May 21, 2017

Hisho's Birds (1)


I've posted chapter 1 of "Hisho's Birds."

The magpie belongs to the corvidae (crow) family. These particular birds would be Eurasian magpies ("believed to be one of the most intelligent of all non-human animals").


The nengou dating system begins with an era name devised specifically for the reign of that emperor and counts the ascension of the emperor as year one. The era name of Emperor Hirohito's reign (1926-1989) is Shouwa ("shining peace"). The current era name is Heisei ("peace everywhere").

In Youko's case, the era name is Sekiraku (lit. "red" + "Rakushun"). This story begins in the "seventh year and seventh month of Yosei," which is the era name of Empress Yo. The end of one era overlaps with the beginning of the next. Showa 64 was Heisei 1, and Yosei 7 would also be Sekiraku 1.

To make things even more confusing, the posthumous name of an empress is often different from her given name. Empress Yo's given name was Jokaku.

Skeet is trapshooting in which clay pigeons are thrown in such a way as to simulate the angles of flight of birds. The targets are also know as "clays." In skeet shooting they are disc-shaped and don't look at all like birds. Here I'm using "skeet" to refer to the clay targets themselves.

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May 18, 2017

Hisho's Birds


I'll start posting chapters next week (more or less regularly, I hope). I'm doing this translation independent of o6asan, but feel free to compare and contrast (the legal vocabulary in "Rakusho no Goku" is proving particularly vexing), or jump ahead if you get impatient.

First up is the title story. "Hisho's Birds" is about a creative person working under a looming deadline, so one has to wonder about the extent to which the protagonist's ruminations reflect those of the author.

As the story begins, Hisho has a bad case of artist's block. He produces an important imperial ceremony held on auspicious occasions, like the winter solstice and the ascension of a new empress. He's an innovator with a reputation for outdoing himself but the inspiration just isn't coming.

Which is understandable, considering the state of affairs in the Kingdom of Kei. "Pressure" takes on a whole new meaning when a capricious emperor could have him executed. To make matters worse, a string of short-lived rulers hollowed out his department and left him with a long fallow period.

Hisho has another problem. He wants to deliver a message with his art. But the spectators only see the spectacle (or the lack thereof), not what he's trying to say. On top of everything else, Kei just got a brand new empress. Hisho's been ordered to produce the next ceremony on a tight schedule.

Even if he can settle on the message, he has to figure out how to deliver it with the resources on hand. For Hisho and his loyal assistant, it's a make or break opportunity.

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May 11, 2017

No objection


As I described last week, police in Japanese crime dramas rarely go barging into the domicile of a suspect. Because the doors are built like bank vaults. It's easier to ask the landlord to come up with a key. If not, the police will respect demands for a search warrant.

They just don't have to try very hard to get one. The familiar Law & Order scene of lawyers arguing in front of a judge for a search warrant is one you simply do not see in Japanese police procedurals. Nor anybody arguing after the fact about its validity.

This article in the Japan Times covers the subject pretty well. "Stop and frisk" is allowed whenever the police have "reasonable cause" to suspect the person has committed or is about to commit a crime.

The phrase "crimes about to be committed" allows the police to list "vigilance against possible crimes" as the main excuse for pulling people aside, effectively giving them a way to justify the routine in nearly every situation. The police are not legally bound to explain what the "reasonable cause" for suspicion was.

Yet another reason prosecutors in Japan enjoy a 99 percent conviction rate.

Hero is a whodunit series about Tokyo ADAs. During questioning (after the arrest and before allocution), there is almost never a lawyer present. They can do all the questioning they want. Defendants never get bail, even for petty crimes. The issue doesn't come up.

Or consider the series Emergency Interrogation Room. It essentially takes Vincent D'Onofrio's interrogation scenes from Law & Order: Criminal Intent and expands them to fill most of each episode.


On the Law & Order "realism" scale (meaning "realistic" for a television police procedural), Criminal Intent isn't very. It might better be described as the "Worst Defense Lawyers Ever" show.

But, hey, "realism" in popular entertainment is way overrated. I just want my disbelief suspended, and D'Onofrio usually carries it off. D'Onofrio's Goren would be right at home in Emergency Interrogation Room. He wouldn't have to worry about lawyers at all.

The "emergency" in Emergency Interrogation Room is analogous to the "major" in "major case squad" in Criminal Intent. And this particular interrogation room is tricked out like the one Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) employs in Lie to Me. So not very "realistic."

Except that suspects step into Dr. Lightman's interrogation room voluntarily. Whether they are there as witnesses or suspects, it is highly unlikely the interviewees in Emergency Interrogation Room will have a lawyer with them. And, sadly enough, that is realistic.

But here's the unrealistic thing about Emergency Interrogation Room and most crime dramas set in Japan: the entire country would have a hard time filling the police blotter with serious felonies in a year as fast as the average American city does in a week.

On the other hand, that's never stopped our British cousins from producing highly entertaining crime series. Death in Paradise is a prime example of Chicago-style murder rates in a Caribbean resort town (which must pose a real PR real headache for the tourism board).

The advantage of these sleepy settings with selectively high crime rates is that they constrain the supply of red herrings. As we can assume our detectives are not corrupt and will do things mostly "by the book," every crime gets turned into a locked room mystery.

Japanese cops do things by the book. It's just that the book isn't as thick in the same places. Or can be missing entire chapters.

Hence the paradox that Japanese law enforcement is both draconian in terms of respect for due process (confessions extracted under dubious circumstances are especially problematic) and surprisingly lenient when it comes to prosecution and sentencing.

Except when it comes to the death sentence, which is still carried out and which hardly anybody in Japan gets upset about. (In Fuyumi Ono's latest Twelve Kingdoms short story collection, she devotes a novella to a debate about the death penalty.)

Related posts

Unregistered
Kicking down the door

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May 04, 2017

Kicking down the door


An entertaining way to do comparative analyses of contemporary cultures is to examine popular fiction genres in terms of the Venn diagrams. The areas of overlap point to stories that have a wide appeal, that can be lifted out of one culture and easily repurposed in another.

Such as The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Or literally crossing time and space, The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars.

As in Great Britain, the murder rate in Japan is minuscule. But you'd never know it from the whodunits and police procedurals in books and on TV. Even though, on a per-capita basis, Japan has one-tenth as many lawyers as the U.S., lawyer shows abound on Japanese television too.

Galileo and Numbers, Mr. Brain and Bones, Columbo and Partners, Hero and Blue Bloods (the Erin Reagan arcs) compare pretty well.

Why dress up? Our heroic ADA makes one court appearance in this series.

What doesn't match up is revealing in interesting ways. To start with, far fewer lawyer shows in Japan are courtroom dramas. They are more likely to depict lawyers doing lawyerly things like interviewing suspects and negotiating for their clients (with greatly elevated stakes, of course).

Cops in Japan don't usually carry guns unless they have reason to believe that the bad guys are armed too. Which is rare. The bad guys most likely to be packing heat are the yakuza, and the yakuza are usually smart enough to get rid of the guns before the cops show up.

The yakuza are also smart enough to mostly shoot each other. A show with a heavily-armed cast like The Bow-wow Detective is telling the audience not to take it very seriously (if the the title doesn't do that already).

But here's a more subtle one: kicking down doors. Cops in Japan don't kick down doors. Or kick them open either.

The typical front door in Japan opens out. When entering a house or apartment, you step into the genkan and then step up to access the rest of the house. Space being at a premium, there'd be no place for everybody to stand while removing their shoes if the door swung in.

Kicking the door would simply force it tighter against the jam. And you see that door closer? Residential doors need them. They're that heavy.

Even if doors opened in, most wouldn't be kickable. The door to my pretty typical middle-class apartment in Port Town had a thick steel frame and was mounted in reinforced concrete. In other words, if the door doesn't have breakable glass panels (apartment doors don't), bring along a battering ram.

Or better yet, a gas-powered diamond-tipped circular saw--standard equipment in fire trucks.

So what do cops do? Have the superintendent unlock the door. And unless they're in hot pursuit, they'll leave their shoes in the genkan too.

Related posts

Unregistered
No objection

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April 27, 2017

Cleanliness is next to Japaneseness


Cleanliness is deeply embedded in the culture and religions of Japan. After all if "baptism" can wash away your sins, then rinse and repeat! Westerners have also noted this fact for as long as westerners have visited Japan.

In Shogun, James Clavell has his 16th century protagonist John Blackthorne (based on the real Will Adams) point it out. A few centuries later, in the mid-19th century, U.S. Consul Townsend Harris observed that "Everyone bathes every day."

Though that they did it all together in a public bath (sentou) alarmed him.

The sentou goes back a millennia. The hot spring resort (onsen) has been around for even longer. Not a few can claim that a "famous person bathed here." A private bath (o-furo) for the working man is more recent. When families could afford a gas-fired one after the war, it was a big deal.


The shower, by contrast, is a modern import. In the sentou, you soap up and rinse off with buckets of water. Outside the tub! Because you wash yourself first before getting into the tub! This is important! The tub water is for soaking, not for washing.

The bathing-at-night thing (anime and manga fans will have noted this) developed because that's when you went to the sentou. Cleaning the baths and firing up the boilers once took all day. You could spot a sentou a mile away because of the smokestacks (in a residential neighborhood).

The old-school home o-furo was a square tub with a water heater directly attached. The tub was the tank. Even today, apartments with western-style (tank) water heaters are rare. Fill the o-furo (with cold tap water), turn it on, and come back in thirty minutes.


When I lived in Osaka, the hot running water in the kitchen ran off the o-furo heater, but you couldn't shower and run the hot water at the same time. Point-of-use tankless water heaters remain ubiquitous.

Again, the bath itself is not for washing (well, except in Spirited Away, when it's required to purify a polluted river spirit) but for soaking and relaxing.

Showers are more popular now, and have taken over the wash & rinse duties. Budget o-furo are still made out of molded plastic, but as Japan has gotten wealthier, they are more and more resembling western bathtubs.

More home baths means fewer public baths. The number of sentou in Tokyo has declined from 2000 to 600 in the past 30 years. And yet ryokan and hot springs resorts have never been more popular.


Even the staid NHK doesn't shy from onsen travelogues featuring naked kids and naked butts (male only, sumo having made the male butt an inconsequential sight; on camera, women sport white bath towels).

Related posts

The public bath
Onsen
When in Rome (or Japan)

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April 20, 2017

Peater Pan


The clever name for a chain of bakeries in Japan brings up the etymology of perhaps the oldest non-Chinese "loan word" in Japanese.


Wikipedia states that though seemingly derived from the Spanish pan or the French pain, the Japanese word for "bread" was introduced into Japan by Portuguese traders and missionaries in the mid-16th century.

The mistaken etymology is understandable, as the word is pronounced the same in Spanish and Japanese, while it takes a bit of phonetic drift to get from pão to pan.

On the other hand, the Jesuit Francis Xavier hailed from Navarre. Later known as the "Apostle of Japan," he was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. He too might have hurried along the adoption of pan.

In a very roundabout way, the word has now made it from the West to the East and back to the West as panko (パン粉), which combines pan with the kanji for flour.

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April 13, 2017

Tokyo South (2017 edition)


The trade paperback is now available, as are the ePub and Kindle ebooks. You can also read the novel online.

Along with a new cover, I've revised the Introduction to better reflect several significant policy changes to the program since I was a missionary in Japan. It wasn't a topic I wanted to delve into too deeply in the book so I will here.

Going back half a century or so, here's how how I interpret the evolution of the program (feel free to revise and extend).

Stage I. Mine was one of last cohorts of the legacy system. This was the "Every Young Man Should Serve a Mission" era. (As for the young women, well, if you still hadn't gotten hitched by twenty-one, then sure. But why haven't you gotten hitched?)

In the late 1970s, the church's PR efforts hit Madison Avenue and sociologists started paying serious attention to the church's growth numbers. These studies famously culminated in Rodney Stark's 1984 calculation of a 64 million to 267 million growth in membership over the next century.

Ah, here was "independent" confirmation of the inevitable Mormon hegemony, cementing Mormonism's "fastest growing religion" status (an error that continues to this day). Buoyed by these dubious statistical projections, church leaders convinced themselves they were going to convert the world.

Except the numbers Stark and others were using in their models came from the church itself. The public membership numbers the church publishes each year don't count butts in pews. They're derived from open-ended accounting methods based the accumulation of unexpired membership records.

The truth is way out there.
In other words, you could get baptized, never attend church again, and still contribute to the Mormon membership totals until you reached a hypothetical maximum life expectancy and were deemed statistically dead.

In fact, the church does count how many butts are in the pews every Sunday. Otherwise it'd end up building chapels that sat empty and unused. But like Fox Mulder, they want to believe. And like the Cigarette Smoking Man, they keep the numbers that matter close to the vest.

In any case, wishful thinking eventually ran into the brick wall of reality. To start with, consider the workforce. The more they stressed the hard sell, the more missionaries figured out how to game the system.

Stage II. As these get-big-quick schemes began imploding in missions like Tokyo South, the church decided that not enough young men were serving missions. And it cost too much. The answer was to match mission lengths for men and women at eighteen months.

Mission financing was taken over by the church and quasi-socialized (and then tweaked to preserve the tax incentives) so everybody faced the same up-front costs.

Sounds good in theory. Except a whole lot of twenty-year-olds were more than happy to take a six-month discount on "the two best years." The church was suddenly faced with the challenge of keeping the spiritual sales force intact during its most productive period (the last six months).

That idea was deep-sixed. The cost-sharing measures were preserved.

Stage III. Instead of greasing the skids, maybe it was time to borrow from those Marines Corps ads: "The few, the proud." Raise standards. Toughen requirements. Quality over quantity. Missionaries were an elite group, not the hoi polloi.

But once again, too many kids decided that this was good excuse to give the whole ordeal a pass. Especially when dealing with theological cannon fodder, there's strength in numbers. Quantity matters more than quality (because you're never going to have that much quality).

Stage IV. In the meantime, the cruel world was intruding all over the place. Years of cultural diplomacy with China never paid off, delivering a blow to the multi-level marketing strategy I was taught in the MTC. (Seriously, with a few script changes, it could have been turned into any sales pitch.)

The convert-the-world true believers no longer believed quite so much, accepting the stark reality that, in real terms, church membership growth tracks closely to the natural rate. By "natural" I mean the birds and the bees. Mormon boy meets Mormon girl and a bunch of Mormon kids result.

Behind the scenes, the number crunchers at church headquarters were doing (more accurate) butts-in-pews analyses that pointed to a strong correlation between "served a mission" and "shows up in church on Sunday."

That meant maximizing the number of Mormon kids going on missions, which had the best odds of turning them into Mormon adults. It didn't matter if they converted anybody on their mission as long as they converted themselves (think of it as an institutionalized sunk cost fallacy in action).

It was time to grease the skids again, but with a different set of variables. Knock one year off the start date for men, two years for women. The guys wouldn't have to red-shirt their freshman year and women wouldn't be taking themselves out of the college (BYU) dating market.

Plus, an eighteen-year-old is that much more susceptible to peer group pressure. What are you gonna do straight out of high school? Answer: go on a mission. What joining the military used to be.

This time it looks like they got it right. So far, the new program has been hugely successful. Pay no attention to the slumping conversion rates. Missionaries now spend less time proselytizing and more time trying to be useful. It's turned into the Mormon Peace Corps.

Frankly, that's what the missionary program should have been all along.

Related posts

The truth is worse
Tokyo South is alive
How it all got started
The weirdest two years

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April 06, 2017

Disappearing acts


At the beginning of Singing in the Rain, Debbie Reynolds gets "discovered" by Gene Kelly. By the end of the movie, we're assured they're going to be a star-biz romance thing on and off the screen. The perfect Hollywood happily-ever-after story.

In Japan, the opposite thing happens on a fairly regular basis.

I'm not talking about the A Star is Born paradigm, where half of the couple crashes and burns as the other rises to fame and fortune. Rather, I'm referring to Japanese actresses (usually but not always actresses) who retire at the height of their box office appeal.

The latest entry in this category is Maki Horikita. She's cute as a button and has built an impressive resume, with two-dozen television series under her belt and that many film credits.


She did an excellent job in Ume-chan Sensei and the Always: Sunset on Third Street trilogy. Her most recent starring role was as a psychic detective in Whispers from a Crime Scene (2016). And at all of 28, married and with her first child, she's bowing out. Not simply taking a breather but formally retiring (for now, at least).

"I have become a mother and am now living a happy life with my loving family," the 28-year-old said in a message on her website. "I will do my utmost to preserve this warm and irreplaceable happiness."

This is not a new trend.

In 1967, Mie Hama appeared aside Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice. She had been in almost 70 movies before getting her big international break. At five-foot five, she was taller than many of her co-stars, but was a good match for the six-foot two Connery.


But that was her last big box office role (and not because of the leading man; she says that, off screen, Connery was the consummate gentleman). As the New York Times recently recounted,

A few years later, she walked out of her contract with the Japanese studio Toho to marry and raise a family, telling dumbfounded executives that she wanted "a normal life." She remained a celebrity in Japan but completely revamped her public image, becoming a television and radio host, an advocate for preserving old farms and farming techniques, a connoisseur of folk art and the author of 14 books--on child-rearing, manners and self-discovery--that have proven enormously popular among women.

Like Mie Hama, in a few years or ten, I expect that Maki Horikita will remake her career in a similarly lower key and productive manner. Which strikes me as a completely rational thing to do, though a great many simply can't cognitively process the concept.

Now, quitting show biz to climb up the social ladder--like Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan--is seen as a smart career move, a Hollywood happily-ever-after with a second act. But abandoning the public eye has come to be portrayed as borderline crazy.

Greta Garbo is better remembered for telling the world, "I want to be alone," than for any of the movies she made prior to retiring at the age of 35, after acting in twenty-eight films.

(The famous quote attributed to her is actually a line from Grand Hotel, but she had earlier stated in a Photoplay interview, "I have wanted to be alone. I detest crowds, don't like many people.")

The latest case in point concerns fitness guru Richard Simmons, who apparently decided he was tired of being famous (and fit). This decision is seen as so perverse that it took three hours of reportage to conclude that, naw, he just wants to be left alone. As Ann Althouse concludes,

I think Richard Simmons put immense energy and emotion into playing the character he inhabited in public. He decided the show was over for whatever personal reasons he had, and he's gone private. That's his point: He's private now, and his reasons are private. Accept it!

The prize for "accepting it" certainly goes to Victor Mature (1913-1999).

(Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.)
Mature was a top Hollywood talent for two decades, only taking time off during WWII to do a stint in the Coast Guard (after being turned down by the Navy). But then he abruptly retired in 1961, declaring, "I'm not an actor and I've got sixty-four films to prove it!"

He appeared in a handful of movies during the four decades that followed, often in roles that parodied his own reputation, such as playing "The Big Victor" in a compilation movie about the Monkees.

I was never that crazy about acting. I had a compulsion to earn money, not to act. So I worked as an actor until I could afford to retire. I wanted to quit while I could still enjoy life. I like to loaf. Everyone told me I would go crazy or die if I quit working. Yeah? Well what a lovely way to die.

Ah, finally a Hollywood star whose example I can one day hope to emulate.

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March 30, 2017

Unregistered


In her New York Post review, Maureen Callahan describes The Vanished: The "Evaporated People" of Japan (by Léna Mauger and Stéphane Remael) as a compilation of "The chilling stories behind Japan's evaporating people." Sounds dramatic. A little more dramatic than reality.

I seriously doubt that proportionally more Japanese go off the grid than Americans. It's just weird when Japanese do it because, well, Japan is weird to start with and the Japanese are so methodical about such things. Even the homeless in Japan are remarkably organized about being homeless.

What makes Japan different is the ease with which one can "evaporate." As Callahan explains,

There is no national database for missing people in Japan. There are no documents or identifiers--such as our Social Security numbers--that can be used to track a person once they begin traveling within the country. It is against the law for police to access ATM transactions or financial records.

It all goes back to the koseki (戸籍) system.

As in the United States, identity in Japan is based on the birth record. But in Japan, a "birth record" is derived from the centuries-old (though revised and modernized) koseki system, according to which the life events of every citizen are recorded in a genealogical account attached to the household.

It is a pragmatic system whose sheer pragmatism has made it ruthlessly resistant to social change. The married surname controversy has become emblematic of the whole matter, with Japanese courts ruling that, under current law, a married couple must share the same surname.

While sexual mores have kept apace with the times, "illegitimacy" in Japan is treated very much the way it was back in the 1950s. Again, a large part of this is the koseki, which requires that a child be registered to legally exist. The koseki "made every Japanese family an open book."

So a "cover up" could come back to haunt you. Somebody would find out eventually. And that makes for a great plot device.

In The Art of Memory by Sakumi Yoshino (no English version that I'm aware of), the protagonist discovers she has a long-lost brother when she gets a copy of her koseki in order to apply for a passport.

The mistaken paternity in From Up on Poppy Hill arises from registering the child of a deceased friend in order to erase his "orphan" status. By doing so, Umi's father could legally give his "son" up for adoption. But that made it look like Umi and Shun were half-siblings.

The identity theft loopholes documented by Miyuki Miyabe in her mystery novel All She Was Worth have largely been addressed (only in 2008). And yet the koseki continues to reflect the idealized structure of Japanese society, which defined the individual's identity in relationship to the household.

Break that relationship and you can legally cease to exist. That's why "evaporating" works so well. And why skipping out on your debts continues to be a realistic plot device in Japanese melodramas.

In Ma're, when the dad hauls his family off to the Noto Penisula (literally on the other side of Japan) to escape a looming bankruptcy, there's be no way a credit bureau could track him down unless he told it. Because until only the last decade, the koseki was the credit bureau.

Think of the household as a corporation. Injury to any part of it injures the whole. This is why venture capital remains a mostly foreign concept in Japan. Nobody wants to invest in ten companies knowing that nine will go bankrupt, and nobody wants to be the nine either.

Regardless of the potential upside, the social risk is too great.

But at least when it comes to personal identity, a sea change is coming, though it is a rising tide, not a tidal wave. The Japanese government has gotten serious about the "My Number" system, the equivalent of a Social Security number.

(It's an official Japanese government website so of course it sports a cute bunny mascot.)

That's right, up to very recently, the notion of a single number that followed you everywhere simply didn't exist in Japan. Once it is fully implemented, it should make identify fraud more difficult. But then it will also make possible Social Security number fraud. Welcome to our world.

Related posts

The Mormon "koseki" problem
The koseki system in The Twelve Kingdoms

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March 23, 2017

Goldfish scooping


In Japan, the lowly carp is king. Koi (鯉), a subspecies of the common carp, emerged in the early 19th century. Rather the same way kennel clubs became all the rage during the Victorian era, koi ponds stocked with ornamental breeds of domesticated carp became a mark of upper-class refinement, like a well-groomed poodle.


The goldfish, now considered its own species separate from carp, actually has a longer lineage, having arrived in Japan from China three centuries earlier. In the 16th century, goldfish were also introduced to Europe from China via Portugal, but didn't arrive in the U.S. until the mid-1800s.

For the Edo period samurai, breeding goldfish was the aristocratic thing to do. A contemporaneous comparison might be the tulip mania that gripped Holland in the early 1600s (minus the bubble economics). The koi pond in Japanese historical dramas is a bit anachronistic; the fish in those ponds likely would have been goldfish.

As with flowers and dogs and cats, the breeding of exotic goldfish still has its devotees.

But the common goldfish, a direct descendant of the Prussian carp, is thriving as well. And not just those that fend for themselves after being tossed into the nearest river or lake, or survive the gauntlet of the municipal sewer system.

Japan's fondness for fish is not confined to looking at them, but catching and eating them in great quantities. Goldfish don't generally fall into the edible category (your cat might beg to differ), but they can be caught. This brings us to a truly odd carnival "sport": "goldfish scooping" (kingyo sukui).

The definition is pretty much literal. The goal is to scoop a goldfish into a bowl with a tiny paper net before it dissolves. The "sport" goes back at least two centuries (and, yes, there are competitions). Here's an expert at work.


Carnivals often set up shop at shrines as fund-raising activities, and kingyo sukui is associated with the summer festival season. (For those concerned about the welfare of the goldfish, small floating plastic toys can be used instead.)

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March 16, 2017

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (nope, not yet)


Shinchosha's Twelve Kingdoms blog published an update on March 8. The news, again, is that there is no news. But that by itself is news because it means that important news is still forthcoming.

"Spring of 2017 is in the air and we humbly ask you to wait just a little while longer."

Also announced in the post was the official publication of the entire Twelve Kingdoms series in Taiwan and South Korea. And Akihiro Yamada's Twelve Kingdoms art book in South Korea.

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March 09, 2017

Terminal conditions


John Dvorak archly observes that the personal computer was a declaration of freedom from the the mainframe, epitomized in Apple's famous "1984" commercial (directed by Ridley Scott). Except Apple has since turned into the client-server walled garden it once promised to liberate us from.


As early as 1983, IBM had produced a PC more powerful than the doomed Lisa. Sold only to corporate clients, the XT/370 ran DOS locally, could act as 3270 terminal, and, thanks to dual Intel 8088 and Motorola 68000 CPUs, could execute both DOS and S/370 mainframe instructions.

But as the "workstation" paradigm took hold ("A computer on every desk"), it was easy to criticize Digital Equipment CEO Ken Olsen for opining in the 1980s that only a terminal was really needed on every desk. Larry Ellison caught a lot of flack for championing the "Network Computer" back in the 1990s.

They were simply ahead of their time.

The client-server paradigm was waiting in the wings for the Internet and the World Wide Web to standardize the interfaces and APIs. Then all it needed was enough bandwidth and fast enough processors to make all that mainframe horsepower accessible from the desktop. Or a phone.

When I worked in Microsoft support at the turn of the millennium, the CRM software was a VB app that connected with the knowledge base servers back in Redmond. Practically pure client-server, it was fast, even on pokey Pentium III Windows 2000 machines.

These days, software-as-a-service (SAAS) CRM software like Salesforce and Netsuite run in the browser. To be fair, These apps include a kitchen sink of feature sets, capable of handling the entire customer-facing and B2B facets of a business. Add to that an integrated VOIP client like inContact or Five9.

But they demand hardware resources comparable to whole supercomputers a mere decade or two ago. Opening up a couple of tabs in Chrome can soak up half a gigabyte of RAM, and with anything less than a multi-core processor running at several gigahertz, the whole setup runs infuriatingly slow.

There's something wrong with that.

The ExtremeTech website recently resurrected a Windows 98 machine with 128MB of RAM and a 500MHz Pentium III CPU--top-notch specs back in the day--to see how it ran in this brave new world (all of two decades later). It kinda sorta managed to cope, except when it came to the Internet.

With Internet Explorer 6, "most web pages don't even load, and those that do are completely broken." After tweaking a seven-year-old version of Opera 11, "most websites will at least work. Some larger sites like Facebook simply use up all the computer's RAM and never finish loading."

Facebook is just a glorified version of AOL, and AOL ran fine on the above configuration.

PC sales have leveled off and even fallen across the board. Everybody has a smartphone, which is, again, simply another smart client. The Chromebook has evolved into an only slightly smarter terminal.

So when the apocalypse comes, the world will end with smartphones raised high in supplication, accompanied by the whimper of "No signal."

Despite holding more computer power in our hands than a football stadium full of IBM PCs, we won't be able to do much more with our not-very-smart phones than what a 16-bit IBM PC with 128K of RAM could accomplish in 1985. Well, besides play the offline version of Angry Birds until the batteries run down.

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March 02, 2017

Back to school


"All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare. And in anime, that stage is, more often than not, a high school

The simplest reason why is the target audience. Except most otaku have long left high school. And I suspect that a lot of them, like me, have no desire to go back. So the better reason is that Japan is just one big high school all of the time.

No need for nostalgia when you are still living the life.

Granted, there's a lot of overlap among those in Japan and the U.S. who are always looking forward to the next class reunion. But the nostalgia Japanese feel about high school is of a different sort. It defines the institutional waters in which they will swim for the rest of their lives.

They put the uniform on in junior high and never take it off. News reports involving teenagers often refer to them not by age but by year in school, using the shorthand: 中 (1/2/3) for junior high and 高 (1/2/3) for high school.

For example, I found this question on an education forum: 「15才だと中3、高1どっち?」 "If you are 15 years old, are you a junior high senior or a high school freshman?"

The answer is that if you are 「早生まれ」 (haya'umare, lit. "early birth," meaning born between 1/1 and 4/1) then you're a 「高1」. The school year in Japan begins in April.

Your school becomes your identity, even taking over responsibilities that in the U.S. would fall to law enforcement or social service. As Justin Sevakis explains,

Say, for example, a kid gets in trouble for shoplifting. In Japan, the police might get called, but after that the next call would be to the kid's school. The homeroom teacher would come to apologize on the kid's behalf. And then the school would call in the kid's parents for a conference.

The paternalistic expectations established in high school never end. For Japanese, to paraphrase Faulkner, "Your high school past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past."

All secondary schools, public and private, are essentially open enrollment and most require entrance exams. The fiscal year is the same as the school year. Corporations large and small hold recruiting drives and "matriculation" ceremonies that mirror those of high school.

The nostalgia Japanese feel for high school (reflected in anime) is directed at the first two or so years, before students start sweating blood preparing for their college entrance exams (it's expected that seniors will quit the sports teams after the summer tournaments to cram for the exams).

Up until the last half of the senior year, it's a "maximum structure, (relatively) minimum pressure" environment. And within that structure, Japanese kids often enjoy far more freedom than their American counterparts, for example, in planning their own activities and commuting to school.

This sense of "structure" in the U.S. has come to mean parents running every aspect of their children's lives. In Japan it means, "Here's the framework. You can't change the framework. But you can create whatever you want using it, and you have maximum freedom inside it."

College athletic scholarships do exist, but in far fewer numbers than the U.S. The equivalent of "March Madness" is the high school baseball tournament. As in Ace of the Diamond, high schools offer athletic scholarships too.

In Yawara, Yawara rejects a judo scholarship to a prestigious university because she's sick of judo and wants to be a "normal" teenager. But in Chihayafuru, Chihaya is delighted to learn that some schools offer karuta scholarships because she has little passion for schoolwork.

Interestingly, this nostalgia for high school is not nearly so intense about college, even though once having made it though the entrance exams gauntlet, university life in Japan is "minimum structure, minimum pressure." Until the senior year, that is, when the job hunt begins.

Maybe that 's because "real life" is looming there over the horizon. (Some high schools even ban their students from having part-time jobs.)

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February 23, 2017

In a world


High-minded critics like to describe the low-minded readers of genre fiction using terms such as "wish-fulfillment" and "projection," summed up in the epithet "Mary Sue." This as opposed to the more serious task of deciphering the text for its socially-relevant "messages."

Not that there's anything wrong with that! (Says this unrepentant post-modernist deconstructor of Star Trek.)

But no story can ever be effective if read solely as a sermon. Sitting in the choir and being preached to is certainly the less demanding mental exercise. For readers to project themselves into a story, they must engage in world-creation and role-playing, as in the role-playing game.

As Kate explains,

The desire to exercise the creative impulse means that while people want to get swept away by Middle Earth or Asimov's robots or Ahab's Pequod, they also want to imagine themselves inside those worlds. Or at least imagine that world as a real experience.

I believes this better accounts for the attractions of the action movie and the romance novel. Sure, the average guy can enjoy pretending for two hours that he is John McClane in Die Hard, but he's also smart enough to know that, placed in similar circumstances, he would last about two seconds.

He also knows that, in the course of his everyday life, he will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid literally walking across broken glass in his bare feet.

The appeal of the action movie is imagining a world where beating up the bad guys or blowing up the Death Star (or two or three) solves the problem. Or in the world of romance, where

everyone has a one and only and recognizing that one and only transcends everything from orientation and gender to age and occasionally, in Japanese manga at least, blood relations.

Nobody sums it up better than Don LaFontaine, the legendary master of the Hollywood movie trailer, who coined the expression, "In a world."


It's not this world but a made-up movie world, a hypothetical model of the universe, where alternative realities can be played out with the promise that "no animals were harmed during the making of this movie."

As G.K. Chesterton, that great defender of popular fiction, observed, "The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."

Or in Terry Pratchett's paraphrase, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."

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