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I recently read The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan, by Patrick W. Galbraith.  I can’t remember ever reading an encyclopedia before – not the entire thing.  I’ve read most of an encyclopedia on Star Wars.  I’ve read some of an encyclopedia on financial terms and a few others.  But this book is quite different.  It reads well – well, like a real book.

I posted the review in Goodreads.com, but here it is below.

The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool JapanThe Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan by Patrick W. Galbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Otaku Encyclopedia; is exactly as advertised, an encyclopedia devoted to all things otaku. While the word “otaku” has not become mainstream vernacular, for people who are well versed in things originating in Japan or in global subculture, the word is familiar and, interestingly, becoming quite “cool.” It is interesting because the term, in Japanese, conveys quite the opposite of cool; even if the obsessive pursuits of seriously devoted fans of a complex and, often, slightly deranged medium become popular, it is the slightly disapproving public perception of the pursuit that separates the otaku from a mere fan. For every fan of games, anime, manga, idols, dolls, and related hobbies, only the devoted otaku transcend from a passive consumer to active participant.

Patrick Galbraith’s book is, no doubt, an encyclopedia. It provides an alphabetical dictionary to all things otaku. But unlike most other encyclopedia’s, it is one that is actually quite readable in its entirety, from A to Z. Not only for its short interviews with a handful of some of the people noted for their contributions to otaku history and culture, but the definitions themselves provide a great deal of information for those who are trying to understand contemporary Japan and, particularly, the Cool Japan movements that are being promoted by the Japanese government and many others.

Even though the subject matter may seem juvenile, risque, and somewhat frivolous to some, it is very informative and useful for any student of contemporary Japan. Even if you are not interested in otaku pursuits, some understanding of these phenomenon is critical to knowing modern Japan and planning the way forward.

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On its website, Japanese company Maywa Denki is “an art unit produced by Nobumichi Tosa”.  I suppose their description is as good as anything, because it is extremely difficult to describe what the company is.

Opening page to Meiwa Denki Website

The opening page to Maywa Denki Website

It was once a typical Japanese SME, a small manufacturer of electronic products, started by Nobumichi’s father, Sakaichi Tosa.  The company originally was a subcontracting firm to large corporations such as Toshiba and Matsushita.  However, the company went into bankruptcy in 1979.  The company was revived in 1993 by Sakaichi’s two sons, Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa.

The company’s second president was Nobumichi’s elder brother, Masamichi, with whom Nobumichi made its most successful product to date, the Na-cord, and transformed the company to an art/performance/music/toy company.

The Na-cord

The "Na-cord" a fish skeleton shaped extension cord.

The Na-cord was probably successful only because of its interesting shape, converting a completely utilitarian object into something whimsical and entertaining.  But its shape, really, is instructive, even if only to the subconscious mind.  The skeleton serves as a reminder of the (dangerous) power of electricity, bringing to mind cartoons in which a victim is electrocuted and transformed momentarily to a skeletal form.  The media were quick to take up the story, probably for its novelty, but the product won several awards and interest in the company grew.

Maywa Denki had already started to promote itself as an art unit, with a strong focus on music and new experimental musical instruments.  Their inventions and performances started minimally, with Nobumichi’s “Pachi-Moku” and Masamichi’s “Koi-Beat”.  While their first exhibition in 1993 drew interest, it was limited to the two instruments and one “song”.  Later that year, they extended their products and performance, with gadgets such as Na-Uchi-Bou and Harisen-bomb.  During the performance, one of the instruments short-circuited, starting a fire.  The small frenzy that ensued probably led to some of the growing interest in Maywa Denki, their products, and performances.

Instruments by Maywa Denki

Instruments used by Maywa Denki, circa 1996

1996, when the Na-cord was released, coincided with Maywa Denki’s first national performance tour.  It was a perfect way to showcase their crazy and creative instruments, innovative toys, and strange otaku expression to the entire nation, which was really just starting to feel the pinch of the growing recession after the bursting of the so-called Bubble Economy.  For the kids that were starting to become Maywa Denki’s fans, these nerdy heroes were cool because (and not in spite) of their extremely uncool look, preoccupation with electronics and other weird and unpopular gadgets, and their cute but vacuous pop music. Maywa Denki was helping the kids of Japan‘s lost generation – who saw their prospects for the future to appear bleak – feel good about their bland geekiness.

Maywa Denki’s third and current president is, of course, Nobumichi Tosa.  After taking over from his retired older brother in 2001, the company has become an iconic legend.  I think that it has become an art unit, using the company’s own description, as it has become a good representation of what Japan “means” culturally, to many in the world.  There are aspects of Meiwa Denki that somehow ring true when you think of other icons of Japanese culture of the past 25 years, including people and things such as Sakamoto Ryuichi, manga and anime, Towa Tei, Nintendo, Ultraman, Hello Kitty, and Shinkansen.

Maywa Denki has made a huge impact, I believe, on the remaking of a cool image of Japan in the 21st Century.  For that, I think that Nobumichi is owed the greatest credit.

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki, dressed to perform (photograph from Flickr used with Some rights reserved by Ars Electronica)

The company’s performances have become more than just strangely eclectic, but art.  I’ve yet to see them perform live, save for a brief encounter at a trade show and another time at (I think) Tower Records Shibuya in the late 90s) but I find – mostly through YouTube – their music to be quite compelling.  And, though I have yet to purchase any of their products, I am fond of both their Na-cord and one of their more recent products, “Otamatone Jumbo“.  This is a musical instrument, played by squeezing the head of the instrument with one hand while sliding the other along the Stem Switch on its neck.  In the photograph at left, Nobumichi is at the center, holding a Otamatone Jumbo.

Otamatone advertisement

English ad for Otamatone

Most of their musical instruments, unfortunately, are not for sale.  The instruments are generally for performance only.  They occasionally display the instruments at exhibitions, under the banner “Tsukuba Series”.  For the most part, they are based on “real” musical instruments, but have been modified to be played electronically using a series of motors and mechanical parts, or are powered at 100 volts.  The series of instruments is named after a proposed building design for the Tsukuba Electric Town, where one of Japan’s major scientific research centers is based, as well as the technical Tsukuba University where Nobumichi graduated from.

Tsukuba Denki Town design

Tsukuba Denki Town building design

The most convincing thing about the strange beauty and bonafide ingenuity of the Otamatone is in the following video from YouTube.  In it Nobumichi plays the instrument, with a wailing riff of The Star Spangled Banner.

Another more J-Pop endorsement comes from “Nut” a cute idol group, in a collaboration between Maywa Denki and YGA, an entertainment company associated with Yoshimoto Kogyo, the legendary Kansai-based entertainment powerhouse with a stronghold on stand-up comedy in Japan.

Well, to paraphrase the Monkees (RIP recently deceased Davy Jones), “I’m a Believer”.  Hope that you’ll find fun in Maywa Denki too!

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki

It used to be commonplace to sing songs full of joy and beauty.  It was easier then to wear LOVE on your sleeve, to proclaim clearly and loudly that you are happy to be alive, feeling the warm and bright light of the sun.

I grew up in a time when I think people were less jaded and felt that such open communication through music was cool.  It may be just my imagination – wishful thinking – but I can’t help thinking that there was a bit more Dancing in the Street for Everyday People.

It was probably even more true in the distant past.  Perhaps Mozart and Bach were composing the “love and peace” songs of their time.  In my imagination, those are clearly some of the topics that they tried to present honestly, directly, and intelligently in their music. The Beatles, in their own pop way, tried to directly speak of love and joy in their music, particularly their early works.  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “If I Fell” and many others still ring out loud and true to lovers everywhere.

Then, the flower children and the hippies took the power of love to a whole nuther dimension.  Scott McKenzie‘s version of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” was, arguably, the seminal anthem of the Flower Power movement.

If you’re going to San Francisco,
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…
If you come to San Francisco,
Summertime will be a love-in there.

Joy to the World“, by Three Dog Night (but written by Hoyt Axton) was another hugely popular song that featured lyrics that were incredibly simple and honestly joyous.

Joy to the world
All the boys and girls now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me

So what happened since the early 70’s to make music that speaks directly of love, peace, and joy seem so childish and unpopular?  I’m not sure, but I am happy that I have found great popular and hip music in Japan that is as direct, simple, honest, and joyous as the Beatles, Scott McKenzie, or any flower child.

Enter Theatre Brook, a hugely successful indie music artist in Japan during the 1st major “indies” boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Led by Taiji Sato(vocals & electric guitar), the band is known for its funk rock music, with an occasional Latin-tinged sound.  They’ve recorded at least 14 albums with several different changes in group members and have a modest following overseas, including in the United States.

While many other popular artists in Japan record songs that are simple and direct about love, for me, Theatre Brook’s Aritttake no Ai (ありったけの愛, or Whole Lotta Love) is really very special. It is, for me, packed with Hippiedom!

その上の太陽は ありったけの愛だけで
出来てると思いませんか?
ありったけの愛だけで あの太陽は
ありったけの愛だけで あの太陽は

My translation:

The sun overhead is just filled with Love
Don’t you think so too?
Whole lotta love, Whole lots of lovin’
Whole lotta love, Whole lots of lovin’

You can hear Theatre Brook perform their original recording in this YouTube video below.  But the best way to hear it is in a live performance, which I’ve embedded below the original.  Enjoy!

Picture Books are a treat throughout the world.  There are so many different kinds, designed for children and adults of all ages.  But Kamishibai are a special treat that I think are pretty unique to Japan.

Kamishibai is, literally, “paper drama” or “paper theater”.  It is a type of storytelling in Japan that started in Buddhist temples around the 12th Century.  In the modern era, kamishibai is much closer to vaudeville or some kinds of puppetry, in that the storytellers were often traveling entertainers and even minor hucksters, playing in and around carnivals and festivals throughout the countryside.   This was particularly true after the 1920s, when the Great Depression in the United States had an impact worldwide.  Although the protagonist in the long-running movie, Otoko wa Tsurai yo, Tora-san, never was a kamishibai storyteller, his character was a travelling salesman, who tells humorous and glorified stories to help boost the sales of his trinkets and wares.  This is precisely the kind of world in which the kamishibai storytellers thrived.

Kamishibai storytellerWhile travelling kamishibai storytellers have all but disappeared, there are a number who are trying to revive the old art.  This artist is part of a small group – I’ve seen him twice around Tokyo with a compadre – that tells an original story that is an adaptation of an oft-told historical tale.  His version is supposed to be a frightening one, but being told in the daytime and with his style of delivery, it becomes a comical horror story.

In this Creative Commons photograph from Wikipedia, you can see the storyteller carrying a pair of sticks hoyshigi, that he uses to announce his arrival and capture the audience’s attention.  The wooden case is a special stage that the storyteller uses to show the frames of his storybook.

The stage has an open rear, from which slides are changed, and with the story lines written on the back.  Because the frames are removed from the side facing the audience, the back side of the slide contains the text pertaining to the next slide.  When the slide that is just finished is removed and the slide replaced back into the frame furthest away from the audience, then the words on its back side are read to the audience.  Of course, street performers tend not to read from the slides, but perform ad lib while a compadre changes the slides.

In the past few decades, kamishibai have experienced a revival, due to their use in libraries, elementary schools, and kindergartens.  In many libraries there are special rooms, equipped with a kamishibai stage and filled with books.  There are now publishers that have divisions that focus on kamishibai books, such as Doshinsha (Japanese).  However, due to a growing popularity of kamishibai around the world, the company now publishes English and French translations of many of their books.  The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California has a wonderful and beautiful kamishibai demonstration online in electronic format.

There is also a great site about kamishibai for kids.  Based in New York, the three people associated with the site, Margaret Eisenstadt, Donna Tamaki, and Eigoro Futamata, have created quite an amazing resource, including materials for schools and teachers and a range of publications that they have translated and illustrated for Doshinsha.  They also apparently conduct readings and other events in the United States.  I’ve also found kamishibai sites in German, Spanish, French, and other languages, showing that their appeal is cross cultural.

Watch this short video of a kamishibai master, Yassan, on YouTube – it’s in Japanese, but you might become a fan!

Japan has some of the coolest manhole covers on this planet!

My library of images on Facebook is small, but I’ve been taking shots of some of the many cool manhole covers I see for years. In particular, I like the ones that are used by fire departments to connect their hoses to fight fires.

With the rapid penetration of smartphones in Japan since 2011, the hazards of being a pedestrian, cyclist, or motorist here are increasing. With so many people looking down while they walk and drive, it is amazing that some people actually get to where they are trying to go. However, like me, there are a lot of people in Japan that have been looking down at our feet for some time.

The most popular and acclaimed compilation of manhole covers that I know of has been put together by Remo Camerota in Drainspotting.  The book is supplemented by the Drainspotting blog, on Blogspot.

If you get a chance, take a good look at the ground you’re walking on. You might find some pretty impressive art!

And, BTW, here’s a great quiz question. Why are manhole covers nearly always round? Don’t worry, there are quite a few good answers, although one is considered the most pragmatic.

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