*natsukashii naa!

'Welcoming' me to Japan with a nihonjinron lecture in Kyoto JR Station.

 Over the term, I’ve had a few existential crises in which I despaired over whether I, as a non-Japanese, could even legitimately begin to study this culture, and whether a desire to study it wasn’t inherently “Other”-izing my subjects.  I’ve butted my head against the realization that some of my own past conceptions of Japan were, without knowing the proper term for it, based in ideas that smacked frighteningly of nihonjinron.  I’ve realized how glad I am to be receiving an education in the United States, and as a woman, to be a citizen of the United States – before coming to Japan, my study of Japanese film and the language had given me a general sense that Japanese women had it a lot worse than Japanese men.  Living here, as a girl, and taking a Gender and Sexuality course with Professor Hester, I’ve had the opportunity realize the complexity of the plight of Japanese women, and also that gendered oppression in Japan isn’t restricted to female-identified people, although they certainly have been getting the short end of the stick in terms of things like higher education, career-tracking, and marital division of labor.

But being in Japan has also changed the way I think about or orient myself to ‘the West.’  Before I came to Japan, I don’t remember myself being particularly nostalgic – or at least, I don’t remember expressing my ‘nostalgia’ quite so often.  But now 懐かしい - natsukashii - is a staple of my vocabulary, and I wonder whether it is bringing out fond memories I didn’t know I had, or reflecting, through its linguistic existence, the current Japanese tendency to be, for lack of a better English word, ‘nostalgic’ about the past – particularly the recent past.  As other bloggers and scholars have noted, the Japanese word “natsukashii” has no exact equivalent in English, although ‘nostalgic’ probably comes the closest.

This giant Christmas tree in Harajuku is the kind of thing that makes me ちょっと懐かしい for America...

Admittedly, I’ve spent a fair amount of the past 4 months feeling natsukashii about things I never expected to – the Seattle’s Best coffee shop on campus (I’m from Olympia, Washington…), anything vaguely Christmas-like, the overwhelming Western influence at USJ, an Our Family shopping bag at seminar house four (from a grocery chain native to my scholastic home-base of Minnesota…).  In America, I would never feel that way about a chain coffee shop or shopping tote (I feel that way about Christmas every year), so I wonder how much of this nostalgia is constructed through distance – in a way, am I exoticizing my own memories of the West, seeing it through the cultural lens of my life in Japan?  Perhaps this distance is at the root of akogare – the feeling of longing that the Japanese purportedly have for things Western (read: American, usually) – and as I feel it, I am in fact getting more in touch with some aspect of being fully in Japan.  Or maybe I’ve just been homesick all along – who knows?  Probably some of both.  Maybe because I came into contact with so much constructed nostalgia for the West, I felt that if people who had never even been to America could long for it, shouldn’t I, an American away from home, feel even more strongly?

I am, however, already beginning to feel preemptively natsukashii about things Japanese, with my flight home less than 12 days distant on the calendar:
Konomiya, where I grocery shop every Monday evening after choir to take advantage of the store-wide 10% discount…
Japanese milk cartons!  Never larger than a liter.  How frustrating for someone like me...

Settling in for a (marginally) restful night’s sleep on a 夜行バス (yakou basu) bound for Fuji or Tokyo…
I always take off from Kyoto JR on the Sunshine Tours night buses run by these friendly folks!
Riding my Japanese-style mamachari bicycle all over Hirakata, and their general ubiquitousness…

Being stared at in public baths…
Me, enjoying the complimentary yukata at the famous Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama.
The importance of lunch dates between foreign and native students at Kansai Gaidai…
The dining hall at Kansai Gaidai!

Genkan, or entryways, and having gotten used to automatically taking my shoes off and putting on slippers instead…
When I took this picture at a hostel, and older Japanese woman commented: 何でも珍しい!- "Anything is rare!" (or interesting to a foreigner like myself).  I responded in Japanese, which surprised her a little, but then - 何でも珍しいね?

Matcha softcream.  美味しい...
Matcha and hakone salt twist - an excellent reward while biking the Shimanami Kaido from Onomichi to Imabari!

The way that Haru, my wonderful, spirited, hard-working, lovely home-visit partner, welcomed me into her home and her life…
USJ, which made me natsukashii for America, but now makes me natsukashii for my time in Japan and with Haru...

Of all the many changed and changing impressions that I have of Japan, the one I feel most acutely as I write this last blog is the shift in the direction of my natsukashii kanji – from America to Japan.  But, everything that I know I will miss about Japan is simply a reason to return – to allow Japan, and everything visual and anthropological about it, to find its way into my future.


Not Telluride, Not Sundance: TOKYO FILMeX.

Yurakucho Asahi Hall, screening location of the competition films.
 I spent the past weekend in Tokyo, where the International Film Festival Tokyo FilmexNational Film Center, was wrapping up its final weekend of screenings throughout the Ginza, including a retrospective of classic Ozu and Kurosawa works among the ten new competition films.  Between people-watching in Harajuku and getting to see Kurosawa’s actual Golden Lion and Palm D’Or at his special centennial exhibit and the National Film Center, I only made it to one Filmex screening – but I picked the right one.

冬の獣 (Fuyu no Kemono, “Winter Beast”), a relationship drama with the English title Love Addiction, directed this year by Uchida Nobuteru, is a riveting piece of realism, psychologically complex and powerful – and not surprisingly, it was awarded the festival Grand Prize.

The dynamics of the four main characters within the film and their attempts to navigate love, connections, and gender roles in an isolating modern Japanese landscape is in itself full of anthropological potential, but what struck me beyond the film itself was the relationship between the primarily Japanese audience and the characters on the screen.  I went with two other American friends, and early in the climactic scene, the rationalizations and reverse accusations of the main character’s philandering boyfriend became too unbearable – all three of us couldn’t help but express our disgust, and then amazed amusement, at the utter absurdity of his words.  Talking during films is looked down upon throughout the world, and particularly in Japan, and particularly at film festivals (unless you’re Quentin Tarantino and you feel the need to criticize Kawase Naomi at Cannes…), but it was not long before our feelings were echoed throughout the theatre.
The cast and director take the stage after the screening.
I found myself laughing and audibly catching my breath, exclaiming in surprise or frustration right along with a hall full of people whom I would generally expect to remain quiet and attentive at such an event.  Part of this is undoubtedly due to the incredible realism of the film, a product of its largely handheld yet striking cinematography and the unscripted, quasi-method-acted interplay of the four main characters.  But the willingness of a Japanese audience to make noise at a movie is nonetheless telling.  Further, they seemed to be decidedly against the lead male character’s brazenly doubly-standard attitude that men should have multiple women, while women should be monogamous, a reflection perhaps of changing conceptions of gender roles and relations, at least among the film-festival-attending and film-making crowd.

Festival organizer, Uchida, the four stars, and translator take questions.
One thing that I love about film festivals is the ubiquity of Q&A sessions – and the way this one proceeded, as opposed to what one might experience outside of Japan (especially in the U.S.), reveals much about Japanese culture and the Japanese approach to the creation of art.  One of my film profs back home says that the first question (and usually the second, third, fourth…) for a director is always “What was your budget?” or “What cameras/equipment did you shoot with (and how much did that cost you…)?” or other similarly financially-oriented questions.  But at Tokyo Filmex, not a single question touched on economics – discussion of the title, the film’s inspiration, the relatability of the characters and the approaches to characterization and creation of meaning were directed to Uchida and the four main actors.
The four stars of the new film listen during the Q&A session.
Admittedly, the low budget of the film is to be commended, but the tone of the Q&A session, and the verbal freedom of the audience during the screening, revealed how deeply affected the audience was by the themes of desperation, alienation, and uncertainty and the discourses regarding gender that the film so artistically articulates.  Personally, I find this commitment to form and function, rather than finance, in film, refreshing – but even more so, the fact that a Japanese film that looks so frankly at modern relationships, and where they break down, tops a film festival devoted to new Asian cinema, says even more about modern Japan – how it mediates its fears about the 21st century (check this out for another interesting take on the festival), and how willing it is to engage in that mediation.  I would say the festival lived up to its mission statement, and then some.


Toji, or not Toji?

Outside Toji Temple, crowds still gather around 2 in the afternoon on Flea Market day.
Japanese children gravitate towards the stalls selling colorful candy.
Like my senpai of two years previous, my friend Liz and I recently took a trip to visit the flea market that sprawls over Toji Temple in Kyoto every 21st of the month.  Kobo-san, as it is called, is as much a cultural as a commercial experience – the dynamics of local Japanese economies, of generational differences, of interactions between foreign visitors and native vendors, all are played out in the microcosm of the temple’s crowded interior.
Crowds outside the temple...

Bartering is expected here; two girls of roughly our age advised to tell the kimono vendor “500円なら… “ – ‘if it were 500¥’ – we would by the kimono priced at 1000¥.  The demographic make-up of consumers varies wildly, from tiny おばあちゃん (grandmothers) – literally, some of them are 4’6” tall, tops – to Japanese families out for the day, to a sizable smattering of Kansai Gaidai international students and other foreign tourists – all crammed into a colorful cross-section of Japan’s commercial sector.

...and inside the temple.
I read in Flea Markets of Japan: A Pocket Guide for Antique Buyers to beware of “vendors with a condescending attitude towards foreigners, based on that all non-Japanese are ignorant of Japanese culture and cannot speak a word of Japanese [and] vendors who try to charge unreasonably high prices”(19).  Maybe Liz and I lucked out, or our ability to communicate in vendors’ native language helped us out, but my exploration of the market gave me the exact opposite kanji, or sense.

Liz forges her way through the diverse community of shoppers at Kobo-san.
 We were both interested in purchasing kimono, a particularly popular日本的 (nihonteki, or ‘Japan-esque’) souvenir for foreigners at Japanese flea markets, given its cost-effectiveness in units of Japanese/¥.  As kimono are no longer ‘daily wear’ in Japan, and there is some lingering stigma surrounding second-hand clothing, used kimono and yukata go for very reasonable prices, generally around 1000.

Antique inkan!  Liz, whose last name is Furuya, was tempted...
We bought our kimono and obi 別々 (betsu betsu) – at different stalls – and encountered multiple vendors who were very friendly and eager to help us find correct sleeve lengths and obi colors that went well with our kimono – the vendor from whom we purchased our obi even allowed me to film an impromptu obi-tying demonstration, with Liz as her model.  One kimono vendor, learning that Liz is from New York, imparted the story of his honeymoon visit there over 20 years ago, and we discussed the subway system and Cats in a mixture of English and Japanese.  (Although, whether ‘discuss’ is the best word is debatable – many times, in my experience here, older Japanese who have a little bit of English and have been to America once or twice are eager to inform me of this, but the conversation is usually restricted to a series of dropped names and acknowledgment of our mutual recognition of people, places, or things.  The consistent repetition of this structure of cultural exchange – superficial, yes, but indicative of our interest in one another’s countries – is in itself interesting to notice.)
Handmade ceramics of all sorts are available throughout the market.

Aesthetics and taste are free to sample at this stall!
Even if I hadn’t bought anything, Kobo-san offers a wealth of free souvenirs: as a flea market, it is richly visual, full of interesting people and goods, but appealing to the senses as well.  Samples of delicious dried fruits, the scent of roasting sweet potatoes sprinkled with sugar, the sounds of bartering in Japanese, the silky feel of the used kimono for sale at dozens of stalls the line the crowded aisles – and the opportunity to be plunged into a sea of Japanese humanity, were visual anthropology presenting itself around every corner.


Variations on a Theme (Park), or Sticking to the Status Queue?

Welcome to USJ - where Christmas arrives with November!
 This past weekend, I finally indulged in the requisite visit to Universal Studios Japan that seems to find its way on to most Kansai Gaidai international students’ itineraries at some point in their stay here in Hirakata.  Theme parks on weekends are full of people – in between all the rides and shows and intoxicating smells, a barrage of visual (and aural, and olfactory, and so on…) anthropology assaults the senses.

Mine-chan and I take a classic Japanese photo-op in yet another queue!
Long lines for attractions also mean time to talk with Japanese students; I went with Haru, who I featured a few blog posts back, and her high school friend Mine-chan.  While waiting an advertised 45 minutes for the Hollywood Dream ジェットコースター (‘jet coaster’ – the Japanese use this general term for rides), Haru asked me whether lines were this long in America.  Not being a frequenter of Disneyland and other theme parks in the U.S., I wasn’t really sure, but Haru had earlier informed me that we could potentially have to wait 2 and a half hours for some attractions, which can be standard at Tokyo Disney as well.  I felt pretty certain that Americans would be too impatient to queue for that amount of time; Haru and I together speculated about Japanese and American willingness to wait in lines.  Undoubtedly, in depends on the sub-culture, and what they may be waiting for (teens sleeping outside the Nederlander theatre to get rush tickets to RENT on Broadway?) – but lining up seems to be more acceptable, even popular, among the Japanese.

A few weeks ago in Shinsaibashi, I was momentarily bewildered by a queue outside of Krispy Kreme that extended through the crosswalk and into the neighboring shopping street – this is a sight unseen in America.  But this model is not limited to one shop in Osaka – Krispy Kreme (and other, notably, Western imports like Coldstone Creamery) in Tokyo and beyond experience similar queues.  Check out some interesting analysis of the phenomenon here.  To the Japanese, long lines equate with a quality product – be it a delicious doughnut or, with a jet coaster, the chance to regurgitate said doughnut.  But more than simply rewarded patience, waiting on lines seems to reflect some cultural aspects of Japan, like gaman – the concept of enduring without complaint in order to succeed.

Later in the day at USJ, queuing up for the new attraction Space Fantasy, I noticed that there is, in fact, a single rider line – but no one seemed to be using it.  I asked Haru if she thought this might be because Japanese tend to do things in groups, and she agreed, Although even Americans would likely not go to a theme park alone, this does seem to be a nice example of Japanese 集団主義 ('shuudanshugi') – group collectivism – and particularly its relation to waiting in lines – the idea that if a group of Japanese have given their approval to a ride or donut by their physical presence in line for it, another Japanese, being of the same cultural in-group, should naturally line up too – even without necessarily knowing what they are lining up for:
“In an article published in The Japan Times in summer 2007, a Japanese woman confessed that she enjoyed queuing outside shops and restaurants and that she usually joins the line before asking the person in front of her what kind of product is sold.” (Kohlbacher & Holtschneider)
In our discussion of 集団主義, though, Haru stressed that she personally feels at times constrained by the group mentality; consequently, she tries to take time to do certain things alone, like the occasional solo shopping trip.

The weekend of queue-based speculation is over, but earlier today, in sharing about my weekend visit to USJ, I ended up talking to another Japanese friend about Disneyland.  At one point, she asked if there is a Disneyland in America – the extent to which Western theme parks, doughnuts, and sundry other bits of society have been appropriated into Japanese culture is just as intriguing as the patience with which they will wait to enjoy these borrowed pleasures…
Charlie Brown Christmas meets Universal Studios meets queuing Japanese students...



Recently in Visual Anthropology of Japan, we watched two documentaries on the work of two very different photographers – Annie Liebovitz and James Nachtwey.  Listening to my classmates after both films had been screened, and perusing past blog entries responding to the same pairing of photographers, I get the sense that people feel that Nachtwey’s work is somehow more valuable, carries more meaning. But just because a photograph depicts the horrific or shocking doesn’t mean that they automatically mean more – life isn’t given ultimate meaning by war, or poverty, or injustice.  At least, I like to hope that this is not where the meaning in life comes from.

James Nachtwey: Hutu death-camp survivor, Rwanda, 1994 - an iconic image of the genocide.
Annie Liebovitz: Michael Jordan, baskestball star, a different kind of icon.
Annie Liebovitz also gets some flack for being ‘commercial.’  But James Nachtwey, too, makes a living at what he does – and, arguably, his photography is even more exploitative, relying on the misery and suffering and anger and mostly negative emotions of his subjects, whereas Liebowitz’ subjects have some voice in how they are represented, and many of them are actively choosing to be represented by her (Miley Cyrus may beg to differ, but that is beyond the scope of this post…).
Annie Leibovitz: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, vulnerable and selfless love, hours before his death.
Celebrity is, especially in America, a major part of our culture and shared cultural history – on one side of the Vietnam war, we have the Stones and the Beatles and the counter-culture that sprang up at home, and on the other, we have the war itself, in Vietnam, which was a major impetus for Nachtwy's decision to be a war photographer - and both deserve a place in visual anthropology.  Both celebrity and war define the lives of those of Liebovitz and Nachtwey photograph, and both are necessary to understanding our cultural history.
James Nachtwey: Bosnia, mourning a soldier in a football-field burial ground.
So, even though Liebowitz and Nachtwey have produced vastly different volumes of work, when I think about what makes them each successful as visual anthropologists (even if they do not necessarily self-identify, I think their photographs ARE anthropology), there is so much that they have in common.  Some lessons from James-先生 and Annie-先生:

1) Photograph people.  When it comes to visual anthropology, this seems pretty requisite, but it's a practice of both photographers that is good to keep in mind as we try to visualize Japaneseness.  At the same time, don't presume - Annie says "something that wouldn't seem like [is] anything, [is] something"(Leibovitz, 2008) - the little and the epic are both a part of anthropology.

2) Get permission for your photographs.  Life Through a Lens shows Leibovitz establishing good rapport with her subjects, putting them at ease, showing them their photographs after shooting, while in War Photographer, Nachtwey describes the sort of implicit permission that war imparts to the photographer - "it's simply impossible to photograph moments such as those without the complicity of the people I’m photographing; without the fact that they welcomed me, that they accepted me, that they wanted me to be there"(Frei, 2001).  For the most part, I agree, but the misgivings that Eliza raises about such implicit permission are quite valid.

3) Find or create narrative inside the frame.
Liebovitz says that each photograph should be a "story that is one sentence long"(Leibovitz, 2008).
For Nachtwey, photography needs to be "a form of communication"(Frei, 2001).

4) Engage in participant observation.
Leibovitz spent months touring with the Rolling Stones.
Nachtwey also spent an extended period living with this family.
5) Edit your work.  Nachtwey, as depicted in the documentary, is unrelenting in the development and editing process, and his high standards are something that any visual anthropologist who is taking photographs could learn from.  Life Through a Lens likewise depicts Leibovitz's process of learning the necessity and methodology of editing her work once she started working at Vanity Fair.

6) Rinse, repeat…aka, never stop.  Both photographers are constantly taking pictures, whether on the job or in their daily lives.  Life is inherently athropological, and most often visual, so you never know when visual anthropology is going to happen.
James Nachtwey.
Ultimately, the power of each photographer’s work should be assessed – each is a master in their own field, and should be respected (or critiqued, or revered, or questioned) as such.  As consumers of their images, we have very different needs met – our curiosity, admiration, love, obsession are fueled and satisfied by Liebowitz’s celebrity portraiture, and our pathos, empathy, social consciousness, sense of injustice are aroused and invoked by Nachtwey’s powerful images of war and suffering.  Our view of the world would be incomplete without either.

Annie Leibovitz.
But as students of their methods, we can see that they are each applying the same general principles of powerful photography to their respective worlds: never ceasing to photograph, permission-granted, boldly, the stories of who people are.  Annie Liebovitz and James Nachtwey teach us to be constant visual anthropologists.

Leibovitz, Barbara (Director). (2008). Annie leibovitz: life through a lens [Television series episode].  American Masters. PBS.
Frei, Christian (Director). (2001). War Photographer [Feature-length documentary].


A Portrait of the Home Visit Partner as a Young Japanese

The practice of お見合い ('omiai'), arranged marriage meetings of the kind seen in Kon Ichikawa’s classic The Makioka Sisters, is becoming less common as Japan modernizes and the 21st century charges ahead.  However, the tradition of bringing together two individuals in a formal meeting in hopes that they prove compatible, but then letting them decide whether to cultivate a relationship, is in full force at Kansai Gaidai.

Snapped on Haru's cell at our first meeting.
Rather than arranging marriages, Kansai Gaidai makes concerted efforts to establish ties between the 外大生 (Japanese students) and 留学生 (international students) – they pair us with Speaking Partners and Home Visit Partners, arguably a modern, platonic co-optation of the of お見合い, with all the accompanying nerves prior to first meeting one another.
But from the moment I met Koga Haruna, my home visit partner, I could tell that 仲良くなる-we would become great friends.  A shared connection to Nishinomiya (her hometown, and where I had a 4-day home stay 5 years ago) and a love of film (she wants to make trailers and/or commercials, and I am a editing-happy CAMS major) are great places to begin any friendship – not to mention an equally shared, fervent devotion to Sister Act.


It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood...

お父さん points out the neighborhood's boundaries.
Unlike the other Seminar Houses, nestled in the residential Katahokocho, Seminar House 4 is across the street from the infamous beer park, in the neighborhood of Kurumazuka – if it can be put into the category of 近所 at all.  Most neighborhoods have a sign on one of the 電子柱 (light poles), but お父さん, the live-in ‘father’ of Seminar House 4, wasn't sure whether we had one - Kurumazuka was only recently incorporated, he told me, just 5 years ago when the Kansai Gaidai main campus moved to its current Nakamiya Campus location.

So why is Kurumakuza was defined as a 'new' neighborhood, if, according to お父さん, 誰も住んでいません ('nobody lives here') other than a building full of short-term, international transplants into this mini-community?  Camera in hand, I set out to explore my neighborhood on foot, and discovered that I do have Japanese neighbors in Kurumakuza, even if they, like me, are not permanent residents.

Awaiting the number 12 bus.
My neighbors are part-time: an enthusiastically talkative obaa-chan awaiting the number 12 bus from Hirakata-shi Eki.  Normally she waits up the at the stop by きらら, but today (for some reason given in rapid Japanese that I politely responded to with 'そうですか’) she found it more convenient to wait outside Seminar House.

Further up the street, the cross-walk where Kurumazuka meets the surrounding neighborhoods bounds the site of late-night basketball for local youths (and the occasional international student), and beyond the courts, I discovered Makino Kurumazuka Koen, where locals can stroll with dogs on leisurely weekday mornings.  The park is, according to お父さん, built around the hill of an ancient tomb, from which Kurumazuka itself derives its name - an according sense of reverence pervades the space, or at least a desire for such respect.

My savior from the mosquitoes, diligently maintaining the tomb site.
I met another ‘neighbor’, a man sweeping the steps of the tomb.  Ever since he had first visited the site three years earlier and noticed the leaves littering the stairs, he has been coming daily to make sure the tomb and its surroundings are きれい.  He was also kind enough to point out that during the course of our interview, I was being eaten alive by the mosquitoes, and even did me the favor of swatting one that was making a meal of my left ear-lobe.

Washida-san at work.
Then there are Kiwamura-san and Washida-san, the two security guards who protect the permanent residents of the cemetery immediately next door to Seminar House.  From Kiwamura-san, I learned that this is the only cemetery in Hirakata-shi, so ultimately, every resident of the city, regardless of religion, is destined to become a member of the Kurumazuka community.  And provided that my understanding of Kiwamura-san's Japanese was accurate, the preparation for interment of the recently departed actually occurs directly across the way from the cemetery, in a building that I had previously assumed was merely municipal.  It's real function, as my limited Japanese allows me to interpret it, reveals a much more fascinating place within the social organization of the city as a whole.

The Kurumazuka cemetery, which I can only view from outside.

So, while it may be true that the only residential building in my neighborhood is full of foreigners, native neighbors are everywhere – working, strolling, playing, awaiting the number 12 bus, or even resting peacefully in carefully-maintained graves.  I have to conclude that the concept of neighorhood can encompass a place such as Kurumazuka, because it serves significant social functions and binds the greater community together, even if such a role is not immediately visible from the main sidewalk outside the Seminar House.  This is the virtue of visual anthropology - holding a camera, having the courage to make conversation in broken Japanese, discovering the underlying structure of the populated world around us.