A recap of “After Freedom of Expression” at the Aichi Triennale

The show lasted two days. Frieze, “The Threat to Freedom of Expression in Japan“:

There are so many backstories to the story of Aichi Triennale 2019’s disastrous opening weekend that it’s hard to know where to start. On 3 August, two days after the show opened, an exhibit bringing together more than 20 works that had been censored in recent years at public institutions in Japan, entitled ‘After “Freedom of Expression?”’, was itself effectively censored.

The Triennale had received hundreds of angry phone calls, emails, and bomb threats about the exhibition. The campaign was especially chilling after the Kyoto Animation arson attack a few weeks earlier. David McNeill, “Freedom Fighting: Nagoya’s censored art exhibition and the “comfort women” controversy“:

Far from being a spontaneous eruption of public fury, this campaign appears to have been coordinated, says Iida. Callers had the same talking points, which echoed the rhetoric of conservative politicians, notably Kawamura Takashi, the mayor of Nagoya and a member of the ultra-right lobby group, Nippon Kaigi.

One of the exhibits in the show that had drawn so much ire from the public was Statute of Peace by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung. Nagoya’s mayor was furious that public funds were being spent on reminding the public about Japan’s unforgivable past of sexual slavery. According to Sawada Tomohiro in Newsweek Japan:


Kawamura Takashi, mayor of Nagoya, asked for the show to be cancelled, saying that the show “trampled on the hearts of the Japanese”. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga suggested the possibility that the government would not pay the subsidy due to the Triennale. The Agency for Cultural Affairs so announced afterwards. It was an unusual and opaque decision, as there were apparently no meeting records of how the decision came to be made.

Many other artists at the Aichi Triennale decided to then withhold their work after the show was forced to close. They released a statement, which read in part:

We practice art not to suppress or divide people, but to find different ways of creating solidarity among them, and to pursue the possibilities for free thinking beyond political beliefs. We strive to be creative in the face of uncertainty. Through the production of sculptures, through texts, paintings, performances, music, reenactments, psychomagic, films and videos, and by means of new media technology, by collaborating, and by seeking out new routes and detours, we artists have tried to create a place in the Triennale where, if only temporarily, people’s love and compassion, anger and sadness, and even their murderous feelings can be imaginatively inverted and overturned.

Koreeda Hirokazu, director of the critically acclaimed Shoplifters, had this to say about the tension between getting government funding and doing whatever you want:


In the West, the norm is that the state pays; no questions asked. Wanting a culture that fits with the values of a political regime is ridiculous. People don’t do academics or art for the national interest to begin with. It’s crazy that creators have to say that having diverse academics and works in conversation with one another ultimately benefits the national interest.

In early October, the show reopened, but only to a few hundred people who were lucky enough to get tickets through a lottery. No one was allowed to take photos of the show, or upload them to social media.

I only wish I was in Nagoya to see the show for myself. These works speak truth to power. Any hurt that a static statute could hope to cause a national consciousness, if it can be hurt at all, is nothing compared to the suffering these female survivors of war have endured. All we can do is to remember the moral depravity of the men and their toxic masculinity who placed these women in such a position.

The Abe administration’s snowflake mentality has continued in Austria last week. According to Artnet:

The Japanese Embassy in Austria has objected to an exhibition in Vienna that includes works about the Fukushima nuclear accident and Japan’s wartime history. It has withdrawn its official support for the group show “Japan Unlimited” after a Japanese politician alerted embassy staff that some of the artists also participated in a controversial and ultimately censored exhibition at the Aichi Triennale.

In an interview with Tokyo Shimbun, Ushiro Ryuta of Chim↑Pom says that the government just doesn’t understand the Streisand effect:


Ushiro Ryuta criticized [the government], saying that it had misread the essence of the show by concluding that the complex works were simply ‘anti-Japanese’. On the embassy’s withdrawal of support, Ushiro said that the Japanese government had demonstrated to the world that it had reacted badly to citizens criticizing their own country, which is something that happens all the time in democratic countries.

Was there really online “controversy” over NHK’s simplified typhoon warnings?

Climate change and an influx of migrants from the Global South are two major issues that Reiwa Japan faces. Areas that Typhoon Hagibis made its threatening presence felt included the Tohoku region, an area still looking to recover fully from the 2011 earthquake, and the swanky suburb of Musashi-kosugi, now known for high-rise apartments prone to flooding and blackouts.

During the typhoon, SoraNews24, a site that basically writes up an aggregate of Japanese Twitter, published the following story:

Typhoon warning from NHK Japan “to all foreigners” causes controversy online

There’s a fine line between kindly simplifying the Japanese language and offensively dumbing it down for foreign readers.

The warning that the website accused NHK of “offensively dumbing down” for foreign readers was a tweet from NHK News that read:

たいふう19ごう が 12にち~13にち に にしにほん~きたにほんの ちかくに きそうです。 たいふう19ごう は おおきくて とても つよいです。 き を つけて ください。

The SoraNews24 article goes on to say:

some people are taking issue with the way the message has been written. Instead of using regular Japanese, which incorporates complex kanji characters, the message has been simplified to be written entirely in hiragana, the fundamental syllabary first learnt at the beginner stage of studying the language.

(emphasis in original)

Indeed, NHK News’ tweet would normally read something like this:


Typhoon 19 is expected to come to Western to Northern Japan on the 12th to 13th [of October]. Typhoon 19 is big and very strong. Please be careful.

So did NHK do something “offensive”?

Following Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer is no, because the vast majority of the (English-language) tweets that SoraNews24 decided to quote were actually positive.

The gut-reaction conclusion to draw would be that NHK News’ behavior was only offensive just for non-Japanese readers to have a laugh at.

But to properly answer this question, we have to look at what these people were complaining about in the first place. Which involves a bit of language nerding-out.

1. Writing everything in hiragana

According to SoraNews24, one person said that an “all-hiragana message is much more confusing to read and comprehend than kanji, especially as it’s never written out this way”. The following was the reason given:

So it’s true that there’s a lot of homonyms in Japanese, which makes puns fun to learn. And it’s also true that entire novels written exclusively in hiragana are probably a nightmare to read, because brains with exposure to how hiragana, katakana, and kanji work together process information faster.

Here’s an example a Georgetown University professor used on me in my first year of learning Japanese that you can use to compare:



The first example is really jarring because two-thirds of the sentence uses the same character. The second example shows why hiragana, katakana, and kanji go hand in hand in written Japanese.

  • The kanji conveys meaning, so 母 (はは) means mother, and 言 means ‘word’ (here, in the context of 言う, to speak).
  • The katakana here acts as an onomatopoeic device, so hahahaha (ハハハハハハ) is the sound that the mother is making.
  • Finally, the hiragana act as a grammar connector, or what my professor would call ‘particles’. So は (pronounced wa in this situation) identifies the mother, and と goes with 言う to quote what the mother is saying.

(Of course, everything is contextual, so katakana isn’t always onomatopoeic. It can also, for example, be used for foreign loanwords.)

So at so-called “high levels” of Japanese, all of the above happens in a blur. Even though there are only so many hiragana combinations, your brain is able to pick out which hiragana go together so that you understand the information in front of you.

In fact, you can witness this demonstration if you start typing Japanese on your very own home computer or smartphone.

Like this! How meta.

However, computer systems aren’t perfect at hearing context, as can be seen in this attempt at automatic captions for a NHK News report on YouTube:

The AI confused “noon” (正午 /しょうご / shougo) with “competition” (勝負 /しょうぶ / shoubu) from the video’s audio track. Also, sorry for the flattering screencap.

In the context of the short NHK tweet, however, I don’t think the homonym problem arises at all. First, the sentences are short, so there’s less room for confusion. Second, the person who took offense at the all-hiragana message appears to have forgotten that since Japanese works contextually, hiragana must come in sets, which is why NHK added spaces in between the words in its tweet. (Admittedly, the spaces aren’t that noticeable on a screen).

So とても would go with つよい to mean ‘very strong’ (rather than と手持つ良い which is meaningless) and き would be 気 rather than 木 (tree) because it goes with を つけて ください (to be careful).

2. Not writing it in English (or Chinese, or Korean)

There were a LOT of responses to NHK News’ tweet, so here are a few more I want to dissect for language-learning purposes.

Assuming that NHK News wrote the notice to residents (as opposed to tourists) who live and work in Japan long-term, there are three problems with the assumption that writing in someone’s native language would be more helpful.

First, if you aren’t proficient in someone else’s native language, you risk miscommunication or leaving out details that you intended to communicate. (Of course, NHK probably has the resources to hire native translators.) So, using this person’s example, “big wind coming soon, very danger” doesn’t really make much sense to an English speaker. A deadly typhoon is much more serious than a blustery day.

Second, do residents even speak the language you would have wanted NHK News to translate to? Chinese is a possibility, but probably not English if:

Labor ministry data released in January [2019] showed the number of foreign workers in Japan rising by 181,000 on the year to a record 1.46 million at the end of October, with 29.7% of these in the manufacturing sector. China and Vietnam were the two top countries of origin, accounting for 389,000 and 316,000, respectively.

Nikkei Asian Review, April 13, 2019

Third, people systematically underestimate the level of Japanese proficiency long-term non-Japanese residents are required to have just to survive to work, find a place to stay, pay taxes, receive healthcare, and so on. So writing something in Japanese would probably be the more efficient way to communicate.

As the SoraNews24 article itself admits:

the Ministry of Justice conducted a survey in 2016 that found only 44 percent of foreign residents understand English, but 62.6 percent understand Japanese. With Japanese being the more widely understood language amongst foreign residents, a simpler type of Japanese was adopted to accommodate all levels of Japanese language ability, as a common way of conveying information to foreigners.

3. Addressing people as “gaikokujin”

This is something that I want to address in detail at some point in the future on this blog. Just as U.S. presidential candidates walk on eggshells when they decide to use Spanish to address voters, the word “gaikokujin” is an ugly Pandora’s box of citizenship, exclusion, belonging, and what it means to be Japanese.

But I think NHK News deserves credit for knowing that long-term non-Japanese residents know, and need to know, some level of Japanese language proficiency to survive in Japan, and acknowledges such by making this tweet.

4. Not using Google Translate

I think I can summarily dismiss this complaint by saying that in any emergency situation, the last thing someone would be doing would be to copy and paste a tweet into Google Translate and see what it spits out.

Why on earth would Google Translate be used as a standard for whether a notice written for second-language learners is actually useful for second-language learners?

5. Not following Japanese language learning principles

This last point is actually something I would agree with.

The grammar structures that NHK News chose to use in its tweet (in my opinion) aren’t the most easy to understand. Nor are they typical grammar structures that a language student would use at the beginner level.

It’s hard to nitpick such a short extract. But, for example, きそうだ is a modification of くる (to come) to mean “expected to come”, as in the typhoon is expected to come. Weather forecasts commonly use this phrase (to say what’s going to happen in the near future). But I definitely don’t remember learning this in my first semester of Japanese.

So if someone is expected to know and use this grammar structure, they would definitely be able to know all of the kanji that goes with the tweet.

The better way to phrase NHK News’ tweet would be to break the information up into extremely short, and extremely simple sentences, like the example above.

Typhoon 19 is coming.

It will come from the 12th to the 13th [of October].

Please be careful of strong winds and heavy rain.

So, in gist: was the tweet offensive? Not really. But NHK News could do better.

Concrete Jungles in the Middle of Mountains

This post was originally written in February 2016 for Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. Original post here.

By the time I was finished bathing in a hotel’s indoor hot spring and started to head home, the sky was pitch back. It was a beautiful, wintry Sunday, and I had decided to take a day trip to Kinugawa Onsen(鬼怒川温泉), a resort town two hours from Tokyo. I thought it would be a nice change from the jumble of overhead wires and scramble crossings, a getaway into the countryside.

Except it wasn’t. Abandoned hotels dotted the sides of cracked paths, silent and sad monuments to the resort town’s more prosperous ways. The only way to see the river, for which the town is named, is to cross a wide concrete bridge surrounded by two high-rise hotels; the hum of the air conditioners vibrates louder than the chummy river below.

From time to time, learners of Japanese (that is, me) are told about the importance of nature in Japanese culture. The kaleidoscope variety of food in kaiseki-ryori, the equivalent of, perhaps, French haute cuisine, changes with the four seasons.The country’s spectacular mountains are themselves gods with Shinto shrines dedicated to them. A haiku does not count as a haiku if it does not contain a kigo, a word that refers to the seasons, or plants, or animals. One of the most famous haikus by Matsuo Basho involves a frog jumping into a pond.

Yet, everyday life in Kinugawa Onsen seems revolve around man-made objects. There is, in fact, nothing to see outside, because the hot spring hotels’ exteriors are so ugly; the streets are dim, desolate, and a little creepy after dark. Overnight stayers can find everything they need within the confines of the hotel compound, from arcade games to television dramas and smoky bars. Even the gift shops around town only sell manufactured foods. It seems that the surrounding area is known for its strawberries, but the actual strawberries in their original form are nowhere to be found. Instead, they are mixed into sweets, potato chips, and cakes and dye the colors of soft-serve ice cream, just so that, as a marketing strategy, these products can claim that they were made with those famous strawberries.

Kinugawa-Kōen station in mid-afternoon on February 7, 2016.

For what purpose does one travel to a place like Kinugawa Onsen, or indeed, to any place at all? The paradox of tourism is that, in thinking about how to attract more business and more profits, local governments and business owners become tempted to conjure up attractions to entice tourists, rather than the other way round. Perhaps once upon a time this town was a pleasant and quiet place to live in for residents, its river so beautiful and so wild and the free-flowing hot springs so healing that word about it spread to travelers from Tokyo. In 2016, you can find pamphlets around the train station for rather thoughtlessly built attractions, including a dinosaur park and a miniature sculpture theme park, where you can pretend to travel the world by looking at scale models of Westminster Abbey and Harlem, New York.

John Muir told us “everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” This is something parts of Japanese culture discovered centuries before Muir began advocating for preserving the wilderness in the United States and appearing in environmental ethics textbooks. Here’s hoping that one day, Kinugawa Onsen finds more value in the lush mountains and tall trees that surround its valley, rather than the concrete hotel boxes that await demolition.

Shibuya Meltdown: 3 Levels

Level One

In the many times I have visited Tokyo in the last five years, I have become no stranger to encountering drunken passengers and transient pools of vomit on trains and around train stations around one to two hours before the last train.

Or, even better, during the morning commuter rush, after the trains start running again after the sun rises. Nothing in the world wakes you up more potently than a delicious cocktail of crimson meat and stomach juices splattered all over the floor on a Yamanote Line train carriage on a bright and sunny Tuesday morning. I know, because I speak from personal experience.

Found on an early morning commute to Shibuya on the Ginza Line on February 19, 2016.

This makes the Ginza Line great for people-watching. Tokyo Metro’s slick marketing might have you believe that Japan’s oldest subway line is all about pandas in Ueno Park and temples in Asakusa. But at night it’s a silently wild party of alcoholic passengers and covered-up subway seats damaged from vomit.

So I was delighted to learn earlier this year that there’s a wild Instagram / Twitter account called Shibuya Meltdown (and a little disappointed that all my Instagram friends already follow it). According to a 2016 Vice article, an Australian fashion designer based in Tokyo started the account, which, at the time, consisted of (quite tasteful) flash photography of vomiting and street-sleeping individuals. They told Vice about the phenomenon:

I think it’s because for salarymen they work super long hours and their release is to drink. Also the last train is at midnight. So if people miss the last train and they can’t keep drinking, they fall asleep. So it’s totally kosher to fall asleep in a club or a bar or a restaurant. If you look around, you’ll see it all the time. You walk past a MOS Burger or something and 50 percent of the people in there are asleep. Nobody tells you to move on or get out. People here work so much that they just get a little wink of sleep anywhere they can. Maybe that’s why so many people sleep on the train. I’ve seen dudes with their hands in the train hooks and they’re just sleeping, standing up, swaying with the train. They’re not drunk, they’re just getting a rest in. I think they say that Japanese salarymen only sleep four or five hours a night. It’s just a busy culture.

Now the account consists mostly of follower submissions, and not all of them are pictures of people from Shibuya. Here’s a sample of their most recent posts, which include a person urinating in a train station, and another person trying to purchase a train ticket butt naked.

Level Two

As an ignorant gaijin I get to project my “observations” about Japan, exploit the silent camera function on my smartphone to take discreet photos, and write about how amazing it is to see fully grown men (99% of the time it’s men) inebriated and abandoned almost every night in dark corners of big Japanese cities on my study abroad WordPress blog all about Japan. (I’m only half joking.)

But what if Japanese people embrace Shibuya Meltdown as their own? What if an Okinawa-born rapper called Tsubaki (唾奇) decides to suddenly drop a track a few days ago called “SHIBUYAMELTOWN” just in time for Halloween? Or what if the Shibuya Meltdown account itself releases a whole compilation album about itself, complete with a launch party set for January next year, and a limited CD release that you can only get at the launch party? (You can listen to the album now on all major music streaming services.)

Has Shibuya Meltdown sold itself to mainstream pop culture? Is it no longer a place for people to safely side-eye these folks on their smartphones?

Level Three

The ultimate Shibuya Meltdown, though, is Halloween night, where thousands of people descend to Shibuya to turn a cute American excuse for kids to get candy into a night that shows Shibuya’s true colors: a dress-up college town playground radiating with endless amounts of youthful energy.

Last year, people decided it was a good idea to trash cars and restaurants while drunk. This year, the Shibuya district government has decided to enforce an open container law in a certain radius around Shibuya station, and some shops are closing early for the night to avoid dealing with the crowds.

But are Halloween parties that much fun with a heavy-handed police presence? Who knows?

Celebrating Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the throne

This week, in an elaborate ceremony, Emperor Naruhito proclaimed his ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne, formally marking the beginning of his reign.

Remember, this son of heaven was once a boy who was photographed doing a famous pose from the 1960s manga Osomatsu-kun:

The last time the ceremony happened was in 1990. This time, this blast from the past was streamed live on the Internet in high definition video for the world to watch. To be honest, I know nothing about imperial rituals in Japan, so I link to a BBC article that provides a pretty basic visual explanation.

Among the dignitaries invited to Tokyo to witness to event was Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who loves to take trips abroad while leaving her hometown’s political crisis to rot away. For some reason, TV Tokyo’s live stream decided to focus its camera at Ms. Lam. What point was TV Tokyo trying to make?

There are people glued to the Internet in Hong Kong at all hours of the day, and these people were quick to notice that at one point, Ms. Lam was allegedly fidgeting on her phone before the enthronement ceremony began. Ever the opportunist on publishing anti-China articles, the Sankei Shimbun reported on this the following day:


The October 23 edition of Ming Pao published a photo of Ms. Lam, who was seated amongst other dignitaries, looking at her phone, and wrote that some people thought that she was challenging the boundaries of diplomatic protocol. On the other hand, the enthronement ceremony’s attendees were permitted to bring in their mobile phones. Further, the Office of the Chief Executive said that Ms. Lam was seen using her phone before the ceremony began. Indeed, on the images circulating online, there are clearly empty seats around Ms. Lam, and it appears that this was before the ceremony began.

(This will probably be the only time I will link to Sankei Shimbun on this blog.)

Personally, I’m more intrigued at the karmic metaphor of the ring of empty seats around Ms. Lam. Breach of diplomatic protocol or not, Ms. Lam has operated with a most malicious ignorance of international relations—deciding to introduce a reckless extradition bill at around the G20 summit, dragging China deeper into its trade conflict with Mr. Trump, and now attempting to play judicial hardball with a separatist Taiwanese president. At home, as the Financial Times revealed today, people are literally counting down the days until Beijing replaces her. Few things are certain in life, but one is 100 percent guaranteed to leave the Chief Executive job despised and discredited. Ms. Lam, it seems, will not be the exception to the rule.

So surely one could spare some slack for the most hated person in the world, and allow her to mindlessly scrolling on her phone once in a while.

In other news, a rainbow appeared during the enthronement ceremony. Perhaps Emperor Naruhito did descend from heaven at some point in his life.

Typhoon No. 19 is the size of Japan

Japan is shutting down for Typhoon Hagibis this weekend. Did you know that the typhoon is the size of the entire country (minus Okinawa)?

Here’s the view from space, which is chillingly reminiscent of a scene from The Day After Tomorrow:

Getting the message to the millions of foreign-born residents in Japan is a priority:

Screenshot 2019-10-11 at 4.34.15 PM

There used to be a joke (conspiracy theory) called “Li’s Field” in Hong Kong whereby typhoons would conveniently pass by the city overnight or over the weekend, so people wouldn’t get their day off from work or school.

But climate change is real, and Li Ka-shing has since retired. Japan is now no stranger to typhoons from the Pacific passing by overnight and on the weekends (in addition to active volcanoes and earthquakes, oh dear), while Hong Kong has had a pretty nice and stable summer, weather-wise. Save and except for all the tear gas in the air. And Li Ka-shing’s businesses have pretty much divested from Hong Kong.

Unlike Hong Kong, however, typhoon employment protections aren’t as strong in Japan:

Apparently, people on Twitter are complaining that employers still want you to show up to work on Saturday by leaving early, trying your best to go to work even if you end up arriving late, and if the trains aren’t running, your boss will pick you up using the company car (is that even safe)?

These companies probably won’t be around for much longer.

Tax is a joke

At least that’s what TV Asahi makes you think when you watch its news programs. Here are some choice still frames from their broadcasts this week.

This woman brought her items to the cashier at a convenience store and the clerk started to ring her up just before the the stroke of midnight on October 1, so she got a receipt dated October 1, but was still charged the old consumption tax rate of 8 percent.

She says she’s going to keep the receipt.

The restaurant chain Sushiro wasn’t able to charge anyone consumption tax in 197 branches. This man in Fukuoka was proud to show TV Asahi his receipt, which says that he didn’t pay any consumption tax for his meal.

“How many plates of sushi did you eat?” the reporter asks. 45 plates, the man laughs. What a steal. Quite literally.

This group of friends from Osaka ordered a round of beers past midnight, which meant that the new tax rate would be charged on those beers. They taste like a heavier tax burden, unfortunately.


For some reason, the Japanese government decided to keep the 8 percent rate for takeaways at restaurants, but apply the new rate if you eat the food inside the ‘eat-in’ areas of convenience stores. Which tax rate applies to you depends on an honors system. So there are now people (mostly balding men, according to TV Asahi) called segi-man (i.e. men of justice) who have way too much time on their hands lurk around in convenience stores calling out on people who tell the store clerks that they’re going to take their bentos home, but they end up eating them anyway inside the store.

So what happens when these men of justice appear at your friendly neighborhood FamilyMart? Zerishi Dotcom News has the answer:


What happens when someone sees a customer who consumes the food and drink he bought inside the store without declaring that he would do so for tax purposes, and reports it to an employee? FamilyMart said that it would be difficult ascertain the evidence even when someone who isn’t the customer himself reports it, and that the store will not say anything if the customer doesn’t declare for himself how he’s going to consume the food and drink. Lawson similarly said that currently, consumption tax is calculated based on a self-declaration system, and did not envision for situations where they would do anything after receiving a report from a third party. In other words, even if one bravely reports to the store in pursuit of fairness about the consumption tax, there is a high possibility that the store will overlook what happened.


Films on Japan at the 2019 HKLGFF

Queer Japan

An ambitious documentary about people who are proud to live beyond social norms in contemporary Japan. Community is a big focus––otherwise, Graham Kolbeins, the film’s director, wouldn’t have been able to make the film without creating a network of contacts and cold calling people: or so he told us at a Q&A with him at Broadway Cinematheque last week after the film screened in at the HKLGFF.

Civil partnership recognition is spreading across dozens of cities and municipalities across Japan, and mainstream book and comic publishers are starting to market LGBTQ+ authors and themes (actually, mostly cis-gendered gay male authors for now, but hopefully that will change). So what can Queer Japan offer in this media space? A lot, actually. I learned about Grammy Tokyo and thought about the language dynamics that a transgender man would face, and about Aya Kamikawa on how no one from the Liberal Democratic Party cared about her until she won a seat in the Setagaya Ward Council in 2003. (She has since been re-elected four more times.) I recognized Tac’s Knot, the cocktail bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome which hosts Yo Katami’s Loneliness Books on Wednesdays. I saw Leslie Kee photograph his 1000th interviewee for the Out in Japan project. I definitely appreciated the large amount of transgender representation on screen. Also, all the interviewees knew each other, or at least grew to know each other. That’s community.

I missed Tokyo Rainbow Pride when I was in Tokyo in 2016, but the film was there. It was the fifth time that the parade was happening. The Embassy of Israel was giving out food, an Android mascot from the Google booth waddled around with a rainbow cape, and Caroline Kennedy was on stage expressing her satisfaction at the large amount of American companies there. But the film turned its attention to an anonymous interviewee holding placards on the sidelines. They hated how commercialized the parade had become. Pride, they said, was about individuals, not corporate social responsibility. Was this the inevitable trajectory of all societies that seemingly grow to embrace public displays of queerness?

At the post-screening Q&A, I asked Mr. Kolbeins about his choice to juxtapose the parade with these protestors. It was a conscious choice to include voices from both sides, he said. One had to hold these organizations accountable. So while ANA extends mileage scheme benefits to same-sex partners, is ANA doing the same for employees with same-sex partners? Is the United States still welcome at pride events around the world while its Education Secretary launches unprecedented attacks on transgender students? (These are my examples, by the way.)

Update on 3 October 2019Variety has an insightful review of this film published earlier this summer.

Athlete (アスリート ~俺が彼に溺れた日々~)

I didn’t watch this film because it was sold out very early on, but here’s the synopsis from the film festival website:

Kohei is a handsome and masculine former athlete, with a regular family life. He is unhappy but doesn’t know what it is that’s bothering him – until the day his wife leaves him. He escapes with alcohol and finds himself in Tokyo’s gay district. In a drunken haze, Kohei meets Yutaka, a beautiful twink who makes a living from live sex webcams with men. Yutaka takes Kohei home and an unlikely friendship begins when they somehow find comfort in each other’s company. An urban love story set in the bright lights of Tokyo, Athlete paints a beautiful portrait of the loneliness in modern city life.

Brief notes from the eve of Japan’s consumption tax hike

Lots of people are doing last-minute shopping to get 2 percent savings before the tax hike takes effect tomorrow. I also ordered a few second-hand books online, but my consumption logic is at best questionable: why would I spend more money in hopes on saving on tax?

TV Asahi.

The smart thing the Japanese government has done is to link the tax hike with encouraging businesses to offer consumers points as a ‘rebate’ to get people to stop paying with cash. The evening news programs have provided unending coverage of housewives and househusbands making full use of these payment apps and (theoretically) saving tens of thousands of yen a month (assuming these rebate campaigns continue to be unsustainably generous, of course). The Ata Distance blog makes this interesting observation:

Regardless of whether the CASHLESS rebate is ‘a success’ or not, it will be a tipping point. Already I notice a shift in public perception: if a store is cash only, it definitely looks behind the times in the minds of customers.

By the way, you can intern to be a parent now. That’s what this university student from Chiba did, as he imagines a future family where both parents have to work (共働き世代 vs 専業主婦世代). He literally spent the normal working hours inside this family’s house playing with a baby. What an internship.

TV Asahi.

I wanted to order some green tea from Ippodo’s online shop for a friend’s birthday, but found out that Ippodo’s online shop was closed for “maintenance” for the entire weekend. So you had to dial in to order the old-fashioned way. I know nothing about how websites have to deal with the tax hike, but does this seem a little excessive?

Eslite Spectrum opened in the COREDO Muromachi complex just north of Nihombashi, Tokyo, this week. This is Eslite’s first store outside China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan––and Japan is a country that makes the most sense to open in, since half the stuff they sell is Japanese, or Japanese-inspired. Given that Eslite is, in essence, a real estate empire with seriously good taste in independent literature and craftmanship, here’s hoping this little Taiwanese beachhead in central Tokyo can grow to challenge Tsutaya’s culture curating business. It’s no longer enough to just have backnumbers of Brutus Casa on polished wood bookshelves in Daikanyama.

Fuji TV.

My only pet peeve is that this store was absolutely a missed opportunity to introduce Tenren to Tokyo. It is a bubble tea crime to associate The Alley with Eslite. Also, judging from the comments written in Traditional Chinese on this YouTube video from which I stole the above screencap, apparently it’s not that great to have your grubby bbt hands all over the shiny new books on display.

Finally, witness the pomp and circumstance in Tokyo station when the Emperor and Empress (Consort) of Japan board their royal train for the first time in the Reiwa era. Notice how the metal handles that the (impeccably uniformed) conductors use to help themselves get down to the track level (to unfurl the Japanese flags in the front of the train) are built onto the train body.

CPG Grey once said that people like to visiting Britain’s castles is different from visiting most other castles in Europe, because there’s still a living monarch sprinkling royal pixie dust everywhere. I guess Tokyo station is one of the few places in Japan where you can legitimately feel good old-fashioned imperial power on a weekday morning. Here’s a paparazzi photo of the former Empress of Japan going into a low-key entrance in Tokyo station back in August 2019:

Sadly, I didn’t get a picture of Emperor Akihito himself. Also, it’s kind of stupid to make such a big deal of taking photos of an elderly old couple shuffling out of a car and into a dimly lit corridor inside a train terminal.

Questionable Cool Japan Business Ideas

This is purely an indulgent rant.

1. “Umai Crates”

I was scrolling through Instagram last week and the algorithms served me this ad:

After doing some research, I found out that I could get these “Umai Crates” for an attractive subscription price of US$30 per month. All I needed to do was to give up my credit card details and this business venture will happily ship a box (for free!) of instant noodles that they consider hard to find outside of Japan. They even curate recipe cards so you can make your late-night impulsive styrofoam snack into a gourmet meal that rivals the romantic suggestions that Buzzfeed’s Tasty suggests.

To be fair, Nissin is great at making you want to eat instant noodles. I subscribe to its YouTube channel, which is just a hodgepodge of slick TV commercials that each have hundreds of thousands of views. It has cup noodle museums in Osaka and Yokohama, where the company breaches the gospel of Ando Momofuku, the Taiwanese-Japanese reincarnation of Jesus Christ who turned deep-fried noodles into chicken ramen magic packs. Its matsutake mushroom cream sauce cup noodles were probably as heavenly as the bread and wine of the Last Supper (and since Nissin doesn’t sell them anymore, they are truly the stuff of New Testament legend).

But why would you want to subscribe to a box of nasty processed shit ‘curated’ by some sucker who probably went to the basement floor of Don Quijote, picked out whatever seemed exotic enough, and literally stuff the empty spaces with random selections from the spice rack? How do you even justify the US$30 cost from that? Printing on laminated color cards is expensive, probably—but is there any research value in knowing that you could add instant katsuobushi or a poached egg into soggy non-fried wheat curls in boiling dihydrogen monoxide? YouTube can probably teach you that better.

And how would you personally get through 8 to 10 servings of cup noodles per month? That’s like eating one every three nights—nights where you sit around a dim kitchen table, where the cats are asleep, scrolling through your credit card statement, wondering why you have to pay off this silly venture capital parasite from Tokyo when your blood-earned cash could be applied somewhere else. Like saving up for your mortgage payments. Or your student loans.

2. “Welcome Japan” Suica cards

An IC card is an invaluable tool to get around all of Japan. Get one of these mean green things at a JR East ticket machine in Tokyo, and you’ll be able to get on almost any train or bus or buy anything at a convenience store or supermarket without fidgeting for change. (I think the Suica card has the most interoperability out of all the systems in Japan but I’m not sure.)

So why do you need a “special edition” just for foreigners that has what undeniably are second-class features? According to the Japan Times:

[The card] can only be used for a period of up to 28 days after which the card holders will receive an error when trying to proceed with e-money payment transactions.

It may not be possible to use automated gates to exit at the destination station if the cards have been used for a journey that straddles different rail service areas.

Money charged onto the cards will not be refunded, and the cards can’t be reissued. But according to the operators, travelers will be able to keep the cards as souvenirs. The campaign is limited to travelers.

So, for the price of foregoing the 500 yen deposit, you get:

  • To lose any and all of the remaining money you’ve loaded onto your card after 28 days, and there is no way to get any of that money back
  • No cute penguin on your card (which forms part of the card’s etymology)
  • An ugly shade of blood red in your wallet that is not the color of the cherry blossom imagery the cards are meant to invoke
  • A lazily designed smattering of cherry blossoms designed to appeal to your nascent NIPPON love
  • In any case, a forgettable piece of junk plastic that you can’t use after 28 days, the time limit of which doesn’t even make sense to me, since a temporary visitor’s visa to Japan generally lasts up to 90 days; and in any case it shows that every trip you make to Japan is supposed to be your first and your last. You’re not supposed to come back after sampling the junk in Asakusa and the airport sushi at Narita!

Thanks, but no thanks.