Thursday, February 24, 2011

Coming soon: Monkey Biz, launched and unleashed

Found in translation: the premiere issue of Monkey Business International: new writing from Japan, published in collaboration with A Public Space and featuring new material from Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Hideo Furukawa, Mina Ishikawa, manga artists The Brother and Sister Nishioka and Barry Yourgrau, among many others, debuts this spring with a string of events & parties in NYC:

Saturday, April 30 @ The
Asia Society in Manhattan

Monday, May 1 @ BookCourt in Brooklyn

Tuesday, May 3 @ The Japan Society in Manhattan

All of the above will feature authors, editors and translators from Japan, the US and Canada. Lineups, details and other specs forthcoming. (And, yes: amid the sterling stories, poems, and interviews--there will even be a dose of manga channeling Franz Kafka.)

[photos from the original launch of Monkey Business in Tokyo, 2008]

Monkey Business International was compiled and translated by Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Goosen and other stalwarts, and Shibata and Goosen also did the lion's share of the editing. Brigid Hughes and A Public Space and I contributed to the editing and events-planning, APS's Anne McPeak copy-edited and produced the issue, and artist Lissi Erwin is guilty of its brilliant design.

I am humbled and honored to be a small part of this very big production.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pacific Rim Diary # 1

This is my first 'entry' for the newly launched "Pacific Rim Diary" segment of The Madeleine Brand Show on KPCC/NPR--on the perils of trans-national comedy, especially in the YouTube era:

And here's my latest "Soft Power / Hard Truths" column for The Daily Yomiuri parsing the same:

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

One Japanese perspective

Author, editor, photographer and friend Hiroko Yoda weighs in with one Japanese perspective on the question of trans-cultural humor and humiliation, via CNN Go Tokyo:
The other day a friend of mine and I were talking the about the now notorious “QI incident,” where a British game show made light of a Japanese man’s having survived both the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As we chatted, he forwarded me a link to another British show by the name of “Turning Japanese.”

“Here we go again,” he said. “This one is even worse.” The Channel Five show appears to focus on some of Tokyo’s strangest spots: a lingerie shop for men, a costumed stage performance, a samurai theme park. It was superficial. It was silly. But I couldn’t find myself getting upset about it. My friend couldn’t understand.

“QI was about one man's situation,” he said. “But ’Turning Japanese’ is ridiculing an entire race of people!” He’s right about one thing: the foreign media always loves a good “wacky Japan” story.

And superficially, the image of a British comedian running around Tokyo in a bra seems like a bigger slap in the face than a panel of comedians discussing a nuclear survivor. But you can’t compare these things one to one; they’re both “fruit” of a sort, but they’re apples and oranges.

There are two types of humor: laughing with someone, and laughing at them. It’s all about position. When you put yourself in the same space as someone, you’re in a position to laugh WITH them.

When you’re at a significant remove however, you’re completely isolated from the effects. You’re setting yourself up to be seen as laughing AT someone.

A British guy strutting on a stage in a silly costume in Japan? He’s making as much of an idiot of himself as the guys he’s covering, and doing it right in front of them. That’s entertainment.

A British guy making quips about the survivor of not one but two atomic bombings? That’s out of line. One is laughing with the Japanese; the other is laughing at them. [more @ CNN Go]

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Super Bowl redux

In honor of this Sunday's mega-game: some trans-cultural musings on my time at last year's Super Bowl, and a place we call 'home.'

A Home of One’s Own

When I depart Japan for the US, I usually target the American coasts. My flights out of Narita are bound for New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle, and many of my fellow passengers are Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Singaporean, with a smattering of other Southeast Asians. As a half-Japanese American, I am surrounded by my ilk—people who look and behave approximately like me. Most of my fellow passengers have dark hair, slender builds and tawny skin. We use chopsticks and drink tea. We grin subtly. With few exceptions, we speak sotto voce.

The same holds true when I fly west from Tokyo to London or Amsterdam, with a smaller contingent of Middle Eastern passengers. Many Asians trek as tourists or businesspeople to flagship European cities, and numerous flights from the Asian continent connect through Narita. So while I am officially leaving Japan when I board my flights, I remain surrounded by reassuring remnants of Japanese culture as I make the multi-hour transition from East to West.

But around this time last year, I took a slightly different route. And that, to paraphrase American poet Robert Frost, made all the difference.

For several years, my younger sister has worked in the marketing department of the National Football League (NFL), the premiere sports corporation behind America’s most popular and media-friendly national sport: American football. For many of those several years, she has invited me to attend, free of charge, the final championship game of the season—a week-long extravaganza that is called “The Super Bowl,” rife with American bravado.

I grew up in the US. I played American football with friends in backyards and on beaches, and watched professional games with my father soon after I learned to stand up. While ice hockey and soccer remain my favorite sports, American football, like sumo wrestling for some Japanese, is woven into my cultural matrix. I know it intimately, whatever I choose to think about it.

Last year marked the first time I could attend the Super Bowl. The festival and game took place in Miami, Florida, a city of palms and Cuban sandwiches, and a playground for the casually moneyed. I’d endured a busy and tumultuous winter in Tokyo and New York. Miami and its beaches and parties sounded very attractive.

But it’s impossible to fly straight from Tokyo to Miami. You need to change planes somewhere in the US. I chose Dallas-Fort Worth airport in Texas—smack in the middle of landlocked America—hoping to avoid winter storms in northern regions.

The ramifications of my choice became apparent to me as I approached my gate at Narita. The amassed passengers were tall, lanky, sometimes rotund, and largely Caucasian and African American. Their voices soared through the airport on a plane of guttural vowels. They were speaking English all right, loudly and languidly.

When I stepped off the automated walkway, I felt that I had entered America several hours too soon. All around me, the bland visual chamber of Japan clawed at me to stay. Vending machines sold bottled water and ocha adorned with kanji symbols. Omiyage stands bore their neatly stacked and wrapped boxes. Clerks bowed and whispered.

But at my gate, the air was harsh and direct and more viscously fluid at once. Some passengers wore American football jerseys and gesticulated aggressively. Others stood slack and laid back, arms akimbo, hands curved on thighs, oblivious to their surroundings. I was still in Japan, but this flight would be bound for a very American destination.

As an American, I should have been comforted, right? In a way, I was. I recognized these specimens, their gestures and guffaws. I knew them, felt them in my DNA. But familiarity is not the same as comfort.

I was still in Japan-mode, still sensitive to myself in a Japanese context and expectant of all that might mean. To be tossed into the world of American sensibilities before flying to America felt unforgiving, like being asked to perform on opening night before you’d finished rehearsing.

English author Samuel Johnson famously wrote: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.” I’ve often puzzled over this. Did he mean that all of your endeavors are undertaken to achieve some kind of final peace in the place you began—which for all of us is the womb? Or is ‘home’ a metaphor for where you choose to reside when you die?

I boarded the plane with my fellow American-types and suppressed my anxieties. When I landed in Miami and took my car from the airport to my first hotel in Fort Lauderdale, the driver asked me the usual questions: Where did I fly in from? How long would I stay? Who was I?

I tried to answer decently and articulately, despite the brutal jet lag. I’d arrived from Tokyo via Dallas, I said, and was there for the week’s happenings related to the Super Bowl. I was a half-Japanese American from New York and Tokyo. And I was really tired.

I loved every moment of my time amid America’s most festive sports event, but I won’t pretend that I felt ‘happy at home.’ What I felt was numb, the sheer stupidity of being everywhere and nowhere at once.

I strolled the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, attended parties starring pop stars whose names I can’t remember (Snoop Dogg & Rhianna were there) but whose faces I won’t soon forget. I ate a big American pancake breakfast while eyeing the subtropical Atlantic seas. And, of course, I watched the big game itself, surrounded by people both bigger and louder than I can ever be.

I now think that Johnson meant ‘to be happy at home’ as a kind of tease. Or at least it feels that way to me. For ‘home’ is not a verifiable place, but rather the house I will inhabit till death—made of my organs, skin, blood and bones. To be happy at home would mean owning a happiness that both exceeds and encompasses my mortal self.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

Tiger Woods black face skit on JP TV

Hardly a tit-for-tat, of course--but a reminder, perhaps, that insular humor, decontextualized, can be perceived as tactless, if not offensive, beyond one's shores. Explanation courtesy of Japan Probe:

On Monday night’s episode of “Sekai Maru Mie TV,” somebody thought it would be hilarious to put black paint on the face of a Japanese guy so he could apparently look like Tiger Woods.

The character called himself Taraiga Woods, a pun on the golfer’s name and the Japanese word for tub (tarai). Celebrity guests would be asked to predict what would happen next in funny home videos. If someone answered incorrectly, the blackface Taraiga would drop a tub on his/her head.

tiger woods black face [probe]

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Unluckiest Man in the World - QI Series 8 Ep 13 Holidays Preview - ...

Fry got fried in Japan--but why?

I was supposed to be on a plane back to Tokyo this week to shoot a segment for a BBC documentary on language and visual culture, both of which I write and care about deeply. Aside from being a half-Japanese raised in America and living in both countries, I have come to appreciate the uniquely visual nature of expression in Japan, from its ideographic language to its digitally animated landscape, and what it might tell us about the futures we are all rapidly inhabiting.

I have also been startled by the degree to which Americans, especially the young, have been drawn to cultural artifacts, manga, anime and fashion, from an archipelago so far from their own shores, and so fundamentally different in nature and history. I wrote about these unexpected convergences in a book called Japanamerica.

The BBC show was to be hosted by Stephen Fry, the British celebrity and author. Fry is ubiquitous in England, and I was immediately attracted by the opportunity to meet him and stroll around Tokyo game parlors and maid cafes, jousting with his wit and engaging his curiosity.

In early January, someone kindly sent me a link through Twitter about a potentially explosive story. A satirical BBC quiz show called “QI” ran a segment called “the world’s unluckiest man,” featuring the late Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the most well-known survivor of both atomic bombs dropped thus far, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In typical British fashion, the show asked whether Yamaguchi might be the unluckiest man, or the luckiest, given that he survived both bombs and lived to 93.

In video footage, one can easily see, if one speaks and understands English fluently, that the hosts are tiptoeing around the obvious offense, trying to strike a balance between humor and respect. How could one man even catch a train to Nagasaki from Hiroshima after the first bombing, the hosts ask, when in the UK, trains are stopped for leaves falling across the track?

Still, the footage didn’t play well in Japan. And in this age of instantaneous visual language, all subtlety was lost, especially on reactionary right-wing Japanese folks keen to kick up a fight.

In response to a formal complaint from the Japanese Embassy, the British Embassy issued a formal apology in Tokyo, followed by humble pie from the BBC, Fry and cohorts. Last week, after being informed of where I would meet the crew, host and director for lunch, I was told the entire shoot would need to be canceled. Threats against Fry’s welfare were dutifully recorded and conveyed by the embassies. Not a good time for him to visit Japan.

Naturally, I have personal reasons behind my disappointment. I was hoping to meet Fry, hoping to get exposure for my work, and most important, hoping to have another outlet for explaining Japan’s unique visual culture to a broader audience.

But the event also reminds me of how illiterate visual culture can become. We like to celebrate our many facile contacts via digital media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or others, but how well do we actually know one another? A simple explanation of the BBC’s wry asides about Yamaguchi would have gone a long way toward rescuing Fry’s reputation in Japan. He is suddenly seen as a villain, when mere entertainment was clearly his goal.

Humor rarely travels well. When I hosted an evening with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami at UC Berkeley a few years ago, I was struck by how well he understood his American audience, making successful jokes about missing a World Series playoff game and a meeting with Radiohead’s Tom Yorke in Tokyo, and how Californians in the audience should consider themselves lucky that he’d showed up.

As globalization renders our borders less rigid, we’re all going to need such wits to stay sane, I think. And a bit of forgiveness can go a long way toward understanding.