Tag Archives: Culture of Japan

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 Episode 10: What Do We Mean When We Say Deviant?

12 Jun

By: Stephanie Weirich

vlcsnap-2013-06-11-20h45m24s142

Guys. GUYS. I have something to say, and I’m just going to come right out and say it, finally—I am not a fan of Saeki. There it is. I’m not going to take it back; however, I will most definitely hash out why I feel that way, so have no fear. But I’ll just start out by saying that this episode managed to bring to the forefront many of my significant issues with her character.

But before all that, let’s get to the recap!

We pick up where we left off last week, with Kasuga and Nakamura heading into the mountains—or, as Nakamura refers to it “The Beyond”—after the fallout that was Kasuga’s mother discovering what he did to his classroom. This ride was good because we actually, for the first time, got to see Nakamura open up just a tiny bit and be something other than her usual head strong, abrasive, physically and verbally abusive self. She was downright vulnerable when she told Kasuga that she always wondered if the world just ended at the mountains with nothing at all beyond their dying town.

I mean, maybe?

I mean, maybe?

It was a short lived moment though because when Kasuga tries to commiserate she shuts that shit down immediately by calling him an idiot, AS YOU DO.

C'mon man.  PAY ATTENTION.

C’mon man. PAY ATTENTION.

We also get to see Saeki, who skips out on dinner under the pretense of buying stationary (yeah, no, that seems totally legit at 7 or 8 at night in the middle of a home cooked meal, yeah, you’re doing a great job there) but really, she’s figured out that Nakamura and Kasuga have run away together and so she has to get in on that hot, angsty action because otherwise it just wouldn’t be a party.

No seriously, GREAT JOB

No seriously, GREAT JOB

Cue torrential downpour, forcing Kasuga and Nakamura to take cover on the side of a mountain road to wait for the rain to clear before they continue their journey. Saeki also continues her hot pursuit until, SURPRISE, the 3 maudlin teenagers find each other again.

Don't we all have parents?  Who worry about us?

Don’t we all have parents? Who worry about us?

This scene was a long time coming and I’m glad it finally happened. These 3 have a bevy of issues that only a good old fashioned tear drenched shouting match can really hash out. Oh, and one of them has to be naked and as usual it’s Kasuga. Because Nakamura ripped his clothes off, that’s why. Duh. But really, the content of this emotional catharsis was excellent. We got to see Saeki plead with Kasuga to stay with her and essentially make her into his own girlfriend version of Nakamura (which shows a vast misunderstanding of Kasuga’s and Nakamura’s relationship on Saeki’s part) while Nakamura very calmly makes it clear that Kasuga needs to make a decision and that he shouldn’t “fuck with my expectations”.

DON'T

DON’T

Kasuga, for his part, has some pretty profound revelations about his own expectations for Saeki, his lack of worth to Nakamura and his belief that while he might be empty and despicable, he doesn’t deserve to choose between either of these girls. And before the police break up this shindig, Nakamura makes a face that actually broke my heart. The episode ended with probably the most awkward ride in a police car ever put on film, and I’m saying that as a person who watched “Cops” A LOT.

Really officer, I'll tell you anything if you just get me out of this car.

Really officer, I’ll tell you anything if you just get me out of this car.

So, needless to say, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in this episode that I think is incredibly important to the show as a whole. One of those things is the parsing out of what the term “deviant” means within the world of Aku no Hana. For some time now, it’s been easy to tie that term explicitly to sexual deviancy but as the series marches onward towards its conclusion it’s becoming more apparent that deviant here doesn’t exactly mean what we think it does. Yes, both Nakamura and Kasuga are deviants, but in this sense it’s more tied to how they subvert the rigid social paradigm that’s been thrust upon them. The act of resistance to societal norms and by extension the very act of acting out against what is expected of them as members of Japanese society is a deviant act. As I’ve covered before, if you’re Japanese and you stand out from the crowd and attempt to assert any individuality amongst your peer group, your life is going to be exceedingly difficult. You’re going to be singled out by your teachers. You’re going to be targeted by your peers. You’re going to be a social Pariah and there is very little you can do to change this (If you’re looking for some extra-curricular reading that goes a long way towards explaining the culture of institutionalized ijime or bullying in Japan I highly recommend “Shutting out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation” by Michael Zielenziger. It’s an eye opening account of how and why kids become Hikikomori amongst other topics that are highly relevant to most of my posts about Aku no Hana). This philosophy has already been demonstrated by how Nakamura is treated by her classmates and by how quickly everyone turned on Kasuga when he dared to stand up for her. And really, a lot of what Nakamura says in this episode relates much more to this concept of deviancy than it does to the concept as explicitly sexual. She desperately wants to travel to “The Beyond”—an undefined world beyond the confines of her existence in this town.

We're all coming with you

We’re all coming with you

She very clearly states that this isn’t about traveling or seeing the world—this is about subverting a staid existence, about shaking up a social order that is causing her and Kasuga’s lives to stagnate. For Nakamura, “deviancy” is the only way past a traditional Japanese existence. The town, and her place in it by extension, is dying. There is no future for someone like Nakamura in a town like this. There might be no place for Nakamura in all of Japan, period.

He sure is.  He sure is.

He sure is. He sure is.

So what about Kasuga? It’s the same and yet different for him. While this concept of deviancy still applies, his is also imbued with a highly sexual context due to ALL of the business that has transpired with Saeki. But it seems as though that was all more a means to an end then it was a diehard sexual perversion. The end for Kasuga in this case being an escape from his highly ritualized and mundane existence. While the seed of social deviancy was planted by his highly erudite (i.e. French) reading habits, it was Nakamura that fully caused that flower to bloom. In a very real way, Nakamura has done exactly what she promised to do: knock down the walls Kasuga hides himself in. It may not be what he, or us as the audience expected, but it is what’s happened. His genuine breakdown in this episode is a reflection of that. He might not fully be aware of it as of yet, but his subconscious at least realizes how important Nakamura has become to him and his personal journey. He’s also realized that he was never prepared to face the reality of Saeki (thank the lord) and that it’s wrong for the two of them to be together as such. Nakamura is the one and only woman who could possibly exist at the center of his world. She is, when it comes right down to it, the realest thing he has ever known and the fact that he hasn’t yet fully realized that and doesn’t think that he deserves to be with her on this mutual journey is the root of Nakamura’s heartbreak at the end of this episode.

Don't mind me, I've just got something in my eye.

Don’t mind me, I’ve just got something in my eye.

It is important to keep this concept of deviancy in context as it relates to Japanese society. The desire to be an individual who fully controls their destiny is one that much of the Western world, particularly the U.S., takes for granted. It’s been bred into our very genes because AMURRICA FUCK YEAH! This is most definitely not the case in Japan and as such, it’s understandable for us as foreign viewers to be highly frustrated with the experience of watching Aku no Hana. So while there is nothing twisted about much of what Kasuga and Nakamura ACTUALLY want from their lives, it is very much twisted within the society they come from. I also think that within the context of the series, Shūzō Oshimi is attempting to, in some regard, normalize that desire and show that it should be the default desire for each person’s life path, as opposed to being an act of deviancy.

NEVER

NEVER

And that all brings me to Saeki’s role in this little drama. Saeki represents Japan’s ideal of normalcy. She is the good girl with the good grades who does everything correctly. She is destined to grow up, get married, have a child and live out her days in relative peace. This is but a puberty inspired blip on her life’s radar. But in the context of Aku no Hana, it’s Saeki that’s the most deviant, in regards to what she represents to Kasuga. If Nakamura represents the path towards fully realized individuality, then Saeki represents the path towards stifling normalcy. She is more of the same for Kasuga, a known reality, while Nakamura is an unknown future. Saeki has no real reason to pine for Kasuga to the degree that she does and as much as she claims to want to understand him and his reasons for doing everything he has done, her readiness to “normalize” his deviancy is highly suspect and I would attribute it more than anything to her jealousy of Nakamura’s ability to be an individual. Saeki can only aspire to be something more than she is, but at the end of the day, she’s fully aware that she will never be anything more than normal. Which in this case, in the twisted world of Aku no Hana, actually makes her highly deviant.

The existential angst.  I CAN TASTE IT.

The existential angst. I CAN TASTE IT.

So Nakamura. Kasuga. Keep doing what you’re doing like you’re doing it for TV.

Yeah, that's the good shit.

Yeah, that’s the good shit.

But that’s just my interpretation guys. Please, feel free to disagree with me in the comments or just let me know what you thought of this episode!

(Also, man, anime penis is a rare animal. My jaw literally fell off of my face when Kasuga got pantsed.)

O_____O

O_____O