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Tag: Japanese culture (Page 3 of 3)

Hagezumi (HESO Magazine)

Tattoo You – Japanese Ink

Hagezumi (HESO Magazine)


Tattoos leave an impact, both literally and figurative. People are as drawn to them as they are repelled by them. In this dichotomy, the world of tattoos has either been pulled behind a veil, as in the case of Japan, or it has taken its own shirt off for all to see. Whether you have one (or several) or none, there is no denying that tattoos capture the imaginations of those who admire them, those who are disturbed by them, and those who wear them. By scratching the surface of their conflicted history in Japan, we may come closer to appreciating their austere beauty and their contextual importance. Hopefully, we may also unravel the taboo surrounding them.

Japanese Ink

Tattooing has been practiced worldwide and may date as far back as Paleolithic times. It wasn’t until the Edo Period in Japan, however, that the Japanese tattoo truly came into being. Ukiyo-e, the art of Japanese wood block printing from which Japanese tattoos originate, emerged during this period. Ukiyo-e tried to capture the “floating world” or the fleeting and ephemera pleasures of life. It represented a time when art was becoming accessible to the working class. In this way, tattoos were one of the first forms of art which were more widely accessible to the public. During the Edo Period, the heroic persona of the samurai began to wane. Corruption within the ruling class grew, as did the popularity of Ukiyo-e. An emerging Ukiyo-e artist of the time, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, made an artistic breakthrough by popularizing musha-e (warrior portraits). Using Japanese pictorials, he conceptualized the heroes of the Chinese classic, Suikoden. His heroes were decorated with tattoos of evocative images including dragons, tigers, cherry blossoms and fish.

Kuniyoshi’s depictions paid tribute to increasingly forgotten heroes of Japan’s feudal history, as well as their animal personifications. The images of valor and fortitude, discipline and patience illustrated in these Suikoden prints galvanized not only the warrior figure but also the tattoo itself. Edo citizenry were instantly drawn to those heroes and many went so far as to pledge themselves to their legacies by way of tattoo. Those who chose to adorn their skin with these images–the vast majority of them working class carpenters, laborers, and firefighters–hoped to embody the forgotten values. In fact, Edo firefighter brigades were comprised mostly of tattooed men who, on occasion, would strip down and strike menacing poses when confronting a blaze. They did so not only to dazzle rival brigades, but also to embody the courage of the samurai. Sometimes they sought to invoke the speed, agility and ferocity of the tiger, or the all-powerful dragon, which was said to live in both air and water and symbolically protect the wearer from death.

As people increasingly criticized the government for its alleged corruption, these warrior images fortified the growing belief that a restoration of the moral codes of years past was not only desirable but imperative. At a time when the government was attempting to instill strict Confucianism, Ukiyo-e and the tattoos they inspired represented a threat to the ruling class. They unsurprisingly outlawed both the pictures and the tattoos at various times for various lengths. Tattoos were further stigmatized when the government began using them as irezumi (criminal tattoos) to brand convicts. Compounded with the frequent bans, tattoos began to carry less of their heroic symbolism. Horimono (artistic tattoos) and their artists went underground where they have remained, relatively elusive and entirely private, until recently. Impeding wider acceptance, Japanese tattoos became an informal part of the Yakuza initiation process in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, in their various incarnations Japanese tattoos have persisted in the national imagination while being admired all over the world for their dramatic images, poetic and forbidding beauty, and attention to detail. Japanese influences in the western tattoo can be found as far back as the mid 1960s when famous tattoo artists like Ed Hardy hoped to elevate western tattoos to the aesthetic stature of the Japanese tradition. In turn the popularity and brazenness of the western tattoo has helped to legitimize the historical significance and unparalleled exquisiteness found in the Japanese tattoo. Tattoos continue to be an object of both veneration and contempt. Their popularity has gained momentum and their place in society has become ever more visible and pertinent. Whether you think highly of them, or have endured the pain of one, one thing is for certain; tattoos are here to stay…permanently.

Japan - Country of Beauty

Japan – Country of Beauty

Japan - Country of Beauty
The title of this article is stolen from a concurrently running Exhibition of ancient Japanese masterpieces depicting the Land of the Rising Sun in an infallible way and, what’s more, via these centuries old scrolls, kimono and woodblocks, implies that Japan is still this same country of beauty. Long having rested on their laurels stemming from remnants of a once-great culture, the time is ripe for a true exposition of what works of art this country truly offers. Don’t get me wrong: I like Japan. Mostly. Sumo is good. Hanabi is good. Mt. Fuji is good. What I don’t like is the trash that comes as a result of vast numbers of people partaking in these events. Gomi. ゴミ。Trash. The by-product of human consumption. The leftovers of human creation. And more often than not the subconscious impetus behind creation as well. Oft times we unconsciously endeavor to create merely to have something remaining, something leftover, though for what? In the name of commerce? These leftovers which fill a niche we will never fully consume nor comprehend, yet which were dredged from the giving earth regardless, are caught up in our own egotistical march-to-death-obsession: bake, process and bury, repeat.

This useless, shiny dross which will only see the likes of the trashheap, possibly processed into a landfill mass only serving to bankrupt the next megatroplis more (like the Osaka International Airport, Kobe’s Rokko and Tokyo’s Odaiba islands have so efficiently done), merely perpetuates the cycle of waste.

Yes, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe, as well as 45 of the 47 prefectures in Japan, are bankrupt, relying upon never-ending federal subsidies to continue feeding the monster: pre-existing construction plans for bigger, better, and yes, trashier community centers, national landmarks and, of course, more pachinko parlors – all in the middle of nowhere – have to be carried out. Japan is a 土建国家 (doken kokka), that is to say a “construction state”, which since the plentiful 60’s, has dedicated itself and its loyal citizens to the addiction of consumerism and all its side-effects. Here’s to national goals attained. Now what’s next?

The aftermath of the economic “glory days” are what the following generations have to deal with, for good or ill. The slag from a frighteningly powerful postwar economy, largely built on faith and approaching carrying capacity (which on an island of 12% total arability is not much) is mounting. The damage done during the renaissance 60’s, the free and easy 70’s and the gluttonous 80’s is hardly reversible, but who could know that at the time, right? We’re not mind-readers, I mean, who would know that roughly 50% of the population is allergic to Japanese cedar 杉 (sugi) causing one of the worst hay fever seasons worldwide? Or that the pine/maple/bamboo clear-cutting, cedar-planting industry has been in the red since its implementation in the 60’s? All for what, わりばし (chopsticks)? Hindsight being 20/20, one might think 3 decades of denial would be sufficient to stem the tide of an obviously bad idea, but admissions of error come hard here, so we prattle along, hoping, praying really, it all doesn’t collapse beneath us.

Japan – Country of Beauty

Collapse from beneath may not be the biggest worry. Take the Wajiro tidal-flat in Hakata Bay, a wetland of internationally recognized importance. Located at a fork in major bird thoroughfare the shallows are considered an essential nursery for fish, shell beds and are critical to the process of natural purification of the Bay’s waters. The construction of an artificial island (and implementation of Tetrapods along 60% of Fukuoka’s coastline) in 1995 increased pollution in the bay and proliferated sea laver, which unnaturally covered the Wajiro tidal-flat. The numbers of waterfowl and benthos immediately decreased and dead shellfish rose dramatically, due to red tides and asphyxiation from decomposed laver and dredging from the construction site. All this is obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of science, or common sense and yet the monitoring committee claims the construction site has had no impact whatsoever on the environment. There is currently no system of reviewing public works here, so construction companies (The numbers in 2000 were roughly 12% of the nation being employed in construction: 15 million people in a country roughly the size of Britain) getting fat upon heavy government subsidies don’t fear any sort of reprisal, and in fact, are guaranteed continued subsidies due to the deeply corrupt system of bid-rigging employed by the Ministry of Construction.

The keyword is corruption: The un-elected Zaibatsu, 15-20 of the richest corporate men behind the LDP in Japan, not-so-gently coerce decisions in the Diet “the way they should be”, by shelling money out for projects which will generally show no return, save to keep the wheels greased. The way ex-police officers receive large commissions as relatively useless figureheads in the Pachinko Industry after retirement, thus guaranteeing the Yakuza safety and enabling the monopoly of the illegal gambling industry to thrive. The extortion racket here is the largest in the world, with yakuza practicing そかいや (sokaiya), the method of legally purchasing corporate shares, attending meetings and making an ass out of yourself until the shareholders agree to pay you an outrageous sum of money. The connections are endless:

Zaibatsu, the Diet, Ministry of Construction, Yakuza, Pachinko, Uyoku, Burakumin, organ-legging, human-trafficking, soaplands, Kogyaru, snack bars, yatai, Salarymen, shareholders, you and me.

In other, less overtly legal-loophole, ways, governmental policies strengthen the economy by encouraging consumption. Japanese manufacturers of TV sets do not store parts of older models, forcing consumers to buy newer ones instead of having the old set repaired. Packaging habits are worse, but spread the wealth around more. Cookies are packed individually in cellophane, then put in a plastic box, put into a cardboard decorated box, wrapped once or twice, and then put in a carrier bag. More packaging = more trash = more industry = more spending. Containers and packages account for 60% of garbage volume. The lack of trashcans in public areas implies citizens are supposed to carry home any refuse they may generate in the city though this, of course, does not happen. So, in order to facilitate “proper” disposal and recycling of waste, Tokyo’s garbage laws require the segregation of garbage into eight categories, each into its own color-coordinated flammable bag (often from Indonesia-providing a huge profit to the importers). Rigid restrictions for a government with such liberal leanings regarding industrial waste.

Heavily dependent on industry, economic growth has always been of greater concern than environmental preservation. The number of pollution-related problems caused by industries have been increasing dangerously since the 50’s. Widespread air pollution was caused by the overuse of coal, while the furious output of the textile, paper and pulp industries contributed to horrendous water pollution. In the period of rapid growth directly following WWII the following isolated cases coalesced into a national crisis, making Japan one of the most polluted countries in the world. These instances are literally too numerous to list, but here are a few: Tokyo alone generates 10% of the 50 million tons of garbage produced in Japan (excluding the 367 million tons of industrial waste produced in 1996). Tokyo’s biggest trash dump (a floating island created in 1972) is full up.

  • The mercury-dumping Chisso Corporation of Kumamoto’s Minamata Bay infamy spawning its own disease.
  • Nippon Steel’s dredging of 350,000 cubic meters of contaminated silt in Dokai Bay (Kitakyushu) where propellers of ships using the bay didn’t rust away, they melted.
  • The leaking of rainwater into nuclear waste storage pits in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture which the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. (PNC) knew about. All the fish were contaminated with organic tin, BHC and DDT.
  • High levels of cancer-causing dioxin in the blood of Ibaraki Prefecture residents living near a garbage incineration plant.
  • In Suginami, a Tokyo suburb housing a plastic-waste compacting plant, officials discovered more than 90 toxic substances around the site, including dioxin.
  • Hinodecho, a suburban Tokyo village turned dump had garbage trucks bringing 1.2 million tons of garbage and industrial waste every day. The cancer rate jumped 400%.


While there are no future plans to stop most waste stations due to cost management, there are plans to support some Asian nations financially in order to build incinerators allowing Japan to export more garbage to places like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. One such incinerator built by NKK is capable of dealing with 140 tons/day, though according to the Thai government, the incinerator generates about 70 tons of its own refuse a day.

Beyond 1,000,000 chopsticks and 80,000,000 newspapers a day, dioxin in the groundwater, BSE in Hokkaido, landfill islands, tetrapods, 2500 Dams and counting, concreted riverbeds, above-ground telephone lines, gas at $4.18 a gallon and the other multifarious bureaucratic disasters facing this country, what of the probably bigger problem, that of the ever-burgeoning societal refuse? The impalpable flotsam and jetsam of the biggest per-capita consumer society, the same one which once gave the world the four tenets of Shinto: Tradition and the family, Love of nature, Physical cleanliness and Matsuri, わびさび (wabisabi), the Zen aesthetic of earthy imperfection and 武士道 (bushido), the samurai code of chivalry, and now gives us the likes of ブッカケ (bukkake), the ubiquitous chikan, and what Ryu Murakami (Coin Locker Babies, Almost Transparent Blue) calls in a recent essay, the ひききのもり (hikikinomori). These “socially withdrawn people find it extremely painful to communicate with the outside world, and thus they turn to the tools that bring virtual reality into their closed rooms. Japan, on the other hand, must face reality itself. The country has to accept that World War II ended long ago-and so did the glory days of national restoration and economic growth.”

The current power base of Japan seems oblivious to the obvious state of things, that or the odd individual, always unpopular here, remains unwilling to take a very lonely stand. What it comes down to is a question of an economic mentality. The post WWII Japanese had it, because they had nothing, forced to scratch out livings on handfuls of maggoty rice, chaff and their wits, while the わがもの (wagamono) don’t have it. The majority of Japan’s youth, long engendered on a slothful consumerism, have renounced hard work for fashion, or rather the fad of now, the future be damned, choosing part-time jobs over fulltime obeisance. The education system, high schools especially, is finding it hard to keep apace with the frothing tide of apathetic teens, still employing 19th century Russian methods of uniformity while implementing codes echoing US zero-tolerance policy in vain hopes of stemming the coming tsunami of “socially withdrawn” individuals, among which number the yakuza-in-training ぼそ族 (bosozoku), the superfluous ヤンキイ (yanki) as well as other minor チンピラ (chinpira), who proliferate modern-day youth culture.

Again, don’t get me wrong, something, some kind of wa, makes me dig this country, despite its problems, be it the reverence of a still, though waning, extant Bushido culture, the easy-going affability of modern day monks or damn it, just the hot girls, but what remains is the ineffable something which makes me want to point out, Japan’s shortcomings rather than her strong points, to fight for the future, which may seem ominous, though the one thing which this nation has going for it is an abnormally strong sense of perseverance. This atypical island culture’s ability to continue on in the diffusing light of complete destruction continues to amaze and flabbergast many across the globe. While sickening in its own way, there is a strange attraction to the slick neon sex glow with its rivers of rice wine and tenuously twitching raw fish floating toward the asbestos-rich sunset. No matter the rubbish piles heaping on the periphery, nor the stench of the once freely flowing river, at the crossroads of slothful self-destruction there will always be a stool at the local ramen stand, a clearing amidst the clearly mounting rubble, where you can sit, slurp your pig bone broth down, toss your disposables and head off to the soapland for a little R&R. See you there.

Junkspace by Rem Koolhas

Junkspace by Rem Koolhaas

Japan has, at least since the 1980’s, been associated with the future. Ridley Scott based the set of his sci-fi classic Blade Runner partly on Osaka. Likewise, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (and a number of his other novels), the book that popularized the term cyberspace along with the cyberpunk genre, was set in partly in Tokyo. Both artists appreciated the hyper-consumerist, apocalyptic atmosphere saturating those cities. The overflow of concrete facades fixed with neon lights screaming shop names at potential customers crowding the streets: millions of ants swarming a discarded six-pack of coke. Those artists, and many others, recognized that testament to ugliness, concrete, and shopping, as a sublime message from the future.

In the last 150 years Japan has undergone two periods of dislocating, rapid modernization. The arrival of Commodore Perry and the Meiji Era, during which the culture received “a near-lethal dose of futurity” from the West; and the period starting with the end of WWII, when it received a very lethal dose of atom bomb, was occupied by America, and then rebuilt itself into an economic superpower. Modernizing, like farting, is an invisible verb noticeable only by the nouns it produces. You hear something (maybe), smell something (definitely), and only know what happened afterward. With modernization the evidence is much more varied but usually no less offensive.

Junkspace by Rem Koolhaas

Rem Koolhaas Content (HESO Magazine)

Rem Koolhaas Content

So what is this evidence? One term, coined by architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas, is junkspace. Koolhaas, who is currently building a 230 meter anti-skyscraper headquarters for China’s state television, first came onto the radar in the 1970’s with his book Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto. Since then he’s published three books filled with quirky data, ill displays of Photoshop prowess, and influential essays. His latest book, Content, published in 2004, contains a 7,500 word, unparagraphed essay that would make John D’Agata drool, where Koolhaas explains what modernization sounds and smells like. He calls it junkspace.

The series of acerbic epigrams that constitutes the essay describes junkspace as, in the abstract sense, “what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout;” and in the concrete sense, as a shopping mall, the “product of air conditioning and escalators.” The connect-the-dots feel of the prose is loose enough that one can apply it with equal ease to America (the fat, slovenly, fast food-loving superpower that invented the modern shopping mall), the emirate of Dubai (the oil-drunk, Arab dictatorship that builds islands in the shape of starfish and malls containing ski slopes), and Japan (inventor of karaoke).

The calculus of junkspace has as some of its variables: the host country’s size, population, GNP, rate of modernization, and length of time since modernization began. In the case of America these factors resulted in a “country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Arizona and New Mexico, for example, look as if the settlers, right after slaughtering the Native Americans, erected tombstones for them stretching out to the horizon in the form of cookie-cutter gated communities and strip-malls. Only a truly modern sensibility could have produced this architectural sequence: Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Greenway, Costco, McDonald’s, Barnes & Noble, Wal-mart, Greenway, Costco, Starbucks, Starbucks, Wal-mart, McDonald’s, etc., ad infinitum, a capitalist Pi in three dimensions.

Japanese Junkspace is a tacky stew of vending machines, hair salons, love hotels, karaoke equipment and pachinko parlors in a coagulate of gray concrete. Click To Tweet

Japan’s variables have different values, which have naturally led to a quite different expression. Japan’s population is about half that of America’s, at a still large 125 million. Those people are squeezed into a basically unarable landmass roughly the size of California. The start and the rate of modernization, which have already been mentioned, are both tied to getting nuked. The resultant late (compared to the West), violent, rapid modernization spawned a junkspace so rabid it is consuming all artifacts of the traditional culture (except the unrepentant male chauvinism and blatant xenophobia which are a part of so many traditional cultures). The vector of junkspace in Japan follows the trajectory of the toilet’s evolution: from squat to space age.

Junkspace by Rem Koolhas

Sake Vending Machine in Kyoto

Japanese Junkspace is a tacky stew of vending machines, hair salons, love hotels, karaoke equipment and pachinko parlors in a “coagulate” of gray concrete. Vending machines that propagate the banalities of Japanese culture: “Samuidesune! Nanmaekiteruno?” before dispensing liter-bottles of cheap gin. Elaborate Disneyland or Christmas-themed love hotels: Dress like Mickey Mouse! Fuck while crucified! Vending machines that provide white button-down shirts and power ties to salarymen who drink bottles of shochu, puke on themselves, sleep in parks. The depressing odor of stale cigarettes and old people filling multi-story, baroque buildings dedicated to the most vulgar, degenerate activities—playing pachinko. Karaoke bars with dragons or giant crabs moulded to their façades, full of people that think they’re participating in a legitimate social activity. Electronics stores that sell VHS tapes, DVDs, and memory cards, all featuring “School Girl Rape 13 with Bukkake.” The sculptural hairstyles of hostesses, the mini-skirts of schoolgirls—both of which defy the known laws of physics. The phalanxes of “freeters” that march the streets, arms at acute angles, bearing the weight of dozens of shopping bags stuffed with designer goods. Love hotels renting video cameras that feed into closed-circuit TV systems. The millions of kilowatts of electricity used to make a street full of ramen shops, low-end love hotels, hair salons, and talking vending machines, shine brighter than Times Square. Going to the only cornball club in town and meeting a nurse, a dental assistant, an OL, and an elderly-care worker, and having them all say that their hobby is shopping. Taking them to love hotels and dressing them in a rented schoolgirl uniforms; double-penetrating with the Hello Kitty vibrator and the Pokemon anal-beads, torturing with the Moomin nipple-clamps, capturing it all with the keitai’s 45 second movie feature. Junior high school students burning through their ennui by using their arms as ashtrays. Elementary school students stabbing each other with scissors. The generic skyscrapers like Fukuoka Tower, erected solely—as the publisher of this magazine put it—to sell postcards to vulgar tourists. Schoolgirls prostituting themselves to crusty salarymen in order to pay phone bills. Gullible perverts buying schoolgirls’ used underwear on keitai auctions. And so on…Until?

Anyone who has watched or read sci-fi knows that the Future is a shitty place. The corollary to this is that, since the Future is always the Now, it is always going to be kind of shitty. When we look at the Future as represented in art, it seems appallingly shitty because of all the unfamiliar junkspace depicted. This is what is meant by “future shock.” We need time to acclimate to new forms of it. To inoculate against the Future, we need maximum exposure to its weakened form, the Now. Junkspace is the “residue” of what in the West was once called Progress. It is as natural for humans to Progress as it is for them to fart; similarly, sometimes the results are funny, other times offensive, occasionally they are dangerous. Our racial instinct is an express train speeding us towards some exciting destination, and our car is populated with farting salarymen and ass-grabbing chikan. Make the best of it. Breathe deep and grab yourself some ass—you can’t get off the train.

Japan’s Drug Problem

After nuking Japan, the Americans, in order to protect Japanese society from the dangers of marijuana, passed the Hemp Control Act in 1948. A few years later Japan experienced the first methamphetamine epidemic in the world. During the 1950s, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, approximately 30,000 people each year were arrested in connection with speed. Things have calmed down since then. But speed is still the number one illicit drug of choice in Japan, and its use is once again rising among young people.There are an estimated 1-2 million users of speed in Japan. That’s equivalent, percentage-wise, to the number of coke-sniffers and crack fiends in America. While amphetamines were first synthesized in Germany, it was the Japanese, in 1919, who brought us methamphetamine, a more potent close chemical cousin, and the more popular form today. Sold in the 1920s and 30s mainly as a nasal decongestant, speed became a crucial weapon during World War II. The Americans, the British, the Germans (including Hitler, who is rumored to have shot it up daily), and the Japanese all fed it to their soldiers like a vitamin.

The Japanese, especially, used it extensively at this time, giving it to soldiers, sailors, pilots (it’s been reported that high doses helped the kamikaze be courageous), truckers, factory workers — whoever could help the war effort. To supply this demand (or maybe, to create it) the government cranked out speed copiously. After the war the Japanese people, devastated and hungry, comforted themselves with the large surplus. Realizing that methamphetamine abuse was becoming a problem, in 1951 the government passed a law making it illegal. Unfortunately, this only attracted the yakuza, who have controlled the distribution ever since.

Japan’s Drug Problem

Japan's Drug Problem

Welcome to the Big Smoke

The epidemic lasted until 1955 when it peaked with around 55,000 people arrested and up to 2 million regular users. Japan has since had waves of widespread speed use, in the late 60s to early 70s, and the late 90s till now, which has seen the largest confiscations in history. Clearly, speed has tweaked the interest of the Japanese. And given the structure of society, this is not so surprising. Typically, a student faces long hours at school regurgitating information to their teachers like a bird feeding its young. Then four more hours at juku (cram school) to prepare for high pressure entrance exams. The life of a sarariman (businessman) adheres to the same pattern of marathon gambarimasu (doing your damndest)ing. The appeal of speed is obvious.

The second most popular illicit drug for young Japanese is inhalants—‘huffing’ paint thinner or glue fumes. In the States it’s stereotypically associated with trailer park trash. This is hard evidence that the youth has abandoned Japan’s traditional emphasis on aesthetics. But as tasteless (and dangerous) as huffing is, the only drug that kills on a massive scale (12 percent of all deaths in Japan) is the obvious one—tobacco. At 300 yen a pack, and available in vending machines every five feet along the street, cigarettes can easily be had by any teenager. So, while methamphetamine (which can be dangerous) and marijuana (which almost never is) are vilified, Japan’s youth is given easy, cheap access to the most addictive, most toxic drug on Earth.

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