Wednesday, November 30, 2005

 

Shameless Celebrity Sighting

This is a little bit old, but I thought I'd include it for friends and family who secretly check out my blog. ;-)

My dance studio is opposite the Beacon Theater, and occasionally I run across concerts or movie premieres. Early on in my New York days, I remember that the Beacon Theater was putting on the "Diva" concert. In the middle of class, we all heard screaming and ran to the studio window to watch Tina Turner strut across the red carpet. Quite a sight.



A few weeks ago, I ran across the Walk the Line premiere. We dancers huddled on the median to gawk and take pictures. The quality of my photos is horrible, but I am putting a few up for evidence.



Here is Jane Seymour,



and Leanne Rimes (who is really skinny in person)



and of course Reese.



Can anyone name this famous botoxed forehead? His barbie doll wife is standing to the right in this photo.

 

Ichty Knee -- Ichi Ni

While wandering through Tribeca, we found a little sidewalk shop called Itchy Knee selling cat toys. "Itchy Knee" sounded suspiciously like "ichi ni" to me, the latter meaning "one two" in Japanese. And sure enough one of the designers of these great products is Japanese.



Here is a deliriously happy cat in full "cat nip" mode.



And of course here he is posing . . .



and cuddling his new toy as he goes to sleep.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

 

More Uniqlo



I think my favorite purchase from Uniqlo is this down coat. It goes down past my knees and is very warm, and only cost $100! Definitely a good deal.



Here's one other funny thing I noticed. It's the custom in Japan to send elaborate flower arrangements to celebrate a store's opening. I guess that 1-800-FLOWERS was the best anyone could do in America. And I guess the only place anyone could think of to put the flowers was by the trash can.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

 

Chrysanthemum Season


November 3rd marks "Cultural Day" in Japan. Starting around this time, if you are in Japan, you will see many beautiful chrysanthemum flowers on display. There are even "Chrysanthemum Festivals" or Kikkaten in which these gorgeous flowers are put out for show, sometimes to highlight the special qualities of a particular breed; sometimes the flowers are grouped together in an almost architectural fashion.



This is the last year in which the famous Hirakata chrysanthemum doll festival will take place; by tradition, 50 dolls are dressed up in 100,000 flowers.

You can think of the chrysanthemum as a sort of polar opposite to the cherry blossom, which blooms in the springtime. The chrysanthemum, of course, blooms in the autumn. Both flowers are said to unoficially "represent Japan," and the 16 petal variety is the symbol of the Imperial family.



My mother, on the other hand, makes wonderful pickles from the chrysanthemums in her garden.

Beware of one thing, however, as you enjoy these flowers. I warned you earlier about the dual nature of the higanbana, or red spider lily. Despite their celebrated beauty, chrysanthemums are also the flower traditionally presented at a funeral; in a funereal bouquet, white and yellow chrysanthemums are combined. So, if you want to give someone a present, be sure you throw some other colors into the mix, or just stick to one color.




I'd like to thank my friend Nobata Katsunari for sending these pictures to me. He and his wife live in Aichi perfecture near my grandparents, and are wonderful family friends.

Monday, November 21, 2005

 

New York Times Goes to Aburiya Kinnosuke

I was pleased to see that the New York Times gave my beloved Aburiya Kinnosuke a reasonably good review. I'm not really sure that I would agree with what Frank Bruni recommends, as I hardly think that chicken and meat are the best items on the menu -- and certainly not for a restaurant that really specializes in fish!

Here are a few priceless quotes.


This restaurant was clearly delighting them (Japanese businessmen), sating them and offering them something much closer to, and more consistent with, what they would get in Tokyo than what they would get in TriBeCa. That caught my attention, and my own delight kept me coming back for more.


So, obviously, the word is out that Aburiya Kinnosuke is where the Japanese go to eat something "authentic." And since there are so many Japanese now in New York -- unlike the 80s where, as my hairdresser used to tell me bitterly, a Japanese ex-pat might go hungry -- perhaps the menu can actually stay authentic.

Frank Bruni also has this amusing observation.


The menu is so expansive and arcane that a diner can encounter bad luck as easily as good and wind up with food that disappoints, if only because it's so peculiar. One night I blithely ventured in the direction of dried baby squid, only to make a hasty retreat after one repellently fishy, intensely funky bite.



Japanese food is wierd, y'all!

Seriously, it would have been nice if someone had been able to help guide Mr. Bruni through the menu. He also doesn't quite seem to have sampled the "kaiseki" option, which is something of a pity, especially when you consider another restaurant-which-shall-remain-nameless which gets rave reviews for its kaiseki and which, in my opinion, is nowhere near as good or as authentic as Aburiya Kinnosuke. It seems that while we have come a great distance since being squeamish about all things Japanese, it will be a while before all its flavors have an understanding audience.


 

Cultural Appropriation: Take 1

I spend a lot of time over at the Poets and Writer's Message Boards, and became embroiled in a lengthy discussion about cultural appropriation. More recently we've been having the most fantastic cultural-appropration-discussion over at Japundit about Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls, and I do plan to post on that subject later.

But here's what prompted this post. Over on another message board, I uncovered the following post regarding Zadie Smith's new book "On Beauty."


"The Junior Mint muddle (a favorite E.M. Forster word) is symptomatic of the larger problems with this book. It is full of dull expository passages, which are frequently just bizarre, as though Smith were purposely writing about an America that doesn't exist, even though this is a naturalistic novel. She can't even keep basic facts straight about her characters, never mind about Boston or American candies. At one point, Kiki's grandmother, who was a nurse, is said to have inherited the house where Kiki now lives; later the narrator says it was Kiki's mother's bedside manner that led to the inheritance. Mother, grandmother, which was it? But you be the judge--here is the passage:


On Junior Mints by Zadie Smith:


"He dug into his pocket and found two individually wrapped Junior Mints. He offered one to Choo, who declined it sniffily. Levi unwrapped his own mint and popped it into his mouth. He loved Junior Mints. Minty and chocolatey. Just everything you want from a candy basically." (p.247)."



The poster goes on to point out that Junior Mints are not individually wrapped, and that Zadie's misuse of this special candy is evidence of her lack of familiarity with America.

Now, I haven't read "On Beauty" (yet) so I'm not in a position to comment about this passage, or any other in her book. But this post did call to mind something somewhat related. I have been re-reading one of my all time favorite novels, Possession, by AS Byatt, which for me is about as good as a novel gets. Ms. Byatt is British (I think English) and has a bevy of colorful British characters in the novel Possession. She also has an American who, on page 336 of the hardback edition in the US, says the following:


"I always forget how pitifully tiny your space is here. It indicates a disrespect for Women's Studies, I guess, or is it just English university meanness? Can you read French, my darling? I've got things to show you."


Okay, well that is just not the voice of an American. There are a couple of things that ring true: the use of the phrase "I guess" is spot on. The extrovert commenting on how "small" the space is seems like something an American would sling out there. But I don't think an American academic would use the adverb "pitifully." I'm also not feeling "It indicates," or "meanness," which has a different meaning in American English than British English. An American -- even an educated one -- would probably insert the word "some" in between "got" and "things." So, at the risk of being offensive, a more American version of this dialogue might go something like:


"I always forget how incredibly small everything is over here. What -- is this some kind of hint from the University President or something? They should give you a decent sized carrell. Hey. Can you read French? I've got some things I want to show you."


I remember now reading a few books by British authors trying to capture American voices, and I haven't been completely sold on the voice in any of these cases. I also don't always care. In the case of AS Byatt, I don't care at all because I adore this book, and the funny American character just fits in with the slight precociousness of the novel -- and I have a serious weakness for precocious and talented people. I suppose every time I read something that Leonora, the American, says, I sort of smile to myself and maybe my disbelief is not totally suspended. But I also don't really care, because the novel as a whole is just a freaking brilliant accomplishment.

I mention this because one of the arguments put forward in the discussion on Poet's and Writer's has been that:

"You can get the details of a story wrong, but still get the story right."


Initially, I vehemently disagreed with this point of view. But reading "Possession" again, I realized that it's a point that has some merit to it. In the end, I'm not entirely sure that we can really do anything close to legislating about when to "appropriate" and when not to.

Finally, today as I waited in the doctor's office, I was happily lost inside the pages of "A Year in the Life of Shakespeare" by James Shapiro. At the bottom of page 99 and top of 100, Shapiro discusses the ending to Henry the Fifth, which includes the wedding of English Henry to French Katharine -- and the end of a war. Shapiro writes

"The overriding irony of Henry the Fifth is that its happy ending leads . .. with English Harry wedded to the French princess. The language of breeding persists to the very end, as Henry tells Katharine that "though must therefore needs prove a good soldierbreeder. Shall not though and I, between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard? Shall we not?" (5.2.206-10). The specter of Islam will help the French and English temporarily forget their differences."


This, as we used to say in California, freaked me out. For here is Shakespeare, yet another precocious writer, messing around with language and cultural appropriation many, many years before we even have the novel. What's more, he highlights how cultural alliances are very malleable in the human mind. And how bizarrely current it is to see the English, French and the "Turks" duking it out in drama. Precocious writer indeed -- tackling subjects with which we are still struggling to come to terms. My literary crush on Shakespeare is enflamed. What a smart boy.

 

Uniqlo New York


Yes, fashionistas. Uniqlo has come to Manhattan. I checked out the store on opening day, and found pretty familiar items; jeans, cashmere sweaters (for a $40 bargain) and fleece. In case you don't know, Uniqlo is often called the "Gap" of Japan. Industry analysts are already wondering how Uniqlo will manage to distinguish itself from The Gap and Old Navy, which emphasize similar "no logo" basics. New York has seen foreing "bargain" retailers like H&M, Zara and Mexx show up in the past few years, and it will be interesting to see how Unqiqlo competes.

A couple of possibilities.

I spoke to a few staff members who insisted that all designs were "Japanese," and yet I do know -- from someone who spoke off the record -- that American designers have been hired to "adjust" the Japanese items to American tastes. No word yet on exactly what this means, but I do know that the merchandise sold in Manhattan is slightly different from what is sold in the Freehold New Jersey shop.



I also found the repeated emphasis on "Japanese denim" to be very interesting. Like the Gap, most Uniqlo clothing is manufactured in China. The denim, however, seems to be a different story. Check out the special attention paid to these jeans.



This reminds me of the inroads that Evisu is slowly making among the fashion conscious. I recently went to the Evisu sample sale which "discounted" denim down from around $500 to $100. No pictures allowed there, so sadly I cannot share. But perhaps, like the Italian company Diesel, the very idea of Japanese denim will capture people's imagination.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

 

More on the Harajuku Girls

I used to post on the Poets and Writers Message board. We had one particularly intense discussion about cultural appropriation, which left me mentally exhausted. The arguments seem to fall along two lines.

One, you should write whatever you are moved to write, even if it is outside of your natural cultural perspective, because this is what artists do. Just make sure you do your research.

Two, it's best not to attempt to stray too far from your natural, cultural orientation, because you will be appropriating, and you will fail.

That's a bit extreme, but it sort of sums up the gist of the argument.

Not surprisingly, in retrospect, I fall sort of in the middle. I end up seeing both points of view. On the one hand, I think that, of course, artists must feel passionately about their stories and must employ whatever means necessary to tell a story. At the same time, I know what it is to feel uncomfortable with cultural appropriation, and it makes me feel cautious.

My suspicion, though I haven't exactly tested out the theory, is that where you fall in this argument probably depends on your race. If you are part of a minority, you are more sensitive to feeling exploited. If you aren't part of a minority, then it's harder for you to understand what said discomfort is all about anyway.

 

Trendwatching: Legwarmers

I would feel remiss if I did not point out the resurgence of legwarmers.



Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about this trend. It seems to have started up again in Japan, and then moved into New York via Soho. The thing is, legwarmers, unlike Japanese food, aren't really good for everyone. Not everyone should really be wearing these things. We figured this out once upon a time in the 80s. I hope the world figures this out again. And soon.

 

Bearding New York



I was inspired by Mari’s post about cream puffs, called Choux Cream in Japan, to check out the Beard Papa chain which is sweeping New York. This chain, popular in Japan, opened its first shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last spring, and yours truly was there to eat far more cream puffs than one should consume before going to a vigorous dance class.

A couple others opened, sometimes serving matcha choux creams. Beard Papa in the Café Zaiya is particularly convenient, as it is close to Grand Central Station, and still something of a secret.

On a recent visit, I discovered that Beard Papa were making pumpkin cream puffs in celebration of Halloween. Anyone seen something similar in Japan? I have to say, the pumpkin flavor was fantastic; this was no artificially flavored cream puff, but one which included real pumpkin. Delicious. I snapped this bearded papa indulging in his first ever Beard Papa. I think he'll be back for more.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

 

Harajuku Girls

Gwen and Harajuku GirlsWhat are we to make of Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku girls?

To recap, in case you have been living in a pop-culture proof shelter, Gwen Stefani is an American pop star with platinum locks and a growly, girl-power type of appeal. She released a clothing line called L.A.M.B which stands for "Love Angel Music Baby." The clothing line was inspired by the street fashions of Harajuku, which readers of Japundit know is a hip part of Tokyo near Shibuya station, where youths dress up and parade their eclectic sense of fashion. Gwen has written a song titled "Harajuku Girls" which is an ode to the Harajuku ethos. She is touring with 4 "Harajuku Girls" whom she has named "Love," "Angel," "Music" and "Baby."

Yep. That's right. She's named them.

Here are some sample lyrics from her song.

Your look is so distinctive, like DNA
Like nothing I've ever seen in the USA
Your underground culture, visual grammar
The language of your clothing, is something to encounter
A ping-pong match between eastern and western
Did you see your inspiration in my latest collection
Just wait till you get your little hands on L.A.M.B.
Cause it's (super kawaii), that means (super cute in Japanese)
The streets of Harajuku are your catwalk
Bishoujo, you're so vogue
That's what you drop
Cho saikou, Harajuku girls


Okay. Now we've got that out of the way. Let's look at what the reaction has been so far.
When I first saw Gwen Stefani and her girls, I thought, "No way. She's crazy. Middle America will never understand this whole kawaii thing." Then I thought, "Well, maybe it will work." Then I thought, "What will happen if people like this?"

Margaret Cho, probably the only well known comedienne of Asian descent here in the US, masks her criticism of the Harajuku girls with some ironic observations.


I mean, racial stereotypes are really cute sometimes, and I don't want to bum everyone out by pointing out the minstrel show. I think it is totally acceptable to enjoy the Harajuku girls, because there are not that many other Asian people out there in the media really, so we have to take whatever we can get. Amos 'n Andy had lots of fans, didn't they? At least it is a measure of visibility, which is much better than invisibility. I am so sick of not existing, that I would settle for following any white person around with an umbrella just so I could say I was there.


(But, I interject, people do carry umbrellas in Japan).

I've found a couple of other interesting pieces of commentary. There is one particularly damning article in Salon, written by an Asian American. It's worth noting that the article opens with the author recalling times past when she was stereotyped for her looks.


Stefani has taken the idea of Japanese street fashion and turned these women into modern-day geisha, contractually obligated to speak only Japanese in public, even though it's rumored they're just plain old Americans and their English is just fine. . . The renaming of four adults led one poster on a message board to muse, "I didn't think it was legal to own human pets. But I guess so if you have the money for it." Stefani fawns over harajuku style in her lyrics, but her appropriation of this subculture makes about as much sense as the Gap selling Anarchy T-shirts; she's swallowed a subversive youth culture in Japan and barfed up another image of submissive giggling Asian women.


(Kinda wierd use of the term geisha. Makes me think that perhaps the writer hasn't been to Harajuku and perhaps hasn't read up on what makes a girl a geisha).

So, we're pretty sensitive these days over here in the West. Especially those of us of Asian descent, and I am definitely sympathetic to all these points of view. But lost in all the discussion are a couple of key things.

First: Japan is the world's second largest economy, and one of the reasons the real Harajuki kids are able to invest so much creativity into their weekend outfits is because they have money. Social problems Japan has a plenty. But this is not the land where playing dress up reduces a girl to becoming a "contractually obligated geisha" with absolutely no power. Some commentators have insisted that the girls in Gwen Stefani's show aren't "authentic" Harajuku girls, but I kind of think that's a given. This is show business after all.

Second: what do the Japanese themselves think of this curious cultural mixing? I mean, unless you haven't been paying attention, Japan is full of T-shirts with curious phrases and charming uses of English. Is that cultural appropriation? Or is it only cultural appropriation if we Americans dress up like . . . someone else? Where do we draw the line?

I found this blog (in Japanese) in which a Japanese went to see Gwen Stefani perform in New York. She talks about how Gwen Stefani is a sort of "ambassador" for Shibuya-ku. She makes the point that the Harajuku Girls (that would be Love, Angel, Music and Baby) dance really well, and that it's exciting to see Asian girls front and center. However, she wonders, it does seem that the point of the choreography is that, to Americans, Asian taste seems to prefer girls who are "young and childish" and "not sexy." She also wonders how long Stefani will stick to the Harajuku routine.

This, to me, is the really interesting part of this whole debate.

Can you name any female Asian pop stars who have crossed over to become stars in the US? Many have tried, but so far, no one has truly succeeded. How about movie stars? There's Michelle Yeoh, and there's Ziyi Zhang. There is the lively Margaret Cho, and our homegrown beauty Lucy Liu. More recently, we have Sandra Oh. One thing all these women share in common is that their characters are martial arts experts, or really tough.

There is something to be said for the perception that Westerners have of Asians as being "giggling." This is where I think a lot of Asian women living in the West get nervous. We are perfectly aware of the way in which Asians are perceived, and we aren't comfortable with it. I remember full well the number of times I've been told in corporate interviews, "Well, you just don't seem very tough." On the other hand, the minute I land in Japan, if I laugh at a joke, my hand flies up in front of my mouth. What am I going to do? Show off a mouthful of teeth and unleash my guffawing self to my grandparents? I don't think so.

The interesting thing for me, then, is to see if these Harajuku Girls of Gwen Stefani's are going to be able to translate long term. I wonder if the larger Western audience will gain a greater appreciation for all that is kawai, and stop asking Asian actresses to have to prove that they can "kick ass" if they even want to make a film in the first place. Or, is this really just a passing trend that will only affirm another kind of stereotype.

(First posted at Japundit.)

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