Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

On Donald Richie's latest, "Viewed Sideways"

Seen from afar: An outside view of the 'real' Japan

Donald Richie has been writing on Japan for 60 years, but which Japan? @ CNNgo

It’s almost impossible for the English-language reader with an abiding interest in Japan to avoid Donald Richie.
You may find him in print through his copious newspaper columns and reviews, his several wide-ranging books on Japan, assaying subjects as seemingly disparate as film, gardens, Zen and the Inland Sea, or his forays into fiction.
If you live or stay in Tokyo for a stretch, you may also find him in the flesh. Last time I checked, the 87-year-old Richie was still very much a man-about-town, appearing frequently to give readings and talks at foreigner-friendly venues in the heart of the city.
Little wonder: Richie has been living in Tokyo since the late 1940s and writing about Japan for nearly as long. You’d be hard-pressed to find an expat writer in town with greater seniority.

Fuzziness encroaching?

But seniority takes its toll, of course, and not just physically.
When I attended one of Richie’s Tokyo readings from his last major publication, “The Japan Journals: 1947-2004,” I couldn’t ignore an unnerving discrepancy: the prose in his more recent entries lacked the force, clarity and sheer frisson of his earlier writing, as if the Japan of the now had somehow wilted for him, grown fuzzy and indistinct.
At the time, I was about to publish my own book, “Japanamerica,” about the abundant color and creativity in contemporary Japan and the enthusiasm it had triggered in the West.
Were we living in the same country? Or was I, as a much younger expat writer, simply more sensitive to and excited by what I was seeing?
Richie nearly answers the latter question in a 2003 interview for the Japan cinephile website, “Midnight Eye.”
“I think in any country if you're an expatriate, the first five to 10 years are the most exciting,” he says. “This is when you are learning the most, and when you're most open to things that are new and are putting things together.”

Points of view

So what are we to make of a Japan rendered by an aging yet experienced and deeply knowledgeable expat author delineating its culture -- the slippery, fast-evolving and often ambiguous topic that Richie has engaged for six decades?
“Viewed Sideways,” Richie’s latest collection of often very short writings (many only a few pages long -- mere musings), due out later this month, at least partly answers the question.
A compact, commuter-friendly paperback, it contains 11 essays previously published in the books, “A Lateral View” and “Partial Views” (including one dating back to 1972), but mostly focuses on 26 uncollected writings from the 1990s and 2000s -- sort of a quickie Richie update.
The book begins with Richie’s personal declaration: an American from Ohio’s rationale for spending two-thirds of his life living in and writing about Japan.
Beyond cultural observation, historical record and aesthetic insight, the deeper subject of Richie’s work is rooted in his own self-imposed predicament -- that of being a perpetual outsider in a nation of resolute insiders.
Foreigners in Japan, Richie writes, are more foreign than they would be in other non-native nations because “the major religion is perhaps neither Buddhism nor Shintoism but, rather, simply being Japanese.”
Since foreigners cannot become Japanese through sheer will, study, conversion or citizenship, they are kept at bay, in the distance, forever ghettoized regardless of residency or, the term used by Richie, “intimacy.”

No intimacy

It’s a striking word choice, and one worth examining.
For Richie, the paradox of distance and intimacy, what he calls “an oscillating dialectic,” drives foreigners’ attraction to Japan.
The former affords them an elemental freedom and near perfect objectivity (“the best seat in the house,” he writes), and the latter, born of the natives’ need for and curiosity about the outsider, combined with Japan’s predilection for politeness, hospitality and civility, creates a perpetual attraction to and longing for what one might call a state of ‘Japan-ness.’
In short, the foreigner in Japan receives special treatment, sometimes exoticized, true, but still unique, without the messiness of communal, political or civic responsibility.
Expats and long-term residents of Japan will instantly recognize Richie’s formulation and likely nod accordingly, and those who write about the country might even snooze.
Being enticed into living in a society without the burden of direct involvement can be ideal for writers, who are often at their best in more liminal, marginal positions.
As Japan-based American author Pico Iyer once told me, "In countries as hospitable as America, I have one foot inside the community, one foot out. But in Japan, where I always have both feet out, I find solace."

Whose nostalgia?

Richie’s personal sense of distance, of being an outsider, runs deep, as do, correspondingly, his feelings of intimacy with his adopted homeland.
A gay man from Ohio, he expresses no nostalgia for the land of his birth, which “no longer has any power over me,” and instead pines for the Japan he first encountered in the 1940s and 1950s, a people poor but curious, open to the world and cognizant of their own traditions, including Japan’s “tradition of change.”
His own sensibility is neatly encapsulated in a memorable phrase from his 2004 essay on Tokyo’s leather-clad Rockabilly dancers in Harajuku: “we are conscious of being nostalgic about someone else’s nostalgia.”
Nostalgia is often a mask for rage, or at the very least, disappointment with the way things are. Richie’s take on Japan’s pop cultural juggernaut is Orientalism redux: It’s yet another form of Western condescension to a politically inert, nonthreatening other.
In other words, we like Hello Kitty because we’re projecting our own needs upon Japan, defining from afar -- never mind that Kitty, anime and manga often drive young foreigners to study Japan and its culture and history.
Yet in his 2007 introduction to Joan Sinclair’s photo-book, “Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs,” Richie finds the practice of enjo kosai, or “compensated dating,” in which older men gift underage girls with luxurious items and money in return for sexual favors, sane economic policy.
“Would that all economies worked this well,” he concludes.

Genuine insight

Richie is at his best when he is at his most candid and least guarded, when his efforts to transcend the clichéd “topsy-turvy” exoticism of Japan lead him to genuine insight.
Insight about the nature of Noh theater, Japanese gardens and ways of seeing. Even the quite deliberate misuse of English in Japanese appropriations of the language and on T-shirts.
The book’s final essay, “My View,” a reflection upon being at peace with his life and that of his lifelong home, is among its most unfussy and memorable.
At one point Richie admits that if Japan were not to change, it would not be Japan. That’s the writer you’ll want to find, over and again.
Read more: Seen from afar: An outside view of the 'real' Japan |

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Monkey Business takes Canada! 9/9, 12, 13

Please join us in Toronto:

Japanese and Canadian Writers:

The Canadian launch of
Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan
International Edition (English language)

Friday, 9 September 2011   6:30 p.m.
at The Japan Foundation, Toronto

Two wide-ranging dialogues celebrating the launch of the English edition of the Japanese literary magazine, Monkey Business International. Featured will be novelists Hiromi Kawakami and Eric McCormack and poets Minoru Ozawa and Rob Winger. The event will be conducted in English and Japanese (with English Interpretation)

Location: The Japan Foundation, Toronto
Address: 131 Bloor Street West, 2nd floor of the Colonnade
Admission: Free
RSVP: or (416) 966-1600 x103
hiromi kawakamiHiromi Kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami has written nine novels and several short story collections. She won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1996 for Hebi wo Fumu (Tread on a Snake); in 2000 she won the Ito Sei Literature Prize and the Woman Writer's Prize for Oboreru (Drowning); and in 2001 she won the Tanizaki Prize for Sensei no Kaban (The Briefcase), which is being translated by Allison Powell and will be published by Counterpoint Press in 2012. Michael Emmerich's translation of her novel Manazuru was published by Counterpoint in 2010. She writes the serial People from My Neighborhood, a collection of vignettes, for Monkey Business, a part of which appeared in the first English issue of Monkey Business.
eric mccormackEric McCormack

Eric McCormack came from Scotland to Canada in 1966 and taught literature at St. Jerome's University, Waterloo till his retirement in 2004. His books have been published in a number of languages, most recently Russian and Chinese. His first novel, The Paradise Motel (1989) won the Scottish Council Book Prize. Other works have been short listed for various awards: a story collection, Inspecting the Vaults (Commonwealth Writers Prize, 1987); the novels, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women(Governor General's Award, 1997) and The Dutch Wife (City of Toronto Book Award, 2002). His stories have been included in such anthologies as The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories and The Oxford Book of Scottish Short Stories.
minoru ozawaMinoru Ozawa

Minoru Ozawa is a leading haiku poet, and edits the highly regarded haiku journal Sawa. He won the Haiku Poet Association New Poet Award with his second collection Ryuuzou (Statue) in 1998; his 2005 collection Shunkan(The Moment) was awarded the Yomiuri Prize for Literature; and Haiku no Hajimaru Basho (Where the Haiku Begins), a book-length essay on the art of haiku, won the Haiku Poet Association Criticism Award. He teaches at Atomi Gakuen Women's University and Waseda University . His haiku on monkeys appeared in the first English issue of Monkey Business.
Photo by Masahiro Tanaka
rob wingerRob Winger

Rob Winger grew up country in small-town Ontario. His first book,Muybridge's Horse, was named a Globe and Mail Best Book for 2007, and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, Ottawa Book Award and Trillium Book Award for Poetry. An active editor and teacher, Rob completed his PhD in literature and cultural studies while writing his second collection, The Chimney Stone (2010), a book of ghazals. Rob and his family live in the hills northeast of Toronto.
Photo by Kristal Davis

The aforementioned event is part of a series of events organized by the Japan Foundation, in cooperation with other institutions, with the goal of promoting dialogue through literature between Canada and Japan.

Other related events:

Japanese Literature Today

Readings (in Japanese and with English translation) and commentary by four of Japan’s leading literary figures including; haiku poet Minoru Ozawa; novelists Hiromi Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa, and translator/essayist Motoyuki Shibata. For more information, visit or email
Monday, 12 September 2011 | 12:30 to 2:30pm | Harry Crowe Room | 109 Atkinson | York University
The Translator and the Novelist: Japanese Literature After Fukushima 

A dialogue between noted translator Motoyuki Shibata and Hideo Furukawa, one of Japan’s hottest young novelists. Novelist Hiromi Kawakami and haiku master Minoru Ozawa wi ll provide further comments. For more information, visit or email
Tuesday, 13 September 2011 | 7pm | Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre | 6 Garamond Court | Toronto
Tickets $10 for JCCC Members, $12 for non-members +HST


anime boston

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

From Asia to the world

Writer Jenny Uechi on the growing global popularity of Asian Pop Culture (online @TheGeorgiaStraight):
Popular culture moves from east to west

By Jenny Uechi

Taiwanese actor Jay Chou is just one of the many East Asian stars making a big splash in the western world.
Special coverage
It isn’t mainstream yet, but East Asia seems to be slowly nipping at the heels of the U.S. as the world’s cultural epicentre. Signs of change are subtle, but everywhere: giant Korean Hangul letters in “Check It Out”, a Nicki Minaj music video (the rapper also occasionally calls herself “Harajuku Barbie” in reference to a Tokyo fashion district); Taiwanese singer Jay Chou starring opposite Seth Rogan in The Green Hornet; and Japanese pop star Gackt teaming up with Josh Hartnett in the Hollywood action movie Bunraku, which will be released in Canadian theatres in September. A generation ago, East Asian consumers were looking to the U.S. and Europe for the latest trends in music and fashion; these days, the situation appears to be reversed. What changed?

Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, a book that examines the impact of Japanese pop culture on the U.S., has noticed that many Americans—especially youths—are increasingly influenced by trends across the Pacific.

“There was a time when Americans looked outwards, it was toward Europe…the British, the French,” he said over Skype. “But Asia has become a lot more attractive—there’s a 21st-century feel to it. It’s now producing high-quality cultural products; some of these are making it overseas.”

Kelts, who travels widely in the U.S. and Asia to lecture about cultural trends, said there may be several reasons behind this shift. In addition to the rise of East Asia as an economic power and a weakening of the U.S. brand, he said, some people are starting to feel a sense of “fatigue” with western-centric entertainment.

“The boomers may have loved British rock, and try to drag their kids to a Rolling Stones concert, but for many youth, it’s like, ‘No way, man, give me Hatsune Miku,’ a Japanese computer-generated singer, any day—something that’s cool, that’s ‘right now’.”

Even though Hollywood movies and American rock bands are still “extremely popular” in East Asia, Kelts said, their dominance is less obvious than in the past.

The creeping eastern influence on North American youth culture can be seen in the growing online community of artists inspired by Asian pop media. Natalie White, aka Pumashock, is an American singer based in Los Angeles best known for her R & B covers of Korean pop songs. In Mexico, Tanz-Traum Productions creates popular remakes of Japanese music videos, with burly men taking the place of female idols.

While Japan and South Korea have been successful in exporting entertainment, the region’s biggest economic powerhouse, China, has lagged behind due to the government’s ban on websites such as YouTube and Facebook. While domestic artists can’t readily market their products abroad, an increasing number of westerners in China have become ambassadors for the domestic cultural scene. A famous example is Dashan, the stage name of Mark Rowswell, a Canadian expat who is now one of the nation’s biggest celebrities for performing a traditional style of comedy. Feichang Fresh, a group of American, German, and French business students studying in Beijing, has become an online sensation for performing rap songs in Mandarin in a polished singing style remarkably similar to that of hip Chinese stars.

“I expect Asian pop culture to become part of western mainstream media in the future,” said Antoine Shapiro, a German singer-songwriter and member of Feichang Fresh. “But it still has a long way to go. Europeans especially have a hard time taking Asian media seriously because of the over-the-top cuteness and cheesy songs and movies that dominate mainstream media here.”

Such differences, according to Kelts, may start shrinking in the years to come, as globalization has made it easier for industry professionals in East Asia to produce material catered to a foreign audience.

“With the Internet and global travel, a Japanese music producer is keenly aware of what’s produced in New York or London at this moment. But it goes both ways,” he said.

For the time being, Kelts said, one thing is certain: East Asia is competing on an increasingly level field with the U.S. as a pop-culture producer, and the influence is no longer a one-way street.

“The industries are paying attention to each other now, all the time,” he said. “There’s a lot more of this back-and-forthing between Asia and the West, and it’s all happening really fast.”

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Japanamerica re-Kindled

Japanamerica bumps #1 in the Animation category in Amazon's Kindle bookstore and # 16 in History & Criticism. Have no idea what that portends, if anything--but many thanks to Bryce Anderson for sending the alert and smart screen shots.