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Archive for November, 2006

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15
Nov

Know Your Enemy

The usual lecture of my thrice-weekly Modern Japanese History class was interrupted the other day. My professor decided he would share with us a slice of the World War II era American perceptions of Japanese society.

Enmeshed in brutal and racially-infused Pacific-based war with the Japanese, the American government took to one of the great political tools, one that hit its most flagrant peak in the twentieth century: propaganda.

Towards the end of 1944, the U.S. government contracted famed director Frank Capra to put together a film that could introduce the American people to the Japanese, who, at the time, were even less known and understood to most Americans than they are now.

The result was “Know Your Enemy,” a 63 minute collection of Japanese newsreels and U.S. military films narrated by American actor John Huston, leaving the audience with nuanced half-truths, implicating assumptions and poorly researched declarations leading my Japanese classmates to wild laughter. The Japanese were involved in similarly heinous anti-American, self-aggrandizing racial superiority, but it always stings a bit to see the foolishness of U.S. mistakes of the past.

Watching the film made by Capra, yes, the Frank Capra that directed It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was fairly troubling. Probably for the best, in the end, the film was not released in American movie theaters, as, upon completion, the war was in its final stages and Capra’s negative portrayal of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito did not fit the U.S. military’s decision to offer Hirohito clemency from war crimes.

It was, in the end, released as an academic tool and acknowledgement of past foolishness, excused by wartime, but it certainly made me, as so much can, think about the Truth, yes, Truth, in the information I find and news I absorb. For anyone who has followed my writing, you know that is often impenetrable, stuffed with facts and figures, historical data and future projections. I try to imagine being an American moviegoer in the 1940s and deciding to see Capra’s “Know Your Enemy.” In the end I would watch an hour of innocuous video, altered by the constant narration labeling the Japanese people as “sinister” and hopeless in their “obedience for their emperor’s command.”

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15
Nov

The Bento

I was left trying to make a comparison yesterday. It is moments like that, when I feel more versed in something Japanese than its American counterpart, that I feel I have been in Japan for too long.

The Bento. It might be best translated as a ‘boxed lunch,’ but boxed lunches in the United States died generations ago. They are so common that I have become so familiar with their name and their use, that I have neglected to ever mention them.

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15
Nov

The Forgotten Japanese

Japan is for the Japanese, no?

When I interviewed Donald Richie for my fourth episode, he described Tokyo as being one of the world’s most diverse cities. Clearly, the capital of Japan is one of the world’s largest, bringing business, political, entertainment and social group members together from around the world. But, what about the country as a whole?

According to CIA statistics, Japanese territory is peopled by a population of 127 million, 99 percent of whom are ethnically Japanese. Is there diversity in that?

Well, there are certainly subsets of that group with personal distinctions.

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14
Nov

A Clear Night

Tonight is one of the clearest nights I have ever found while in Japan. From my balcony, overlooking a well-kept garden, I can see twenty or more stars and a brilliant full moon, brightly lit and open to intruding glares.

It is November in temperate Tokyo and the nightly temperatures are falling. I stood on that balcony and took in one of the great smells of this world, the smell of a chilly autumn night. The smell of the cold. A smell crisp enough to burn my nostrils upon entry, but too appealing to keep me from breathing deeper again. It is simple and clean. The air is clear enough tonight to make me forget I am in smoggy Tokyo, if only for a moment. The sky has chosen purple for its color tonight, though it is deep enough for the casual observer to miss that. I didn’t miss it. I stood outside long enough to see it was not blue or black or gray, no, the cold November night was as purple as it was clear.

Still, there is nothing particularly Japanese about this clear night, but it feels different. Despite the goose bumps on my arms, I am warmed by the cold air in my lungs and the clear sky in my eyes. I am warmed just as I am when Nat King Cole’s crackling version of ‘The Christmas Song’ begins to play from my computer. There is only one place in the world I am meant to be at this moment, where cold November nights and clear skies are common place and I can play all the holiday music a month before December I want without being labeled just an American.

Jaa ne,
Christopher

1
10
Nov

Tsukiji

(SEE MY EPISODE SIX)

Sushi and sumo: that’s what Tokyo does. I’ve said this before and it is as inaccurate now as it was then, but when you travel to far off lands, it is as important to search for true meanings of your destination as it is to see how you previously perceived that destination.

I have been to sumo, I have eaten sushi, but until yesterday morning, I had never been to Tsukiji.

Let me make a more formal introduction. America, this is the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tsukiji Fish Market, this is America. Many know you, but too few know you, Tsukiji.

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10
Nov

Government Buildings

It was a beautiful day yesterday. As winter creeps in on Tokyo I thought it was an obligation of mine to do something with it. Newton, the bicycle, and I took a tour of the governmental heart of Tokyo. I occured to me that I couldn’t live in Japan’s capital for four months and not see its political home. I rode an hour or so to the Chiyoda city of Tokyo, not far from the Imperial palace, and found myself where Japanese diplomacy is done.

Chiefly, Chiyoda is home to the National Diet Building: the country’s legislative arm, Japan’s Congress.
Japan’s bicameral legislature is not only responsible for day to day policy, but also for electing the country’s prime minister, currently Shinzo Abe (Think the in-power Congressional party electing the American President).

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8
Nov

The Odd Couple

I was on a train a few days ago and heard something I hadn’t heard in almost half a year: an old married couple fighting. They were American tourists, or so I surmised from blatantly and unabashedly listening to their conversation. She felt that he always treated her “like a child,” as he had recently done by asking a waitress in a restaurant where the bathroom was on her behalf.

It was odd. I do see non-Japanese Westerners almost every day, particularly in Tokyo, but I don’t as often overhear English and more specifically, American English. It was refreshing to hear the squabbling that is a signature of long relationships. It was nice to think that I might be lucky enough to have a berating, nagging wife willing to stand by me for the better part of a century and maybe explore another continent. Someone who will be willing to tell me everything that is wrong with me on a crowded train in Japan. That wouldn’t be so bad at all.

Jaa ne,
Christopher

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7
Nov

Directions

I started counting the roads in my Tokyo atlas. I didn’t finish.

Look, it is no secret that I get lost. I walk and bike and ride long and fast and blind. I welcome it, even if not in the moment I become lost.

There is no place I have gotten more lost, more often than here in Tokyo. Maybe I have stumbled upon the answer.

What I have been struck by these one and a half months is how rarely Japanese people seem to know a damn thing about Tokyo geography. I would stop by someone and even with map in hand, they wouldn’t seem to know. It didn’t seem to be out of indifference for my being lost, either. It seemed more as a general unawareness.

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7
Nov

The Imperial Palace

I had a Sunday morning and, well ahead of my school work, I needed to do something with it. I flipped through a Tokyo guidebook, but was unenthusiastic. I took to reading the news and heard mention of Japan’s Emperor. I realized that I hadn’t visited the Emperor yet, and I had been in his country for more than three months, how rude of me!

So, as I often do, I saddled up old Newton, my bicycle, and took to the road, destined more than an hour northeast of my apartment towards Ginza, a large Tokyo business district. My destination: Kokyo, the Imperial Palace.

It was cloudy but warmish and I flew through the crisp wind towards. The Imperial Palace is on the site of the old Edo-jo Castle, which was built in the 14th century, remastered in the 1590s, and by the 17th century, it was the largest castle in the world.

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7
Nov

Costs

A month ago, my readers might remember, I mentioned an earthquake I survived. Alright, apparently, a 4.8 earthquake is inconsequential to the experienced. I am not experienced.

So, needless to say I was more surprised than most of the Japanese students around me when I heard ceiling tiles and lights rattle for a few seconds. There was a moment of laughter and then someone switched back on the fast-paced Tokyo walk that surrounded me.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed. This I have mentioned. It wasn’t until later, when another student from Philadelphia who is also here in Tokyo mentioned the brief stir that I got to announce that that was my first earthquake survival story.

Alright, so it wasn’t anything to focus my autobiography on, but it was an accomplishment for me nonetheless.

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