Who wore it better?

Narendra Modi takes every opportunity to do some yoga:


He tweets about it often (there was a flurry of yoga-related tweets last night for Maha Shivaratri).

Now comes the turn of Shinzo Abe:


According to the caption that’s actually zazen meditation, but close enough.

Who wore it better?


Glass Houses


Japan’s reputation as a nation of uptight, overworked weirdos has been overstated internationally, but make no mistake, the Japanese language is indeed a polite one. Any second-year student of Japanese can tell you at least three ways to say “I’m sorry” with varying degrees of formality, and a quick way to get yourself labeled an idiot foreigner is to use excessively informal language when speaking to a superior. It’s also a language that’s poetic in its grammatical simplicity, two things that might help explain why interpreters are struggling to translate Donald Trump’s bigoted comments and stream-of-consciousness ramblings into Japanese at all.

“He is so overconfident and yet so logically unconvincing that my interpreter friends and I often joke that if we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid,” professional interpreter and translation professor Chikako Tsuruta tells The Japan Times. Trump’s presidency has stirred presumably exceedingly civil debate amongst the country’s interpreters, who are divided over whether to polish Trump’s phrasing in translation or interpret it exactly as it falls out of his little orange mouth. The problem isn’t the difficulty of the words themselves—a study conducted last year by Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute put Trump’s vocabulary at a seventh-grade level—but rather the fact that when they’re not offensive, they make no goddamn sense, and translating that while maintaining your professional dignity can be difficult.

But as retired interpreter-turned-university professor Kumiko Torikai puts it, although she would personally struggle with repeating Trump’s misogynistic and xenophobic comments, “As an interpreter, your job is to translate the words of a speaker exactly as they are, no matter how heinous and what an outrageous liar you find the speaker to be.” She adds, “If Trump is not making sense, you don’t get to make sense, either.” Explaining what the hell is going on with his handshakes can’t be an easy task, either.


Which is ironic because Trump is a model of concision and lucidity compared to 99% of Japanese political speeches.

Because Japanese is a such a polite, contextual language, and because Japanese politics is almost entirely uninterested in policy (not joking: studies have been done), most Japanese political speeches are largely filler. And by this I don’t mean inane inspirational statements of the hope-and-change-make-America-great-again variety, I mean it in the linguistic sense – filler words and phrases: “actually”, “on the other hand”, “if you think about it” etc.

As Takeo Doi put it back in the 70s:

That the Japanese language is so constructed as to be particularly conducive to the effect of ambiguity is well known. For instance, Japanese verbs come at the end of the sentence. Therefore, unless and until you hear the whole sentence, you wouldn’t know where the speaker stands. This apparently gives him a psychological advantage, as he can change his position in anticipation of your possible reaction to it. However, it may happen that you are often left wondering whether he really means what he says. Also, there is the case of numerous auxiliary words in the Japanese language, which primarily function as adhesives of other words and sentences. Since I am not a student of Japanese grammar, I cannot adequately explain them except that they roughly correspond to conjunctives, interjections or auxiliary verbs in English. Contrary to English, however, those Japanese equivalents have a very unique feature of faithfully reflecting the speaker’s reaction to the changing situation. That is why we can do without pronouns in everyday conversation, a fact which may occasion ambiguity at times. Other factors too, create ambiguity. Take conjunctives, for instance. In English they provide logical connections. Not necessarily so in Japanese. Rather, more often they serve only to cement and induce the speaker’s free associations. At the same time, they may help to hold the audience’s attention. So, whether spoken or written, Japanese communication is usually quite loose in logical connections. You can go on talking for hours, even gracefully, without coming to the point. That is why it is sometimes extremely difficult to render a Japanese speech or article into English.

The power of narative, Part 2

I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that

Another one for the that’s-just-not-what-crime-does files:

Japan and South Korea recently came to a deal regarding compensation for former South Korean comfort women.

As a result there have been a certain number of think-pieces in the press analysing why it is that Japan has finally decided to do the right thing after all this time, and concluding that it’s probably a result of US pressure. Which makes sense, right? It’s the old narrative that we all know so well from childhood. You drop your sister’s My Little Pony off a bridge in a fit of pique, she cries, you refuse to display any contrition at all, and then daddy comes along and makes you apologise and shake hands and be friends again. That’s how it works, as the media experts have been keen to explain to us:

The fact that it was not was largely the fault of Mr. Abe and his right-wing political allies who kept questioning history and trying to rewrite it. Mr. Abe had earlier expressed remorse and promised to honor his predecessors’ apologies for Japan’s aggression, including on the issue of sex slavery. But he always added vague qualifiers, creating suspicions in South Korea and elsewhere that he didn’t take the apologies seriously. His words this time are more persuasive but he must be careful not to let his right-wing allies undercut them.

Beyond acknowledging its moral responsibility to make amends, Japan had practical reasons to put the matter to rest. Japan-South Korea tensions had gotten so bad that bilateral trade and efforts to work with the United States in opposing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program suffered.


An unequivocal apology from Japan has been long overdue. Now, more than 70 years after the end of the war, Japan and Korea have decided to “finally and irreversibly resolve” the issue. Japan has declared it is “painfully aware of its responsibilities” and its prime minister Shinzō Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences”. Japan will give 1bn yen to a fund for surviving victims (46 “comfort women” are still alive in South Korea today). The South Korean president Park Geun-hye has spoken of “building trust, and a new relationship” between both countries.

Strategic considerations have certainly helped the two countries to reach this point, after decades of strained relations over the wartime record. Japan and South Korea have come to recognise they need better security cooperation in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea – something their mutual ally the United States has wanted to encourage.


Now, consider that after all this time, as we are heading into 2016, Japan has formally acknowledged and is apologizing for their participation in a shameful  part of history that was largely ignored until now.  Kudos to the Prime Minister and Japan.


Marvellous, isn’t it? The goodies won, the baddies admitted they were wrong, and now we’re all going to work together to contain China in a US-led coalition, just like in the olden days.

Unfortunately, to quote Ben Goldacre, I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that…

To have a good and memorable narrative, it is necessary that the victims be pure and innocent and good, which has not been the case here. While the comfort women themselves are certainly blameless, the South Korean government has rarely if ever missed an opportunity to act like a dick on the subject. As we’ve discussed here before, the comfort women were, for decades, treated as pariahs and collaborators, until South Korea’s politicians realised there was diplomatic hay to be made from them, and henceforth wheeled them out at every possible opportunity:

After Korea’s liberation in 1945, she said, former comfort women erased much of their memories, like their hatred of “their own parents and Korean recruiters who sold them.” Instead, she wrote, they were expected to serve only as a “symbol of a victimized nation,” a role foisted on them by nationalist activists to incite anti-Japanese feelings and accepted by South Koreans in general.

“Whether the women volunteered or not, whether they did prostitution or not, our society needed them to remain pure, innocent girls,” she said in the interview. “If not, people think they cannot hold Japan responsible.”


Moreover, while Japan has made repeated attempts to apologise and compensate the victims, the Korean government has always found a reason to reject the attempts. In one particularly glorious episode, former comfort women who accepted compensation from Japan were vilified by South Korean politicians and media. The political capital that can be made from the peculiarly South Korean brand of victim nationalism being of more value to politicians than either compensation or apologies. Why accept a deal when all you’ll get out of it is the same apology you’ve heard a million times before plus a bit of cash for some old ladies that you never actually cared about to begin with? Much better to go on stoking the fires of xenophobia. As the Hankyoreh puts it: “the perpetrator must keep their head bowed until the victim is satisfied”. And if the victim is never satisfied, then so much the better. (We’ve covered the particular Japanese and Korean cultural traditions surrounding apologies here. Long story short, in Japan refusing to accept an apology makes you look – if anything – worse than the original offender. In Korea you can quite happily crow over the person doing the apologising until you get bored or arrested, which ever comes first.)

In fact, rather than this deal being the result of a decision by the Japanese leadership to own up to historical crimes, it is the product of South Korea’s decision to finally accept one in a very long series of apologies.

US pressure was involved, but it was US pressure on South Korea. There has also been increasing pressure on the Park government from the domestic press – frightened of a rising China and increasingly tired of the US alliance – to be less inflexible in its dealings with Japan.



The Hereditary Principle

Anyone recognise this bishounen?

Shinjiro Koizumi

10/10, would elect

You soon will: it’s Shinjiro Koizumi. Or, more trendily, just plain Shinjiro, according to his rather snazzy website: https://shinjiro.info/

Shinjiro Koizumi

The text, by the way, is a play on his name. “進めよう。次の世界のために、ともに新しい国つくりを。” means something like “Onwards.  For a new world, building a new Japan together.” It’s pretty inane, even by political slogan standards, but it does have the inestimable advantage of containing the characters 進 and 次, which are both a part of his given name (進次郎).

And yes, he’s the son of former PM Junichiro Koizumi. He has been a Diet Member for a while, but his appearances in the media have increased quite a bit over the past few months, and is already being spoken of in the media as a possible future PM.

He has been much admired for his humble, straight talking yet polite attitude, though the grumps at 2ch remain to be convinced:


“The Shinjiro juggernaut rolls on”
“Lately we’ve been seeing this guy all the time, it’s irritating”
“Lol at the state of the opposition that has this sort of leftwinger in it getting irritated for such a pointless reason. Heheh.”
“What has he actually achieved?”
“Why ask the question? He only went and shook hands with people after the disaster.”
“Abe = ferociously anti-Korean. Shinjiro = ferociously anti-jealous leftwing loser gen Ys.”
“If this guy becomes PM Japan is finished.” (continues…)

If you want to enjoy the Halloween parade video that I took the screengrab above from in full, you can find it here.

Don’t mention the war

The Japanese internet has been amusing itself lately with these photos of Prince Andrew, the Lord Mayor of London’s wife and some Arab guy apparently bored witless by Xi Jinping’s speech at the London Guildhall*.

Xi Jinping, Prince Andrew

Xi Jinping, Prince Andrew

To be fair, the speech was nearly half an hour long, which is a good strong dose, even for the most consenting of adults. It’s not surprising that at some point both Gillian Yarrow and Air Miles Andy would have let the facade slip a little.

What’s interesting is the spin put on it by the Japanese viral content aggregators at Buzz Media. Translated:

Visiting England, China’s President Xi Jinping addressed both Houses of Parliament for the first time on the 20th. [T.N. This is obviously incorrect, but we’re not looking at Pulitzer-class journalism here.]

He pointed out that both countries had fought against the “Japanese aggression” in World War Two.

Xi’s unrelenting criticism of Japan was not limited to that remark, coming as it did after the formal opening of the banquet during which he once against stressed “Japanese brutality” during the War.

The effect of China’s constantly harping on its anti-Japanese historical viewpoint can be seen in the following photographs…

For those of you who persist in caring about such trifles as facts, Buzz Media has, in fact, confused its speeches. Xi brought up Japan at the Buckingham Palace dinner, which did indeed take place on the 20th. The Guildhall event was on the 22nd. I have no idea whether he also brought it up at the latter dinner. (You surely don’t expect me to actually listen to the thing?)

The Buzz Media piece goes on to tease Xi about his apparent ignorance of the convention that one does not air one’s grievances at mealtimes. It also speculates that the fact that Prince Charles was not present was a subtle snub on the part of the British establishment (unkind wits may well suggest that a far greater snub would have been to oblige Xi to sit next to him, but there…), and quotes a twitter post listing other real or imagined slights towards Xi on the part of the British. Namely: the Queen kept her gloves on to shake hands (she always does this), and that they had him give an interview in front of a poorly screened toilet door (which, admittedly, is pretty funny).

It also compares pictures of the Pope addressing a packed house at the UN and of Xi addressing a large proportion of empty chairs.

*Yes. Guildhalls are a thing that we really have. No dragons, warlocks or dire wolves though, sadly.

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

A friend of the Kimono counter-protest guy just published a long and extremely calm and reasonable blog post summing up the counter-protesters’ role in the Kimono Wednesdays fiasco. You can find it here.

In case you missed the earlier stories about this event, and that post is tl;dr, here’s the short version:

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has recently taken to holding ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ – wherein visitors get to try on a kimono like that worn by Claude Monet’s wife in La Japonaise. Every week a selection of social justice types have been turning up to protest because they feel that this is cultural appropriation, orientalist and racist.

Actual Japanese people who have heard about this have been mostly puzzled and a little sad that liberal activists should apparently be convinced that they are being victimised by all this, and feel that the unstoppable progress of the Japanese soft-power juggernaut is actually a reflection of white supremacy. One guy – Timothy Nagaoka – even started showing up in a yukata with his own sign to protest against the protest. He’s on the left in that photo. Ironically, he is the only actual Japanese person in that picture. He is not super happy about the work the activists have been doing to preserve him and his culture from unconscious American racism.

For a great deal more on this, see the blog post above.

ETA: apparently one of the SJWs is Japanese-American too, sorry about that.

Patriotic to the end

Nakamura Kanzaburo

Photos from the funeral of actor Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII (yes really, kabuki actors have long pedigrees) have been doing the rounds in Japan lately.

Which is slightly odd, as Nakamura died in 2012.

It’s been revived because the widow is wearing white, which was was traditionally the colour of mourning in Japan, until black became more popular in the 20th century. The article says that according to one story, black came into vogue during the Russia-Japan conflict, because everyone’s white mourning kimonos were getting so much use that they were starting to look shabby. Black shows the dirt much less.

The article goes on to say that white symbolises a declaration to never remarry, and given the Nakamuras’ tempestuous marriage, it is particularly touching to see Yoshie (the widow) wearing it.

It ends up saying:

‘These sort of customs seem to be fading in modern Japan, but if the media takes up the good old traditions could once again have meaning and benefit for a new generation.’

From an Asian point of view, this is pretty interesting. Throughout the 20th century, the rest of Asia admired and even idolised the Japanese success when it came to adopting Western technology while preserving Japanese culture (this was a Meiji-era slogan: 和魂洋才). Leaders like Park Chung-hee, Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew all saw it as a model to emulate, though they didn’t always make too much noise about the fact.

Now, it would almost seem that the situation has been reversed. The idea of using modern technology to further traditional goals has grown increasingly popular throughout the rest of Asia (it’s often refered to as 體用, a term which started life as an ancient Confucian concept), notably among countries that are increasingly coming to see any manifestation of a return to cultural traditions in Japan as a militaristic threat.

The need for speed


Trains are omnipresent in Japanese pop culture. If you have had any contact with it – and who hasn’t? – you will probably have noticed that authors and artists love including trains in their work, even when it’s not strictly necessary. Especially when it’s not strictly necessary. There’s even an entire genre of train-based fanart.

The reason is obvious: for many of Japan’s 19th century inhabitants, the train was their first introduction to Western industrial modernity. Imagine you are a feudal peasant seeing a steam engine for the first time: impressive, isn’t it? (The manga/anime Gintama brings the idea closer to modern audiences by imagining a scenario in which 19th century Japan was forced to open up not by Perry and his black ships, but by an alien civilisation, with technology far in advance even of the 21st century.) Indeed, this idea of the huge culture shock that trains provided is so prevalent that various academic studies have been published on the subject.

Interestingly, China also experienced an encounter with a terrifyingly swift and powerful foreign technology that marked its art and literature for years afterwards: the horse.

If you read through classical Chinese poetry, you can identify almost exactly the same romantic attitude towards the horse as you find towards the train in Japanese literature. During the early centuries of China’s history, the Middle Kingdom’s own equine stock was… well… stocky. These days they would mostly be considered ponies rather than horses per se. They could be ridden (historical texts refer to this) but were generally used for pulling carts and chariots.

At some point around the second century BC, however, the Chinese began importing horses from the nomads of central Asia, and this was the game-changer: the ‘blood-sweating heavenly horses’ of Ferghana. Taller and faster, they could be ridden in combat and provide troops with far greater speed and agility than had previously been the case.

And, just as with the train in Japan, the horses became a symbol not just of speed and power, but also of foreign-ness – a reminder of the barbarians at the gate. In poetry, you will often find them mentioned in conjunction with the wild Northern borderlands, used in flights of romanticism by respectable and decadent court poets.

Which is all very well, but why mention it on a blog devoted to contemporary discourse analysis?

Because CCTV is keeping the legend of the blood-sweating heavenly horses alive via its English-language Facebook page (yes, Facebook is banned in China; that doesn’t mean that the authorities are willing to ignore its existence, however). Isn’t that nice?

(If you’re wondering why the horse didn’t have the same impact in Japan, it’s because most of Japan’s working horses were bred from a small stock of (shortish, fattish) Mongolian horses imported via Korea in the largely pre-literate Yayoi period, rather than being imported on a large scale, so while changes in size, quality and riding techniques did occur, they happened slowly over time and were thus less impressive.)

Korea moves


Korea is an odd place. Both Koreas, in fact.

You know all those weird stories that you hear in the West about China and Japan? Stuff like the human jiaozi and the used panty vending machines? Well in China and Japan, the stories about a country where disturbing shit happens all the time are all about Korea. When the Japanese are regaling each other with stories about how strange a place is, then you know it’s really strange.

The excellent Hopes and Fears blog touched upon Korea’s eccentricities in an great piece about the K-pop machine, just recently, in which it noted that:

These assemblages of imagery are ridiculous and enthralling, recalling the disorienting alogic of dreams. They speak to a taste for sensory overload, a luxury unfamiliar to a newly-rich nation trying to prove itself as often and ostentatiously as possible. K-pop isn’t subtle, but it’s easy to understand the genre’s widespread appeal: it’s pop in its purest form. Larger-than-life, indulgent as a bowl of buttered popcorn, it’s satisfying in a way that so much Western music, with its pretensions to refined edginess, is not. Unlike the sulky Lana del Rey, who moves in a gauzy miasma of hip mystique, K-pop is highly legible. Idols are beautiful, poised, and successful, it loudly proclaims. By admiring them—and purchasing the associated merchandise—we can share in their aura.

Though K-pop encompasses a wide range of sensibilities, its many iterations are uniformly reliant on tropes that convey this common, uncomplicated message. Some artists are clearly trying to parrot American hip-hop artists: CL, of the popular band 2NE1, emulates Nicki Minaj in the video for her single “The Baddest Female,” where she sports grills and a chain—and, later, a flannel buttoned at the collar, a riff on the heyday of West Coast gangsta rap. Other artists, Super Junior, EXO and Beast among them, cultivate a Bieberesque look designed to appeal to teenyboppers who scrawl hearts in their math notebooks. Their videos abound with frosted tips, heartfelt gazes and sentimental gestures. (The music video for Beast’s “No More” explores a quintessentially angsty teen breakup through the filtered lens of Instagram, showcasing the agony each newly-single party experiences upon witnessing the other’s battery of selfies.)

Other artists are up to something different—something with no Western analog. Prime among them is the wildly popular group Girls’ Generation, which was created in the image of the “kawaii” aesthetic originating in Japan. (Interestingly, one former and two current members were actually born in California.) The girls in question are cute, cuddly, and ultra-feminine. In the video for their hit “I Got a Boy,” they cohabitate in a giant pink house where they host a perpetual slumber party, wearing their hair in pigtails and drinking out of dainty teacups. Clad in a baby-doll dress, one of the girls timidly ventures out to meet a male love interest. She is scandalized when her date reaches for her hand, and delighted when he crouches to tie the laces of her gem-encrusted sneakers.

But it also goes deeper than that. Korean culture has always been fond of borrowing and repurposing. To a certain extent, it has had no choice in the matter, being colonised repeatedly by Chinese, Japanese, Americans and Soviets. However, it has also made a tradition of going above and beyond the required levels of hommage to the colonisers, despite arguably, being The Racistest Place on Earth (I would like to point out here that I have never, personally, encountered anything but cheerful courtesy from any of the Koreans I have met – from both the North and the South).

However, when one borrows cultural institutions, there is a tendency to adopt the form but abandon or misunderstand the function. Much of modern Korea’s Confucian rigidity is actually a leftover from the Japanese occupation, when the locals copied the occipiers not just to survive and thrive, but also because – though no one will admit it these days – they rather admired and appreciated Japanese achievements. The result is that modern South Korea is, if anything, more ‘Japanese’ than Japan. Where Japan moved on and developed into a more relaxed society, South Korea essentially retained many of the social mores of the Imperial age. Moreover, the replication was never entirely faithful.

So, while Japan has a highly entrenched shame culture coupled with an emphasis on situational morality and collective responsibility, these features have evolved organically and it is possible to trace the individual and social logics behind their manifestations. Apparently pointless politenesses and rituals can be traced back to their origins and thus explained. (If you’re interested, much of Japanese etiquette is tied in with concepts of self-respect, and should be understood not so much as a matter of exaggerated deference to others as taking pride in one’s own image and ‘polished self-presentation’.)

Korea, on the other hand, arrived on the scene in medias res, and so – a lot of the time – the adoptees of Japanese manners were aware of their outward manifestations, but much less so of the philosophy that underpinned them. Moreover, Japanese culture has also developed a number of safety valves to avoid the more troubling manifestations of such an uncompromisingly image-focused culture. One example would be the formal apology, which often functions as a sort of generalised get out of jail free card. As has been pointed out here before, refusing a formal apology in Japan often incurs a severe loss of face on the part of the refuser, and is always shocking even when you suspect that he has a point.

In Korea, on the other hand, it’s no biggie: the person being apologised to is in a position of power, and may accept or refuse more or less at their own discretion. So, in other words, a formal apology won’t necessarily procure you any practical advantage or help you regain face, but you still have to do it. What became a handy way to negotiate conflicts without violence became a show of dominance and submission. (This is also often the case in China too, where criminals are wheeled out to apologise on tv, but receive little or no leniency as a result, though in the Chinese case the tradition was also influenced by communist notions of self-criticism).

But what does this have to do with K-pop?

Well, let’s look at the original comment:

These assemblages of imagery are ridiculous and enthralling, recalling the disorienting alogic of dreams. They speak to a taste for sensory overload, a luxury unfamiliar to a newly-rich nation trying to prove itself as often and ostentatiously as possible.

Well, possibly, yes. That’s one explanation, and it’s certainly the one that someone who had known Korea as a poor nation would jump at. The problem is that the vast majority of the consumers of K-pop, even within Korea itself, have never known a poor Korea. They don’t see Korea as a developing country struggling to keep up, any more than the teen and 20-something inhabitants of Leipzig think of themselves as East Germans.

In fact, the imagery of K-pop is only confusing if you expect it to make sense. The K-pop machine has borrowed symbols and aesthetics from rock and rap that do have a meaning and an iconography when viewed in the context of American musical history – and particularly black history. In a US context, it’s possible to trace the evolution of bling post-Flava Flav or situate the dirty South aesthetic within a large historical picture (Matt Daniels does it very entertainingly). When these tropes and styles are adopted by Korean artists, however, they lose that context. They effectively become purely aesthetic choices, with no deeper meaning behind them.

Which is actually kind of cool.

And it’s not just a one-way transfer from West to East. There are examples in Western pop culture too. Take this guy:

KatospellM Bison, right?

Actually, it’s Yasunori Kato, the character upon whom M Bison was based, although it’s a rare US or European gamer who’ll recognise the hommage (Japanese gamers got it immediately). Moreover, Yasunori Kato is not a character created out of thin air himself – he is a deliberate reference to the links between Japan’s Shinto revival and its pre-war militarism, as well as various other historical legends dating back to the Hei’an era.

Gwen Stefani did a similar thing consciously with Harajuku Girls – borrowing a random grab bag of Japanese pop culture tropes and repackaging them out of context – and got a lot of drearily predictable criticism for it from the usual SJW suspects.

And then, if it comes to that, Japan is also a great borrower. Take the example of the shinigami. Literally ‘death god’, it is a local equivalent of the grim reaper. It is so prevalent in Japan that people claim to have seen it, and a good proportion of people will, if asked, guess that it is a part of shinto tradition. In fact, while a few regions of Japan can bost traditional boogeymen going by the name of shinigami, the shinigami that we know today is not an equivalent of the grim reaper, it is the grim reaper, imported by mangaka to fill a narrative niche, it escaped the page and went free range, stalking the Japanese countryside in the manner of invasive alien fauna everywhere.

So what’s the conclusion to be drawn?

Well, probably that when it comes to culture, possession, as we used to say in law school, vaut titre.