Monday, September 01, 2014
Full-colour hardback, 192 pp
Most coffee-table photo books of Japanese scenes are destined to sit around as dust-collecting decorations rather than be consulted as bona fide reference works. But John Dougill's overview of Japan's UNESCO World Heritage Sites achieves the balance between attractiveness and utility that will ensure Japanophiles are hoisting it into their laps on a regular basis and using it to inspire them for the next trip in a country undeniably rich in both natural and cultural wonders. Given its scope, however, and the emphasis on photography befitting its coffee-table format, the book is an introduction to Japan's heritage rather than the definitive guide to it.
Since ratifying the World Heritage convention in 1972, UNESCO has registered 18 natural and cultural sites in Japan, although the number of individual spots is considerably greater, with places like the former capitals of Kyoto and Nara having registered a large number of shrines and temples, for example. The sites span the northern and southern extremes of the Japanese archipelago, from Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido to the Ryukyu Kingdom on Okinawa Island. They include such iconic spots as Mount Fuji, but also lesser-known gems like the far-flung Ogasawara Islands, which host not only amazing flora and fauna, but a remarkable blending of Japanese and Western culture and genes. Interestingly, both these sites were only registered in very recent years.
Dougill set out in 2012 to visit all the sites (17 at the time of writing), and his introduction adds a welcome personal touch to the necessarily fact-driven nature of the body sections. A noted Japan scholar (see my review of his fabulous city guide Kyoto), Dougill deftly directs his prose through informative geographical, historical and social overviews of each site while never overloading us with details. Indeed, the reader is likely to be left wanting more.
The book does not provide a list of suggested further reading. What it does offer, however, in introductory sidebars is up-to-date information on "practicalities" such as access and contact details, sometimes including webpages. Fittingly, the book concludes with a list of sites awaiting confirmation of World Heritage status. (In fact, since the book's printing, the Tomioka silk mill achieved registration.)
The full-colour photographs, some spilling over two pages, are consistently high quality, and often awe-inspiring. A mixture of the author's own take on the sites and the work of professional photographers, they always enhance rather than overwhelm the writing. Informative captions bridge images and text, while area maps and plans provide further visual orientation. You may not be able to plan your entire trip with Japan's World Heritage Sites, but it will definitely motivate you to make it.
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Elsewhen Press, paperback, 240 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Donovan
Once there was a woman from Japan who for reasons known only to herself travelled to the exotic heartlands of Surrey and met and married Dave. Dave was enchanted with Japan when they visited together, and, feeling that he now understood the place, decided to write about it. He constructed a series of very short stories with a linking character between each, and the final story looping back to complete the 'daisy chain'. He was a bit shaky on the spelling of advanced Japanese terms like 'kotatsu', but he sent the file to his editor anyway, as he'd said he'd wanted it by Tuesday.
Dave's editor liked to take a hands-off approach to editing - he expected the author's original words to 'speak for themselves', and anyway, he had a huge slush pile of vampire fiction to read through before Monday. So he didn't bother correcting the egregiously large number of basic typos that plagued the text like a band of killer mosquitos on a sultry Kyoto night. Even his paragraph indents were half-hearted.
The printer, too, couldn't care less about whether the words on the page were correct. She had a dozen orders to churn through by Sunday, and also, the editor had instructed her to send out a few of Weaver's print run to the owners of Japan-connected websites. The editor thought they might be good for a review and move some copies for them.
The head of JapanVisitor knew he had a reviewer who enjoyed Japan-related western lit., so he sent the copy on to Richard, who was indeed happy to give it a go. He had a soft spot for people enthusiastic about a subject and with reasonable writing skills who got their work published by a small press and were competing in a market increasingly dominated by the lucky few who were able to make a name for themselves.
Richard felt Dave's first story, set on Mt. Aso, was a rather weak start to the suite with its predictable 'twist', but he did notice that the pacing was good. 'Finding Uncle', about a loser guy who connects through time with a boy trapped under rubble in post-Bomb Hiroshima, was a reasonable if again familiar premise, but ruined by the implausible depiction of the boy's shadow on the wall preserved in the museum: he was either above ground and vaporized in the flash, or buried under the rubble in the basement. It couldn't be both.
However, as he got into the book, Richard found a few pieces that were deftly written and even managed to introduce characters that freshly portrayed an aspect of Japan's culture - like 'The Cop and the Monk', in which a jizo statue comes to life and has a direct line to stillborn and aborted children on his cell phone. Sadly, though, too many stories presented generic portraits that could equally have been plucked from a Western urban setting. The 'hidden world' behind the mundane with which Dave tried hard to inject a coup de frisson into the proceedings came off as sub-Murakami and again not especially 'Japanese'.
Overall, Dave's work, with its interconnected lives and stabs at magic realism, most reminded Richard of Life in the Cul-de-Sac by Senji Kuroi, but the comparison was again invidious. Richard found himself wishing that the God of the Apostrophe, of the Spellcheck, would rise up out of the page and save the text from itself.
Sadly, it was not to be. Richard glanced back at his review. Had he been too harsh, too dismissive? He flicked through the book one more time. His eyes fixed on one word he'd highlighted, and his scowl became similarly set.
No, I think I've been fair, he thought. After all, the author and his apparently absent editor had blasphemed the golden god "Kirrin." And anyway, Richard wanted to fire off the review by Saturday. He had some serious resting to do.
Japanese Daisy Chain is available from Amazon.co.uk in a Kindle edition.
Inside Track Japan For Kindle
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Did you learn Japanese so you could read manga? At first, that was why my daughter enrolled in the Japanese School at the local Buddhist temple.
It didn't take long, however, until Amanda developed a keen interest in Japan, its history, and its culture - which I inherited. She spent five years at the school and loved every minute. If you can read Japanese manga and you like doujinshi, we have some information too good to keep to ourselves. In the past, we have visited a wonderful doujinshi store in Kanazawa. On our most recent trip to Japan, we found another AMAZING place to shop.
Meikido is a doujinshi store located in the Tenjin Ward of Fukuoka city. Take the subway to Tenjin and leave via exit #1. Meikido sells both new and used doujinshi. The stock is enormous and there are full shelves of doujinshi arranged carefully by series and category. Initially awestruck, Amanda spent a very long time inspecting and then purchasing a large number of very reasonably priced items. I sat on a pink step stool and unintentionally fell asleep - that jet lag!
If you cannot get to Fukuoka you can shop online at their website: www.meikido.com/sg2/index.php.
An English website is available at www.meikido.com/english or contact us to make an order for you and ship to your address for a small commission.
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Tuesday, June 25, 2013
• Cuisine, skiing, onsen & more
• Tips for first-time travelers
• Japan on a budget
• Top sights in illustrated detail
"From the splendour of a Kyoto geisha dance to the spare beauty of a Zen rock garden, Japan has the power to enthrall even the most jaded traveler" writes Lonely Planet author Chris Rowthorn
Top destinations in this edition:
The Lonely Planet authors of this guide have put together some favorite
1. Kyoto Temples & Gardens
With more than 1000 temples to choose from, you're spoiled for choice in Kyoto. Spend your time finding one that suits your taste. And don’t forget that temples are where you'll find the best gardens.
There's nothing like lowering yourself into the tub at a classic Japanese onsen (natural hot spring bath). If you're lucky, the tub is outside and there’s a nice stream running nearby.
3. Japanese Cuisine
Japan is a food lover's paradise and the cuisine is incredibly varied, running the gamut from simple soba (buckwheat noodles) to multicourse kaiseki (haute cuisine) banquets.
4. Cherry-Blossom Viewing
Under a cherry tree laden with blossoms in the springtime, it's as if the cherries release a kind of narcotic that reduces inhibitions. Japan is a happy place when the cherry blossoms are out.
5. Kyoto's Geisha Dances
If you find yourself in Kyoto when the geisha dances are on, do everything in your power to see one. It's hard to think of a more colorful, charming and diverting stage spectacle.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Geeky-Girly Innovation: A Japanese Subculturalist's Guide to Technology and Design
Hardback: 296 pages
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press (July 24, 2012)
Author: Morinosuke Kawaguchi
First published in Japanese in 2007, Geeky-Girly Innovation is marketed as a how-to-innovate guide applicable to any country, the main point being 'just add subculture!'. Given that Kawaguchi spends almost all his time detailing his ten "rules" of Japanese technological design, which, he posits, are an outgrowth of the otaku (geek) and gal (girly) subcultures peculiar to Japan, this is a dubious claim. Nevertheless, such a focus on Japan alone is intriguing enough, and, at their best, the book's rules - really more like synoptic observations - provide real insights into the origins of well-known Japanese innovations such as Japan's washlet toilets and more obscure items like a calorie-free cure for stomach growls.
It is a pity, then, that two factors work against the book's success for the Western reader: the repetitious nature of Kawaguchi's circumlocutory zuihitsu essay style, which admittedly is itself a feature of the culture it portrays; and the passage of time. The first point could have been addressed by more ruthless editing of the original to suit the straighter English style without obscuring the points, but the second calls for more substantial revision. The English edition has not been updated for the 2010s, save for one fleeting reference to the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. Thus the cited cultural exemplars are half a decade behind: Madonna, Morning Musume and cellphones rather than Lady Gaga, AKB48 and smartphones. However much the tactility of the physical cellphone keyboard may have been a Japanese innovation reflecting a "compulsion to touch", extolling its virtues in preference to the touchscreen seems 'out of touch' in the current tablet era. Perhaps that explains why Japan is now playing catch-up to the U.S. in this technological realm.
One could argue that there is also a whiff of the outdated in the extreme gender polarisation that informs the author's characterisation of modern Japan, casting as it does young, sexualised females as the object of attention of geeky guys, who together somehow synthesise Japanese innovation. He praises moe anthropomorphism - the personification of an inanimate object as a sexy, girlish 'image character' - for helping produce Japan's advanced interactive technologies, but much later tut-tuts at unspecified "discriminatory or sexist" attitudes in society. Though Kawaguchi does not care to identify it as such, perhaps an example of such attitudes can be found on the "cover of the manga version of the 2005 White Paper on Defense" which "shows a girl holding down a lightly billowing skirt to hide her panties", an 'image character' that citizens of Okinawa living near US military bases might have something to say about.
There are several examples of such eyebrow-raising contradictions in the text. Some amount to paradoxes that bespeak an essential feature of Japanese society: "Perhaps the true self-indulgence is consideration for others, because of the feelings of satisfaction and happiness it engenders." Some, like the above blindness to the downside of sexism, are simply counterproductive, and perhaps betray Kawaguchi's age.
Geeky-Girly Innovation is most compelling when it focuses on the compulsive aspects of the national character - its inner geek, if you will - and how they have contributed to Japan's product innovation. This does not mean the author is necessarily avoiding gender issues at such points, but rather using them to see Japanese society as a whole rather than a sexualised dichotomy. One of the best parallels drawn is between Heian-period women's written kana phonetic characters and how gal subculture encourages us to read 'between the lines' in innovative modes of communication such as the complex emoticons that decorate their emails.
Such a nuanced, "subtitled" approach to communication is one reason for the sophisticated nature of Japanese interactions, and, by extension, increasingly personalisable products and appliances. Perhaps subtlety is the softly whispered watchword of Japanese society, and, despite its anachronisms of content and approach, Geeky-Girly Innovation succeeds in conveying this trait in its various, and sometimes contradictory, facets.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Tokyo Hearts: A Japanese Love Story
by Renae Lucas-Hall
For all the ceaseless babbling of Japan’s musical-chairs politics and the skips and stumbles of its massively indebted economy, there are some things about Japan that have remained virtually untouched for the past few decades: that is, the Japanese urbanite's obsession with trend and fashion, and, of course, the timeless, universal theme of love and romance that has the power to both transcend and subvert any socioeconomic arrangement.
Tokyo Hearts: A Japanese Love Story begins as a story about a female-male couple, Haruka and Takashi, who are devoted to shopping and going out in Tokyo. These two up and coming young Japanese are blissfully immersed not only in each other, but in the trendy youth culture of the Aoyama and Omotesando area of Tokyo, awash with fashion boutiques, and Japan's huge and often luxurious department store scene. These form the backdrop of much of the book, and we are introduced to the couple in their haunting of industrial-ceilinged cafes where they are attended by waiters in thick black glasses frames and John Lennon haircuts, sipping cappuccinos over their latest Yoji Yamamoto garment purchases.
Yet a literal, and an emotional, earthquake shatters this bliss. Haruka’s Kyoto connections start to get in the way, not least in the form of an ex-lover with whom the flame reignites. Physical distance in Haruka's short return to Kyoto, Japan's ancient and gracious ex-capital city, creates emotional distance, further underscored by physical injury that boyfriend Takashi suffers in an earthquake that hits Tokyo. This crisis is introduced and undertaken convincingly, and the reader is led through to its denouement and conclusion.
Renae Lucas-Hall paints the doings and passions of the protagonists in detailed pastels that do ample justice to the meticulous significance with which they invest their cafe-hopping, department-store-exploring and fashion purchasing. Do not expect a rollicking read. Tokyo Hearts demands almost a meditative frame of mind in which the reader can reinvent for him or herself the essential - and even inessential - details that compose the characters’ lives.
If any criticism were to be leveled at Tokyo Hearts, it might be that the narrative often takes on in an explanatory way what might often be better left to the dialog and portrayal of unfolding circumstance. Nevertheless, the author's style is very much in keeping with the tone of Japanese daily life, rarely rocked by anything more alarming than a mild temblor, the theft of a pot plant, or accidentally dropping one's smartphone. Takashi's and Haruka's romance in Tokyo Hearts is an artifact explored with albeit ambulatory precision and a clear love of the culture in which it is set.
To find out more about the book and its author visit Renae Lucas-Hall's webpage.
Friday, September 14, 2012
I love browsing through book shops and second hand stores for something to read and it was great to stumble upon a long out of print classic on Japan, Japanese Lantern by Wim Swaan, published in 1965.
It is amazing to read an account of the author's long stay in Japan nearly fifty years ago and marvel at how much has changed (vivid descriptions of emotional family send-offs for night trains to Nara, for example, now more prosaically undertaken in total silence by night bus, photographs of disabled ex-World War II soldiers begging for alms) and how much is still the same (the absurd Japlish of many hotel brochures and advertising pamphlets, popular tourist sights overrun with hordes of school children on excursions).
However, it is the quality and insight of much of the author's prose that makes the book so charming. I particularly enjoyed this musing on the Oriental foot on the night train from Tokyo to Nara: "Opposite, a man lay reading the Ridazu Daijetsu (Readers Digest), his bare feet projecting over the edge of the bunk. I could not take my eyes off his toes. They were never still for a moment: they curled and uncurled, spread and contracted, or waved around like the probing tentacles of a sea-anemone."
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Friday, October 02, 2009
Japanese Intelligence in World War II
by Ken Kotani
232 pp; Hardback
Before the publication of this excellent book, little was known in the West about the methods and effectiveness of Japanese military intelligence during World War II. The general impression was that Japanese intelligence fared poorly in comparison to its more successful British and American counterparts. Based on new resources and memoirs only recently available in Japan and overseas, intelligence expert Ken Kotani has built an altogether more balanced assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of both Japanese and Allied intel in the war years.
The author begins with an introduction to Japanese intelligence and the establishment of the intelligence services of the Japanese army (IJA) and navy (IJN) at the beginning of the Meiji Period. This split in Japanese intelligence services between army and navy and the lack of a central intelligence agency was to have significant consequences for the Japanese war effort during the course of the Pacific War.
Kotani analyses both arms of the Japanese intelligence services, charting early successes and later failures as the tide turned against Japan after the Battle of Midway. At times the concise English, ably translated by the author's wife, reads like the pages of a spy thriller, making this book of interest to the non-specialist as well as the Japan historian. Individual spies and their work are brought to life from the dusty shelves of research institutes: the mysterious death of British journalist James Cox in Tokyo in 1940 and the nefarious activities of men like F. J. Rutland, Herbert Greene (author Graham Greene's brother) and Collin Mayers.
Both sides in the intelligence war underestimated their opponents, relying on racial stereotyping more than actual intelligence to gauge the effectiveness of their opponents' fighting forces, tactics and military hardware.
The author finds that Japan did indeed possess competent intelligence services but their efforts were undermined by inter-service rivalry and the bureaucratic failings of strategic planners and policy makers to make the best use of the often excellent intelligence made available to them. Fixed mindsets among Japan's politicians and operations staff allowed the Allies to gain a strategic advantage in the field of intelligence that helped to swing the balance of the conflict in favor of the Allies in the later years of World War II.
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Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Edward Seidensticker (1921-2007)
Translator and author Edward Seidensticker died in Tokyo on Monday after a long illness. He was 86. He was best known for his translation of Lady Shikibu's classic tale of court intrigue, The Tale of Genji. He also translated works by Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata.
In addition, he also authored works of his own, including Tokyo Central: A Memoir.
Seidensticker studied Japanese while in the United States Navy, and he arrived in Japan in 1948 as a foreign service officer. Along with Donald Keene, he ranks as having done the most to introduce Japanese literature to the English-speaking world.
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Monday, July 09, 2007
|The Politics of Nanjing|
The Politics of Nanjing: An Impartial Investigation
by Kitamura Minoru
translated by Hal Gold
University Press of America
More than 60 years after the fact, the events surrounding the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese Army in 1937 remain clouded in hyperbole and rhetoric. The continuing denial of the "massacre" by the Japanese government continues to fuel tensions between Japan and China, and so it was with some hope of discovering some new facts that I began to read Professor Kitamura's "impartial" investigation. By the second chapter however, it became blatantly clear that this book's claim to impartiality is invalid.
Kitamura has gone through an enormous amount of materials and records with a fine toothcomb and collected together many discrepancies and facts that support his thesis that the massacre is a masterpiece of Chinese propaganda. To further his agenda he fills in gaps in the historical record with opinions that have no basis in fact, and he ascribes meanings to people's actions that are unverifiable and often extremely tenuous. He presents evidence as a prosecutor, rather than as a judge and as the book progresses, any attempt to mask his bias is dropped so that by the end of the book we can read a simple explanation as to why the Chinese claim of 300,000 victims can be dismissed: "The Chinese are reputedly – and unquestionably – cultural exaggerators." One wonders what the good professor makes of the reputed – and unquestionable – inability of the Japanese government to admit to unpleasant truths.
He ends on the subject of "the emotions of memory", and it is worth quoting in full:
"from these ethnocentric emotions, people can easily be lead to a simple choosing of one conclusion concerning history. Then, Sun Gee continues, that if the Chinese continue clinging to this tendency, it makes it impossible for Chinese thinkers to face complicated international political relations, and they cannot participate effectively in living history."
This strikes me as the exact situation Japan finds itself in as regards its relations with its Asian neighbors.
However, if one reads the book with one's critical faculties fully operational, there is some interesting information unearthed by Kitamura. For instance there seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence linking the Australian journalist Timperley, who was instrumental in reporting on Nanjing to the world and whose reports were influential at the War Crimes Trials, with the Chinese propaganda Ministry, and an interesting section that suggests that some of the more bizarre atrocities claimed by the Chinese may have their roots in Chinese cultural taboos.
Reviewed by Jake Davies
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