Friday, December 28, 2012

Thank you, Kindlers, in 2012

The sort of stuff that helps me finish the next book.  Thanks.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Hols 2012

Happy Holidays from Japan & America -- and to each and every one.

Egg nog, Boston, 2012

Osechi, Tokyo, 2012

Hanukkah, Los Angeles, 2012

 Singalong, Brooklyn, 2012

Chocos, Manhattan, 2012


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hatsune Miku in 2013

Hatsune Miku Goes Highbrow
Special to The Japan Times

On her own, Japanese pop superstar Hatsune Miku can't sing. Nor can she rap, dance or DJ. She is drug- and alcohol-free because she can't indulge in either, and she can't have affairs or engage in offstage shenanigans fit for YouTube scandals or tabloid headlines. Now entering her sixth year as a beloved idol with a global fan base, she looks as youthful and demure as she did when she debuted. She can't even get old.

Itoh, CEO of Sapporo-based Crypton Future Media, is a software developer and so-called meta-creator, whose goal is to aid others in realizing their artistic endeavors. In 2007, he asked a graphic artist named Kei to create an anime-inspired digital avatar, the kind of cartoon-company mascot common in Japan, to represent both Crypton and its virtual-voice program for Yamaha's Vocaloid software — a singing-voice synthesizer.

Vocaloid enables its users to create songs by typing in lyrics and melody, then hear them sung through a bank of prerecorded and remixed human voices. But in its initial incarnations, users found Vocaloid lacking. Something fundamental was missing — a singer. Kei's creation, the long-legged, green-eyed, turquoise-pigtailed Miku, quickly emerged as the Vocaloid "performer" of choice, a mega-mascot for consumer-generated media (CGM).

"Other Vocaloid (avatars) are popular, just not as popular as Miku," notes Ian Condry, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is a specialist in Japanese popular culture and teaches a section on Miku. "(She) was the first to cross the threshold of quality voicings, the first to be presented as a character with a look. Like all popular culture, things are popular because they are popular, so Miku had a first-mover advantage."

Naomitsu Kodaka, cofounder and CFO of TokyoOtakuMode (TOM) Inc., which provides platforms for otaku (obsessed fans) via its website and a Facebook page with nearly 9 million "likes," says Miku may be TOM's most popular character.

"I think one of the reasons she's so popular is because otaku can collaborate openly with the character without commercial concerns," he says. "Plus, they can be both artist and audience, creators and consumers."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hip-hop Japan--First Japanamerica Guest Post

Writer Evelyn Anderson won the jackpot by becoming the first guest contributor to the Japanamerica blog. Herewith, her take on Japanese hip-hop.  Move over, PSY.

Hip-hop in Japan: Carbon Copy of America or Japanese take on an American Movement?
Hip-hop is arguably one of the most influential subcultures in the world. It has caused teenagers all over the globe to don baggy clothing, wear their caps back to front and slip pieces of urban American slang into their conversations. It is therefore no surprise that the youth of Japan has been heavily influenced by this movement, with young people emulating the fashion, vernacular and musical tastes of the US ghetto. There are now over three hundred shops selling hip-hop clothes in central Tokyo alone and it is commonplace to see young men dressed in the ‘b-boy’ style that was popular amongst American rappers during the ‘80s. However whereas in the past, Japanese hip-hop fans imitated their American counterparts without adding any elements from their own culture into the mix, over the course of the last few years, hip-hop culture in Japan has transformed into its own unique movement.

From Gangster Rap to Reality Rap
In late 2003, the owner of Tokyo hip-hop record shop Hideaki Tamura noted that a major change was occurring within the Japanese hip-hop scene. When interviewed by a BBC News reporter, he commented that Japanese rappers had started doing their own thing as opposed to emulating American rappers. Instead of rapping about things like guns, violence and drug culture in New York, which there is little of in Japan compared to the United States, they were beginning to rap about everyday life in Japan, focusing upon peaceful topics and structuring their lyrics in a poetic manner. 

One of the factors that had originally held Japanese rappers back and caused most Japanese youngsters to listen to American hip-hop instead was the perception that the Japanese language is not suited to this form of music. Sentences must end with one of a few simple verb endings and the language does not contain stress accents. However after the success of several pop-rap artists during the mid 90s, Japanese language rap gradually grew in popularity. Now that the lyrics are also becoming more reflective of Japanese life, it could be argued that the Japanese have taken an American style and made it Japanese.

Monday, December 10, 2012

'Cool Japan' gone cold?

By Dan Grunebaum, from The Christian Science Monitor:

It’s been 50 years since Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki Song” became a worldwide smash. The only other Asian artist to replicate the feat? Psy, from rival South Korea, with his viral hit “Gangnam Style.”

Even as Korean tech giant Samsung turns Sony into a has-been, Japan’s erstwhile colony is also beating it in the pop culture sphere: A decade after journalist Douglas McGray famously calculated “Japan’s Gross National Cool” and awoke the country to the potential of capitalizing on the global infatuation with its anime, games, J-pop, and manga, the concept of “Cool Japan” is under assault.

Artists whose work drove the trend are distancing themselves from the commercialized moniker. “Dear ad agencies and bureaucrats,” tweeted renowned artist Takashi Murakami earlier this year. “Please stop inviting me to ‘Cool Japan’ events.... I have absolutely no link to ‘Cool Japan.’ ”

But others say a more nuanced drive to deploy Japan’s national cool as “soft power” could help heal the wounds of its devastating 2011 tsunami, smooth the creation of a postindustrial economy, and even boost Japan’s manufacturers at a time when the country is competing with neighboring South Korea and China over everything from electronics to islands in the seas separating them.

Without such a change of strategy, some say, Japan's dream of cashing in on its global cachet will remain unrealized. “Japan was caught completely by surprise by the success of its popular culture overseas,” warns Patrick Galbraith, an expert on Japanese pop culture. “The government has been content to bask in that success at a time of declining political and economic significance. It is high time to engage.”

At the turn of the millennium, Japan was on a roll. In 2001, Los Angeles’s Getty Center showcased Mr. Murakami’s manga-inspired "Super Flat" movement. (Read about the artist's featured Google doodle, here) In 2002, Hayao Miyazaki's “Spirited Away” became the first animation feature to win top honors at the Berlin Film Festival. By 2006, Harvard and MIT had a joint Cool Japan research program.

Elated by the international attention, Japan’s bureaucrats and CEOs reformulated the concept of "national cool" into a Cool Japan marketing campaign that could reach new consumers and add soft power to Japan’s manufacturing achievements. And it seemed to work ... for a while.

Friday, December 07, 2012

My latest interview w/Pete Townshend on Japan/UK postwar parallels

Townshend: Japan, U.K. took same postwar path

Special to The Japan Times

Who guitarist and composer Pete Townshend originally wanted to call his memoir, "Pete Townshend: Who He?" His publisher, HarperCollins, settled on the less cheeky, more digestible, "Who I Am" — though a better title might be: "Who I Was."

Townshend has long been rock music's most articulate interviewee, a multi-syllabic spokesman for a style of music that thrives on immediacy and rhythmic simplicity. As a writer friend a few months ago in New York said, "Sometimes I enjoyed his interviews more than his music."

In interviews, Townshend could be both bombastic and eloquent, veering from the personal to the political to the literary in one or two comments.

The narrative of his digressions was driven by his confusion — the thoughts of an individual earnestly trying to trace the convergences in his mind while sustaining a world-famous rock band.

His first hit single was called "I Can't Explain," and it was written to capture the ineffable sensation of listening to Charlie Parker while on marijuana. As we learn in "Who I Am," he quickly turned it into a more conventional love song at the behest of his managers when a legendary producer offered to record it.

Yet "I Can't Explain" is what a band called The Who was trying to say, even in its name. Like most serious writers of music and literature (as opposed to journalists and academics), what Townshend wants to convey sometimes can't really be said.

Whatever you thought of Townshend's songs, or his band, his analyses were usually dramatic and

So the biggest surprise in his memoir is how quiet and plaintive is the voice behind it. "Offstage, truth be told, I am a mouse," he writes, "albeit a mouse with mood-swings."

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

On China and The World Economic Forum

Latest travel column on returning to China to speak at The World Economic Forum and meeting a new friend en route. For Paper Sky magazine.