Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Butoh - the only known antidote to Cute

In 1959, a dancer called Tatsumi Hijikata performed a strange dance based on the novel Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima. He used a live chicken which he placed between his legs and the audience, mistakenly believing that he had killed it, were outraged. And so Butoh was born, a modern dance form that is grotesque, extreme, sometimes painful and in one case, fatal. Though Butoh was first performed during a time of student riots it is also believed to be influenced by the devastation at the end of the Second World War, in particular by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Typical Butoh costume is a loin cloth covering a body painted grey and is reminiscent of the bomb survivers burned and in shredded clothes, staggering out of the cities.

I don`t claim to understand Butoh but I do like it and having lived for over a decade in Japan I can see where it is coming from. Both the local and foreign media tend to portray the Japanese as a well-meaning, law-abiding nation of placid people who do their homework on Friday night and spend the weekend shopping for cute fashions. And on the whole they are right. But Japan also has a very dark side. You only have to look at movies such as Ring and Juon to see that Japan has a colourful tradition of horror and ghost stories. It also has a high suicide rate. It has a growing problem with hikikomori, people who become recluses, some of them as a result of the bullying culture that exists in this competitive, hierarchical society. Although it has a very low crime rate, the murders that are committed here are often extremely bizarre and horrific. As a Japanese student once said to me, Japanese rules and laws are so strict that if you do step out of line you might as well go all the way to hell.

But back to Butoh. Sankai Juku is Japan`s most famous troupe and here is a short extract from a performance. This lot would eat Beckii Cruel for breakfast. Literally.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Beckii Cruel

God, I wish I was cute. I wish I had the giant doll-like eyes and stunned expression of the moe (meaning literally 'beansprout', implying not a child, not yet a woman) cosplay cutie. Then that could have been me promoting the anime movie `Pretty Cure All Stars DX2 Protect the Rainbow Light Jewel of Hope` (which is the top class in all Jewels of Hope) in Akihabara this week. And I could have won the `gold medal of cute`, just like Beckii Cruel (real name Rebecca Flint, 14) from the Isle of Man who is here doing her cute dances. Cute is big business in Japan. There is a limitless market for cartoon cosplay costumes, Hello Kitty products and amateurish singing and dancing talentos and idoru. The other morning on the train (the same morning it was announced that some supermarket in the UK had banned customers from shopping in their pyjamas)the girl strap-hanging in front of me was wearing teddy bear print pyjamas, a crocheted shawl, carpet slippers, a giant loopy bow in her hair and a pink heart-shaped badge on which was written the words, "Spank me". She was studying for a university entrance exam and carried her notes in a wicker basket. Take that Tesco! But don`t get the idea that all Japan is like this. It`s actually popular with about the same percentage of people who like to dress up little girls in boob tubes and make-up in the UK. It`s the same old story, the objectification of women.

Beckii Cruel is being soundly rubbished by the foreign community here but if she pays off her parents` mortgage and covers her future university fees then why not? And besides we`re all just jealous because we had to get PhD`s and jobs in Fortune 500 companies to come here. However her parents should be aware that the major fans of cute here in Japan are not tweens as in the UK but young and middle-aged men, as you can see from this rather creepy video below. And is Beckii herself aware that the men in the front row are trying to get up-skirt shots on their mobile phones? Not so innocently cute now, huh? On second thoughts, I think I prefer being, as I was apparently voted by a group of my students, `the teacher we were most scared of this year`. Does that award come with a Jewel of Hope?

Monday, 22 February 2010

吉田兄弟 The Yoshida Brothers

I`m not one of those foreigners who go in for immersing myself in traditional Japanese culture. Noh and Bunraku bore the arse off me, I`m too hyperactive for the Japanese tea ceremony, and I don`t like to get the soles of my feet beaten with bamboo sticks in Buddhist temples. I do however like the Yoshida Kyoudai, the Yoshida brothers, Ryoichiro and Ken`ichi. They are two brothers from Hokkaido in the north of Japan who play the tsugaru-jamisen, a northern version of the 3-stringed shamisen. I like their music because of the way they mix the traditional sound of the shamisen with rock and even J Pop. Here they are in two videos. The first is of their most famous hit to date, Rising. In the second they are playing (with kodo drummers) in a live concert of the plastic boy band, Exile.

Many aspects of traditional Japan are becoming popular with the younger generations in Japan now. To a certain extent I think it is connected with the economic rise of China, and Japan`s sudden realisation that it is part of Asia not America. However when I asked a student about this she replied, "We are becoming interested in these things because foreigners seem to like them. If foreigners like them then we think they must have value."

I`m still not interested in getting my feet beaten ...

Tesco in Kichijoji .... kind of

I have always known there was a Tesco outlet in Tokyo. My students said it was in Chiba (eastern Tokyo) but that it was rubbish. And since the only time I go west of Tokyo Station is to get to Narita airport, I had never bothered going there. But last week when a colleague said he could buy Branston Pickle from a Tesco in Ookubo I decided to look it up on the net. In fact there are 54 Tesco outlets, most of which can be found in a supermarket chain called Tsurukame Land. Since there is a Tsurukame Land store in Kichijoji I decided to walk over there and find it. Well, I wandered around near the train tracks for about half an hour before finding Tsurukame Land actually under the tracks. It`s a bottom-end supermarket although the prices are still higher than my local Co-op. Sure enough it carries Tesco items: Tesco soy sauce, Tesco seaweed, Tesco dried squid and Tesco bean snacks. But it also has Tesco milk, Tesco grated cheese, Tesco plain yoghurt, Tesco white bread, Tesco instant coffee (but no Tesco tea!), and Tesco Bourbons, Malted Milks, Custard Creams and Choc Chip biscuits. There is no Tesco beer, preserves or Branston Pickle or any other Tesco products. I`m not sure what I expected to find there, some item that could epitomise the Great British cuisine, I guess. Black Pudding? Chips? Scones? I settled for Pumpkin seeds.

Tsurukame Land seems an odd choice to carry Tesco products. It`s a supermarket of the stack`em high sell`em cheap variety. And yet Tesco milk is 157 Yen, in the Co-op it`s only 138. Also it`s trying to sell Japanese products to the Japanese. What on earth is the point of that? What can Tesco be getting out of the deal? Does Tsurukame Land have some Chinese connection, I wonder? Are the bulk of Tesco`s goods headed for a supermarket in China?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Chocolate Beer

I`m always looking for new ways to consume chocolate so Chocolate Bitter Beer seemed like a good idea. And it`s not bad at all. Like sweet Guinness.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Center Test

Huzzah! Final exams are over and grades are in. All except for one make-up examination which I have been persuaded to give to a student with too many absences because my class was thoughtlessly scheduled for mid-morning and she has problems getting up `early`. Note to the student concerned: sloth is a deadly sin not an underlying medical condition.

This year for the first time I also proctored one day of the Center Test, a two-day nationwide examination taken by motivated high school students (the ones who are able to get up before noon) looking to get into the higher-ranked universities. The students take a series of short examinations in various subjects such as national language (Japanese), maths, English, sciences etc, and universities take their results into consideration when offering places.

I noted several things:

1) My uni took the whole event very VERY seriously. At one point one of the admin staff called up the speaking clock so we could all synchronise our watches to the second. Having never been bothered with my watch`s third hand I didn`t know how to change it but then I noticed it was already correct to the second, and I recalled that I had had the battery changed a year ago at the watch stand in my local Japanese supermarket.

After the first examination, when we returned to the teachers` room to hand in the completed papers every teacher was given a small bag containining a Vitamin B drink, throat sweets, breath fresheners and chocs. Attention to detail, so Japanese. And of course at lunch-time we were given our obento with a nice piece of salmon, two meatballs (they may have been soy), rice, pickles, beans, spinach and other vegetables.

2) It is important not to disturb the students` Wa (their harmony). Many of the students spent time setting up their desks in the cutlery positions just so, with up to 5 very sharp pencils (some in metal pencil holders) all aligned in the knife position, erasers, eye drops, hand towels and tissues arranged horizontally in the spoon position and student identification (with photos often covered by an eraser due to shyness) in the place of the fork. Nudge one item out of place accidentally when handing out the examination papers and the flustered student would go red in the face and frantically realign everything. One student had THREE watches on this desk. I examined them all. One was his wristwatch, one was an alarm clock with luminous hands, the third was a countdown timer so he could know how many minutes he had left. Of the 21 students in our room who sat the first examination of the day, a one-hour social studies paper (students don`t have to take them all) 5 had to be accompanied to the toilet.

3) At least a third of the students had some grey hair. I first noticed this when I was an assistant school teacher (for those who know the Japanese education system, I was a Jet ALT) at a high level city school. Since they are sitting and I am standing hair is one of the first things I notice about students and generally the more `high tension` a student is the more grey hair they have. After changing jobs and moving to Tokyo one year ago, I noticed a large patch of grey hair on the right side of my own head which I pointed out to my colourist. "So you`re left-handed then" she said. I am. "If you are feeling some stress and you are left-handed it will show on your right side because you are right-brained". I found this to be rather far-fetched but have since discovered, on asking my over-achieving, high tension (`hai tenshon` is a common Japanese phrase) friends that it appears to be true. Students tell me that once `exam hell` is over their hair grows back its original colour.

I would have thought that due to the drop in the birth rate resulting in there now being a university or college place for every 18-year-old who wants one, that students could relax a little. But it seems that competition for top places is as fierce as ever.