Other Books on Japan III
by Scott Clark
Anthropologists must sometimes endure hardships conducting their field research, often far from home, sometimes in primitive conditions, struggling with foreign languages; it can be a lonely time. So spare a thought for Scott..., who, while collecting information for this book had to endure thousands of hours steeped in hot water in baths and hot springs the length and breadth of Japan. The result was this fascinating little book that documents the bathing habits of the Japanese people.
Any book on a subject as broad as Japan must choose a viewpoint, and bathing customs and culture is a good one as the Japanese differ from many cultures who see bathing as simply a way to stay clean. For the Japanese, it is much, much more.
Combining solid historical research with the aforementioned fieldwork he traces the history of bathing in Japan from ancient times up to the present, and the surprising fact emerges that bathing has always been a communal, social activity in Japan. From the Sento (Public Baths) in towns to the rural farmers who would take it in turns visiting neighbors to take a bath, only the very rich would bathe privately, and until the recent introduction of western-style bathrooms in homes, most Japanese did not have their own private bathrooms.
Onsen (Hot Springs) are also extensively covered. Owing to its volcanic geology, Japan is endowed with thousands of hot springs, and they are among the most popular of destinations for short breaks. Even trips made for other purposes will probably include a visit to an Onsen in the itinerary.
Clark admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing mixed bathing, as that was in fact the norm until the Meiji Period when the government segregated bathing so as to appear "civilized" to the West and its Victorian morals, and the sad fact is that nowadays the Japanese are as prudish and embarrassed by nudity as many other cultures.
In the latter part of the book he explores many of the factors that give meaning to Japanese bathing habits, foremost of which are the notions of "pollution" and "purity". Washing doesn't just clean the body, but also the spirit, and the mind. Ritual washing and bathing are very important, and most major events in life are accompanied by bathing, from the newborn babies' first bath to the cleansing of the corpse.
The book would be very useful for anyone planning a trip to Japan and wishing to be forewarned about customs they will probably need to partake in.
To understand the art of Japanese swords is to understand the sword itself. The great connoisseurs of the renowned Japanese swords were also themselves polishers. To forge these swords takes a prodigious amount of time. Finishing the sword, however - bringing out its color, texture, and final shade - is the work of the sword polisher.
This is the first book in English that examines in detail the techniques used by the great polishers, who train for years. The book is lush and lavish; it is filled with beautiful photos.
The authors themselves include Setsuo Takaiwa, a leading sword polisher working in Japan; Yoshindo Yoshihara, a leading polisher who lives and works in Tokyo; Leon Kapp, a molecular biologist who has written extensively on swords and polishing; and Hiroko Kapp, who is a correspondent in Tokyo.
Based on the fifteenth-century classic Fushikaden text by Noh founder Zeami, The Flowering Spirit is a new translation of this work. Written between 1400 and 1418, Fushikaden became a "secret, sought-after guide to life for Zeami's acting troupe." As late as the 1600s, the only people with access to this work were actors and the samurai class. Not until the latter part of the 19th century did Fushikaden gradually begin to become available to the general public. Although Fushikaden is about Noh drama, Zeami incorporates into his text his philosophical outlook on the art of life - "the way" - and how one goes about living according to these principles. Therein, you will find invaluable teachings on the aesthetic and spiritual culture of Japan.
Noh was the art form of choice for the samurai class; and many of its principles echo those of martial arts. Zeami incorporated Zen Buddhism, classical Japanese poetry, and his knowledge of the aristocratic lifestyle to bear in this work.
Reading The Flowering Spirit offers unique insight into Japan from a "new" perspective. William Scott Wilson, who has contributed quite a body of work in translation of classic works, has added an introduction to Noh, an appendix containing a translation of one of Zeami's greatest plays Atsumori, and an afterword. Even for the general reader, an invaluable text.
Did you know that Japan produces half of the world's industrial robots and is the most automated society on earth? Or that robotic baby seals have been used in research as a way of promoting the mental wellbeing of Japan's rapidly increasing elderly population? Robots certainly have a special place in the hearts, minds and daily lives of the Japanese. They hold a prominent place in the pages of manga read by millions as well as share an honored position alongside humans in factories and workshops across the archipelago.
In Loving The Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots, Timothy N. Hornyak explores the history and development of robots in Japanese culture: from the proto-robotic clockwork automatons of the Edo Period to Aibo, Sony's robot pet dog, to Mighty Atom, the popular superpowered robot boy manga character. The book traces the history of robot making in Japan as well as surveys the depiction of robots in art and media. Hornyak also compares and contrasts the attitudes towards robots in Japan and the West and explains the massive popularity of robots in Japan as, "Simply because they are simultaneously science and fiction." The field of robotics is indeed where science and imagination, the present and the future intersect.
The full-color photographs throughout the book are a perfect complement to the text. A perfect addition to the home libraries of science geeks, robot otaku, fans of Japanese popular culture, or anybody interested in cutting-edge technology.
Stone Bridge Press's Rock Spring collection brings together modern translations of both the luminaries and lesser-known writers of Japanese literature. Hojoki is unfamiliar to the vast majority of non-Japanese, but it has a significant place in Japanese cultural history as at once a vivid depiction of 12th-century Japan and a personal journal of a man all too aware of his mortality. The author Kamo-no-Chomei was a monk who renounced life in the then-capital Kyoto and lived his last years in simple huts in the countryside. The first half of Hojoki chronicles the many disasters - among them fire, earthquake and famine - that ravaged the city, as well as its ill-fated and abandoned relocation. The second half recounts Kamo-no-Chomei's hermitic existence. Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins convincingly capture the terseness and poignancy of the original Japanese verses in this very readable English version, which is further enhanced by Michael Hofmann's evocative ink-brush illustrations and an enlightening introduction and notes section. Hojoki is an accessible and surprisingly intimate window on ancient Japanese society and one extraordinary individual's rich inner life.
by Anonymous author; translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins
The title of this slim volume, Simmering Away, is a succinct summary of the charms of this collection of translated Japanese poetry and accompanying ink paintings. First, it evokes the passion of the unidentified 16th-century anonymous author of the Kanginshu, his collection of 311 poems, of which this book excerpts only a few. This is echoed in the sensuous, circular lines of Michael Hofmann's cover illustration, which depicts an iconic couple in a steamy, yet tender, embrace. Second, amid the sensuality is the Zen reminder of the evanescence of this world: no matter how deep the well of passion, it will bubble away to nothing in the end. Finally, 'simmer' is one of those undeniably onomatopoeic words that sounds like its meaning - and the Japanese language is filled with such words, from childish playground banter to the most refined poetry. It bespeaks the traditional connectedness of the Japanese language and sensibility with the physical world, something evident in this beautiful example:
Morning sounds of / cloth being beaten / reach me / pat pat / the grief of parting, / pat pat / reaching back / the sound of / tears upon my pillow
The essence of life is here - the mundane actions of the everyday; the sublimity of love distilled into the grief of parting; and the two gently but inextricably linked by the ambiguity of "pat pat" and the simultaneous reaching actions of the sounds and a hand. The effect is haiku-like in its multilayered density, but haiku does not allow such direct expressions of emotion as this poem does.
The seeming simplicity, repetition and rhythm of these poems will simmer away in the reader's unconscious like a gentle breeze, and whip up like a sudden gust of wind to shake the willow branches of your heart.
by Woodrow Phoenix
Plastic Culture documents one of Japan's diplomatic success stories: the peaceful invasion of its toy culture around the world. In a beautifully photographed book, comics artist and illustrator Woodrow Phoenix looks at the relationship between toys and culture, with a special emphasis on Japan.
The book is neatly divided into five sections, all of which are illustrated. The first section, Toys in the Postwar Period, looks at the development of the toy market, with a focus on the influence of toy maker Kaiyodo. The second section examines the marketing of toys, and includes an interview with the designer of Hello Kitty!, Yukio Yamaguchi. Third, Phoenix jumps into the world of Urban Vinyl, or designer toys, whose most well-known apostle is Takashi Murakami. The next section, the idea of toy as art, features an interview with Murakami. The final section, Toys into Mainstream, shows how our love of toys has influenced our daily lives.
A deceptively profound book.
by Eric Talmadge
Japanese take bathing seriously. Part of this is the Shinto obsession with cleanliness, part of it is the Japanese tendency of doing anything, everything correctly and do the nth degree, and part of it is the simple sensual pleasure of lying back in a steaming tub. It also helps that Japan is one of the most volcanic places on earth, and thus has an abundance of natural hot springs.
American journalist Eric Talmadge begins the adventure in his tub at home in Tokyo. He has lived in Japan for some 20 years, and knows whereof he speaks. His account is well researched and full of interesting tidbits - more Japanese, for example, die in a bath than in traffic accidents. It is not just dry journalese, though; Getting Wet is a humorous and well-written account of his take on baths and bathing in Japan.
Talmadge however cannot resist writing about many bath-related stories. For instance, archeological evidence suggests that people in Japan were bathing in hot springs more than 10,000 years ago. More recently, an American-born Japanese went to court - the Japanese Supreme Court - after being denied entry in a Hokkaido bath house.
A good read for both hard-core bathers and those that prefer the 10-minute shower in the morning.
by Patrick Galloway
If you like gore, thrills, and chills - and you like it with an Asian edge - this is just the book for you. Patrick Galloway, author of Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook, likes and knows his subject inside and out and leads us on a tour of modern horror films from Asia.
Subtitled "horror and dark cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand," Galloway reviews classics from the genre.
The book is divided into the following chapters: Dark Cinema, Family, Society, Technology, Confinement, Psychosis, Possession, and Hell. Within each of these, Galloway introduces several films and delves into the cultural and historical background as well as the arcana of the films and people who made them.
Galloway also gives practical advice on where the films can be found online.
Special attention is given to Takashi Miike and Sabu (a personal favorite) from Japan, South Korea's Park Chan-wook, and the Pang brothers - to name but a few.
A great guide, a fun read.
by Mike Newton & Naoko Motohiro
Here's the pitch:
Divorced Brit of a certain age meets Japanese woman online who lives with her parents in rural Japan. They communicate thanks to the Internet, and begin a romance of sorts. Naoko, an Anglophile with experience in England, takes a trip to finally meet Mike in person. They fall in love. Mike travels to Japan for two months, and he and Naoko co-author a book on their experiences as they travel around Japan and meet her family.
In theory, it could be insightful and fresh. It could fulfill the promise of the back cover blurb: "A Gaijin visits Japan and tours around with his Japanese partner, seeing many parts of Japan rarely seen by other Westerners."
First, Mike writes his page or two; that is followed by Naoko's take on the same situation.
Unfortunately, Mike's sections of the book read like the diary of a twenty-four year-old monolingual English teacher on his first couple of months spent in Japan. For the most part, he paraphrases the English translation of the pamphlet he got at site X, and then adds his own observation - and perhaps a bit about the dynamics of the people he is with. Naoko then comments on Mike's experiences, often reverting to "we Japanese" to separate herself and Japanese from the sometimes hapless Mike.
A good idea but for anyone who has lived in Japan for more than a few months or speaks Japanese, it sheds little light.
by Hector Garcia
Blogger Hector Garcia has produced a wide-ranging primer on Japanese culture.
The geek in Japan of the title is of course Garcia. He has written a sharp and concise guide to Japan. It is comprehensive and well done.
Among many topics, A Geek in Japan covers traditional culture, history, character, work, society, manga & anime, music, movies & television, Tokyo, and visiting the rest of Japan.
This is a book by and for Japanophiles.
Each section comes with photos, sidebars, and the knowledge of a long-time Japan hand.
Very well done.
by Teruyo Nogami with a forward by Donald Richie
Nogami's book, deftly translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, comes with high praise from American movie legends Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese, and deservedly so. This memoir actually a collection of essays, many previously published in Japanese cinema magazines presents as intimate a look at the film-making of the great director Akira Kurosawa as any reader is likely to encounter.
The title refers to Kurosawa's inclination to wait for the perfect weather conditions for shooting, an indulgence that drove up the cost of his films. Although these days computers and other technology have simplified the process, Kurosawa was willing to endure sub-zero temperatures to get just the right effect in Dersu Uzala. A perfectionist, he insisted upon a wild tiger for a key scene, instead of using a trained circus tiger, saying that the latter lacked the sharpness of tigers found in nature. When the wild beast did not behave according to the script, Kurosawa became angry. He was, according to Nogami, a demanding and difficult man, but also a genius.
The author started out as script girl on Kurosawa's now classic Rashomon and continued working with him over the next fifty years. By the time of Ran, which became an international hit, she'd been promoted to Production Manager. Although she writes with characteristic humility, even berating herself for not being more understanding of Kurosawa's depressed state of mind when he threw a bowl of noodles at her, it's clear that she played an important role in the making of his greatest films. As the eminent Donald Richie points out in his introduction, script girls, assistant producers and production managers are responsible for continuity and "for everything else that goes into the complications which result in a film."
Nogami was undoubtedly on close terms with Kurosawa's family, but she steers clear of his personal life. Thus, the master's suicide attempt in 1972 gets only a cursory mention here. Unlike the manner of the typical Hollywood tell-all, she sticks to the work, which is, after all, what endures.
by Peter McMillan
This thirteenth century anthology of 31-syllable waka (tanka) poems was compiled by Fujiwara Teika in his villa in the Sagano area of Kyoto as a distillation of the best of the past. Since then, it has come to be regarded as the most influential and moving in all of Japanese literature, especially since it was turned into the card game of karuta in the Edo Period. It draws on premium verse from the seventh century up until Teika's time, and almost all of Japan's famous early poets are represented Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Priest Sosei, Ono no Komachi, Ariwara no Narihira, Sugawara no Michizane, Ki no Tsurayuki, Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon, Priest Saigyo et al. The poems are reproduced one to a page and accompanied by a nineteenth century brush-drawing of each poet and seventeenth century calligraphy of the original Japanese.
If you want to read the original together with its transliteration, you must go to another section of the book, however. The same can be said for notes on the poems and for those on the poets themselves. I found that I often had two or three fingers marking pages as I read it through, but this format has the advantage of leaving the translations to be appreciated on their own without clutter. And they are fine translations: McMillan has allowed himself the freedom of arranging his lines as they fall most naturally in the English language. Thus the waka become 4-, 5-, 6-, and at times 7-, 8- or 9-liners. A few are strung as vertical scrolls right down the page. This free-style rendition has in the past been used for the writing and translation of haiku, but to my knowledge this is the first time it has been employed for waka. Since 1865, when the first English translation of the Hyakunin Isshu appeared, translators have tried to keep to five lines.
One of them Donald Keene, in his foreword to this book even declares that this "is by far the best translation of the Hyakunin Isshu yet". The collection begins with a poem by Emperor Tenji, who ennobled the Fujiwara family, and ends with one by Juntoku, who took part in the last rebellion mounted against the new shogunal power-base in Kamakura. One third of the poets are 'imperial' Fujiwara blood-related, and that includes the compiler himself of course. Even after the Meiji Restoration, more than six hundred years later, the days of imperial court-centred culture would never be the same again.
Beyond Teika's time, poetry would gradually popularize as the fashion moved on to renga, haikai with hokku, senryu, and finally to independent haiku. Much of this superb classical collection is love poetry, and the poets and poetesses seem ever-inventive with regard to creating apt analogies for love. Love is compared to a rudderless boat, dyed wild-fern patterns, salt-making fires; to waterfalls, tangles of hair, the moon behind clouds; to sleeping pheasants and even to channel-buoys. The only thing to spoil the elegant content and production is the brash cover illustration of a courtier in shocking pink. While the freshness of McMillan's translations should provide a lasting tonic to the world of classical Japanese poetry studies and their enjoyment, the book designer has gone for a quick impact that is sure to fade in a few years.
In her chapbook, Japanese for Daydreamers, prize-winning poet Judy Halebsky lets words from Japanese glide into her verses, slide into her syntax, and expand her existing vocabulary. She discovers their meaning by taking them apart and putting them back together. She brings haiku into her poems-- translating them, and inventing others--seemingly in front of our eyes. She pulls a line out of her day and puts it into a poem to meet with her encounters of both language and reflection.
Japanese for Daydreamers, the title of this collection, is noted in the acknowledgements as a response to the well-known textbook series, Japanese for Busy People. Slide "daydreamers" over "busy people" and you have already found a place to enter the poem making of Judy Halebsky.
"New" words (those she encounters in Japanese like tsuuka and beika) and "old" words (those familiar or nostalgic to her like stack, blueberries and Cool Whip) combine to form poems that make all vocabulary into a language of her own, neither old nor new but existing in the poetic "now".
The freedom of expression allowed in a chapbook variation of a textbook can be seen in a line like:
I believe in throwing all my dresses off the roof
In the first poem of the book there is a soft red chair and a beautiful contemplation on what we can or can't bring to a new language. It is a great place to sit and start to get comfortable with the poems of Judy Halebsky. Put aside your textbooks for the moment and savor the creamy pages of Japanese for Daydreamers.
Joanne G. Yoshida
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One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Hailstone Haiku Circle & People Together for Mount Ogura
Very short poetry has a long history in Japan, which gave the world the most famous form of it, the haiku, dating from the seventeenth century. The world took up the short poem with enthusiasm, and a new book of it from Kyoto, the heart of Japan's courtly culture, keeps that enthusiasm alive.
With its beautiful colored kiri-e (paper cutout art) cover, One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each is a bilingual English/Japanese anthology that takes Mt. Ogura in Kyoto - its beauty and its sad fate - as its muse. Its concept is taken from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a thirteenth century anthology of tanka poems.
According to the Foreword of One Hundred Poets, Mt. Ogura has been "favoured by nobles and poets, [and] its praises have long been sung in literature." Sadly, however, with Japan's post-war development, the old mountain fell upon hard times, and is now tended to by its own NPO, People Together for Mt. Ogura, a body of volunteers that works to rid it of the trash that now blights it.
The one hundred poems of this anthology were compiled in a joint effort between People Together for Mt. Ogura and the Hailstone Haiku Circle, a Kyoto-based group of English and Japanese speakers dedicated to the short poem.
The poets range in age from 7 to 89, and while the vast majority are Japanese, there are numerous non-Japanese poets represented. Each poem is in its original form and translation. Poetry is perhaps the least translatable form of expression there is, but the translations here are not mechanical literal renditions, but paraphrases that scan in the language they are rendered in. The old problem with reading translated poem is whether we are liking the work of the poet or the translator. Bilingual readers will enjoy both; those who read only the Japanese or the English, however, will still be charmed.
For example, the lovely poem no. 36 by Zen'ichiro Nakamura is written in the original as:
春風が 峰を越えてや 小倉山
"The spring wind goes over the peak Mt. Ogura"
However, this literal translation does not convey the subtleties of the idiomatic "てや." One Hundred Poets translates it as follows:
"The spring breeze - it comes from over your shoulder, Mount Ogura"
somehow recreating those subtleties with the matter-of-fact and intimate "over your shoulder," a phrase that also conjures up a certain degree of caution, of doubt - appropriate here for a mountain where, for every scene of beauty, you learn to look reluctantly over your shoulder for ugliness too in the form of trash.
Every poem comes with a footnote to aid in understanding of the poem in its context.
All proceeds from the sale of the book go to the trash clearing and other conservation projects that People Together for Mt. Ogura undertake. So, in finishing, let me quote another couple, selected more or less at random - if only to convince any doubters that for a work of charity it is not just "worthy," but works its own magic too.
by the old empress' tomb -
wood-frogs croak -
...a poem by Mayumi Kawaharada that very cleverly makes a moral dichotomy out of a succession of three grisly images in succession, to almost comic effect.
Or, Reiko Hayahara's:
a flock of birds brings down
more cherry petals
The almost sinister, perhaps slightly unnatural, sense of stillness is broken - in fact, like the cherry petals, "brought down" - under an assault by a whole flock of birds that nevertheless ends in gentle beauty.
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each is a beautifully presented paean to beauty and restoring it.
Order One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each (ordering and pricing information) 135pp.
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