Don’t mention the war

The Second World War is still raging.

Well bubbling along in another island dispute concerning the Kuril island chain; a grouping of volcanic islands that sit in-between Japan’s northern Hokkaido and Russian Kamchatka.

The Kuril Islands form the top part of the pacific RING OF FIRE!  The southern most mere kilometres from Hokkaido the northern most a gnats cock off of Kamchatka. The islands are currently inhabited by almost 20,000 people, mostly Russians but with some Ainu other Baltic populations. The islands are home to many Russian ‘soldiers’ known as the Border Guard Service. The islands are known for their severe weather of long stormy winters followed by short and notoriously foggy summers. It is these foggy summers and the remoteness of the islands that made them the perfect launch site for the Pearl Habour attack.

In 1855 the islands were recognised as Japanese territory. After Japan’s second world war defeat, all of its territories were occupied by the Allied forces. The Allied Powers agreed that Japan’s main islands would be under American occupation; Taiwan would fall under Chinese occupation; and that Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands would be occupied by the Soviet forces.

In 1951 when the San Francisco Treaty was signed the allied powers handed Japanese land back, but Russia refused to sign over the Kurils.  To this day Japan and Russia have never formalized any peace agreement, technically meaning the Second World War isn’t over.

As of 2015 Japan has been offered the southern most islands by Putin but it has refused as the offered land only counts for 7% of the disputed area.

Ushishiru Island (Yankicha in Russian)
Ushishiru Island (Yankicha in Russian)

Again, as with the Senkoku islands, this isn’t a “we miss our ancestral land!” dispute. The Kurils are surrounded by some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the North Pacific. There is also a possibility that there are oil and gas reserves. The island also has large deposits of various polymetallic ores including the rare mineral, rhenium.

In 2006, the Russian government pledged $630m to including improving energy and transport infrastructure on the Kuril island chain. The Japanese government also maintains public awareness of the dispute by allowing visits by former residents, displaced after the war to pray at their family shrines.

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Today’s 日本語

Person in monkey costume hanging from tree

猿も木から落ちる (さる も き から おちる)

You can have done something a thousand times. Easily mastering it with your eyes closed, hands behind back, spinning plates.

Go to impress someone with it and mess it up so royally you have to move town, change your name, burn your finger prints off with battery acid.

Don’t Worry, as the old saying goes “even monkeys fall from trees”

The Japanese Red Army

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There are a few things that come to mind when one thinks of Japan; sushi, geisha, tea ceremony, busy street crossings, hard-line communist terrorists.

‘What?!’ You might say, ‘clearly Joekyo you are mistaken’

Well The Japanese Red Army is here to mess your stereotypes up.

Founded in 1971 by Fusako Shigenobu, the JRA was dedicated to overthrowing the Japanese government and the monarchy throughout the 70s and 80s.

Fusako had been a leading member in the Red Army Faction, a militant new-left communist group. In 1970 it teamed up with a Maoist group to form the United Red Army. Just a few months before a major purge, which left twelve members dead and started a week-long police siege, Fusako Shigenobu and a few select members had moved to Lebanon to promote International Revolutionary Solidarity, a movement which aimed to unite the different revolutionary groups throughout the world. Soon after arriving in the Middle East Shigenobu cited geographical and ideological differences with the URA as her reason for starting the Japanese Red Army. She allied the group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Fusako Shigenobu was born in 1945 in Setagaya, Tokyo. Her father had been a teacher and an Imperial Japanese Army Major stationed in Manchuria during World fusako-shigenobuWar II. Fusako became involved in activism whilst studying at Meiji University. At the time in Japan (along with the rest of the world) leftist ideology was rampant in university campuses. Fusako started protesting increases in tuition fees. She quickly rose up the ranks of the new-left movement and became one of their top leaders. Fusako Shigenobu was at one time judged to be the most feared female terrorist in the world.

The group was responsible for a large number of violent acts. In 1972 three members walked into Lod airport (now Ben Gurion Airport) in Tel Aviv and used guns and grenades to kill 26 and injure 80. Two of the attackers were killed whilst another Kozo Okamoto survived and was captured.

In 1973 the group hijacked a JAL plane bound for Tokyo and demanded the release of Kozo. When this was refused the group flew the plane to Libya, released the crew and passengers and blew the aircraft up. The JRA was involved in numerous hostage situations throughout the 70s and 80s. After the Lod massacre they became the most well-known leftist terror group in the world.

In Novemeber 2000 Shigenobu was arrested in Osaka. She was found with forged passports and $9000 in cash. It was a shock for Japanese people to see a middle aged woman in handcuffs, thumbs up shouting at reporters “I’ll fight on”. In 2006 she was sentenced to 20 years for using a forged passport, aiding a member of the JRA in obtaining a forged passport and attempted manslaughter by way of planning and commanding the hostage taking at the French embassy in The Hague in 1974. A key member of the defense at her trial was the hijacker of TWA Flight 840 (1969) and current member of the Palestinian National Council Leila Khaled.

In 2001 after the Twin Towers attack, Al-Jazeera and the AFP both received anonymous calls claiming the attack in the name of the JRA. This was debunked after Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were officially blamed.

Most of the groups members have been arrested and imprisoned. In 2015 Tsutomu Shirosaki, who had been imprisoned in Mississippi for his involvement in a mortar attack on the American Embassy in Jakarta, was arrested as he returned to Japan. He had been one of the prisoners freed in 1977 after the JRA hijacked a JAL flight from Paris to Tokyo.

The Japanese Red Army have been portrayed in books and film. In 2010 Fusako and her daughter Mei were featured in the documentary Children of the Revolution which tells the story of Shigenobu and German activist Ulrike Meinhof through the eyes of their daughters.  Mei Shigenobu is the daughter of Fusako and an unnamed Lebanese freedom fighter. She is currently a Japanese citizen working for news agencies. Fusako wrote about her experiences raising a child in Lebanon in her book I Decided to Give Birth to You Under an Apple Tree (2001).

Today the JRA have disbanded stating that having lost their base in Lebanon and the changing political environment of the world, the aims of the JRA can no longer be met by such a group.

Their successors are known as the Movement Rentai.

Today’s 日本語

めんどくさい – mendokusai

It’s Tuesday morning. The sound of your alarm pierces through the dull patter of rain at the window. The grey sky as dark and ominous as your mood. dragging yourself from the warmth of your bed you fumble for phone. AHHHH mendokusai.

It’s Friday afternoon with every passing second you can feel the weekend ahead of you, just when it seems you have a handle on the week, the finish line is in view an email comes in ‘This needs to be done by the end of the day’. AHHHH mendokusai

Sunday evening, lounging slumberous on the sofa barely taking in the meaningless TV you’ve been watching for the last four hours you glance over to see you haven’t actually done the washing up yet. AHHHHHHHHH MENDOKUSAI!

Mendokusai is an untranslatable word in Japanese. it sums up both the tiresome mundanity of a situation and the enormity of a simple task when you are in no good God-damned mood. It is probably  one of the first words any gaijin in Japan learns (beside NAMA KUDASAI!)

Type mendokusai into google translate an you will be told it means troublesome. but when you just can’t be bothered with anything, ‘tiresome’ doesn’t have the same cathartic effect as a nice long drawn-out MENDOKUSAI!

Happy Japanesing!

The Lady Murasaki and the First Modern Novel

“Pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, scornful” and the mother of the modern novel.

Lady Murasaki, was a courtier at the Heian court at the end of the first millennium. She wrote the massively influential The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogartari); a novel that is still considered one of the most important pieces of Japanese literature. The novel is a staple of the Japanese curriculum.

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The Heian period (794-1185) was the most glorious period in Japanese history. Moving from Nagaokakyo to Heian-Kyo (present day Kyoto) to counter balance the overly-powerful Buddhists in Nara. The period is defined as one of decadence and refinement.

Through careful manipulation and marriages the Fujiwara clan dominated Heian politics. Lady Murasaki was born c.973 to the northern branch of the Fujiwara’s. Although her great grandfather had been the first regent of the period, by the time of Murasaki’s birth her family had fallen from grace; despite their status her family had a literary reputation with many of her ancestors being famous poets.

Although in Heian society husbands and wives kept separate households with children raised by their mothers; Murasaki lived in her father’s house along with a number of siblings (it is most likely that their house was on Teramachi Street in Kyoto). From a young age she showed talent in her writing and classical Chinese (a subject usually taught to boys only) Her father often said;

“Just my luck, what a pity she wasn’t born a man”

After a short marriage to a much older second cousin and the death of her brothers, Murasaki was brought to court by the mighty Michinaga. Michinaga’s time as regent marked the peak of Fujiwara power. He married of (pimped out) four daughters to four emperors.

Murasaki was brought to attend the court of MIchinagas 12 year-old daughter Soshi who he had named Empress (even though the current Empress was still alive). The relationship between Murasaki and Michinaga was most definitely one with benefits. In her diary she documents having to fight off many advances from Michinaga. In the translation of her diary it describes the way she would bore him with the minutiae of her life at court, his daughters comings and goings and even the birth of his grandson in ‘elaborate’ detail.

Of course the sausage-fest that is Japanese history, the names of women are not officially documented. Women were known by nicknames. Murasaki had two nicknames; one being ‘Our Lady of the Chronicles’ which she most likely earned by teaching Soshi Chinese. The nickname Murasaki came from a character in the Tales of Genji. The only hint of what Murasaki’s real name could have been comes from Michinaga writing down some of his favorite ladies-in-waiting. In a 1007 diary entry Fujiwara Takako is mentioned.

The Heian court was immensely fashionable. Courtiers were increasingly isolated with very little to do art, writing and sex was all they had. Women wore floor length hair, white faces and blackened their teeth. Their clothes were cumbersome and multilayered. The well known Hinamatsuri dolls are an example of what was fashionable at the time. Women held salons, vying for status and respect. The company was carefully selected, the original Empress Teishi had had Sei Shonagon, celebrated author of The Pillow Book. Soshi was surrounded by talented female authors such as Izumi Shikibu and Akazome Emon. Murasaki showed her exactly how she viewed her rivals, writing of Izumi in her diary as;

“…not very satisfactory. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate.”

It is not known when or where Murasaki started the Tale of Genji. It is possible she wrote the first chapters for a private benefactor. At 445px-Lady_Murasaki_writingthe time paper, ink and calligraphers were expensive; it is almost a certainty that Michinaga provided Murasaki with the tools to complete the manuscript. The Tale of Genji is a novel in three parts. It spans over a thousand pages and is thought to have taken over a decade to complete. It tells the story of the gorgeous ‘shining prince’ Genji, continuing after his death.

She redefined the genre of the monogatari, avoiding the tradition of fantasy and fairy tale clichés. Murasaki’s contrast of formal Chinese style and mundane topics give the work a satirical voice. The themes found in the book are common for the period. By far Murasaki’s favourite phrase is ‘物の哀れ (mono no aware) – the sorrow of human existance’ she uses it over a thousand times. Genji is comely, refined, gifted yet sympathetic and human. Historians have deduced that in the book Murasaki found an escape from her boring life at court. Helen McCullough atributes the universal appeal of The Tale of Genji to its ability to;

“transcend both its genre and age. Its basic subject matter and setting—love at the Heian court—are those of the romance, and its cultural assumptions are those of the mid-Heian period, but Murasaki Shikibu’s unique genius has made the work for many a powerful statement of human relationships, the impossibility of permanent happiness in love … and the vital importance, in a world of sorrows, of sensitivity to the feelings of others.”

There is a running theme throughout  that Prince Genji is able to recognize the inner beauty and fragility of his many lovers.

The Tale of Genji was enormously popular. It is generally thought that it was finished by 1008, but before that Murasaki notes in her diary that Michinaga regularly came to steal chapters. Despite it being written in Japanese the Emperor had it read to him. The book was scarce in the provinces but copies were highly sought after. By as little as 100-years later it was seen as a classic. Poets in the medieval ages used it for references of classical diction. The language used in The Genji Monogatari was seen as pure Japanese, a Japanese that needed preserving.

The fact that the novel was written in Japanese helped its popularity. At the time of its writing Japan was beginning to become increasingly insular. The Tang Dynasty (Japan’s touchstone to Chinese culture) was losing its grip. By the end of the Heian period Japan had ceased diplomatic visits that wouldn’t recommence for almost 500 years.

The Tale of Genji has had a huge cultural impact on Japan. Murasaki’s written work (along with other Heian poets) forged the Japanese language and its mix of kanji and hiragana.

A sample of writing showing the mix of Japanese kana and Chinese Kanji
A sample of The Genji Monogatari.

Its legacy has been used by many different groups from far-right nationalist claiming it as the finest piece of literature (ever, of all time) to the Japanese treasury that put a scene from the novel on the 2000 yen note.

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The date of Murasaki’s death is not clear, some have her dying in 1014 others have her living to 1025. At the time of her death she would have been around forty to fifty. She is buried in a small garden in the city of Kyoto. In the year 2008 Kyoto held a year of celebrations to commemorate one thousand years of The Tale of Genji.

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In the town of Uji, where the final chapters of the tale take place there is a statue of Murasaki.

Today’s 日本語

わびさび wabi sabi

Wabi sabi represents the transient nature of beauty; a beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

The aesthetic comes from the Buhddist Three Marks of Existence (三法印 sanbōin), impermanence, suffering and emptiness.

Many Japanese arts are in the wabi-sabi style. Pottery that is not quite symmetrical, The stark lines of ikebana flower arrangement and the rough rustic edges of a Japanese garden. Jack Dorsey the founder of Twitter is known to promote the philosophy of wabi-sabi design.

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Today’s 日本語

上げ劣り- ageotori

chinese-toddler

We’ve all been there. Hair is lacklustre, limply hanging from your head, a constant reminder of the rut you’ve been stuck in. The style once perfect has now grown ratty, no amount of styling or primping could restore it to its once former glory of a month ago.

Confidence in tatters and your very self questioned, you make your way to the salon. Hopes of follicular glory dance sparklingly behind your eyes, you sit before the mirror, taking a last look at the person you once were, this will be the style that changes who you are. The stylist starts, tentative at first, as the locks fall to the floor you say a short prayer to the gods of allure. More and more come away, your head feels light, airy.

Then you notice. More is coming off one side. Then you feel what must have been a mistake at the back, the stylist who once held all your trust in her hands seems tired, angry, distant. Visions of your perfect hair fall away like so many unfulfilled dreams.

“Thanks its perfect…..yeah just right” you offer with a smile that doesn’t reach your eyes.

At home you wallow,  resigned to a few days of hats. Maybe next time.

This is clearly a regular occurrence in Japan as the language has Ageotori, a word to describe the state of looking worse after a haircut.

A Small Step In The Right Direction

The LGBT community lives in a bizarre hinterland in Japan. The public face of the community being its outspoken, popular ‘new-half’ presenters such as  Haruna Ai and Matsuko Deluxe and the private side of mass denial and FINGERS IN EARS LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!

Matsuko Deluxe
Matsuko Deluxe

There is a general consensus that although homosexuality is legal, lets not talk about such things around the dinner table please Taro!  Gay couples regularly face discrimination when trying to rent apartments or getting visitation if the other is in hospital.

This week the Shibuya district in Tokyo announced it will start to issue certificates that recognize such relationships as “equivalent to marriage.” Although the certificates are not yet legally binding they will hopefully put pressure on businesses, landlords and hospitals into providing the same level of service as heterosexual couples.

Same-sex marriage is currently not legal in Japan. Marriage is defined legally as “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes.” Compared with the west there is very little activism happening to fight that.  The certificates will be open to any resident of Shibuya Ku over the age of 20. It will give the couple next of kin privileges and they will be able to become each others guardian. It will be annulled if the couple breaks up.

Openly gay politician Taiga Ishikawa praised Shibuya and said that ;

“Cases overseas suggest that local municipalities’move to grant same-sex couples more legitimate status sometimes affects national policies. So I’m very happy about it,”

Famous LGBT activist Koyuki Higashi has said she is “over the moon” and plans to get a certificate as soon as they become available.  Higashi and her partner held the first same-sex marriage at Tokyo Disney Land in 2013. Although the marriage has no legal basis.

Higashi has said;

“We’re virtually married. But without legal backup, it’s still very difficult to live in this society. Prejudice remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society. But I hope this move will become the first step to turn Japan into a society more accepting of the idea of diversity.”

Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Matsuhara's 2013 Disney wedding
Koyuki Higashi and Hiroko Matsuhara’s 2013 Disney wedding

Takarazuka Revue – The Female Kabuki

When one thinks of Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki instantly spring to mind. The long drawn-out process of a Noh dance characterised by their static masks reminiscent of a Greek tragedy and the music like speech of Kubuki with its stylised makeup and garish costumes.

Kabuki is still a cultural sausage fest, no women allowed and Noh only (begrudgingly) allowed female performers in after most of their houses were wiped out after the war.

But, female theatrics fear not! there is hope, a beacon of glamour. you too can smell the grease paint, lights on your face, bask in the applause.

Of course there is a catch. A; you have to be cherry picked for the special training school as  teenager and B; you must be able to live to a militaristic set of guidelines (this is of course Japan darling).

The Takarazuka Revue was founded by industrialist (and right winger hush hush)  Ichizo Kobayashi , designed to boost ticket sales for the Hankyu railways, the terminus of which was in the town of (you guessed it) Takarazuka, Hyogo prefecture. The train line being owned by (two for two!) Kobayashi himself. It was created as a side show to the already popular hot springs in the area. Kobayashi found the world of Kabuki elitist and old world. He was dazzled by western musicals and thought an all-female troupe would be a big hit. Female performers in the early 20th century were (besides folk singers) mainly geisha. In some circles geisha were not given the respect and deference they are today. Kobayashi wanted a respectable way for women to perform.

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1914, Donburako Takarazuka Revue’s first performance.

Ten years later and The Takarazuka Revue had its own theatre ‘ The Dai Gekijo’. Today it also performs at the Tokyo Theatre in Ginza and has an audience of around 2.5 million a year. The Takarazuka Music School accepts 40 students a year. This year they must have been born between April 2, 1996 to April 1, 2000 But basically it is for girls who have graduated from junior high school, or who have graduated from, or are currently in high school, as of the screening day.

For the first year the girls are trained together. The first year students ‘yoka’ are required to clean the school each morning. after the first year (based on…..leanings? preference?) the girls are split into otokoyaku (男役 male roles) and musumeyaku (娘役 daughter roles). Otokoyaku cut their hair short and adopt masculine traits and speech patterns. The school is heavily focused on dance such as ballet and modern, The girls only have a few lessons a week of regular school subjects. After graduation they are offered seven year contracts.

Turandot 1934
Turandot 1934

Takarazuka Revue performs shows from traditional Japanese stories such as The Tale of Genji to reinterpretations of western films like Bonnie and Clyde.  The Takarazuka format  has a number of set themes. For one the music is all performed by a live orchestra. The stage has a ‘ginkyou’ or silver bridge that curves out into the audience “catching a glance or a wink from the stars as they dance here is a great appeal to fans” according to the websites five theatre secrets. The performance usually ends on a staircase with the cast all out on stage. The use of a mirror ball is also central to “giving life to the fantastic world on stage”

'The Rose of Versailles: Oscar and Andre' (2013) | ©TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY
‘The Rose of Versailles: Oscar and Andre’ (2013) | ©TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY

Lorie Brau (Takarazuka expert) in her article ‘The Womens Theatre of Takarazuka’ states that although the idea of an all-female troupe would be a feminist utopia, the actual reality is the patricahal structure and rigid control the theatre places its performers under is far from empowering. Kobayashi is know to have wanted his actors to of on to become ‘good wives and mothers’ and staff have said the principle of the school is to create ‘wholesome women’. One of the main reasons girls are picked at a high school age (other than their malleability and innocence) is that after their seven year contract is complete they will be at a perfect age for marriage.

There is, of course, a sexual undercurrent (where isn’t there?!). From its creation the audience was mainly women.  In the 1920’s the love letters received by the otokoyaku from their female fans were published. It caused such a scandal that the producers enforced strict living arrangements and forbid the actresses from having physical contact with their fans. This idea is still in effect with groups like AKB48 and the boy bands of Johnny’s productions.

The American anthropologist Jennifer Roberts wrote in Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan that the very act of having women playing men meant that there is lesbian themes in every takarazuka performance and that this is intrinsically understood by its audience. conversely other writers have said that the popularity of Takarazuka is Japanese women enjoying the fluidity of gender in an otherwise strictly gendered society. In Japan there is a phenomenon know as Class S, the idea of a woman, affected by watching Takarazuka goes back to her life and forms crushes on her female colleagues and classmates.

Yuki Amami as Rhett Butler Gone With The Wind - 1994
Yuki Amami as Rhett Butler Gone With The Wind – 1994

Gender roles and lesbianism aside, today Takarazuka is as popular as ever. Actors go on to have careers in show business beyond the stage starring in films and appearing on TV. Alumni have huge fan clubs and they are doted on well into retirement.  Fan clubs so devotion to their favourite performers by wearing special coloured scarves or with embroidered jackets. After performances, fan wait quietly outside the stage door, as the actors emerge they move to their designated group. Rather than requesting autographs fans give cards to their idol who efficiently gathers them, says a few words and leaves.

Today’s 日本語

木漏れ日 komorebi

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The most beautiful image  of Japan is majestic bamboo forests, moss covered stone lanterns, primordial glistening paths. the shoots swaying gently in a spring breeze the floor below dappled in beams of visible sunlight. A bird twitters, the bamboo creaks, a babbling stream you feel at one with the natural world, all at once timeless and infinite.

Japan, land of the incomprehensibly picturesque, of course has a word for just this occasion.

Komorebi – the scattered light through trees.