Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kissing In Japan

I read somewhere (probably Wikipedia) recently that kissing is a relatively recent phenomenon in Japan. Up until about 1900, if an unsubstantiated quotation is to be believed, there just was no romantic kissing. Coming from a culture with a long history of kissing, romantic as well as in greeting, this is hard to come to terms with. Kissing seems like such an obvious, natural thing to do, how can one not kiss? But there are in fact cultures that do not kiss.

I first came across this notion, that kissing is not an instinctual act but a learned custom, in a novel (I forget the name). A Bronze age Germanic chieftain attains immortality and travels around the world, ending up in India where he first encounters kissing. Sure enough, India was one of the first kissing cultures. This blew my mind. Then, sometime recently, I started wondering about the history of kissing in Japan.

There is very little information about this online (in English, at least). But from what I know about kissing in Japan today, it could very well be true that it is only a recent import.

First of all, it's my understanding that traditionally the mouth was considered an unclean place. This is why women cover their mouths when they laugh, and married women in the feudal age blacked out their teeth. You also clean your mouth as well as your hands with water to purify yourself before praying at a shrine or temple. If it's unclean, it makes sense you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time in another person's mouth.

Kissing in public is considered bad manners. Kissing seems to be associated specifically with sex, and not with the more innocent showing of affection as it is in the West, where greeting kisses are common. This article in the NY Times from 1995 talks about young people kissing in public and how horrible it is to the older generation. It also suggests that public perception of this is changing and soon won't matter so much. I don't think I've ever seen people in Japan kiss in public, so it must be more entrenched than they thought in 1995. In fact, couples don't really even hug in public. The only way you can tell that a couple is indeed a romantic couple is when you see them together all the time.

The kissing as foreplay argument is covered here, in an excerpt from a TV show where foreigners argue with Japanese men about showing affection to your wife with a kiss. The Japanese men counter that kissing is something they do when in a heightened emotional state (i.e. foreplay), so why do it any other time?

I find this endlessly fascinating. Has anyone else come across any information on this subject?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Review: Shinjuku Mad

Director: Koji Wakamatsu

Koji Wakamatsu made underground movies in the late '60s and early '70s. He was working within the pink genre, which meant they were essentially pornos, but as long as there was the requisite simulated sex scene every 20 minutes nobody cared what else he showed. And what he showed was usually violence.

In films like Go, Go, Second Time Virgin and Ecstasy of the Angels, Wakamatsu explored the nexus of sex and violence, with the films taking place in claustrophobic, single-room apartments. He was also interested in young people, student activism and the coming revolution, when the old ways would be thrown out in favor of a more egalitarian society.

Shinjuku Mad was released in 1970, a year after student activism reached its peak with the shutting down of college campuses in Tokyo. Although his previous films were critical of young people, his sympathies still lay with them. However, Shinjuku Mad seems to be going another direction.

The father of a slain young man comes to Tokyo to find the killer, known as Shinjuku Mad. The police are no help so he sets out on his own, poking around in (sometimes literally) underground coffee bars and crash pads in Shinjuku, then ground zero for the Japanese counter cultural movement. He's straight-laced and square but he's not insensitive to young people. In fact, he likens what they're doing to the architects of the Meiji Restoration, the men who helped bring Japan out of its feudal age.

It's clear Wakamatsu and his usual screenwriter, Masao Adachi, have more respect for the honest working man of Japan than the "revolutionary," who talks a lot but never does anything except squabble with others. Even more than the fact that Shinjuku Mad feels like a real movie, complete with coherent plot and resolution, it's this aspect that surprised me the most. That a revolutionary filmmaker should take the position of the conservative working class says a lot about how he felt about the state of the revolution.

Wakamatsu and Adachi were definitely on to something. A few years after this, the Japanese Red Army, of which Adachi was a former member, would self destruct in a one-room cabin in the woods, killing 14 of its own members and eventually having a stand off with police. Wakamatsu last year made a movie of these events, which is fitting because the event itself seems to have come straight out of one of his films.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Last Train

There's an interesting piece in Metropolis about the phenomenon of missing the last train in Tokyo. Anyone who's been to Tokyo and stayed out late has had to tangle with the last train, or likely even missed it. Trains stop running frustratingly early, and, as the author of the Metropolis piece points out, taxis are expensive. He then goes on to offer that missing the last train might be some kind of face-saving exercise, an excuse to let loose.

I wonder.

Lots of places have last trains, including Seoul, one of the places he mentions as being not like Tokyo, convenient bay comparison. And apparently Seoul is also not big, like Tokyo. Um, Seoul is massive. But if you're visiting, perhaps you're staying at a centrally located hotel. This goes for New York as well. No trains? Just split a cab with your coworkers. It's a bad argument because the situations are different. Yes, Seoul cabs are cheap, but NY cabs are just as expensive as Tokyo's, and if you live in the buroughs it sucks just as much as living outside the Yamanote loop.

OK, so the fact that the trains stop running around midnight is annoying. I've missed a few in my time. I like to walk so didn't mind hoofing it, even when it took 3 hours to get home. Usually I would just plan to miss the train and stay out all night. But the way the article paints it, missing the train is a license to party hard. As if Japanese people need this excuse to drink a lot.

The trains stop at midnight. So why are people smashed and falling down at 7pm? You think these people need an excuse? If anything, the fact that people know the trains will stop may encourage them to drink more, faster, so they will in fact not miss it.

If you do miss it, what do you do? If you've been smashed since 7pm you probably can't see so you pass out in front of the station gates and wake up when they open at 6am. Or you crash at a capsule hotel (it's why they're there) or a manga cafe, which the author oddly sites as a reason people might purposely miss the last train. Has he ever even been to a manga cafe? They're not that great, and sleeping in a chair in a cubicle is no good time.

No, people stay out all night because it's fun. All over the world people do this. Whether there's train service or not.

Film Review: Yellow Fangs

Director: Sonny Chiba

For his 1990 directorial debut, Yellow Fangs, Sonny Chiba seemed to have it all: a great story about bear hunters in early 20th century Hokkaido on the trail of a killer bear with a taste for woman flesh; a cast featuring his Japan Action Club, starring Hiroyuki "Henry" Sanada, and headed by Bunta Sugawara; and the beautiful, snow-covered mountains of Japan's northernmost island. Unfortunately, he also had the worst bear suit ever.

Sonny Chiba is no stranger to bad bear suits. In fact, he actually fought one in 1977's Karate Bear Fighter. As with that film, the bear suit only appears in Yellow Fangs when it's time for a closeup. The rest of the time it's a real bear walking around. But oh man, those closeups are hilarious. Imagine suddenly being attacked by a mangy bear rug, with the head and mouth being operated like a puppet. Scary, that's not.

The movie also has some issues with physics. Now, I'm no expert on early 20th century Hokkaido frontier houses but I'm pretty sure that structural integrity would be compromised if, say, a 7-foot-tall Asian black bear jumped on the roof. This is assuming, of course, that such a bear could leap two storeys to said roof. Also, sliding on your butt down snow covered hills—even in slow motion—is not that exciting and a waste of JAC talent.

However! There is one amazing scene involving a real bear. The hunters advance on a bear that they think has been killing the women. They chase it into a clearing and just as Henry (also composer of the synth rock score wailing behind him, what a guy) is about to take a shot, a dog leaps at the bear. Cut to surprised Henry. Cut to supposed-to-be-cute-but-isn't-really female owner of the dog. And cut to the bear and the dog fighting. Actually fighting. A real bear mauling a real dog. The dog is then thrown away by the bear suit, the girl shoots, and the poor bear (the real bear) stands up, dances around, and appears to be tripped or pulled down by wires. It's not often you get to see that in the movies anymore. Thank you, Sonny Chiba, for that scene of horrible animal cruelty.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Bad Old Days

It's funny the things you get nostalgic for. You'd expect that it would be for all the things you remember fondly, the good times but never the bad. But this is not the case. At least, not for me.

I was talking with a Japanese friend today about numerous things, among them tea, which prompted a memory of drinking hot herbal tea purchased from a vending machine on a cold day. In case you didn't know, Japan is jam-packed with vending machines that offer drinks heated or chilled, depending on the season. Winters are cold, so often while waiting for a train home from school I would buy a heated bottle of tea to warm up with. I'd hold it in my hands for awhile before even opening it, letting it warm the skin on my hands. Then I'd drink a little, let the warmth seep inside, and then hold it a bit longer. Sometimes the train wouldn't come for 30 minutes and there was nowhere warm to wait. So I'd be standing there, freezing, with that little bottle of warm tea.

And then there's summer. Hot, humid, sticky. Just terrible. I loathed even going outside. I preferred to just sit inside with the A/C turned way down. But of course I had to go outside. And after walking around in the heat all day, there was nothing better than a mug of draft beer. I'm telling you, absolutely nothing tastes better than an icy mug of Japanese beer on a hot day. And it really is an icy mug. The beer is served so cold ice crystals form on the head. It's magical.

I remember these two things vividly, these wonderful little moments encountered amidst temperature extremes. Perhaps that's what makes them worth remembering. It's not the bad that I remember, but the wonderful good that could only be experienced from having had the bad too.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What's Wrong With San Francisco Japantown?

I go to the Japantown in San Francisco often. It's my lifeline to things Japanese, and I like to browse the magazines and books at Kinokuniya. But after a Japanese friend of mine called it "depressing" I can't help but feel the same way. She's right. Despite how crowded it gets on weekends, the place still feels uninspired and bland, and if I eat there I always leave dissatisfied. What's going on? Why is it like this?

It wasn't always like this. San Francisco's Japantown is the oldest in the country and first sprang up when Japanese Americans, displaced by the fire after the 1906 earthquake, relocated to the Western Addition, which was spared destruction thanks to the fire break of wide Van Ness Ave. The area around Geary and Fillmore was a vibrant community until Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into concentration camps during World War 2. After the war, many returned, and in 1968 what was a rundown part of the area was reborn as the Japan Center, essentially a mall for Japanese culture. The courtyard across the street from the pagoda was completed in the mid-'70s.

So what happened? I'd say the first mistake was moving everything into an enclosed space. I'm sure everyone had good intentions but this mallification of culture is kind of creepy. Not to mention that it's always hot and gross inside the Japan Center.

But the major force behind what's wrong with Japantown is that it's ceased to be relevant to Japanese people. Japanese people don't live in the area en masse anymore, so to continue to be attractive to Japanese people the place must exist as a destination spot. But aside from the book store and grocery store, which provide necessary goods, the rest of the "town" is superfluous.

What keeps the place going are tourists and weekend shoppers, who mostly come for the restaurants. Now, I might be setting myself up for a fall here, but I just don't like eating in restaurants where the ethnicity of the cooks doesn't match what's on the menu. And in Japantown, it seems like a lot of the restaurants are run by Chinese and Korean people. (Actually, this is true all over San Francisco.) If the food was good I wouldn't complain, but it's not. It's terrible.

I guess the issue here is Japanese people aren't opening restaurants in Japantown. If you want good Japanese food you have to look hard, often outside of the city. San Mateo has a lot of good places, as does the South Bay. Like LA's Chinatown, the original people have moved out to be replaced by a new group.

As a comparison to San Francisco's Japantown, I'd like to offer Sawtelle, a strip of Japanese shops and restaurants in West Los Angeles. Also known as Little Osaka, Sawtelle has a lot of the same things as SF's Japantown, with a distinct difference. It also has Japanese people. The food is good, the shops modern and relevant. There's even a Giant Robot store. Two, actually.

I'm not asking for some kind of ethnic purity. That would be ludicrous. But I am asking for vitality. Getting scowled at when I ask for water doesn't cut it. The New People store, for all its faults, is a step in the right direction, as is the new Daiso discount store. Why did Sweet Breams, a gourmet taiyaki shop, open in San Mateo and not SF Japantown? Why do we have to drive all the way to Sunnyvale to go to an izakaya? Why is the best restaurant in Japantown, Doobu, not Japanese but a Korean restaurant? The Japan center needs to encourage new business and bring in new excitement. The Miyako mall (not the main mall but the other one) is dying, with lots of store fronts just sitting empty. But the fact that the Japantown website is basically just a glorified ad for the parking lot says a lot.

San Francisco Japantown is one of only three official Japantowns left in the US (the others are Little Tokyo in LA, and San Jose, both of which are also dying). If SF Japantown doesn't make itself attractive to new Japanese business people, it's just going to get worse. Browsing for magazines is fine, but based on how lively Sawtelle is, it could be a whole lot more.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Yakihito V2.0

What's this? Yakihito V2.0? Yup, I've decided to restart Yakihito on a new site. I've been shelling out $10 per month for the last three years and it seems like a really unnecessary thing now. I'll also be doing my movie reviews here, which I used to do at Slash and Burn.

OK, thanks for reading. これからもう頑張ります。