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Dad music for the Japanese summer

Dad Music

Matt Treyvaud lists out the hot summer jamz — Father Edition — for 2015.

Let’s be real. It takes a very careful series of life choices to keep attending all-night dub improv happenings in Shimokitazawa forever. For most of us, the appeal of settling down eventually wins out, and for a smaller but still substantial proportion of us, children follow. Parenthood entails many responsibilities, but here we address one of the gauntlets thrown at the feet of men in particular: dad music. (Mom music will be covered in a later post, if we can find someone to write it.)

Listening to dad music is one of the hallmarks of being a dad. But what is dad music in 2015? The traditional record collection-based definition makes no sense in a world where everyone has access to all music at all times. Yes — dad music, too, requires curation. Here, then, is our offering as the Japanese summer closes in.

Beating the heat

High humidity calls for spare music. You can’t be expected to endure a whole bunch of jangling and drumming and harmonizing when even your own clothes feel like wet towels against your skin. Oshima Yasukatsu‘s Bagashima nu uta – Song of My Islands, an album of traditional songs from Yaeyama, is what you need. The first full minute is just Oshima singing. Then he starts plucking languidly on his sanshin as well. That’s it. That’s as thick as the texture on this album gets. This is music that passes through the room like a gentle breeze, leaving no possibility of mold behind.

(Those seeking something a little more dad might consider Oshima’s Shimameguri – Island Journey, which features guest appearances from members of Kiroro and Altan.)

A touch of class

You can’t neglect the jazz side of things. How is your kid going to grow up to be a saxophone player living in a garret in New York if you don’t expose them to the music before they know any better? On the other hand, you’re a dad, and you’re worried that too much jazz will eat into your prog time. Solution: Fukamachi Jun‘s Haru no yo no yume (“A dream on a spring night based on the Tale of the Heike”). Okay, the season isn’t quite right — but just listen to Rakujitsu no shō (“The sinking Heike”). That is a summer synthesizer by any definition.

(Note: This album is also approved by Planet Mellotron.)

Rocking out

The kids are out catching tadpoles. Your wife is at an antique fair. Now is the time to open the window and let the neighborhood know that you remember how to rock. (But considerately.)

You have many options for this one. Most of the Taj Mahal Travelers’ oeuvre, for example, is available at bargain prices from Amazon Japan’s digital music store. They take a while to get going, though. Your family might come home at any moment and demand that you turn it down. For a quicker fix, why not dig out that battered old disc from the back of the 9×9 CD wallet you bought in college – Ghost’s Lama Rabi Rabi?

Did you know it’s been almost twenty years since that album was released?

Hold that feeling. Your kids are at the door.

July 14, 2015

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

Kickstarter Campaign for Parting It Out by Ian Lynam

Kickstarter campaign for Ian Lynam's new book Parting It Out

Néojaponisme co-founder Ian Lynam launches a Kickstarter campaign for his new book.

Our intrepid co-founder Ian Lynam has been hard at work on a collection of essays about graphic design and culture for the past few years, and the project is just about to come to fruition. He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the book, titled Parting It Out, which you can view here.

It’s going to be a very Néojaponisme-esque book – our very own W. David Marx has written the introduction essay and there are a number of essays which prominently talk about Japanese graphic design past and present – some previously published here and some new.

If you look in the Updates for the project, you’ll also find the foreword for the book, as well as a link to a previously unpublished 110-page zine with an essay by Ian along with hundreds of photos of vernacular signage in Fukuoka.

There are a few other surprises, as well — the video for the campaign features a previously unreleased song from Evan of Ratatat, and the book features collaborations with design critics Randy Nakamura and Chris Ro.

Please feel free to share this Kickstarter campaign with your friends and colleagues, and if you’re feeling generous, we invite you to help back the project.

February 10, 2015

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

Public Domain Day 2015

Japanese Public Domain Day

Matt Treyvaud looks at the latest works of Japanese literature to hit the public domain, including a guide to rakugo argot.

Every year Japan puts older creative works into the public domain — something that no longer happens in the United States. For works of literature, the tireless website Aozora Bunko celebrates Public Domain Day each year on January 1 by presenting a neat list of newly free works. (Note, however, that these works may not be considered public domain in other jurisdictions, including the U.S., because Japanese copyright — “life + 50 years” — is on the short side by international standards.)

This year, Aozora Bunko released works by ten different authors. One noteworthy example: critic and free verse poet Miyoshi Tatsuji‘s groundbreaking Surveying Ship (“It is twilight/ O mother, push my pram/ Towards the tear-damp evening sun/ Push my creaking pram”). Another: feminist historian and activist Takamure Itsue‘s “From the Standpoint of Research into Women’s History” (“Women’s history is a completely new field for development, and if this research is continued, it is only natural that many fallacious aspects of the hitherto prevailing views of history should be corrected”).

Okay, one more: rakugo artist San’yūtei Kinba III‘s “Argot Etymology.” Most of this essay is about the argot used by the author and his contemporaries in the entertainment industry (so, mainly the senbo tradition deriving from Osakan puppeteers of the Edo period) but there are some interesting comments about his era’s shopgirl slang too. Towards the end, for example, he lists some senbo number words:

  • 1 = hei, the Sino-Japanese pronunciation of 平, meaning “flat, level”
  • 2 = biki, from the Japanese crest known as maru ni futatsu-biki, “circle with two [lines] drawn [through it]”
  • 3 = yama, because the character 山 (yama, “mountain”) has three points on top
  • 4 = Sasaki, after the quartered-square crest of Sasaki Takatsuna, visible on a flag here
  • 5 = katako, because if you’re counting things on your fingers, you can count to five (go-ko) on one hand (kata-te)
  • 6 = Sanada, after the sixfold crest of the Sanada clan
  • 7 = Tanuma, after Tanuma Okitsugu‘s “seven celestial bodies” (七曜) crest
  • 8 = yawata, a native Japanese pronunciation of 八幡 “Hachiman
  • 9 = kiwa, because it’s on the edge (kiwa) of ten

All these can also be found in Umegaki Minoru’s 1956 Argot Dictionary 隠語辞典, albeit with different etymologies in some cases. For example, observing that katako and biki show up as kata-kobushi (“one fist”) and maebiki (“front-puller”) in other traditions, Umegaki proposes those as the direct sources for those two. Mind you, he is unsure what “front-puller” is supposed to mean (“Because carriages were pulled by two men?” he asks forlornly).

Anyway, should you ever need to talk business with a rakugo artist without the other punters catching on, now you can. Happy Public Domain Day!

January 6, 2015

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

The Year 2014 in Japan

2014: Plurality Power / W. David MARX
Japan — a country that once prided itself on a “new middle mass” of “100 million middle class” — now finds its direction from passionate minority factions rather than a set of shared mainstream values. In 2014, there is no mass majority in Japan, only powerful pluralities.

The LDP won the election after no one turned out other than their solid bloc of older voters. The right-wing maintained its ruling coalition thanks to the gains of another powerful minority — Kōmeitō, a political party that mobilizes the devoted believers of its affiliated religious group. On the other side of the aisle, the minority Communists grew their numbers — enough to introduce bills to the Diet floor.

In pop culture, there were a few relics of the mass culture era — Frozen and Yokai Watch — but these shared experiences were mostly limited to children. Adults only came together to share downers: complaints about higher taxes, debates over the effectiveness of Abenomics, accusations towards imaginary STAP stem cells. (Even the year’s preordained comedy catch-phrase dame yo, dame dame is all about saying “no.”) Otherwise powerful pluralities own the culture. In music, the idol cults continue to dominate the music charts through an aggregation of splintered factions. Even without cable TV, top dramas struggle to pull more than a 10% rating.

So why try to force 2014 into a single story of “national culture”? In the place of any manufactured holistic narrative, here instead are some of the fragments that defined our year.

Abenomics / Noah SMITH
This was a difficult year for Abe Shinzō and his Abenomics program. The economy’s signals are mixed — investment has picked up, but consumption and exports are still anemic. The Bank of Japan continues to buy financial assets at a record pace, the so-called “first arrow” of Abenomics. But with employment at a 15-year low, it’s not clear what else the BOJ can do. Of course, the BOJ is certain to keep purchasing government debt, as this is the only way to maintain Japan’s interest rates at a level low enough for the still-rising government debt to be sustainable. But monetary policy’s effectiveness in terms of boosting the economy is probably near its limit.

Meanwhile, the “second arrow” — fiscal stimulus — is long gone, and Abe’s 3% sales tax hike is widely credited with sending the economy into a sudden recession. Abe could conceivably reverse course and choose to engage in a massive fiscal stimulus, funded by printed money, if the BOJ would go along. But this seems unlikely for political reasons, and with the unemployment rate already low, the effect would likely be minor anyway; there just aren’t that many more idle hands left to put to work. At this point, Japan’s best hope for fiscal policy is treading a wise and careful middle path and avoid derailing the fragile recovery that began in 2013.

As for the “third arrow” — structural reforms — Abe has proposed a large number of bold actions but failed to get them passed so far. His hope, and the hope of reformers in general, is that Abe’s political capital from the recent election victory will allow him to make headway on the TPP, labor reform, corporate governance reform, and other difficult, unpopular neo-liberal measures.

Womenomics / Noah SMITH
There is one way, however, in which Abe may already be sparking deep and lasting change. This is the area of gender equality in the workplace — the so-called “Womenomics” program. Westerners have, by and large, been skeptical that a renowned conservative like Abe could be serious about fighting for gender equality. But the idea seems to have permeated the consciousness of Japan’s elite, including bureaucrats, business leaders, the courts, and the media. Even if many of the women-boosting reforms being pushed by Abe fail, a sea change may have occurred in the mindset of Japan, Inc. Already, companies are announcing voluntary quotas for women in management positions, government ministries are creating plans to make bureaucratic jobs more female-friendly, and courts are ruling in favor of victims of “maternity harassment.”

Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council has been conducting a series of interviews with Japanese female leaders and business leaders. There is a distinct sense that the change in attitude is real and spreading, although of course much more needs to be done. And the legal measures Abe intends to introduce over the following year — changing the tax system to encourage two-income families, ending incentives for long overtime hours, etc. — seem less likely to encounter resistance from vested interests than the other structural reforms he has proposed.

In other words, Womenomics is still in its infancy, but there are signs that it’s for real.

Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
The Kanji of the Year for 2014 was — “tax.” Organizers and individual voters struggled to frame the choice as a reaction to a generally taxocentric year of news, but of course it really just won because everyone’s unhappy about the consumption tax rising to 5% to 8%. Reaction online has been muted and surly, suggesting that a lot of people voted for 税 because they thought they should rather than because they actually wanted it to win. It’s certainly a big comedown after the recent string of positive winners like 絆 “bonds” and 金 “gold”; in fact, there hasn’t been such a purely negative Kanji of the Year since 2007’s 偽, “deceit” (which, incidentally, made #9 this year too; 嘘 “lie” was at #3).

Shukatsu Schedule Change / Adamu KUN
For Japanese third-year university students, December is the start of the job-hunting process (shūshoku katsudō or shūkatsu in Japanese). This commences with research on companies and innumerable “information sessions” that count as pre-pre-pre interviews.

This will change with the graduating class of 2016: Companies have agreed not to begin recruiting activities until March of a student’s third year. Corporate members of the Keidanren agreed to these changes under pressure from the Abe administration, which is interested in encouraging study abroad, internships, and other initiatives that would help Japan adapt its economic model to the modern era.

As dry and bureaucratic as that all sounds, the implications are enormous — millions of Japanese college students will now have an extra six months to study, create, and live life without having to go through an overly long job search.

But let’s be clear — these changes (like much of Abenomics) do not represent a fundamental paradigm shift. In other words, measures like this are intended to strengthen the nation-state of Japan. What has not changed is the high-stakes, one-strike-and-you’re-out nature of the hiring system itself. People who for whatever reason miss out or fail to thrive within the system are effectively shut out of the best jobs Japan has to offer. Perfectly talented individuals who just happen not to fit the mold will still be relegated to the employment underclass.

Foreign Tourists Hit New High / Adamu KUN
Back in 2003, the Japanese government set the goal of attracting 10 million tourists per year to Japan by 2010. They did not make that deadline, but finally surpassed their target. In 2013 the number of visitors from overseas suddenly skyrocketed 30% from the previous year to 10.4 million and is likely to reach 13 million in 2014. The streets of Shinjuku are now clogged with (usually confused and lost) tourists.

What explains the turnaround? To be sure it happened well before plans to create better tourism infrastructure really came to fruition. Japan over the past few years has relaxed some existing barriers to visits from neighboring countries, but the weaker yen has probably done at least as much by nudging a trip to Japan into an affordable price range.

Now that the tourists are coming, it’s up to the local community to ensure they’re having positive experiences that they will tell their friends and relatives about. That includes Anglophone foreigners who live here: One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to be more proactive in helping clearly lost groups of tourists when I’m in an area I know well.

The Olympics: The Biggest Issue that Never Was / Nick DONEGAN
In 2013, Tokyo won its long-running Olympic bid on a platform of compact scale, centralized proceedings, increased efficiency, and a small budget. This year budgets ballooned from $1.5 billion to $3 billion while construction companies found themselves faced with another bidding process. The IOC asked Tokyo for a more decentralized affair and the rather-far-away-from-Tokyo prefecture of Fukushima requested a prominent role, but all the Japanese press reported on was the possible resurrection of softball and baseball as well as plans for the entertainment lineup. In 2015, however, the Olympics may become the biggest issue of 2014 that never was.


RIP: Yakuza Film Stars Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta / Brett BULL
Actors Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta, who died this year, are among those credited with bringing the yakuza film genre to the world. Many will remember Takakura Ken from Black Rain, in which he appeared opposite Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia as assistant inspector Matsumoto (“And I do fucking speak English”). But for years before that 1987 film, Takakura had already become one of Japan’s most prominent actors. He was cast by the likes of director Yamada Yōji (The Yellow Handkerchief) and appeared in a number of hard-boiled flicks by studio Toei in the 1960s (A Fugitive From The Past). His passing in early November narrowly preceded that of Sugawara Bunta, who rose to fame in the 1970s through Toei’s post-war Battles Without Honor And Humanity series. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, the films and Sugawara’s performances are frequently praised — notably by Quentin Tarantino — for projecting a realistic look at the underworld onto the screen.


An Obsession with Obscenity / Brett BULL
Japanese law enforcement repeatedly made headlines with its enforcement of Article 175 of the nation’s Penal Code, which restricts the sale and distribution of obscene materials (usually meaning renderings of non-obscured genitalia). On two occasions, Tokyo police arrested artist Igarashi Megumi (aka Rokudenashiko) for distributing image data of her vagina and publicly displaying a plaster replica of said organ. In Nagoya, police pressure forced an Aichi prefectural museum to cover up private parts in photographs of nude males contained in an exhibition. On the Internet, contributors to the video site FC2 Live came under scrutiny twice for streaming live porn segments without the use of a mosaic.


The End of Pink Japan / Brett BULL
1960s-era adult entertainment is in true decline. The Kantō area lost two more “pink” film theaters (one in Tokyo’s Shimbashi, another in Tochigi), leaving the number of theaters dedicated to the soft-core genre now at only 50 nationwide. Four decades ago, there were more than 1,000 venues. Things started to go downhill since the arrival of home video in the 1980s.

Another blow to anachronistic eroticism was the bankruptcy of legendary Rokku-za strip theater in Asakusa. Founded in 1947, the theater, which utilizes a stay-all-day for one price system, has hosted performances from a number of popular porn stars. News reports indicated that the theater has suffered from a substantial drop in attendance over the past decade. Given that the core demographic for both pastimes is the middle-aged male, Japan’s ageing population does not bode well for the survival of either.


Yokai vs. Yokai / Matt ALT
2014 may have been the year of the horse, but as far as the media industry was concerned it was the year of the yōkai — Yōkai Watch, to be precise. Often hailed as the “next Pokémon,” the series centers on a young boy who is able to see and harness monsters from Japanese folklore. As of December 2014, Yōkai Watch swept the worlds of video games (with five million copies sold of the latest installment “Yōkai Watch 2”), manga (it won the 38th Kodansha Manga Award), and toys (raking in 10 billion yen in sales while forcing Bandai-Namco president Ishikawa Shuko to convene a press conference to apologize for shortages.) But perhaps none of these victories was as symbolic as that of Yōkai Watch: The Movie. It opened domestically in mid-December and promptly trounced Disney’s Big Hero 6 — the antagonist of which, ironically enough, just happens to be named Yokai.


Meet The New Cool Japan, Same As The Old Cool Japan / Patrick ST. MICHEL
It was a good year for Japanese pop acts going viral through checking off all the classic “weird Japan” boxes. Idol-pop-meets-heavy-metal trio Babymetal’s “Gimme Chocolate!” racked up millions of YouTube views, and that momentum helped land shows in North America and Europe. Lady Gaga then invited the group to be the opening act during part of her North American tour, as was the Vocaloid avatar Hatsune Miku. In 2014, that holographic singer also performed on the Late Show With David Letterman, leading to a rush of tweets from confused regular viewers wondering what anime was doing on their TV.

Both achieved the same sort of gawked-at success in the West that many other Japanese media entities have managed in the YouTube age, one where the sheer WTF-ness of something (context be damned) surpasses actual appreciation. And it went the other way, too — Western artists such as Clean Bandit and Pharrell Williams used Japan and Japanese pop culture as backdrops for videos they released this year. As did Canadian singer Avril Lavigne, who found herself in hot water after her Harajuku-centric clip for “Hello Kitty” was accused of cultural appropriation.


Idols Actually Aimed At Women / Patrick ST. MICHEL
Up-and-coming idol-pop groups have appropriated nearly every subculture over the last few years. EDM club kids? Yep. Slightly chubby women? You bet. Steampunk? Sure, why not. Yet one of the year’s best selling outfits succeeded with a far more obvious theme — marketing to actual women instead of men. E-Girls, a 27-member-strong supergroup, signed to Avex, technically serving as the all-woman version of EXILE (hence the “E”). The group was a constant name on both the Oricon Charts and various digital rankings, and of course, an advertising staple.

Taking cues from the more mature-leaning groups in Korea, E-Girls presented an image and music that tried to relate to actual women rather than offer up an unsettling fantasy version of girls for male consumers. A poll late in the year found that they were the most aspirational idols for women in Japan. Nothing highlighted this better than the video for their top single of the year, “High School Love,” whereas dozens of idol units donned uniforms and played up the kawaii in a school setting, each member of E-Girls wore something different and danced confidently without infantilizing themselves.

The Year Idol Music Became Sort of Interesting / Devon FISHER
2014’s Oricon singles chart was entirely devoid of surprises, the top 50 almost wholly dominated by the trifecta of Johnny’s groups, EXILE Tribe and Yasushi Akimoto’s ridiculous girl groups, but in the margins of Japan’s idol-obsessed music culture something interesting happened. Exemplified by EXILE Tribe’s K-pop inspired E-Girls and the newly reconfigured Morning Musume ’14 (such a departure from previous generations that Hello! Project management saw fit to add the year to their name), all of a sudden the idol group sound was taking in influences from the Occidental realm of EDM; apparently the expiration date on the Onyanko Club sound has finally been reached. Yasutaka Nakata’s production for Perfume, once a dramatic departure from the ordinary, now no longer sounds all that far-off from the mainstream, and idol groups are all the better for it. If idols are going to completely dominate the realm of popular music anyways, might as well make sure that music is at least somewhat fresh.

Parupaganda / Ian LYNAM
On July 1, Prime Minister Abe announced a decision to reinterpret the Japanese constitution, allowing the Japanese military to support allied nations under attack. In short, this monumental reinterpretation legalized Japanese rearmament, outlawed by the post-war constitution. Within hours of the decision, a YouTube video featuring AKB48 Team A member Haruka “Paruru” Shimazaki (島崎 “ぱるる” 遥香) appeared online encouraging citizens to join the Japan Self-Defense Force (自衛隊).

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor / Jason G. KARLIN
Johnny Kitagawa, the founder and president of the talent agency Johnny & Associates (hereafter Johnny’s), is approaching the twilight of his control over the male idol empire he created. Since Johnny himself appears to be averse to anointing a new president, a succession dispute emerged within the organization and intensified in 2014.

Johnny’s realm is now divided between two factions. One is led by Julie Keiko Fujishima, who is Johnny’s niece. Her faction includes the groups Arashi, TOKIO, V6, and Kanjani Eight, among others. The other faction is headed by Iijima Michi, who has managed SMAP since their creation. Her faction consists of SMAP, Kis-My-Ft2, Sexy Zone, and A.B.C-Z.

In 2014, conflict between these two factions has grown so intense that is creating headaches for Japan’s networks and television program producers. Groups under Fujishima and groups under Iijima almost never appear together on the same music or variety shows. While not uncommon between rivaling labels, this degree of internal competition is unprecedented.The Japanese advertising and entertainment industries yearn for the coronation of a new empress.

Boyz Be Sexy / Jason G. KARLIN
On July 15, 2014, fans of the five-member Johnny’s idol group Sexy Zone were devastated to learn that the group would be re-organized into a three-member unit. Management split off the two youngest members to form a new group called Sexy Boyz.

Sexy Zone was born from disaster. The formation of the group originally was scheduled to be announced in May 2011, but due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the group’s debut was postponed until late September 2011. At the time of their debut, they were the youngest group in the history of Johnny’s idols — the average age of the group’s members was 14.2 and the youngest was only 11. Though more than a few eyebrows were raised about the group’s naming, Johnny Kitagawa responded to criticism by explaining that he wanted “less beautiful boys (bishōnen) and more sexy.”

The two former members of Sexy Zone were combined with six members of Johnny’s Jr. to form the new eight-member idol unit called Sexy Boyz. Before the announcement of Sexy Boyz, an Internet search for the group’s name returned numerous blocked sites that would trigger browser warnings. Today, thanks to Johnny’s, a search for “Sexy Boyz” now safely leads to fan sites and news regarding the group’s activities.

Comedy Band Makes Salient Point / Patrick ST. MICHEL
Popular four-piece Golden Bomber is an “air” band (they pretend to play instruments live while a pre-recorded track plays) best summed up as the “clown princes of contemporary J-pop.” At this year’s Rock In Japan festival, they spent more time on gags and coating themselves in blue paint than performing. Yet Golden Bomber made one on-the-nose point this year — capturing the growing exhaustion with Japanese music promotions. For their August single “Rola No Kizudarake,” the physical single came with plain white cover art, and lacked any of the bonuses that have become a staple of Oricon-topping acts such as AKB48 and EXILE. It was a deliberate “specialization in music” experiment, one which found member Kiryuin lamenting how the current J-pop landscape moves the focus from the music to promotions such as handshake events. Many online agreed with him, and the single debuted at the number-two spot on Oricon… bested only by an EXILE single packaged with tickets to a “high touch” event.


Indie Music / Ian MARTIN
While 2014 was a typically dire year for J-pop in general, it was a marvelous year for brilliant Japanese music of absolutely no broader pop-cultural significance. Fukuoka quartet Hearsays’ In Our Time mini-album was seven cuts of the most gorgeous, shimmering, spine-tingling indiepop imaginable, while Oversleep Excuse’s Slowly Better was steeped in fragile, heartbreaking melodies, and Luminous Orange’s Soar, Kiss the Moon veered thrillingly between Stereolab-esque sophistipop, richly textured shoegaze, and intricate prog/math rock.

2014 also saw a blitzkrieg of raw, discordant postpunk/no-wave/skronk/junk with Panicsmile’s Informed Consent, synth-punk duo Hangaku’s raucous self-titled debut, an even more ferocious temper tantrum of a debut (also eponymous) by early Boredoms-style junk noise band Halbach, The Mornings’ Idea Pattern, Sonic Youth-influenced Nagoya band Free City Noise’s Leaving and Otori’s electrifying I Wanna Be Your Noise. On a rather more eccentric note, Tochigi-based duo Teashikuchibiru’s wonderfully titled Punch! Kick! Kiss! was easily the year’s best violin-and-acoustic-guitar-based folk/new wave/hip hop crossover album, and Umez snatched the prize for best J-pop/machine noise hybrid garage-punk (there’s more of it around than you might think).

Impressive albums also emerged from new wave old timers Convex Level, Sapporo-based indie-folk act Hasymonew, Fukuoka math rockers Macmanaman, intricately-worked Nagoya guitar pop trio Crunch, Tokyo new wave/krautrock band Buddy Girl and Mechanic, rounding off an abundant harvest of wonderful, weird, discordant, delicate and beautiful music with no commercial prospects whatsoever.

Twenty-five Years of Flipper’s Guitar / W. David MARX
In August 1989, Keigō Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa’s band Flipper’s Guitar released its first album Three Cheers for Our Side, unwittingly launching the Japanese music genre known as Shibuya-kei. I wrote in detail about four key Flipper’s Guitar songs over at Memories of Shibuya (one, two, three, four), but what is interesting to me is the degree to which Flipper’s Guitar introduced so many diverse influences to Japanese music… only to have them all be erased 25 years later. Nothing in the world of J-Pop now sounds like Shibuya-kei. The other thing is how far the bar has dropped: J-Pop is so domestically-oriented and incestual that we’re breathless when someone adds something vaguely Skrillex to the mix. We should not forget that Shibuya-kei was not just “Western music made by Japanese people” — it was obscure Western music made by Japanese people.

Shibuya-kei’s Quiet Comeback / Devon FISHER
With the scene having been kept on life support for most of the last decade, it seemed unlikely that the once-trendy sounds of Shibuya-kei would ever be making a comeback. But with Tower Records in Shibuya affecting a revival through their own T-Palette Records label, Shibuya-kei artists who had long since gotten used to irrelevance are making surprise appearances on the pop charts — penning songs for idol groups such as Negicco, granted, but nothing’s perfect. Old standbys such as Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter came out with albums this year, the former marking 15 years since the group’s previous full-length. A new generation of musicians are seeking credibility through posing with Maki Nomiya for instagram selfies, Yasuharu Konishi has his own idol group with the model duo Nananon, and little by little the best thing about Japanese music in the ’90s seems poised to reclaim its former glory. Perhaps Cornelius might even start writing “songs” again.


Manga of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
Unita Yumi’s Aomiyuku Yuki 2 (「青みゆく雪」, 宇仁田ゆみ) is the long-awaited second (and final) volume of a story she began serializing in 2009. The title is an untranslatable pun on the names of the two lead characters, college students Sei (青) and Yukiko (雪子). Sei is the best and most honest representation of an adult learner of Japanese language that I’ve ever seen in a comic book. Instead of stereotypical tics or katakana “desu”s, Unita gives him a genuine, recognizable L2 Japanese of his own. Volume One ended with a cliffhanger: Can love overcome a language boundary? Volume Two adds an intra-Japonic twist to this question and then stands back and lets the characters sort it all out.

Old-Timey Album of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
I’m not going to make any claims for its status as great art, but I didn’t run across another album all year that was as much fun to listen to as “Nee kōfun shicha iya yo”: Shōwa ero-kayō zenshū 1928-1932 (『ねえ興奮しちゃいやよ』 昭和エロ歌謡全集 1928~32), a compilation of “ero[tic] kayō” from the early Showa period. Erotic march enthusiasts especially will want to pick this one up, as it includes not only the “Ero March” but also the “Ero-ero March.”


Popular Reference Work of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
Kinsui Satoshi (金水敏) has been working the yakuwari-go 役割語 (“role language”) beat for more than a decade now, exploring why fiction is full of old professors calling themselves washi and rich young women exclaiming yokutte yo even though no-one has said those things in real life for decades. The Kinsui-edited Yakuwari-go shōjiten 〈役割語〉小辞典 (“A small dictionary of role language”) is aimed squarely at a general audience, and as such, offers only very brief summaries of the sociolinguistics of gonsu, batten and the like, but this also allows it to fit in more citations from fiction and manga.

The End of Gyaru Magazines / W. David MARX
Last year I admitted being wrong about a “permanent gyaru dominance” in fashion. Japan’s famously gaudy women have been slowly disappearing from Shibuya, or more likely, showing up in front of 109 in completely reasonable clothing. This year, the End of Gyaru became conventional wisdom with the closing of core publications egg, Koakuma Ageha, and BLENDA.

The demise of the first two came after the publishers ran into major financial trouble. BLENDA, on the other hand, is part of more established Kadokawa Haruki, but even it went away. One can imagine that the decline of actual gyaru has gutted the advertising budgets of gyaru-targeting businesses. International luxury brands have to advertise somewhere, so the existence of LVMH guarantees that there will always be a Spur or Brutus. But subcultural magazines live and die by the health by the smaller scale businesses that cater to them. They go down with the whole ecosystem.

That being said, magazines are not necessarily required for youth culture anymore, especially for the so-called “delinquent subcultures.” The gyaru are no longer in Shibuya, but they’re out there. After merging with yankii in the late 1990s, the gyaru style is primarily a provincial one, and we can imagine strong gyaru communities, heavy make-up, and bright pink, crystal-studded tracksuits outside of the capital. And maybe things are not as dire as they look: Koakuma Ageha is coming back. Japan’s thousands of kyabajō still need style guidance.


Comme des Garçons and Frozen / Team NÉOJAPONISME
A few weeks ago, Sam Byford of The Verge tweeted this photo of Comme des Garçons’ Aoyama flagship store — with illustrations of Elsa and Anna on the window — and asked, “ummm what has happened to comme des garcons.” Yes, Kawakubo Rei’s fiercely avant-garde brand has made a Frozen collection. From the nicest, least critical, “Hey, Adrian, let’s stay friends!” perspective, CdG does these kinds of collaborations all the time with mass market brands — H&M, Speedo, Nike, Fred Perry, The Beatles, Star Wars. But Frozen? Is Kawakubo Rei trying to prove that she can place a halo of coolness on anything in the entire world? For 2015, we hope that Comme des Garçons the company — once a paragon of experimental apparel — can locate some more inspirational standards in collaboration partners. The world does not need Hypebeast pages on CdG x Duck Dynasty, CdG x AXE Body Spray, CdG x Maeda Atsuko, CdG x Liberal Democratic Party, etc., etc….


Azuma Hiroki Goes Global / Brett FUJIOKA
In the world of Japanese criticism, Azuma Hiroki’s new book, General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google, received an English translation. The book takes a look at the ways social media could potentially reshape (or rethink) modern democracy in the near future. In Japanese, Azuma published another book on a similar subject matter — “Dark Tourism.” The work received air time on Japanese television and attracted attention from video game developer Hideo Kojima.

December 29, 2014

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

Murakami Haruki's Advertorial Short Stories

Daniel Morales and W. David Marx look at a series of lesser-known short stories from famed Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki, written as part of advertising campaigns from Ivy League clothier J. Press and pen company Parker.

The J. Press Stories

In 1974, Tokyo-based apparel giant Onward Kashiyama licensed the traditional American gentleman’s brand J. Press for the Japanese market. In the U.S., J. Press was well-known as a campus retailer for the Ivy League and its graduates on Madison Avenue, but in Japan, Onward took the brand to the masses, opening J. Press corners in dozens of department stores across the country. Upon its entry to Japan, the brand quickly became a favorite of Baby Boomers who had grown up on Ivy League style in the mid-1960s and still wanted to wear tweeds, oxford-cloth button down shirts, and khaki pants as adults. J. Press did well in Japan, and in 1986, right smack in the Bubble Economy, Onward bought the American company outright.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Onward spent massive sums on advertising J. Press in the print media. The classic ad format, often seen on the back cover of lifestyle magazine Popeye, showed a Japanese or American man telling a colorful story about their favorite trad clothing item. In 1985, as Japanese pop culture went in more avant-garde directions, Onward came up with a new idea — asking up-and-coming novelist Murakami Haruki to write a very short story inside each month’s advertisement for magazines Popeye, Box, and Men’s Club.

At this point, Murakami was working as a full-time writer, having abandoned his Sendagaya jazz bar four years earlier. He enjoyed a respectable readership but had yet to achieve the society-wide fame he would with Norwegian Wood from September 1987. In 1985, he was best known for his unique tendency to include elements of magic realism in his fiction and for his many references to Western pop culture — the Beach Boys, Kant, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Miles Davis, and in many instances, American fashion. As Sam Anderson of the New York Times noted about Murakami’s debut Hear the Wind Sing, “In just 130 pages, the book manages to reference a thorough cross-section of Western culture: ‘Lassie,’ ‘The Mickey Mouse Club,’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ ‘California Girls,’ Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the French director Roger Vadim, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, the cartoon bird Woodstock, Sam Peckinpah and Peter, Paul and Mary. That’s just a partial list, and the book contains (at least in its English translation) not a single reference to a work of Japanese art in any medium.” Drawing on this vast knowledge of imported consumer products and media, Murakami also wrote movie reviews and essays for magazines such as Men’s Club, Brutus, and marie claire Japon.

Onward approached Murakami about the J. Press ads through writer, editor, and legendary game designer Itoi Shigesato. According to Murakami’s afterword in Yoru no Kumozaru (『夜のくもざる』), the collected edition of the works, he was given license to write whatever he wanted. “Just have fun with it,” Itoi told him. So once a month from April 1985 to February 1987, Murakami wrote a “short short” (短い短編), which was set on its own page with an illustration by famed artist Anzai Mizumaru at the top and a small J. Press logo in the lower left corner.

The J. Press Stories (translations are by Morales unless otherwise noted):

1. Apr 1985 – “Hotel Lobby Oysters” 「ホテルのロビー牡蠣」
2. May 1985 – “The Party” 「”THE PARTY”」
3. Jun 1985 – “Elephant” 「象」
4. Jul 1985 – “Picnic” 「ピクニック」
5. Sep 1985 – “French Horn” 「ホルン」
6. Nov 1985 – “Pencil Sharpener (Or Watanabe Noboru as Fate)”「鉛筆削り (あるいは幸運としての渡辺昇)」(translation Jay Rubin)
7. Dec 1985 – “Julio Iglesias” 「フリオ・イグレシアス」
8. Jan 1986 – “Time Machine (Or Watanabe Noboru as Fate Part 2)” 「タイム・マシーン (あるいは幸運としての渡辺昇 ②)」(translation Jay Rubin)
9. Mar 1986 – “Croquette” 「コロッケ」
10. Apr 1986 – “Cards” 「トランプ」(translation Jay Rubin)
11. May 1986 – “Newspaper” 「新聞」
12. Jun 1986 – “Donut-ization” 「ドーナツ化」
13. Jul 1986 – “Antithesis”「アンチテーゼ」
14. Sep 1986 – “Eel”「うなぎ」
15. Oct 1986 – “Takayama Noriko and My Libido”「高山典子さんと僕の性欲」
16. Nov 1986 – “Octopus”「タコ」
17. Dec 1986 – “Wrench”「スパナ」(translation Jay Rubin)
18. Jan 1987 – “Donuts, Again” 「ドーナツ、再び」
19. Feb 1987 – “Attack of the Mushikubo Old Guy”「虫窪老人の襲撃」

The stories are light, fun, and at times, absurd. In “Eel,” a woman named Kasahara May (a name readers may recognize from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle) calls the narrator in the middle of the night to ask for his help getting rid of ants. Having been woken from a pleasant dream, the narrator is angry to eventually learn that she has dialed the wrong number. Even within such a short work, Murakami is able to address his major themes and images: miscommunication, telephones, unfulfilled desires, and strange young women. For the most part, the stories are very funny: In “Julio Iglesias,” the only thing that will ward off a giant sea turtle is Julio Iglesias’ painful rendition of “Begin the Beguine.”

The stories can also be read as a precursor to the recently popular “flash fiction” or “nano-fiction” genres. As is the case with many stories in this style, Murakami uses striking first lines to provoke reader interest. “Antithesis” begins, “I finally received a postcard from my uncle who we hadn’t heard a word from ever since he went off antithesis hunting in Borneo last September.”

Murakami made no attempt to plug J. Press products in the stories, nor does he talk about “traditional” America. The works read as vignettes he would have likely written anyway. Yet Murakami still fit perfectly within the J. Press milieu: He grew up on Ivy League apparel as a Baby Boomer, wrote the occasional essay for trad bible Men’s Club, and used clothing as an integral way to illustrate modern Tokyo in his fiction. For example, at the end of his 1985 novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the narrator discovers that he has a day left to live and decides to go to a famous American clothier to get spiffed up before a date. Alfred Birnbaum’s English translation of the novel reads:

I took the subway to Ginza and bought a new set of clothes at Paul Stuart, paying the bill with American Express. I looked at myself in the mirror. Not bad. The combination of the navy blazer with burnt orange shirt did smack of yuppie ad exec, but better that than troglodyte. (342)

Birnbaum’s rendering of the passage glosses over the more detailed descriptions Murakami used in the Japanese original. Here is a translation of the full passage:

First, I took the train to Ginza and bought a shirt, a tie, and a blazer at Paul Stuart, paying for it with my American Express. I put it all on and looked at myself in the mirror. Not bad. I was a little worried that the center creases in my olive chinos had started to fade, but I guess not everything had to be perfect. And the combination of the navy blue flannel blazer and burnt orange shirt did make me look a little like a young employee at an advertising firm. But at least I didn’t look like someone who’d just been crawling around in the sewer and only had 21 hours left before he disappeared from the world.

With this discerning eye on Western fashion, Murakami would have likely been very happy to do ads for J. Press. He was already drawing from classic American brands to aestheticize his fiction and provide a curated lifestyle for readers.

Meanwhile Onward chose Murakami as a way to demonstrate the brand’s own taste. Onward’s J. Press was a Japanese version of American classics — just like Murakami, who often sounded like Japan’s answer to Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler, and Raymond Carver. In the last two decades, Murakami has tried to mature beyond being a “stylish” writer by delving into deeper, darker topics, but he was certainly a seamless fit with the broader consumer culture in the mid-1980s.

The Parker Pen Stories

In 1987, Murakami became a celebrity when Norwegian Wood sold 3.5 million copies in just over a year [1]. He had always been free to write what he wanted — so much so that he took off to Europe for three years where he wrote Norwegian Wood and a few of the J. Press short shorts — but now he could afford to be very choosy with his projects.

Despite this newfound fame, Murakami returned to the “short short” exercise six years after J. Press, wanting a “change of pace” from longer works. He schemed with Anzai to find a new sponsor who would let them do another series. They eventually received support from Parker fountain pens and got on their way. This next batch of short shorts appeared from April 1993 to March 1995 in Parker ads inside glossy magazine Taiyō.

The titles alone make it clear that Murakami was aiming to match the spirit of the original series.

1. Apr 1993 – “The Spider Monkey Comes at Night” 「夜のくもざる」(translation Jay Rubin)
2. May 1993 – “An Ad for a Jazz Cafe That Was in Kokubunji Long Ago” 「ずっと昔に国分寺にあったジャズ喫茶のための広告」
3. Jun 1993 – “The World Where Horses Sell Tickets” 「馬が切符を売っている世界」
4. Jul 1993 – “Bangkok Surprise” 「バンコック・サプライズ」
5. Aug 1993 – “Beer” 「ビール」
6. Sep 1993 – “Proverbs” 「ことわざ」
7. Oct 1993 – “Structuralism” 「構造主義」
8. Nov 1993 – “Answering Machine” 「留守番電話」
9. Dec 1993 – “Stockings” 「ストッキング」
10. Jan 1994 – “Bright Red Poppies” 「真っ赤な芥子」
11. Feb 1994 – “Reading Horse” 「読書馬」
12. Mar 1994 – “Grated Daikon” 「大根おろし」
13. Apr 1994 – “The Zoo” 「動物園」
14. May 1994 – “Mr. India” 「インド屋さん」
15. Jun 1994 – “Under the Roof” 「天井裏」
16. Jul 1994 – “Good News” 「グッド・ニュース」(translation Rubin)
17. Aug 1994 – “Mosho Mosho” 「もしょもしょ」
18. Sep 1994 – “Lying Nicole” 「嘘つきニコル」
19. Oct 1994 – “The Efficient Stilter” 「能率のいい竹馬」
20. Nov 1994 – “Correspondence” 「往復書簡」
21. Dec 1994 – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” 「激しい雨が降ろうとしている」
22. Jan 1995 – “A World Without Love” 「愛なき世界」
23. Feb 1995 – “Steam Whistle at Night, Or the Utility of Stories” 「夜中の汽笛について、あるいは物語の効用について」
24. Mar 1995 – “Final Message” 「最後の挨拶」

This time, the stories were included in the magazine’s index as integral texts, elevated beyond mere ad copy. They also came with the series title “Murakami Asahidō” (Murakami’s House of the Rising Sun) — a general title translator Jay Rubin has noted that Murakami used for lighter works he wrote alongside major novels [2].

As much as Murakami marks off these advertorial short shorts, a tension between art and commerce remains. We can best understand this odd intersection of literature and advertising in two ways. First, these stories are a literary expression of the more general nationwide obsession with foreign fashion and culture seen in magazines Men’s Club, Popeye, and Brutus. Second, they are a clear example of the accelerating complexity of mid-1980s Japanese pop culture — when shopping malls like Seibu and PARCO used post-modern philosophers, conceptual artists, and oblique copy to sell product to ever more sophisticated masses. Murakami was embraced by the same frenzied mass audience that made Asada Akira’s Structure and Power an improbable best seller.

Murakami played with this zeitgeist in the actual works. In “Structuralism” from the Parker pen series, the narrator writes to an unnamed recipient, “Don’t ask me anything about structuralism either. There is nothing I can tell you about structuralism.” This may be as concise a summary of Murakami’s work as there ever has been: While Murakami offers up pop culture references, he is at the same time distancing himself from the selections of others.

In the midst of endless Nobel speculation, Murakami’s literary legacy continues to be debated and refined. Readers remain sharply divided between seeing Murakami’s work as intelligent pop fiction or important national treasure. His advertorial short stories offer support for both positions: They can be taken as further evidence of his comfort within the marketplace, or as an artist locating a new creative space deep inside the pop culture sphere. What is beyond doubt is that Murakami achieved complete separation from the tortured jun-bungaku “pure literature” writers who preceded him. His career has been very much his own.

[1] Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. 160
[2] Ibid. 144

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at howtojaponese.com.

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.