Coronation

The new Emperor of Japan was officially crowned today. It was another special holiday today – I missed that completely – but since the main events of the transition are over, it was also the last holiday.

The ceremony was rather solemn and subdued, with lots of traditional pomp that goes back to the Heian Period, about 1000 years ago. I didn’t have time to watch all of it, but here is a video of the coronation ceremony, it’s about 70 minutes long. Be warned though, there are long, long periods in between where nothing much happens!


From a quick glance at the video, one thing is interesting: The whole family is there in the throne room, plus a few members of the Japanese parliament – but I could not see the Emperor Emeritus or his wife anywhere. The man in the wheelchair is the uncle of the current Emperor, as far as I know, but his father is not present. Interesting, isn’t it?


Performance

Last Sunday afternoon, so as not to get too anxious while waiting for the election results to come in, I did something unusual for me: I was watching paint dry. This is not a joke, I mean it literally!

There was a performance by a young woman called Shintaku Kanako. Essentially, she covers her body with paint of different colors, waits motionless until it dries through body heat, which takes about 20 minutes, and then applies another layer of paint etc. That’s all she does throughout the performances, she just sits on a chair and uses her hands to put paint over her body. Sometimes she’s stretching too (I guess the chair is uncomfortable) but she does not speak or anything. And her performances are long, this one was 3.5 hours in total.

So… yes, that’s what I did last Sunday: watching paint dry for about 1.5 hours. The performance is rather boring to be perfectly honest, the other visitors were most interesting. Another artist from Hikone struck up a conversation, and there was the old guy who took about a gazillion of photographs of her – I found him rather creepy. That’s what is really exciting about the performance: the resulting photographs of her painted body are absolutely stunning. Something is in there that is hard to define, but I find it very compelling. My favourite one is at the main page of Shintaku Kanako’s website. Feel free to check out her other photos there or on instagram.

Blood Type Personality

From times immemorial, people have tried to come up with ways to make sense of another person’s personality. One way of doing so is to use astrology, where the stars you are born under supposedly influence your personality and the good and bad things happening to you throughout your life. A recent and much more scientific take on personality are the Big Five personality traits that are more or less backed up by psychological research and at least don’t try to predict what’s going to happen to you next week.

Japan however – or should I say: of course – is different. Instead of asking a person for their birth date or astrological sign, the standard question asks for blood type. Supposedly, whether you have A, B, AB, or 0 blood type tells people everything there is to know about your personality, and, of course, with which partner you are most compatible. Let’s list some of the traits upfront:

blood types by 200 degrees on pixabay

Type A: kind, compassionate, sensitive, calm, curious, loyal, idealistic, deep and committed but also obsessive, pessimistic, fastidious, stubborn, and easily stressed.

Type B: friendly, outgoing, energetic, expressive, curious, creative, imaginative, independent, and spontaneous but also wild, erratic, not forgiving, selfish, uncooperative, irresponsible, and unpredictable.

Type AB: independent, outgoing, spontaneous, energetic, fun-loving, quick, adaptable, and creative but also complicated, self-centered, irresponsible, vulnerable, indecisive, forgetful, unforgiving, and critical.

Type 0: responsible, practical, strategic, organised, determined, decisive, objective, success-oriented and logical but also jealous, rude, ruthless, insensitive, unpunctual, unpredictable, cold, self-centered and arrogant.

And as for finding the perfect partner: The individual types are best compatible with their own type and with AB, which makes AB blood types the universal donor/recipient in this case.

So, when in Japan, it is good to know your blood type to have a fun conversation topic. Obviously, most Japanese do not believe in this at all, just like most Western people don’t believe in astrology or palm reading. It’s a fun little thing to know and then we all move on with our lives because it doesn’t matter.

Milky Way over Great Dunes National Park, US.

Obviously, we do not know who came up with astrology, that is, with the idea that the stars influence life on Earth into a personal level. Of course, when you look at the sky and see the Milky Way every night and its billions of stars, that conclusion does not appear that far-fetched.

Anyway, concerning the blood type theory, we can pin down its origins to a string of people from Japan. Aristotle already believed that personality is inherited through the blood (and may very well be, if you call it by the modern name genetics). However, it really all started in 1901 when my fellow Austrian Karl Landsteiner discovered the AB0 blood types (he received the 1930 Nobel Prize for this, by the way.)

In 1926, Rin Hirano and Tomita Yashima published a clearly racist article called “Blood Type Biologically Related” in an army medical journal. A year later, a professor at Tokyo Women’s Teacher’s School who had no medical training whatsoever, Takeji Furukawa, published a paper on temperament through blood type. The militarist government of the 1930s loved the idea and used it in an attempt to breed better soldiers and to explain the superiority of the ethnic¬† Japanese over minorities like the Ainu or other countries’ citizens, like the Koreans and Taiwanese. This may have contributed to some of the atrocities being committed in WWII, but thankfully, the idea fell from grace during that time already.

Until, in the 1970s, Masahiko Nomi came along and breathed fresh air into the blood type personality theory, and this time, the Japanese public went with it. Of course, Nomi had no medial training either, but this did not deter him from publishing papers with what he thought was statistically significant data. His son continued in the father’s footsteps, and even established an institute for further research and publication in 2004.

Serious medical/psychological research has been done on the claims of blood type personality, and it did not find any statistically relevant correlations. What little evidence these researchers have found can be explained with the Barnum-effect, with self-fulfilling prophecies, or with similar logical fallacies.

Still, Japanese people are fond of the idea, and blood types are often mentioned in manga, anime, and video games and are even given to serious match making services. To each their own I guess – we have astrology, after all.

PS: In case you’re wondering about me and my blood type: No, it is not true at all what it says about me. I am always VERY punctual!

Hobonichi Techo

Japanese people love notebooks and daily planners. Virtually everybody has a smart/mobile phone these days where you can list your appointments and other stuff. And yet, virtually everybody still owns a diary in book form too.

There are dozens of different types to choose from, from the simple monthly planners that fit into every pocket to the large daily ones that are not meant to leave an executive’s desk. Plus they often come with different covers as well, showing cute animals or famous Disney characters, or they are simply bound in real leather.

It is never too early to get your diary for the next year if you want to have the biggest selection, and in fact, my local book store has started displaying 2020 diaries already a couple of weeks ago. And, wouldn’t you believe it: I just bought a 2020 diary myself today…

Mostly, I am quite practically inclined: As long as the thing is doing what I want it to do, I don’t mind the design; function before form at any time. Also, if something works, I am a very faithful customer, and I will keep coming back to the same thing. For example, my diary for appointments is a small and lightweight affair that I (try to) take with me everywhere. Its simple weekly layout is straightforward and has just enough space for the few appointments I have.

However, I also need a larger planner for my daily and monthly to-do lists and long-term plans etc., and this one stays on my desk at all times. This year, I have been using two separate planners for this, plus another list to keep track of my spending, plus another notebook for random ideas plus a countless number of loose papers for all sorts of things I want to remember or note down for later. Like most of my nerdy friends, I love paper, but it’s a mess, really.

So, I have decided to find a single planner that can hold all my daily writings, from to-do-lists to interesting quotes I find online, from birthday reminders to weight tracking… I went to one of the larger stationery stores in town and spent about an hour looking through most of the planners on display and being slightly dissatisfied with each and every one of them. But just before I was ready to settle for something not-quite-right-but-almost-there, I took one more turn and found the thing:

The Hobonichi Techo. (*)

It’s a nerd’s dream of a daily planner, very simple, and yet with a huge amount of space to write in. It has lots of practical little features, and the smell of the fresh paper… heavenly, I tell you! It comes with a little manga (of course) to explain how to get the most out of it, and the company even has youtube videos to do the same, like this one for the 2020 version:

I haven’t even used the thing yet, and I’m already a fan (that smell alone!) And I’m not the only one, judging from the large amount of unboxing videos for the Hobonichi Techo on youtube. Check out the company website, it’s very interesting, especially the timeline of the last 19 years showing how the Techo started out with 12,000 copies in 2001 and has reached 850,000 copies this year. Fascinating! I can’t wait to use it – and it’s 3 months still to go!

(*) Hobonichi means something like “almost every day” and techo is the Japanese word for notebook or diary. Note that techo is pronounced with a cho like in… chocolate and not like in the English word tech.

Paprika

Paprika
Yasutaka Tsutsui

Cover for "Paprika"Atsuko Chiba has it all: The beautiful and brilliant psychiatrist is on the way to win a Nobel Prize for her work with mentally ill patients, using the PT device invented by her colleague Kosaku Tokita. As her alter ego, the “dream detective” Paprika, she uses the new machines to visit the dreams of patients, where she tries to find out the source behind their problems and attempts to cure them. This part of Atsuko’s work is illegal, but Paprika keeps being called upon by the rich and powerful in need of clandestine treatment.

When a greatly improved version of the PT device, the DC Mini, goes missing, Atsuko and Paprika are quickly drawn into an abyss of unhealthy dreams that take over the minds of colleagues and friends. Together, they need all the help they can get to keep the dream world and its nightmares from invading the real world…

I’m in two minds about this book. I greatly enjoyed the premise and the smart way of mixing dreams and reality. Towards the end of the book, you really don’t know where you are anymore. Unfortunately, Atsuko/Paprika was a typical Mary Sue character: beautiful, highly intelligent, every man would fall in love with her the moment he laid eyes upon her… It got too much pretty soon. Also, despite having a “strong” female main character, the book was full of misogyny. Part of it are the personalities of the two main antagonists, but part of it appears to be the views of the writer too, unfortunately. Saving grace in this respect is that the book was published back in 1993, and hopefully, Japanese views on women have changed in the last 15 years. Not really a recommendation, read at your own peril!

Yasutaka Tsutsui was born in Osaka in 1934 and lives in Tokyo. His works have laid the basis for Japanese postmodern science fiction and he often integrates psychoanalysis, surrealism, time travel, dream worlds etc. A number of his books have been adapted for tv or cinema. He is the recipient of the renowned Tanizaki Prize (1987) and the Kawabata Prize (1989), among others.

Probably the most controversial book I have posted on here. Make up your own mind with a copy from amazon.

Moon Viewing

Last Friday night was a full moon, and the full moon in September is considered the most beautiful by Japanese people. That’s why there are many moon viewing parties going on everywhere, from the expensive dinners and tea ceremonies in quiet gardens to festival-like events with food stalls in shrines and temples, and there are some people who just go out with a can of beer and organise their own moon-viewing picnic.

This year, I took some time out to visit Shimogamo Shrine for their moon viewing event. I live very close to the shrine, so it’s easy to get to, and my choice was partly driven by the cloudy skies that looked like it would start to rain any moment. At Shimogamo Shrine, the full moon is a rather minor accessory to the events, the big thing is a concert of traditional Japanese music. It lasts for three hours, and there are a number of participants. I am not sure if they are the same every year, but this year we had:

Five people playing the shakuhachi to kick off the concert. I was very pleased about that, and I found it quite interesting that my own shakuhachi sounds so much deeper than the ones they played. I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong, actually, that’s very likely since most of the times, I cannot get a tone out of it anyway…Gagaku Musicians

Afterwards we had a gagaku concert – traditional Japanese court music. It is still not my thing, I find it excruciatingly boring, and I am wondering if the people back in Heian times really and honestly enjoyed this kind of music.

Then, a large troupe of koto players took the stage, and this was the part I enjoyed most. They played very lively and modern sounding pieces, but from the reaction of the spectators next to me who could hum the tunes alongside the musicians, I guess that the pieces must have been very old and popular ones.

The biwa music that followed was less exciting to be honest, but still my fellow spectators knew the tunes. I could not help wondering whether half of the musicians were Buddhist priests or nuns – shaved heads and all.biwa musiciansAfter a biwa solo recital and one more fun koto part, we got to the highlight of the evening: another gagaku concert. This time, however, the music accompanied dancers, which made the whole experience much more bearable. We had three dances, first four children dressed in butterfly outfits, then two men who might have been courtiers, and finally, a single performance of a demon, complete with mask, sword, and spear.Kids dancing as butterflies.

The dance movements were extremely formalised, almost stiff, to be honest, the dancers didn’t look very graceful. Only the demon at the end was allowed to brandish his spear in a more realistic way, it must have been a part for a very advanced performer. Still, all the costumes were fantastic and elaborately decorated, it was a joy to just look at all the details. I am sure the colors and embroidery have some hidden meaning, but even so, they were lost on me.Demon Dance

I bought a ticket for reserved seats in front of the stage and I did not regret it – standing for three hours is no fun at all. The ticket also included a cup of green tea with sweets, but I would have had to leave my seat to get it. I thought about it and, looking back, I should have just gone during the first gagaku concert, but it was fine anyway. In the end, I had a nice evening – and when I walked home, the moon came out from behind the clouds for a brief “good night”.

Nishijin Asagi Museum

As I mentioned in my last post, I fell down a craft hole last week, and one of the places I visited was the Nishijin Asagi Museum, one of the very small private museums that are often only accessible via prior reservation.

As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to Nishijin weaving, an old Japanese handicraft where colored threads of silk are used to produce patterns in the final fabric. This technique is not unique to Japan, mind you, but Nishijin ori takes the whole thing up a notch – and has done so for centuries. Besides carefully dyed silk, the use of real gold, silver, or platinum is one of the hallmarks of Nishijin ori. This makes the coloring of the fabric last for a long time, but also prevents an obi or kimono from being washed.

Rimpa paintings - nishijin oriNishijin ori is known for its delicate images that are woven into the fabric, and the Asagi Museum has a large collection of fantastic pieces that look like painted. In fact, many of the pieces on display are recreations of famous paintings from the Japanese Rimpa school to Buddhist images to Western Impressionism.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the topic, so I will just share some of my images. If you want to know more about the museum, or see many more pictures, here’s their homepage (unfortunately only in Japanese…): http://asagi-museum.jp/

Rimpa school - irises - in nishijin ori

The above is a reproduction of a famous painting by Ogata Korin. These two folding screens “Irises” from the 17th century are a National Treasure and rarely exhibited; in the original they each measure 1.5 by 3.3 meters, and to be¬† honest, don’t look quite as neat as these here.

Van Gogh Starry Night in nishijin ori

Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a famous painting, and this is a reproduction in silk fabric. It was displayed in a darkened room with only fluorescent light, hence the interesting coloring of this image.

Clothing with Nishijin Fabric

This is taking Nishijin fabric into the modern age. Pieces of different fabrics were used to make these clothes. I did not dare touch them, but I am wondering how they would feel to wear; my impression of Nishijin fabric is that it is rather stiff. It’s probably okay for the jacket in the middle (I could see myself wearing this), but the dress, I’m not so sure.

Gray Men

Gray Men
Tomotake Ishikawa

Gray Men book coverRyotaro has had enough of the relentless bullying at his workplace. As he is sitting on a park bench ready to commit suicide, a mysterious man in a gray suit sits down next to him, claims to be able to see what Ryotaro is up to and convinces him otherwise. After Ryotaro has helped the man with a jewellery heist in broad daylight, he is introduced to other people who were saved from the brink of death. Together, they are ready to implement and even die for Gray’s plan to destroy the current rule of the One Percent and to give power back to the disenfranchised of society.

This is an extraordinary thriller I found hard to put down. The things the rich and powerful do – and get away with – are depicted in gory detail at times. And when at the end push comes to shove and Gray threatens to take it all away from them, you see the real lengths they are willing to go through to protect who they are and what they have. You are left wondering how far fiction goes and what might really go on behind those expensive facades.

Tomotake Ishikawa, born in 1985, works in an office as a salaryman like millions of other Japanese. He writes in his spare time and on commutes. Gray Men is his debut novel and in 2011 won the Grand Prize of the second annual Golden Elephant Award (an open literature award for full-length novels written in Japanese).

If you need something quick and easy (and a bit disturbing at times), Gray Men is available at amazon.

Shibori

Shibori is the Japanese method of tie-dyeing, a type of resist dyeing where parts of the fabric are prepared (in this case: tightly tied with thread) before dyeing so that the tied parts of the fabric remain the original color.

Shibori, or rather: tie-dyeing or resist dyeing methods have sprung up all over the world and can be traced back to as early as the 2nd century. Simple methods of resist dyeing meant simply crumpling up the cloth before dyeing, but methods have evolved to include the use of wax or stencils etc. Tie-dyeing came to Japan from China in the 7th century and has been refined to create the art of shibori.

A multi-colored piece of Shibori

Shibori with its tiny and delicate patterns reached its peak in the Edo period, where shibori fabric was produced in many places of Japan. Especially farmers would work in the shibori industry – meaning: binding the cloth – during the off-season when there was not much work to do on the farm. Unfortunately, nowadays, shibori is only produced in Nagoya and Kyoto, and because it is still largely a very time-consuming handicraft, the number of craftsmen and -women who can do it is declining.

Shibori comes in many different forms, depending on the way the fabric is tied. The most delicate type of binding the fabric is called hon-hitta shibori, the finished tied beads are only 2mm in size; this is entirely handmade and an experienced craftsperson can make around 300 of these beads per day.

This was the standard type of shibori before the machine-type hari-bitta shibori was introduced, “machine” being simply a metal holder with a needle to help pinching the fabric before tying it. While the process is still a handicraft, this tool has sped up production to about 3000 beads per day.

Tool for needle shiboriOther methods that fall under the shibori umbrella are tie-dyeing with larger objects like plugs made from wood or acrylic; using wooden boards like a stencil; sewing patterns into the fabric with strong thread etc. Probably the most interesting one is where the cloth is placed carefully in and outside of a wooden tub, the parts inside the tub remain white while the ones outside will be dyed in the respective color. This so-called oke-shibori technique can produce very striking, large-scale patterns.

Tub shiboriThe shibori process is very involved and takes a number of steps, each of which is carried out by a specialist. First, a pattern is created and from it, a stencil is made. Using the stencil and a special type of water-soluble dye, the pattern is transferred to the fabric. Then, the fabric is tied according to the pattern. If there are different types of shibori to be included, each one is given to a specialist in the respective type of binding. However, no matter how large the piece is, one type of binding is always given to a single craftsperson because to achieve a uniform appearance in the final piece, the strength of the binding must be the same throughout.

Once all the fabric is tied it is called a shirome and now it is given to the person who is actually dyeing it. Again, this is a handicraft, and the color depends on factors like the type and heat of the dye and the amount of time the fabric stays in it. Only after the piece is completely dry will the fabric be unbound (again by an expert) and afterwards, it will be steamed to make it flat. With this method, a finished piece of shibori will never be completely flat but will retain a bit of a 3D structure, which is the hallmark of good shibori.

Simple Shibori FabricAs mentioned above, nowadays shibori is only produced in Nagoya and in Kyoto (and a few surrounding places). Nagoya shibori is made on various materials including cotton, but the kyo kanoko shibori of Kyoto only uses silk fabric. Because of the fact that they are still handmade, shibori items are rather expensive, but it does depend on the pattern and the dyeing. The more intricate the pattern, the more colors, the more expensive. Still, given that a whole kimono done in hon-hitta shibori can have up to 200,000 of little tied beads and can take years to complete, the prices are understandable.An affordable shibori kimono.For more information on shibori, visit the Kyoto Shibori Museum. Their exhibits are stunning and they also offer short classes to make your own (simple) shibori piece.

Cicadas

Summer in Japan means essentially three things: heat, humidity and cicadas. There are about 3000 different species of cicadas worldwide, and Japan itself is home to around 30 species, which can be easily distinguished by their different songs.

The most common cicadas in Japan are the so-called abura semi which literally means “oily cicada”, since their song resembles the sound of frying oil (to the Japanese at least). Even though abura semi are among the largest cicadas here – they measure up to 40 mm – and you hear them everywhere in summer, they blend perfectly into the trees and are very hard to see.Abura semi in tree

The Japanese abura semi are a yearly species. They emerge in mid July as adults (imago) and from then on live, sing, and mate until late August to early September. Their larvae survive in the ground where they feed off tree roots until they emerge again in the next summer. This is when there are many empty shells left on low leafs and bushes, and it is easy to see that summer has started.A molting cicada

Cicadas don’t come alone, they sit in trees and bushes by the hundreds and sing together to attract females. Every species has its individual song, and they can be extremely loud. Some species can generate up to 120 dB, among the loudest of all sounds produced by insects, rivaling chain saws. And as cicadas can sing for hours, it can get very annoying over time, and it seems a bit unfair (although totally understandable from an evolutionary point of view) that males can disable their “ears” while singing to prevent hearing loss.

How the cicada’s song is produced is very interesting: Essentially it’s by training their muscles! Male cicadas have so-called tymbals (noisemakers) in their abdomens, and they click every time the internal muscles are flexed, and a second time upon relaxing them again. In addition, the abdomen of male cicadas is pretty much hollow, which amplifies each click. When many cicadas come together, these clicks blend together to a single soundscape where individual clicks or even a single insect are not distinguishable at all.

Another interesting tidbit about cicadas is that they cannot jump, but they do fly. They are not dangerous at all to humans, but when one of those large abura semi comes right at you with a deep buzz, it can be quite scary. Besides their perfect mimicry which makes them hard to see on the trees they sit on, they also practice “playing dead” when they are being disturbed. In the last weeks, I have nudged quite a few cicadas that were lying on their backs in front of my apartment, just to have them fly off again with some extra indignant clicks.A young cicada

As mentioned above, cicadas are one of those beloved Japanese insects that are often used to denote a season in art. While the Japanese don’t eat them like the Chinese do, they are significant in Japanese culture. And although they may not make quite as pretty a motif for paintings as the grasshopper, cicadas have inspired many poets over the ages because they signify the shortness of existence.

The song of the cicadas leaves nothing visible from their near death.
Basho