya, a kindergarten bus driver, had been sentenced to life in prison in 1993.
What struck him the most about the city landscape after he got out were all those stores, Sugaya said, while not being sure exactly what they were.
“This shouldn’t be dismissed as a mistake,” he said. “I want my life back.”

The process as an end

Photo by Ryan Bruss.

Japanese culture values process _ not just results.
It is not a pragmatic culture.
And so how you do something is as important as what gets done.
Art forms like tea ceremony are a good example of this way of thinking.
Appearance is all. Doing becomes dance.
The special envelope you use in Japan to mail cash to people has an envelope inside an envelope and you must fold it in three ways like origami almost and stamp it from the top with your seal where the top fold meets the bottom fold to show that it hasn’t been tampered with.
Then you write down on a piece of paper the amount of money that you have placed in the envelope.
No one checks whether this amount is factual.
In any other country, people would be writing whatever they want and complaining to the Post Office that their money got stolen.
I don’t know if Japan ever has this problem or why they seem to assume that this elaborate folding ritual ensures money won’t get ripped off.
Wearing a kimono feels a bit like this envelope process.
The way a kimono is a painful folding-wrapping-binding process is an eye-opener on how ascetic Japanese culture historically was.
It is such restrictive clothing not only to put on _ but also just to wear.
Moving around in it, even sitting in it, are challenging tasks that kill your back.
And I was sitting in a Western-style chair.
To imagine what it might have been like to sit for hours in that thing on a tatami floor with your knees folded underneath yourself is astounding.
The demands kimono makes on the human body applied to men as well as to women _ like samurai we see in Kurosawa movies.
Kimono requires the wearer to be really strong and have controlled posture like a Musashi.
Kimono to me shows the importance of process in Japanese culture.

Being Japanese: Kakijun, Enryo and Iki

KAKIJUN is something that could have significance only in Japan.
Kakijun refers to the rules on properly writing kanji characters _ specifically the order in which each stroke (traditionally rendered in paintbrush sumi-ink) must be written.
If you mess up the order, then it’s wrong _ even if it looks exactly the same as if it had been written in the correct order.
Kakijun highlights the essential importance of process _ as opposed to results.
If it’s not done the right way, it’s wrong.
Japanese society emphasizes the zenlike spiritual _ the virtue of what is happening within the individual _ form defining act _ not just Western-style pragmatism of getting things done, making money, winning status.
In another sense, kakijun is about fixating on regulations for the sake of appearances, not the substance of the action.
It penalizes deviations.
It discourages creativity.
It rewards conformity.
Still, kakijun can be a beautiful concept.
No wonder calligraphy looks a lot like abstract Western art.
It is forceful.
It is evidence of how the artist’s individuality is expressed in form.
It is evidence of how Japanese art is defined as the beauty of the process.
Japanese rules of behavior _ how to enter a door, how to bow, how to drink tea _ are like Dance.
How you do something _ even everyday things _ is part of the definition of that person’s value as a human being to all Japanese.
Pretty deep.
ENRYO is another super-Japanese concept.
Taken the bad way (let’s start with that first this time), it’s phony because it means: yup, you really want that second serving of cake but you don’t want to look greedy so you act like you don’t want it and say no, thanks, all the while hoping the host will realize you’re just saying that and deep inside you want the cake and so will offer it again, no no no I insist, at which point you get to “give in” and eat the cake without feeling like a pig.
This is enryo.
And it’s an everyday practice in Japan, even today.
This works only if the other party knows you are doing enryo.
It has been known to happen that if the other party for whatever reason fails to catch on and goes along with the preliminary refusal a la enryo-style, and doesn’t persist in offering the cake, the originator of enryo can get quite resentful _ about not getting that cake after all _ and accuse the other person of all kinds of inadequacies, including not being a proper Japanese _ so delicate is this give-and-take interaction of enryo.
Enryo assumes that everyone is in the know.
Enryo evolved out of an insular small-village mindset.
But enryo is also soulful _ caring about the other person so much you’re giving that person the chance to take his or her offer back, in case that person can’t really afford to offer you that extra piece of cake.
Enryo is about self-sacrifice.
Enryo is about modesty.
It’s about not being a totally egotistical and everyone-out-for-their-own kind of society.
It’s about quiet graceful self-demeaning appearances taking precedence over who gets what and big egos and individualism.
Many other cultures besides Japan actually have enryo.
Americans may be a minority in not being hip to enryo at all, and in assuming that no one will be crazy enough to say, “No,” to a desirable offer. Hey, why not? That’s what a normal American would think.
And, well, why not?
If you have to ask, then forget about it.
That’s what Enryo is.
IKI also sounds crazy if you try to explain it to a hard-core pragmatist.
Iki means you do the most cool things where people can’t possibly notice.
That’s what makes it totally cool.
It’s adoration of the less obvious, all the while hoping that the hidden wonders will somehow accidentally be noticed, making them even more superlative like a secret gift.
One good example of iki is a plain dark coat that’s the impeccable statement of understatement, which has as lining this ostentatious and intricate fabric.
The outer may be indigo but the innards would be an elaborate red and gold Hokusai-like manga design.
This is no joke, and some Edo Period “haori” coats are just like that.
Or a woman’s kimono would be subdued but have this special lining at the collar that’s only showing in a tiny, tiny bit.
It defies logic, and that’s why it’s so iki.
The goal of a labor-intensive item is not to show off.
It’s in and of itself precious _ although the argument can be made that iki is showing off of the ultimate, perhaps most perverse, kind.
Even among Japanese, iki is supposed to be localized _ very Tokyo _ and some say down-home Osaka people don’t value iki.
Iki means you never ask how much something costs.
Iki people would mix-and-match expensive items with weeds picked up off the road _ that kind of thing.
Like kakijun and enryo, iki is at once perception-oriented and arbitrary.
It’s all about what people think but so specific it doesn’t make any sense when you stop to think about it.
For those who swear by it, there are no gray areas.
And it is a good way to separate true Japanese from posers.

Cats galore 2

Cat by Mino.
More on the exhibit at Flew Gallery on through March 12.
Get off Sanguibashi Station on the Odakyu Line (two stops from Shinjuku), walk toward your left as you get out of the train station, and look down the alley behind the Seven-Eleven.

Cats galore

Masks, photos, miniatures, sculpture, prints and other artwork are on exhibit at a tiny house-turned-gallery, tucked away in an alley like a fairy-tale secret.
The theme: Cats.
Even the musicians performing at the opening are cats, wearing fuzzy head-gear complete with glowing LED eyes
Mino on reeds and trumpet, who made the giant cat heads, is one of the exhibiting artists.
I bought a figure he made of a Master Cat, posed in a welcoming gesture.
It has wires for whiskers and a disarmingly wise yet innocent look in its eyes.
Mino, who plays in a band called Kumonosu Quartet (not Kronos Quartet, mind you), seemed happy I bought his piece, though it was a bit hard to tell under the cat head with only his lips showing to play the instruments _ and talk.
“Do you like cats?” he asks, the obvious question to ask in this setting.
“Yes, I do,” I said, relieved I can be honest and have what I think is the right answer.
“Have you ever had (katteta) a cat?”
“Yes, though I don’t now.” Still relatively relieved.
“What kind of cat?” he asks in his soft warm voice, not probing, just expressing proper interest.
“His name was Pyonta, and he was all black.” Yes, he was a beautiful cat, and why hadn’t I thought about Pyonta lately when a cat is so utterly important with all the fascinating features a cat possesses _ so childlike and self-centered and lost in its own world, yet so giving, shrewd, instinctual. So total. But I don’t say those things.
“My cat is a tabby, and the name is Nyangoro,” Mino offers with a smile. “There’s no special reason for the name, except that it cries that way _ nyangoro.”
We share a laugh.
“Do you like other animals? I also like dogs,” I continue. “Some people say people who like cats don’t like dogs, and people who like dogs don’t like cats, but I like dogs and cats.”
Lo, behold, we agree again: “I like dogs, too,” Mino says.
The Kumonosu Quartet play at the Crocodile in Harajuku April 19.
Mino (at left in photo) has an exhibit at Gallery Yoyogi March 31-April 5.
Do you like cats?!?
Neko sukidesuka??!!

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!