Category Archives: Japan

Watabori Park

6:30 AM. My last full day in Tokyo.

My second-to-last day actually never ended, since I came home at 1 AM and proceeded to talk to my sister for 3 hours. By the time I closed skype, I could hear birds chirping outside and decided that since I had yet to take a leisurely stroll around the area at 4:30 in the morning, now was the time to do so. I stuffed my phone and keys into my pocket and slipped out the door, thinking of a nearby shrine with some benches and a vending machine. A cold can of coffee while watching the sunrise? As my hand turned the lock, I doubled back into the house for a camera and a 500 yen coin. Now I was ready to go.

Outside, the sky was already pale lavender, though the moon was still up. I turned my feet towards Omiya Hachimangu, the nearby shrine famous for helping parents (especially mothers and soon-to-be mothers) raise good, healthy children. The soundscape changed as I approached the looming torii backed by dark forest eaves. Occasionally chirping birds acquiesced to the squalling drone of cicadas and other insects. I took the path to the side of the gate, quickly enveloped by dark foliage and the insects’ sighs.

I ended up ambling past the benches, allowing my curiosity to pull me towards some stairs I had noticed the day before. They led down to a park with a pond, some ducks, and some old people getting in their morning exercises. I stopped to photograph a blue heron stalking a fish and a middle-aged man avidly flying a remote helicopter. He was silhouetted against the rising sun as his toy droned in and out of focus. I took some dirt from the path as a souvenir, funneling it into an empty “pet bottle” (Japanese-English name for plastic bottle) with my fist.

This still did not satisfy my curiosity, which told me to explore a different way out of the park. As I walked on, I saw why – I had come across a fishing spot. 500 yen for 30 minutes; 700 for 1 hour. Opens at 9 AM weekdays; 8 AM on weekends. Shaved ice is 300 yen. I now have mid-morning plans, right after the pancakes I make with the last of my food supplies.

I continue on, then double back when an elderly regular tells me the shrine (and my house) are in the opposite direction. The torii swallowed up the dregs of the cicadas as I stumblingly meandered my way out of the woods. The sun shines brightly and cars flicker past on the main street. 6:30 AM in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood, and my last day has only just begun.

About Fukushima

I know this doesn’t entirely fit with the tone of this blog, but I was so moved by this video I wanted to share it … (the title looks a little extreme, I know).

Watching Japanese news generally gives one the impression that the crisis has been effectively dealt with, and that the best way people can help is through consumption. Celebrities are sponsoring “Let’s go Tohoku” campaigns, urging people who feel strongly about the victims of the tsunami and nuclear meltdown to buy products that come from that area … Though I’m sure it somewhat helps to revive the prefectures, there seems to be only relatively muted discussion about the fact that products with high radiation levels have been allowed to enter the market, or that the government has been doing almost nothing to solve the problems in these areas for the past 4 months.

Okonomiyaki Story

It’s been a while since my last post, which is both a shame and very exciting, since it’s a sign that I’ve been so splendidly busy I haven’t had time to record what I’m up to. There is quite a bit to report, but I’l write this post about restaurants in Tokyo.

One of the main reasons I love living here is the food. Though transportation is a killer (incredibly convenient but expensive), a hole-in-the-wall bar run by your local mom-like figure, and regularly frequented by the neighborhood crew is always less than 5 minutes away from wherever you live. And the food is, almost without exception, well-priced and either excellent or decent. Besides this, you always return from a dining experience with a little story.

The other day, for example, a friend and I were saving ourselves a few bucks by walking home from a farther station instead of taking the train. Ravenously hungry and in search of a good okonomiyaki place (savory pancake from Osaka area), we debated where to eat. Wandering into a random restaurant or izakaya (Japanese pub) was all very good, but who could guarantee it would be worth it? Then again, looking for recommendations online sounded time-consuming and ultimately unhelpful in our tiny neighborhood. As we turned the corner at the bus lot, my friend said, “Well how about there?”

I looked over at the slightly dingy-looking place advertising its okonomiyaki. It looked like most of the izakaya in our neighborhood – a few red lanterns out front, with a short blue noren (cloth divider) and a fluorescent sign. The wooden door slid open as an older sister let a toddler outside to blow a few bubbles (apparently, not an uncommon past-time – my 20-something badminton friends wanted to bring bubble blowers to a barbeque, along with the less surprising volleyballs and frisbees). The 5 or so tables were occupied by a young family and a few older men with giant bottles of sake. I looked suspiciously at a man wearing grey parachute pants – the person subletting to me had said at some point that yakuza (Japanese mafia/gangs) members tended to wear them… Apparently many tend to live in this area; maybe it was a regular hangout …

“Let’s go!” My friend, who had arrived only a few days ago and was therefore unaware of the potential danger of parachute-pants-wearing men, walked briskly towards the door. My hunger and vague feeling of embarrassment won out over my paranoia, and I trotted along after him.

Everyone seemed to stare as we wandered in and plunked down at the only open table. I suppose foreign-looking pairs don’t wander into hole-in-the-wall izakayas frequented only by the neighborhood crew that often. As I puzzled over the menu, my friend nudged me a little. “I see the owner is a women’s wrestling fan.”

“Huh?”

“Look at the posters!”

I stop deciphering the menu – peppered with kanji and dishes I don’t know, anyways – and look over at the posters to my left. Five wrestlers frown down at me, their black leather costumes gleaming. Well, that certainly isn’t kawaii (cute). Though all the wrestlers are wearing make-up, they don’t display any markers of kawaisa/cuteness (smiling, bright, soft, small, etc). “You should ask the owner about the posters,” my friend prods. I nod and order for both of us (he can’t speak or read more than five words in Japanese). Since you are supposed to fry your own okonomiyaki, the owner brings us a bowl of the mix and shows us how to get started. After we work through our first and she brings us the monjayaki mix (a thinned-out version of okonomiyaki), I ask about the posters.

“Are you a wrestling fan?” (An obvious question, since the tiny place is covered with wrestling posters).

“Yup,” she says. “Those two over there are wrestlers.”

“Huh?”

“This is Giro-san,” she says, pointing to a poster of a frowning woman with short hair and turquoise eye-shadow. I look over at the two larger women who had walked in a few minutes ago, noticing the resemblance. Apparently they come here at least once a week, bringing boxes of pizza and sharing wrestling stories with the other neighborhood characters. She knew them from outside of work before she started the shop. I look at her again, wondering if she had been a wrestler before. She does have the build and if she knew them outside of work … Too shy to ask, I let the moment slip by; we pay for our clumsy meal and continue on our way, debating whether or not we should have asked for a picture with the owner and wrestlers.

“That would’ve been so great …” Our voices melt into the humid darkness as we trod home, sighing dreams of what could have been at our small discovery.

A Few Interesting Japanese Sights

My stay in Tokyo is running just shy of 2 months, and I have yet to post about funny, or at least interesting, signs I have found. This would be understandable for someone researching, say, micro-organisms or sheep, but hardly excusable for someone who is supposed to be thinking about consumer culture, nationalism, and aesthetics. Most of what I do entails snapping pictures of train station ads and rifling through advertisements from the 1930s; if I’m doing my job right, I should have a gold mine to draw from.

Here are a few I managed to dig up:

I'm not sure what the makers of this candy were aiming for when they named it.

Homer Goes to Japan (in Nagoya)

A dude in Harajuku who is part of a "circle" (i.e. club) that cheers people up by dressing up and doing randomly nice things for people. Who knew that Tokyo had a DoRaK (current UM student group)? This guy later gave me a cell phone strap decoration he had made.

A Clothes Shop in Ueno, Tokyo.

This was just cool. A fountain pen shop dating from the Showa period (1926 - 88) in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture.

A toy panda tied to a pole in front of a game center in Ueno. It was wheeling around in squeaky little circles.

“Salary-man” Living on the Edge

As I force another swallow of my yakisoba – garnished only with purple cabbage, carrots, and not nearly enough yakisoba sauce; not terrible for a first attempt – the salary-man* next to me furtively takes his feet out of his sandals, stretching them a little with obvious pleasure. He smiles at the refreshingly energetic wind and swaying trees, while I smile at his endearing action. It feels like salary-men are stereotypically the most tiring people to deal with (in Japanese, people usually say 難しい = muzukashii = difficult). They cascade into the trains at 7 AM in their uniformly black suits, slacks, polished shoes, and briefcases, most with the recently popular “cool biz” haircut; never seem to smile when they are working; present you with unreadable faces or (what feel to me like) egregious bows  when you inadvertently ask inappropriate questions, and otherwise ensure that the bureaucracies they work at function bureaucratically. Or so I hear.

Perhaps it’s partly due to this veneer of uniformity, but public space in Japan (and even private, depending on who you’re with) feels highly regulated. For example, there’s the obvious I-was-eating-a-sandwich-on-the-train-no-one-else-was-and-people-kept-looking-at-me. There are the more blatantly obvious scenes, like a police car inching along behind you in a residential neighborhood, loudly reminding everyone to “follow the traffic rules and remember to always think of others so that our neighborhood can be brighter and more fun.” But there are also more subtle things, like a great-aunt mentioning in passing that she heard your great-uncle arranged for you to meet with your other great-aunt. When interpreting this information, you are intended to realize  a number of things: a) Think of who might have communicated this to your great-aunt, b) realize that it was probably your great-uncle, c) realize that he went to a lot of trouble to arrange this meeting and probably called because he was not feeling so great about having to do a favor like this for an adult, d) realize you have not yet thanked your other great-aunt for meeting with you, or thanked your great-uncle for arranging the meeting, and e) realize that you should contact relatives on you own. I’m exaggerating a little, but you see how someone might be inclined to err on the serious, formal side in any given interaction. It feels very much like constantly, consciously performing some kind of role (though this may simply be because I have to work to understand these norms, since I didn’t grow up with them).

This is why I love finding moments when people ooze just a little bit outside their roles. It’s a nice reminder that, despite the sense of constant policing in Japan, almost everyone secretly wants to break outside the rigidity of public interactions.

I noticed something similar when I realized the salaryman sitting next to me on the train was practicing ballroom dance steps. For a second, it was like sitting next to Richard Gere in“Shall We Dance?” Another time, the girl walking in front of me evidently had a dance routine stuck in her head, because she kept practicing it – not ostentatiously, but with small twitches that fell into a pattern if you bothered to notice. Having been unable to resist shaking my head to Rosinha de Valenca’s “Summertime” just minutes ago in the train – I was embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it – I couldn’t resist a smile. What other personalities are hiding behind the uniform “salarymen*?”

*In Japanese, サラリーマン, which refers to office workers/businessmen. The feminine equivalent is OL (“office lady”).

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 –