Photos by Takashi Itoh/Whisper Not
Winchester Nii Tete
in TOKYO FLOWER CHILDREN
at the Pink Cow, Shibuya, Tokyo
June 8, 2008.
CASE CLOSED: Evidence of Amanojaku influence among Japanese Brazilian youngsters doing a great rendition of “Kenka Yatai,” by Yoichi Watanabe, Amanojaku leader, composer and master drummer.
Together for a century and building for the next century _ look at that little kid on the right, a future taiko star!!
Getting to watch high-profile people up close is one perk of our job as reporters.
This week, I did an interview with Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Nissan and Renault.
I can only observe Nissan as an outsider.
But Nissan has changed over the last decade in one key, obvious and simple way: The makeup of the people who work there is more diverse.
It’s unclear whether that’s going to just slow down decision-making, or prove a gem of an asset for an automaker trying to expand in emerging markets in a world and industry that are increasingly global.
It’s a nice thought to think diversity produces winners.
But does it?
Toyota and Honda don’t have diverse management.
But they’re beating Nissan (profit, vehicle sales).
Obviously, a company’s success is so complex there are many factors that ultimately determine what happens.
And the significance of promoting diversity is likely lost on both sides of the Pacific _ in the U.S., because diversity is so commonplace, and, in Japan, because diversity is so rare.
For some reason, it’s charming to watch people from different nations talk English in heavy accents to make decisions at a big company.
Maybe it’s a reminder of how corporations, even big ones, are in the end about the individual people who work there.
(Scene: A Kyoto-style restaurant on the 14th Floor of the Takashimaya Department Store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The delicately shaped servings in modern geometric cups and plates line a wooden counter facing wall-to-wall glass that overlooks a noontime luscious view of Shinjuku Gyoen garden.)
Miu (Fingering traditional “tenugui” cotton towels the restaurant has given as napkins): Cool!
Me (Trying not to sound too curious): And so how’s it going?
Me: You were telling me you picked up … met someone, right, the other day? And so what’s the latest news?
(Silence for several minutes; waiter from the other side of the counter brings cups of tea.)
Miu: Yes, there have been developments. He said we were supposed to meet at Alta in Shinjuku _ that was, I guess, last weekend _ to see a movie. But I didn’t go.
Me: You didn’t go.
Miu (Shaking head): But I did meet another guy. I went to a different club with some other friends, and there was this other guy.
Me: That’s great.
Miu: Actually, I am building a database.
Miu: I figure you have to be scientific about this procedure. (Begins to explain hurriedly) My Japanese really improves, spending time with these guys. Free lessons! (Laughs.)
Me: And so how does the database work?
Miu: It’s easy. You collect phone numbers. It must be harder for males but for females, you don’t have to do much.
Me: And how many have you collected?
Miu: Lots. I haven’t checked.
Me: Like 10? 20?
Miu (Giggling:) More like 100.
Me: Gosh. How can you possibly keep track?
Miu: That’s the challenge. You have to take good notes _ oh, you’d know about that. How do you keep track of all the people you interview?
Me: I have to write down the person’s characteristics on their meishi. Thank God Japanese are into their meishi.
Miu: What do you write?
Me: Like “did most of the talking,” “said nothing,” “glasses,” “made joke about such and such.” It’s tough. They tend to be all male and old and wear dark suits.
Miu: Similar problem here. All male, young, eager to get into bed, very very boring!
But I write down what they said and stuff. And I can sometimes even take their photo with my cell phone. My cell phone has a better digital camera than my camera.
Me: At least, you are getting around and meeting a lot of people and learning about Japan. And no sense rushing into settling down with one person. Maybe I could have gotten someone better if I had held out, too. (Sighs)
Miu: Oh, don’t say that. You have a great marriage.
Me: Thanks. So what do you do with all that information? You call one of them up randomly when you need to go out or something?
Miu: Something like that.
Me: Your generation _ there is so much technology available like SNS, e-mail, messaging, all that, to connect in so many ways maybe you don’t feel like you’ve checked out all your options unless you build this … database. (Miu shrugs as they eat with lacquered chopsticks soy-flavored grilled fish, chopped seaweed and daikon in vinegar sauce and miso soup with tofu.) The world was a simpler place when all you did was sit around at home and wait for a call on that fixed line.
Miu: You didn’t do that, did you?
Me: Of course, I did. Everybody did. What if he calls and you’re out? You’d miss that chance to go out with him, right?
Miu: How can you stand it?
Me: Right, it is quite oppressive, isn’t it? (Pauses) Yes, you’re right. The new technology is progress. But don’t you feel that Japan is still stuck in the 1950s as far as images of women?
Miu: What do you mean?
Me: There aren’t that many outlets for older women still, except maybe flamenco classes for housewives or something. We know studies say more women are working and some are even successful. We see them on TV. But the most desirable roles for women are defined as young and cute because it’s the men who are behind the definitions. I mean, look at the U.S. presidential race. What a contrast.
Miu: But maybe Yuriko Koike will run for the LDP presidential race, and there you go: Japan’s first female prime minister.
(Miu and Me laugh.)
Me: What comes to mind when you hear “obasan?” Nothing good, right?
Miu: No one wants to be called “obasan.” That’s like the worst derogatory thing in Japanese you can call a woman.
Me: There is “babaa.”
(They laugh. Waiter brings dessert, a traditional rice-cake pastry with fruit and sweet black beans )
Have you noticed what word the sales people at Shibuya 109, the Kyoto “maiko” and night club hostesses use to refer to older women to avoid saying “obasan?”
Miu (Visibly curious): No, what?
(They sip tea.)
Me: Forever young _ although older. But I think this shows how society hasn’t recognized the value of the female after women have gotten past their roles of reproduction.
Miu: Oh, wasn’t there some minister who got in trouble for calling women “reproductive machines?”
Me: Exactly. That mentality. There are lots of women in their 30s and older who truly dread being called “obasan.” If it hasn’t happened already, then it could happen any second. Horrors!
Miu: Moment of metamorphosis. Society decrees you useless for preservation of the species.
Me: I like being obasan. I am proud of being obasan.
Miu: OK, obasan.
Me: Obasan is a title that you earn as a woman when you grow older and wiser and better. Sounds a bit like sour grapes, doesn’t it? But I think I learned so much about womanhood _ maybe “personhood” _ through my motherhood _ or through my son, I guess, having a child.
Miu: That’s wonderful.
Me: All the years my son was growing up, his friends who spoke Japanese would call me obasan. They would look at me with those big innocent eyes of theirs, trusting me because I was their friend’s mother. It’s respect I earned not only because of my relationship with my son but also my son’s relationship with others. That’s why I get to be obasan. It’s real and very beautiful and full of dignity. Not some derogatory place in the hierarchy as defined by sexual desirability, work performance, whatever. It’s deeper than all that.
Miu: It is. And it should be like that.
Me: Women should be proud of being obasan.
Miu: Of course.
Me: Obasan Power!
Miu: That’s a good way to put it.
Me: But all you see in the Japanese media much of the time are obasan rushing to bargains, gossiping, taking flamenco lessons.
Miu: What’s the solution?
Me: I’m not sure. Data show Japanese women are choosing not to get married and not to have children, even if they do by some miracle get married. (Looks into Miu’s eyes.) I try to tell young women this every chance I get, but it’s the most important experience in life to have a child, OK? No one really told me this. I was so lucky I did get married and have a child. The common wisdom back then was that women had to prove we could be just as good as men. And so worrying too much about marriage and children was seen as backward, something that women who weren’t “liberated” (Holds up her hands to make quotation marks in the air with her fingers) did _ not women who wanted to make something of themselves and have careers.
Miu: I want a child. Maybe not now. But I want a baby someday.
Me: You will. You will. And you have plenty of time. To build databases and everything else.
Miu: This database I am building isn’t about that though. I’m not sure what it’s about. But I don’t want to be trapped into someone just because he picks me out from the crowd. Why do I have to wait for some coincidental accident in the office elevator or some freakish event like in a TV drama to meet someone?
Me: Maybe old-style Japan was on to something when they had omiai. That’s pretty orderly. So Japanese.
Miu: Then I wouldn’t have to spend all this time on a database.
Me: Someday you will meet that special person _ that man who will throw that whole database out the window.
Miu (Silent then): How do you know?
Me: You’ll know. You won’t have to ask.
Miu: I will hear my heart go thump thump. Uh-oh, I think that’s just the music blasting off at the club. I probably won’t be able to hear it _ it’s so loud in there (Laughs).
Recorded in Tokyo Feb. 16, 2008
A performance of poetry and music by the Tokyo Flower Children.
Little YELLOW Slut
You know her:
That Little YELLOW Slut, proudly gleefully
YELLOW-ly hanging on Big Master’s arm,
War bride, geisha,
GI’s home away from home,
Whore for last samurai,
Hula dancer with seaweed hair,
Akihabara cafe maid,
Hi-Hi Puffy Ami/Yumi,
Kawaiiii like keitai,
Back-up dancer for Gwen Stefani,
Your real-life Second Life avatar
Eager to deliver your freakiest fetish fantasies,
Disco queen, skirt up the crotch,
Fish-net stockings, bow-legged, anorexic, raisin nipples, tip-
Toeing Roppongi on
Yessu, i spikku ingrishhu, i raikku gaijeeen, they kiss you,
hold your hand, open doors for me,
open legs for you, giggling pidgin, covering mouth,
so happy to be
Little YELLOW Slut.
Everybody’s seen her:
That Little YELLOW Slut, waiting at
Home, cooking rice, the Japanese
Smelling of sushi,
Breath and vagina,
Fish and vinegar,
Honored to be
Flight attendant for Singapore Airlines,
Nurse maid, gardener,
Mochi manga face,
Sex toy, slant-eyes closed, licking, tasting, swallowing STD semen,
Yessu, i wanna baby who looohkuh gaijeen, double-fold eye, translucent skin, international school PTA,
maybe grow up to be fashion model, even joshi-ana,
not-not-not happy to be
Little YELLOW Slut.
I recognize her:
That Little YELLOW Slut, rejecting
Japanese, rejected by Japanese,
They all look alike,
Faceless, hoping to forget, escape
Dream come true for pedophiles,
Serving sake, pouring tea, spilling honey,
Rag-doll, Miss Universe, manic harakiri depressive, rape victim, she is
You, she is me.
Hai, hai, eigo wakarimasen, worship Big Master for mind, matter, muscle, money, body size correlates to penis size,
waiting to be sexually harassed, so sorry, so many,
so sad to be
Little YELLOW Slut.
Being a character in a book is flattering if the writing happens to be as good as “Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei” by David Mura (1991: Anchor-Random).
Across the boulevard, a Japanese woman strode straight toward me, wearing a dark coat, a black skirt, a black jacket, black stockings and long silver earrings. Her hair was permed, her face small, oval, a dimple like mine on her right cheek. Her lipstick was bright coral.
“Are you David Mura?” she asked.
“How did you know me?”
“Well, you said you’d be wearing a black coat and carrying a black shoulder bag.”
“I wondered if you could pick me out as an American.”
In many ways, Yuri looked like most of the Japanese women around us, but she possessed a flash that somehow wasn’t present in the others. Perhaps it was her lipstick, or the energy of her small frame. Young Japanese women seemed to fold into themselves when they greeted each other. It wasn’t just the gesture of bowing, it was the way their bodies always seemed to be stepping backward as they talked or giggled. Yuri had looked me straight in the eye and thrust out her hand in greeting. Her eyes and smile carried a wry, suspicious air. “Be forewarned,” they said. “Nothing gets past me.” Certain minority women in America have this toughness, this unwillingness to waste time with bullshit. Sometimes it’s strength, sometimes bitterness, sometimes both. With Yuri, I couldn’t yet tell.
She suggested a tempura restaurant nearby. Walking among the Japanese crowds, we talked in English. But I didn’t feel self-conscious as I sometimes did with Susie. Yuri and I both belonged, and did not; we shared a dual privilege. Even our clothing matched; I was also dressed in a black coat, black pants, white shirt.
The walls of the resturant and the booths were paneled in pine. There was a tatami room in back. We sat in a booth. Yuri ordered in Japanese. I wondered if it seemed strange to the waitresses that the woman was ordering, or that we were speaking English to each other. By this time, I could read enough kanji to get by on basic menus, and I could order for myself. Still, I was relieved to let Yuri order.
Nodding, she told me that many Sansei males she knew in San Francisco felt insecure about their sexuality _ they just didn’t feel attractive.
“And then, of course, they see white boys picking up on the Asian women …”
Still, Yuri didn’t always feel sympathy for the Sansei males. Many of them held traditionally Japanese chauvinistic values. They often felt that Japanese women, with their daikon legs _ short and thick like a Japanese radish _ square hips, and small breasts, lacked the beauty ahd glamour of white women. I felt pangs of self-recognition, and yet I was also relieved to know other Sansei men had similar uncertainties about their identity.
As Yuri and I talked, I thought how ironic it was that I had had to come to Japan before I could learn how other Japanese-Americans in my generation were dealing with their background. Oh, I had read Japanese-American novels and poetry, but they sometimes felt distant, almost mythical, unconnected to my experience in the white Midwest. Certainly Yuri had her biases, but she didn’t try to hide them. I felt an easy camaraderie with her. I knew she had praised my work in an article in San Francisco Poetry Flash. And something in our sensibilities resonoated with each other. I admired her willingness to speak out, to stand apart from the group.
The poems she showed me that afternoon confirmed that we were mining the same territory. It wasn’t just that they dealt frankly with sexual matters, or that her father appeared to have a temper like my father’s down to the occasional violence of his rages. No, there was a plunge beyond the acceptable and well-mannered, a sense of sexuality as destructive and violent, as representing a dark limit of human relations where rage reveals itself, a sense conveyed by images which left both the reader and the writer hovering on the edge of shame, anger, obsession.
Fathers of hiphop, the Last Poets are the archetype of great poetry with percussion.
Like the words of a shaman, poetry can be volatile and painful.
But poetry is about the hope for a better world where the divisions of race don’t matter.
The message of “Little YELLOW Slut” is that the same roots of discrimination that create Fetishism are at the bottom of what causes war and hatred and violence.
Stay tuned for Poetic Justice in a Tokyo Sound.
I would like to preface the poem with a quote from Mahatma Ghandi.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
He reportedly also said: “I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.”
When I was in fourth grade, I became obsessed with short story writing in which the narrator becomes something other than human _ like Soseki Natsume’s “I Am a Cat.”
It’s a great exercise: all the stories that are possible by taking on the persona of an animal, a pen on someone’s table, a toy.
My teacher was so impressed with my output that she made her whole class write stories taking this approach.
What a great teacher.
I only remember one storyline from the “masterpieces” I churned out as a fourth grader.
I was a cherry blossom who floated from Japan to the U.S. over the Pacific Ocean, enduring storms, pirates, whales and other dangers.
And somehow I manage to bury myself as a sakura seed in the soil to become a tree on the Potomac River.
The rest is history: The first cherry tree in the U.S. multiplies to become the rows and rows of blossoms lining the Washington D.C. river today.
This is preposterous scientifically (but doesn’t the flower contain the seeds?).
But it shows that even then I was a self-proclaimed cultural ambassador, hoping to bridge the East/West divide.
This is the latest composition from Amanojaku leader/master drummer Yoichi Watanabe, performed by Ayutsubo Daiko.
It’s inspired by Tokyo festival rhythms that even young people these days are rediscovering.
Beautiful beasts, the natives gather around a phallic shrine/float/”yagura,” celebrating in dance and music the harvest, filled with gratitude to the gods for the gift of Life.
The beat is nostalgic/primordial with a lot of sexy rock ‘n’ roll drive that gets your heart racing.
It’s both new and old, faraway and immediate, all at the same time.
Why look to the West (rock, R&B, etc.) for the roots of cool when nothing is hipper than Edo-style “iki?”
We cannot live/express ourselves/function as human beings if we cannot be proud of who we are.
Yes, it’s a challenge in this increasingly globalizing world. Economic power and other discriminatory hierarchies are used to define superiority, leaving chunks of people/races/regions out of a chance for personal realization, which is a human right.
It seems too easy to use culture (down to the simplest aspects of everyday life) as a tool to dominate/wipe out the legacy of weaker groups.
When a kid grows up to be a giant wanna-be, going blond or wearing dreadlocks (not that I have anything against these as fashion for fun and it’s the concept of self-negation that’s the problem),
something is wrong with us as parents.
We must also accept that we are all hybrids in this New Era.
We are no longer that Sukeroku samurai of Kabuki.
Japanese grew up on Motown and Mozart.
The cross-pollination from all kinds of music (blond/dreadlocks), as long as that truthfulness-to-who-we are remains, can give birth to a new kind of Japanese music.
The best in Edo culture has always been defined by influences from abroad, Korea, China, Europe.
Fortunately, being open to diversity is the essence of the Japanese aesthetic.
No one writes/creates by starting out with the goal of “being Japanese.”
One must write/create with the goal of being honest/yourself _ nothing else.
And in so doing, you create what is Japanese _ and universal _ because that’s what you are.
Watanabe talks about what makes for “the Japanese sound” in this englightening Podcast.
You know her: That Puny Yeller Gal, proudly gleefully yellerly hanging on that Big Master’s arm, war bride, geisha, GI’s home away from home, whore for last samurai, Yoko Ohno, Hi-Hi Puffy Ami/Yumi, disco queen, skirt up the crotch, fish-net stockings, bow-legged, anorexic, raisin nipples, tip-toeing Roppongi on stiletto heels.
Yessu, i spikku ingrishhu, i raikku gaijeeen, they kiss you and hold your hand, giggling pidgin, so happy to be Puny Yeller Gal.
Everybody’s seen her: That Puny Yeller Gal, waiting at home, cooking rice, the Japanese Condoleezza Rice, honored to be cleaning lady, nurse maid, gardener, Japan-expert’s wife, sex toy, open legs, open mind, open mouth, licking, tasting, swallowing, STD semen, every drop.
Yessu, i wanna baby who looohkuh gaijeen, double-fold eye, translucent skin, international school PTA, maybe grow up to be fashion model, even joshi-ana, not-not-not happy to be Puny Yeller Gal.
I recognize her: Puny Yeller Gal, rejecting Japanese, rejected by Japanese, ashamed, empty inside, they all look alike, hoping to forget, escape to America, adopted orphan, naturalized citizen, docile doll, rag-doll, Miss Universe, manga, anime, rape victim, faceless, she is you, she is me.
Hai, hai, eigo wakarimasen, worship the Master Western male for mind, matter, muscle, money, so sorry so sad so many Puny Yeller Gal.
(a poem in progress – updated once)