Formalities

Keigo is the Japanese word for polite or formal speech. Unfortunately, it has a lot of nuances that are very difficult to grasp for the foreigner. Besides the standard “mas”-form that should be used when speaking to strangers (and can be compared to the German “Sie” or the French “vous”), there is the sonkei honorific form and the kenjo humble form. Both of them come with special vocabulary for often used verbs like eat and drink, come and go, etc.

While the vocabulary can be learnt comparatively easily, it is rather difficult to figure out when to use these forms. The honorific is used when talking to (and sometimes even about) people of higher status than oneself. The humble form is used when referencing one’s own actions in the same circumstances. You could see it as a way to make a difference in status clear to everybody who is watching the interaction, or to make sure that the other person is aware that you understand your own (humbling) spot in life.

These nuances are extremely important when doing business in Japan, and it is vital to make the right first impression. Even Japanese who are not used to doing business  may have difficulties here. As a foreigner, I do have a certain amount of leeway, but that only works when I approach somebody in person. The moment I am writing business letters in Japanese, this breaks down, obviously.

For my recent ad letters, for example, it is very important to address the recipient in the correct manner. My friend and I spent about an hour just to get the very first sentence right, which is a simple:

To the General Manager

There are many different versions of general managers out there, from the simple tencho shop owner to the significantly more important daihyo torishimariyaku, the president and CEO. Of course, if you are addressing the general manager of a hotel, you’re speaking to the soshihainin no matter what. 

You see, navigating business in Japanese is tricky. I hope I will swim – or at least stay afloat long enough until I learn to do it properly.

Botanical Gardens

It’s the height of the koyo autumn colors and yesterday, the weather was just perfect: nice, sunny, not too windy… Since I was in the area for work, I decided to take a stroll in the botanical gardens of Kyoto to see their momiji. And it was an excellent decision! The grounds are so vast that people just disappear in them. It would be hard to feel crowded even on so perfect a day as yesterday. Anyway, here are a few photos I took in the botanical gardens yesterday.

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

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.