Playing on Fire

Yamashita Yosuke playing at a beach in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.

Yamashita Yosuke, a Japanese pianist, recently played an event featuring a piano on fire, on the beach.  He played for 10 minutes until the piano fell silent.

The idea and images were beautiful.  Check it out here.



Miriam Silverberg, whose new book,  Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, I was looking forward to reading, died on March 16th.  She had suffered from Parkinsons.  James Fujii wrote this about her on H-NET:

After a long bout with illness, Miriam Rom Silverberg passed
away in the early hours of Sunday, March 16, 2008.  Miriam
spent her formative years in Tokyo where she graduated from
the International School of the Sacred Heart before
returning to the United States.  With an M.A. from
Georgetown University and a Ph.D. from the University of
Chicago (1984), she would establish and maintain close
associations with such historians as John Witek, Harry
Harootunian, Tetsuo Najita, Fujita Shozo, and Fujime Yuki,
and with Peter Rabinowitz, Masao Miyoshi, Bill Sibley, and
Maeda Ai in the field of literature.  She, in turn, would
profoundly influence countless colleagues, students, social
activists, and others on both sides of the Pacific, and from
all walks of life.  Her Changing Song: the Marxist
Manifestos of Nakano Shigeharu, winner of the John Fairbank
award for East Asian history, and translated into Japanese
in 1998, demonstrated the extraordinary power of literature
and history when freed from their arbitrary disciplinary
homes.  It remains a peerless example of how to read
literature as social critique.

             One of the most self-consciously theoretical
historians of modern Japan, at the same time Miriam's work
has remained steadfastly moored to explorations of
subjectivity, whether in affirming the efforts of
oppositional figures such as Nakano Shigeharu and Sata
Ineko, or in exploring the figuration of women as consumers,
critics, laborers, and intellectuals.  Internationally
renowned for landmark essays on the Japanese "modern girl"
('The Modern Girl as Militant," "The Cafe Waitress Sang the
Blues"), her work ranged broadly into Marxist literature,
mass culture of the inter-war years, the rise of urban
society, Japan's colonial encounters, and contemporary
popular culture.  Her abiding interest in the conjuncture of
modernity and imperialism bookends her remarkable career:
she began her studies at Georgetown with a paper on the
massacre of Koreans in Tokyo and Yokohama in the aftermath
of the 1923 earthquake, and her courses at the end of her
career at UCLA examined colonial encounters in such courses
as "Race and Culture" and "The Japanese Ideology of Empire."

             Miriam would bring to her tenure as director of
the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA the intellectual
dynamism that was so evident in her scholarly work.  The
diverse workshops and events held under her stewardship
included the long-lived "Migrating Epistemologies", a talk
by the Asahi Newspaper editor/reporter Matsui Yayori as
representative of the Women's International War Crimes
Tribunal (on Comfort Women), and a ground-breaking
conference titled "Feminism Confronts Disability" that would
fold her own confrontation with Parkinson's into the
academic-humanistic register of disability studies.

             Perhaps most remarkable in a scholar whose
reputation was international was the priority she gave to
her students, particularly during her last few years when
Parkinson's disease made lecturing, even while seated, a
challenge, let alone completing what would become her
masterful study of Japan's inter-war mass culture, Erotic
Grotesque Nonsense (U.C. Press, 2007).  Writing
recommendations, advising, and guiding her students when she
could no longer write unassisted, as her days became a
succession of unrelenting confinement, her colleagues,
friends, and foremost her students would visit, from across
the Atlantic and the Pacific, from college towns large and
small across the nation.  Sometimes in groups, often alone,
they would find ways of communicating with her in the
hospital, in quiet and touching testimony to the singular
impact she had made on all of those she had instructed,
guided, and with whom she shared food, laughter and her
irrepressible brilliance."

You may also find Adrienne Carey Hurley discuss her passing here.

As a young academic, Silverberg’s essay and writings inspired me to study modernity and gender issues and she remained an important influence.  It’s a shame for her family, of course, and the academic community to lose such a star.  I’m surprised and saddened to hear the news.

Tibet Intifada?


In light of the recent news coming out of Tibet, Time magazine raised the question of whether we were witnessing the beginning of a Tibetan intifada.

The real question is the same one that African-Americans faced as the protests of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met with initial failure in the US South, that is, whether or not to abandon the principle of engaged negotiation and peaceful protest or resort to more confrontational, possibly even violent, tactics.  Proponents of a more aggressive confrontational-style in the 50s and 60s, like Malcom X and the Black Panthers, pushed for immediate change and came to embody these ideas.

The Tibetans, faced with stonewalling from the Chinese and the failure of the Dalai Lama to extract something, anything from the Chinese side, combined with the huge influx of ethnic Han Chinese, has led to similar sentiments, and we are seeing the effects of it now in this explosion of pent-up tension.

Will the Tibetans continue to pursue their political, social, and economic grievances with the Chinese peacefully as the Dalai Lama has attempted, or are we entering a new phase of Tibetan-Chinese history where the Tibetan people are more aggressive and confrontational?

I think that question has yet to be answered, and it may not be until the Dalai Lama passes away and leadership of the movement passes into new hands or splinters into different factions, each following separate policies.

I think the Chinese are quietly waiting and hoping the Dalai Lama’s death will lead to the sapping of the movement’s energy, but it could also represent the dam breaking, allowing all Tibet’s rage and frustration to flow.

Over the weekend, I went to the Shinjo Ito show, which is traveling from Japan and currently on view at Milk Gallery in Chelsea. You can find info on the exhibit here.

I had seen the posters in subway stations, a golden Buddha shining in the darkness of the dank New York subway and was interested. Sculpture and Buddhist art are two things I am interested in, but when I researched about the life of Shinjo Ito I became slightly worried.

Shinjo Ito (1906-1989) was the founder of a school of Buddhism called Shinnyo-en, which sought to open up esoteric practices of Buddhism to the masses. Given the religious connections, I was somewhat wary that the show would be a veiled way of promoting the religion or raising money for it. I thought long and hard about the ethics of giving money to a religion and the way in which art in our media-savy, modern world, can be used to propigate religion.

I thought originally that Shinjo Ito was anachronisitic. After all, the 20th century was largely the story of religion fading from power and receding from the public domain. The last vestiges of state religion, at least in the modern/Western world, vanished and the idea of the separation of church and state became a norm of governments around the world. In the context of the virtual triumph of liberalism and capitalism, how can we see the life of Shinjo Ito as anything other than anachronistic?

But in another way, his life and work, including his art, foreshadowed the need for meaning and spiritual fulfillment that many modern day people now feel. At the end of the day, these two Western ideas offer little comfort to the soul, offer little to soothe the God-sized hole in our hearts, and Ito’s art, with its quiet devotion and its constant attention to craft, could speak to people of any age, despite the Buddhist themes.

But it is in spite of, not because of these Buddhist themes, that the show succeeds. Though we feel the relevance of the underlying message more than ever, it is the vehicle, Buddhism and organized religion in general, that has decayed. Buddhist art and religious art seems a minor, dying field in today’s modern art world, despite the increased need for some type of spiritual fulfillment. There is a thriving market for Buddhist antiques, but Buddhist modern art seems almost a contradiction in terms.

The art itself was engaging, and the arrangement of the gallery good; it led you around in an ever-tightening circle, while you viewed Buddhist sculptures in bronze and resin to your left and right, until finally the path emerged on the centerpiece, a large sculpture of Shakyamuni giving his last sermon before his death. But it was some of the smallest sculptures that gave me the most pleasure, the small rendering he did of Shotoku Taishi was special, because I lived in Taishi Town for several years. The town’s supposedly the resting place of Shotoku Taishi, who supported Buddhism in 7th century Japan when it was a young and likely controversial religion imported from continental Asia. Some of the other Buddhist sculptures were interesting for their fusion of classical and Eastern forms. He even dabbled in calligraphy and photography, though the later consisted of overly romantic depictions of rural Japan.

What bothered me about the show was the attention given to the life of Shinjo Ito himself. The show focuses so much on Shinjo Ito, explaining his life and having video of him. Even the gift shop featured childrens’ books with cute quizzes about his deeds. But if Shinjo Ito were alive today, he would most likely have a problem with this.

If Ito were just an artist, I would understand, but Buddhism is about repressing the self and extinguishing the ego, and this show was very much Western in the sense that a certain Hollywood-style celebrity status had been accorded Ito, who was described as a genius autodidact, accomplished in radio, photography, art, and aeronautical engineering.

Perhaps you fight fire with fire, and the organizers of the show felt the best way to introduce jaded Westerners to Buddhism nowadays was to elevate Shinjo Ito to star status, catching both potential converts and money. This would be the means justifying the ends. Another possibility is that the sect itself has succumbed to the fascinating life story and charisma of Shinjo Ito and are now more about perpetuating the image of the man rather than his fundamental message.

With the Buddha nowhere in sight, the art and life of Ito is something his followers can grasp, understand, and cherish, all things important for humans. With a subtle shift, suddenly this image and media-savy Buddhist sect seems very modern indeed, and just maybe these changes can reinvigorate it. Still, I wonder if this would have be alright with the devout Buddhist himself.

Leaving the gallery, I knew that I had enjoyed the art, but the key message and the meaning of the exhibit itself left me scratching my head.

John Nathan

John Nathan will be speaking at Japan Society in New York City soon, promoting his new book. I found this old video featuring John Nathan on the Charlie Rose program. The video was from 2004, and celebrated the 150 year anniversary since Commodore Perry landed in Japan, forcing it open.

Ian Buruma appears with John Nathan at the end of the clip to discuss Japanese cultural and political developments. I found what they said just as insightful today as it was in 2003.

They talked about the increasing independence of Japan and the waning influence of the US politically, economically, and culturally in Japan. At the same time, they pointed to the increased popularity of Chinese and Korean economic cultural ties with Japan. This was something that was unthinkable in the immediate post-war period because of ideas of Japanese ethnic superiority, and the backward nature of those economies. For example, Korea was always thought of as an inferior, under-developed neighbor, but now Japanese tourists flock to South Korea, and Korean pop stars and TV dramas are famous in Japan.

Japan is again rejoining the East Asian cultural sphere, after years and years of orientation towards the West. If trends continue, the US may in the future face increased competition for Japan’s economic, cultural, and political cooperation from others countries, and the US-Japan relationship may grow more distant and fractured.  Maybe we are seeing this already.  The very reforms which the US is prodding Japan to undertake, like Article 9 revision, and laws to allow for the deployment overseas of SDF forces, may actually work against the US in the long run.  It’s like letting the genie out of the bottle.  As Japan becomes more economically, politically, militarily, and culturally independent, the role of Japan as a trusted and guaranteed ally of the US may shift.

The day may come when US may longer be able to count on the automatic support of Japan for its policies.  What we are looking at is not the sudden collapse of a superpower like the Soviet Union, but instead a gradual weakening and sapping of US power in the region.  Not a big bang, but a cold whimper.

Shimaoka Tatsuzo died at the age of 88.  The New York Times had his obituary.  He was designated a national living treasure by the Japanese government in 1996.  A potter heavily influenced by the mingei or folk arts movement, it was a visit to the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in 1938 that inspired him to study ceramics.  He compared that day to rain on soil, it says.

Kogyaru Moms?!


Typical gyarus in Shibuya.

An interesting article in the Japan Times writes about what happens to kogyaru (or sometimes kogal) after the party ends– basically when they become mothers.  Not surprisingly, the picture isn’t pretty.

If you’re wondering what a kogyaru is, see this Wikipedia article exhaustively discussing this interesting Japanese subculture.  You can also check out all the different varieties of gyaru or “gal” culture at this wiki.

Back to the article: The Japan Times article is sad and dark.  Many of these kogyaru were physically abused as children or simply neglected, and so they repeat this vicious cycle by doing the same to their own children.  One woman in the article beats her children because she thought that what parents are supposed to do.

Another paints the nails of her first-grade daughter and lets her nails grow so long that she can’t hold a pencil.  When the schoolteachers complain that she can’t write and do schoolwork, the mother says that writing with a pencil isn’t important because people type on computers and cellphones now, and she said it was more important to develop the child’s fashion sense early on. The Japan Times writer called the opinion “pre-feminist” but I’m not so sure what to call this other than ignorant.

Just like an expensive Versace  purse, kogyarus treat their children like fashion accessories, as they do their dogs for that matter(topic for another time), and enjoy dressing them up and parading them around publicly, whether or not this is good for the child or if people approve.  They don’t seem to understand that there are serious responsibilities attached to having a child.  One mother watched porn she had starred in with her 5 year old son.  The article’s amazingly shocking.

I don’t know how much of the article’s true.  It’s a translation from one of the weekly papers in Japan, which are often filled with scintilating scandals that sound almost too juicy to be true, and may be fabricated to grab readers’ attention and sells papers, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it all was true.  Sad.

A Japanese Destroyer, the Kongou, successfully destroyed a missile in space from a testing ground off Hawaii on the 17th, during a test of antiballistic systems jointly conducted with the US.

It’s the first time a US ally has used the technology to destroy a missle and marks a major step forward for the US and Japan, who are together developing the technology to counter missile threats from countries like North Korea.

Some in Japan and in Asia, however, complain that the test marks another step in the creeping rearmament of Japan, and will only increase tensions in the region. But Japan’s government feels the missile-shield system is necessary to protect against the threat of missile attack. In the 90s, North Korea tested missiles by shooting them over Japan. They landed harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean, but Japan got the message and is now responding, in my mind, appropriately. had this news video about a 5 year old boy who killed a 445lb. bear while hunting with his grandfather.  And no, not with his bare hands as I had hoped, but with, of course, a gun.

Yeehaw!  Nothing says “fun” like killing animals with your grandson and teaching him to be a man…  Check it out here:

How something like this can be a sport and fun to me is unclear.  For me, sports are games in which you and your opponent are evenly matched, but unless you arm the bear, it’s no contest here.  Even more ridiculous are these fat old men who go off into the woods all decked-out in camouflage to hunt with automatic guns.  I mean, the animal has no chance.  Can we please get beyond the trappings of the hunter-gatherer part of our history as a species and move on to better and more humane times?  Please?

Another disgusting phenomenon is the growth of cottage industries in Alaska, Canada, and other places of guides based on killing large game.  Hunting businesses guaranteeing you “get your animal” bring in rich city-slickers for faux-hunting trips.  They basically take the paying customers right to the bear (or other large game), where after that it’s a matter of putting your finger on the trigger.

And finally, perhaps the most morally repugnant is the safari park hunts, where a company stocks a large number of exotic animals on its fenced-in land, and paying customers come to simply shoot and pick off the animals.  Again, the animals have no chance.  They are simply objects, waiting to be killed for the fleeting adrenalin rush it gives these rich, thrill-seekers.  It’d be different if the hunting  where somehow necessary for our survival as a species, but it’s not.  This is pure, gratuitous destruction of other living creatures and it’s disgusting to watch as a thinking and feeling human being.

Hopefully, younger generations will leave behind this kind of tradition as a thing of the past, and in 50 years or so, these hunts will be more and more unusual.

Scan of Japanese menu courtesy and Google image search. has a funny article (with pic and video) of the new winter special pizza by Domino’s in Japan. Although some were commenting on how gross it looked, I got used to strange Japanese pizza (tuna, mayonaise, and corn) and came to love it. Now, oddly, I kind of miss it, although I love a good NYC slice.

In NYC, my favorite’s of course Carmine’s on Graham Ave. right off the L Train in Brooklyn. Amazing slices in the old, still very Italian, neighborhood. Very Brooklynesque service.

There’s also many Ray’s pizza stores, which according to Wikipedia,  are not related.  The name’s become so ubiquitious that it sparked a “Not Ray’s Pizza” store in south Brooklyn.

Carmine’s on Graham Ave. in Williamsburg.