Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

March 30, 2012

Sake from Ibaraki Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Ibaraki is the most northeastern part of the Kanto, lying between the ocean and Tochigi, and between Fukushima and Chiba. The northern part is mountainous like neighboring Tohoku, the rest is flat, with some large lakes. There is a scenic coast in the north as well. The capital Mito is a pleasant art city with a famous plum garden, Kairakuen.

Ibaraki is the prefecture with the largest number of sake breweries of all Kanto prefectures (44 in 2015). The area of Ishioka, north of Lake Kasumigaura, was once dubbed "the Nada of the Kanto" and one still finds many breweries there with long histories (among them two of the oldest in the country). One sake area stretches west from Ishioka to the foot of Mt. Tsukuba - there are also several makers of soy sauce and miso here. Another sake area is in the northern part of Ibaraki, along the Kuji River - the scale here is smaller but there are several unique breweries.

Association Yeast No. 10 was developed by Mr. Ogawa Chikara at Meiri Shurui in the prefecture and is locally still called "Ogawa yeast." The prefectural technology center has set up a brewing technology division ("Miki Tsukasa Ibaraki") which has been active in developing new yeast strains (YS-44) and new sake rice (Hitachi sake 17-go). A new, very fragrant type of yeast is M-310.

The overall taste of sake from Ibaraki is soft and a bit sweet (due to the soft water one finds here), although  the sake is also fresh and not too heavy. Also the Yeast No. 10 plays a large role here, leading to a quiet type of sake with little acidity.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order)
  • Fuku Shogun (Meiri Shurui, Mito). Est. in the Ansei period (1854-1860). "Deputy Shogun," so named of popular hero Mito Komon, who was the second lord of the Mito domain and reputedly a sake lover. The Ogawa yeast mentioned above was developed at this company and results in fragrant sake and little acidity. Also produces shochu and umeshu. The Meiri Shurui Bessyunkan can be visited for the museum with archives about the company's history; tasting is also possible and there is a shop. Reservation only necessary for groups. A 20 min. walk or short taxi ride from the South exit of Mito Station.
  • Hitorimusume (Yamanaka Shuzo Co., Ltd., Joso). Est. 1805. "Only Daughter." Specializes in dry "Nada-type" sake although using soft water (water from the nearby Kinugawa). Also fills the brewing tank in two stages instead of the usual three. Built on left bank of the Kinogawa river and buffeted by cold winds from Nikko in winter, so ideal surroundings for Kanzukuri (brewing in the cold season). Upon advance application brewery visit possible. 
  • Kikusakari (Kiuchi Sake Brewery, Naka). Est. 1823. "Full bloom of Chrysanthemums" (the flower representing the emperor, as Mito was an area with many imperial loyalists in the 19th c.). Known for its fresh and fruity, prizewinning ginjo sakes. Has diversified into brewing local beer "Hitachino Nest Beer," as well as wine making and shochu production. You can brew your own beer on the premises. Also makes a red, sweet-and-sour sake with Kodaimai, an ancient black variety of rice. Operates a shop, tasting corner and soba restaurant. 5 min walk from Hitachi Konosu St. on the Suigun line that runs between Mito and Koriyama.
  • Sato no Homare (Sudo Honke Inc., Obara). "Local Pride." Holds the oldest written records regarding sake brewing, going back all the way to 1141. Present owner is the 55th in the family line. Only brews Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo. Has been drawing brewing water from the same wells for 800 years. Brewery visit possible upon advance application. 10 min by taxi from Tomobe st (stop of Super Hitachi from Ueno).
  • Wataribune, Fuchu Homare (Fuchu Homare Brewery, Ishioka). Est. 1854. "Pride of the Capital." Wataribune is the name of an old sake rice, which has been revived by this brewery for one line of its sakes (Wataribune is in fact one of the parents of Yamada Nishiki).
Ibaraki Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

March 29, 2012

The Best Films of Okamoto Kihachi

Okamoto Kihachi (1924-2005;岡本喜八) was born in Yonago, attended Meiji University in Tokyo, and then was drafted for the war in 1943, during the most hellish phase of the struggle. Wanting to become a film director, in 1947 he entered the Toho studios and worked as assistant for Naruse Mikio, Makino Masahiro and others. Okamoto debuted with a film of his own in 1958 and made 40 films during his lifetime. For about half of them, he wrote the scripts himself. He worked in various genres, but became most famous for his period films and his war films, both characterized by over the top violence and a cynical outlook. His earliest films were mainly noirish, hard-boiled gangster movies. His first notable film was Desperado Outpost (1959), a black comedy about the absurdities of war.

Okamoto's international reputation rests on the period films he made in the 1960s. These include the nihilistic Sword of Doom, the severe Samurai Assassin, the humorous, "spaghetti Western" Kill! and The Red Lion, a film showing that authority always ends up exploiting the weak. All these films are intensely violent.

His later films were less succesful and include some curious hybrids as Dixieland Daimyo (1986) about a group of black slaves who have drifted to Japan, and East Meets West (1995), about a samurai sent to the U.S. to prevent the signing of a treaty between both countries.

Okamoto Kihachi worked for Toho where he was constantly eclipsed by Kurosawa Akira and Kobayashi Masaki. Yet he had his own sardonic style and simple message: there is no honor in violence, he says. History is an invention of those in power. Okamoto's heroes are usually outcasts, who have rejected established social codes.

Selection of Films:
  • Desperado Outpost (Dokuritsu gurentai) (1959)
    Bitter tale of a sergeant (Sato Makoto) in Manchuria in WWII who joins a tribe of bandits after his commando has been wiped out by Chinese forces. 
  • Samurai Assassin (Samurai) (1965) 
    Film set in the "bakumatsu period" of the 1860s, about Niiro (Mifune Toshiro), a ronin who dreams of samurai status. He falls in with a group of assassins planning to kill the shogunate's councilor, unaware that the man is his own father. 
  • The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge) (1966) 
    Nakadai Tatsuya plays a sociopath samurai who is drunken with killing and goes completely berserk. Based on the novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned) in fact fits very well. 
  • Kill! (Kiru) (1968)
    Two ronin - an ex-samurai and an ex-farmer - get caught up in a local officials' complex game of murder and betrayal. Again with Nakadai Tatsuya. 
  • Red Lion (Akage) (1969) 
    Mifune plays a peasant who dreams of glory as a warrior, again in the Bakumatsu period. He is manipulated and cheated on all sides, but what strikes the viewer is the enormous energy Mifune puts in his role. And that red wig is just great!
  • Zatoichi and Yojimbo (Zatoichi to Yojinbo) (1970) 
    Katsu Shintaro as Zatoichi and Mifune Toshiro as Yojimbo face off in one of the later installments of this popular series. Perhaps not the best, but great fun all the same. Don't watch it before first seeing Kurosawa's Yojimbo and at least one or two other installments from the long Zatoichi series, or you will lack the necessary background information..
  • Rainbow Kids (Daiyukai) (1991) 
    Three crooks kidnap the richest woman in the area, but somehow kidnappers and kidnapped seem to reverse roles in this light comedy.
  • East Meets West (1995)
    Sanada Hiroyuki as a samurai trekking through the Wild West in this genre mash-up.

March 27, 2012

Zhuangzi (Best Non-Fiction)

The Zhuangzi has always been one of my favorite texts, thanks to the humor, the wild flights of fantasy, the imaginative stories and parables, the poetry of its language. And of course its philosophical stance, which is a combination of relativism and skepticism, bound together by an all-pervading holism. At the same time, it is one of the most influential works ever written in Chinese, both within the Chinese tradition (think of poets as Tao Yuanming, Su Dongpo, Yang Wanli etc, as well as Zen Buddhism) and Japan (Basho!).

[Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream by Ike no Taiga]

The core of the Zhuangzi may be of slightly earlier date than the Daodejing (around 270 BCE). These are the so-called Seven Inner Chapters usually ascribed to the historical Zhuangzi (about whom virtually nothing is known except that he lived in the last three quarters of the 4th century BCE). Besides that, the book contains writings by anonymous followers of Zhuangzi's school and others who were sympathetic to it (the Outer Chapters 8-22 and Miscellaneous Chapters 23-33).

The Zhuangzi shares the philosophy of the spontaneous changes of the universe, with which the sage should try to be in accordance, with the Daodejing. Zhuangzi considered the moral patterns of the Confucians and other philosophers as artificial constructs of humans. The universe operates according to spontaneous processes and therefore humans should act spontaneously as well (translator Burton Watson calls this freedom). However, humans have the tendency to make artificial distinctions, thus removing themselves from the spontaneous processes of the natural world.

The playful style and fictive anecdotes in the Zhuangzi have the purpose to help readers break out of their habitual and artificial distinctions. That is why we have Confucius renouncing ritual, or he Sage Kings giving up their positions.

The philosophers of ancient China faced the same problem: how to live in a world of chaos and suffering. While the Confucians and others came with concrete action plans, the mystic Zhuangzi said: free yourself from the world.

When a man named Nanrong Zhu came to visit Laozi, to ask for instruction, the Sage promptly asked: "Why did you come with all these people?" The man whirled around but there was nobody behind him. Of course Zhuangzi means here the baggage of old ideas, of conventional concepts of right and wrong that we all carry about. We must first discard these before we can be free. We human beings are the authors of our own suffering and bondage. Zhuangzi sums this up in the image of the leper woman, who "when she gives birth to a child in the deep of the night, rushes to fetch a torch and examine it, trembling with terror lest it look like herself" (Burton Watson, p. 4).

Zhuangzi tries to shock us out of our bondage by paradoxical anecdotes, nonsensical remarks and pseudo-logical discussions. Another deadly weapon he uses is humor - the very core of his style.

Zhuangzi is the philosopher of naturalness, of spontaneity. By just following nature, everything will be best. Applied to politics, this means the world will be ordered automatically, a spontaneous order without need for (too much) government.

In the same way, death is not to be feared as it is only one of the many natural transformations. Without believing in an afterlife, Zhuangzi just tells us to trust nature:
Zhuangzi's wife died. When Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing... [...] (When Huizi admonished him, Zhuangzi answered:) "You are wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there has been another change and she is dead. It is just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter. Now she is going to lie down peacefully in a vast room..." [modified from Watson, p. 191-92]
The most famous story of the Zhuangzi is the "butterfly story" (here modified from the free Legge translation):
Once Zhuangzi dreamt that he was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, enjoying itself. He did not know that he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, and was himself again, the veritable Zhuangzi. But he did not know whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming that he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be a some difference. This is called the Transformation of Things.
In China this epistemological story is so famous that it has become idiom ("Zhuang Zhou Meng Die").

The Zhuangzi is such a difficult text, also for Chinese, that you should do yourself the favor of selecting a translation by a specialist in Chinese. The best complete translation, in my view, is still the one by Sinologist and prolific translator Burton Watson, published by Columbia University Press in 1968, which is still available (just as in the case of the Daodejing, there are some terrible "translations" on the market, made by non-specialists who have put their fantasy to work on the basis of older translations - even Penguin Books has "sinned" in this case).
Burton watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Columbia UP, 1968) 
Burton Watson, Early Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 1962) 
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 2001
A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court Publishing Company, 1989) 
The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article on the Zhuangzi.  

Best Non-Fiction


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Food & Drink
Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson



The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering
Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

March 26, 2012

Okamoto Kanoko (writer)

Okamoto Kanoko (1899-1939; 岡本かの子; real name Onuki Kano) was a tanka poet and novelist  active in the years before WWII. She was born in Tokyo's Aoyama into the wealthy and distinguished Onuki family. From a young age she was carefully tutored in the Japanese classics, music, dance and calligraphy. She became highly accomplished and developed a charismatic personality. She was also precocious in other ways - she had many boyfriends and eloped with one of them.

When in Middle School she was inspired by her brother Onuki Shosen, who wanted to become a poet. He also introduced her to Tanizaki Junichiro. At age sixteen she started contributing tanka poetry to magazines as the famous Myojo (published by Yosano Akiko and her husband Tekkan). Her style in tanka was influenced by the passionate poetry of Yosano Akiko. Okamoto wrote her whole life tanka and published four poetry collections (a selection has been incorporated in Makoto Ueda's Modern Japanese Tanka).

In 1910 she married the cartoonist Okamoto Ippei whom she had met two years earlier. Their first child, Taro, was born a year later, and went on to become a famous avant-garde artist. Two more children died in infancy. At about the same time, also her brother Shosen and her father died - and her husband offered no support whatsoever at this crucial time. Okamoto had a nervous breakdown which caused her to turn to religion, and she would publish several books and essays on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and also give lectures on this subject.

Her marriage with Ippei was a very free one, on both sides. Okamoto Kanoko was something of a femme fatale and continued to see other young men and even persuaded her husband to let one of them live in their house.

In other to develop herself further as an artist, in 1929 she moved with her husband and son (plus one of her boyfriends) to Europe. They visited Paris, London and Berlin before touring the United States, and returned to Japan in 1932. Her son Taro stayed behind in Paris to study painting - he would only return to Japan after the death of his mother.

Her first story, Tsuru wa yamiki ("The Crane Falls Sick") was published in 1936 in Bungakkai with the support of Kawabata Yasunari, who was a constant admirer of her work. It is a biographical sketch about the last years of the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke, who had committed suicide in 1927. Okamoto met Akutagawa in the summer of 1923 in Kamakura, where he was staying in the same hotel. They had casual meetings and conversations. Four years later she saw him again, ruined by illness and looking like a sick crane. When she heard of his suicide she regretted not having talked to him at that occasion, as she thought she might have saved him. The work, although controversial (Tanizaki opposed its publication in Chuo Koron because of the unflattering portrayal of his sister-in-law, an actress for whom he wrote two film scripts), was a sensation and Okamoto received so many invitations to write from magazines that she worked at a furious pace - she wrote all her fiction, more than 30 short stories and novellas, in only three years time, from 1936 to 1939. In that year she died of a stroke, at the age of just forty-nine.

Okamoto's protagonists are often beautiful and dangerous femmes fatales, as in the work of Tanizaki Junichiro. For Okamoto, women are a life-giving force, like the ocean. The two keywords in her work are obsession and desire. She was not interested in social criticism. Her style is rich and highly rhetorical -it has a classical ring to it that reminded me of another baroque writer, Izumi Kyoka. Although Donald Keene calls her style "overblown," and takes her task for her "improbably similes and glittering neologisms," translator Tanaka Yukiko admires her "passages of unparallelled beauty." John Lewell calls her style "ornate and intense."

Perhaps because of this gaudiness and the difficulty of her prose, Okamoto is not a popular writer in present-day Japan. Only two anthologies of her stories are available as bunkobon. In English, several of her stories have been translated, but unfortunately scattered over different anthologies and scholarly journals. Recently, J. Keith Vincent has published beautiful renderings of two stories (see below) - I hope more will follow, for Okamoto Kanoko deserves it. Why not publish all her fiction in English?

Selected Works:
  • Tsuru wa yamiki ("The Crane Falls Sick," 1936).
    Her first story, a document about the writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (see above). Aozora Bunko.
  • Konton Mibun ("In a Chaos," 1936).
    Kohatsu, a swimming teacher, faces a dilemma: Kaibara, a man who has supported her and her father financially, wants to marry her. But she prefers another admirer, Kaoru. She asks Kaibara to wait until after an important swimming contest. During the contest, she swims far out to sea... Aozora Bunko.
  • Boshi Jojo ("Mother and Son, a Lyric," 1937).
    A rather narcissistic autobiographical story that examines the passionate love of a mother towards her son who is in Paris to study painting. With almost incestuous feelings she pursues a young man who seen from the back resembles her son. Aozora Bunko.
  • Hana wa Tsuyoshi ("A Floral Pageant," 1937).
    Depicts the relationship between an overpowering woman and a sick man. She is devoted to flower arrangement and at 38 still unmarrried. He, from his side, will not marry her because she should devote herself to her art and not nurse a sick man. At a succesful exhibition she receives the news of the death of her lover... Aozora Bunko.
  • Kingyo Ryoran ("A Riot of Goldfish," 1937). 
    Mataichi has spent almost 20 years to breed a rare species of goldfish, which should exceed the beauty of Masako, a young woman living in a house on a cliff above his goldfish ponds he admires from a distance. Success does not come easy, but one passion fuels the other. Finally, he finds a wonderful type of goldfish in an old pond into which he has thrown defective specimens.  Aozora Bunko. Translated by J. Keith Vincent (Hesperus Press).
  • Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi ("The 53 Post Stations on the Tokaido," 1938).This story tells about a compulsive traveler who explores the historical and literary sites along the old Tokaido highway, even when he has to sacrifice his family for his obsession. Aozora Bunko.
  • Rogisho ("Portrait of an Old Geisha," 1938).
    Kosono, an elderly geisha, supports a young mechanic who dreams of becoming an inventor. But when the plans come to nothing, he feels trapped by her. She, however, doesn't release him and in fact seems to be siphoning off his young life force. Aozora Bunko. Translated in the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories.
  • Sushi ("The Sushi," 1939).
    About an elderly gentleman visiting a sushi shop, not so much because he likes fish, but because it calls up memories of his mother. Aozora Bunko.
  • Shokuma ("The Food Demon," 1939).
    The story of a pauper from Kyoto who teaches himself to be an accomplished chef to escape drudgery. Aozora Bunko.  Translated by J. Keith Vincent (Hesperus Press).
  • Karei ("The House Spirit", 1939).
    A young woman is destined to take over the family restaurant. She believes that submitting to her fate will cost her her happiness, but each time she is drawn back by an unseen hand. Aozora Bunko.
  • Kawa Akari ("The Gleam of the River," 1939).
    A search for Buddhist deliverance. Kinoshita doen't want to marry as he dislikes women after seeing the ugly quarrels between his mother and foster mother. He finds peace as a sailor, sailing around the South Seas.
  • Shojo Ruten ("Vicissitudes of Life," posthumous 1940)
    A search for identity by a young woman facing marriage. Choko's father was a wanderer who was adopted into a distinguished family. She feels she has something from his character and finds it diffcult to settle down. Finally, she goes to the ocean in the company of an idiot beggar. 

Based on information about Okamoto Kanoko from Japanese women novelists in the 20th century; Modern Japanese Novelists by John Lewell; and Dawn to the West by Donald Keene.

March 24, 2012

Japanese floral calendar

Japan has flowers for every season and that is how the hanagoyomi, the floral calendar, was born, listing the favorite flower or tree for each month of the year.

Here is one example of such a list (for certain months there are variants although cherries are always linked with April!):

January - pine (matsu)

February - plum (ume)

[Plum trees in Osaka Castle's Plum Garden]

March - peach (momo)

April - cherry (sakura)

[Cherry blossoms in Ninnaji Temple, Kyoto]

May - azalea (tsutsuji), peony (shakuyaku), tree peony (botan) and wisteria (fuji)

June - iris (shobu), hydrangea (ajisai)

July - morning glory (asagao)

[Lotus flower in Hokongoin Temple, Kyoto]

August - lotus (hasu)

September - bushclover (hagi) and other "seven grasses of autumn"

October - chrysanthemum (kiku)

[Maple splendor in Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto]

November - maples (momiji)

December - camellia (tsubaki)

March 22, 2012

Japanese Masters: Ariyoshi Sawako (writer)

Ariyoshi Sawako (1931-1984; 有吉佐和子) was a novelist born in Wakayama City, and the native scenery of the broad River Ki and its green valley, leading inland from Wakayama City, plays a large role in her work. Four of her novels and five short stories have been translated, so she can't be called "unknown," but her oeuvre is large (more than 100 novels, stories, plays, essays and travelogues) and it is good to have a look at the total of her endeavors.

Ariyoshi Sawako spent part of her youth in Java (her parents returned in 1941 to Japan) and was educated at Tokyo Women's Christian College, where she studied literature and theater. The theater - especially the Kabuki - and other traditional performing arts formed her lifelong passion. She graduated in 1952.

In 1956 Ariyoshi made her literary debut with Jiuta, a story set in the strict world of traditional Japanese music. Jiuta are traditional songs accompanied by the shamisen. A jiuta singer, head of a lineage, has trained his daughter in the hope that she will be his successor, but his hopes are shattered when she decides to marry a foreign husband and move to the U.S. The father-daughter conflict is central to the story.

In 1959 Ariyoshi studied a year at the Sarah Lawrence College in New York on a Rockefeller scholarship, with the theater as her subject. Back in Japan, she worked for a publishing company and at the same time continued writing highly acclaimed short stories and novels, many of them dealing with traditional Japanese performing artists. This interest in the theater also influenced her style. In her novels, there are frequent dramatic confrontations between the characters and she had a great talent to write lively dialogues. She also wrote plays for the theater as well as scripts for TV.

Ariyoshi was a prolific and very talented novelist. She often raised social issues and women's issues in her novels. Ariyoshi traveled extensively to gather material for her books; she also wrote travel essays. During her lifetime, she was very popular: nine of her novels were filmed, four others made into TV films. Today, her popularity has somewhat decreased, but she is still studied and her best novels remain in print.

Ariyoshi was a typical storyteller. Her characters are often propelled by a certain feverishness that also grips the reader, such as the fierce competition between mother and daughter-in-law in The Doctor's Wife, or Okuni's obsession with dancing in The Kabuki Dancer.

Ariyoshi's numerous novels can be divided into six groups depending on the subject matter.

First we have novels about traditional performance artists. Besides the above mentioned Jiuta this group includes:
  • Izumo no Okuni ("The Kabuki Dancer," 1969), about Okuni, the woman who in the late 16th century "invented" a new form of dance that was an early incarnation of the Kabuki theater. She performed on a stage along the bank of the Kamo River in Kyoto. The novel vividly depicts the historical background as well as the rivalries in Okuni's troupe. Translated into English by James R. Brandon, who is a specialist on the Japanese theater in general and Kabuki in particular (published by Kodansha).
  • Tsuremai, ("Dance for Two"), about the rivalry between two sisters born into the Kajikawa family of traditional dance. 
  • Midaremai ("Disorderly Dance"), a sequel to the previous novel, which takes the rivalry between the sisters one step further when the Iemoto, the head of the school, dies. 
  • Ichi no Ito ("One String"), about a young woman who falls in love with a man who plays the shamisen in the Bunraku theater.
  • Kaimaku beru wa hanayaka ni ("Let the bell for the curtain rise sound gorgeously"), a mystery novel set in the modern theater world.
Secondly, novels and stories set in the world of geisha and bar hostesses:
  • Shibazakura ("Moss Pink"), a novel about two geisha with very different characters, the one, Masako, very serious, the other, Shimayo, more frivolous; 
  • Keko ("Flowers and Incense," 1965), about the relations between two geisha living in the years between Meiji and the War, a mother, Ikuyo, who is rather vamp-like, and her daughter Tomoko, who forgives her wild streaks. 
  • Here also belongs The Tomoshibi (Tomoshibi, 1961), a short story translated by Keiko Nakamura in The Mother of Dreams about a kind bar hostess.
Then we have a group of historical novels.

  • Here belongs in the first place Ariyoshi's most famous work, Hanaoka Seishu no tsuma ("The Doctor's Wife," 1966). Dr. Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835) was the first in the world to operate a patient under a general anaesthetic (in 1804), with techniques which go back to both Dutch and Chinese medicine. Ariyoshi studied his personal papers for her novel, but the famous doctor is not the main character in the book: that is firstly his wife Kae, and after that his mother Otsugi. The rivalry between these two women for his attention is central to the novel and propels the story forward. While he is still developing the powder called tsusensan (a herbal mixture also containing some poisonous elements) they compete for the "privilege" of being his first human subject to test it. The doctor pretends not to notice the rivalry but benefits greatly from it. Kae goes blind as a result. English translation published by Kodansha. 
  • Another interesting novel in this group is Kazunomiya-sama otome ("Her Highness Prinses Kazu," 1978), the famous story of an imperial princess, Kazu-no-miya, who in the late Edo-period for political reasons was forced to marry the shogun. Ariyoshi poses that it was not the real princess, but a substitute who married the shogun.
The next grouping is of novels describing the life of women in the time of Japan's early modernization from the late 19th century on.

  • Here belongs Ariyoshi's masterwork, Kinokawa ("The River Ki", 1959), the story of three generations of women (Hana, Fumio and Hanako) living from the late 19th to mid 20th century in the countryside outside Wakayama City on the River Ki. The novel explores their changing attitudes and expectations. The novel shows how Hana, a traditional woman, keeps in the shadow of her husband, a politician, but also how she supports him and uses her resources to promote his interests. English translation published by Kodansha. Two sequels (Arita River, 1963 and Hidaka River, 1965) add two more generations, but have not been translated.
A next group of novels addresses modern life and its problems.
  • An example is Fushin no Toki ("A Time of Distrust"), about Asai Yoshio, a salaryman who has been married for 15 years to Michiko. Asai has two times in the past been unfaithful to his wife, and when he again falls for a hostess, Machiko, his wife plans a terrible revenge. 
  • Interesting is also Yuhigaoka Sangokan ("Building No. 3 at Evening Sun Hill") that describes the problems of Sonoko, the wife of a salaryman who starts living in company-provided housing in Tokyo. The flat is beautiful, but besides facing problems with the education of her son, Sonoko gets entangled in the web of small-time intrigues and rumor-mongering among the housewives in the compound. 
  • Akujo ni tsuite ("About a Bad Woman," 1978) - the heroine is a business woman who has just past away. The novel consist of 27 chapters in which people who knew her give their memories. She is not at all a "bad woman," but the novel shows how  the same person may be "seen" from different angles - some loath her, others love her. Along the way, we also get the expanation of her untimely death. 
And finally we have the novels about "social problems."
  • An early example is Hishoku ("Not Because of Color", 1964), about a Japanese woman who moves to New York's Harlem as the "war bide" of an African-American soldier. The novel not only addresses racial discrimination, but also looks at what it means to accept life in another culture. 
  • The most famous book in this group is probably Kokotsu no hito ("The Twilight Years," 1972) which depicts the life of a working woman who is caring for her elderly, dying father-in-law in a very moving way. When Akiko's senile father-in-law is rejected by community services, the responsibility for his care automatically devolves upon her, increasing a domestic and employment workload which she already finds hard to cope with. Ariyoshi correctly anticipated the problems that Japan's rapidly aging society would cause. The book is both funny and heart-warming. English translation published by Kodansha.
  • Fukugo Onsen ("Compound Pollution," 1975) - not a novel but reportage about various forms of pollution. Sold one million copies and shook up the public and the government. From this time on, corrective measures were introduced.
Concluding we can state that the most striking feature of Ariyoshi's novels is the sheer vitality and resourcefulness of her female characters.

P.S. Since Kodansha International, the publisher of four of Ariyoshi's novels in English has been liquidated last year by its mother company Kodansha, it is questionable whether these translations will still be available. The best option may be a library. It is sad that there is no Japanese publisher with translations of Japanese literature left on the international scene. As is also the case elsewhere, the Japanese seem to have a singular lack of interest in the propagation of their own culture.  

March 20, 2012

Japanese Customs: Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi)

Shunbun no Hi or the "Vernal Equinox" (when day and night are of equal length) is a Japanese national holiday established in the Meiji-period "so that people could commune with nature and show their love for all living things." It is usually celebrated on March 20 or 21. Similarly, in September, there is an Autumnal Equinox Day (Shubun no Hi).

Both equinox days are associated with the Buddhist Higan practices, held traditionally two times a year in the same period.

[Nishi Otani Cemetery, Kyoto]

Higan is a Buddhist term literally meaning "Other Shore." Buddhists believe that our worldy life is symbolically divided from the world of Enlightenment by a river full of pain and sorrow. Only those who manage to pass to the "Other Side" can be free from attachments and enter Nirvana.

Why was Higan celebrated around this time? That was because of the popular belief that when night and day are of equal length the Lord Buddha will appear to help souls make the crossing to the Other Shore.

Higan was already observed in Japan in the 8th c., and further institutionalized by Imperial Order in 806.

In this period, the Japanese usually visit the graves of their ancestors, clean the tombstone, offer incense and flowers. And as the Buddha on this day saves all souls, the visit to the cemetery is considered a joyful event.

From the old ritual of offering food to the ancestors developed the custom of eating botamochi, a ball of soft rice covered with sweetened bean paste.

Shunbun no Hi is also the time that the chill of winter finally fades away. Temperatures gradually rise and the colorful riot of cherry blossoms is near...

March 19, 2012

Japanese Masters: Hayasaka Fumio (Composer)

Hayasaka Fumio (1914-1955) was a composer of symphonic music and film scores. Born in Sendai, he spent his youth in Hokkaido where he became friends with Ifukube Akira. Together they organized the New Music League which held concerts in Sapporo.

Hayasaka's early works won a number of prizes, such as Dance Antique, which won the Weingartner Prize in 1938. In 1939 he moved to Tokyo, where he started a career as composer of film music. During the next 15 years, Hayasaka would compose almost 50 scores for the biggest names in Japanese cinema, including Mizuguchi Kenji (Ugetsu, Sansho The Bailiff etc) and Kurosawa Akira, all whose films he scored from Drunken Angel in 1948 until his untimely death of tuberculosis in 1955. The collaboration with Kurosawa was especially close and also made Hayasaka's name known abroad via the music for Rashomon which won the 1950 Venice Film festival. His score for Seven Samurai is also famous. Hayasaka also introduced his friend and colleague Ifukube to the Toho studios.

In these years Hayasaka also continued writing symphonic orchestral and chamber music. In contrast to Ifukube, Hayasaka's style was more late-Romantic. But he, too, sought to build a Japanese-style symphonic music, for example by the use of a pentatonic scale or open fifths. His music generally has a solemn and hieratic quality and is always of a high aesthetic level. Hayasaka's wish to create a new national music was shared by Ifukube.

When Hayasaka died, his pupil Sato Masaru would continue to write music for Kurosawa's films. Takemitsu Toru commerated his death with his Requiem for Strings (1957). Hayasaka had a great influence on Akutagawa, Mayuzumi and Takemitsu, three other composers who frequently wrote film music.

Major works by Hayasaka: 
  • Ancient Dance (1938) - amalgates melodic cells and sonorities of Gagaku (Japanese palace music) with structures and timbres from European music, especially Stravinsky - he almost quotes literally from the Rite of Spring. The assertive rhythms are taken from Japanese folk music and remind of Matsuri (Shinto festivals).
  • Overture in D (1939) - already starts in marching rhythm, and grows into a full-grown, solemn march. 
  • Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right (1941) - further develops the direction Hayasaka took in his Ancient Dance. Starts and ends pp, as if forming part of the endless flow of natural time. 
  • Four unaccompanied songs to poems by Haruo Sato for solo soprano (1944). 
  • Piano Concerto (1948) - his most "late Romantic" composition, a big-boned and expansive work.
  • Autumn for piano solo (1948) - Hayasaka composed many piano works, over his whole lifetime. (His first composition, from 1936, was a notturno for piano).
  • Capriccio for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano (1949) - inspired by Tibetan music.
  • String Quartet (1950) - sort of open form structure.
  • Duo for Violin and Piano (1950). 
  • Metamorphosis for orchestra (1953) - good example of the "endless form structure" Hayasaka pursued. A series of motifs in the brass introduce a long recitative played by the strings. The harmony is dissonant and the use of rhythm is free. 
  • Yukara (1955) - symphonic suite in six movements, with texts taken from an epic Ainu saga. Not program music, but rather Hayasaka's musical reactions to the ancient saga. With this work, Hayasaka also wanted to reaffirm oriental values in a time if rising Westernization. The suite is noted for its sparse textures, a contrast with Hayasaka's more lush other compositions. Influence on Akutagawa's Ellora Symphony and Mayuzumi's Nirvana Symphony.
As top three of Hayasaka's works, my choice would be: (1) Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right plus Ancient Dance in a shared first position; (2) Yukara; and (3) Metamorphosis for Orchestra.

March 17, 2012

Japanese Gardens: Yoshino Baigo in Ome, Tokyo

One of the best plum viewing areas close to Tokyo (in fact, part of the metropolis although you would not believe it) is the Yoshino Baigo Park in Ome.

Ome is a municipality in northwestern Tokyo Prefecture, on the river Tamagawa, and interestingly the very name of this city means "green plum," demonstrating an old link with the "Ume" or plum tree. Not surprisingly, it is an area where traditionally plum trees are grown and where the fruit in pickled form is sold as umeboshi. (Rice with a pickled plum on top is called a Hinomaru Bento, because it resembles the Japanese flag: a red circle on white).

[Yoshino Baigo, Ome]

In the form of the Yoshino Baigo Park Ome is also one of the best places for plum blossom viewing in early spring. The good thing is that there is a lot of space here and that the park is in a natural state, not deformed by a playground or miniature trains.

The name Yoshino Baigo points at several large and small plum tree parks that lie south of the Yoshino Kaido Road. 25,000 plum trees have been planted here, and in season their delicate fragrance comes wafting from all sides through the air. The fame of the area for plum viewing goes back to Edo times, and there are many old trees, too. The best place for flower viewing is the 40,000 square meter large plum tree park (Ume no Koen), where 1,500 trees stand in pleasantly hilly terrain.

[Yoshino Baigo, Ome]

The plum tree season is from the end of February to the middle of March. It gets crowded in weekends, but not so much as comparable cherry viewing spots do. If you are hungry from the two hour train ride from Tokyo, buy or bring something to eat in the park. There are no restaurants in the area, but you can stock up on onigiri and canned tea in convenience stores on the Yoshino Kaido; there are also "yatai" stands selling yakisoba and other delicacies around the park in season. Do not enter the park via the main entrance, but rather take a small path to the left just before arriving there, which seems to lead to a graveyard. In fact it brings you to a less busy part of the park, from which you will have an excellent view over the whole area.

Afterwards, take a leisurely scroll in the area along what has been dubbed "Plum Viewing Road" (Kambai-dori) among farmhouses selling plum trees for your garden as well as pickled plums. From the park, there is a pleasant walking route to the rustic house and garden of popular author Yoshikawa Eiji, of Musashi fame. And still further on, in Mitake, stands the a small museum dedicated to the gentle paintings of Kawai Gyokudo, who often painted the scenery of Ome... or you can climb the mountain to the hoary Mitake Shrine.

Access to Yoshino Baigo:
Take the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station to Tachikawa Station and transfer to the Ome Line to Hinawada Station (on Sundays there are some direct trains as well). From Hinawada station, it is a 15 min walk to the Yoshino Baigo plum tree park (follow the road over the bridge that leads straight on to the hills). Entrance free.

Access to the Yoshikawa Eiji House:
After seeing the park, follow the signs pointing to Yoshikawa Eiji's museum. You will walk over small roads, among houses and farmhouses interspersed with more plum trees and small parks. The hills should be on your left and the Yoshino Kaido Road on your right. It is only a 30 min walk to Yoshikawa Eiji House & Museum.

March 15, 2012

Japanese Masters: Morishige Hisaya (Actor)

Morishige Hisaya (Morishige Hisaya, 1913–2009; 森繁久彌) was a Japanese actor and comedian, and like Ueki Hitoshi, he worked mostly for Toho - but the types they played could not be more different. While Ueki plays an extroverted type, with lots of swinging of arms and legs, a booming voice and big laugh (not to mention the grin), someone who "goes for it," Morishige in an understated way plays a well-educated, refined type who is also a bit weak and not lacking in pathos. In other words, his is a quiet and subtle type of humor.

Morishige Hisaya was born in a well-off family in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture, and after local high-school attended Tokyo's Waseda University to study the theater. Just when he began his career as stage actor in a famous troupe, the war broke out, and in order to evade the draft, he became an NHK announcer - and was after all sent to a war zone when he was made announcer in Manchuria. He was obviously blessed with a good and clear voice and also sang in musicals.

It was only in the 1950s that Morishige became famous as a film actor. The first role he played was in the film Joyu (Actress) by Kinoshita Keisuke in 1947. Other serious roles in the 1950s were for example: as the husband in Meoto Zenzai ("Marital Relations") by Toyoda Shiro (1955); as Shozo in Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna ("A Cat, Shozo, and Two Women"), based on the novel by Tanizaki Junichiro and again helmed by Toyoda Shiro (1956); as Kimura in Yukiguni ("Snow Country"), another film by Toyoda Shiro (1957); and as Isomura in Kohayake no Aki ("The End of Summer") by Ozu Yasujiro (1961). Morishige Hisaya also played in period films, such as the "Jirocho sangokushi" series. Unfortunately, except for the Ozu film, none of the films in which he played were canonized in the West, so he has remained largely unknown outside of Japan.

In 1952 followed Morishige's first comic salaryman role, in Santo Juyaku ("Third Class Executives"), a series of nine films initially based on the "salaryman" novels of Genji Keita (a selection of Genji Keita stories has been translated in 1980 by Hugh Cortazzi as The Lucky One). A "Third Class Executive" is a company president who has been elevated from the ranks of the ordinary salaryman, so not an entrepreneur who with his own talents has set up the company. This role was next the basis for the popular Shacho ("Company President") series, that ran from 1956 to 1970 and in all consists of 33 installments and was produced by Toho. This series was Morishige's major cinematic achievement.

Morishige played the main role here, a spoiled but lovable company president. Although Morishige and other actors reappeared in these films, the settings are each time different. For example, one time it is a food company, another time a real estate company, a department store, etc. Morishige usually plays the President, in the last films also the Chairman. In the position above Morishige sits in the earlier films the wife of the former president, the main shareholder, a person he very much fears; in later films this is the "Big President," that is to say the President of the mother company, usually played by Tono Eijiro.

Morishige is married and rather afraid of his wife (usually played by Kuji Asami) who torments him with health foods. More than his daytime work, he seems interested in what happens "after five" when he often has to entertain clients in ryotei (expensive Japanese-style restaurants) and bars. He always becomes enamored with the madams and mama-sans of these establishments, even taking them on business trips, but he never succeeds in being unfaithful to his wife, how hard he tries. At the last moment, before his lips meet hers, there is inevitably a knock on the door, and something unforeseen disturbs his amorous plans.

Morishige Hisaya can put on the right "company president" airs, so that this role fits him like a glove. The humor is conveyed in the varying expressions he conjures up with his flexible face. One of the frequent faces he makes expresses helplessness, but luckily he has some good staff members.

In the early films, Kobayashi Keiju plays the steadfast secretary (yes, in Japanese companies the secretaries of top management are male!) who helps Morishige to conceal his dallying. He lives together with his mother (Hanabusa Yuriko) and the wife he marries in one of the early films (an OL from his company, played by Tsukasa Yoko). He is a stable familyman who does not drink or play around.

Kato Taisuke usually plays the No. 2 in the company, one of the directors, mostly another reliable man. A second director is played by Miki Norihei, a funny type who likes to party and do a comic folk dance with Morishige. In many installments, Frankie Sakai appears as a somewhat funny business partner: either a foreigner or a local with a heavy accent and "funny" Japanese.

Actresses who play the geisha and hostesses with whom Morishige falls in love, are played by Aratama Michiyo, Kusubue Mitsuko, Awaji Keiko and Ikeuchi Junko. As directors of the films served various comedy genre stalwarts of Toho, such as Matsubayashi Shue. Script writer was the proficient Kasahara Ryozo, who worked on many other Toho series as well, including the Crazy films of Ueki Hitoshi and some Wakadaisho films.

What the Shacho series shows behind all the antics is how important personal relations are in Japanese business and how these are developed after five in restaurants and hostess clubs, with the help of sake and an expense account. Today, such accounts are much slimmer and new businesses with other customs have sprung up, too, but I believe the basics are still unchanged. Other things you can see in these films are how authority goes with a position and is not dependent on personal skills, and how strictly hierarchically large Japanese companies are organized.

The "Ekimae" (Station Front) series was also produced by Toho. The first installment, Ekimae Ryokan ("The Inn in front of the Station") was based on a novel by Ibuse Masuji, but after that new stories were freely developed around the trio of Morishige Hisaya ("Tokunosuke"), Ban Junzaburo ("Magosaku") and Frankie Sakai ("Jiro"). There is no fixed setting here. As the railroads were the major type of transport in the late fifties and sixties, a business in front of the station would be a potentially thriving business. These films are also in their own way symbolic of Japan in its period of high growth. The business are: a Japanese-style hotel, a loan shark, a lunch box shop, a spa, a Chinese restaurant, a hospital, etc. The first film is set in Ueno, Tokyo, the others would go into the countryside for local color. The female roles are often played by Awashima Chikage, Awaji Keiko and Ikeuchi Junko. The series is more of a slapstick kind than the Shacho series.

In all, Morishige Hisaya played in nearly 250 films. He also played on stage and became famous as Teyve in the Japanese version of Fiddler on the Roof. He played in TV series and appeared in talk shows, and besides that also managed to be the long-time head of the Japan Actors Union. Morishige received the Order of Culture in 1991.

March 10, 2012

Japanese Masters: Matsumoto Seicho (writer)

Matsumoto Seicho (1909-1992; 松本清張) was one of Japan’s most popular writers of the second half of the 20th century. He produced a steady stream of works, totaling more than 450. Initially, Matsumoto worked on the border between literature and mass fiction - in 1953, for example, he won the prestigious literary Akutagawa Prize for Aru Kokura nikki den ("A Legend of the Kokura Diary"). He wrote contemporary stories and novels, but also historical ones and of course the mystery fiction for which he is in the first place famous. He also wrote a lot of non-fiction, such as essays about history, travel and early Japanese history and archaeology.

Matsumoto Seicho was born in Kokura (now part of Kitakyushu). His father didn't have a fixed job and as the family was poor, Matsumoto had to start working after Middle School. He was employed by an electronics firm, and after that worked for several printing companies. In his free time, he read books - one of his great interests was the writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Despite his lack of a college education, Matsumoto was very well-read. In 1937, Matsumoto joined the advertisement department of the Western Japan Office of the Asahi Newspaper, where he designed layouts. In 1943 he was called up for military service and stationed in Korea as a medical corpsman. After the war, he returned to the newspaper, where he designed travel posters.

Matsumoto's first short story, Saigo-satsu, saw the light in 1951 - not because Matsumoto longed to be an author, but rather because he saw it as a way of increasing his too meager income (he supported three generations, both his wife, his parents and his children). He entered the story in a Shukan Asahi contest where it took third prize; it was also nominated for the Noma Prize. This gave Matsumoto the confidence to make the move to Tokyo.

In 1952, he published Aru Kokura nikki den in a literary magazine - and the next year this short story won the 28th Akutagawa Prize, a prestigious prize for starting literary authors. He also started working for the Asahi newspaper, but gave this job up after only three years to devote himself solely to writing. In the first years of his career, Matsumoto exclusively wrote short stories, in three genres, historical, contemporary and mystery - together they fill six volumes.

Matsumoto wrote his first mystery stories, Harikomi and Kao, in 1955. Kao won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1957, the year that Matsumoto started serializing his first mystery novel, Ten to sen. Together with another Matsumoto mystery, Me no kabe, when published in book form in 1958, this became a huge national bestseller. 1958 was a watershed in the genre, people would speak about "before Matsumoto Seicho" and "after Matsumoto Seicho." The late fifties were a true "Seicho boom," and Matsumoto wrote so much that he suffered from severe writer's cramp and had to start dictating his work. He had a great work ethic and sometimes worked on as much as five books at the same time. Matsumoto, by the way, was a "late bloomer," at the time of his great breakthrough he was already 50 years of age.

Three things were new in Ten to sen ("Points and Lines"):
  1. It was a realistic police procedural, different from the mysteries with an eccentric detective a la Holmes or Poirot, which were being written for example by Yokomizo Seishi - Matsumoto shows ordinary police officers doing a real job
  2. It was a "social mystery" ("shakai-ha misteri"), that is to say, at the background of the crime was a form of social injustice, for example a corrupt official - Matsumoto singlehandedly created this subgenre which would  have countless followers - see for example Mizukami Tsutomu - the mystery novel would never be the same in Japan; 
  3. It was a "railroad mystery or travel mystery" ("toraberu misteri"). Trains are a popular form of transport in Japan, more so perhaps then in other countries. The late 1950s were a time when Japan was getting on its feet again and people were starting to make holiday trips by rail. In Points and Lines, not only do the detectives travel a lot by train in the course fo their job, the solution of the crime lies in a trick with the time table (by the way, something only possible in a country like Japan where all trains run exactly on time!). Other Matsumoto works to feature railroads include Me no kabe (The Walls Around the Eyes, 1958) and Zero no shoten (Zero Focus, 1959). Here, too, Matsumoto would have many followers, such as Nishimura Kyotaro who exclusively dedicated himself to railroad mysteries.
Matsumoto Seicho's most popular mystery novels would be Suna no Utsuwa (1961), which sold more than 4.5 million copies and Zero no Shoten (1960), which sold 2.4 million copies (Ten to sen sold 3.1 million). More than 35 films were based on his novels, most noticeably by director Nomura Yoshitaro; the number of TV films is many times as large.

Matsumoto's awareness of social issues also led him to publish books as Nihon no kuroi kiri ("Black Fog Over Japan", 1962), an exposé of 11 enigmatic incidents that occurred during the US Occupation, and Showa-shi hakkutsu ("Unearthing Showa History," 1965–72), a nonfiction account of the Japanese military from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. This last work won the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1970.

His interest in history also remained strong and took form not only in novels as Kagero ezu ("The Transitory Plan," 1959), about the last years of the ex-shogun Tokugawa Ienari, but also in a host of writings about the "mysteries" inherent in Japanese earliest history, such as the search for the elusive Yamatai (an early Japanese country mentioned in Chinese sources). This type of writing in its turn reinforced the travel boom: people started visiting the various sites associated with ancient history.

In the 1960s, Matsumoto was Japan's bestselling and highest earning author. He chaired the Mystery Writers of Japan Association from 1963 to 1971. In the 70s and 80s, he continued writing, but also traveled internationally. His books were translated into many languages. At his death in 1992, he had achieved iconic status in Japanese culture and his work remains very popular - not only as pocket books, but also his collected works have been published. In Kitakyushu, near Kokura Castle, stands the Matsumoto Seicho Memorial Museum.

Selection of works:
  • Saigo's Currency (Saigo-satsu, 1951) - short story (historical)
    Saigo Takamori rebelled in 1877 and gave out military currency (called "Saigo-satsu"), a sort of war bonds, to finance his campaigns. A former follower of Saicho who has lost everything in the rebellion and is now a rickshaw man in Tokyo, hears the (false) rumor that the Meiji government will buy up all Saigo currency, and does his best to collect as much as possible...  Nominated for the Noma prize.  Made into a TV drama in 1964 and 1991.
  • A Legend of the Kokura Diary (Aru Kokura-nikki Den, 1952)  - short story   (contemporary)
    A physically disabled young man, Kosaku, is researching the famous author Mori Ogai. From 1899-1902 Ogai served as head of the Army Medical Corps in Kokura (now Kitakyushu). A diary he wrote about that period was presumably lost, so Kosaku tries to reconstruct it by searching out locals who knew Ogai. But his illness worsens and finally an unforeseen matter makes his work superfluous. Won the Akutagawa Prize.  Made into a TV drama in 1965 and 1993.
  • The Face (Kao, 1956)  -  short story  (mystery)
    A rising movie actor has murdered his girlfriend, a bar hostess. On the way to the distant spot where he lured her, one other person has by chance seen them together. Years later, when he is asked to play in a film, he is increasingly worried that witness may recognize his face on the screen... Filmed in 1957 with Okada Mariko.
  • The Voice (Koe, 1955)   -  short story   (mystery)
    Tomoko, a telephone operator at a newspaper, by coincidence makes a wrong call to a house where a murder has just taken place. Luckily, Tomoko has an iron memory for voices... Filmed in 1958 by Suzuki Seijun. 
  • The Stakeout (Harikomi,1955)   - short story   (mystery)
    This police procedural features Yuki, a Tokyo detective who travels to the southern city of Saga to solve a murder-robbery. From the second-floor window of a nearby inn, he stakes out the house of a banker, whose second wife is the former lover of the murder suspect. Yuki firmly believes that ultimately the murderer will come to see her... In 1958 made into a film by Nomura Yoshitaro, and featuring two detectives to make it more interesting on screen. The film aptly portrays the long train ride from Tokyo to Saga, the endless hours spent staking out the house, the intense summer heat, and the beautiful woman under the detectives' gaze (Takamine Hideko).
  • The Woman who Took the Local Paper (Chihoshi wo Kau Onna, 1957)   - short story (mystery)
    Shioda  Yoshiko, a bar hostess, lives in Tokyo and subscribes to a regional newspaper from Kofu - apparently out of interest for the novel that is serialized in it. In reality, she is waiting for the news of the discovery of the bodies of two lovers who have committed suicide in a famous ravine close to the city. When she cancels the subscription claiming that the serial has become boring, the novelist feels insulted and starts investigating her, with fatal consequences. In 1959 filmed as "Kiken na Onna." Eight times made into a TV drama between 1957 and 2007.
  • Wait One and a Half Years (Ichinenhan Mate, 1957)   - short story  (mystery)
    Satoko has murdered her husband but claims he was a very violent man. Supported by social commentators who denounce violent husbands as a prevalent problem, she gets a suspended sentence. But then something unforeseen happens... Eleven times made into a TV drama between 1960 and 2010. 
  • Points and Lines (Ten to Sen, 1958) - novel  (mystery)
    Typical railway mystery with a social dimension. That the suicide of a young couple on a secluded beach in Kyushu is not what it seems, comes to light thanks to the painstakingly gathering of evidence by two police officers. Not only has the murderer set up a false witness by making use of a  “four-minute blank” that allows a view of a neighboring platform at Tokyo Station, he has also created an alibi by an ingenious use of the timetable. Only possible in Japan where trains run exactly on time. The plot is realistic and related to a social problem, a scandal involving a powerful bureaucrat. Filmed in 1958 with Takamine Mieko. 
  • The Wall before the Eyes (Me no Kabe, 1958)  - novel  (mystery)
    A "social mystery" about illegal financial dealings in the corporate world. The financial manager of a company commits suicide after causing great loss through falsified cheques. His subordinate investigates and uncovers some dark secrets inside the company... Filmed by Oba Hideo in 1958.
  • The Savage (Kichiku, 1958)  - short story  (mystery)
    A man operating a printing workshop has three children with a mistress. When business goes bad and he can't support them, the children are dumped on him and his wife. The angry wife hates the children and wants him to get rid of them... Filmed by Nomura Yoshitaro in 1978 (in English brought out as "The Demon"), with Ogata Ken and Iwashita Shima.
  • Amagi-Pass (Amagi Goe, 1958)
    A 16 year old boy has run away from his home in Shimoda and on the Amagi Pass in Izu he meets a beautiful geisha and gets involved in a dark mystery, which, many years later, comes to haunt him... Filmed in 1983 by Nomura Yoshitaro.
  • Zero Focus (Zero no Shoten,1959)
    Only one week after Uhara Teiko has married Kenichi, her husband disappears while on a business trip to Kanazawa. Teiko travels across Japan to find him and discovers that he has been leading a double life... Filmed in 1961 by Nomura Yoshitaro; beautifully shot during the winter on location in the Noto Peninsula. Also six times remade as TV drama.
  • Tower of Waves (Nami no To, 1960)
    A public prosecutor has a  chance meeting with a mysterious woman in the theater. When she again appears before him, his destiny will be changed... Filmed by Nakamura Noboru in 1960; seven times made for TV.
  • Flags of Mist (Kiri no Hata, 1961)
    A young woman asks a famous lawyer to help her brother, who has been accused of murder but is innocent. The lawyer refuses and sends her away; after her brother has been mistakenly executed for murder, she plots revenge on the lawyer. Conveniently, he has some skeletons in the closet... Twice filmed, in 1965 by Yamada Yoji and in 1977 with Mikuni Rentaro and Yamaguchi Momoe. Also eight times made into a TV drama. Published by Random House as "Pro Bono."
  • The Vessel of Sand (Suna no Utsuwa, 1961)
    Again a "travel mystery." A successful musician kills a man who had once saved his life out of fear that his assumed identity will come to light. Published in English as "Inspector Imanishi Investigates" (Soho Crime press 2003). Filmed in 1974 by Nomura Yoshitaro, with Tanba Tetsuro and Kato Go. The film made Kamedake Station in Shimane Prefecture famous. Also five times made into a TV drama.
  • Bad Sorts (Warui Yatsura, 1961)
    The head of a private hospital is hard up for money, but he has several mistresses from whom he can borrow. When he falls in love with a famous fashion designer, he again needs lots of money... Filmed in 1980 by Nomura Yoshitaro, with Matsuzaka Keiko. Also 3 TV dramas.
  • The Globular Wilderness (Kyukei no Koya, 1962)
    A woman comes across handwriting that resembles her father's, a diplomat who died at the end of the war. She starts thinking that her father perhaps is still alive. An investigation rakes up the mud and bodies start falling... Filmed in 1975, also 7 times a TV drama.
  • Beast Alley (Kemono-Michi, 1964)
    After killing her sick husband, Tamako becomes the mistress of a kuromaku, a wirepuller in the political world. Although she leads a rich life, there is one man she can't forget... Made into a film by Sugawa Eizo in 1965 and 3 times a TV drama.
  • The Complex of D (D no Fukugo, 1968)
    A writer has been asked by a magazine to travel to locations where folktales are situated and write about his trips. But at each location strange accidents happen... A novel that combined Matsumoto's interest in mystery with his love of ancient history. 
  • Pocketbook of Black Leather (Kurokawa no Techo, 1980)
    An ordinary OL embezzles money from the bank where she works and uses it to buy a club on the Ginza where she becomes a famous Mama-san... Five times made into a TV drama.
  • Stairs that shine at Night (Yako no Kaidan, 1981)
    A hairdresser uses the women who are his customers to get higher on the social ladder. Four times made into a TV drama.
  • Suspicion (Giwaku, 1982) - short story
    When her husband dies in an accident, a rough-mouthed former bar hostess is suspected of murder and insurance fraud. In this courtroom drama she is defended by a lawyer who is a cool and elegant business woman. Filmed in 1982 by Nomura Yoshitaro with Iwashita Shima and Momoi Kaori.
  • Street of Desire (Irodorigawa, 1983)
    A murder mystery in the financial world, set on the nightly Ginza. Filmed in 1984.

March 8, 2012

Hokyoji "Doll Temple" (Kyoto Guide)

The best place to see Hina dolls in Kyoto in March is without a doubt Hokyoji Temple in the Nishijin district. It is beautifully solemn and peaceful place.

The Imperial Convent Hokyoji carries on the teachings of Keiaiji, one of the great five Zen nunneries that prospered in Kyoto in medieval times. The sixth head priestess of Keiaiji was Karin no Miya Egon, a daughter of Emperor Kogon. In the period 1368-75 she set up Hokyoji as a subtemple of Keiaiji. After the civil wars in the 15th c., when Keiaiji was severly weakened, Hokyoji took over the "Light of the Law" from its former parent temple.

[Hokyoji Temple, Kyoto]

The link with the Imperial Family was once again stengthened in 1644 when Kugon Risho Zenni, a daughter of Emperor Gomizuno-o, came to live here. Hokyoji became a monzeki, a temple headed by a member of the Imperial Family. Ever since, Imperial Princesses have practiced Buddhism here - Hokyoji received the nickname "Dodo Gosho" or Dodo Palace, named after the nearby Dodo Bridge. The present buildings were reconstructed after a fire in the late 18th c. - famous painter Maruyama Okyo took care of the decorations in the Shoin.

[Hokyoji Temple, Kyoto]

Karin no Miya Egon brought a miraculous Kannon statue to the temple that had been kept in the Imperial Palace. Still the main image of the temple, it is a statue of Sho-kannon, caught off the coast of Futamigaura near Ise in the nets of fishermen. Miraculously, the Kannon carries a small round mirror in her lap which probably gave rise to the name of the temple, "Precious Mirror."

All those imperial princesses took their valuable Hina dolls with them to the convent and on top of that, they would every year receive new dolls as a present from the Imperial Palace. That is how a huge collection of priceless Hina dolls and ancient toys was formed. Therefore Hokyoji is now known as "Ningyo-dera" or "Temple of Dolls." These dolls were first shown to the general public in 1957, and since then the temple has been hosting bi-annual Hina doll exhibitions in Spring (March) and Autumn.

Old dolls should never be thrown away, so in the temple's courtyard there is also a burial mound for old dolls. Every year on October 14, old dolls that have ended their period of service are dedicated to this doll grave in a solemn ceremony in which also the Taiyu (top courtesan) of Shimabara takes part.

[Doll Monument in Hokyoji Temple, Kyoto]

A poem by the writer Mushanokoji Saneatsu that has been carved on the monument sums it all up:
oh dolls
I don't know
who made you
or who loved you
but let the fact that you were loved
be the proof that you attained Nirvana

ningyo yo | dare ga tsukurishi ka | dare ni aisareshi ka | shiranudomo | aisareta jijitsu koso | anata ga jobutsu no akashi nare

Access: City bus to Horikawa-Teranouchi
Hours: Not usually open to the public, but the temple holds special exhibitions of dolls in spring and autumn.
Official website (Japanese)

March 7, 2012

The Best Films of Gosha Hideo

Gosha Hideo (1929-1992; 五社英雄) started with a career as TV director and only came to film when he was asked to remake his popular series Three Outlaw Samurai as a film for Shochiku in 1964. This was a period film with strong chanbara (sword fight) elements, and Gosha would continue making mostly films of this type until the late 1970s.

In the 80s he suddenly switched from machismo to romanticism, when he started making large-scale films about strong women, often geisha, for example based on the novels of Miyao Tomiko. In the same vein, he also remade Gate of Flesh, about a group of prostitutes during the U.S. Occupation, although Suzuki Seijun's version remains the best (the novel was by Tamura Taijiro). He further made the first film in the popular "series" about yakuza wives, Gokudo no Onnatachi.

Thus Gosha's work falls neatly into two halves, in popular terms "samurai" and "geisha." It must be said that the period films from the 1960s form his best work. These period films were strongly influenced by Kurosawa. He included sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of established authority and always supported the position of the underdog. His reputation among aficionados of chanbara films is very strong, thanks to his brutal realism and phenomal action sequences. The atmosphere of Gosha's films is quite dark, often even nihilistic. As a counterpoint, there are also big set pieces, such as the drumming of the masked farmers at the end of Goyokin. All his films have a kind of vulgar energy and are fun to watch. Long obliterated by the weight of Kurosawa in the West, finally Gosha is coming into his own as the "ordinary" master of the samurai genre.

Selection of films:
  • 1964 Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanpiki no Samurai)
    Shiba (Tanba Tetsuro), a wandering ronin, encounters a band of peasants who have kidnapped the daughter of their dictatorial magistrate and joins the fight with two other outlaws.
  • 1965 Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no Ken)
    A clan retainer who has killed a minister is pursued by his former comrades and fights back with the help of a master swordsman and gold seeker (Kato Go). This film has been brought out by Criterion.
  • 1966 The Secret of the Urn (Tange Sazen: Hien Iaigiri)
    A wonderful performance of Nakamura Kinnosuke as one-eyed, one-armed samurai Tange Sazen in a light-hearted remake of Yamanaka's entertaining film.
  • 1969 Goyokin 
    Nakadai Tatsuya and Tanba Tetsuro face off when a clan on the snowy Japan Sea coast wants to steal the shogun's gold and murder a whole village that is witness to the crime. Review by Stuart Galbraith IV.
  • 1969 Tenchu! (Hitokiri)
    Katsu Shintaro plays a mad-dog ronin in desperate financial straights. This film also feautures Nakadai Tatsuya and Ishihara Yujiro, as well as Mishima Yukio. The anti-hero sacrifices his life to get revenge on the man who betrayed him. Review on Midnight Eye.
  • 1979 Hunter in the Dark (Yami no Karyudo)
    Nakadai Tatsuya plays a one-eyed assassin who impresses a gang boss with his skills, and is hired as bodyguard (yojimbo).
  • 1982 The Life of Hanako Kiryuin (Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai)
    A melodrama about a childless yakuza who adopts a young woman (Natsume Masako), which was a great hit in Japan.
  • 1983 The Geisha (Yokiro)
    Starts Gosha's collaboration with Ogata Ken, who plays a provider of women to a geisha house (zegen) in Kochi, where his own daughter works as the top geisha. The geisha are a tough lot, far removed from the gentility of Kyoto...
  • 1984 Fireflies in the North (Kita no Hotaru)
    Set in the wilderness of Hokkaido, which in the Meiji-period was being opened up with the use of forced labor. Nakadai Tatsuya stars as a brutal prison warden. Also with Tanba Tetsuro and Iwashita Shima.
  • 1985 Oar (Kai)
    Gosha's third and last Miyao Tomiko adaptation. With Ogata Ken and Natori Yuko. Again a story of a zegen, this time one who takes pity on a little girl and brings her up in his own family.
  • 1985 Tracked (Usugesho) Complex narrative about a man (Ogata Ken) who has murdered his wife and daughter and then escapes from jail, with the police hot on his tracks.
  • 1986 The Yakuza Wives (Gokudo no Onnatachi)
    With Iwashita Shima, Katase Rino and Takeuchi Riki. The first independent film in a series of more than 10 installments, based on real tales of yakuza wives interviewed by a journalist. They step in with a strong hand when the husband is dead, in jail or otherwise incapacitated, something which often happens.
  • 1987 Tokyo Bordello (Yoshiwara Enjo)
    The tragic lives of five oiran making a career in the Yoshiwara, with Natori Yuko in the main role. Set in 1911. Story inspired by the nostalgic drawings of Saito Shinichi.
  • 1991 Kagero 
    A Showa-period revenge saga about a female professional gambler (Higuchi Kanako).
  • 1992 The Oil-Hell Murder (Onnagoroshi Abura no Jigoku)
    Period piece based on a play by Chikamatsu, about the murder of Okichi (Higuchi Kanako), the bored wife of a wealthy Osaka oil merchant.

March 5, 2012

Japanese Masters: Hayashi Fumiko (novelist, poet)

Hayashi Fumiko (1903 - 1951; 林芙美子) was a popular novelist and poet. She was born out of wedlock in Shimonoseki and her childhood was marked by rootlessness and poverty. Her mother and foster-father were itinerant peddlers, who traveled around in Kyushu and Western Japan, before setting up a more or less permanent base in Onomichi. Fumiko changed elementary school 13 times, lived in cheap lodgings and had no friends. She had to do factory work for her own tuition when she went to high school and in fact, until she was 30 years of age, only knew abrasive poverty.

In 1922, after graduating from high-school, Hayashi went to Tokyo, following in the footsteps of a lover who however jilted her soon after arrival (the first but not the last time that Hayashi's love affair had an unhappy ending). She then supported herself as waitress in cheap cafes - such waitresses were the pre-war equivalent of hostesses. Hayashi also worked as a shop girl, and painted toys in a basement factory. She often had no roof above her head and then slept in deserted houses or public toilets.

Hayashi Fumiko lived with several men and was usually extremely poor, even going hungry for many days on end. She usually had to support her men - one of these was an actor about whom she later discovered that he kept another sweetheart and had a stack of money hidden away. The next man in her life, a left-wing poet, often beat and kicked her. But these difficult Bohemian years gave her the ingredients for her later novels. In 1926 she finally settled down into marriage with the painter Tezuka Rokubin, who in contrast to her previous partners was a very good man who would firmly support her writing career, even giving up his own art.

The first literary success came with Diary of a Vagabond in 1930, an I-novel based on the diaries she kept in the 1920s, and describing her life in poverty with only two desires: to eat and to write. It became an overnight sensation - people felt sympathetic for her plight as the Recession had just set in, making everyone insecure - and sold 600,000 copies. Her reputation as a writer was made. In the next 21 years she would write more than 30,000 pages, among which over 270 (!) books. She was a very hard worker - too hard, some say, as her premature death at age 48 in 1951 may have been brought about by overwork. Even after she was well-off, she continued writing at a frantic pace, as if she dreaded to fall into poverty again.

Many of her works revolve around themes of free spirited women and troubled relationships. Although the characters in her early work are always living in very poor circumstances, contrary to many of her contemporaries she was not interested in leftist (or other) politics. She was rather bent on conveying the humanity of those on the underside of Japanese society. She is optimistic about the strength of the human spirit to finally conquer misfortune.

Hayashi Fumiko loved to travel and the 1930s made long trips to Europe, China and Southeast Asia - without her husband. She even lived for half a year in Paris. She wrote a great number of travelogues and articles in magazines about her travels. During the war, she also visited the front as a war reporter.

While Hayashi's early works were all based on her personal experiences, from the mid-thirties she started writing stories and novels that are free from autobiographical models. The first such story was The Oyster from 1935. Now she was a full-fledged author and she poured out a constant stream of novels and stories, essays and articles, poems and travelogues (she also traveled frequently within Japan).

In 1941, she had her own comfortable house in traditional style built in Kami-Ochiai in the Shinjuku Ward and lived there until her death. It has now been converted into the Hayashi Fumiko Memorial Hall and is open to the public (English information, scroll down).

Many of Hayashi Fumiko's books became bestsellers and at least nine of them were made into films, six of them by the great classical director Naruse Mikio. The story of Hayashi Fumiko's life became the subject of a popular play with an almost perennial runtime. Called Horoki, the play was written by Kikuta Kazuo and featured the actress Mori Mitsuko as Hayashi Fumiko - the same actress would play this role for more than 2,000 times between 1961 and 2009! The play - rather than the novel by Hayashi of the same name - also formed the basis of Naruse's film Horoki (1962) with Takamine Hideko as Fumiko.

Despite the continuing interest in her life, Hayashi Fumiko's work has regrettably lost much of its  popularity and, besides a few story collections and some travel sketches, one only finds the novels Horoki, Seihin no Sho and Ukigumo in print.

Selected works:
  • Ao uma wo mitari ("I Saw a Pale Horse"), 1929 - poetry collection. Although known as a novelist, all her life Hayashi wrote poetry. This was the first of eight collections and the start of her writing career. More than half of the 34 poems in the collection are originally from her first novel, Horoki.  Translated by Janice Brown (Cornell, 1997).
  • Horoki ("Diary of a Vagabond"), 1930 - novel.
    Based on a diary Hayashi kept from 1922-28, the novel describes her relations with various men as well as her struggles to earn money with absolute frankness. Her love of life helps her conquer her misery. Lively narration, many details drawn from Hayashi's own experiences, impressionistic form with sudden shifts. Translated by Joan Ericson in Be A Woman (Hawai'i, 1997). 
  • Fukin to uo no machi ("The Accordion and the Fish Town"), 1931 - short story. About Hayashi's own childhood. The narrator works hard to help her parents who are itinerant peddlers sell their wares in Onomichi. Translated by Janice Brown (Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories). 
  • Seihin no sho ("A record of Honorable Poverty"), 1933 - novel. Autobiographical novel drawing upon Hayashi's life with Tezuka Rokubin. Again a big popular success.
  • Nakimushi Kozo ("Cry Baby"), 1934 - novel. A boy who is unwanted by his mother is shunted from one relative to the other - while the mother amuses herself with her lover.
  • Kaki ("The Oyster"), 1935 - short story. About a retarded young man whose life is on a downward slide into madness after he looses his job. 
  • Inazuma ("Lightning"), 1936 - novel. Young woman tries to forge her own path in life amid the squibbling of half-siblings (same, weak-willed mother, different fathers). Filmed by Naruse in 1952. 
  • Uzushio ("Swirling Currents"), 1947 - novel. Story about the problems of war widows.
  • Bangiku ("Late Chrysanthemum"), 1948 - short story. Vivid portrait of an aging geisha who reluctantly receives a former lover. Won the Women's Literary Award in 1949. Her best story. Filmed by Naruse in 1954. Translated by Jane Dunlop in A Late Chrysanthemum (Tuttle, 1991). 
  • Dauntaun ("Downtown"), 1949 - short story. Another story about life on the margin of society, set in postwar Tokyo. Translated by Ivan Morris in Modern Japanese Literature (Keene). 
  • Ukigumo ("Drifting Clouds"), 1951 - novel. Often seen as Hayashi's masterpiece. About the tortured relationship between Koda Yukiko, the novel's heroine, and a minor official, Tomioka. During the war they begin their affair in lush Indo-China. After the war, Tomioka returns to his wife, but when Yukiko follows him, he hesitates to break off their relationship. Finally, Yukiko - who has to find a new life in the desolation and chaos of post-War Japan - follows him all the way to Yakushima. Filmed in 1955 by Naruse, with Takamine Hideko. 
  • Meshi ("Repast"), 1951 - novel. An Osaka housewife feels trapped in a marriage that only consists of daily drudgery. She runs away to Tokyo, but in the end returns to a life of complacency. Hayashi died while she was writing this novel.  Filmed in 1951 by Naruse, with Hara Setsuko.