Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Translating Beauty or Japanese Girls Must Stop Being Kawaii

1988 finalists

After Riyo Mori's win in the Miss Universe pagent, and our subsequent discussion on Japundit, I became curious about the "behind the scenes" efforts that contributed to Mori's win. It has been very clear over the past few years that the Japanese delegates have become less "kawaii" and more "fierce" in the manner in which a model and spokeswoman must be to appeal to an international or, ahem, western audience.

Ines and friends

So, how did it happen? Take a look at the Miss Universe Japan site, and you'll see that as an organization, it's only been around for the past 9 years. That's because someone finally decided that after 48 years of participating in the pagent, and only producing 1 winner and 3 finalists, drastic measures needed to be taken if Japan was ever going to place. So, the old Miss Japan machine was scrapped, and the new Miss Universe Japan organization was born. And who was placed at the head? One Ines Ligron, a Frenchwoman by birth who has single-handedly refashioned what it means to be beautiful in Japan.Read more »

Monday, May 28, 2007


Miss Japan is Miss Universe

The 20 year old ballet dancer who went to school in Canada, but represented Japan in this year's Miss Universe pagent has taken the crown.

The fascinating thing is that with her knowledge of English, and her time spent in the West, Miss Japan was in a much better position to appeal to western judges and their sense of what is "beautiful" and accomplished.

I always figured that one day someone would figure out how to relay Asian beauty to a western audience and have it come across. And she has. As long as the Japanese were sticking to their version of "kawaii," they were never going to win a thing. There is a large part of me that is admittedly pleased that someone FINALLY figured it out, even as I'm not an incredible fan of pagents in general.

Congratulations to miss Riyo Mori!


Shima Uta

The first time I heard this song, I burst into tears. Its nostalgic melody and theme struck a chord with me, and I think Gackt does a really fine job of singing it. The song has that "country-Okinawa-enka" quality to it

The song was composed in 1992, though this video is only a few years old. Read the lyrics and translation here.

The first line is as follows:

The deigo flower has blossomed, and it has called the wind, and the storm has arrived.

Gackt, of course, has his more usual flamboyant style of dress and performance, though this video convinced me that behind all the flash is a deeply sensitive and talented musician, though, he did not write this gorgeous song, as he does his other material. That honor goes to Miyazawa Kafumi of The Boom.

Here is a performance of the same song by The Boom.


First posted at Japundit.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Hidden Edges

As I'm approaching the end of my novel, I've been thinking a lot about the concept of "hidden edges." The term applies to fine arts, and is a technique artists use to ensure that the legs or back of a 3-dimensional object are where they are supposed to be, as in the sketch below.

If you've ever drawn a "3-dimensional" box, where you overlap one box on top of the other, then draw in the little connectors, you have some clue as to what I'm talking about.

My fiance was explaining the whole concept to me a few weeks back. He said that artists often draw in these "hidden edges" to ensure that a box or ball will look like it can balance, but later take out the edges that would be hidden from view in a final product.

I started thinking about how this pertains to writing, and to the endings of books in particular. It's no longer really acceptable to write an ending which reads: "And they lived happily ever after." We modern audiences tend to like something a little more subtle, and something that sustains the illusion that the fictional world we've just read about will continue in some way. At the same time, it's deeply offensive when a novel ends abruptly. So, how to write an ending?

With short stories, I don't tend to start writing until I'm sure of the ending. And even when I change the beginning to a story, the ending almost never differs from what I first imagined.

I read Debra Spark's excellent book on the craft of fiction a couple of years ago. Here is something she says about endings:

"To list strategies for ending a story may be less helpful than it is for openings, since a list of strategies begs the larger question of inspiration, of how to understand your own story, of how to discover what you mean ot say. That said, in general, when we think of effective closings, we think of a resonant final image or a powerful thought or a "killer" line. Or we think of some combinatino of these three."

Spark then goes on to describe some of these killer endings which often end with an image which momentarily presents us with a "large" view of the world.

I like this concept. It describes what happens when I read a book that is satisfying all the way to the end. But I think it works best when a story contains within it some hidden edges--some sense of how various things are going to end somewhere in the future, without being too oblique. In other words, the final structure isn't going to stand and the final image isn't going to open up and give a sense of "largeness," if the story doesn't have some kind of internal bracing to hold it all in place.

Have I succeeded? That's a somewhat subjective question. I will say that I've enjoyed this part of the editing phase more than any other. There's a wonderful sense at the end of writing a short story, when I know the characters, know what happens, and am just polishing and burnishing passages. This is the wonderful part of writing. It feels like being immersed in music.

The sad thing is that it also means a story, or in this case a book, is almost over.

And then it's time to start something new.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Ultimate in Fashion

Are there any more fashionable men out there on this planet than young Japanese guys? I don't think so. This is seriously the most amazing cold-weather gear I've ever seen. And don't make the assumption that he's gay, because you really can't do that with guys in Japan. He's simply incredibly and impossibly beautifully dressed.

When I see something like this, I just feel like the large, awkward, unattractive gaijin that I become in Japan. It's a double edged sword. I do love the country, but I'll never, ever be elegant over there.

First posted at Japundit, which resulted in a far more interesting and thoughtful conversation than I ever would have expected.


Eating the Season

As in previous years, I watched to see when the cherries would be blooming in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens . I was a week late to see them in full bloom in Tokyo, though I did catch the blossoms further north. It was nice to come back to NYC and find the cherries just starting to blossom.

I discovered this year that the restaurant Matsuri does a special "sakura" menu to coincide with the season. Each dish comes with the ingredient of the season--cherry blossoms. If you order off of the special menu, you will even get a free pass to the Sakura Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, or, if you miss the festival as I did this year, free admission up to the end of the first week of May.

We ate this sushi, made with pink snapper and very delicately seasoned. I'm afraid I was so hungry, I plowed through the entire plate. But it was very good, with just a hint of the cherry taste.

More fish, again with cherry blossoms. This was tasty too, though I really loved the sushi.

An amazing, delicate and refreshing dessert, again with cherry blossoms.

Lest you think that eating cherry blossoms is some wierd fusion thing, think again. It's become quite popular in Japan, starting with a kind of "cherry blossom" tea, or sakurayu, which is actually quite salty and something of an aquired taste (IMO).

I recently visited some cousins who live near Tokyo. They told me that their area is famous for growing most of the cherry blossoms which are later seasoned and sold for sakurayu.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Ongoing Geisha Saga

Geisha Movie

Longtime Japundit reader remember the furor over "Memoirs of a Geisha." Not only was the novel, on which the film was based, written by a western man, but the leading role in the film was portrayed by a Chinese actress. In addition, Arthur Golden, the author of the book, named his primary source of information, Mineko Iwaaki, despite an apparent promise to have kept her name under wraps. Iwasaki sued, angry that her identity had been disclosed, and also because the book and film version of the book included a controversial scene in which the heroine's virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Mineko Iwasaki

Iwasaki and Golden settled their suit privately. At the same time, Iwasaki went off to write her tremendously engaging memoir Geisha, A Life. I highly recommend you Japundits out there take a look. It's a terrific story.Read more »

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Real Life Densha Otoko

A couple years, the drama "Densha Otoko" or "Train Man" (or Train Boy as my fiance calls him), was a massive hit in Japan. The real-life story-turned-movie-turned drama featured a nerdy "otaku" hero who rescues a beautiful damsel in distress on the Tokyo subway. The girl, nickamed "Hermes," because of a set of Hermes teacups she sends him as a thank you, ends up with a crush on the poor unprepared hero. The story captured the national imagination, in part because it potrayed the otaku as something of a sensitive and misunderstood type, who could, when occasion calls for it, act with heroism.

But in reality, how many Akibei types would really help out a girl who is being harassed by a henna ojisan? An enterprising television crew set out to determine the stats. Producers cast a "Hermes" looking actress and set her up on the street to be harassed with some old, badgering coot (also cast). The crew then calculated just how many heroes of out of a 100 "otaku" types approaching a maid cafe they could find. The answer might surprise you

In this Densha Otoko Special, you can watch (after registering) as otaku after otaku runs away. Then, something happens. First, one otaku decides to help the poor, quivering girl. His reward, as far as I can tell, is an actual set of Hermes tea-cups. Then, we see another. Take a look to get the final stats yourself!

Monday, May 14, 2007


Utada Hikaru: Blue

My current J-Pop obsession is the song "Blue," by Utada Hikaru, a freakishly gifted pop singer, fluent in English and Japanese, and capable of not only accurately hitting soaring high notes, but also writing and arranging her own music.

This video isn't the official "Blue" video at all, but it does give you some nice shots of Hikki, as she is known to her fans, moodily singing through her atmospheric music. Beware the strange interruptions: other pop-stars and film snippets show up. Despite all that, you can be sure to enjoy the song. Here are the lyrics and Japanese/romaji, and the translation, for anyone interested.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Wild Herbs and Wild Heroines


Another of the "mountain vegetables" which you can pick and eat is tsukushi, or horsetail shoot.


To eat these shoots, you'll need to pick them when they are young enough, remove the brown "wrapper," then saute and season them. I found a tip on cooking tsukushi here.

Kitty Sansai

Of course, nothing Japanese can be truly considered authentic until Sanrio has released the official Hello Kitty version. So now that we've covered a few sansai delicacies, I present to you the Hello Kitty bamboo-shoot, fuki no to and tsukushi collectibles. I will go on record now, though, and say that I've never picked these in the wild.

But then there's a more heroic kind of Tsukushi. Recently, I've been watching a number of Japanese dramas. It's a good way for me to keep up my Japanese "ear," and to some degree, it helps stave off the Japan homesickness that I feel. Of all the dramas I've watched, there is one drama that has completely captured my heart and it's called "Hana Yori Dango," which roughly translates as "Boys Over Flowers." The heroine is named *drumroll* Tsukushi.

The drama was originally a manga, which became and anime, then was released as a film, and just concluded its run as a drama. Oh, how I love this show. It's the perfect combination of fantasy, human foibles, angst, darkness and humor. It's no coincidence that the first part contained a recurring theme that was a riff off of Harry Potter, though there are no actual wizards in the show--just some very evil real life corporate witches. The acting is terrific; ditto for the direction and editing. Here is the basic premise:

Tsukushi is a new student at Eitoku Gakuen - an exclusive school attended by rich families' children. Being poor, she is always bullied and sabotaged by her schoolmates. Things become worse when she crosses the path of F4 (a group comprised of the 4 richest and most fashionable guys). On the orders of Domyuji, the leader of F4, Tsukishi receives a "red flag," the official notification that she is to be bullied and driven out of school. But Tsukushi stands up to the arrogant Domyoji and declares war right back. Stunned that someone would challenge him, Domyoji begins to fall for Tsukushi, though his emotions surprise him and he is incapable of telling her how he feels. Meanwhile, Tsukushi makes friend with Rui, another member of the F4 who stepped outside of his "clan" to help her. Tsukushi naturally falls in love with Rui. Domyuji is a mess of emotions. His best friend has gone against his "orders" to help this girl, and now seems to be winning her over.

How to convey the love and enthusiasm I have for this show? One blogger does it quite nicely after learning that part 2 is set to air. I read her reviews and thought, "Yes! Yes! This is how I feel."

When I got to thinking about it, Japanese dramas and animes have a history of portraying girls like this--wild "weeds" like Tsukushi who, through their intelligence and natural goodness manage to overcome obstables. Heroines are very rarely to ethereally beautiful women who haunt the 18th century paintings and woodblock prints. The Japanese heroine is much more like Tsukushi, spunky, temperamental, expressive, flawed and heroic. "Spirited Away" anyone? Or Princess Mononoke"? How about "Escaflowne" , for you non-"Miyazaki" types? They are all girls from the same spunky template.

And this made me think about all those books and articles written about the poor modern Japanese woman who struggles to express herself in a patriarchal society--she's doing very well in popular culture and in people's imaginations.

It goes without saying that I realize how much of this has affected my own writing and work. I have a hard time writing angsty, neurotic and defeated female characters. Mine tend to end up pursuing the truth, taking on a perceived injustice, fighting the good fight . . . and occasionally embarassing themselves in the most public fashion. Not that I identify with this kind of behavior of course!

J-dorama plots are very dofferent than what you are used to seeing on American television. In general, I'd say that characters aren't so much roadblocked by their own neuroses, as they are by the deepest matters of the heart--family loyalty, obligation and . . . obligation. As a result, in Hana Yori Dango, as in other doramas, heroism requires knowing and acting on the true feelings of the heart in the face of social expectations.

I realize that this isn't what we generally think of as being a Japanese characteristic; the Japanese are often accused of being repressed. But the more time that goes by, the more deeply I realize just how sensitive the Japanese really are. Certainly for me, every interaction I have in Japan is sincere in a way that I just never feel in the US; there isn't the same veneer or irony or "attitude" to break through in Japan in order to really reach someone and make a connection. I always end up making a "connection" with someone when they reveal the truth of their lives to me. In storytelling, therefore, the experiences of characters and the stakes are always higher for the reasons described above. And for me, the best writing and certainly my best stories, always happen when I approach life in that fashion.

Anyway, after all my rambling, if you are at all curious about this excellent drama, there are a few ways you can see it.

The first would be to register with the good folks at Crunchy Roll , do a search for Hana Yori Dango (just make sure you start with the first season) and get started.

The second way would be to purchase the DVD and watch it on your television. I can recommend walawala which I've used. They are safe and they are fast. With DVDs, you can also subject your fiance to the show. If he resists, you can make a deal with him. You can ask him to watch just ONE episode, with the promise that he doesn't have to watch anymore if he hates it. Most likely you'll wind up staying up until 2 AM begging him to leave the rest of the series for the weekend so you two can go to sleep while it's still dark. Yeah. It's THAT good.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Your Sunrise Is My Sunset

It is strange for me, a native Californian, to see the sun rise on the ocean.

As a kid, I believed my mother when she told me that if I looked hard enough over the Pacific Ocean, I could see my grandparents in Japan waving to me.

It's sort of profound to think that we all really do share the sun.


Sansai Vegetables

We all know that a wave of cherry blossoms breaks across Japan come spring. But this isn't the only plant of note which blooms with new flowers. Spring brings many new plants and sprouts, a good many of which are edible.

If you are out somewhere in Tohoku, you might catch a scene like this; ordinary folk out picking edible plants which are considered a delicacy.

My new favorite sansai, or mountain vegetable, is fuki no to, known to the west as the Butterbur sprout, or, as my mother taught me, sweet colt's foot.

The shoots first come up as snow is melting away, and appears bright gold, due to a lack of chlorophyll.

Our favorite family way to eat fuki no to is to serve it as tempura. The best shoots are very young with the buds barely open. I would describe the flavor as rich and just slightly bitter, sort of like an artichoke. On the train across Tohoku, I kept looking at the shoots while thinking, "If only I could get out and go picking! Those look so good!"

You can of course find fuki no to for sale in some stores. But it's so much satisfying to harvest your own.

First posted on Japundit.

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