Monthly Archives: June 2011

Hello from Tokyo!

Pipo-kun (prounounced "peepoh coon"), the Tokyo police mascot.

Research has been off to an eventful start! Apologies for not introducing myself sooner. As I mentioned in my project description, I’m doing anthropology research on how cute things in Japan affect public space, and, interestingly, World War II memory. A lot of researchers have already commented on the prevalence of Japanese cuteness, or “kawaisa,” in how people think about Japan from abroad (I say Japan, you say anime/Pokemon), as well as on its saturation of public space. Almost every institution – the police, the firemen, prefectural governments – have their own “cute” mascot to gain popularity and, in the last case, to appeal to potential tourists.

Lately, I’ve become interested in the Japanese “pop idol phenomenon,” which has been trending for probably a few decades now. Right now, my roommates tell me there probably isn’t a single person in Japan who doesn’t know about the latest idol group, AKB 48. There are actually 58 girls in the group, making them the largest pop band in the world. Besides singing and dancing (not particularly well), they act in dramas, are featured in fashion magazines, and otherwise promote themselves through various media.

So far so good – like any other pop band. There’s a slight tweak, though. Every time a fan buys an AKB 48 CD, they can vote for one member. Whoever ranks the highest by the time they announce the results of their “general elections” – the accumulation of those votes – gets to be front and center onstage. Those who make it into the top 10 or 20 get to actually sing the songs, be in promotional videos, be featured in magazines, etc. Which means those who don’t make it into that select group have fewer chances to gain popularity or connect with their fans. Accordingly, there is undoubtedly vicious competition between the members surging under their veneer of innocent cuteness.

AKB 48 Elections

Luckily for me, their general elections were held a few days ago, just a 20-minute walk away from where I live. I grabbed my housemate and went to snag some interviews. As the glowing, ideal representations of cuteness, I wanted to know what made them so popular, what about their cuteness appealed to people, why their fans defined as “cute,” and how this might inform my current understanding of the term, “kawaii” (which, though translated as “cute,” can also be used to describe a wide range of small, pathetic things like E.T. or even old people).

My friend K and I pass through the Edo–period wooden gate after overhearing a conversation between a ticket scalper and a high school girl. “You have a ticket?” “No …” “How much money you got?” Our feet carry us steadily away as K catches the last bit of their negotiation: “… well the bank’s still open.” We had also passed a number of desperate fans with cardboard signs asking those lucky enough to have tickets to give them theirs. For a second, I felt like I was at a football game – though the stakes here seem a tad bit higher.

Though the interviews went well, I’m still working out what exactly to make of them – if you are interested, please see my “research blog,” which will drone on ad nauseum about my various thoughts and theories about cuteness and the like. Until next time –

The city of Troyes

We were going to pay a visit to downtown Troyes today! Our residence is in the campus of the Technology University of Troyes which is at the outskirt of city Troyes. In order to get to downtown, we would have to take buses there. Usually you can buy bus tickets from the driver which costs 1.2 euros per trip. However, the program purchased each of us a bus card which allows us to travel 45 trips. It took us around 15 minutes to get there.

I would say downtown Troyes is like a typical European old city. The buildings are all gothic, wooden, or baroque architecture style.  There is a square in front of the delicately built city hall. We were fortunate that the weather was nice with blue sky and white clouds. In the square, there are fountains, a huge merry-go-round, shops and restaurants surrounding by.

Our first stop was having lunch at the Pancake restaurant in the old street. As you may know, the pancake is called a crepe. French crepes have a lot of choices. There are sweet ones, savory ones, and dessert ones. Since its lunch, I chose to order a savory one called the Royal as there was ham, eggs, mushrooms and some kind of savory sauce on it. Thanks to fellows who know some French, otherwise I would not know what I was ordering from the menu.

After our crepe party, we set out to have a walk around the city. The city has a history of around 2000 years. As I passed by each building, I kept wondering how many people and events they had witnessed. There are a lot of huge churches in the city. All of those huge churches in Europe were built delicately both inside and outside in grand scales. In one of the church we visited, there was an overhanging carved out of stone. It was sculpted by a guy spending 40 years on it. That masterpiece is literally a record of his life!

We also visited a tools’ museum which has collected thousands of different tools for manufacturing all kinds of products. The museum used to be one of the finest skill training school in France. They said that the Statue of Liberty’s torch was once renovated by craftsmen from this school!

One addition note, the city seems to have some connections with cats as there are cat sculptures scattered on the walls of many buildings in the city.

As evening came, we were heading to have dinner. It was a welcome dinner party prepared by our program supervisors. The dinner took place in a night club restaurant beside the town center square. It’s underground and it’s like a maze. I had wine, green salad as appetizer, roast chicken with red fruit sauce as main dish, and a vanilla cake as dessert. It was nice and fulfilling. After that, we took the bus back to our residence and be “ready” for our first day of class next day.

Bonjour France

It has been eleven years that I have not set foot on Europe. I used to tell people that I have lived around the world since I was born. Thirteen years ago our family moved to Germany. However, it has been such a long time that I cannot really remember anything and I was so young that I did not have the capabilities to experience Europe greatly. So this summer, I decided to join this 5-week Project Management Program in France. Besides learning the fundamentals of Project Management, I would also like to re-experience Europe and know European cultures more in depth to justify my nomadic lifestyle.

After 9 hours of flight from Texas to London, and 1 hour flight from London to Paris, I finally reached my destination. I cannot really say that I’m very excited, but I know that I have a lot to anticipate. Paris CDG airport was definitely older than I thought. After I got my luggage and met some of my fellow program participants, we headed out and entered France officially. I had to exchange money first because I did not have time to do it when I was back in the states. Now I learned that really do not exchange money in the airport unless it is an emergency, because airport charges a great percentage of extra fees.

There was a French driver picking us up to Troyes. We cannot really have communication with the driver because we cannot speak French except “merci” and he cannot speak English. On the way, we noticed that private cars owned by Europeans are all small cars without a back outward extruded trunk. And the big trucks don’t have “noses”! All the trucks’ fronts are entirely flat. It was actually a long way through the countryside. Occasionally we would enter small French villages with small roads and white houses. Exhausting, we arrived our residence at Technology University of Troyes. Taking a nap was the important thing that time and I would call it a day.