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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, 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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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
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!


Suppaiman Sour Plum Candy

Suppaiman (スッパイマン) is the brand name of a popular series of products made by a company based in Okinawa, Amaume.

The Suppaiman products mostly feature prominently a Japanese sour plum, which is known as
The word “umeboshi” consists of two characters, ume– meaning “plum” – and hoshi – meaning “dried” or “to dry”.  Umeboshi is a very popular item throughout Japan, used as a condiment in meals – particularly breakfast – and in many confectionaries.  There are a great many types of umeboshi, ranging from the very sour to salty and often also being sweetened to some extent.


Sour plum dish

In addition, not all umeboshi are eaten dried.  They are frequently kept in a wet state, especially as an ingredient used in the typical Japanese boxed lunch, containing rice balls.  Umeboshi are extremely popular as they are a preserved food, much like pickles in the west, that can be eaten through a long, hot, and humid summer.  They are said to assist digestion, increase stamina, and protect against aging.

The Suppaiman plum candy is very cool.  It has a dried plum suspended inside of a hard and thick candy shell.  The candy itself is a bekkoame, a hard candy that is common in Japan.  The umeboshi is exposed on one side, so the candy is always a bit sour in the mouth.  The bekkoame is very hard, so it lasts a very long time in the mouth if you do not bite down and crush it.

close up view of suppaiman

close up of suppaiman

I mostly eat Suppaiman when I am riding my bike.  The sweet/sour flavor keeps my mouth feel clean, even when in traffic.  I even think it helps my pollen allergies.

But as the Amaume website shows, there are a great many Suppaiman products.  The dried plums themselves were probably first, but the candy and furikake, a type of flavored flake topping for rice, are also popular.  But the most interesting, I think, is the mimigaa jerky.  Mimigaa is an Okinawan specialty, made from dried pigs ears.  Usually boiled and pickled in Okinawa, pigs ears are found in cuisine throughout the world, including much of Asia, the South in the United States, Spain, Bulgaria, and Lithuania.  I’m not very fond of its gelatinous texture, which makes mimigaa a little crunchy.

Suppai in Japanese, means “sour”. Man usually means “man” or “person”, but at the end of a word, it frequently means very little.  It is mostly a word “play” that makes an adverb – like sour – sound more like a noun, or a thing.  But the series of commercials for Suppaiman in Japan, mostly aired in the Kansai region, which is noted for its appreciation of humor, gives even greater meaning to its name.

No doubt, I am a huge fan of Suppaiman!

Suppaiman Products

Lots of Suppaiman Products!!!

It’s not really something representing Japan, of course, but the original experiments with water crystals that are now known as “Messages from Water” were conducted by Dr. Masaru Emoto, a Japanese national.  As the Wikipedia article thoroughly summarizes, Emoto’s experiments with water and his claims that positive changes to water crystals can be achieved through prayer, music or by attaching written words to a container of water, have been dismissed by the scientific community as pseudoscience.

I have nothing to refute the scientific community.  Nevertheless, I find Emoto’s mysterious experiments to be fascinating and, even, delightful.  After all, I do believe that the whole of what we “know” in the universe amounts to a very small part; that is, most of the universe and “science” is still unknown and undiscovered.  This, I believe to be true even if we look at our past.  But if we are looking at the present or the future, then all but a small fraction is a mystery.

Thus, while I don’t generally subscribe to New Age explanations or theories about how our world is organized or the direction it is heading, I find the “discovery” of mysterious crystals in water to be comforting and, at least, entertaining.  And, while I find the commercialism of Office Masaru Emoto to be rather disappointing – selling bottles of water that has been prayed upon (people who buy it have been preyed upon) – it is not really all that surprising or unusual in our world.

On the other hand, if Masaru Emoto’s findings can be used to get more people to appreciate beautiful music, be helpful and kind, and to promote goodness, fairness, and justice in our world, then it is a wonderful discovery!

In any case, I think the story is well worth exploring.  While there are a great many sites and YouTube channels devoted to the topic, here are two that I find to be worth viewing.  The first one is about Masaru Emoto’s research.  The second is about other research on water that uncovers some additional mysteries.

I’m off to the pool for a swim…

The Mystery of Water

Water Has Memory

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