The Book of Yōkai

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Title: The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Author: Michael Dylan Foster
Illustrator: Shinonome Kijin (東雲 騎人)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 309

This guest review is written by Katriel Paige (@kit_flowerstorm on Twitter).

Yōkai are part of an ongoing conversation surrounding global popular culture. Even in the United States we hear about yōkai through games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, and we happily watch films from Studio Ghibli that feature wondrous and strange creatures.

Although Michael Dylan Foster acknowledges that commercial cultures factor into the continued vibrancy of yōkai lore, The Book of Yōkai does not focus on the portrayals of yōkai in contemporary popular media and fan culture. Rather, the goal of this text is to provide an overview of the folkloristics of yōkai, from how thinkers and artists have interpreted yōkai to how the mysterious entities have been created, transmitted, and continually redefined. Foster is especially interested in how yōkai enthusiasts create their own networks of practice, with popular media cultures as one node in those networks. As he writes, “For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yōkai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered kappa or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the ‘origins’ of the yōkai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is [a] purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yōkai they might encounter” (6).

Foster succeeds in this endeavor, as The Book of Yōkai is an excellent overview, especially for those new to the study of folklore. In his first chapter, “Introducing Yōkai,” the author offers a short introduction to the shifting definition of the term “folklore,” reminding readers that, like yōkai themselves, “folklore” occupies a place-in-between, where it is both traditional and modern, rural and urban. Folklore, like yōkai, can be found both in the shadows of the forest and in the light cast by our computer screens. Just as there is no single definition of “folklore,” there is no single definition of “yōkai,” and Foster’s cogent explanations of liminality and communal creation serve as an excellent introduction to the study of cryptids and the legends surrounding them.

The Book of Yōkai is divided into two sections: “Yōkai Culture” and “Yōkai Codex.” The “Yōkai Culture” section is where the reader will find Foster’s discussions of the history of yōkai, beginning with the mysterious twilight entities of the classical Heian Period (c. 794-1185) and spanning to medieval picture scrolls illustrating yōkai night parades and early modern codices classifying both natural and supernatural phenomena. The majority of this section is centered around important texts, such as the mytho-historical Kojiki and hyakumonogatari compilations of ghost stories, and influential figures, such as the artist Toriyama Sekien and the scholar Inoue Enryō.

The “Yōkai Codex” describes yōkai according to their habitats, such as the countryside, the city, and the sea. This section is similar to the indexes seen in games that involve the collection of strange creatures, such Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch. Foster’s “Yōkai Codex” also draws on and serves as a link to yōkai indexes past and present, most famously the illustrated yōkai compilations of the manga artist Mizuki Shigeru.

The writing is accessible to academics and non-academics alike, making The Book of Yōkai superb for independent scholars or a general reader with an interest in yōkai. Foster by and large avoids technical jargon, and he clarifies his treatment of Japanese words and names at the beginning of the book, which aids in cross-referencing with other sources. As a folklorist, Foster privileges the storytelling experience, using anecdotes to make the reader feel as if they are having a friendly chat with the author. Although the academic foundation of Foster’s text is solid, his colorful personal stories have the potential to resonate strongly with a non-academic audience.

The Book of Yōkai is a great resource for undergraduates, non-specialists, and other curious readers looking for a comprehensive English-language introduction to the historical complexities and artistic potential of yōkai. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions from the University of California Press. Shinonome Kijin, who has provided thirty original illustrations for the text, can be found as @ushirodo on Twitter.

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Katriel Paige is an independent scholar of yōkai as well as media cultures and folklore. They earned a MA in Intercultural Communication with International Business from the University of Surrey and a BA from the University of Delaware with a dual focus in East Asian Studies and English, and they currently work in the technology industry. They like cats, video games, and caffeine in both coffee and chocolate forms. You can find more of their work, including their essays on Japanese culture and video games, on their Patreon page.

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Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

Yūrei The Japanese Ghost

Title: Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost
Author: Zack Davisson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 206

Zack Davisson is a major rising star in the world of manga translation, having worked on high-profile and award-winning titles such as Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan and Oishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi’s Seraphim: 266613336 Wings. He is also a consultant for the ongoing comic series Wayward, for which he writes the closing essays. Fans of yōkai and other Japanese cryptids will know him from his blog, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and he also maintains an active Twitter account, which is a great source of news on the American comics scene. Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is Davisson’s first book, and it’s published by no less than Chin Music Press, which regularly releases Japan-related literary objets d’art such as Kūhaku & Other Accounts from Japan and Otaku Spaces. There’s obviously been a great deal of talent invested in this book, and it shows.

Yūrei are the ghostly cousins of yōkai, and their spectral tendrils stretch deep into Japanese history. Although he occasionally touches on contemporary popular culture, Davisson is mainly concerned with the society and print media of premodern and early modern Japan. Each of the twelve chapters in Yūrei covers one in-depth topic, the discussion of which is usually centered around a specific artistic work.

The first chapter takes as its subject “The Ghost of Oyuki,” the Edo-period painting by Maruyama Ōkyo that appears on Yūrei‘s cover. Davisson investigates the origin of this iconic image, melding history with legend. The second chapter covers kaidanshū, or “collections of weird tales,” while the third delves into the world of kabuki. The fourth and fifth chapters offer maps of the geography of the land of the dead, both imagined and, in the case of certain sacred mountains, real. Chapter 6 conveniently details how not to end up as a ghost, and Chapters 7 and 8 recount the lives and afterlives of people who really could have used this advice. Chapter 9, “The Ghost of Okiku,” is an Edo-period case study in how hauntings occur, and Chapter 10 brings the concept of haunting, or tatari, into the present by way of horror movies and urban legends. The eleventh chapter provides an explanation of the traditions surrounding Obon, the festival of the dead. Finally, the twelfth chapter is an informative analysis of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which was published in 1776 but still stands (or hovers creepily) as one of the finest works of dark fantasy in any language.

Although every chapter is a lot of fun, my favorite section of the book is its Introduction, in which Davisson relates a personal anecdote about how he and his wife lived in a haunted apartment in Osaka for seven months. Part of the appeal of reading ghost stories is imagining that you yourself might one day come into contact with the supernatural, so I can’t imagine a better way to begin a book like this. Davisson transitions into a brief overview of what the term “yūrei” signifies, how it differs from the Western concept of “ghost,” and its pervasiveness in contemporary film and literature. If I were a curious horror fan, or perhaps a teacher looking for a concise and engaging essay to assign as reading for a class on Japanese folklore, Yūrei‘s Introduction would suit my needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, the writing in Yūrei is not always uniformly smooth. In certain sections of the book, there are brief moments of jarring dissonance, as when one paragraph states that the constant warfare of the Sengoku period (1467-1603) generated countless ghost stories because of people needed a way to process their fear, while the next paragraph argues that ghost stories proliferated in the Edo period (1603-1868) in a way that they couldn’t before because people were finally free from fear. These paradoxes are relatively minor; and, in Davisson’s defense, such seeming contradictions need not be regarded as such, as multiple interpretations are equally valid. This is a book about ghosts, after all.

Yūrei is an extremely handsome publication. It opens with eight full-color images depicting yūrei as imagined by artists in the Edo period. There are fifteen additional images interspersed throughout the book, each of which is accompanied by a short explanation. There is also a glossary at the end, which helpfully provides the kanji for each term, as well as a useful five-page list of English-language works referenced.

The book’s most interesting index is its collection of 33 yūrei kaidan (“strange tales”), which are organized by theme, such as “Tales of Ghostly Vengeance” and “Tales of Ghostly Love.” As it’s difficult to find stories from medieval and Edo-period kaidan compilations outside of out-of-print academic publications, these translations are an extremely welcome addition to the project.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press. (Full disclosure: I was so excited about this release that I begged for a review copy, and they sent me one just to get me to go away. It was totally worth it.) You can preview the book on Davisson’s blog.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums

The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums

Title: The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums
Author: Sophie Richard
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: The Japan Society
Pages: 176

According to the good people at The Japan Society, art historian Sophie Richard’s The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums has been very popular, quickly selling out of its first print run. Between its convenience as a guide and its beauty as a physical object, it’s easy to understand why.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is so titled because it’s aimed at serious art appreciators who are willing to go off the beaten path in order to visit smaller museums that offer a more personalized and intimate experience. Richard skips the large national institutions and instead highlights private or regional galleries that would be worthy of a day trip or that necessitate a willingness to venture off the beaten path in urban and suburban areas. Based on my personal experience with several of these museums, the trip will definitely be worth it.

The main body of the guide is divided into five sections: Tokyo, Around Tokyo, Kyoto Area, West, and East (with “West” designating the area from Osaka to Hiroshima and “East” designating the area from Nagoya to Aomori). 29 of the 52 museums profiled are in or around Tokyo. In some cases, a location “around Tokyo” might require a long train ride and an overnight stay, but most are well within the city limits or accessible by commuter rail.

Most of the entries are two pages long. Each opens with the museum’s address in English and Japanese and general information (hours, holidays, access, website). This is followed with three paragraphs of description. The content of varies but can include information about the museum’s history, the highlights of its collection, and the availability of English text or audio guides. The short “In the neighborhood” section at the end of every entry tempts the reader out into the open to take in the layout of the town, the local cuisine, nearby temples, and even other museums. Each entry also includes two or three full-color photographs of the museum space and representative works from its holdings. The occasional four-page entries are usually longer because of their inclusion of more pictures, all of which are gorgeous.

Even if you’re not planning on visiting Japan, browsing through The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is still enjoyable, as Richard’s articulate prose guides the reader through the experience of visiting the galleries. For example, writing on the Chichu Art Museum designed by Andō Tadao, Richard offers this intriguing description:

The museum’s complex space includes passageways and stairs set at sharp angles and a courtyard with evergreen plants that contrast starkly with the grey concrete. The interior of the building is lit with natural light alone. At the heart of the museum, five monumental paintings by Claude Monet from the late Waterlilies series appear to float mysteriously in a serene space gently illuminated by the sun’s rays, which are diffused through channels in the ceiling. Security guards wearing futuristic white uniforms ask visitors to remove their shoes before entering the room, which adds to the compelling atmosphere.

As in the excerpt above, Richard does walkthroughs like Sherlock Holmes, albeit with less of an emphasis on dry facts and with more of an emphasis on atmosphere. If you’d prefer to travel from the comfort of your own sofa, Guide to Japanese Museums is a perfect companion.

Also included in the guide are a short “Introduction” in which the author explains her motivations for embarking on this project, an overview of “Museums in Japan,” a six-page essay on “Looking at Japanese art,” and a brief list of “Tips and advice.” These sections are useful regardless of whether you’re making plans to visit Japan or whether you’re already there. For instance, this is the first time I’ve heard of the Grutt Pass, a ¥2,000 booklet that provides one-time admission to several of the museums profiled in this guide.

I should add that Guide to Japanese Museums came with me across the North American continent twice during the past two months, and it’s still in pristine condition. The book is lightweight and flexible, and it can easily be slipped inside a backpack or a suitcase. If I couldn’t destroy it, it’s more than likely safe with you as well, so don’t feel as if you need to leave it on a shelf while you go and have adventures, whether those adventures are in Japan or at your local café.

Review copy provided by The Japan Society of the UK.

Three Directions

Three Directions

Title: Three Directions: teamLab, Tenmyouya Hisashi, Ikeda Manabu
Editor: Kirstin Pires
Publisher: Chazen Museum of Art and Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2014
Pages: 83

Three Directions was published on the occasion of an exhibition of the work of Tenmyouya Hisashi and Ikeda Manabu at the Chazen Museum in Madison and the Garden of Unearthly Delights exhibition at the Japan Society Gallery in New York, which lasts until January 11, 2015.

The “three directions” of the book’s title refer to the artists’ interpretations of early modern and modern Japanese art, specifically the Nihonga “Japanese-style painting” of the Meiji period (1868-1912). In her short essay on the works of the artists featured in Three Directions, curator Laura J. Mueller provides insight into the influences they have received from medieval and Edo-period (1600-1868) Japanese paintings, prints, sculpture, and garden design. Mueller also explains how the themes of the older art, such as the theme of anxiety surrounding the relationship between humankind and the natural world, have been translated into the work of the contemporary artists. In the main body of the book, which is comprised of extended interviews, the artists discuss their own perceptions of their influences, which are far more temporally immediate.

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teamLab, whose work must be seen to be believed (check out the video above), is represented in Three Directions by its founder Inoko Toshiyuki, who talks about the power of participatory media in the twenty-first century. Although he references manga such as Dragon Ball and One Piece and the masume ga (mosaics) of the eighteenth-century painter Itō Jakuchū, his most interesting description of the philosophy behind teamLab’s video installation Life Survives by the Power of Life (Seimei wa seimei no chikara de ikite iru) is that Chinese characters function like summon spells from the Final Fantasy series of role-playing video games. Inoko’s emphasis on a range of interlocking influences is deliberate, as teamLab’s work is designed to illustrate the blurring of the boundaries that supposedly separate contemporary media as they collectively exist both as entertainment and as cognitive enhancements.

Tenmyouya Hisashi expresses a markedly different attitude concerning his relationship to contemporary and premodern artistic media. According to Tenmyouya, his “Neo Nihonga” reflect “the subculture of the ‘street samurai,'” which “represents a counter to the traditional values of wabi sabi, zen, and otaku,” aesthetics that are “far from the reality of contemporary Japan.” Instead, he sees himself as tapping into the energy that originally drove the artistic movements of the Sengoku period (1467-1600), an era of intermittent civil war. Tenmyouya envisions his work as being representative of an aesthetic he terms BASARA – the Sanskrit word for “diamond,” which seems to mean “rebellious” in the context of his art and ideology. As one of his primary influences, he cites the yakuza films of Kitano Takashi, especially the violence, chaos, and dynamism they portray.

Ikeda Manabu is less concerned with aesthetics than he is with process. Stating simply that the most dominant theme in his work is “the conflict and coexistence between man and nature,” Ikeda speaks of being influenced by news reports and the ephemera he encounters in his daily life. The rest is a matter of design, focus, and patience, with the result being that many of his ink paintings function almost like diaries.

Ikeda is currently in residence at the Chazen Museum – you can read his residency blog here – where he is putting together a large and richly detailed masterwork. Three Directions includes an eight-page section on Ikeda’s tools, methods, and progress, which are fascinating even from the perspective of a non-artist.

These interviews with the artists, combined with Laura Mueller’s short contextual essay and the many high-quality images on display, make Three Directions an incredible resource for anyone interested in contemporary Japanese art, aesthetics, and culture. A commonality between the artists is the 3.11 “triple disaster,” which each references and responds to either obliquely or quite directly, so the interviews in particular will be of interest to students and scholars curious about how recent events have impacted mainstream art in Japan. I can also imagine the catalog becoming a useful classroom text, as it’s full of discussion points and allusions to both Eastern and Western art history.

Unfortunately, the book is almost impossible to acquire without either physically visiting the Chazen Museum or Japan Society Gallery or writing to one of their curators, as it’s not available through the online shops of either institution or through other online retailers. If you’re on the East Coast and can make it out to the Japan Society, I highly recommend checking out both the Three Directions catalog and the exhibition itself, which is running until January 11, 2015.

Review copy provided the Japan Society Gallery.

Ikeda Manabu, Meltdown

Ikeda Manabu’s Meltdown, image courtesy of Spoon & Tamago.

Lost Japan

Title: Lost Japan
Japanese Title: 美しき日本の残像 (Utsukushiki Nippon no zanzō)
Author: Alex Kerr
Translator: Bodhi Fishman
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Pages: 269

If you’re thinking about reading this book because you’re interested in Japan, I am sorry to inform you that Alex Kerr doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t think you’re very smart:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, “All is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land,’ where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] Since World War II, Japan has had fifty years of uninterrupted peace, during which time the concrete of its social systems has set hard and fast. It has become a land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this. (106, 107)

A Rhodes scholar friend of Kerr’s from Australia studying China, for instance, had the opportunity to become involved in the 1989 Tienanmen [sic] Square incident. What a hero! There is nothing more exciting than politically motivated massacres. If only they had more of those in Japan, amirite? Japan is such a boring place. All they have there are earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and nonviolent political upheaval, not to mention a dynamic feminist movement that really began to gather momentum in the years following an unprecedented economic downturn. Japan is home to a conformist society, where everyone is unbearably polite, and there aren’t any youth movements to capture to attention of intellectuals who have picked on the connections between Japanese society and their own.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. Lost Japan doesn’t have end notes or a bibliography, and the book works much better as a travelogue than as a serious study of Japan. Unlike many other “foreigner in Japan” books that came out of the nineties, however, Lost Japan is still in print and still referenced and recommended within communities of English-speaking people visiting and living in Japan.

As should be apparent from the passage I quoted above, Kerr is a person with strong opinions. As Kerr himself readily admits, his opinions tend to be polarizing, but it is their controversial nature that make them so interesting and compelling. Unfortunately, these opinions also tend toward sensationalism. Kerr seems to firmly believe that Japan is hurdling along a downslope slope towards cultural disaster. In order to demonstrate what Japan is losing, Kerr offers examples of the beauty he himself has experienced. These descriptions are vivid and immersive. Kerr details natural beauty…

As anyone who has hiked through the mountain ranges of Shikoku and Kyushu will know, Japan’s mountains are a jungle of sorts. Wherever one looks, the humid, dense slopes are covered with ferns, moss and fallen leaves. Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist. (17-18)

…architectural and artistic beauty…

Even within tourist-clogged Nara Park there are places which possess […] religious appeal. Entering the Sangatsu-do Hall, next door to the Hall of the Great Buddha, you find a quiet room far removed from the flurry of people in the park. In this dim space, there towers a magnificent gilt statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon Buddha, surrounded by a mandala arrangement of statues of guardians, the Sun and the Moon, and other bodhisattvas. From the halo behind the Buddha’s head project gilded rays, gleaming in the darkness. Tourists come to Sangatsu-do talking and laughing, but they soon fall silent in the presence of Fukukensaku Kannon’s fearsome light. None of them, including myself, has the slightest idea what the significance of Fukukensaku Kannon is. It doesn’t matter – those beams of light are enough. (207)

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

Other villagers from Tsurui came one by one to look at the foreigner, and then pitched in to help with the renovation. A foreigner was rare enough, but a foreigner who was trying to repair an old thatch-roofed house was doubly bizarre. Old folk took an interest, and would come over with straw to teach me how to weave straw sandals. […] At night, Shokichu and his friends told ghost stories in the spooky light of the floor hearth. (35)

What Kerr seems to love more than describing beauty, however, is describing ugliness. There is the ugliness of Japanese cities in general…

There are innumerable detailed building codes, but the overall design of a building and its aesthetic relation to street and skyline are ignored; the result is careless, disjointed, ugly. (66)

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitudes of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere – a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one’s head. This is a site which is considered a model of urban development. (50)

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

There is hardly a single object on the Kabuki stage recognizable to young people today. When stage chanters sing of fireflies or autumn maples, such things are now almost mythical objects in this land of vast cedar plantations. (67)

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

Japan’s national problem is homogeneity. The school system teaches everyone to say and think the same thing, and the bureaucracies restrict the development of new media, such as cable TV, the information highway and even movie theaters. As a result, no matter where you go, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all the houses look the same, the clothes look the same and people’s loves center around the same humdrum activities […] The passivity, the way in which [a department store counter saleswoman]’s shut out the outside world – it was a distinctive posture which I have seen in Japan so many times. Sensory deprivation? Passive silence? Fear of the world? I wish I could find the right words for it, but Japan is becoming a nation of people like this. (223)

…even though they know better:

I do not believe that the Japanese have completely lost the delicate sensibility of the Heian era. Somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know that Japan is becoming an ugly country. (51)

Sometimes I wondered whether Kerr really believed what he was saying, which seemed to be that Japan is an ugly country full of people who are either stupid or lazy. I wondered if it was really okay to say make generalizations like that about a country with a land area of more than 350,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 127,000,000 people. I also couldn’t help wondering what sort of person sees beauty only in very a small number of specific instances while seeing ugliness everywhere else.

It wasn’t just Kerr’s diatribes against ugliness that made me raise an eyebrow. For example:

Today, many Japanese would hardly know what the word yobai means, and it was a little short of miraculous that the custom still existed when I arrived in Iya. It was the subject of many a laughing conversation, and villagers slyly asked me now and then when I was going to start on my nocturnal adventures. At the time, yobai seemed to me just another local oddity, but later I discovered that there was more to it than I had thought. In the Heian period, the loves of the aristocrats immortalized in novels such as the Tale of Genji were modeled on the yobai pattern. (37)

Yobai, or “night crawling,” is when a young man breaks into a young woman’s bedroom late at night, often after a village festival (which usually involves alcohol), and ostensibly with the consent of the young woman’s parents. What an elegant, noble custom! It’s a shame that people don’t do this anymore. Let’s laugh about it, because there is nothing funnier than surprise sex! (Also, I think Kerr might be suggesting that marriage practices among the elite in an earlier historical period were modeled on a subset of rural customs from later historical periods, but this is excusable as everyone knows that history is like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.)

Also, sometimes Kerr says things that made me wonder if the Japan he’s talking about is some kind of bizarro-Japan from an alternate dimension. For example:

Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of [my younger cousins], has an almost complete lack of dirty words. (224)

The Japanese language has an almost complete lack of dirty words only if the words used to describe feces, effluvia, human genitalia, sexual acts, gay men, gay women, women in general, and displeasure at the behavior of others aren’t considered “dirty.” Seriously, there’s a whole book about this, and this book was written before cell phones and the internet became mainstream.

The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty – often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. (231)

I guess the huge historic Chinatowns in cities like Yokohama and Kobe don’t exist?

One can scour the history of Japan, however, without finding much in the way of articulated philosophy; to put it strongly, Japan is not a country of thinkers. (113)

Not only is this not true, it’s also not a very nice thing to say.

If nothing else, Alex Kerr is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and his strong opinions certainly contribute to the entertainment value of his writing. If one can simply take what he says with a grain of salt and understand Lost Japan as a story the author is telling about Japan, then it’s easy to enjoy being swept up in his tales of adventure. Kerr has had no small number of unique experiences, and he can take his readers into worlds that they would not be able to enter without him. Bodhi Fishman’s translation is both eloquent and frank, and each of Kerr’s chapters is written so that disappointment with one aspect of Japan will be balanced out by wonder and amazement at another.

Kerr’s follow-up book to Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons, reprises many of the same themes but contains a great deal more factual information. The author’s bitter and rancorous tone is somewhat gentler in Lost Japan than it is in of Dogs and Demons, however, and the earlier book contains much less ranting on the topic of how all popular culture is worthless and offensive. In comparison, Lost Japan has aged much better than Dogs and Demons, and its balance of adulation, criticism, colorful descriptions, and strong opinions make it an enjoyable light read more than ten years after its first publication in English.

Still, the book is far from unproblematic, and the reader is encouraged to maintain an attitude as critical of Kerr as Kerr’s own attitude is critical of Japan.

I’d like to end this review with a picture that I took while waiting for the bus one morning this past April just outside of the center of town in Kyoto, which Kerr describes as one of the ugliest cities in Japan. Is it really ugly? It’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up the reader to decide for him or herself.

Bye Bye Kitty

Title: Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art
Editor: David Elliott
Additional Essay By: Tetsuya Ozaki (小崎 哲哉)
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery and Yale University Press
Publication Year: 2011
Pages: 125

I’m glad someone finally said it: Japan is not all cute, all the time. Japan produces many cute things (I’ll admit it, pokémon are pretty cute), and Japanese cuteness is fairly visible in America, where there are vast subcultures of people who idolize it. Part of the reason why Japanese cuteness has spread to North America, Europe, and other countries in Asia is because cuteness appeals to people outside Japan, after all. (And it’s not like mainstream American media doesn’t produce its fair share of appeals-to-men-in-their-thirties cuteness on its own.) I think there is still an oddly pervasive idea, however, that everything that comes out of Japan is either Hokusai or Hello Kitty. I therefore want to hug David Elliott, whomever he may be, for putting together the Japan Society’s Bye Bye Kitty exhibition and catalog. The artwork is spectacular, and the essay by Elliott that opens the catalog strikes a powerful blow against the assumption that all contemporary Japanese art features huge anime eyes.

Elliott begins with a five-paragraph introduction to postwar Japan, from Douglas MacArthur to double-digit GNP growth to post-bubble malaise. He then moves on to Murakami Takashi’s cultural theory of kawaii, namely, that the Japanese nation is some sort of puer aeternus stuck in a neverland of cuteness and consumption. And then Elliott laughs and states the obvious:

Many artists, however, … have produced work that indicates a more complicated, adult view of life, melding traditional viewpoints with perceptions of present and future in radical and sometimes unsettling combinations. This hybridity … has created a fertile seedbed in which the struggle between extremes of heaven and hell, fantasy and nightmare, ideal and real take place. There is no room for Kitty’s blankness here.

In other words, Japanese artists deal with the same concerns as Western artists, and they do so as adults, intelligently processing cultural and political history and anxieties through creative and technically sophisticated artworks. Elliott identifies three major themes in the work of the artists represented in this exhibition: critical memory (how we deal with the legacy of the immediate past), threatened nature (how we deal with our fears concerning the immediate future), and the unquiet dream (how we deal with our selves). As a whole, the essay is beautifully worded, beautifully illustrated, and well worth the price of the entire book.

Elliott’s essay is followed by a short piece by Tetsuya Ozaki, the former editor of ART iT, a gorgeous bilingual magazine devoted to the contemporary Japanese art scene (if you happen to be in Japan, you can easily find back issues on Amazon.co.jp or at major bookstores like Kinokuniya). In this essay, Ozaki makes the connection between “a system that doesn’t make people happy” and the current “floating generation” of suicides, hikikomori, and otaku. He demonstrates how young Japanese artists are resisting “the kawaii phenomenon” as a means of escape and argues for a broader understanding of Japanese artists as adults both reacting to and transcending their cultural environment. Accompanying this essay are timelines demonstrating, for example, the discursive space of Shōwa Japan and landmarks in postwar Japanese art.

And then there is the art itself. The catalog showcases the work of sixteen artists, all in their twenties through forties, and all showing large and colorful pieces in this exhibition. In my opinion, the primary keyword for these pieces is detail. Yamaguchi Akira, for example, has two pen and watercolor paintings on the theme of Narita Airport in which the roofs (even those of the planes) are lifted to reveal a minutely detailed Edo-esque fantasy of Meiji bureaucrats rubbing shoulders with women in kimono excusing themselves after bumping into Caucasian tourists fumbling with their cell phones. Another of Yamaguchi’s paintings, The Nine Aspects, is a picture scroll reading from right to left and illustrating the nine stages of decay of a horse after its top-knotted master discards its corpse by the wayside. Except the horse is also a motocycle, and the architecture is half Edo and half Shōwa nostalgia. Time is also compressed in the huge pen-and-ink illustrations of Ikeda Manabu, which depict hulking architectural monstrosities so finely detailed that a magnifying glass is necessary to catch all the small touches, like the bomber planes flying in formation below the golden-ceilinged temple caught up in the branches of an enormous dying cherry tree. Finally, there is Aida Makoto (of Harakiri School Girls fame) whose acrylic painting Ash Color Mountains confronts the viewer with towering piles of dead salarymen, each individually detailed, which somehow makes the spectacle even more disturbing.

My one complaint about the Bye Bye Kitty catalog is that, with dimensions of about a foot squared, it really can’t do justice to all of the amazing detail of the exhibition’s artwork, the majority of which is at least as tall as I am. Therefore, if you can possibly get to New York to see the show itself before it closes on June 12, you should go! It’s one thing to see something like Ash Color Mountains while flipping through the pages of a catalog; it’s another thing entirely to walk into a room with no expectations and suddenly find that there it is all around you. The work of Ikeda Manabu especially must be seen to be believed, and the more installation-focused work of artists such as Shioyasu Tomoko and Chiharu Shiota should really be experienced in person. There is not a single boring artist in the exhibition, so it’s definitely worth traveling to visit. The best work of so many unique and high-profile Japanese artists doesn’t come together like this very often, so catch it while you can – or at least consider ordering a copy of the catalog.

Girl, Illustrated

Title: Girl, Illustrated: Japanese Manga, Anime and Video Game Characters
Japanese Title: ガールズグラフ:コミック・ゲーム・ライトノベルのイラストレーターファイル (Girls graph: Comic, game, light novel no illustrator file)
Art Director: Sometani Yōhei (染谷 洋平)
Translators: Shima Miya (嶋 美弥) and Marian Kinoshita (木下 マリアン)
Publisher: Pie Books
Publication Year: 2009
Pages: 205

A few days ago I was killing time in the Borders next to Penn Station in New York City. I love this Borders. Not only do they allow people to sit on the heating vents next to the windows when it’s freezing outside, but they also have the largest and best-stocked manga section of any brick-and-mortar bookstore I’ve ever been inside. Every time I visit this Borders I find something that I had no idea had even been published. This time I found several copies of Girl, Illustrated. While I was flipping through one of them, I kept thinking about the recent New York Times article titled “In Tokyo, a Crackdown on Sexual Images of Minors.”

I am not a big fan of the article. For one, it doesn’t bother to introduce Ishihara Shintarō, his racism, his sexism, or his vocal ultra-nationalist political stance. So, when Ishihara is quoted as saying of the media in question that “These are for abnormal people, for perverts,” his statement seems only natural from a moral perspective. (Although one does chuckle a bit when he says, “There’s no other country in the world that lets such crude works exist.”) Indeed, the media that Ishihara hopes to censor is sensationalized as child pornography, and an impartial reader has no choice but to view it with disgust. It is only in the very last line of the article that someone is quoted as saying, “It’s a completely imaginary world, separate from real life.”

I wish the journalist who wrote the article, Hiroko Tabuchi, had played up this side of the debate more. I wish she had mentioned that, while Ishihara and his cohort are drafting legislation against the depiction of imaginary girls, they are also fighting an ongoing battle against feminists who want to change the law that doesn’t allow a married couple to maintain separate surnames (which hinders the career development of many female professionals). I wish these things because, in the past two weeks, enough people have quoted from or referenced the article that I am starting to fear how it may have influenced a non-specialist’s view of Japanese popular culture.

As all of this ran through my mind while I paged through Girl, Illustrated, I decided that the best way to look at Japanese illustrated images of girls is to actually look at Japanese illustrated images of girls. I would therefore like to review Girl, Illustrated, a bilingual art book published in Japan and available in America through online retailers like Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Books. Before I begin, I would like to state that this book does not contain child pornography. I myself do not support child pornography, and it is not my aim to defend or justify it in any way. Instead, I hope to challenge common notions regarding “anime-style” Japanese illustrations of young women.

The style of illustration in question is known as bishōjo-kei, or “bishōjo style,” with “bishōjo” meaning “beautiful young woman.” A bishōjo (as opposed to a regular shōjo, or “young woman”) is usually a female protagonist or central supporting character in a manga, anime, or light novel that belongs to a genre generally regarded as being targeted towards a male audience, like science fiction or adventure fantasy. Good examples might be Nausicaä (from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), Nadia (from Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water), or Ayanami Rei (from Neon Genesis Evangelion). Bishōjo are rooted firmly in fantasy, whether that fantasy is a post-apocalyptic technological wasteland or a halcyon senior year of high school. They need not be connected to an actual narrative, however, and are often depicted in original artistic compositions.

Girl, Illustrated is a collection of such compositions. Each artist is allotted two pages and four to six full-color illustrations. Accompanying these images is a section for information about the artist, which includes fields for the artist’s birth date, gender, hometown, webpage, inspiration, and comments. More often than not, most of these fields have been left blank, but the information is written in both English and Japanese when it is available. Unfortunately, the translation isn’t always perfect. For example, something like 銃器・武器と女の子を描く (drawing girls with guns or other weapons) might become something like “drawing girls in their underwear with guns,” but these short artists’ comments are still fun to read.

This being said, the main draw of Girl, Illustrated is what the artists say with their illustrations. Through affective character design and rich, detailed backgrounds, each of these illustrations wordlessly suggests a story. The vast majority of these images have been created with digital ink in programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and PaintTool SAI. Although most of the artists choose not to reveal their gender, judging from those that do, it seems that 2/5 are female. Among these female artists are young professional illustrators like Sakizou, Foo Midori, and fukahire. All of the artists, male or female, take beautiful young girls as their subject matter, and there doesn’t seem to be any discernable difference between the themes and style of the male illustrators and those of the female illustrators. For example, this is a piece by the female artist onineko:

And here is a piece by the male artist Ichikawa Takashi:

Both of these illustrated girls seem to be young, pure, and innocent. They are magical beings firmly enmeshed in their respective fantasy worlds, and there is a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” quality about them that probably seems familiar to a Western (and non-otaku Japanese) audience. Illustrations like these won’t raise any eyebrows.

Problems in the interpretation and judgment of these images arise when the girls are not quite so pure and innocent but instead betray hints of sexuality. For example, one picture by the male artist gorobots parodies the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) with the logo NPK (Japan Panty Corporation) and contains the text “When you sit down, I stand up,” double entendre absolutely intended:

Such sexualized images of young women are not just drawn by men, however. Exposed breasts, bums, and panties are also explored in the work of female artists like Higuchi Norie:

The portfolios of other female artists whose work appears in Girl, Illustrated are full of scantily-clad young women enjoying themselves and each other’s company. Regardless of the extent or intensity of the sexualization, however, the fantasy element of these pieces remains strong, and the girls are always more playful than pornographic.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not defending child pornography. Illustrated pornography in Japan is extraordinarily explicit, and it is quite clearly packaged as pornography and sold in separate venues, regardless of the imagined ages of its imaginary protagonists. As for sexualized but non-(overtly-)pornographic images of young girls, though, I might argue that they belong to a different discursive space altogether. Bishōjo simply are not real. They are not real because they are illustrated, obviously, but they are also not real because they are the embodied representatives of pure fantasy. Their world is not our world, and they are our gateways into that world. People who draw and appreciate them do so because of the beautiful otherworld they channel, not because they are fodder for onanistic inclinations. One might draw a parallel between the bishōjo style of illustration and the hyper-sexualized men and women on the covers of American fantasy novels; the tight leather pants and clinging silk dresses of these painted figures are not so much signifiers of pornography as they are emblems of a certain Tolkienian fantasy aesthetic.

The fundamental idea behind the proposed manga (and game and illustration) censorship law in Tokyo is that men are looking at women in a way that is psychologically unhealthy. There is obviously a pornographic gaze that is encouraged and exploited in many aspects of popular and commercial art, but I wonder if perhaps it wouldn’t be unreasonable to posit the existence of something like a “fantasy gaze,” or at least a type of gaze that is less concerned with the image itself than the story behind the image.

Moreover, the sizable percentage of women painting and consuming these bishōjo characters and illustrations complicates the idea of an all-powerful male gaze. One might argue, as have many feminist scholars, that these women have adopted an hermaphroditic gaze. In other words, female viewers have internalized the male gaze and therefore identify with male characters and viewers when they look at sexualized images of women. I myself would like to raise the possibility of a female gaze. This female gaze is responsible for the fanworks featuring male-on-male pairings from popular series like Naruto and Hetalia, of course, but I think it’s also a way for women to portray and look at themselves and other women. By creating and appreciating mildly sexualized images of girls, for example, women can embrace and celebrate a sexuality that lies beyond virgin/mother/whore stereotypes. For women, then, the appeal of bishōjo is not merely the asexual appeal of the fantasy world they represent but also the self-reflexive appeal of being young, beautiful, magical, and, yes, sexual. Furthermore, who is to say that male viewers don’t similarly employ this female gaze when looking at such images?

Girl, Illustrated isn’t just a collection of gorgeous artwork. It’s also a way of looking at and thinking about Japanese bishōjo illustrations. Included at the beginning of the volume is a (mostly) translated essay about how bishōjo characters are marketed and used to promote domestic regional tourism in Japan. Are the editors of the volume trying to suggest that perhaps bishōjo are Japan? It’s a stretch, but it’s also an interesting cultural perspective. In any case, this collection is both fascinating and beautifully produced. Even if you’re more interested in fine art than you are in anime, Girl, Illustrated is still an excellent resource for examining both portrayals of the body and the possibilities of new digital media.