Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Latest Yomiuri column-on manga, sex and censorship

[Double-click below for full-size readability.]

Imagine this: You’re flying into Canada, bastion of peace and tolerance, and you’re traveling light—a carry-on bag, a few magazines, a gift for your Canadian hosts; and your iPad, iPhone and laptop. Upon arrival, Canadian border officials suddenly seize and search the last of these. What they discover is not an explosive device or a cache of Al Qaeda contacts, but rather an item they deem incendiary nonetheless: a stash of digital manga images, some featuring doujinshi (fan-made) illustrations, others that might be labeled lolicon (lolita complex) manga, showing eroticized renderings of what might be underage characters. Whatever the designation, they are all digital images saved on your personal laptop, and they are all imaginary.

An American computer programmer in his mid-20s went through this humiliation last year while visiting a friend in Canada. He has since been charged with possession and importation of child pornography, and he faces a minimum of one year in prison if convicted—not to mention a ruined reputation for a lifetime.

I have written before in this column about the growing intolerance of manga and anime on both sides of the Pacific. Last year, 39 year-old American Christopher Handley was convicted of possessing child pornography in Iowa after US postal officials opened parcels of lolicon manga he had ordered from Japan. Shortly thereafter, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara rammed through the now notorious bill 156, legislating the morality of socially disruptive manga imagery while ignoring the propagation of live-action child pornography.

But the Canadian case takes intolerance into the digital age. Manga is a distinctly Japanese art form, with its own set of conventions cultivated over decades, if not centuries—especially if one traces its origins to Edo-era ukiyo-e woodblock prints, whose most famous practitioner, Katsuhika Hokusai, actually coined the term. Artists often thrive on the borders, the distinctions between what’s allowable and what risks censure, in order to reveal or convey truths. Hokusai’s graphically sensual “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” depicting a young woman being pleasured by octopi, is often cited as an example of the libertarian aesthetic eroticism spanning the centuries between woodblock prints and erotic manga.

What happens when authorities with no experience with Japanese art forms, contemporary or ancient, encounter digital graphics devoid of even a publisher’s most basic print disclaimers and formalities?

“There’s insufficient training of government officials in the US and Canada as to the artistic merit of manga,” says Charles Brownstein, the executive director of the New York-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), the oldest and most well-established organization devoted to defending the rights of comics enthusiasts and basic freedoms of expression.

“We’ve seen a recent spike in manga cases, but this [Canada] case is the most egregious—someone who was not only stopped, searched and harassed, but instead of simply having material seized, he was actually prosecuted for importation of what is alleged to be child pornography for manga images that were stored on his computer.”

The Canada case embodies a perfect storm of misreadings: Western officials who don’t understand Japanese aesthetics are arresting a Western fan of Japanese art via a medium, digital storage, that is even further divorced from culture and context.

“There is no understanding that one can have an appreciation of a different set of artistic traditions with a different set of taboos, without being a threat to the community,” adds Brownstein. “A lot of people are at risk who don’t know they’re at risk right now. The courts simply haven’t caught up with culture. One can appreciate the art without participating in the crime depicted.”

The CBLDF is currently raising funds to defend the American manga fan in Canadian courts next month. When I spoke with Brownstein in New York, he was $30,000 from his goal of defending our imaginations from imaginary crimes.

Post-Irene, Soho, my hood

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

quakes in two cities

All's well, but it certainly didn't feel well. I've felt far worse in Tokyo, but something about being in NYC, where no one knew what was going on (everyone scattering into the street below, shouting into their cell phones--by far the worst thing you can do during a quake), and there are no established alert or emergency systems, and so many of the buildings, down here, especially, are already old and crumbling and made of stiff brick that will collapse instead of 'sway'...no, it didn't feel well at all.
When I first realized it wasn't another 18-wheeler grinding cobblestones in Soho, that the movement was both harder and more sustained, my little mind ticker registered 'earthquake,' and I was actually annoyed. I think I spoke to myself, muttering like a geezer, saying something like, "What? Oh, come on! Here?"
By the time I had risen from my desk, glanced at the table vase to confirm that, yes, the liquid was indeed sloshing from side to side, and begun my crouch beneath the mahogany, it had stopped. I looked around, stood and went to a window. Seemed like everyone was out on the corner--the deli staffers, the neighbors, tourists, local shopkeepers--aglow in bright sunlight and looking anxiously up and around at the buildings.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

JManga.com launches on schedule

The first 100% legitimate publisher- and industry-backed English-language portal for digital manga is now up and open (JManga.com), developed in collaboration with the folks at Crunchyroll.com--the former fansite that went legal in 2008. I wrote about such industry-fandom tie-ups in one of my recent columns for the Yomiuri.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Japanamerica a top-5 book on Japan

Special thanks to Ken Rodgers, founder of Kyoto Journal, who picked Japanamerica as one of the top 5 English-language books introducing Japan for Samurai.JP.
(Click pics below twice for higher resolution readability.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Japanamerica lands in Norway

Feature in the latest issue of Norwegian literary magazine, Vagant, focused on Tokyo. (Thanks to Bar Stenvik.) Japananorway?
(Click pics twice for higher resolution and readability--especially if you read Nynorsk.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hayao Miyazaki visits tsunami-stricken Iwate (via CNN)

The March 11 tsunami is unnervingly foreshadowed in this scene from Ponyo, Studio Ghibli's last Hayao Miyazaki-directed film, released in 2008. However, the film screened in this CNN video for the children of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, is Kokuriko-zaka Kara, Ghibli's latest release (May 2011), directed by Miyazaki's son, Goro.

Hayao Miyazaki visited Iwate with Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki last month. Also on hand was Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno--though CNN apparently felt no need to mention him.

"I thought he was a foreigner," says one girl of Hayao Miyazaki. "His skin was white, he had a long nose and a big beard. I was so surprised seeing him for the first time."

Santa Claus sans paunch?

[Behold the Ponyo watch]

Hayao Miyazaki on Studio Ghibli for CNN

Yet CNN mispronounces "Ghibli." Oi.
Video here.

[Kelts in conversation w/Miyazaki and translator Beth Cary @ UC Berkeley, 2009]

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hidden history: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima

Why did the US government suppress this story and film, made by US soldiers, for 65 years?

Because it shows, in color, what happened to the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not just the cloud, the buildings, the landscape.

What might be happening to the people of Fukushima now--not just the landscape, the barns, the rice fields.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Returning to Tokyo, post 3-11, for CNN

Roland Kelts: Tokyo after the quake -- what matters now?

Tokyo has 'had its cells rearranged,' but is it still the same city or something new?

Roland Kelts
I was commissioned late last year to contribute a chapter on Tokyo to a book called "City Branding: Theory and Cases." I have lived in Tokyo for a number of years and often find myself writing about the city, or at least my version of it.

As an expat who travels frequently and spends roughly half of each year living in New York, I am particularly sensitive to how Tokyo is perceived beyond its metropolitan and national borders. The opportunity to write about Tokyo as a “brand,” an image, idea and product, was both disturbing and enticing. What did it mean?

The Tokyo I wrote about was a global city of superlatives -- moneyed, busy, exhausting and eerily childlike, a perverse victim and beneficiary of U.S. occupation.

Vast and largest by population, concrete-floored, steel-and-glass upholstered, one of the world’s most expensive and, according to quasi-mythic reports from outer space, its very brightest urban blot.

Watching in horror

I wasn’t in Tokyo on the afternoon of 3/11, when the city shook, a few of its buildings cracked, phones went down, fires lit up, and a not-so-distant nuclear power plant had a meltdown. I had flown out of Narita airport 48 hours earlier for long-booked speaking engagements on the U.S. West Coast, in New York, Washington and London.

Like millions, I watched with horror and helplessness as the images spooled across computer and TV screens: collapsing shelves in offices, commuters coursing on foot along barren rail lines, and an oozing, cancer-like wave of water that mocked human order, depositing fishing ships atop barns, in a country long-devoted to order. [cont'd @CNNgo]

Read more: Roland Kelts: Tokyo after the quake -- what matters now? | CNNGo.com http://www.cnngo.com/tokyo/life/tell-me-about-it/roland-kelts-tokyo-after-quake-what-matters-now-876963#ixzz1UVK6oqpA

Sunday, August 07, 2011

@ Baltimore, MD

A handful of photos from the Otakon 2011 weekend, Baltimore, MD.

Pre-talk prepping with impeccable 'handler,' Mike Williams.
[photo courtesy of Bryan P Johns]

Onstage and between the screens.
[photo courtesy of Bryan P Johns]

View from the hotel.

Inner harbor in the heat.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Travel column for Paper Sky, Japan

Click on pics to enlarge and read, or find it in print now here:

The habit of fandom - August Yomiuri column

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Cultivating the habit of fandom

The scene beneath my floor-to-ceiling hotel windows was epic: A parade of multicolored costumed revelers coursed across an elevated walkway in the midmorning sun, some arm-in-arm, others wielding makeshift swords and other fake weaponry, most with an obvious skip in their step.

The temperature was above 38 C, the humidity numbing, and I watched with awe and a little trepidation. They were American otaku, cosplayers, anime fans and gamers, and they were headed to the Promised Land--in this case, the cavernous Baltimore Convention Center, host of the East Coast's largest anime convention, Otakon--and they were about 31,000 strong. Soon I would be joining them.

As a guest speaker, I have now attended several anime conventions on the East and West coasts of the United States, but each time I am taken aback by the number and variety of the attendees. They are primarily young, to be sure, most appearing to be in their teens and 20s, with a backdrop of middle-aged and older folks donning civilian wear. But they are nearly equal parts Caucasian, African-American, Latino and Asian, and females now seem to outnumber fanboys. There are so many of them, and they are so excited.

Host cities benefit big-time from the cons in otherwise cash-strapped times. A local newspaper reported last weekend that Otakon brings an estimated 11.3 million dollars annually into the city of Baltimore. As I wrote in this column two months ago, the organizers of Sakuracon in Seattle calculate their contribution to that city's economy totaled 50 million dollars from 2006 to 2010.

Even so, anime and other pop culture industry skeptics point to less-than-stellar on-site sales as reasons to forgo paying for booths on the so-called dealers' floor (an unfortunate moniker that makes it sound like a narcotics den). But this seems short-sighted to me.

A majority of attendees may be mainly focused on camaraderie, celebration and showing off, but their passion is rooted in the media that first attracted them to the community. As they age, of course, they will likely have less time and more money. Attending a con may be impractical for them later in life, but the media will still be collectible.

In this regard, the example of the music business is instructive. Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records--which no longer exists in brick-and-mortar form in its native United States--has been quoted as saying the recording industry killed record stores by pricing younger customers out of the market, introducing high-priced CDs without cheaper alternatives, such as singles. An entire generation of music fans thus never developed the habit of visiting record stores. They found Napster, and later iTunes, and they never went back.

Fostering the habit of physical attendance, the habit of cultivating and participating in a like-minded community, strikes me as a shrewd long-term strategy amid revolutions in media and technology.

To that end, the folks at New People, the multistory J-Pop shopping and entertainment complex launched in San Francisco's Japantown in 2009, are about to host their third annual J-Pop Summit Festival on Aug. 27 and 28. New People, the brainchild of VIZ Media founder Seiji Horibuchi, takes a broader approach to the Japanese pop phenomenon, yoking together film, fashion, art, design and original retail outlets, in addition to manga and anime.

"[The J-Pop Summit] is basically a street festival now," New People's Takeshi Yoshida explained to me at a recent meeting in Tokyo. "The [New People] building gives us a platform for the concept, which is to bring together people who have a new way of thinking. Japanese pop culture is a part of that, of course, but it's also a broader vision. Like Japan itself, it's about studying other cultures and creating something different, something fresh, from them."

As an example of the concept, Yoshida cites the burgeoning worldwide lust for fashionable denim from Okayama Prefecture--hardly a predictable source for high-end jeans.

"The people in Okayama bought the denim machines from the U.S. and produced something fresh. It's this way of thinking we seek to celebrate."

New People's two-day J-Pop Summit already boasts impressive numbers: 30,000 attendees in 2009, then 40,000 last year and an anticipated 50,000 to 60,000 later this month. But Horibuchi's ultimate goal, Yoshida says, is to one day beat the annual Japan Expo in Paris, which last month brought together an estimated 200,000 fans of Japanese pop culture, outpacing even the United States' largest convention, Anime Expo in Los Angeles.

Cultivating community by gathering fans seems like a habit worth forming.

Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." (www.japanamericabook.com), now updated and out in paperback.

(Aug. 5, 2011)


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Junot Diaz tonight in Tokyo

If you're in Tokyo, check out Junot Diaz's (Oscar Wao, Drown) reading tonight. Info:

Event: Junot Diaz talk with Koji Toko and Ono Masatsugu
Date/Time: Aug. 4 (Thurs.), 2011 19:00~
Place: Second Floor Conference Hall, The Nippon Foundation (Minato-ku Akasaka 1-2-2, Tokyo)
Speakers: Junot Diaz, Masatsugu Ono (author), Koji Toko (translator)
Free-of-charge. Capacity = 100 people.
*Please sign up in advance!
To sign up, please contact:
Shinchosha Publishing Division

And here's Junot rhapsodizing about Tokyo.

Monkey @ Figment

My thanks to Dana Goodyear and Lindsay Van Thoen of Figment for inviting me to prattle on about Issue 1 of Monkey Business: New Voices from Japan, which is still available at some bookstores and via the A Public Space website.

We will be hosting Canadian launch events for Issue 1 in Toronto next month (details TBA), and Issue 2 is well under way, with a targeted pub date in Feb/March 2012, and a second round of NYC launch events to follow in Spring 2012.

Monkey Business with Roland Kelts

Roughly two years ago, my dear friends Motoyuki Shibata—a Japanese writer, scholar and translator of American literature—and Japanese literature translator and scholar Ted Goossen, the editor of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, approached me with a singular mandate: please help us publish an annual English-language journal of contemporary Japanese stories, poems, and art for a western audience. In 2008, Shibata founded a new literary magazine in Tokyo called Monkey Business, modeled in part by Brooklyn’s A Public Space—for which he and I had curated and edited a portfolio on contemporary Japanese fiction for Issue 1 in 2006.

At first I was skeptical: American literary journals sometimes feature foreign fiction in translation, but usually as exotic inserts tucked into the dominant domestic discourse. But Shibata has persuaded me that there is a convergence of literary sensibilities in Japan and the US right now. Fiction writers from both countries seem to be responding to the cataclysmic events of the late-20th and early 21st Century with an intimate strain of surrealism—personal dream narratives anchored in the experiences of childhoods, families and neighborhoods, which may be an organic or even helpless narrative cry against the rain and reign of chaos–natural disasters, endless, faceless wars and disrupted personal and political narratives. [more @figment]

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Makoto Shinkai

With anime auteur Makoto Shinkai (5CM per Second; Voices from a Distant Star; Children who Chase Lost Voices ...) @ Otakon 2011, Baltimore, MD.

*Update: A video introduction to and interview with Shinkai-san by NHK World (w/English titles) is here.

Monday, August 01, 2011


The oddities of Otakon

Baltimore's ever-growing celebration of Japanese pop has everything from kiddie cartoons to apocalyptic fantasies

By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

3:25 PM EDT, July 29, 2011

A man in black wields an enormous hollow cross packed with phony handguns while checking out Barnes & Noble's graphic-novel racks. A futuristic Marie Antoinette, in a regal gown with bared cleavage and midriff, balances a huge rectangular headpiece with impeccable hauteur while navigating the steaming crowds on Pratt Street. An urban-cowboy assassin in fringed Daisy Dukes, with hippie-like straight hair hitting the small of her back and bandoleros crisscrossing her chest, eyes a burger at Five Guys.

These are the kinds of sights that have filled Baltimore's downtown and Inner Harbor since Thursday night, when Otakon 2011 opened with a block party.

Every summer, Otakon, a celebration of Asian popular culture, turns Baltimore into the double-take capital of the world. At least 30,000 fans, most from the East Coast, and many in costume, have entered the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend to salute Japanese cartoons, comics and video games. The extravaganza winds up Sunday.

It's a boon to Baltimore — it brings an estimated $11.3 million into the city — and a tourist attraction unto itself. Any noninitiates wandering through the Inner Harbor are sure to collide with the creative, colorful aficionados. Chances are you could see a Spider-Man, Superman or Han Solo in this wild bunch. But almost all the action figures who spring to life at Otakon have stepped out of anime (Japanese cartoons) and manga (Japanese comics).

"We have women dressing in male character costumes, and we have men (sometimes even old men) dressing as Sailor Moon, a teenage princess fighting for truth and love," according to Sue Monroe, Otakon 2011's head of volunteer operations. For these "cosplayers" — conventioneers who combine costuming and role-playing — what counts is staying true, in their own ways, to each character, even if their far-out ensembles are hard to keep up in more ways than one.

Otakon is an extension of the Japanese word otaku, meaning a person immersed in pop culture. In Japan, the word carries some pejorative connotations — it often suggests an obsessive young fellow who mooches off his parents, sleeps in Internet cafes and generally can't function in reality. But in an America newly proud of geeking out, there's no comparable stigma attached. Many American fans are proud to call themselves "totally otaku."

Attendance at Otakon has nearly tripled, from 10,275 in 2001 to 29,274 in 2010. According to Otakon featured speaker Roland Kelts, the half-Japanese, half-American author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S," the success of conventions like Otakon — the largest of its kind on the East Coast — mirrors the new-millennial embrace of Japan as an international trend-setter.

"In the 21st century," Kelts said, "Japan has become the arbiter of 'cool' around the globe, in fashion, design, style, cuisine, and certainly in this vein of bright, colorful and inventive popular culture."

Kelts also noted that as the otaku phenomenon surges across the country, Americans are becoming more aware of the extremes of Japanese popular culture. In Kelts' book, a chapter called "Strange Transformations" includes his rendering of a yakuza (Japanese mafia) manga story — the characters include a torture victim, a buxom sexual tease and a snake — and his summary of the genre known as "tentacle porn," depicting women ravished by incubi with diverse appendages. [more @Baltimore Sun here]