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The day I saw the Emperor April 28, 2019

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Japan.
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The Emperor is abdicating. Long live the Emperor.

A year ago, I was lucky enough to share airspace with Emperor Akihito of Japan, a person who’s bloodline was, until not long ago, considered living, breathing deities. But what I remember most is not his grandeur but his humility.

I was in Tokyo for the Japan Prize, the Japanese Nobels. This would be no ordinary celebrity siting. It was history before my eyes. At the age of 85, Emperor Akihito is way past retirement age and understandably tired after nearly 30 years on a relentless schedule of official duties, and a lifetime under a spotlight that began a decade before World War 2 even began.

This would be one of the last times anyone in the public would see him, and the weight of their presence was heavy before they even arrived. Half a century since Akihito’s father officially denounced divine links as a part of the peace process, the myth – or at least the history of it – lingers. And even if you can put that aside, this is still royalty.

My seat was sat right next to the red-carpeted runway (this was on normal days a kabuki theatre). Ceremony is everything. Everyone seemed to sit up straight even when they were standing.

I had a good view as they arrived. A shuffling entourage of 10 entered moving, in perfect sync around the quiet, unhurried shuffling of a grey-haired couple. I saw the fine polished shoes of the Emperor a few metres from my face and looked up, trying to absorb the weight of history.

What surprised me was how honestly delighted they seemed to be there. They stopped on stage, just before taking their seats, and looked around. Warm smiles, dignity, genuine class.

What struck me for the next two hours was their attentiveness, particularly the Empress Michiko. No signs of tiredness, boredom, barely even a blink. Just focus. For the whole two hours, whoever was speaking, whatever video was showing. A measured smile, full attention, gratitude to each speaker and each person around them.

Later, they moved to the balcony. They again stopped to receive the applause. How odd that you should applause people for just entering a room and taking their seats. But how polite to properly receive what people are so eager to give. I saw the Emperor take in with wider eyes the whole room, as if offering a second of his full attention to each and every one of the hundreds of people locking eyes on him.

A few hours later I stood at a front of a rope barrier, grinning as they strode gracefully out of their black car, the same warm smile and delight at seeing people there to greet them. The Emperor looked in my direction as he passed my way. I felt compelled to avert my gaze.

Later, from a quiet spillover room in the Tokyo Palace Hotel, I watched from a monitor their table, the camera fixed on the Emperor – himself a scientist – in deep conversation with Dr Akira Yoshino, one of the laureates. This event is one of the only time, I was told, that royalty dines in the company of others. The Emperor seemed in his element, delighted to be talking to other men of science. To be speaking as an equal, not a God.

Moteki February 9, 2014

Posted by ayasawada in Drama, Music.
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Moteki drama poster

Moteki is Japanese slang for a period of romantic bloom in your life where you are suddenly attractive and popular. The very idea of a ‘moteki’ seems absurd, the kind of thing that could only happen in harem manga and Hollywood romantic comedies. But where this franchise succeeds is taking this bit of seemingly wishful-thinking and turning it into a something real, human and honestly (don’t laugh) quite profound. (more…)

48groups pilgrimage January 19, 2014

Posted by ayasawada in Japan, Music, Travel.
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On my most recent Japan trip I visited Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Seeing as that’s three out of the four 48 Groups locations, I couldn’t very well do that and not stop by hallowed ground, right? Here follows impressions and directions to sating your AKB/SKE/NMB thirst while on the move in Japan. (more…)

Winter 2014 anime and drama picks January 16, 2014

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Drama.
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I’ve a long overdue 2013 review post in the works, but in the meantime, I’ve been working my way through the fresh season of anime and drama offerings. I have to be honest, the Fall 2013 season was nice but a bit meh in terms of my viewing, with only the spectacularly good Ando Lloyd really doing it for me (will try and write a separate post on that sometime). But the Winter roster looks good. This is what I think I’ll be picking up.


1. Nisekoi

Of the clutch of first episodes I watched, this is hands down the one that impressed me most. I was always going to watch this  because SHAFT. But besides the studio’s pedigree for inventive, playful visuals, direction and scripts that don’t take themselves too seriously, it’s been a while since I’ve watched a romcom anime. This looks like it’ll fit nicely.

2. Gin no Saji season 2

Looks to have picked up with the same quality from where it left off. I miss Miwa’s OP though.

3. Chuunibyou demo Koi Shitai! Ren

Follow-up to one of my anime of 2012. There was no way I wasn’t going to watch this.

4. Kill la Kill (continuation)

Into its second cour and still a rollercoaster ride.

5. Nobunaga the Fool

Trust Shoji Kawamori to come up with a wacky sci-fi mecha anime ‘reimagining’ historical figures in an inventive ‘East meets West’ space opera. Visuals look good, characters seem interesting, story has intriguing possibilities (particularly with the historical figures histories setting up an element of dramatic irony). I’m up for this.

6. Space Dandy

Hyped up like hell and a little underwhelming so far. But it’s Shinichiro Watanabe so I’ll stick.

7. Wake Up, Girls!

Realistic(ish) anime about a dying talent agency making one last attempt to save themselves through an idol group pulling together against the odds? Sure, I’ll bite.

8. Noragami

Wasn’t really sure what to expect from this, but the wacky concept, fun characters and good visuals should be enough to keep me casually watching.

That’s actually quite a lot. Realistically I’ll only have time to watch 5 or 6, so it may well be that the last two trail off into the land of the spare-time catch-up marathon.


In keeping with my ‘at least one drama a season for nihongo listening practice’ I have four I’m interested in, but realistically only time for one or two. I’m pretty sure one’s going to be Watashi no Kirai na Tantei because I love Goriki Ayame and Tamaki Hiroshi and this sounds pretty fun. Along similar lines, Senryoku Gai Sousakan also seems fun and has the Takei Emi factor. If I get time, Shitsuren Chocolatier and Yoru no Sensei may also be worth following (though I might just save up eps to watch on a rainy day sometime).

All in all, that’s a lot to get me through the cold, dark, poor winter months and post-Xmas, post-Japan blues. The question is: what are you watching?

Perfume city Tokyo January 2, 2014

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Perfume でした。#prfm

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The last year or so has been, without a doubt, the best 13 months of my life. Capping off what can only be described as ‘Perfume year‘ was the holy grail: a pilgrimage to see the group in the motherland of Japan. 

The date: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The location: Tokyo Dome – the capital’s legendary baseball stadium and one of the biggest venues in the country. Perfume played here once before in 2010, but this time returned for 2 days, part of a 4-date ‘4th Tour in Dome’ that including a couple of nights previous in Osaka’s Kyocera Dome. 

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:) #prfm

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Yet it was Tokyo that was the ‘homecoming’ of sorts, and the one that most international fans decided was the one to gather for (probably in no small part due to the coinciding Christmas holidays). Thanks to the World PTA fan club, for the first time we had a relatively easy way to purchase tickets to a Japanese concert. It was a lottery, but though many of us worried, practically all got tickets (and for those that didn’t, most of us had spares). I was lucky enough to draw a pair for both nights and booked my flight right away. (more…)

JLPT Dec 2013: Reflections and resolutions December 2, 2013

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行きましょう #JLPT

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I sat N3 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) yesterday. It’s the first test I’ve done in the new format. The last time I did it was passing the old 3kyu 5 years ago, back in the dark ages when there were just 4 levels and the test was just once a year.

A lot of things have changed since then – we now, thankfully, get to take the test twice a year and there is now a new intermediate test level bridging the chasm that used to sit between 3kyu and 2kyu. Still, some things never change: the whole thing still takes 5 hours – at least an hour longer than necessary – due to endless amounts of unnecessary faffing caused by Japanese bureaucracy. Why we have to rigidly be in our seats at the start only to then sit for 25 minutes staring into space is beyond me.

It was nice to get back into the swing of things though, and having a test to aim for certainly sharpened my focus over the last year of study, particularly these last 2 months.

So how did the test itself go? In all honesty, I’m disappointed at my performance. Devastated even. (more…)

BBC please, we’re Japanese October 24, 2013

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Female wota, where art thou? Not in the BBC doc that’s for sure.

Over the last week or so there have been a number of articles about Japan, its declining population and, as one of the reasons for that, the Japanese people’s attitudes to sex. These are linked to a BBC documentary, ‘No sex please, we’re Japanese‘ that aired tonight (if you’re in the UK or *coughproxycough* watch it on iPlayer here). While I’m always pleased to see coverage of Japan on our flagship broadcaster, the way some of this has been handled by the crew left me somewhat bemused and despairing.

It’s not that the programme itself is bad on the whole. On the contrary, it makes an effort to cover many of the important points in the topic, such as the changing attitudes of men and women, Japan’s economy, the problems caused by an ageing population and the Japanese attitude to immigration. Particularly in the second half, it offers some thoughtful and interesting insights, visiting a prison for over 60s, an immigrant Philippino nurse, a Japanese-American economist, and some eye-catchingly desolate ghost-towns in rural areas long abandoned due to changing industries and the migration of young people seeking work. There’s certainly enough to make a viewer think and catch a good glimpse of the perfect storm that’s approaching Japan – one every bit as worrying to the government as the constant threat of natural disasters.

Yet, such good work is almost (almost) completely undone by some lazy foreigner-in-Japan and sweeping ‘look at the freaks!’ reporting. When making serious and considered narration, the script and presenter Anita Rani’s delivery is fine. But when she’s out and about the attempts at ‘fun colour’ are just plain annoying and, frankly, rather offensive. At the lighter end of the scale, remarks like “I think we’d all agree Japanese babies are the cutest” and prancing about with retired cheerleaders can be forgiven for silly gaijin naiveté. I can even forgive the pseudo-Lost In Translation music an imagery at the end. But the implicit disdain of otaku culture in the Akihabara sections I cannot. Obviously, I take issue as someone who identifies with that community, but the programme makes no effort to dial down its judgemental tone when meeting a couple of Love+ fans, contrasting completely the more objective tone adopted when later discussing immigration or the economy. It’s all very well to see these bits as light colour, but front-loading the programme with these throwaway sections – and literally blaming otaku culture – or rather male otaku – for the declining birthrate (even going so far as to say that the ‘silly Japanese should just pull their finger out, grow up and start making babies for the sake of the nation’ – not in those exact words, but almost in those exact words) is a bit of a step too far. Who are you as visiting Westerners to offer such an opinion?

I don’t expect the whole programme to focus on otaku for the sake of balance, but it wouldn’t have taken much to film some of the female wota clearly in evidence in Akiba itself and much more in force in Otome Alley in Ikebukuro. Admittedly the majority of Japanese otaku are indeed male, but that’s to ignore the significant number that are female. Where were the yaoi lovers in this segment? And where was the coverage of ‘herbivore’ men and parasite singles? Or Japanese womens’ attitudes to men (at least covered in this article The Guardian and even the Huffington Post, even if the latter blew one survey’s results completely out of proportion). The BBC team did at least have a few minutes on Japanese career women, though this was rushed in order to segue into Japan’s lack of family allowances.

Overall, the programme, and the coverage around it, has been interesting and brought this issue – and Japan – into the UK media spotlight this week. I just find it disappointing that some good work on a good subject ended up tainted by some lazy point-the-finger reporting.

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order October 21, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Manga.
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Last Order cover

I recently started reading Last OrderYukito Kishiro‘s follow up/continuation of Battle Angel Alita (Gunmm), now conveniently available in big volume omnibus editions from Kodansha. Four volumes (or two omnibus editions) in and it’s a cracking read, though a bit different from the original.

In 2001, six years after illness forced an early finish for Alita, Kishiro returned to undo and reimagine Alita’s fate, promising answers to the many unanswered questions in that universe. I of course loved that original and haven’t got much more to say beyond that post. But what’s interesting to me is the way that the series has changed, from an epic, sprawling seinen manga to something a bit more shonen, albeit still with those philosophical, intellectual and emotional elements of seinen mixed in. Where the original felt something like a series of OAVs, every arc different and a step toward something new (or a new stage in Alita’s evolution), Last Order, at least thus far, feels like an ongoing series of fights, of characters on a series of quests. There was always something of that element to the original of course, but somehow the changes in terrain mixed it up a little more, adding to that sense of disorientation and ponderance as Alita wandered the lands.

The change isn’t necessarily bad – I’m only at the beginning of Last Order after all. And with 18 volumes and counting, Last Order has already doubled the length of its predecessor, necessitating perhaps the kind of long-running plots that keep manga like Naruto and Bleach selling big. Kishiro has no doubt changed a lot too, if only from recovering his health, and it’s interesting to speculate how this new outlook (if he has one) has changed how Alita’s world goes. There’s also the change in location to factor in – from the wastelands of Earth to the fabled city of Tiphares, then up to space. And of course there are those unanswered questions. We’re learning more and more about who Alita was those hundreds of years ago before the scrapyard, where Panzer Kunst comes from, who controls this new-age society and why it is the way it is. In many ways it’s both a typical and brilliantly imaginative view of a post-apocalyptic society (or not so apocalyptic for those in the elite – not to spoil it too much…).

One thing that hasn’t changed is Kishiro’s remarkable attention to detail, whether in his stunning artwork, footnotes or character background. His ideas and knowledge really add to your immersion in this world. This plus the compulsion to find out those answers, particularly Alita’s identity, as well as her reason to live, are what drives both the reader and Alita on. Let’s see where this goes, but for now this manga comes highly recommended.

Hanging out with Perfume on Google+ October 16, 2013

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Perfume Google+
Sometimes life gives you lemons and you have to make lemonade. And sometimes it just gives you the lemonade.

I’ll be honest, when it comes to Perfume, I’ve had a pretty amazing run of luck. After the incredible experience of World Tour 2nd, and having also drawn tickets to go see the group’s Tokyo Dome concerts in December, I thought my Perfume luck was pretty much exhausted. It seems not so. (more…)

Summer 2013 anime retrospective October 6, 2013

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With the autumn season now underway, and in the spirit of every other anime blog, a few thoughts on what I’ve been watching anime-wise these past few months:

Shingeki no Kyojin

Ok, so this was the second cour of 2, but finishing over the summer Attack on Titan maintained its ridiculous consistency and went beyond. Hands down the best anime of the year unless something miraculous pops up. A rich fantasy world of the future full of ingenious storytelling, epic cliffhangers, interesting, morally-dubious characters, and epic debates over morality, humanity, survival, family, friendships, duty and honour. I spent every week with my heart in my mouth – that is if it weren’t agape at the show’s (or rather Hajime Isayama, the original manga-ka’s) ability to keep surprising us every week. Matched by an outstanding soundtrack and a dynamic use of CG for the manoeuvre gear scenes, this is anime at its best. Phenomenally popular, and rightly so, if only we didn’t have to wait for a season two.

Kaminomi zo Shiru Sekai – Megami-hen

Now this was a surprise. Having not got around to reading the manga, I still thought of this series as a light-hearted harem take on otaku gamer culture. I loved the first two shows but hadn’t expected this level of depth in character, intrigue and plot for something that’s essentially about pursuing a different girl every few episodes. Having read around on the subject, I now realise how loved this arc is – and with good cause. Kudos to manga author Tamiki Wakaki for taking what was surely envisaged as a throwaway concept and making it that much deeper. Revisiting seven of Katsuragi’s most famous conquests is a genius idea, and forcing him to deal with the consequences of love – as the one person who really cannot forget any conquests – on top of the life and death deadline situation, really keps me coming back week to week. Great music and balance of humour and drama/romance, this was perfect summer viewing.

Gatchaman Crowds

I think Asobi over at Random Curiosity pretty much nails it: this was an inspired mess. I LOVED it. Right from the get go with its colourful, atypical animation, funky electrobeat soundtrack and the tour de force that is Hajime, you just didn’t know what to expect (and even if you did, it certainly wasn’t Gatchaman as we knew it). Yet as the series went on that mess started to show thoughtful, inventive ideas on the nature of the modern world, politics, democracy, communication, social media, anonymity and community, as well as the nature of ‘heroes’ in a world where everyone is less thoughtful about their actions. Sure, it was all a bit rushed and nonsensical in the 12 short episodes we had, but it did enough to make you think – and keep us entertained. Even if it didn’t quite hang together (particularly the confusing final episode) it had tremendous moments of cool and GAR (exhibit A: the penultimate episode’s Gatcha-team-up). I’ll take one of this kind of show over a dozen generic anime in a season.

Gin no Saji

I can’t believe this was only 11 episodes. A wonderful bit of NoitaminA programming from the author of Full Metal Alchemist. This was a fantastic slice-of-life tale of an agricultural school in Sapporo, finding one’s dream and the reward of good hard work, while all the while teaching you about farming and where your food comes from. Valuable knowledge for the modern man, woman, boy and girl, served with oodles of humour, great characters and heartfelt moments, this was another perfect summertime show. Thankfully the manga is ongoing and a second season planned for next year. Pork bowl!

Overall, this was a way better summer season than usual. More often than not, summer is full of short throw-away entertainment shows that give you a warm feeling but don’t generally change your life.  I think this season (at least from the four I watched) was the season of ideas and inspiration, mixed in with top-notch entertainment.