There’s a great article in the New Yorker this week about a Buddhist monk named Nemoto who has dedicated his life to supporting suicidal people in Japan. More fascinating than the statistics about suicide in Japan (2x the suicide rate of the US, 9th in the world after places like Lithuania, Greenland, Belarus, and China) is the cultural landscape by which killing yourself (and even bringing your children or spouse into the afterlife with you) is considered okay or even honorable. I don’t know how true this still is, or how prevalent among the entire population, but the writer gives several examples to support her case:
When a cabinet minister under investigation for financial impropriety killed himself, in 2007, the governor of Tokyo called him a true samurai for preserving his honor.
Suicidal parents have killed their children, so as not to abandon them to an orphan’s life; by tradition, a mother who killed herself but not her children was thought to be truly wicked.
My favorite part of the article is when Nemoto realizes that the best way to help those who really want help is to encourage them to not just call in for help, but to visit his temple. For some, it turns out, just making the journey from their depressing reality to his safe haven is enough of a picker-upper to change their minds about taking their own lives.
Every Japanese kid at some point in their lives has to do radio calisthenics exercises in the morning. Even though I didn’t go to a Japanese school, I stumbled upon this strange ritual at a local swimming school that my mom took me to for a few months in grade school.
I think this routine should be secret code for how to tell if someone is Japanese. You know, like a fraternity hand shake. I’ve also seen old Chinese people do a similar exercise routine early in the morning in parks all over San Francisco but cannot confirm that it’s the exact same thing. Anyone?
I’m excited and honored that Kenta Koga invited me to teach a course at Gakko Project, a cool new initiative founded by the Yale undergrad to redefine cross-border education between Japan and the US. We’re going to be on Nao Island (Naoshima) from Monday to Wednesday next week. Kenta’s one of those innovative, entrepreneurial young Japanese leaders that we at The Tofu Project want to see more of. Stay tuned for updates from the event next week!
The most entertaining thing I saw on Japanese TV while I was back last week was a special that had the subtitle: The 48 different kinds of ojisan: What one do you like best? Apparently it’s trending right now to study the ojisan zukan (old man almanac). If you’ve lived in Japan, it’s hilarious because you know you’ve all met these old men before. Maybe he was sitting next to you on the subway. Maybe he is your dad, or your husband.
If you’ve ever been in Tokyo in December, you know that you can’t escape Christmas decorations anywhere. When I exit my apartment door, the elevator hall in my parents’ building plays holiday tunes. Big companies sponsor extravagant light displays, mom and pop shops sell reindeer costumes for little dogs, and there are a gazillion different kinds of Christmas trees on every street corner. This one, made of tiny Santa Claus dolls, is one of my favorites. If you want to see it in real life, it’s in Tokyo Midtown.
Yesterday, I spoke on a panel at Cloudforce Japan 2011–an annual event hosted by Salesforce.com. Before my panel, there was a keynote speech by CEO Marc Benioff. The entire room, which fit about 5000 people, was illuminated blue and almost everyone was wearing a suit. During our panel, Mr. Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, made a cameo appearance. We were all on World Business Satellite, TV Tokyo’s daily business news show, last night. Full segment should be online next week.
A big hooray for Taiga Ishikawa who–two Sundays ago–became the first openly gay elected politician in Japan. The 36-year old writer/activist published a book titled Where is my Boyfriend? in 2002, and runs a non-profit that hosts events for gay men. He just won a seat in the local assembly for Toshima Ward.
I know many gay Japanese men who moved here to San Francisco because of the lack of support and acceptance back home. When I grew up in Tokyo, gay men in the public eye were mostly just parodies of themselves on variety shows, or cross dressers, or just totally below the radar.
Ishikawa’s a great advocate for LGBT issues in Japan because he can talk about them without alienating the more sexually conservative masses. In the video below, for example, he distinguishes between transsexuals and gays in a very colloquial, non-preachy tone. “I don’t want to wear a skirt,” he says with a friendly laugh. “I just want to love men as men.” And then he talks about how he discovered he was gay, felt scared and closeted for a long time, and then eventually found out about others like himself on the Internet.
Joi tweeted about this yesterday: an inspirational bullet train commercial has been going viral.
It’s a 3-minute spot featuring a shinkansen making its debut trip across the southern island of Kyushu on March 12, just one day after the earthquake. The commercial was pulled from TV stations in the immediate aftermath, along with all other advertisements–the stations feared inundating people with commercialism after a tragedy would be inappropriate–and just appeared on air a couple of weeks ago. In it, you see school kids in uniforms, farmers, Power Rangers, cheerleaders, and costumed mascots all cheering the train on as it makes its way across the country.
I love this because it’s really representative of Japanese solidarity. It’s really unselfish, non-aggressive, and community-oriented. One of the YouTube comments points out that the conductor and the cameraperson were crying the whole time as people ran alongside the train.
A mysterious and awesome charity trend is taking place all over Japan right now: anonymous donors are gifting expensive school bags and toys at orphanages under the name Date Naoto. Date Naoto is actually a fictional character from the anime Tiger Mask; in the story, the character himself is an orphan-turned-professional wrestler who donates money to the orphanage he grew up in.
There have been more than 15 of these gifts from Date Naoto gifts so far; most of the donors are reported to be men in their 60s.
This is either a great act of anonymous viral charity or an elaborate marketing scheme by the creators of Tiger Mask. Either way, it’s a creative mode of giving and has brought a warm fuzzy feeling to the daily news. Also, how awesome is it that the latest catching trend is one of giving, not of buying?
If you’ve ever spent new years in Japan, you know that it’s full of wonderful cultural details, like eating noodles at the shrine after midnight, drawing your paper fortune from a cardboard box, lucky bags, and the symbolic but not-so-delicious osechi breakfast. I didn’t spent new years at home this year, but when I do, I really enjoy all these little rituals. The one that sometimes throws me off is the hatsuyume, or the first dream of the new year. According to tradition carried forth since the Edo period, whatever you dream about on the night of 1/1 is indicative of the year ahead. If you dream about Mt. Fuji, eggplants, or hawks, you’ll have a particularly fortunate year.
Up until a few years ago, I used to spend most of 1/1 carrying a mental picture of Mt. Fuji, eggplants, and hawks in my head, hoping for a lucky dream. Not quite sure it ever happened for me as organically as it’s supposed to. Can’t remember what I dreamt about last night.
In this highly informative TED video, Sheena Iyengar talks about how the way different cultures perceive choice can affect performances and relationships. The talk starts with a story about her trip to Kyoto: She wanted sugar with her green tea, but the waiter told her that you’re not supposed to have sugar with your green tea; when she insisted, she was told that they had no sugar. Then she ordered coffee, which–of course–came with sugar.
From the Japanese perspective, it’s their duty to protect those who don’t know any better. In this case, the ignorant gaijin for making the wrong choice… they were doing their best to help me save face.
She goes on to talk about how, in many cultures, having lots of choices is not necessarily considered a good thing. In the US, we’re taught that the more choices we have, the freer we are — but is this really true? 18 minutes of very insightful food for thought. Watch!
When it rains, people in Tokyo buy plastic 500 yen umbrellas, purchasable at any train station, convenience store, or pharmacy. When it stops raining, they forget them somewhere. A series of wonderfully creative and sometimes sacrilegious posters remind you to please remember to take your umbrella home with you.
There’s an interesting review and discussion over at Boing Boing about Tonoharu, a manga about an American who gets a job teaching English in a small Japanese town. Reviewers have likened it to Lost in Translation, and there’s a somewhat heated discussion about how racist that movie is in the comments section. Take a peek if you’re interested or want to contribute your two cents!
I love that Mark embedded a video of the famous Pink Lady song UFO kind of as an afterthought. Classic 70s tune written by a good family friend of mine.
I saw some little cloth ghosts on my neighbor’s doorstep this morning (probably remaining from Halloween) that reminded me of teru teru bozu. It’s a little piece of Japanese superstitious folklore — by hanging these little guys outside your window, we believe that we can stop the rain from coming. I distinctly remember making a ton of these out of tissue paper one day before our annual school sporting event, forecast: rain. It didn’t work. But if you want to try it yourself, here’s how:
– Take one sheet of tissue paper and roll it up in a ball
– Take another sheet of tissue, wrap the center around the ball, and tie the nape with a rubber band, letting the loose ends hang down like a dress
– Draw a face on the little guy
– Once you’ve made half a dozen or so, hang them by their necks outside the window
– Sing this song: teru teru bozu, teru bozu, ashita tenki ni shite okure.
This adorable little girl Emily gives a great demo in this video:
According to Wikipedia, the song was written in 1921 and the folklore behind it is kind of morbid: a monk promised a bunch of farmers that he would be able to stop the rain with teru teru bozu, and when he was wrong, he was executed. Brutal!
A new cell phone web site called Luna Luna is a huge hit among women. It’s marketed as a specialty web site where women can ask questions about contraceptives, menstruation, and diet without embarrassment. Asiajin.com estimates that the creators make about $400,000 a month from selling access to this site to 1.8 million users at 180 yen a month. Wow!
We spent the evening last night in Kabukicho, wandering around the yakuza-run streets with an amazing Belgian photographer who has spent six years shooting and hanging out with a famous yakuza family. This man was squatting behind a pop-up yakitori store where I received an offhand marriage proposal from a guy with many knife wounds.