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ARTS&CULTURE June 29, 2017

Six Japanese Martial Arts You Should Know


Although the popular imagination tends to focus on judo, karate and perhaps sumo as Japan’s key martial arts, the country is home to a staggering variety of these ritualized combat skills. Developed for the battlefield over the centuries by samurai and ninja, these days, Japanese martial arts – known by the umbrella term bujutsu, or “martial way” – have been refined into variations on art and sport that have spread around the world.

Japanese martial arts began as life-or-death skills, employed in battle, and most warriors were expected to have mastered many skills, including kenjutsu (swordsmanship), kyudo (archery) or even just basic survival skills such as swimming, climbing, wrestling…anything one might need to live to fight another day. (Sumo is covered in a separate blog post.)

But with the relative peace of the nearly three centuries of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), during which the country was cut off from the outside world and united under one ruler, with internecine war largely a thing of the past, many of the martial skills developed as “arts” rather than survival skills. With the Meiji Restoration’s modernization of the country (and the military), other martial arts arose that had never been explicitly studied during times or war. These more modern arts became known as Gendai budo, literally “modern martial arts.” These arts are concerned less with self-defense or use in battle than they are forms of self-improvement and competition. These were distinguished from Ko Budo arts, which were modern evolutions of older skills (archery, swordsmanship) that were once used in war.

There are dozens of forms of bujutsu, but here are six that were considered essential and have been developed over the centuries (including quite recently) into highly stylized and codified arts:


Kenjutsu, or swordsmanship, can be said to be the quintessential martial art, since swords are one of the oldest and most essential weapons of war, particularly in close quarters. Battle during the Tokugawa Shogunate was often fought less by massed armies (who were as more likely to use archers). To this day, there are many modern martial artists who consider kenjutsu to be paramount, as it is the martial art most closely associated with that romantic national figure, the samurai.

Kendo is the modernized version of kenjutsu, using bamboo “swords” and armors made of metal, bamboo, leather, and fabric so that competitors are able to use full force without hurting – that is to say, killing – their adversaries.

Kyudo, or archery, is still considered a crucial martial art, as it was across all cultures and epochs of world history, from the Trojan War to the Roman Empire to the wars of conquest in the Americas two thousand years later. But as firearms became the dominant long distance weapons starting in the 16th century, the samurai’s “art of the bow,” or kyujutsu, became the basis for a martial art, kyudo, that has increasingly become associated with contemplative practices. The “Zen archer” is by now a familiar figure.


Karate, literally “the way of the hand,” is an almost balletic martial art that originated in Okinawa and only came to Honshu 100 years ago. Its quick moves of hand and foot, from a standing position, were quickly incorporated into the regimens of public education in the 1920s.

Jujutsu is another grappling art, distinguished by locking one’s opponents joints and throwing him. Judo, developed from jujutsu in the early 20th century, is perhaps the best-known of the Gendai budo arts, so it is ironic that the word translates as the very un-martial phrase, “the gentle way,” or “way of softness.” As its name implies, this is a form of physical challenge that is about self-improvement; it is also thus-named because of the technique of yielding to force in order to manipulate that force to one’s own ends.

Aikido, literally “the way to harmony with ki,” is one of the Gendai budo arts that are practiced without any weapons at all. Like judo, aikido focuses on mental and spiritual preparation, and on learning how to use one’s opponent’s movement and energy to literally throw him off.

Regardless of their differences of form, all of these arts combine “hard” (goho) and “soft” (juho) approaches, depending on the need of the moment. “Hard” thrusts, blocks and other applications of force against force, alternate with “soft” skills of yielding and redirecting force.

Taken together, this balance of soft and hard approaches corresponds with the larger Chinese concept of yin and yang (in Japanese, in and yo), as combatants learn to vary their technique depending on what their opponent is doing. Thus, most distinctions of “hard-style” or “soft-style” techniques are purely conceptual; the best martial artist will understand both himself and his opponent on instinctive, even spiritual levels.


ARTS&CULTURE June 28, 2017

9 Museums You Must Visit Outside Tokyo


Japan is home to a large array of museums catering to nearly every possible taste, from enormous Tokyo collections of art and ancient artifacts to specialty museums all over the country honoring everything from bonsai to beer, natural disasters to instant ramen, kites to socks…there’s even a museum dedicated to artwork created out of sand.

Japan being a large, densely-populated country, most (but by no means all) of its museums are clustered in its biggest and most-visited cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and their environs, such as Nara. We have addressed the biggest national museums of Tokyo in a separate post; what follows is a sampling of nine museums around the country that may be of particular interest. But if none of these museums appeal, not to worry: Japan is said to be home to more than 5,500 museums, so a visitor is bound to find something of interest.

The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama, a small, new city in the highlands off the west coast, was built near where dinosaur skeletons began being unearthed in 1989. With 30 full skeletons standing in the main, egg-shaped building, the museum is considered to be one of the three top dinosaur museums in the world.

Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum

Not all museums need be in buildings, and the Hakone Open-Air Museum makes that argument beautifully, its 17 landscaped acres of land being home to about 400 20th century sculptures by France’s Rodin, Spain’s Picasso and Britain’s Henry Moore, whose (indoor) collection here ranks as the greatest collection of his distinctive, revolutionary work. In addition, Hakone is home to an enormous collection of Picasso paintings, also housed safely inside. And when your feet get tired, Hakone is home to some delightful onsen.

Hakone Open-Air Museum


Also situated outdoors, the Museum Meiji Mura around Nagoya is a gorgeous homage to one of Japan’s most crucial ages, the Japanese renaissance known as the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). More than 60 structures, including a brewery, churches, homes, a prison and even a hotel built by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, are among the structures laid out in an attempt to give the sense of what the Meiji was all about.

Museum Meiji Mura

The Ohara Museum of Art in Okayama, between Hiroshima and Kobe, is the oldest private museum in Japan, and a remarkable collection of Western, Chinese, Oriental, and Japanese art. Established in 1930 with paintings by Degas, Chagall, Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet and Pissarro – there are even Monet haystacks and waterlilies, and an El Greco – this museum rivals or even surpasses any number of better-known Western institutions, making for an unexpected surprise for lovers of the Impressionists.

Ohara Museum of Art

By contrast, the paintings in the Otsuka Museum of Art are all repricas, and proudly so: This is a museum dedicated to displaying reproductions of European art masterworks from antiquity (including cave paintings!) to the modern era. Built for nearly half a billion dollars by industrialist Masahito Ōtsuka, the museum sounds impossibly ersatz and kitschy, but Otsuka’s idea was to give Japanese who can’t travel abroad the chance to see the whole context of Western art history in one place; as an educational experience, it has a lot of fans.

Otsuka Museum of Art

The Kyoto National Museum was built in 1897, and ranks with the best of Tokyo’s museums, with its large collection of pre-modern traditional Japanese and Asian art from calligraphy to painting to ceramics to sculpture. And although Kyoto is almost entirely associated with classical Japanese art, the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (MOMAK) is well known around the country and around the world for its fine collection of 20th and 21st century artwork. There is a special emphasis on the Kansai region (Western Japan), but this museum is anything but provincial, and its exhibitions rotate on a monthly basis. Recent exhibitions featured modern Buddhist painting, post-war German film posters and contemporary Japanese jewelry.

Kyoto National Museum

In nearby Nara, home to the Todaiji Temple (with its enormous Buddha statue, the Daibutsu) and the world-famous Deer Park, the Nara National Museum is a repository of Buddhist art and artifacts that is well worth seeing while you’re visiting the area.

Nara National Museum


Finally, no list of museums would be complete without a mention of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Built to commemorate the August 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II, the Museum is split into two wings, one of which explains Hiroshima before the bombing, as well as the details of the decisions that led to the bomb’s use, while the other wing explores the devastating aftermath of the bomb. A similar memorial is in Nagasaki to the south, the other site of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Japan. Both are counted as highlights of any trip to Japan, and Hiroshima’s is said to draw more than one million visitors a year.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum


ARTS&CULTURE June 27, 2017

9 Museums You Must See in Tokyo

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Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, but it is more than that: It is a city so important to culture, commerce and history, that its name comes up as one of the crucial four international cities: London, Paris, New York, Tokyo.

So it should come as no surprise that Tokyo boasts some of the greatest art galleries and museums in the world. They may not have names that resonate the way that the Tate Modern or British Museum in London, the Louvre and d’Orsay in Paris, or the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan in New York do. But the National Museum of Western Art contains many international pieces, and the Tokyo National Museum is the biggest collection of Japanese art and objects in the world.


The National Museum of Western Art is the place to go if you’re looking for iconic, familiar European and American art. Artists represented here include Picasso, Monet, Pollock, van Gogh, Rodin and many more, with a special focus on the French Impressionists. Housed in a beautiful modern building designed by world-famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier, the museum opened in 1959, so its collection of nearly 5,000 works is that much more impressive for its relatively recent vintage. Perhaps underlining Japan’s enduring inward focus, the National Museum of Western Art is the only museum in Tokyo dedicated to non-Japanese artists, so fans of Western masters should be sure to visit.

Link: The National Museum of Western Art


Not far away, in Ueno Park, The Tokyo National Museum is to Tokyo what the British Museum is to London and the Metropolitan is to New York: The finest, oldest collection of native arts, crafts, artifacts and other decorative objects from the country’s nearly 2,000 year history. More than 100,000 objects comprise the collection, but unlike the world-straddling collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan, the Tokyo National focuses almost exclusively on Japanese objects (with other parts of Asia represented), making it a grand stroll through the country’s astonishing patrimony. From swords and screens and kimonos to woodblock prints, lacquerware and textiles the collection is mind-boggling, and one day will not be sufficient. Break up visits with time in the extensive gardens and Ueno Park.

Link: The Tokyo National Museum

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, or MOMAT, was one of the first art museums to arise from the rubble of World War II, and its 1952 building was greatly expanded in 1999, with sections devoted to Japanese film and other more contemporary arts. But its core remains its collection of works from the all-important period of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), as well as imported works by the Impressionists and subsequent periods of Western art. Recent exhibitions explored the ceramic art of raku and the modern furniture of Marcel Breuer.

Link: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo


Three museums constitute what has come to be known as Art Triangle Roppongi, located in the leafy, modern Roppongi Hills area. The first is The National Art Center Tokyo, located in a spectacular modern building by Kisho Kurokawa with 14,000 square meters of exhibition space, enough to handle its ever-changing exhibitions. Opened only in 2007, the building alone is a must-see, and the wealth of different exhibits should offer something of interest to nearly anyone.

Link: The National Art Center Tokyo


The two other museums in Art Triangle Roppongi are the Suntory Museum of Art, named for and sponsored by the soft drink and whiskey bottle, but focused on fine arts and crafts from Japan and Western arts such as the beautiful, delicate glassware of Venice. The third is the Mori Art Museum, located nearby in Roppongi, but a full 54 stories above Tokyo. The exhibits are mostly of contemporary, international artists, but half the draw here is the spectacular view and the concessions at the top, including a bar, cafe, shop and observation deck. It is also open late, adding extra flexibility for those with a museum-going second wind.

Link: Suntory Museum of Art
Link: Mori Art Museum

Finally, no list can be complete without mentions of three crucial Tokyo museums, The Edo-Tokyo Museum and the country’s two science museums. The first features displays – artifacts, dioramas and even whole model towns – that show how the medieval center of the Tokugawa Shogunate, known as Edo in the two centuries before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, became the biggest, most modern city in the world.

Link: The Edo-Tokyo Museum


The second two museums are Tokyo’s 19th century National Museum of Nature and Science, built in 1871 in Ueno Park near the Metropolitan Art Museum, which houses a large collection of science and natural history exhibits. But to really be dazzled, one must visit the newer (2001) interactive, high-tech National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (casually known as the Miraikan). Centered around an enormous interactive globe, the museum aims to be consistently cutting edge, and exhibits on everything from brain science to the Internet to global climate change constitute what could be the best science museum on the planet.

Link: National Museum of Nature and Science
Link: National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation


ARTS&CULTURE June 16, 2017

Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan


pe of modern Japan more than the “opening” of the country by American naval commander Matthew Perry in 1853-4. Of those three epochal events, Perry’s mission was the first, and led in large part to the subsequent two.

Commodore Perry’s mission, though military in nature, was driven by Western commercial expansion in the Far East, as American and European interests sought to open heretofore closed markets to their goods.

Japan had, for more than two and a half centuries, been isolated from the outside world – except from China and Netherland; Tokugawa Shogunate used to dislike the expansion of Christianity into Japan; Netherland sought to have a good relationship with Japan for only business. This policy of isolation was known as sakoku. Governed by the Tokugawa Shoguns, structured as a rigid four-tier class system led by the samurai, Japan was still medieval at a time when Europe and the United States had developed into international industrial powers, militarily and commercially. Colonialism had swept the non-European world, and British, Dutch, French, Russian, German and American power was felt around the globe.

Everywhere, that is, except in Japan. Since 1797, more than two dozen ships, including a few warships, had approached Japan, only to be turned away by the archipelago’s defenders, the samurai of the shogunate. Nevertheless, the Western Powers were operating freely in the waters around Japan, whaling, fishing and trading with other countries, gaining power in China, Indochina, Indonesia and, of course, in Britain’s largest colony, India.


The Japanese were well aware of this closing circle of commercial and military activity, and the country’s elite debated for decades about allowing outsiders to even set foot on the islands, let alone do business. There was one exception, the tiny island of Dejima, in Nagasaki Bay. This mere two acres of land had been established by the Portuguese and had for more than 200 years been the sole place where foreigners, now mainly the Dutch, had been allowed any access to Japan. But it was the exception that proved the rule, and was meant to constrain trade rather than encourage it. Its name translated, tellingly, as “exit island.”

So when Commodore Perry and his four gunboats steamed into Edo (now Tokyo) Bay on July 8, 1853, it was a moment of reckoning the Japanese had long known was coming. Perry’s landing, a week later, came with cannons blazing in a “salute” that was a clear show of force. The threat of military action was made explicit in the written “proposal” given to the Japanese.


Unfortunately for the Japanese, nearly three centuries of isolation, and a military that was still essentially medieval, made them no match for the Americans. When Perry arrived at what is present-day Yokosuka, the Shogun himself was in poor health and would die just days after the Americans temporarily departed. His sickly young son inherited power, and the decision was put into the hands of the Shogunal council, which was riven with factions, each taking a different position.

Meanwhile, the competition between the great European powers – especially Russia, Britain and France – was fierce, and all were concerned that the Americans not get exclusive access to Japan.

When Perry returned for his answer on February 13, 1854, he brought with him an even larger force of 10 ships, manned by 1,600 sailors, many of whom had just recently served in the Mexican-American War. The Japanese response was a foregone conclusion, and on March 31, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed and the Americans were soon surveying the harbors of Hakodate and Shimoda, where they had been given access to the country. Shimoda, located a considerable distance from Edo (Tokyo) was also to be the site of the first American Consulate in Japan. Hakodate was even further away, on the very southern edge of the far northern island of Hokkaido. The Japanese were determined to keep the foreigner interlopers as far away as possible.

But however much they might try to quarantine this assault to their treasured isolation, the Japanese could not avoid what was to be a momentous shift in the country’s sense of itself and its role in the world. Thus began a cascade of changes that ended the rule of the shoguns, brought the restoration of the Imperial family, spurred rapid industrialization and modernization and turned, in only a couple of decades, an isolated, xenophobic and largely agrarian country into a cultural, industrial and military power that would, in a matter of decades, bring enormous changes to the entire world.

The “opening” of Japan brought the 268-year-old shogunate, already brittle, near collapse, and within barely a decade of Perry’s arrival, it was no more. The chaos that followed led to the restoration of the Imperial family to lead of the country; that new emperor, Meiji, would institute a host of changes that are discussed elsewhere on


ARTS&CULTURE May 30, 2017

5 Internationally-known Contemporary Japanese Artists

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Unsurprisingly, for a country with as deep and ancient arts as Japan, the country’s fine art scene is one of the world’s most important. Art is as basic a form of expression to the Japanese as any activity, and artists are honored for their contributions to the country’s cultural life. Contemporary Japanese artists are on a level with the United States’ and Western Europe’s, and Japanese artists show frequently in galleries, and are enshrined in the top modern art museums all over the world.

There are dozens of top artists in Japan – many of whom live and work abroad for at least part of the year – and their work is widely accessible online and in books and publications, as well as in galleries and museums. But here are five artists who are regarded both by the Japanese and the larger art world as being among the world’s finest working artists.

By Hiroyuki Naito / Flick

By Hiroyuki Naito / Flick

Takashi Murakami is probably Japan’s most famous painter. Known to some as the “Andy Warhol of the East” for his fusing of high and commercial arts in Japan, he came of age in the post-War era, and like Warhol he made little distinction between his work for galleries and his commercial work. Noting that much traditional Japanese painting – not to mention manga and anime – was visually two-dimensional, Murakami dubbed his work, with its “flat” planes of color, “Superflat,” a word that now describes a style that has influenced many artists in Japan and beyond.

Murakami’s work is shown in museums and galleries, but he has also collaborated with fashion designers Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Issey Miyake and even created skateboard decks for the clothing company Supreme. His inclusive strategy has worked well: His provocative 1998 sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy sold for $13.5 million in 2008, the same year he was the only visual artist included in Time magazine’s list of The 100 Most Influential People.

Yayoi Kusama is almost as famous for her personal look as for her spectacular art. Sporting a scarlet wig and elfin affect, the 88-year-old Kusama was Bjork and Lady Gaga before the latter two were born. But it is her art (and writing) that has made her Japan’s most-beloved artist. Kusama’s art, born of her lifelong hallucinations of pixilated visions, are explosions and refractions of color and light, embodied in her quintessential form: the polka dot.

Kusama began creating her polka-dot art at 10, and what began as a young girl’s playfulness has expanded into a singular artistic vision in the subsequent seven decades, with painting, sculpture, and mirrored room installations that aim continuously to capture her remarkable hallucinations. Kusama, like Murakami, has also pursued her vision into commercial applications, and her artwork itself has sold for as much as $5.1 million – the most money ever paid for a work by a female artist.

By badgreeb RECORDS / Flickr

By badgreeb RECORDS / Flickr

Yoko Ono may be the most famous of these artists, in part for her marriage to the late John Lennon. But Ono was an important artist long before she met Lennon, and at 84 continues to create in a variety of media.

Ono’s work was avant garde from the start, making her an early performance artist when that was still a barely-recognized term, and a well-known conceptual artist who worked with music as well as installation art. A survivor of the allied fire-bombing of Tokyo at the end of World War II, Ono has made political action as important as her artwork, first as an early feminist and then in her work to promote peace and understanding around the world.

Nobuyuki Araki is often simply known by his last name, and that name has graced more works of art that just about any major artist in the world; he has published more than 350 different photography books in his career. Originally working in advertising, Araki moved on to create a diaristic study of his long marriage to writer Yoko Aoki, including graphic depictions from their honeymoon to her death.

Sadomasochism, bondage and prostitution – as well as scenes of great love and intimacy – have informed his work, and made him controversial as well as famous. In particular, his photos of works of Japanese rope tying – Kinbaku-bi, or the “beauty of tight binding,” particularly of traditionally-dressed Japanese women – are known around the world. He, too, has worked with fashion designers.

Mariko Mori began her career working in photography, but has moved far beyond its limitations. Many of her early works had her creating fanciful, futuristic costumes that made points about gender roles, sometimes posing herself in specific public places. In some pieces, she would insert herself into existing photos to create surprising juxtapositions; in others, she interacted with passersby in ways that were more performance art than mere photography.

A near-death experience in her early twenties deepened her art, and she began to consider consciousness and mortality in her work. Her enormous sculptural installations have shown in museums around the world, and she has created outdoor works that are situated in natural settings, such as her recent, multi-location work Rebirth, in which her clean forms are set amidst the unpredictable elements of nature. A survey of her life’s work, entitled Oneness, toured the world beginning in 2011, becoming the most-visited contemporary art exhibition tour ever.


ARTS&CULTURE May 18, 2017

8 Japanese Films You Must See Before You Visit Japan

By Taichiro Ueki / Flickr

By Taichiro Ueki / Flickr

The Japanese film industry has a long and illustrious history, with dozens of films that have had impacts outside of Japan on international filmmaking, and many hundreds more that have touched the Japanese. Classic directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kenji Mizoguchi made films that have not just been popular outside of Japan, but have influenced many crucial Western filmmakers.

Among the titles most familiar to many are classics such as The Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, Rashomon, The Woman in the Dunes and many, many more. Anyone who has taken a good film class outside of Japan is familiar with these classics. And then, of course, there’s Godzilla.

Japan’s film industry has had its ups and downs since it’s 1950’s Golden Era, but it saw a resurgence in the late 1990’s that continues to this day. As elsewhere, most Japanese films are people-pleasing crime dramas, tear jerkers, anime or martial arts extravaganzas aimed at the mass audience. But the finest Japanese films address contemporary issues with the veracity, craft and heart of timeless cinema.

Just as one might read a guidebook or a novel before visiting the country, watching some of Japan’s best recent films can give visitors insightful glimpses into lives and ideas in contemporary Japan. Here are eight films of recent vintage that are widely considered to be worth seeing. This list is just a starting point to get you started. (All eight are available on Netflix and other services.)

Okuribito (Departures) (2008) – Japan’s first Academy Award winner in 50 years, Departures is a gorgeous film about a man whose dreams of being a concert cellist are shattered, and ends up taking a job as a mortician to survive. Shot over a 10 year period, the film is remarkably realistic and deeply moving, with light comic touches that ease the darkness, and its themes cross cultural borders with ease.

Tokyo Sonata (2008) – The same year, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa shifted from making horror films to this realistic domestic story of unemployment and its impacts on a Japanese family, as the effects ripple through each familial relationship, leading to horrors more terrifying than buckets of blood. Employment is fundamental to the Japanese character, and its loss is here clearly equated with death.

Nobody Knows (2004) – Inspired by a true story, this tale of four children living in a small apartment with an absent mother and four long-gone fathers. Hiding from school and even their landlord, the four children live lives filled with danger in a small apartment. Must be seen to be understood. Yuya Yagira was just 14 years old when he walked away from the Cannes Film Festival with the Best Actor award for his work.

The Taste of Tea (2004) – This quirky, surprising and visually riveting ensemble piece follows numerous intersecting lives and tangential plot lines in a small town outside of Tokyo. The thoughts and feelings of the characters appear onscreen in various forms, making the film a visual delight, expanding its emotional palate, and making it the recipient of numerous international film awards.

Battle Royale (2000) – Directed by Kitano Takeshi, an enormously popular and influential director, actor and all-around performer, this controversial film about high school children turned loose as competitors in a life-or-death punishment is said by some to have inspired The Hunger Games. Melodramatic though it may be – and certainly entertaining, despite its surfeit of blood – the film’s uniquely Japanese perspective on social relations, and dark-humored comment on government manipulation, is fascinating.

All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) – Based on an interactive Internet novel, animated by on-screen Internet posts that are sometimes difficult to follow, and climaxing in a rock concert, this tale of two middle school boys unfolds in different surprising ways, with character development that builds slowly through the film, as the friends go through some dramatic changes that keep the viewer guessing throughout. Utterly unique filmmaking.

Still Walking (2008) – If you are looking for action, keep walking past Hirokazu Koreeda’s family drama. But if you are a student of domestic relationships, this tale of a family reunited to honor a dead brother is almost painfully subtle and understated. But the emotions ring perfectly true, thanks to a remarkable cast that takes a minimal script and squeezes every bit of emotion out of the situations with few words spoken – making it quintessentially Japanese.

Spirited Away (2002) – Japan’s highest grossing movie of all time is not about contemporary life, per se, but this animated deep dive into the Shinto spirit world is a breathtaking cinematic experience that captures the Japanese soul as well as any socially realistic drama. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s animation manages to look utterly modern and yet evoke an most ancient of Japan’s many spirits. Not to be missed.


ARTS&CULTURE May 15, 2017

Zen Buddhism v. Pure Land Buddhism

Buddhism has, in 2500 years, taken many different forms. Spread over most of the Asian continent, it changed from a philosophy to a religion as it traveled from India, where it was born in roughly the fifth century, BCE. As it entered Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand and other nations over many centuries, it developed in ways congruent with those cultures.

Buddhism reached Japan via China and Korea, but even before it got to Japan, Buddhism had split into two main sects, Theravada or “The Teachings of the Elders” and Mahayana, or “The Great Vehicle.” The former spread more to the south and east, through Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and as far as Bali, while the latter spread more to the north and east, to Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Vietnam and ultimately, Japan.

The differences between the two branches are much less antagonistic than, say, the historic clashes between Shia and Sunni Islam or Catholic and Protestant Christianity, but there are differences. Theravada is fundamental and thinks of itself as being truest to the Buddha’s teachings, whereas Mahayana is a great umbrella over a variety of sects and schools, from Tantra to Pure Land to Chan (Zen) Buddhism.

When Mahayana Buddhism arrived in Japan in the sixth century CE, the archipelago already had a native religion, Shinto, and the relationship between the two has been alternatively harmonious and fraught ever since, depending on many things, especially politics. Buddhism had a particularly hard time of it as recently only 150 years ago, during the Meiji Restoration, when the restoration of the Imperial family to power led many (including the Emperor Meiji) to denounce Buddhism.

But Buddhism has survived in its several forms, less the result of splits as of refinements. The two forms that came intact from China, and remain the forms one is most likely to encounter in Japan, are Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. (To make things even more confusing, Pure Land Buddhism has itself split into two forms, Orothodox and Shin (True) Pure Land Buddhism. But for clarity’s sake, we’ll stay with general descriptions of the two main schools.)

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The basis of Pure Land Buddhism is devotion. In this way, it is the more traditionally religious expression of the teachings of the Buddha, who did not talk about gods or promise heaven (or hell). Buddha was, if anything, a philosopher who had found a secret to understanding life; he never claimed divinity. But Pure Land Buddhism would sound somewhat familiar to devotees of Islam and Christianity: the basic idea is to show one’s devotion to what has been named Amida Buddha, the Celestial Buddha. (This Buddha is said to actually be based on an entirely different historical person, a monk called Dharmakāra, rather than the traditional Buddha, who was a prince known as Siddhartha.) Through devotion – prayer, chanting Amida Buddha’s name and other acts of devotion, one is assured one’s place in the Pure Land, or Western Heaven or, as Westerners of any religious stripe would call it: Heaven.

In Pure Land, moreover, one’s own work and deeds have no impact on one’s salvation. All that matters in one’s devotion to Amida Buddha. Thus, in Pure Land, which was brought to Japan by a man named Honen in the 12th Century CE, the way to salvation (heaven) was not through philosophy or meditation, but by “behaving themselves like simple-minded folk.” Likewise, the only practice required of Pure Land devotees is the recitation of the words “Namu Amida Butsu (homage to Amida Buddha).” Any other practice is seen as a sign of a lack of devotion to the Amida Buddha.

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Zen (Chinese “Chan”) Buddhism, by contrast, is more austere, with many more practices and conceptual pursuits. It is also more in the here-and-now, and would thus seem to be a return of sorts to the Buddha’s original teachings. Buddha, after all, promised no afterlife, no paradise or heaven, and made no claim to being anything other than an enlightened man who had simply discovered the truth of reality – all suffering comes from desire, and to be free one must free oneself from desire – and gave ways to do that.

One key way was, in a word, meditation. Rather than chanting in a devotional prayer to a deity, the student of Zen sits quietly, probing inward to find his “true nature,” which is, in Zen teaching, nothingness. The great difficulty of doing this gave rise to many schools of Zen, as well as some of Japan’s greatest arts and works of philosophy. That is because, while inquiry also plays a role, there is a clear understanding in Zen that no concept or explanation can deliver the realization that is satori, or “enlightenment.” This has allowed Zen to travel farther in the modern West, where it can be fused with other religious or even non-religious belief systems.

But both forms of Buddhism are important in Japan and Japanese culture, for together, they offer two different ways – the path of the heart and the path of the head – to the same goal.


ARTS&CULTURE April 26, 2017

Carps, Cranes and other Symbolic (but Real) Animals


Like most traditional cultures around the world, the Japanese see animals not merely as fellow creatures, but as symbols of a variety of qualities they would like to express or benefit from. No, we’re not talking about Hello Kitty and Godzilla, though their popularity could be a new wrinkle in this old theme; nor are we going to address the mythical beasts of religious iconography such as the dragon and phoenix.

Instead, the animals in question are those which have long been a part of life in Japan’s mountains and surrounding oceans, as well as in the nation’s painting, sculpture and religious imagery. Japanese carp (koi), cranes, monkeys, tigers, deer and raccoon dogs – an actual beast called the tanuki, unique to the Japanese archipelago – are there not just for their beauty, but for their meaning.

Like many symbolic animals, the meaning attached to many animals in Japan originally came from China. But in the case of the koi, a species of carp, the species itself was actually imported from China, where they have been bred to produce different colors for more than 1,000 years. The Japanese have more than 20 different names for breeds of koi, which are considered to symbolize and bring good luck and success in life, business and, for children, who often fly koi kites, in school.


Cranes, with their long legs and necks, natural poise and elegant movements, are abundant in Japan, and are regarded as symbols of good fortune. Because of their natural grace and beauty, they have long been favorite subjects of Japanese artists, and their images are especially popular at new year and weddings, when origami cranes are offered. Cranes are also a symbol of longevity, since they were long thought to have a lifespan of a thousand years.

Monkeys are still extant in the Japanese archipelago, and have long meant what they mean in many cultures: Clever, tricky, playful creatures whose obvious physical resemblances to humans have not gone unnoticed by the Japanese. Monkeys were worshipped in early Shinto and even Buddhism, and the social and familial aspects of monkeys have long been a favorite subject of Japanese artists – the Three Monkeys of the Tosho-gu Shrine in Nikko is a prime example of the depth of meaning the Japanese find in humanity’s closest genetic cousins.

Cats are popular in Japan, occupying as they do all over the world, that borderland between the wild and the domestic. In that sense, cats are never quite to be trusted, and many Japanese folk tales concern cats that shape-shift and may even possess humans. They are ubiquitous (hello, kitty!) in Japanese arts both ancient and modern.


The tanuki, or “raccoon dog,” is an indigenous mammal that is not a raccoon, despite its dark eyed mask. It is a distant relative to dogs, but with an edge: in Japanese folklore and arts (including a lot of small statuary often encountered outside of Japanese homes, public places and even shrines), the tanuki is assigned supernatural powers. Those powers are said to include shape-shifting and the ability to bring good fortune to whoever honors them with well-placed statuary called Bake-danuki. The statues are distinguished by, among other features, the tanuki’s large testicles – as well as by a taste for sake, which they are often depicted drinking.

Another small mammal that has been assigned supernatural powers is the kitsune, a small fox that, like foxes the world ‘round, are admired for their intelligence and cunning. Kitsune can be good or bad for humans, however: The good ones are the guardians of the Shinto shrines of the god of rice, Inari, and statues of the beasts often guard those shrines. But the bad ones, again like foxes around the world, are the kitsune who raid chicken coops, steal small farm animals and otherwise make life difficult for Japanese farmers.

This menagerie of beasts shows up everywhere in traditional art, as well as in the modern mythologies of manga and anime. Because of its roots in Chinese culture, which has an entire zodiac built around animals, Japanese culture has long had a fascination with turtles, snakes, eagles, dogs, rats, rams, and many other animals that most urban Japanese are highly unlikely to ever actually encounter. But the power of their meaning will most likely live on.


FOOD&DRINK April 18, 2017

The 8 Most Important Condiments and Ingredients in Japanese cuisine


Nearly everyone who lives in a modern city is familiar with Japanese food, which along with Italian, Chinese and American cuisines is a commonplace part of an international diet. Everyone knows that rice, noodles and tofu, along with chicken, fish and beef and a great variety of vegetables, are familiar Japanese staples.

But what often makes Japanese food pop is the extraordinary number of condiments and ingredients that either inform the flavors of, or add a little extra something to, the finished dishes. Far beyond the basic condiments of many international cuisines – salt, peppers, etc – the variety of Japanese ingredients combine to make Japanese cuisine one of the most distinctive in global gastronomy.

Many of the condiments are familiar to us now, and some – sesame, soy sauce, miso – are central to other cuisines. But others, such as bonito flakes, nori, and dried shiitake mushrooms, are unique to Japanese cuisine. Still others, such as curry powder, are familiar from other cuisines, but are distinctively different in their Japanese form.

There are many dozens to choose from, but to keep things manageable, here are eight of the most common ingredients and condiments that you will find somewhere in nearly every Japanese meal. There are many more to explore, but these constitute a good place to start:

Shoyu (Japanese soy sauce): Like so many things, soy sauce first came to Japan from China more than a thousand years ago. But shoyu – made from soy beans, wheat, salt and yeast – and its derivatives such as tamari and ponzu shoyu, are different from Chinese soy sauce in being a bit less salty. Still, shoyu provides the same lift to foods, especially when used with that staple of any Japanese meal, medium grain white rice. But whatever you do, do not put shoyu directly on a bowl of white rice – it is considered something close to sacrilege.


Katsuobushi, or bonito flakes: These flakes of dried and smoked skipjack tuna are a crucial ingredient in dashi, which forms the basis of many broths, which are in turn a part of many Japanese soups, stews and other dishes. As with other dried fish such as anchovies, bonito flakes show up everywhere, imparting the distinctive flavor that prompted a Japanese scientist to name it the world’s “fifth flavor,” after salty, sweet, bitter and sour: umami.

White miso: An ingredient well known for its many uses, white miso is just one of the pastes made from fermenting a combination of soy beans and barley. Miso is, of course, the base in miso soup (yet another umami-flavored dish), but it is also used in a variety of marinades and salad dressings. White miso takes considerably less time to ferment than red miso, which has a stronger taste and is therefore used somewhat less often.

Nori: Seaweed is one of Japan’s singular contributions to global cuisine, and its uses and benefits continue to be discovered. One of the most nutritious foods in the world (if your body can absorb it, not all can), seaweed shows up in dozens, even hundreds of Japanese dishes. Nori is just one of many varieties of seaweed (wakame is also useful), but nori is particularly well-known for its role in many varieties of sushi, and it is used as a wrapping on that most popular of Japanese snacks, the rice ball (onigiri). It is also shredded or crushed and used as a condiment sprinkled over many dishes.

Komezu (rice vinegar): Another condiment that comes in many forms, this fermented liquid does everything from providing a dipping sauce for tempura to serving as a binding agent to hold sushi rice together for nigiri. Whether sweetened or spicy, komezu is considerably less acidic than Western vinegar.

Toasted sesame oil: Sesame seeds and their oil are a powerful flavor that is used throughout international cuisine, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, but nowhere have the subtleties of this strong flavor been better harnessed than in Japanese food. A flavoring rather than a cooking oil, when used sparingly it imparts a wonderful, nutty aroma.


Dried shiitake mushrooms: Perhaps the most unique flavor on this list, and yet another source of the fifth flavor, umami, dried shitake mushrooms have a flavor that is unique even among the species known in Japanese as kinoko.

Furikake: A condiment you will not see in any other cuisine, furikake is a powdered combination of dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar and salt, most commonly sprinkled on rice.

Those are a handful of the unique ingredients and condiments common in Japanese food. But there are many others, including unusual tastes such as mirin (rice wine), rayu (chili oil), karashi (powdered mustard), sinus-frying wasabi, citrusy ponzu sauce, and the piquant pickled plums known as umeboshi.


ARTS&CULTURE April 12, 2017

Origami and Kirigami


The traditional Japanese arts are, generally speaking, all about making things with natural materials and as little “processing” as possible. The idea is that human creations should appear to be as natural as possible. Thus, the ideal ikebana flower arrangement should appear not to be arranged at all, but rather, to have just fallen into place naturally.

But aside from ikebana and Japanese garden design, which aims for the same effects, there are few Japanese arts as simple as kirigami (paper cutting) and origami (paper folding), since all that is required to make them is the material itself, along with a knife or some small implements such as tweezers and bones for folding the paper.


Kirigami – from the words kiru (to cut) and kami (paper) – is the lesser-known art outside of Japan, though every schoolchild around the world cuts out a snowflake, or a chain of paper dolls, at some point. But kirigami takes such creations to an entirely different level. Intricate card designs, three-dimensional pop-up “architectural” kirigami – even entire dresses made of cut paper – are among the creations that have blossomed in this remarkable art.

The basics of kirigami are in the folds, and in the precision and care with which the cuts are made. Most often paper is folded once, then twice, and even sometimes a third time. Each fold adds layers of difficulty, but also adds to the subtlety of the final design. For this reason, very thin paper is needed, and the Japanese, who absolutely love paper – think about the rice paper shoji screens in homes, or the wrappings so often lavished on packages, and Japan’s ongoing love affair with books – are happy to oblige. Like everything else in Japan, the great subtleties and varieties of paper are mind-boggling.

By contrast, there are no holes in the paper when origami is done, for the main difference between the two arts is that origami does not allow for the use of anything but folding. Kirigami allows not only folding and cutting, but even gluing and taping. But even with these added elements, kirigami is one of the least expensive arts to undertake, as all that is really needed is the paper and perhaps some small implements to manage the tiny folds and cuts.

One doesn’t even need a knife to make origami, which is still the more popular of the two related arts, and it is no wonder: The grace and beauty of origami creations are one of the wonders of Japanese culture. While most visitors may be aware of the folded cranes that pop up everywhere in Japan, from table settings to ryokan pillows to the “thousand crane” hangings that are traditional gifts that grant happiness and good luck, origami creations can be remarkably elaborate.


The secret is in the folds, of which there are nine basic forms, from the “mountain” folds to the “pleat” and “crimp” folds, as well as the “bases” upon which those folds are made. Another technique that has arisen is the “wet fold,” which allows the creation of more organic, less angular shapes that can be rounded and achieve a more natural look. Other variations are based on the different papers used, either sheets with different sides (plain or colored or even foil). The paper used is called washi, and comes from the gampi tree, but everything from bamboo to hemp papers are often used.

It should be noted that Japan is not the only place where paper cutting art is practiced, and paper-folding traditions from China and as far away as Germany have influenced Japanese design. In fact, it was from the German paper-cutting art known as Scherenschnitte that the restrictions on cutting were introduced into Japan in the late 19th century.

In modern times, the precision of computers has allowed cuts of such detail that a medieval artisan would even be impressed. The pop-up creations sold for a pittance on the streets of China, Vietnam and even New York City are not considered true kirigami, but they are the latest combination of this paper-cutting and -folding crafts with computer technology. These cheap souvenirs are as impressive as they are increasingly common.


The artistic exploration made possible by kirigami and origami – people are constantly creating new forms – has also allowed these crafts occasionally to attain the status of fine art. The late Akira Yoshizawa, whose work led him to be called Japan’s origami master until his death in 2005, was reckoned to have created tens of thousands of unique designs, which have been shown in Europe and elsewhere.

But both kirigami and origami designs are widely available to beginners, in books and on websites. If the patterns are closely followed, even a novice can create beautiful designs almost immediately, making these two of the most enjoyable and widely-practiced of Japan’s many arts and crafts.