Tag Archives: Japan

The Dream of a Perfect Android

Hiroshi Ishi­guro has spent a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect robot. He has modeled his creations on those closest to him — his wife, his child, himself — but he admits to feeling lonely while surrounded by family, both human and inhuman. At Wired, Alex Mar unravels the depths of Ishi­guro’s passion for robots, and what he means when he tries to make them lifelike. However, Mar finds that after a lifetime of considering what it means to be human, Ishi­guro may not truly understand the basics of human interaction himself.

He has spent a lot of time talking to himself through his androids, testing them, imagining their effect on other ­people. Hiroshi (who by now has asked me to call him by his first name) tells me he’d like to record himself saying “I love you” and then program an android to repeat it back to him in a female voice. He is kidding when he says this—but maybe it’s another of his half-jokes. At the very least, he believes the need for such an exchange exists. It would be, he says, “a real conversation.” A conversation with himself.

“A conversation is a kind of illusion,” he says. “I don’t know what is going on in your brain. All I can know is what I’m thinking. Always I am asking questions to myself, but through conversations.” Over the years of operating his androids, communicating through them or with them, he has found that he isn’t really concerned about the other person’s thoughts. “Always I am thinking of myself. I need to understand your intention, but it is not a priority. Before that, I want to make clear something in my brain. Otherwise, what is the motivation to talk?”

In other words, he can only imagine using conversation with others as a means to better understand himself—and nothing is more pressing than that. He turns to the conversation the two of us are having. “We don’t know how much information we are sharing,” he tells me. “I am always guessing, and you are always guessing, and through our conversation patterns, we can believe that we exchange information. But I cannot access your brain directly.

“What is ‘connection’?” he asks. “Other person is just a mirror.”

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On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

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Scarred by a Rubber Doll

Row of life-like dolls in Japan

The original piece is a lot to digest. It’s a delicate look at Japanese men who claim they’ve found true love with life-like dolls. But there’s a back story, too. On CorrespondentAlastair Himmer and Tokyo photo chief Behrouz Mehri talk about how they were affected by their work on this story.

You don’t expect to be emotionally scarred by a lifestyle story — and certainly not by a rubber doll. It seemed like such a good idea at the time: write a story that takes a look at the lives of Japanese men and their silicone lovers. I’m AFP’s lifestyle and sports correspondent in Japan and if this wasn’t a lifestyle story, I don’t know what was. I admit that I have previously had odd experiences doing my job. I once ran off the set of a porn shoot. But that was child’s play compared to sex dolls.

But poor Behrouz. He hadn’t been exposed to something like that before. I feel awful about what I did to the Tokyo photo chief. But you have to understand my perspective. It took me nine months to set up this story. You don’t just approach someone on the street and ask them “Can we photograph you and your sex doll.” You make contacts, you get to know the people, you develop trust. I didn’t want to blow all those efforts with some hackneyed, tabloid-style guffaw at Japanese men who go on dates with lifesize dummies. So when Behrouz asked me to ask one of the men, Senji Nakajima, if he could spend the night at his place for the story, I spat coffee all over my shirt. But I asked and Senji agreed and Behrouz went.

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Haruki Murakami’s Advice to Young Writers

International best-seller Haruki Murakami has a new short story collection out, entitled Men Without Women. To celebrate, here is an excerpt from his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” published in the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business. In it, Murakami muses on what it takes to become a novelist by analyzing his own methods and experience, and he gives us a glimpse into his creative process. Although Murakami has published numerous essay collections in Japanese, little of his short nonfiction is available in English. This essay was translated by Ted Goosesen, and it, and this issue of Monkey Business, are a treat.

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story. Their numbers are countless, but when I am focused on my writing I know without thinking exactly which drawer holds what and can immediately put my hands on what I am looking for. Memories I could never recall otherwise come naturally to me. It’s a great feeling to enter into this elastic, unrestrained state, as if my imagination had pulled free from my thinking mind to function as an autonomous, independent entity. Needless to say, for a novelist like me the information stored in my “chest” is a rich and irreplaceable resource.

…Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.

First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!

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Yes, We Do Have Bananas Today (For the Bargain Price of $17)

two perfect watermelons on pedestals at japan's famed sembikiya fruit store

For Roads & Kingdoms, Bianca Bosker explores the world of high-end Japanese fruit: $500 strawberries and $27,000 melons. The epicenter of the luxury-fruit business is Sembikiya, the Bergdorf Goodman of fruit markets.

When I arrive in the marble lobby of the high-rise to which I’d been directed, I pass back and forth in front of what appears to be a jewelry store before finally realizing it is Sembikiya. Dark, polished wood and sheer curtains line the walls, and sparkling chandeliers shaped like exploding snowflakes twinkle overhead. Glass display cases hold meticulous rows of fruit tended by prim women in starched black uniforms and berets ready to share anecdotes about the sweetness of the pears ($19 each), or Sekai-ichi apples ($24 each). Middle-aged women with Chanel bags and teased up-dos inspect plump, jade-colored Seto grapes swaddled in crisp white paper, while their husbands admire the altarlike case of muskmelons at the center of the floor, each one perched on its own wooden box lined with mint-colored paper ($125 each).

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On Mastery: Learning Kyudo — One of Japan’s Oldest and Most Respected Martial Arts

Leigh Ann Henion was drawn to archery by her grandfather’s passion for it. She travels to Japan to improve her archery skills by learning Kyudo — a form of archery that is one of Japan’s oldest martial arts. In her short yet intense course, sensei Kazuhisa Miyasaka helps her realize that achievement with the bow and arrow comes only after mastering one’s mind.

We have not talked about the fact that, when our grandfathers were alive, our nations and families were adversaries. Or that when I asked him to introduce kyudo in just a handful of days, I was making an impossible request. But we both knew.

Miyasaka touches my arm, tightening my actions like the precise folds of origami. My projectiles hit sand, nearer and nearer the target. Until. Twack. I pierce paper. The target is so far away I’d need binoculars to see exactly where my arrow rests.

I’ve achieved an obvious goal. But my release felt no more important than my stance, this arrow no more special than the one sent before it. I arrived in Japan hoping to understand why hitting a target isn’t the most important part of this tradition. Now, I know the closest I’ll come is the realization that it doesn’t matter to me whether I hit.

When I hear the target rip again, from a second arrow, I realize that I had not been listening for it.

Miyasaka has been recording my final day with a video camera. He turns my attention to a flat-screen television, which seems out of place in front of the chalkboard where he sketches feather patterns. When he pushes play, I see a woman I do not recognize. She moves through the stages of kyudo form with deceptive ease. At one point, she closes her eyes.

When I see the pale cocoons of my eyelids, I think to myself: Seriously? I remember none of it.

Miyasaka looks out at the target and says, “You did that yourself. You have real skill now.”

But the sound of my target-slaying was not one of accomplishment.

It was a signal that, as long as I’m alive, I will not be done.

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Themed for Success

The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it’s actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers’ outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.

The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After “modern” hangouts with names like “Café Printemps” had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; “Europe” was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. “Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor,” writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, “the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings.”

At Eater, journalist Emily Yoshida hits some of Tokyo’s absurd, popular tourist attractions trying to understand specifically what themed destinations offer and why they’re so popular. Her answer? I don’t remember. I got stuck on the part about the owl selfie.

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How the Blues Conquered Tokyo

I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.

– In Oxford American, journalist Amanda Petrusich listens to a Mississippi Blues musician perform in a Tokyo club and tries to figure out why American Blues has a particular resonance with for so many in Japan.

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Lost in Japan

I stood on a corner under my $11 umbrella, glad it wasn’t a $5 umbrella. I laughed out loud. What else could I do? After about five minutes, a teenage girl emerged from the mist. She was wearing headphones and a surgical mask. Surgical masks are very popular in Japan. They are supposed to be all about protecting yourself and other people from disease, but they’re also worn to indicate a lack of sociability, with which I theoretically sympathize but at this particular moment found inconvenient. No fool, the girl started to cross the street before she reached me, and I shouted “Excuse me, excuse me” and then even ran after her. She did not break stride. She did not even move her eyes.

If you have utterly humiliated yourself but no one is around to witness your humiliation, is it possible it has indeed not taken place? Asking for a friend.

– In The Awl, beverage writer Sarah Miller travels to Japan to learn about sochu, then gets wildly lost and learns more about her limitations as a traveler.

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In Bed With the Enemy: The Untold Stories of Japanese War Brides

Some people think the film I co-directed, “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides,” is a paean to loving Japanese mothers. When one interviewer suggested as much to me and fellow director Karen Kasmauski, we exchanged a look that said, “Shall we tell him the truth?” The film, titled after a Japanese proverb, is about strong women, for sure. Warm and loving mothers? No.

They either tried, or were pressured, to give up their Japanese identities to become more fully American. A first step was often adopting the American nicknames given them when their Japanese names were deemed too hard to pronounce or remember. Chikako became Peggy; Kiyoko became Barbara. Not too much thought went into those choices, names sometimes imposed in an instant by a U.S. officer organizing his pool of typists. My mother, Hiroko Furukawa, became Susie.

At The Washington Post, Kathryn Tolbert reports on Japanese war brides — including her mother — who struggled to fit in in post-war America.

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