Sunday, August 03, 2008

Nighttime peace gathering at Hiroshima

Small crowd at unofficial nighttime commemoration, 6 Aug 2007

Here I am back in Hiroshima, year 2008. It is hard to believe that three years has passed since I last started this blog. Time does go by when one is busy. I stopped writing this blog because of work and personal commitments. Occasionally, I would receive an email from a stranger asking about when this blog would start again, or else I received some positive feedback from students, and this made me wonder if I should start blogging again.

So, yes, I will blog again and reactivate this after a long hiatus. I don`t think I will blog on a regular basis, as it is just too time consuming to write. I will, however, blog on an rare occasion. This is one of them, in order to fulfil a promise I made.

Me somewhere in Shanghai, 2006. I am aggressively pushing a Chinese tourist away from me to keep him from jumping into my picture. Happened to me a lot until I learned to assert myself.

You see, in 2006, I was just back from a trip to China. I was tired, and recuperating in Hiroshima. It is amazing how after the culture shock of China, being unable to speak in Chinese (although I did meet a lot of cool people, both Chinese and my fellow American travelers), Japan seemed safe and comfy. I was tired saying for the 100th time in Chinese that I did not speak Chinese or understand Chinese (wo bu dong hanyuu) until I realized that by saying this in Chinese I was contradicting myself and sending mixed messages to the Chinese people. Before I say anything else, I want to state for the record that the Chinese were gracious hosts, and I was impressed by their kindness and hospitality. China`s long term strength is its people and their energy and ambition, not just their sheer numbers.

Crowd at the Memorial for A-bomb victims laying wreaths at night (Aug 6, 2007)

Anyway, I so tired from my China trip that I missed the a-bomb commemoration on Aug 6. I also was too slow in getting up for the floating lantern festival, and so when I arrived at Peace park at 9:45 pm, the crowd had dissipated, and the lantern floating stopped.

Now I had heard rumors over the expat grapevine, that there was an unofficial “underground” gathering behind the baseball stadium across the A-bomb dome. Music would be played, and although some older Japanese felt this was inappropriate, this type of gathering spoke to the younger crowd and was a more meaningful memorial commemoration. Skeptical, I decided to walk on by on the way home. As I walked into the park behind the baseball stadium, I thought I heard some music playing.

“No. It can`t be true” I thought to myself. Intrigued, I kept walking into the darkness.
Yes, the rumors are true. There is a nighttime unofficial peace celebration on the night of Aug 6

And there it was – a small gathering of about 30 Japanese youth dancing in front of a DJ`s turntable. A few non-Japanese were in the mix and they were partying together. This was an enjoyable meeting: I met so many people, and we stayed up and chatted. I met Naoki, the head of “Sleepyeye” (3pi), a DJ group. To most Japanese, these would be disrespectful punks, having a party on a somber day like this. But to my American eyes, they were anything but disrespectful. Naoki was very friendly and courteous.

Naoki (L) of Sleepyeye ( 3pi). Very outgoing fellow who spoke fluent English!

Fashionable attendee who was very friendly and showed me her necklace

Another stylish attendee. I was amazed - no fights, and they were very friendly to a foreigner like me!

The other Japanese in attendance were equally courteous. Here are observations I had from talking to them:

1) The official memorial event does not resonate with the younger generation. I have been to many Hiroshima memorials and it is all the same – walk to the main ceremony, stand in the heat, and listen to official pronouncements. Then the tolling of bells, and then the doves are released, the child representatives of the city give a peace speech, and then the official peace song. Then people walk around the park. While there is nothing wrong with such activities, and somberness may even be necessary to show the gravity of the atomic bomb, how are you going to attract youth to future meetings? Why would one want to go to future A-bomb memorials if they are so kurai (dark, gloomy)?

Lots of dancing at this event. And no fights or illegal drugs!

2) Despite the underground nature of the event, there were a fair amount of non-Japanese attendees. Also, drinking in public is not a crime in Japan, so there was a lot of beer flowing around. But I did not see any fights or bad attitudes. They were just people dancing and chilling out and having a good time. This event is a good example of how Japanese youth, despite being criticized by their elders for being lazy or disrespectful, are very polite and mellow by American standards.

3) The police came and were not happy about the event, but I was amazed by their professionalism and knowledge of human nature. The police in the U.S. would have broken up the party and called in backup to do so. The Japanese police realize the need to persuade people and give them a face saving way out. They came to warn the group, and then when they came back again, they spoke firmly, but non-threateningly, then left. Give people a face-saving way out, and they will obey. Or will this only work in Japan.

4) The organizers took pains to make sure they left no trash behind. Yes, after the police came in to shut things down at around 1:00 pm or so, the attendees started picking up trash and making sure that the park was in better condition than before the event. Just amazing to my jaded eyes.

I was so impressed that I promised I`d put these pics on the web. And then I lost all my pictures! Yes, the pics are gone along with almost 1,000 other pictures I took in China. It must have happened during a botched data transfer drive I did visit again in the summer of 2007 and took more pics and promised I would put them up. And my work responsibilities took over (committees, grading, planning for the Japan field trip, etc), and putting up this blog post and pics was relegated to the “must do in the future” pile on my desk.

So no more procrastinating. Here are some of the pics. If you happen to be in the Hiroshima area on Aug 6, why not come to their “Summer of Love” behind the baseball stadium at night. Come well behaved, and socialize with Japanese. I think this is one of the ways to build world peace – for people of different backgrounds to socialize with each other. at night over a cold beer and good music. Why must peace activities be so somber? For an American, this may be very “sobering,” – to realize that young people just like the ones you are talking to at the party are among those who suffer and die whenever there is unnecessary war and conflict.

Hiroshima city, are you listening? There are other ways to reach out to Japan`s young people to help spread the message of peace.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Going to Japan

Ayumi (L) and Koda Kumi (R). I downloaded the photo from

Ah, sorry for the delay in posting. It has been one of the most hectic four months in my life. During this timespan, I, with the class I was teaching, helped run America`s second maid cafe at the kawaii-kon anime convention, and then I taught summer school classes at UH Manoa. Then, it`s getting ready for my field trip. Yes, I am taking 16 students to Tokyo, so they too can experience the Japan that I know. You know, the one of kitschy pop culture, like the a replica of the Statue of Liberty in front of the shopping center at Odaiba. Or, the joys of a workingman`s drama called taishu engeki (google it with my name *kakure gaijin* and you`ll see my description. Hopefully, I can get others excited about this Japan and spawn more Japanologists.

Anyway, here`s the pop culture tidbit for today. Wanna be a singer? Often, you can find more fame and fortune overseas than in your own backyard. This is a bit dated information, but please let me tell you about Ayumi Lee, a Korean who moved to Japan as a child. She was a member of the girl group Sugar, and last year, as a solo artist, released a cover of Cutie Honey, the theme to a Japanese anime made popular again by Koda Kumi, who did a cover of this song as well. This song became one of the most downloaded songs of the month.

Now the irony is that Korean society prides itself on being homogenous and there is an intense pride in being Korean. And on the other hand, there is a fascination with Koreans from outside Korea. It's as if these Koreans are quite exotic and yet Korean enough to be familiar. Daniel Henney is an example of this.

Let`s start off with the original anime version of Cutie Honey. This is a strange anime, one of the classics that I have never seen but my wife tells me about. This heroine seems to get naked a lot and this was PRIME TIME FAMILY FARE back in the 1970s!

A few years ago, Koda Kumi sang a cover of Cutie Honey and it made her famous.

Now Ayumi Lee, who became popular as a member of the group Sugar, has struck out on her own solo career. It seems that she is playing on her Japanese upbringing to add some exoticism to her image. Koreans who I talk to say that she sings with a thick Japanese accent. Indeed, much criticism was levelled at her, as some thought this song sounded too Japanese, and the video seemed to Japanese influenced.

Ayumi singing Cutie Honey

She`s a good example of how culture and artists can flow between borders. Technically, she's Korean, as she was born in Korea, and thus should have Korean citizenship. But she was raised in Japan, and I think this adds to her exotic appeal among Korean fans.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Spider-Man Japanese style!

The Japanese version of Spider-Man (1978)

Someone once told me that the Japanese are good at taking other people's ideas and making them better. Take for instance, cars. We in the U.S. found a way to mass produce them efficiently, making America the car capital of the world for a time. Then the Japanese come along, and learn to make them better and more efficiently. I would beg to differ. Rather, as other scholars have argued, Japanese take other people's ideas, and adapt them to their own culture. What comes out is a new product that bears a resemblance to, but is considerably different from the original. We can see the same thing in Spider-Man.

The American 1967 animated Spider-Man
First, let's look at the American version of Spider-Man I grew up with (I watched lots of reruns in the 1970s of this 1967 cartoon). The best thing about this cartoon was its catchy song. That's about it. Even as a kid, I knew this was trash animation - the producers, in order to save money, constantly reused the same scenes of Spider-Man swinging. And swinging. And swinging. I remember as a grade schooler, timing the swinging scenes in an episode where Spider-Man is being chased by a giant cat. About half the show consisted of him swinging.

BTW, click here for a link to the live action 1970s U.S. version of Spiderman. I love the 1970s theme music!

The Japanese 1978 live-action Spider-Man
Here's my rough translation of the lyrics
In the darkness between the buildings
Eyes burning with rage (lit: eyes shining brightly with anger)
He sacrifices his (inner) peace. (lit: He throws away his serenity.)
He sacrifices everything. (lit: He throws away everything.)
He pursues evil and soars across the sky.
Change to Leopardon!
Why do you... Why do you?
Keep on fighting and put your life at risk?
You live for just one thing. You live for just one thing.
Invincible man
Now look at the 1978 Japanese version Spider-man (put up by VideoStar13), produced by Toei, the same folks who brought you other Japanese superhero shows such as Kikaider and Kamen Rider. As you can tell by the lyrics, it's a much more serious version of Spiderman. The producers did obtain the license from Marvel comics to show their version of Spider-Man to the Japanese. However, the producers had to make considerable changes to adapt this cartoon into the Japanese tokusatsu genre. For the uninitiated, tokusatsu (literally meaning "special filming" or "special effects"), is a live-action genre usually with superheros doing martial arts moves on agents of a villainous organization, and always crying out the name of their martial arts technique ("double chops!" "giant swing throw!") as they pummel their opponents. Think of the "Power rangers".

Yamashiro Takuya, Japan's version of Peter Parker

Someone else put up a fake subtitled version, which has nothing to do with the plot (click here if you want to take a peek, but the subs are purposely wrong). I can understand Japanese, but it takes a lot of energy and concentration for me to do a proper translation, so I took the lazy man's method and looked up the story at The following plot synopsis is a combination of that article and my personal translation. First of all, Spider-Man's alter-ego, Peter Parker, was changed to a Japanese motocross champion, Yamashiro Takuya. This made sense since the other Toei tokusatsu shows usually featured a cool motorcycle-riding hero, and it would be very difficult to explain the presence of a nerdy white guy in Japan taking pictures for the Daily Bugle.

The Tetsujyujidan (Iron Cross), evil organization in this show. Hmmm...doesn't the guy on the right seem familiar?

To fit the tokusatsu genre, the villains had to undergo a change as well. No more individual villains like the Green Goblin or Dr. Octopus. Remember that Japan is a group-oriented society, and so even villains are organized into groups, this time as the "Iron Cross Organization" (Tetsujyujidan). Also this evil organization was headed by the 400-year old Professor Monster (Kaiju kyoju), played by Ando Mitsuo (who also played the flute-wielding Dr. Gill, head of the evil organization "The Dark," in the series Kikaider).

Spider-Man's ship called the "Marveller" (no joke!)

We all remember how Peter Parker got his spider powers right? (Bitten by a radioactive spider). And that he decided to fight crime when his Uncle Ben was killed by a robber. Well, this story got adapted to Japanese genres. The Marveller (named obviously after Marvel comics), a spaceship from another planet, crashed on Earth, being chased by the Iron Cross and Professor Monster. Takuya keeps hearing voices in his head telling him that "we are brothers." This was actually a telepathic signal being sent by Gariya, the last survivor of the Spider planet destroyed by the Iron Cross.

Aren't Japanese shows so violent? The Iron Cross kills Takuya's father

Takuya and his researcher and other family/research members father go out to investigate the crash site. There, the Iron Cross finds his father and kills him. Takuya grieves over his slain father, and then is chased by the Iron Cross bad guys into a cave, where he bumps into Gariya.

Being given spider powers is no pleasant experience

Gariya tellls Takuya his story and how he has been trying to contact him via telepathy. Gariya wants revenge for his planet, and tells Takuya that he must also avenge his own father (Just like in the 47 Ronin, revenge is a powerful factor in tokusatsu). And so he gives Takuya spider powers through a device that he clamps onto him. Note that in Japanese shows, the hero is usually created by someone, or gets their power from someone else. That's how skills are supposed to be transmitted in real life, from a master.

This is how "Spider sense" was depicted, as a radar

Out of the cave, Takuya discovers his powers. I like how they used live action stuntmen to climb up the walls of real buildings. Even his powers undergo some adaptation. The Spider Sense is more of a radar, where you can locate people. So Spider-Man figures out where the bad guys are (at a dam kidnapping a researcher to make evil monsters) and goes out to fight them. These are the bad guys for the first episode:

The Ninder, grey-clad henchmen to be used as target practice

Sexy villians such as Amazoness to turn Asiaphiles into Spider-Man fans!

The battle-scenes were also adapted to tokusatsu standards. Whenever Spider-Man shot his web, in true tokusatsu fashion, he had to announce his attack "Spider String!" And he used lots of martial arts moves and gymnastics to knock his opponents about. Lots of explosions thrown in for good measure. Note how Spider-Man actually moves like a spider, with his arms and legs flailing about. And also you can hear the 1970s enka (Japanese traditional music) horns in the background. Eventually, the villian Amazoness got tired and brought out a robot which morphed into a giant robot.

When the villain is getting his butt kicked, go into giant mode

Now here's where this show really gets hog wild. When the bad guys were on the losing end of the battle with Spider-Man, they would morph into a giant version of themselves. Spider-Man would then call in his giant Transformers-like robot to battle the giant villain. First he would jump into his Spidermachine GP7, then jet into an open bay in Marveller, which then transformed into the giant robot Leopardon.

Spider-Man jumps into his Spider Machine GP7 (How can you tell? It says so in English on the side of the car)

And flies into Marveller, which transforms into the sword-wielding Leopardon

Of course, Leopardon ends up smashing his enemy to pieces to save the planet for another day. This program helped to popularize the idea of giant robots fighting in these tokusatsu shows, and thus explains why shows like Power Ranger have giant robots fighting giant versions of the enemy. Plus, it also makes economic sense - the toy companies can sell giant robots and make more money.

Amazing rooftop stunts, even by today's standards!

Compare Spider-Man to how Saban had to adapt Kyoryuu sentai Jyu-ranger to America as the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: dumbing down the plot (the Power Rangers fight to save the high school dance, not save the world), toning down the violence, and just making this a show that only children could enjoy. No wonder Japanese products are so in demand - take other people's ideas, use quality control, and make them better. Just take a look at the detail in which they filmed the martial arts action scenes. Click here or the pic above to see an amazing clip from another episode to "marvel" at the stuntman's footwork jumping around the roof of a building and doing martial arts moves - wow!

What in Stan Lee's name is this "Thing"?

BTW, click here and here for clips (posted by bobx2x) of Japanese Spider-Man fighting a villain who suspiciously looks like ...well, the "Thing". And yes, the Japanese Spider-Man did have the American creator Stan Lee's seal of approval.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Taekwon V: Korean version of Mazinger Z

Robot Taekwon V, Korean version of Go Nagai's Mazinger Z. Click on the picture above to see a youtube clip of the opening song posted by dodonga33

Mazinger Z . Click on the picture above to see a youtube clip of the opening song posed by dragonnar.

As I wrote in a previous post, the Japanese giant robot anime Mazinger Z, popular worldwide, was also a smash hit in South Korea. In fact, the main character in in the hit drama My Name is Kim Sam Soon (내 이름은 김삼순) even hums a few lines from the song in an episode. However, Mazinger Z came from the hated former colonial occupier, the Japanese, and so in 1976, Kim Cheong-gi directed South Korea's first home-grown animated robot, Robot Taekwon V. In this animation, we can see a lot of the complex South Korean love/hate attitude towards Japanese popular culture.

I found, on a Korean web site, this size comparison of Taekwon V (far left) with the Japanese anime robots Mazinger Z (2nd from left), Great Mazinger (2nd from right) and Grendizer (far right). C'mon, does size have to matter that much?

On the one hand, one wouldn't fault the Koreans for hating the Japanese, for during the 1930s, the Japanese government embarked upon a forced assimilation policy and attempted to eradicate Korean culture. Now colonists have often done this since the beginning of history: Americans attempted to destroy Native American and Native Hawaiian cultures under the guise of assimilation, and similar policies were seen by the British in Ireland and the Soviets in many of the lands they conquered. But while it puts these policies in perspective, it still doesn't excuse the Japanese colonial authorities.

During the 1920s, in response to mass uprisings in 1919 (known as the March 1st movement and put down by the Japanese authorities at the cost of several thousand Korean lives), the colonial government did give Koreans a few limited opportunities to express their own culture, such as in Korean-language newspapers or even radio broadcasts (as noted by Professor Michael Robinson). However, with Japan's military aggression into Asia in the 1930s, the Japanese decided upon a forced-assimilation policy making Koreans to pray at Shinto shrines, change their names to Japanese names, and during the war, millions labored in Japanese factories as conscripts or forced labor. Many unlucky women ended up as "comfort women," forced prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. Koreans were forbidden from using their native language in schools or in government documents. In fact, I met many elderly Koreans during my trip there who could speak Japanese fluently, no doubt having learned this language in school.

Taekwon V statue in South Korea

After the war ended in 1945, Korea gained its independence, but the scars remained. So strong was anti-Japanese feeling that Japanese-language television and radio broadcasts, publications, and pop music, were all prohibited, with the ban only being gradually lifted in 1998. However, despite this ban, Japanese popular culture did manage to make its way into Korea. Often, Japanese cartoons were dubbed into Korean, stripped of all Japanese references, and then broadcast in Korea, often without telling the audience of the true Japanese origin. Or else, as Jasper Sharp points out in an interesting article, it was common practice among the Korean film industry to use Japanese film scripts. Of course this made economic sense - if Japanese culture is banned and so your audience has no idea you are ripping off a Japanese film, then why not cut corners and use ready-made scripts from Japan?

Note the similarities and differences between Taekwon V (L) and Mazinger Z (R)

Anyway, back to Mazinger Z. This cartoon was broadcast in Korea and became a huge hit. In fact, as the Chosun Ilbo points out, "Mazinger Z was so popular here as to be treated as an honorary Korean." But alas, this was a Japanese cartoon, and what Korea needed was a giant Korean Robot for kids to look up to. So, much as how Hyundai cars first used an engine developed by the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, out came a Korean giant robot that looked suspiciously like it was based on Mazinger Z: Taekwon V! But there are differences, however subtle. The head was replaced with a helmet similar to that worn by Admiral Yi, who fought of Hideyoshi's 16th century invasions, and to make sure viewers understood this was a Korean-made cartoon, Taekwon V fought with Taekwondo! Other than that, Taekwon V looks a bit like a reverse-engineered Mazinger Z. Click here for a video of Taekwon V.

Poster for the 1976 film, "Robot Taekwon V"

The movie version of Taekwon V has just been restored and re-released. Now Japanese nationalists may call this a Korean ripoff of Mazinger, and Korean nationalists may try to deny the Mazinger-inspired origins of Taekwon V, but there may be a better way to interpret this anime: cultures have always borrowed from each other. Historically, the Japanese have historically borrowed kanji, Buddhism, and architecture from their Korean neighbors. And if we look at Korean manhwa comics today, they bear a striking similarity to Japanese manga. So culture travels back and forth in all directions. My hope is that rather than argue who imitated who, young Koreans and young Japanese can learn they share much in common, and that popular culture can help bring those two nations closer together. (BTW, the Japanese First Lady is a huge fan of the Korean drama Winter Sonata). Imagine - both Koreans and Japanese grew up watching giant robots! Maybe we should ask for a Japanese-Korean joint production, such as "Taekwon V and Mazinger Z versus Dr. Hell"

BTW, I found some open source movies of Mazinger Z in dubbed into Arabic. You can figure out what is happening even if you don't understand the language. In this episode, Kabuto Koji, under the guidance of Miss Yumi Sayaka (pilot of Aphrodite A), is clumsily learning how to control Mazinger Z.

UPDATE: Just found this video on youtube. It seems to be a Korean video of someone playing the Mazinger Z theme song on the piano. Wow! And what about this video of an Italian singing show with the theme to "Great Mazinger"?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Catchy songs by offbeat Japanese girl groups

Ever hear a song that you find so damn irritating, but the more you listen to it, the more it worms its way into your brain? Pretty soon, you catch yourself humming along to the song and wonder what has happened to you.

Well, Chatmonchy's "Shangri-la" (Shan-gu-ri-ra) is one of those songs. I first heard it after renting Countdown TV (a weekly TV show that counts down the top 50 hits in Japan) from the local Japanese video store. Anyway, Chatmonchy (チャットモンチー)is a all-girl trio from Tokushima prefecture Japan, on the island of Shikoku. Their members are Kumiko on the drums, Eriko on the guitar and vocals, and Akiko on their bass. The first time I heard them do a live performance song on Countdown TV, I thought the Eriko's voice sounded like a poor imitation of the quirky Japanese singer YUKI. And we've already seen this genre of off-beat quasi-amateurish girl trios, like the group Shonen Knife. I grumbled, "Oh no, not ANOTHER one of THOSE Japanese girl groups," and I fast forwarded the DVD to skip their performance (click here or the clip above to see their video posted by Tofumon).

And then it happened. I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen and caught myself humming the chorus: "Shan-gu-ri-ra shiawase datte..." I was doing medicine ball push-ups in the gym and found the beat in my head "Shan-gu-ri-ra..." Then I was trying to write a lecture for a class and heard the walls sing to me: "Shan-gu-ri-ra. "The song would not go away, so I popped in the DVD and listened to their live performance again. "Shan-gu-ri-ra..."

Halcali's Strawberry Chips - a surprisingly catchy song!

So I admit defeat. Chatmonchy has gotten into my head and now I await their American debut. Now they've joined other irritatingly catchy tunes by quasi-amateurish girl groups that have wormed their way into my head such as Halcali's Strawberry Chips (subtitled and posted by Novaforever) or Kigurumi's Tarako Tarako Tarako (posted by Prekorata).

Kigurumi (dressed as Tarakos) singing Tarako, Tarako, Tarako

NOTE: Tarako Tarako Tarako is from a commercial for Kewpie brand tarako (salted Alaska Pollock roe) spaghetti sauce. This must one of the oddest commercials I have seen, even by Japanees standards (click here to see a commercial posted by ebisen). Yes, the Japanese like to mix cream and tarako to make pasta topping- believe it or not, it's quite delicious!