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Music Monday: Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ played on the shamisen

Music Monday: Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ played on the shamisen

The January 07, 2017 episode of NHK Blends featured Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off played on the Shamisen.  Unlike my earlier post of Madonna’s Like a Prayer which was very recognizable, I like how this performance melds it into a more traditional Japanese sound.  The performance begins after a 50 second introduction.

Free photocopies with ADs printed on them now …

Free photocopies with ADs printed on them now …

The Japanese company オーシャナイズ (Oceanize) has started a new business called タダコピ (Tadacopy – http://www.tadacopy.com/).  They’re putting photocopiers on Japanese college campuses that the students can use to make copies for free.  What’s the catch?  There are ads printed on the back of the copies!

This screen shot from their web site shows their equation of copy + ad = ¥0.  Above the ¥0 it says “you can also target segments”, and the picture at the bottom shows a woman with a smartphone.  The scheme runs deeper than just ads.  They have a smartphone app (shown here), which no doubt invasively tracks users, collects personal info, and requires a login.  This type of tracking information is invaluable to ad based companies and no doubt provides more value to them than just the printed ads.

The sad thing is people everywhere are getting in line to hand over their personal information and privacy for free stuff which is only worth pennies, far less than what they are giving up.

Tadacopy, free photocopies (but with ads)
Tadacopy’s web site, free photocopies, but with ads
How to make Japanese umeshu (梅酒), a delicious green plum infused liqueur

How to make Japanese umeshu (梅酒), a delicious green plum infused liqueur

Japanese umeshu (梅酒, pronounced u-may-shu) is a delicious, aromatic, wonderful alcohol drink from Japan that you have to try.  It’s hands-down my favorite drink from Japan.  Umeshu is often mischaracterized as “Japanese plum wine”, but is closer to a fruit cordial or fruit liqueur.  It’s made from allowing green unripe Japanese ume plums and rock sugar steep in a clear distilled alcohol called shochu (焼酎) for several months.  Shochu itself is an incredibly popular drink in Japan (and South Korea), which the Japanese drink WAY more than the traditional sake (pronounced sa-keh, not sa-ki).

Umeshu is typically 15%-20% alcohol and can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or mixed with carbonated water.

It is a common tradition for Japanese people to make their own umeshu during the summer and I did the same.  I was thrilled when I was able to make it this past summer in the United States as well.  I’ll explain how and tell you where to look for ingredients and what substitutes can work.

For those who have never tried it or don’t want to make it, Choya and other brands of umeshu (pictured to the right), can be found at good and larger alcohol retailers in the U.S.  Especially look for alcohol retailers in areas with a high Asian populations.  The picture to the right is a 750ml bottle of Choya that I used to buy at the local grocery store in Japan for 900 yen.  It’s more than double that ($20) here in the U.S.

Japanese ume

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A glimpse into Japan: Saving face with foreigners ahead of the Olympics

A glimpse into Japan: Saving face with foreigners ahead of the Olympics

Individual Japanese are hesitant to share their own opinions or talk about personal issues.  This is part of their group oriented culture.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t have opinions or think about these things however.

In this recurring segment we try to understand the Japanese better by looking at translations of Japanese forum posts.  Behind the anonymity of on-line forums Japanese feel more free and safe to share their true feelings (called 本音 hon-ne) rather than putting up their stoic public face (called 建前 tatemae.)

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Japanese women-only train car
Japanese women-only train car

This post is from a Japanese person who is worried about how foreigners flooding into Japan for the 2020 Olympics will perceive Japan if they see the women-only train cars that Japan has.

There are 80-some train routes that feature these and they were started based on the idea of giving women a place where they don’t need to worry about misbehaving men groping them, getting too close, or harassing them.

There has been a little controversy over them however with some believing that the perception of the problem of harassment of women has been vastly exaggerated by media and TV shows and that the idea of train cars that exclude any class of people might not technically be legal (and isn’t practical in situations where there isn’t enough room on trains for all of the riders.)

You’ll note that the main concern of the author isn’t the practicality, need, or purpose of the women-only train cars but concern for how Japan will look in the eyes of foreigners and avoiding criticism.  In the west we tend to focus more on the issue, but in Japan perceptions factor very highly into how people address issues.  This is one of the things that can make living and working in Japan challenging for westerners who have trouble fully grasping and working with such a mentality.

Original post from Yahoo! Japan 知恵袋 (Chiebukuro) here. (link opens in new tab)

Yahoo! Chiebukuro Article on women-only train cars

Translation

Title:  We should abolish women-only train cars until the Olympics

We should abolish women-only train cars until the Olympics!

Foreigners view discrimination as a number one problem.  A lot of those foreigners will be coming to Japan from now until the Olympics.  We should create men-only train cars or abolish the women-only cars because the chance of foreigners being critical of it is high, isn’t it?

Doesn’t the Japanese government make this a country that is concerned about saving face?  Don’t the train companies want to avoid criticism?

Wouldn’t it be best to either end the women-only train cars or add men-only cars!?

On top of that women-only train cars don’t exist legally.

In the past if a train employee unjustifiably tried to force a man off of a women-only train car the employee was the one accused of wrongdoing by way of unjust coercion.  Employees have been required to apologize to men a great number of times.

Furthermore the Transportation Minister and courts have said men getting on women-only train cars is an ambiguous gray area!

(The following translation of the the only reply to this post isn’t important to understanding it, but is included for completeness.)
Reply from keitokuroda23-san

Men-only cars would be empty with the exception of morning and evening rush hours so it’s fine not to make them.

If you look at it the only real option is to shut down the women-only cars.  But if that is opposed then it would be OK to make men-only cars.

Either way there is a lack of appreciation from the people who ride the trains.

Japanese robo-toilet manufacturers announce standardized icons

Japanese robo-toilet manufacturers announce standardized icons

One area where Japan has embraced tech is in its toilets.  Japanese washlets (or “robo-toilets” as I like to call them), have all kinds of things such as automated motorized lids, heated seats, self cleaning bidet sprays with adjustable temperature, angle, and strength, warm air dryers, automatic air fresheners, multi-strength flush, and remote controls.  Taking a dump in Japan is a pleasure, as long as your not using a squatter toilet (see below).

Japanese toilet icons

This can be a bit mystifying to foreigners who aren’t used to it, so the Japan Restroom Industry Association (日本レストルーム工業会) has come up with a standardized set of icons for the functions of toilets.  The association consists of major manufacturers such as Toto and Panasonic (yes, Panasonic – they make LOTS of things in Japan.)

… the Japan Restroom Industry Association has come up with a standardized set of icons for the functions of toilets.

The Association Chief Kitamura said “We want to make operation of the equipment easy to understand since it would be regrettable if a foreigner missed a chance to experience the washlet.  Furthermore we want to promote our business around the world.”

Part of the push for this is Japan’s desire to become more friendly to foreign visitors ahead of the 2020 Olympics which are being held in Tokyo.

Below is a photo I took of a washlet that I used a number of times at work and its controls.  The box with a speaker plays a recorded sound of water running when when you wave your hand in front of it so people can’t hear you doing your business.  The controls to the right are for the toilet’s functions.  You can set seat temperature, water temperature, water spray strength, angle, warm air, timer, and the red button on the top-left is stop.  It’s also outfited with an infrared sensor and will flush itself when you move away from it.  (Click for larger version)

Japanese washlet and controls

Japanese squatter toiletIn contrast to the very nice-to-use washlets, traditional Japanese squatter toilets are quite unpleasant to use, especially for full size westerners.  Squatting for more than a minute makes the legs start to ache and keeping balance while you reach for toilet paper and wipe is an acquired skill.  These also don’t keep a large quantity of water in the bottom so the warm smell of anything put into it quickly rises full force to your nose.

Homes and apartments for the most part have western style toilets with many people installing washlets.  Newer stores and restaurants often have western style toilets with older stores, convenience stores, and schools having squatters with a western style toilet or a washlet in the “universal” (family or handicap accessible) restroom.

The photo to the right was taken in a convenience store’s restroom.  I think it might have been a ローソン (Lawson).

A Japanese washlet toilet with control arm
A Japanese washlet toilet with control arm from a cafe I used to frequent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Little White Cloud Over Aso – William Milberry

Little White Cloud Over Aso – William Milberry

A little white cloud hovers over the volcanic landscape of Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan.

William Milberry

Landscapes from Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture Japan (熊本県の阿蘇山の風景)

Landscapes from Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture Japan (熊本県の阿蘇山の風景)

Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, is one of the most beautiful places William Milberry has ever been to.  I’ve been there four times, two of which on scooter, and the landscape awed me each time.  It is one of the largest volcanic caldera in the world.  In ancient times a massive volcano erupted there causing the entire surrounding area to sink.  The land is twisted and rippled with lots of natural countryside.  Only soft-looking, short shrubs and grasses grown on some of the volcanic hills due to the nutrient poor soil which is mostly volcanic ash.  If you ever visit Japan’s Kyushu region, Aso should definitely be put on your list of places to go.

Photographing landscapes is a challenge for me because it’s tough to capture the awe that amazing places inspire and their grand scales in a single image, especially with a DSLR.  Landscapes demand a much larger imaging surface such as medium or large format.  Landscapes also demand a very careful, technical, methodical approach.  I’m very capable of this and engaged in such work a lot in the past, but in recent years I’ve been finding my inspiration in a more Japanese style wabisabi aesthetic which is a very different mindset.

Kome Zuka (lit. ‘Rice Mound’), is a volcanic cone found in the Aso caldera – William MilberryAso, Japan by William Milberry

Mt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

Centuries of erosion cause deep grooves in the volcanic hillsMt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

Mt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

Sparse vegetation on the rocky, volcanic, landscapeMt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

The sulfurous, boiling, active crater “Nakadake”Mt. Aso Nakadake crater, Kumamoto, Japan by William Milberry

Sunset on Kome ZukaMt. Aso, Japan by William Milberry

忘れられた思い出 (Forgotten Memories)

忘れられた思い出 (Forgotten Memories)

A while ago William Milberry went to a flea market in the Hakozaki district of Fukuoka city.  Like all flea markets the places was full of old and interesting things from the past.  I found an old roll of Fuji 35mm color film in a box of junk.  It wasn’t in a canister and was fully rewound, so it seemed as if it had been used.

I couldn’t resist the curiosity and struck up a conversation with the old man running selling the stuff.
William Milberry:  「この古いフィルムはどんな写真が入っているかな。。。」 (I wonder what kind of photos are on this film?…)
old Japanese man:  「さあ、分からん。」  (I don’t really know.)William Milberry:  「気になるから、百円はどう?」  (I’m curious, how about 100 yen?)
old Japanese man:  「(笑)いいよ。」  ((laughing) Sure. )

I took the film home and decided to develop it as black and white in HC110 – a developer which is pretty decent at cross-processing as well as working on really old or damaged film.  The film itself was out of control curly, it had obviously been wound up inside the 35mm canister for years if not decades.  It came out of the developer almost jet black.  I was able to scan two images off of it …

Forgotten Memories 01 (found film) - by William Milberry
Forgotten Memories 01 (found film) – by William Milberry

Forgotten Memories 02 (found film) - by William Milberry

Forgotten Memories 02 (found film) – by William Milberry

These photos are very intriguing because they offer a little window into a past, forgotten time.  I’m very much a follower of the wabisabi aesthetic and accept and enjoy the deterioration in these photos because it was imparted by time.  It invites me to imagine the film’s history and journey from some Japanese person’s camera, to the flea market, and now around the world to my home in America.

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

The Japanese Aesthetic of Wabisabi (侘寂) by William Milberry

Much of William Milberry’s photography is influenced by the Japanese aesthetic sense of wabisabi (侘寂).

Wabisabi is a guiding aesthetic that can be found across all areas of Japanese culture, art, design, and even in traditional performing arts.  It’s marked by an appreciation and acceptance of imperfection and transience.  Author Richard R. Powell says “Wabisabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities:  nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”  The origins of this line of thought can be traced back to Buddhism (a dominant religion in Japan), which stresses similar concepts.  So it’s somewhat natural that people who live with a Buddhist world view would find objects that match these ideas as “beautiful.”

Common traits found in the wabisabi aesthetic are simplicity, modesty, and austerity.  In terms of manifestation of wabisabi, you see a lot of asymmetry, roughness, and a lack of complex design or pre-planning.  This aesthetic is applied by the Japanese to many things such as ceramics, paintings, photography, architecture, and even traditional music and theater.

Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic
Japanese sake flask exhibiting wabisabi aesthetic

As a westerner, I would say that many western aesthetics view things that are carefully designed, perfectly crafted or that have an eternal quality as “beautiful.”  (Perhaps this is influenced by many monotheistic western cultures’ ideas about the eternity and perfection of God  and heaven?)  Wabisabi, on the other hand, embodies an appreciation for things despite their imperfections.  Imperfections include wear acquired by time (like weathered wood or patina on metal), or artifacts leftover by the process that something was created by. Beyond just imperfection, in line with Buddhist thought, things that are transient and impermanent are also seen as especially beautiful.  Expression of this focus on transience can be seen in arts like Japanese Ikebana (flower arranging), where the beautiful arrangement will be short lived due to the nature of flowers.  Also a preference for transience can be seen in the choice of subject matter in art (short lived cherry blossoms, fleeting moments in life, etc.), and even key elements in stories and movies (particularly in period pieces such as samurai movies.)

The sake flask in the photo to the left is an example of wabisabi aesthetic.  It’s one of my personal favorite items which I found at a flea market in Fukuoka.  It is uneven and worn, yet still elegant and balanced.  I see it and appreciate it’s creation and long history rather than feel put off by it’s sunken in sides and heavily worn, uneven glaze.

Not every uneven, crooked, or imperfect thing is admired under the idea of wabisabi.  It must garner a sense of tranquility or almost spiritual thoughts.  The “defects” as it were, are often quite intentional or allowed to be there as a testament to an objects creation or history.  There is an art to imperfection.  There is an intuitive understanding and something intangible communicated in a perfectly uneven teacup made by one of the respected ceramic artists of Arita, Japan, which, is probably not present in a crooked teacup made by someone who simply doesn’t know what they are doing.  There is a deep sense of presence in dark, grainy photos taken by Moriyama Daido which probably isn’t present in a photo snapped by someone who doesn’t actually see the world in line with this aesthetic.

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In what ways does wabsiabi relate to Japanese photography?  At first glance the photos of many of the noted Japanese photographers like Moriyama Daido, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Shomei Tomatsu are not “beautiful” in the typical western sense I was used to.  They are not carefully composed, don’t have pinpoint focus, and are often not well exposed.  Their subjects seem to have little setup and are fleeting moments that would be impossible to go back and catch again.  Contrast this is with noted western photographers like Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz whose works are carefully planned, composed, focused, and executed.  While these may be arbitrary examples that illustrate my point, I think they do demonstrate the general preference for and pattern of wabisabi ideas in Japanese photography/art, and the preference for a “clean” more “carefully crafted” style of western photography/art.

Shinjuku Plus - Moriyama Daido
Shinjuku Plus – Moriyama Daido

When I lived in Japan I wanted to learn more about Japanese photographers.  I would browse photobooks (of which there are many), in the local book stores.  I was disappointed at first and thought that the Japanese had failed to master photography techniques.  Still, I wanted to buy a few books for my collection, so I bought Moriyama Daido’s book Shinuku Plus.  When I slowly looked through it, I slowly began to understand.  The photos together told a story without words, they drew you into the time and place where they were taken.  After feeling this for the first time I started to appreciate the individual images because I no longer focused on what they weren’t (clear, sharp, detailed), but I learned to focus on what they offered.  I had discovered, at least in part, the aesthetic of wabisabi.

While I enjoy a well executed photo, I feel more free to look beyond the surface now.  Japanese photographers often seem to look into their subjects and reflect what they feel more than focusing on capturing the subject to present to your eyes.  It’s a very different way of appreciating the world.

I plan on writing more articles about Japanese culture and Japanese photography.  It’s something that I have fallen in love with and think that English speakers have had limited exposure to.

by Moriyama Daido
by Moriyama Daido

Article by William Milberry.
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