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Tag: Yakuza

Interview with Mac McCaughan

Interview with Mac McCaughan

the focus should be on the records and the bands as opposed to the label. Click To Tweet

Superchunk is Mac McCaughan (guitar, vocals), Jim Wilbur (guitar, backing vocals), Jon Wurster (drums, backing vocals), and Laura Ballance (bass, backing vocals). Since releasing their first 7-inch in 1989 out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, McCaughan and Ballance co-founded Merge Records, and the rest is history, literally documented in Our Noise – The Story of Merge Records. “The Indie label that got big and stayed small” has been perfectly placed to serve the niche indie rock scene as it grew into itself throughout the 90s and became something the mainstream music industry has tried so hard to co-opt, yet failed to deliver the kind of personalized service that labels like Sub-pop, K Records, Matador, 4AD, Saddle Creek, Kill Rock Stars, among others, alongside Merge, have been able to provide those artists who prefer to play in theaters and clubs rather than arenas. Everything changed when Merge signed Arcade Fire, for the better of the cottage label industry. After having playing with Superchunk for more than a decade, the band took a break and McCaughan picked up with his solo project Portastatic, as well as recording various film soundtracks, all the while running Merge. But in 2009, they rebanded to record I Hate Music. HESO caught up with the Superchunk during their live show at Fandango in Osaka.

Interview with Mac McCaughan

Interview with Mac McCaughan

Guitarist Mac McCaughan interview at Superchunk Live in Osaka

HESO Magazine: How many times have you toured Japan?

Mac McCaughan: Three times, but they’re all spaced apart. The first time was in 1992, then 2001, and now eight years later here we are again.

HM: So you could say you have an interesting perspective on the country. 1992 was the end of the “Bubble” period and now eighteen years later, do you feel that it is completely different?

MM: Well, I do find it much easier to get around (Osaka) without speaking Japanese, but the map I bought today at 7-11 is pretty useless.

HM: This particular area, Umeda, is well known as a nightlife area. You’re staying at this hotel because it’s thirty seconds from the club (Fandango), but a quick walk around here will show that this is probably the only hotel that doesn’t charge by the hour.

MM: Yeah, this area is a bit…um, why are there hotels even here?

HM: This area, yeah, well, most businesses are involved with the Yakuza, loosely affiliated or directly run by them: this place is all Pachinko and Massage parlors, sex shows and Ramen shops. This economic recession doesn’t just affect normal working folks, but black markets too and well, even the Yakuza are feeling the crunch these days. Don’t even ask how live houses are staying in business.

MM: Do music fans, people who go clubbing go out of their way to find places to go?

HM: In order for Fandango to get a full house, they probably need a band the likes of Superchunk to play. The show will be packed.

MM: What about local bands?

HM: It’s definitely harder for them. The live house system in Japan is rigorous and strictly defined kind of paternal patronage. A local promoter (probably in a band) puts three or four roughly similar bands together on one bill and then each band must sell X number of tickets, the money for which they are responsible. So if you don’t sell you tickets, i.e. can’t get your girlfriend’s friends to come to the show, you have to buy them yourself. Play often and you will find out just how expensive this can be. What do you charge to get into your show in North Carolina?

MM: Usually around $15.

HM: Here it ¥6500. That’s almost 350 percent markup. So these fans really love you. As a musician who is also a label owner, are you noticing anything in particular these days?

MM: It’s true that the industry as a whole is not doing great. In some ways it could be an overall lowering of expectations. We’ve had a couple really good years, but one just hopes that the trend of people continuing to buy our kind of music doesn’t go off a cliff. And that it settles in, maybe less than it used to be, but still enough to support bands that were never planning on and don’t need to sell a million records to survive.

Superchunk Live in Osaka

Merge Records 20th anniversary

HM: When you started Merge all those years ago, wasn’t Superchunk’s first album with Matador?

MM: We released a couple singles on Merge before that, but initially we started the label to promote other local bands. We couldn’t really afford to put an entire album out then. By the time our contract ran out with Matador, Merge was then big enough to put out albums, so we signed with ourselves.

HM: Did Matador’s merging with Atlantic affect your decision at all?

MM: When they went with Atlantic, we wouldn’t have had to sign to them, we would have still been on Matador. If Merge was still tiny at that time maybe we would’ve just kept it separate. Merge was doing well and it just seemed to make sense. Why wouldn’t we be on our own label if we could?

HM: Was that a purely business decision or was that more in keeping with the independent ethos of the time?

MM: I think it was both. I don’t think we would have done it if it didn’t make sense from a business standpoint. If it would have meant that no one could find our records or press them, then no. It all just made sense.

The challenge for record labels is to create music fans. Music fans will pay for music. Click To Tweet

HM: Looking at your discography shows us that Superchunk has released eight albums, seven Portastatic, plus a sizable amount of compilations and soundtracks. A lot of them were simultaneous too. The window of time from 1994-1999 is prolific in terms of sheer output. How were you managing to run a label while recording multiple albums and promoting artists,?

MM: The label wasn’t as big, in terms of how many releases per year and artists we have, as it is now. At that time the Superchunk albums were still the biggest releases we were doing. There was no Arcade Fire. We were touring a lot, but we recorded really quickly. Then in my spare time I would do the Portastatic stuff on my own.

HM: Did you record the Portastatic albums at a studio at home?

MM: More like in my bedroom (Laughs). Well, half were at home and half were at Duck Kee Studios, in someone else’s house with a sixteen track recorder, where we did the first Superchunk record. It was a matter of keeping busy because, well, we didn’t really have anything else to do. No kids or anything yet, so that’s what I was doing.

HM: I guess that’s the ideal situation an independent artist can hope for. Sort of like Coke deciding to buy a bottling plant and bottle their own product, consolidating production.

MM: Right. Exactly.

Superchunk Live in Osaka

Guitarist Mac McCaughan tunes up for soundcheck at Superchunk Live in Osaka

HM: You had bands like Polvo, Lambchop and the Karl Hendricks Trio, but who was the first band bigger than Superchunk?

MM: The first record that sold more than Superchunk was 69 Love Songs and then another record that came out around that time, but didn’t really sell that much at first was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea. It took a while to get going, but it has sold a lot now. Those were the first albums bigger than Superchunk and it all happened at a good time. Superchunk was slowing down in terms of not touring that much and so it made sense for us to spend more time at the label anyway, as these records required more of our energy.

HM: Was that something that you had expected or hoped for?

MM: We didn’t really expect it. We knew that people would like 69 Love Songs, but none of Stephin Merritt’s albums have sold that many before and the fact that it was a three-cd set…

HM: Seems kind of like marketing suicide.

MM: Right. We knew it would get attention because of the novelty of it, but then it really took off and we just got really lucky with it.

HM: I was introduced to your bands a long time before I put it together that Merge was you and Laura Ballance.

MM: That’s one thing we didn’t do as much in the same way that say Sub Pop did, or Matador even, which is market Merge as a separate thing from the bands. Which to us made sense, because the focus should be on the records and the bands as opposed to the label.

HM: Now looking at the list of artists you represent, there are some pretty big names there. Was it the success of Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel that allowed you to sign, say, Spoon?

MM: We signed Spoon after they had been dropped by Electra, kind of a low point, so they weren’t really all that “big” at that time.

HM: Do you think it’s more a fact of wanting to be a part of a successful label that is run by fellow artists?

MM: Yes, especially if you are a band like Spoon that got dropped from a major label, which made them want to go to the opposite end of the spectrum.

Superchunk Live in OsakaHM: In Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small there’s a quote about East River Pipe’s Fred Cornog, “The guy in an orange smock at Home Depo is also the guy who gets profiled in New York Magazine and writes exquisitely crafted songs that have touched thousands of lives and will live on long after he is gone is like the regular-guy-can-make-music-too ethic in Lambchop. Probably the best argument there is for what makes Merge special.” This goes against every big business model out there. How many employees are you?

MM: We’ve gotten slightly bigger over the years. Now we have fourteen people at Merge. That’s the dichotomy at work: in order to put out an album by that band that’s getting bigger you have to spend more and more money. We tend to work with people who are making records because that’s what they do and they would be doing that whether they get really big like Spoon or whether they don’t even want to tour like Fred Cornog and East River Pipe. They would probably still doing these recordings whether it’s at home or in a studio.

HM: Similar to the infamous Lambchop U.S. bust of a tour Merge put together in an effort to give the fans a chance to hear them how they are meant to be heard. Why does that kind of artistry often go overlooked in the U.S.?

MM: Right, like when they tour Europe with strings and play to sold out crowds in fancy theaters and no one shows up in the U.S. I don’t really know how to explain it. If I did we could prevent that from happening.

HM: What do you think of a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah who don’t have a label and became big via word of mouth from Myspace and Pitchfork, basically using the internet, being able to sell their albums in the Tokyo HMV for $23, the same as any other artist?

MM: When they decided to go it alone with their second album, it was newsworthy because no one had really done that before, but to me it’s just not that interesting. I like the idea of labels. I like the idea of Matador and K Records having a kind of character unto itself. Even though they represent all these different bands, they have their own vibe. That’s more interesting to me than a distribution deal. I don’t feel like if I was in a band and I was putting out my own record which was going straight to this distributor that was also distributing hundreds, thousands of other records every year, I wouldn’t feel that my record was going to get the attention it deserves, that it would get from a label that had signed us because they wanted to put out our record. That’s not exciting to me a music fan at all.

HM: I recently saw an Ian Mackay interview in which he says, “…American business at this point is really about developing an idea, making it profitable, selling it while it’s profitable and then getting out or diversifying. It’s just about sucking everything up. My idea was: Enjoy baking, sell your bread, people like it, sell more. Keep the bakery going because you’re making good food and people are happy. Dischord really does exist as a result of hard work and the goodwill of the people.” How do you envision the future of Merge?

MM: I can’t say what’s going to happen in ten years. One of the reasons we still exist is because we never really tried to predict what was going to happen.

HM: Can we talk about your blog? Obviously you are into music, but hockey? How did that come about?

MM: In 1980 when I was a kid growing up in Florida we got cable for the first time and I found ESPN, who didn’t have any contracts with major sports except for hockey and Australian Rules Football, so I watched hockey all the time. What really got me into it was the when the U.S. Team won the gold in the 1980 Olympics. I didn’t think much about it again until North Carolina got an NHL team in 1997 and then I got back into it. We won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06.

HM: Back to Superchunk. Is this a “reunion tour”? Are you putting together an album?

MM: This is the beginning of the new album. We have six new songs so far and it’ll be an album eventually. We have to do it in spurts, because our drummer John is on tour with the Mountain Goats, Bob Mould and some other people. It’s an ongoing thing. I don’t think there’ll be another Portastatic album for a while, although I’ve been recording various other material. I just did an album of Merge covers for our 20th Anniversary box. Then I did the score for a short film by the artist Andrea Zittel which is in the box set. I’ve been doing a lot of recording like that and right now Superchunk is the priority.

HM: It’s interesting to note that after the Superchunk hiatus started in 2002, Portastatic really picks up compared to before: four albums, B-sides retrospective, two soundtracks, live scores even (The Unknown at the Seattle Film Festival – live score to 1927 Tod Browning silent film and Page of Madness at the SF Film Festival – live score to 1927 Japanese film director Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film). How was that?

Superchunk Live in Osaka

Guitarist Mac McCaughan sings at Superchunk Live in Osaka

MM: Those were great, a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work for just one performance, but very cool.

HM: I remember quite vividly when The Nature of Sap came out, as it happened to directly coincide with the getting together and the breaking up of my ex-girlfriend and I, so thank you and screw you at the same time.

MM: Ha, thanks! (Laughs)

HM: That album is a definite shift from straightforward guitar-fueled Superchunk type songs. Then when Superchunk went into hibernation, and you released, for example, Bright Ideas, it’s extremely pop type guitar-rocks ditties. It’s not just a one-man group anymore. Do you have a rotating membership in Portastatic?

MM: Kind of. When we do shows as a band, a lot of times it’s with Jim (Wilbur from Superchunk), my brother playing drums, a guy named Zeke has played drums before, and Margaret White plays violin, but she lives in New York, so sometimes we have done some shows without her, like last fall when Some Small History came out, it was me, Jim & Ivan from the Rosebuds playing drums. We kind of just put things together as we can.

HM: What about your testimony on The Future of Radio, mainly speaking about the importance of low-power, non-commercial, and college radio, the need for diversity in an age of media consolidation, and the importance of net neutrality.

MM: That was for the Congressional Commerce committee put together by the Future of Music Coalition, which is essentially a pact with a lobby group for artists’ rights in the digital age. I got involved with the F.O.M. through Jenny Toomey from Simple Machines and got to go before Congress to testify.

HM: I’m a fan of Bill Moyers who has taken media consolidation to heart. The idea that huge media corporations can simultaneously own television, radio and print media companies became quite loosely regulated under the previous president’s administration. Obama has already reversed Bush’s pro-corporate stance.

MM: Yes, that is a dangerous possibility. But whenever republicans try to strip away public funding for stations like PBS, everyone always cries out, “You can’t cancel Sesame Street!” Where else is there programming without commercials? But the U.S. has always been like that. Whereas in Europe there are publicly funded rock clubs. Culture seems to be much more appreciated there.

HM: As a musician running their own label, which puts out physical products (CDs, LPs, T-shirts, etc.) what do you envision for the future of the digital age?

MM: I think that the challenge for record labels is to create music fans. Music fans will pay for music. If you’re a fan and you’re interested in the artist who are making the music, then you understand that you need to support that. I think it helps to have a physical product involved because people feel more of a connection with something when they buy it, take it home, listen to it, look at the cover, read the lyrics, that kind of thing. I personally feel much more of a connection to something I can hold in my hands rather than something that is just a file on a computer. Either way there is the role of the label, which is to work to promote artists and to be a filter for people who are looking for music. I can’t predict the future and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think it’s important for us and other labels like us to get the music out there in the way that fans want, whether it’s a vinyl LP or an MP3 download. Though I personally don’t think that mp3 downloads sound good.

Check out the full gallery of Superchunk’s Live show at Fandango in Osaka.

Superchunk Discography

  • Superchunk (Matador, 1990)
  • No Pocky for Kitty (Matador, 1991)
  • On the Mouth (Matador, 1993)
  • Foolish (Merge, 1994)
  • Here’s Where the Strings Come In (Merge, 1995)
  • Indoor Living (Merge, 1997)
  • Come Pick Me Up (Merge, 1999)
  • Here’s to Shutting Up (Merge, 2001)

Portastatic Discography

  • I Hope Your Heart Is Not Brittle (Merge, 1994)
  • Slow Note From a Sinking Ship (Merge, 1995)
  • The Nature of Sap (Merge, 1997)
  • Summer of the Shark (Merge, 2003)
  • Bright Ideas (Merge, 2005)
  • Be Still Please (Merge, 2006)
  • Some Small History (Merge, 2008)

Film Scores

  • Looking For Leonard (Merge, 2001)
  • Who Loves the Sun (Merge, 2006)
  • The Unknown at the Seattle Film Festival (live score to 1927 Tod Browning silent film)
  • Page of Madness at the SF Film Festival (live score to 1927 Japanese film director Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film)

Superchunk Live at Fandango in Osaka

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.

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