October 08, 2015

Eat, drink, and be merry

I previously discussed the cooking show (fiction and non-fiction) on Japanese television. With all that food getting cinematically prepared, the law of gastronomic thermodynamics dictates that there should also be a whole genre of entertainment dedicated to the consumption of food. And, yes, there is.

To be sure, this television species belongs to the entertainment genus of "watching other people having a good time" and "people doing interesting stuff so I don't have to." The particular advantage of the eating show is that this is an activity that everybody can participate in.

Now, unlike Phil Rosenthal in PBS's I'll Have What Phil's Having, everybody can't go flying around the world in order to sample the best and the most exotic (without a reservation or worrying about the bill). But decent approximations are not out of reach, nor is international travel these days.

A Few Great Bakeries, also from PBS, stays closer to home and well within the budget of the average viewer. PBS has a whole suite of shows along the same lines. But getting back to Phil Rosenthal, the first episode in Tokyo struck me as pretty much identical to the Japanese version of the same genre.

Rosenthal does visit two exclusive restaurants that would have the rest of us waiting for weeks on waiting lists and then forking over most of a paycheck to cover the bill. But the rest were open to anybody who knew where to go to find them and could squeeze in at the counter.

I don't drink or go to bars but one of my favorite shows on NHK is The World's Most Inaccessible Bars. In this case, "inaccessible" doesn't mean a rope line and a burly bouncer only letting the "right" people in. Rather, these are pubs and diners off the beaten path, down an alley and around the back.

Solidly working and middle class establishments, one of the attractions of the show is virtually hanging out with the regulars. The food and drink is only part of what keeps them coming back.

The World's Most Inaccessible Bars employs the same narrative approach as Somewhere Street, with no presenter, only a pair of narrators/commentators and a first-person camera (with plenty of cutaways).

However, most eating shows on Japanese television belong to the closely-related entertainment genus, "Watching B-list celebrities do interesting things." And some of them can be pretty dang interesting.

The typical focus of attention are food, hot springs (the onsen is a positive obsession), temples and historical sites, often tied together with a train ride on some quaint old line from point A to point B. This program description does a good job of describing the entirety of the genre:

Actress Sayaka Isoyama is starring in a new travel program coming soon to LaLa TV. Sayaka Isoyama's One Cup of Bliss Women's Journey will feature Isoyama visiting various locations in Japan and enjoying their local cuisine and specialty alcohol.

Of course, it's no surprise to find anime venturing into the same thematic territory. Wakakozake gives us Murasaki Wakako, a 26-year-old OL whose "favorite thing to do for relaxation is to go off by herself after work and go to various places to eat and drink, even if she's never been there before."

In live-action drama, Hanasaki Mai Speaks Out is a clever police procedural about two bank examiners with a knack for uncovering financial improprieties and bringing down the high and mighty. (Hanasaki's inability to bite her tongue when confronting greedy ne'er-do-wells explains the title).

Since their jobs have them traveling to banks hither and yon, she and her fellow accountant always have a restaurant guide in hand. Once the call of justice has been answered, they're on the prowl for new places to eat. That is, when they're not hanging out at the pub Hanasaki's father runs.

They may have to audit to live but they definitely "live to eat."

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October 01, 2015

Hungry for entertainment

Cooking shows have been a staple of "edutainment" programming since the television was invented. They anchor PBS weekends (I'm partial to America's Test Kitchen). During the week, it can seem at times that Chef Gordon Ramsay is responsible for half of Fox's prime time lineup.

On cable in particular, the cooking competition reality show traces back to the gonzo Japanese cooking sensation, Iron Chef. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. NHK loads up their weekday daytime broadcast schedule with cooking and handicraft shows, not just the weekends.

Impressively, all this cooking is done with pots, woks, and frying pans. Plus a computer-controlled rice cooker and a supercharged toaster oven. Few Japanese can afford the kitchen that comes even with an average apartment in the U.S. It's not the money, it's the power and space.

(The above article about rice cookers points out that while traditional Japanese electronics firms like Sony have ceded ground to their Korean and Chinese counterparts, makers of "white goods" appliances are booming.)

The kitchen counter in a typical Japanese apartment is designed to accommodate a compact cook-top, not an oven. With smaller cupboards and refrigerators too, daily shopping remains the common custom.

The "traditional" housewife role is still popular and accepted in Japan, meaning there's a mid-day audience. And an audience for NHK's family-oriented morning soap opera, the perennially popular Asadora melodrama. Five out of the last ten were about food.

TeppanThe heroine revives her grandmother's okonomiyaki restaurant.
OhisamaThe heroine marries into a family that runs a soba restaurant.
Gochiso-san   The heroine masters traditional Japanese cooking in the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s.
MassanThe hero and heroine found Japan's first whiskey distillery.
Ma'reThe heroine (from the sticks) becomes a pâtissier.

Japan has a thriving food culture. Note how food figures into the plot of Spirited Away, as Chihiro watches her gluttonous parents turn into pigs. But there are anime series that are all about food and practically nothing else.

Here's a sampling of anime series (with links):

     • Gourmet Girl Graffiti (Hulu CR)

Her grandmother's passing leaves Ryo Machiko not only living alone but without an appetite. This quickly changes when her cousin Kirin moves to town, giving her somebody to cook for, which she does with a passion.

Gourmet Girl Graffiti is about as art-house porny as food porn gets. Unlike Tampopo (1985), Juzo Itami's classic food flick comedy, there's no actual sex or nudity. Gourmet Girl Graffiti just makes eating good food look hilariously indecent.

     • Food Wars! (Hulu CR)

With the family diner shutting its doors, Souma's dad enrolls him in a cut-throat (almost literally) culinary school. The food/sex nexus in Food Wars! makes Gourmet Girl Graffiti appear downright subtle. It's basically Tampopo with Animal House sensibilities: dumb jokes and gratuitous everything. Oh, and lots of stuff about food.

     • Silver Spoon (Hulu CR)

At first, attending Oezo Agricultural High School was a good excuse for Yugo Hachiken to run away the stifling academic pressures at his preparatory school back in Sapporo. But now, like it or not, he's going to discover where food really comes from ("Don't eat the eggs!").

Along with all the farming and agricultural material, there's a nice lesson here about the difference between real-world "knowledge" and a book-acquired "education."

     • Ben-To (Hulu)

Reaching for a half-priced bento at the supermarket, Yo Sato finds himself in the middle of a full-blown brawl. As it turns out, the only way to get a decent cheap bento in this town is to fight for it. To keep himself fed, Yo joins the "Half-Priced Food Lovers Club."

A bento is a traditional box lunch, a source of often exquisite fare at bargain prices. A home-made bento (in a lacquerware box) is a sure sign of motherly love or a very attentive girlfriend.

Ben-to combines the food genre with the "flight club" genre (the -to is a play on the kanji for "combat"). In the fight club genre, the wildest reasons imaginable are concocted for kids to beat the snot out of each other (the wackiest fight club anime of them all being Ikki Tousen).

Ben-To takes a Looney Tunes approach to the violence, in which everybody gets better by next week. The shows are pretty samey as far as the threadbare plots go, but each episode features a different premium bento as the ultimate objective.

No list would be complete without Anpanman, in which all the characters are food and the superhero is literally an edible jelly doughnut (anpan). Yes, you can eat him in an emergency. The anime has been running since 1988 and is now at over 1200 episodes.

Anpanman's arch-enemy is Baikinman ("Bacteria-man"), which I've always thought is a bit ironic since the fungus koji (Aspergillus oryzae) is such an important part of Japanese cuisine. Whenever he gets predictably beaten, he shouts, "Bye-baikin!"

In prime time, it seems that half of the shows on the science-oriented Tameshite Gatten and the business-oriented The Professionals are about food. The Worker's Lunches investigates what people with unusual jobs have for lunch.

There's no shortage of live-action gurume dorama (gourmet TV dramas): The Emperor's Cook, Akko's Lunches, A Problematic Restaurant, Midnight Bakery, and Bookshelf Restaurant, to name a few recent shows off the top of my head.

So it comes as no surprise that in 2014, Tokyo could again boast having the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.

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September 24, 2015

All about Comiket

NHK produced this fair and informative look at Comiket, the world's largest comic book convention. Comiket specializes in self-published doujinshi (with booths starting at less than $100), but has branched out to embrace every imaginable medium and genre.

Big publishers pay close attention (and mostly overlook not-for-profit copyright violations). Comiket is the equivalent of the NCAA Final Four, a rich recruiting ground for new talent and a venue for professional artists to experiment outside their market niches.

For four decades, Comiket has showcased the growing integration between the established business world and creative entrepreneurship that is becoming the inevitable future here in the U.S. too (whether the "legacy" publishers like it or not).

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September 17, 2015

Something Ventured

Ostensibly a documentary about venture capital, this 2011 film by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine is an engaging exploration of real-world capitalism. Better, it doesn't so much tell as show you what risk-takers and brilliant minds can do when given access to capital and free markets.

Here is a system that turns the old feudal order upside down. Marx asserted that the wealthy profited off the labor of the poor. In the world of venture capital, the monied search out unmonied entrepreneurs whose only assets are their bright ideas and willingness to work hard to see them realized.

If the bright idea fails, the monied financiers end up with less money and the unmonied entrepreneurs are back to where they started.

But when they succeed, not only can the investors become fabulously rich but the wealth gets widely spread around. Here is the closest thing to creation ex nihilo since Genesis, turning common bacteria into medicine and beach sand into computer chips.

The dreams of the alchemists--to transform worthless lead into priceless gold--have come true. In 1976, a $250,000 investment created Genentech, which twenty-five years later was sold to Roche for $47 billion. When Apple went public in 1980, it immediately spawned 300 millionaires.

In Triumph of the Nerds, Bob Cringely ruefully recounts how he worked one summer for a fledgling Apple Computer and insisted on being paid in cash, not stock. That's not nearly as bad a miss as Atari president Nolan Bushnell passing on an offer to own one third of Apple Computer for $50,000.

Apple today is worth over $600 billion.

But this story is more about people than calculations of profit and loss.

William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, was a highly eccentric man whose dysfunctional management style eventually alienated his entire senior engineering staff. Fed up, they decamped en masse to Fairchild in a deal brokered by future venture capitalists Arthur Rock and Alfred Coyle.

Fairchild Semiconductor pioneered the planar process, shared a patent with Texas Instruments for the integrated circuit, and was the first company to introduce an IC operational amplifier. In the mid-1960s, Fairchild was one of the few profitable semiconductor manufacturers in the U.S.

Unfortunately, Fairchild's East Coast managers ran the West Coast company like a 19th century corporation. The peons were supposed to work to enrich their betters. Except when the value of an enterprise resides in the minds of its employees, those employees can walk that IP right out the front door.

Which they did in droves, founding spin-off companies known as "Fairchildren." Shockley's and Fairchild's disaffected brain trusts created today's Silicon Valley, but only because venture capitalists were willing to risk millions on cash-poor, hard-driving entrepreneurs and their outrageous ideas.

By contrast, this interview about venture capital in Japan details the difficulty the concept has overcoming age-old cultural hurdles. And note how well Steve Jobs matches the Asian ideal of a startup CEO--a charismatic leader in total control of his company--hence his iconic popularity in Japan.

Something Ventured can be viewed at Hulu.

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September 09, 2015

The La Brea Fly Pits

Utah's hot, dry summers are not kind to flies, mosquitoes, and other annoying insects. The combination of heat, low humidity, and ultraviolet light (the average July UV index in Salt Lake City is 10; in New York it's 6) is as lethal as DDT.

And at 4700 feet in elevation, summer mornings can be quite cool, even when the temperature reaches 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the late afternoon. I can open the door and windows and let the warm air out and the cool air in without ushering in a bunch of uninvited guests.

Conditions get wet and cool enough in the spring and fall to bring out the bugs in annoying numbers. Even during the summer, a couple will find their way in and spend the day banging off the glass and buzzing me, no matter how wide open the windows (wasps seem particularly stupid in this regard).

We're talking bugs with a serious death wish. They're like, "C'mon, Darwin, give me some of that natural selection!"

Splat. Wish granted.

I tried traditional fly paper and caught one fly in an entire month. Maybe they've evolved an aversion to the stuff. But as I said, not really worth spending a lot of time and money on. Still, a couple of flies droning around the room are like little kids running up and down the aisle during a cross-country flight.

I'm pretty sure fly paper--well, duct tape--would work on them. As it turns out, fly paper, like duct tape, is the right idea. It only needs a little tweak.

A $6 pack of Catchmaster "Bug & Fly Clear Window Traps" did the trick. You place a plastic sheet of the stuff it in a corner of a sun-facing window (or any window where you observe bugs congregating). Stick it to the window and peel off the protective backing, exposing a film of transparent goo.

I was amazed at how quickly it worked. An hour later, flying annoyances gone. Or rather, permanently stuck. That's how long it took them to randomly wander into an insect version of the La Brea Tar Pits. I resisted tenting my fingers like Mr. Burns and cackling as the parasites went to meet their maker.

But I've got no sympathy for flies. Spiders, on the other hand, I respect. They're cold-blooded (literally) predators, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend (as long as they don't crawl on me).

It got me thinking that what we have here is the making of a cool science project. Leave a strip up for the whole summer and you'll end up with a veritable insect abattoir, including the teeny-tiny no-see-'ums you never guessed were there. You could stick traps all over the place and see what you collect where and how many over a span of time.

The downside is grossing out the teacher. But in truth, it's not any more disgusting than butterfly collecting. It's just that the little critters look so disgusting.

Okay, make that a big upside for the average kid.

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September 03, 2015

Window fans

One nice thing about living in the high desert is that while summer daytime temperatures can climb to 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), they often sink to a comfortable 65-70 degrees at night. Except then the problem is getting the hot air out and the cool air in.

Building codes in the U.S. stipulate wall and ceiling insulation ratings but rarely Whole House Mechanical Ventilation. And in an apartment (especially a forty-year-old one)? Fuhgeddaboudit. Unfortunately, because ventilating an apartment would be easy.

(The air conditioner and refrigerator in mine are as old as the apartment; the hermetically sealed compressor pioneered by General Electric is an amazingly rugged piece of machinery. But they are power hogs.)

When I was a kid back in the prehistoric times, my dad installed a WHMV system in our big baby boomer house. That plus tons of insulation in the attic made a huge difference, and was orders of magnitude cheaper than central air conditioning.

My solution has always been to buy a box fan and attach screws to mount it in the window. The first one was the best, with metal blades that were quiet and didn't turn too fast. They've been plastic ever since and noisier. But the last two really disappointed.

My previous Aerospeed fan wasn't unbearably loud but became steadily unbalanced (like a wobbly wheel). I started hearing what I thought was outside helicopter traffic (not that unusual where I live). It was the fan putting on a convincing ventriloquism act.

Its replacement, an inexpensive Lasko B20301, was well-rated on Walmart. That thing is a screamer, a turboprop ready to take off. I'm sure it'd be fine in a barn or a 2000 square foot house. It was too loud even from the bedroom.

So it was time to get a purpose-built window fan. The top-selling twin fan on Amazon is the Holmes HAWF2021. But the bad reviews (always read those) consistently mentioned the noise, and that made me nervous. I didn't feel like rolling the dice again.

In the reviews, somebody recommended the HDX FW23-A1 as the superior choice. HDX is Home Depot's store brand. Having decided I couldn't live with the Lasko, I took a closer look at the Home Depot listing.

Several reviews mentioned how quiet it was. That sold me. I trundled down to the local Home Depot and picked one up. It truly is the quietest fan I've had so far, and just ten bucks more than the Holmes. Plus, the airflow can be reversed with the flick of a switch.

Granted, it won't blow a gale through your living room; more like a gentle breeze. And in reverse, it's better than the air conditioner.

The accordion expander needs work. You have to play tug-of-war to get it out as far as in the picture. I wish they'd enclosed more than one of the Lego-like expansion "feet" instead. But the gap was easily filled by a piece of foam board.

The one disadvantage is that, unlike my old box fan kludges, when the HDX FW23-A1 isn't on it doesn't let much air through, which minimizes passive airflow. But that also means you don't have to hastily remove it with every change of the weather.

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August 26, 2015

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah

Years before encountering the St. Clair family (as both a scourge and a blessing), the mysterious magician Lord Simon used his untested powers to save a woman under assault. But as a result, he bespelled her into the walls of his house. There she remains. Trapped.

Driven to free her, Simon consorts with grave robbers and physicians, politicians and priests, twisting the arms of the powerful and the profane. As his reputation blackens and his house crumbles, his obsession to save a woman long thought dead may yet drive him mad.

Lord Simon is book three in the Roesia series. Roesia is a Victorian world where magic is real and spells and potions are the focus of academic study. Although sharing characters and events, the books can be read as standalone stories.

Lord Simon is currently available as a Kindle ebook and a paperback.

The Roesia Series

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

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August 19, 2015


If you like Enya, then Enya times three (in Japanese) gets you Kalafina, a trio that performs New Age/pop rock in three-part harmony. Recently on Studio Park they extemporaneously sang the first verse of "Storia" a capella. Very talented.

I heard about them on Historia, an entertaining documentary series on NHK that explores the lesser-known turning points and quirkier aspects of Japanese history. Kalafina does the opening and closing songs ("Storia" and "Far on the Water").

Here's a concert performance of the Historia themes.

Outside Japan, Kalafina is better known for the more metal "Magia," the ending song from Madoka Magica (their best-selling single in Japan too).

Kalafina's albums are available from Amazon. The digital downloads are reasonably priced; I hope this bespeaks a trend for music from Japan.

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August 12, 2015

The grudge and the dream

William Tecumseh Sherman said it best: "War is all hell." But criminal sociopathy aside, why should some soldiers be so eager to usher in Hell on Earth? In the case of Japan during WWII, the common answer is its "martial culture," an answer that is in small parts true and large parts wholly beside the point.

To be sure, it is no less important to ask why these questions are kept more alive in some quarters than in others (answer: as a cynical and hypocritical foreign policy strategy). By contrast, Michael Totten reports that in present-day Vietnam,

anti-Americanism scarcely exists. What we call the Vietnam War, and what they call the American War, casts no shadow--especially not in the South, which fought on the American side, but not even in Hanoi, a city heavily bombed by the United States. The war was just one in a long history of conflicts, and it isn't even the most recent. Perhaps it's not so remarkable that the Vietnamese have moved on. Most Americans don't hold grudges for long, either, after the furies of war have subsided.

Vietnam has also "moved on" from the one million Vietnamese who died during WWII. The same can be said about the Philippines, which now prefers Japan as an ally since China started stomping all over the South China Sea like, well, Imperial Japan a century ago. But these considerations do not extinguish the moral quandaries.

The undeniable brutality visited upon soldier and civilian alike in Nanking, Bataan, Manila, and Burma is all more surprising in light of the actions of men like Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who issued visas that allowed 6,000 Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied territories to occupied China via Japan.

Though his superiors reprimanded Sugihara for doing so, when pressed by Berlin, the Japanese government

rejected requests from the German government to establish anti-Semitic policies. Towards the end, Nazi representatives pressured the Japanese army to devise a plan to exterminate Shanghai's Jewish population, and this pressure eventually became known to the Jewish community's leadership. However, the Japanese had no intention of further provoking the anger of the Allies, and thus delayed the German request for a time, eventually rejecting it entirely.

Modern Japan had waged two major wars before WWII and the historical record offers little evidence of a martial culture indifferent to the welfare of the defeated. To be sure, there were scattered cases--such as that of the White Tiger Corps--of soldiers killing themselves for no good reason, but not the enemy.

During the Boshin War (1868), casualties on both sides came to less than 10,000. The Tokugawa loyalists were shown clemency, and many later joined the government. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun, abdicated and lived out the rest of his life in peace. The capital, Edo (Tokyo), surrendered with casualties only in the hundreds.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) is chiefly remembered for Admiral Togo's brilliant execution of the naval battles. The equally important but largely forgotten land war around Port Arthur was a sneak preview of WWI, wracking up most of Japan's 47,000 casualties.

(If European generals hadn't learned from Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Kennesaw Mountain what damage the muzzle-loading rifle could inflict, the Russo-Japanese war should have informed any rational observer what happens when infantrymen charge entrenched positions fortified with machine guns.)

In any event, Japan was celebrated in the Western press for waging and winning a "European" war in Asia. In 1906, Admiral Togo (who seriously believed himself to be the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson) was made a Member of the British Order of Merit by King Edward VII.

For perhaps the first and last time, the Japanese army and navy were "on the same page," fighting the same enemy with the same objectives.

And yet it was during the Russo-Japanese war that deep conflicts between Japan's military services began to emerge, the costly land war being overshadowed by the triumphant navy and a pliable press. By 1940, these rivalries would prove hugely detrimental to both to the war effort and the men engaged in the fighting.

The modern Japanese navy dates back to the mid 1800s, when forward-thinking leaders like Katsu Kaishu envisioned Japan's future as a naval power. Although he was a Tokugawa loyalist, among his students were many "founding fathers" of the Meij Restoration. Ever since, the navy continued to attract the "best and the brightest."

The army, by contrast, found itself the poor stepchild to the navy. "Interservice rivalry" doesn't begin to describe the bad blood between the Imperial army and navy. The army had been mauled by Soviet forces in border conflicts during the 1930s and its self-declared war in China was going nowhere, giving the navy the upper hand.

The first scenes of the biopic Admiral Yamamoto (2011) makes this abundantly clear: Yeah, we're going to end up fighting the Americans, but right now the real enemy is the army. And the press. And the government.

When the tables were turned at the Battle of Midway, the Imperial navy took its own sweet time informing the army (the public had to infer what had happened) that it had actually lost, and badly. The navy actually had good reason not to trust the army.

Saigo Takamori, the commanding general of the Boshin War, first quit the government because the politicians wouldn't invade Korea fast enough. After Meiji reforms stripped the samurai of their hereditary privileges, Saigo ended up leading a counterrevolution (the Satsuma Rebellion). He was George Washington and Robert E. Lee in one.

Like Lee, Saigo Takamori emerged a hero despite his wasteful and pointless rebellion (and all the more so since he'd died "heroically" in the process). That set a "standard" for celebrating passion over discipline and created an officer corps that fell into the habit of launching coups and starting wars whenever they felt like it.

The Imperial army sallied into the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, a conflict as brutal to the Japanese army as the Eastern Front was to the Wehrmacht. Attrition was hollowing out the professional officer corps even before Pearl Harbor. The Solomon Islands campaign in 1943 further depleted the army of officers and the navy of pilots.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the kind of cynical movies later made about Vietnam in Hollywood were made about WWII in Japan. The army was blamed for dragging the nation into the conflict in the first place, and returning soldiers--infantrymen, in particular--did not have kind things to say about their commanding officers.

In Embracing Defeat, John Dower describes the kind of letters published in Japanese newspapers by returning veterans after the war.

In May 1946, a veteran wrote a typically anguished letter to the Asahi, one of the country’s leading newspapers, recalling the "hell of starvation" he and his fellow soldiers had endured on a Pacific island and the abuse they suffered at the hands of their officers. Several months later, a report in the Asahi about an abusive officer "lynched" by his men after surrender triggered eighteen reader responses, all but two of which supported the murder and offered their own accounts of brutality and corruption among the officer corps.

What emerges here is a toxic brew of desperation and incompetence, coupled with incoherent and flatly impossible objectives, the same poison that resulted in moral black holes as dissimilar as Andersonville Prison and My Lai.

Add to that a manufactured ideology that had been, in the words of Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy at Tsuda University, "pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it."

The Meiji Restoration itself was a reinvention of Japanese political history, ostensibly "reinstating" the emperor as the acting head of government (which he hadn't been for 1000 years). But here I'm referring to a far more invidious creation: the crude politics of resentment concocted after the Russo-Japanese war.

The 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth (for which Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Prize) gave Japan one of the greatest negotiated bounties in history. Japan walked away with "legal" (internationally recognized) possession of the entire East Asian archipelago, from Taiwan all the way up to Kamchatka, with Korea thrown in for good measure.

And yet fervent nationalists and populist rabble-rousers in the press convinced the public that they were owed more. Increasingly violent protests led to the Hibiya riots and the collapse of the government. The conviction that "We was robbed!" became a rallying cry, a grudge nursed for the next three decades.

That grudge was ginned up by the "educated" classes. But what would compel the average infantryman to fight so ferociously against foreigners with whom he had no quarrel? In the September 16, 1942 edition of the Wall Street Journal, former Tokyo correspondent Ray Cromley I think accurately identifies the root motivation.

Cromley's military analysis is mostly wrong (granted, the British had been thoroughly outsmarted at Singapore), though viewed in light of the balance of power in September 1942, understandable. Cromley does capture the essence of the simmering discontent that goes back not only to Portsmouth but to the "Unequal Treaties" of 1858.

The average Japanese sailor and soldier is a simple fellow from the country. He has been filled with propaganda about how Westerners treat Japanese. He believes that Britons and Americans despise him as an inferior. This is his opportunity, his officers tell him, of "showing up" the Westerners. Japanese soldiers are getting "revenge" for the white man's treatment of him as an inferior. Much use is made of the American Oriental Exclusion Law, which the Japanese say insults them.

There's something darkly comedic about people getting enraged by the legislative actions of a foreign country that would never affect them in the slightest (and differed little from the laws in their own country). But such is the nature of nursed resentments and harbored grudges that drive so many conflicts today.

(This article about the introduction of Japanese cuisine to the U.S. points out that as early as the late 1800s, Japanese culture and the Japanese themselves were held in much higher esteem than the Chinese.)

For those who have no plausible recourse against the actual and immediate source of their suffering, foreign devils and the heretics frustrating the divine cause become the most accessible scapegoats, to be driven in the hills and sacrificed, for real and imagined wrongs often suffered generations before.

Once these convictions become fixed in the collective consciousness, further fueled by a sense of mission whose righteousness increases in inverse proportion to its attainability, they are almost impossible to root out. Again, it was Sherman who realized the full extent of the awful implications. After the Battle of Atlanta, he prophesied:

I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them.

What Sherman foresaw was a psychic sunk-cost fallacy (an "escalation of commitment") playing out on a massive existential scale.

The Civil War cost the South over a quarter-million dead. The bitter remainders of Sherman's 300,000 kept the war going for another century. The Thirty Years' War cost Western Europe eight million lives, depleting the population of parts of Germany by half. It can be argued that the Thirty Years' War really didn't end until 1989.

By the same token, Japan's 20th century wars in China and the Pacific were the final, dying attempts to realize the expansionist dreams of the 16th century warlord, Oda Nobunaga. As David Goldman vividly describes, throughout history these hopeless wars have inevitably grown more brutal as the dream slipped away.

Either the ideology dies, or the people willing to fight to keep it alive do (by force or arms or by natural causes), in sufficient numbers to render the cause inert. That may literally take the lifetimes of everyone who subscribes to it.

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August 05, 2015

Admiral Yamamoto

The 2011 biopic Admiral Yamamoto (Toei Pictures) focuses on the last decade of Yamamoto's life. But even at 140 minutes, it only skims the surface, a surface made all the thinner by telling a peripherally-related "homefront" story at the same time. The "fiction" in this "historical fiction" gets a good workout.

As for the "historical" part? That's pretty much fiction too.

To cite one technical detail, Yamamoto's plane was shot down near Bougainville in 1943. We're shown the version carried in the Japanese press, that has him dying elegiacally in the crash. In fact,  U.S. Naval Intelligence knew where he was and he was killed mid-air by a P-38 Lightning during its initial strafing run.

Well, call it "subjective" history. This shameless hagiography burnishes Yamamoto's reputation the same way Robert E. Lee's record was "rehabilitated" after the Civil War. As a military commander, Lee was less than he was cracked up to be. Like Lee, Yamamoto was a disaster at every offensive action he initiated.

But the buck stopped nowhere. However reluctant he might have been going in, Yamamoto pushed hard for the Pearl Harbor attack. And then with no carriers to hit, he refused to launch a necessary second wave to destroy the tank farms. Later in the film he declares Pearl Harbor a failure. Which it was, largely because of him.

The movie does show how the Doolittle Raid fueled Yamamoto's obsession with Midway (a welcome result entirely unintended). Forced to divide his forces to keep the Midway option alive, Coral Sea was a halfhearted effort the U.S. Navy was able to fight to a draw.

Then at Midway, Yamamoto failed to rein in Admiral Nagumo after the battle was lost for certain, and acquiesced to Rear Admiral Yamaguchi going down with his ship. No, you don't let experienced officers kill themselves after the enemy failed to do so.

Veteran actor Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance) depicts Yamamoto as practically a spectator to the war he's waging. Director Izuru Narushima apparently wants us to associate "passive" and "detached" with "peaceful." Except depicting Yamamoto as a saint makes him as delusional as his ideological foes in the Imperial Army.

In real life, Yamamoto was anything but a bystander when it came to the war planning. In Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully recount that

In the midst of the Pearl Harbor debate, [Yamamoto] had let it be known that he and the entire staff of Combined Fleet were prepared to resign if his views were not confirmed. [Admiral] Nagano, given the choice between acquiescing or confronting his wayward subordinate, had backed down. In so doing, he essentially let Yamamoto hijack the Navy’s strategic planning process and place it under the purview of Combined Fleet.

Both McClellan1 and MacArthur also thought themselves indispensable men. Lincoln and Truman let them know they weren't.

I subscribe to the theory that when the critical information fell into his hands, Admiral Nimitz might possibly have balked at killing Yamamoto for the same hypothetical reasons Lee would have balked at killing McClellan in 1862. Why eliminate your best asset?

At its heart, Admiral Yamamoto wants to be one of those old-fashioned, patriotic, big-screen blockbusters like The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Battle of Britain (1969) and Midway (1976). Those were movies that celebrated the "good war" and the "greatest generation" and starred every big-name actor under the sun.

(And to lend extra gravitas: John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker dies on the slopes of Mt. Suribachi in the last reel after the iconic flag raising. Charlton Heston's Captain Garth dies in the last reel ferrying a fighter from the sinking Yorktown. Alas, Yakusho's Yamamoto dies in the last reel amidst a "transfer of troops.")

Those earlier classics were made with the cooperation of the military branches, along with mothballed equipment pulled out of storage and plenty of repurposed newsreel footage. Admiral Yamamoto make good use of digital effects to create more convincing snapshots of Pearl Harbor, Midway, and the Solomons.

Unfortunately, live-action digital effects like this don't come cheap in Japan, where a "feature film" is "low budget" by Hollywood standards. So Admiral Yamamoto gives us maybe ten minutes of actual cinematic battles and two hours of actors pacing around soundstage sets.

It's on those sets that Teruyuki Kagawa steals every scene he's in as a fiery newspaper editor in the tradition of William Randolph Hearst: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Then does a 180 when the war is lost. (John Dower notes in Embracing Defeat that this was a not uncommon phenomenon in 1945.)

The more interesting (perhaps unacceptably iconoclastic) story would have shown us the war from the point of view of Kagawa's newspaperman, who goes from hero worship to cynic, and yet concludes (as Jimmy Stewart is informed in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance), "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

1. Both McClellan and Yamamoto had great press and the affection of their subordinates. Both were enamored of elaborate battlefield strategies that promised the deliver a crushing blow to the outfoxed enemy (Parshall and Tully explore this failing at length). Both couldn't accept that "no plan survives the first shot." As a result, neither knew what to do next besides retreat. Unlike McClellan, Imperial Japan didn't have more capable officers waiting in the wings. Yamamoto was the basket in which they had placed all their eggs.

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July 29, 2015

Just don't stand there

I recall an actor extolling the benefits of smoking. On screen, that is. He'd grown up in the old studio system, back when people smoked without apology. It all came down to keeping one's hands busy, giving the actor something to do when he wasn't actually doing anything:

Take out a pack, extract a cigarette, give it a couple of taps to pack the tobacco, search the pockets for a book of matches, find it, get one out, strike it, light the cigarette, wave out the match, take a puff, exhale smoke. And on it goes.

The thing is, even when people are "doing nothing," they're actually doing a lot. And neither do they stand around declaiming in soliloquies. And when they do, listeners aren't suddenly struck by blinding realizations and run off realizing the error of their ways.

(In other words, real political life is not like The West Wing.)

And yet the engine of a story has to idle occasionally. The protagonists can't be in pursuit of the plot 24/7. So what are they doing when they're not?

In real life, people are pretty boring. Middle class, suburban teenagers in particular are really boring. But you can't bore the viewer in the name of "realism." Hence that most reliable of genre fantasy plots: boring kid discovers he's not.

Harry Potter, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, to name a few.

The job of the teenage superhero is Saving the World, except Saving the World gets boring week after week too. It really does. Besides, what do they do when the world doesn't need saving? As Kate suggests, it's a problem solved "by simply giving the main characters jobs."

I'd argue that the appeal of action heroes like Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent is due in large part to the fact that they all work for a living. At least when we first meet them. And the less real work they do, the less interesting they are.

I'd prefer to see more of Peter Parker using his superpowers to creatively enhance his job as a photojournalist instead of battling the latest comically absurd supervillain. In other words, less time spent saving humanity (sorry, humanity), more time making a living.

For the Y/A protagonist, being a student can qualify as a job. One of the best examples of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy's two jobs (student/Slayer) means that the mundane is constantly bumping up against the supernatural. This is great for story possibilities.

Manga and anime execute this formula to great effect.

In The Devil is a Part-Timer, our villain with a good heart has gotten stranded on Earth and has to get a job at McDonald's to make ends meet. Even funnier, being the competitive guy that he is, he works hard and cares about being successful at what he does.

So in-between destroying/saving the world, he's got to staff the late shift and keep the customers coming when a Kentucky Fried Chicken opens across the street. It's a much better way to humanize the protagonist than being nice to children and rescuing wayward pets.

(Though just to be sure, he does that too.)

When it comes to non-paranormal melodramas, the budding manga artist is a popular job for a teen protagonist. In Hanasaku Iroha, Ohana works at her grandmother's inn while attending school. In Kodocha, eleven-year-old Sana is a hard-working child actress.

Serious hobbies also qualify. The sports manga/anime is its own huge genre, but there the sole (even relentless) focus of the story is often the sport. There are exceptions: I'm thinking specifically of stories where the story is about something other than the "job."

I think Yawara falls into that category. Yawara Inokuma's grandfather has trained her since infancy to be a judo champion. But now a teenager, she's rebelling. There's plenty of judo, but the story is more about her relationship with her grandfather and classmates.

In K-On, five students at an all-girls high school form a band that turns out to be pretty darn good (almost despite themselves). The running joke is that they're always so busy doing other things that they only get around to practicing the night before a gig.

In Garden of Words, Takao wanting to become a shoemaker works because it keeps him from moping all the time and gives him a goal in life. And it being an odd thing for a teenager to be interested in makes him all the more interesting.

Genre fiction gets boring when it tries too hard not to be. The result is a storm of action and emotions, except that constant action is exhausting and emotions are effervescent. Forcing characters into regular contact with the ordinary world is what brings them to life.

Related links

The Devil is a Part-Timer (H)
Hanasaku Iroha (H CR)
Kodocha (Netflix)
K-On (H)
Yawara (Netflix)

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July 22, 2015

The book detectives

Shioriko Shinokawa (Ayame Gouriki) runs the "Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia" in the old historic town of Kamakura. She's quiet as a mouse, pretty as a picture, and brilliant as Sherlock Holmes.

The series begins with Daisuke Goura (Akira) coming to sell a collection of Natsume Soseki books that once belonged to his grandmother. In particular, one prized volume that appears to bear the famous author's signature, along with a mysterious dedication.

Shioriko concludes that the signature is a forgery, and that Daisuke's grandmother was the likely forger. That she would do so in a book she had always kept to herself only points to another mystery, one that reveals a curious truth about Daisuke's own past.

This first episode gets our two protagonists together so they can solve more mysteries of a literary nature. Each episode involves a specific classical work or famous author and Shioriko's exhaustive knowledge of world literature and the book collecting business.

Many of the episodes don't even involve a crime per se. The A Clockwork Orange episode starts as a shoplifting case and revolves around the missing last chapter in the first edition. An actual felony occurs at the end of that episode.

But nobody gets murdered, so this Kamakura isn't like those sleepy English villages where people are dropping dead right and left.

Ayame Gouriki pulls off the tricky task of being preternaturally pretty but more that bookish enough for the part. Despite the physical mismatch (he's eight inches taller), Akira (née, Ryohei Kurosawa of the band Exile) nerds it up and makes a good Watson.

Akira shares the Watson duties with veteran character actor Katsumi Takahashi, who also doubles as the Mrs. Hudson.

Thirty miles south of Tokyo, the ancient city of Kamakura is an ideal setting for a musty old bookshop. Minamoto no Yoritomo established Japan's first shogunate there in 1192, though it's better known today as home to the enormous outdoor statue of the Great Buddha.

Much of old Kamakura has been preserved as a veritable walk-through museum, a cozy place for cozy mysteries about books.

Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files is based on the best-selling novels and manga by En Mikami (tragically, no English translations yet). The live-action 2013 Fuji Television series can be viewed on Crunchyroll (subtitled).

(The "free" version of Crunchyroll requires putting up with their obnoxious ad engine, whose primary purpose is to annoy you into buying a subscription. The free-market capitalist in me shrinks from pointing this out, but Adblock Plus works on this site.)

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July 15, 2015

MacGuffin man

The couple in question.
As I mentioned in my previous post about Kimi ni Todoke, two supporting characters, Chizuru and Ryu, are substantively more interesting than the main characters, Sawako and Shota. As for the latter two, ultimately there's not a whole lot of "there" there.

That's not an insurmountable problem in story like this (with so much else going on). But as Kate asks, "What on earth will they talk about for the rest of their lives if they can no longer talk about their growing romance?"

Pushing aside everything you know about the characters from the anime, the live-action movie makes this hard to ignore. On the plus side, it hits all the major plot points from the first season of the anime. The two-hour time constraint means much less angst to wade through.

But the deeper side-story about Ryu and Chizuru is reduced to about five minutes. Racing from conflict to conflict, the relationship among Sawako, Ayane and Chizuru--the true substance of the series--becomes a fait accompli rather than a nurtured and growing thing.

In the process, Shota ends up a conventional teen lead, little more than a "MacGuffin." That's Hollywood slang for "a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation."

What separates formula romance from, say, Jane Austen, is giving the heroine a reason to want the hero aside from him being the closest available white knight. Aside from being a nice guy, nothing about Shota convinces us that he is desired for anything more than being desirable.

Even in the movie, we learn far more about Ryu than we ever do about Shota. (The movie actually adds more backstory about Sawako than is in the anime.)

As Sawako, Mikako Tabe, in turn, has to lean more heavily on affect than acting. Trying too hard to match the look of the anime forces her to compete with her hair in the early scenes. Her performance improves considerably when she can finally wear her hair up or back.

Even then, she has barely any material to work with, other than her character's odd personality. The movie unintentionally makes it obvious that here are two kids who really need to get themselves a life, something more substantive than pining for each other.

Sawako at least has her flower garden. I would have liked to see this used much more as an outer expression of her inner self. Make her a budding botanist.

Kimi ni Todoke is a good example of how animation can be the superior visual medium when so much of the subject matter is internal or subjective. Manga artist Karuho Shiina can draw what she wants us to see (hair, to start with), especially if she wants us to see a state of mind.

Sawako and Chizuru in super-deformed mode.

Manga and anime have rich repertoires of abstract effects and visual metaphors, such as the "super-deformed" style.(1) These effects don't interrupt the narrative and announce themselves precisely because they are drawn. We've already disassociated story from "reality."

Pixar has further proven the point with Inside Out.

I think a movie adaptation like Kimi ni Todoke would work better by addressing a far smaller slice of the original. A straightforward summation of events, however accurate, simply can't generate the same emotional Sturm und Drang.

They look and can play the parts.

The movie does get a few things exactly right: Haru Aoyama and Misako Renbutsu are perfectly cast as Ryu and Chizuru. There's the better movie to make: flip the point-of-view around and tell the story from their perspective. All the necessary material is already available.

Related posts

Kimi ni Todoke (movie anime manga)

Here is a useful guide to the dating scene in Japan.

Japan's “Love Confessing” Culture
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Girl
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Guy

1. Although "super-deformed" is generally considered analogous to "chibi," I think it's more semantically useful to define "super-deformed" literally and "chibi" as a sub-category.

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July 08, 2015

Democratic impositions

I'm amused when neo-conservatives are criticized for running around the world imposing "American-style democracy" on foreign peoples. It's a policy memorably articulated by Rudyard Kipling about the long-forgotten Philippine-American War.

Take up the White Man's burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead.

In September 1898, anticipating Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" by a century, Kipling wrote to Theodore Roosevelt:

America has gone and stuck a pickaxe into the foundations of a rotten house and she is morally bound to build the house over again from the foundations or have it fall about her ears.

I agree with most critiques of neo-conservative adventurism, and hew to the Prime Directive in this regard (though preferring Captain Kirk's interpretation to Captain Picard's: sometimes you do have to send the Marines to the Shores of Tripoli).

The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.

The problem with the "American-style democracy" jibe is that no neo-conservative has ever imposed "American-style democracy" on anybody. The American political system is uniquely a product of our own history, geography, and demographics.

Bottom line: the Rube Goldberg machine called the United States is too weird to impose on anybody anywhere else. Rather, what neo-conservatives have been doing is running around the world imposing European-style parliamentary democracies.

All the more troubling, these parliamentary democracies tend to be modeled on unitary states with hyper-strong central governments and little shared sovereignty or "local rule." Japan, France, and Great Britain are three notable examples.

If any political system was going to be imposed on anybody, countries like Afghanistan and Iraq would have been better off with an "Articles of Confederation" framework that made the provinces fairly independent and got them on board first.

Functioning provinces first, nation-building second. After all, learning from our mistakes with the Articles of Confederation gave us version 2.0, the current U.S. Constitution.

Even then, the anti-federalists didn't lose the ideological battle until after the Civil War. Then over the next century, the political pendulum swung too far in the other direction. As it did in Japan.

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 upset 250 years of fairly strong local rule, abruptly centralizing power without the necessary checks and balances. The temptation is understandable: to rule by decree and to right wrongs "because we know best."

Because, you know, those provincials in the provinces are just too provincial to get with the times (exactly the same attitude that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate).

Alas, without the (implicit or explicit) consent of the governed, governing ends up a game of Whac-A-Mole. The people forever out of power may decide to shoot the people in power. Except that the people with the most guns are usually the military.

That was Japan during the 1930s. Creating "facts on the ground" that couldn't be undone by feckless politicians, middle-ranked army officers in Japan and China launched coups and started their own wars. In most cases, the government caved.

Wrote Robert Heinlein, "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."

In the end, it's not an election or a constitution that makes the difference. It's the widely-understood rules of the game and everybody's willingness to play by them. Common law becomes the rule of law by first being common.

The United States started with Jeffersonian republicanism before moving to Hamiltonian federalism. The rule of law predated the U.S. Constitution. Key elements of the Bill of Rights had already been written into state constitutions.

Before relying on--and yielding sovereignty to--the big, people must build trust in the small. They have to "trust, but verify." Otherwise, even the most perfect democratic system will never work, no matter how, by, or on whom it is imposed.

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