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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.

BBC please, we’re Japanese October 24, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Japan.
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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.

Meguro and the Parasitological Museum August 25, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Science, Travel.
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Meguro Parasitological Museum

Ever wanted to visit a parasite museum? Of course you have. There’s only one in the world, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s in Tokyo in the pleasant southern suburb of Meguro. A friend of mine happens to live there (as does Danny Choo) and mentioned the museum to me as a local curiosity. Given my day job as a science writer, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to see it. (more…)

Souzou: outsider art from Japan March 30, 2013

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Untitled (2013-03-26 21:20:53)

It’s not often (read: NEVER) that anything in my workplace crosses over with my love of all things Japan. So when my colleagues at Wellcome Collection told me that they were bringing a Japanese exhibition over I got very excited. What I actually saw when the exhibition opened this week blew my mind.  (more…)

Hyper Japan 2012 February 26, 2012

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Culture, Film, Japan.
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Fusion HAH!World Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit tryoutsIron Man
World Cosplay Summit tryoutsWorld Cosplay Summit JudgesNichijouPERSONA!Enka singerEnka singer
DrummerHibiki Ichikawa shamisen playersHibiki Ichikawa shamisen playersGokuChopperGiant Chopper!
Satoshi Miki and Eri FuseMike SatoshiMiki Satoshi and Eri Fuse Q&ANatsuko AsoNatsuko AsoNatsuko Aso

keatl’s photostream on Flickr.

I spent my Saturday at the Hyper Japan event, which came a little early this year.

Slightly bigger, but still with the distinct smell of slight disorganisation, it was a lot of fun. Not so many bargains (though I did end up spending more than last year, mostly on DVDs >_<), and missing some folks from previous Hyper Japan’s like Good Smile Company, Hobby Japan, Square-Enix and the maid cafe, but nevertheless there were a good range of stalls and some excellent shows. (more…)

Hyper Japan 2011 July 24, 2011

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Culture, Food, Games, Japan, Manga.
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Hyper Japan 2011, a set on Flickr.

This weekend I went to the Hyper Japan exhibition at London’s Kensington Olympia.

A celebration of contemporary Japanese culture, it’s the second year the event has run. Having missed it last year, I booked my ticket well in advance this time.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. While I did enjoy bits of it, I have to say, overall, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s largely another ‘pay high entrance fee to get into a space where you can spend more money’ do. And in contrast to, say, MCM Expo, there weren’t many ‘bargains’ to be had when you were inside. Most of the stuff, from food to figurines remained at a premium. (more…)

Japan 2011 – the otaku’s tale July 4, 2011

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Culture, Japan, Manga, Travel.
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Atom statue

No trip to Japan is complete without a bit of fanboying. I’ve written about the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum and Tetsujin 28 statue already (the Tezuka museum was probably the otaku highlight of my trip).

This post is largely mopping up a few random observations and running through this trip’s haul of merchandise. (more…)

Manga and Medicine September 15, 2010

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Culture, Japan, Manga, Science.
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Tezuka's Black Jack casts a shadow on many medical manga

In June one of my dreams came true: I went to a comic book conference for work.

The first ever Comics and Medicine conference taught me much about how comics are being used to improve healthcare and patient (and doctor) understanding. And, much to my delight, manga came up a lot. (more…)

An audience with Danny Choo April 14, 2010

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Culture, Japan, Net, Personal.
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Danny Choo in London

Danny Choo in London. Credit: Flickr/Dougal Wallace

On Tuesday night one of my heroes came to town. Given the nature of this blog, the name Danny Choo will be familiar to many of you — anime/collectibles/J-culture blogger extraordinaire, creator of dannychoo.com — one of the foremost otaku community sites on the internet. Oh yeah, and his Dad makes nice shoes apparently :P

In the four years since I started reading his site, I’ve grown to admire Danny for several reasons: 1) He’s a British-born Malaysian Chinese, like me; 2) He developed an obsession with Japanese stuff in his late teens, like me; 3) He is living his dream — running his own company and living and working in Japan; 4) He is 100% genuine, open and honest about who he is and what he likes (which has contributed somewhat to his achieving No. 3). And lest anyone forget, the man has a job where he gets sent the latest gadgets, figures and collectibles… for work! How many of us dare to dream that is even possible???

Danny returned to the UK for the first time in five years this week and gave a talk at his old University, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (which just happens to be five minutes from where I work). So on a sunny spring day, me and about 80 other fans, alumni and interested parties crammed into an underground lecture theatre to hear him speak about ‘Creative Industries in Japan‘. (more…)

Kuniyoshi April 13, 2009

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Culture, Japan, Manga.
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Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Sakata Kaidō-maru wrestles with a giant carp, c. 1837

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Sakata Kaidō-maru wrestles with a giant carp, c. 1837

A quick post to big-up the Kuniyoshi exhibition currently on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

I went yesterday and it totally blew me away. I was expecting an interesting exhibit, but had no idea just how impressive it would be. For one thing, there are a huge number of prints to see, ranging from standard commissions of aristocracy and beautiful ladies to political satire, portrayals of famous warriors, real and fictional, and wonderful imaginative scenes of fantasy.

Putting aside the tremendous skill it takes to draw anything this good (and for the carvers to then transplant this — kanji and all — to a wood block for printing), Utagawa Kuniyoshi‘s attention to detail is astounding. His understanding of posture, composition and artistic effects is extraordinary. Many of the techniques set the groundwork for modern manga — it comes out particularly strongly in the prints portraying explosions and smoke. His strokes for conveying animal fur are uncannily realistic, and his anally retentive attention to detail, particularly for kimono patterns and tattoos remarkable.

Most striking of all is the sheer dynamism of his pictures. Each of the pictures looks so alive, simply by virtue of the pose chosen and the composition of the piece. Some epic pieces have over a dozen things going on in one frame, yet it never feels as claustrophobic, overcrowded or passive as some classical European paintings I’ve seen are. To hit the point home, there is one exhibit where Kuniyoshi deliberately used a European composition instead; it seems so much duller than the other works.

As if that weren’t enough, the room after featured ‘humourous’ and satirical works with courtesans portrayed by sparrows, octopuses (octopi?) anthropomorphised into humans and ‘ghost erotica’ featuring demon vaginas and skeleton penises (I kid you not).

Being a manga fan, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised at how much I loved this. But I honestly wasn’t expecting to see quite such a connection between the classic and the modern. It really cemented for me why I like Asian, and particularly Japanese, media quite so much: it’s just so much more imaginative and alive.

Beforehand, we attended the accompanying anime season at the Curzon Soho, watching Origin: Spirits of the Past. Nicely animated, but a bit of a poor man’s Nausicaa. Not a great weekend of anime watching overall, since a surprise Gonzo screening at the Barbican turned out to be Afro Samurai Resurrection, which is not really my cup of tea :p