No doubt about it, the springtime blooming of sakura, or cherry blossoms, in Japan is one reason the country is special. The Japanese treat the season with wonder, with weather forecasts about the optimal blooming days and following the cherry blossoms from the warmer southern climate all the way up to Hokkaido, the northernmost island, where the sakura bloom late.
The Japanese even have a name for cherry-blossom viewing parties and picnics, “hanami,” when entire families might sit under the falling flowers to enjoy the fleeting beauty of nature. In this video, some of the parks packed with hanami-enjoying folks look like the crowds on a typical August day at Coney Island beach in New York City.
I had to share this video, created by someone calling himself “James T Kirk” on Vimeo. It was posted by Alexandre Gervais, a Japanophile who seems to find lots of cool videos of Japan and shoots some nice photos. I’ve added him to my list of websites that cover Japan….
The furor over bonuses given by AIG to employees after taking more than $170 billion in bailout money from the U.S. government is made all the more furious because of the sheer breathtaking scale of the cash flow. AIG paid 73 staffers more than $1 million, with one getting $6.4 and seven more getting $4.
Those amounts seem so out of kilter with the state of the economy, and the fact that just months ago, the giant company was about to crash without a hand up from the government — from us — that it’s not surprising that citizens as well as lawmakers are screaming bloody murder.
But one lawmaker is screaming bloody suicide.
The Washington Post (among other media) reported that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wanted AIG execs to commit hara kiri, or seppuku — the traditional Japanese ritual suicide often depicted as an honorable course of action from samurai times.
Sen. Charles Grassley suggested in an Iowa City radio interview on Monday that AIG executives should take a Japanese approach toward accepting responsibility by resigning or killing themselves.
“Obviously, maybe they ought to be removed,” the Iowa Republican said. “But I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them if they’d follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide.”
Grassley spokesman Casey Mills said the senator wasn’t calling for AIG executives to kill themselves, but said those who accept tax dollars and spend them on travel and bonuses do so irresponsibly.
When I first heard about this, my jaw clenched but I let it pass. Seppuku was a historical reality for centuries, after all, and it’s depicted in lots of Japanese pop culture, including movies and books. It’s been documented as a reflection of one of Japan’s driving cultural values, shame. Continue reading →
Enka music is often referred to as “Japanese blues.” The comparison is apt for a couple of reasons: the music is almost always about heartbreak and inconsolable loss. You can hear it in the singing. And, enka singing relies a lot on vocal inflections that are also common to American blues and gospel music: vibrato and melisma (the bending of notes to show emotion).
But fans of Enka in Japan probably never expected to see and hear an African American from Pittsburgh, PA make a name for himself as a rising star in the genre. (UPDATED: See bottom of this post for a video of Jero’s historic New Year’s Eve performance)
Jerome Charles White, Jr. (coincidentally a name that would sound cool for a blues musician), who goes by the stage name Jero, is unique among Japanese pop stars, in that he’s young (27), gifted, mixed-race black and American.
He sings (and speaks) in perfect Japanese, and more important — and more unusual — he sings a style of Japanese pop music that many consider to be “old-fashioned.” Enka music isn’t quite blues — aside from some of the vocal inflections and the sad subject matter, it’s not a rhythmic style. It has roots in folk music like blues, but it’s always presented in slick, orchestrated (stagey and theatrical) arrangements. Young Japanese have drfited away from this style and seem to prefer more modern genres like R&B, rock, disco and rap.
Considering that many — if not most — Asians are allergic to alcohol, it’s amazing how much the culture of alcohol is part of society in Japan. I guess it’s the same all over the world, but since I’m very allergic to alcohol, I’m just out of the loop when it comes to booze.
You’re probably familiar with the nightly practice of businessmen going out with their fellow “salarymen” after work and dining and drinking themselves into a stupor before trudging home to the families they hardly see. I can sip half a glass of beer and I turn bright red and splotchy, my eyes glow in the dark and I get dizzy as hell. It was hard to go out drinking in high school when my face gave myself away whenever I stumbled home and mom was up waiting for me. I guess if I were with co-workers who were all equally red, I wouldn’t have been so self-conscious.
Anyway, I recently came across what looked like a cool soft drink at Pacific Mercantile, the Japanese grocery store in downtown Denver, and I realized that Japan’s alcohol culture starts earlier than I thought, and in insidious ways.
I saw a display for bottles of a drink called “Kodomo no Nomimono,” with a cute retro 1930s illustration of a child on the label, and the words, which translate as “Children’s Drink” written out in hiragana, the simplified alphabet that’s familiar to Japanese school kids.
The bottles were on sale — buy one, get one free — so I bought one to try, and got one for my friend Jordan, the “Energy Examiner” for Examiner.com. He wrote about Kodomo no Nomimono, and found to his shock that the stuff is marketed as a beer for kids by its manufacturer, Sangaria, the makers of the popular lemonade-flavored pop, Ramune. Continue reading →
I just had a great meal at our favorite restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown, Iroha. It’s a noodle house that serves up a great deal: A lunch combination special of ramen topped with a couple slices of pork, and gyoza dumplings on the side.
The restaurant is more crowded than usual, and filled with lots of non-Japanese who are here for the first time. That’s because J-Town in general is hopping this weekend. It’s the second weekend of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, or Sakura Matsuri. There are vendors with booths selling everything from junky trinkets to high-class jewelry, lots of food and stages of performers and martial arts demonstrations, all with a Japanese focus.
But there’s also a Japanese American undercurrent, with young people flocking to stores that specialize in anime and Jpop music. It’s a cool mix of traditional and contemporary — much like J-Town itself. Continue reading →