June 28, 2012

Pragmatic asceticism


"Not all Buddhist orders banned the eating of meat." By pitching a campfire in front of the Konpon Dai-to and frying a fish, Koreya is being rude but not necessarily sacrilegious.

After arriving in Japan in the 6th century, Buddhism fully integrated itself into Japanese culture, producing sects and doctrines unique to Japan and Japanese pragmatism. Two notable practical "exceptions" to the rules are clerical marriage and the eating of meat.

Meiji period reforms legally allowed Buddhist monks and nuns to marry. This decree was resisted by the "renunciate orders." However, Buddhist priests do marry, and the reforms brought into the open what was already going on, such as temple appointments being passed from father to son.

This willingness to bend the letter of the law to practical realities also shows up in the eating of meat. Strict vegetarianism is rare among Japanese Buddhists, not to mention the general population.

Japanese respect vegetarianism more as a concept than in actual practice. The word is an imported English cognate, to start with. A "vegetarian menu" is one sans big chunks of beef, not one guaranteed to contain no animal products, especially pork or fish in the dashi, or soup stock.

This is a country, after all, that still hunts whales.

(Though I think mostly because it's a way to assert its national prerogatives, the same reason Japan, China, and South Korea constantly squabble over lumps of barren volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean. I'm pretty sure that if everybody just ignored them, they'd give it up.)

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June 25, 2012

The Housekeeper


Tolstoy was wrong. Unhappy families--especially unhappy television families--are pretty much all unhappy in the same boring ways. Seen Ordinary People, seen them all. Nothing is more frustrating than a enjoyable genre series that runs out of material and resorts to characters screwing up their lives with angst and stupidity.

Even House waded one too many times into this Dullsville. The whole arc with Cutty went on so long it started to repeat itself; she should have been written out of the series several seasons earlier. Though House was smart enough to find a way to make lemonade out of all the melodramatic lemons. (Chase's promotion at the end was perfect.)

So at first glance, Nippon Television's "I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper" (Kaseifu no Mita) sounds intolerable: Mrs. Asuda has committed suicide, leaving behind her sad sack of a husband (whose office affair gets blamed for it), four cute but angsty kids, a bumbling but well-intentioned aunt, and one pissed-off father-in-law.

Except that into the picture steps Mita, the newly-hired housekeeper, whose ruthless efficiency can only be described as a cross between Data from Star Trek and the Terminatrix. In fact, the strange old lady at the housekeeping agency warns them not to jest with Mita about killing anybody because, you know, she probably will.

The bizarre premise of hiring a borderline sociopath to work as a housekeeper saves the show. The spooky air of unreality gives the viewer permission to not take all the hand-wringing too seriously. It's easier to tolerate melodramatic psychobabble given less Dr. Phil and more Supernatural (true of science fiction and fantasy in general).

The series traces two dramatic arcs. The first has Mita solving everybody's psychological problems in her unconventional manner, as when the eldest daughter throws a "Just kill me already!" hissy fit and Mita tries her best to really kill her, Psycho-style.

In the second arc, having fixed the kids, the kids take it upon themselves to fix Mita, starting with the goal of at least making her smile. This disappointed me initially. I liked the idea of Mita as a primeval force, a manifestation of the family's collective id. Positing her as "fixable" breaks the spell and turns her into just another head case.

What makes it work is Nanako Matsushima as Mita, who holds this expression for ninety-nine percent of the series (I'd love to see the blooper reel), and yet conveys a surprisingly wide spectrum of emotions. Her crazy-as-a-fox performance elevates Mita into a delightfully demented Mary Poppins.

Thankfully, the last episode resurrects the more surreal aspects, though accompanied by spoonfuls of goopy sentimentality that make Touched by an Angel look dark and dystopian by comparison. It's a Christmas episode, no less. Again, Matsushima's restrained performance just barely saves it (and she turns out to have an absolutely radiant smile).

Plus there's a clever tie-in to the seasonal setting, as the kids observe that Mita's name (三田) can be also pronounced "Santa," and the strange lady at the agency doesn't disabuse them of the notion. It also helps that the script pays off every single plot point, and Mita doesn't end up getting so much "fixed" as stabilized.

The show has its problems, to be sure, and not just the awkward descent into weepy melodrama. Most Japanese series follow an HBO schedule, a dozen shows a year often ending after a single season. This means they have to throw away a lot of promising material, sacrificing "show" for too many monologues of "tell."

For example, it would be far more interesting for our Scooby Gang of child social workers to do some actual investigating instead of pestering adults into revealing their secrets.

The father (ably played by Hiroki Hasegawa) is initially made such a convincingly pathetic loser it's hard to imagine the hottest OL in the office falling into bed with him. And the sheer irresponsibility of abandoning four kids and committing suicide after an awkward affair equally strains belief (and sympathy).

Yui, the eldest daughter, (Shiori Kutsuna1) never answers for making a bad situation far worse. Her father was a jerk, but her mother had some screws loose too. Apparently, loose screws are inheritable. Mita should have given them a little tightening, the way she gets the bumbling aunt to grow a spine.

The very last scene has Mita showing up at the doorstep of what, from the decrepit state of things, must be another messed up family. "I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper" was such a big hit in Japan I'd expect a sequel to be in the works, though none is planned. It is an idea ripe for a Hollywood ripoff, though.

Kazuyoshi Saito performs the theme song. The opening guitar riff very effectively starts playing during the cliffhanger at the end of every episode rather than during the credit roll. By the end of the series, it practically triggers a Pavlovian response.


1 Shiori Kutsuna played Princess Sen in the historical drama Gô. She had tons of issues with her father too, though Tokugawa Hidetada really did kill his daughter's husband, stepchild, and all her in-laws.

Update: now streaming on Crunchyroll.

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June 21, 2012

Medieval timekeeping


Timekeeping in Japan during the Middle Ages was based on the Chinese "lunisolar" system and the Chinese zodiac. Calendrical years also moved through a cycle of 10 "Heavenly Stems" and 12 "Earthly Branches." This is where the "year of the [zodiac sign]" convention comes from.

The zodiac was also used in hourly timekeeping.

Intercalary or leap months were necessary to make the solstices line up. When Japan switched the Gregorian calendar early in the Meiji period, a whole month was lopped off to accommodate the change (the date jumped from November to January). The months were simply numbered one through twelve.

Vestiges of this switch are still found in the date of the Obon holiday, Japan's main summer festival. Obon is "officially" celebrated on the 15th of August (according to the old lunar calendar), but in the Tokyo region it is often celebrated on the 15th of July (the adjusted solar date).

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June 18, 2012

Somewhere Street


I can't think of another travel program as simple and serenely compelling as NHK's Somewhere Street.

The basic crew (I'm sure there are more) is a Steadicam operator, a producer, and a sound man. The producer and the mikes are kept off screen. You experience only what the Steadicam operator sees and hears.

A "host" never appears on camera.

They avoid the tourist traps, gliding instead into little shops, peeking around open doors, encountering slices of life here and there, stopping people to ask what is going on and where.

The narration has the air of a curious tourist thinking out loud as he strolls along. And happens to be perfectly fluent in the language.

Here's where mike placement come into play. The conversations are engaged in the local language. The interviewee is subtitled. The interviewer (always off camera) is looped in Japanese, while preserving the ambient sound.

The Steadicam is the key to the whole thing. Nothing about the cinematography breaks the fourth wall and reminds the viewer, "Hey, I've got a camera! Hey, look at me and the camera!" The "frame" completely disappears.

You really are there. The effect is as if you had your own Babel Fish. They understand everything you say, and you understand everything they say.

Somewhere Street could be easily localized--just loop in English narration and change the subtitles--or shamelessly copied. Somebody at PBS really ought to.


Shusei Murai (村井秀清) composed the music. Starting with the theme song, the first 15 tracks of Merged Images III are from the show. The CD is available at Amazon-JP and CD Japan (English site). The WMP versions are here.

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June 14, 2012

Convenience stores


The convenience store (konbini) in Japan operates in a different retail niche, and has quite a different image, than the "Kwik-E-Mart" flavor of its U.S. counterparts.

7-Eleven is owned by Tokyo-based Seven & I Holdings, the fifth largest retailer in the world (it also runs the Denny's franchise in Japan). In Japan, 7-Eleven appeals to urban, upmarket sensibilities.

Convenience stores have ATMs, sell bus tickets, process utility bill payments, and provide package delivery and postal services. And, of course, stock high quality Japanese "fast food" like onigiri.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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June 11, 2012

Cloud Girl


As I've observed before, Microsoft's Japan division is well-tuned to the otaku zeitgeist (the employees no doubt being allowed to do what they know best). A good example are the cute mascots Microsoft-Japan creates for its operating systems and services.


Windows 7 got the chirpy "Nanami Madobe" (Nana means "seven," Madobe means "by the window"). Now Microsoft's Cloud Services has recruited Nanami's cousin, "Claudia Madobe," as the "Cloud Girl" mascot for Microsoft's "Azure" cloud services.


Claudia explains in manga format why you should hurry up and get Windows Azure (alas, Japanese only). For a limited time only! Buy Japanese Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Professional and get your own Claudia doll! (Real otaku call them "figures.")

Though come to think about it, Linux does have that penguin, Mac OS has Steve Jobs, and Microsoft-U.S. has John Hodgman.

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June 07, 2012

Off the beaten track



I also describe the trip from Kudoyama to Mt. Kôya on the Nankai Kôya line in chapter 2 of The Path of Dreams:

[Connor] skipped his stop and rode the Midosuji to the end of the line. At Nakamozu he transferred to the Nankai and continued south. Past Nakamozu the metropolis ended. Past Sayama the suburbs ended. The sleeper communities appeared farther and farther apart, tiny villages tucked into the corners of the terraced mountain valleys.

Heading south out of Osaka is like cruising north from New York City on the Taconic State Parkway. In twenty minutes or less, you can venture out of Tomorrowland and find yourself smack dab in the Middle of Nowhere.

The remoteness of these rural train stations is a testament to Japan's population density, 130 million people crammed into the same area as California, and then squeezed all the more into the Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka/Kyoto megalopolises. It's a near-perfect power law distribution.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Nankai Kôya line is blessed by having a great big city at one end and a great big tourist attraction at the other. Many rural lines are far less fortunate, and have the bad habit of turning into gaping money pits.

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June 04, 2012

Trains to nowhere


Here is an amusing account of how crazy the money-losing economics of commuter rail transport can get even in train-crazy Japan, when JR East tried to axe a money pit of a rural line in Northern Japan, "the least trafficked line in the whole nation."

The line was put out of service by a landslide in 2010 that derailed a train. No one was critically injured. In a bit of unintentional satire, "JR East asserted that there were only three passengers [on the train], and all of them were train-spotters."

Rather than repair it, JR East would like to abandon it, as the line costs 32 yen for every 1 yen it takes in. And then make it the first in a long line of dominoes, as only 16 of 67 of JR East's conventional, non-Shinkansen lines were profitable in fiscal 2007.

In other words, JR East could replace these train routes with "fleets of luxury coaches . . . and still come out ahead!" Alas, as the author of the aforementioned article observes,

the love for local, loss-making lines, a fiercely nostalgic love for a past that never existed but which is no less a valid love for all that, flames in inverse correlation with the economic utility of the line.

Unfortunately, a similarly infatuated flight from common sense has now infected California. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Governor Jerry Brown is

hoping that Washington will pony up more than $50 billion [for a 500-mile bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles], but the feds have committed only $3.3 billion so far, and Republicans intend to claw it back if they take the Senate and White House this fall. If that happens, the state won't have enough money to complete its first 130-mile segment in the lightly populated Central Valley, which in any event wouldn't be operable since the state can't afford to electrify the tracks.

This is what happens when adults who liked playing with toy trains when they were kids figure out how to con the rest of the country into paying for their gold-plated hobby.

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