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Relevent to Your Interests: Books on and by the Japanese

4 Aug

By: Stephanie Weirich

Pictured: My house

Pictured: My house

Well hey there guys! Fancy finding you here on this (depending on where you live) lovely Sunday afternoon. Today, we’re going to be doing something a bit different. And by different I mean that we’re not going to be focusing on anime (I know, shits cray right!?). Turns out, I do other things with my time besides watch anime with a voracious appetite. I also happen to read books with an equally, if not more so, voracious appetite! High amongst my preferences for satisfactory reading materials are books about Japan or books that are by Japanese authors.

My reasoning for seeking out books that fit these preferences should be fairly obvious, but all in all, I read books about Japan and by Japanese authors because it better serves my knowledge about Japan, its people and its culture. It also informs my interpretation of anime. For me, personally, I believe that if you’re interested in something, if you’re passionate about something, you need to look at that thing from absolutely every angle possible. It’s not enough for me to just watch anime and think that I’m getting all of the knowledge I need. I need to read about it. I need to read novels set there. I need to watch movies and dramas. I need to listen to music that comes from Japan. I needed to go and live in Japan and I need to go back again at some point. I feel an insatiable need to know absolutely everything I can about Japan and the best part about this is that I will NEVER know everything about it and thus I will never stop learning new things about it. Neat, right? I happen to think so, and I hope you do too.

So, if you’re at all like me and you’re looking for things to read that will enrich your knowledge about Japan, I’m here to help you out with that. This will in no way be a comprehensive list, and it most likely will not be the only one of these lists I put together. This is just here to get you started. I’m going to cover non-fiction first and then move onto fiction. SPOILER ALERT: there will be no Haruki Murakami books recommended in this list. Why you might ask? Well, truthfully, I’m not a fan of his. I haven’t read a single one of his books that did anything other than leave me cold. I’m not a fan of his empty characters or fetishization of teenage girls and I feel like overall he says very little about the state of the country that he’s from. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—novelists do and should get to pick their subject matter—it’s just not my cup of tea. I also think that for the most part, he is the pre-eminent Japanese author that most of the book reading public has heard about and so he doesn’t need to be covered again here. Rest assured though, I am going to give you so many other suggestions that you won’t even miss him. I truly hope you can find at least one thing on this list that you enjoy.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive right in!

Non-Fiction:

1.) Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation BY: Michael Zielenziger

shutting-out-the-sun

Straight up, this is one of the best books I have ever read about the current state of Japanese culture and social structure. Not Japanese pop culture as it relates to society, it is just straight up about how Japan’s traditional culture has informed their social makeup and some of the drawbacks to that. The book begins with a simple enough conceit: what and who is a hikikomori and why is this a social phenomenon that only happens in Japan? If you don’t know what a hikikomori , it is essentially the Japanese equivalent of a shut-in. But unlike agoraphobics, they are shut-ins because they can’t handle the very rigid and at times brutal rules and expectations of Japanese society. Why this continues to happen and what can be done to help these people who are (usually) children or teenagers has been a continual issue in Japan, particularly in schools. This book deals with the subject and the people themselves humanely and with little judgement, taking great care to present the hikikomori as human beings worthy of our compassion. Zielenziger then uses this unique social phenomena as a jumping off point to examine other social issues that have cropped up as Japan has steadily marched on towards the horizon of modernization.

I recommend this book because it tackles very important issues from a very unbiased perspective. Zielenziger manages to show us some very unfortunate consequences of Japanese social organization without outright condemning them, which is no simple trick. His writing is also clean and straightforward so you never feel as though he’s talking over your head and he doesn’t come off as being a pretentious know-it-all, which is also not an easy balance to strike. All in all, I cannot recommend this book enough and I should actually just buy extra copies to start handing out to people because I pretty much recommend it to absolutely EVERYONE.

2.) Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S. BY: Roland Kelts

japanamerica_cover

This was the first book I ever read about how Japanese pop culture—specifically anime—was converging with Western interests. It’s a fascinating and penetrating read from an author and lecturer at the forefront of Japanese cultural criticism. Kelts does an excellent job at pulling sources from both sides of the Pacific to get into why anime is special and why it’s such an excellent inroad for Westerners who are intrigued by Japan. He also takes a good look at the appeal that anime has to the Western imagination. I haven’t read this book since college, and it’s one that is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be re-read with great anticipation. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in anime (which if you’re on this blog, I have to imagine that you are that person).

3.) Japan: A Reinterpretation BY: Patrick Smith

Japan reinterpretation

Guys. GUYS. This book blew my fucking mind. Patrick Smith rolls fucking DEEP. He takes everything we think we know about Japan post WWII and completely flips the script. His basic premise is that the Japan we think we know is solely the product of post WWII propaganda, that this idea of a conciliatory and meek population is the result of a narrative that reached its peak during the Cold War and that has done nothing but hurt the Japanese—both in the world’s perception of them and in their perception of themselves. He calls out revered American authors and professors who have made a living off of pushing this narrative just as much as he goes in on calling out Japanese bureaucrats who used this narrative to sell out their country for their own personal gain. Yeah, this book is INTENSE. It’s also incredibly important if you’re looking for a very thorough and nuanced examination of both Japan’s history and their culture and how both of those aspects deeply inform the Japanese’s experience of the world and their country. While this book is written by a Westerner, he is not the center of this book, nor is Western culture. Japan sits very firmly at the center of this book. Smith is entirely on Japan’s side. He is invested in the country and the people and he works tirelessly over the course of this book to show the Western world what Japan is ACTUALLY all about. If there is one book you choose to read off of this list, I would say this should be it.

4.) Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan BY: Alex Kerr

dogsanddemons

Ok, let me just get this out of the way. I am putting this book on here with some trepidation. It’s also by far the most controversial entry on this list. While living in Japan, this was the book that everyone talked about in hushed, uncertain tones. It was the book that several of my fellow ex-pats said I should read—but only after I left Japan. When I asked why, the response was some variation on the theme of “because it will make you too angry”. Which, even after I left Japan, it still made me very angry. Not because it wasn’t true, but because it WAS true. Because it highlighted so many things I noticed while living there that never sat right and then fully and brutally explained why those things are what they are. Make no mistake, this book is an intensely angry book. It is written by a man who lived in Japan off and on throughout his entire life who watched a country he loved be ruined by the very people who were supposed to protect it and its interests: the Japanese government. This book is very biased. It didn’t come to the schoolyard to play around. It came to fucking WORK. It has a very clear agenda, and that is to hold politicians, bureaucrats and businessman accountable for what they have done to Japan and its culture. Alex Kerr is not an apologist and he isn’t interested in backing down or downplaying Japan’s problems in order to coddle them from any negative backlash. He is a man who feels like Japan NEEDS to know how bad it has gotten in order to recover.

I recommend this book only if you are prepared to know that Japan is not all that it seems. This should be very obvious, but Japan is a deeply conflicted country that has many good things going for it, but please be very aware that it also has some very terrible things happening within it as well. Please do not mistake what I’m saying as a condemnation of the country—as I have said repeatedly, I love Japan. But when you love something very much, it doesn’t do you or your beloved any favors to pretend that there are no problems whatsoever. In order to love something, you need to know its shortcomings. You need to take all of the good with all of the bad otherwise you are doing it a deep disservice. If you’re willing to do that, then get a hold of this book. It will open your eyes in a way you never thought possible.

BONUS: Books that are up next on my non-fiction reading list:

Straightjacket Society: An Insider’s Irreverent View of Bureaucratic Japan BY: Masao Miyamoto

Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender and Work in Japanese Companies

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine BY: John K. Nelson

If you’ve read any of these three books, let me know what you thought in the comments!

Fiction

grotesque-natsuo-kirino-paperback-cover-art

1.) Grotesque

and

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out BY: Natsuo Kirino

I am an unapologetic Natsuo Kirino fan-girl. I think that she is hands down the greatest novelist working in Japan at the moment and as such, I couldn’t pick between Grotesque and Out so I’m recommending both. Kirino is a Japanese feminist crime fiction writer who focuses on the ways in which Japanese society hurts both women and men by being deeply misogynistic. She uses brutal crimes—perptrated by both men and women—as a way of highlighting the systemic misogyny within Japanese society and the damage it does to society as a whole. There is no other writer who does it as beautifully as she does, either. Her writing pulls no punches and she demands that you look directly at the scenario she has created without flinching. She will not coddle you. She will not look away from things that are both terrible and beautiful. And she respects her audience enough to believe that they won’t look away either. She also has been lucky enough to have one of the absolute best translators working on her novels—Rebecca Copeland. Copeland is a scholar of Kirino’s work and as such, she has a deep and compelling understanding of what Kirino is doing and unlike so many other translators in the business, you never feel Copeland creeping in at the edges, you instead feel as though it’s all Kirino, all of the time. This is to say it’s an unobtrusive translation that lets the material breathe and live as it was intended to by the original author.

Both Out and Grotesque give me ALL of the feels. But mostly they rip me apart in a very real and emotionally harrowing way, which is something that only the greatest fiction is capable of doing. These books stick with you. They creep into your waking thoughts and daydreams and change the way you see the world. Most importantly, they add a much needed woman’s perspective to the literary experience of Japan. They are must reads.

2.) Popular Hits of the Showa Era BY: Ryu Murakami

Popular-Hits-of-the-Showa-Era-A-Novel-0393338428-L

While I’m not a Haruki Murakami fan, I am a HUGE fan of Ryu Murakami. You may recognize him as the writer of Audition, which is a movie (and book!) that I very much recommend. I see Kirino and Murakami as being two sides of the same coin. Both are writing about the much unseen underbelly of Japan—the dark spaces that could stand to have some much needed light cast upon them. And like Kirino, he is intensely sympathetic towards the plight of women within Japanese society (Kirino actually has two of her characters in Out have an entire conversation about how awesome Ryu Murakami is in regards to writing female characters and yes, I was so excited I just emitted a high pitched squeal for about 10 minutes straight). This novel is about a group of young male outcasts and their dealings with a group of middle aged female divorcees’ who are all named Midori. And by dealings, I mean escalated bouts of violence towards. Also, karaoke. No, I’m not joking. Karaoke, specifically performing karaoke versions of songs from the Showa era, is what binds this group of misfits together. Trust me when I say it works much better than you think it would. It’s a fascinating, odd, strangely scathing and rather funny book. It’s also a pretty quick read, if that’s something that matters to you. Oh, and there’s an equally fantastic film adaptation of it called Karaoke Terror that I also recommend. If the premise of this book doesn’t sound quite up to snuff, I recommend taking a look at Ryu Murakami’s other output, as there’s pretty much something for everyone.

3.) Kitchen BY: Banana Yoshimoto

kitchen

The two words that come to mind when I think of Banana Yoshimoto’s work are “gentle” and “nostalgic”. In terms of how she personifies the concept of nostalgia within her work also makes her the most “Japanese” feeling author on this list. As I’ve mentioned before, the concept of nostalgia is one that is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture. There is always a wistful longing for that which has come before and a deep sentimentality colors many important social interactions that the Japanese have (it’s why work places have welcome, goodbye and year end parties. So that everyone can come together and reminisce about what has come before and lay out earnest hopes for what will come). This is very much Yoshimoto’s wheelhouse and she is the undisputed master at writing about nostalgia in such a deeply human way that you cannot help but feel that bittersweet and rose colored feeling so intensely as you read her novels. After reading Kitchen I promptly went out and bought everything else she has written and I’m pretty sure each and every one of her books that I have read has made me cry at the end. And unlike other books that I feel might manipulated me into tears I don’t want to shed but do, I never feel like she has manipulated me into feeling what I feel. I just feel it because she has made that feeling manifest through her incredible level of skill. If you’re looking for a fully realized, beautiful and sensitively written account of the many layered feelings and desires of the human heart, you can’t go wrong with Kitchen or any of Banana Yoshimoto’s other works.

4.) Shipwrecks BY: Akira Yoshimura

shipwrecks

Something you probably don’t know about me is that primarily, I write fiction. I have done so my entire life and I will do so until the day I die. So for me, this book made a monumental impact on the way I view and construct narratives within my own work. It is such an austerely simple and beautiful book that it hit me as a revelation. There is nothing complicated about the plot and course of events in this book. It is entirely linear and very concise. It’s really a master class on fiction writing at its most simplistic. And yet, it’s a challenging piece of work. It very slowly and deliberately builds a sense of foreboding by doing little more than chronicling the daily lives of a very small fishing village through the eyes of a nine year old boy. It is not a fast paced or action packed book, but once you start reading, you are compelled to keep going. It binds you to it and does not release you until you have finished it, and even then, it will haunt you ever after. It also does an excellent job of detailing what life was like in pre-modern Japan and it will give you quite a few topics to research independently.

5.) Now You’re One of Us BY: Asa Nonami

Now youre one of us

I’m putting this on here for the pure bat shit insanity of it. Really, this book is a pulpy wonderland of family intrigue, cult like overtones, Japanese familial politics and weird sex. I read this in just about one sitting, mostly because I just enjoyed the hell out of it. This book does what it wants and pushes the pedal all the way to the goddamn floor of weirdness. I laughed. I cringed. I was icked out. But I never stopped enjoying it for even a second. All in all, it was a surprisingly enjoyable experience that I think you should let yourself have.

BONUS: Books that are up next on my fiction reading list:

The Thief BY: Fuminori Nakamura

Naoko BY: Keigo Higashino

The Goddess Chronicles BY: Natsuo Kirino

Masks BY: Fumiko Enchi

Ok! So there you have it, my first reading list, from me to you! I truly hope that you find something on here that you like and that you feel enriches your reading life—both with knowledge and perhaps newfound feelings. Also, if you have any suggestions for things that you think I should read, let me know about it in the comments. Or, if you’ve read any of these books and want to wrap about them in the comments do that too! Until next weekend, matta ne!

Pictured: What reading looks like

Pictured: What reading looks like

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Aku no Hana Final Wrap Up: Japanese Personhood and the Broken Educational System

28 Jul

By: Stephanie Weirich

aku-no-hana flower1stpic

What is concealed is the flower,
What is not concealed cannot be the flower.
-Ze-ami, 14th Century Noh Master

Greetings ladies and gents! So good to see you again. It’s great to be back here, talking about our favorite sex pervert show, Aku no Hana, isn’t it? And what exactly do I have for you today? Well, I figured it was about time to really get into this show and what it all meant, now that it’s over (maybe? I hope in my heart of hearts that there’s a second season, because if there isn’t, I WILL RUIN SOMEONE) and we can step back and look at the bigger picture. Is that agreeable to y’all? Well fucking ahoy then!

Oh, and for those of you joining us for the first time, this is going to be a very spoilery analysis of the series Aku no Hana. It’s a classic boy meets girl(s), steals some gym clothes from his crush, makes a contract with the human equivalent of a Honey Badger who catches him stealing said gym clothes and through her guidance he learns to stop worrying and love his perversion type story. Look here to find recaps of each episode if you’re so inclined. Also, this is all my personal opinion and I believe any piece of art can have multiple readings and interpretations, so your mileage with my analysis may vary. I am not saying that I am definitively right about anything I say herein. I am merely offering my interpretation. With that out of the way, let’s get all up in it!

Nakamura is ready

Nakamura is ready

You may have noticed I opened this up with a fancy quote from a super dead dude. Well, it’s because that super dead dude is speaking some invaluable truth about what it means to be nihonjin, or Japanese. I also think it very nicely gets at one of Aku no Hana’s core themes. That core theme being: how do we reconcile our inner self with the outside world when that outside world rejects all that we are? What do we conceal and why? What do we choose to show and why? It’s also a classic meditation on the concept of the individual vs. the group that has featured prominently in Japanese thought and writings for quite literally hundreds of years. Aku no Hana just happens to be the first modern series I have seen that tackles that divisive ideology right at the beginning, when the inner conflict between self and group begins: Junior High School.

It is important to realize why this aspect alone elevates Aku no Hana to the level of importance that it has. And for that importance to be conveyed, we need some background on the Japanese school system. I think that we here in the West, and in America in particular, have an idea that Japan’s school system is vastly superior to ours. We’ve been shown statistics about literacy and retention rates, test scores that trumpet their vastly more accomplished math and science understanding, and we’ve been shown images—especially in anime—of happy students, living idyllic school lives, all getting along as one big homogenous group. While there might be a sliver of truth to all of these representations, there is much more to it that’s being hidden behind the highly organized façade.

What do I mean, exactly? Yes, Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the 1st world and education through Junior High is compulsory and the vast majority of students will continue onward to high school. However, that doesn’t mean that they all want to, it’s just a matter of meeting the rigid expectations of the society they live in and the parents that raised them. And yes, they do trump us in math and science, but much of that is owed to the Japanese educational style, which pushes rote memorization over actual learning. Math, and to a certain degree science, can very comfortably be mastered through rote memorization; however, when you look at scores in things like English, you find that this method of education has severe shortcomings. And yes, while there are happy students who get along, ijime, or bullying, is a facet of everyday school life that is carried out by both students and teachers who might feel as though a particular student is failing to fall in line with the needs of the group.

Pictured: Normal students

Pictured: Normal students

The Japanese educational system has a very traditional goal in mind that is best summed up through this handy quote from Arinori Mori: “Education in Japan is not intended to create people accomplished in the techniques of the arts and sciences, but rather to manufacture the persons required by the state.”. Who is Arinori Mori and why should this quote matter? Well, he was Japan’s first education minister who set the stage for what schools in Japan would be, and while on the surface, that ethos has changed over time from when he first said this all the way back in 1885, the truth of the matter is that the educational system hasn’t changed all that much in terms of the desired outcome for the students that it produces.

The basics of school socialization are thus: elementary schools teach children to be individuals. They are given a sort of attenuated freedom wherein they learn through play and dictate how and what they will focus on. They are the masters of their domain. There is very little pressure put upon them during this stage of their lives and they are mostly just allowed to be children. This is important, because it is the only time in their adolescence where they will freely be allowed to just act like kids. But why do I say attenuated freedom then? It’s because this is a freedom that is meted out by the adults in their lives, and thus it teaches them for the very first time to be dependent upon those acting in the state’s best interest. They both give that freedom, and then take it away.

Personal anecdote time! While living in Japan, I taught both elementary and junior high students. Most notably, I would teach at schools that fed into each other i.e. the elementary schools I taught at fed into the junior highs that I taught at. So I got to see these students grow from care-free children into completely shell shocked mini adults. This was owed solely to how completely different the elementary school experience was from the junior high experience. I one day was talking to one of my junior high co-teachers about how different the two were. She asked me what I meant and I said that in elementary school, the kids seemed to be having so much fun, that they seemed allowed to just enjoy themselves, whereas in junior high it was much more disciplined with many more rules. She agreed with this and said that children were allowed to have fun in elementary school because afterwards, they would be adults and their lives would be troublesome. When I asked her why that was the case, she sighed, shrugged and said shikataganai, or it can’t be helped. Junior high, she explained was when the kids were taught what it meant to be Japanese and that that was very important so that they could get along in society when they were no longer taken care of by schools and their parents. This was one of the more illuminating and sobering conversations I had while there. It also goes a long way towards explaining why junior high is a pivotal moment in the lives of Japanese kids and hence why it’s so important that Aku no Hana is examining this time period in such a provocative manner.

But what does it mean when we say it teaches them to be Japanese? That all goes back into the quote from Arinori Mori. Junior high is the first time they are socialized to be a cog in the social machine, as opposed to an individual who stands outside of it. They are taught that individuality, personal feelings and deep emotions are something that are important, but that it is equally important that all of that be kept inside. Individuality is meant to be relegated to your honne while your obligation to the group, and to a much larger extent the country that birthed you, is your tatemae. Your individuality is only worthy if it serves a larger goal, which means it only matters if it serves Japan. It is, if you want to be cynical about it, a way of subsuming personality with communal obligation. A way of replacing what individuality actually is with everything that it is not.

This is what I’m driving at with the quote I began this piece with. That true individuality, the true person that is to remain concealed is the flower. That which is not concealed—i.e. the personality shown to all others—cannot be the flower.

Which all brings us back to Aku no Hana (which, hey, all that evil blooming flower imagery really makes a lot more sense now doesn’t it?) and the struggles of both Kasuga and Nakamura. We’re dropped into the series at a pivotal time in Kasuga’s life, when he’s in the depths of his Nihonjin education. He should be dropping the artifice of childhood individuality and becoming what is expected of him. He should not be internalizing the esoteric rhetoric of French authors and pining for the Platonic Ideal that is Saeki. He should not be imagining himself to be special because of his reading habits and his perceived superiority to the group he belongs to. From the very first episode, while it doesn’t seem obvious, everything about Kasuga and his internal thoughts and behavior, his desires and picture of himself, are off. They deviate from the very set course that has been laid before him.

Subverting the dominant paradigm has never been so moist

Subverting the dominant paradigm has never been so moist

That flower that he conceals begins to bloom when he steals Saeki’s gym clothes. The flower becomes ever closer to bursting beyond the confines of Kasuga and subverting his reality and that of his entire town over the course of the series. Much of that is due to Nakamura and her I give zero fucks attitude and her unmitigated need to fall well outside of the expectations that are being thrust upon her at school. Nakamura, and to a slightly lesser extent Kasuga, want the flower that they conceal to be seen by all. They reject the idea that individuality should be hidden in favor of group, or state, allegiance.

As I touched on before in my recaps, Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki are their own well defined characters, and at the same time, they are representatives of larger themes. Out of the three of them, Saeki is the Japanese ideal. She’s the good student, popular with her peers and teachers. She will make childish transgressions, as she does through her interest in Kasuga, but overall, she’ll grow up, get married and eventually die as she is expected to. She will be the ideal shakaijin, or social being. Nakamura on the other hand, represents the path of the outsider. She rejects the path that was determined for her—the path that was laid out for her before she ever came to exist. She doesn’t fit in with her peer group or amongst adults. She has no friends. She has no interest in being a part of any group—not her family, not her school, not her town, and certainly not Japan as a whole. She has no place in this world that she finds herself in. She is what you get if you’re Japanese and yet reject what it means to be Japanese—which is to say that she is not useful to the state because she declines to be a part of it.

By being made of magic and profanity

By being made of magic and profanity

Which brings us to Kasuga. Kasuga is caught between these two possibilities. He is, when the series opens, on the right path from what anyone can tell. He goes to school, he enjoys time with his parents, and he has friends and a girl he likes. Internally though, his thoughts align with Nakamura. He reads French literature that no one else in town reads or understands. He considers himself smarter than his peers, his parents, and the other townspeople. In Kasuga’s mind, he’s an individual. But this is all fine, because his honne and his tatemae are kept separate, as they should be. He can still climb the ladder to Japanese personhood. Once he steals Saeki’s gym clothes and is caught by Nakamura, that possibility gets further from his reach. When Nakamura becomes a fixture in his life that moves increasingly towards the center of it, he deviates further and further from that predetermined path that Saeki represents towards the path less traveled that Nakamura embodies.

This is what truly makes Kasuga and Nakamura “deviants”. It’s not the sexual overtones of the story, though that is a form of deviancy. It’s the deviation from expected societal and cultural norms that truly categorizes them as deviants. Nakamura believes that Kasuga is the kind of deviant that can be so bad, he can actually destroy the town that they live in. She expects him to upend the social order to such an extreme degree that it can never recover. This goes a long ways towards showing exactly how dangerous deviancy is considered in Japan. Plainly put, if there were more Nakamura’ in Japanese society, said society would cease to function as it does. The paradigm would shift, and a new society would be born. There would be a trial by fire if Nakamura had her way (because that lady wants to burn EVERYTHING).

One of the main reasons that Kasuga is so important and why it is that we’re following this story through his perspective is because of the path that he ultimately comes to represent. This is especially true if we consider the finale to be the series finale and not a season finale (because again, there has been no second season announcement made yet). In those final moments, wherein Kasuga sees all that could be for Nakamura and himself if they continue down her path, he rejects it and proposes something different. He represents the ability to normalize deviancy within the context of Japanese society. Rather than burning everything to the ground, he proposes that they drag themselves out of the shithole that is their town by their own means. He decides that they must set their own destiny—one that is neither the expected path that Saeki represents or the path of utter destruction that Nakamura represents. Kasuga embodies a sense of deviancy that reshapes the society that bred them, I would go so far as to say that what Kasuga represents is a necessary inevitability in regards to Japanese personhood.

Pictured: Self Actualization

Pictured: Self Actualization

Before we can get into exactly why Kasuga is so important, there’s something that needs to be addressed. One thing that Aku no Hana goes to great pains to show is how dilapidated Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki’s town is. Every scene features run down and rusted out buildings, weeds overtaking asphalt, signs falling to ruins. Everything is dying. This is a very specific visual metaphor meant to represent the state of Japan as a whole. If Nakamura and Kasuga had made it outside of their town the night they tried to get to “the beyond”, Nakamura would have most likely flown into a delightfully foulmouthed rage when she was greeted by a town that was almost exactly like the one she had just left. Contrary to what we might think about Japan based upon pictures of Tokyo, the majority of Japan’s small towns and cities look like the town shown in Aku no Hana. It’s easy to forget that Japan is largely comprised of farming and fishing villages and that things are completely different outside of the large showcase cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. And just as those cities are seductive for us, they are infinitely more so to much of Japan’s youth. The kids that can’t fit in within these towns eventually leave and head to bigger cities, thus contributing to the perpetual decline of their hometowns. The students I taught in the small farming town I lived in that had any talent or who were event slightly different from their peers very emphatically talked about moving to Tokyo as soon as they were able to. They felt that if there was any place for them to belong in Japan, it would have to be a larger, less conservative city. So while I didn’t live in the town that is depicted in Aku no Hana, I lived in a town that was eerily similar to it. It was a town that was equally difficult on its children and having students that couldn’t cope with the huge amounts of pressure put upon them by their families and the school system was an everyday occurrence.

This is why I say that Kasuga represents a necessary inevitability in Japanese personhood. As pessimistic as it may sound, there are certain societal conventions and cultural traditions that are holding the Japanese back. The very rigid pressure put upon children is chief among them. While the school system is very adept at churning out soldiers of Japanese industry—cogs in a well ordered machine—It is not adept at creating individuals with critical thinking skills and the ability to assess much needed change in a broken system. The Japanese educational system creates followers, not leaders, and while this has worked for generations, Japan is currently reaching a point where they desperately need leaders to change the course that they are on. They need people like Kasuga. They need people who will reject the current social order and work to devise a solution that best serves the country. They need citizens that will reject the standard idea of servitude towards the country that has been at the forefront all of this time, and learn to ACTUALLY serve the country in a dynamic and truly useful capacity. By creating cogs all of these years, the educational system has done a great disservice to the country as a whole. And it is necessary to change that path—to end the all-encompassing decay creeping across the country—RIGHT NOW.

This is a risky proposition though, as the concept of true, outward facing individuality is one that Japan has had a long and contentious history with. We see how risky it is through the way Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki’s parents relate to them. Saeki’s parents are shown briefly, but in the glimpses we catch it’s obvious that they approve of their daughter because she is the ideal child. Nakamura’s father is outright confused as to why his daughter is the way she is. Nakamura is so different, so aggressive, that it leads to a sort of caring confusion. Kasuga’s parents on the other hand, completely reject him once they know what he’s been up to with Nakamura. They blame themselves, they believe that they raised him wrong; they eventually fall silent and cease to interact with him thinking him a lost cause. This is because Kasuga represents the riskiest path of all: the path of new beginnings. He is on a path that completely changes his life’s predetermined course and travels through unknown territory. And as we all know, change, true change, can be an utterly terrifying prospect purely because of the element of the unknown that it represents.

This is what it might look like

This is what it might look like

Kasuga’s true purpose within the scope of Aku no Hana, is to show everyone that the flower he has been concealing is one of personal individuality and his existence is one that declares that this is a type of flower that should not be concealed. It should be what is open and accessible to all. Each person should allow their flower to bloom beyond the confines of themselves. Each person has an individual within them that should—and needs to be—let out. For the good of all. Kasuga shows us that we’re all a little bit deviant and it’s time that we all knew it. Because that deviancy has the power to change the world as we know it.

So there it is folks! My final wrap up of Aku no Hana. I guess the tl;dr summation is that this show is totes a masterpiece of the trials and tribulations of youth denied its pursuit of potential and freedom. But why say that when I can spend 4,000 words getting DEEP INSIDE THIS THING. I hope that this has shed some light on the more important themes of Aku no Hana as I see them, or at the very least, I hope you enjoyed this and the series.

If you did enjoy this and want to know more about anything I have talked about here in regards to the educational system and Japanese societal constructs, have no fear! The next piece I have planned for you guys is a recommended reading list to get you started on your own path towards integrated knowledge about Japan. So watch this space next weekend for that!

And as always, if you disagree with anything I’ve written (or agree for that matter) please let me know in the comments! Until next week, matta ne!

I know Kasuga, I miss you too

I know Kasuga, I miss you too

Oiran, Ouran and the Happiness Space: A Primer on the Sex Industry in Japan

10 Jun

By: Stephanie Weirich

Hair for days

Hair for days

So, if you happen to be an avid Japan watcher, such as myself, you may be aware of some less than savory comments that were recently made by the mayor of Osaka, one Mr. Toru Hashimoto. What originated as rather misguided and uninformed commentary about Korean comfort women then turned into him encouraging US military men stationed in Japan to turn to Japan’s prostitution services to calm their wild urges as opposed to unleashing those urges upon the unsuspecting and innocent female population (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but really, the context there was “Please, we have prostitutes, could you stop raping and assaulting our local’s? Please?). This, as you may have expected, has caused quite the uproar and plenty of admonishment from the international community, particularly the US.

Now, this got me thinking quite a bit about the historical context of these statements and about Japan’s history of prostitution—both illegal and not—and its impact upon modern Japan. This also happened to coincide with me re-watching the excellent documentary “The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osakan Love Thief” which in turn led me to re-watch many episodes of “Ouran High School Host Club” (there’s the anime connection, in case you were wondering what the hell was going on here). Now, if you have not seen “The Great Happiness Space”, I recommend you watch it RIGHT NOW (it’s on Netflix streaming and I think you can also find the whole thing on Youtube as well). It is an excellent and revealing look at the world of Host/Hostess clubs in Japan, as well as providing a general peak into the world of Mizo Shoubai a.k.a. “the water trade” a.k.a. lawfully nebulous forms of prostitution and risqué entertainment. So yeah guys, in case you were wondering, I’m about to GO DEEP here, so get ready.

Seriously, stop reading and go watch!

Seriously, stop reading and go watch!

First off, let’s talk a bit about the history of prostitution in Japan, which in case you were wondering, is long and at times rather tenuous. It’s important to recognize that Japan, while currently having rather strange and weirdly puritanical issues with sex out in the open, does not have any religious ties to explain it. Shintoism, the most widely practiced religion of Japan, does not view sex as a taboo and thus the trade of prostitution had no real ill consequences. As such, prostitution has existed in Japan as far back as the 15th century. At this time brothels were operating and accepting local visitors as well as foreign traders which were mostly comprised of Chinese, Koreans and East Asians. Japanese girls and women were also sold into sexual slavery and taken overseas to colonies and plantations. It’s during the Shogun era that things start to become a bit more recognizable.

Prostitution has been pretty widely spread and accepted throughout Japan but they were particularly confined to Edo (modern day Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka, and as such, there were both female and male prostitutes. These prostitutes accepted patrons both from the elite Shogunate as well as the newly rich traders and merchants. Oftentimes, the newly rich townsmen, or in Japanese Chounin were often much more flush with cash than their royal counterparts and therefore posed a threat to the ruling classes. And what better places to participate in some down low political intrigue then brothels? As such, the Tokugawa Shogunate passed a decree that relegated prostitution to red-light districts on the outskirts of Edo, Kyoto and Osaka where these Chounin were kept well away from the political action. These districts had names: Shimabara in Kyoto, Shinmachi in Osaka and the most famous one, Yoshiwara in Edo. If you’ve ever seen Samurai Champloo (which, if you haven’t, you owe yourself that experience), then you’ve seen these walled off red-light districts in action. In a testament to that series’ awesomeness, their representation of prostitution within these districts is rather accurate.

I ship HARD for Jin

I ship HARD for Jin

Now, you may be asking yourself “What kind of women became prostitutes?”. Well, I’m so glad you asked. The answer is, the women that were sold into indentured servitude at brothels by their impoverished or debt addled parents. That’s right, if you were a poor fisherman or farmer with a large family that you were struggling to provide for or if you were a father who liked to gamble away your family’s hard earned dough, you could sell your very young daughter to a brothel in any of these red-light districts. And this wasn’t a small time trade thing, no no no, business was fucking BOOMING. By 1893 there were 9,000 women working as indentured servants in Yoshiwara alone.

And they were all dear visitors

And they were all dear visitors

Now, they were usually sold to one of these houses between the ages of 7 and 12 and if they had the luck and the skills, they could apprentice with a high ranking courtesan. Once they had completed training, they would then begin working for a brothel on their own accord as a full-fledged courtesan. Their contracts typically lasted for 5 to 10 years, but if they or their families had huge amounts of debt, that contract could last their whole lives. They could, if they earned enough money, which was rare, buy out their own contracts and be freed or a male patron could purchase their contract and make them their wife or concubine. Once their contract was completed, they could choose to go into other areas of prostitution or return home. The good news is that there was no ill stigma attached to marrying a former prostitute, so if one’s dream was to eventually get married and pursue a normal life that was still an option. The bad news is that many of these girls died from STDs or botched abortions.

When we think of prostitutes and brothels, chances are we’re thinking about withering hookers in fishnets chain smoking on street corners or the Bunny Ranch in Nevada. Maybe you’re even picturing a scene from Deadwood (God, I hope you are).

Swearengen got ALL of the hotties

Swearengen got ALL of the hotties

But that’s not how prostitution functioned in Japan. Mizo Shoubai, or the water trade, covered a lot of ground, which included entertainers, comedians, Kabuki performers and other such entertainers. Because that’s what prostitutes were at the time: entertainers. They were seen as a welcome and necessary part of Japan’s economy, and the distinctions between types of prostitutes were rather rigid and well defined. You typically had Courtesans and Geishas and now I will point out that it’s important to realize that Geisha is not synonymous with prostitute, as a lot of people think. In fact, it was common for Geisha to NOT have sex with patrons as they were and are highly skilled. Courtesans on the other hand were the best of both worlds. These were women that were highly skilled in traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, as well as being well educated and witty. There were also ranks within the realm of Courtesans. The lowest were the Yuujo, or more simply, the women of pleasure. These are closer to what we think of when we think of prostitutes. At the top, you had the Oiran, otherwise known as “Castle-topplers” because these girls could get ALL of the cash from the Daimyo (ruling lords). Somewhere in the middle you had Tayuu who were top ranking Courtesans, but who didn’t quite have the mad skillz of an Oiran.

Like the skills to walk in those shoes

Like the skills to walk in those shoes

Oiran are a fascinating group of women. They are the template for Geisha, and essentially, Geisha replaced the Oiran. The reason for this is because of the rarefied air these women occupied. As I’ve already said, these women were well educated, eloquent, well written and talented. They had very rigid standards of behavior and etiquette. They spoke in the Japanese used by the royal court as opposed to common Japanese and as such, they did not entertain common patrons. They sent out elaborate invitations to their high level patrons and then participated in a highly ritualized parade in order to receive those patrons. There are still women who practice the art of the Oiran today, watch them work that shit in this video:

This highly rarefied behavior worked against them as the march of modernity came to Japan. They became increasingly removed from the changes of modern society and they lost most of their clientele. This is where the Geisha came in, and they were originally the poor man’s Oiran. They were skilled in common entertainments and they welcomed common patrons and their popularity flourished. There are still Geisha practicing traditional Geisha-dom, mostly in a section of Kyoto called Gion. If you happen to make it to Japan, I highly recommend a trip to this area as it is a fascinating and beautiful trip into traditional Japan in a way that you rarely get to experience anymore.

Geisha are slightly less elaborate in their make-up

Geisha are slightly less elaborate in their make-up

So, how does this all relate to modern Japan’s concept of Mizo Shoubai, in particular, how it relates to the world of the Host/Hostess as shown in “The Great Happiness Space”? Technically, prostitution has been illegal in Japan since WWII, but the only thing that’s actually illegal is good ol’ penis in vagina sex. Everything else, and I do mean EVERYTHING, is pretty much aces. As such, you have a wide variety of fuzoku—prostitutes—who can provide you with just about anything your heart desires. Whether that means you want to go to a Soapland and have a lady bathe you and then maybe give you some five digit and palm pleasure, or if you want to go to an underground club that features girls in school uniforms that are waiting for you to grope them in the full scale model of a train car, you can find that. And I’m not kidding about this—these places exist. I recommend the excellent photo book “Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs” by Joan Sinclair if you want a primer on the huge variety of sex clubs that exist in Japan.

Everything you've ever wanted

Everything you’ve ever wanted

But then you have Host/Hostesses. So, if Oiran became Geisha then Geisha became Hosts and Hostesses. Just like Geisha, these men and women are selling an entertainment, a fantasy. They are paid for their time, and what you get when you get their time is them catering to virtually every one of your whims. Do you want them to laugh at your jokes? Done. Do you want them to light your cigarettes and pour your drinks? Sure thing. Do you want them to get drunk with you? Of course. Do you want them to tell you that they love you and think you’re the most kawaii girl to ever come into their club? You’ve got it. They’ll also sing Karaoke with you if that’s your jam (and let’s face it, in Japan, it’s EVERYONE’S jam). And when I say that you’re paying for their time, you are paying huge amounts of money for it. People don’t come cheap in this kind of sexual economy. Yes, while sex between Host/Hostess and patron may be technically illegal, it is not illegal to form a private contract between yourself and one of these modern day Geisha that can include sex. Ah, loopholes, what Japanese business is founded upon—see also gambling/Pachinko parlors.

Coincidentally, Hostesses also have hair for days.  And your sister's prom dress.

Coincidentally, Hostesses also have hair for days. And your sister’s prom dress.

One of the most remarkable things about “The Great Happiness Space” is how quickly it shows you that this line of work takes a terrible toll. On the outside, one might think that this line of work would be pretty awesome. You get to hang out with girls, smoke and drink, basically get paid to party. But that all goes out the window when you see how poorly they are treated by their clientele, how much they have to drink and puke through the night just to stay standing and cognizant and when you realize that they have patrons that expect an emotional love connection that these men no longer have the ability to feel let alone provide. Issei, the man at the center of this documentary, seemingly has no life outside of Rakkyo, the club he owns. He laments that this job has caused him to think that real love, real intimate relationships with a woman he might actually care for, is now impossible for him. Women have become interchangeable, and they all want something from him that he isn’t capable of giving. He might have more money than he can possibly spend, but he has no real joy associated with that gain. This is all simply business and he has become a hollow man through plying this very distinct trade.

It most certainly is buddy

It most certainly is buddy

There is a very blurry moral line that all of these Hosts have to walk: the line between giving their customers what they want and taking advantage of them. While their customers might want a love fantasy and might be willing to spend thousands of dollars in a night to achieve that, is it wise to encourage that to boost your night’s earnings as a Host? What if this is a return customer that you’re fond of? What if you don’t want to see them waste their savings but have no real choice because they are your patron and source of income? These are the gray areas of this love for sale economy that we rarely consider, let alone get to see.

The other fascinating element is how this industry is fed by prostitution as a whole. Due to the high asking prices of Hosts, the majority of their clientele are women that also work in the industry. You have Hostesses doing the exact same job as these Hosts (though making considerably less because women are the second class gender in Japan), who sell the illusion of love to their clients, who then turn around and pour that money into the illusion of love with Hosts. You even have women that get so deep into this world that they became prostitutes in order to fund their expensive desires. It’s like a huge, sexual Ouroboros , the snake forever eating its own tail. And that tail is made of prostitutes.

Just like this, but with more prostitutes

Just like this, but with more prostitutes

All kidding aside, the world of prostitution in modern Japan is a necessary evil. While historically it’s been an accepted practice, it now skates a line of ill repute. Sex workers have a stigma attached to them now, and if you worked as a Hostess (because again, women are not on the same status level as men in Japan), it’s less likely that you’re going to find a husband if you’re open about you past. Additionally, if you decide you want to try normal employment, like that of an office job, that’s highly unlikely if you have Host Boy on your resume. While Hosts and Hostesses are no longer indentured servants per se, they are forever tied to and defined by this employment in a way that will ultimately do them no favors.

And yet, these clubs are wildly popular. Normal Japanese society thrives off of this and other similar shady industries in a way that should be deeply shameful and yet is not, due to the very rigid compartmentalization the Japanese are capable of doing when it comes to their desires and their public facades. It is not uncommon for salarymen to visit sex clubs or Hostess clubs with clients and co-workers. In fact, oftentimes these visits are encouraged because it forms an unbreakable bond between co-workers and patron/servant relationships because to rat on your co-worker or break a contract with a client can then lead to that person spilling the beans about what may have happened on a certain night out. It’s essentially a form of pre-extortion and it’s an accepted economic trade. In a sense, the public façade of companies is usually covering up the background of shady deals that happen in very shady places in a way that legitimizes those not so legitimate dealings. It has become an essential aspect of doing business in Japan, and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. Like so many other unsavory aspects of life, the people at the top retain their positions off the backs and labor of those at the bottom. It should go without saying that the need for and desire to have large amounts of money figures prominently into a person’s decision to work in the sex industry, which makes it that much easier for people higher up on the social totem pole (i.e. those with money) to take advantage of or procure the services of those that desperately want a piece of the pie.

Not as dark as you might imagine

Not as dark as you might imagine

Which in turn leads to the irony of Ouran High School Host Club. Straight up, this is one of my favorite anime series. It’s a Shoujo series that started out as a wildly popular reverse harem manga that then became an anime, that then became a live action show, and now I think they even have a stage version. It tells the story of Haruhi, a poor yet brilliant girl who has been accepted into a school for the very rich elite who happens to break a very expensive vase that belongs to the school’s Host Club. That’s right, a school for the wealthy elite has a Host Club full of beautiful men who will drink tea and eat cakes with you while also telling you how lovely you are. In order to pay for this vase, Haruhi is forced to work for the Host Club, who originally believe her to be a boy due to some wacky misunderstandings. Throughout the show she dresses in drag and plays the role of host while developing complex relationships with her fellow Hosts and helping troubled clientele with their problems, thus freeing them from returning to the Host Club so that they might pursue their true dreams and desires. While this might sound dark, and the implications are, it’s actually a light hearted—though satirical—comedy.

While not necessarily overt in its commentary about the tenuous relationship between those on top and those on the very bottom in the sex industry, the commentary is still there. The very fact that Haruhi is poor and is essentially forced into indentured servitude in order to pay for a valuable item is directly speaking to the origins of prostitution in Japan. Each male member of the Host Club, particularly the power behind the throne—Kyouya-kun—participates to some degree because of the business and familial connections they can gain from doing so. The act of playing Host ensures a successful future here, the direct opposite of what being a Host in Japan actually does for those who are stuck in the industry. Though never stated in the series, it is also preparing them for eventual business deals that will be struck and sealed in the back rooms of clubs and Hostess establishments. Each patron they have benefits directly from their contact with the Host club as well, mirroring the benefits the elite can claim from the sex industry. It’s a highly self-aware series that manages to be funny and touching as well, and if you can’t tell, I am most definitely telling you that you should watch it.

Come for the social commentary, stay for the twincest

Come for the social commentary, stay for the twincest

I have not covered all of the ins and outs of the sex industry in Japan, obviously, and I encourage each of you to learn more about it if you’re interested in anything you’ve read here. I also encourage you to take this knowledge and reconsider Toru Hashimoto’s remarks about the American Military using Japanese prostitutes to slake their sexual urges. Though I wanted to, I wasn’t able to really cover the use of brothels by American GI’s during WWII (because that definitely happened and was encouraged by the Japanese government to keep the racial purity of Japan intact and to stop the American military from raping local women. Seriously. It’s a dark time in both ours and Japan’s history and here’s a link to the Wikipedia article about it. I very much suggest learning more about it).

And if you have any interest in some other Japanese pop cultural properties that deal with this stuff, I can also recommend both the manga and movie “Sakuran” which details the rise of an Oiran in Yoshiwara. It also has a soundtrack by my homegirl Shiina Ringo and it is beautifully shot. I’ve already mentioned “Samurai Champloo”, and teenage prostitution known as compensated dating is dealt with, at least tangentially, in several anime series, including a guilty pleasure of mine Mai-Hime. This blog post here also gives a more varied list of shows and manga you can check out. And if you’re into Japanese authors then I cannot recommend the work of Natsuo Kirino enough. Her books “Out” and “Grotesque” deal with people stuck at the bottom of Japanese society and the lengths they go to in order to make it out or to keep surviving. “Grotesque” in particular deals with prostitution and it’s a brutal read that will stay with you long after you finish it.

That’s about all folks, let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments! I’ll see Tuesday for your regularly scheduled Aku no Hana recap!

Also, this post was powered by Shiina Ringo.  Have this.  It’s because I love you.