The Year 2015 in Japan
2015: Living Through Inexorable Change / W. David MARX
Ever since the Japanese economic miracle came to an end in the 1990s, Western analysts and critics have spewed forth lists and lists of all the structural changes Japan needed for national revival. And for two decades, leaders of Japanese government and business have mostly ignored this free advice. Honestly, why change the status quo with so little short-term cost to doing nothing? Anyone who lives in Tokyo can tell you that Japan’s slow decline can feel pretty comfortable compared to the disorder, gun violence, and crypto-fascist politics of more prosperous nations.
Yet, despite the elite’s best efforts, Japan is changing. And in 2015, those changes felt more palpable than ever. Contentious political opinions are no longer a taboo in polite society: during the debate on constitutional changes, anti-Abe slogans dangled from women’s purses on the subway. The LDP has tried to keep women in their places for decades, but Abe did a “Nixon in China” on bringing more women into the workforce (although with meager results so far). For a country once proclaimed to “hate the iPhone” and an electronics industry oriented towards gala-kei, everyone non-elderly lives on their smartphones. And even TV stations are making their shows available for digital consumption on those devices. There may be no plans for large-scale immigration, but the mass influx of tourists has internationalized Tokyo like never before. There are romanized menus and signs everywhere, and English, French, and Chinese spill out of tiny Golden Gai and Omoide Yokocho bars each night.
With the Olympics looming in five years, desperation will likely drive more rapid changes. But where there is no initiative from the top, popular movements and market forces will just step in to move things along.
Abenomics / Noah SMITH
Like in previous years, 2015 saw an approximately equal number of media stories declaring Abenomics a dismal failure and a runaway success. Given Japan’s low rate of population growth, even a good economic performance is never going to look very impressive in headline terms. So the optimistic pieces tend to show per capita numbers, while the pessimistic ones tend to use headline. Also, optimists and pessimists tend to choose different evaluation periods — if the most recent quarter looks bad but the last six quarters have looked solid, pessimists will emphasize the latest numbers while optimists will look at the big picture.
In the end, many of the Abenomics-related op-ed pieces you read in the news say more about the prejudices of the writers than the actual Japanese economy. If you really want to know what’s going on, look for the most neutral presentation you can find — I recommend Eleanor Warnock and Mitsuru Obe of the Wall Street Journal — and make your own judgments. But always remember that Japanese economic statistics are extremely noisy, and revisions are usually very large, so recently released quarterly numbers almost never give any useful information.
Overall, Abenomics is facing a huge headwind — the slowdown in China. China is experiencing the aftermath of a stock market crash and a slow unwinding of its real estate bubble, and its economy is therefore going to have a couple years of slower growth. Japan exports quite a bit of stuff to China, so this is exerting a big drag on the Japanese economy. In fact, most of what happens to Japan these days is probably more about China than it is about Abe’s policies.
There is one area, interestingly, in which Abenomics is showing glimmers of success: the budget deficit. Increased revenues from the higher consumption tax and from higher corporate profits are putting a big dent in the primary deficit, even as zero interest rates push down interest payments. Though there may be some number-fudging going on, Japan is looking fiscally healthier than it has in some time. Of course, much more progress here is needed: taxes are going to have to go up, and payments to the elderly are going to have to be cut. But that is what happens to a country when nobody has any kids.
The Rhetoric of Abenomics / “Mr. A”
Since taking office in late 2012, Mr. Abe has touted a conceptually simple “three arrow” plan for Abenomics — work with the Bank of Japan to end deflation, enact fiscal reforms to set Japan on a path to sustainable growth, and implement structural reforms needed to enhance productivity. These dovetailed nicely with Western economic prescriptions for Japan and were therefore easy to explain to the world. The message got out to policymakers that Japan had a plan.
In September, however, after Abe’s national security legislation push sent approval ratings tumbling, the government became eager to redirect domestic attention back to the economic program. So the administration replaced these three arrows with “new three arrows”: (1) Achieve 600 trillion yen GDP in 2020, (2) Raise Japan’s birth rate to an average of 1.8 children per family, and (3) Ensure no one has to quit their job to take care of an elderly relative.
Even supporters of the administration’s aims should be outraged at the shameless inconsistency of the “arrow” naming convention. The first arrow is a sweeping and ambitious policy target, while the other two are essentially subsets of the old third arrow. The arrow analogy breaks down completely.
Since the announcement, government spokespeople have emphasized that these new three arrows “supplement” the previous ones. Even so, reworking the “three arrows” took what was once a clever and effective message for the global audience and made it confusing and forgettable.
Sony’s Tentative Comeback / “Mr. A”
Sony had one of its most successful years in recent memory, with both revenue and profits growing. Under CEO Kaz Hirai, the company has focused on three main businesses: Sony Pictures, game consoles (the PlayStation 4 and a yet-to-be-released VR headset), and camera components (the company is famously the source of camera technology in the iPhone). This has meant significant downsizing for other businesses: the Vaio PC line was sold off in 2014, and before that, the company spun off TV operations. Thousands of jobs have been cut, and as a result, Sony is becoming a much more focused company less beholden to legacy businesses. (In a particularly insane example, Sony only announced the end of manufacturing Betamax cassettes this year!)
Sony’s success — tentative as it remains — suggests it could join Hitachi as a formerly great Japanese electronics company that was able to return to viability after painful reforms. By comparison, Toshiba is facing a massive scandal over falsified earnings and Sharp is posting continued losses. But even with this edge over its rivals, Sony may never regain the brand strength it enjoyed in the ‘80s and ‘90s — the products currently most successful do not necessarily connect back to Sony, the company.
Yamaguchi-gumi Split / Brett BULL
Since its founding in 1915, the Yamaguchi-gumi has risen to become Japan’s top organized crime group. Boasting a membership of more than 23,000 at the end of 2014, the Kobe-based gang has its hand in all forms of crime, from prostitution to gambling to extortion.
But things hit a snag this year: 13 affiliate gangs left from underneath its umbrella at the end of the summer. The reason for the split is not exactly clear (after all, yakuza do not issue press releases), but leaks coming via investigative sources and journalists who cover the gang indicate that internal troubles about its direction and policies spurred the exodus. Adding to its problems was the formation of a rival gang, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, which absorbed the renegade sects.
This has lead to worries about a gang war much like that which unfolded in the 1980s under similar circumstances that led to more than 500 arrests and dozens of deaths. This time around, police have already attributed a number of dust-ups and killings to the split, and law enforcement will spend 2016 ensuring that it does not escalate into dangerous territory.
The Tokyo Olympic Logo Debacle / Ian LYNAM
After the Olympic Committee recalled Sano Kenjiro’s logo design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics under multiple allegations of plagiarism, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games organized a public logo design competition for its 2020 design.
This is a clear example of speculative labor — and as an extension, the promotion of free labor and the devaluation of design as a sector of cultural production. The Olympics, a for-profit entity flush with finances and gigantic sponsors, is asking for handouts. The whole thing is based on a wildly unprofessional relationship, and the fee for the winning design is wildly under professional standards in terms of payment. But we should expect that hundreds to thousands of individuals — from laypeople to trained graphic designers — will submit logo designs to this competition.
The Tokyo Olympic logo design competition represents the further collapse of labor structures in the Neoliberal Era. It is probably just a bit of social media entertainment for many, but it is representative of something larger — graphic design, a relatively new sector of cultural production the name of which was only coined in 1938 — is threatened not only by the ubiquitous accessibility of “creative” software and by contemporary notions that “anyone can be a designer.” But these notions are now being given further form by powerful global events.
Design should express the richness of our era. I mean this in terms of the visual qualities and the semantic expression with which we should imbue symbols of culture. What the upcoming Tokyo Olympic logo represents is definitely that, but not in the way that many think. This competition is a retreat from past greatness and toward a dystopian future — not just for design (and designers), but for the public as well. And worst of all, we in Tokyo are going to be stuck with this symbol for the next five years — a symbol of a crowdsourced future.
(Read more over at Medium)
NPB Takes a Gamble / Brett BULL
Besides the move of a pitcher like Darvish Yu to the U.S., Nippon Professional Baseball rarely makes international news. This year was an exception. Near the end of the season, the Yomiuri Giants revealed that pitcher Fukuda Satoshi had placed bets on high school tournaments, as well as NPB and MLB games. An investigative panel for NPB later found that two more pitchers, Kasahara Shoki and Matsumoto Ryuya, had also wagered on games.
As Pete Rose will tell you, players are not simply accused of gambling on baseball; they are also questioned about fixed games. No member of this trio, however, played a large enough of a role on the team for such a deed. Commissioner Kumazaki Katsuhiko quashed early speculation about a yakuza connection — affirmation of which would fuel game-fixing speculation. Perhaps most interesting was the response of the police: Over the next few months, they busted numerous baseball gambling operations, most backed by crime syndicates and one involving Darvish’s younger brother.
Dancing ban / Noah SMITH
One interesting political development was Japan’s repeal of its ban on after-midnight dancing, which dated back to the U.S. occupation. For most of the postwar, law enforcement never gave the ban much serious attention, but in recent years, police started enforcing it vigorously in many cities, probably spurred by the belated realization that people often do recreational drugs when they dance. (Who knew, right?)
After a long fight, the ban was repealed this year. A provision was left in to regulate the kind of lighting dance clubs can use, which is probably just a loophole to allow cops to continue to shake down club owners. But overall, this is a rare victory for civil liberties in Japan. It might point to a slowly liberalizing culture, or to a libertarian streak in this country that often goes ignored by foreign observers. At any rate, it also shows that even a small amount of political mobilization can pay real dividends in Japanese politics.
Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
The 2015 Kanji of the Year was announced on December 15th: 安 (an, yasu[i]). Although the relevant meaning here is “peace” or “safety,” virtually everyone who voted for 安 apparently did so ironically because they felt uneasy or unsafe. So why vote for 安 instead of 危 (danger) or 怖 (fear)? Probably because the biggest news in Japan this year was “Prime Minister Abe (安倍) Shinzō’s … security (安全保障, anzen hoshō) bills.”
More to the point, who are these people still voting for 変 “change” and 偽 “deceit,” Kanji of the Year for 2008 and 2007, respectively? Do they not realize that the only Kanji of the Year allowed to repeat is 金 “gold” and that only in Olympic years? (I feel pretty confident already about my prediction for Kanji of the Year 2020.)
Kojima’s Departure from Konami / Brett FUJIOKA
Not even the video game industry is immune to the era’s focus on economies of scale. 2015 was complicated for flagship corporations like Konami. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain came out to almost universal critical acclaim but the tensions between the series’ creator, Kojima Hideo, and the corporation eclipsed the installment’s success. The drama started to unfurl when Konami restricted e-mail and phone access to Kojima Productions’ senior staff. Then Kojima’s Twitter account went cryptically silent. Finally, Konami expunged its website and promotional material of any references to Kojima Productions or even Kojima himself.
Amidst this, the planned installment to the troubled Silent Hill video game franchise was cancelled. This came in spite of an enthusiastic reception from critics and fans for the P.T. (“playable teaser”). The prospective videogame would have featured Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro as co-directors with The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus playing the main protagonist. Del Toro confirmed that famed horror manga writer, Ito Junji, would’ve been involved in the project.
Of course, some of this occurred because of changes in the video game industry. Blockbuster “AAA” videogames are delivering lower returns. Smaller scale, more subsidized properties in mobile gaming are relatively more profitable. As ridiculous as it sounds, Konami’s most lucrative intellectual properties are in pachinko.
But it was more than that: A report from Nikkei illustrated a toxic work environment in Konami’s corporate offices. Forbes seemingly credited this to the dynastic management of the Kozuki family. Things grew uglier when journalist Geoff Keighley voiced that Konami barred Kojima from accepting an award for MGSV:TPP at the VGA awards. Amusingly, Kojima passive aggressively retweeted criticisms of Konami during the ceremony.
Once his contract with Konami expired, Kojima Productions was reborn under the patronage of Sony Computer Entertainment. And now that he’s signed a non-disclosure agreement with Konami, we may never know what specifically happened between him and Konami. Kojima’s remark that his next project will be “a complete game” seems to affirm the suspicion that the development of MGSV:TPP was rushed in the past year with content left out.
The New J-pop Upper Middle Class / Patrick ST. MICHEL
A lot changed in Japanese music over the course of 2015. The idol boom of recent years ended, replaced by a newfound commercial interest in bands. Meanwhile younger listeners turned upstart rock outfits such as Gesu No Kiwami Otome and Sekai No Owari into success stories. The gulf between mainstream Japanese music and the country’s independent scene, however, remained vast in 2015; the cramped live houses of Tokyo feel light years away from the major-label homes a train ride away.
Yet a new space bloomed in 2015, one where artists incorporating sounds rarely seen in the J-pop sphere could reap the benefits of being on a major label without sacrificing their experimental spirit. Artists such as the wonky Tofubeats, laid-back band Cero, and the sonic whirlwind of Suiyoubi No Campanella all released well-received albums and took part in activities signifying musical success — commercials, magazine cover appearances and performances on music shows. None put up huge physical sales, but each project did well on platforms more reflective of how people actually listen to music in 2015 (YouTube). And they were able to escape the vast blah-ness of J-pop’s middle class en route to prominent real estate at Tower Records and columns in fashion magazines. This new upper middle class of J-pop — left-field pop made by extremely charismatic people who clearly want to be stars — helped smuggle new ideas into the Japanese mainstream.
All The Pretty Festivals Go To The City / Patrick ST. MICHEL
This year’s edition of the venerable Fuji Rock Festival featured a noticeable rise in baby strollers. Whereas four years ago one of my clearest memories of the Niigata gathering was an acid-ed-out Englishman running face-first into a food stall, the 2015 edition mostly left me wondering when the fest’s crowd got so relaxed and middle-aged (others noticed as well). It was a great event, but one that felt a little… older than other music festivals held across the country. Especially the ones right next to a major city.
Festivals remain the go-to way of experiencing live music in Japan, but 2015 highlighted that for these gatherings to be successful they needed to be close to a city. Not necessarily close to a sprawling metropolis — though that certainly helped, as the number of regional fests in far-off prefectures attest to — but your music gathering probably should not count on punters spending the night. The Rock In Japan festival, the nation’s largest by attendance, is a trek from Tokyo, but still possible to experience in one day. Festivals closer to cities, such as Summer Sonic and the EDM-centric Ultra Japan event, skewed younger.
The thing is, Fuji Rock wanted to pull in a younger set too. Despite the much-lamented decision to have perpetually angry dad Noel Gallagher headline the last day of the event, Fuji Rock loaded up the bill with domestic rock bands and EDM-leaning producers to attract a new Japanese generation. The problem is simple numbers — to go to Fuji Rock for all three days, most people in Tokyo or Osaka have to spend at least ¥100,000, and most likely take off two days of work to get out there. Given how glum the economic forecast looks for younger people right now, opting to wait for something a bit closer to home makes sense.
From Their Windows / Audrey FONDECAVE
If you think of a Japanese woman artist who is famous abroad, chances are Yoko Ono is the first one to come to mind. But even if she is most famous for being John Lennon’s widow, her retrospective “From My Window” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo helped show that she has amassed a legitimate body of work.
One of the most touching pieces was footage of a performance called “Cut Piece” where a young and fragile Ono has the clothes she is wearing being cut off with scissors by strangers. During the talk she gave at the opening even for the exhibition, Ono discussed more about her life than her art, sharing some of her childhood memories. She said that the Japanese would often say she was baataa kusai (“stinks of butter,” i.e. too Western).
She also talked about the influence of her aunt, Anna Bubnova Ono, a Russian violinist who married Ono’s uncle and entomologist Ono Shunichi. They met in Russia, fled the country during the revolution, and settled in Tokyo. Surprised to discover that music was taught to children only from their teen years, Anna Ono opened a music school for young children and reformed forever the Japanese musical education. Hundreds of pupils joined the school, many prestigious violinists studied there, such as the first Japanese child prodigy player Suwa Nejiko.
But this is not what Ono mentioned about Anna. She recalled the melancholy felt by her aunt in the garden of their summer house in Karuizawa while looking at the shirakaba, the Japanese white birch also known as the Siberian silver birch.
Three or Four Interesting Japanese Books Published in 2015 / Matt TREYVAUD
My fellow amateur enthusiasts of illegible old land deeds rejoiced in 2015 at the publication of Karikome Hitoshi’s Nihonshi o manabu tame no komonjo/kokiroku kundokuhō 『日本史を学ぶための古文書・古記録訓読法』 (“Reading old documents and old records [written in Chinese] for people learning Japanese history”). Practical guides to Japanese-style classical Chinese (hentai kanbun 変体漢文) are thin on the ground, and Karikome’s book is a most welcome addition to the field. (Runner-up in the premodern Japanese category goes to the absolutely indefatigable Konno Shinji’s Sengoku no Nihongo: Gohyaku nen mae no yomu/kaku/hanasu 『戦国の日本語: 五百年前の読む・書く・話す』 (“Sengoku Japanese: Reading, writing, and speaking five hundred years ago”.)
It would not be a list of Japanese books without a lightly edited transcript of two guys rapping about their respective specialities, and in that slot this year we have Takano Hideyuki and Shimizu Katsuyuki’s Sekai no henkyō to haadoboirudo Muromachi jidai 『世界の辺境とハードボイルド室町時代』 (“Hard-boiled Muromachi period and the edge of the world”). The premise: Muromachi-period Japan (1336-1573) was kind of like modern-day Somaliland.
Finally, consider Urata Kenji’s Mikan no Heisei bungakushi: Bungeikisha ga mita bundan 30 nen 『未完の平成文学史: 文芸記者が見た文壇30年』 (“An incomplete history of Heisei literature: 30 years of literature as seen by a book reviewer/reporter”). Almost six hundred pages drawn from twenty-eight years of notes and interviews. Sample section title: “The age of Haruki and Banana.” I bet a lot of other publishers wish they’d thought of the “incomplete” thing too.
The Last Copyright Day? / Matt TREYVAUD
The draft agreement of the TPP released in November requires parties to have copyright terms of “life of the author + 70 years.” Japan’s current rule is “life of the author + 50 years,” so if this change were made to Japanese law in the next couple of years and applied going forward, no new works would enter the public domain until the mid-2030s. Actually, the most likely outcome would be that no new works enter the public domain unless and until the entire idea of copyright is overhauled or abandoned — 20 years is plenty of time for major IP holders to organize the next extension. There is a real chance that one of the next few New Year’s Days will be the last one on which Japanese works ever enter the public domain.
The question, as raised on the Aozora Bunko Blog, is whether this will be applied retroactively. Works by authors who died more than 50 but less than 70 years ago are currently in the public domain: Will they stay there? This is an idea that tends to be dismissed as ridiculous and impractical fear-mongering, but, well, Golan v. Holder, right? I suppose all we can do is hope that enough big Japanese publishers have enough big investments to protect that they agree to lobby for non-restoration as a bloc.
Some Great Manga in 2015 / Matthew PENNEY
One-Punch Man 『ワンパンマン』 looks to be on the cusp of enjoying Titan level success outside Japan thanks to a spirited anime adaptation. The manga is among the handful of series I find myself most looking forward to: a parody of fighting manga that might just be the best fighting manga in decades.
Mainstream hits aside, 2015 was a fantastic year for alternative and experimental manga. Yamazaki Mari, whose Thermae Romae had moments of brilliance before its one gag pattern revolving around a time-shifting Roman bath master went lukewarm, is now collaborating with Tori Miki on Plinius 『プリニウス』, one of the best manga of 2015. Yamazaki’s eye for historical minutiae and capricious storytelling give life to one of history’s great eccentrics, title character Pliny the Elder, while Tori’s contribution to the art brings a realist edge to the backgrounds which range from Vesuvius to Rome. Not just great manga, Plinius is great historical fiction.
The half-revealed horrors and alien geometries of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction have always proven difficult to bring to visual media. Recent attempts seem to have done little to distract from Cthulhu’s transition from mind-blasting aberration to plush toy and cheesy meme. A pair of works by Tanabe Gou – Maken (The Hound and Other Stories) 『魔犬』<ラヴクラフト傑作集> (ビームコミックス) and this year’s Isekai no Shikisai (The Colour Out of Space and Other Stories) 『異世界の色彩』 — exploit stunning manga black and white to bring back the creeping terror of Lovecraft’s originals. A relative rookie, Tanabe is already an expert at using light sources in the narrative — a flashlight, a lantern, a fireplace — to play with the darkness, toying with the fears of reader as well.
The Fall of Language in the Age of English / Morgan GILES
The best book I didn’t review this year was Mizumura Minae’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English 『日本語が亡びるとき―英語の世紀の中で』, translated by Yoshihara Mari and Juliet Winters Carpenter. The Fall of Language narrates the birth of Japanese as a national language and language of literary expression, while also providing the fascinating theoretical background to the choices she made in writing A True Novel 『本格小説』, also translated by Carpenter, a retelling of Wuthering Heights which trades the moors for Karuizawa.
If you know anything about linguistics, you are not her audience. Mizumura is more concerned with the broad strokes, and to hell with the details and anyone who cares about them. If you are willing to ignore her inexactitudes and unchallenged biases, The Fall of Language is an impassioned plea for educational and societal reform to make Japanese literature vital and globally relevant again. Her description of the conditions that led to the conceptualization of Japanese literature as a national literature made me want to go back to the modern beginning, to Higuchi and Soseki, and her alternate history of the American occupation as a linguistically catastrophic event is so necessary for Anglophone readers. But in the end I couldn’t review this book because I got lost in the blinding rage that envelops me whenever someone slips into Nihongoron, and everything I wrote sounded petty and bizarrely reactionary.
I cannot recommend The Fall of Language in the Age of English to you. But I cannot stop thinking about it either. Mizumura is infuriating, but god, it is a pleasure to argue passionately about Japanese literature. And as long as that is true, Japanese will never fall.
The Inexplicable Rise of Yuzu in the U.K. / Morgan GILES
It kind of started, I think, with chef Tim Anderson’s collaboration with Pressure Drop Brewing to create a Japanese-influenced beer for his restaurant, Nanban. The resulting Nanban Kanpai was a wheat IPA with yuzu, orange, and grapefruit, and it is delicious. I was thrilled to see Nanban Kanpai on shelves — I adore yuzu, and I have always said I would bathe in it if this were not an absurdly expensive proposition in the West. And sure, for a few years there had been stories in broadsheet newspapers about “yuzu, the new superfood,” but whatever. You still could not find the stuff for love or money, even in London. But in 2015, I felt like I was bathing in it, and it turns out I am a yuzu hipster: I was into it first, before it became cool, dammit.
Now even the fast food chain Wasabi, which usually specializes in selling Japanese curry to drunk people near commuter stations, is hawking a yuzu-flavored aloe drink. You can find yuzu juice at Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. All the body wash manufacturers, from Molton Brown to Lush, are now covering Middle England in a permanent citrus funk, and nobody has a clue what to do about it or with it. Gipsy Hill’s Yuzu Japanese Pale Ale is, I’m sorry to say, a waste of good fruit. I no longer even react when an acquaintance asks if I know anything about “yuhz-ooh?”
But I am tired, and I am ready for the backlash. Bring on the inexplicable rise of sudachi in 2016.
Mizuki Shigeru, R.I.P. / Matt ALT
Renowned manga artist Mizuki Shigeru passed away at the age of 93 on November 30th. Though he had been in fine health given his age, the loss still came as a shock. For many Japanese, Mizuki has always been there. His illustrated and animated series Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro, which centers on the adventures of spooks from Japanese folklore called yokai, has run intermittently for more than fifty years. Surprisingly for one of Japanese pop culture’s most enduring and influential creators, little of his oeuvre has ever made it into the English language until quite recently, thanks to the efforts of Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly publishing. Perhaps wisely, they began not with his children’s fare but rather his World War II work; their 2011 translation of Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths earned Mizuki a prestigious Eisner Award the following year.
Even still, Mizuki remains one of a handful of hugely popular manga artists who is barely known abroad, even among many self-proclaimed manga fans. This makes the foreign treatment of his passing all the more interesting. Obituaries appeared in a wide variety of mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, BBC News, NPR, and the online editions of the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker.
The coverage was a testament to how far the appreciation of Japanese pop culture in the West has come, both in that the mass-media gatekeepers okayed these stories in the first place, and that the coverage was largely on point (with the exception of an unfortunate tendency for foreign journalists to render yokai as “ghosts,” which they are not.)
Although he played a role as Japan’s “every-granddad,” a laid-back sage teleported straight out of the early Showa era, Mizuki carefully crafted and curated this persona over years of autobiography. Much of it was in a “magical realism” vein that would be tempting to peg as Haruki Murakami-esque, if in fact Murakami was not taking a big page from Mizuki in the first place. For example, Mizuki’s monolithic multi-volume Showa illustrated history series, which includes much of his life story, is narrated by Kitaro’s mercurial yokai pal, Rat Man. Long before Mizuki’s passing, the facts of his World War II service and sacrifice, his decades as a starving artist, and his long-deserved success thanks to the yokai had become as much a part of the fabric of his manga as the characters he created. (Many readers are surprised to hear Kitaro was not one of them; though Mizuki indeed transformed the series into a mainstream success, he actually inherited it from a pre-war kamishibai “paper theater” illustrator.)
One thing left out of the accolades was any mention of the actual size of Mizuki’s fortune. Though the words “be lazy” are inscribed on his statue in his hometown of Sakaiminato, he was in fact a disciplined worker who was savvy enough of a businessman to know how to leverage Kitaro into one of Japan’s most beloved manga and anime series. Even after its success, he played his cards close. Whereas rival manga-ka trumpeted their success stories in units of tankobon manga compilation sold, Mizuki never released any sales figures for his combined works, making it difficult to rank him among his contemporaries. Television ratings and box office receipts give hints of his popularity. In 1987, the Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro anime enjoyed a 28.5 share, beating the current industry leader Doraemon and falling just a point short of the massively successful Dragonball. Meanwhile, a 2008 live-action film earned ¥2.3 billion at the Japanese box office. But perhaps due to the series’ essential “Japanese-ness,” focusing as it does on folklore, Kitaro has remained largely a domestic phenomenon while Doraemon and Dragonball have exploded into massive regional and global franchises.
In an era where military themes increasingly dominate the conversation both politically and pop culturally, Mizuki’s voice of experience and reason will be greatly missed. He was the last of Japan’s manga artists to have seen actual combat, and he always fought its glamorization by emphasizing the tedious, dirty, humiliating, and almost entirely tragic aspects of his own personal experience right up until the very end. It is a miracle he survived, but also a miracle of the modern era that so much of his work has been preserved for us to enjoy — and learn from.
R.I.P. Nosaka Akiyuki / W. David MARX
When Nosaka Akiyuki died in December at the age of 85, most of the English obituaries focused on his 1967 Naoki Prize-winning short story about the aftermath of World War II, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Its adaptation into a Ghibli film (that reduces even the most hardened adults to floods of tears) gave Nosaka’s work a global footprint and long legacy.
But Nosaka was much more than just a memoirist on the horrors of war. He was an institution of the postwar media, with a legacy spanning across literature and pop culture, prestige and infamy.
After spending his 20s writing lyrics for commercial jingles — including the classic children’s song “Omocha no Cha Cha Cha” — he debuted as an author in 1963 with the bawdy novel The Pornographers. From there, his sunglass-marked visage could be found pontificating about contemporary society throughout the decade in youth culture journals like Hanashi no Tokushū and Heibon Punch.
So it is not “Fireflies” but perhaps his ribald short story “American Hijiki” that best represents his career. The story follows a Japanese man Toshio who hopes to impress his wife’s American host father with a sex show. In the piece, Nosaka uses sexual hijinks to connect the emasculation of Japanese men during the Occupation to his country’s slavish devotion to the United States in the postwar.
Beyond his literary fame, Nosaka also sang minor-key chanson under the name Claude Nosaka (“Marilyn Monroe No Return”), defended a dirty Nagai Kafu story in an obscenity suit (he lost), and served in the House of Councillors as part of the Dainiin Club party.The last decade, however, had been quiet. In 2003, Nosaka suffered a stroke, and while he was not completely silenced, his output suffered.